Social Perspectives on Ancient Lives from Paleoethnobotanical Data

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Cultigen Chenopods in the Americas: A Hemispherical Perspective

  • Gayle J. FritzAffiliated withDepartment of Anthropology, Washington University Email author 
  • , Maria C. BrunoAffiliated withDepartment of Anthropology and Archaeology, Dickinson College
  • , BrieAnna S. LanglieAffiliated withDepartment of Anthropology, Loyola University Chicago
  • , Bruce D. SmithAffiliated withProgram in Human Ecology and Archaeobiology and Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution
  • , Logan KistlerAffiliated withDepartment of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution

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In this chapter, we summarize recent contributions made by archaeologists and researchers in other disciplines toward understanding the many factors involved in the domestication of Chenopodium berlandieri in North America and Chenopodium quinoa in South America. We focus on studies of seed morphology and molecular genetics, which have aided in clarifying the trajectories of domestication for both species. The comparison of these trajectories allows us to examine the similarities and differences in the evolutionary, economic, social, and political processes that contributed not only to their domestication but the roles they played in the later agricultural and sociopolitical systems in their respective regions. The eastern North American cultigen chenopod eventually lost its role as a key component of pre-Columbian agricultural systems, whereas quinoa flourished in the Andes and has attained global super-food status today. Still, both of these crops constituted food that was central to and inseparable from considerations of identity, status, ritual, exchange, and sociopolitical life. An appreciation of chenopods as important foods in each region allows us to reflect upon their diverse evolutionary pathways and the significance of individual foods and broader cuisines within regional histories.


Chenopodium Quinoa Plant domestication Eastern North American archaeology Andean archaeology Ancient grains Super foods