Ancient Native Americans may have cultivated medicinal plants in Bears Ears, study finds

U. scientists identify 31 plant species common near archaeological sites, but are very rare elsewhere.

(The Natural History Museum of Utah) University of Utah anthropologist Brian Codding surveys an archaeological site in the Bears Ears region, documenting the presence of plants with cultural importance to Native Americans. U. researchers and their Indigenous colleagues found 31 plant species that grow at such sites, suggesting the Ancestral Puebloans, who occupied these lands centuries ago, carried these plants to these locations where they continue to grow today.

Ancient Puebloans left structures, pottery, tools, graves and countless other artifacts in Utah’s Bears Ears region, but they also left plant communities, rich with nutritional and healing properties, which are still growing in and around archaeological sites to this day, according to new research by University of Utah scientists and Indigenous colleagues.

With an eye toward documenting the presence of 117 culturally significant plant species, the study examined 25 such sites within Bears Ears National Monument’s original boundaries, designated in 2016 by President Barack Obama. These are plants used by the Hopi, Ute, Apache, Zuni and Navajo, the tribes that trace ancestry to this area centered around Cedar Mesa, which was heavily occupied 1,000 years ago by Puebloan cultures.

The researchers discovered many of the plants grow in relative abundance near ancient habitations, yet are very rare in other areas.

“In other words, the plants weren’t randomly just there,” said lead author Bruce Pavlik, the conservation director at the university’s Red Butte Garden. “People brought propagules [seeds or buds] of the species in with them. This is one of the rare times in the archeological literature where people invested in native species and brought them to their habitations. It indicates this higher level of landscape manipulation, what we call ‘an ecological legacy’ of past human occupation.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Natural History Museum of Utah archaeologist Lisbeth Louderback, Bruce Pavlik, director of conservation at Red Butte Garden and Cynthia Wilson, the traditional foods program director for Utah Dine Bikeyah, led research that identified 31 culturally important plant species that grow in relative abundance near archaeological sites in the Bears Ears region. Their findings suggest that ancient Native Americans cultivated these plants, which include the Four Corners potato, pictured here at Red Butte.

While many culturally important plants, such as sagebrush and pinyon, are common across the landscape, at least 31 species, including the Four Corners potato (Solanum jamseii), are common at the sites, yet rare elsewhere, according to the study, posted Monday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Other such plants included goosefoot, wolfberry and sumac, which produce edible grains or berries.

“Identifying how past human populations altered ecosystems is critical for understanding current ecological diversity and for the management of both natural and cultural resources,” the study states. “This study presents evidence for an enduring ecological legacy of ancient people on the Colorado Plateau, where the complexity of archaeological sites correlates with the richness of culturally important plant species. This suggests the intentional or unintentional transport and cultivation of native plants on a scale that is often overlooked in the American Southwest.”

Ensuring these plants’ persistence will require tribal input for conserving and restoring “archaeo-ecosystems,” especially those with plants held sacred as “lifeway” medicines, the researchers wrote.

“The medicines on the landscape all have a story,” said co-author Cynthia Wilson, a Navajo who directs Utah Diné Bikéyah’s traditional foods program. “The original proposal to designate 1.9 million acres for Bears Ears National Monument came from listening to the elders and medicine people who mapped culturally significant plants to protect our narratives. In terms of management, traditional knowledge is crucial to protect the entire ecosystem as a cultural living landscape. Our ancestors tended to these ancient gardens that warrant special management regime. Right now, there’s no real security to prevent damage.”

President Donald Trump greatly reduced the monument boundaries, which President Joe Biden is now looking to restore, or possibly enlarge.

“Bears Ears is not just about the boundaries, it’s about what happens in the future. It’s about management. And if you have a place like Bears Ears, that’s so rich in archeological sites, are you only going to preserve the adobe bricks for people to look at? Or are you going to have a wider view that says, these were real ecosystems with with real resource value to these people?” Wilson said. “The two are inextricably linked.”

Co-author Arnold Clifford, a botanist at the Carrizo Mountain Environmental & Herbarium in Durango, Colorado, led the effort to identify the culturally significant plants the team would look for at the archaeological sites. Bears Ears has 100,000 such sites, so the team selected 25 as a representative sample from a group of 265 that have been closely surveyed for artifacts.

Then the U. team visited each site between 2017 and 2019, recording their plant communities. They discovered a close correlation between these sites and abundance of culturally significant plants. Not only that, but the more intensively used or developed a site was, the more edible plants the team discovered, according to anthropology professor Brian Codding, who heads the U.’s Archaeological Center.

“We found this really strong relationship where the number of architectural features—think of that as the amount of investment that [ancient] people were putting into a site—when people are investing more, which probably means there are more people, or they’re there for a longer time,” Codding said, “you end up having this significant increase in the number of plants that are important in the past and today.”

Clifford noted that seven species found at these sites are held sacred today as lifeway medicines by tribes.

“What Tribal members have said all along is that you don’t just preserve the archeological site,” said U. anthropologist Lisbeth Louderback, curator of archaeology and director of the Archaeobotany Lab at the Natural History Museum of Utah. “You have to preserve the entire resource space around the site, including the plants. Building a management plan incorporating both western science and traditional knowledge will get a full picture of the best way to take care of the resources and the monument.”