Ancient Native Gardeners: Kentucky’s Adena People

by A. Gwynn Henderson
Kentucky Archaeological Survey

From Adena: Woodland Period Moundbuilders of the Bluegrass
by A. Gwynn Henderson and Eric J. Schlarb
Kentucky Archaeological Survey, Education Series Number 9, Lexington, KY
2007

Adena (Uh-DEE-nuh) peoples were mobile hunting-gathering-gardening groups who lived in the middle Ohio River Valley between 2,500 and 1,800 years ago. They are famous for the earthen burial mounds and geometric earthworks they built. Over the centuries, these mounds and earthworks were the focus of Adena social, economic, and religious life, and the physical expression of their beliefs about the world and their place in it.

The Adena Homeland.
Image from Adena: Woodland Period Moundbuilders of the Bluegrass. Copyright 2007 Kentucky Heritage Council.

In Kentucky, Adena peoples lived mainly in the Bluegrass and the Eastern Mountains. They made containers from locally available clays, and chipped stone spearpoints, knives, and drills from locally available chert (flint). They hunted game animals with spearthrower and spear, and collected wild plants, including nuts and berries, in baskets and bags using these plants for food, medicine, and dyes. Plants also furnished the fibers Adena craftspeople wove into fabrics, and they fashioned those fabrics into clothing and blankets. They traded for exotic goods, like mica, copper, and marine shell, with groups living outside the Ohio Valley.

They made their copper bracelets from Great Lakes copper.
Image from Adena: Woodland Period Moundbuilders of the Bluegrass. Copyright 2007 Kentucky Heritage Council.
Sheets of mica, cut into crescents, served an unknown ritual purpose.
Image from Adena: Woodland Period Moundbuilders of the Bluegrass. Copyright 2007 Kentucky Heritage Council.

The Adena peoples were members of a gardening tradition that their ancestors had established more than 1000 years before. It focused on planting, growing, and harvesting domesticated native plants: squash (like crookneck and acorn) and weedy annuals that produced small, nutrient-rich seeds. Think of a handful of mixed bird seed, and you’ll have a good idea of their size. Under a microscope, archaeologists can tell the difference between the seeds of domesticated plants and those of their wild cousins. Domesticated seeds are bigger, their shape may be slightly different, or the shells or “seed coats” may be thinner.

Adena peoples grew two different kinds of weedy native plants. Goosefoot, knotweed, and maygrass produced seeds high in carbohydrates or starches. Sumpweed and sunflower produced seeds high in fat and protein, and so were high in calories.

Charred maygrass seeds.
Image from Adena: Woodland Period Moundbuilders of the Bluegrass. Copyright 2007 Kentucky Heritage Council.

These plants grew best where the ground was open and disturbed. Using fire, Adena gardeners cleared open areas on the landscape, then planted the seeds using flat wooden digging sticks. These crops were easy to grow and easy to harvest. They stored the seeds for later use in ceramic vessels to keep moisture and pests out. Adena families ate these stored plant foods during the winter when no other foods were available. They also saved enough seeds to plant the following spring.

Preparing the native plant seeds to eat wasn’t so easy. Adena women first had to separate the edible seeds from the inedible stalks and stems. This meant thrashing the plants to break them up, and then winnowing the seed from the chaff. Then they had to break the hard seeds into smaller pieces. They did this by either pounding the seeds or grinding them. Pounding produced larger fragments like grits. Grinding produced fine, flour-like particles.

If preparing these small cereal grains was so time-consuming, why did Adena peoples bother growing them at all? Any gardener can tell you why: good nutritional value; reliable production; disease resistance; and storability. The calorie content for these grains is similar to that of corn or rice, but their protein content is higher. Compared to hickory and oak trees, these plants are more reliable producers and their yields are comparable to some varieties of corn. Although the seeds ripen in the late summer/early fall, they store well. Women could put off preparing them for eating until their families had almost used up other foods.

For more information about the Adena peoples, go to the Living Archaeology Weekend website (www.livingarchaeologyweekend.org), click on Education, then Content and Lessons, then LAW Educational Content and Lessons, and scroll down to Woodland Indians Resources. Download the booklet: Adena: Woodland Period Moundbuilders of the Bluegrass, by A. Gwynn Henderson and Eric J. Schlarb. Kentucky Archaeological Survey, Education Series Number 9, 2007, Lexington, KY. Or go to your public library and checkout the booklet via Kentucky Libraries Unbound.


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