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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Open Access August 16, 2022

Tracing Maize History in Northern Iroquoia Through Radiocarbon Date Summed Probability Distributions

  • John P. Hart EMAIL logo
From the journal Open Archaeology


The evolution of maize as an organism, its spread as an agricultural crop, and the evolution of Native American maize-based agricultural systems are topics of research throughout the Western Hemisphere. Maize was adopted in Northern Iroquoia, comprising portions of present-day New York, Ontario, and Québec by 300 BC. By the fourteenth-century AD, maize accounted for >50 to >70% of ancestral Iroquoian diets. Was this major commitment to maize agriculture a gradual incremental evolution, or was there a rapid increase in commitment to maize-based agriculture around AD 1000 as traditional archaeological narratives suggest? Summed probability distributions of direct radiocarbon dates on maize macrobotanical remains and cooking residues containing maize phytoliths combined with maize macrobotanical maize densities at sites and previously published stable isotope values on human bone collagen used with Bayesian dietary mixing models and cooking residues show an initial increase in maize use at AD 1200–1250 and a subsequent increase at AD 1400–1450. These results indicate maize history in Northern Iroquoia followed an exponential growth curve, consistent with Rindos’ (1984) model of agricultural evolution.

1 Introduction

Grain-based agriculture provides sustenance to humans across the contemporary world through consumption of the grains themselves (e.g., oats, rice, wheat), grain products (e.g., bread, beer) and the tissues of animals fed grains and grain straw and silage (Awika, 2011). All current cultivated grains have long histories of association with humans both before and after evolving into agricultural crops (Larson et al., 2014). One of the most important grains in contemporary global agriculture is maize (Zea mays ssp. mays), which accounted for 39% of global grain production between 2017 and 2019; one-third of all farms produced the crop (Erenstein, Chamberlin, & Sonder, 2021). Evolved from an annual teosinte (Zea mays ssp. parviglumis) in the central Balsas River basin of Mexico some 7000–9000 years ago (Matsuoka et al., 2002), resulting from natural and human-mediated selection, the crop spread throughout the Western Hemisphere and became the primary grain of Native American agricultural systems in tropical, subtropical, and temperate regions (Blake, 2015). The elucidation of the crop’s evolution and the evolution of agricultural systems after its adoption in specific regions remain topics of scientific inquiry by archaeologists, paleoethnobotanists, and geneticists (e.g., Bonavia, 2013; Costa et al., 2022; Grobman, 2013; Pearsall, 2018; Piperno, Holst, Moreno, & Winter, 2019; Staller, Tykot, & Benz, 2006; Swarts et al., 2017; Tung, Dillehay, Feranec, & DeSantis, 2020; Xu et al., 2022). One of the last regions in North America where maize was adopted is commonly referred to in the archaeological literature as Northern Iroquoia (e.g., Birch, 2015), consisting of portions of present-day New York, Ontario, and Québec (Figure 1). This is a region where speakers of Iroquoian languages lived prior to and after European incursions and continue to live today. Historical Northern Iroquoia is perhaps best known for the Huron-Wendat and Neutral confederacies in southern Ontario, Canada, and Haudenosaunee confederacy in New York, USA.

Figure 1 
               Locations of archaeological sites with radiocarbon dates used in the summed probability distribution analyses.
Figure 1

Locations of archaeological sites with radiocarbon dates used in the summed probability distribution analyses.

The importance of maize in historical Iroquoian peoples’ diets cannot be overstated. Waugh (1916, pp. 75–76), for example, listed 20 varieties of maize reported to him by Onondaga Chief Gibson. These included both hard and soft endosperm varieties of Northern Flint maize serving a wide range of culinary functions (Parker, 1910; Waugh, 1916). One estimate based on early seventeenth-century ethnohistorical accounts suggested that maize constituted 65% of daily dietary intake among Huron-Wendat individuals (Heidenreich, 1971, p. 163). Analyses of isotopic data from fourteenth- through mid-seventeenth-century AD individuals indicate the dietary fraction of maize ranged from >50 to >70% of ancestral Huron-Wendat diets, with the bulk of the remaining calories deriving primarily from freshwater fish, followed by small amounts of terrestrial resources (Feranec & Hart, 2019; Pfeiffer, Sealy, Williamson, Needs-Howarth, & Lesage, 2016). Although the absence of isotopic data prevents the development of such estimates for contemporaneous Iroquoian-speaking people in New York and Québec, it can be reasonably assumed that their diets were similar to those of Huron–Wendat ancestors.

