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Viable Wheat Emerges from Ancient Mounds of Payson, Utah

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Previously published in the Dec 2015 Ancient American Issue Number 109, pg. 40-42

Fig. 1 Approximately 20 miles of mountain range as seen from the flat farmland where the mounds once stood.

Amasa Potter, serving as Alderman of Payson City, Utah, in the year 1870 and a farmer by trade, had his work cut out for him. Having purchased 3.6 acres of rich, fertile farmland approximately 1 mile northwest of Payson, he was determined to eradicate the imposing mound that rose over 15’ high on the newly acquired plot. A staggering 600 wagonloads of dirt would be removed before the farm would be level and all traces of the ancient mound obliterated. 
 
Potter’s mound was part of a complex including 5 to 7 mounds all surrounded and connected by graveled walks. Two of the mounds were circular, the others elongated and all were of varying sizes ranging from 10-18‘ high, 500- 1000’ in circumference and covering approximately 25 acres on what was known as the Payson Farm. 
 
The Excavation 
 
Moving the dirt was an arduous yet rewarding task. As the excavation progressed, an ancient structure slowly emerged with walls made of adobe bricks 18” long, 8” wide and 4” thick laid up in mortar made with cut straw. Amasa Potter described in detail both the dwellings and the objects discovered within. 
 
“We have found many curiosities in the mounds belonging to this ancient race once inhabiting this section. We find houses in all the mounds, the rooms of which are as perfect as the day they were built. All the apartments were nicely plastered and hard finished in every room, some in white and others in a red color with pictures of different animals in bright colors on the walls. There were clay pipes used for conduction of water in the house, some two inches in diameter and in a good state of preservation. 
 
“We found several stone jugs and jars, one that would hold up to 30 gallons, along with crockery ware, cooking utensils and vases. There were mill-stones used in grinding corn along with plenty of charred corncobs. Numerous articles of pottery were evident, some of them beautifully ornamented with pictures of flowers and animals. Upon one jug or vase can be traced a perfect delineation of the mountains for a distance of twenty miles.” (See Fig. 1) 
 
“We found in one deposit a comb and also a spoon, in good shape, made of stone; also a set of marbles. There was a sunglass, when cleaned and polished could light a pipe from the heat of the sun as easily as by any glass made now-adays. There were needles made of deer horns, and lasts made of stone for making shoes—all in good shape, and bright colored cloth so decayed that it would not bear handling. There were many trinkets such as white stone beads and also small squares of polished stones resembling dominoes but for what use intended we cannot determine. All these items were sealed in cement so water could not get in. “We judge that these ancient dwellers followed agriculture for a livelihood and had many of the arts and sciences known to us. We found molds made of clay, they are of different shapes for casting various kinds of iron implements. There is no kind of iron to be found now, but there are spots of rust where it has decayed. Skeletons: Humans, Horses and All Kinds of Animals 
 
“While engaged in excavating one of the larger mounds, I found a large building with 5 rooms in it, and in the corner of one of those rooms I found two skeletons of ancient people. We discovered the feet of a large skeleton, and carefully removing the hardened earth in which it was embedded, we succeeded in unearthing an entire skeleton without injury. The human frame-work measured 6’7” in length and from appearances, it was undoubtedly of the male gender. In the right hand was a huge iron or steel weapon, which had been buried with the body, evidenced by a streak of rust from his right hand down his side which we believe to have been a sword but which crumbled to pieces on handling. 
 
“Near the skeleton we also found pieces of cedar wood, cut in various fantastical shapes that had not all decayed. The heart was left yet and the wood was cut smooth, showing that the people of this unknown race were acquainted with the use of edged tools. We also found a large stone pipe, the stem of which was inserted between the teeth of the skeleton. The bowl of the pipe weighs five ounces, made of sandstone, and the aperture for the tobacco had the appearance of being drilled out. We found another skeleton near that of the above mentioned, which was not quite as large, [5’6” and not nearly so wellpreserved] and must be that of a woman. There was a neatly carved tombstone at the head of this skeleton. There were skeletons and bones of nearly all kinds of animals. While it has been said that the ancients had no horses, we found bones that Doctor Palmer pronounced horse bones—and he was a scientific man.” 
 
