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The Rediscovery of the Southeast’s Ancient Agricultural Roots

The Rediscovery of the Southeast’s Ancient Agricultural Roots

Native American Heritage Month

An astonishing percentage (something like 70%) of the vegetables and fruits cultivated on the Earth today, originated in the Americas.  This fact was generally ignored until pointed out in Charles C. Mann’s bestselling book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, which was published in 2005.  It is an immeasurable gift to mankind for which all indigenous American descendants can take pride. Everyone knows about corn’s impact on the world, but did you know that virtually all commercially grown strawberries in the world trace their ancestry to indigenous strawberries first domesticated by the ancestors of the Creek Indians in the Southeastern United States?

Gardeners throughout the United States are now experimenting with the original varieties of plants developed by Native Americans, because they seem to have more resistance to extreme weather conditions, particularly droughts.  These experiments are particularly practical in the Southeastern United States.  Virtually all indigenous crops of the Americas can be grown successfully in SOME part of the landscape, south of the Mason-Dixon Line. 

The only major exception is Northern Wild Rice.  However, Southern Wild Rice, with equal nutrition, thrives in the wetlands of the Southern Coastal Plain.   Did you know that cranberries are grown commercially on the Delmarva Peninsula, east of the Chesapeake Bay?  

Five hundred years ago, the Southern Appalachian river valleys, where the Itza Maya settled contained large fields of chia (grain salvia), which was first developed in the Chiapas Highland of Mexico. The Itza brought along their sting-less honey bees, who pollinated the chia flowers. All this was stated in the De Soto Chronicles, but completed ignored by academicians. Chiapas means "Place of the Salvia." Chiaha means "Salvia River."

Five hundred years ago, the Southern Appalachian river valleys, where the Itza Maya refugees settled, contained large fields of chia (grain salvia), which was first developed in the Chiapas Highlands of Mexico. The Itza brought along their stingless honey bees, who pollinated the chia flowers. All this was stated in the De Soto Chronicles, but completely ignored by historians and anthropologists. Chiapas means “Place of the Salvia” in the Itza language.  Chiaha means “Salvia River.”

Indigenous vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts and flavorings of the Americas

What would civilization be like today without these American agricultural gifts to world?  Dinner time would certainly be as boring as the diet of Medieval Europeans, but such crops as maize (Indian corn), white potatoes and sweet potatoes have made possible substantially higher populations in both the New and Old World.

Tropical and Sub-tropical Fruits: Avocado, pineapple, papaya, guava, mango, banana, passion fruit, prickly pear, (Prickly pear & passion fruit also thrive in warm temperate climates.) cherimoya, guanabana,  guarana berries, anon (Sugar Apple), araza (Amazon pear), badea, starfruit,  feijoa, lulo, sapote, mountain papaya, pitata

Vegetables: black bean, navy bean, pinto bean, white bean, red bean, butter bean, green bean, cranberry bean, lima bean, wax bean, pole bean, tomato, white potato, bell pepper, summer squash, winter squash, pumpkin

Grains and Seeds: chia, sunflower, American amaranth, corn, popcorn, quinoa, little barley, northern wild rice, southern wild rice

Tubers:  Andean potato, sweet potato, Jerusalem artichoke, peanut, cassava, jicama, arrowroot, yucca

Vine Fruits:  Concord grape, muscadine, Catawba grape, fox grape, Dixie strawberry, blackberry, dewberry, black raspberry, blueberry, huckleberry, beach plum, cocoplum, buffalo berry, maypop (North American passion fruit)

Leaf Vegetables: chives, American wild onion, ramps, American cress, agave, dandelion  

Tree and Bush Fruits: American persimmon, mayhaw, crabapple, Mexican purple plum, red plum, yellow plum, pigeon plum, hog plum, cranberry, elderberry, black cherry, red mulberry, wintergreen berry, pawpaw, gooseberry, strangler fig

Nuts:  pecan, American chestnut, black walnut, butternut, white walnut, hickory nut, hazel nut, chinquapin nut, live oak acorn, American beechnut, cashew nut, Brazil nut, Maya breadnut, coconut, gingko nut, pinyon nut

