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The Promise and Perils of Resurrecting Native Americans’ Lost Crops

Who owns ancient seeds?

Elizabeth Horton never intended for Plum Bayou to become a testing site for recovering lost crops. By planting historical staples such as Chenopodium berlandieri, a type of goosefoot and a cousin of modern-day quinoa, she sought to teach visitors about the agriculture of the Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park’s original inhabitants. Yet Horton’s plants aren’t originals—they’re wild cousins of the crops that fed North America since at least 3900 BC. Due to a Native shift toward maize cultivation around 900 AD, and the devastation of Euro-American colonialism, these “lost crops” have been extinct for 500 years.

But when Horton planted wild goosefoot, knotweed, and marsh elder in her garden, something uncanny happened. “The plants in the garden started behaving very strangely,” Horton says. Under her care, the wild plants grew large, their seeds fat. It’s possible that the plants Horton cultivated are feral—strains that were once domesticated, but re-entered the wilderness long ago. It’s also possible that by tending to these wild plants, Horton triggered the same biological reactions that ancient Native Americans prompted when they originally domesticated these species.

The latter explanation most intrigues the scientists of the Lost Crops Network, of which Horton is a member.

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Tags: #agriculture, #indigenouspeoples
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