Antiquity of Crop Production in Peru

This is an excellent article that answers lingering questions regarding the antiquity of cultivars in South America although this is narrowed to the Peruvian Coastal region.  While there may be disputes regarding connections to Mexico, there can be none in terms of crossing the Mountains into the Amazon.

Here we find that maize appears early on.  Thus its usage as a feedstock for the manufacture of biochar is totally supported in terms of general availability.  I have posted extensively on the use of dried maize stalks to form natural earthen kilns to produce large amounts of biochar.  A single crop would produce in excess of a ton of biochar per acre, which are more than enough to set seed hills to grow the next crop.  Simple repetition would produce the terra preta soils so necessary for tropical soils agriculture.

Therefore exploitation of the rainforests could begin early on as the archeological record indicates.

It is noteworthy that this region appears to share the distinction with several other sites globally of been the earliest locales in which p-lant domestication was undertaken some nine thousands of years ago.

South America, Origins of Food Production In Antiquity of Domestication, Evolution of Food Production: Coastal Peru Case

Within the diverse South American continent, three well-developed agricultural systems existed by the time of European contact: low-altitude systems in the eastern lowlands and western coast, based on cultivation of root crops, such as manioc and maize; mid-elevation Andean systems dominated by maize, beans, and tubers; and high-altitude systems based on the potato and other root crops, quinoa, and herding of llamas and alpacas. When food production began and how these agricultural systems evolved are questions of current debate in South American archaeology.

Antiquity of Domestication

Evidence suggests that by 5000 B.C. a number of plants were being cultivated in South America: maize (Zea mays), introduced from Mesoamerica, gourd (Lagenaria siceraria), a plant transported by sea from Africa, and native beans (Phaseolus vulgaris, P. lunatus), squashes (Cucurbita), aji or chili (Capsicum chinense, Capsicum sp.), quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa), potato (Solanum tuberosum), the tree fruit guava (Psidium guajava), and, perhaps, the root crops oca (Oxalis tuberosa), and Begonia geraniifolia. It is important to emphasize, however, that many early finds of cultivated plants are not without interpretive problems. Plant remains from dry caves such as Guitarrero, Ayacucho, Tres Ventanas (Peru), and Huachichocana (Chile) are very difficult to interpret, since strata can be mixed by burrowing animals and later use of caves as burial areas.

Evidence for use of cultivated plants becomes increasingly abundant from 4000 to 1200 B.C. Beans, gourd, squashes, chili peppers, and guava become common on the Peruvian coast. Maize remains, although not widespread, occur at sites in both the Andean mountains and the western coast. A variety of new crops appear: cotton (Gossypium barbadense); the tree fruits avocado (Persea americana), pacae (Inga Feuillei), ciruela (Bunchosia armeniaca), cherimoya (Annona cherimolia), and lucuma (Lucuma bifera); the root crops manioc (Manihot esculenta), archira (Canna edulis), sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), and jicama (Pachyrrhizus sp.); the legumes jackbean (Canavalia plagiosperma) and peanut (Arachis hypogoea); and the stimulant coca (Erythroxylon sp.). It is also during this period that hunting of deer and wild camelids in the Andes is being replaced by herding of domesticated llamas (Lama glama) and alpacas (Lama pacos). Remains of guinea pigs (Cavia spp.) are also present at sites in central Peru.

Evolution of Food Production: Coastal Peru Case

There have been many advances in our understanding of the antiquity of food production in South America since Margaret Towle's seminal work The Ethnobotany of Pre-Columbian Peru (Aldine 1961), drew together the plant data from early excavations on the desert coast of Peru. Today the Peruvian coast remains a primary source of data on the origins and evolution of agriculture in South America. Though few South American crops are native to the coast, many were eventually introduced and grown there under irrigation, and their remains were preserved in dried form. With advances in plant recovery techniques, such as fine sieving to recover small seeds, study of dried human feces (coprolites), and analysis of pollen and phytoliths (plant opal silica bodies), recent coastal data spanning the period from 5700 to 400 B.C. provide an informative window into the evolution of food production in the continent.

