Snacking in Middle Woodland times: plant foods

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

Early Georgia logo B W 100 high

Back in Middle Woodland times, there was no McDonalds, no Starbucks, and no drive-up windows. Middle Woodland times date to roughly 1000 BC to AD 300, so the lack of convenience food shops is not surprising.

This leaves us with the question: just what did the people living in Georgia eat back then?

Leslie E. Branch-Raymer and Mary Theresa Bonhage-Freund offer a partial answer in their discussion of the archaeobotanical remains recovered from an archaeological site in the Etowah River valley near Cartersville in “Middle Woodland Gardening in the Etowah River Valley, Northwest Georgia: The Hardin Bridge Site (9BR34),” an article in the Fall 2011 issue of Early Georgia (vol. 39, no. 2, pp. 119–136), the journal of the Society for Georgia Archaeology.

In the opening paragraph of their conclusion, Branch-Raymer and Bonhage-Freund note:

Phalaris caroliniana NRCS USDA

Phalaris caroliniana, or maygrass. Image from USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database here.

The suite of plant food remains associated with the Early to Middle Woodland occupation at Hardin Bridge is consistent with year-round occupation. Nuts, garden crops, “wild crops,” naturally occurring plants, and local fauna were likely major products of an integrated subsistence system focused within a tight catchment zone…. This system was almost certainly based on anthropogenic habitat creation and maintenance of varying degrees. Subsistence activities favoring economically useful plant and animal species would have ranged from the hardly perceptible to full-scale habitat modification….

Middle Woodland-period peoples living in southeastern North America, including what is now Georgia, planted very little maize. Branch-Raymer and Bonhage-Freund found six indigenous cultigens, or nearly cultigens, in collections from the Hardin Bridge site. They are: maygrass, erect knotweed/knotweed, goosefood, probable little barley grass, sunflower, and pigweed. Probably you don’t eat these yourself, except perhaps sunflower seeds. So, what about the others?

Now there’s a good research topic! What are these plants? Why did Middle Woodland-period peoples eat them? (Clues: what part of the plant might they have preferred? What do they have in common? How might they have been useful? Another thing to consider is that through the winter season, fresh foods were scarce, so could these species have been helpful when plants were not growing?)

Read an essay by Scott Jones on Georgia’s past, including the Middle Woodland period, on this website here.