Trans–Holocene Bayesian chronology for tree and field crop use from El Gigante rockshelter, Honduras

Douglas J. Kennett, Thomas K. Harper, Amber VanDerwarker, Heather B. Thakar, Alejandra Domic, Michael Blake, Bruce F. Benz, Richard J. George, Timothy E. Scheffler, Brendan J. Culleton, Logan Kistler, Kenneth G. Hirth

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El Gigante rockshelter in western Honduras provides a deeply stratified archaeological record of human–environment interaction spanning the entirety of the Holocene. Botanical materials are remarkably well preserved and include important tree (e.g., ciruela (Spondias), avocado (Persea americana)) and field (maize (Zea mays), beans (Phaseolus), and squash (Cucurbita)) crops. Here we provide a major update to the chronology of tree and field crop use evident in the sequence. We report 375 radiocarbon dates, a majority of which are for short-lived botanical macrofossils (e.g., maize cobs, avocado seeds, or rinds). Radiocarbon dates were used in combination with stratigraphic details to establish a Bayesian chronology for ~9,800 identified botanical samples spanning the last 11,000 years. We estimate that at least 16 discrete intervals of use occurred during this time, separated by gaps of ~100–2,000 years. The longest hiatus in rockshelter occupation was between ~6,400 and 4,400 years ago and the deposition of botanical remains peaked at ~2,000 calendar years before present (cal BP). Tree fruits and squash appeared early in the occupational sequence (~11,000 cal BP) with most other field crops appearing later in time (e.g., maize at ~4,400 cal BP; beans at ~2,200 cal BP). The early focus on tree fruits and squash is consistent with early coevolutionary partnering with humans as seed dispersers in the wake of megafaunal extinction in Mesoamerica. Tree crops predominated through much of the Holocene, and there was an overall shift to field crops after 4,000 cal BP that was largely driven by increased reliance on maize farming.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0287195
JournalPloS one
Issue number6 June
StatePublished - Jun 2023

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