At the time of first contact between Indigenous peoples in North America about AD 1,000 most of the people in the New World were hunter-gatherers, but they were just starting to use a new technology—farming.
As Dickason and Newbigging explained in their wonderful book A Conservative History of Canada’s First Nations, “Agriculture seems to have developed independently, within a span of few years at the end of the last Ice Age, in several widely separated regions of the globe: the Near East, the monsoon lands of Southeast Asia, China, Mesoamerica, Peru, and the Amazon.” The reasons are not yet clear, but an increase in the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide that occurred about 15,000 years ago may have played a role in this important development. This increase made photosynthesis more robust and increased the growth rate in plants and this might have triggered the emergence of farming around the world. I think it is significant that this important achievement was widely shared.
It did not start in all areas however. Logically, farming developed first in warmer areas where the great variety of plants made experimentation more viable. From those areas the farming skills spread out across the continents. “New World domesticated plants that made the largest contribution to world agriculture were all of undisputed American origin, developed by Amerindianfarmers. Corn (maize) and potatoes were the best known, although tomatoes, peanuts, pineapples, and cacao (from which chocolate is made) are not far behind. Amerindians originally grew more than a hundred species of plants that are still farmed today. Amerindians grew the most famous of all Amerindian crops, tobacco, for diplomatic, ritual, and some medical uses.”
In the Northeastern part of what came be called North America agriculture was introduced with the cultivation of squash at about 4,300 BP probably as a result of trading from the south. The first plant that was local to the northeast that was cultivated was probably sunflower in about 3,000 BP. This should make Mennonites happy. Knackzoot came first! When the Huron in the Great Lakes region first contacted Europeans they were already growing 17 varieties of maize and 8 types of squash. As well they gathered more than 30 varieties of wild fruit and 10 kinds of nuts. Corn was the first cultivated crop to reach southern Ontario in about AD 500. For 500 years it was the only crop raised there. Tobacco showed up about AD 1,000. When squash arrived in about the 1300s this completed the famous triad of the 3 Sisters—Beans, Squash, and Maize. By the 16th century the 3 Sisters were being grown around the western continent.
The technology behind the 3 sisters was amazing and showed how smart the Indigenous people of the Americans were. “As crops, the three sisters benefitted the soil when grown together: beans capture nitrogen in the air and release it into the soil; squash roots are extensive and help prevent soil erosion; and the tall corn stalks provide the other plants with some protection from hail, damaging wind; and excessive sunlight. This gave the ‘three sisters’ a sustainability and permanence lacking in modern agriculture. As food they reinforced each other nutritionally when combined in diets.”
Of course the switch to agriculture was not entirely an unmixed blessing. Wendell Berry called it the worst disaster ever! For example the over reliance on starchy foods has led to nasty dental problems. Even worse, agriculture has led to some of the monstrosities of modern industrial agriculture.