The Paleobiolinguistics of the Common Bean (Phaseolus vulgaris L.)

Cecil H. Brown, Charles R. Clement, Patience Epps, Eike Luedeling, Søren Wichmann


Paleobiolinguistics is used to determine when and where the common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris L.) developed significance for prehistoric groups of Native America. Dates and locations of proto-languages for which common bean terms reconstruct generally accord with crop-origin and dispersal information from plant genetics and archaeobotany. Paleobiolinguistic and other lines of evidence indicate that human interest in the common bean became significant primarily with the widespread development of a village‐farming way of life in the New World rather than earlier when squash and maize and a few other crops became important.


Archaeobotany; crop origins; historical linguistics; Native Americans; paleobiolinguistics; plant domestication; plant genetics

Full Text:



Adair, M. J. 2003. Great Plains Paleoethnobotany. In People and Plants in Eastern North America, edited by P. E. Minnis, pp. 258-346. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.

Asch, D. L., and J. P. Hart. 2004. Crop Domestication in Prehistoric Eastern North America. Encyclopedia of Plant and Crop Science, pp. 314-319. New York: Marcel Dekker.

Bartholomew, D. A. 1965. The Reconstruction of Otopamean (Mexico). Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, Department of Linguistics, The University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois.

Bascom, B. W. 1965. Proto-Tepiman. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Washington.

Blake, M., J. E. Clark, et al. 1995. Radiocarbon Chronology for the Late Archaic and Formative Periods on the Pacific Coast of Southeastern Mesoamerica. Ancient Mesoamerica 6:161-183.

Brown, C. H. 2006. Prehistoric Chronology of the Common Bean in the New World: The Linguistic Evidence. American Anthropologist 108:507-516.

Brown, C. H., D. Beck, G. Kondrak, J. K. Watters, and S. Wichmann. 2011. Totozoquean. International Journal of American Linguistics 77:323-372.

Brown, C. H., E. Luedeling, S. Wichmann, and P. Epps. 2013a. The Paleobiolinguistics of Domesticated Squash (Cucurbita spp.). In Explorations in Ethnobiology: The Legacy of Amadeo Rea, edited by M. Quinlan and M. D. Lepofsky, pp. 132-161. Society of Ethnobiology, Denton, TX.

Brown, C. H., C. R. Clement, P. Epps, E. Luedeling, and S. Wichmann. 2013b. The Paleobiolinguistics of Domesticated Chili Pepper (Capsicum spp.). Ethnobiology Letters 4:1-11.

Brown, C. H., C. R. Clement, P. Epps, E. Luedeling, and S. Wichmann. 2013c. The Paleobiolinguistics of Domesticated Manioc (Manihot esculenta Crantz). Ethnobiology Letters 4:61‐70.

Brown, C. H., C. R. Clement, P. Epps, E. Luedeling, and S. Wichmann. 2014. The Paleobiolinguistics of Maize (Zea mays L.). Ethnobiology Letters 5:52-64.

Buckler, E. S., and N. M. Stevens. 2006. Maize Origins, Domestication, and Selection. In Darwin’s Harvest: New Approaches to the Origin, Evolution, and Conservation of Crops, edited by T. J. Motley, N. Zerega, and H. Cross, pp. 67-91. Columbia University Press, New York.

Campbell, E. 2013. The Internal Diversification and Subgrouping of Chatino. International Journal of American Linguistics 79:395-420.

Carter, R. T., A. W. Jones, J. E. Koontz, R. L. Rankin, and D. S. Rood. In Preparation. Comparative Siouan Dictionary. Computer database from the University of Colorado, Denver.

Chacón S., M. I., B. Pickersgill, and D. G. Debouck. 2005. Domestication Patterns in Common Bean (Phaseolus vulgaris L.) and the Origin of the Mesoamerican and Andean Cultivated Races. Theoretical and Applied Genetics 110:432-444.

Chacón S., M. I., B. Pickersgill, D. G. Debouck, and J. Salvador Arias. 2007. Phylogeographic Analysis of the Chloroplast DNA Variation in Wild Common Bean (Phaseolus vulgaris L.) in the Americas. Plant Systematics and Evolution 266:175-195.

