Squashing Pseudoarchaeology and Ancient Origins

One of the Gete-okosomin squash images going around the internet. Photo by Owen Taylor

A story of 800-year old squash seeds being revived is making its rounds on Facebook again, linked to none other than that pseudoarchaeological website Ancient Origins.

The story essentially claims that a clay pot or ball was excavated in the Menominee Nation in Wisconsin, and inside seeds were found that dated to over 800 years in age.

This, itself isn’t strange. Seeds much older are found in archaeological assemblages all the time. But these seeds were special. They didn’t give Jack a beanstalk to climb, but they did provide students of the Canadian Mennonite University with “mammoth squash seeds” of the Gete Okosomin variety.

Or so Ancient Origins claimed.

To be fair, Ancient Origins probably didn’t invent the story. They’re simply not that original. Copying the hype already making headlines is how they roll. Sure, they shake it down and dress it up differently so it isn’t out-right plagiarism, but the important thing for Ancient Origins are clicks.

sardis pot
An inverted bowl, covering another bowl with a ritual
deposit, emerges from the earth. The bowls contained
a ritual deposit of a coin, small metal implements and
an egg. Photo: Harvard University

How The Ancient Origins Sausage is Made

Like most for-profit “news” sites on the interwebs, Ancient Origins understands that most people are captivated by the headline. In fact, they know that most people will only read the headline and comment on a post where they see it when it comes to Facebook, and often share it without even clicking through.

But they also understand, because of the metrics available from Facebook, that they’re dealing with extremely large numbers of people and that even though most will not click, there’s still a high number who will, especially when a Facebook post is shared widely in all manner of groups and personal timelines. And they go directly to the AO website.

Now, that population of people who actually clicked through is important. AO also understands that the majority of this population will never read past the first few lines or maybe a paragraph or two.

Some will scan the photos.

Still others–a minority–will read the entire article.

How Ancient Origins can get away with pleasing all audiences

Let’s take the 800-year old seed article in question. If you didn’t read the entire article when you saw it the first time, don’t feel bad. That was the experience they wanted.

If, however, you did read the article all the way through, then you might have noticed a small paragraph at the end titled “UPDATE FROM THE EDITOR,” dated about a month later.

Essentially it says, “the article above is bullshit. That pain-in-the-ass minority of people who probably actually read all the way through pointed out to us it was wrong so we’re adding this paragraph for the rest of you pain-in-the-ass members of that minority to know. Don’t tell our favored consumers who can’t get past the hype.”

I’m paraphrasing. But if this isn’t what they meant, then they would have trashed the entire article. Or made the dumbass who wrote the copy re-write it with an apology if he wanted to keep his job. But, since Ancient Origins doesn’t seem to be about ethics and reality so much as they are about advertising and affiliate money, Mark Miller’s half-ass attempt of pseudoscientific reporting was right on cue.

What’s the Real Story on those Seeds?

If you remember seeing it back in 2015, the original article had a photo attached (and Ancient Origins probably ran it too but changed it when it was proven to be fake) of someone brushing dirt from a pot.

That pot was part of an excavation in Sardis, Turkey, not an archaeological site in Wisconsin. The Sardis pot had an egg shell inside, not seeds. And the seeds from Wisconsin weren’t in any container or pot found in an excavation. They were part of a collection of heirloom seeds gifted to a professor by elderly gardeners of the Miami Nation of Indiana in 1995.

When it comes to squashing pseudoarchaeology, willing to dig a little is worth the effort.

About Carl Feagans 398 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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