For much of the twentieth century, archaeological narratives placed the adoption of maize and its sister crops common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) and squash (Cucurbita pepo) at around AD 1000, although some placed the adoptions a few centuries earlier (e.g., Fecteau, 1985; Stothers 1977). The adoptions of these crops were thought to have resulted in a shift from mobile hunting-gathering to settled agricultural village life over the course of a few human generations (e.g., Ritchie, 1969). Alternatively, the colonization of the region by Iroquoian-speaking agriculturists from the south or west was thought to have rapidly displaced Algonquian-speaking mobile hunter-gatherers (Parker, 1922; Snow, 1995). In both narratives, longhouse villages and inferred matrilocality and matrilineality, key traits of historical Northern Iroquoians, ensued in short order. The timing of the appearance of maize in the archaeological record leading to these narratives was based on maize macrobotanical recovery, generally prior to the widespread adoption of flotation to process feature fill and midden deposits. These remains were dated through spatial association with what were thought to be chronologically diagnostic artifacts and, in some cases starting in the 1960s, with a few radiocarbon dates on wood charcoal from what was thought to be the same chronological context at a specific site (cf. Ritchie, 1973; Hart, 1999a).

Narratives for the earliest maize in Northern Iroquoia began to change in the 1990s with the report of flotation-recovered maize macrobotanical remains from southern Ontario that were directly accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) dated to as early as cal. ∼AD 500 (Crawford & Smith, 1996; Crawford, Smith, & Bowyer, 1997). This was followed by reports of the maize phytoliths recovered from charred cooking residues on the interior surfaces of pottery sherds that had been AMS dated to as early as cal. ∼300 BC in New York (Hart, Thompson, & Brumbach, 2003; Hart, Brumbach, & Lusteck, 2007; Thompson, Hart, Brumbach, & Lusteck, 2004) and Québec (Gates St-Pierre & Thompson, 2015). Combined with maize phytoliths and starch recovered from directly dated cooking residues to the west in Michigan (Albert, Kooiman, Clark, & Lovis, 2018; Kooiman, Albert, & Malainey, 2021; Raviele, 2010), this evidence indicated that the adoption of maize in the lower Great Lakes region was much earlier than previously thought. Additional evidence for early use of maize in Northern Iroquoia came from isotopic analyses of human bone from southern Ontario that indicated detectable consumption by cal. ∼AD 500 based on the spacing between δ13C measurements on human bone collagen and apatite (Harrison & Katzenberg, 2003); spacings >4.4‰ indicate C4-pathway plant (here maize) as a source of carbohydrates (see Ambrose, Butler, Hanson, Hunter-Anderson, & Krueger, 1997 for an explanation on spacing).

Although substantiating a long history of maize in Northern Iroquoia, these various lines of evidence do not directly address its history as a crop leading to the intensive maize-based agricultural systems of pre- and post-contact Iroquoian societies. When did maize agriculture become the primary source of calories in Northern Iroquoian subsistence systems? Most research and contemporary narratives suggest that maize became an important resource after AD 1000 with major commitments to maize agriculture beginning in the thirteenth-century AD (e.g., Birch, 2015, 2018; Birch & Williamson, 2012; Chapdelaine, 1993; Creese, 2013; Harrison & Katzenberg, 2003; Williamson, 2014). Was this intensification of maize agriculture part of a long, gradual process with incrementing commitment over the course of many generations, or was there a sudden shift to greater reliance on maize over a few decades? There is as yet, not a clear answer to this question, although isotopic evidence suggests change within a generation at the fourteenth-century AD Moatfield ossuary in southern Ontario (van der Merwe, Williamson, Pfeiffer, Thomas, & Allegretto, 2003).

