Cultural Plants and Cultural Landscapes: Pre-Columbian Agaves in Arizona

Date and Time: 
Friday, 18 March, 2016 - 09:45
, Wendy - Desert Botanical Garden
, Andrew - Desert Botanical Garden

The importance of agaves to Mesoamerica and its cultures has long been recognized for providing food, fiber and beverage. However, their significance to these cultures has overshadowed and distorted the plants’ role for indigenous peoples north of the U.S. - Mexico border. Pre-Columbian farmers cultivated more than ten species of agave in Arizona from at least A.D. 600, including several putative domesticated species. Because of their longevity and primarily asexual reproduction, relict agave clones have persisted in the landscape to the present, providing an opportunity to study pre-Columbian nutrition, trade, migration and agricultural practices. Additionally, these remnant clones present a rare opportunity to examine cultivars virtually unchanged since they were last cultivated within a prehistoric cultural context. These discoveries underscore the necessity of viewing landscapes and some plant species from a cultural, rather than “natural,” perspective that may help discern potential cryptic species veiled by more traditional taxonomic treatments. Understanding these plants and their ecological/cultural roles requires interdisciplinary collaboration between botanists and archaeologists.