Ancient coffee trees discovered on the site of a prehistoric Indian village
And according to Cindy Gregg, executive director of the historic and archaeological site, more history may have just popped up in her backyard.
“It’s something that has been under our noses for 1,000 years,” Gregg told Mitchell Republic.
Site officials recently discovered a stand of rare Kentucky coffee trees on the site’s grounds. The species is considered rare in the wild and is part of the pea family. It has a range native to the United States, from Kentucky to northern Michigan, west to Kansas, east to Pennsylvania and south to northern Louisiana, according to a statement. press release from the Prehistoric Indian Village.
Kentucky coffee trees have a distinct bark compared to other trees. (Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic)
The tree gets its name from the fact that its large seeds were sometimes roasted and used as a substitute for coffee beans by early European settlers in the United States.
But they were also of considerable importance to ancient Native Americans. Seeds were often traded and transported among Native Americans. The elements of the trees 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 archaeodome of the Thomsen Center walked the park observing various plants that could be used in papermaking. While walking through a grove of trees in a draw adjacent to Mitchell Lake, the group spotted a stand of coffee trees.
Jeff Hansen, an amateur botanist who teaches the class, said the trees stood out against other vegetation.
Cindy Gregg, executive director of the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village, shows a pod found on the ground for Kentucky coffee trees. (Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic)
“Part of the class I teach includes a walk to look at the plants,” said Hansen. “We are walking through the woods and down and here is a coffee tree, which I found quite exciting as it clearly has not been planted in the landscape.”
If the trees are native to the area, it probably means that the seeds that produced them were originally from the Native Americans who occupied the site over 1,000 years ago. It would also strengthen opinions surrounding the ancient trade routes of Native Americans to North America.
Adrien Hannus, professor of anthropology and director of the Archaeological Laboratory at Augustana University, said the trees could indicate further confirmation of these ancient roads.
“The discovery of the trees in the village further confirms the extensive and complex set of trading networks that existed with the prehistoric urban center of Cahokia, near present-day St. Louis,” Hannus said in a statement.
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)
Gregg said the find sparked enthusiasm among staff at the prehistoric Indian village.
“We knew there was something there because we were finding the pods, but neither of us knew what they were,” said Gregg. “It’s a heavily forested area and we had no reason to go into this forested area until the bike path was extended.”
The pods themselves typically contain six stone-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 seeds germinate successfully.
Gregg said there were several coffee trees in the newly discovered stand, one of the oldest being around 70 years old.
Cindy Gregg, executive director of the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village, shows one of the seeds to one of the Kentucky coffee trees. (Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic)
“We think the oldest tree, based on the number of rings when it was hollowed out, sprouted in the 1950s, so it might be 70 years old, but there are several good-sized trees and a lot of very, very young trees, maybe only a foot tall, ”said Gregg.
John Ball, professor at South Dakota State University who is also a forestry extension specialist and forest health specialist with the South Dakota Department of Agriculture, has examined the trees and is optimistic that they are, indeed, the product of the village that occupied formerly the site.
“I will continue to investigate and see if we can confirm that these are native trees,” Ball said in a statement. “But for now, I certainly think it’s fair to say that there is a strong possibility that this was a stand started by the Natives rather than planted after Mitchell was colonized.”
If confirmed, the find will provide a new window for the staff of the prehistoric Indian village to display and promote the history of the site. Gregg said they are looking to remove invasive species around coffee trees to cultivate an area that would resemble the landscape of 1,000 years ago.
In the center, one of the Kentucky coffee trees on the grounds of the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village. (Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic)
This will complement well the other ancient and native plant species that they grow on site, said Gregg. The site has several gardens dedicated to native plants, and staff members have even grown 1,500-year-old beans that were once cultivated by the Mandan, the ancestors of the ancient inhabitants 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, ”said Gregg. “(The coffee stand) will be part of our living exhibitions. “
It will be a wonderful way to bring the ancient era to life even more for visitors.
“It’s really exciting. Archeology isn’t always about digging up old bones, there are other sides,” said Gregg.
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 varieties of corn as well as beans, squash, sunflowers, tobacco and amaranth. It is estimated that 70 to 80 lodges are buried on the grounds of the site.