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Paleoethnobotany Research Survey

Updated: Apr 19, 2022

Author: Brett Furlotte.

The 2018 collections project brought together researchers of various disciplines and institutions to study a Paleoindian settlement system composed of multiple contemporary and linked archaeological sites in the Arequipa region of southern Peru. Stationed out of Hostal Characato in the Characato district of Arequipa, our collective work involved state-of-the-art archaeological faunal, chipped-stone, and botanical analyses. The paleoethnobotanical portion of the project was carried out by Dr. Sonia Zarrillo and me. Our work addressed several high priority tasks necessary to update the archaeobotanical assemblage and involved an exciting coast-highland botanical reference collection transect.

Brett Furlotte and Dr. Sonia Zarrillo record a specimen while on survey near the Pacific Coast.

Arriving to the Casa de Melgar hotel in Arequipa July 19th, we quickly set to work on completing the sorting of flotation heavy fractions – by-products of the recovery mechanism utilized to recover macrobotanical remains from archaeological sediments. Collected from several sites situated in the Pucuncho Basin and the QJ-280 site on the coast, this entailed separating and sorting sieved and rinsed archaeological material from natural sediment. Examples of commonly encountered artifacts include small chipped-stone flakes (by-products of tool creation, fragmented bits of bone and shell, and carbonized plant remains of various types. Sometimes this work also recovered more rare special objects, such as bone and shell beads and bead preforms, and bone tools. This painstaking sorting and recovery task involved critical aid from several members of the team over the entirety of the trip.

Not only did this work provide valuable data for the paleoethnobotanical analysis, but it also recovered key samples of microdebitage and microfauna, which are being analyzed by team members Dani Osorio, Kate Moore, and Sara Rhodes. The overall abundance, density, and condition of micro-material from various site contexts can also indicate occupation intensity, special behaviors, and site formation processes not possible to address using fractions of material collected in the normal excavation screens.

Amidst other ongoing activities, we sampled archaeological ground-stone tools recovered from occupation components of the Cuncaicha highland rockshelter for ancient botanical residues. Because micro-botanical remains, such as starch granules and phytoliths, can become lodged in the cracks and crevices of the tools used to process them, the residues are of great potential paleoethnobotanical interest. They can be analyzed to provide insight into aspects of prehistoric plant and tool use and thus are particularly relevant for studying diet and food preparation activities. For ongoing analyses that will be reported on soon, three samples were obtained from each tool: 1) a dry brush of sediment adhering to the tool surface; 2) a wet brush of the tool surface; and 3) an ultrasonic wash sample to recover residues from the cracks and crevices of the stone tools. This was conducted in a mock lab that Dr. Zarrillo and I prepared in our hotel room where a drying oven, ultrasonic bath, and working station were set up. Although the residues obtained need to be processed further in a fully equipped laboratory to isolate the microbotanical remains from the other organic and inorganic components, this task demonstrated that preliminary field extraction of chipped-stone tool residues is indeed possible in less than ideal circumstances.

The most noteworthy paleobotanical undertaking was the coast-highland botanical reference collection transect. To make taxonomic identifications of archaeobotanical remains, it is vital to compare them with modern reference materials. As our work focuses on sites located in diverse ecological zones that include the coast, highlands, and intervening area, we used a truck to survey from the coast near the city of Camaná to the highland Pucuncho Basin. Equipped with plant identification guides and following the seasonal river valleys Quebrada Jaguay and Quebrada Manga via a dirt road, we attempted to collect all the different plants we encountered. For the most part this was not overly ambitious, yet when diversity was particularly high we compromised by targeting the most representative specimens – especially those known to have been be used in the past. In total we collected 78 plant specimens. A few high value specimens (i.e., those with known ethnobotanical or paleoethnobotanical uses) encountered during the survey include the trees Polylepsis rugulosa (Rosaceae), Prosopis chilensis (Fabaceae), and Schinus molle (Anacardiaceae); the highland cushion plant Azorella compacta (Apiaceae); various species of grasses (Poaceae) from the genera Calmatagrosis, Festuca, and Stipa; and wild varieties of food crops from the Amaranthaceae family. Not only was the collection of these specimens vital to ongoing and future analyses on botanical remains from several sites in the study area, but as a paleoethnobotany student I found it to be a valuable learning exercise.

However, it was not all about work. Several members of the team and I were fortunate to aid Dr. Zarrillo in the rescue and adoption of a small black puppy named Negrita (now Niña – because we all called her “baby girl”). We found her in poor health living on the streets near the town square of Characato and were instantly enamoured by her big eyes and gentle demeanour. Niña now has a clean bill of health and is living happily with two other dogs in her new home in Canada – and she often comes to stay with me and my family as well. So she’s gone from “homeless,” to having two loving families and homes! Not only did we bring the archaeobotanical assemblage up to date, sample stone-tool residues for paleoethnobotanical analyses, and collect a wealth of reference material, but we also made an unexpected friend in the process.

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