Summed probability distributions (SPDs) of calibrated radiocarbon dates are a commonly used proxy for prehistoric demographic modeling worldwide (e.g., Palmisano, Bevan, Kabelindde, Roberts, & Shennan, 2021; Porčić, Blagojević, Pendić, & Stefanović, 2021). The basic premise is that changes in human activities on the landscape will be reflected in the number of radiocarbon dates obtained by archaeologists. Increases in population density increases human activities within a given region, which will result in more radiocarbon dates. As Rick (1987, pp. 55–56) stated in the seminal article “more occupation should lead to the production and deposition of more cultural carbon; better preservation of the deposited carbon will allow a greater recovery of carbon by the archaeologist, and more archaeological investigations will cause the recovery and dating of more samples,” allowing modeling of relative human population densities. The assumption being that the radiocarbon record is representative of the preserved anthropogenic carbon record.

This basic premise can be extended to crop histories as Bevan et al. (2017) and Solheim (2021) demonstrated for middle-late Holocene crops in the British Isles and Norway, respectively. Rindos (1984, p. 199) suggested that as a crop became more important in regional diets, its presence in the archaeological record should increase. When maize, in this instance, is more prevalent in the archaeological record, there are greater opportunities for archaeologists to subject it to radiocarbon dating. Wood charcoal, the primary material dated by archaeologists prior to the development and widespread use of AMS dating, has the potential to have built-in ages (Bronk Ramsey, 2009a; Schiffer, 1986). As a result, in recent decades, archaeologists working in Northern Iroquoia have focused on AMS dating annual plant product remains, such as maize kernels (e.g., Birch, Manning, Sanft, & Conger, 2021). There has also been a long-standing desire to identify the earliest occurrence of maize in the region through direct AMS dating of maize macrobotanical remains (e.g., Crawford et al., 1997) and charred cooking residues containing phytoliths and starches (e.g., Gates St-Pierre & Thompson, 2015). As a result, we would expect the radiocarbon record for maize in Northern Iroquoia to reflect its abundance in the archaeological record, which in turn reflects its dietary importance. Rather than used as a proxy for human demography, SPDs of a large dataset of radiocarbon dates on maize and maize phytolith containing cooking residues combined with measures of maize macrobotanical densities and isotopic values for human bone collagen and cooking residues are used here as aids to building a history of maize in Northern Iroquoia.

2 Methods

The primary analysis reported here was the calculation of SPDs. To assess the likelihood that the SPD results reflect the history of maize in Northern Iroquoia and not simply archaeologists’ radiocarbon dating preferences, two additional analyses were performed. First, densities of maize macrobotanical remains were calculated to determine whether their abundance in the archaeological record is congruent with the SPD results. That is, increased summed probability densities should reflect increased maize macrobotanical densities at archaeological sites. Second, Bayesian dietary mixing models were run to determine whether the SPD results are consistent with evidence for maize consumption. That is, evidence for maize consumption should be consistent with SPDs – increased summed probability densities should be congruent with increased maize consumption. All data used in the analyses are in Appendices A–E, available in Hart (2022).

2.1 Radiocarbon SPDs

A total of 463 direct dates on maize and directly dated charred cooking residues containing maize phytoliths were compiled from the literature and the Canadian Archaeological Radiocarbon Database (CARD; Martindale et al., 2016). Eliminated from inclusion in the analyses were radiocarbon ages with standard deviations greater than 80 years resulting in 440 dates. Multiple dates on single specimens were then combined using Ward and Wilson’s (1978) method as implemented in OxCal v. 4.4 using the R_Combine command (Bronk Ramsey, 2009b). This step left 410 dates from 122 archaeological sites for analysis. All dates used in the analyses are provided along with site identifications, source(s), and links to CARD records or original publications in Appendix A (Hart, 2022).

