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Reconsidering the Ocampo Caves and the Era of Incipient Cultivation in Mesoamerica

  • Bruce D. Smith (a1)

In northeastern Mexico, near Ocampo, Romero’s and Valenzuela’s caves have been central to explanations of agricultural origins in Mesoamerica for more than four decades. Along with caves in Tehuacán and Oaxaca, these "Ocampo caves" have provided almost all of the available evidence for the initial appearance of a number of key Mesoamerican crop plants, including maize, beans, and squash. This article reanalyzes the cultural and temporal context of five crop plant assemblages in the Ocampo caves: maize (Zea mays), bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceraria), and three species of squash (Cucurbita argyrosperma, C. moschata, C. pepo). Fifteen AMS radiocarbon dates on early domesticates both confirm the stratigraphic integrity of the two caves and substantially revise the temporal framework for initial appearance of core domesticates in northeastern Mexico, showing the transition to food production in Tamaulipas took place more recently than previously thought. A substantially foreshortened chronology for Ocampo crop plants confirms the northern periphery role of Tamaulipas in the origins of agriculture in Mexico, while also underscoring the need for establishing AMS-based archaeobotanical sequences across Mesoamerica to gain an adequate context for understanding the temporal, environmental, and cultural contexts of initial plant domestication in the region.

Situadas cerca de Ocampo, Tamaulipas, en el noreste de México, las cuevas de Romero y Valenzuela fueron las más importantes para abordar las explicaciones sobre los orígenes de la agricultura en Mesoamérica por más de cuatro décadas. Junto con las cuevas de San Marcos y Coxcatlán en Tehuacán y la cueva de Guilá Naquitz en Oaxaca, estas "cuevas de Ocampo" han proporcionado casi toda la evidencia disponible desde el comienzo de la domesticación de numerosas plantas, incluyendo maíz, frijol y calabaza. Este artículo reanaliza las dimensiones culturales y temporales de cinco plantas de cosecha de las cuevas de Ocampo: maíz (Zea mays), calabaza vinatera (Lagenaria siceraria), y tres especias de calabaza (Cucurbita argyrosperma, C. moschata, C. pepo). Quince fechas de radiocarbono obtenidas por acelerdor de los cultígenos confirman la integridad estrategráfica de las dos cuevas, y revisa considerablemente la dimensión temporal de la aparición inicial de las principales plantas domésticas en noreste México. La transición hacia la producción de alimentos en Tamaulipas demuestra que este proceso se presentó en tiempos más recientes de lo que se pensaba. Inicialmente presentada en la cronología de Ocampo desde 9000 a.P., por exemplo, Lagenaria siceraria y Cucurbita pepo no aparecen en la ocupación de las cuevas hasta 4400-4000 a.C. (fechas calibradas). Cucurbita argyrosperma está presente desde 3000 a.C. (fechas calibradas), el maíz desde 2400 a.C. (fechas calibradas), y la Cucurbita moschata desde 800 a.C. (fechas calibradas). Esta cronología recortada de plantas de Ocampo confirma el papel que tuvo la periferia norte de Tamaulipas en el origen de la agricultura en México, al mismo tiempo que subraya la necesidad de establecer bases de secuencias arqueobotánicas fechadas por acelerador en toda Mesoamérica, para entender suficientemente el contexto temporal, medioambiental y cultural de la domesticación inicial de la región.

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