Domesticated Chenopodium in North America: Comparing the past and the present

Angela Gordon Glore
Dept. of Anthropology, Washington University in St. Louis
August, 2006


This research combines an emerging agronomy literature with ethnoarchaeological fieldwork and morphological analysis to glean more information from the most common food remains recovered from archaeological sites: seeds. Seeds are the embodiment of farmers' selection and experimentation, and reflect specific behaviors and decisions. In recent decades, agronomists have focused on how small farmers interact with and manipulate the genetic resources represented by their crops. The result is a literature rich with information on many subjects frequently studied by archaeologists.

This dissertation reviews the literature on farmer selection for specific end products, and moves from there to an archaeological case study: the prehistoric cultivation and use of domesticated Chenopodium berlandieri (chenopod) in eastern North America (ENA). The domestication of this crop is well documented through the analysis of abundant archaeobotanical remains and documentation of morphological changes in seeds through time, but significant questions remain regarding modes of cultivation and use. In Mexico, there are three distinct chenopod crops, also classified as Chenopodium berlandieri . Huauzontle is cultivated for its immature inflorescences and eaten as a green vegetable. The chenopod crop quelite is one of many plants collected or cultivated as a source of fresh greens. Chia produces bright red seeds, which are used to make a special type of sweet tamal called a chapata . The three crops play distinct roles in the modern Mexican diet, and vary in their cultivation practices and seasonal availability. Three periods of fieldwork in Mexico documented the current status, cultivation, and use of these crops through interviews and observation of numerous farmers, marketers, and consumers.

Following fieldwork, seeds from all three Mexican crops were analyzed to assess whether morphological differences existed among the three crops. The results of the analysis confirmed significant variation, and were then applied to a re- examination of the extinct ENA chenopod crop.