Chacón S., M. I., J. R. Motta-Aldana, M. L. Serrano S., and D. G. Debouck. 2012. Domestication of Lima Beans: A New Look at an Old Problem. In Biodiversity in Agriculture: Domestication, Evolution and Sustainability, edited by P. Gepts, T. R. Famula, R. L. Bettinger, S. B. Brush, A. B. Damania, P. E. McGuire, and C. O. Qualset, pp. 330-343. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Clark, J. E. 1994. The Development of Early Formative Rank Societies in the Soconusco, Chiapas, Mexico. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Debouck, D. G., and J. Smartt. 1995. Beans, Phaseolus spp. (Leguminosae-Papilionoideae). In Evolution of Crop Plants, 2nd Ed, edited by N. W. Simmonds and J. Smartt, pp. 287-293. Longman Scientific and Technical, Harlow, Essex, UK.

Freytag, G. F., and D. G. Debouck. 2002. Taxonomy, Distribution, and Ecology of the Genus Phaseolus (Leguminosae—Papilionoideae) in North America, Mexico and Central America. Botanical Research Institute of Texas, Fort Worth, TX.

Hart, J. P., D. L. Asch, C. M. Scarry, and G. W. Crawford. 2002. The Age of the Common Bean (Phaseolus vulgaris L.) in the Northern Eastern Woodlands of North America. Antiquity 76:377-385.

Hart, J. P., and C. M. Scarry. 1999. The Age of Common Beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) in the Northeastern United States. American Antiquity 64:653-658.

Holman, E. W., C. H. Brown, S. Wichmann et al. 2011. Automated Dating of the World's Language Families based on Lexical Similarity. Current Anthropology 52:841-875.

Jolkesky, M. P. V. 2010. Reconstrução Fonológica e Lexical do Proto-Jê Meridional. Unpublished Master’s Thesis, Universidade Estadual de Campinas, Campinas, SP.

Josserand, J. K. 1983. Mixtec Dialect History. Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, Tulane University, New Orleans, LA.

Kaplan, L., and T. F. Lynch. 1999. Phaseolus (Fabaceae) in Archaeology: AMS Radiocarbon Dates and Their Significance for Pre-Columbian Agriculture. Economic Botany 53:261-272.

Kwak, M., J. A. Kami, and P. Gepts. 2009. The Putative Mesoamerican Domestication Center of Phaseolus vulgaris Is Located in the Lerma–Santiago Basin of Mexico. Crop Science 49:554-563.

Mamidi, S., M. Rossi, et al. 2011. Investigation of the domestication of common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) using multilocus sequence data. Functional Plant Biology 38:953-967.

Mello, A. A. S. 2000. Estudo histórico da familia linguistica Tupi-Guaraní. PhD dissertation, Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina.

Merrill, W. L. 2012. The Historical Linguistics of Uto-Aztecan Agriculture. Anthropological Linguistics 54:203-260.

Moore, B. R. 1962. Correspondences in South Barbacoan Chibcha. In Studies in Ecuadorian Indian Languages 1, ed. by B. F. Elson, pp. 270-289. Norman: Summer Institute of Linguistics of the University of Oklahoma.

Piperno, D. R., and T. D. Dillehay. 2008. Starch Grains on Human Teeth Reveal Early Broad Crop Diet in Northern Peru. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 105:19622-19627.

Rensch, C. R. 1976. Comparative Otomanguean Phonology. Indiana University Publications, Bloomington, IN.

Rensch, C. R. 1989. An Etymological Dictionary of the Chinantec Languages. Summer Institute of Linguistics, Arlington, TX.

Schmutz, J., P. E. McClean, et al. 2014. A Reference for Common Bean and Genome-wide Analysis of Dual Domestications. Nature Genetics 46:707-713.

Smith, B. D. 2001. Documenting Plant Domestication: The Consilience of Biological and Archaeological Approaches. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 98:1324-1326.

Stubbs, B. D. 2011. Uto-Aztecan: A Comparative Vocabulary. Shumway Family History Services, Flower Mound, TX.

van Etten, J., and R. J. Hijmans. 2010. A geospatial modelling approach integrating archaeobotany and genetics to trace the origin and dispersal of domesticated plants. PLoS ONE 5: e12060. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0012060

Wichmann, S. 1995. The Relationship Among the Mixe-Zoquean Languages of Mexico. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, UT.

Wichmann, S., and C. H. Brown. 2011. Syllable Nuclei of Proto-Mayan Disyllabic Stems. In New Perspectives in Mayan Linguistics, Heriberto Avelino, ed., pp. 316-342. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Wichmann, S., A. Müller, and V. Velupillai. 2010. Homelands of the World’s Language Families: A Quantitative Approach. Diachronica 27:247-276.

Wills, W. H. 1988. Early Prehistoric Agriculture in the American Southwest. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.


Copyright (c) 2014 Ethnobiology Letters

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.