The Japan Times, May 10, 1997
Farming started in Americas early, grew slowly
WASHINGTON (Reuter) Primitive pumpkin-eaters began domesticated farming in Mexico about 10,000 years ago, earlier than previously believed, archaeologists said Thursday.
The dating of ancient remnants of a pumpkin-like squash from Mexican caves suggests the transition between a wandering society of hunter-gatherers and a more settled village life took several thousand years, unlike the rapid change that occurred in the Near East and China.
"The domestication of plants in the Americas occurred about 10,000 years ago, about the same as elsewhere in the world," said Bruce Smith, an archaeologist at the Smithsonian Institute and author of a report in the journal Science issued Friday.
"But the people who domesticated this squash still appear to have been moving around a great deal," probably migrating between several sites on a seasonal basis, he said.
Smith and colleagues reanalyzed materials from caves originally excavated in the mid-1960s. They used a newer version of carbon-14 dating technology called accelerator mass spectrometry.
Squash, corn and beans from four caves turned out to be about 5,000 years old. But a fifth cave called Guila Naquitz in Oaxaca yielded ancient pumpkin pieces that were 8,000 to 10,000 years old.
The squash, Cucurbita pepo, is the same species as modern pumpkin and summer squash. The remnants show they were bred and cultivated, and had traits different from gourds found in the wild.
"Hunter-gatherers were all over the place, constantly auditioning different species of plants, constantly manipulating plants and animals. Some of these species they auditioned were great candidates for domestication, " Smith said.
The time span between the cave artifacts suggests that farming among these preceramic societies, also called the archaic period, took hold over several thousand years in Mesoamerica, more gradually than in other parts of the world, according to Smith, whose work at the National Museum of Natural History focuses on the emergence of agriculture.
"It opens a whole new category of prehistoric human society, between hunter-gatherer and farmer," people who were beginning to farm but were still seminomadic, Smith said.
The scenario in the Middle East was very different. There, barley was domesticated about 10,000 years ago. Within another 1,500 years, the early farmers had also domesticated wheat, goats, pigs and sheep.
"They really had a full-scale agricultural complex of domesticated plants and animals, they were big-time farmers," he said. But in Mexico and Central America, the evidence suggests the process was much slower.