America’s Oldest Flowering Fossil Unearths Dark Civil War Past
December 3, 2013

America’s Oldest Flowering Fossil Unearths Dark Civil War Past

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

A reclassified ancient fossil has not only been named one of North America’s oldest flower plants, but it is also unearthing some of America’s darkest tales.

In 1864, during the Civil War Union Army troops forced a group of freed slaves into involuntary labor. The soldiers forced the freed slaves to dig up a canal along the James River at Dutch Gap, Virginia. While digging the canal, the men exposed the ancient fossil with their shovels.

University of Maryland doctoral student Nathan Jud identified the species and its significance, naming it Potomacapnos apeleutheron after the river region and the Greek word for freedmen.

Flowering plants were rare during the Early Cretaceous period, which could mean that this fossil is the first North American eudicot ever found among geologic deposits 115 to 125 million years ago. Jud was examining the fossil at the Smithsonian Institution while looking through clay-encrusted fossil ferns from Dutch Gap. During his study, he came across P. apeleutheron and noticed the fossil had compound leaves, which puts it in the flowering plant group.

One feature all eudicots share is the shape of their pollen grains, which have three pores through which the plant’s sperm cells are released. However, no three-pored pollen was found in the clay where the fossil was found. Jud says this is unusual because pollen has a hard shell that preserves it in the fossil record.

Scientists use pollen as a marker of geological time and environmental conditions, so a change in the evolutionary sequence of eudicots and their pollen could have important implications for many types of analyses.

“Either the plant was very rare, and we just missed its pollen, or it’s possible that eudicot leaves evolved before (three-pored) pollen did,” Jud said in a statement.

Paleobotanist Leo J. Hickey, who collected the leaf fossil at Dutch Gap in 1974, was the one who told Jud about the plant’s Civil War history. Hickey is a co-author of the paper who died from cancer earlier this year before the paper could be published. Hickey said when the fossil was unearthed, Union generals were trying to build a canal as a shortcut when attempting to capture Richmond in 1864. He said the black laborers who dug the canal were forced to work against their will.

Steven Miller, co-editor of the University of Maryland’s Freedmen and Southern Society Project, found a protest letter from 45 impressed freedmen to the command of Union General Benjamin Butler. These men wrote they were taken to Dutch Gap at the point of bayonets and were forced to dig for weeks without pay. A Union lieutenant endorsed the letter, writing that the men were brought away by force and were suffering greatly.

“The reason you can dig fossils there is because of what they went through,” Jud said. “I thought that instead of naming it after another scientist, I should name it after the people who made this discovery possible.”