Ancient Fortresses of the Ohio Valley, Part V: Processed Goods, Packaging and Transportation

Ancient Fortresses of the Ohio Valley, Part V: Processed Goods, Packaging and Transportation

Ancient Fortresses of the Ohio Valley, Part V: Processed Goods, Packaging and Transportation

 Rick Osmon
Originally published in Ancient American Magazine Issue # 105

When we think of ancient trade by ancient merchants, we usually think in terms of durable goods, that is, things or materials that have survived rot and decay to the present day. We think mostly of those things because it’s what we can see or touch. It’s not just earthworks, stone, shells, bone, metal, ceramics, or fabric, either. Pollens, foodstuff remains, wood, seeds, insect remains, domesticated plant and animal remains, paint, language, and the big one, DNA, drive our thoughts and are all are tools we can use to reconstruct some of the goings on of long ago merchants. Some of that trade was from farther afield and much more rapid in transit than most people ever dreamed.

In this article, plants are discussed that, until recently, had never been in the scientific literature as archaeologically significant to North America; Short’s Bladderpod and Cacao. Only the latter, cacao, has received any archaeological attention in the United States. And that attention is very controversial in nature.

Illustration 1: Short’s Bladderpod in early flower stage

Short’s Bladderpod, (Physaria globosa) a member of the mustard family, was added to the endangered species list on September 14th, 2014. And, for the Indiana population, it truly is at significant risk of extinction, because it only occurs along a short section of a little-traveled gravel road in one county, Posey County, the most southwesterly county in the state, where the Wabash and Ohio rivers converge. In other words, there is one small patch of it growing in the entire state of Indiana. However, it’s other fifty six known occurrences are also along or very near a major river, the Cumberland in three counties in east central Kentucky, and seven counties along the same river in north central Tennessee.(

shorts bladderpod range map
Illustration 2: EPA Legally recognized range of Short’s Bladderpod


Short’s Bladderpod occurrence in Posey County, Indiana is problematic for botanists because the plant prefers dry limestone cliffs, barrens, cedar glades, steep wooded slopes, and talus areas. Where it occurs in Indiana is none of those things. Could it transplant by nature? Perhaps, but it should not even survive in the sandy loam of Posey County and if there were not a crushed limestone roadbed there, it probably would not. However, if we suspect that it was artificially transplanted, then we should look for cultural context that might indicate who, when, and why it was transplanted and what actions might have made it possible for this out of place plant to survive.`There may be hard evidence already.

Illustration 3: Crab Orchard Culture Map -H.Rowe (cc)

Archaeologically, the most important site in Posey County is the Mann Site, one of the largest towns of the so called “Crab Orchard Culture”. And it’s very near the bladderpod site. During the Middle Woodland period, the Crab Orchard culture population increased from a dispersed and sparsely settled Early Woodland pattern to one consisting of small and large base camps. These were concentrated on terrace and floodplain landforms associated with the Ohio River channel in southern Indiana, southern Illinois and northwestern and western Kentucky. In the far western limits of Crab Orchard culture is the O’byams Fort site, a large tuning-fork-shaped earthwork reminiscent of Ohio Hopewell enclosures.
Examples of a type of pottery decoration found at the Mann Site are also known from Hopewell sites in Ohio (such as Seip Earthworks, Rockhold, Harness, and Turner), as well as from Southeastern sites with Hopewell assemblages such as the Miner’s Creek site, Leake Mounds, 9HY98, and Mandeville in Georgia, and the Yearwood site in southern Tennessee. In other words, the Posey County, Indiana occurrence of this now endangered plant is also associated with an ancient riverine culture that lived along both those rivers a couple thousand years ago. That may very well be the “who” and the “when”. The “why” is more enigmatic. So is the “how”.

