An update from Christopher, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology:
About 48 attendees at the Eighth International Workshop for African Archaeobotany, in Modena, Italy, represented institutions from North America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Archaeobotany brings together botany, ecology, and archaeology to better understand past societies. Researchers in this field have mastered the identification of plant remains at macroscopic and microscopic levels, yielding a treasure trove of information about human history that has direct implications for the future of humankind. Such a trove, in fact, I will recap in two parts.
The 8th International Workshop for African Archaeobotany was held one of the many satellite campuses of the University of Reggio-Emilia and Modena in beautiful Modena, Italy.
First: as the primary producers in every terrestrial biome on Earth, plants are intimately linked with the animal behavior and the climatic conditions that foster their growth. The insights gained by archaeobotanists shed light on two of the most crucial issues that face our species today: feeding a growing population of more than 7 billion, and mitigating the impacts of human-induced climate change.
Studies in archaeobotany are particularly rich in Africa, where human prehistory is deepest, and the diversity of human culture is daunting. Because the problems of African prehistory interested such a range of archaeologists, ecologists, and other scientists, these researchers came together in 1994 to hold the first archaeobotany workshop with only 20 participants.
A prominent theme at IWAA was reconstructing the adaptations of agriculturalist societies, with contributions from Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Ghana. Archaeobotanists have a keen eye for taphonomic processes, the circumstances under which plants, sediments, artifacts, and anything else are embedded in the sedimentary record. Several presentations showed how societies intensively recycled crop wastes as brick-making material, animal fodder, fuel for ovens, or even packing material for graves.
Tracking the movement of plant products through past economies illustrates a range of behaviors and sheds light on important social norms, such as how past societies structure their spaces according to gender roles or the deeply held cultural knowledge required to produce medicine, food, or even wine.
Other presentations tracked the early origins of coffee and sorghum, presenting hypotheses about how prehistoric Africans winnowed the genetic diversity of wild and hybridized taxa to produce plants that are now billion-dollar industries. Others showed how foreign domesticates such as cotton, emmer wheat, barley, cherries, grapes, and rice could be used to follow the trails of past traders who connected empires in Africa with the Middle East, south Asia, and the Mediterranean. Much of this work was done by examining and identifying plant remains visible to the naked eye such as seeds, husks, leaves, branches, bark, and stems – also known as the field of macrobotany.
In the right conditions these plant products are extremely durable. One paper reconstructed the diets of hunter-gatherers as far back as the last ice age in North Africa, when the people exploited pine nuts, wild pistachios and grass seeds to build a rich and nutritious diet. I found this study particularly interesting because it makes a strong case for persistent human ingenuity. Our ancestors were not brutish, animal-chasing cavemen; they were communities with diverse identities and skills that cleverly and intentionally exploited every niche of the environment.
In the next post I’ll discuss the potential methodological developments that were demonstrated during the workshop. Stay tuned!