Friday, December 23, 2011

Native American Foodways- The Transitional Period 4,300 – 2,700 years ago

The Transitional period is characterized by the use of multifunctional broadspear and fishtail biface types, steatite bowls, the earliest ceramic pottery, enormous fire-cracked-rock (FCR) features and the trade of jasper and metarhyolite over large regions. The beginning of this period corresponds with the warm and dry Sub-Boreal climatic episode. These conditions were different from the warm and wet Late Archaic period and led to periodic food shortages. The climate of the Transitional period ended with a return of generally warm and wet conditions (the Sub-Atlantic climatic episode) that encouraged the spread of chestnut trees in the Pennsylvania forest. Based on artifacts, site locations and preserved food remains, people of the Transitional period ate the same variety of foods that were consumed during Archaic times. Deer, elk, a variety of small mammals, fish, shell fish, birds, hickory nuts, walnuts, acorns and a variety of seeds, roots and berries were all being used; seemingly everything edible in the forest was being exploited. However, there were two major differences from the Late Archaic period.

Broadspears and Fishtail projectile points

During the Transitional period, food was cooked or processed differently than previous times. There were two significant changes. The major innovation and a hallmark of this period was the use of carved stone bowls made from steatite or soapstone. These appeared approximately 3900 years ago. Steatite bowls were found in a variety of sizes, holding from less than a pint to several gallons. Some exhibit evidence of heating in the form of smoke stains on the outside and some do not seem to have been used for cooking. Their function has been debated but the largest bowls clearly represent cooking containers. They were the first portable cooking containers to appear in the archaeological record. Baskets lined with animal hide may have been used during earlier times but these are also rarely preserved in the archaeological record. The ability to boil foods had several nutritional advantages such as retaining calories and removing toxins. Generally, the use of steatite bowls in cooking represented an increase in the efficiency of processing foods that was a necessary response to periodic food shortages.

A second change in the way foods were processed is indicated by the increase in the frequency of fire-cracked-rock (FCR) features (the end result of heating stone in cooking fires – link to blog of April 15, 2011) in the archaeological record. Floodplain sites typically contain large quantities of FCR in the form of dense concentrations and/or large, diffused scatters. Late Archaic sites contain rock hearths but Transitional period sites contain more hearths and much larger quantities of FCR. During the Transitional period, FCR features are commonly over ten feet in diameter and six inches thick. Archaeologists have long thought that since these sites were usually along major rivers, these features represent large fish drying racks. More recently, archaeologists have posited other explanations for FCR concentrations by experimenting with different cooking techniques and using a variety of foods. Based on this research, these features could have been used to dry or roast other meats, shellfish, or nuts. The considerable quantities of FCR seem to represent the processing of foods that were available in large quantities such as would have occurred during annual fish and waterfowl migrations or the seasonal harvesting of nuts and seeds.

Large fire-cracked-rock feature of the Transitional period

 However, countering the roasting interpretation is the observation that FCR features rarely contain fishbone (or any other type of bone) and frequently, very little charcoal. An alternative to the roasting/drying hypothesis is that FCR resulted from a process called “stone boiling.” This method began by digging a hole in the ground the hole would that would be lined with animal hide in order to seal it, which is than filled with water. In a near-by fire, rocks would be heated and added to the water using tongs made from saplings the heated rocks would be added to the water. Within half an hour, a soup of hickory nuts, seeds, and fish could be brought to a boil. It is also possible that rather than digging a hole in the ground, native people simply lined a large basket with animal hide. Another method involved filling the pit with heated rock and green leaves to construct an earth oven for steaming. As with boiling, steaming preserves more calories over foods that are roasted on an open fire. The FCR produced from boiling/steaming appears as either dense clusters or piles of FCR as if it were dumped from a container or the FCR is scattered over large areas of the living floors.

Image of native peoples boiling foods.

