Starch Granule Size and Morphology as a Proxy for Water Regime Influence on Zea mays

  • Stefania Wilks Department of Anthropology, Natural History Museum of Utah, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, USA.
  • Lisbeth A. Louderback Department of Anthropology, Natural History Museum of Utah, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, USA.
  • Shannon Boomgarden Natural History Museum of Utah, Director, Range Creek Field Station, Department of Anthropology, University of Utah, Salt Lake, USA.
Keywords: Agriculture, Arid western North America, Irrigation, Fremont culture, Starch analysis, Maize


A wealth of information on the patterns of human subsistence and plant domestication has been generated from studies on maize (Zea mays) starch granules. However, very little work has been conducted on how the size and morphology of those granules might change as a function of water stress during the growing season. In the arid Southwest, the role of irrigation in growing maize is an essential parameter in many foraging models. Our study seeks to determine if there are significant changes in the size and other morphological attributes of starch granules from maize planted at Range Creek Canyon under two different irrigation regimes ranging from little water (once every three weeks) to ample water (once a day). Our results provide data on the effects of irrigation on Z. mays starch granules and, therefore, have implications for identifying archaeological maize and possibly determining past water regimes at Range Creek Canyon.

Author Biographies

Stefania Wilks, Department of Anthropology, Natural History Museum of Utah, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, USA.

Stefania Wilks is a life long learner and has been a resident of the Southwest for most of her life. Stefania returned to college after working in landscape to pursue her interest in paleoethnobotany. She is currently a Master's student at University of Utah studying under Dr. Lisbeth Louderback. Her research involves starch granule analysis on ground stone technology from sites in the Southwest.

Lisbeth A. Louderback, Department of Anthropology, Natural History Museum of Utah, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, USA.

Lisbeth Louderback brings a strong interdisciplinary background to archaeology with technical expertise in archaeobotany and paleoecology. Lisbeth established a research program on human dietary ecology at University of Utah, which examines the supply, harvest, processing and energetic returns of plant and animal resources from natural ecosystems.

Shannon Boomgarden, Natural History Museum of Utah, Director, Range Creek Field Station, Department of Anthropology, University of Utah, Salt Lake, USA.

Shannon Boomgarden began working in archaeology nearly two decades ago and has been involved in Range Creek Canyon since the early 2000s. Shannon’s dissertation summarizes much of the archaeological and experimental research conducted by the Range Creek field school.


Adams, K. R. 2015. The Archaeology and Agronomy of Ancient Maize (Zea Mays L.). In Traditional Arid Land Agriculture: Understanding the Past for the Future, edited by S. Ingram and R. Hunt, pp. 15–53. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, AZ.

Adams, K. R., D. A. Muenchrath, and D. M. Schwindt. 1999. Moisture Effects on the Morphology of Ears, Cobs and Kernels of a Southwestern U.S. Maize (Zea mays L.) Cultivar, and Implications for the Interpretation of Archaeological Maize. Journal of Archaeological Science 26:483–496. DOI:10.1006/jasc.1998.0320.

Adams, K., C. A. Meegan, S. G. Ortman, R. E. Howell, L. C. Werth, D. A. Muenchrath, M. K. O’Neill, and C. A. Gardner. 2006. MAIS (Maize of American Indigenous Societies) Southwest: Ear Descriptions and Traits that Distinguish 27 Morphologically distinct Groups of 123 Historic USDA Maize (Zea mays L. spp. Mays) Accessions and Data Relevant to Archaeological Subsistence Models. New Mexico Experimental Grow Out, Farmington, NM.

Arbolino, R. 2001. Agricultural Strategies and Labor Organization: An Ethnohistoric Approach to the Study of Prehistoric Farming Systems in the Taos Area of Northern New Mexico. Doctoral Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX.

Benson, L. 2010. Factors Controlling Pre-Columbian and Early Historic Maize Productivity in the American Southwest, Part 1: The Southern Colorado Plateau and Rio Grande Regions. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 18:1–60. DOI:10.1007/s10816-010-9082-z.

Benson, L. V., D. K. Ramsey, D. W. Stahle, and K. L. Peterson. 2013. Some Thoughts on the Factors that Controlled Prehistoric Maize Production in the American Southwest with Application to Southwestern Colorado. Journal of Archaeological Science 40:2869–2880. DOI:10.1016/j.jas.2013.03.013.

Bertoft, E. 2017. Understanding Starch Structure: Recent Progress. Agronomy 7:56 DOI:10.3390/agronomy7030056.

