Eastern North American Neolithic

The Origins of Agriculture in Eastern North America

Marshelder (Iva annua)
Marshelder (Iva annua) is an early domesticated crop of Eastern North America. USDA

Archaeological evidence shows that eastern North America (often abbreviated ENA) was a separate place of origin for the invention of agriculture. The earliest evidence of low-level food production in ENA begins between about 4000 and 3500 years ago, during the period known as the Late Archaic.

People entering the Americas brought with them two domesticates: the dog and the bottle gourd. Domestication of new plants in ENA began with the squash Cucurbita pepo ssp. ovifera, domesticated ~4000 years ago by Archaic hunter-gatherer-fishers, probably for its use (like the bottle gourd) as a container and fishnet float. Seeds of this squash are edible, but the rind is quite bitter.

Food Crops in Eastern North America

The first food crops domesticated by the Archaic hunter-gatherers were oily and starchy seeds, most of which are considered weeds today. Iva annua (known as marshelder or sumpweed) and Helianthus annuus (sunflower) were domesticated in ENA by about 3500 years ago, for their oil-rich seeds.

Chenopodium berlandieri (chenopod or goosefoot) is reckoned to have been domesticated in Eastern North America by ~3000 BP, based on its thinner seed coats. By 2000 years ago, Polygonum erectum (knotweed), Phalaris caroliniana (maygrass), and Hordeum pusillum (little barley), Amaranthus hypochondriacus (pigweed or amaranth) and perhaps Ambrosia trifida (giant ragweed), were likely cultivated by Archaic hunter-gatherers; but scholars are somewhat divided as to whether they were domesticated or not. Wild rice (Zizania palustris) and Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) were exploited but apparently not domsticated prehistorically.

  • Read more about chenopodium

Cultivating Seed Plants

Archaeologists believe that seed plants may have been cultivated by collecting the seeds and using the maslin technique, that is to say, by storing the seeds and mixing them together before broadcasting them onto a suitable patch of ground, such as a floodplain terrace. Maygrass and little barley ripen in spring; chenopodium and knotweed ripen in fall. By mixing these seeds together and sprinkling them on fertile ground, the farmer would have a patch where seeds could reliably be harvested for three seasons. The "domestication" would have occurred when the cultivators began selecting the chenopodium seeds with the thinnest seed covers to save and replant.

By the Middle Woodland period, domesticated crops such as maize (Zea mays) (~800-900 AD) and beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) (~1200 AD) arrived in ENA from their central American homelands and were integrated into what archaeologists have termed the Eastern Agricultural Complex. These crops would have been planted in large separate fields or intercropped, as part of the "three sisters" or mixed cropping agricultural technique.

  • Read more about maize
  • Read more about the Three Sisters
  • Read more about the ​Eastern Agricultural Complex

Important ENA Archaeological Sites

  • Kentucky: Newt Kash, Cloudsplitter, Salts Cave
  • Alabama: Russell Cave
  • Illinois: Riverton, American Bottom sites
  • Missouri: Gypsy Joint
  • Ohio: Ash Cave
  • Arkansas: Edens Bluff, Whitney Bluff, Holman Shelter
  • Mississippi: Natchez


Fritz GJ. 1984. Identification of Cultigen Amaranth and Chenopod from Rockshelter Sites in Northwest Arkansas. American Antiquity 49(3):558-572.

Fritz, Gayle J. "Multiple pathways to farming in precontact eastern North America." Journal of World Prehistory, Volume 4, Issue 4, December 1990.

Gremillion KJ. 2004. Seed Processing and the Origins of Food Production in Eastern North America. American Antiquity 69(2):215-234.

Pickersgill B. 2007. Domestication of Plants in the Americas: Insights from Mendelian and Molecular Genetics. Annals of Botany 100(5):925-940. Open Access.

Price TD. 2009. Ancient farming in eastern North America. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106(16):6427-6428.

Scarry, C. Margaret. "Crop Husbandry Practices in North America’s Eastern Woodlands." Case Studies in Environmental Archaeology, SpringerLink.

Smith BD. 2007. Niche construction and the behavioral context of plant and animal domestication. Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews 16(5):188-199.

Smith BD, and Yarnell RA. 2009. Initial formation of an indigenous crop complex in eastern North America at 3800 B.P. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106(16):561–6566.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Eastern North American Neolithic." ThoughtCo, Sep. 7, 2021, thoughtco.com/eastern-north-american-neolithic-171866. Hirst, K. Kris. (2021, September 7). Eastern North American Neolithic. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/eastern-north-american-neolithic-171866 Hirst, K. Kris. "Eastern North American Neolithic." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/eastern-north-american-neolithic-171866 (accessed June 4, 2023).