Planted in the Past

Charles Fergus
May 01, 2003

Early in my career, I was told I shouldn't do archaeology in the Caribbean: 'It's no place for a woman.' Oddly enough, it was a female Caribbeanist who said that. I didn't ask her why. I assumed it was because the islands can be, well, kind of rough and ready. "Lee Ann Newsom—associate professor of archaeological anthropology at Penn State and a newly minted MacArthur Fellow, one of 24 scientists, artists, and writers to receive that prestigious, generously funded award in 2002—shrugs and smiles. We're in her neatly kept but crowded laboratory, where cardboard boxes fill shelves and plastic containers stand stacked beneath counters.

woman next to microscope
Greg Grieco

Lee Ann Newsom analyzes wood from a 1718 vessel

"I've never let that sort of advice hold me back," she says.

It's possible, however, that the admonition flickered through her mind on the day in 1996 when Newsom, who specializes in paleoethnobotany—the study of plant use by prehistoric cultures—walked away from a dig on Saint Kitts in the Lesser Antilles. "I went down the road to check out the local plants," she remembers. "At some point, I realized I was being followed. Two boys. Then four, six. Ten. They were cursing, yelling things: 'Beetch!' No one else was around.

"I had work to do. I got off the road, pulled up some nightshade and put it in my sack. The boys stopped yelling. I collected some wild cotton and a small legume. I found a sample of euphorb—that plant has some really interesting medicinal properties.

"The boys scattered." Newsom laughs. She is in her mid-40s, sandy-haired and fair-complected; of Celtic ancestry, judging from the sign taped to the wall: Enter only if lefthanded and Irish. "Probably those boys hadn't seen anyone but their old grandmothers picking those plants. They thought I was a witch and figured I was about to whip up a curse on 'em.

"You might say that plants came to my rescue."

Plants are at the heart of Newsom's research: waterlogged wood from sunken ships, seeds recovered from human remains, burned wood from ancient hearths. She studies stems and rinds and the annual growth rings in wood: She can thin-section a sample, stain it, and, from the structure of its cells—whether effaced by decay, carbonized by fire, or distorted after eighty centuries spent underwater—identify the species or species group.

Newsom has used plant remains to track the movement of humans from South America north through the Caribbean islands; to infer the evolution of agriculture on the islands; to chart the rise of chiefdoms; and to examine stresses placed on resources and ecosystems by swelling populations—suggested, for example, by changes in the types of fuelwood people used after clearing the original forest to create farm fields. "It's a great story of human migration and settlement spanning 5,000 years," Newsom says. "I've worked from Grenada up through the Leeward Islands to Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Bahamas. In Puerto Rico, early sites imply an egalitarian society, but over time we see stratification, expressed by fancier houses and changes in burial practices. By 1492, there are definitely chiefly elites."

map of interim site plan in blue

Newsom was also cautioned early on: There's no preservation in the tropics. Stay in the temperate zone if you want to do archaeo-botany. "That's a stupid myth," she says. "Plant remains can be preserved in the tropics. It's all about finding the right site, thinking your investigation through, and doing careful sampling."

One such locus is Windover, near Titusville, Florida, just west of Cape Canaveral and 120 miles south of Jacksonville, the area where Newsom grew up. As a graduate student at the University of Florida, Newsom helped excavate an archaeological treasure trove first discovered when a backhoe cut a road through a wet area in a housing development. Ultimately, more than 100 human burials were unearthed at Windover, almost half of all recovered North American specimens more than 7,000 years old.

At Windover, Native Americans buried their dead underwater on the bottom of a pond. The people were laid to rest beneath tepee-shaped frames of wood. Over time, peat deposits covered the bodies; in the saturated, oxygen-poor environment, decomposition lagged. Skin and soft tissues disintegrated, but bones remained intact. Brains were preserved inside craniums. Stomachs held final meals.

More than a dozen researchers conducted analyses of Windover materials: everything from brain tissue to shark-tooth cutting tools to pollen grains. Newsom developed techniques for preserving fragile plant remains, which began oxidizing upon exposure to the air. "You'd uncover a leaf and watch it turn black in your hands," she says. "Basically, you keep your samples in water."

One day in the lab, she examined approximately one cup of sediment recovered from the lower abdomen of a woman who had died at about age 62. The woman's skeleton revealed extensive bone cancer. The sediment, containing the woman's stomach contents, included more than 3,000 seeds. "Around 2,275 of them were elderberry seeds—about the size of sesame seeds." Newsom gets out a petri dish and places it beneath a compound microscope. The seeds look like elongated fortune cookies with rust-colored skins.

