Paleoethnobotany is the study of relationships between people and plants, using the archaeological record. We discover how people used plants for food, clothing, medicine, houses, boats, and many kinds of tools. We try to understand the cultural and ecological dynamics of past foodways; strategies for procuring, producing, and otherwise managing plant resources; and what plants meant to past peoples. We are archaeologists who implement special techniques for recovering fragile plant remains from sites around the world. Professor Gayle Fritz and graduate students at Washington University are currently working on projects in eastern North America, the U.S. Southwest, Mexico, Bolivia, Scotland, Tanzania, and Japan.
Paleoethnobotany is one of several focal areas for our faculty and students in the Department of Anthropology. We emphasize interdisciplinary research involving faculty in Anthropology, Biology, Art History and Archaeology, and Classics. Paleoethnobotanical studies complement and enhance existing research strengths at Washington University, including ongoing programs in zooarchaeology, geoarchaeology, geographic information systems, Pleistocene and Holocene climatic reconstruction, and the archaeological study of pre- and post-contact societies in North and South America, eastern and northern Africa, and the Near East.
Students interested in paleoethnobotany and who are applying for graduate study in anthropological archaeology should apply for admission through the Department of Anthropology.
David Freidel (Maya archaeology)
Gayle Fritz (Paleoethnobotany; plant domestication; North American prehistory.)
Fiona Marshall (Old World prehistory, African archaeology, zooarchaeology)
David Browman (North and Latin American archaeology)
T.R. Kidder (Geoarchaeology, alluvial geomorphology, North American archaeology)
John Kelly (Archaeology of eastern North America)
Faculty in Related Fields
Glenn Stone (Department of Anthropology; Political ecology; agricultural change and intensification; biotechnology; settlement patterns; quantitative and computer methods; ethnoarchaeology; subSaharan Africa, India, prehistoric US Southwest)
Barbara Schaal (Department of Biology; evolutionary genetics of plants, especially crops such as cassava and rice)
The Department of Anthropology offers numerous courses that allow students to develop a sound background in anthropology and biology, as well as to develop topical and methodological specialization. There is no fixed curriculum in Paleoethnobotany. In addition to required courses in the respective departmental programs, graduate students seeking to specialize in Paleoethnobotany are encouraged to take courses in departments or programs that complement and enhance their existing training and that will be relevant to their areas of interest. Courses offered for our students include:
- Anth 3332 Brave New Crops
- Anth 4211 Paleoethnobotany and Ethnobotany
- Anth 4212 Advanced Paleoethnobotany
- Anth 4213 Plants and American People
- Anth 4214 The Archaeology of Food and Drink
- Anth 4341 Origin and Spread of Food Production in the Old World
- Anth 4564 Archaeobotanical Analysis
- Anth 4682 Ethnoarchaeology
- Anth 489 Pathways to Domestication
- Anth 5283 North American Agriculture: East and West
- Flowering Plant Families (at University of Missouri, St. Louis)
Additional resources for studying Paleoethnobotany in St. Louis include the world-renowned Missouri Botanical Garden, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, and the Department of Biology at the University of Missouri at St. Louis where an excellent course on plant systematics is offered. Students and faculty studying paleoethnobotany at Washington University participate in a journal club with ethnobiologists from these institutions and others from St. Louis University and the St. Louis Zoo.
The Paleoethnobotany lab has high-quality low-magnification binocular microscopes for analyzing archaeobiological plant remains, high-power microscopes for analyzing wood, pollen, starch grains, or fibers, video and digital cameras with attachments for computerized image analysis, a muffle furnace for experimental charring and ashing, electronic scales, a SMAP-type flotation machine, and an extensive reference collection of comparative specimens. Students may also utilize scanning electron microscopes in the Departments of Biology or Earth and Planetary Sciences.. The Department of Anthropology has also has numerous resources for general archaeological field and lab analysis, including a fully equipped Archaeology lab, a geoarchaeology lab for sediment analysis, field equipment (including laser transit, standard and differential GPS receivers, GIS software, and computers), and a zooarchaeology lab.