Beverages: cacao, ginseng, yaupon holly, yerba mate, sassafras tea    

Herbs and Flavorings: vanilla, sage, salvia, American peppermint, sweet grass, allspice, annatto, boldo, canella, chilli pepper, cayenne pepper, chipotle pepper, cilantro, epazote, huacatay, paprika, pink peppercorn, nettle, paracress 


What are these plants called amaranth, chia and quinoa?1-nutrition-amaranth-chia-quinoa

The Greeks and Romans called amaranth mixed with honey, the “nectar of the gods.” Actually, the varieties of amaranth in the New World are more nutritious than those in the Old World.  The indigenous variety in the Southeast is known as Pigweed.  That name probably kept it off the dinner table and in the barn.  Few North Americans are even aware that chia is a very nutritious grain.  It is best known as a seed that sprouts on “Chia-Pets” at Christmas time.  Another grain from the Andes, quinoa, seems to get more attention from the hippie-dippie faction of the media.  The cousin of quinoa in the Southeast is known a lambsquarters.  As can be seen in the table prepared by D. Eric Dunn, Chia is a much more nutritious food source than Quinoa and slightly less nutritious than Amaranth.


Experiments with indigenous crops

chia-dunn4Central Arkansas:  We will now look at some experiments with indigenous crops, now underway in various parts of the Southeast.  David Eric Dunn I grew up in a rural community called Happy Hollow, AR.  It is about 50 miles north of Little Rock and in the foothills of the Ozarks. He currently lives in a small town called Maumelle, which is just on the north side of the Arkansas River from Little Rock.  He said that his family had distant Native American ancestors in Virginia or North Carolina.

Both locations are considered to be Central Arkansas and are in growing zone 7b. His location typically receives on average about 45″ of rainfall each year.  This precipitation level is about 5-25” less than the region where the Uchees, Chickasaws and Creeks lived, but quite a bit more than where most of the famous crops of the Andean and Mesoamerican peoples were developed. 

Dunn built stone retaining walls to replicate the types of terrace complexes, POOF researchers are studying in Georgia.  He filled the terraces with improved soil and then planted beds of chia and amaranth.  Would you believe that he obtained these seeds from the Walmart food section (chia) and amaranth from the bulk section at Whole Foods (amaranth).  They both had a near 100% germination rate directly sown into the soil.

Mexican Amaranth

Mexican Amaranth

Both plants thrived in his terraces.  Obviously, both have commercial potential in Arkansas. However, in the late summer, he experienced a devastating infestation of army worms that not only devoured the Bermuda grass in his yard, but also the amaranth, but not before the amaranth seeds grew at the top of the plants.  The plants died, but the seeds fell and germinated all over the terrace, after a large rainfall in early September. Surprising, the army worms did not touch the chia plants. 

Dunn stated that had he watered both the chia and amaranth, they would have developed earlier in the season and would easily grow in an Arkansas growing season.  Since his hillside terraces are essentially raised beds and dried out quickly, he felt that the terraces required more water than a garden in a regular soil level garden.  Dunn stated he could see where the chia would be easier to grow along a stream valley so that the plants could be watered more easily.

The terrace complexes in Georgia store large volumes of water and distributed to the terraces.  They are in a climate with much more rainfall than Central Arkansas.

corn-beansEast Central Alabama:  Sara Halley grew up in Anniston, AL and now lives near Auburn. She has substantial Creek heritage on both sides of her family.  Her experiment involved the repeated stories told in elementary history books that American Indians grew corn, beans and squash together in the same fields.  For her experiment, she purchased heirloom Native American seeds from a tribe in New Mexico that lived in about the same plant hardiness zone as Auburn.

She planted her garden in alluvial soil next to a small stream.  She worked lime and commercial peat moss into the soil, but did not use any commercial fertilizer or insecticides.  She said that it was an especially hot summer in her region this year, but she did not irrigate the garden other than with relatively small amounts of diluted human urine.  Native Americans used diluted urine as fertilizer.

