One of my earliest memories was walking bare foot on the cool, muddy rows between tall stalks of cotton on our cotton farm in the Panhandle of Texas. I was around two-and-one-half years old and the cotton towered over my head as I toddled along accompanied by my faithful Colley dog, Tippie. Cotton was the primary crop grown in Hall County when I was growing up and I spent a major part of my time working in the fields with my family to cultivate and harvest the precious fibers.
I did not think about the origins or history of cotton back then, but later was surprised to find cotton and cotton fabrics turning up in ancient archaeological sites throughout the Americas. I had always assumed that cotton was brought to America by enterprising colonists during the industrial revolution. I did not realize that cotton was a native crop in America dating back over 7,000 years.
In the 1960’s, while I was sitting on a tractor plowing cotton, Richard MacNeish was surveying the Tehuacan Valley near the Sierra Madres mountains in Mexico when he discovered a large cave filled with ancient artifacts. Excavation of this cave turned up bolls of cotton dating back to 3500 BCE. But the use of cotton may go back even further when ancient Peruvian fishermen used cotton fibers for fish nets.
The cotton bolls found in the Tehuacan Valley were found with domesticated maize dating around the same time. The domestication of maize is linked with the transition of nomadic hunter gatherer societies into sedentary agricultural societies—the transition from savage to civilized.
Curiously, though, the first stages of the use and domestication of cotton in the Huaca Prieta area of the Andes predate pottery and maize domestication by 1000 to 1500 years in that area where cotton was used for both fishing and hunting nets, clothing and storage bags.
I also find it very interesting that cotton was not only native to America, but to India, Pakistan and Egypt as well. When Columbus found cotton growing on the Bahama Islands in 1492, it may have been another big reason he thought he was in India. I find it very curious that plants like cotton, maize and strawberries were native to both the old and new worlds in time to assist man in his transition to civilized societies.
Over time, domesticated cotton found its way through the Andes region, central America, and southwestern north America where it was grown, harvested and traded to all the other parts of the Americas. Gossypium hirsutum, also known as upland cotton or Mexican cotton, is the most widely planted species of cotton in the United States today. Worldwide, 90% of the cotton harvested is from this variety.
As a footnote. Although cotton was native to Asia, American cotton found its way to Europe and then was planted in Florida and the south by the colonists. It became known as “King Cotton” and grown on the huge plantations in the south before the civil war and helped fund the Confederacy during the war.
The cotton we grew in Hall County, Texas, were special hybrids bred and developed specifically for our region. We never used the seeds from our crop to replant. Every year we bought new seeds that were developed and treated by huge seed companies. There were even choices depending upon whether we wanted to plant on dry land or irrigated land.
Cotton has been a preferred fabric for clothing for probably over 10,000 years and remains so today.