If the number of cultivated plants present at a site is used to estimate the importance of food production, a pattern of increasing use of cultivated plants over time is exhibited by the coastal Peruvian data. This is not a gradual increase, but a doubling from the earliest sites, La Paloma (5700–3000 B.C.) and Chilca I (3700–2400 B.C.) to the sites of the Cotton Preceramic (2600/2200 B.C.)–1800/1500 B.C. depending on the region), followed by a smaller rise during the Initial period (2000/1500 b.c.–1100/800 B.C. and a leveling off during the Early Horizon (1000–400 B.C. or later).

The earliest cultivated plants to appear in coastal Peru, at the Paloma site, are gourd, squash, bean, and guava. None of these are dietary staples, and all but gourd could have occurred wild in the lomas (fog oases) or river valleys of the coast. These plants undergo morphological change or occur in abundance later in time, suggesting they are incidental domesticates at this early date. The next cultivated taxa to appear, at the Chilca I site, are achira, jicama (both tubers), and jackbean. The two tubers are not native to the coast and must have been maintained under cultivation. They also represent potential staples. Wild plant and animal resources, especially marine resources, are still the mainstay of diet during this early period, however.

It is during the Cotton Preceramic that cultivated plants become more common at sites and assume a more important role in diet. No one plant dominates archaeological plant assemblages, however; seed crops (beans, chili peppers), root crops (potato, sweet potato, achira, jicama), and tree fruits (lucuma, avocado, pacae, ciruela) all occur. Cotton is especially abundant at sites. The dramatic increase in the number of cultivated plants used in the Cotton Preceramic (from seven species to sixteen) suggests that this period marks an important transition in the evolution of food production.

Only three new crops appear on the coast during the Initial Period, the horizon marked by the appearance of pottery: manioc and maize, which are uncommon, and peanut, which is widespread. Overall the pattern is very similar to that of the Cotton Preceramic, that of a broad-based food production system in which no one crop dominates. This pattern occurs in the context of the first evidence for irrigation on the Peruvian coast; for the first time field areas are expanded beyond naturally flooded areas.

During the Early Horizon, the period marked by the artistic style known as Chavín, only one new cultivated plant, the tree fruit cherimoya, appears on the coast. Fewer kinds of crops appear at any given site; tree fruits are rarer than at earlier sites. Maize has now become widespread, but is not grown to the exclusion of other dietary staples. This pattern marks the beginning of a narrowing of the food production base: use of some crops declines, others become more widespread. This occurs in the context of increased building of irrigation systems and opening of new agricultural lands.

Evolution of Food Production: Ecuadorian Case

In the Andean mountains and the moist lowlands of eastern and northern South America, preservation of ancient plant remains is limited to those accidentally burned, the inorganic residues of plants (phytoliths), and in certain circumstances, pollen (in bogs, lakes), and dried plant remains (in dry caves). Many fewer data are available than for the arid Peruvian coast. This information is important, however, since the wild ancestors of many South American cultivated plants occur in these regions. An example drawn from recent research in Ecuador will illustrate our understanding of the evolution of food production in the moist lowlands.

Extensive archaeological research has been carried out in southwest Guayas province, Ecuador, where sites dating to the Preceramic Vegas (8000–4600 B.C.) and Formative (pottery-producing) Valdivia periods (3500–1500 B.C.) have been investigated. Vegas culture is known from thirty-one sites that occur in the coastal zone or along intermittent streams. Charred plant remains were not well preserved at the Vegas type site, but phytoliths were recovered. Squash or gourd was identified in early Vegas strata (8000–6000 B.C.,) with maize appearing in late Vegas (6000–4600 B.C.) in association with squash.

Valdivia settlement is riverine and exhibits site hierarchy. A few nucleated village settlements occur—Real Alto is an example—with other smaller settlements appearing late in the Valdivia sequence and in the subsequent Machalilla period (1200–800 B.C.). Real Alto grew from a small village (2.5 acres, ca. 1 ha) to a ceremonial center with two mounds (31 acres, 12.4 ha) by Valdivia III (ca. 2300 B.C.). From the beginning of the Valdivia sequence, cotton, maize, and jackbean occur, along with sedge, cactus, and a variety of wild annuals. Achira tubers are added to the assemblage in Valdivia III times. Late Valdivia strata at the San Isidro site in the moister Jama River valley yielded evidence for maize, jackbean, squash or gourd, achira, arrowroot (Maranta), palm, sedge, and wild annuals.