Here, I used SPD analysis as implemented in the R-package rcarbon version 1.4.2 (Crema & Bevan, 2021) with the IntCal20 calibration curve (Reimer et al., 2020) carried out with R version 4.1.2 in RStudio version 2021.09.1 (see Crema, 2022; Crema & Bevan, 2021 for recent overviews of SPD analysis). SPD analysis is one of several reconstructive approaches (Crema, 2022, pp. 13–14) that provide visualizations of frequency distributions of aggregated radiocarbon dates. These include Bayesian Gaussian mixture models (Price et al., 2021), composite kernel density estimate models (cKDE; Brown, 2015), and Bayesian KDE (Bronk Ramsey, 2017). There are several issues that impact on the premise of SPD and other reconstructive approaches in the analysis of aggregated radiocarbon dates. These include preservation and sampling biases (Williams, 2012). Focused, time-span-specific, problem-oriented projects may result in radiocarbon date oversampling relative to other spans of time in a region. Older deposits may result in fewer samples for radiocarbon dating than younger deposits because of preservation bias. The former issue is perhaps the most important in the current analyses given the recent increased interest in radiocarbon dating short-lived samples, including maize macrobotanical remains, from AD 1350 to 1650 Northern Iroquoian sites (Abel, Vavrasek, & Hart, 2019; Birch et al., 2021; Manning & Hart, 2019; Manning et al., 2018, 2019; Manning, Birch, Conger, & Sanft, 2020; Manning, Lorentzen, & Hart, 2021). SPD analysis with the rcarbon package is used in the current analysis because it addresses this issue through binning and thinning algorithms as detailed in Crema and Bevan (2021; also see Shennan et al., 2013; Timpson et al., 2014 for binning). The latter issue is addressed through the inclusion of dates on charred cooking residues containing maize phytoliths from sites pre-dating the regular recovery of maize macrobotanical remains as well as after macrobotanical remains become ubiquitous.

SPDs are calculated by summing the probability densities of normalized or unnormalized calibrated radiocarbon dates (Crema & Bevan, 2021). Normalized calibrations can result in artificial spikes in SPDs reflecting steep portions of the calibration curve, while unnormalized calibrations eliminate such spikes (Crema & Bevan, 2021; Weninger, Clare, Jöris, Jung, & Edinborough, 2015). Although the current interest is in overall rather than any short-term trends in SPDs, each step in the production and analysis of SPDs were run with unnormalized calibrations of the radiocarbon dates and SPDs to take the possibility of artificial spikes into account. Calibrations were done with the Northern Hemisphere terrestrial IntCal20 calibration curve (Reimer et al., 2020).

I confined the SPDs to between 500 BC and AD 1630. The former date captures the earliest portions of the 95.4% ranges of the two oldest dates in the region on charred cooking residues containing maize phytoliths: 2,250 ± 20 BP (cal 389–208 BC; Gates St-Pierre & Thompson 2015) and 2,270 ± 35 BP (399–206 BC; Hart et al., 2007). The latter date takes into account the dearth of available radiocarbon dates later than the early seventeenth-century AD. Archaeologists working in Northern Iroquoia have relied primarily on the distribution and abundance of chronologically sensitive European artifacts and ethnohistorical evidence to date Iroquoian sites in the seventeenth-century AD (e.g., Bradley, 2020). Extending the SPD analyses after AD 1630 resulted in a decrease in the SPDs that does not reflect maize usage but, rather, the decreased use of radiocarbon dating for chronology building.

2.2 Maize Macrobotanical Densities

Maize macrobotanical data were compiled from site reports and theses for a series of 29 archaeological sites in southern Ontario. Some of these sites were included in recent chronology building projects (Birch et al., 2021; Manning et al., 2018, 2019) or have recently been dated as part of other projects (e.g., Ball, 2020; Beales, 2014). The sites were chosen based on the completeness of the samples analyzed and consistency of methods of recovery, analysis, and reporting. By completeness of samples, I mean that the analyst had access to all or most flotation samples taken from a given site, rather than a small and, perhaps, biased sample focused on specific contexts with large macrobotanical densities. By consistency in analysis, I mean use of the same or similar flotation recovery methods and the same or very similar sorting methods. By consistency in reporting, I mean the reporting of the same kinds of data. The data used for present purposes were the weight of charcoal and maize in grams (g) and the amount of flotation-processed soil in liters (l). These data were used to calculate maize (g)/charcoal (g) and maize (g)/soil (l) ratios as a means of obtaining standardized metrics of maize density at each site (Miller, 1988; Pearsall, 2018, pp. 68–70). In many instances, dates assigned to sites are median probabilities of Date estimates for Bayesian Phases using OxCal version 4.4.4 with the IntCal20 Northern Hemisphere curve (Reimer et al., 2020) for plotting. In other instances, when only a single date is available, the median probability of the date’s calibration is used. Estimated dates are used for sites lacking radiocarbon dates. Macrobotanical and radiocarbon date data are presented in Appendix B (Hart, 2022).

