Melissa Darby, MA

Archaeologist & Historian
Lower Columbia Research & Archaeology


Presentation Time

Sunday, September 10, 2006: 1:00 PM


Wapato: The Phantom Root


Sagittaria latifolia Willd. (Chinook Jargon: Wapato) a starchy tuber, was an important staple food for the Indians who lived along the Willamette River and Lower Columbia River Estuary, in what are now the states of Oregon and Washington, in the United States. Large wetlands filled with wapato, growing monoculturally, were common in prehistoric and early historic times. In this session, I illustrate the Chinookan/Kalapuyan model of intensive wapato use. A human can harvest approximately 5,000 kcal of wapato in a typical patch in a thirty-minute time period on the lower Columbia River during either the fall or spring harvest times. Though the taphonomy is poor for macroremains, pollen evidence suggests it was one of the first colonizing plants to occupy the wet, deglaciated areas during the retreat of the late Pleistocene glaciers in the Northern Hemisphere. The above-ground boimass is good fodder for browsing fauna, and the tubers are common food for waterfowl, beaver and muskrat in North America. I posit that wapato was an intensified food resource in the Northern Hemisphere in late Pleistocene through the Holocene.