Our knowledge of plant foods in the past is at its richest for the last 10,000 years during which the world has been transformed by agriculture. There are a variety of reasons for this. First, the contrasting images of the ‘hunter’ and the ‘farmer’ have framed much archaeological thinking, shifting the emphasis within palaeolithic studies to animal foods. Second, the best-established methods of archaeobotany relate to the study of hard seeds and grains, that retain their shape well during burning or waterlogging, and hard seeds and grains are most prominent during the agricultural epoch.
There is good reason to suppose that the agricultural epoch constitutes no more than the final few percent of the period in which plant foods are critical to human diet, and this longer episode is now coming clearer as a result of advances in method. These advances are both within archaeobotany, detecting different types of plant remain, and between archaeobotany and other scientific fields, notably stable isotope dietary studies and genetics. This seminar will review some of the themes and methods that are leading us to understand human use of plants foods during the long prelude to agriculture.