"The number of seeds translates into around 550 elderberry fruits. Just before she died, this woman also ingested 40 wild grapes, one nightshade berry, a holly berry, and several fruits of prickly pear cactus." Even though Florida was drier 8,000 years ago, the same plants grow there today. "Of the 3,000-plus seeds in the sample," says Newsom, "only nine were broken. The fruits weren't chewed. If they'd been eaten as food, most of the seeds would have been damaged.

"I looked into the ethnomedicine of southeastern Indians, such as the Cherokees, and discovered that they used all of those plants—including combinations of them—as medicinal treatments. It's likely this woman was in great pain when she died. Probably she took or was given the fruits, brewed as a medical infusion, to relieve the pain." Based on the ripening periods of the fruits, Newsom believes the woman succumbed in August or September.

Some of the Windover bodies were wrapped in blankets, others in cloaks with hoods. The fabrics, made from fibers of palms and other plants, showed seven different types of weaving, some of it quite fine at more than 20 strands per inch. "That contradicts the notion of hide-wearing hunter-gatherers," Newsom says. "We had no prior samples of clothing from that period.

Newsom knew she wanted to be an archaeologist from an early age. "I used to devour National Geographic and the Time-Life books on human origins. In the fourth grade, I wrote a report on Neanderthal people. And I've been interested in life sciences from the beginning."

grape seeds in clear petri dish
Lee Ann Newsom

Grape seeds and pear cactus from the stomach of a woman who died 8,000 years ago

Her academic career has been anything but linear. "After high school, I took two years of legal training and worked as a paralegal for a while. It wasn't what I wanted. So I went back to school for an anthropology degree." As an undergraduate at the University of Florida, Newsom did volunteer work at the Florida Museum of Natural History, on the university campus. Later, the department hired her as a secretary. "I basically typed up archaeologists' resumes. Finally they started giving me artifacts to sort out, and soon I got involved with my first wetsite project."

In graduate school, Newsom studied across such fields as wood anatomy, botany, forestry, and tropical ecology. Her doctoral advisor, Elizabeth Wing, was a zooarchaeologist. Says Newsom, "Elizabeth works with faunal remains; she took a strong background in zoology and adapted it to archaeology. I took a background in botany and adapted it to archaeology."

At Windover, a bottle gourd, Lagenaria siceraria, was found carefully placed in one burial. The plant, a type of squash, is believed to have originated in Africa. Its fruit likely floated across the Atlantic; Native Americans recognized the plant's utility, employing the gourds as containers and fishnet floats. The Windover specimen, carbon-dated to 7,100 years before present, represents the oldest known bottle gourd remains found in North America.

At another aquatic site, along the Aucilla River in the Florida panhandle, Newsom and her colleagues found mastodon dung containing gourd seeds from genus Cucurbita, a New World native. "The center of genetic origin for this type of squash is believed to be Mexico," she says. "Early forms of Cucurbita gourds were hard-shelled and bitter. When Native Americans in eastern North America domesticated the plants, they selected for sweeter flesh and thicker rinds.

"For a long time, anthropologists believed that natives in North America borrowed agriculture from more advanced societies in tropical America—squash first, corn and beans later." The presence of gourds at Windover and gourd seeds more than 30,000 years old in the dung of extinct mastodons "tells us these plants were here long before agriculture is thought to have been invented. The Aucilla seeds in particular show that gourds could have been cultivated by Native Americans as soon as they reached this part of the continent." At other Florida sites, Newsom has found evidence of accelerated changes in the size, shape, and texture of gourd seeds: signals of domestication and selective breeding.

After earning her doctorate at the University of Florida, Newsom was hired by Southern Illinois University as curator of collections in the Center of Archaeological Investigations. "My main job was to do a detailed inventory of Native American human remains, and then contact relevant tribes, to comply with NAGPRA"—the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a federal statute aimed at returning human remains to tribes who wish to rebury them. She came to Penn State in 2002, an appointment particularly welcome, she says, because "it represented a chance to come back to a major research school."

These days, Newsom gets into the field about once a year. Asked to relate her most exciting moment—her out-on-a-dig counterpart to the epiphany she felt when encountering the seeds in the old woman's stomach—she names two.

"In the Turks and Caicos Islands, we excavated a hearth lined with whelk shells and coral arranged in a perfect circle. There was a giant parrot fish right in the middle. The fish seemed to have been cooked but never eaten—it looked like a meal that had just stopped.

two people examine wood with man in hat in center
Lee Ann Newsom

Newsom, right, examines wood samples with Regis Miller and Michael Baillie

"Another time we hacked through dense forest in the mountains of central Puerto Rico and stumbled onto terraces stacked up on a hillside, formed up behind stone walls. The terraces reclaimed land you couldn't otherwise have done agriculture on. That was at Caguana, a huge chiefly center, where people lived from about 1000 AD to 1500 AD. The terraces may be the answer to how that society fed its people."

