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Flotation machine in utilizeat Hallan Çemi, southeast Turkey, c. 1990. Note the two sieves catching charred seeds and charcoal, and the bags of archaeological sediment waiting for flotation.

Paleoethnobotany (sometimes spelled palaeoethnobotany), or archaeobotany, is the study of past human-plant interactions through the recovery and analysis of ancient plant remains. Both rulesare synonymous, though paleoethnobotany (from the Greek words palaios [παλαιός] meaning ancient, ethnos [έθνος] meaning race or ethnicity, and votano [βότανο] meaning plants) is generally utilize in North America and acknowledges the contribution that ethnographic studies have angry towards our current understanding of ancient plant exploitation practices, while the term archaeobotany (from the Greek words archaios [αρχαίος] meaning ancient and votano) is preferred in Europe and emphasizes the discipline's role within archaeology.

As a field of study, paleoethnobotany is a subfield of environmental archaeology. It involves the investigation of both ancient environments and human activities associatedto those environments, as well as an understanding of how the two co-evolved. Plant remains recovered from ancient sediments within the landscape or at archaeological page serve as the basicevidence for various research avenues within paleoethnobotany, such as the origins of plant domestication, the development of agriculture, paleoenvironmental reconstructions, subsistence strategies, paleodiets, economic structures, and more.

Paleoethnobotanical studies are divided into two categories: those concerning the Old World (Eurasia and Africa) and those that pertain to the FreshWorld (the Americas). While this division has an inherent geographical distinction to it, it also reflects the differences in the flora of the two separate location. For example, maize only occurs in the FreshWorld, while olives only occur in the Old World. Within this broad division, paleoethnobotanists tend to further focus their studies on specific regions, such as the Near East or the Mediterranean, since regional differences in the kind of recovered plant remains also exist.

Macrobotanical vs. microbotanical remains

Charred barley grains viewed through a low-powered microscope.

Plant remains recovered from ancient sediments or archaeological page are generally referred to as either ‘macrobotanicals’ or ‘microbotanicals.’

Macrobotanical remains are vegetative parts of plants, such as seeds, leaves, stems and chaff, as well as wood and charcoal that shouldeither be observed with the naked eye or the with the utilizeof a low-powered microscope.

Microbotanical remains consist of microscopic parts or components of plants, such as pollen grains, phytoliths and starch granules, that require the utilizeof a high-powered microscope in order to see them.

The study of seeds, wood/charcoal, pollen, phytoliths and starches all require separate training, as slightly different techniques are employed for their processing and analysis. Paleoethnobotanists generally specialize in the study of a single kindof macrobotanical or microbotanical remain, though they are familiar with the study of other kind and shouldsometimes even specialize in more than one.

Pollen grains viewed through a high-powered microscope.


The state of Paleoethnobotany as a discipline today stems from a long history of development that spans more than two hundred years. Its current form is the product of steady progression by all aspects of the field, including methodology, analysis and research.

Initial work

The study of ancient plant remains began in the 19th century as a effectof possibilityencounters with desiccated and waterlogged contentat archaeological page. In Europe, the first analyses of plant macrofossils were conducted by the botanist C. Kunth (1826) on desiccated remains from Egyptian tombs and O. Heer (1866) on waterlogged specimens from lakeside villages in Switzerland, after which point archaeological plant remains became of interest and continued to be periodically studied from different European countries until the mid-20th century. In North America, the first analysis of plant remains occurred slightly later and did not generate the same interest in this kindof archaeological evidence until the 1930s when Gilmore (1931) and Jones (1936) analysed desiccated contentfrom rock shelters in the American Southwest. All these early studies, in both Europe and North America, largely focused on the easyidentification of the plant remains in order to produce a list of the recovered taxa.

