ScienceDaily (Apr. 30, 200 — Researchers at the University of
Cincinnati and Florida State University have confirmed evidence of domesticated
sunflower in Mexico — 4,000 years before what had been previously
“People sometimes ask: 'What is the big
deal about sunflower?'" says David Lentz, professor of biological
sciences and executive director of the Center for Field Studies in the
McMicken College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Cincinnati
(UC). Lentz worked with Mary Pohl from Florida State University, José
Luis Alvarado from Mexico’s Institute of Anthropology and History,
and Robert Bye from the Independent National University of Mexico.
“First of all, sunflower is one of the
world's major oil seed crops and understanding its ancestry is important
for modern crop-breeding purposes," Lentz says. "For a long
time, we thought that sunflower was domesticated only in eastern North
America, in the middle Mississippi valley — Arkansas, Missouri,
Tennessee, Illinois. This is what traditional textbooks say. Now it
appears that sunflower was domesticated independently in Mexico."
"The Mexican sunflower discovery suggests
that there may have been some cultural exchange between eastern North
America and Mesoamerica at a very early time,” Lentz adds. “Now
the textbooks need to be rewritten.”
More than just a matter of pride over which part
of America can claim a flower, the debate centers on when sunflower
was domesticated and which civilization first cultivated it. Now there
is solid evidence that two similar events took place thousands of years
and hundreds of miles apart.
Lentz and his fellow researchers have documented
archaeological, linguistic, ethnographic and ethnohistoric data demonstrating
that the sunflower had entered the repertoire of Mexican domesticates
by 2600 B.C., that its cultivation was widespread in Mexico and extended
as far south as El Salvador by the first millennium B.C., that it was
well known to the Aztecs, and that it is still in use by traditional
Mesoamerican cultures today. (People of the Americas made huge contributions
to today’s society in terms of agriculture, including the development
of a number of valuable crops such as corn, peppers, beans, cotton,
squash, chocolate, tomatoes and avocadoes, as well as sunflower.)
But it is unknown if the Mexican domestication
and North American domestication are related. So is it coincidence?
Did one cause the other? Or did they both happen because of some other
common outside factor?
“Whatever conclusions we draw, the evidence
clearly shows that sunflower as a Mexican crop goes back far into antiquity,”
In addition to the biogeographic study of sunflower,
the researchers conducted archaeological, linguistic, ethnographic and
ethnohistorical research, collecting data from many fields of study.
Archaeological evidence of sunflower in Mexico
has been rare, probably for a number of reasons. First, the way it was
used may not have been conducive to deposition in archaeological sites.
Second, climatic conditions, especially in the Neotropics, have bad
properties of preservation for plant parts so most things just rot away.
Finally, archaeological research strategies in many areas of Mesoamerica
focus more on monumental architecture and less on agricultural developments.
That is, you are unlikely to find something if you are not looking for
Nevertheless, sunflower achenes (this is what
most of us call the seed, but it is actually the fruit of the sunflower,
containing the seed) were found in Mexico in situations where the preservation
was especially good. Cueva del Gallo was a dry cave and the sunflower
achenes there were in pristine condition. San Andrés was a waterlogged
site and the sunflower remains from that site were also well preserved.
Using accelerator mass spectrometry, the sunflowers at San Andrés
were found to be older than 2600 B.C.
The researchers also asked indigenous people
in Mexico what terms they used for the sunflower.
“They described how they used sunflower
and told us the name in their native language,” says Lentz. “The
names they used for sunflower were all unique, not related to Spanish.
That tells us the use of sunflower is older than the Spanish expeditions
of the 15th and 16th centuries."
The Otomi, one of the Mexican indigenous groups
interviewed, use the name “dä nukhä,” which translates
to “big flower that looks at the sun god,” a reference to
pre-Columbian solar worship. The sunflower is commonly still used as
an ornament in their churches.
“When asked about sunflowers, people of
the Nahua culture in Mexico, descendants of the Aztecs gave us a clue
to help interpret early historic texts,” describes Lentz. “The
modern Nahua use two words for sunflower: ‘chimalxochitl,’
which means ‘shield flower,’ or ‘chimalacatl,’
which means ‘shield reed,’ which is also a reference to
its hollow stem and large, disk-like head (that resembles an Aztec shield).
These terms led us to sunflower references to listed in early chronicles
of 16th century Aztec society, including ‘The Florentine Codex,’
written by Fray Bernardino de Sahagun. In the Florentine Codex, the
sunflower is described as part of an offering to the Sun God, 'Huitzilopochtli.'"
The researchers point out, the sunflower’s
association with solar worship and warfare in Mexico may have led to
its suppression after the Spanish Conquest.
“Sunflower was believed to be a powerful
aphrodisiac, which could have also contributed to its being banned by
the Spanish priests,” Lentz says with a smile. “Of course,
it is not but this belief was probably part of the case against sunflowers.”
“Mesoamerica had a thriving culture, a
grand civilization,” Lentz notes. “They had irrigation systems,
monumental construction, agriculture and a complex society.
The group's research is published in the
Proceedings of the National Academy of Science
(PNAS) as “Sunflower (
L.) as a Pre-Columbian Domesticate in Mexico”
with UC’s David Lentz as lead author and co-authors Mary Pohl
from Florida State, José Luis Alvarado from Mexico’s Institute
of Anthropology and History and Robert Bye from the Independent National
University of Mexico. (Lentz’s student, Somayeh Tarighat, is also
a co-author on the paper.)
“The discovery of ancient sunflower in
Mexico refines our knowledge of domesticated Mesoamerican plants and
adds complexity to our understanding of cultural evolution,” the
authors state in the paper.
Lentz’s research on the biogeography of
sunflower is also being published at the same time as the cover story
for the International Journal of Plant Sciences, “Ecological Niche
Modeling and Distribution of Wild Sunflower (Helianthus annuus L.) in
Mexico,” with co-authors Robert Bye and Victor Sánchez-Cordero
from the Independent National University of Mexico (UNAM).
“Beyond the recognition of the great cultures
due these early peoples, there are very real lessons that we can learn
from them. As we deal with our modern-day issues of global warming and
as we evaluate and examine what crops will survive and thrive in warmer
climates, the ancient Aztecs might have some valuable lessons to teach
us — and the descendants of the Aztecs may have valuable sunflower
seed stocks to help improve our modern agricultural capability.”
This research was funded by grants from the National
Science Foundation and the National Geographic Society.
Adapted from materials provided by University