I. Prehistoric Times > L. The Origins of Food Production in the Americas (c. 5000 B.C.E. and Later)
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
L. The Origins of Food Production in the Americas (c. 5000 B.C.E. and Later)
The Native Americans were remarkable for their expertise with native plants. They domesticated not only staples like maize and beans, but also hundreds of varieties of potato, amaranth, and other crops that are now international staples. In contrast to the Old World, only a few animals were available for domestication, among them the guinea pig, llama, and turkey. Potential beasts of burden had become extinct at the end of the Ice Age.  1
As in the Old World, experimentation with native plants began early, especially in the Andean area of South America, where people strove constantly to expand the range of wild plants into marginal environments. In North America, hunter-gatherer societies in major Midwestern river valleys were planting such native plants as goosefoot and marsh elder to supplement wild stands as early as 2500 B.C.E. And the Guila Naquitz excavations in central Mexico show that hunter-gatherers in Central America also experimented with bean and squash cultivation as a means of surviving dry years in an unpredictable environment as early as 7000 B.C.E.  2
Maize (Zea mays) was the staple cereal crop for many Native American societies when Christopher Columbus landed in the New World in 1492. It was cultivated from Argentina and Chile northward to Canada, from sea level to high in the Andes, in low-lying swamp environments, and in arid lands. Hundreds of races of domesticated maize evolved over the millennia, each with a special adaptation to local conditions. The wild ancestor of maize is thought to be teosinte, a wild grass that grows over much of Central America. Teosinte was transformed into a primitive maize through human selection that was much easier to harvest. The earliest known maize cobs date to about 2750 B.C.E. in the Tehuacán Valley in southern Mexico and from the Valley of Mexico in the highlands.  3
By 1700 B.C.E., the inhabitants of the Tehuacán Valley were growing amaranth, gourds, and maize to the point that agriculture was the dominant part of the subsistence economy. Tehuacán is by no means unique, for many groups throughout Central America were turning to agriculture by this time. In time, a primitive form of domesticated maize with kernels in eight rows was the ancestral crop, which spread thousands of miles from its original homeland after 2700 B.C.E.  4
In South America, people living in the Andean highlands of Peru were cultivating potatoes, maize, beans, and squash by 2500 B.C.E., some of these crops, especially potatoes, beans, and quinoa, much earlier. Llamas were domesticated by at least 2500 B.C.E. Maize agriculture probably spread south from Central America to the highlands, then to the arid Peruvian coast by 800 B.C.E., where maize was grown in large-scale irrigation schemes in river valleys. This intensive agriculture was the staple of the coastal civilizations that developed by the Pacific after 800 B.C.E.  5
Maize agriculture spread into the North American Southwest by about 1500 B.C.E., where cold winters and arid conditions made cereal agriculture difficult. Nevertheless, maize and bean agriculture became the basis of the sedentary Pueblo Indian cultures that developed in the Southwest after 2,000 years ago. The well-known Anasazi, Hohokam, and Mogollon cultural traditions of the Southwest were the ancestral foundations of modern Southwest Indian society. Between the 10th and 13th centuries C.E., some Anasazi pueblos, notably in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, and Mesa Verde, Colorado, housed hundreds of people, especially during important seasonal ceremonials. Southwestern Pueblo societies were successful, highly flexible adaptations to unpredictable, semiarid environments. As such, they never achieved the degree of social complexity found further east in North America.  6
By 2500 B.C.E., hunter-gatherer societies in the eastern woodlands of North America were planting native plants on a regular basis. Maize crossed the southern Plains into eastern North America during the first millennium C.E., but did not become well established until after 800 C.E. By this time, many eastern societies were living in sizable, sedentary communities, presided over by powerful kin leaders.  7
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.