Basketmaker Community Project Yields New Clues to Ancient Diets

HogPotatoPollen JoomlaHog Potato Pollen (Photo: Crow Canyon Archaeological Center)

The fieldwork part of the Basketmaker Communities Project may be over, but the data gathered from the five-year project is still giving Crow Canyon Archaeological Center researchers exciting clues into the lives—and foods—of the first Pueblo farmers in the central Mesa Verde region.

According to Crow Canyon archaeologist Shanna Diederichs, soil and bone samples found at the Ridgeline site at Indian Camp Ranch show that ancient Pueblo farmers likely made use of hog potato (part of the pea family), carrots, cholla flower buds, and prickly pear to supplement their diet of corn, small game, and other local resources.

The Ridgeline site was a rare find—an oversized pithouse five times the size of a regular domestic structure. It was constructed around A.D. 650 on the footprint of an earlier habitation, and after 70 years of remodeling and use, it was purposefully burned in a conflagration that fire-hardened giant chunks of adobe roof. The site was excavated by Crow Canyon archaeologists with the help of program participants and with the generous financial support of our donors.

Some of the most amazing facts about this massive pithouse come from the smallest details. Animal bone specialist Kari Cates and pollen analyst Suzie Smith are expanding our understanding of food preparation and clothing manufacture in this special household. Kari used her comparative collection of more than 10,000 animal bones to identify the bones from the floor of the pithouse, and Suzie used a high-power microscope to identify pollen grains extracted from soils samples from the floor and features in the building. Both have been amazed at the resources at the Ridgeline pithouse.

Only a handful of animal bones were found on the floor of the oversized pithouse. From this small collection, Cates was able to identify turkey, antelope, squirrel, cottontail, jackrabbit, and other small and medium mammal bones. Most of the bones were lightly blackened from the roof’s burning. One of the bones was heavily polished, and three others were manufactured into small tools called awls. The awls were likely used for weaving and leatherwork.

In addition, Cates found evidence of a bone disease in one of the cottontail rabbits, which would have made it difficult for it to run and likely landed it in a stew pot.

Smith found an amazing array of food pollens in the Ridgeline oversized pithouse, which point to corn farming supplemented with native resources. Corn pollen was found in 85 percent of samples. Wild grass and pinyon pine pollens were also abundant and probably point to wild gathered, protein rich grains that could be milled and stored through winter.

Along with many other pithouses on the Basketmaker Communities project, Smith found pollen from the carrot family, although she suspects that Basketmaker people did not prize this plant for its underground tuber like we do but used the fragrant leaves as a spice.

In addition, weedy annual plants likely contributed seeds and greens to the cuisine. It also appears that the Ridgeline inhabitants had a bit of a sweet tooth, as the large amount of cactus pollen found in the floor samples suggests that they harvested cholla flower buds and fruits of prickly pear for dessert.

All these food pollens have been found in other pithouses on the Basketmaker Communities Project and were part of the cuisine of the time. What makes the Ridgeline site pithouse different is a group of rare pollen types identified by Smith, including one new food source never before found at a Crow Canyon dig site—pollen from the pea family, identified as possible hog potato. The plant has long been suspected as a prehistoric food but because the plant’s flowers produce such a small amount of pollen they are rarely identified by pollen analysts.

In addition, pollen from six new woody riparian shrubs (ash, walnut, willow, sumac, buckthorn, and chokecherry) showed up in pithouse floor samples and likely supplied specialty materials for weaving, arrow making, and roof construction.

This sort of cutting-edge science is made possible through the support of our program participants and donors. For more information on how you can participate in our newest project—the Northern Chaco Outliers Project at the Haynie site—click here or call 800-422-8975, ext. 451.

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