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Cucurbita pepo from King Coulee, Southeastern Minnesota
American Antiquity. (Apr. 1998)

Domesticated squash (Cucurbita pepo) was recovered from King Coulee, a multicomponent habitation site. Recent accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) radiocarbon determinations on two seeds indicate that Cucurbita was used as early as 2530[+ or -]60 B.P., during the Late Archaic. This marks the earliest occurrence of domesticated plant use in the upper Midwest. Another seed dated to the Late Woodland (1170[+ or -]40 B.P.) is consistent with an inferred pattern of greater plant use throughout the area. The use of Cucurbita played an important role in the long transition from foraging to farming. These new data provide valuable insights into the economies of the people inhabiting the region.

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The origins of agriculture in southeastern Minnesota remain obscure despite a long record of archaeological investigations in the region. The Late Archaic (ca. 1200-500 B.C.)(1) presence of domesticated Cucurbita marks the earliest occurrence of domesticated plant use in the upper Midwest. The early Cucurbita expands the range of domesticated Cucurbita from locations identified in the midcontinent and the northeast shortly after the appearance of domesticated Cucurbita in the midcontinent. Evidence suggests that domestication of Cucurbita preceded or coincided with domestication of a suite of indigenous plants identified at midcontinent sites around 4200-3400 B.P. The knowledge of plant husbandry acquired from cultivating Cucurbita may have been applied readily to these native plants and domesticates entering the region, including maize. The Late Woodland (ca. A.D. 900-1650/historic contact) presence of domesticated Cucurbita supports evidence of greater plant use in the region, which was previously inferred. The presence of Cucurbita at King Coulee is attributed to human introduction via the Mississippi corridor.

History and Use of Domesticated Squash

Cucurbita is among the earliest cultivated plants in the Americas. The oldest documented Cucurbita specimens were recovered from Guila Naquitz Cave in the Valley of Oaxaca of southwest Mexico, dating to 10,750-9200 B.P. (Flannery 1986; Smith 1997; Whitaker and Cutler 1986).

Early Archaeological Records and Geographic Distribution

In North America, Cucurbita rind dated to around 7000 B.P. was recovered at the Koster site in west-central Illinois (Asch and Asch 1985:153-158). By about 4000-3000 B.P. and possibly as early as 4500 B.P., domesticated cucurbit is present at many midcontinental sites (Decker-Walters et al. 1993; Kay et. al. 1980; King 1985; Smith 1992; Yarnell 1993). Recent documentation establishes Cucurbita use in the eastern northern woodlands by ca. 5500 B.P. (Hart and Asch Sidell 1997; Peterson and Asch Sidell 1996).

Before the 1980s, Cucurbita material was thought to have a single origin from Mexico (Asch and Asch 1985:158; Chomko and Crawford 1978:407; Ford 1985:18; King 1985:73). Recent studies, based on numerical analysis of seed morphology and allozyme analysis, indicate that domestication occurred separately in Mexico and North America (Decker 1988; Decker-Walters 1990; Decker-Walters et al. 1993; Smith 1987; Smith et al. 1992; Yamell 1994). The taxonomic revision identifies a wild progenitor, Cucurbita pepo ssp. ovifera var. ozarkana, native to eastern North America (Decker-Walters et al. 1993). The range of Cucurbita pepo ssp. ovifera var. ozarkana is currently restricted to the greater lower Mississippi drainage (Cowan 1997). It is thought that the range was extended across a greater portion of the midcontinent during the Hypsithermal Interval (e.g., Heiser 1989; King 1985; Smith 1992). However, there is no evidence indicating that the range of Cucurbita pepo ssp. ovifera var. ozarkana included southeastern Minnesota (e.g., Asch 1994).

