Shanti Morell-Hart and the Complexities of Plant Remains

    Humans may obviously be omnivores, but plant foods and broader plant resources have formed a crucial part of the context of our Shanti Morell-Hartevolutionary emergence and of human ecology.  Shanti Morell-Hart, Visiting Professor this year in the Anthropology Department, explores this human - plant link in her research into the human past and the cultural roles, meanings and embedded evidence presented by plant remains. 

    Dr.  Morell-Hart came to us from Berkeley, where she studied with Professors Rosemary Joyce and  Christine Hastorf,  doing research into plant remains from Mesoamerica and thinking about the cultural role of food and plants.  Shanti has worked in a variety of archaeological contexts, from the U.S. to Peru, but her work eventually came to focus on Mesoamerica, specifically a cluster of sites in northern Honduras.  Her research has encompassed not just evidence of past cultural practices, but the spectrum of foodstuffs, food practices and cultural contexts of contemporary Mesoamerican foodways.  Furthermore, her work at Berkeley has lead her to use linguistic perspectives as a way of conceptualizing the complex cultural matrix in which the human exploitation of plant materials takes place. Asked about her interest in foodways, she replies: “One parent was something of a foodie, the other was more into antiques.  So maybe that combination led me to question how food and the past were related!"

    Paleoethnobotany is the study of archaeologically obtained remains of plants, from contexts which can be dated, and which are as undisturbed and unmodified by later events as possible.  There are a variety of archaeological environments which are capable of preserving plant materials, and each of them – dessication, partial burning, complete burning, freezing, or waterlogged conditions – will preserve the remains in different conditions, with different types of evidence more or less likely to survive.  And with analytical and recovery techniques increasing and improving all the time, artifacts associated with plant processing such as cooking vessels, knife blades, storage containers, and even archaeological features such as pits are also yielding new and fascinating types of information. book

Plant samples     As with any process leading to the identification of ‘unknowns’, comparative samples of securely known plant parts, both new and ancient, some processed or modified in order to make them more similar to archaeologically recovered remains, form a necessary part of the apparatus of Morell-Hart’s work.  Identification is fairly straightforward, using microscopy and comparative samples, although there are more instrumentally based procedures as well.  Not only the presence or absence of a species, but the relative abundance of various species or substances is also a crucial factor.  Morell-Hart has already engaged a cadre of ‘plant huPlant Huntersnters’ who peer into microscopes several days a week at the Keck Environmental Lab accumulating data.

    The relationship of humans and plants is complex – humans need plants not just for food, but for fuel, building materials, ritual and artistic practices, and medical and other drugs, as well as for textile, netting and basketry fibers.  Foodways can be difficult to disentangle from this complex.  But foodways themselves are also very complex: some foods are cultivated, some are ‘wild’; some are ‘everyday’, some are ‘special’; some require processing to render them edible at all, or cooking and seasoning to render them more edible than they naturally are.  All plants display some seasonality – and while some can be stored long term or harvested repeatedly, others are fugitive and may exist in the diet for only a few weeks or days out of the year.  Some plants offer substantial and dependable calories – others only a piquant or attractive flavor.

    Cultural practice and context add another layer of complexity to plant foodways – traditional, local, even familial variations exist within an on-going and wider-ranging cultural complex, and these cultural complexes change over time and across space.  All of this leads to a level of complexity which makes analysis difficult.  Once the species present have been identified, they still need to be related to human actions, thoughts, intentions and results, and these can only be understood anthropologically.  Morell-Hart has discovered that various forms of linguistic analysis can also be applied to foodways so as to begin the process of understanding these cultural / human interactions with plants.  Using semiotic concepts related to agency, the ways that the many parts of this dynamic complex can be combined, rethought and acted upon can begin to be understood.

    Morell-Hart’s work thus showcases complexity, issues with meshing the micro and the macro, and issues with the use of statistical analysis in an often non-rigorous context.  The total variety of foodstuffs she has encountered, and the practices, places and cultural dynamics implied by many of these remains, have led her to question long standing assumptions about the maize-beans-squash triad long assumed to be the caloric and cultural basis of Mesoamerican foodways.  Paleoethnobotany has the potential to not only inform but to remake our knowledge of the past.