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Placemaking with Plants

Posted On May 22, 2020 | 13:22 pm | by ostmannj01 | Permalink
Lindi Masur puts seeds under the microscope to find new evidence for indigenous food production and landscape management

Lindi Masur, a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Toronto, was a 2019–2020 junior fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies. Her research report, “Western Basin Paleoethnobotany: Food Production and Landscape Construction at the Borderlands of Algonquin and Iroquoian Territory (1300 CE),” investigated maize horticulture in southern Ontario.


Q&A with Lindi Masur

What are traditional or historical views on differences between Algonquian and Iroquoian land use? 

Seventeenth-century documents written by Jesuits and the French in the lower Great Lakes describe Iroquoian endeavors in cultivating maize, beans, and squash, and how they traded these for furs, meat, and other resources with neighboring Algonquian-speaking groups, who were understood to be more mobile.

But this dichotomy of Iroquoian farmers and Algonquian hunter-gatherers is problematic. First, we know biases and political agendas influenced how Europeans wrote about these communities. Second, there was great diversity in subsistence practices and landscapes in eastern Canada. I work in southwestern Ontario studying subsistence in Western Basin groups (likely Algonquian-speaking or Anishinaabe communities) in the Late Woodland period. There are few historical sources to use as ethnographic analogue. But there are vibrant oral histories known to displaced and resettled indigenous groups who may be descendants, which reveal not only active landscape management practices but locally nuanced, fluid and flexible subsistence strategies that often included producing plant foods like maize, beans, and squash.

Finally, we have plenty of examples worldwide that farming societies do not abandon hunting and gathering, and likewise hunter-gatherers often partake in small-scale horticulture. There are no true subsistence categories, but rather a sliding scale of various degrees of dependence on food production, and this is certainly not permanently fixed or linear. 

Much early archaeological research in Ontario focused on the development of indigenous lifeways into their manifestations recorded during early European colonization. When we push these observations back in time to the archaeological context, however, we run the risk of missing the nuance in local traditions that were erased by the arrival of colonizers and the subsequent social and political disruption. Archaeology can also only begin to allude to how these groups self-identified—and who knows, we may be erroneously attaching ethnolinguistic affiliation to Western Basin groups based on how we categorize ceramic styles or subsistence patterns. Identity may have been complex in a borderland context, like in southwestern Ontario where there was a lot of interaction, and probably influenced food production practices too.


How does your research, both in the field and at Dumbarton Oaks, further challenge the dichotomy?

As a paleoethnobotanist, I identify seeds and plant remains from hearths, refuse pits, and storage pits using microscopy, and look for plant residues on ceramic vessels and food processing tools. The aim is to look at what people were eating and using for technological purposes, as well as the other plants in the environment. From the large quantity of maize recovered at a cluster of Western Basin sites near Arkona, Ontario, I argue these communities were certainly growing their own, rather than acquiring it through trade with neighboring Iroquoians. They were clearly undertaking large landscape management and construction efforts based on the diversity of early successional species present at these sites. Also, we see less nut consumption, which is very common in contexts where food production activities were intensifying.

My findings, coupled with settlement data, make me question just how mobile these groups in Arkona really were. Despite partaking in hunting and gathering, they were tied to this specific location for a large portion of the year. I conceptualize the landscape management and construction required to clear land for their palisaded longhouse villages, as well as the maize fields they are clearing, planting, tending, and harvesting, as placemaking endeavors. These activities not only reflect their connection to this locale, but also in a way embody their particular worldview—the plant remains I identify being a reflection of their social and economic practice. 

Here at Dumbarton Oaks, I have had greater access to resources by scholars from Michigan and Ohio working on similar questions, and to some rarer early archaeological materials. I have also engaged in very stimulating theoretical dialogue on how plants and landscape interact with the built environment with other Garden and Landscape fellows, like Annette Giesecke and Zeynep Kezer.


Why is it important to highlight indigenous land management?

To me, “land management” includes clearing land and harvesting trees to build longhouses or create fields, and the changing diversity of species present around communities. Land management can also entail encouraging or transplanting species. Of course, it also includes the cultivation of crops. Historically, the “Ecological Indian” stereotype—that indigenous people were living lightly on the land—and the notion that the potential of the American landscape was underachieved contributed to the denial of land rights at the time of colonization. I hope my work can help illuminate the millennia of intensive management by indigenous groups occupying southwestern Ontario and facilitate positive discussion in future land claims.


Julia Ostmann is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, postgraduate digital media fellow.