The Southwestern Indian corn withstood the heat much better than her neighbor’s Silver Queen sweet corn.  However, the plants did not grow nearly as tall as her neighbor’s, who was forced to water her garden once or twice every day.  The cobs were also smaller than her neighbor’s corn, but showed little damage from insects, despite the lack of insecticide.

Her beans did extremely well. Despite a drought, the bean plants stayed alive and kept on forming pods long after the corn had died.

The squash plants were a disappointment.  Most of the squash seeds within the interior of the garden did not grow much after the corn began shading the plants. Most squash blooms fell off without producing a fruit.  The only squash plants that produced fruit even large enough to pick were those on the southern, eastern and western edges of the garden, which sent vines outward from the garden to escape the shade of the corn stalks.  Sara does not believe that her ancestors planted squash inside corn fields.  She thinks that perhaps squash and pumpkins were grown around the corn fields.  Next year, she plans to alternate rows of corn and squash to see if that solves the problem.

vegetable-containerSavannah Area:  Mike Callahan is editor of a website that explores various techniques for self-sufficiency and survival during adverse events.  It may be accessed at:   Of course, being able to grow one’s own food is a very important part of self-sufficiency. 

The soil around Savannah is typically is black, very sandy and highly acidic.  Mike experiments with growing plants in containers or mounds, composed of Ph-balanced and fertilized soils.  His efforts were very successful this year.  Gardeners on the Georgia and South Carolina coast, who try to grow conventional gardens often have disappointing yields.

Callahan is intrigued by our discovery that pineapple and cacao were being cultivated by Creeks and Uchees in the Savannah area, when the colony was founded in 1735. His future plans include development of selectively cultivated pineapple plants and cacao trees that will be able to survive in Savannah’s maritime sub-tropical climate.



magicgarden5Southern Appalachians:  Originally, my first little terrace garden was constructed as “window dressing” for the filming of the premier of “America Unearthed.”  After learning in April 2012, that the US Forest Service had refused to allow filming at the Track Rock Terrace Complex, I assumed that the TV program had been cancelled.  Just as I was moving to a dilapidated and partially burned cabin near the source of the Etowah River, I learned that the film company wanted film the first part of the show there. 

In a panic, I excavated the first terraces out of the adjacent woods and planted seeds.  I designed and constructed ditches that would channel rainwater from the hill above the garden and store the water within the terraces.  By coincidence, it turned out that the solar orientation, soil and geology of this garden was identical to that of Track Rock Gap.  Soapstone and quartz were abundant in both locations. So when interviewed, I could honestly say that the little garden was an experiment to determine what vegetables would grow best on the terraces of the Track Rock Complex.

As it turned out, there were record breaking temperatures in the Southern Appalachians in June 2012.  Whereas normally, it is very rare for the daily high to get to 90 in June, we had several record breaking highs at up to 105 degrees F.    By the time that the History Channel crew arrived in early July, almost all the gardens in this region were fried brown.  Mine was still green and as you may recall in the TV show, quite photogenic.  Throughout the year since then, I have been applying charcoal, diluted urine and organic kitchen waste to this ever-expanding garden. 

Four years later, the Magic Terrace Garden is six times the size of the original one and oh so much more fertile. Biochar agriculture really works . . . for most crops.

