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Paleo-ethno-botany 'ancient' - 'people' - 'plants'. Processing Archaeological Plant Material Subsistence Reconstructing Past Environments Plant Domestication. Paleoethnobotany. Paleoethnobotany is a branch of archaeology which studies how people in the past used plants.

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paleo ethno botany ancient people plants

Paleo-ethno-botany'ancient' - 'people' - 'plants'

Processing Archaeological Plant Material


Reconstructing Past Environments

Plant Domestication

  • Paleoethnobotany is a branch of archaeology which studies how people in the past used plants.
  • Plant remains found in archaeological sites can tell us a great deal about the people who once lived there.
  • Paleoethnobotanists study the remains of ancient plants (mainly seeds) preserved in archaeological contexts which can be retrieved by flotation.
processing plant material flotation
Processing Plant Material: Flotation

The entire soil sample is slowly poured into the barrel on top of the mesh and gently agitated with hands to break up any clumps and wash the material

through the mesh.

flotation light fraction
Flotation-Light Fraction

The water is allowed to flow steadily through the weir and into the sieves, taking any floating or suspended material with it. The water remains running until no further carbonized material floats to the surface.

plant remains
Plant Remains
  • Macrobotanicals
    • Plant remains that can be seen with the naked eye.
    • Nuts, seeds, charcoal, fruit pits
  • Microbotanicals
    • Plant remains that can only be observed microscopically.
    • Pollen, phytoliths, fossil cuticles, diatoms
subsistence wild plants
Subsistence: Wild Plants
  • Like people today, ancient people needed to eat a balanced diet with protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals.
  • For 99.5% of our human history we subsistend on a diet of hunted meat and gathered wild nuts, plants and fruit.
  • Plants such as sumpweed, sunflower, and squash are higher in kilocalories (535-560), and hickory is higher still (673).
non food uses
Non-Food Uses
  • Plant oils were not only incorporated into food, but also were used as a base for body paints and for dressing people’s hair.
  • Also used for cordage, clothing, housing, fire, medicines, and tools.
making fiber cordage
Making Fiber Cordage

Fiber Twisting

Materials like the plant Dogbane


Fiber Cordage


Culture: AnasaziDates: Basketmaker III, ca. AD 450-750Location: Northeastern AZMaterial: yucca fiber

environmental reconstruction
Environmental Reconstruction
  • Wood
    • Examine changes in forest zones
  • Seeds and fruits
    • seasonality
  • Palynology
    • Study of pollen grains
    • Pollen zones, changes in plant communities
  • Phytoliths
    • Silica from plant cells
    • Produced in large numbers, vegetation changes
wood environment
Wood & Environment
  • Wood charcoal
    • Difficult to identify
  • Forest changes
    • Hypsithermal warming and drying trend between 8,000 & 5,000 years ago.
    • Forests in Northeast shifted from boreal (conifers) to deciduous (leafy trees). More open and patchy.
  • Nuts, Seeds and Fruits ripen at particular times
  • Used to determine site seasonality
    • Nuts (walnut, acorn, hickory) in fall
    • Seeds (sumpweed & poke) in late summer
    • Fruits (hackberry) in late spring

Charred Broomcorn Millet Seed, Japan(photo by Y. Tsubakisaka,Hokkaido University)

Pistachio Wood Charcoal, Algeria40x magnification(from Couvert, M. 1977.

pollen and phytoliths
Pollen and Phytoliths
  • Palynology (pollen analysis) has been used by North American environmental archaeologists for decades but its function has evolved from simply providing broad scale paleoenvironmental reconstructions to examining more closely the changing relationships between people and vegetation.
  • Phytolith analysis has been used to a lesser extent, but is increasing. Both can be used to elucidate both the sequence of vegetation history and also the composition of agricultural fields and gardens, which allow our interpretations to account for the dynamic ways in which humans have manipulated their environs.

Agave pollen from a Texas coprolite.

corn phytoliths
Corn Phytoliths

fossil cuticles diatoms
Fossil Cuticles & Diatoms
  • Fossil Cuticles
    • Outermost layer of blades of grass, made of cutin-silica cells.
    • Used to identify changes in grassland environments.
  • Diatoms
    • Unicellular algae that have silica walls.
    • Found in bottom of water (i.e. bogs).
    • Determine condition of water-whether brackish, fresh, or salt at different times.

Fossil Plant Cuticles


weeds vs domesticates
  • How does a domesticated plant differ from a wild or weedy one, how can plants become domesticated, and how can an archaeologist tell which they have?
    • Both weedy and domesticated plants like to grow in soil that has been disturbed, whereas wild plants do not.
    • Weedy plants possess a number of characteristics that enable them to survive on their own:
      • they are good at dispersing their own seeds,
      • their seeds may have dormancy or the ability to lie in the ground for many years before sprouting,
      • different plants and sections of individual flowers mature at different rates, and
      • overall the plants display phenotypic (morphological) plasticity or variability.
how can such changes come about
How can such changes come about?
  • Nearly all of our domesticated plants were domesticated prehistorically by ancient peoples.
  • Archaeologists believe that domestication was an unconscious process that occurred thanks to everyday interactions between peoples and plants.
three thousand year old sunflower and squash seeds from marble bluff arkansas right
Three thousand-year old sunflower and squash seeds from Marble Bluff, Arkansas (right)

Studied by Dr. Gail Fritz, Washington University

the three sisters
  • The three sisters – maize, beans, and squash – were important in the diet of eastern North American Indians in the centuries just prior to contact by Europeans.
  • Long domesticated in Mexico, these crops spread into the Southwest and eastern North America. Their use is well documented in historic records.
introduction of corn beans squash
Introduction of Corn, Beans & Squash
  • Less well known is that they did not spread together or evenly into the same areas.
  • More surprising, for thousands of years prior to their introduction, Indians domesticated and cultivatedlocal, North American crops.
  • Some of these ancient, native crops are now extinct.
the three sisters corn beans and squash
The Three Sisters:Corn, Beans and Squash

Corn (Zea mays)

Common Bean

(Phaseolus vulgaris)

Pepo Squash

(Cucurbita pepo)

ceremonial uses of plants
Ceremonial Uses of Plants

For example, gourds filled with seeds are used to create rattles and musical instruments. These gourd rattles are from Mali and Ghana in West Africa.

images in jewelry
Images in Jewelry

Pendants found in the tomb of Puabi represent (from top to bottom) the flowering male date palm inflorescence, the fruiting branch of the date palm and a cluster of small apples. All these items are literal and figurative symbols of fruitfulness.


Pounding Grain

at Adi Ainawalid, Tigrai, Ethiopia. 


In many parts of the world, plants have made up the greatest part of the diet. Desired plants were collected, stored and processed and cooked in a wide variety of methods.  This is an oven in a traditional household in Adi Ainawalid, Tigrai, Ethiopia.