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Piperno began her work career as a medical technician, and used her training and experience in this field when she moved into archaeology. Her education includes a B.S. in Medical Technology (Rutgers University, 1971), an M.A. in Anthropology (Temple University, 1979), and a Ph.D.in Anthropology (Temple University, 1983).
Her research interests include the study of phytoliths, starch grains, and pollen at archaeological sites near the beginning of the domestication of various crops such as cucurbits, maize (corn), and peanuts. Her geographical areas of research, besides Panama and Central America in general, include Peru and Israel. She has developed some of the procedures commonly used in phytolith studies in archaeology and is one of the pioneers in the archaeological study of starch grains, and has built up a reference collection of over 400 species.
- 2000. Piperno, D.R. A.J. Ranere, I. "Holst and P. Hansell; Starch Grains Reveal Early Root Crop Horticulture in the Panamanian Tropical Forest," Nature 407:894-897.
- 1998. The Origins of Agriculture in the Lowland Neotropics, with D. Pearsall, Academic Press.
- 1988. Phytolith Analysis: An Archaeological and Geological Perspective. Academic Press.