Characteristics and Domestication

Five different species of cultivated Cucurbita occur in the Americas, three of which are present in North America. Included within Cucurbita pepo ssp. pepo is pumpkin, marrow, and zucchini. Cucurbita pepo var. ovifera includes scallop, crookneck, acorn squash, and ornamental gourds. Kentucky field pumpkin and butternut squash are recognized as Cucurbita moschata, while Cucurbita argyrosperma is known as cushaw squash (Cowan 1997; Decker-Walters 1990:96; Heiser 1989:471-475; King 1985:73; Merrick and Bates 1989). Diagnostic morphology helps to distinguish Cucurbita material, such as margin, marginal hair and ridge characteristics, and color. However, seed length, seed width, allozyme analysis, and rind characteristics are used to distinguish domesticated Cucurbita from wild species (i.e., Cucurbita pepo ssp. ovifera vat. texana, Cucurbita pepo ssp. ovifera var. fraterna, Cucurbita pepo ssp. ovifera var. ozarkana) and other variants, such as bottle gourds (Lagenaria siceria), bur cucumber (Sicyos angulatus) and Old World watermelons (Citrullus lunatus).

Association with humans, including domestication and evolution over 7,000 to 10,000 years, has altered the characteristics of Cucurbita. It is believed that the wild Cucurbita were small with bitter flesh, containing numerous protein-rich seeds. Eventually, larger, non-bitter, thick fleshed fruits were developed, with seed size increasing through time. The transition from wild harvesting to cultivation and initial domestication of squash is marked in the eastern United States by an 11mm seed length boundary (Cowan 1997; King 1985; Smith 1992:45). Not until after ca. 4500 B.P. do Cucurbita seed length measurements surpass 11 mm.

Cucurbita requires a warm, long, frost-free growing period of 120-140 days. Excessive moisture and humidity adversely affect these plants. Cucurbita plants require well-drained soils. They will vigorously establish themselves on disturbed areas, such as garden plots and trash heaps (King 1985).

Cucurbita is available for harvest from late summer to early fall. It can be eaten green, as a vegetable, or boiled or roasted when mature. Cucurbita was commonly cut into strips and dried, as the high moisture content causes quick spoiling. Also, Cucurbita seeds contain high amounts of oil. Protein and caloric content of squash seeds (553 Cal/100g) and dried squash (325 Cal/100g) are comparable to maize (348 Cal/100g) and beans (349 Cal/100g) (King 1985:77).

Ethnographic Relation

In addition to providing food in the form of seeds, flesh, and blossoms, Cucurbita was used for containers, utensils, musical instruments, and other functions (Wilson 1987; Yarnel 1969). Also, numerous historic Native American groups extracted various medicinal properties from the plants (Moerman 1986).

Before the Mississippian/Oneota culture and historic Native American groups, methods of cultivating Cucurbita plants are not known. Presumably, some form of garden beds was prepared. Ethnographic and historic accounts describe small mounds of earth (corn hills) planted with corn, beans, and squash (e.g., Pond 1986; Wilson 1987). This method allows the cornstalk to support the bean vine, which in turn helps fix nitrogen in the soil. Cucurbita was planted around the base of the hill. Its large leaves shielded the ground, reducing evaporation from the soil.

Archaeological evidence associated with Mississippian/Oneota groups indicates that corn hills and ridged fields were utilized. These methods are documented in southwestern Wisconsin, from similar environments as at King Coulee (Gallagher et al. 1985; Riley and Freimuth 1979). Ridged fields may have functioned as microclimate controls, extending the growing season by controlling frost, soil moisture, and soil temperature. The use of this system seems to correspond with the Neo-Boreal climatic episode (ca. A.D. 1200-1850), a period of short summers and colder temperatures (Riley and Freimuth 1979:283; Wright 1989:532).

Site Setting

The King Coulee site (21WB56) is located at the mouth of King Coulee(2) on the south shore of Lake Pepin, Wabasha County, Minnesota . The region is characterized by a mature drainage network with heavily dissected topography that was not covered with ice during the Late Wisconsin glaciation (Ojakangas and Matsch 1982; Wright 1972; Wright et. al. 1998). A mixed hardwood bottomland forest occupies the valley floor. King's Creek, a perennial stream, flows through the valley and empties directly into Lake Pepin, a large lake on the Mississippi River. The coulee floodplain consists of good to very poorly drained alluvial land, which is subject to flooding. The terraces and valley slopes are well-drained silt loam and sandy loam soils, which are easy to work and provide high yields. Wabasha County enjoys warm summers with occasional periods of high humidity and an average growing season of 120-140 days (Agricultural Experimental Station 1965:16-18, 24, 30). The coulee is sheltered from wind and fire and is ideally situated to take advantage of the rich resources of nearby riverine-wetland and upland environments. Furthermore, the Mississippi River would have afforded direct access to proximal and distant exchange routes.


