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Conversations: Secrets of the Seeds Volume 56 Number 5, September/October 2003

A genius' love affair with plant remains

(Alan Walker)

Lee Ann Newsom has studied ancient plant remains from Michigan to Peru and hundreds of points in between. In honor of her groundbreaking research, Newsom, an associate professor at Pennsylvania State University, was recently awarded a prestigious MacArthur Foundation fellowship, popularly known as the "genius grant," which provides a $500,000 no-strings-attached stipend. She spoke to ARCHAEOLOGY about her research and how she plans to spend the money.

What was it like to find out you'd won the MacArthur Fellowship? Few archaeologists have been so honored.

The director of the fellowship program called me totally out of the blue. The nominations are anonymous, so I still don't know how I was chosen. For a while I was in a daze. They just give you this money and say "this is our vote of confidence in you, and your colleagues say you're worthy," which is really humbling.

How will you spend the money?

There are so many projects, some 60 in my lab alone: wood from Blackbeard the Pirate's shipwreck; plant remains from the Caribbean, the U.S., and Mexico; torch handles from a cave in Belize. I'm codirector of projects in Puerto Rico and the Bahamas and consulting on many others. I'd like to use part of the money for comparative DNA analysis of botanical remains in the U.S. and Mexico.

Your field, paleoethnobotany, is a fairly specialized subject. What are some big-picture questions that your research can help answer?

I'm interested in how people treated their environmental resources. For example, I'm seeing evidence of deforestation on some of the Caribbean islands. What did people do when their resources ran low? In some cases they moved to other islands, but sometimes we see them relying on different plants and making innovations, which helps explain the origins of agriculture.

How so?

Well, people didn't suddenly say, "Gee, we have more mouths to feed, so we should start growing things." It's more likely that, at least in some cases, they opened up the forest canopy to create settlements. There would have been some negative impacts, depleting some plant and animal species, but eventually there was probably a burst of edible fruits, like blackberries, that flourish with more light. After a point the people would have come to rely on these plants and start planting their seeds.

You've worked in so many places and time periods. Do you have a favorite kind of site?

I like the wet sites best. The preservation's great because with little or no oxygen, bacteria can't survive. Take the Windover site in central Florida, an 8,000-year-old cemetery with human burials submerged in a pond. Because it's a wet site, the people's last meals were preserved in their lower abdomens. Their tools, even their brains, were preserved. That was phenomenal. People had always thought these were just brutish groups wandering around blindly searching for food. I found them very sophisticated.

Why is that?

It's clear they were using medicinal plants, for one. There was one woman who died in her 40s and had well-developed bone cancer. In her lower abdomen were more than three thousand seeds. Two thousand were elderberry seeds, which means she ate about 550 elderberries shortly before death, in addition to forty grapes, a prickly pear cactus, and a black nightshade. It's known that much later, southeastern Indians steeped some of these same fruits in teas for medicinal purposes. That may have been what she did as well. Also, these same archaic Windover people were buried in beautiful clothing woven from plant fiber, and they may have been casually planting bottle gourd seeds.

When you get free time, do you try to get away from plants?

Not exactly. I have this wonderful log house up on a mountain ridge, with woods all around it. So almost all my spare time is spent roaming with my dog or gardening. It's not rare at all for me to be walking through the woods, troubling over some plant identification, and the answer suddenly hits me. For me, to study the environment, especially the plant world, alongside archaeology is just a labor of love. My only other diversion is baseball. My son plays, so I've followed it for years.

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America