Crops of Ancient Iowa

by Lynn M. Alex with technical assistance by Tricia R. Bender


Table of Contents

Watercolor of a Native American Woman Cultivating with a Hoe


During the first 10,000 years of Iowa’s history, native inhabitants hunted, fished, netted, trapped, gathered, plucked, picked, and dug for their food from wild sources. And they were successful even as they adapted to changing landscapes and resources as the ice margins retreated at the end of the Pleistocene and during the early Holocene when prairie spread in fits and starts across the state. Yet, in a small community called Gast Spring adjacent to the Mississippi River in today’s Louisa County, the first tentative steps towards a new lifestyle were being taken almost 3000 years ago. Here archaeologists discovered a conglomeration of charcoal, fire-cracked rock, and the charred remains of plants densely packed in a small, basin-shaped pit almost four feet below the ground surface. Among the plants were squash and goosefoot, probably already domesticated, and the first evidence in the Midwest for cultivated little barley. Iowa farming had begun. 

These first farmers of southeastern Iowa had access to a wide array of microenvironments teeming with the resources of upland and tributary valley forests, backwater wetlands, and the Mississippi channel itself. The Government Land Office Survey map of mid-nineteenth century Iowa offers a reasonable view of the upland vegetation at the time Euroamerican settlers arrived. Prairie dominated most of the state with wide swaths of wetlands particularly in the north central region. In contrast, see a modern satellite map showing Iowa’s land cover today. The prairie is almost gone, and wetlands considerably diminished, due to the successful efforts of nineteenth century pioneer farmers who tiled and drained thousands of acres. 

Native American societies first domesticated varieties of plants that continue to impact the modern world economy. Some of the earliest plant species brought under cultivation were local weedy and oily seeded varieties, such as marsheldersunflower and goosefoot. These were largely replaced by the better known and higher yielding tropical cultigens—cornbeans, and squashes—a legacy for later pioneer farmers and stock for early American seed companies. 

Montage including phtographs of ears of corn, sunflower seeds, beans and squash; also included are tobacco, barley, goosefoot, sunflower, knotweed, and sumpweed plants

Although some of the first plants cultivated by ancient Iowans remain an essential part of agriculture in many parts of the world, in North America, and Iowa in particular, corn became and remains king. Today it helps sustain Iowa and the Nation’s economy in food, fuel, and byproducts.

Major References

Asch, David L. and William Green 1992
Dunne, Michael T. 1997
Dunne, Michael T. and Green, William 1998
Green, William and Shelly Gradwell 1995 (Green and Gladwell text - pdf)


Cast of Plants in Iowa's Ancient Crops


Project Note

This gallery offers information on the crops first cultivated by American Indians in Iowa. It draws upon research conducted by archaeologists and paleobotanists over the past 60 years. It began with an important study by David Asch and William Green (1992) which compiled all available information on Iowa’s archaeological plant remains. Their tabulations were incorporated into a geographic systems database to which was added new discoveries made since 1992. The crop distribution maps and tables presented here were extracted from this database and will be updated and modified as new information is received. Ultimately, the entire database will be an important online tool for researchers. References provided for each crop described include the Asch and Green report and other sources since their 1992 publication. Pertinent original sources including those utilized by Asch and Green are cited under Major References

A grant from Silos and Smokestacks National Heritage Area funded this project with support from the University of Iowa’s Office of the State Archaeologist. Melanie Riley and Mary Kathryn Rocheford, OSA Geospatial Program, created the plant database and all of the maps based on concept design and guidance by Joe Artz, Program Director. Stephanie Surine and Deborah J. Quade, Iowa Geological Water Survey, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, provided additional information. The OSA’s Information Technology Program Systems administrator, Mary De La Garza, and webmaster, Tricia Bender, designed and created the web gallery. The project was conceived and coordinated by Lynn M. Alex, Director of Education and Outreach, OSA, who composed the gallery text. 

Special thanks to Mary Adair, Museum of Anthropology, University of Kansas; William Green, Logan Museum of Anthropology, Beloit College, Wisconsin; and Wendy and Michael Scullin who provided expert advice on early cultigens. 

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