Ancient dirty pottery may hold key to Iroquoian origin

April 06, 2000

The last thing most people want is food-encrusted pots, but to one Penn State archaeologist, burned-on, crusty old food may be a key to determining the origins of the Iroquois.

"Before 1000 years ago in central New York, people were highly mobile hunter gathers who moved seasonally and lived in round shaped wigwams," says Janet Schulenberg, Ph.D. candidate in anthropology. "About 1000 years ago, people became more sedentary, staying in the same place for up to 25 years, farming corn, hunting and gathering."

The multifamily long house that is the classic identifier of Iroquois-ness came into use at this time."We know that the switch from mobile to sedentary happened, but we do not know if it happened over 200 years, or over two years," says Schulenberg.

"The Iroquois have been studied since 1680, but, we do not know why they changed house styles or adopted corn," she told attendees today (April 7) at the annual meeting of the Society of American Archaeology in Philadelphia.

The model commonly accepted for the past 500 years is that hunter and gatherers in the area, called the Point Peninsula culture, simply became the Iroquois. Development in place could have occurred when they adopted corn agriculture and of necessity needed to be sedentary to tend the crops. Or, they could have become more sedentary and then adopted corn agriculture.

The third option is that the Iroquois are a separate group who came from somewhere else.

"Corn is not native to New York, so the key to the origin of the Iroquois lies in when corn was adopted," says Schulenberg. "Were the people sedentary before corn or afterwards?"

The Penn State researcher is testing food residue on pots from around 1000 years ago to see if corn is present. Because corn is not native to the Northeast and is more like tropical grasses and sugar cane than other local edible plants, comparison of the stable carbon isotopes in the residue can show whether corn was present.

To test if corn could be identified on ancient pottery, she first analyzed potsherds from Pennsylvania. Three potsherds were from 200 A.D., well before corn was available in the region and six were from groups historically known to use corn.

"The method worked and correctly showed no corn on the early pots and corn on the historic pots," says Schulenberg.

To answer the Iroquois question, however, the researcher had to find pots that contained residue. "Most potsherds are in museums and were thoroughly washed when brought into the collection," says Schulenberg. "Washed pottery may contain residue, but currently only destructive methods can extract that residue."

Luckily, Schulenberg found a private collector who collected pottery from the same site for nearly 60 years and had never cleaned the pottery or placed it in plastic bags, which degrade organic material.

"The pottery sherds are spectacularly dirty," she notes.

Results from this pottery indicate that, while according to the pottery types found there the site was seasonally occupied by both Point Peninsula and early Iroquois, no corn was evident on any of the pottery.

"Corn may not be present on the Iroquoian pottery because they only occupied the site seasonally," says Schulenberg, who is a Weiss Graduate Scholar in anthropology. "But it does suggest that corn may not have contributed significantly to early Iroquoian life."

While Schulenberg's results are not yet conclusive, she does note that stable carbon isotope studies do work and should be used more to determine when corn was adopted. mail.
EDITORS: Ms. Schulenberg may be reached at 814-865-1231 or

Penn State

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