There is evidence for increasing numbers of cultivated plants used from Early Preceramic through Late Valdivia times in coastal Ecuador (8000–1500 B.C.). This is partially an artifact of preservation or recovery, since no charred plant remains were identified from Vegas. Looking at the Valdivia sequence, however, achira is added in Valdivia III times, and arrowroot at the end of Valdivia, suggesting increasing richness of cultivated plants. Maize becomes more common (present in more loci at the Real Alto site) at the time achira appears. Subsequent to Valdivia, the same plant assemblage continues in use until European contact in the Jama region. The relative contribution of the various wild and cultivated plants to diet is still unknown, however.

Maize is present in Late Preceramic and Early Formative sites in coastal Ecuador before 4600 B.C. Maize phytoliths and pollen also occur at this time depth in a lake core at Hacienda El Dorado, Colombia. The number of cultivated plants present by middle Valdivia, and the common occurrence of maize at the Real Alto village at that time, suggests food production, including use of maize, was important by 2300 B.C. but was not the mainstay of the diet. This interpretation is based in part on the lack of evidence for extensive environmental manipulation in the Real Alto region. Similarly, the first occurrence of maize in the Colombian sierra is associated with only very slight landscape modification. The appearance of extensive swidden (slash and burn) agriculture occurs there by 3000 B.C. A pollen and phytolith core from Lake Ayauchi in the Ecuadorian Amazon adds information from the eastern lowlands to this picture. From 5100 to 3300 B.C. mature forest indicators dominate, with slight occurrence of disturbance taxa. Maize occurs at 3300 B.C. with increased disturbance indicators and abundant carbon particles, interpreted as the beginning of swiddening. By 500 B.C. maize is increasingly abundant, and vegetation indicators suggest agriculture has intensified.

Status of Research

Many questions remain unanswered concerning the origin and evolution of food production in South America. It is difficult to document early occurrences of domesticated plants since dry cave sites are subject to mixing and early open-air sites are difficult to locate, especially in the forests of the moist lowlands. Rising Holocene sea levels may have covered ancient coastal sites. Archaeological plant remains are usually fragmentary and often lack features necessary to establish whether a plant is domesticated or wild. These problems will continue to limit our understanding of the earliest stages of plant cultivation in South America.[See also Domestication of AnimalsDomestication of PlantsMesoamerica, Origins of Food Production InSouth America: Early Prehistory of South America.]

Bibliography and More Information about South America, Origins of Food Production In
  • Michael E. Moseley, The Maritime Foundations of Andean Civilization (1975).
  • Charles A. Reed, ed., The Origins of Agriculture (1977).
  • Jesse Jennings, ed., Ancient South Americans (1983).
  • Karen Stothert, The Preceramic Las Vegas Culture of Coastal Ecuador, American Antiquity 50 (1985): 613–637.
  • Deborah M. Pearsall, Paleoethnobotany (1989).
  • Robert A. Benfer, The Preceramic Period Site of Paloma, Peru: Bioindications of Improving Adaptation to Sedentism, Latin American Antiquity 1 (1990): 284–318.
  • Dolores R. Piperno, The Status of Phytolith Analysis in the American Tropics, Journal of World Prehistory, 5 (1991): 155–191.
  • Jack R. Harlan, Crops and Man 2d ed. (1992).
  • Deborah M. Pearsall, The Origins of Plant Cultivation in South America, in The Origins of Agriculture, ed. C. Wesley Cowan and Patty Jo Watson (1992), pp. 173–205.
  • Jonathan D. Sauer, Historical Geography of Crop Plants (1993).
  • James A. Zeidler and Deborah M. Pearsall, eds., Regional Archaeology in Northern Manabi, Ecuador, vol. 1, Environment, Cultural Chronology, and Prehistoric Subsistence in the Jama River Valley (1993).
Deborah M. Pearsall

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