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Three Experiments in Muskogean Agricultural Techniques

Track Rock Gap Terrace Complex

Computer model of existing ruins at the Track Rock Gap Terrace Complex, Union County, GA

The Southern Highlands and Cumberland Plateau are one of five regions in the world, in which agriculture developed independently. Although most of the indigenous plants that were cultivated there are either now feral or extinct, recent genetic tests have proven that they were indeed, genetically different than their wild ancestors. It was only the prejudices of European immigrants that kept these crops from being developed further and cultivated today.

A wide range of European and indigenous sources describe a system of large scale agriculture in the interior of the Southeastern United States that was distinctly different than current practices, yet was able to support large populations without deteriorating local environments.

Muskogean farmers did not use processed chemical fertilizers or insecticides, but despite numerous assumptions by archaeologists otherwise, they regular use several practices to improve soil fertility. Such practices were continued into the late 20th century. The availability of commercial fertilizer, pesticides and mechanical tillers persuaded many Muskogean farmers and gardeners to switch to practices used by other farmers. Traditional Muskogean farming practices included:

  1. Annual burning of dead vegetation in early winter.
  2. Rotation of crops.
  3. Extensive use of legumes to fix additional nitrogen in the soil.
  4. Mixing of crushed shells in the soil.
  5. Mixing charcoal into the soil (biochar).
  6. Mixing of pottery shards into the soil.
  7. Throwing of organic kitchen scraps on garden.
  8. Use of diluted urine as a fertilize.
  9. Throwing bones and egg shells on kitchen fires, then spreading ashes on garden area.
  10. Building raised beds with especially fertile top soil.

Although thoroughly described by literature, these techniques have seldom, if ever, been tested by professional agronomists in the Southern Highlands. They offer an alternative to the current petrochemical-intensive techniques that most professional farmers utilize. They are not dependent on minerals or chemicals that must be imported from other regions or continents.

Locations and descriptions of experimental gardens

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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.

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