Ancient Native Americans Cultivated Medicinal Plants From Bear Ears, Study Says

Scientists from the U. identify 31 common plant species near archaeological sites, but are very rare elsewhere.

(The Natural History Museum of Utah) University of Utah anthropologist Brian Codding studies an archaeological site in the Bears Ears area, documenting the presence of plants of cultural significance to Native Americans. Researchers from the U. and their native colleagues discovered 31 species of plants growing at these sites, suggesting that the ancestral Puebloans, who occupied these lands centuries ago, transported these plants to these places where they continue to grow today.

Ancient Puebloans left structures, pottery, tools, graves, and countless other artifacts in the Bears Ears, Utah region, but they also left behind plant communities, rich in nutritional and healing properties, that continue to grow in and around archaeological sites to this day, according to new research by University of Utah scientists and Indigenous colleagues.

In an effort to document the presence of 117 culturally significant plant species, the study examined 25 such sites within the original boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument, designated in 2016 by President Barack Obama. These are plants used by the Hopi, Ute, Apache, Zuni and Navajo, the tribes that trace ancestry to this region centered around Cedar Mesa, which was heavily occupied 1000 years ago by Puebloan cultures.

Researchers have found that many plants grow in relative abundance near ancient dwellings, but are very rare in other areas.

“In other words, the plants weren’t there by chance,” said lead author Bruce Pavlik, director of conservation at the university’s Red Butte Garden. “People brought propagules [seeds or buds] of the species with them. This is one of the few times in the archaeological literature where people have invested in native species and brought them into their homes. It points to this higher level of landscape manipulation, what we call an “ecological legacy” of past human occupation. »

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lisbeth Louderback, Utah Museum of Natural History archaeologist, Bruce Pavlik, curatorial director at Red Butte Garden, and Cynthia Wilson, country food program director for Utah Dine Bikeyah , conducted research that identified 31 plants of cultural significance. species that grow in relative abundance near archaeological sites in the Bears Ears region. Their findings suggest ancient Native Americans cultivated these plants, including the Four Corners potato, pictured here at Red Butte.

Although many culturally significant plants, such as sagebrush and pinyon, are common in the landscape, at least 31 species, including the Four Corners potato (Solanum jamsei), are common at the sites, but rare elsewhere, according to the study published Monday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Other such plants included goosefoot, goji, and sumac, which produce edible grains or berries.

“Identifying how past human populations modified ecosystems is essential for understanding current ecological diversity and for managing natural and cultural resources,” the study says. “This study presents evidence for an enduring ecological legacy from ancient peoples on the Colorado Plateau, where the complexity of archaeological sites correlates with the richness of culturally significant plant species. This suggests intentional or unintentional transport and cultivation of native plants on a scale often overlooked in the American Southwest.

Ensuring the persistence of these plants will require tribal contribution to the conservation and restoration of “archaeo-ecosystems,” especially those whose plants are considered sacred as “life-medicines,” the researchers wrote.

“Medicines on the landscape all have a story,” said co-author Cynthia Wilson, a Navajo who leads Utah’s traditional food program Diné Bikéyah. “The original proposal to designate 1.9 million acres for Bears Ears National Monument came from listening to elders and healers who mapped culturally significant plants to protect our stories. In terms of management, traditional knowledge is crucial to protect the whole ecosystem as a living cultural landscape. Our ancestors cared for these secular gardens which justify a special management regime. Currently, there is no real security to prevent damage.

President Donald Trump has dramatically reduced the boundaries of the monument, which President Joe Biden is now seeking to restore or even expand.

“Bears Ears isn’t just about boundaries, it’s about what will happen in the future. It’s a question of management. And if you have a place like Bears Ears, which is so rich in archaeological sites, are you just going to save the adobe bricks for people to look at? Or are you going to have a bigger picture that says these were real ecosystems with real resource value to these people? Wilson said. “The two are inextricably linked.”

Co-author Arnold Clifford, a botanist at Carrizo Mountain Environmental & Herbarium in Durango, Colorado, led the effort to identify culturally significant plants the team would look for at archaeological sites. Bears Ears has 100,000 such sites, so the team selected 25 as a representative sample from a pool of 265 that have been closely surveyed for artifacts.

Then the U. team visited each site between 2017 and 2019, recording their plant communities. They discovered a close correlation between these sites and the abundance of culturally significant plants. Not only that, but the more intensively a site was used or developed, the more edible plants the team discovered, according to anthropology professor Brian Codding, who directs the U.S. Archaeological Center.

“We found this very strong relationship where the number of architectural features – think of it as the amount of investment that [ancient] people were putting on a site – when people invest more, which probably means there’s more people, or they’ve been there longer,” Codding said, “you end up having this significant increase in number of factories that are important in the past and today.

Clifford noted that seven species found at these sites are now considered sacred as way of life medicines by the tribes.

“What tribal members have always said is that it’s not just about preserving the archaeological site,” said academic anthropologist Lisbeth Louderback, curator of archeology and director of the museum’s archaeobotany laboratory. of Utah Natural History. “We must preserve all the resource space around the site, including the plants. Developing a management plan that incorporates both western science and traditional knowledge will provide a complete picture of how best to care for the resources and the monument.

Alvin J. Chase