Archaeologists “Dug Up an 800-Yr-Old Native American Pot.” What Was Inside Altered History

The story goes that back in 2008 a group of archaeologists discovered a small clay pot buried on a First Nation Menominee reservation. As the excavators carefully brushed away the object’s covering of earth, they had no idea of its value. Seven years later, however, their find literally yielded extraordinary fruit, and it became an internet sensation.

Of course, First Nation lands often conceal all kinds of interesting archaeological artifacts: arrowheads, ceramics, jewelry, textiles and utensils, to name a few. All offer valuable insights into the history, culture and lifestyles of Native America, but the find in Wisconsin did much more than that.

From a historical perspective, the invention of pottery is seen as a major milestone in human civilization. It meant wandering tribes were able store food over the winter, shift away from hunter-gatherer lifestyles and settle in agricultural communities.

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So to archaeologists, finding even the smallest shard of pottery can be significant – helping them build a story about the human history of an area, its wider flows of migration, and who lived where, how and when. However, the Menominee pot was supposedly much more of a “living history” than a dead historical record.

The pot was apparently about the size of a tennis ball. It was small, plain and unassuming, with a large crack in its side. Nothing indicated that it was exceptional… That is, until the archaeologists reportedly lifted its lid and saw its contents.

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Inside the pot was allegedly a number of squash seeds from a species thought to have been extinct. Squash, along with maize and beans, was one of the “three sisters” that formed the staple diet of early Americans, including the ancestors of the Menominee.

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How long had the seeds been buried underground? It was said that carbon-dating of the pot indicated they were 800 to 850 years old. Would they still be viable? In the fall of 2015, students at the Mennonite University of Winnipeg reportedly decided to find out.

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Since ancient times, mankind has understood the importance of storing and preserving seeds. Today, for example, in the frozen depths of the Arctic Circle, Norway’s Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a global repository with capacity for 4.5 million seed samples.

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The vault relies on sub-zero temperatures to preserve its seeds in case they are ever needed, but the Menominee squash seeds in this story had no such advantage. So surely they would be dead. However, to the apparent astonishment of the students, the seeds sprouted vibrant seedlings.

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The seedlings allegedly grew into healthy plants. They matured, flowered and yielded a bounty of large, fleshy, orange fruit. The plant was named “Gete-okosomin,” which essentially means “big old squash” in the Anishinaabe language.

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“This squash is representative of a tribe of a large community,” said Brian Etkin, co-ordinator of the Garden of Learning in Winnipeg. “And everybody in that community having a place and food being a right on citizenship.”

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The media picked up on the story, and it went viral. TV news networks, websites and blogs excitedly reported that students in Winnipeg had successfully revived an extinct variety of squash from a clutch of long-lost seeds that were recovered by archaeologists.

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Gardeners flooded the comments sections of websites, with many asking, “Where can I get some of those seeds?” The story of Gete-okosomin inspired hope and wonder, connecting us with an older and seemingly wiser epoch in human history. There was only one small problem: the tale wasn’t true.

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The squash in question was not thought to be extinct. Nor were its seeds discovered in the clay pot. In fact, there was never a clay pot at all. The true story behind the “big old squash” was far less fantastical and far less publicized.

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For as many as 5,000 years, the Miami Nation in Indiana had been cultivating this variety of squash. In 1995, for instance, the community gifted a sample of seeds to David Wrone, a University of Wisconsin professor who specialized in the indigenous people of the Great Lakes area.

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“It’s a delicious variety,” said Wrone, who managed to grow several plants from the seeds. “And it doesn’t have the rind on it that many modern squash have. I would imagine the Miami people sliced it, dried it out and put it in the rafters of their homes.”

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Wrone passed some seeds to his Menominee neighbors, who passed them on to others. Eventually they ended up in the hands of Winnipeg students via the White Earth Seed Library. By then, though, the story of their origin had become distorted through so many retellings.

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The seeds are still exceptionally valuable because they come from an ancient and carefully cultivated species. Generation after generation, century after century, the Miami diligently hand-pollinated their squash plants to safeguard their genetic purity.

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The agricultural practices of indigenous people represent thousands of years of accumulated wisdom. In an age defined by declining biodiversity and genetic modification, this squash reminds us that seeds are our collective patrimony. It’s also excellent to have everyone excited about gardening.

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“Something great is happening from sharing the seed and the story,” said Zachary Paige of the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network. “There’s something that resonates culturally when we share a heritage seed that has been reclaimed.”

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