There are no known sites along the Cumberland that are considered part of the Crab Orchard culture, or any Hopewell for that matter, so there was no known trade route that may have supplied this plant from the Cumberland to the Wabash. However, the Crab orchard folks from the Mann site ventured great distances to forage and traded hundreds of miles and thus may well have reached the others homes of this plant. Or, perhaps it once had a much greater range. One region they visited over several centuries is now the Hoosier National Forest in south central Indiana, much of which is very similar in both topology and geology to the Cumberland River valley. Also, the USDA claims the plant was once native to Ohio, so there may be another possible origin of the Indiana bladderpod population in the very areas where the Mann Site people traded their ceramics.

Why would a culture use any plant, assuming it was actively harvested? Food comes to mind first, perhaps as a spice since it’s a member of the mustard family. Medicinal use is another possibility. This globe bladderpod is thought to have oily, strong flavored seeds. A fairly close relative of this bladderpod has been investigated as a substitute for castor bean oil which is used in everything from soap and laxatives to industrial lubricants and as an additive to plastics, paints, and as perfume base. Those first two or three uses may explain the apparent attractiveness of this plant to a middle woodland culture (the “why”) or, perhaps, even well beyond the Ohio Valley.

How might we determine if this little known, endangered plant or its fruit or its seed or oil was a trade resource? Perhaps it left trace residue presence in those traded ceramics that are identified over several thousand square miles of Crab Orchard trade network. A similar situation has recently come to light regarding a very different plant from a very different place showing up in ceramic vessels at Cahokia and virtually throughout the American Southwest, Southeast and Midwest; Cacao. It seems that people from present day Florida to central Illinois to New Mexico to Lima, Peru drank a fermented form of cocoa. The proof is in the pottery.

Using very conservative testing methods and multiple layers of numerical analysis, a team headed by Dorothy Washburn of University of Pennsylvania found that “… despite the confounding challenge of methylxanthines [a chemical in cacao] as airborne contaminants of vessels in museum storage environments, our studies of large samples provide unequivocable [sic] evidence of vessels containing cacao from the American Midwest/Southeast and Southwest. We argue that by analyzing robust sample sizes, performing the requisite controls to eliminate alternative sources and using statistical analyses to verify the results, it is possible to differentiate vessels with low levels of airborne methylxanthine contaminants from vessels with higher levels of methylxanthines indicative of actual prehistoric use of cacao and/or Black Drink. Despite having employed highly conservative criteria entailing a 3 standard deviation separation (99.5% probability) for identification of cacao containing vessels, 30% of the South-western and 37% of the Midwestern vessels were deemed to have contained cacao. Relaxation of the cutoff value would substantially increase these percentages. Given this evidence of cacao use in both the American Southwest and Southeast/Midwest, we suggest that attention should now turn to the nature of interaction and exchange between these areas and Mesoamerica, the source area for the cacao and the many cultural uses and practices associated with this plant.”
–as reported in: Journal of Archaeological Science 50 (2014) 191-207.

Note that a higher percentage of ceramic vessels were used for cacao in the Midwest than in the Southwest, but that about a third of all tested were positive. The vessel types were already associated with cacao in other settings, though, and that is as likely to be commercial packaging as ritualistic.

Cacao was used as money in pre-Hispanic as well as post conquest Mesoamerica. Of course, the elite had most of the money. Cocoa was an important commodity in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. A Spanish soldier who was part of the conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortés tells that when Moctezuma II, emperor of the Aztecs, dined, he took no other beverage than chocolate, served in a golden goblet. Flavored with vanilla or other spices, his chocolate was whipped into a froth that dissolved in the mouth. It is reported that no fewer than 60 portions each day may have been consumed by Moctezuma II, and 2000 more by the nobles of his court. Washburn’s team found cacao use associated with turquoise trading in the Southwest and postulated a similar long distance trade that resulted in cacao use throughout the southern half of the present day US, and indications that, while not as extravagant as Moctezuma, the turquoise traders sure liked their cacao.

cahokia cacao crock
Illustration 4: Cacao preparation vessel and known locations in Illinois where cacao was consumed

Once dried and roasted, cacao beans can retain flavor for up to five years in good storage, but given the massive consumption indicated by Washburn’s results, overland conveyance on foot would have been quite difficult and certainly impractical. Bringing cacao beans from present day Honduras to Florida in a bag on foot would not be a short duration trip, requiring about 2500 miles walking or 1100 miles to sail to Pensacola with much more efficiency and about a tenth the time using marine transport. Or, 2850 miles on foot to Cahokia versus a four week boat ride across the Gulf of Mexico and up the Mississippi River. And remember, cacao was money, meaning, something went back the other way that had been exchanged for that consumable currency.

