Two Tiny Grains: Intern Makes Exciting Discovery

Modern little barley seeds, left, compared with the little barley seeds found at the Switchback site.

Looking through the microscope at botanical samples from the Switchback site, archaeobotany intern Anna Graham found something she knew wasn’t supposed to be there: one tiny carbonized grain of domesticated barley. Then she found another.

Graham’s mentor, archaeobotanical consultant Karen Adams, was skeptical. In a lengthy career of looking at plant parts, she hadn’t seen this one at Crow Canyon. The grain, Hordeum pusillum, also called little barley, was known to have been grown in southern and central Arizona in ancient times, but it had never been found in the Mesa Verde region.

Adams took a long look through the lens and confirmed Graham’s identification. Then the two began consulting with colleagues to determine whether anyone else had come across Hordeum pusillum in their archaeobotanical work in the Four Corners area. Most reconfirmed the known record of Hordeum to be confined to southern and central Arizona. Nobody had a clue that it had ever come this far north.

But here it was, in a flotation sample collected from a pithouse hearth at the Switchback site, a Basketmaker III farmstead at Indian Camp Ranch. Botanical samples from that site were well preserved because portions of the site had burned and then been left undisturbed. 

Although today it has been mostly crowded out by a weedy, aggressive barley introduced from Europe, native wild barley occasionally still can be found in the southwestern United States. The native wild barley had protective chaffy parts that covered its grains and protected them, but a mutation had allowed seeds of some plants to fall out more easily. With that change, Adams said, the grains became easier to harvest and process, and therefore of more interest to ancient groups.

Wild Barley
Modern wild little barley plants.

Domestication requires two components: a mutation in nature, and an observant human being to identify it as having a new advantage that the plant didn’t previously have and then cultivate it.

“Someone saw something different that they liked,” Adams noted.

The morphological differences between the grains Graham discovered and the wild barley of the region placed Hordeum pusillum on a list of plants people had domesticated in prehistory.

“(Pueblo) subsistence is a little more complicated and diverse than just corn, beans, and squash,” Graham said. She and Adams assume that because the domesticated barley was found with other food products, it also was eaten. It may have been parched and ground into a flour, or it may have been thrown into the stewpot and eaten whole, but it was an addition to the menu of local inhabitants at the Switchback site.

Graham and Adams don’t know whether the two grains were traded from a region where little barley is known to have been cultivated, whether it was traded and then cultivated here, or whether southwest Colorado was an independent center of domestication.

Graham and Adams are writing an article on this exciting find to submit to Kiva, a quarterly journal on the archaeology, anthropology, and history of the Southwest.



The Basketmaker Communities Project is funded in part by the State Historical Fund (a program of History Colorado, the Colorado Historical Society).


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