19 February, 2006

Food history 2: Ancient starch

An approach to plant food processing in prehistory is fundamental for
understanding past plant utilization. Plant food processing is often
required to remove tissue enclosing the desired plant part such as seed
husks and nutshells (Gremillion 2004; Stahl 1989; Takahashi
and Hosoya 2002).

In the archaeological record, evidence for plant food processing can

be found in the form of starch grains present on artefact surfaces and
in sediments.

Starch is the major food reserve of higher plant, and food processing
affects the structure, morphology and rate of survival of starch.

However, starch has an inherently very stable chemical structure, and
micro-organisms can only attack and use starch over a limited range of
temperature and moisture.

Ancient starch can provide new information about changing patterns of
vegetation and subsistence history (Atchison and Fullagar 1998; Babot
2003; Haslam 2004). Ancient starch grains recovered from artefacts can
reveal aspects of subsistence not accessible through other means
(Atchison and Fullagar 1998).

The study of ancient starch analysis is a relatively new field of archaeological
research in the world, and is almost unknown in Japanese archaeology.

Very little is known about the use of edible plants without seeds and
nutshells in early Japan. Before the emergence of agriculture in Japan, the
use of food plants is generally assumed to have mainly been acorns. This is
suggested by the abundance of acorn shell remains in many archaeological

Although other edible plants could be used for starchy food, until recently
there was no way to detect these plants in the archaeological record
(Fujimoto 2000; Nishida et al. in press; Suzuki 1988; Yamamoto 2002).

Ancient starch analysis can thus help to consider the utilization of starchy
food plants in early Japan.

Here are websites on ancient starch research in Japan. If you have an
interest in this topic, you can visit these sites.

Studies on Staple Food Plants before Rice Cultivation in Japan

Ancient starch research in Japan

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