Such widespread use of cacao indicates, quite sublimely, that where ever the cacao went, there was a ubiquitous system of standard weights and measures. So, at some level, nearly everything from Chicago to Lima, Peru was one big civilization with a somewhat standard currency, measurement standards, governance norms, and a system of long distance, reliable transportation and communication that may have also aided diplomacy. Moreover, cacao had its own distinctive packaging, which is how, in part, Washburn’s team got onto its widespread use. The pottery used for cacao at Cahokia has the same pattern and color scheme as the pottery at Chaco. These are concepts still in use by marketers; Familiar and recognizable packaging. The best example in modern history is the hourglass shaped Coca Cola bottle, but ancient heraldry could be considered the same as could the maker marks on the Ulunbrun copper ingots.

copper awl
Illustration 5: Incised ceramics and presumed incising tool all from COC sites

If the Crab Orchard culture pottery from the Mann site, Cato site, and elsewhere near the Wabash spread all the way from Ohio to Iowa, some commodity almost surely accompanied it. Indeed, it seems probable that there was a Hopwellian analog to cacao as a regional currency, but equally difficult to identify because it too was consumable.

embarass copper
Illustration 6: Embarras Site Copper Articles. Photo credit / courtesy: Sam Wasion
Illustration 7: Wabash Drainage Basin

The copper awl (Illustration 5) represents trade with someone at least a few hundred miles north of the sites where the pottery was made. There are many more pieces of copper in the Mann site collection as well as Cato, Emmons, Rockhouse, and nearly all Hopewell sites. A particularly important group of copper artifacts came from a site along the Embarras River which joins the Wabash near Vincennes, Indiana. The copper pieces were found in complex with similar, but not identical pottery decorations to that of the Crab Orchard groups. The incised decorative diamond pattern was maintained in the Crab Orchard sites even after the end of the Hopewell. This is significant.

A site along the Embarras River also yielded the copper objects in Illustration 6. The copper objects that look like nails are about three inches long, about the same as a ship nail. They could be used as awls or incising tools, but the battered end would make mounting to a handle problematic. They most likely were really nails, but from a Middle Woodland context, throwing a lot of monkey wrenches into a lot of doctrinal machinery.

The Embarras River rises in Champaign County. The upper reaches of the Embarras include the detention ponds near the intersection of Windsor Road with U.S. Route 45 in southeastern Champaign; the southern portion of the University of Illinois campus, including the small creek near the Vet Med Building; and Meadowbrook Park in south Urbana.

The Embarras flows generally southward through Douglas, Coles, Cumberland and Jasper counties. In Jasper County it turns southeast for the remainder of its course through Richland, Crawford and Lawrence counties. Portions of the river’s lower course have been straightened and channelized. It joins the Wabash River 6 miles (10 km) southwest of Vincennes, Indiana. That convergence is very near the original French outpost that later resulted in the founding of Vincennes. The trading post was established to trade for furs and hides, primarily the eastern bison herds that crossed the Wabash there, at what is still called either “Buffalo Trace” or “Red Trace”. Millions of bison crossed there, bringing with them some of the red clay from their winter feeding grounds in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and northern Florida. Of course, the lay of these lands in the feeding grounds meant that the majority of the bison migrated through northern Georgia, up through Tennessee and Kentucky then crossed the Ohio at the Falls of the Ohio. They hardly got wet there most springs. The “red” of Red Trace is literal. It runs from the Falls of the Ohio to the bison ford near Vincennes on the Wabash. The soil itself is infused with red clay from the Georgia mud wallows. The sheer numbers of bison that passed that point on the river made it an important source of hides and related commodities for thousands and thousands of years. Further west, at what is currently known as Illinois’ Red Hills State Park, the bison shook off the last of their red mud pack before entering the summer feeding grounds on the great prairie in Illinois and Wisconsin and parts of eastern Minnesota. Those migrations continued well into historic times. The woods bison of today is darker, larger and more robust than the plains bison and has other anatomical and morphological differences. However, historical references, including Meriwhether Lewis’, describe the eastern bison as smaller than the plains version. The subspeciation seems to have occurred some five thousand years ago, according to de Jong, 1986, and was the result of rise of “unknown geographical separation”. In other words, until 5000 years ago, it was a single herd that got separated by the Mississippi somehow.