Boomgarden, S. A. 2015. Experimental Maize Farming in Range Creek Canyon, Utah. Doctoral Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT.

Boomgarden, S. A., D. Metcalfe, and C. Springer. 2014. Prehistoric Archaeology in Range Creek Canyon, Utah: A Summary of Activities of the Range Creek Field Station. Utah Archaeology 27:9–32.

Boomgarden, S. A., D. Metcalfe, and E. Simons. 2019. An Optimal Irrigation Model: Theory, Experimental Results, and Implications for Future Research. American Antiquity 84:252–273. DOI:10.1017/aaq.2018.90.

Castetter, E., and W. H. Bell. 1942. Pima and Papago Indian Agriculture. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, NM.

Coltrain, J. 2011. Evidence for Fremont Maize Farming in the Soil Organic Chemistry of Range Creek Canyon. Paper presented at the 76th Annual Meetings of the Society of American Archaeology, Sacramento, CA. Available at: Accessed on October 20, 2020.

Doolittle, W. E. 1984. Agricultural Change as an Incremental Process. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 74:124–137.

Herzog, N., L. Louderback, and B. Pavlik. 2018. Effects of Cultivation on Tuber and Starch Granule Morphometrics of Solanum jamesii and Implications for Interpretation of the Archaeological Record. Journal of Archaeological Science 98:1–6. DOI:10.1016/j.jas.2018.07.014.

Holst, I., J. E. Moreno, and D. R. Piperno. 2007. Identification of Teosinte, Maize, and Tripsacum in Mesoamerica by Using Pollen, Starch Grains, and Phytoliths. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105:5006–5011. DOI:10.1073/pnas.0800894105.

ICSN. 2011. The International Code of Starch Nomenclature. Available at: Accessed on September 20, 2019.

Ingram, S. E., and R. C. Hunt, eds. 2015. Traditional Arid Lands Agriculture Understanding the Past for the Future. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, AZ.

Jane, J., T. Kasemsuwan, S. Lees, H. Zobel, and J. F. Robyt. 1994. Anthology of Starch Granule Morphology by Scanning Electron Microscopy. Starch 46:121–129. DOI:10.1002/star.19940460402.

Lui, L., S. Ma, and J. Cui. 2014. Identification of Starch Granules Using a Two-Step Identification Method. Journal of Archaeological Science 52:421–427. DOI:10.1016/j.jas.2014.09.008.

Louderback, L. A., N. M. Herzog, and B. M. Pavlik. 2016. A New Approach for Identifying Starch Granules of Wild Plants from Arid Western North America. Starch/Starke 68:1–7. DOI:10.1073/pnas.1705540114.

Mabry, J. 2005. Diversity in Early Southwest Farming and Optimization Models to Transition to Agriculture. In Subsistence and Resource Use Strategies in Early Agricultural Communities in Southern Arizona, edited by M.W. Diehl, pp. 113–154. Anthropological Papers 34. Center for Desert Archaeology, Tucson, AZ.

Messner, T. C., R. Dickau, and J. Harbison. 2008. Starch Grain Analysis: Methodology and Applications in the Northeast. In Current Northeast Paleoethnobotany II, edited by J. P. Hart, pp. 111–127. New York State Education Department, Albany, NY.

Metcalfe, D. 2008. Range Creek Canyon. In The Great Basin: People and Place in Ancient Times, edited by C. F. Fowler and D. D. Fowler, pp. 117–123. School for Advanced Research Press, Santa Fe, NM.

Metcalfe, D., and L. V. Larrabee. 1985. Fremont Irrigation: Evidence from Gooseberry Valley, Central Utah. Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology 7:244–254.

Muenchrath, D. A. 1995 Productivity, Morphology, Phenology, and Physiology of a Desert-Adapted Native American Maize (Zea mays L.) Cultivar. Doctoral Dissertation, Department of Agronomy, Iowa State University, Ames, IA. Available from Retrospective Theses and Dissertations (paper 10967).

Musaubach, M. G., A. Plos, and M. del Pilar Babot. 2013. Differentiation of Archaeological Maize (Zea mays L.) from Native Wild Grasses Based on Starch Grain Morphology. Cases from Central Pampas of Argentina. Journal of Archaeological Science 40:1186–1193. DOI:10.1016/j.jas2012.09.026.

Nabhan, G. 1983. Papago Fields: Arid Lands Ethnobotany and Agricultural Ecology. Doctoral Dissertation. University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ.

