Justine McKnight, Project Botanist, analyzed plant remains from East Steubenville to reconstruct how the Panhandle Archaic visitors relied on plants for food. Archaeologists can recover evidence of prehistoric plant use at sites if these plants were carbonized by burning in a prehistoric campfire, intentionally or by accident. During excavations at East Steubenville, archaeologists had collected soil samples from pits and

 fire hearths at the site. Using a flotation machine, Ms. McKnight separated seeds, nuthulls, and other plant parts from feature soil. After air drying, she classified plant remains under a microscope.

A flotation machine employs circulating water and fine mesh screening to segregate carbonized plant remains from feature soil samples.

Botanist Justine McKnight used a microscope and comparisons to modern botanical specimens to identify prehistoric seeds and nuts from the East Steubenville site.

Botanical analysis recorded occasional seeds of raspberry and grape, and pits of chokecherry -- wild fruits and berries that ripen mid-summer to fall, and were probably a common "snack food" for Native Americans. Carbonized grass seeds of the plant family Poaceae were also found in feature samples; these might have grown naturally at the site, or could have been collected by the Native Americans for food. By far the most common plant remains were nuts -- hickory, walnut, and acorn -- foods that could only be harvested during the fall. After gathering, Native Americans probably cooked and consumed nuts at their East Steubenville encampment; they could have also preserved nuts by parching in fires to set aside for winter or spring when food was scarce.
Close-up photograph of carbonized grass seeds (plant family: Poaceae) that East Steubenville Native Americans might have harvested for food (scale: 1-millimeter increments).
By far, the most common plant remains were nuts -- hickory, walnut, and acorn -- foods that could only be harvested duringthe fall. Native Americans probably cooked and consumed nuts at the East Steubenville site; they could have also preserved this food by parching in fires for consumption in winter or spring when food was scarce.

Close-up photograph of carbonized hickory nutshells -- their fragmentary condition suggests Native Americans crushed and boiled nuts to separate nut meat and oil from shells.

We know from archaeological sites in Kentucky that 5000 to 4000 years ago, Native Americans living downstream in the Middle Ohio Valley also relied on nuts and other harvested wild plant foods, along with fish, mussels and deer, for sustenance. These people of the Shell Mound Archaic culture were also experimenting for the first time with food production, growing squash and seed-bearing plants such as chenopod, sumpweed, and sunflower in small gardens near their summer and fall encampments.

At East Steubenville, archaeologists found no such evidence of early garden horticulture. Perhaps the Panhandle Archaic Americans saw no need to produce their own food, relying instead on harvests of wild plants and nuts that grew on the forested slopes and valley bottoms of West Virginia's Northern Panhandle.


Back to Lifeways

Home  | Project Background  | Archaeology |  The Land   |  The People  |  Lifeways