2,000-Year-Old Seeds Found in Chinese Tomb May Reveal Clues About the Past

The discovery of more than 100 seeds in northern China could offer insight into ancient crop varieties and the food people ate two millennia ago.

A recent discovery of more than 100 seeds in northern China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region has puzzled archaeologists. The half-moon shaped seeds resemble those from modern pomegranates, but according to the regional institute of archaeology, their identity is unknown.

The discovery was made while excavating an ancient tomb in Dengkou County, western Inner Mongolia, from the middle and late Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-25 A.D.) and early Eastern Han Dynasty (25 A.D.-220 A.D.)

"One of the advantages to a find like this is that you may come across a specific variety of plant that's no longer around today, or has kind of faded into obscurity," Craig Barrett, assistant professor of plant evolutionary biology at West Virginia University, told Seeker.

Barrett pointed out that scientists today are very interested in preserving the genetic variation we see in crops, called seed banking, in order to save seed varieties from eradication. The Svalbard seed vault in Norway is the largest example of this, with over 880,000 seed samples from almost every country in the world.

The other advantage of a seed find like this is the potential to gain insight about the diet of people two millennia ago.

"2,000 years ago is recent enough to where we know quite a bit about what people in that part of the world were eating," Barrett said, however if the seeds are in fact related to the pomegranate plant, "it might be really significant in terms of finding some ancient variety of pomegranate that people were eating," he added.

It's unknown at this point whether the seeds can be revived or not, but there have been several successful attempts at ancient seed revival in recent years.

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Archaeologists unearthed a stockpile of 2,000-year-old seeds in the excavation of Herod the Great's palace in Israel in the early 1960s. The seeds remained stored away for over forty year, but in 2005, a botanical researcher decided to plant one and see if it would sprout.

To her surprise, the seeds produced a Judean date palm tree sapling, which is now the oldest known tree seed to germinate. The tree continues to thrive and even produced its first flower in 2011.

In 2015, students in Winnipeg, Canada, successfully grew an ancient variety of squash from seeds that had been discovered in an archaeological dig on First Nations land. The seeds are thought to be about 800 years old, and the school plans to continue saving the seeds from every squash they grow so the variety never goes extinct again.

Barrett thinks a similar approach should be taken in the case of the northern China discovery.

"In terms of actually figuring out what [plant] this is, the first suggestion I'd have would be to stick the seeds in soil and see if it germinates - that's the easy route," he said.

"But there are other routes you could take," Barrett continued. "For example, having a plant expert in this particular group identify the seeds based on their morphology, or in other words, their shape. The last option would be to grind some [seeds] up and try to sequence some DNA from them, if that's even possible."

The northern China excavation revealed 18, single-chamber brick tombs in total, however, most of their tops were exposed to air, which means they were not very well preserved.

It's unknown yet whether the lack of preservation will have an impact on identifying and regenerating the seeds.

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