Pickin’ Pawpaws: Archaeology and America’s native fruit

Ever heard of a pawpaw? If not, you’re not alone! Even though some say it’s been “forgotten” the pawpaw was, and is, a pretty big deal. Why? Here are a few reasons!

  1. It’s the largest native fruit tree in North America and the fruit itself is the largest edible fruit in North America
  2. Pawpaw tastes like a cross between a mango and banana and can be eaten straight from the tree or turned into pies, ice cream, or bread!
  3. Pawpaw fruit may have cancer-fighting abilities and can be more nutritious than bananas, apples, or oranges.
  4. The bark of the pawpaw tree makes its own insecticide and so it doesn’t require pesticides when growing
  5. Lewis and Clark often ate pawpaws on their famous expedition and today there is a “PawPaw City” in more than one state, including Kentucky!
  6. Did I mention the flowers of the pawpaw tree are geometrically perfect?!



Still not convinced that the pawpaw is amazing? What if I told you that right now micro-breweries and homebrewers are whipping up batches of pawpaw beer as I write. Yes, pawpaw beer is a thing. Like I said, the pawpaw is a pretty big deal. Even George Washington would agree…pawpaw dessert was his favorite!


But, the cultivation of pawpaw goes back far beyond the years of George Washington. In fact, pawpaw was first written about during the expedition of Hernando de Soto in 1540 when a writer described how American Indians cultivated the pawpaw fruit for food and used the tree to make a variety of things like rope and fiber cloth.


At this point you may be asking, “what in the world does this have to do with archaeology?!” Great question! Everything I’ve said so far can be found written somewhere… in books, articles, on the internet, or in journals from those expeditions I mentioned. But archaeology allows us to look beyond the written record. Using botanical (plant) analysis and paleoethnobotany (or the study of the relationship  between people and plants in the past) archaeologists can learn about the history of plants long before they were being written about.

Pawpaw is no exception because pawpaw seeds have been identified from archaeological samples taken from right here in Kentucky! By finding, identifying, and analyzing the seeds archaeologists can learn more about the pawpaw fruit. Things like how long it’s been around, how long it’s been cultivated, or even about the many ways in which it was used by people that lived in this area for thousands of years (before expeditions like de Soto or Lewis and Clark took place) can be understood with archaeology.



As archaeologists learn more about plants in the past, researchers can better understand plants today. And, with the help of all kinds of scientists, like environmentalists, agriculturalists, botanists, cancer researchers, and of course, archaeologists, the pawpaw might be making a much-deserved comeback!



Want to try a pawpaw for yourself? You should! You’ll have to put in some effort though because you probably won’t find them in any local grocery (not yet anyway). Better try a farmer’s market or strike up a conversation with some local farmers or agriculturalists and see if they know of any pawpaw groves around where you can pick ‘em yourself! Happy searching!

The images presented here came from the following websites. Check them out for more info (and recipes!) about pawpaws:







Written by: Briana R. Moore, a PhD Student at the University of Kentucky





















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