indiana seal
Illustration 8: Seal of the State of Indiana

But the eastern woods bison, whatever their size and disposition, were, well, everywhere east of the Mississippi during the Middle Woodland / Hopewell period, so there would not have been much of a market for bison based commodities in the east. Now, deer have filled that niche and deer crossing signs in southern Indiana should really say “Deer Crossing 800 miles in any direction”. The far south, as in Mesoamerica, may have been a different story as far as marketability of bison products.

Loltun Cave is a cave in the Yucatán, approximately 5 km (3.1 mi) south of Oxkutzcab. The cave contains paintings attributed to the Maya civilization from the Late Preclassic Era or even older. The name is Mayan for “Flower Stone” (“Lol-Tun”). This cave is one of the most extensive in all Mexico according to prolonged examinations of over two kilometers. Inside Loltún there is evidence that confirms human occupation such as recovered bones of mammoth, bison, cats, and deer remains from the pleistocene. On the walls you can observe natural formations and paintings, hand painted with representations of the technique of negative human faces painted on the walls, sculptural representations, representations of animals and some geometric shapes. Tools were also recovered.

The prehispanic Maya also used the cave as shelter and used to extract the clay to make their tools. During the tour you visit the galleries and natural formations known locally as the path of musical columns, a vault known as the cathedral, jaltunes, Grand Canyon, corn cob, the infant, black hand paintings, the vault of stalactites and trenches. In the cave is an excavated area where they found remains of extinct fauna such as mammoth bones and vegetation different from today. The occupation in Loltún goes back more than 10,000 years and served as a hiding place during the caste war.

The jungles of the Yucatan don’t let organic materials remain long, everything organic is reclaimed in short order. The bison bones, indeed, nearly all the bones found in Loltun are isolated as opposed to fully articulated skeletons. This probably means the individual bones were placed there ritualistically. That is almost certainly the case with the bison bones, since buffalo didn’t roam in the Yucatan in Maya time (if at all). The Maya are thought to have overgrown their ecosystem which resulted in their societal collapse. Perhaps they didn’t collapse at all, the elite just moved and those that remained simply did not want to spend as many resources on monumental buildings.

But while that society was at its height in the Yucatan was the same time that the Middle Woodland society was thriving in the middle of North America and, apparently, exporting products. The Yucatan had and still has a lack of big game meat animals unless you count jaguar, anaconda, and cayman as meat animals, and even those were somewhat scarce. The Ohio Valley had access to copper, silver, some great lithics and clays, skilled craftsmen, and a major riverine highway system on which to convey all those goods. And the region was awash in millions of bison.

Of course, meat exports would require processing, preservation, and packaging. A full discussion of all the possible aspects of such a supposition could become encyclopedic in scope and well beyond the nature of a magazine article. However, we will express here the basic possibility of it. Drying, smoking, salting or cold packing in ceramics are all possible means of both preserving and packaging. All these were techniques assumed to have been used by the Middle Woodland culture. It then becomes a question of how long the product would remain edible and appealing. If that period is greater than the time it would take to transport the product and still have some small shelf life, then such long distance trade as Indiana to the Yucatan may have been viable. It certainly worked for bringing cacao the other way.

The ceramics testing approach that showed clearly that cacao from Central America was widely consumed in the Mississippian Culture might also be used on Mayan pottery in the Yucatan to see if products went the other way and what those products were. Perhaps some residue may show that Short’s Bladderpod had a real purpose to the people of the Mann Site, the Maya, and maybe even to us today.