Phasoleus vulgaris #3: Delving into the Mystery of the Rio Zape Bean and the Cave of los Muertos Chiquitos

zuni rio zapeThe last phaseolus selection for our project has a history that’s stirred the imagination of many an armchair archaeologist. When I chose this bean, all I knew was that it was originally collected from the Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico in 1935. When it arrived, its purple color with black lines uncannily resembled a bean behind much horticulture folklore: the Rio Zape.

Quite a few seed enthusiasts tell the talle tale of the Rio Zape — a bean discovered in an ancient Anasazi ruin was miraculously sprouted after some thousand years, and cultivated into today’s bean. The real story of what we know about the Rio Zape, however, is even more intriguing.

It begins with an excavation in the 1960s of a cave on Rio Zape, Durango, Mexico:

archeology rio zapeThe sealed cave on the Rio Zape outside of Durango was located in a low-humid area where the cave was only reached by handholds and footholds. The cave contained the remains of seven young children (hence the name, la cueva de los Muertos Chiquitos, or the cave of the dead little ones). The children were buried with, among other things, food offerings. The description according to a paper on Archeology Anthropology Commons by Jimenez-Ruiz et al titled Zoonotic and Human Parasites of Inhabitants of Cueva de los Muertos Chiquitos:rio zape description parasitesWhile the beans and other plant material found in the sealed cave were not the oldest ever found in the Southwest, never before had this many been found preserved whole in such good condition. From the original publication of findings from Kaplan et all Plant Material from a Cave on the Rio Zape, Durango, Mexico

rio zape no of beansSome of the three species comprising the 590 beans were AMS radiocarbon dated to be about 1200 years old. Results illustrated from the Kaplan paper mentioned above:

rio zape noncarbonized

cave map america rio zapeOf the beans described by Kaplan et all in their observations after the excavation of the cave, our interest is in a bean labeled C11a. 

rio zape c11a

C11a fits the description of our mystery bean donated by the Zuni in New Mexico some thirty years prior to the excavation.

Along with the descriptions, Kaplan included a chart (below) where beans are compared to known native american beans. C11a has a corresponding bean amongst ancient  tribes of Northern Arizona and t Hohokam, as well as the Zuni. (Interestingly enough, at the time of publication, 1962, Kaplan doesn’t show the C11a as a bean found amongst the Hopi; today, the Rio Zape is referred to almost interchangeably as the Hopi Purple String Bean. It’s possible that the beans were traded between the two agriculturally prolific tribes at some point, but that’s for another discussion.)

rio zape chart of beansPossible conclusion?

The Rio Zape bean that we know today may be the same Zuni bean donated in 1935, which in turn, may be the same bean that had been selected and cultivated in the Southwest at least 1,200 years ago. It’s fascinating to think of those purple beans sitting preserved in the cave of los Muertos Chiquitos for some thousand years, while generation after generation continued to grow the same bean on the outside of the cave until today.

zuni rio zape

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