Identifying the presence of vegetative parenchyma
Despite the ubiquity of underground storage organs (USOs), or ‘roots and tubers’, in global economies today, and the links drawn between the early use and cooking of these plants and hominin evolution, there is little archaeological evidence for their past use. This is because, as amorphous structures, constituted in most part by homogenous starchy packing cells, known as ‘vegetative parenchyma’, fragments of USOs have historically been overlooked in archaeological deposits or, if recognised, considered too difficult to identify.
The following is a very basic guide to recognising vegetative parenchyma in charred plant macrofossil assemblages. It is not meant as a comprehensive guide to identification, but as a starting point to recognising the presence of vegetative parenchyma and its analytical potential. Most of the techniques discussed build directly from the work of Jon Hather (1993, 2000). They are illustrated with archaeological specimens from Madjedbebe rockshelter and with modern plant reference specimens from northern Australia. All these specimens were collected on Mirarr Country with the express permission of the Mirarr people and the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation. The modern reference specimens were collected under the guidance and employing the Traditional Ecological Knowledge of Mirarr elder, May Nango, and Nawarddeken elder, Djaykuk Djandjomerr. Where possible plants are referred to by their scientific name, Kundjeihmi name, and English name.