Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Jan F. Simek

Committee Members

David G. Anderson, Kandace D. Hollenbach, Sally P. Horn, Gary D. Crites


Research involving the origin of plant domestication remains as important today as ever. While early anthropologists viewed plant domestication as a necessary precondition for cultural development, more recent ethnographic studies have shown that agriculture was a much more labor intensive subsistence practice than hunting and gathering, leading many to question the reasons behind the prehistoric transition. Today, research and advances in technology have provided conclusive evidence to include the Eastern Woodlands of North America as one of the eight global centers of indigenous plant domestication. Although the timing of domestication and the plants involved in early horticultural systems are well understood, several questions remain unanswered.

Today, most models suggest that initial plant domestication occurred either in the heavily populated river valleys, or in the surrounding uplands that were also frequented by prehistoric groups. To test these models, I analyzed plant assemblages from five sites containing Archaic through Woodland period deposits, the time periods preceding, following, and during which initial plant domestication occurred. The sites were selected for their geographic position and proximity to each other. Found within a 20-mile radius of one another, Michaels Shelter and Uzzelles Shelter are located in the uplands of the southern Cumberland Plateau, Widows Creek and Mussel Beach are located in the Tennessee River Valley, and Russell Cave is situated approximately halfway between the upland and river valley sites.

My results from analyzing the plant remains from these five sites show that the conditions that favored early plant domestication in floodplain settings across the region were also present in upland settings. These factors include rich soils, highly disturbed landscapes, and the frequent reoccupation of sites in areas where plant food resources naturally occurred and were encountered on the landscape. All of these factors contributed to initial plant domestication in both the upland and floodplain environments across the Eastern Woodlands. Additionally, through the application of the diet breadth and central place foraging models, I explain how individual decision-making processes in small scale societies, and not geographical location, resulted in the cultivation and domestication of indigenous plants.

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