Three Sisters (agriculture)

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The Three Sisters planting method is featured on the reverse of the 2009 US Sacagawea dollar. 2009NativeAmericanRev.jpg
The Three Sisters planting method is featured on the reverse of the 2009 US Sacagawea dollar.

The Three Sisters are the three main agricultural crops of various Indigenous peoples of 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.


Cultivation methods

In a technique known as companion planting, maize ( Zea mays ), beans ( Phaseolus sp.), and squash ( Cucurbita pepo ) are planted close together. The maize and beans are often planted together in mounds formed by hilling soil around the base of the plants each year; squash is typically planted between the mounds. [2] In the northeastern U.S., this practice increases soil temperature in the mound and improves drainage, both of which benefit maize planted in spring. [2] In Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) farming, the fields were not tilled, enhancing soil fertility and the sustainability of the cropping system by limiting soil erosion and oxidation of soil organic matter. [3]

The three crops benefit by being grown together. [2] The cornstalk serves as a trellis for the beans to climb, the beans fix nitrogen in the soil and their twining vines stabilize the maize in high winds, and the wide leaves of the squash plant shade the ground, keeping the soil moist and helping prevent the establishment of weeds. [4] [5] The prickly hairs of some squash varieties also deter pests such as deer and raccoons. [5] 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.[ citation needed ]

Indigenous peoples throughout North America cultivated different varieties of the Three Sisters adapted to varying local environments. [6] The milpas of Mesoamerica are farms or gardens that employ companion planting on a larger scale. [7] The Ancestral Puebloans adopted this garden design in the drier deserts and xeric shrublands 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. [8] [ better source needed ]


European records from the sixteenth century describe highly productive Indigenous agriculture based on cultivation of the Three Sisters throughout what are now the Eastern United States and Canada, from Florida to Ontario. [3] Geographer Carl O. Sauer described the Three Sisters as "a symbiotic plant complex of North and Central America without an equal elsewhere". [9] Agronomist Jane Mt. Pleasant writes that the Three Sisters mound system "enhances the soil physical and biochemical environment, minimizes soil erosion, improves soil tilth, manages plant population and spacing, provides for plant nutrients in appropriate quantities, and at the time needed, and controls weeds". [2]

Nutritionally, maize, beans, and squash contain all nine essential amino acids [3] as well as complex carbohydrates and essential fatty acids.[ citation needed ] The protein from maize is further enhanced by protein contributions from beans and pumpkin seeds, while pumpkin flesh provides large amounts of vitamin A; with the Three Sisters, farmers harvest about the same amount of energy as from maize monoculture, but get more protein yield from the inter-planted bean and pumpkin. Mt. Pleasant writes that this largely explains the value of the Three Sisters over monoculture cropping, as the system yields large amounts of energy and at the same time increases protein yields; this polyculture cropping system yielded more food and supported more people per hectare compared to monocultures of the individual crops or mixtures of monocultures. [3]

Society and culture

Maize, beans, and squash, whether grown individually or together, have a very long history in the Americas. [3] 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. [10] [11] Squash was first domesticated 8,000–10,000 years ago. [12] [13]

Cahokian, Mississippian and Muscogee 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 the present US state of Illinois, across the Mississippi 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 System, creating the Mississippian and Muscogee cultures that flourished from ca. 800 AD to ca. 1600 when physical contact with Spanish explorers brought Eurasian diseases, death, and cultural collapse.

Haudenosaunee culture

In the Handbook of North American Indians , the Three Sisters are called the "foundation of (Iroquois) subsistence", allowing the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois to "develop the institutions of sedentary life". [14] The Three Sisters appear prominently in Haudenosaunee oral traditions and ceremonies, such as the creation story and the thanksgiving address. [2] Researchers in the early 20th century described more than a dozen varieties of maize and similar numbers of bean varieties, as well as many types of squash, such as pumpkin and winter squash, grown in Haudenosaunee communities. The first academic description of the Three Sisters cropping system in 1910 reported that the Iroquois preferred to plant the three crops together, since it took less time and effort than planting them individually, and because they believed the plants were "guarded by three inseparable spirits and would not thrive apart". [3]

Among the Haudenosaunee, women were responsible for cultivation and distribution of the three crops, which raised their social status. Male roles traditionally included extended periods of travel, such as for hunting expeditions, diplomatic missions, or military raids. Men took part in the initial preparation for the planting of the Three Sisters by clearing the planting ground, after which groups of related women, working communally, performed the planting, weeding, and harvesting. [15] Based on archaeological findings, paleobotanist John Hart concludes that the Haudenosaunee began growing the three crops as a polyculture sometime after 700 BP. [3] Jane Mt. Pleasant writes that the Haudenosaunee frequently traded their crops, so the need for each crop could vary substantially from year to year. She surmises that the Haudenosaunee may have typically inter-planted the three crops, but they could also have planted monocultures of the individual crops to meet specific needs. [3]

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, though it is likely others were being exploited also. [16] Maize was used and eaten in a variety of ways, but was always nixtamalized.

