By Junaid Shafi Bhat
Archaeobotany is the complementary discipline of archaeology; it provides aids to understand man-land relationships of prehistoric times. The archaeobotanist identifies wild and domesticated plants, investigates origins of domestication of plants and traces the progress made in ancient agricultural practices.
Archaeobotany deals with the origins of plant domestication based on the recovery of plant remains from archaeological contexts, their identification in the laboratory followed by processual interpretation of culture change as well as morphological changes in cultivated plants. Morphological changes in plants are attributed to adaptations to system of cultivation and human harvesting. It combines botanical knowledge with archaeological materials.
Botanical remains include two broad categories of evidence-Macroscopic and Microscopic, seeds ,woods, parenchyme tissue, and plant impression; these are macroscopic. The microscopic remains are pollens, phytoliths and diatoms and palaofaces (coprolits).
Archaeobotanists analyze and interpret the plant remains that come out of archaeological site from both the reproductive parts and the wood charcoal. It tells a story about human plant interactions in the past (paleoethnobotany).
We can learn different things from the archaeological plant record, for example, if a group was intensively farming and relying very heavily on corn beans and squash or whether, they had a nice mixed diet.
We can learn things about wood use such as common woods that people were bringing in for fires to cook their food and keep warm. We can track whether they were using those and resources up over time.
The archaeobotanical study can also be employed in depicting the origin and history of agriculture. Human efforts to animate for a comfortable life and evolution from food gathering to food producing is also depicted through the study of ancient plant remains.
The plant remains and archaeological sites are primarily acquired through a process called flotation, so archaeobotanists take flotation samples( basically dirt samples) and they are put in water and the plant parts in the samples float on the surface of the water, then they are skimmed off and saved which is what archaeobotanists look under the microscope. The samples with the best information are the result of accidental burning in prehistory.
The events of the earliest cultivation by man could be depicted through pollen analysis of lake and swamp by taking core samples. Such studies in Kashmir at Haigam Lake and Anchar Lake trace the beginnings of agriculture in the valley to 4000 years BP. The earliest evidence of agriculture in India dates back to 7000-8000 years BP.
Kashmir valley is unique in respect of changes that have taken place in vegetation and climate in the late Cenozoic times. The record of past vegetation of Kashmir has been obtained through palaeobotanic and palynological studies of the Karewa sediments. The evidence of the vegetation of Kashmir during pliocene has come from the investigation at Dubjan and Hirpur localities in the Karewa series (Agrawal 1985).The records of pleistocene vegetative of Kashmir have come from sites like Laredura, Liddarmarg, Pakharpura, Khaigam and so on
There were so many agricultural crop remains recovered from occupation at Burzahom in various phases. Cereals, a pulse, some horticultural crops, weed seeds have been recovered from Burzahom (Neolithic I) are extremely interesting. The megalithic period at Burzahom is characterized by the introduction of rice. At Semthan(3500-2600YBP), the main plant assemblages recovered above natural soil are rice, barley, and wheat. During the neolithic I era, the inhabitants of Burzahom practiced single cropping system of agriculture( that is, they were growing winter crops only). The introduction of rice both at Burzahom and Semthan indicates a change in food habits and suggests that the inhabitants were advanced in terms of agriculture because rice requires a good amount of water for optimal growth.
So we can say that people were very smart and astute observers of their environment and they had a broad-based diet of both plants they grew in their fields and wild plants that they utilized. They brought nutrition and vitamins and minerals to the table. They also brought enough calories for their people to have children and be able to stay on the landscape.
In a nutshell, Archaeobotany focuses on the study of preserved plant evidence from archaeological sites and the reconstruction and interpretation of past human-plant relationships. More excavations and pollen analysis are needed in order to know the human-plant interactions.
—The author is with the Department of Archaeology(CCAS), University of Kashmir. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org