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25.5.03

New Evidence Suggests Ideas About Early Farmers May Miss the Mark


An abundance of charred corncobs and kernels indicate that corn was the agricultural mainstay here. Based on this find, Mr. Simms and his colleagues at Utah State Univeristy in Logan believe that the Anasazi maintained several small farmsteads and moved among them, to increase the tribe's chances of survival in the parched desert. "What they have is a series of these little houses and depending on where their corn is producing, those are the ones they will live in," he says. "They're moving people to the production. That is very different from the way our culture does it. We load things into trucks, trains, and we move the production to the people."

Anthropologists have known for years that the Ansazi thrived as farmers in this fragile desert ecosystem. They've wondered how. Archeologist and crew member Buck Benson says this site strengthens the now-accepted theory that the Anasazi were farmers who did not simply settle down. "They have to be able to pick up and move when either the arable land is used up beyond growing capability or, if situations change like climate, or other factors like another group moving in and there is possible confrontation. The Anasazi were able to leave the area, let it regenerate itself and then come back," he says.


I've known about inter-year mobility on the part of small-scale farmers before -- it's the essence of the swidden (slash-and-burn) system. But this is the first I've heard of intra-year mobility. This combines interestingly with an offline mention I came across today of southwestern Native Americans using temporal spreading out of agriculture -- planting an early crop, a mid-summer one, and a late crop -- to avoid putting all their eggs in one basket. It's undoubtedly a lot of work, and a far cry from the agriculture-enabled leisure concept that we used to have. But it's also an intelligent way to survive in an environment that has incredible and unpredictable variation in rainfall from place to place and month to month. And it also reminds me that the more I learn, the fuzzier the boundary between hunter-gatherer and farming lifestyles becomes.

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