Blog Post #22: Investigating Human-Environment Relations through Archaeobotany with Alan Farahani

April is Earth Day month, so here at Peopling the Past we’re featuring researchers who study human-environment relations in the past and the role of the natural world in human history.

Hello everyone, my name is Alan Farahani, and I am an anthropological archaeologist.  You might be asking, what does it mean that you’re an *anthropological* archaeologist?  Isn’t an archaeologist just an archaeologist?  Yes, and no!  Although we all specialize in different things, we also approach archaeology from different perspectives. My home department is an Anthropology department, and I approach archaeology like an anthropologist approaches living people: my main focus is to understand human culture in all of its dimensions.  I also lean on research in cultural anthropology, linguistics, and biological anthropology to understand the human experience.


The landscape of Zita ("Olive City"), Tunisia (photo by M. Daniels)
The landscape of Zita (“Olive City”), Tunisia (photo by M. Daniels)

A key part of that human experience is our interaction with soils, water, vegetation, and animals, both large and microscopic, but unfortunately we only often tend to think about them when major catastrophes occur (climate change, extinctions, etc).  My archaeological research studies the relationship of people and plants in the past and present, especially in the form of agriculture. Plants have provided (and still provide!) people with food, shelter, medicine, clothing, and joy. After all, one of the things that made Bob Ross a popular painter was his catchphrase of drawing “happy little trees”. And thankfully, archaeologists have developed to techniques to recover plant remains to learn about their importance to people in the past.

The branch of archaeology that studies plant remains is known as “paleoethnobotany” (aka “archaeobotany”).  The name seems like a mouthful, but I promise that each of the elements of this word are warranted.  The first part, paleo, means “ancient”, the second, ethno, means “people”, and the last, botany, means “plants”.  That means that paleoethnobotany is the study of “ancient plants” to study “people”.

Map showing location of Zita near Zarzis, Tunisia
Map showing location of Zita near Zarzis, Tunisia

Let me provide an example of how we can use archaeological plant remains to study people through recent research conducted at the archaeological site of Zita, located in the southeast of contemporary Tunisia.  The site is very close to the Mediterranean Sea, less than 10 km (about 6 mi) away.  Even still, the climate in the area can be characterized as sub-desert: local vegetation is adapted to sandy and sometimes saline soils and variable and low rainfall (<200mm a year).  

These environmental factors are important because people have practiced agriculture in this area for at least the past three thousand years.  The name of the site itself even reveals this: Zita translates to “Olive City”.  Today the area is not only a popular local destination for relaxing at the beach, but is also a major producer of olives for olive oil, as there are tens of thousands of olive trees all around the archaeological site.

Panoramic view of Zita, Tunisia (photo by H. Barnard)
Panoramic view of Zita, Tunisia (photo by H. Barnard)

How do we know that people have been practicing agriculture in this area for the last three thousand years? During the course of archaeological survey and excavations at Zita from 2013 to 2016, the excavators, led by Ali Drine, Brett Kaufman, and Hans Barnard, collected many samples of archaeological sediment (aka dirt) for the purpose of finding plant remains.


In 2016 I processed those remains using a technique known as flotation — in short, a barrel with an internal mesh is filled with water, and then dirt is then immersed in that water. Carbonized (burnt) plant remains then float to the top of the barrel and are collected in a fine mesh at the end of a spout.  These burnt remains are almost always archaeological, and usually of seeds and wood.  They are carbonized because they came into contact with fire — either because of cooking or other kinds of plant processing.  We were able to ship these samples back to my laboratory, where I sorted and identified many identifiable plant remains with the help of graduate and undergraduate students.

The author at the flotation tank
The author at the flotation tank
Carbonized olive seeds
Carbonized olive seeds

These identified archaeological plant remains tell a story of climate, vegetation, economics, and even identity for Zita’s past inhabitants. The results show that different crops were grown at different times in Zita’s history, including wheat, barley, grapes, and olives, and their presence illustrates how successful the past community at Zita was at managing the local environmental and ecological challenges associated with food production. In addition, even the wood that communities at Zita were burning for warmth and for industry (more on that below) show evidence of change through time.

The issue of when these changes in agriculture and people’s relationship with the environment happened at Zita is an important one. Written sources and archaeological evidence tell us that the area around Zita came under Roman imperial control in the 2nd century BCE after protracted military conflict between the local Carthaginians and Romans in the Italian peninsula (think of the famous general Hannibal crossing the Alps with his elephants). After being incorporated into the Roman Empire, the people who farmed near Zita then generated the food that powered Roman cities: wheat, barley, wine, olive oil, and the famous fish paste, garum. And the Roman imprint is certainly visible at the site: there is a Roman-style forum alongside ceramic kilns and metal workshops.  So how did the new economic realities of life under the Romans affect what people in Zita were growing for food or burning for fuel?

Excavations at Zita, 2013 (photo by H. Barnard)
Excavations at Zita, 2013 (photo by H. Barnard)

The answer to that question will be available in a fuller account of the long-term human effects on the environment at Zita using paleoethnobotanical methods from its settlement, ca. 400 BCE, to its abandonment period ca. 200 CE (so stay tuned!). Even still, much more research is necessary to fully track how the past inhabitants at Zita managed their local environment, ecology, and agriculture.  Thankfully, there is a lot more of the site to excavate! But it is clear that without the methods provided by paleoethnobotany, many of these insights into the past would not have been possible. These plant remains bring us “down to earth” by connecting us with the actual crops that the people of Zita grew and that made everyday life possible. So the next time you bite into an apple and discard its seeds, think of the stories it might tell of you thousands of years in the future!

Further resources:

Farahani, A. 2020. “Palaeoethnobotany and Ancient Agriculture.” In A Companion to Ancient Agriculture, edited by David Hollander and Timothy Howe, 7-36. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.

Kaufman, B. , A. Drine, H. Barnard, and R. Khedher. 2015. “Research at the Ancient Neo-Punic City of Zita, Tunisia.” Backdirt, December 2015, 76-79.

Moses, V., B. Kaufman, A. Drine, H. Barnard, S. Ben Tahar, E. Jerray, and M. Daniels. 2019. “Evidence for Meat Consumption during the Punic to Roman Colonial Transition at Zita (2nd Century BCE-2nd Century CE).International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. https://doi.org/10.1002/oa.2751.

The author

Alan Farahani is an anthropological archaeologist. He received his B.A. from Rutgers University and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. He is interested in human-environment “interactions” through time on a theoretical and empirical level, which includes the relationships of people, plants, non-human animals, other biota, and abiotic factors. In particular, his research focuses on the ways in which social, environmental, and ecological phenomena form and are affected by agriculture. To that end, his specific methodological expertise is paleoethnobotany, or the analysis of archaeological plant remains. His geographic and temporal focus is centered on southwest Asia within the last ten thousand years (the Holocene), but with attention to all areas of the world that have seen agriculture develop as an important lifeway that communities use to create food, clothing, and medicine.

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