During a routine analysis of soil samples from an excavation in Brantford, Ontario, U of T archaeologists found something unexpected: quinoa seeds dating to 900 BCE.

The discovery is particularly noteworthy due to the high concentration of seeds found in a small pit at the Tutela Heights site. 

Previously, such large concentrations of seeds from this period in North America had only been found in the southern United States.

While quinoa is now a popular option for people seeking an alternative to grains, it played an important role in ancient Indigenous societies in South America from around 2000 BCE onward. It was one of the most important Indigenous crops that supported complex agricultural cultures.

According to Dr. Gary Crawford, a professor in the Department of Anthropology at UTM and a lead researcher in the discovery, though foods like quinoa were known to be a part of agricultural complexes that were hundreds of kilometres south of Ontario during this time, there was no previous archaeological or ethnohistoric evidence of domesticated quinoa in ancient Ontarian economies. In an email to The Varsity, Crawford explained that there is some evidence of small samples of wild seeds, but nothing that would imply a major role in Indigenous cultures. 

Jessica Lytle, researcher and archaeologist on the excavation, told The Varsity in an email about how the quinoa seeds were discovered. First, small black particles were identified in the soil from the dig and taken for water screening. The flowing water separated organic material, which floated to the surface, from inorganic material.

“I knew we had something very unique,” wrote Lytle. “I was recovering handfuls of very small carbonised seeds!”

Lytle classified the particles by size using geological sieves and then examined them under a microscope. Lytle realized that the seeds were variants of a chenopod species, a subfamily that includes quinoa. 

Crawford confirmed that the seeds were domesticated, as their seed coats were much thinner than those of wild chenopods. He then checked seed collections in his lab and identified a few domestic chenopod seeds that were previously classified as weedy chenopods.

According to Crawford, the presence of the domesticated seeds implies that, contrary to previous thought, ancient Indigenous cultures in Ontario were aware of domesticated crops during this period. However, the low concentrations in the region and lack of records imply that the crop was not a staple of day-to-day life and did not play an important supporting role in Indigenous cultures in the area. 

In any case, this variant of domesticated quinoa was later supplanted by more prevalent crops like maize, beans, squash, and sunflower. 

Eventually, the domesticated form became extinct due to a lack of human intervention, but a possible descendant of the ancient crop survived in eastern North America in a wild, weedy form. 

Future research will include a more in-depth analysis of the role of quinoa in Indigenous cultures of Ontario and an exploration of its distribution and ecology, with a possible interest in re-domestication, or whether weedy chenopods have economic benefit.

“I hope other archaeologists working on sites between Ontario and southern Ohio will start paying closer attention to this problem,” wrote Crawford. “The discovery in Ontario shouldn’t be so isolated.”