Ancient Plant Uses by Paleolithic Humans

Researchers Use DNA Analysis to Uncover Ancient Plant Uses by Paleolithic Humans

An international team of researchers, spearheaded by the University of Oslo, recently uncovered fascinating details about human-plant usage during the Paleolithic era. By extracting and examining plant DNA from sediments in the Aghitu-3 cave in Armenia, the team concluded that early humans used diverse plant species for multiple purposes, such as medicine, dyes, and making yarn.

Though the Aghitu-3 cave appears similar to many other basalt caves in southern Armenia’s highlands, its 11-meter depth, 18-meter width, and 6-meter height hold unique treasures: it’s one of the few Armenian sites bearing Upper Paleolithic evidence. The sediment data pinpoints human activity in the cave from approximately 39,000 to 24,000 years ago.

Dr. Andrew Kandel from the University of Tübingen, who also serves as the scientific director for the excavation, remarked on the cave’s diverse findings: “While we’ve found stone artifacts, animal remains, tools, and more in the cave, plant remnants like seeds and leaves are often missing because they decay rapidly.”

However, the breakthrough came when the researchers decided to extract plant DNA directly from the cave sediments. Analysis showed that sediments from periods of high human activity contained more plant genetic material than those from less frequented times. Dr. Angela Bruch from the Senckenberg Research Institute explains, “The increased DNA presence suggests humans gathered these plants. Analyzing this DNA gives us a fuller picture of available plants and potential human uses.”

Out of 43 identified plant orders from the DNA analysis, 38 were deemed fit for human consumption or use. Some plants had medicinal attributes, while others were used for food, flavoring, or as mosquito repellents. The team also identified plants suitable for making dyes and fibers, hinting at early sewing practices. This was further supported by the discovery of bone-made needles in the cave. “It’s highly probable that our ancestors engaged in sewing activities within this cave,” adds Kandel.

Concluding on the revolutionary potential of plant DNA sediment analysis, Dr. Bruch stated, “This method offers a promising avenue for understanding human behavior in ancient times. We’re excited to apply it to other archaeological sites.”

Source: Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum

Further Reading: Anneke T.M. ter Schure et al. (2022). “Sedimentary ancient DNA metabarcoding as a tool for assessing prehistoric plant use at the Upper Paleolithic cave site Aghitu-3, Armenia,” Journal of Human Evolution. DOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2022.103258.

Image source: Author of an article on by Dario Radley

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