Anthropology of Food

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Me floating soils for botanical remains at the New World Archaeological Foundation, Summer 2013

Macrobotanical Analysis

Macrobotanical analysis is used to identify carbonized plant remains from archaeological contexts. The presence of these remains can often be observed with the naked eye, but microscopes are often used for the identification of the plant. Archaeologists often use a process called “flotation” to recover these remains. Carbonized plant remains will float to the surface when immersed in water, where they can be scooped up, dried out, and analyzed by specialists. The study of macrobotanical remains can be used to reconstruct ancient diets. In cases of excellent preservation, can be used to identify contents of individual pots. Macrobotanical analysis can also be used for the reconstruction of ancient environments (paleoenvironmental reconstruction).

Starch Grain Analysis

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Taking starch grain samples from ground stone pieces at the New World Archaeological Foundation, Summer 2013

Starch grain analysis is a microscopic technique that allows archaeologists to identify  remains of plants, like tubers, fruits, and grains, that have starchy parts. This analysis requires specialized lab facilities to process. When viewed under a microscope, individual starch grains can be identified by characteristic features like their size and shape. Archaeologists can look for starch grains on artifacts, like stone tools or ceramic vessels, to understand how they were used. Starch grains can also be found in soils where these foods have long since disintegrated. For example, we could test soils from an ancient trash dump to see what plants had been thrown out. Or we could test a kitchen floor to see what plant foods were being processed there. Starch grains can also provide information on food processing techniques, like heat treating, heavy grinding, and fermentation. Starch grains also preserve well even in wet conditions. They can often be recovered from sites where other plant remains disintegrate.

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