Archaeological Context at the King Coulee Site

King Coulee is a multicomponent habitation site with a deep sequence of stratified cultural deposits. Identified cultural components begin with the Late Archaic stage (ca. 3500 B.P.) and continue through the Mississippian/Oneota period (ca. 500 B.P.). The excavated portion of the site has yielded 24,922 faunal, lithic, ceramic, and botanic artifacts and ecofacts, as well as seven radiocarbon dates. The bulk of the artifacts consist of faunal material (n = 16,647), with identified remains dominated by fish (n = 2,257). Botanical materials (n = 502) include a variety of nutshells (n = 150), unidentified seeds (n = 123), and wood and bark specimens (n = 208), in addition to Cucurbita pepo seeds (n = 21). Thus far, no other domesticated plants have been identified at the site (Perkl 1998).

The King Coulee site was detected in 1987 during an archaeological survey for a Minnesota Department of Transportation project to replace the Trunk Highway 61 bridge spanning King's Creek (Peterson et al. 1988:178-182). A series of shovel tests and backhoe trenches identified cultural deposits buried by up to 2 m of historic silts over an area of about 2.5 acres on the King's Creek floodplain at the mouth of the coulee . A smaller portion of the site, not extensively tested, is situated on an intermediate terrace just west of the coulee mouth. The historic silts were stripped and discarded until the paleosol was encountered in Trenches C and D. Two 1-x-2-m formal test units (1-4) were placed in stripped Trench C and a 1-x-3-m formal test unit (5-7) was placed in stripped Trench D. Additional trenches (E-H) were excavated by backhoe to define site limits following revised construction plans. All test units and trenches quickly became saturated with groundwater about 1 m below the modern floodplain surface (bmfs). The combination of deeply buffed and saturated cultural deposits made excavation difficult, compromising stratigraphic control. Test unit depths ranged from .85 to 2.75 m bmfs, while backhoe trenches extended 5.5 m bmfs. Deeper excavation was halted due to slumping and unstable walls. Consequently, none of the excavated units was sterile. All excavated sediments were water screened through 1/4-inch hardware cloth.

Squash Context at the King Coulee Site

A total of 21 whole and fragmented uncharred squash (Cucurbita pepo) seeds were recovered from three separate deposits: Test Unit 4, Trench F and Trench G . To date, no other Cucurbita material has been identified, such as rind fragments or peduncles (Perkl 1998).

Eighteen Cucurbita pepo seeds were recovered from Test Unit 4 in a saturated zone 2.35-2.45 m bmfs. Associated artifacts include 92 lithics (flakes, shatter), 26 grit-tempered, crumb-sized sherds, 448 burned and unburned faunal specimens (fish, mammal, reptile, avian), carbonized and uncarbonized butternut (Juglans cinerea) fragments (n = 46), an unburned bur cucumber (Sicyos angulatus) seed, 4 unidentified seeds and wood and charcoal specimens. None of the lithics or ceramics is diagnostic. Wood charcoal recovered from 2.40-2.45 m bmfs provides a conventional 14C date of 1430 [+ or -] 60 B.P. (Beta-29234, cal 2[Sigma] A.D. 540-687) (Stuiver and Reimer 1993). Due to mixing caused from several mechanisms, the exact provenience of the dated material is not known. A Cucurbita pepo seed from this deposit provides an AMS date of 1170 [+ or -] 40 B.P. (Beta-92289; (13C = -26.0%, cal 2[Sigma] A.D. 780-980) (Stuiver and Reimer 1993).

