Project Proposal for the Farm Fellowship

Patrick Bottiger, associate professor of history

From 300 CE to 1800 CE, Indigenous North Americans initiated one of the greatest material transformations of human society by developing a polycrop planting culture of the "Three Sisters" (corn, beans and squash), mastering hydrology to manage crop cycles, and engineering buildings to house their growing populations and food stores. Through an examination of traditional ecological knowledge this project replicates the Iroquois' "Three Sisters" planting culture to understand how culture and science interacted to create sustainability. By using first-hand historical accounts from Indigenous farmers alongside the scholarship of Jane Mt. Pleasant, a professor in Cornell University’s Department of Horticulture. This project will replicate an eighteenth-century Indigenous garden.

At its core, this project examines the science of Indigenous planting techniques, in particular, how the Iroquois Confederacy controlled both pests and weeds in a sustainable fashion. The project consists of two experiments. First, we treat traditional corn seeds in a solution made from Veratrum viride (Indian poke). The Iroquois treated the corn in this solution to poison the seeds, which prevented crows from consuming them. We will crush and test treated seeds for cardiac glycosides (the poison found in Indian Poke) using an antimony trichloride test. We will also examine how the "Three Sisters" polyculture prevented weed growth by planting two separate plots of corn. One plot will use the "Three Sisters" growth method while the other will use a modern method. We will then take note of weed growth and type to examine the efficacy of both.

We anticipate that this project can be conducted for under five hundred dollars, with the only major cost being the trichloroacetic acid and antimony trichloride needed to test for cardiac glycosides (approx. three hundred dollars). The Department of Chemistry may already possess these materials. All other costs are associated with the seeds (approx. fifty dollars).