Ancient coffee trees discovered at site of prehistoric Indian village – Mitchell Republic

There is a lot of history at the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village.

And according to Cindy Gregg, executive director of the historic and archaeological site, perhaps more history just popped up in her backyard.

“It’s something that’s been right under our noses for 1,000 years,” Gregg told the Mitchell Republic.

Site officials recently discovered a stand of rare Kentucky coffee trees on the site grounds. The species is considered rare in the wild and is a member of the pea family. It has a native range in the United States, from northern Kentucky to Michigan, west to Kansas, east to Pennsylvania and south to northern Louisiana, according to an Indian Village press release. prehistoric.

Kentucky coffee trees have distinct bark compared to other trees. (Matt Gade/Mitchell Republic)

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The tree gets its name because its large seeds were sometimes roasted and used as a substitute for coffee beans by early European settlers in the United States.

But they also had considerable importance among ancient Native Americans. Seeds were often traded and carried between Native Americans. Tree components were used by Native Americans for medicinal purposes and the large seeds were used for games and ceremonies.

The recent discovery was made in August when members of a papermaking class held at the Thomsen Center’s Archeodome wandered the grounds looking for various plants that could be used in papermaking. Passing through a grove of trees in a draw adjacent to Lake Mitchell, the group spotted a stand of coffee trees.

Jeff Hansen, an amateur botanist who teaches the class, said the trees stood out among the other vegetation.

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Cindy Gregg, executive director of the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village, shows off a pod found on the ground for coffee trees in Kentucky. (Matt Gade/Mitchell Republic)

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“Part of the class I teach includes a plant walk,” Hansen said. “We walk through the woods and down and here is a coffee tree, which I found quite exciting as it was clearly not planted as part of the landscape.”

If the trees are native to the location, that likely means the seeds that produced them originally came from Native Americans who occupied the site over 1,000 years ago. It would also reinforce opinions surrounding ancient Native American trade routes in North America.

Adrien Hannus, professor of anthropology and director of the University of Augustana Archeology Laboratory, said the trees could indicate further confirmation of these ancient routes.

“The discovery of the village trees further confirms the extensive and complex set of trade networks that existed with the prehistoric urban center of Cahokia, near present-day St. Louis,” Hannus said in a statement.

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Cindy Gregg, executive director of the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village, shows off one of the Kentucky coffee trees recently discovered on the grounds of the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village last summer. (Matt Gade/Mitchell Republic)

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Gregg said the find got the staff at the Prehistoric Indian Village excited.

“We knew there was something there because we found the pods, but none of us knew what they were,” Gregg said. “It’s a heavily forested area and we had no reason to go there until the bike path was extended.”

The pods themselves typically contain six rock-hard seeds, which were treasured by ancient Native Americans. The seeds were also eaten by ancient mastodons and woolly mammoths, which helped spread the seeds. Gregg said that only about 3% of coffee tree seeds germinate successfully.

Gregg said there were several coffee trees in the newly discovered stand, with one of the oldest dating back around 70 years.

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Cindy Gregg, executive director of the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village, shows one of the seeds to one of the coffee trees in Kentucky. (Matt Gade/Mitchell Republic)

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“We think the oldest tree, based on the number of rings when it was hollowed out, sprouted in the 1950s, so it may be 70 years old, but there are several good-sized trees and a lot of very, very young trees, maybe only a foot tall,” Gregg said.

John Ball, a professor at South Dakota State University who is also a forestry extension specialist and a forest health specialist with the South Dakota Department of Agriculture, examined the trees and is optimistic that that they are indeed the product of the village that once occupied the site.

“I will continue to investigate and see if we can confirm these are native trees,” Ball said in a statement. “But at the moment, I certainly think it’s fair to say that there’s a good chance it was a stand started by natives rather than planted after Mitchell was settled.”

If confirmed, the discovery will provide a new window for Prehistoric Indian Village staff to display and promote the site’s history. Gregg said they plan to remove invasive species around the coffee trees to cultivate an area that looks like the landscape 1,000 years ago.

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In the center, one of the Kentucky coffee trees on the grounds of the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village. (Matt Gade/Mitchell Republic)

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This will complement the other heirloom and native plant species they grow on-site, Gregg said. The site has several gardens devoted to native plants, and employees have even grown 1,500-year-old beans that were once cultivated by the Mandan, the ancestors of the ancient residents of the prehistoric Indian village.

“We want to get rid of buckthorn and thistle, but we also have a treasure trove of other native plants. Native elms, ground cherries, Indian hemp. It’s a really nice site,” Gregg said. “(The coffeetree stand) will be part of our living exhibits.”

It will be a wonderful way to bring visitors back to ancient times even more.

“It’s really exciting. Archeology isn’t always about digging up old bones, there are other facets,” Gregg said.

The Prehistoric Indian Village is the only active archaeological site in South Dakota open to the public. It was occupied over 1,000 years ago by Native Americans who lived in mud huts. The occupants of the village were skilled farmers who helped develop the first strains of corn as well as beans, squash, sunflowers, tobacco and amaranth. It is estimated that 70 to 80 pavilions are buried on the grounds of the site.

Christina A. Kroll