The Testimony of Hands

Survivor: Prehistory—Farming

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People have lived in villages and towns for a long time. Without travelling each season to follow sources of food, people often turned to agriculture. In the American Southwest, the most commonly grown plants were corn, beans, and squash. All three had been domesticated farther south in Mesoamerica, and then taken north, possibly along with items for trade or people moving to new places. Eventually, farmers across much of the land that is now the United States and Mexico grew these three crops.

Evidence for Agriculture

Archaeologists look for evidence of farming when they study places where many people lived together in permanent houses. Sometimes, the crops have been preserved well enough to directly show what people ate.

ear of corn

More often, the plants are gone but other things show what used to be there. Storage pits dug into the floors of houses and containers that preserved seeds over the winter sometimes have chemical residue or pollen from crop plants that can be analyzed in a lab. Burned corn cobs and leftover animal bones are often preserved in a midden, or trash pile. Canals and rocks stacked to divert rainwater into fields can show where people used to have farms.

Storing food

jar and sandstone lid

This jar with a matching lid comes from an archaeological site where farmers lived about 700 years ago. It could be filled with seeds, then the matching small bowl would be stuck on with a ring of unfired clay to keep out mice and bugs over the winter.

84.1.4, mano

This is a mano. It is a round stone that was used to grind grain, such as corn, for food. It would have been used with a larger flat stone metate, a hard work surface on the floor that held the grain as it was made into meal or flour.

Even after adopting a farming lifestyle, many people continued to take trips out from their settlements to hunt and gather other kinds of food. In some places, other groups of people continued hunting and gathering, finding that strategy an easier way to make a living than farming.

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