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3,000-year-old quinoa found in Brantford sheds light on past trading

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A mass of quinoa seeds excavated from an archeological dig at a Brantford construction site has been identified as being 3,000 years old.

And the seeds, which originate from Kentucky-Tennessee area, are raising surprising questions about the extent of trade among Indigenous peoples at the time — about 900 B.C.

Gary Crawford, professor for the department of anthropology at the University of Toronto said 140,000 seeds were found, and its as if they were “processed for delivery.”

“This is just one of these unbelievably fortuitous discoveries,” said Crawford. He was brought onto the excavation site by Archaeological Services Inc. and said the discovery was “a bit of a surprise.

“It just shows us that that sometimes what seems to be a relatively insignificant site can have something incredibly important on it.”

Crawford says that no one has reported this quinoa existing in Ontario before, and their discovery of the seeds raises more questions than it does provide answers, especially when it comes to trading in the past and what was traded.

Sometimes what seems to be a relatively insignificant site can have something incredibly important on it.– Gary Crawford, University of Toronto

He says the discovery also shows that crops were part of trade exchange.

And it throws a “monkey wrench” into the standard model they know, which was trade occurred from north to south and east to west, but didn’t know how far the trading extended. 

He says this discovery brings to light that people back then were connected to people outside of Ontario and further south for food resources.

He says it’s possible the seeds were grown here, but they can’t be for certain because there’s no actual evidence it grew here.

“Of course the lack of evidence doesn’t mean they weren’t growing it, but for now I think the safe interpretation is this stuff was being imported in the province,” said Crawford.

Finding the seeds

The quinoa seeds were found back in 2010, after a required archaeological assessment was done on the site to see if there were any relevant archaeological items to the area. Crawford says there was nothing unusual about what they were finding, as most of the materials came from the area.

It wasn’t until they collected sediment from a pit beside the site and began exemining  it pursuing more that they discovered something much bigger.

“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,” said Crawford.

“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,” said Crawford.

Paula Whitelow, museum director at Woodland Cultural Centre, says it isn’t really understood how Indigenous people traded back then, but it is understood there was an “extensive trade network” thousands of years ago.

Whitelow explains that at the time, the Neutrals, the Indigenous people who weren’t fighting, had an extensive trade network and even had a city in Onondaga that was about 15 acres, making it a large Neutral city — something that wasn’t common.

Next steps

The next step with the seeds, Crawford says, is to look at the legacy of the seeds and says there are “relatives” to this type of crop in Ontario.

“I think we need to work together with botanists to sort out whether the wild species that grows in Ontario is actually a feral version of this crop and whether weed distributions we see in the province today actually can be traced way back to Indigenous Canadian activity in the province,” said Crawford.

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