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Palaeolithic Plant Use in the Western Mediterranean

Final Report Summary - PALEOPLANT (Palaeolithic Plant Use in the Western Mediterranean)

This project has dealt with one of the big gaps of knowledge in prehistory, how plant foods and resources were used by pre-agrarian societies. Plants have been fundamental for human societies across the planet and there are many communities that still depend upon gathering wild plants for their subsistence. However, there is a complete blank when it comes to archaeological evidence of humans eating and exploiting plants during most of Prehistory, as most research has tended to focus on later chronological periods.
The project, reduced to 18 months after death of the PI, Lydia Zapata, has addressed the study of plant exploitation in North Africa during the Palaeolithic and the Epipalaeolithic periods from an archaeobotanical perspective. In collaboration with various institutions, sites in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria have been studied. Recovery techniques have been applied systematically providing a substantial dataset of archaeobotanical remains (seeds, fruits, wood charcoal and microfossils) allowing us to explore plant use during this period.
PALEOPLANT has demonstrated that when properly sampled Palaeolithic and Epipalaeolithic sites can produce direct evidence on plant use.
Plant remains have been recovered from the various sites analysed, offering remarkable data on the range of wild plants used in this part of the world: wild legumes, acorns, pine nuts and Alfa grass are the most frequent. Different types of evidence (archaeological and ethnographical) suggest that wild legumes, pine nuts and acorns could have played a role in human subsistence while Alfa grass could have been used as a source of fiber for basketry. Outstanding results have been obtained from the Middle Stone Age deposits of Taforalt (Morocco) (ca. 100.000-25.000 BP) where charred seeds of legumes, rhizome fragments of esparto/Alfa grass in addition to other plants have been identified. These are some of the oldest charred plant remains ever recorded in archaeological sites and they provide exceptional new data about the use of plants in Palaeolithic times. Evidence for the use of plants in funerary rituals has been also obtained for the Epipaleolithic.
Wood charcoal analyses have been also carried out on a large scale, revealing the importance of coniferous woodland during the transition from Late Pleistocene to Early Holocene and a progressive spread of Thermo-Mediterranean forests during the Middle Holocene. Although the sequences studied have provided a restricted picture of Pleistocene-Holocene vegetation dynamics in northern Africa, a significant step forward has been laid in understanding the composition of the mosaic vegetation that surrounded the sites and its exploitation by hunter-gatherer groups. Additionally, data on the impact of climate change in this region has been gathered.
Plant exploitation has also been considered through the analysis of plant microfossils (phytoliths and calcitic ash pseudomorphs) and dung spherulites, a multidisciplinary approach that has allowed a more accurate interpretation of the assemblages taking into account their possible depositional route-ways and taphonomic histories for the contexts investigated. Results revealed mostly the presence of grasses which could have been used as food. Some seasonality (spring-summer) has been noted in site occupations. In general, the studies of assemblages related mainly to food-processing, bedding and woody fuel remains.
The PALEOPLANT project has worked for 18 months to produce substantial advances in the current knowledge of Palaeolithic and Epipalaeolithic use of plants and it has demonstrated the remarkable potential of an interdisciplinary approach to provide us with a better understanding of one of the key topics of human subsistence research.