2.3 Stable Isotopes

Nitrogen and carbon stable isotope values on human bone collagen were obtained from the literature for 24 sites in southern Ontario. All values, sample numbers, and site data used in the production of graphs, sources, and radiocarbon date data are provided in Appendix C (Hart, 2022). Sample details are available in the cited sources. The isotope data were used with the Bayesian dietary mixing R-package simmr version 0.4.5 (Parnell, Inger, Bearhop, & Jackson, 2010; Parnell et al. 2013) in R version 4.1.2 in RStudio version 2021.09.1. Isotope values obtained on bone collagen reflect primarily the protein component of the diet (Ambrose & Norr, 1993; Sealy, Armstrong, & Schrire, 1995). The simmr package uses dietary tracers to calculate dietary fraction estimates of various resources. For the present calculations, δ13C and δ15N values obtained on human bone collagen constituted the targets. Following Feranec and Hart (2019), sources included maize, terrestrial animals, and three categories of fish. Data for sources were the same used in Feranec and Hart (2019), except the data for maize which were taken from Hart and Feranec (2020). A sixth source was added for terrestrial plants by subtracting the trophic enrichment factor (TEFs) for deer (3.8%) to arrive at a mean estimate of plants other than maize. Corrections are TEFs of human collagen for the various sources following Feranec and Hart (2019) as listed in Appendix C. Median dates of Bayesian Phases for sites with multiple radiocarbon dates and median dates for sites with single radiocarbon dates are used in the plots. Sites late in the sequence generally lack radiocarbon dates, and occupation dates in the cited sources are based on European artifacts recovered from the sites. Complete simmr results for each site are presented in Appendix D (Hart, 2022).

δ13C values for 89 directly AMS-dated cooking residues from New York and Québec were compiled from previously published data (Gates St Pierre & Thompson, 2015; Hart et al., 2003, 2007; Thompson et al., 2004). Changes in cooking residue δ13C values from regional datasets can be used to infer changes in maize processing for consumption (Hart, Lovis, Jeske, & Richards, 2012). The values and associated data are presented in Appendix E (Hart, 2022). Median probabilities for calibrated dates are used for plotting.

3 Results

The SPD for direct radiocarbon dates on cooking residues containing maize phytoliths and on maize macrobotanical remains is shown in Figure 2. There are low probability densities between ∼400 BC and ∼AD 1200 after which there is an initial sharp increase and plateau until ∼AD 1400. This is followed by a steep rise and a second plateau until the end of the date range at AD 1630. The dip in the second higher peak at ∼AD 1500 is an artifact of a prominent reversal in the IntCal20 calibration curve (see Manning & Birch, 2022; Manning et al., 2020). The steep increase at ∼AD 1400 may simply be the result of the large number of AMS dates obtained on maize by the Dating Iroquoia (Birch, Manning, Conger, & Sanft, 2020; Birch et al., 2021; Manning et al., 2018, 2019) and related (Abel et al., 2019; Manning & Hart, 2019; Manning et al., 2021) projects. To take this possibility into account, the rcarbon binPrep command was used specifying a cutoff value of 40 years, resulting in 216 bins; Iroquoian villages after AD 1300 are generally thought to have been occupied no more than 40 years (Warrick, 1988). The resulting SPD (Figure 2) shortens the initial peak to between ∼AD 1300 and 1400, with the initial increase beginning ∼AD 1200. The probability densities of the higher peak are lower than in the initial SPDs. Next, a thinned SPD was produced using the rcarbon thinDates function specifying one randomly selected date from each of the 112 sites. The resulting SPD (Figure 2) has a shorter initial peak and a lower second peak with the initial increase occurring at AD ∼1250.

