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On this day ten years ago…
via New technique for identifying prehistoric food discovered

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On this day ten years ago:

via Ancient Manioc Fields

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Topic: Ancient Food-New World

The food that early people ate can serve as a clue to how they lived. A University of Missouri-Columbia researcher and her colleagues have discovered a new approach for identifying important root and tuber crops in the New World, which until now has been very difficult.

“Roots and tubers are dietary staples in many parts of the world; however, their use is difficult to document archaeologically because their organic remains are often poorly preserved in archeological sediments,” said Deborah Pearsall, professor of Anthropology and associate director of American Archaeology at MU.

Pearsall and MU graduate Karol Chandler-Ezell, director of the anthropology program at Stephen F. Austin State University and lead author of the study, discovered that the roots and tubers of several important New World food plants produce phytoliths, which are microscopic silica bodies that occur in plants. Phytoliths not only identify the plant used, but also substantiate the fact that roots and tubers were consumed in the past.

“Often in archeology, all we can say is that the remains of a certain plant were found at an archeological site; we can’t say definitely how the plant was used or what part of it was used. These are severe limitations to understanding diet. Our discovery makes this task easier,” Pearsall said.

This discovery helped researchers learn that people living on the coast of Ecuador 4,500 years ago (around 2500 BC) were farmers who not only grew maize, but also root and tuber crops including manioc. Pearsall said the discovery proves that farming during that time period was already very advanced. Manioc is native to eastern South America and must have been carried or traded far from its home to appear in coastal Ecuador on the western coast of South America. It was during that time period that the Real Alto site grew to its largest size and was a ceremonial center.

“These phytoliths and starch residues provide evidence that both raw and cooked foods were processed in this early mixed agricultural economy,” Pearsall said. “This research is particularly relevant for documenting the origins and spread of economically important root and tuber crops, which were a large part of the daily diet of prehistoric peoples in the tropics.”

According to Pearsall, this knowledge about the prehistory of Ecuador gives archaeologists new insight into the functioning of the society at that time. Societies that are agricultural have different characteristics than those where people hunt, fish and gather food.

The study is featured on the cover of the summer 2006 issue of Economic Botany. The study, which also included the participation of James A. Zeidler, one of the excavators of Real Alto, was funded by the University of Missouri Research Board.

Original Article:

University of Missouri

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Topic: Manioc

My Thoughts:

This article reminds me that sometimes good can come from nature’s disasters. I wonder if manioc was used as currency in the Mayan culture? I welcome any thoughts on the subject.

Anthropologists from the University of Colorado have uncovered the first and only site of ancient, large-scale manioc cultivation in Central America.

Manioc, a tuber also known as cassava or yucca, is still grown today, particularly by traditional South American people, but before the CU team’s discovery no one knew if it was commonly grown by ancient cultures.

“The important thing we found is that the Maya had planted a surprisingly large area in just manioc,” said CU anthropology professor Payson Sheets, who directed the excavation.

The fields are located at the ancient village of Ceren in what is now El Salvador. When the nearby Loma Caldera volcano erupted in 600 A.D., 17 feet of ash buried the village and the fields.

Sheets discovered the site in 1976. It’s considered the best-preserved field of its kind in Central America and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.

In 2007 Sheets and his team, who are funded by the National Science Foundation, found evidence of manioc cultivation at Ceren. When they returned in January, they were able to uncover more of the field, which allowed them to conclude that it was used to consistently grow manioc.

Manioc is high in carbohydrates and grows easily in bad soil, so anthropologists suspected it had been used as a staple crop. But until Sheets’ discovery there had been no proof.

Because it has no hard seeds or shell, manioc doesn’t usually preserve well. Manioc pollen has been found before at archaeological sites in Belize, Mexico and Panama, but only in very small quantities.

When the volcano erupted over Ceren the ash sealed over the fields, keeping them essentially the way they were.

“It preserved things in a magnificent way,” Sheets said.

Uncovering the crops revealed that the eruption occurred in late August, and that the field had been harvested just before the eruption, indicating that manioc was cultivated on a recurring basis.

“This is the first time we have been able to see how ancient Maya grew and harvested manioc,” Sheets said.

Now, Sheets and his colleagues are back in the lab looking at botanical samples and pieces of pottery, analyzing the chemical makeup of manioc to try to find ways to trace it at other sites that are not as well-preserved.

First published in the Boulder Daily Camera

By Heather Hansman,
Wednesday, June 17, 2009

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