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MAIZE Project - Archaeological History Detail

Archaeological Materials and Methods

Much of the evidence for maize domestication is based on a branch of environmental archaeology known as paleoethnobotany, the study of plant remains from archaeological sites. Paleoethnobotanists study two categories of preserved plant remains, macrobotanical and microbotanical remains.

Macrobotanicals include plant parts that are visible to the naked eye and do not typically require magnification. In the study of maize domestication, macrobotanical remains include corncobs, kernels, and sometimes husks, leaves, tassels or other plant parts.

Microbotanicals include plant parts that are not visible to the naked eye and require some form of magnification to study. There are two main types of microbotanical remains, pollen and phytoliths.

The study of pollen is known as palynology. The shape of pollen, which is the male gamete in seed-bearing plants, is distinctive among different plants. Some pollen forms are distinctive enough that they can be used to identify plants to the species level. Most grasses can only be identified to the family level, but maize pollen is identifiable to the species level.

Phytoliths are small silica bodies that form in epidermal plant cells. Although phytoliths are extremely small, they are hard and preserve well in archaeological sites. Like pollen, phytoliths occur in different shapes and sizes from plant to plant and can be used to identify plant species in archaeological assemblages. Research by Pearsall and Piperno indicates that domestic maize has distinctive cross-shaped phytoliths that can be distinguished from wild teosinte.

Next: Early Maize Sites