These ancient agave plants are a living link to Arizona’s Pre-Columbian cultures

Agave phillipsiana. Credit: Wendy Hodgson/Annals of Botany

In the sun-drenched landscapes of Arizona, researchers have stumbled upon an astonishing discovery: agave plants, a crucial component of early American diets and economies, that have remarkably stayed the same since the time of pre-Columbian cultures.

These plants, which have remained unaltered and have survived through centuries, offer a unique glimpse into the agricultural practices and living of the Hohokam people, an extensive Native American group that existed between 300 and 1500 CE.

For a bit of context, agave plants have been pivotal to societies in the Americas for around 9,000 years, having been one of the main carbohydrate sources even before corn became prevalent. The plants weren’t merely wild harvests.

The Hohokam people, known for their adept farming practices, enhanced the agricultural capabilities of their arid environment by constructing terraces meant specifically for agave dry farming.

This ancient culture, characterized by dense and clustered populations, used agricultural features like terraces and rock piles that became synonymous with their farming techniques.

While several crops native to the Americas, such as corn, peanuts, potatoes, and tomatoes, have become staples worldwide, most of these have been significantly modified by European colonists and subsequent generations.

In a journey that began in the 1980s, researchers from the Desert Botanical Garden have been documenting and studying agave plants across Arizona, the Southwest, and northern Mexico.

This diligent work resulted in the rediscovery and naming of six agave species that represent the leftover populations of plants once domesticated and farmed by the pre-contact societies in the current-day Arizona landscape: Agave murpheyi, Agave delamateri, Agave phillipsiana, Agave sanpedroensis, Agave verdensis, and Agave yavapaiensis.

Some of these agave clones, once cultivated on a grand scale, have somehow managed to linger through time, continuing to survive within ancient, constructed fields in today’s landscape, from southern Arizona up to the Grand Canyon.

What makes these remnants so fascinating is their morphological uniqueness, distinct from the wild agaves found in the Southwest U.S., northern Mexico, and even those from Mesoamerica, whether wild or domesticated.

This presents researchers with a valuable chance to study plant species that have been virtually untouched since they were last cultivated in prehistoric times.

Now, with the challenges brought about by climate change, especially in hot and dry environments, there’s a surge of interest in plants like these agave species, which seem to naturally hold their own against the elements.

They are becoming increasingly appealing for agricultural development and research in surviving wild relatives of modern crops.

Wendy Hodgson, the lead author of the paper, expressed hope that the work, enriched by insights from archaeologists and Indigenous Peoples, will elevate our understanding of current landscapes as legacies from past human activities, as opposed to pristine environments.

She emphasized that the “pre-contact peoples were superb agriculturists,” and through studying these enduring agaves, researchers can delve into the insights of ancient farmers and potentially uncover sustainable, drought-adapted agricultural methods that may be crucial for our future.

The paper, named “Pre-contact Agave Domesticates—Living Legacy Plants in Arizona’s Landscape,” can be found published in the Annals of Botany.

It stands as a testament to the deep-rooted history embedded in the landscapes around us, whispering tales of ancient cultures, adept agricultural practices, and the unyielding endurance of the agave plants that have watched centuries pass by.

This exploration intertwines the past and present, offering a tangible link to the ancient peoples who once tread upon the same ground.

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