From bitter seeds: a historical anthropological approach to Moundville's origins

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University of Alabama Libraries

Archaeologists have long been aware of the synergistic relationship between maize (or corn) and the development of Mississippian societies (A.D. 1000) within the Southeastern United States. It seems that decades after maize appeared within a given region, Mississippian societies formed, characterized by social stratification, the construction of large earthworks, and a reliance on maize agriculture. For many of these societies, maize even reached the status of a true dietary staple, providing over 40 percent of the daily caloric intake. Researchers have traditionally modeled this phenomenon within a political-economic lens, arguing that maize was an essential resource manipulated by aspiring individuals seeking to attract followers and amass political capital. However, studies indicate that maize, by itself, is not a viable dietary staple, but must either be supplemented by other foodstuffs or prepared using alkaline cooking techniques. In this dissertation, I propose that during the Mississippian period, maize was disseminated as a part of a nixtamalizing, hominy foodway which included the Mississippian standard jar, the most prolific artifact found throughout the Mississippian cultural world. Hominy is a dish of boiled maize kernels that have either been ground or are whole and has been cooked until it has a porridge-like texture. Using the Mississippian ritual-ceremonial center of Moundville, located in the Black Warrior Valley of west-central Alabama, as a case study, I demonstrate that before maize could be used as a resource by aspiring elites, residents of the valley first had to like hominy, then learn to make it. The dissemination of a foodway, including specific materials and culinary knowledge, as opposed to the maize plant alone, required a different set of social events and networks than those afforded by political-economic models. Therefore, I develop a new model that focuses on people first being introduced to hominy, then women learning to make it. Ultimately, I propose that the synergistic relationship between maize and Mississippian societies be revised to that between the hominy foodway and Mississippian societies.

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Archaeology, Food science, Native American studies