The Wheat 
 
Perhaps the most important and intriguing item found in Potter’s mound was a stone box of ancient wheat, carefully preserved and remarkably, viable. Amasa Potter issued a signed statement inin 1906 recounting the origin of the wheat and told his story numerous times for newspapers and other publications. “I found many articles of ancient work. Close by [the skeletons] the floor was covered with a hard cement, to all appearances a part of the solid rock, which after patient labor and exhaustive work we succeeded in penetrating, and found it was but the corner of a box familiarly constructed, in which we found about three pints of wheat kernels, most of which dissolved when brought in contact with the air. A few of the kernels found in the center of the heap looked bright, and retained their freshness on being exposed. These were carefully preserved.” The stone box was described by Miss Julia Wirt as “an air-tight stone box, encased in mortar or potter’s clay, and containing another stone box of about two quarts capacity.” 
 
Mr. Potter cleaned the seeds and planted them in his garden where they grew very well. “It was large and stout, different from any other wheat in the country. We raised four and a half pounds of heads from these grains. I saved it all and planted it next spring and raised a bushel and a half of wheat. I sent a small sample to the patent office in Washington and they called it ‘Ancient Mound Wheat.’ They tried it and sent me a report as being the best wheat that they had tried. I sent samples all over Utah County and it proved to be the best dry land wheat and a great yielder. There was about 60 grains in one head and 50 stalks from one grain’s planting which would make about 100 bushels per acre in good rich soil, weighing 65 lbs. to the bushel.” 
 
The Ancient Mound Wheat was shared from one farmer to another and became quite popular. Amasa Potter sent a sample to Orwell Simons who passed some on to Peter Winward, from there to John C. Whitbeck, and finally Hans Kofod of Levan. The first sample of this variety of wheat was received by the USDA from the Nephi [Utah] Substation in 1907. It retained the name “Kofod” after the farmer from Levan but was misspelled “Koffoid” in several publications until the spelling error was corrected. It was used by the Utah Arid Farm company and the Los Angeles buyers commented that it was the best wheat they had ever received from this section. Ultimately, it was grown in 5 Utah counties (Utah, Iron, Juab, Millard and Sanpete) and was noted as, “The wheat that has excelled all others up to date for the dry farms of Juab County.” 
 
1909 View of Plats of Koffoid Winter Wheat in the Time-of-Planting Test at the Nephi Substation. Ancient Mound Wheat was also known as Kofod or Koffoid Wheat.
Incidentally, dry farming in Utah got off to a rocky start. Most Utahns of the time were convinced that irrigation was essential and indeed, the first successful dry farming experiences were met with disbelief. One David Broadhead of Juab County testified in court in the 1880’s that “of course wheat can be raised without irrigation.” The statement was not received well for he was promptly indicted for perjury. After proving his point to all concerned, Broadhead went home and placed a sign on his property dubbing it, “Perjury Farm.” 
 
Anxious to experience this unique connection to the past, I set out to locate, photograph and plant a sample of the ancient wheat that had once thrived among the dry farms of Utah. I contacted local farmers, mills, county and state extension services, and finally the national seed bank, all to no avail. The USDA official report explains, “‘Kofod’ wheat is not available. Unfortunately, this wheat has been lost for decades.” 
 
Understandably, heartier varieties of wheat had eventually replaced the Kofod/Ancient Mound wheat but I had to wonder how this amazing discovery of seed, carefully preserved by an ancient culture, a salient contribution to the history of agriculture, had been allowed to insignificantly slip back into obscurity. 
   Field of Kofod (Ancient Mound Wheat) near Nephi, Utah c 1920.
 
The Question of Origin and Viability
 
In the 1920s the veracity of the Kofod (Ancient Mound) wheat discovery was called into question. Successive USDA Bulletins 
remarked, “The fact that wheat usually loses its viability after ten or fifteen years, makes this story extremely improbable….In reality, wheat loses its vitality within 20 years and usually much more quickly so that the above story is hardly plausible.” To refute those claims, we need look no further than the following examples. The original Guarge Mounds (of Utah) contained pottery jugs filled with Flint corn sealed with gum and dirt which yielded 80 bushels of corn to the acre. Mounds uncovered in Parowan yielded viable corn with black and white kernels. More recently, students in Winnepeg, Canada, made national news in October, 2015, when they successfully grew squash from seeds that were approximately 800 years old and had been preserved inside a clay vessel the size of a tennis ball. The 1500-year-old Cave Bean is a variety alleged to descend from Anasazi beans found in a sealed clay pot. In fact, the oldest viable seed on record is a 2,000-year-old date palm from Israel. The loss of seed viability correlates with the loss of external membrane integrity. Under the right conditions seeds may be viable for hundreds and even thousands of years. 
 
