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  1. Abstract The genetic prehistory of human populations in Central America is largely unexplored leaving an important gap in our knowledge of the global expansion of humans. We report genome-wide ancient DNA data for a transect of twenty individuals from two Belize rock-shelters dating between 9,600-3,700 calibrated radiocarbon years before present (cal. BP). The oldest individuals (9,600-7,300 cal. BP) descend from an Early Holocene Native American lineage with only distant relatedness to present-day Mesoamericans, including Mayan-speaking populations. After ~5,600 cal. BP a previously unknown human dispersal from the south made a major demographic impact on the region, contributing more than 50% of the ancestry of all later individuals. This new ancestry derived from a source related to present-day Chibchan speakers living from Costa Rica to Colombia. Its arrival corresponds to the first clear evidence for forest clearing and maize horticulture in what later became the Maya region.
    Free, publicly-accessible full text available December 1, 2023
  2. Abstract Data from rock shelters in southern Belize show evidence of tool making, hunting, and aquatic resource exploitation by 10,500 cal b.c. ; the shelters functioned as mortuary sites between 7600 and 2000 cal b.c. Early Holocene contexts contain stemmed and barbed bifaces as part of a tradition found broadly throughout the neotropics. After around 6000 cal b.c. , bifacial tools largely disappear from the record, likely reflecting a shift to increasing reliance on plant foods, around the same time that the earliest domesticates appear in the archaeological record in the neotropics. We suggest that people living in southern Belize maintained close ties with neighbors to the south during the Early Holocene, but lagged behind in innovating new crops and farming technologies during the Middle Holocene. Maize farming in Belize intensified between 2750–2050 cal b.c. as maize became a dietary staple, 1000–1300 years later than in South America. Overall, we argue from multiple lines of data that the Neotropics of Central and South America were an area of shared information and technologies that heavily influenced cultural developments in southeastern Mesoamerica during the Early and Middle Holocene.
  3. Maize is a cultigen of global economic importance, but when it first became a staple grain in the Americas, was unknown and contested. Here, we report direct isotopic dietary evidence from 52 radiocarbon-dated human skeletons from two remarkably well-preserved rock-shelter contexts in the Maya Mountains of Belize spanning the past 10,000 years. Individuals dating before ~4700 calendar years before present (cal B.P.) show no clear evidence for the consumption of maize. Evidence for substantial maize consumption (~30% of total diet) appears in some individuals between 4700 and 4000 cal B.P. Isotopic evidence after 4000 cal B.P. indicates that maize became a persistently used staple grain comparable in dietary significance to later maize agriculturalists in the region (>70% of total diet). These data provide the earliest definitive evidence for maize as a staple grain in the Americas.
  4. From the perspective of Central America, the peopling of the New World was a complex process lasting thousands of years and involving multiple waves of migration in the late Pleistocene and early Holocene periods. As the ice age ended across the New World people were adapting to changing environments and resources. In the Neotropics these changes would have been pronounced as patchy forests and grasslands gave way to broadleaf tropical forests. Investigations since 2014 are demonstrating that early Holocene humans lived, hunted, and were buried in and around rockshelters in the Bladen Nature Reserve. Data from these studies are illuminating the life histories and subsistence strategies of these earliest colonists of the lowland tropics
  5. This paper presents the environmental context for Early Holocene cultural developments in southern Belize and describes three archaeological sites that are producing evidence of human activities starting at the end of the last ice age and continuing until the advent of agriculture. It is well known that humans colonized Central America by at least 10,500 BC, and likely earlier (Chatters et al. 2014; Kennett et al. 2017). Central America formed a bottleneck for humans migrating from North to South America, and given its diverse geology, climate, and tropical resources it is not surprising that people successfully exploited this region throughout the Holocene. We focus this discussion primarily on the context for early humans in southern Belize, but also draw broadly on well-documented archaeological accounts from elsewhere in the region.
  6. With very little known about preceramic occupations in Belize we present the chronology of a small rockshelter in southern Belize that has clear evidence of human activity extending back to the late Pleistocene. The shelter is located along the Rio Blanco valley less than 2 km from the site of Uxbenká. Data collected from four seasons of excavation indicate that the first humans began exploiting local resources, including freshwater snails (jute) by 10,500 BC and were drawn to the rockshelter by its location near fresh water and stone tool resources. Jute processing was a major part of the use of the shelter and continued likely through the Classic Period. Unfortunately, the upper levels of the archaic and Classic Maya period are mixed or were removed, possibly for the carbonate jute shells, likely during the occupation of Uxbenká.