Native Americans revive squash from seeds found in an 800-year-old pot
Some Native Americans found squash seeds in a pot about 800 years old and revived the plant for the first time in centuries. The seeds from the large, bright orange squash have been distributed to native communities and to others, including some college students in Canada who grew a big, orange squash this fall.
There is a worldwide movement to keep the planet’s rich heritage of food crops safe from genetic modification, catastrophe and loss of diversity that may result from food producers’ growing just a few high-yield or tough varieties of fruits, vegetables and crops.
Winona LaDuke, a native leader who ran for vice president with Ralph Nader on the Green Party ticket in 2000, named the squash Gete Okosomin or “big old squash,” says a blog posting from the American Indian Center of Chicago.
The revival of the giant squash comes at a time when scientists are trying to conserve the world’s precious and greatly diverse varieties and species of plant foods. In 2004, scientists from around the world opened a seed bank on a Norwegian island north of the Arctic Circle, where cold, dry conditions are right for preservation. Already there are hundreds of thousands of types of plant-food seeds in the vault.
“Many people don’t know this, but many of our traditional foods have been rendered extinct, largely due to modern agriculture’s industrial approach favoring a few cash crops over an entire variety of native fruits and vegetables,” the American Indian Center blog states. “Critics also suggest that genetically modified organisms are also killing native seeds. That’s why Gete Okosomin is something to celebrate. Every time someone successfully grows Gete Okosomin and saves the seeds, it’s a victory for our people.”
Students at the Canadian Mennonite University made news in October 2015 by growing the mammoth squash seeds, but the Native Americans with the American Indian Center’s Growing Circle gardening club and others had grown them before. The Growing Circle received the gift from Sue Menzel of the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe tribe. The Growing Circle members will try to ensure the squash doesn’t become cross-pollinated to preserve its purity.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault preserves hundreds of thousands of varieties and species of fruit, vegetable and crop seeds in Norway. (CropTrust.org photo)
Vegetables and fruits available in modern grocery stores represent a small fraction of varieties extant, says Mother Nature Network. For the past century, food producers have put their efforts into growing varieties that give a high yield or can withstand the time and rough handling of transporting the produce a long distance. However, people around the world are working to preserve and propagate varieties of plants that used to be in the diet.
There has been news in recent years about botanists and historians working to restore and retain endangered plants and seeds that may be lost forever if action isn’t taken.
A Native American researcher in Vermont has been reproducing the horticulture that existed in his state before Europeans arrived. Frederick Wiseman, retired professor and expert on ethno-botany, spent years researching and working with the Maya civilization in Guatemala and Mexico. But for the past two decades he’s turned his attention to plants native to his homeland.
Dr. Wiseman now works to identify and preserve ancient seeds which were vital to the Abenaki Native Americans of northeastern North America. The history of the indigenous plants reveals a wealth of information that would otherwise have been lost in time. He has traced 26 different varieties, including squash, beans, corn, artichokes, ground cherries and tobacco, Ancient Origins reported in February 2015.
Dr. Wiseman, of Abenaki ancestry himself, gives presentations on his work, “Chasing Seeds: The discovery and restoration of Ancient Wabanaki crops” at the Vermont Archaeology Heritage Center.
The Vermont Archaeology Heritage Center writes of their Seeds of Renewal project that it has “developed a complex strategy to recover the produce raised and consumed by the Vermont Abenakis and their relatives in Maine, Quebec and the Canadian Maritimes. In addition to multiple cultivated varieties of the so called ‘three sisters’ of corn, beans and squash, [the project] recovered more unusual ancient crops such as husk tomatoes, sunflowers, gourds and tobacco.”
Fred Wiseman is not alone in his quest to preserve ancient seeds. Botanical researcher Elaine Solowey has nurtured more than 100 rare or near-extinct species back to life as part of a 10-year project to study plants and herbs used as ancient cures. She has grown plants and herbs used in Tibetan, Chinese and biblical medicine, as well as traditional folk remedies from other cultures to see whether their effectiveness can be scientifically proved.
Kabocha squash seeds; these are not the same squash seeds as those recently revived by Native Americans. (Creative Commons/Flickr)
Most notably, Dr. Solowey resurrected an extinct date palm from 2,000-year-old seeds found in an archaeological dig at Masada, in the southern district of Israel. The Judean date palm had been purposefully eradicated in ancient Judea in 70 A.D. by the invading Roman Empire.
To try to ensure planet Earth maintains its great heritage of edible plants, scientists years ago founded the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the storage facility in Norway that preserves more than 860,000 food-crop seeds as of 2015. The operation is financed by the government of Norway and the Global Crop Diversity Trust, the mission of which is to conserve the planet's crop diversity for the food security of current and future generations.
The seed vault can store up to 4.5 million varieties and species, for a total capacity of 2.5 billion seeds. (CropTrust.org photo)
Plants range “from unique varieties of major African and Asian food staples such as maize, rice, wheat, cowpea, and sorghum to European and South American varieties of eggplant, lettuce, barley, and potato. In fact, the vault already holds the most diverse collection of food crop seeds in the world,” says CropTrust.org.
UPDATE FROM THE EDITOR – 4 DECEMBER, 2015
Following the reporting of the above story, which received worldwide press coverage, Kenton Lobe, an environmental studies professor at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Manitoba, has come forward to say that there are innacuracies in the international press coverage of the story. The Indian Country Today Media Network reports that while the origins of the squash seeds are indeed ancient in that they have been grown for some 5,000 years, there is no evidence to suggest the seeds had been found in an 800-year-old pot. Rather, it appears that indigenous people belonging to the Miami Nation of Indiana have been growing and preserving the seeds right up until the modern day, taking great care to hand-pollinate them and retain the purity of the species. We apologize for this innacuracy.
Featured image: The squash in this photo had not been grown for hundreds of years. Native Americans revived it after finding seeds in a pot 800 years old. (Mother News Network photo)
By: Mark Miller