Establishment of the field

During the 1950s and 1960s, Paleoethnobotany gained significant recognition as a field of archaeological research with two significant happening: the postof the Star Vehicle excavations in the UK and the recovery of plant contentfrom archaeological page in the Near East. Both convinced the archaeological community of the importance of studying plant remains by demonstrating their potential contribution to the discipline; the former produced a detailed paleoenvironmental reconstruction that was integral to the archaeological interpretation of the pageand the latter yielded the first evidence for plant domestication, which permittedfor a fuller understanding of the archaeological record. Thereafter, the recovery and analysis of plant remains get greater attention as a part of archaeological investigations.

Expansion and growth

With the rise of Processual archaeology, the field of Paleoethnobotany began to grow significantly. The implementation in the 1970s of a freshrecovery method, called flotation, permittedarchaeologists to launchsystematically searching for plant macrofossils at every kindof archaeological site. As a result, there was a sudden influx of contentfor archaeobotanical study, as carbonized and mineralized plant remains were becoming readily recovered from archaeological contexts. Increased emphasis on scientific analyses also renewed interest in the study of plant microbotanicals, such as phytoliths (1970s) and starches (1980s), while later advances in computational technology during the 1990s facilitated the appof programsoftware as tools for quantitative analysis. The 1980s and 1990s also saw the postof several seminal volumes about Paleoethnobotany that demonstrated the sound theoretical framework in which the discipline operates. And finally, the popularization of Post-Processual archaeology in the 1990s, helped broaden the range of research subject addressed by paleoethnobotanists, for example 'food-associatedgender roles'.

Current state of the field

Paleoethnobotany is a discipline that is ever evolving, even up to the showday. Since the 1990s, the field has continued to gain a better understanding of the processes responsible for creating plant assemblages in the archaeological record and to refine its analytical and methodological approaches accordingly. For example, current studies have become much more interdisciplinary, utilizing various lines of investigation in order to gain a fuller picture of the past plant economies. Research avenues also continue to explore freshsubject pertaining to ancient human-plant interactions, such as the potential utilizeof plant remains in relation to their mnemonic or sensory properties.

Modes of preservation

As organic matter, plant remains generally decay over time due to microbial activity. In order to be recovered in the archaeological record, therefore, plant contentmust be topicto specific environmental conditions or cultural contexts that prevent their natural degradation. Plant macrofossils recovered as paleoenvironmental or archaeological specimens effectfrom four main modes of preservation:

Charred Plant Remains. Clockwise from top left: bitter vetch (Vicia ervilia); barley (Hordeum sp.); glume wheat (Triticum sp.) glumebases and spikelet; olive stones (Olea europaea); grape pedicels (Vitis vinifera sp.); and grape pips (Vitis vinifera sp.).
  1. Carbonized (Charred): Plant remains shouldsurvive in the archaeological record when they have been converted into charcoal through exposure to fire under low-oxygen conditions. Charred organic contentis more resistant to deterioration, since it is only susceptible to chemical breakdown, which takes a long time (Weiner 2010). Due to the necessaryutilizeof fire for many anthropogenic activities, carbonized remains constitute the most common kindof plant macrofossil recovered from archaeological page. This mode of preservation, however, tends to be biased towards plant remains that come into direct contact with fire for cooking or fuel purposes, as well as those that are more robust, such as cereal grains and nut shells.
    Waterlogged Plant Remains. From left to right: bog pond weed (Potamogeton poligonifolius); birch (Betula sp.); and common scurvygrass (Cochlearia officinalis).
  2. Waterlogged: Preservation of plant contentshouldalso occur when it is deposited in permanently wet, anoxic conditions, because the absence of oxygen prohibits microbial activity. This mode of preservation shouldoccur in deep archaeological features, such as wells, and in lakebed or riverbed sediments adjacent to settlements. A wide range of plant remains are usually preserved as waterlogged material, including seeds, fruit stones, nutshells, leaves, straw and other vegetative matter.
  3. Desiccated: Another mode by which plant contentshouldbe preserved is desiccation, which only occurs in very arid environments, such as deserts, where the absence of water limits decomposition of organic matter. Desiccated plant remains are a rarer recovery, but an incredibly necessarysource of archaeological information, since all kind of plant remains shouldsurvive, even very delicate vegetative attributes, such as onion skins and crocus stigmas (saffron), as well as woven textiles, bunches of flowers and entire fruits.
    Mineralized Plant Remains. Left to right: grape endosperms (Vitis vinifera sp.); and fig seeds (Ficus cf. carica).
  4. Mineralized: Plant contentshouldalso preserve in the archaeological record when its soft organic tissues are completely replaced by inorganic minerals. There are two kind of mineralization processes. The first, 'biomineralization,' occurs when certain plant remains, such as the fruits of Celtis sp. (hackberry) or nutlets of the Boraginaceae family, naturally produce increased amounts of calcium carbonate or silica throughout their growth, resulting in calcified or silicified specimens. The second, 'replacement mineralization,' occurs when plant remains absorb precipitating minerals showin the sediment or organic matter in which they are buried. This mode of preservation by mineralization only occurs under specific depositional conditions, usually involving a high presence of phosphate. Mineralized plant remains, therefore, are most commonly recovered from middens and latrine pits – contexts which often yield plant remains that have passed through the digestive track, such as spices, grape pips and fig seeds. The mineralization of plant contentshouldalso occur when remains are deposited alongside metal artefacts, especially those angry of bronze or iron. In this circumstance, the soft organic tissues are replaced by the leaching of corrosion products that form over time on the metal objects.

