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Environmental and Health Costs of Maize Agriculture

Maize, a Mississippian dietary staple.

It appears that both the immediate and long-term benefits of maize agriculture were seductively addictive to the individual and society. Of particular importance to the household economy was that maize farming produced an edible yeild in mid-summer (green maize) when other wild and cultivated crops were not productive, and that an abundant fall harvest could help create a storable food surplus. A food surplus was insurance against failure in other parts of the subsistence economy. Both factors likely increased each person`s chance of survival at times when other foods were not available. Finally, a food surplus represents wealth. Wealth allowed families to exchange food for other needed foodstuffs or desired items. When household food supplies were low, previously acquired non-perishable goods could be exchanged for needed food. Prestigous people put their surplus to use in financing mound-building and other civic construction as well as the acquisition of exotic materials and craft goods.

This new economic system was not without tangible environmental and biological costs, however. Large settlements, slash and burn agriculture, and over-explotation of resources all may have significantly altered the landscape and ecosystem. Game populations and wood availability, for example, were likely reduced. Farming on the floodplain typically could produce a bountiful harvest, but the negative aspects of reliance on maize likely became apparent after periodic catastrophic flooding or other environmental disasters. Not only would a poor harvest of their staple food create dietary stress, the stress could be compounded by the resulting intensified exploitation and competition for wild foods.

Another potential consequence of increased population was increasingly well-defined political areas of resource exploitation. As settlements grew in size and the political landscape became more divided, so too did the intensity of resource exploitation within individual polities. That is, areas previously utilized by Mississippians of different social and political affiliations were reduced in size as social and political units grew in size and number and extended their control of previously shared resources. Effectively this division of land into more and more political and social units reduced the size of buffer areas from which foods could be acquired in times of poor harvests. Thus, more people with different socio-political ties competing over fewer and fewer "owned" resources may have resulted in periodic dietary and social stress.

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