Lost crops have a future.

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In prehistoric times many diverse crops were cultivated and domesticated by indigenous peoples all over the world. Some of these ancient crops are still cultivated today, but many are not. The reasons some domesticated cultivars survived to present day while others went extinct is often a mystery.

At least five species were domesticated in prehistoric eastern North America: sunflowers, squash, goosefoot, erect knotweed, and marshelder. The domesticated forms of goosefoot, erect knotweed, and marshelder have been extinct for hundreds of years. These lost domesticated crops can tell us much about the lifeways of prehistoric peoples. As we learn more about these lost crops, we learn how to build increasingly resilient and sustainable food systems for people today.

The Lost Crops Garden Network is a collaboration across universities and disciplines to study and grow the indigenous prehistoric crops of eastern North America. We are excited by the potential of these crops in food systems being stressed by climate change and agrobiodiversity loss. We are driven by the pursuit of knowledge and passion for the plants we study.

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Natalie G. Mueller, Gayle J. Fritz, Paul Patton, Stephen Carmody, and Elizabeth T. Horton - 2017

Abstract. Thousands of years before the maize-based agriculture practiced by many Native American societies in eastern North America at the time of contact with Europeans, there existed a unique crop system only known through archaeological evidence. There are no written or oral records of how these lost crops were cultivated, but several domesticated subspecies have been identified in the archaeological record. Growth experiments and observations of living progenitors of these crops can provide insights into the ancient agricultural system of eastern North America, the role of developmental plasticity in the process of domestication, and the creation and maintenance of diverse landraces under cultivation. In addition, experimental gardens are potent tools for public education, and can also be used to conserve remaining populations of lost crop progenitors and explore the possibility of re-domesticating these species.