OBJECT OF THE MONTH - October, 2009

Seed Collections and Paleoethnobotany

A variety of seeds and fruits from the CU Herbarium seed collection. (Photograph by Jenna Kaempfer.)

The Herbarium of the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History, which houses dried and pressed plant specimens, is also home to a small collection of seeds. This seed collection can be used for identification of unknown specimens.

In the field of Paleoethnobotany , or the study of the impact of plants on ancient human life, it is particularly important to have a reference collection for identifying seeds, as seeds are as ethnically influential as the rest of the plant. Because of seeds' many uses in rituals and medicine, as well as a major source of food in Ancestral Puebloan life, it is very likely to find some sort of kernels in an archaeological site that was inhabited by these people. It is also more likely to find seeds because any other plant matter should have decomposed; seeds are genetically "manufactured" to survive long periods of time without disintegrating.
In a Southwestern Native American site, seeds may be found inside a granary, around the mano and metate which are used for grinding seeds and grains, in the fire pit, or in the Kiva which is used for ceremonial purposes. Unfortunately, such finds have become rare due to pack rats that scavenge in these sites.
Seeds have had many uses, especially in these ancient societies. Some that were used frequently for food are Zea mays, or corn; Opuntia phaeacantha, or the Tulip Prickly pear and Juniperus monosperma, or the One Seed Juniper. Many different seeds were mashed into pulps or chewed for medicinal purposes, such as Croton texensis, the Texas Croton or Aquilegia caerulea, the Blue Columbine. Seeds were also used for dyes and stains, and held power during ceremonial rituals.
The CU Herbarium, which is open to the public, has an expanding collection of approximately 600 seed specimens. It contains a representative selection of most of the major vascular plant families from Colorado and the South West, including trees, shrubs, forbs, and grasses.
To read more about the uses of seeds and plants by Native Americans, visit the University of Michigan's Native American Ethnobotany Database at http://herb.umd.umich.edu/.
  • Native American Ethnobotany, Daniel E. Moerman, 1998, Timber Press, Inc.
This Object of the Month entry was prepared by Herbarium volunteer curatorial assistant Jenna Kaempfer.