Paleoethnobotany: Botanical analysis of archaeological sites

The paleoethnobotanical laboratory at CRA provides analysis of botanical remains for historic and prehistoric archaeological sites. Paleoethnobotany or archaeobotany is the study of the relationship between plants and people through the field of archaeology. Paleoethnobotanists learn how plants were utilized for food, medicine, clothing, and houses.


Archaeology flotation separates the organic material from the soil.


A wide variety of methods are utilized to identify and recover plant remains. One method is to sieve a soil sample in a water bath in order to allow the organic material to float to the surface. This method is known as flotation. The heavy material such as soil, rock, and sand, known as heavy fraction, will sink to the bottom. Charred seeds, wood, and bone are usually less dense and will float to the surface. The material that floats to the top is called light fraction. It is gathered with a sieve and examined under a low power microscope. Paleoethnobotanists also examine paleofeces (often called coprolites).



Recovered seeds.

The study of plant remains on archaeological sites can help archaeologists learn about the environment, subsistence, domestication, and medicine. Since plants are often an indicator of climate, archaeologists often turn to paleoethnobotany to reconstruct past environments. They can also discover information about what was being used as a food source, like tree nuts, or whether they were farmers focusing on corn, beans, and/or squash. Subsistence or food acquisition gives archaeologists an idea about whether they were sedentary farmers or more migratory hunters and gatherers. Paleoethnobotanists also study the domestication of plants and the development of agriculture. Paleoethnobotany allows archaeologists to learn about the prehistoric and historic use of plants for medicinal purposes, basketry, clothing, and house construction.

This blog was contributed by Cultural Resource Analysts, Inc.



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