Anthropology Archaeobotany
Meriel McClatchie
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0253


Archaeobotany explores people’s engagement with plants and landscapes through analysis of preserved plant remains. Delicate, sometimes fragmentary, remains of plants are often recovered from archaeological excavations because in certain conditions this material can survive for thousands of years. When identified, plant remains enable the archaeobotanist to reveal how humans created, modified, and engaged with their physical and social environments through space and time. A wide variety of research questions can be explored in archaeobotany, including foodways, agricultural and other management practices, environments, medicines, textiles, structures, and furnishings. In its methodological and theoretical approaches, archaeobotany draws from many disciplines, including botany, plant genetics, agricultural studies, ethnography, history, and archaeology. Terms other than archaeobotany are sometimes used to refer to this discipline, including “palaeoethnobotany” and “palaeobotany.” The term “palaeoethnobotany” emphasizes human interactions with plants, while “palaeobotany” is focused on environments. The term “archaeobotany” is more appropriate because it combines the study of both human interactions and landscapes, and this dual approach is better suited to research objectives in archaeology. There are two broad groups of material in archaeobotany: macro-remains and micro-remains. Plant macro-remains are more often studied, but analysis of micro-remains is becoming increasingly popular. Plant macro-remains usually refer to plant structures that can be seen with the naked eye (often >0.5mm) but require low-powered microscopy for identification. Seeds and fruits of higher plants are most often studied, including cereal grains and chaff, nuts and nutshell, stones and seeds of fruits, and seeds of wild plants (the word “seed” is used here in its broadest sense). Other plant macro-remains, some of which require higher-powered microscopy, can include remains of cooked food, cereal bran (part of the periderm of the grass caryopsis), vegetative components of plants (such as leaves, bud scales and thorns), parenchyma (underground storage organs of plants, such as roots and tubers), plant fibers, wood and charcoal, and lower plants, such as mosses and fungi. Commonly investigated plant micro-remains include pollen, phytoliths, and starch grains. Some categories of remains (such as seeds) can inform on local, short-term human interactions with plants, whereas others (such as pollen) can reflect regional, longer-term interactions. The category of plant remains selected for analysis will usually depend on research questions and expected preservation conditions.

General Overviews

Several overview volumes and papers have been produced, some focusing on analytic techniques and the historical development of the field, with others concentrating on regional reviews of research results. Renfrew 1973 provides an early synthesis of archaeobotany field and laboratory techniques, focusing on evidence from plant macro-remains in Europe and the Near East. Pearsall 2015 is a more global review of research approaches to both macro- and micro-remains, as is the Marston, et al. 2015 edited volume. Overviews of the historical development of archaeobotany, particularly macro-remains, appear in several publications, including Jacomet and Kreuz 1999 for Europe, Hastorf 1999 and VanDerwarker, et al. 2016 for the American continent, and Fuller 2002 for South Asia. Regional overview studies often highlight the benefits of a multi-proxy approach, including van Zeist, et al. 1991 for Europe and the Near East and Stevens, et al. 2014 for Africa. More global overviews of research and theory include Madella, et al. 2014.

  • Fuller, D. Q. 2002. Fifty years of archaeobotanical studies in India: Laying a solid foundation. In Indian archaeology in retrospect. Vol. 3, Archaeology and interactive disciplines. Edited by S. Settar and R. Korisettar, 247–364. New Delhi: Manohar.

    This paper is a regional review that provides a wide-ranging synthesis of the history of archaeobotanical research in South Asia and assesses future potential.

  • Hastorf, C. A. 1999. Recent research in paleoethnobotany. Journal of Archaeological Research 7.1: 55–103.

    This paper provides a state-of-the-art review up to the 1990s, focused on the American continent, including research approaches and themes, as well as potential future directions.

  • Jacomet, S., and A. Kreuz. 1999. Archäobotanik: Aufgaben, Methoden und Ergebnisse vegetations- und agrargeschichtlicher Forschung. Stuttgart: UTB.

    A very good introductory guide to archaeobotany, explaining approaches and research themes, with a focus on Europe, particularly central Europe. The discussion of analytic approaches toward weeds and wild plants is particularly useful.

  • Madella, M., C. Lancelotti, and M. Savard, ed. 2014. Ancient plants and people: Contemporary trends in archaeobotany. Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press.

    In this recent volume, case studies are provided to explore research, methods and theory in archaeobotany around the world.

  • Marston, J. M., J. d’Alpoim Guedes, and C. Warinner, ed. 2015. Method and theory in paleoethnobotany. Boulder: Univ. Press of Colorado.

    A useful introductory text from diverse scholars that provides a synthesis of the discipline, including its history and the variety of analyses that can be undertaken. One of its strengths is that papers draw upon recent scientific developments and theoretical approaches to provide a good overview of current priorities and future potential.

  • Pearsall, D. M. 2015. Palaeoethnobotany: A handbook of procedures. 3d ed. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

    This is an important and up-to-date global study that reviews the discipline in great detail and provides a “how-to” guide for a wide suite of macro- and micro-remains. This is often recommended as a textbook for students entering the discipline.

  • Renfrew, J. M. 1973. Palaeoethnobotany: The prehistoric food plants of the Near East and Europe. London: Methuen.

    A comprehensive early overview focused on Europe and the Near East that includes a history of research in archaeobotany and an identification guide to selected plants. Its approaches are somewhat dated now, but it remains a very good introduction.

  • Stevens, C. J., S. Nixon, M. A. Murray, and D. Q Fuller, ed. 2014. The archaeology of African plant use. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

    A recent collection of diverse research papers highlighting the long engagement between humans and plants in Africa, including the development of complex societies.

  • VanDerwarker, A. M., D. N. Bardolph, K. M. Hoppa, et al. 2016. New World paleoethnobotany in the new millennium 2000–2013. Journal of Archaeological Research 24.2: 125–177.

    This paper provides an updated state-of-the-art review following Hastorf 1999, synthesizing advances in research approaches and techniques, including developments in starch and phytolith analysis, as well as quantitative approaches.

  • Van Zeist, W., K. Wasylikowa, and K.-E. Behre, ed. 1991. Progress in Old World palaeoethnobotany. Rotterdam: A. A. Balkema.

    An important and influential volume that contains a wide variety of papers, exploring case studies from Europe and the Near East.

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