Food storage is linked to horticulture

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

Angel Mds Museum Ccorncrib

Reconstructed corn crib (elevated storage structure) in the museum at Angel Mounds, a Middle Mississippian period archaeological site in southern Indiana that is a State Park open to the public.

For the most part, around the world, when people began to harvest plants and seeds for later use (the beginnings of agriculture), they also had to develop ways of keeping their harvest safe, secure, and edible for later use, whether “later” was in the depths of winter, or merely at a time when that food was no longer available.

For some foodstuffs, the desired parts could be left on the plant standing out in the weather. Maize, for example, will keep in relatively dry climates right on the stalk, if the ear is turned downward, so rain does not affect the kernels.

However, while still in the field, the maize is vulnerable to predators, ranging from birds to insects to rodents to bacteria. Crops left in the field are also vulnerable to predation by human raiders, whether residents of your own community, members of your own family, or invaders from farther away.

Thus, the safest place to store the harvest is usually near the household—that is, where people sleep—either within the walls of the compound, or near where members of the household are usually to be found.

Corn cribs like the one shown above allowed villagers to store their maize near their houses, and away from predators in the fields. They would have needed a good roof to keep the rain at bay. Such corn cribs were usually built very close to their houses.

The transition to horticulture and agriculture in what is now Georgia began in the Late Archaic and Woodland periods, when archaeologists see that villages grew and ceramics became widely used.

However, consider this example of early harvest storage from the Jordan Valley in the Middle East. In 2009, Ian Kuijt and Bill Finlayson published an article called “Evidence for food storage and predomestication granaries 11,000 years ago in the Jordan Valley,” which is free online here, published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Kuijt and Finlayson note:

New archaeological work at the PPNA (Pre-Pottery Neolithic A; ~11,500–10,500 cal B.P.)* site of Dhra’, located next to the Dead Sea in Jordan, reveals clear evidence for large-scale storage in sophisticated, purpose-built granaries before the domestication of plants. Evidence for PPNA food storage illustrates a major transition in the economic and social organization of human communities. The transition from economic systems based on collecting and foraging of wild food resources before this point to cultivation and foraging of mixed wild and managed resources in the PPNA illustrates a major intensification of human-plant relationships. [page 10966]

The full article details the building and abandonment history of the structure, or building, shown here, Figure 5 in the article. Overwhelming evidence indicates this building was used for storage of seeds—grains of barley. Often, granaries were rebuilt in the same location, meaning that archaeologists excavating carefully find superimposed building remains, one above the other.

Kuijt Finlayson PNAS 2009 Fig 5

Images from Figure 5 of the Kuijt and Finlayson (2009) article, showing the life history of the Neolithic-period Structure 4 granary that archaeologists carefully excavated on the site of Dhra’, in what is now Jordan. A second granary was built inside the walls of the first granary, after it had been abandoned.

These food storage structures in the PPNA were a new innovation, not used previously in this area. Kuijt and Finlayson write:

The combined evidence for PPNA food storage represents a major break from the Early and Late Natufian periods, and significant evolutionary development in economic and social systems of human communities. The transition from economic systems based on collecting and foraging of wild food resources to cultivation and foraging of mixed wild and managed resources illustrates an important intensification in the relationship between humans and the foods they manage and consume. We note several implications of this transition. First, the presence of these sophisticated, and substantial, granaries represents a form and scale of food storage not found in earlier Natufian period communities…. PPNA people were storing food seasonally, if not annually, on a scale that would have at least served as an important new buffer for food shortages, but also have created the context for potential social change. Second, it is important to note that while these granaries focused on the storage of wild plant resources, they reflect the active intervention in normal plant cycles. Although the oats and barley from Gilgal I are morphologically wild, their active selection and management reflects both intentionality and the initial stages of the morphological and behavioral transformation to domestication…. Third, excavations at Dhra’ indicate that the granaries were located in extramural locations between other buildings. Elsewhere Kuijt…argues that starting at 10,500 cal B.P. food storage starts to be located inside houses, and that by 9,500 cal B.P. dedicated storage rooms appear in Neolithic villages. These data may reflect evolving systems of ownership and property, with PPNA granaries being used and owned communally with later food storage systems becoming part of household or individual based systems. Fourth, these sophisticated storage systems with subfloor ventilation are a precocious development that precedes the emergence of almost all of the other elements of the Near Eastern Neolithic package—domestication, large-scale sedentary communities, and the entrenchment of some degree of social differentiation. [page 10969]

Does this story of ancient peoples in the Jordan Valley in the Middle East offer you insights about how early residents of Georgia may have stored their harvest? How does the wetter climate of Georgia affect your expectations? Would the type of crop being stored affect how it is best stored? Other comments?—login and share yours with us.

* The designation “cal BP” stands for a calibrated date Before Present. Before Present assumes “present” is in 1950. This is a scientific convention, because obviously if present were the day the notation was made, the date would be different each time it was used. Scientists discovered that radiocarbon dates are not identical to calendar dates because of variations in atmospheric carbon. Therefore, to make the radiocarbon date “match” a calendar date, it must be calibrated. Read more about radiocarbon dating here, on this website.