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Sunrise over plantation, representation of lost crop field.       Source: somkak / Adobe stock

The Revival of Ancient Lost Crops Reveals Surprising Results


The scientific cultivation of lost ancient seed crops has yielded much higher than expected growth rates, challenging assumptions about maize (corn) growth in prehistoric North America.

According to new research ‘lost crops’ might have fed as many people in prehistoric North America as traditionally grown maize. But the study was not without challenges as no written or oral histories exist about these lost crops, and the more modern domesticated forms are now extinct.

Natalie Mueller is assistant professor of archaeology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, and writing in the Journal of Ethnobiology she describes how “painstakingly” she calculated yield estimates for two annual plants that were cultivated in eastern North America for thousands of years before being abandoned for maize production.

The researchers grew ‘goosefoot’ ( Chenopodium, sp.) and erect knotweed ( Polygonum erectum), which when grown together were found to be “much more productive” than growing either species individually. According to a report in Eureka Alert, the researcher explained that when these two plants were grown along with the other known lost crops, they might have fed thousands of indigenous people.

Photo of the ‘goosefoot’ plant. (Evelyn Simak / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Photo of the ‘goosefoot’ plant. (Evelyn Simak / CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Search for Ancient Botanical Answers

The first seed caches and dried leaves held as evidence of ‘lost crops’ was gathered in the 1930s by archaeologists in rock shelters in Kentucky and Arkansas, and over the past 25 years professor emerita of archaeology at Washington University, Dr Gayle Fritz, established that the extinct crops had supported local indigenous societies for at least a thousand years and long before maize (corn) became their staple crop.

According to Dr Mueller, the lost crops were made up of “diverse native grasses, seed plants, squashes and sunflowers” of which only the latter two are still cultivated today. Furthermore, the scientist now knows that these lost crops were “purposefully tended.” But while there are many Native American practitioners, of ethnobotanical knowledge, who know about traditional medicinal plants and wild foods, “as far as we know” nobody knows how the lost crops were grown, said Dr Mueller.

Saving Seeds for Future Catastrophes

In February 2015, a Native American researcher in Vermont, Frederick Wiseman, a retired professor and expert on ethno-botany, reproduced horticulture that existed in his state for centuries before Europeans arrived. After the scientist spent many years researching and working with the Maya civilization in Guatemala and Mexico, Dr. Wiseman identified and preserved 26 different varieties of plants, including “squash, beans, corn, artichokes, ground cherries and tobacco”, which were all vital to the Abenaki Native Americans of northeastern North America and “would otherwise have been lost in time,” Ancient Origins reported in February 2015.

Kabocha squash seeds showing representation of Native American ‘lost crops’. (George Wesley/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Kabocha squash seeds showing representation of Native American ‘lost crops’. (George Wesley/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

To further ensure our current knowledge of plants and growing methods are secure from being lost to future generations, a 2015 Ancient Origins article explained that scientists founded the Svalbard Global Seed Vault  in Norway that preserves more than 860,000 food-crops. But the question as to why these “lost plants” were abandoned by indigenous cultures has been a point of debate among archaeologists,  said Mueller, who added that people (archaeologists) have mostly “assumed” maize was a lot more productive seeing as it’s still grown today, and it has the lowest cost per unit area.

But not content with “assumptions”, Dr Mueller quantified the yield so that comparisons could be drawn between lost crops and maize growth for the first time accurately. The researcher said that her team had been motivated by wanting to see “more diverse agricultural systems” and to better understand the knowledge, management and ecosystems of indigenous people of North America before the modern industrial agricultural system.

Pairing Up Plants to Enhance Growth

Before the tests began, the scientist first identified several ecological elements, which had to be accounted for before recreating a stable growth system that was as similar to the ancient ecosystem as possible. This meant leaving aside greenhouses, pesticides and modern fertilizers. Dr Mueller stated in the study, the bugs that pollinated the pants and the pests that ate them were also considered in the experiments, along with the diseases that affected their growth and the animals the plants attracted.

The new paper specifically details the findings from two experiments, which had been designed to investigate germination requirements and potential yields for the lost crops. Dr Mueller’s new research discovered that a polyculture of goosefoot and erect knotweed grew much more productively than when grown separately as a monoculture. Additionally, when grown together, these two plants yielded “higher than global averages” for closely related domesticated crops, like quinoa and buckwheat. These results were found to challenge the growth rates of traditionally grown maize.

Example of the ‘lost crop’, erect knotweed. (Mason Brock / Public domain)

Example of the ‘lost crop’, erect knotweed. (Mason Brock / Public domain)

Top image: Sunrise over plantation, representation of lost crop field.       Source: somkak / Adobe stock

By Ashley Cowie



I would imagine taste or convenience may be why the crops were abandoned – I would have to grow some and cook them to see what they taste like  to decide. 

It would be interesting to see a few different preparations – it mentioned seeds and leaves preserved. Did they cook them separately, together, what else would they have grown and how would they have combined them. 

I only have a very casual knowledge of ancient american cooking, mainly what I have seen and read as possible vessel use in museum items – I myself have a small anasazi bowl that my father scrounged as a young boy on a trip west back in the 1920s when looting was more accepted. 

Going by what we know of european equivalent era cooking, soups and stews tended to be more prevalent [easier to make a smaller amount of meat divisible when used more as a seasoning than a main component. My maternal hereditary soup, we just called cabbage soup, is directly tracable from the find in the halstatt salt mines that ended up being called variously ricet and rischert. The only really required ingredients are barley, beans, cabbage, greens, onions and herbs. Meat is optional and I have had it made with anything from squirrel through rabbit through venison, wild boar, domestic pig, cow and salmon. The salmon while probably traditionally ok was a taste mistake at least for me! My mom preferred mustard greens, I prefer spinach.\

I would probably also be interested  in knowing what other crops were grown or forraged at that time and rough location, we may have very different ideas of what would work out in a soup.

Gary Moran's picture

Hmmm, so if yields seem to have been better, wonder why they would have switched to maize/corn? Maybe they just lked the taste better – neither one of those sounds very appetizing to me. Goosefoot and knotweed? Think I’ll pass, thanks.

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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