One Cucurbita pepo seed was recovered from Trench F, at 4.25 to 5.5 m bmfs. Associated material includes 116 burned and unburned faunal remains (fish, mammal, reptile, and avian), 22.25 g of freshwater mussel shell, 32 lithics (flakes, shatter, nondiagnostic tool fragments), carbonized and uncarbonized fragments of butternut (n = 34), 6 walnut (Juglans nigra), 4 acorn (Quercus sp.), [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 1 OMITTED] and 4 basswood (Tilia americana), 12 uncharred wild cucumber (Echinocystis lobate)(3) fragments, 67 unidentified seeds and wood and bark specimens. There is an associated wood charcoal 14C date of 3450 [+ or -] 70 B.P. (Beta-29236, cal 2[Sigma] 1929-1529 B.C.) (Stuiver and Reimer 1993). However, this seed was dismissed for analysis because of uncertain provenience.

Two Cucurbita pepo seeds were recovered from Trench G at about 5 m bmfs. Associated artifacts include only 27 burned and unburned faunal specimens (turtle, fish), 42.15 g of freshwater mussel shell, carbonized and uncarbonized fragments of butternut (n = 3) and acorn (n = 3) and one uncarbonized, unidentified seed. One of the Cucurbita pepo seeds yielded an AMS date of 2530 [+ or -] 60 B.P. (Beta-90127; (13C = -23.6%, cal 2[Sigma] 810-415 B.C.) (Stuiver and Reimer 1993).

Methods and Analysis

Seven seeds were sent for identification to Francis King at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, who confirmed that six seeds(4) belong to Cucurbita pepo. Seed morphology [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED] and seed lengths greater than 11 mm indicate that the Cucurbita pepo seeds are domesticated (Smith 1992). The remainder of the complete seeds (n = 13) also conform to morphological characteristics and size parameters that indicate domestication (Table 1). The two Cucurbita pepo seeds from the Late Archaic context average 12.5 mm in length and 8.4 mm in width. Cucurbita pepo seeds from the Late Woodland context have an average length of 12.2 mm and width of 7.6 mm. With continued human involvement between the Late Archaic and Late Woodland, it is expected that additional evolutionary changes of Cucurbita pepo would take place, such as an increase in seed size. From the available data, this trend does not appear to be observed at King Coulee. This may be explained by the small sample size, negating a meaningful comparison and any significant statistical analysis. Also, given the problems during excavation, some of the seeds may have been displaced from their original provenience.

Ten seeds were coated with "Acryloid B-72," a synthetic polymer used to stabilize osseous and other materials [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. This resin was applied to the squash seed yielding the AMS date of 2530 [+ or -] 60 B.P. (Beta-90127). This substance is an ethyl methacrylate-methyl methacrylate copolymer (Materials Conservation Laboratory 1983). The author was unable to locate any studies on the effect of this substance on radiocarbon dating. The specimen received a pretreatment of acetone/acid/alkali/acid/acetone. If carbon in the Acryloid B-72 compound was fossil in origin, any residual remaining after this pretreatment should be very small and have a relatively small influence on the age (Darden Hood, personal communication 1997).


Information from the King Coulee site contributes to the growing database and understanding of the origins of agriculture and subsequent plant use in the region. However, a knowledge deficit remains concerning plant use in southeastern Minnesota. Early investigations in the area were centered on the contents and mapping of burial mounds (e.g., Gale 1876; Thomas 1894; Winchell 1911). Since then, most academic and professional archaeological research in the region has focused on the Mississippian/Oneota period (e.g., Dobbs 1987; Gibbon 1974, 1979; Gibbon and Dobbs 1991; Hurley 1978; Johnson et al. 1968; Maxwell 1950; Wilford 1945, 1955, 1984). Consequently, this record of little botanical data persists until after about A.D. 900, where corn, beans, and squash are documented at Late Woodland and Mississippian/Oneota sites throughout the region (e.g., Arzigian 1989, 1993; Crawford and King 1978; Dobbs 1987; Hunter and Berg 1993; Scullin 1981).

