Plant Mythbusters (#1) – Seeds From Ancient Egyptian Tombs That Germinate

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.)

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.”

Online Resources: Longevity of Common Vegetable Seeds and Testing Seed Viability

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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12 Comments

  1. When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get four emails with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove me from that service? – Thanks P.S

    • Sorry about that….I’m not sure how to do it, but I will try to remove you from that service.
      Thanks for your interest in HowPlantsWork.

    • I found out that you can unsubscribe from the comments by going back to the original email you received from WordPress to confirm your subscription to this blog. Click on “Manage your Subscriptions”. This will take you to your WordPress subscriptions page where you can unsubscribe.
      I can not manage subscriptions to comments on my blog.

  2. Nice post ,I really enjoyed keep it up more.

  3. This is certainly not the only story of germinating seeds that are thousands of years old, which were collected from Egyptian tombs.

    • Indeed, this is not the sole such story.
      In this post, I link to two others, as well as refer the reader to the book “Seeds” by Peter Loewer, in which he describes other stories of ancient seeds.
      None of these stories have withstood scientific scrutiny, however.

  4. It’s onerous to search out educated individuals on this subject, however you sound like you know what you’re speaking about! Thanks

  5. I HAVE SEEDS FROM A RESURRECTION PLANT HOW DUE I PLANT THEM DUE I PUT THE SEEDS INTO WATER OR PLANT THE SEEDS IN SOIL THANKS FOR YOUR TIME I HOPE YOU CAN HELP ME .

    • Because there are several seed-plant species referred to as “resurrection plants”, I’m not sure exactly from what plant species you have seeds.
      That said, soaking seeds in water for several hours at room temp before planting in moist – but not water-logged – soil is usually a pretty safe bet.
      About the only things that can screw you up are: (1) the seeds are dormant or (2) the seeds are old and no longer viable, that is, alive.
      In the case of seed dormancy, you may get them to germinate by first scratching of a small part of the seed coat (scarification).

    • Hey Charlie,
      Thanks for the heads up.
      I read the paper in PNAS online (http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/02/17/1118386109.abstract).
      They indeed regenerated an ancient plant (32,000 years old), but not through seed germination.
      They cloned (in vitro) living cells from floral ovary tissue and then regenerated whole plants using well-known plant tissue culture techniques. These plants then grew, flowered and set viable seed.
      Even though they weren’t able to germinate viable seeds from these frozen, ancient plants, this is still very, very “cool”.

      Thanks for your comment!

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