Figure 2 
               Summed probability density plots using 40 year running means and unnormalized date calibrations and SPDs. The binned SPD has 216 bins and the thinned SPD is calculated with one randomly selected date from each of the 122 sites represented in the dataset.
Figure 2

Summed probability density plots using 40 year running means and unnormalized date calibrations and SPDs. The binned SPD has 216 bins and the thinned SPD is calculated with one randomly selected date from each of the 122 sites represented in the dataset.

Results of the SPD analyses suggest that there is a large increase in the abundance of maize in the archaeological record after AD 1400–1450 following an initial increase at AD 1200–1300. This finding is consistent with the macrobotanical record. Two metrics were used to assess the abundance of maize in the archaeological record using a series of 30 sites in southern Ontario (Figure 3, Appendix B). Both ratios show increases after ∼AD 1250 and a second beginning at ∼AD 1450 indicating maize is more abundant in the archaeological record after these dates. The increase after AD 1600 is in part the result of the Auger site, which was apparently burned when still occupied (Monckton, 1992).

Figure 3 
               Maize macrobotanical densities, (a) maize (g)/soil (l), (b) maize (g)/charcoal (g) with logarithmic-scaled y axes.
Figure 3

Maize macrobotanical densities, (a) maize (g)/soil (l), (b) maize (g)/charcoal (g) with logarithmic-scaled y axes.

These increases are also reflected in isotopic values. Figure 4a is a plot of δ13C values on directly dated charred cooking residues encrusted on the interior surfaces of pot sherds against calibrated median dates from Iroquoian territory in New York and the St. Lawrence River valley in Québec (see Appendix E). The values are consistently less negative after ∼AD 1200 with the highest values occurring mostly after AD 1400, reflecting increased contribution of C4-plant, presumably maize, carbon to residue formation and, therefore, increased maize processing (Hart et al., 2012). Figure 4b is a plot of δ13C values on human bone collagen from southern Ontario sites (see Appendix C). Values become much less negative at ∼AD 1200 and then again at AD 1350. Figure 4c is a plot of the results of Bayesian dietary mixing models of the fraction of maize contributing to the protein portion of the diet against median calibrated dates for the sites (see Appendix D). The maize fraction increases at AD 1200 and again at AD 1350, consistent with the results of the SPD analyses and the cooking residue isotopes.

Figure 4 
               δ13C values by time for (a) charred cooking residues and (b) human bone collagen and (c) Bayesian dietary mixing model dietary fractions for maize (error bars are 1σ).
Figure 4

δ13C values by time for (a) charred cooking residues and (b) human bone collagen and (c) Bayesian dietary mixing model dietary fractions for maize (error bars are 1σ).

Rindos’ (1984, pp. 198–199) coevolutionary model for agricultural evolution suggested an exponential growth of domesticate use; a long history of low-level use of crop plants followed by a steep increase at a so-called “takeoff point,” followed by a leveling off. The SPD analyses suggest such a pattern for Northern Iroquoia. To test this, the rcarbon modelTest function was used with 10,000 simulations to determine whether the maize SPD is consistent with the null exponential growth. Because the running mean specified influences curve shape, two were used, 40 and 100 years to provide granular and smoother curves. The results indicate significant differences with both running means (Figure 5). This results from long low-density sections of the SPDs from ∼425 BC to AD 800 and high-density sections after AD 1570, where the simulations are affected by the large reversal in the calibration curve mentioned earlier and/or an edge effect. The post hoc test introduced by Edinborough et al. (2017), implemented in rcarbon as the Point-to-Point test, tests for statistical differences in the shapes of the SPD and simulation envelop between 2 years (e.g., Porčić, 2020). Specifying a range between AD 800 and 1570 results in nonsignificant differences between the SPDs and the null exponential model (Figure 5), consistent with Rindos’ model.