See also

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Bean seed of one of several genera of the plant family Fabaceae

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Vegetable farming is the growing of vegetables for human consumption. The practice probably started in several parts of the world over ten thousand years ago, with families growing vegetables for their own consumption or to trade locally. At first manual labour was used but in time livestock were domesticated and the ground could be turned by the plough. More recently, mechanisation has revolutionised vegetable farming with nearly all processes being able to be performed by machine. Specialist producers grow the particular crops that do well in their locality. New methods—such as aquaponics, raised beds and cultivation under glass—are used. Marketing can be done locally in farmer's markets, traditional markets or pick-your-own operations, or farmers can contract their whole crops to wholesalers, canners or retailers.

Monoculture The agricultural practice of producing a single crop at a time

In agriculture, monoculture is the practice of growing one crop species in a field at a time. Monoculture is widely used in intensive farming and in organic farming: both a 1,000-acre cornfield and a 10-hectare field of organic kale are monocultures. Monoculture crops have allowed farmers to increase efficiency in planting, managing, and harvesting, mainly by facilitating the use of machinery in these operations, but monocultures can also increase the risk of diseases or pest outbreaks. Diversity can be added both in time, as with a crop rotation or sequence, or in space, with a polyculture or intercropping.

Companion planting Agricultural technique

Companion planting in gardening and agriculture is the planting of different crops in proximity for any of a number of different reasons, including pest control, pollination, providing habitat for beneficial insects, maximizing use of space, and to otherwise increase crop productivity. Companion planting is a form of polyculture.

Milpa Mesoamerican crop growing system

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.

Agriculture in Mesoamerica

Agriculture in Mesoamerica dates to the Archaic period of Mesoamerican chronology. At the beginning of the Archaic period, the Early Hunters of the late Pleistocene era led nomadic lifestyles, relying on hunting and gathering for sustenance. However, the nomadic lifestyle that dominated the late Pleistocene and the early Archaic slowly transitioned into a more sedentary lifestyle as the hunter gatherer micro-bands in the region began to cultivate wild plants. The cultivation of these plants provided security to the Mesoamericans, allowing them to increase surplus of "starvation foods" near seasonal camps; this surplus could be utilized when hunting was bad, during times of drought, and when resources were low. The cultivation of plants could have been started purposefully, or by accident. The former could have been done by bringing a wild plant closer to a camp site, or to a frequented area, so it was easier access and collect. The latter could have happened as certain plant seeds were eaten and not fully digested, causing these plants to grow wherever human habitation would take them.


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

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Pumpkin seed

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Indigenous peoples of the Northeastern Woodlands Regional culture of native peoples in North AmerIca

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Eastern Agricultural Complex

The Eastern Agricultural Complex in the woodlands of eastern North America was one of about 10 independent centers of plant domestication in the pre-historic world. Incipient agriculture dates back to about 5300 BCE. By about 1800 BCE the Native Americans of the woodlands were cultivating several species of food plants, thus beginning a transition from a hunter-gatherer economy to agriculture. After 200 BCE when maize from Mexico was introduced to the Eastern Woodlands, the Native Americans of the eastern United States and adjacent Canada slowly changed from growing local indigenous plants to a maize-based agricultural economy. The cultivation of local indigenous plants other than squash and sunflower declined and was eventually abandoned. The formerly domesticated plants returned to their wild forms.

Ancient Maya cuisine Diet of the Ancient Mesoamerican civilization

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.

Intensive crop farming

Intensive crop farming is a modern industrialized form of crop farming. Intensive crop farming's methods include innovation in agricultural machinery, farming methods, genetic engineering technology, techniques for achieving economies of scale in production, the creation of new markets for consumption, patent protection of genetic information, and global trade. These methods are widespread in developed nations.

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.

Prehistoric agriculture on the Great Plains

Agriculture on the prehistoric Great Plains describes the agriculture of the Indian peoples of the Great Plains of the United States and southern Canada in the Pre-Columbian era and before extensive contact with European explorers, which in most areas occurred by 1750. The principal crops grown by Indian farmers were maize (corn), beans, and squash, including pumpkins. Sunflowers, goosefoot, tobacco, gourds, and plums, were also grown.

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.

Pre-Columbian cuisine

Pre-Columbian cuisine refers to the food and drink consumed by the people who inhabited the Americas before Christopher Columbus explored the region and introduced food and crops from Europe. Though the Columbian Exchange introduced many new animals and plants to the Americas, cultures of their own already existed there, including the Aztec, Mayan, Incan, and Native American. The development of agriculture allowed the many different cultures to transition from hunting to staying in one place. A major element of this cuisine is maize, which began being grown in central Mexico. Other crops that flourished in the Americas include amaranth, wild rice, and lima beans.

Jane Mount Pleasant is an American agricultural scientist and associate professor emerita at Cornell University.


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Further reading