Andrew Somerville

Grant Type

Post PhD Research Grant

Institutional Affiliation

U. Nacional Autonoma de Mexico

Grant number

Gr. 9655

Approve Date

April 16, 2018

Project Title

Somerville, Dr. Andrew D., U. Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Mexico City, Mexico - To aid research on 'Exploring the Origins of Mesoamerican Agriculture: Reconstructing Diet and Ecology in the Tehuacan Valley'

Preliminary abstract: This project explores the origins of agriculture by studying the biological collections excavated from a series of dry cave and floodplain sites in the Tehuacán Valley of Puebla, Mexico, one of the first centers of the world to adopt maize (Zea mays) farming. In Mexico, over 5,000 years passed from the original domestication of maize to the development of the first agricultural societies, and the factors involved in this transition from foraging to farming remain highly contested. This research uses accelerated mass spectrometry dating and stable isotope analysis of human bones (N=54) to firmly date the timing of when maize became a dominant dietary input in the Tehuacán Valley. A large sample of faunal bones (N=300) and plant samples (N=100) are also analyzed for stable isotope ratios to contextualize the human paleodiet signal, and to make inferences regarding changes in the local environment from the Terminal Pleistocene (~10,000 BC) to the Classic Period (~AD 700). By establishing the timing and context in which economies of food production emerged in highland Mexico, this study tests the notion that maize was a fallback food, initially less desirable than other resources but capable of being intensified during times of scarcity, and that environmental changes encouraged populations to exploit this resource with increasing frequency. In this sense, the research explores the idea that the development of agriculture was an adaptive social response to undesirable environmental change. Conclusions from this research will enhance our understanding of the motivating factors and decision-making processes involved with the abandonment of mobile foraging lifestyles in Mexico, and, more broadly, will contribute new socio-environmental data relevant to the question of why food-producing economies emerged across the globe upon the conclusion of the last glacial period.