Abandoned ancient crops may have had surprisingly high yields

An experiment to grow ancient 'lost crops' has revealed evidence of surprisingly high yields, according to a new study from Washington University in St. Louis. It's unknown why certain crops were lost to time and speculation has centered largely around the idea that these crops may not have had adequately high yields. Based on the new study, that assumption may not be correct.

Many modern crops like squashes and beans are the domesticated, carefully cultivated versions of older, more wild plants. The primary crops grown in any given region are tailored to the local environment and climate with influence including the full spectrum of plants cultivated and local pollinators. Some crops like wheat, corn, and rice are produced in huge quantities due to their plentiful yields and the ability to feed a large number of people.

Many crops have been lost to time, fading into obscurity as populations of people gravitated toward other crops. These changes take place slowly and the reasons for the transition are largely lost to time, leaving a mystery for researchers to solve. Examples of lost crops were found as seed caches in caves in the eastern United States.

Research out of Washington University has looked into the crops that were lost in this part of America, ones that may have fed large communities before corn became the dominant staple crop. The latest on this topic comes from the university's assistant professor of archaeology Natalie Mueller who experimented with growing some lost crops herself.

As part of her work, Muller discovered that two lost crops called erect knotweed and goosefoot (essentially wild, 'lost' counterparts to modern buckwheat and quinoa) produce greater yields when grown together as a polyculture rather than separately. With this type of growing arrangement, the crops had yields that eclipsed their modern domesticated counterparts and that came within the same range as traditionally grown corn crops.

Mueller also tried to grow other lost crops like sumpweed, maygrass, and little barley but wasn't able to estimate the crop yields for these plants. The experiment sheds light on the type of growing arrangement Native American communities may have used to feed their populations before more modern crop production began.