It is difficult to imagine people thousands of years from now digging up bits of McDonald's wrappers and Coke cans and forming a hypothesis about how we lived, what we ate and who held power in society.
The study of paleoethnobotany attempts to do just that.Dr. Kandace Hollenbach, a research associate at UT's Archaeological Research Lab, gave a talk entitled "Foragers and Farmers in East Tennessee: What Archaeological Plant Remains Can Tell Us About Prehistoric Lifeways" on Tuesday in the McClung Museum.
She broke down paleoethnobotany and its uses for understanding cultures that existed long ago.
"This is the study of the relationship between people and plants in the past," Hollenbach said. "We use the plant remains we find to develop ideas about the daily practices, schedules and identities of these people."
Her talk, while discussing paleoethnobotany methods in general, specifically addressed samples from the Townsend Archaeological project in Blount County. This dig brought over 1,200 boxes of artifacts, which UT's ARL has been analyzing ever since.
So, how do these plant remains even exist for archaeologists to study?
"People use them. They procure, process, consume and discard," Hollenbach said. "Most importantly, these remnants are preserved. If they weren't, we would have little to study."
The preservation process most important to the Townsend project is carbonization, which occurs when plant remains have been exposed to fire. Fire cuts off the source of energy for the remains and limits microbial decay. This exposure often comes from burned trash and accidental spills.Several problems and biases do arise with this method, however. Because these remains can be very small and fragile, they are especially vulnerable to freeze/thaw and wet/dry cycles. This leaves a relatively small subset that can be analyzed. Additionally, byproducts are overrepresented while items not cooked with fire are underrepresented.These issues present some challenges for archaeologists.
"No, we shouldn't just throw up our hands and walk away," Hollenbach said. "We have to do what we can with what we do have."
For example, although spills and accidents may be few, they accumulate as years pass.
"This gives us a decent cumulative picture of the most important facts over time," Hollenbach said.
Furthermore, these small remains can give insights into bigger cultural norms. This use is particularly interesting to undecided sophomore Adam Young.
"The conclusions they are able to draw are very interesting," Young said. "(Hollenbach) discussed tobacco and how they know it was used even though only a few remains are found. Then they apply this principle to other plants where not a lot exists and are able to make better theories."
Hollenbach traced thousands of years of history to show the change from the foraging Late Archaic period, to the introduction of corn in the Early Mississippian, to the use of consistent agriculture with the Protohistoric Cherokee.For sophomore Angelia Rateike, this change is one of the most interesting parts of this archaeological topic.
"I'm interested in paleoethnobotany," Rateike, who is leaning toward anthropology as a major, said. "The different cultures and how they change, as well as the different ways they use plants, is fascinating."
Overall, these plant remains reveal characteristics of people who lived thousands of years ago that we would not normally expect.
"We often think of these people as living hand-to-mouth, tough existences," Hollenbach said. "In reality, they had choices about what they eat, just like us. And those choices shaped them."