The Archaeology of Ruderal Agriculture
By Alan P. Sullivan
Alan Sullivan is an archaeologist who has long worked at the western edge of the Colorado Plateau. In his case study from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon (Chapter 9), he examines various lines of evidence—assemblages, features, and terrain transformations—that, according to what he calls the “corn paradigm,” are indicative of maize agriculture. However, after examining survey and excavation data, he finds little support for the proposition that food production in the region was dependent on corn farming. Instead, he interprets the economic data recovered from a variety of contexts, which are dominated by wild-plant pollen and macrobotanical remains, as evidence of ruderal plant production in burn plots created by intentional human ignition. He argues further that persistent and systematic understory vegetation management by low-intensity fire is a form of agricultural production even if domesticated plants were not the principal objects of cultivation. The theoretical merit of this contribution is that setting aside the “corn paradigm” as an explanatory framework unconstrains archaeologists to consider alternative ecological models (i.e., facultative vs. obligate) and their socioeconomic consequences.