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The major projects related to this topic involve investigating agricultural origins and dispersals through the analysis of microfossil remains of plants (phytoliths, starch grains, and pollen) from archaeological sites and lake sediments. A few years ago Piperno and colleagues from STRI and Temple University finished the first phase of a project that explored early human settlement and agriculture in the Balsas River Valley of Mexico, where molecular research indicates maize was domesticated. Human settlements dating to the early Holocene were found, and phytolith and starch grain analysis of grinding stones dating to 8700 BP indicated the presence of domesticated maize and squash at that time (see Piperno et al. 2009 in PNAS). This information adds to the corpus of interdisciplinary data indicating that maize was domesticated by about 9000 years ago and then spread not long afterwards into other regions of the lowland seasonal tropical forest. Other archaeological and molecular work has provided a considerable amount of information recently on the geography and chronological history of the numerous crop plants domesticated in the lowland Neotropical forest (see images).

Other research involves on-going archaeobotanical work at Huaca Prieta, a famous archaeological site located on the coast of Peru that was first excavated many years ago by Junius Bird.  The Peruvian government recently asked archaeologist Tom Dillehay to re-excavate and re-analyze the various kinds of cultural remains present at the site. Piperno is carrying out starch grain work on human teeth, stone tools, and sediments from the new excavations. The new excavations are revealing much about early settlement and agriculture in the region and appear to be leading to new interpretations of crop plant presence and antiquity, as well as on the overall nature and chronology of human occupation.

 

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