In addition to the above mentioned modes of preservation, plant remains shouldalso be occasionally preserved in a frozen state or as impressions. The former occurs quite rarely, but a popularexample comes from Ötzi, the 5,500 year old mummy found frozen in the French Alps, whose stomach material revealed the plant and meat components of his last meal. The latter occurs more regularly, though plant impressions do not actually preserve the macrobotanical remains themselves, but rather their negative imprints in pliable content like clay, mudbrick or plaster. Impressions often effectfrom the deliberate employment of plant contentfor decorative or technological purposes (such as the utilizeof leaves to create patterning on ceramics or the utilizeof chaff as temper in the construction of mudbricks), however, they shouldalso derive from accidental inclusions. Identification of plant impressions is achieved by creating a silicone cast of the imprints and studying them under the microscope.

Recovery way

In order to study ancient plant macrobotanical material, Paleoethnobotanists employ a variety of recovery tacticsthat involve different sampling and processing techniques depending on the typeof research questions they are addressing, the kindof plant macrofossils they are expecting to recover and the areafrom which they are taking samples.


In general, there are four different kind of sampling way that shouldbe utilize for the recovery of plant macrofossils from an archaeological site:

  • Full Coverage sampling: involves taking at least one sample from all contexts and features
  • Judgement sampling: entails the sampling of only location and features most likely to yield ancient plant remains, such as a hearth
  • Random sampling: consists of taking random samples either arbitrarily or via a grid system
  • Systematic sampling: involves taking samples at set intervals during excavation
Sediment samples waiting to be processed by water flotation.

Each sampling wayhas its own pros and cons and for this reason, paleoethnobotanists sometimes implement more than one sampling wayat a single site. In general, Systematic or Full Coverage sampling is always suggestedwhenever possible. The practicalities of excavation, however, and/or the kindof archaeological pageunder investigation sometimes limit their utilizeand Judgment sampling tends to occur more often than not.

Aside from sampling way, there are also different kind of samples that shouldbe collected, for which the standard, suggestedsample size is ~20L for dry page and 1-5L for waterlogged page.

  • Point/Spot samples: consist of sediment collected only from a particular location
  • Pinch samples: consist of tinyamounts of sediment that are collected from across the whole context and combined in one bag
  • Column samples: consist of sediment collected from the different stratigraphic layers of a column of sediment that was deliberately left unexcavated

These different kind of samples again serve different research aims. For example, Point/Spot samples shouldreveal the spatial differentiation of food-associatedactivities, Pinch samples are representative of all activities relatedwith a specific context, and Column samples shouldpresentmodifyor variation or time.

