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Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus L.)

History of the Domestication of Sunflowers


Sunflower (Helianthus annuus)

Sunflower (Helianthus annuus)


Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.) are plants native to the American continents. Prehistoric use of sunflowers included ornamental and ceremonial use, as well as for food and flavoring. Prior to its domestication, sunflowers were spread throughout the North and Central American continents. Human consumption of wild sunflower is known at least as early as 2900 cal BC.

Archaeological evidence accepted for the domesticated species of sunflowers (Helianthus annuus L.) is average mean length and width of achene--the pod that contains the sunflower seed. Thus, domestication of the plant is evidence that humans selected those plants with the largest seeds for cultivation.

Earliest Domestication of Sunflowers

The earliest domesticated sunflower seed and achene discovered to date is from the San Andrés site in Tabasco, Mexico, direct dated by AMS to between 2500-2800 cal BC.

A second site of domestication appears to have been in the eastern North American woodlands, evidenced by a seed recovered from the Hayes site in Tennessee, USA, dated to 4265 RCYBP. Domestic sunflower achenes have been discovered at sites such as Marble Bluff, Arkansas (ca 1264-1032 cal BC) and Newt Kash Hollow, Kentucky (ca 1162 cal BC). In addition to being different at the genetic level, the North American sunflower achene is substantially smaller than that of the contemporaneous Central American one, indicating a separate domestication event.


This article on the domestication of sunflowers is part of the About.com Guide to Plant Domestications, and part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Crites, Gary D. 1993 Domesticated sunflower in Fifth Millennium B.P temporal context: New evidence from middle Tennessee. American Antiquity 58(1):146-148.

Damiano, Fabrizio, Luigi R. Ceci, Luisa Siculella, and Raffaele Gallerani 2002 Transcription of two sunflower (Helianthus annuus L.) mitochondrial tRNA genes having different genetic origins. Gene 286(1):25-32.

Lentz, David L., et al. 2008 Sunflower (Helianthus annuus L.) as a pre-Columbian domesticate in Mexico. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105(17):6232-6237.

Lentz D, Pohl M, Pope K, and Wyatt A. 2001. Prehistoric sunflower (Helianthus Annuus L.) domestication in Mexico. Economic Botany 55(3):370-376.

Piperno, Dolores R. 2001 On Maize and the Sunflower. Science 292(5525):2260-2261.

Pope, Kevin O., et al. 2001 Origin and Environmental Setting of Ancient Agriculture in the Lowlands of Mesoamerica. Science 292(5520):1370-1373.

Smith, Bruce D. 2006 Eastern North America as an independent center of plant domestication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103(33):12223-12228.

This glossary entry is part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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