Ohio is often thought of as being a microcosm of modern-day America. This is true in its way today: most of the distinct nations of the American interior — the Lower Lakes, Ohio Valley, and Heartland Midwests (cf. American Nations, Joel Garreau, and Corner Side Yard, esp. his explanation of the multiple Midwests), as well as Appalachia in the southeastern highlands — are present in the state.
But, before Columbus sailed the ocean blue and introduced plagues to the Americas, before Massasoit allowed the Puritans to recolonize depopulated Wampanoag villages in an effort to hold the Narragansett off — thereby giving those pesky English a second toehold in North America — before all of that, Ohio really was the center of it all, at last as far as the Americas north and east of the Rio Grande were concerned.
The Eastern Agricultural Complex
Agriculture was developed independently in about a dozen places worldwide. The hearth of western Eurasian agriculture was Egypt and Mesopotamia; agriculture was also independently developed in the Indus River, along the Yangtze and Yellow rivers, in Mesoamerica, along the Andean coast, in the New Guinean highlands … and in the Ohio Valley.
The Ohio Valley? Really?
Yes indeed. The archaeological record shows that about ten plants were domesticated for human consumption, independently of anywhere else, in the Ohio Valley some 4,000 years ago. Some of these — sunflowers and gourds, for example, continue to be planted and used — but most of them (goosefoot, little barley, marsh elder, knotweed, and maygrass) have been completely forgotten about as cereal crops and herbs, instead being herbicide’d into oblivion.
Why? Well, in an era when complex societies depended on the energy surplus that stored cereal plants offered, nothing in this collection — today known as the Eastern Agricultural Complex or EAC — was really that great for producing an energy surplus (as I recall, little barley’s grains are smaller than teff’s, and didn’t really have the nutrition available from most staple starches, such as wheat, rice, maize, potatoes, cassava, or taro). Even though the Eastern Woodlanders were expert at managing their environment — encouraging the spread of grassland to provide grazing space for bison, recreating their forest ecosystem to maximize the yield of edible plants and trees, and so forth — this relative lack of a nutritional store really did function as a hard limit on population size. In 1491, Charles Mann dryly notes that, before the development of a middle-latitudes tolerant maize variety ca. 200 BCE and its propagation over the next millennia, Eastern Woodlanders were “slowly hunting the local deer and bison populations to extinction” (p. 295), despite the fact that they had, for millennia, completely reshaped the environment to better suit large game animals.
Thus, by around 1000 CE, a scant 500 years before Columbus’ expedition and 600 years before the first permanent European colonies north of the Rio Grande, the Mesoamerican maize-beans-squash* trifecta had replaced the EAC as the region’s agricultural staple.
(It would be an interesting culinary experiment to bring back the EAC, to develop pseudo-Woodlander dishes based on the ingredients and techniques they had available. Its limitations — particularly the fact that it never had a true staple crop — are much less debilitating in modern society.)
Cultural Center of the Woodlands
Much as the Ohio Valley was where Woodlander agriculture first began, it was also the region’s main cultural center. While their main societal marker — mounds — were first developed and used in the Ozarks and Lower Mississippi far to the southwest, nearly every other major facet of later Woodlander culture is first attested to in the Adena culture of the first millennium BCE. The Adena were the earliest tobacco users (in fact, Mann notes their varieties may have been psychoactive, a property that was in all likelihood accidentally bred out of later cultivars), and their culture expanded far and wide through a sphere of influence — it’s entirely possible that most of the customs shared by later Woodlanders developed from the Adena, and specifically the religion their hallucinogenic tobacco helped develop.
While suitable maize landraces only appeared on the scene as the Adena culture transitioned into the Hopewell culture, Hopewellers eschewed this new plant, preferring their ancestors’ plants. But it is notable that, like the Adena, the Hopewell were also centered in the Ohio Valley, also built large grave and other mounds, also smoked tobacco (though maybe not quite as strong as the Adenan kind), and also used the vast Eastern Woodlands trade network — which reached all the way from Mesoamerica to Québec, from the Albertan Rockies to the Florida Panhandle — to exert soft hegemony over an even vaster area.
Truly, for the first three millennia after the discovery of agriculture in the Ohio Valley, that region was the center of the world.
So what happened?
Nobody really knows. The Hopewell society fell apart ca. 500 CE. The trade network flickered out, the population dispersed, and villages turned their efforts to stockades rather than mounds. Several of these are signs of a cultural dark age.
While temperate maize landraces would have had to be cultivated somewhere while the Hopewellers ran things (maize cannot breed without human intervention, and about half a millennium had elapsed since its introduction), even in the absence of large-scale trade networks, this was the period in which the Mesoamerican-derived Three Sisters replaced the EAC in the Woodlands.
Regardless, by the end of the first millennium CE, a new culture dominated much of the Woodlands: the Mississippians. They rekindled Woodlander life: pipe-smoking, mound-building, the vast and disparate religious tradition held together, much like Hinduism, by a few common themes. But they added a few new wrinkles.
First of all, the Adena and Hopewell were never an urban society. They seem to have gotten to the village phase and … just stopped. But the Mississippians built the first true city north of the Rio Grande: Cahokia. Sure, they also abandoned the first true city north of the Rio Grande — Mann notes that its downfall was much like the central Classic Maya poleis’: the elite’s short-term solutions (channelizing the Cahokia Creek for drinking water, a later stockade, etc.) did nothing to alleviate and sometimes even exacerbated long-term issues (flooding, bluff deforestation and subsequent erosion, etc.) — but, while Monks Mound is an engineering marvel, Cahokia made “beginners’ mistakes” when it came to modern agriculture.
For the reason that Cahokia represents the last time a society experimented with urbanism without committing to it is because of the Mississippians’ second modern marvel: the Three Sisters. By ca. 1000 CE, the EAC had been completely supplanted by it; knowledge of (much, but not quite all, of) the EAC’s culinary purposes seems to have dwindled fast, and certainly by the colonial period most EAC plants had reverted to feral states — weeds we all know and “love” today. And this is because — unlike anything in the EAC — maize was a staple crop, a crop with enough stored energy that diversification of labor on a large scale, a precondition of urbanization, became possible.
Unfortunately, the Mississippians never tried to build a city again. It’s likely, though, that they were close to reaching a breaking point where their society became complex enough to need labor to be diversified — Mississippian culture was the largest and most complex the Eastern Woodlands had ever seen (thanks to maize).
And there are several tantalizing signs that the whole region was tantalizingly close to a major cultural revolution right when the Europeans showed up. An Iroquoian tribe, the Neutral Nation, had developed deer pens and enclosures and were probably in the process of domestication; the Abenaki people of New Brunswick had begun to develop their own writing system; maize-supported villages were larger, denser, and more bountiful than they had ever been before; and the Mississippians (at least the ones de Soto encountered) were chiefdoms in sharp contrast to the Algonquin and Iroquoian democracies.
Aye, and that’s perhaps the biggest rub of all. For three thousand years, the Ohio Valley was the cultural center north and east of the Rio Grande. But it was the changes in the millennium after the Ohio Valley’s fall that had set the Woodlands towards something that Mesoamericans would recognize as “civilization”. And then, just before it happened, the Europeans came and messed it all up.
* Some may point out that squash and gourds are, in fact, the same plant. In fact, there are so many breeds of squash that pumpkins and zucchini are both squash cultivars! But the Mesoamericans domesticated squash for food and as such emphasized their fleshy insides, while the Eastern Woodlanders domesticated gourds for hard shells as storage vessels. Thus squash is edible while gourds are not.