The AMS date of 2530 [+ or -] 60 B.P. on a domesticated Cucurbita pepo seed from King Coulee marks the earliest occurrence of domesticated plant use in the Upper Mississippi Valley. Before the King Coulee results, the earliest regional evidence for domesticated plant use is from the Prairie du Chien locality in southwestern Wisconsin. At the Hunters IIa site, in the Mississippi trench, Cucurbita pepo rind fragments were associated with a Middle Woodland component (A.D. 160 [+ or -] 90) (Arzigian 1987). The possibility remains that an even earlier occurrence of Cucurbita is present at King Coulee. This evidence is tenuous, as the provenience of the Cucurbita seed associated with the wood charcoal date of 3450 [+ or -] 70 B.P. is suspect. However, given the presence of Cucurbita in the midcontinental region by this time (Smith 1992), the possibility of earlier Cucurbita use in southeastern Minnesota remains viable.

Although different kinds of cucurbitaceae (e.g., Echinocystis lobata, Sicyos angulatus) are present in the region, feral or domesticated Cucurbita are not currently native to the region. It remains possible that feral and domesticated Cucurbita may have expanded their range from the Gulf of Mexico area north into southeastern Minnesota during the Hypsithermal Interval (e.g., Heiser 1989; King 1985; Smith 1992). However, there is no evidence for Hypsithermal long-distance range expansion of flora into the region (e.g., Asch 1994). Therefore, it is likely that the presence of domesticated squash in the region is a direct result of human interaction. If so, the path of human diffusion for the plant probably followed the Mississippi River, long a major transportation corridor.

While there is no evidence for Cucurbita cultivation at the site (e.g., ridged fields), the soils and climate are suitable for squash growth. Ethnographic accounts indicate that squash was grown in the region, and archaeological evidence reveals agricultural methods during the late precontact period (Gallagher et al. 1985; Pond 1986; Riley and Freimuth 1979). It remains to be demonstrated if the plants persisted exclusively through trade, were directly cultivated, or managed as ruderals. It is probable that a combination of these techniques was practiced.

The AMS date of 1170 [+ or -] 40 B.P. from a domesticated Cucurbita pepo seed adds to a growing database of Late Woodland crop assemblages for the region. Combined with Cucurbita rind fragments recovered from several Late Woodland sites in southwestern Wisconsin (Arzigian 1993), this date supports an inferred increase of plant use in the region during this period (e.g., Smith 1992).

With more systematic employment of broadened research methods (e.g., flotation, accelerator radiocarbon dating), knowledge of the history and variety of cultivated and domesticated plants in the Americas is rapidly expanding. Relatively recent research, principally centered in the midcontinent, has contributed to the understanding of the processes of innovation, diversification, intensification, and diffusion of domesticated plants. A growing body of evidence indicates that domestication of indigenous plants, such as goosefoot (Chenopodium sp.), sumpweed (Iva annua), and sunflower (Helianthus annuus), occurred slightly after or coincident with the domestication of Cucurbita pepo (ca. 4200-3400 B.P.) (Asch 1994; Asch and Asch 1985; Cowan 1985; King 1985; Smith 1989, 1992; Watson 1989; Yamell 1994). While evidence for the use of these plants during the Late Archaic period is lacking for southeastern Minnesota, these plants do appear at regional sites (e.g., La Crosse region) during later time periods (Arzigian 1987, 1989). Importantly, in addition to Cucurbita, these plants were cultivated in the region before and after the adoption of maize (ca. A.D. 900) (Arzigian 1993; Forsberg and Dobbs 1997; Fritz 1990; Scullin 1981; Watson 1989; Yamell 1993).

