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Plant cultivation earlier

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  • Lloyd Miller
    NEW YORK TIMES June 29, 2007 Squash Seeds Show Andean Cultivation Is 10,000 Years Old, Twice as Old as Thought By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD Seeds of domesticated
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      NEW YORK TIMES

      June 29, 2007

      Squash Seeds Show Andean Cultivation Is 10,000 Years Old, Twice as
      Old as Thought

      By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD

      Seeds of domesticated squash found by scientists on the western
      slopes of the Andes in northern Peru are almost 10,000 years old,
      about twice the age of previously discovered cultivated crops in the
      region, new, more precise dating techniques have revealed.

      The findings about Peru and recent research in Mexico,
      anthropologists say, are evidence that some farming developed in
      parts of the Americas nearly as early as in the Middle East, which is
      considered the birthplace of the earliest agriculture.

      Digging under house floors and grinding stones and in stone-lined
      storage bins, the archaeologist Tom D. Dillehay of Vanderbilt
      University, in Nashville, uncovered the squash seeds at several
      places in the �anchoc Valley, near the Pacific coast about 400 miles
      north of Lima. The excavations also yielded peanut hulls and cotton
      fibers � about 8,500 and 6,000 years old, respectively.

      The new, more precise dating of the plant remains, some of which were
      collected two decades ago, is being reported by Dr. Dillehay and
      colleagues in today�s issue of the journal Science.

      Their research also turned up traces of other domesticated plants,
      including a grain, manioc and unidentified fruits, and stone hoes,
      furrowed garden plots and small-scale irrigation canals from
      approximately the same period of time.

      The researchers concluded that these beginnings in plant
      domestication �served as catalysts for rapid social changes that
      eventually contributed to the development of intensified agriculture,
      institutionalized political power and towns in both the Andean
      highlands and on the coast between 5,000 and 4,000 years ago.�

      The evidence at �anchoc, Dr. Dillehay�s team wrote, indicated that
      �agriculture played a more important and earlier role in the
      development of Andean civilization than previously understood.�

      In an accompanying article on early agriculture, Eve Emshwiller, an
      ethnobotanist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, was quoted as
      saying that the reports of early dates for plant domestication in the
      New World were remarkable because this appeared to have occurred not
      long after humans colonized the Americas, now thought to be at least
      13,000 years ago.

      The article also noted that 10,000-year-old cultivated squash seeds
      had recently been reported in Mexico, along with evidence of
      domesticated corn there by 9,000 years ago. Scholars now think that
      plants were domesticated independently in at least 10 �centers of
      origin,� including, in addition to the Middle East, Mexico and Peru,
      places in Africa, southern India, China and New Guinea.

      In the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, an arc from modern-day
      Israel through Syria and Turkey to Iraq, wheat and barley were
      domesticated by 10,000 years ago, and possibly rye by 13,000 years
      ago. Experts in ancient agriculture suspect that the transition from
      foraging to cultivation had started much earlier and was not as
      abrupt a transformation as indicated in the archaeological record.

      Dr. Dillehay has devoted several decades of research to ancient
      cultures in South America. His most notable previous achievement was
      the discovery of a campsite of hunter-gatherers at Monte Verde, in
      Chile, which dates to 13,000 years ago. Most archaeologists recognize
      this as the earliest well-documented human occupation site uncovered
      so far in the New World.

      Other explorations in recent years have yielded increasing evidence
      of settlements and organized political societies that flourished in
      the coastal valleys of northern Peru possibly as early as 5,000 years
      ago. Until now, the record of earlier farming in the region had been
      sparse.

      Initial radiocarbon dating of the plant remains from �anchoc was
      based on wood charcoal buried at the sites, but the results varied
      widely and were considered unreliable. More recent radiocarbon
      dating, with a technique called accelerator mass spectrometry, relied
      on measurements from undisturbed buried charcoal and an analysis of
      the actual plant remains.

      The distribution of building structures, canals and furrowed fields,
      Dr. Dillehay said, indicated that the Andean culture was moving
      beyond cultivation limited to individual households toward an
      organized agricultural society.

      Botanists studying the squash, peanut and cotton remains determined
      that the specific strains did not grow naturally in the �anchoc area.
      The peanut, in particular, was thought to be better suited to
      cultivation in tropical forests and savannas elsewhere in South America.

      The wild ancestor of squash has yet to be identified, though lowlands
      in Colombia are thought to be a likely source.

      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
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