Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving Staples: The Three Sisters

With the Thanksgiving Season upon us, how appropriate it would be to highlight the famous dietary trio that was most assuredly, in one form or another, on the table of the first Thanksgiving feast, the Three Sisters, corn, beans and squash. The term Three Sisters is a commonly used analogy for the practice of companion planting these crops, where each supports the other; through providing structure, moisture retention or nutrient exchange.

Both the nature and timing of the arrival of these cultigens into the Mid-Atlantic region continue to be intensively studied research topics in Archaeology, and the application of C-14 and AMS techniques have proved to be indispensable tools for dating these and a wide variety of other botanical remains.

As the body of data continues to accumulate, it is evident that each of the “Sisters” arrived in the region at different times in history, with squash (Cucurbita pepo) being the earliest at between 5000 and 2500 years before present (Hart and Sidell 1997). Next in the sequence, corn or maize (Zea maize) becomes common in archaeological settings post-dating roughly 1200 B.P., or about A.D. 700 (Klein 2003). Finally, the common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) is the last to appear in the archaeological record, at approximately A.D. 1300 (Hart and Scarry 1999).

Native peoples in the area that would become Pennsylvania were raising all of the “Three Sisters” and enjoyed the nourishment they provided for hundreds of years prior to the settlement of Europeans in the New World. Today, we all are thankful for these staples of that first Thanksgiving feast and the many more that have followed.

Hart, John P. and C. Margaret Scarry (1999)
The Age of Common Beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) In the Northeastern United States
American Antiquity 64 (4) 653- 658

Hart, John P. and Nancy Asch Sidell (1997)
Additional Evidence for Early Curcurbit Use in the Northern Eastern Woodlands East of the Allegheny Front.
American Antiquity 62 (3): 523-537

Klein, Michael (2003)
Of Time and Three Rivers: Comments on Early and Middle Woodland Archaeology in Pennsylvania. In Foragers and Farmers of the Early and Middle Woodland Periods in Pennsylvania, edited by Paul A. Raber and Verna L. Cowin, pp. 117-129. Recent Research in Pennsylvania Archaeology, No.3, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg, PA.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

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