Evidence of ancient farming found in Andes

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Anthropologists in northern Peru have found evidence of peanut, cotton and squash farming dating back 5,000 to 9,000 years, researchers said on Thursday, in a finding that helps pin down the start of organized agriculture in the Americas.

Farming marks an important turning point in human history because it signals a change from a nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life to more settled, sedentary society.

“This seems to be a major shift for the development of social structures,” said Tom Dillehay, professor of anthropology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, whose findings appear in the journal Science.

“The crops are dependent on people, which ties the latter down,” Dillehay said in comments e-mailed to Reuters.

Anthropologists assumed early farming was taking place in the Andes Mountains, but Dillehay and colleagues managed to find proof.

They discovered peanuts, squash and cotton, as well as a primitive grain and various tubers and fruits on the western slopes of the Andes.

“Agriculture played a more important and earlier role in the development of Andean civilization than previously understood,” Dillehay and colleagues wrote.

“Our data also show that horticulture and cultural complexity developed in the Americas nearly as early as it did in many parts of the Old World.”

They dated the squash from about 9,200 years ago, the peanut from 7,600 years ago and the cotton from 5,500 years ago.

These plants did not grow wild where they were found, and Dillehay believes they must have been domesticated somewhere else. They also found garden plots, irrigation canals and storage structures nearby.

Dillehay believes the development of agriculture served as a catalyst for cultural and social changes that led to the development of towns and political structures in the Andes highlands and along the coast some 4,000 to 5,000 years ago.

The discovery in Peru parallels the 1997 discovery by the Smithsonian’s Bruce Smith that ancient squash seeds found in Oaxaca, Mexico, were nearly 10,000 years old.

“It reveals another specific environment where early agriculture advanced,” Dillehay said of his finding.