It is a myth created by a imaginative New England writer in the mid-1800s, but perpetuated today by film companies and clueless tribal spokespersons, who know nothing about horticulture.
Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner
Part 19 of The Americas Connected
Generations of school children in the United States have been taught that American Indians were such good farmers that they knew to grow corn, beans and squash together in order to avoid depletion of the soil. College anthropology textbooks went a step further and told us about vast, continuous fields of mixed corn, beans and squash in the Southeast, plus that Native Americans were dependent on those three crops for most of their nutrition. Read the actual eyewitness accounts of Mesoamerican and Muskogean agriculture and you will discover that the description above of indigenous agricultural practices is HORSE MANURE!
An astonishing percentage (something like 70%) of the vegetables and fruits cultivated on the Earth today, originated in the Americas. This fact was generally ignored until pointed out in Charles C. Mann’s bestselling book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, which was published in 2005. It is an immeasurable gift to mankind for which all indigenous American descendants can take pride. However, how did they really grow these crops?
Long, long ago in a land faraway known as Mexico, I already was learning that just because an anthropology professor or book says something, it is not necessarily true. At the time, I didn’t know diddlysquat about my Creek-Uchee heritage or farming, but the Georgia Institute of Technology had given me an extraordinary opportunity to learn the history, cultural traditions, architecture and urban planning techniques of ancient Mexico . . . and my mind was like a sponge. Once in Mexico, it became perfectly clear from the lectures given at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia that one could not understand Mesoamerican civilization without understanding its agriculture. From then on, I studied the agricultural practices of each of the civilizations in parallel with their architectural traditions.
At my first meeting with Dr. Román Piña Chán, Director of the Museum, he had looked at the syllabus prepared by Georgia Tech professors and asked me if I wanted to be a Gringo turístico or truly understand Mexico. I chose the latter option. He tossed my Georgia Tech syllabus in the trash can and at our next meeting handed me one that would take me out into boonies on third class busses and on foot.
It was perhaps the last days of when one could see Old Mexico. Today, if one could even find a Mexican village without at least 20th century technology, it would be extremely dangerous to travel alone to see it. However, back then in complete safety, I visited remote Indian villages on foot that had changed little in 200 years. They had no cars, electricity, telephones or running water. Their agricultural practices were virtually identical to those practiced when the Spanish conquered Mexico.
Nowhere in Mexico, Guatemala or Belize did I see corn, beans and squash being grown together.
In the interior of the Yucatan Peninsula I actually got to see real milpas . . . the slash and burn agriculture of “primitive” indigenous American cultures. Milpa is actually the word for maize in several Maya languages, but the cultivation of corn is just one phase of the milpa’s usage. BUT I never saw any beans growing in any milpa at any stage of its lifespan. In contrast, beans and peppers were endemic on the hillside and mountain slopes of the Chiapas Highlands.
The Itza Maya and Itsate Creek word for maize is “iche.” The Muskogee-Creek word is “ache.”
The word for a slash-and-burn agriculture in the Totonac, Itza Maya and Itsate Creek languages is yama. It is known that the Native peoples in the semi-tropical river basins of southeast Georgia, southern Alabama and Florida Panhandle practiced slash-and-burn agriculture. This is probably the origin of the ethnic names Yamakora(Yamacraw = Slash-and-Burn People) and Yamasi (Yamasee = Colonists of the Slash-and-Burn People).
Stages of a milpa or yamas
When a site for a milpa or yama was selected, all trees, except those bearing fruits or nuts, would be cut down in the autumn. After the dead vegetation had been desiccated during the Winter Dry Season, it was burned. During the spring, patches of many types of squash, pumpkin and melon were planted in piles of partially burned vegetation. Elsewhere, patches of sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and tobacco were planted. There were some other plants, perhaps herbs, which I couldn’t identify, were planted.
In the second year, most of the milpa was planted with corn. The steeper slopes were planted in beans. Especially fertile sections of the milpa with level ground were planted with the same type crops as the first year.
This pattern would be seen for a year or two more then cultivation would cease, except in the most fertile areas. These fertile areas were fenced in with interwoven saplings. Elsewhere, pigs, goats and burros were allowed to graze. Overtime these haphazard pastures would return to forest land. By that time other milpas or yamas were in use.
I saw very few yamas in the Chiapas and Guatemalan Highlands. Here, much of the agriculture occurred on mountainside terraces or in the floodplains of streams. The bottomlands were fertilized by periodic flooding of the streams and nutrients washing down from the terraces.
The terraces were fertilized by ashes spread by the farmers, lime made by burning stones and manure . . . all hauled up the slopes by burros or human backs. The upper terraces were primarily used for growing beans, peppers, potatoes and tomatoes. There was some corn on lower terraces, but most of the corn, sweet potatoes and tobacco was grown in the bottomlands.
I took the color slide at the top left of the article to show Georgia Tech architecture students how Mesoamerican farmers divided up their crops according to specific soil and drainage conditions. The Highland Maya farmers did not grow corn, beans and squash together as we were told in our elementary, high school and college textbooks. I didn’t dream that it would prove to be almost identical to a terrace complex in Track Rock Gap, Georgia!
While teaching at Georgia Tech 1970-82, Knowledge of Mesoamerican agricultural practices seemed as about as relevant to my future as if I had become an expert on Medieval art. Little did I know that in 2011, I would find the Track Rock terrace complex ruins almost identical in layout to the Itza terrace complex that I photographed.
