Modern Weed, Prehistoric Crop: Goosefoot

By Katie Alexander, University of Kentucky

Next time you’re weeding your garden, watch out for any plants with goosefoot-shaped leaves. It might be Chenopodium berlandieri (goosefoot), an important garden crop to past Native Americans! Some of the oldest known examples of domesticated goosefoot comes from rockshelters in eastern Kentucky, and the wild variety of it still grows here today. Although most of us would consider it a weed, it was an important source of food and medicine to prehistoric people in Kentucky and elsewhere – so important that it was one of the plants domesticated here before the introduction of corn.

Goosefoot is an annual herbaceous plant that likes sunlight.  It can be found growing along roadsides, in overgrown fields, and other disturbed areas, including backyards and gardens.  Reaching up to 3 meters tall, it can be recognized by its triangular, lobed leaves that resemble a goosefoot, hence its nickname used here. It is also known as Lamb’s Quarters.  

Historically, several diverse Native American groups are known to have utilized the plant and closely related species. The leaves were consumed fresh as well as used as a pot herb.  The seeds were parched or boiled, and could be ground into a kind of flour.  Some of the plant parts were also made into infusions and poultices for various medical ailments.  It is likely their ancestors used the plant in similar ways.

Goosefoot seeds from archaeological sites show us that it was not just another wild resource, but a garden crop. They look very similar to wild seeds, but with some important differences. For example, the seed coat is thinner on seeds from domesticated goosefoot plants. This is because when humans are actively sowing, tending, and harvesting the plant, the seeds with thinner seeds coats are more likely to sprout and grow faster, and therefore be collected. This prehistoric domesticated goosefoot is considered a subspecies (Chenopodium berlandieri ssp. Jonesianum) of the wild variety still growing around us today.

Domesticated goosefoot seed from an archaeological site in Eastern Kentucky.
(Image source: “Domesticated Chenopodium in Prehistoric Eastern North America: New Accelerator Dates from Eastern Kentucky,” by Bruce D. Smith and C. Wesley Cowan, in American Antiquity 52(2), 1987, pp. 355-357)

To find something as tiny as a goosefoot seed when excavating an archaeological site, researchers often preform a simple process called flotation. They collect bags of soil from throughout the site, and pour it into water. Soil, rocks, and artifacts will sink, but since most plant remains are less dense than water, they float to the surface where they can be scooped or poured out and dried. Following flotation, recovered seeds can then be examined and measured with the aid of a microscope. 

Archaeological goosefeet seeds are found in the remains of storage pits, earth ovens, hearths, and even in human coprolites (fossilized feces). Radiocarbon-dated archaeological seeds from Kentucky tell us that goosefoot was domesticated as early as 3,500 years ago, along with other native plants such as sunflower and marshelder.  These and other early crops are known together as the “Eastern Agricultural Complex,” and they are found throughout Eastern North America long before the introduction of corn, even though that is what many of us imagine when picturing a Native American garden. The appearance of these early domesticated plants are evidence of change from a hunting-and-gathering way of life to one that depended more on horticulture.

Rock-lined storage pit in Eastern Kentucky that contained many archaeological plant remains, including domesticated goosefoot.
(Image Source: University of Michigan Library Digital Collections, University of Michigan Museum of Anthropological Archaeology)

Today, the domesticated goosefoot grown in prehistoric Kentucky is extinct. However, its cousin quinoa was domesticated in South America and is still available on store shelves across the world. And wild goosefoot can also still be found popping up as a weed throughout Kentucky. This includes both the native species and a very similar invasive cousin from Europe (Chenopodium album). Consider giving it a try!

(Note: Never consume a wild plant without being absolutely positive about its identification. Always educate yourself about any dangerous look-alikes.)


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