These features represent a more efficient cooking method that resulted in more calories being extracted from these foods. The use of steatite bowls for cooking and the widespread appearance of FCR features are an indication that Native American groups were intensifying their exploitation of the environment This technological change allowed for an increase in the carrying capacity of the environment to support native populations during times of periodic shortages.

Steatitie bowls mark a significant change in food processing during the Transitional Period.
 The second major difference in subsistence patterns of the Transitional period is probably more significant and has come to light as the result of improved archaeological methods. The preservation of organic materials and the reconstruction of prehistoric diets has long been a problem for archaeologists because food remains are rarely preserved at archaeological sites. However, beginning in the late 1990s, archaeology experienced a transformation in collecting techniques called the “paleoethnobotanical revolution”. The regular use of flotation methods has resulted in the recovery of many small artifacts, especially food remains such as seeds and nut parts. In addition, improvements in scientific analysis have allowed archaeologists to now analyze the charred residue found on the inside of steatite bowls and pottery. They are even able to identify plant residues on grinding stones.

Floatation is an essential tool in analyzing the diet of Native peoples.
 The consistent use of these methods has revealed a more detailed list and extensive use of plant foods than previously realized. Several new foods have been identified including little barley and chenopodium (both seed producing plants). In the Mississippi Valley these plants are part of what is known as the Eastern Agricultural Complex and they were domesticated (i.e. seeds were planted, plants were cultivated and the best seeds were selected for growing next year’s crop). It is debated as to whether they were domesticated in Pennsylvania during Transitional times or simply collected wild. Squash (pumpkin) has also been found at one Transitional period site in Pennsylvania. This plant is not native to Pennsylvania and was domesticated in in the southwestern United States over 5000 years ago. Squash not only served as a food source but its hard shell was used as a container. The remains from Pennsylvania could be the result of trade but the more common recovery of little barley and chenopodium suggests that it was planted by local peoples. Although a small start, it would seem that Transitional people were working small garden plots to satisfy the needs of the
community during food shortages.

Image from exhibit in The State Museum of Pennsylvania Anthropology & Archaeology Gallery

As in the Archaic, Transitional period people were using a diversity of foods as but they were processing them more efficiently. In addition, they seem to have intensified the use of seed plants and they were probably cultivating some plants. Indeed, maintaining a garden required more work than simply collecting wild seeds and nuts. In addition, some foods, such as acorns from red oaks (as compared to white oaks) contain more tannin that requires processing to remove the bitter tasting and acidic compounds. Transitional period people began the process of horticulture, thereby producing more food but at the same time were spending more hours at recovering calories from their environment. It is assumed by many archaeologists that the extra work was necessary to support larger populations.

 Finally, during the Transitional period there is extensive evidence for trade with other groups and there are indications that families were organized differently to more efficiently exploit a variety of resources. Band size continued to change based on seasonally available foods but the spring fishing camp or the fall hickory nut collecting camp likely contained ten to twelve families (over 50 men, women, and children). Clay pottery was introduced at the end of the Transitional period and suggests that families were becoming more sedentary. Near the end of this period, it is believed that native peoples were increasingly cultivating plants in small gardens that included squash, little barley, knotweed and lambs quarter. This was the beginning of farming in Pennsylvania and a more sedentary life that had a profound affect on family social organization (although the details are not known). The climate improves near the end of the Transitional period, broadspears and fishtail bifaces disappear, however ceramic pottery replaces steatite bowls over a period of several hundred years. The exploitation of domesticated plants continued into the Early and Middle Woodland times but whatever was being processed with FCR generally ceases. The need for this intensive processing is possibly offset by a focus on seed plants, some of which were cultivated. The cultivation of these plants was facilitated by the warm and wet conditions of the Sub-Atlantic climatic episode.  

Our decorated Perkiomen Broadspear

Best Wishes for the Holidays!
The Staff  of The Section of Archaeology
The State Museum of Pennsylvania

See you at The Pennsylvania Farm Show January 7th-14th, 2012!

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

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