Archaeobotany at the Lake Monroe Outlet Midden (8VO53)
Donna L. Ruhl
is the study of plant remains from archaeological sites. It is both the
science and the art of recovering, identifying, and interpreting how plant
remains were used in the past at archaeological sites. Archaeobotanical
research, like zooarchaeological research, can help us understand historic
and prehistoric people's uses of their environment. For example, what
plants they may have exploited for food, building construction, fuel use,
and medicines. At the Lake Monroe Outlet Midden research revealed that
these people exploited multiple habitats including a hardwood hammock
with tropical and temperate broad leaf species as well as a pine flatwood
habitat. Table 1 lists the primary plant species recovered from the site,
which contained both charred wood and seed remains.
Table 1. Primary Plant Species and Uses at the Lake Monroe Outlet Midden.
||Some Possible Uses
||Unidentifiable hardwood (cw)
|Pinus sp. L.
||Food-some bark; Fuel-wood; Other-tannins, resins, gums, glues; wood working
|Quercus cf. virginiana
||Live oak (cw)
||Food-nutmeats; Fuel-wood, nutshells; Other- woodworking
|Quercus sp. L.
||Oak (cw, ns, possible galls)
| Acer sp. L.
|Vaccinium sp. L.
||Food-berries; Fuel- wood
|Sabal palmetto (Walter) Lodd.
ex. Schult. & Schult.
||Cabbage palm (s)
||Food-fruit, terminal bud (cabbage-the central bundles of leaf blades), pith; Other- medicinal, fibers
|Sabal sp. Adans.
||Food- as above
|Serenoa repens (W. Bartram) Small
||Saw palmetto (s)
||Food-fruit, terminal bud, edible greens; Other-medicinal;fibers
|Celtis sp. L.
|Carya cf. glabra (Mill.)
||Sweet Pignut hickory (ns)
||Food- nutmeat, liquid from nutshells; fuel- wood, nutshells, hulls
|Carya sp. Nutt.
||Food-nutmeat; Fuel-wood, nutshell hull
|Smilax sp. L.
||Food-berry, tuber, shoot
||Palm family (s)
* cw=charred wood; s=seed; ns=nut shell.
assemblage consists of a few hardwoods (e.g., oak, maple, hickory) and
shrubs (blueberry/sparkleberry) and a softwood (pine). Pine was the most
dominant species present and a good source of fuel as the resins in this
wood burn well. [A] Hickory and [B] oak tend to extend the life of a fire
as they are slower burning fuels while maple, and blueberry/sparkleberry
may have been used as kindling materials. [Fig. 1]
1 also includes information about the possible uses of these species as
well as which part of the plant is typically used, to help us understand
the role and function of the plants recovered at the Lake Monroe Outlet
midden. Overall they have edible parts such as fruits, leaves, and nutmeats
and, in addition, some have medicinal and other uses. In some instances
we do not have the plant part that typically is used. This, however, may
constitute what we view as indirect evidence for a plant's role at a site.
For example, the presence of blueberry/sparkelberry in the wood assemblage
at Lake Monroe is indirect evidence that their fruits were also available
preservation of the archaeobotanical assemblage often complicates what
is actually deposited and preserved, limiting what survives. Many plant
parts are comprised completely of soft tissue and do not survive well
in the ground; they break down or may be ingested by animals and microorganisms.
In addition, consider how many fruits and vegetables are totally edible
(e.g., potatoes, onions, lettuces) as well as those that we consume the
seeds along with the flesh (e.g., blueberry, strawberry, grapes, squash,
cucumber). In many cases, the remnants of what we don't ingest or use
are what survive in the archaeological record, nut hulls, nut shells,
large pips, and other seeds.
At Lake Monroe, nuts were among the most numerous plant parts recovered
suggesting that they were an important part of the plant food diet along
with fruits and some greens. Nutmeats of hickory [Fig. 2]
and acorn [Fig. 3] species provide protein and oils while
shells and hulls can be used as kindling, such as in this hearth [Fig.
4] from the Lake Monroe Outlet Midden. "Hickory milk" was made by
Native American groups throughout the southeastern U.S. by steeping the
nutshells in water and decanting the liquid. Blueberries, hackberry, cabbage
palm, saw palmetto, and greenbrier all have edible fruits although some
are more fleshy and sweeter than others. (See picture
gallery) Greenbrier also has an edible tuber which produces a flour
called "red coontie." The young shoots of this plant taste like asparagus
and can be eaten raw or cooked. Even from this small array of plant remains
you can see the potential numerous daily uses of these species.
Plant preservation is enhanced in water-saturated deposits, where anaerobic
(lack of oxygen) conditions exist. Two sites in this general region, Hontoon
Island and Groves Orange Midden, have wet components. Some of the additional
edible and usable species found at these sites include: maypop, elderberry,
bottle gourd, squash, persimmon, cactus, and wild grape. The seed remains
from the Lake Monroe Outlet Midden and other sites in the region dating
to the Mount Taylor period have not exhibited evidence of cultivated plants
such as squash and bottle gourd. Thus while the onset of plant husbandry
and manipulation of plants was underway elsewhere in Florida we have not
seen the archaeological evidence for this in altered seeds in the St.
Johns River basin. This supports the interpretation of the plant and animal
data, which suggest a primarily hunter-fisherfolk-gathering strategy.
Whether or not these folks were sedentary or semi-sedentary is not yet
ascertainable from the plant record, as manipulation and gardening is
not apparent at this Middle to Late Archaic period site.