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Michigan's First Farmers:


In school, students this time of year often learn about how Native Americans shared their fall harvest - "Three Sisters," or, beans, corn and squash, and of course, cranberries - with the European settlers at the first Thanksgiving nearly 400 years ago. While these were new foods for the Europeans, Native Americans had been cultivating some of them for many thousands of years in Eastern North America. 

Archaeologists at Michigan State University are researching early Native American agriculture, particularly in Michigan, presenting key new findings on 4,000 years of indigenous agriculture for a new exhibit at the MSU Museum, "Michigan's First Farmers," opening Sept. 23.‚Ä®

"The familiar expression, 'farming is our bread and butter' tells a lot about how we rely on farming, but in fact the earliest farmers were the native peoples in Michigan who had a vibrant economy that included early agriculture thousands of years before European settlers arrived," explains William A. Lovis, MSU Museum curator of anthropology and MSU professor of anthropology in the College of Social Science.

Michigan's First Farmers
"Learning more about this part of our past gives important insights into the different paths that societies around the world took toward food production and illustrates the contributions these societies made in the eventual establishment of large-scale production practices," Lovis adds.

Scientists know the earliest domesticated crops appearing in Michigan were squash, 4,000 years ago, with multiple sizes and varieties around 3,000 years ago; sunflowers, 2,800 years ago; and corn kernels, dated at 1,400-1,500 years ago. Other evidence suggests that corn was being used and maybe even grown over 2,000 years ago.

Just how do they know?

Radiocarbon dating registers an age for preserved living things, and using a new approach called Accelerator Mass Spectrometer (AMS) dating, refined ages can be obtained from fragments as small as a grain of coarse ground pepper. Burned material left behind in pottery cooking vessels and plant fragments from stone tools are useful in telling the age. Archaeologists work with specialists from other sciences to understand the origins of agriculture:‚Ä®

-Physicists run the laboratories that do AMS dating of corn kernels or squash seeds or other plant parts. ‚Ä®
-Bio- or geochemists conduct isotope analyses of Carbon, Nitrogen, and other isotopes.‚Ä®
-Paleobotanists perform detailed analysis of the macro (visible) and microbotanical (microscopic plant part) remains. 

"Scientists from different fields collaborate to develop new and better ways to  identify and observe information, gather it, and analyze it, often producing the most useful results," reveals co-curator Maria Raviele from the Smithsonian Institution.

"Michigan's First Farmers" runs through Nov. 30 in the Museum Entry Hall and was developed in conjunction with an upcoming scientific gathering, the Midwest Archaeological Conference, to be held at MSU’s Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center, Oct. 18-21 (www.midwestarchaeology.org).  Support for the exhibit was provided by the American Indian Studies Program, the Conference on Michigan Archaeology, and the MSU Museum Endowment.