Dolores Piperno— 2009 Pomerance Award for Scientific Contributions to Archaeology

Award Citation:

In recognition of her distinguished record of contributions to the advancement of archaeological science, the Archaeological Institute of America is pleased to present the 2009 Pomerance Award for Scientific Contributions to Archaeology to Professor Dolores R. Piperno. Professor Piperno is a scientist specializing in tropical archaeobotony at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. She is best known for her pioneering research on the analysis of phytoliths – the microcopic silica bodies that occur in many plant species - particularly in relation to the origins of agriculture in lowland Central America. She has also carried out groundbreaking research on the application of phytoliths, pollen, starch grains, and charcoal in reconstructing the agricultural and environmental history of tropical areas, elucidating topics such as the beginnings of maize domestication, the transition to agriculture in southwest Asia, human behavioral ecology, palaeoecology, and the effects of human activity on biodiversity.

After earning a B.S. in medical technology at Rutgers University, Professor Piperno began graduate study in anthropology at Temple University in 1976.  In 1979, she won a grant from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) that carried her to Panama, where she worked at Cerro Mangote, a shell midden site.  Here she developed her interest in archaeobotany and saw the need for a methodological breakthrough that would facilitate advances in tropical archaeobotany – a breakthrough that she herself would make just a few years later, while working on her master’s thesis on the analysis of phytoliths from the Aguadulce Rock Shelter. Phytolith studies were then in their infancy, and a clear understanding of which plants produced phytoliths, let alone their morphology and criteria for identification, had not yet been developed. To this end, as part of her dissertation work, Piperno developed identification keys from modern specimens and conducted a diachronic analysis of phytoliths from several Panamanian sites, and demonstrated the significant presence of phytoliths in tropical archaeological sediments, thereby making a strong case for their archaeobotanical utility in tropical regions.

After completing her Ph.D. in 1983, Piperno studied lake cores from the Amazon River basin in Ecuador, where she found phytolith evidence for forest clearance and maize agriculture in the area dating from at least 6,000 years ago. Between 1988 and 2004, she worked as a scientist at the STRI, where she continued her research on the interaction between climate change, agriculture, and human effects on the environment. Since 2000, she has been working in the Central Balsas basin of Mexico to investigate the origins of maize domestication and its environmental and cultural context. Prof. Piperno’s many contributions to the understanding of human-environment interactions include her seminal 1988 book, Phytolith Analysis: An Archaeological and Geological Perspective, which was the first work to outline the application of phytolith analysis to the intersection between archaeological and environmental questions.

Because her interdisciplinary approach and her pioneering work on phytoliths and starch grains have had a profound impact on the advancement of archaeological methodology, as well as on the understanding of human-environment interaction in many areas beyond the tropics, we are proud to award to Dolores Piperno the Archaeological Institute of America’s 2009 Pomerance Award for Scientific Contributions to Archaeology.

Dig Deeper

Email the AIA
Subscribe to the AIA e-Update

Sign Up!