Beanplating the story of 1,500 year old New Mexican beans
July 28, 2018 8:58 AM   Subscribe

Heirloom seeds are defined, at least by USDA (PDF), as at least 50 years old. So what do you call 1,500 year old seeds? When she was in New Mexico, Jackie Clay was given old seeds that a neighbor had found in an old clay pot that was sealed with pine pitch. The neighbor's son apparently had a seed radiocarbon dated circa 500 CE. Some 15 centuries later, some of the seeds germinated, producing giant, tough seed pods with soft beans. She calls them Folsom Indian Ruin beans for their proximity to the Folsom Site.

Other heirloom seed sellers may be mixing their stories, with 1,500 year old cave beans aka New Mexico Cave Beans or Aztec Cave Beans, with the same story of being found in a cave in New Mexico, in a clay pot sealed with pitch, though "Anasazi beans" add a different history
As it goes, in the 1980's a member of an archeological team from UCLA was looking for remains of Pygmy elephants that roamed the earth thousands of years ago in the area now known as New Mexico and came upon these beans. The beans were in a clay pot sealed with pine tar and were determined by radio carbon dating to be over 1,500 years old, yet some still germinated! The beans were simply called "New Mexico Cave Beans" after the discovery of the half dozen or so beans found in a cave once inhabited by Native American peoples. Of course, the usual germmination period for stored beans being at most 50 years, the folks who say they have been grown continuously in the Utah - New Mexico area could be right, too.
Yet, these bean seeds are yet to be listed in the short Wikipedia page of oldest viable seed, where the beans might rank 3rd oldest, between 2,000 year old Judean date palm and 1,300 year old sacred lotus seed.

Whatever the history, or story, they're mild, sweet-flavored, they’re easy to cook, and they make a fine alternative to the usuals.
posted by filthy light thief (40 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
Yeah, I've got to say this smells like a hoax, and exploited to sell expensive seeds to back-to-earthers.
posted by JackFlash at 9:25 AM on July 28, 2018 [4 favorites]

Plate of beans...jar of beans...jar of beans sealed with pitch and stored in a cave for 1500 years...
posted by oceanjesse at 9:27 AM on July 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

Favourited for the title, now to read the OP
posted by infini at 9:30 AM on July 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'd like to hear a little more about the "neighbor who found the bean's son just happens to go to UNM and just happens to get some free radiocarbon dating done" part of the story. Like, was he in the archaeology program? Can anyone just walk up to an archaeology prof with some old beans and as to get it dated, or do you have to be an alumnus? Or was this like a class project? "Everyone, go find something old in your backyard and we'll radiocarbon date it next week."
posted by thecjm at 9:33 AM on July 28, 2018 [12 favorites]

Here is a version told by someone who may be credited with the UCLA story. Shameless plug for Mesa Verde NP.
posted by Brian B. at 9:40 AM on July 28, 2018 [8 favorites]

These stories are super dubious, but we have been enjoying the heirloom beans we have ordered, mostly from Rancho Gordo. There are a lot of interesting bean varieties still being grown, and it is great that a market is being created for them. I can excuse some creative or enthusiastic marketing in the service of tasty beans.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:45 AM on July 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

Brian B., thanks for that version!
posted by filthy light thief at 9:46 AM on July 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

If dubious cave beans pique your interest, you should check out Native Seed/SEARCH, a non-profit in Arizona that specializes in preserving traditional Native American seeds and plant varieties.

(I hope this isn't too much of a derail. I'm not affiliated in any way with the organization, I just love plants and I follow them on Instagram.)
posted by lollymccatburglar at 9:48 AM on July 28, 2018 [23 favorites]

Is there a Curse of the Mummy's Legume joke here somewhere?
posted by lagomorphius at 9:54 AM on July 28, 2018 [6 favorites]

Is there a Curse of the Mummy's Legume joke here somewhere?

