Investigating crop processing using phytolith analysis: the example of rice and millets

Investigating agricultural systems of past human societies is one of the central questions in archaeobotany.Crop processing models are traditionally used with macroscopic plant remains to investigate past agricultural , activities [17:261e267,26,69,70] (Jones, unpublished
PhD dissertation, 1984). This involves identifying different crop plant components and weed seeds and then comparing the proportions of each to find out the crop processing stage. There are problems that hinder this analytical approach. It relies on macroscopic plant remains coming into contact with fire so that they are preserved by charring. This exposure varies with each type of crop, and the cultural and geographical setting, which may determine that fire is not needed. Even if the crop does come into contact with fire, some of the plant components will be burnt away due to high temperatures resulting in a loss of material, especially chaff [6,67,70]. By contrast, phytoliths offer a robust dataset for distinguishing certain key stages of crop-processing
sequences and are more commonly preserved when macro-remains are unavailable or uninformative.  Phytoliths are not organic and therefore do not have the same preservation problems as organic plant remains. Burnt plant materials will leave behind phytoliths in ash, but equally unburnt plant parts that decompose will leave phytoliths in archaeological
sediment. Thus the likelihood of recovering evidence for any particular species, or plant part, may be better for phytoliths than for carbonized evidence. Major cereals, such as barley [55], wheat [3,4,55], and rice * Corresponding author. Tel.: C44 207 679 4771; fax: C44 207 383
2572. E-mail address: (D.Q. Fuller).
0305-4403/$ – see front matter 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Journal of Archaeological Science 32 (2005) 739e752 [16,47,73,77,78], as well as specific plant parts [57] can be
identified using phytoliths. Currently, phytoliths are being used to identify farming techniques such as harvesting methods and irrigation [56,58], to distinguish the major fuel inputs into fires, whether dung or wood fuel [39], and different sources of plants in terms of vegetation communities that contribute to middens and dung-derived deposits [52].We would like to expand this range of analytical uses by recommending the application of phytolith assemblage analysis for assessing inputs of crop-processing waste into archaeological  deposits. The approach we propose relies on a combination of identifying taxon specific morphotypes and the quantitative characterization of phytolith suites that are non-specific to taxon but imply patterns in plant part distribution. In this paper, established crop processing models involving macroscopic remains are evaluated  and an argument is made for the use of phytoliths to aid and substitute as an analytical tool. An example of how phytoliths can be used in this manner is discussed with
a dataset from an early farming site in North-Central India, Mahagara [23].

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