Three Sisters (agriculture)

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Three Sisters as featured on the reverse of the 2009 Native American U.S. dollar coin 2009NativeAmericanRev.jpg
Three Sisters as featured on the reverse of the 2009 Native American U.S. dollar coin

The Three Sisters are the three main agricultural crops of various indigenous groups in North America: winter squash, maize (corn), and climbing beans (typically tepary beans or common beans). Originating in Mesoamerica, these three crops were carried northward, up the river valleys over generations, far afield to the Mandan and Iroquois who, among others, used these "Three Sisters" for food and trade.


In a technique known as companion planting the three crops are planted close together. Flat-topped mounds of soil are built for each cluster of crops. [1] Each mound is about 30 cm (12 in) high and 50 cm (20 in) wide, and several maize seeds are planted close together in the center of each mound. In parts of the Atlantic Northeast, rotten fish or eels are buried in the mound with the maize seeds, to act as additional fertilizer where the soil is poor. [2] When the maize is 15 cm (6 inches) tall, beans and squash are planted around the maize, alternating between the two kinds of seeds. The process to develop this agricultural knowledge took place over 5,000–6,500 years. Squash was domesticated first, with maize second and then beans being domesticated. [3] [4] Squash was first domesticated 8,000–10,000 years ago. [5] [6]

The three crops benefit from each other. [7] The maize provides a structure for the beans to climb, eliminating the need for poles. The beans provide the nitrogen to the soil that the other plants use, and the squash spreads along the ground, blocking the sunlight, helping prevent the establishment of weeds. The squash leaves also act as a "living mulch", creating a microclimate to retain moisture in the soil, and the prickly hairs of the vine deter pests. Corn, beans, and squash contain complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids and all nine essential amino acids.

Native Americans throughout North America are known for growing variations of Three Sisters gardens. [8] The milpas of Mesoamerica are farms or gardens that employ companion planting on a larger scale. [9] The Ancestral Puebloans are known for adopting this garden design in a drier environment. The Tewa and other peoples of the North American Southwest often included a "fourth Sister", Rocky Mountain bee plant ( Cleome serrulata ), which attracts bees to help pollinate the beans and squash. [10]

The Three Sisters planting method is featured on the reverse of the 2009 US Sacagawea dollar. [11]

Cahokian, Mississippian and Mvskoke culture

Corn, squash and beans were planted ca. 800 AD in the largest Native American city north of the Rio Grande known as Cahokia, in what is now known as the US state of Illinois, across the river from St Louis, Missouri. The Three Sisters crops were responsible for the surplus food that created an expanded population throughout the extended Mississippi River valley and tributaries, creating the Mississippian and Mvskoke cultures that flourished from ca. 800 ce to ca. 1600 when physical contact with Spanish explorers brought Eurasian diseases, death, and cultural collapse.

Iroquois culture

Among the Iroquois or Haudenosaunee, notably the Seneca, women were responsible for crop cultivation, including the 'Three Sisters'. Men had more cause to travel for extended periods of time, such as for hunting expeditions, diplomatic missions or the tribe's numerous wars with nearby rivals. However, men took part in the initial preparation for the planting of the 'Three Sisters' by clearing the planting ground. After a sufficient area of soil was prepared, groups of women (related to each other) took on all the planting, weeding, and harvesting. [12]

Maya culture

The Maya diet focused on three domesticated staple crops: maize, squash, and beans (typically Phaseolus vulgaris ). Among the three, maize was the central component of the diet of the ancient Maya and figured prominently in Maya mythology and ideology. Archaeological evidence suggests that Chapalote-Nal-Tel was the dominant maize species; however, it is likely others were being exploited also. [13] Maize was used and eaten in a variety of ways, but was always nixtamalized.

See also

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Companion planting

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Milpa is a crop-growing system used throughout Mesoamerica. It has been most extensively described in the Yucatán peninsula area of Mexico. The word milpa is derived from the Nahuatl word phrase mil-pa, which translates into "cultivated field." Though different interpretations are given to it, it usually refers to a cropping field. Based on the ancient agricultural methods of Maya peoples and other Mesoamerican people, milpa agriculture produces maize, beans, and squash. The milpa cycle calls for 2 years of cultivation and eight years of letting the area lie fallow. Agronomists point out that the system is designed to create relatively large yields of food crops without the use of artificial pesticides or fertilizers, and they point out that while it is self-sustaining at current levels of consumption, there is a danger that at more intensive levels of cultivation the milpa system can become unsustainable.


Phaseolus is a genus of herbaceous to woody annual and perennial vines in the family Fabaceae containing about 70 plant species, all native to the Americas, primarily Mesoamerica.

Agriculture in Mesoamerica

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<i>Phaseolus acutifolius</i> Species of plant

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<i>Phaseolus vulgaris</i> Species of plant

Phaseolus vulgaris, also known as the common bean and French bean, is a herbaceous annual plant grown worldwide for its edible dry seeds or unripe fruit. The main categories of common beans, on the basis of use, are dry beans, snap beans and shell (shelled) beans. Its leaf is also occasionally used as a vegetable and the straw as fodder. Its botanical classification, along with other Phaseolus species, is as a member of the legume family Fabaceae. Like most members of this family, common beans acquire the nitrogen they require through an association with rhizobia, which are nitrogen-fixing bacteria.


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Pumpkin seed

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Rice and beans Type of dish made from a combination of staple foods in many cultures around the world

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Eastern Agricultural Complex

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Ancient Maya cuisine

Ancient Maya cuisine was varied and extensive. Many different types of resources were consumed, including maritime, flora, and faunal material, and food was obtained or produced through strategies such as hunting, foraging, and large-scale agricultural production. Plant domestication concentrated upon several core foods, the most important of which was maize.

Indigenous horticulture is practised in various ways across all inhabited continents. Indigenous refers to the native peoples of a given area and horticulture is the practice of small-scale intercropping.

Agriculture on the prehistoric Great Plains

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Guilá Naquitz Cave

Guilá Naquitz Cave in Oaxaca, Mexico is the site of early domestication of several food crops, including teosinte, squash from the genus Cucurbita, bottle gourds, and beans. This site is the location of the earliest known evidence for domestication of any crop on the continent, Cucurbita pepo, as well as the earliest known domestication of maize.

The Archaic period, also known as the preceramic period, is a period in Mesoamerican chronology that begins around 8000 BCE and ends around 2000 BCE and is generally divided into Early, Middle, and Late Archaic periods. The period is preceded by the Paleoindian period and followed by the Preclassic period. Scholars have found it difficult to determine exactly when the Paleoindian period ends and the Archaic begins, but it is generally linked with changing climate associated with the transition from the Pleistocene to the Holocene epochs, and absence of extinct Pleistocene animals. It is also generally unclear when the Archaic period ends and the Preclassic period begins, though the appearance of pottery, large-scale agriculture, and villages signal the transition.


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