Archaeobotany vs. Paleoethnobotany vs. Paleobotany

There are a number of fields that examine aspects of ancient plants. Sometimes the terminology gets a bit confusing so this short post will walk you through the background of some terms and what they actually mean.

Archaeobotany vs. Paleoethnobotany

First up are two terms — archaeobotany and paleoethnobotany — that commonly used by archaeologists to describe the study of plants in the archaeological record.

Some scholars see differences in the terms.  For those who differentiate the terms, they usually mean the following:

  • Archaeobotany focuses on recovery and botanical identifications
  • Paleoethnobotany focuses on the archaeological interpretation of the relationship between people and plants.

The differentiation between these terms stems from two approaches — European 1 2 and American 3. The older European tradition grew out of botany, while the American tradition grew out of ethnobotany. 4 5 6 Ethnobotany examines modern relationships between plants and people.

While some scholars see a conceptual difference in these two terms, many scholars use these terms interchangeably. I personally use the term ‘archaeobotany’, but this is purely out of habit. Nonetheless, I make sure to define what I mean by the term, which, to me, encompasses recovery, identification, and interpreting past human-plant relationships.

Paleobotany

Now you might have heard the term ‘paleobotany’ before and there are paleobotanists out there. While I’m not one of them, they are pretty cool people. Paleobotany examines plants in the fossil record. It’s actually a branch paleobiology and paleontology (you know, dinosaurs and other fossils). Paleobotanists are usually dealing time frames in which humans weren’t around yet. In addition to botany, paleobotanists usually have training in geology. One of the main objectives of paleobotany is to understand the evolution of fossil plants and group them taxonomically.

To me, one of the coolest, albeit, slightly superficial, parts of paleobotany is discovering a new, extinct species and naming it. Sarah Allen — fellow microMORPH-er and paleobotanist — recently wrote a great post on her website, Blue Rim Paleobotany, discussing how paleobotanists name new plant species. It’s a great post, which I encourage you to check out. And yes, she has named some new plants herself!

Final Thoughts

If you’re talking to someone who is an archaeobotanist or paleoethnobotanist, they could be an archaeologist. They could also be botanists. 7  Nonetheless, we’re working on material that’s from a period in which humans were around. If you’re talking to a paleobotanist, they aren’t an archaeologist, but from my experience, they’re pretty cool people who study very ancient plants.


  1. Helbaek, Hans. 1959. “The Domestication of Food Plants in the Old World.” Science 130: 365–72.
  2. Higgs, E.S., ed. 1972. Papers in Economic Prehistory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Jones, Volney. 1941. “The Nature and Status of Ethnobotany.” Chronica Botanica 6 (10): 219–21.
  4. Miller, Naomi. 1991. “The Near East.” In Progress in Old World Paleoethnobotany, edited by W. van Zeist, Krystyna Wasylikowa, and K. Behre, 133–60. Rotterdam: Balkama.
  5. Pearsall, Deborah M. 1989. “The Paleoethnobotanical Approach.” In Paleoethnobotany, 1–13. doi:10.1016/B978-0-12-548040-6.50005-8.
  6. Warnock, Peter. 1998. “From Plant Domestication to Phytolith Interpretation: The History of Paleoethnobotany in the Near East.” Near Eastern Archaeology 61 (4): 238–52.
  7. Thanks to my colleague Alexa Höhn for bringing to my attention that many archaeobotanists in Germany completed their graduate work in Botany and/or Biology.

Smiti Nathan

I’m an archaeologist that travels around the world for both work and pleasure. I have a penchant for exploring ancient and modern places and the people, plants, and foods entangled in them. I write about archaeology, travel, and productivity.

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