Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Phytoliths as indicators of prehistoric maize (Zea mays subsp.mays, Poaceae) cultivation

  • 92 Accesses

  • 12 Citations


Maize (Zea mays L. subsp.mays) has been identified in archaeological contexts by a high proportion of large cross-shaped phytoliths. Given the numerous races of maize, this study was undertaken to determine if differences below the species level could be noted. It was also designed to see if phytoliths differed in various plant parts at various stages of growth. Several races were grown under experimental conditions. No significant differences were found. Furthermore, few phytoliths alleged to be diagnostic of maize were discovered. Systemic studies of maize and analyses of prehistoric cultivation by means of phytoliths seem not to be as promising as some researchers have argued.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. Bennett, D. M., Sangster, A. G., 1982: Electron-probe microanalysis of silicon in the adventitious roots and terminal internode of the culm ofZea mays. — Canad. J. Bot.60: 2024–2031.

  2. Blackman, E., 1968: The pattern and sequence of opaline silica deposition in rye (Secale cereale L.). — Ann. Bot.32: 207–218.

  3. , 1969: Observations on the development of silica cells of the leaf sheath of wheat (Triticum aestivum). — Canad. J. Bot.47: 827–838.

  4. Bozarth, S. R., 1986: Morphologically distinctivePhaseolus, Cucurbita, andHelianthus annus phytoliths. — InRovner, I., (Ed.): Plant opal phytolith and analysis in archaeology and paleoecology. Proceedings of the 1984 phytolith workshop, pp. 56–66. — North Carolina State University, Occasional papers no. 1 of the Phytolitharien.

  5. , 1987: Diagnostic opal phytoliths from rinds of selectedCucurbita species. — Amer. Antiq.52: 607–615.

  6. Brown, D. A., 1984: Prospects and limits of a phytolith key for grasses in the central United States. — J. Archaeol. Sci.11: 345–368.

  7. Dunn, M. E., 1983: Phytolith analysis in archaeology. — Midcont. J. Archaeol.8: 287–297.

  8. Hill, W. W., 1938: The agricultural and hunting methods of Navajo Indians. — Yale Univ. Pub. in Anth.18.

  9. Hudson, M. J., 1986: Silicon deposition in the roots, culm, and leaf ofPhalaris canariensis L. — Ann. Bot.58: 167–177.

  10. Jones, L. H. P., Handreck, K. A., 1967: Silica in soils, plants, and animals. — InNorman, A. G., (Ed.): Advances in agronomy19, pp. 107–147. — New York: Academic Press.

  11. Kurman, M. H., 1985: An opal phytolith and palynomorph study of extant and fossil soils in Kansas (U.S.A). — Paleogeogr. Paleoclimatol. Palaeoecol.49: 217–235.

  12. Lanning, F. C., Hopkins, T. L., Loera, J. C., 1980: Silica and ash content and depositional patterns of matureZea mays L. plants. — Ann. Bot.45: 549–554.

  13. Lewis, R. O., 1981: Use of opal phytoliths in paleoenvironmental reconstruction. — J. Ethnobiol.1: 175–181.

  14. Mangelsdorf, P. C., 1974: Corn: its origin, evolution, and improvement. — Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

  15. Metcalfe, C. R., 1960: Anatomy of monocotyledons: I.Graminae. — London: Oxford.

  16. , 1971: Anatomy of monocotyledons: V.Cyperaceae. — Oxford: Clarendon Press.

  17. Mulholland, S. C., 1986: Classification of grass silica phytoliths. — InRovner, I., (Eds.): Plant opal phytolith analysis in archaeology and paleoecology: Proceedings of the 1984 phytolith research workshop, pp. 41–52. — North Carolina State University, Occasional papers of the Phytolitharien. 1.

  18. Pearsall, D. M., 1978: Phytolith analysis of archaeological soils: evidence for maize cultivation in formative Ecuador. — Sci.199: 177–178.

  19. , 1982: Phytolith analysis: applications of a new paleoethnobotanical technique in archaeology. — Amer. Anthr.8: 862–871.

  20. , 1990: Antiquity of maize cultivation in Ecuador: summary and reevaluation of the evidence. — Amer. Antiq.55: 324–337.

  21. Piperno, D. R., 1984: A comparison and differentiation of phytoliths from maize and wild grasses: use of a morphological criteria. — Amer. Antiq.49: 361–383.

  22. , 1985: Phytolith taphonomy and distributions in archaeological sediments from Panama. — J. Archaeol. Sci.12: 247–267.

  23. , 1988: Phytolith analysis: an archaeological and geological perspective. — San Diego: Academic Press.

  24. , 1985: Preceramic maize in central Panama: phytolith and pollen evidence. — Amer. Anthro.87: 871–878.

  25. Roosevelt, A., 1984: Problems interpreting the diffusion of cultivated plants. — InStone, D., (Ed.): Pre-Columbian plant migration, pp. 1–18. — Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

  26. Rovner, I., 1971: Potential of opal phytoliths for use in paleoecological reconstruction. — Quat. Res.1: 343–359.

  27. , 1983: Plant opal phytolith analysis: major advances in archaeobotanical research. — InSchiffer, M. B., (Ed.): Advances in archaeological method and theory,6, pp. 225–266. — New York: Academic Press.

  28. Russ, J. C., Rovner, I., 1989: Stereological identification of opal phytolith populations from wild and cultivatedZea. — Amer. Antiq.54: 784–792.

  29. Sangster, A. G., 1968: Studies of opaline silica deposits in the leaf ofSieglingia decumbens L. ‘Bernh.’ using the scanning electron microscope. — Ann. Bot.32: 237–240.

  30. , 1983: Anatomical features and silica depositional patterns in the rhizomes of the grassesSorghastrum nutans andPhragmites australis. — Canad. J. Bot.61: 752–761.

  31. , 1969: Some factors in relation to bulliform cell silification in the grass leaf. — Ann. Bot.33: 315–323.

  32. Starna, W. A., Kane, D. A., 1983: Phytoliths, archaeology, and caveats: a case study from New York state. — Man in the northeast26: 21–32.

  33. Twiss, P. C., Suess, E., Smith, R. M., 1969: Morphological classification of grass phytoliths. — Soil Sci. Soc. Amer. Proc.33: 109–115.

  34. Wellhausen, E. J., Roberts, L. M., Hernandez, X. E., 1951: Razas de maiz en Mexico. — Mexico: Secretaria de Agricultura y Ganaderia.

  35. Wills, W. H., 1988: Early prehistoric agriculture in the American Southwest. — Santa Fe: School of Amer. Res. Press.

  36. Yeck, R. D., Gray, F., 1972: Phytolith size characteristics between udolls and ustolls. — Soil Sci. Soc. Amer. Proc.36: 639–641.

Download references

Author information

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Doolittle, W.E., Frederick, C.D. Phytoliths as indicators of prehistoric maize (Zea mays subsp.mays, Poaceae) cultivation. Pl Syst Evol 177, 175–184 (1991). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00937955

Download citation

Key words

  • Angiosperms
  • Poaceae
  • Zea mays subsp.mays
  • Opal phytoliths
  • paleoenvironments
  • cultivation