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King_Tut.jpgA Truly Ancient Grain?

The wheat variety called Kamut® has a fascinating history.

According to “Kamut®: Ancient Grain, New Cereal”, one of the original growers, and one of the trademark holders, of Kamut®, Robert M. Quinn recounts the story of this unusual wheat variety.

“Following WWII, a US airman claimed to have taken a handful of this grain from a stone box in a tomb near Dashare, Egypt. Thirty-six kernels of the grain were given to a friend who mailed them to his father, a Montana wheat farmer. The farmer planted and harvested a small crop and displayed the grain as a novelty at the local fair. Believing the legend that the giant grain kernels were taken from an Egyptian tomb, the grain was dubbed “King Tut’s Wheat.”

This is certainly not the only story of germinating seeds that are thousands of years old, which were collected from Egyptian tombs. (Please see here and here, for examples.)

The Mummy’s Curse?

On p. 55 of Seeds: The Definitive Guide to Growing, History, and Lore, the author dismisses such claims as being “Right up there with the mummy’s curse that supposedly led to the death of Lord Carnarvon, the archaeologist who uncovered King Tutankhamen’s tomb…”

Arctic_lupine.jpgThe oldest claim for longevity (> 10,000 years) cited in this book (published in 2005) is for arctic lupine (Lupinus arcticus) seeds frozen and buried in the Canadian Yukon. The author is skeptical of the claim, and, indeed, a recent scientific report (see ref. 2 below) confirms that the seeds were from modern times.

Seed Longevity: The Facts

Thanks to scores of scientific studies, we now have a pretty good idea of how long most seeds remain viable, that is, able to germinate. Under normal conditions (dry and cool), most seeds will remain viable for only a few years, and anything over 50 to 100 years is quite remarkable. (The reason, of course, is that some, if not most, of the seed is alive and respiring, and, thus, is using up its food supply, albeit very slowly.)

For reference: Table of garden seed longevity and How to test seeds for viability.

To extend the time of seed viability, seed banks may use special storage conditions, such as liquid nitrogen temperatures. (But this will be a subject for another time.)

And coming back around full-circle to the story of Kamut®, Robert M. Quinn admits that“…most scientists believe it probably survived the years as an obscure grain kept alive by the diversity of crops common to small peasant farmers perhaps in Egypt or Asia Minor.”

More mythbusting?: Mummy DNA: History or hype?

References

1. SEEDS by Peter Loewer

2. Radiocarbon dates reveal that Lupinus arcticus plants were grown from modern not Pleistocene seeds. (New Phytologist)

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