Sunday, December 11, 2016
Archaeologists can answer many questions from artifacts (objects made by humans) and ecofacts (organic material with archaeological significance) left behind by people. Answers regarding past people’s lifestyles can be investigated from this material evidence and historical documentation. One aspect of lifestyle that archaeologists study is plant usage and one great, local place to learn more about this process is the Windover Site.
There are certain steps archaeologists take when investigating plant usage. Collection is a key step in this process. Plant material collected from archaeological sites can include but is not limited to seeds and carbonized pollen samples found in the soil. All of these items are brought into the lab when they are well preserved in certain circumstances at an archaeological site. The Early Archaic site of Windover near Titusville, Florida presents a special case of high quality preservation of organic material. For the purposes of this discussion we are focusing on what would be known as the archaeobotanical evidence at this site.
After collection of material evidence the next step in the process is identification. Archaeobotanical material at the Windover site comprised mostly of seeds of fleshy fruit. Some of the fruits identified from the burial contexts were prickly pear cactus and the elderberry fruit. Aside from consuming the fruit of the prickly pear cactus the roots were also boiled and used on sores4. The elderberry fruit was also eaten and used for dyeing clothes4. Interpreting how frequently each food was eaten is difficult with just a seed count from the abdominal contents. Many fruits identified in the preserved stomach contents could have been consumed at one time. Archaeologists cross reference with other archaeological sites and historical documents (when applicable) to understand the way a plant was used. This is also done to interpret the frequency a plant was used.
At least 13 edible plants were identified in the context of human burials at Windover1. Among the plants identified were hackberry, black gum, and cabbage palm. These three were only found in the context of the human burials1. Nightshade was also among the identified plants at the Windover site. Historically, its leaves have been boiled and eaten5. The ripe fruit of nightshade has also been consumed in the past. Table 4 shows other plants and some of their uses from investigations at the Windover site.
Like the sabal palmetto, the cabbage palm from the saw palmetto was also consumed by early Floridians like the Ais Native Americans once located on Jupiter Island. Leaves of both palmettos were weaved to make basketry. The ripened fruit of the saw palmetto was also consumed by early Floridians in limited quantities, with no more than 5 being eaten at one time3. Historical documentation from explorer Johnathon Dickinson and quakers of the 1769 shipwreck on Jupiter Island record encounters with the fruit and Ais Native Americans. The fruit was described as tasting like “rotten cheese steeped in tobacco juice3.” It is thought from these same historical documents that the saw palmetto fruit was also used for medicinal purposes concerning ailments of the stomach.
Plants had more than one use to early Floridians. Early Floridians used hundreds of Florida native species for subsistence and medicinal uses, or both! Establishing the specific uses of plants in the archaeological record is difficult. So, material evidence is often coupled with historical documentation when possible. Plants discussed above are not limited to this site or group of people. It is important to note that the type and quantity of plants used for consumption or medicinal purposes varied by region.
1. Tuross, N., Fogel, M. L., & Doran, G. H. (1994, April). Subsistence in the Florida Archaic: The Stable Isotope and Archaeobotanical Evidence from the Windover Site. American Antiquity, 59(2), 288-303.
2. Tykot, R. H., Kelly, J. A., & Milanich, J. T. (n.d.). Stable Isotope Analysis and Subsistence Adaptations along the Gulf Coast of Florida from the Archaic through Safety Harbor Periods.
3.Deane, Green. "Saw Palmetto Saga." Eat The Weeds and Other Things, Too. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2016.
Text: Caitlin Sawyer