A team of Canadian archaeologists has found a cache of charred seeds of the pitseed goosefoot (Chenopodium berlandieri spp. jonesianum), a form of quinoa native to Eastern North America, at the site of Tutela Heights in Brantford, Ontario. The ancient quinoa seeds date back to 930-915 BC, and have never previously been found north of Kentucky this early in history.
“Finding domesticated seeds that are so old in Ontario is special. The next time we find a crop in the province is about 500 CE, and it’s corn,” said team leader Professor Gary Crawford, a researcher in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto Mississauga.
“All previous research on this species of quinoa, which is now extinct, has taken place in the central United States: Arkansas, Illinois and Kentucky.”
The charred seeds, about 140,000 in total, some stone tools, post holes, debris were discovered at the Tutela Heights site in 2010.
“This discovery raises more questions than it answers,” said team member Dr. Ron Williamson, from Archaeological Services Inc.
“We had to consider whether the seeds were only traded here or grown locally.”
“We also had to consider whether this was the beginning of agriculture in the province. It appears not, because we don’t see any evidence of local cultivation. If it were grown in the region, we would have expected to see seeds of the crop in other pits around the site, but they were confined to this specific pit.”
“We also don’t see any sign of agricultural weeds or stone tools that may have been used for cultivation.”
Indigenous peoples at the time exchanged certain kinds of minerals and finished stone objects over long distances, but this is the first evidence of a crop circulating in this exchange system.
What meaning this plant had for local indigenous people nearly 3,000 years ago still is not clear.
“We always wondered if they were also exchanging perishable materials,” Professor Crawford said.
“We’re taking the conservative view that these seeds were traded; it would make sense that it wasn’t only stone and minerals being moved around. In Kentucky, Illinois and Arkansas, this was a very important foodstuff; its nutrient value was probably similar to that of modern quinoa, which comes from South America.”
The archaeologists also explored how and why the seeds were charred.
They speculate that it may have happened accidentally when the local inhabitants were attempting to parch them.
“You can lightly parch seeds so they don’t sprout and store them. It could have been a mistake to have burned them. There was a slight oxidization of the surrounding sediment, so the soil was heated; we think they were burned in place in the pit,” Professor Crawford said.
The findings appear in the journal American Antiquity.
Gary W. Crawford et al. An early woodland domesticated chenopod (Chenopodium berlandieri subsp. jonesianum) cache from the Tutela Heights site, Ontario, Canada. American Antiquity, published online December 26, 2018; doi: 10.1017/aaq.2018.75
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