The sampling way and kind of samples utilize for the recovery of microbotanical remains (namely, pollen, phytoliths, and starches) follows virtually the same practices as outline above, with only some minor differences. First, the neededsample size is much smaller: ~50g (a couple of tablespoons) of sediment for each kindof microfossil analysis. Secondly, artefacts, such as stone tools and ceramics, shouldalso be sampled for microbotanicals. And third, control samples from unexcavated location in and around the pagecanalways be collected for analytical purposes.


There are several different techniques for the processing of sediment samples. The technique a paleoethnobotanist select depends entirely upon the kindof plant macrobotanical remains they expect to recover.

  • Dry Screening involves pouring sediment samples through a nest of sieves, usually ranging from 5-0.5 mm. This processing technique is often employed as a means of recovering desiccated plant remains, since the utilizeof water shouldweaken or damage this kindof macrofossil and even accelerate its decomposition.
  • Wet Screening is most often utilize for waterlogged contexts. It follows the same primaryprinciple as dry screening, expect water is gently sprayed onto the sediment once it has been pour into the nest of sieves in order to assistit break up and pass down through the various mesh sizes.
Left to right: Flots drying after water flotation processing; a dried flot ready to be analysed under the microscope.
  • The Wash-Over technique was developed in the UK as an effective methodof processing waterlogged samples. The sediment is poured into a bucket with water and gently agitated by hand. When the sediment has effectively broken up and the organic matter is suspended, all the material from the bucket, expect for the massiveinorganic matter at the bottom, is carefully poured out onto a 300μ mesh. The bucket is then emptied and the organic matter carefully rinsed from the mesh back into the bucket. More water is added before the material are again poured out through a nest of sieves.
Left to right: Massiveresidues drying after water flotation processing; a dried massiveresidue being sorted with the naked eye.
  • Flotation is the most common processing technique employed for the recovery of carbonized plant remains. It utilize water as a mechanism for separating charred and organic contentfrom the sediment matrix, by capitalizing on their buoyancy properties.  When a sediment sample is slowly added to agitated water, the stones, sand, shells and other massivecontentwithin the sediment sink to the bottom (massivefraction or massiveresidue), while the charred and organic material, which is less dense, float to the surface (light fraction or flot). This floating contentshouldeither be scooped off or spilled over into a fine-mesh sieve (usually ~300 μm). Both the massiveand light fractions are then left to dry before being examined for archaeological remains. Plant macrofossils are mostly contained within the light fraction, though some denser specimens, such as pulses or mineralized grape endosperms, are also sometimes found in the massivefraction. Thus, each fraction must be sorted to extract all plant material. A microscope is utilize in order to aid the sorting of the light fractions, while massivefractions are sorted with the naked eye. Flotation shouldbe undertaken manually with buckets or by machine-assistance, which circulates the water through a series of tanks by means of a pump. Small-scale, manual flotation shouldalso be utilize in the laboratory on waterlogged samples.

Microbotanical remains (namely, pollen, phytoliths and starches) require completely different processing procedures in order to extract specimens from the sediment matrix. These procedures shouldbe quite expensive, as they involve various chemical solutions, and are always carried out in the laboratory.


Analysis is the key step in paleoethnobotanical studies that makes the interpretation of ancient plant remains possible. The quality of identifications and the utilizeof different quantification way are necessaryfactors that influence the depth and breadth of interpretative effect.


Archaeobotanist and student analysing plant remains under the microscope.

