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Early origins of maize in Mexico
Date:6/26/2008

s of years. While it is possible to distinguish the pollen grains of maize and its close relatives from other grasses, it is more difficult, except at the largest sizes, to differentiate the pollen of maize (Zea mays) from its presumed wild ancestor teosinte (Zea sp). Thus, while pollen can provide evidence of the presence of domesticated maize, along with that from other plants indicating agricultural activity, maize pollen alone is not definitive evidence of domesticated plants.

Phytoliths are another type of plant microfossil that is preserved for thousands of years and can be used to distinguish domesticated from wild maize. These microscopic bodies are silica or calcium oxalate deposits that accumulate in the intercellular spaces of plant stems, leaves, and roots and have characteristic shapes depending on genus and species. They are preserved even when the plant is burned or disintegrated. Scientists have found that it is possible to distinguish the microliths of teosinte from those of maize and other grasses, thus allowing them to identify the approximate dates and locations of early agricultural activity. Phytoliths are also preserved on ceramic and stone artifacts used to process food.

Jones and his co-workers analyzed the sediments from San Andrs, in the state of Tabasco on the Mexican Gulf Coast. Analysis of area sediments revealed phytoliths of domesticated varieties of maize as well as those of agricultural weeds. These data, along with evidence of burning, suggested that agriculturalists were active in that part of the Yucatan Peninsula around 7,000 years ago.

Starch grains are the most recent addition to the archeobotanical toolbox. Maize and its grass relatives produce large quantities of starch grains with unique morphological characteristics and, like phytoliths, are preserved in sediments and on cultural artifacts. Maize produces more starch than its wild relative teosinte, and the grains are much larger.
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Contact: Dr. John Jones
jonesjg@wsu.edu
509-335-3348
American Society of Plant Biologists
Source:Eurekalert

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