Beans, Beans…on Southeastern Archaeological Sites

The Archaeology in Tennessee blog would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the Frank H. McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture on its newly initiated research effort aimed at developing a prehistoric bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) database for the Southeast. This database will support a study of the emergence and distribution of beans during the late prehistoric era—and a dating program for certain selected beans recovered in paleoethnobotanical samples. Curator Dr. Tim Baumann at the museum can no doubt fill you in on the details of the research design, and we were told by one of our Facebook friends that Tim has posted a brief story about this research on the Tennessee Council for Professional Archaeology (bless their little pea pickin’ hearts) Facebook page—so everyone be sure and head on over to that excellent on-line location (https://www.facebook.com/Tennessee.Archaeology) in the coming hours and days to read more details about this research effort.

We were also very pleased to learn that Bush Brothers & Company of Knoxville, Tennessee (the world famous bean processor and canner) has contributed funds to finance this project.  We had no idea they were interested in southeastern archaeology, but we are very glad they are.  In our honest opinion here at the blog, the fine folks at Bush Brothers make the very best and tastiest canned bean products on the market.  We love the baked bean products at our house—and If you can find them on your grocery shelf—their speckled butter beans are to die for—really.  Therefore, we recommend the full line of Bush bean products to all of our readers.  So, go buy some beans from the Bush Brothers right now and contribute to archaeological research in Tennessee and the American Southeast.

Maize has been and will continue to be an important focus of paleoethnobotanical studies in the Southeast.  However, what our culture sometimes refers to as the “lowly bean” was a potentially important player in the prehistoric diet because of its high protein content.  So, we here at the blog say, “Maize shmaize y’all!!!  Turn in your beans for the database!!!”

Beans are happy-making things too!!!  It has been our experience that American archaeologists in general love “classic” bean humor.  This was certainly the case on Tennessee archaeological sites in the 1970s and 1980s—been there—seen that.  Fifteen people would be busily troweling down 5-ft squares, and some young man would be telling everyone about the great Fourth of July cookout he had just attended and how the Boston baked beans were especially good.  All of a sudden, a Project Director or Crew Chief would call out (audible across the entire site), “Beans, beans…!!!”  This cue would soon be followed by a deluge of some of the most creative and funny impromptu short poems one could possibly imagine:

Beans, beans!!

They’ll never fail ya.

Eat too many

And they’ll really nail ya!!

Maybe this is one reason why the exact role of beans in the late prehistoric southeastern diet has been a little more fuzzy and hard to pin down than the clearly overwhelming role of maize.  Perhaps ancient Native Americans knew what Mel Brooks knows about chuckwagons, beans, and cowboy campfires?

Yes, we know beans in the right quantity would have added extra protein and other nutrients to the diet that could have ameliorated the malnutrition side effects from the eating-too-much-maize problem during the Mississippian Period. However, if your teeth were massively decaying from maize sugars and the population of your village was already in compromised health from eating way too much maize, would you have really wanted to add the bean’s potential for severe intestinal cramps and diarrhea to that mix on a daily basis?  Sometimes, if you already have a compromised health condition, the compromised state itself can make you more susceptible to negative physical symptoms you might not otherwise have from something so simple as the common bean. We know this is really bad archaeological interpretation and even worse paleoepidemiology—but it is something to think about—if only briefly.

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