The Clash with Edward Palmer 
 
Edward Palmer, who became a field assistant for the Mound Exploration division of the Smithsonian Bureau of Ethnology paid a visit to the Payson mound site in 1877. Amasa Potter recounts Palmer’s favorable remarks at that time. “It was judged by Dr. Palmer that all of these things had lain here 1400 years. [The skeletons] were judged to be white people as the skulls were not like Indian skulls…There were skeletons and bones of nearly all kinds of animals. While it has been said that the ancients had no horses, we found bones that Doctor Palmer pronounced horse bones—and he was a scientific man. We sold all our cabinet of ancient relics to him for $250.00 and he took them to Washington.” 
 
However, when Palmer returned to the Davenport Academy of Science he presented a report contesting the claims and attempted to discredit Amasa Potter, the extraordinary contents of the Payson mounds, and any evidence suggesting advanced origins of the mound builders. The presence of cultural bias is obvious as Palmer presumes, “The most conclusive evidence against the matter is that the Indians who left these ruins behind, like the present races, did not work for the sake of work, but only did what labor the collecting, preparing and preservation of native animal and vegetable substances required to convert them into articles of food and clothing.” The flaws and inconsistencies of the report prompted at least one author to claim, “This was one of Palmer’s longer articles and certainly must rank as one of his worst efforts. It is replete with stereotypes, overgeneralizations, prejudices, and leaps to wrong conclusions.” 
 
This same attitude and prejudice, rampant among the academics of the time and typical of the Smithsonian view, has often carried over to the present day. Great effort was made by Edward Palmer and others to dispel the myth that a civilized lost race had built the mounds. The prevailing interpretation of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, the idea that the native people were intellectually inferior and had never achieved anything worth preserving, has undoubtedly resulted in the tragic loss of some of America’s most important cultural history. 
 
Conclusion 
 
The following words from Footprints of Vanished Races, published in 1879, offers a thoughtful conclusion to the saga of the Payson mounds and the Utah mound builders. 
 
“We have found many curiosities in the mounds belonging to this ancient race once inhabiting this section. The explorations divulged no hidden treasure so far, but have proved to us that there once undoubtedly existed here a more enlightened race of human beings than that of the Indian who inhabited this country, and whose records have been traced back hundreds of years. We conclude that the authors of these works could not have belonged to the present Indian race, but were undoubtedly the mound-building people of the Mississippi Valley. It is at least, a most interesting discovery… Should the conjecture as to their authorship be verified, a new chapter of unusual interest in the history of the Mound Builders will be opened for our perusal. The wood-carving, plastered and tinted walls, painted vases, and the presence of that most precious of all cereals, wheat, are new and striking evidences of a higher social state than we have hitherto thought possible.”  
 
References: 
LDS Millennial Star vol. 59 pg. 141 
The Improvement Era Vol. 2 pg. 32-34 
Juab Agricultural Extension Office 
Utah County Recorder’s Office Utah, A Guide to the State pg. 101 (1941) 
Deseret News, Oct. 5, 1876 
Footprints of Vanished Races, Conant 1879 Pg. 67-69 
The Western Review of Science and Industry p 206-7 
Harold E. Bockelman, Supervisory Agronomist / Curator 
National Small Grains Collection U.S. Department of Agriculture Research Service Utah State University Extension Service Popular Science, Nov 1877 pg. 123 
The Small Grains, Mark A. Carleton 
Farmers Bulletin, Issues 1301-1325 (1928) 
Ancient Mound Grains, Dr. Wm. J. Snow BYU 
The Osborn Files, The History, Stephen G. Mecham 
Proceedings Vol. 2, Davenport Academy of Science 1897 
Edward Palmer’s Arkansaw Mounds, Palmer & Jeter 
The Deseret Farmer,SLC Dec.,1906 pg. 14 
Classification of American Wheat Varieties, Clark, Ball, Martin 
Utah Historical Quarterly: July, October 1941 Vol. 9 No. 3-4 
New Witnesses for God, B.H. Roberts Vol. 3 pg. 533 
PubMed.Gov (PMID:8142440 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]) 
Wikipedia, Oldest Viable Seed

 

 

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