Inferring ancient Agave cultivation practices from contemporary genetic patterns


Kathleen C. Parker, Fax: 706-542-2388; E-mail:


Several Agave species have played an important ethnobotanical role since prehistory in Mesoamerica and semiarid areas to the north, including central Arizona. We examined genetic variation in relict Agave parryi populations northeast of the Mogollon Rim in Arizona, remnants from anthropogenic manipulation over 600 years ago. We used both allozymes and microsatellites to compare genetic variability and structure in anthropogenically manipulated populations with putative wild populations, to assess whether they were actively cultivated or the result of inadvertent manipulation, and to determine probable source locations for anthropogenic populations. Wild populations were more genetically diverse than anthropogenic populations, with greater expected heterozygosity, polymorphic loci, effective number of alleles and allelic richness. Anthropogenic populations exhibited many traits indicative of past active cultivation: fixed heterozygosity for several loci in all populations (nonexistent in wild populations); fewer multilocus genotypes, which differed by fewer alleles; and greater differentiation among populations than was characteristic of wild populations. Furthermore, manipulated populations date from a period when changes in the cultural context may have favoured active cultivation near dwellings. Patterns of genetic similarity among populations suggest a complex anthropogenic history. Anthropogenic populations were not simply derived from the closest wild A. parryi stock; instead they evidently came from more distant, often more diverse, wild populations, perhaps obtained through trade networks in existence at the time of cultivation.