Agriculture represents a drastic change in the evolution of complex human societies. Archaeological data collected regarding this period attests to a wide ranging adaptive responses including changes in sociopolitical structures, population size, mortuary patterns and health. In the southeastern United States, prehistoric groups varied in the extent of their use of agriculture and therefore in how much it changed their culture. Some were only slightly engaged prior to European contact, while other developed intensive agriculture economies. These latter groups experienced change in sociopolitical structure, including the emergence of ascribed status chiefdoms. The Moundville group (1050–1600 AD) in west-central Alabama is widely considered to have been the largest example of a major political center of the late prehistoric southeast. Along with this transition came a myriad of health problems, which are examined by Shuler et al. (2012) in a new article from the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.
Traditionally, the switch to an agricultural based economy means a decline in health due to rising population densities and pathogen loads, poor nutrition, traumatic injuries associated with this type of work, and various health inequities due to inequality in the social structure. This change is clearly seen in burials from this period in Illinois, but isn’t as drastic in the Moundville region. Previous studies have noted that unlike their agricultural contemporaries, Moundville people had fairly good health and low levels of stress. The analysis is potentially biased by a lack of pre-agricultural groups in the area for comparison, and there are few agricultural cemeteries. The focus has been purely on the Moundville site itself, an impressive center. However, the researchers argue that a large part of the population would have come from the surrounding Tombigbee valley. They argue that by examining smaller sites from the region that can better interpret the transition to agriculture. They state that it is likely that intensification of agriculture would have alleviated some health problems, but would also present challenges such as variation in access to food and unequal health across the landscape.
The change to agriculture for this region meant a change from small group hunting and gathering to larger group farming and trade. The creation of a major political center means that there was a change in the sociopolitical structure that may correlate to status differentiation. This means there would be unequal access to food and goods. Communities would also increase trade between themselves which leads to trading of pathogens. The demands of agriculture would put stress on the body, and fighting may occur over the prime areas of land. Often with this transition there is increased division of gendered labor, meaning men and women increasingly did different activities that may be reflected in health or the skeleton. Increased consumption of maize versus a more diversified diet can lead to nutrition and dental problems. Also, areas with increased population densities may experience these changes more drastically than rural sites.
The sample includes 17 sites from Alabama and Mississippian in the Tombigbee Valley. The dates for the site include one Middle Woodland (1-500 CE), 5 Late Woodland (500-1000 CE), 5 Early Mississippian (1000-1200 CE), 3 Middle Mississippian (1200-1400 CE), and 3 Late Mississippian (1400-1500 CE). The transition to agriculture occurs in the Late Woodland, with intensification in the Early Mississippian. The sample is representative of all ages and sexes, with a good spread across this region. They assessed each individual for signs of nutrition and metabolic stress, childhood growth, adult height, dental health, infections, trauma and occupational stress. They found that anemia increased over time, childhood stress increased over time with females experiencing it slightly more in rural areas, stature among males remained consistent but was highly variable in females, dental caries were highly frequent due to increased maize consumption, there was an increase in infection, trauma was increasingly found on males in urban centers over time.
It appears overall that the introduction of agriculture in the Late Woodland period helped health, but quickly deteriorated by the Early Mississippian period. However, there isn’t a strong rise in trauma and violence often associated with major changes in sociopolitical structure and inequality. The biggest change was felt by children and women, who experience more variable health. In rural communities, children were more likely to experience stress due to limited nutritional intake. Women would have experienced greater economic responsibility but also limits on their power. Women in rural communities were more restricted and in poorer health. They conclude that individuals living near the centers in general experienced better health, likely due to decreased workload, and increased access to food. The change in health is reflective not of change in food, but the social, economic and political interactions associated with agriculture. This is an important conclusion, because they show that there isn’t necessarily a single change in health or status experienced during transition to agriculture- rather there are a variety of changes felt differently by different age, sex and regional groups. Finding this internal variation is important and creates a more nuanced interpretation of the transition.
Shuler, K., Hodge, S., Danforth, M., Lynn Funkhouser, J., Stantis, C., Cook, D., & Zeng, P. (2012). In the shadow of Moundville: A bioarchaeological view of the transition to agriculture in the central Tombigbee valley of Alabama and Mississippi Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 31 (4), 586-603 DOI: 10.1016/j.jaa.2012.07.001