The big garden in the Reems Creek Valley of North Carolina
The first year, in the lowest and sunniest part of the garden, I tried the Three Sisters Thang . . . planting corn, beans and squash together. It was a disaster. The corn was half the height of the corn grown with Andean methods. The squash plants rotted just after blooming. The bean plants bloomed, but few flowers were pollinated. Elsewhere, my Sweet Corn grew 12 to14 feet high. My winter squash filled an 8’ x 8’ x 5’ bin and my mangolds (Swiss feed beets) weight up to 18 pounds. As proof, that I am not exaggerating about the corn, my former wife in the photo is 5’-10”.
When we moved to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, both my architecture practice and the cheese creamery went big time. I just didn’t have time to grow veggies. We did have large asparagus and rhubarb beds, but that didn’t take much labor.
Then in 2012, when having very little income and living in a hovel, I was forced to grow a wide range of vegetables, just to survive. I constructed a miniature terrace complex with the same orientation and soil as the Track Rock Terrace Complex. My peas and beans grew to twice the height that the seed packages said they should grow. All the other crops did extremely well, except corn . . . which was stunted.
You see here is the problem with vegetables. Most originated in different parts of the Americas and Old World. Each vegetable has a specific range of soil acidity, minerals and climatic conditions in which it thrives best.
For example, pumpkins and most of the squash varieties grown in the Southeast are descended from a wild squash in the Appalachians, which grew in acidic piles of rotted wood, aka natural sawdust. They especially thrive in locations, where there has recently been a forest fire.
On the other hand, the commercial varieties of corn in the eastern United States have recently been traced to South America. Panoan farmers genetically altered Mexican corn to adapt it to the river flood plains immediately east of the Andes, where there is limestone. Thus, Eastern Indian corn and our modern corn varieties thrive best in alluvial soils derived from limestone. On the other hand, Southwestern Indian corn is derived from Mexican corn, which was developed in more acidic volcanic soils with a monsoon climate of wet summers and dry weather the rest of the year. The Central Highlands of Mexico rarely get above 85° F. whereas South American and Gringo corn thrives in much warmer temperatures.
Bean plants originated from wild ancestors on the slopes of mountains of Peru and southern Mexico. They prefer a soil Ph, which roughly halfway between what is ideal for corn and squash. Both corn and squash draw large amounts of nitrogen from the soil, but squash family plants also draw large amounts of phosphorous.
Creek villages on the move always looked for locations in stream bottomlands, where the river cane grew especially tall. By experience, they learned that corn would grow well in the same locations. However, squash and pumpkins do best in virgin locations, where there are lots of wood particles in the soil. Members of the bean, potato and tomato families like fertile, well-drained soils on hillsides. Clearly, it is not possible to get the best results by combining all these crops together.
Diverse agricultural practices
Crops did not grow equally well throughout North America . . . even within regions or individual Native American provinces. We know this from eyewitness accounts. Most Southeastern coastal towns, except those at the mouths of the Altamaha and Savannah, did not grow maize at all. Live Oak acorns were their staple carbohydrate. Indian corn did poorly . . . would barely grow . . . on the rolling clay hills of the Piedmont. However, sunflowers, Jerusalem artichokes and sweet potatoes did extremely well on these slopes. In extreme western North Carolina, the chroniclers of the De Soto Expedition stated that salvia (chia in Maya) filled the mountain river valleys. This is the reason that the Mayas living there called their province Chiahaw, which means Salvia River.
The Petun Indians at the northern tip of the Shenandoah Valley, devoted all their energies to growing the best tobacco in North America. They found it more profitable to trade their tobacco to other tribes for food crops.
One of the many reasons that it is certain that Fort Caroline (French colony) was on the Altamaha River is that the French colonists noted that near Fort Caroline were the only lands where maize could be cultivated. The only region of Florida, where maize would grow well was the Tallahassee Hills in the Florida Panhandle. This is where the Florida Apalachee lived.
Even these observations cannot be generalized. The Alecmanni lived near Fort Caroline, yet did not raise many food crops. They specialized in growing herbs and medicines, like the cinchona tree, from which they brewed quinine.
Now hearing from an expert
Six years ago, I asked Dr. Ray Burden, about the Three Sisters Thang. Cousin Ray was a dairyman, sheep farmer, farm and livestock supply store owner and Director of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Agricultural Extension Office, prior to being a professor in the College of Agriculture at the University of Tennessee. He should know about such things.
He said that some white academicians dreamed up the Three Sisters Thang in the mid-1800s. I traced the myth to a New England-published book about the Pilgrims at Plymouth Plantation. Just as stated in the PBS documentary, Native America, this self-described scholar stated that beans provided nitrogen for the corn and the squash shades the ground to prevent weeds.
Ray said that after this myth became widely viewed as fact, Midwestern farmers actually tried cultivating their corn, beans and squash together. The result was the same disaster that I experienced in the garden in the Craggy Mountains of North Carolina!
Ray stated that the corn and squash compete for the same plant nutrients, while the nitrogen fixed in the tubers of legumes cannot be used at all by the other two plants, until the legume plants have died and their components have degenerated into the soil. Meanwhile the tall corn plants block the sunshine from striking the squash and bean plants, preventing photo synthesis and normal plant maturity.
So many stories like this one
So much of what Southerners read on state historical markers and local histories as Native American history are really tall tales created by early white settlers, who never met a Native American. After 180 years the tall tales have become so ingrained in poorly researched history texts, they are taken to be the “gospel truth” . . . if you excuse the pun.