Researchers from Temple University and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama have found some of the earliest direct evidence of root crop cultivation in the Americas, it was reported in a recent edition of the journal Nature (Oct. 19).
The researchers, part of a joint Temple-Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute project in Panama, found starch grains on stone tools excavated from a rockshelter found on a coastal plain of that Central American country. The grains were identified as coming from domesticated root crops such as arrowroot and manioc as well as from maize that date back nearly 7,000 years.
The question of when and where Native Americans first developed agriculture is controversial, partly because so much of the evidence is indirect. Many of the crops used developed from plants in the tropical forests, leading to suggestions that these humid regions were early centers of plant husbandry.
"If these crops were already domesticated--meaning they¹ve already been altered from their wild form and are being grown as crops--in Panama 7,000 years ago, they must have been domesticated much earlier," says Dr. Anthony Ranere, chair of Temple¹s anthropology department and a co-author of the study. "What this means is that farming was taking place in the forests of tropical America earlier than most people think."
Ranere directed the initial excavation of the rockshelter in 1973 and again in 1975 and returned to direct new excavations in 1997 with the assistance of fellow Temple faculty member Dr. Patricia Hansell, one of the study¹s co-authors.
In addition to Ranere and Hansell, the study was co-authored by Dolores Piperno, a Temple alumna, and Irene Holst, both of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, located in Panama.
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