Starch grain evidence for the preceramic dispersals of maize and root crops into tropical dry and humid forests of Panama

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2007 Feb 27;104(9):3651-6. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0611605104. Epub 2007 Feb 21.


The Central American isthmus was a major dispersal route for plant taxa originally brought under cultivation in the domestication centers of southern Mexico and northern South America. Recently developed methodologies in the archaeological and biological sciences are providing increasing amounts of data regarding the timing and nature of these dispersals and the associated transition to food production in various regions. One of these methodologies, starch grain analysis, recovers identifiable microfossils of economic plants directly off the stone tools used to process them. We report on new starch grain evidence from Panama demonstrating the early spread of three important New World cultigens: maize (Zea mays), manioc (Manihot esculenta), and arrowroot (Maranta arundinacea). Maize starch recovered from stone tools at a site located in the Pacific lowlands of central Panama confirms previous archaeobotanical evidence for the use of maize there by 7800-7000 cal BP. Starch evidence from preceramic sites in the less seasonal, humid premontane forests of Chiriquí province, western Panama, shows that maize and root crops were present by 7400-5600 cal BP, several millennia earlier than previously documented. Several local starchy resources, including Zamia and Dioscorea spp., were also used. The data from both regions suggest that crop dispersals took place via diffusion or exchange of plant germplasm rather than movement of human populations practicing agriculture.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Archaeology
  • Crops, Agricultural / history*
  • Demography*
  • Ecosystem
  • Fossils*
  • History, Ancient
  • Humans
  • Manihot*
  • Marantaceae*
  • Panama
  • Population Dynamics
  • Starch / analysis*
  • Zea mays*


  • Starch