Ancient Oyster Consumption in the Chesapeake Region

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I stumbled upon an article from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) on the Native American’s precolonial consumption of oysters that I wanted to share. Researchers from SERC and Natural History have been looking at ancient waste from a Native American tribe- the Piscataway Indians- along the Rhode River (in Edgewater, Maryland on the SERC grounds). These waste piles are filled with broken pottery, artifacts, and oyster shell remains, telling us a little about what kinds of tools were used, and food consumed by local tribe members. Looking at the past 3,200 years, this group of researchers found a 950 year gap, between 800 B.C. to 150 C.E., where no oyster shells dating from that time can be found.

Researchers have several theories about this gap- speculating on a sampling error or a decline in shellfish aquaculture during this time. Sea level rise and the sinking of the land in the Chesapeake Bay watershed may also have contributed to the gap. Waste piles containing missing oyster shells may have been in areas that have eroded or been inundated with water due to sea level rise that has already occurred. Interesting to think how sea level rise in this area impacts historical and anthropological studies, as well as a variety of environmental issues.

The official paper, “Shell Middens, Cultural Chronologies, and Coastal Settlement on the Rhode River Sub-Estuary of Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, USA,” which appeared in Geoarchaeology in August, discusses the methods used to date the remains from the waste piles and goes into more technical detail on plausible explanations for the 950 year gap. I don’t have the access to be able to share the full report here, but there is a nice summary of the findings on the SERC blog.

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