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Starch grains reveal early root crop horticulture in the Panamanian tropical forest

Abstract

Native American populations are known to have cultivated a large number of plants and domesticated them for their starch-rich underground organs1. Suggestions2,3 that the likely source of many of these crops, the tropical forest, was an early and influential centre of plant husbandry have long been controversial4,5,6 because the organic remains of roots and tubers are poorly preserved in archaeological sediments from the humid tropics. Here we report the occurrence of starch grains identifiable as manioc (Manihot esculenta Crantz), yams (Dioscorea sp.) and arrowroot (Maranta arundinacea L.) on assemblages of plant milling stones from preceramic horizons at the Aguadulce Shelter, Panama, dated between 7,000 and 5,000 years before present (BP). The artefacts also contain maize starch (Zea mays L.), indicating that early horticultural systems in this region were mixtures of root and seed crops. The data provide the earliest direct evidence for root crop cultivation in the Americas, and support an ancient and independent emergence of plant domestication in the lowland Neotropical forest.

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Figure 1: Various starch grains.

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Acknowledgements

We thank L. Perry and M. Pohl for discussion and comments, C. Galdames for collecting economic plants, and K. Olsen for providing wild manioc. This work was supported by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) and a grant to the STRI from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

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Correspondence to Dolores R. Piperno.

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Piperno, D., Ranere, A., Holst, I. et al. Starch grains reveal early root crop horticulture in the Panamanian tropical forest. Nature 407, 894–897 (2000). https://doi.org/10.1038/35038055

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