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The Sunflower In Mexico: Further Evidence For A N. American Domestication

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Author Topic: The Sunflower In Mexico: Further Evidence For A N. American Domestication  (Read 239 times)
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« on: July 20, 2009, 08:50:41 am »

Avenging Angel
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    Re: The sunflower in Mexico: further evidence for a North American domestication
« Reply #4 on: May 09, 2008, 01:14:13 am » Quote 


Bison were an important dispersal agent for the sunflower, not only did they carry achenes in their fur but they could also create the disturbance of the soil necessary for the sunflower’s success (Asch 1993). Bison were probably most effective in dispersal in their primary range which extended from Texas and New Mexico into Canada (McDonald 1981; map p. 104) where the great population densities would create more extensive disturbances. In their secondary area of distribution, which included northern Mexico to the tropic of Cancer and nearly all of eastern North America, bison apparently had little or no effect in the spread of sunflowers. There is, of course, the possibility that they introduced them to northern Mexico. The recent spread of sunflowers there has been along roads according to my observations.

Other than the problematic San Andrés specimens, sunflower has been identified tentatively in only two other archaeological contexts in Mexico. There is a single isolated report of sunflower in the archaeological record of northern Mexico, and this identification needs to be confirmed. If the Ocampo Caves (Tamaulipas) specimen excavated by McNeish and identified by Callen (1969) as wild sunflower can be located, its taxonomic assignment should be verified, as various species of Tithonia and Viguiera, close relatives of Helianthus, are sometimes mistaken for sunflower. The former are often called mirasol or girasol in Mexico, as is Helianthus. I have not been able to locate the specimens in any of the places where MacNeish-Callen material is known to be stored.

In support of their hypothesis that “the sunflower had a long history of cultivation in middle America” Lentz et al. (2001, p. 372) mention a domesticated sunflower achene from the Santa Leticia site in El Salvador (Miksicek 1986). Although Miksicek mentions both sunflower achene and sunflower seeds in his report, from the context I believe that only one carbonized achene which measured 3.9 × 2.4 mm (p. 41) was found. He states that it falls into the size range for ruderal sunflowers, or lower limit of archaic cultivated sunflower, but that is has “the thick, sculptured pericarp” more characteristic of cultivated varieties. Nowhere does the author definitely state that this is a domesticated sunflower. In fact, in his final sentence on sunflower (p. 199) he says, “a single achene is too small a sample for any but the most tentative conclusions.” Miksicek’s admittedly tentative identification of the specimen from El Salvador as sunflower should be viewed with considerable skepticism until it is relocated, described, and a clear morphological basis for its taxonomic status established. I think this achene should be examined by a sunflower specialist for two reasons: (1) its extreme geographical position and (2) the “sculptured” pericarp–for in so far as I know the pericarps of wild and cultivated sunflower do not differ except in size and color.

In summary, there is no convincing evidence for the sunflower in the archaeological record of Mexico, and the historical record provides no support for the domestication or pre-Columbian presence of the sunflower anywhere south of northern Mexico. The wide use of common names for sunflowers in Spanish, or with Spanish words in them, (girasol, mirasol, maíz de teja and maíz de tejas) suggests that sunflowers were a post-contact arrival.

It is of course possible that sunflowers, either wild or domesticated, were part of the diet in pre-Columbian Mexico at some point, and then went extinct prior to European contact. But any claims for the independent domestication of sunflower in Mexico, or its use as a food crop, should be based on strong supporting arguments and clear genetic or morphological evidence.

Acknowledgements  G. Anderson, M. Crouch, P. Davila, G. Fritz, A. Ocampo, L. Rieseberg, M. Schell, and B. Smith.



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1 Carbonized archaeological sunflower achene from San Andrés, Mexico: not available. Various difficulties prevented securing the photograph and permission to use it. In addition to the original source (Lentz et al. 2001) it may be seen in Smith (2006) as well as on The achene as shown in the photo is 8.2 mm long. Originally it was slightly longer; the tip was broken off while it was at Indiana University.
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