Archaeobotany Research Group

The archaeobotany group is composed of researchers studying human/plant interactions in the past by means of both macro- and microbotanical morphological methods. The team has ongoing research projects that span most of the temperate zones of the Northern Hemisphere, but largely focuses on the understudied regions of Central Eurasia. There are ongoing projects among these scholars that deal with contexts stretching back to the terminal Pleistocene and forward to the Mongol conquests or the end of the medieval period.

The team consists of researchers representing a diverse array of backgrounds from archaeology to paleontology, including students, postdocs, and more senior scholars interested in paleoecology and paleoeconomy. The team is closely tied to the ongoing research conducted under the Paleoecology Group, the FEDD group, and the DAE group.

With more than 20 ongoing studies spanning more than 10 countries, members of the Archaeobotany Research Group are asking a variety of questions related to past ecologies and economies. For example, the study of wood charcoal preserved in archaeological sites is helping elucidate the early cultivation of trees in desert oases and changes in woody vegetation communities across the foothills of Inner Asia. Additionally, the study of seed and fruit remains recovered from archaeological sites along the ancient Silk Road trading routes is helping clarify the processes of dispersal of plants across the Ancient World. Members of the archaeobotany group are exploring pressing research questions as varied as: 1) what role did the intensification of agricultural systems play in the gradual increase in social complexity; and 2) what cultural changes accompanied the earliest adoption of agriculture. The team is particularly interested in studying the domestication and dispersal of plants, which leads into their connections with the broader FEDD and DAE projects.

The Fruits of Eurasia: Domestication and Dispersal project has been funded by an ERC grant awarded to Spengler, who, in turn, has recruited top scholars to explore the questions of where and when the foods you eat every day originate. The research agenda of FEDD links the biological and social sciences and has incorporated a wide range of archaeological science specialists. The team is focused on long-generation perennials, as there has been a bias in domestication studies towards cereals and legumes. The team seeks to identify the origins of some of the most familiar fruits in your kitchen and to better understand the processes of evolutionary change that resulted from human interaction. Interestingly, many of these tree crops appear to originate in the mountains of Central Asia and are tied into the ancient Silk Road trade routes as a vector or dispersal.

Additionally, the archaeobotany group is closely integrated with the Domestication and Anthropogenic Evolution (DAE) independent research team. This team was started in 2022 as part of an independent research group under the direction of Spengler, through the Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology. This team is particularly interested in exploring the timing and causes of the evolution of domestication traits in plants and animals. The team is also focusing heavily on species that have received less attention by scholars in the past, for example studying the domestication traits of early commensal animals or weedy plant species as opposed to the heavily studied cereals. Spengler is interested in mingling a multidisciplinary approach with new theories in domestication studies to better understand one of the most important phenomena that allowed humans to culturally expand into the modern world.

Follow up with ongoing research and current publications at:

Research Projects

Anthropogenic Landscapes of the Silk Road
Humans have continued to shape the landscape of Central Asia since the fourth millennium B.C., clearing land for herd pastures, opening up river valleys for farming, and harvesting wood resources for fuel and lumber. The biotic landscapes of Central Asia are a direct artifact of prehistoric humans, and these anthropogenic ecosystems illustrate part of the story of the Silk Road. more
Agricultural Intensification, Exchange, and Complexity in Ancient Eurasia
The late first millennium B.C. across Inner Asia is usually considered a period when highly specialized nomads first appear. However, new scholarship is showing that during this period, the region of eastern Central Asia actually underwent a process of increasing sedentism and intensifying farming pursuits. In studying this process, we are exploring links between the intensification of agriculture and social implications. more
Caves and Rock Shelters of Central Asia: Time Capsules of Human Behavior
Caves and rock shelters have attracted humans for hundreds of thousands of years. The well-preserved sediments within these natural time capsules provide detailed environmental, paleontological, and archaeological information. more
First Farmers of Inner Asia
The popular image of Inner Asia as the realm of the horse-back warrior nomads has permeated the academic literature for nearly a century. This project studies the generally accepted image of a nomad culture and the roots of the first farmers of Central Asia. more
The long Japanese island chain in the north-western Pacific is characterised by diverse environments and climatic conditions. Fundamental cultural changes induced by newcomer populations from the Asian continent occurred during the 1st millennium BCE. With its numerous archaeological sites, Japan is an excellent place to employ archaeobotany to study how complex hunter-gatherers made use of various plants and subsistence strategies. more
Medieval Agricultural Developments and New Introductions in Central Asia
The primary objective of this project is to gain insights about economic plants in the first millennium AD in response to cultural practices and environment. more
PARIS (Prunus Archaeobotanical Research Investigation and Survey) Project
The Prunus species is one of the most economically important tree taxa. This project will approach determining Prunus domestication by incorporating archaeological remains to create a temporal and geographical link to ancient Prunus cultivation. more
Early Agricultural Taiwan
Taiwan is considered a key region for prehistoric cultural dispersal across Asia, although many aspects regarding its role in this process remain obscure. This project aims to generate detailed long-term and directly dated archaeobotanical records from Taiwan based on systematic analysis of plant macroremains from cultural layers of different archaeological sites. more
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