Agave-Human Symbiosis

Agave has been a mainstay of culture in the Americas for millenia: food, drink, tool, spirit, utilitarian, sacred. Adaptations to aridity represented by both agave and people hold critical insights into how to live in the desert. Yet, this reciprocal relationship between a desert plant and people is in jeopardy of being severed. Diminished use and abandonment of ancient agave fields, extreme and intensifying heat and drought due to climate change, and loss of traditional cultural knowledge all pose significant challenges to maintaining one of the most resilient arid-land biocultural adaptation practices.

The agave-human symbiosis project is bringing together a broad collaborative working group to establish a biocultural sanctuary of agaves, emphasizing domesticates, on Tumamoc Hill to create an educational and research common garden utilizing the historic Indigenous technology found in the archaeological agave fields of the greater Southwest.

The northwest portion of Tumamoc Hill is an ancient, cultivated agave field where the Hohokam people enhanced and modified the landscape to direct water to rockpiles upon which the plants were grown. Today, the rock piles are barren: the plants have disappeared in the absence of human care. This is the case across much of the Southwest. In many sites, domesticated agaves that have persisted on the long- abandoned but still-functioning rock pile technology are succumbing to unprecedented heat and drought, especially that of 2020. These plants represent a genetic repository of adaptive practices honed over centuries. Knowledge of how to live in the desert exists on this landscape in the rock pile fields, the agaves, the traditional ecological knowledge of the Tohono O’odham, other Native nations, and Western science. 

This work is a collaborative effort of a growing working group that consists of the Desert Laboratory team members pictured below as well as this group of experts:

Muffin Burgess, Tohono O'odham Community College
Valeria Cañedo, Co-director, Colectivo Sonora Silvestre
Gary Chavez, San Xavier Coop
Paul Fish, Desert Laboratory
Suzy Fish, Desert Laboratory
Jesus Garcia, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Sharlot Hart, Archeologist, NPS Southern Arizona Office
Wendy Hodgson, Desert Botanic Garden
Lea Ibarra, Co-director, Colectivo Sonora Silvestre
David Shaner LeBauer, Director of Data Sciences, CALS Comm and Technologies
Gary Nabhan, Southwest Center  and Desert Laboratory
Laura Norman, Research Physical Scientist, U.S. Geological Survey
Hector Ortiz-Cano, Brigham Young University
Sally Pablo, San Xavier W:aK District
Natasha Riccio, Desert Laboratory
Erin Riordan, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Andrew Salywon, Desert Botanic Garden
Ciena Schlaefli, San Xavier W:aK District
Don Swann, Biologist, Saguaro National Park
David Tenario, San Xavier W:aK District
Robert Villa, Desert Laboratory
Ben Wilder, Desert Laboratory



The Researchers

Research - Agave-Human Symbiosis

Martha Ames Burgess

Research Associate and Adjunct Professor, Tohono O'odham Community College

Paul Fish, PhD

Curator Emeritus, Arizona State Museum

Professor Emeritus, School of Anthropology

Suzanne K. Fish, PhD

Curator Emerita, Arizona State Museum

Professor Emerita, School of Anthropology

Gary Paul Nabhan, OEF, PhD

W.K. Kellogg Endowed Chair in Food and Water Security for the Borderlands

Natasha Riccio

PhD Student, Arid Land Resource Sciences

Erin Riordan, PhD

Research Associate Desert Laboratory and Southwest Center, Postdoctoral Research Associate Laboratory of Tree Ring Research

Benjamin T. Wilder, PhD

Director, Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill