Research Projects

Plant Domestication and the Dispersal of Agriculture

Plant Domestication – Dispersal of Agriculture in the Americas

As we discussed in our book on Rethinking Agriculture, there has been a persistent tendency to evaluate agriculture across the globe using concepts, lines of evidence and methods derived from Eurasian research.

However, researchers working in many different regions cross the world are demonstrating fundamental differences in the nature and methods employed to study agriculture and plant exploitation practices in the past.

For example, the systematic application of microfossil botanical analyses, including phytoliths, starch grains and pollen are revolutionizing our knowledge of early food production in the Americas. Until recently, we were not able to document root and seed crop domestication unless sites investigated were located in arid environments (e.g., the Peruvian coast or the Tehuacán Valley), where conditions permitted the survival of these soft underground plant organs.

These arid regions were outside the original areas of domestication of many of the major crops for which they yielded evidence (e.g., manioc, sweet potato, squashes, cotton, chile peppers). These data lacunae have been overcome with the refinement of microfossil botanical techniques, in particular phytolith and starch grain studies. During the last decade, I have participated in different projects studying the domestication of maize in the Central Balsas River, Mexico and the spread of maize in the Andes and lowland South America in Uruguay. 


Iriarte, J. 2009. Narrowing the Gap: Exploring the Diversity of Early Food-Production Economies in the Americas. Current Anthropology 50: 677-680. [Abstract]

Iriarte, J. 2007. New perspectives on plant domestication and the development of agriculture in the New World. In: Rethinking Agriculture: Archaeological and Ethnoarchaeological Perspectives, edited by Tim Denham, José Iriarte, and Luc Vyrdaghs, pp. 165-186.  Left Coast Press. California. [Excerpt]

Iriarte, J., I. Holst, O. Marozzi, C. Listopad, E. Alonso, A. Rinderknecht and J. Montaña. 2004. Evidence for cultivar adoption and emerging complexity during the mid-Holocene in the La Plata basin. Nature 432:614-617. [Abstract]

Grobman, A., D. Bonavia, T. D. Dillehay, D. R. Piperno, J. Iriarte and I. Holst. 2012. Preceramic maize from Paredones and Huaca Prieta, Peru. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 109:1755-1759. [Abstract]

Piperno, D., A. Ranere, I. Holst, J. Iriarte and R. Dickau. 2009. Starch grain and phytolith evidence for early ninth millennium BP maize from the Central Balsas River Valley, Mexico Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 106:5019-5024. [Abstract]

Ranere, A. J., D. R. Piperno, I. Holst, R. Dickau and J. Iriarte. 2009. The cultural and chronological context of early Holocene maize and squash domestication in the Central Balsas River Valley, Mexico. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 106:5014-5018. [Abstract]

Piperno, D., J. Moreno, J. Iriarte, I. Holst, M. Lachniet, J. Jones, A. Ranere and R. Castanzo. 2007. Late pleistocene and holocene environmental history of the Iguala valley, central balsas watershed of Mexico. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 104:11874-11881. [Abstract]

Partners in these projects:

Dr. Dolores Piperno, Senior Scientist and Curator of Archaeobotany and South American Archaeology, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC, USA and Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Panama.

Dr. Tom D. Dillehay, Rebecca Webb Wilson University Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, Religion, and Culture and Professor of Anthropology and Latin American Studies, Department of Anthropology, Vanderbilt University.

Dr. Anthony Ranere, Department of Anthropology, Temple University.

Work groups

University of Exeter
HumAnE Bioarchaeology