Newsom professes to enjoy working in her lab even more than unearthing prehistoric remains. She plucks open a resealable plastic bag and takes out a matchbox-sized chunk of blackened wood. It's a fragment of Queen Anne's Revenge, a French ship captured by the pirate Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard. The vessel ran aground off North Carolina in 1718. After rinsing the sample under tap water, Newsom deftly slices along its edge with a razor blade. The sample is thin enough to transmit light. She puts it in a glass dish and slides the dish beneath a microscope.

Growth rings nestle one against the next, distinct dark and pale lines. "European pine," Newsom says, "from the Pinus sylvestris anatomical group." She displays a slide prepared from the same wood: blue-stained spindle-shaped tubes are individual xylem cells. "Those round things in the tubes? They're circular bordered pits, very diagnotic for softwoods. So where did that piece of wood come from?" Newsom works with a dendrochronologist in Ireland, Michael Baillie. "He can exactly measure the width of the growth rings and run statistical tests comparing them to ring series from different regions in Europe. Maybe we'll get a strong match on the country where the tree originated."

Newsom is also analyzing wood from a 17th-century Spanish wreck in Bermuda, several Civil War vessels, and La Belle, sailed by the explorer Robert La Salle, who claimed Louisiana for France in 1682. " I have a thing about ships," Newsom says. "One of my grandfathers was a carpenter and joiner in the Belfast Naval Shipyard."

Bits of what may turn out to be Christopher Columbus's flagship also reside in Newsom's lab. On Christmas Eve, 1492, on the north coast of Haiti, the Santa Maria struck a reef. Spanish records say that local Indians helped crew members salvage timbers from the wreck, which were used to fortify a chief's house given to the Spaniards. The tiny village of La Navidad—named for the Christ child—was established on December 26, the first European settlement in the New World. Columbus shifted into the Nina, leaving behind 39 crewmen; when he came back 11 months later, he found the settlement burned and his men dead. At a site discovered by an amateur archaeologist, researchers from the Florida Museum of Natural History have found sherds of European pottery, bones of European animals, and charcoal carbon-dated to the late 1400s.

"The wood comes from a big squarish structure," Newsom says. "Some of the samples are endemic woods, probably from Indian cooking fires, but some are pine. Pine isn't native to Haiti; you find it only in historic sites, places where it was brought in. If ring-porous oak"—a type of oak commonly used by European shipwrights and unavailable in the Caribbean—"turns up among the samples, we'll be pretty certain it's La Navidad."

Newsom teaches introductory anthropology at Penn State and advanced courses in paleoethnobotany, environmental archaeology, and wood anatomy. In the lab, she is trying to whittle down the number of boxes and cartons of plant remains needing analysis for her own and for others' investigations.

microscopic image of wood
Lee Ann Newsom

Microscopic image of tropical wood from Puerto Rico

She's also trying to cope with the publicity surrounding her MacArthur award, which, Newsom says, "arrived totally out of the blue. I'm still in disbelief. You can't apply for a MacArthur; you get nominated by your peers, or by others. The awards committee looks for people who are doing things differently, creatively"—people who have shown a willingness to take risks to advance their art or science. The only other Penn State faculty member to receive a MacArthur is a researcher into human origins, Alan Walker, also in anthropology: it's unlikely that any other university has two anthropologists who have received the prize, much less with offices next door to each other. MacArthur awards are sometimes called "genius grants," and some wag has posted a sign in the hallway on the third floor of Carpenter Building: Genius Wing This Way.

The MacArthur grants a $500,000 stipend spread over five years. By relieving financial burdens, the award frees recipients to make advances in their fields. Says Newsom, "I plan to go back to those terraced fields in Puerto Rico. I hope to develop a holistic perspective regarding humans and landscapes—how the early inhabitants of the Caribbean used limited biotic resources. I want to find and explore sacred places as well as the mundane. It goes beyond food and technology: How did those people perceive and think about where they lived?

"Maybe plants will reveal those things."

Lee Ann Newsom, Ph.D., is associate professor of archaeological anthropology in the College of the Liberal Arts, 316 Carpenter Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-4346; A book coauthored by Newsom and Elizabeth Wing, On the Land and Sea: Native American Uses of Biological Resources in the West Indies, will be published this year by the University of Alabama Press.

Last Updated May 01, 2003