|Common Bean (Phaseolus vulgaris L.), a native cultigen of the South and Central American tropics, was the last major crop plant to become established prehistorically in the eastern United States and Midwest. Together with corn and squash, beans formed the triumvirate of Native American gardens—the so-called “Three Sisters”—repeatedly described in the Euroamerican accounts at the time of historic contact.
Spreading first to the American Southwest over 2,000 years ago, it took more than 1,000 years before beans arrived in the Midwest. From one species, hundreds of historic and modern varieties were grown including kidney, lima, pinto, and navy beans. Beans appeared in Iowa as early as A.D. 1250, reported in quantity in Late Prehistoric Glenwood sites in the western part of the state, and rarely in Mill Creek contexts. Beans found in Glenwood lodges are small, about the size of modern navy beans. Beans are also recovered from many Oneota sites including those occupied at the time Europeans first arrived.
Beans added nitrogen to early gardens, enriching the soil for companion plants, particularly corn. Corn stalks in turn offered a support for the bean vines to climb. Together corn and beans alone supplied a diet complete in plant protein. Both could be dried and stored for use throughout the winter and kept as seed for the following year’s crop. Prepared by boiling, parching, frying, and grinding, beans were often cooked with corn, squash, and meat. They were made into soups, cakes, and bread.
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