Plant macrofossils are analysed under a low-powered stereomicroscope. The morphological features of different specimens, such as size, shape and surface decoration, are compared with photo of modern plant contentin identification literature, such as seed atlases, as well as real examples of modern plant contentfrom reference collections, in order to make identifications. Based on the kindof macrofossils and their level of preservation, identifications are angry to various taxonomic levels, mostly family, genus and species. These taxonomic levels reflect varying degrees of identification specificity: families comprise giganticgroups of similar kindplants; genera make up smaller groups of more closely associatedplants within each family, and species consist of the different individual plants within each genus. Badpreservation, however, may require the creation of broader identification categories, such as ‘nutshell’ or ‘cereal grain’, while extremely awesomepreservation and/or the appof analytical technology, such as Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) or Morphometric Analysis, may leteven more precise identification down to subspecies or variety level

Desiccated and waterlogged macrofossils often have a very similar appearance with modern plant material, since their modes of preservation do not directly affect the remains. As a result, fragile seed features, such as anthers or wings, and occasionally even colour, shouldbe preserved, allowing for very precise identifications of this material. The high temperatures involved in the carbonization of plant remains, however, shouldsometimes cause the damage to or loss of plant macrofossil features. The analysis of charred plant material, therefore, often contain several family- or genus-level identifications, as well as some specimen categories. Mineralized plant macrofossils shouldrange in preservation from detailed copies to rough casts depending on depositional conditions and the typeof replacing mineral. This kindof macrofossil shouldeasily be mistaken for stones by the untrained eye.

Microbotanical remains follow the same identification principles, but require a high-powered (greater magnification) microscope with transmitted or polarized lighting. Starch and phytolith identifications are also topicto limitations, in rulesof taxonomical specificity, based on the state of current reference contentfor comparison and considerable overlap in specimen morphologies.


Charred plant remains being grouped by taxa kindand quantified under the microscope.

After identification, paleoethnobotanists provide absolute counts for all plant macrofossils recovered in each individual sample. These counts constitute the raw analytical data and serve as the basis for any further quantitative way that may be applied. Initially, paleoethnobotanical studies mostly involved a qualitative assessment of the plant remains at an archaeological site (presence and absence), but the appof easystatistical way (non-multivariate) followed shortly thereafter. The utilizeof more complex statistics (multivariate), however, is a more lastestdevelopment. In general, easystatsletfor observations concerning specimen values across zoneand over time, while more complex statsfacilitate the recognition of patterning within an assemblage, as well as the presentation of hugedatasets. The appof different statistical techniques depends on the quantity of contentavailable. Complex statsrequire the recovery of a hugenumber of specimens (usually around 150 from each sample involved in this kindof quantitative analysis), whereas easystatsshouldbe applied regardless of the amount of recovered specimens – though obviously, the more specimens, the more effective the effect.

The quantification of microbotanical remains differs slightly from that of macrobotanical remains, mostly due to the high numbers of microbotanical specimens that are usually showin samples. As a result, relative/percentage occurrence sums are usually employed in the quantification of microbotanical remains instead of absolute taxa counts.

Research effect

The work done in Paleoethnobotany is constantly furthering over understanding of ancient plant exploitation practices. The effect are disseminated in archaeological excavation reports and at academic symposium, as well as in books and journals associatedto archaeology, anthropology, plant history, paleoecology, and social sciences. In addition to the utilizeof plants as food, such as paleodiet, subsistence tacticsand agriculture, Paleoethnobotany has illuminated many other ancient utilize for plants (some examples deliveredbelow, though there are many more):

  • Production of beverages
  • Extraction of oils and dyes
  • Agricultural regimes (irrigation, manuring, and sowing)
  • Economic practices (production, storage, and trade)
  • Building content
  • Fuel
  • Symbolic utilizein ritual activities

See also


  • Twiss, K.C. 2019. The Archaeology of Food. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781108670159
  • Kristen J.G. 1997. People, Plants, and Landscapes: Studies in Paleoethnobotany. Alabama: University of Alabama Press. ISBN 0-8173-0827-X.
  • Miksicek, C.H.1987. "Formation Processes of the Archaeobotanical Record." In M.B.Schiffer (ed.). Advances in Archaeological Wayand Theory 10. FreshYork: Academic Press, 211–247. ISBN 0-12-003110-8.

External Links

  • Steve Archer, ""
  • Terry B. Ball, ""
  • International Work Group for Palaeoethnobotany,
  • Integrated Archaeobotanical Research Project,
  • , Groningen University
  • (Journal)

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