By examining modern plant use and the interrelationship between humans and their environment, archaeologists and paleoethnobotanists can gain insight into ancient uses of plants and the processes responsible for the deposition of the variety of botanical remains found at archaeological sites. Among the many uses of plants, that of food is perhaps the most critical. Past subsistence practices, diet, and nutrition can be reconstructed by observing traditional methods and tools used in food preparation and processing. To understand how plants have been used for food, how they were deposited, and how they were collected, it is helpful to turn to the practices of comparable modern societies.

Studies have been carried out in Turkey and Greece to identify the by-products of crop processing activities, with a view to determining which plants and plant parts are likely to be preserved in various contexts at a Neolithic or Bronze Age site. One such study (Hillman, 1984) identified nearly thirty different steps necessary to process emmer wheat. From threshing, winnowing, and sieving, to final sorting before grinding, each step in the process produced various weed seeds, chaff fragments, or other plant parts that were ultimately deposited elsewhere on the site as fodder, mudbrick temper, or refuse. The disposal of certain by-products in hearths or middens that are subsequently burned, or the accidental destruction of a storage or processing facility by fire, will result in at least some of the specific by-products being carbonized and thus potentially preserved. It may then be possible to correlate similar types of deposits on archaeological sites with the processing step(s) used.

The ethnobotanist observes seasonal plant use, often for several years within a given community or region, in order to observe how some plants are stored while others are eaten immediately upon collection or harvest. In the course of several years it may also be possible to examine plant reactions to stresses such as crop failure from drought or other climatic disasters, depletion of wild resources as a result of the expansion of agricultural lands, or loss of wood for fuel as a result of deforestation. Most or all of these stresses were probably also felt by societies and communities in the ancient Near East at one time or another. It is, thus, possible to formulate hypotheses about the reactions of ancient populations based on a modern society's methods of coping with the stress on flora.

There is some uncertainty attendant in this type of ethnographic analogy: the by-products of different processing steps may not have been mixed in the same deposit, particular tool types found on sites may not always have been used for the same purposes, and people may not, in fact, always react in the same ways to similar stresses. Still, ethnobotany provides a framework for speculation. It also allows an examination of the archaeological data from a different perspective, in order to reach the most reasonable explanation of the ancient record.

[See also Agriculture; Cereals; Ethnozoology; Paleobotany; and Paleoenvironmental Reconstruction.]


  • Forbes, Mary. “Gathering in the Argolid: A Subsistence Subsystem in a Greek Agricultural Community.” In Regional Variation in Modern Greece and Cyprus: Toward a Perspective on the Ethnography of Greece, edited by Muriel Dimen and Ernestine Friedl, pp. 251–264. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol. 268. New York, 1976. A look at some wild plant foods that would not be preserved archaeologically and might, therefore, be overlooked as part of the ancient diet.
  • Hillman, Gordon. “Interpretation of Archaeological Plant Remains: The Application of Ethnographic Models from Turkey.” In Plants and Ancient Man: Studies in Palaeoethnobotany, edited by Willem van Zeist and W. A. Casparie, pp. 1–41. Rotterdam, 1984. Discusses crop- processing activities observed in Turkey over a number of years, the various by-products from each step, and analytical methods useful for grouping archaeological samples for comparison with an ethnobotanical counterpart.
  • Jones, Glynis E. M. “Interpretation of Archaeological Plant Remains: Ethnographic Models from Greece.” In Plants and Ancient Man: Studies in Palaeoethnobotany, edited by Willem van Zeist and W. A. Casparie, pp. 43–61. Rotterdam, 1984. Statistical analysis of weed seeds to identify the most likely steps in the processing sequence by which archaeological samples were produced.

Julie Hansen