Report card after five magic terrace gardens

  1. Corn was stunted and produced small, but sweet ears. Not worth the trouble.
  2. Cabbage grew slow, but tasted good. Not worth the trouble.
  3. Bell peppers grew slow, and produced a couple of large fruits. Not worth the trouble.
  4. Cantaloupes and watermelons grew slow and produced small fruit. Not worth the trouble.
  5. White potatoes grew to normal size, but produced small potatoes. Not worth the trouble.
  6. Onions and chives grew to normal size and produced average bulbs.
  7. Spinach and turnips grew to average size.
  8. Bush green beans grew to normal size, but had many more beans than typical.
  9. Summer squash grew larger than normal, produced many squash, but then died from fungal infections.
  10. Tomatoes grew six to seven feet high and produce bumper crops for much of the summer.
  11. Broccoli and collards grew to a large size and seemed immune to insects – picture perfect.
  12. Sugar snap peas that were supposed to grow 36” grew to 10-11 feet.
  13. Crowder peas that were supposed to grow to 48” grew to 10-14 feet.
  14. Cow peas that were supposed to grow to 48” grew to 10-14 feet.
  15. Cranberry beans that were supposed to grow to 24” grew to 6-10 feet.
  16. Butternut squash put out vines up 12 feet long and had many fruits.
  17. Sugar peas produced long vines with many bean pods.
  18. Fordhook lima beans that were supposed to grow to 36” grew to 60”.
Red beans growing on terraces near Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Red beans growing on terraces near Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

The Highland Mayas today mainly grow members of the bean family on terraces.  Given the incredible size and productively of the bean family on the Magic Garden terraces, it seems likely that various varieties of beans were the primary crops grown on Georgia’s 16+ terrace complexes.  Members of the squash and pumpkin family would also have thrived there.  However, there may have also been other crops, such as chia, copal, herbs or tobacco, which were also grown primarily on the terraces.

When I first stumbled upon the Track Rock Terrace Complex, I was puzzled because it was so close to conventional Creek towns with mounds and large fields in bottom lands.  The fact that legumes grow like kudzu on the terraces, while corn is stunted, might explain the close proximity of the two different styles of agriculture.   Corn & sunflowers dominated the bottom land fields, while beans & squash were the primary vegetables on the terraces. 

It makes sense!



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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.



    Your opening:
    “An astonishing percentage (something like 70%) of the vegetables and fruits cultivated on the Earth today, originated in the Americas. This fact was generally ignored until pointed out in Charles C. Mann’s bestselling book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, which was published in 2005. It is an immeasurable gift to mankind for which all indigenous American descendants can take pride.”
    is not accurate. Cf. two major books by Jack Weatherford, which sold well, as well as LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME, which is moving toward 2,000,000 in sales and made that point in 1995. — Jim Loewen

    • Thank you for setting us straight. The People of One Fire operated for five years as an open exchange of research information between Native American scholars. We only created a public website after the Georgia archaeologists and Republicans somehow were able to completely block discussion of our research in the state’s newspapers and TV stations. Knowing what it is like to be censored, we invite others to add to the body of knowledge. By the way, it’s just the Georgia Republicans. People aligned with that political party outside of Georgia are quite supportive.

      I don’t doubt what you are saying, but the problem is how “cookie cutter” references are now. Jack Weatherford needs to check the citations in the online references. All give credit to Charles C. Mann alone for a series of findings and statements in this area, which apparently Weatherford and Loewen first made.

    • Wayne, I have never heard of women owning a ceremonial ground. Generally, the men own the ceremonial ground and the women own the domestic buildings and the farmland.
      That is certainly the way it is in Oklahoma. I will check on it.


    very small world. Happy Hollow Ark my late Mother in Law Nina Morris was born there.
    Anniston Ala My grandfather lived there in early 1900s.


    Hey Richard
    I found this article on PlosOne about home gardens and native plants in the Amazon. The article said this is true of any area where natives grew crops even if the land was abandoned for a time. Apparently home gardens have a much higher diversity of plants if they are near or on an archology site. Any of your POOF readers living on or near an archological site and loves to garden should look closely at the plants around their land, their garden could be hiding native plants that were cultivated for their usefullness.They also discuss “black earth” in the Amazon basin area and the effect it has on the plants in the soil.
    I hope your garden will be productive next year! Thanks


    Hey Richard,
    I found another interesting article on a find in Canada of Wapato plants being cultivated about 3,800 years ago.
    The people that made this had a great idea putting a “pavement” of river rock under the plants to keep them from growing to deep.
    Its amazing the ideas people have come up with to solve daily problems, I hope they find more at this site.
    Thanks for all you do!

  5. You can buy chia seeds online. Also, at least in Canada and the United States, chia seeds are available in the Latin American sections of supermarkets.


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