Mesoamerica is one of the world’s primary centers of domestication where agriculture arose independently. Paleoethnobotany (or archaeobotany), along with archaeology, epigraphy, and ethnohistorical and ethnobotanical data, provide increasingly important insights into the ancient agriculture of Lowland Mesoamerica (below 1000 m above sea level). Moreover, new advances in the analysis of microbotanical remains in the form of pollen, phytoliths, and starch-grain analysis and chemical analysis of organic residues have further contributed to our understanding of ancient plant use in this region. Prehistoric and traditional agriculture in the lowlands of Mesoamerica—notably the Maya lowlands, the Gulf Coast, and the Pacific Coast of southern Chiapas (Mexico) and Guatemala—from the Archaic (ca. 8000/7000–2000 bc) through the Preclassic/Formative (2000 bc–ad 250) and into the Classic (ad 250–900) period, are covered. During the late Archaic, these lowland regions were inhabited by people who took full advantage of the rich natural biodiversity but also grew domesticates before becoming fully sedentary. Through time, they developed diverse management strategies to produce food, from the forest management system (which includes swidden agriculture), to larger scale land modifications such as terraces, and continued to rely on semidomesticated and wild plant resources. Although lowland populations came to eventually rely on maize as a staple, other resources such as root crops and fruit trees were also cultivated, encouraged, and consumed. The need for additional research that includes systematic collection of paleoethnobotanical data, along with other lines of evidence, will be key to continue refining the understanding of ancient subsistence systems and how these changed through time and across lowland Mesoamerica.
Deborah L. Nichols
The Basin of Mexico is a key world region for understanding agricultural intensification and the development of ancient and historic cities and states. Archaeologists working in the region have had a long-standing interest in understanding the dynamics of interactions between society and environment and their research has been at the forefront of advances in both method and theory. The Basin of Mexico was the geopolitical core of the Aztec empire, the largest state in the history of Mesoamerica. Its growth was sustained by a complex economy that has been the subject of much research. Two themes underlie a broad interest in the pre-Hispanic agriculture of the Basin of Mexico. First, how with a Neolithic technology did the Aztecs and their predecessors sustain the growth of large cites, dense rural populations, and the largest state system in the history of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica? Second, what is the relationship of agricultural intensification and urbanization and state formation? Mesoamerica is the only world region where primary civilizations developed that lacked domestic herbivores for either food or transportation. Their farming depended entirely on human labor and hand tools but sustained large cities, dense populations, and complex social institutions. Intensive agriculture began early and was promoted by risk, ecological diversity, and social differentiation, and included irrigation, terracing, and drained fields (chinampas). Most farming was managed by smallholder households and local communities, which encouraged corporate forms of governance and collective action. Environmental impacts included erosion and deposition, but were limited compared with the degradation that took place in the colonial period.
World food systems in the 21st century comprise domesticated plant and animal species that originated from nearly every continent on the globe, spread through exchange and trade, and have been taken up by farmers and cooks worldwide. The indigenous inhabitants of the Americas domesticated several of the worlds’ most important food crops, including maize, potatoes, chili peppers, and quinoa. They also domesticated several animal species, two of which, llamas and alpacas, have become important as alternative herd animals outside of their native Andes. While maize, potatoes, and chili peppers became important globally in the 16th and 17th centuries as part of the Columbian Exchange, llamas/alpacas and quinoa have only gained worldwide prominence in the 20th and 21st centuries. Unraveling the history of how, where, when, and why these species were domesticated requires the expertise of researchers in the fields of biology, genetics, and archaeology. Domestication is the process by which humans transform wild plant or animal populations into forms that can only be maintained with human intervention. Humans build upon the natural variation in these species but select traits that while desirable for humans, would not be beneficial to survival without them. Using a range of evidence from the remains of ancient plants and animals recovered from archaeological sites to the study of the genetic relationships of living and ancient plant and animal populations, these researchers are revealing how ancient American populations created some of the world’s most important food sources.