The relationships between humans and their environment are conditioned to a large extent by the search for food and other material resources. And, since subsistence and other aspects of culture are mutually interdependent, the study of food acquisition is an important aspect of any examination of cultural stability and change. Decisions made by individuals and groups about which resources to exploit reflect and are affected by changes in social organization and communication with outside groups as well as by changes in the natural environment. For aboriginal Piedmont groups, the period between the first European entrance into North America and their ultimate loss of cultural identity was one in which many such changes took place.
The interpretations given here are based upon analyses of plant remains collected during the 1983 and 1984 excavations at the Fredricks (c. 1700), Mitchum (c. 1650-1680), and Wall (c. 1400-1500) sites. The concluding synthesis of ethnobotanical data is based upon all excavated data from the Fredricks site. Unlike the ethnographer, the archaeologist does not have access to living informants, a situation which multiplies the problems normally encountered in describing a way of life and its historical development. The database for this study of the use of plant foods is primarily archaeological, supplemented only by the few available historical records. Nevertheless, it is felt that the analysis of plant remains has a great deal of potential for adding to our knowledge of European contact and culture change in the North Carolina Piedmont.
Despite the fact that archaeologists do not have the advantage of direct observation of food-getting practices, reconstruction of subsistence patterns can be accomplished with due attention to the transformations undergone by plant remains both before and after they enter the archaeological record. In addition, possible explanations can be offered for changes in plant procurement patterns. In this study, these explanations will be based upon a cost-benefit model derived from economic and ecological theory.