For many contemporary North Americans, quinoa is thought of as an exotic food crop from South America, a relatively new introduction to the diet. But that wasn’t always the case. Archaic and early Woodland cultures of Native Americans in parts of the central United States were known to cultivate a now-extinct species of the seed in the genus Chenopodium thousands of years ago. But quinoa, also known as goosefoot, has never shown up in archaeological sites farther north than modern-day Kentucky. So the discovery of a stash of 3,000-year-old charred quinoa in Canada is extraordinary, representing the possibility of unknown trade networks and the oldest-known cultivated grain ever discovered in the province.
According to Jasmine Kabatay at CBC News, about 140,000 burned quinoa seeds were discovered in Brantford, Ontario, in 2010 as archaeologists were conducting a routine survey at a construction site. At first, nothing unusual was found during the dig. But when the research team began analyzing sediment from a pit at the site, they began picking out the unusual quinoa seeds.
“It’s the first time I've been close to being shocked in 45 years of research, and I would say more delighted and surprised than shocked, but it was one of those ‘O-M-G’ moments that one gets when they're doing research,” says Gary Crawford, an archaeologist at the University of Toronto Mississauga and co-author of a paper on the find in the journal American Antiquity.
The co-authors posit two possibilities for how the quinoa made it north of the border: that tribes in the eastern U.S. followed trade routes up to Canada or that the grain itself was cultivated in southern Ontario in low levels, though the latter theory is more speculation and no evidence exists that the crop was actually grown in the area.
“This discovery raises more questions than it answers,” Ron Williamson of Archaeological Services Inc., which conducted the excavation says in a press release. “We had to consider whether the seeds were only traded here or grown locally. We also had to consider whether this was the beginning of agriculture in the province. It appears not, because we don’t see any evidence of local cultivation. 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. We also don’t see any sign of agricultural weeds or stone tools that may have been used for cultivation.”
The quinoa dates to about 900 B.C. and cultivated grains were not seen in the province again until 500 A.D., when corn appears. But it’s not completely surprising since the Woodland culture had an extensive trade network in which shark teeth from the coast, obsidian from Wyoming and copper from the Great Lakes was exchanged.
"Indigenous Canadians and Native Americans are and were sophisticated people, as sophisticated as anyone else in the world, and they were involved in fascinating kinds of things,” Crawford tells Kabatay at the CBC.
Another lingering question among the archaeologists is why the quinoa was found charred. According to the press release, the researchers speculate that the grain was accidentally burned when someone tried to lightly parch it, which prevents the seed from sprouting and preserves it. Some slight oxidation of the soil the seeds were found in caused by heat indicates that the seeds were burned inside the pit in which they were found.
The next step in the research is to take a look at seed collections around Ontario and to collect some of the weedy wild versions of quinoa that grow in the region today to see if they are feral ancestors of this ancient domestic crop.