Growing a New Way of Life (4,000-600 years ago)

Native American gardeners domesticated a variety of native plants, producing surplus food and storing it for later consumption. This new way of life was accompanied by technological advancements such as pottery, more trade, and changes in social organization and religion. By 900 years ago, maize, a tropical grass hybrid from Mexico, was grown in Illinois. Maize production required more labor but yielded more food, both of which sparked population growth and unprecedented changes in every aspect of Native American life. Illinois’ first metropolis, Cahokia, a community of perhaps 20,000 people, commanded the economic, social, and political landscape of the Midwest for nearly three centuries.

Cultivated Plants

Image of several plants cultivated by native people.
Given how crucial they were in the development of North American agriculture, it's ironic that today these plants are considered to be unexceptional. Two of the specimens were collected along roadsides, and one was collected along a railroad right of way. Another is referred to, without ceremony, as a weed. But these plants sowed the seeds of what would be the domestication of plants, a change that laid the foundation for agricultural societies to develop.


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