Millennial beans

by Luigi Guarino on February 27, 2009

beans

Nice enough beans,1 but is the story circulating about them really true?

The story of Anasazi beans varies, depending on who is telling it. In popular mythology, the beans were uncovered by an anthropologist, who discovered a 1,500 year old tightly sealed jar of the beans at a dig in New Mexico. Some of the beans germinated, and the new variety of bean entered cultivation again.

I tried to track the story down, and the closest I got to paydirt, I think, was a passage in Beans: A History by Ken Albala. But even that is pretty vague really. Archaeologists from UCLA somewhere in the midwest in the 1980s, or maybe 1950s, uncover a clay pot sealed with pine tar which they carbon date to 500 BCE. Some of the beans sprout and an intrepid businessman markets them. Yeah, right. To go back to the source of the previous quote:

Since most botanists agree that most beans are unable to germinate after approximately 50 years, it is more probable that the beans remained in constant cultivation in the Southwest, probably in Native American gardens, and that they were picked up by companies looking for new “boutique beans.”

There are plenty of companies marketing Anasazi beans now. But actually it is not impossible for legume seeds to keep their viability for more than 50 years — that’s what genebanks are for. And the dry, relatively cool conditions of an Arizona cave might just be good enough to ensure the survival of a few beans for centuries.

Footnotes:
  1. And thanks to Bisse for letting me use her flickr pic. []
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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Manda February 27, 2009 at 9:55 am

They are very pretty. Which is a profoundly shallow comment. Sorry.

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Jacob March 3, 2009 at 2:05 am

If the beans sprouted, doesn’t that mean they were very badly curated? Maybe no one wants to admit guilt?

The company mentions in the book says it was found in the early 1900s but says nothing about the famous jar:

http://www.anasazibeans.com/beans.html

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Andrew August 9, 2011 at 2:55 am

The version of the story that i heard was that they were actually at CSU here in Colorado. Here is the version below after searching for it:

“With respect to the origin of the beans, they were discovered in a sealed jar at Mesa Verde, Colorado. They were turned over to Colorado State University Department of Agronomy for study and safe keeping. Many years after receiving them, an Agronomy graduate student found the jar with the few beans in an old cabinet, and took half of them and planted them. When the major professor discovered the jar out of the cabinet and half the beans gone, he became more than concerned, but the beans were already planted in the hothouse. By a miracle, part of the planted beans sprouted and grew plants which did set seed. That seed was harvested and replanted, each time increasing the seed on hand until there was enough to plant a field.

I am an a KSU agronomist, and this was told to me by associates in the agronomy department at CSU. “

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Jeremy August 9, 2011 at 9:11 am

Thanks Andrew. what’s weird is that the quote you found comes from a comment at the same web page that Luigi had linked to (which looks to be little more than a link farm). Unfortunately, we have no idea who the KSU agronomist hiding behind the Anon24182 handle might be. Maybe someone at Colorado State University or Kansas State University would like to speak up.

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