Tracking Ancient Farmers in the Canadian Subarctic

Erin Collins*
Matthew Boyd examines computer images of food residues
Matthew Boyd examines computer images of food residues in Lakehead's Environmental Archaeology and Paleo-Ecology Lab
Dr. Matthew Boyd is on the cutting edge of archaeological research in Canada, and his latest project is shedding new light on the diet of ancient Northern peoples. His research involves the analysis of food residues on pottery sherds obtained through archaeological excavation. By digesting these ancient residues in acid and examining extracted plant remains such as starch grains, it is possible to gain new insight into the diet of these ancient peoples. What people eat, in turn, tells us a great deal about the ways that human societies organize themselves and how they interact with their environments.
"Anthropologists have always known about food residues," says Boyd. "It wasn't until recently that they have been used extensively... this [research] has provided a window to the past consumption of domesticated plants."
A particularly surprising finding was the discovery of maize and other cultivated foods on archaeological pottery from the Canadian Subarctic. These remains were dated to at least 1,000 years prior to European contact in this region. The location of these pottery sherds so far to the north, and so early, indicates that the spread of corn and other domesticated plants across North America was both faster and more extensive than previously thought. This discovery has generated much public and scientific interest and has paved the way for new questions and theories regarding the social complexity of ancient northern peoples. However, Dr. Boyd explains it is far too early for any conclusions:
"In terms of social complexity, we don't really know. We're in the early stages of this project and so really right now all we can say is that we are assuming people consumed these plants as far as 500 kilometres from the [northern] treeline. But were they growing it [or] were they trading it? We don't really know."
Working with Dr. Boyd are Clarence Surette, Lakehead's Bio-Archaeology Lab Technician, as well as Dr. Scott Hamilton, Chair of the Lakehead University's Anthropology Department. Their initial findings were the subject of a grant proposal to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, entitled, "Tracking ancient maize (Zea mays spp. mays) consumption in Boreal North America: Paleoecological, food residue, and archaeological investigations." This proposal was ranked first out of 106 applications sent to SSHRC's Anthropology and Archaeology committee and was awarded $177,100 in research funding in 2009.
Dr. Boyd and his team will be using these funds to delve more deeply into the ancient history of maize and other cultivated plants in the Subarctic, and to identify the antiquity of farming north of the limit of modern commercial agriculture. Their preliminary results were published in the January 2010 issue of American Antiquity. As well, this research will be profiled in an upcoming issue of Canadian Geographic magazine.
*Erin Collins is one of several Lakehead students taking part in SPARK - Lakehead, a student writing program sponsored by The Chronicle-Journal.