The wizened old farmer nervously glanced from side to side as he handed me the crock of ancient beans. “Whatever you do,” he said, his voice trembling with fear, “don’t let them get wet!” “Poor guy’s been getting too much sun,” I thought, as I tossed the crock in the back seat of my car before rushing back to the lab.
posted by mondo dentro at 10:51 AM on July 28, 2018 [9 favorites]

Red beans, pinto beans, green beans, colour-out-of-space beans....
posted by The otter lady at 11:39 AM on July 28, 2018 [5 favorites]

*thinks long and hard if they have room for a second raised bean bed for next year*
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 11:45 AM on July 28, 2018 [4 favorites]

Hoax or not, you should all eat more beans. They're good for you.
posted by Jessica Savitch's Coke Spoon at 11:49 AM on July 28, 2018 [5 favorites]

beans beans the musical fruit.
the more you eat, the more you toot
the more you toot, the greater the chance you might play some fragment of an Anasazi folk melody unheard for 10 0 centuries.
so eat your beans at every meal
posted by otherchaz at 12:31 PM on July 28, 2018 [26 favorites]

lollymccatburglar, I think you're hte only one on topic tbh
posted by infini at 12:36 PM on July 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

flt, thank you so much for this.
posted by MonkeyToes at 1:35 PM on July 28, 2018

Native Seeds /SEARCH is awesome! I first came across them when researching heirloom seeds optimized to grow here in Phoenix when I was putting together a little emergency seed vault for the bottom of my freezer.

Since then, I’ve started to appreciate actually growing the seeds, and buy from them every year, though then I give most of the seeds away to my gardening friends. Lots of awesome seeds optimized over many generations/centuries to grow well here in AZ: corn, squash, beans, chiles, etc.

One of my favorites is they have several varieties of tepary bean that are traditional in Native American agriculture in the low desert around Phoenix. They’re very heat and drought tolerant and easy to grow here, have a higher protein content than pinto and kidney beans, and are very tasty. The plants are cultivated around the monsoon (wet) season, which we are currently experiencing, and are fairly robust. I’ve estimated that it would take about 40 tepary bean bushes to generate all of the protein an average adult human would need throughout the year.

Here’s an article on farming tepary beans and the Native Seeds / Search.

Here’s a YouTube video on how to grow them on a larger Tonoho O’odham farm. Here’s another showing how to cook them in some traditional meals.

Here’s a video series (start with this second video) of guy documenting his successful attempt to grow a few tepary bean bushes in his back yard.

Cool post, FLT!
posted by darkstar at 1:39 PM on July 28, 2018 [22 favorites]

I’ve estimated that it would take about 40 tepary bean bushes to generate all of the protein an average adult human would need throughout the year.

I'm so excited to hear this, I'm growing tepary beans for the first time this year and I definitely have more than 40 plants! I came across Native Seed/SEARCH because I was looking for seeds in the US optimized to my climate (hot, dry, Mediterranean) and not New England (like my old favorite, Johnny's). They also carry some interesting wild varieties of tepary beans and chitepins and the like that i'd really like to try some day, when garden space is not at a premium.
posted by lollymccatburglar at 1:51 PM on July 28, 2018 [7 favorites]

Oh wow lolly! That’s fantastic!

I have so many questions! I would dearly, dearly love to see photos of your setup and hear more about your experience growing that many of these plants!

I think it’d make a great MeFi Projects post. Or, if you have a blog, I’m really interested in reading it! :)
posted by darkstar at 2:00 PM on July 28, 2018 [4 favorites]

I second the request for pictures and links- that sounds great!
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 2:03 PM on July 28, 2018 [4 favorites]

It’s interesting to me that some beans we are more familiar with are primarily due to their size. For example, pinto beans became a Southwestern staple, as opposed to other varieties, because they are larger and easier for machines to handle.

However, I misstated the “40 plants per person” thing. That was originally in conjunction with an early estimate I made concerning growing an assortment of other crops (to avoid the cultivation risks and dietary boredom of a monoculture) that also provided protein, including amaranth and corn, among others.

