Guilá Naquitz (Mexico) - Key Evidence of Maize Domestication History

Understanding American Plant Domestication

Teosinte at the Ethnobotanical Gardens in Oaxaca City
Teosinte at the Ethnobotanical Gardens in Oaxaca City. Bernardo Bolaños

Guilá Naquitz is one of the most important archaeological sites in the Americas, recognized for its breakthrough discoveries in understanding plant domestication. The site was excavated in the 1970s by KV Flannery, using then-new methods of environmental and ecological sampling, and the results of those sampling techniques and other excavations that followed rewrote what archaeologists had previously understood of the timing of plant domestication.

Guilá Naquitz is a small cave occupied at least six times between 8000 and 6500 BC, by hunters and gatherers, probably during the fall (October to December) of the year. The cave is in the Tehuacán valley of the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, about 5 kilometers (3 miles) northwest of the town of Mitla. The mouth of the cave opens near the base of a large ignimbrite cliff rising ~300 meters (~1000 feet) above the valley floor.

Chronology and Stratigraphy

Five natural strata (A-E) were identified in the cave deposits, which extended to a maximum depth of 140 centimeters (55 inches). Unfortunately, only the top strata (A) can be conclusively dated, based on radiocarbon dates from its living floors and pottery which matches Monte Alban IIIB-IV, ca. 700 AD. The dates of the other strata within the cave are to an extent contradictory: but AMS radiocarbon dates on the plant parts discovered within layers B, C, and D have returned dates to nearly 10,000 years ago, well within the Archaic period and, for the time it was discovered, mind-blowingly early.

Considerable and heated debate occurred in the 1970s, particularly about the radiocarbon dates from Guila Naquitz's teosinte (precursor to maize) cob fragments, concerns which largely dissipated after similarly old dates for maize were recovered from the San Marcos and Coxcatlan caves in Oaxaca and Puebla, and the Xihuatoxtla site in Guerrero.

Macro and Micro Plant Evidence

A wide range of plant food was recovered within the cave deposits of Guilá Naquitz, including acorns, pinyon, cactus fruits, hackberries, mesquite pods, and most importantly, the wild forms of bottle gourd, squash and beans. Other plants attested at Guila Naquitz chili peppers, amaranth, chenopodium, and agave. This evidence includes plant parts--peduncles, seeds, fruits, and rind fragments, but also pollen and phytoliths.

Three cobs with plant elements of both teosinte (the wild progenitor of maize) and maize, were found within the deposits and direct-dated by AMS radiocarbon dating to about 5400 years old; they show some signs of domestication. Squash rinds were also radiocarbon dated: they returned dates of approximately 10,000 years ago.

Sources

This article is a part of the About.com guide to the American Archaic, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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