The King Coulee results establish the use of domesticated plants in the Upper Mississippi Valley by at least the Late Archaic. Given the long archaeological record of Cucurbita use in other areas of the Americas, it is not surprising that Cucurbita is one of the first domesticated plants to appear in the midcontinental region and in the Upper Mississippi Valley. The early cucurbit at King Coulee expands the range of cucurbit use north of its established range in the midcontinent and recent occurrences in the Northeast (e.g., Hart and Asch Sidell 1997; Peterson and Asch Sidell 1996; Smith et al. 1992). Also, as currently understood, the King Coulee results indicate that use of the plant in the region occurred slightly after domesticated cucurbits appear in the riverine interior (e.g., Smith 1992:Table 12.1). This evidence contributes to the notion that human familiarity, understanding, and use of domesticated plants occurred much earlier in the region than previously acknowledged. The King Coulee results support growing evidence indicating that indigenous and introduced domesticated plants (e.g., maize) were incorporated into existing horticultural systems.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that the use of domesticated plants was a more important aspect of subsistence long before previously recognized temporal and cultural placements suggest. The King Coulee results represent the earliest occurrence of domesticated plant use in the upper Midwest. An accelerator date of 2530 [+ or -] 60 B.P. from a Cucurbita pepo seed falls within the Late Archaic (ca. 1200-500 B.C.). Another Cucurbita pepo seed dated to 1170 [+ or -] 40 B.P. endorses an inferred increase of plant use in the region during the Late Woodland (ca. A.D. 900-1650/historic contact). Given the richness of the extant data from King Coulee, further work at the site may contribute answers to many of the hypotheses mentioned above. In general, further research using flotation, macrobotanical analysis, and AMS dating is necessary to enhance understanding of precontact plant use and agricultural practices in the region.

Acknowledgments. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 62nd Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, April 2-6 1997, Nashville, Tennessee. I am grateful to a number of people for their support, encouragement, and advice in the completion of this project. My foremost thanks go to Guy Gibbon, long an inspiration and mentor. Thanks to Francis King for seed identification and invaluable advice. Special thanks to Patty Jo Watson, Bruce Smith, Scott Anfinson, Herb Wright, Jr., Edward Cushing, Carrie Patterson, Kerry Kelts, Clark Dobbs, Kent Bakken, John Cater, Mark Dudzik, Dan Higginbottom, Craig Johnson, Bruce Koenan, and Patti Trocki for their helpful comments and advice. Thanks to Scott Padamonsky, Monika Hagebak, Thomas Riley, Connie Arzigian, Lynne Goldstein, Janet Walker, and two anonymous reviewers for editing and helpful comments on the draft of this article. Many thanks to Angela Carlson-Lombardi and Mary Kay Unitan for providing the Spanish translation on short notice. Echo Funk prepared the graphics. Thanks to Robert Clouse, Chuck Diesen, and Karen Lovaas, who provided access to the King Coulee material. Fieldwork was supervised by Robert Clouse and directed by Leslie Peterson and William Yourd. Excavation was carried out by LeRoy Gonsior, Wanda Watson-Radford, and Michael Justin. I wish to thank my wife, Heather Moir, for her love, advice, support, encouragement, and inspiration.

Funding for AMS dates was provided by the Interdisciplinary Archaeological Studies Program at the University of Minnesota and the Council for Minnesota Archaeology. Additional support was provided by IMA Consulting. Finally, the author accepts full responsibility for errors or omissions concerning this report.


1. For a discussion of the cultural stages in southeast Minnesota, see Anfinson 1979, Gibbon 1986, Perkl 1998.

2. In this part of North America, the term "coulee" is a French Canadian designation for gully or ravine (McDermott 1941:59).

3. Wild cucumber is common in fields and waste places throughout the region. There is no evidence that this plant was used for food. However, the spiny fruit was used as a throat aid, with the bur employed to "unstick object from throat," as well as a "witching medicine" with some historic Native American groups (Moerman 1986:519-520).

4. One seed, considerably smaller than the Cucurbita pepo seeds, belongs to a bur cucumber (Sicyos angulatus), an indigenous wild plant found along riverbanks. There is no evidence that this plant was used for food, although some Native American groups used it for medicinal purposes (Moerman 1986:452).

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Bradley E. Perkl * IMA Consulting, 2635 Fourth Street, S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55414


Please note: Some tables or figures were omitted from this article.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Perkl, Bradley E. "Cucurbita pepo from King Coulee, Southeastern Minnesota." American Antiquity, vol. 63, no. 2, 1998, p. 279+. Student Resources In Context, Accessed 15 Feb. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A20615193