Micrographs of starch granules.

Micrographs of starch granules.

Studies are currently being done that extract particles of starches from archaeological tools to learn which plants were used by inhabitants of the Caribbean and where those plants came from. The science that identifies the various plants managed by indigenous societies and their uses is known as paleobotany.

Previously, knowledge of the plants that were important to the ancient societies was based mainly on information provided by the Europeans who kept journals of their arrival in the region during the conquest and colonization. This limited the information available on the pre-Columbian period, because few details were available about earlier times.

Thanks to the use of studies of starch particles, however, research is now being done on the origin and evolution of Caribbean plants that is hoped will begin to outline more effectively the contacts among Caribbean cultures and the uses and socio-economic importance of these plants.

Specifically, the studies analyze starch particles. Starches are compounds found in vegetable matter that adhere to the pores and fissures in the tools used by indigenous societies for processing the plants and vegetables that they managed for the purposes of food or for magical-religious, artistic or medicinal uses. Because each plant has a distinct form of starch, various specimens from pre-Columbian times in the region can be identified. This is done by comparing samples extracted from archaeological sites with reference collections derived from modern-day plants to make identifications.

This has resulted in the development of a paleobotanical research technique that is greatly helpful for archaeology in the Caribbean, as well as in other tropical regions of the world, where plant remains tend to have very low levels of preservation.

Author: Reniel Rodríguez Ramos
Published: March 01, 2012.

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