Prehistoric Corn Cobs

As Kanaranzi Creek erodes away the steep banks on the outer edges of meander loops, archaeological “treasures” continue to emerge and be deposited on adjacent sand bars. We think that’s what happened at the site described in the post of June 17 at this link. And, we think that it has also happened near the oxbow that hosts the pond and wetland described in many of the other recent posts. The newly-discovered “treasures” at the oxbow are corn cobs!

The Native Americans, who farmed river bottoms in this tall grass country 500 to 1000 years ago, raised corn along with squash and beans (a.k.a. the “three sisters”). They stored the corn in pits buried in the ground. These images are from displays at the Visitor’s Center at Good Earth State Park near Sioux Falls. The top of one of these cache pits in the floor of a dwelling is shown on the left and on the right we can see how the ears of corn were arranged in a side view. After the cache pit was emptied, it was often filled with trash and refuse.

Last fall, after several seasons of high water and erosion, I found this projectile point on a sand bar near the oxbow. Over the past 20 years, numerous buffalo bones have eroded out of the steep creek banks around the oxbow, including the skulls on the left and at the top of the second photo. In addition, there’s a circular vegetation anomaly in the area. About one-quarter mile upstream, the circular plant patterns at that site had expression in geophysical mapping recently described in a paper in the Minnesota Archaeologist by Megan Messerole. She interprets the mapping as expressions of cache pits and a possible dwelling and there are also artifacts and buffalo bones at this studied site. Now it looks like there may be a new, similar site near the oxbow where the contents of another cache pit may be eroding out of the Creek bank.

After the water levels dropped earlier this month, I fund more than two dozen corn cobs on one sand bar. They looked small and skinny and old….prehistoric? Online archaeology sources indicate that the prehistoric corn raised by Native Americans had 6 to 10 rows of kernels on each cob, while modern varieties generally have 16 to 20 rows. So, all that I had to do was count the rows. However, there is also another pattern that suggests erosion of a cache pit.

If the cobs came from a nearby, eroded bank, this was probably the only sand bar that had them. So, I went back down into the pasture and checked out four sand bars upstream and four downstream. This map shows that the upstream bars had no corn cobs and that three of the four downstream bars each had one cob. That’s exactly the way old-time prospectors would pan for gold. They’d follow the “color” upstream until they found the “mother lode” that was shedding the gold onto stream sediments. The eroding cache pit was probably in the steep bank circled on the air photo just upstream from the cob-rich bar, although there’s no sign of it currently shown in the bank.

But, are these really prehistoric corn cobs? They do look smaller than today’s familiar sweet corn. And, counting the rows of kernels on 17 of the best-preserved cobs supports the idea of ancient corn cobs. The counts ranged from 6 to 9 rows on each cob and had an average of 8. That’s well below the range of modern corn cobs. And, that’s also why the cobs on the right have pins stuck in them. The pins mark the row counts that provide the data. However, these prehistoric corn cobs are probably “treasures” only for old retired guys who are interested in archaeology!

About Lone Tree Farm on Kanaranzi Creek

Recovering academic, earth scientist in phased retirement, farm manager by default, son, husband, father, grandfather.
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