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Residues: Unlocking the key to ancient plant use. Identification, extraction and study of organic resiuddes adhering to stone tools as a means to recover empirical evidence of prehistoric plant use


The control and management of plants for food is one of the most important discoveries ever made and underpins life today. Knowledge of ancient plant use is crucial to understand how agriculture developed and how past climatic and environmental change affected people. Yet direct, empirical evidence of prehistoric plant use was thought until recently to be non-existent and its study is consequently severely limited.

The detection of microscopic plant residues, notably starch grains, adhering to ancient stone tools has precipitated a technique to recover, preserve and identify them to species. Developed in Australia where it has produced startling new evidence for early plant cultivation in Papua New Guinea, it is also now used in the USA, and urgently needs t o be brought to Europe. Starch is a vital component of diet today and was in the past. Applying starch grain analysis here will open a botanical encyclopaedia of data on plant use in ancient Europe. Current methods of artefact curation mean the ancient residues can be unwittingly removed and destroyed through cleaning. This expertise must be brought to Europe to prevent further destruction and rescue what remains of this vital, non-renewable, resource.

The European Union is all about being together while respecting our differences. To work on the period of time when our world-wide hunter-gatherer heritage began to diversify and the beginnings of the European culture area to take shape, will be hugely beneficial to the concept of Europe, as a united yet diver se entity, with a very long, rich, common heritage. A training programme at Sydney University will be followed by a return phase at York University, where British prehistoric material will be studied and a collaborative programme of starch grain survival and diagenesis will examine the nature of ancient plant survival. Future research is already under discussion in Europe as this method is widely recognised.

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