Figure 5 
               Test of maize SPD against null exponential model based on 10,000 simulations with unnormalized date calibrations and SPDs (a) 40 year running mean, (b) 100 year running mean. The solid lines are the SPDs and the gray bands are the simulation envelopes. Blue vertical bands denote negative departures and red bands positive departures of the SPDs from the simulation envelopes. Post hoc test range (AD 800–1570) indicated with heavy black lines.
Figure 5

Test of maize SPD against null exponential model based on 10,000 simulations with unnormalized date calibrations and SPDs (a) 40 year running mean, (b) 100 year running mean. The solid lines are the SPDs and the gray bands are the simulation envelopes. Blue vertical bands denote negative departures and red bands positive departures of the SPDs from the simulation envelopes. Post hoc test range (AD 800–1570) indicated with heavy black lines.

4 Conclusions

The SPD analyses of direct radiocarbon dates on maize from Northern Iroquoia suggest that there was an initial sharp increase in maize use at ∼AD 1200–1300 following a long period of low-level use beginning at ∼400 BC. This in turn was followed by another steep rise at ∼AD 1400. These results are consistent with measures of maize macrobotanical densities in southern Ontario, δ13C values on cooking residues from New York and Québec, δ13C values on human bone collagen, and Bayesian dietary mixing models from southern Ontario. Notably, these results contradict the traditional narratives for Northern Iroquoia of an initial increased commitment to maize-based agriculture beginning around AD 1000. Consistent with Rindos’ (1984) model of agricultural evolution, the SPD analyses suggest that maize agricultural history in Northern Iroquoia followed an exponential growth curve with a “takeoff point” at ∼AD 1200–1250. Similar to but much later than the American Southwest (Lesure, Sinensky, Schachner, Wake, & Bishop, 2021), there appear to be two transitions, an initial increase in reliance on maize at AD 1200–1250 followed by a second increase at ∼AD 1400. These results suggest that the generational increase in maize consumption suggested by van der Merwe et al. (2003) for the Moatfield Ossuary is more generally applicable to Northern Iroquoia as a whole.

Although the present SPD analysis is not designed as a proxy for human demography, it is interesting to note that Warrick (1988, 2000, 2008) posited a “population explosion” in southern Ontario in the fourteenth-century AD and extending to ∼AD 1475 at which point population growth leveled off until epidemics of European-introduced diseases in the seventeenth-century AD resulted in population decreases. This “population explosion” reflected the agricultural demographic transition (Bocquet-Appel, 2011). Although focused solely on southern Ontario and with chronology based on radiocarbon dates available at the time and relative dating, Warrick’s population estimates parallel the results of the present analyses. Although there has been no formal demographic modeling for New York for this time span, Birch (2015, p. 278) suggested that the fourteenth-century AD may also have been a time of population increase in western New York. This suggests that there is a correlation between increased population densities and reliance on maize for subsistence. Of note, it is around AD 1300 when the various traditional Iroquoian archaeological traits, including nucleated longhouse villages, inferred matrilineality and matrilocality, maize-bean-squash agriculture, and dominantly collared pottery, among others coalesce (Birch, 2015; Hart & Brumbach, 2003).

The adoption of maize and the evolution of maize and maize-based agricultural systems in Northern Iroquoia and the broader northeastern North America involved many variables in complex systems of coevolution (e.g., Hart, 1999b, 2001). Both throughout northeastern North America (Hart & Lovis, 2013) and elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere (e.g., de Souza & Riris, 2021; Lesure et al., 2021), the timings and trajectories of maize agricultural evolution and demographic transitions were varied. The current results provide only a small window on the past and the dynamic history of maize agricultural evolution in what is now known as Northern Iroquoia. However, the results do provide additional evidence for important changes in Northern Iroquoia in the thirteenth–fourteenth centuries AD; changes that resulted in cultural traits that have characterized Northern Iroquoians in the anthropological and archaeological literatures since the nineteenth century (e.g., Morgan, 1851).


I thank Timothy Abel and Jennifer Birch for permission to use previously unpublished radiocarbon dates and Susan Winchell-Sweeney for Figure 1.

  1. Funding information: The author states no funding involved.

  2. Conflict of interest: The author states no conflict of interest.

  3. Data availability statement: The datasets generated during and/or analyzed during the current study are available in the Zenodo repository,


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Received: 2022-02-14
Revised: 2022-06-24
Accepted: 2022-07-29
Published Online: 2022-08-16

© 2022 John P. Hart, published by De Gruyter

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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