Postnatural Landscapes

September 11th, 2019

Ancient agricultural practices in the American Bottom were significant in the shaping of the landscapes and foodscapes that exist today.

The Postnatural Landscapes project presents a visible, materially enacted practice that “makes edible” thousands of years of human intervention and reveals the massive transformation of the Earth. We activate the seeds of the past (“lost crops”) and present to help narrate the story of our food through postnaturally defined landscapes.

By studying the postnatural histories of selected species—referring to living things intentionally altered through domestication, selective breeding, induced mutation, and genetic engineering by human beings—we see evidence of seed plasticity, morphology, and productivity in our environment over time.

Present scientific investigations have begun to reveal systems of ancient agriculture in Eastern North America dating back some 5,000 years. That is to say, through seeds, we can date the beginning of a preferential system for plant selection and domestication in relation to human settlements in the American Bottom region. Archeologic evidence points to at least five native plants, known as lost crops, as the foundation for unique local agro-ecosystems in the area. Yet “zeacentrism”—the focus on maize as the enabler of (North American) civilization—has largely eclipsed this significant period of our agricultural heritage. In fact, these lost crops were likely to have been cultivated alongside maize, some surviving, and developing into landraces we recognize today like sunflowers and squash. During the Mississippian era—over 1,000 years ago, and up to the influence of the colonial-era—most communities in Eastern North America adopted maize agriculture, which experienced a morphological evolution while vigorously integrating into landscape cultivation and cultural consumption. Furthermore, within the last 200 years, we see yet another dominant wave of human-influenced production through the ongoing standardization and ubiquity of monocultures that have come to define our contemporary landscapes of production. Research in this area enables us to chart the changes through time, indexing progressive rhythms of what has been lost and gained through postnatural and human ecologies, and to arrive at the industrialized agricultural landscapes of the present.