To be more precise: teparies yield on average about 950 pounds per acre (about 1065 kg/hectare), and other studies have shown almost twice that yield, up to 1988 kg/ha depending on the seed variety.

Since tepary beans are about 20% protein by mass, this means that, on average, the bean yields 86 kg of dietary protein per acre of tepary cultivation. Since the average human adult needs about 55 g of dietary protein per day, an acre of tepary beans would provide about 1560 person-days of protein. Divided by 365, that’s 4.3 people per acre per year. So...just under a quarter acre (about a tenth of a hectare) of tepary bean plants to provide all of the dietary protein required per person. That’s considerably more than 40 plants, but still something one might perhaps manage without too much difficulty. But you wouldn’t want to get all your protein from just one source, for dietary reasons.

Native Seeds / SEARCH Celebration of the Tepary Bean is definitely worth a quick read: part 1, part 2.
posted by darkstar at 3:15 PM on July 28, 2018 [8 favorites]

I feel a bit uncomfortable with the name "anasazi" since it was trademarked by Adobe Mills in the 80s. The whole "find a type of bean that's been around forever and trademark it" thing really sucks imo. (See the fight over the attempt to patent the mayo coba bean. Yes I know there's a difference between trying to patent a bean and trademarking a name. It still involves non-natives finding something that was already there and was developed by others and appropriating it or the idea of it).

As far as tepary beans go, if this website is true they were revitalized and brought back from rarity by, surprise, some native people...)
posted by Rufous-headed Towhee heehee at 3:37 PM on July 28, 2018 [6 favorites]

That may be a little bit of marketing spin, I don’t know. This article suggests that native populations did indeed keep the tepary bean alive from generation to generation on small, traditional farms, but that it was W.D. Hood’s efforts to mass produce the bean in the late 60s that drew it from relative rarity/obscurity in non-native markets. Ramona Farms’ specific efforts didn’t begin until 10 years later.

Regardless, there is no doubt that it is the Native American groups — and especially the Tohono O’odham — to whom we owe the availability of the tepary bean at all, as they are the ones that have been cultivating it and keeping it vital for thousands of years.

I just don’t have the space to grow much of anything, since I moved into a condo two years ago. But this thread just inspired me to order a few pounds of white teparies. Yum!
posted by darkstar at 4:19 PM on July 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

Oh, and in the spirit of long-surviving desert bean seeds:
Desert Plant Seeds Added to International Vault

A University of Arizona scientist has left a collection of desert plant seeds in a most un-desert-like place.

In February [2011], Margaret Norem, a researcher with the UA department of arboretum affairs, traveled to the noted Svalbard Global Seed Vault, located on a remote island off the coast of Norway and just a few hundred miles from the North Pole.

Norem, who has a doctorate in plant sciences, brought with her seeds from 74 desert legume species collected from 10 countries.

The seeds are from the Desert Legume Program, or DELEP, the research arm of Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park in Superior, Ariz., part of the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. They are among the 3,524 species of legumes from 57 countries that DELEP has been seed banking for the last 22 years.

...Norem said the one box she brought is dwarfed by the collection inside, but plans are to make more deposits over time. The seeds sent to Svalbard may also reside there for quite a while.

"Different seeds have different viability periods. The viability of the DELEP seeds sent to Svalbard is estimated to be more than 100 years for each species, so our descendants will be the ones responsible for replacing them."
posted by darkstar at 4:34 PM on July 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

I feel a bit uncomfortable with the name "anasazi" since it was trademarked by Adobe Mills in the 80s.

Yep, this entire beans-found-in-a-cave story is just a marketing hoax. This native strain of beans has been widely cultivated in the southwest by natives for a long time and they still do, long before Adobe Mills came along. All the Adobe Mills company did was trademark a catchy name and slap it on the label. Anyone can and many do grow the beans, just as they always have. They just can't sell them with the "Anasazi" name on the label.

