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Beyond the Ecofact: Toward a Social Paleoethnobotany in Mesoamerica

Abstract

This essay examines the relationship between social archaeology and paleoethnobotany in Mesoamerica, a region where paleoethnobotanical research has been growing rapidly. We synthesize Mesoamerican paleoethnobotanical studies that have gone beyond descriptions of subsistence economies, reconstructions of ecological systems, or static lists of identified plant remains. These paleoethnobotanical investigations, we argue, transcend the ecofact to shed light on how human–plant interaction was connected to power, agency, societal structures, and normative constraints—fundamental foci of research in social archaeology. Pulling on current trends in Mesoamerican paleoethnobotany, we show how these social archaeological topics have been addressed via studies of political ecology and ritual. Future advances in social paleoethnobotany are contingent upon methodological innovations in data sampling, quantification, analysis, and integration. We end with a consideration of additional pathways toward a social paleoethnobotany, which includes contributions to understanding materiality, past gender relations, environmental knowledge, and the effect of scale on analysis and interpretations.

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Acknowledgments

This paper developed via a long conversation between the two authors and several paleoethnobotanists who have established the field and demonstrated its application to social archaeological topics. We would like to acknowledge foremost individuals who have provided guidance and mentorship to us over the years, especially David Lentz, Emily McClung de Tapia, Christine Hastorf, Dolores Piperno, Emilio Ibarra Morales, Cristina Adriano-Morán, Diana Martínez Yrizar, and David Goldstein. We also are grateful to Deborah Pearsall, whose canonical text, Paleoethnobotany: A Handbook of Procedures, has long occupied a cherished place on our shelves. We greatly appreciate the instruction provided by the editors of the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory as well as the comments of Amber VanDerwarker and anonymous reviewers. Megan Parker and Cristal Bender assisted in compiling the bibliography. Omissions or erroneous interpretations of the studies we review are our responsibility.

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Morehart, C.T., Morell-Hart, S. Beyond the Ecofact: Toward a Social Paleoethnobotany in Mesoamerica. J Archaeol Method Theory 22, 483–511 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10816-013-9183-6

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Keywords

  • Social archaeology
  • Mesoamerica
  • Paleoethnobotany
  • Ethnobotany