Native American populations are known to have cultivated a large number of plants and domesticated them for their starch-rich underground organs. Suggestions that the likely source of many of these crops, the tropical forest, was an early and influential centre of plant husbandry have long been controversial because the organic remains of roots and tubers are poorly preserved in archaeological sediments from the humid tropics. Here we report the occurrence of starch grains identifiable as manioc (Manihot esculenta Crantz), yams (Dioscorea sp.) and arrowroot (Maranta arundinacea L.) on assemblages of plant milling stones from preceramic horizons at the Aguadulce Shelter, Panama, dated between 7,000 and 5,000 years before present (BP). The artefacts also contain maize starch (Zea mays L.), indicating that early horticultural systems in this region were mixtures of root and seed crops. The data provide the earliest direct evidence for root crop cultivation in the Americas, and support an ancient and independent emergence of plant domestication in the lowland Neotropical forest.