Development of Agriculture in Prehistoric Mesoamerica: The Linguistic Evidence

  • Cecil H. Brown


This study uses linguistic data to reconstruct the prehistory of agriculture in Mesoamerica, a cultural and linguistic area of Mexico and northern Central America. Evidence is assembled indicating when, where, and for whom 41 cultivated and protected plants native to the New World became significant to peoples of the region in prehistoric times. The study of prehistoric agriculture has traditionally been the purview of archeologists interested in paleoethnobotany. Nevertheless, this investigation intentionally avoids reference to archeological findings and other nonlinguistic results that may or may not complement those presented here. All conclusions presented in this study are solely on the basis of linguistic data.

Specific goals of this study are (1) determination of the earliest date by which each of the 41 plants developed significance for people in Mesoamerica, (2) location of the general areas in the region where each plant initially became important to human groups, (3) determination of which of the 41 plants became important to what groups of prehistoric people, and (4) determination of when these plants became important. The comparative approach of historical linguistics is employed, with use of lexical reconstruction and glottochronology. The comparative method facilitates determination of which of the 41 plants were named by speakers of specific ancestral languages. Glottochronology determines approximately when ancestral languages were last spoken. This study employs a new glottochronological approach that yields dates for proto-languages that are entirely objectively derived.


Average Elevation Chili Pepper Average Altitude Before Present General Elevation 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



I would like to thank the ASJP Consortium for granting permission to use ASJP-produced LD dates for Mesoamerican ancestral languages. In addition, Karen Adams, Eugene Anderson, Daniel F. Austin, Brent Berlin, Pamela Brown, Lyle Campbell, Charles R. Clement, Geo Coppens d’Eeckenbrugge, Albert Davletshin, Pattie Epps, Gary Feinman, Charles Heiser, Jane Hill, Eric Holman, Eugene Hunn, Susan Kung, Andrew Leitch, Richard Manshardt, Joyce Marcus, Deborah M. Pearsall, Renata Rivera, Bruce Smith, Brian Stross, and Søren Wichmann all aided this study in important ways for which I am very grateful. This acknowledgement should not be taken as indicating agreement with conclusions drawn here of any of those thanked.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Cecil H. Brown
    • 1
  1. 1.Northern Illinois UniversityDeKalbUSA

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