Yes, it is a cultural ripoff.
posted by JackFlash at 4:51 PM on July 28, 2018 [4 favorites]

I would absolutely kick the original story out on its arse due to lack of verifiable facts. Which lab did the carbon dating? What's the provenance of the sample? Who paid for it, and why?

Beans are cool, delicious and severely underrated. Me and beans go way back. As a quondam grower and constant consumer of beans, I am there for them. As an editor, I say this story stinks worse than my bedroom the morning after me judging the All-Devon Bean Growers Bake-Off.
posted by Devonian at 4:58 PM on July 28, 2018 [8 favorites]

There’s a big buttery heirloom bean from northern NM called the mortgage lifter bean, and I love them and love the name. Clearly not from a cave, but clearly rooted in history.
posted by Grandysaur at 7:18 PM on July 28, 2018 [5 favorites]

Well, it might not be from NM, but that’s where I’ve encountered it most frequently.
posted by Grandysaur at 7:23 PM on July 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

Devonian: Which lab did the carbon dating? What's the provenance of the sample?

Jackie Clay wrote that her neighbor, a rancher, found the pot in "indian ruins," that her neigbor's son was a student at the University of New Mexico, and that he had a seed radiocarbon dated there. UNM has a collection of articles about radiocarbon dated materials, but nothing about ancient beans.

The first article about the 1,500 beans includes a comment from Jackie that "These beans are similar to a bean called 45/90 and we think they may be the same bean, grown by generations of a Missouri family." Dave's Garden and the Plants Database include pages for 45/90 cultivars, so they're a known bean, but neither have much details or purported histories of the variety.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:03 PM on July 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

I am a bean enthusiast and in fact took on another 30-square-meter plot at my allotment this year just in order to grow more beans (I've got tepary, cranberry, Jacob's cattle, and runner beans, and that's not counting the ones for eating green), and I love this thread and Metafilter so much. Beans!!
posted by lollymccatburglar at 12:26 AM on July 29, 2018 [8 favorites]

flt knew our weakness and played to it. We have indeed overthunk this carbon dated claypot of beans
posted by infini at 12:33 AM on July 29, 2018 [7 favorites]

I have held some of these seeds in my hand because of this woman’s work and many of the seeds are astoundingly beautiful.
posted by bluesky43 at 7:08 AM on July 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

lollymccatburglar, you may already be growing one variation of "New Mexico [ancient/cave] bean" -- Ellen's Kitchen, the Anasazi beans link before the block quote, writes that "Most popular of the modern boutique beans, the Anasazi bean is also called the Aztec bean, Cave bean, New Mexico appaloosa and sometimes Jacob's Cattle." How do yours look? Are they mottled or spotted?
posted by filthy light thief at 9:15 AM on July 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

That Folsom Indian Ruin bean looks mighty like the Mortgage Lifter.
posted by the Real Dan at 5:49 PM on July 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

That they do - but no word on how tough the shell is on those. Given that they look like 45/90 beans grown in the Midwest, they might not be as rare as claimed. Or they're old beans that are actually still in production around the country, in patches here and there.

And there's also mortgage lifter tomatoes, for a good bit of online search confusion.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:18 PM on July 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

And now I want beans.
            —half of MetaFilter
posted by seyirci at 11:53 AM on July 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

How do yours look? Are they mottled or spotted?

They're spotted, here's what they look like. They're almost too pretty to eat, and I can see why another name is Appaloosa. They've got that distinctive spotty white rump (or where the rump would be if beans had rumps).
posted by lollymccatburglar at 1:49 PM on July 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

[ dubious cave beans is the name of my red hot chili peppers cover band ]
posted by mon-ma-tron at 5:40 PM on July 31, 2018 [3 favorites]

[ I've waited 15 16 days to say that this is a semi-stunt post, to mark my 1,500th post. I went looking for topics about "1,500 years" and found this "ancient" bean story, from New Mexico, no less! ]
posted by filthy light thief at 9:36 AM on August 13, 2018 [8 favorites]

posted by Wilder at 11:24 PM on August 25, 2018

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