A Social History of the Peach Palm (Bactris gasipaes) in South America

Frazier, Emily
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Genetic, linguistic, and cultural clues about domesticated plants provide insights into the histories of the people who have developed and used them. This study examines these clues for the peach palm (Bactris gasipaes), a fruiting palm that is native to South America, but was domesticated and dispersed more widely around the continent by indigenous peoples prior to European arrival there. This project interprets the distribution of peach palm terms in indigenous South American languages in comparison to both genetic work on wild and domesticated peach palm varieties (Clement et al., 2017) as well as ethnographic work and historical information on the significance of the peach palm in different indigenous groups. In its linguistic component, this project analyzes lexical data in South American indigenous languages using dictionaries, other published materials, and communication with experts. Ethnographies of indigenous groups illustrate the ceremonial and ritual uses of the peach palm, and may provide additional information about the distribution of peach palm use practices. Finally, this project examines the peach palm’s status in the context of its historical trajectory to identify possible explanations for its lack of global importance, especially compared to other New World crops. By drawing on data and analysis from multiple fields, this project aims to look toward a more complete picture of the peach palm and the people who have used it over time.