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Ancient quinoa found near Ontario, suggests early links between indigenous groups

"Finding domesticated seeds that are so old in Ontario is special," anthropologist Gary Crawford said.

By Brooks Hays
Ancient quinoa found near Ontario, suggests early links between indigenous groups
Three-thousand-year-old quinoa seeds. Photo by Gary Crawford/University of Toronto

Jan. 16 (UPI) -- The discovery of ancient quinoa seeds outside of Ontario suggests early indigenous groups were exchanging perishable goods as early as 900 B.C.

The charred seeds were originally discovered during a mandatory archaeological review prior to the commencement of a construction project. Scientists were able to identify the seed remains as domesticated goosefoot, C. berlandieri spp. jonesianum, a now-extinct strain of quinoa native to Eastern North America. Until now, archeologists had yet to find domesticated goosefoot north of Kentucky.

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"Finding domesticated seeds that are so old in Ontario is special," Gary Crawford, professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto Mississauga, said in a news release. "The next time we find a crop in the province is about 500 A.D., and it's corn. All previous research on this species of quinoa, which is now extinct, has taken place in the central United States: Arkansas, Illinois and Kentucky."

Researchers have previously recovered evidence that early indigenous groups in North America traded minerals and polished stones, but not perishable goods.

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"This discovery raises more questions than it answers. We had to consider whether the seeds were only traded here or grown locally," said Ron Williamson, researcher with the archeological consulting firm Archaeological Services Inc. "We also had to consider whether this was the beginning of agriculture in the province."

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Archaeologists found no evidence that the grain was grown locally.

"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," Williamson said. "We also don't see any sign of agricultural weeds or stone tools that may have been used for cultivation."

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So why did the ancient grain end up so far north? Scientists aren't certain, but the evidence -- detailed in the journal American Antiquity -- suggests local native groups traded for the seeds. Quinoa was prized by other indigenous groups for its nutritional value.

"All of these bits of data demonstrate that the Indigenous Canadians were knowledgeable, sophisticated and well-connected across Eastern North America," Crawford said.

Researchers estimate that the seeds were charred on accident during an attempt to parch the seeds.

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"You can lightly parch seeds so they don't sprout and store them," Crawford said. "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."

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