Until recently, archaeologists had only a few clues about the importance of agaves to Southwest US and northern Mexico. But new research has revealed a hidden history of agave domestication in this region.

For thousands of years, agaves have been a vital part of human life in Mesoamerica, but did you know that agaves were also cultivated by pre-contact peoples in the Southwest United States and northern Mexico? In a recent study published in Annals of Botany, Wendy Hodgson and colleagues identified pre-contact agave domesticates (PCADs) in the Southwest US and northern Mexico, distinct from wild agaves and Mesoamerican wild and domesticated species, suggesting that they were domesticated by pre-contact farmers. 

Agaves have been used for food, fiber, and beverages, and they played a central role in the cultures of the Aztec, Maya, and other civilizations. However, their history is less well known in the arid landscapes of the southwestern US and northern Mexico, where agaves thrived thanks to remarkable adaptations such as CAM photosynthesis. 

The pre-contact agave domesticates (PCADs). (A) Agave murpheyi (north of Phoenix); (B) Agave delamateri (Tonto Basin); (C) Agave phillipsiana (Sedona); (D) Agave sanpedroensis (San Manuel area); (E) Agave verdensis (Verde Valley); (F) Agave yavapaiensis (Verde Valley). Source Hodgson et al. 2023.

The research presents an overview of six pre-contact agave domesticates cultivated by the Hohokam and other ancient cultures. The roster includes Agave murpheyi, Agave delamateri, Agave phillipsiana, Agave sanpedroensis, Agave verdensis, and Agave yavapaiensis. Archaeological revelations suggest that the Hohokam, who harnessed agaves for sustenance, engineered riverine terraces and bajadas facilitating agave dry farming. These features that flourished particularly post-1000 CE, coinciding with a surge in population density, evidence a profound connection between human ingenuity and the cultivation of these extraordinary plants. 

Remarkably, the legacy of these pre-contact agriculturists remains, as relict clones of these agave species persist in the modern Arizona landscape, due to their longevity and primarily asexual reproduction, offering a unique opportunity to delve into pre-contact nutrition, trade, migration, and agricultural practices. 

Within the Southwest Borderlands, six and probably more PCADs [pre-contact agave domesticates] have persisted in the landscape for centuries because of asexual reproduction by ramets, pups and bulbils. These PCADs and the agricultural sites where Hohokam, Sinagua, Ancestral Pueblo and possibly Patayan cultures grew them are legacies on bio-cultural, not natural, landscapes.

Hodgson et al. 2023

Agave yavapaiensis. (A) Clones atop ridge overlooking permanent water, showing few fruits produced on uppermost branches of flower stalk (Verde Valley); (B) close up of compact rosette and grey-green linear-lanceolate leaves with numerous, closely spaced marginal teeth; (C) small flowers with light green ovaries and firm, clasping yellow tepals. Source: Hodgson et al. 2023.

These pre-contact agave domesticates are morphologically and genetically distinct from Southwest US and northern Mexico wild agaves and Mesoamerican wild and domesticated species. This suggests that pre-contact farmers selected desirable attributes, initiating domestication processes resulting in distinct lineages.  

Preserving and comprehending the distribution, ecological significance, and cultural relevance of these agave species needs a blend of interdisciplinary efforts. Collaboration between botanists, archaeologists, federal agencies, and Indigenous Peoples is not merely advantageous but imperative. It is a shared responsibility to ensure the legacy of these plants, whose roots are entwined with the history and future of the Southwestern US and northern Mexico.

Hodgson, W.C., Rosenthal, E.J. and Salywon, A.M. (2023) “Pre-contact agave domesticates – living legacy plants in Arizona’s landscape,” Annals of Botany, p. mcad113. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1093/aob/mcad113.

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