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Holocene hunter-gatherer plant use and foraging choice: a test from Minas Gerais, Brazil

Myrtle Pearl Shock


Archaeological remains of plant materials collected in dry caves from the cerrado region of Brazil were analyzed in light of prehistoric human diet. Focus was on the subsistence in the later half of the Holocene. At two sites, Lapa dos Bichos and Lapa Pintada, in the northern portion of the state of Minas Gerais domesticated plant foods occur in the archaeological deposits. At the site of Lapa dos Bichos, maize (Zea mays) and manioc (cassava, Manihot esculenta) are first found in the archaeological strata dating between 2000 and 750 years BP. In the deposits dated between 750 and 150 years BP squash and beans are also found. Alongside the remains of domesticated edible foods are native foods and many other plants. In total the research cataloged 822 morphological types of seed and fruit remains collected in two millimeter or larger screen sizes. Of these, 98 types have been identified. Notable native plant foods include palm nuts (Syagrus oleracea), passion fruit (Passiflora sp.), jatobá (Hymenaea sp.), umbu (Spondias tuberosa), and pequi (Caryocar brasiliensis).

Analysis of the plant remains from Lapa dos Bichos and Lapa Pintada addressed various questions. Within the archaeological sites, features presented excellent preservation of numerous plant seeds and fruits. Consideration of the possible functions of these features in relation to their form and composition led to the conclusion that they were likely accumulations of garbage. The archaeological record indicated that the introduction of domesticated species did not occur at one time; rather there were temporal variations for when these species were first utilized. Alongside the results of other projects, this observation indicates that the spread of domesticated plants was not driven by large scale population migration, but rather by a process of technological diffusion. The predictions of foraging theory models for changes in subsistence choices associated with the introduction of domesticated plant foods are not substantiated in the archaeological record of these two sites. The diversity of edible native plant foods increased with increases in the number of domesticated species utilized.

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