Cultivating “Wild” Agave in the Ancient South-western U.S.

Abstract

In the complex and evolving relationship between people and plants, where is the threshold between tending and cultivation and where is the transition from wild resource to domesticate status?  An example from the hot, dry deserts of southern Arizona in the south-western United States raises these critical issues in the case of agave (Agave spp.) or century plant, a versatile succulent that provided food, fibre, and alcoholic beverages. Archaeological research on the Hohokam tradition (A.D. 500-1450+) has recently documented a scale of agave production at times approaching that of the better know North American triad of corn, beans, and squash.  Although agave has a long history as a major crop to the south in Mexico and Central America, culminating in today’s industrial production for tequila, archaeologists long considered it as solely a native wild resource in the Southwest U.S., largely due to the absence of cultivation in ethnohistoric and ethnographic accounts.  That perception has now dramatically changed as a result of a recurrent suite of archaeological evidence including well-preserved ancient fields complete with planting infrastructure and processing facilities, specialized artefacts related to both cultivation practices and fibre craft manufacture, the widespread abundance of charred agave remains, and modern experimental plantings.   Such accumulating evidence now allows us to assess the significance of agave cultivation in Hohokam society within a comprehensive framework of settlement and economy. 

Related Summary Publications

Fish, Suzanne K. and Paul R. Fish (2014)  Agave (Agave spp.): A Crop Lost and Found in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands.  In New Lives for Ancient and Extinct Crops, edited by Paul Minnis, pp 102-139.  University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

 

About the Presenters

Suzanne K. Fish (Ph.D., University of Arizona, Arid Lands Resource Sciences) is Curator Emerita of Archaeology, Arizona State Museum and Professor Emerita, School of Anthropology, at the University of Arizona.  Her research emphasizes the Hohokam tradition of southern Arizona, the organisation of middle range societies, regional settlement patterns, and Sonoran Desert ethnobotany and traditional agriculture. She has published widely on the ethnobotany and archaeology of the U.S. Southwest and northwest Mexico, and the archaeology of central Mexico and shell mounds of southern coastal Brazil.   She is a past editor of Latin American Antiquity. 

Paul R. Fish (Ph.D. Arizona State University, Anthropology) is Curator Emeritus of Archaeology, Arizona State Museum and Professor Emeritus, School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona.  He studies Hohokam and other traditions of the U.S. Southwest and adjacent northwest Mexico, authoring more than 100 publications on the archaeology of the region. Fish also has conducted research on the Middle Palaeolithic of Europe and the Middle East and early coastal foraging societies of southern Brazil.