Piperno, D. R., E. Weiss, I. Holst, and D. Nadel. 2004. Processing of Wild Cereal Grains in the Upper Paleolithic Revealed by Starch Grain Analysis. Nature 430:670–673. DOI:10.1038/nature02734.

Piperno, D. R., A. J. Ranere, I. Holst, J. Iriarte, and R. Dickau. 2009. Starch Grain and Phytolith Evidence for Early Ninth Millennium B.P. Maize from the Central Balsas River Valley, Mexico. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106:5019–5024. DOI:10.1073/pnas.0812525106.

R Core Team. 2019. R: A Language and Environment for Statistical Computing [web page]. Vienna, Austria. Available at: Accessed on March 17, 2020.

Reichert, E. T. 1913. The Differentiation and Specificity of Starches in Relation to Genera, Species, Etc.: Stereochemistry Applied to Protoplasmic Processes and Products, and as a Strictly Scientific Basis for the Classification of Plants and Animals. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Washington, DC.

Rhode, D. 1995. Estimating Agricultural Carrying Capacity in the Zuni Region, West-Central New Mexico: A Water Allocation Model. In Soil, Water, Biology and Belief in Prehistoric and Traditional Southwestern Agriculture, edited by H. W. Toll, pp.85–100. New Mexico Archaeology Council, Albuquerque, NM.

Shaw, R. H. 1988. Climate Requirement. In Corn and Corn Improvement, 3rd edition, edited by G. F. Sprague and J. W. Dudley, pp. 609–638. American Society of Agronomy, Madison, WI.

Simms, S. R., T. M. Rittenour, C. Kuehn, and M. B. Cannon. 2020. Prehistoric Irrigation in Central Utah: Chronology, Agricultural Economics, and Implications. American Antiquity 85:452–469. DOI:10.1017/aaq.2020.25.

Talbot, R. K., and L. D. Richens. 1996. Steinaker Gap: An Early Fremont Farmstead. Museum of Peoples and Cultures Occasional Papers 2, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT.

Torrence, R., and H. Barton, eds. 2016. Ancient Starch Research, 2nd edition. Routledge Press, New York City, NY.

Towner, R. H., M. W. Salzer, J. A. Parks, and K. R. Barlow. 2009. Assessing the Importance of Past Human Behavior in Dendrochronological Research: Examples from Range Creek Canyon, Utah. Tree-Ring Research 65:117–27. DOI:10.3959/2008-4.1.

Wells, J. C. K., and J. T. Stock. 2020. Life History Transitions at the Origins of Agriculture: A Model for Understanding How Niche Construction Impacts Human Growth, Demography and Health. Frontiers in Endocrinology 11:325. DOI:10.3389/fendo.2020.00325.

Werth, L. C. 2007. Characterization and Classification of Native American Maize Landraces from the Southwestern United States. Agronomy, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. Available at: https// Accessed on October 14, 2020.

Wrangham, R. W., G. Laden, J. H. Jones, D. Pilbeam, and N. C. Conklin-Brittian. 1999. The Raw and the Stolen: Cooking and the Ecology of Human Origins. Current Anthropology 40:567–594. DOI:10.1086/300083.

Yang, X., and L. Perry. 2013. Identification of Ancient Starch Grains from the Tribe Triticeae in the North China Plain. Journal of Archaeological Science 40:3170–3177. DOI:10.1016/j.jas.2013.04.004.

Zarillo, S., D. M. Pearsall, J. S. Raymond, M. Tisdale, D. J. Quon. 2008. Directly Dates Starch Residues Document Early Formative Maize (Zea mays L.) in Tropical Ecuador. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105:5006–5011. DOI:10.1073/pnas.0800894105.

Figure 3 A  Starch granule size distributions of pooled samples (100%) from Plot 2 (n = 310) and Plot 6 (n = 310). Size distributions for the upper 20%, both plots (n = 62). Comparisons between distributions from each sample fraction were significantly different (p < 0.0001). (Right) Morphological attributes (Nomarski optics, DIC) include B sf = three-armed stellate fissure radiating from the hilum on an irregular granule from Plot 6, tf = transverse fissure dissecting the hilum and extending toward the margin of an irregular-shaped granule from Plot 6 and C rf = radial fissure radiating from the hilum to the margin of an irregular-shaped granule from Plot 6.
How to Cite
Wilks, S., Louderback, L. A., & Boomgarden, S. (2021). Starch Granule Size and Morphology as a Proxy for Water Regime Influence on Zea mays. Ethnobiology Letters, 12(1), 35-43.
Research Communications