University of Tübingen: Tübingen Prize for Older Prehistory goes to Australian researcher

The Tübingen Prize for Older Prehistory and Quaternary Ecology goes to Dr. Anna Florin from the University of Queensland in Brisbane. The Australian is honored for her dissertation “Archaeobotanical investigations into 65,000 years of plant food use at Madjedbebe, Mirarr Country, northern Australia”. She examined 65,000-year-old plant macro-fossils found in Madjedbebe, Northern Australia, to understand changes in people’s diet and land use. In her work, she showed that the first people were skilled collectors who mastered complex processing techniques for plant-based foods.

Anna Florin studied archeology at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, where she also did her PhD. She is currently a research fellow at the ARC Center of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage at the University of Wollongong.

In their research, Florin and her team used high-performance light microscopy and scanning electron microscopy to analyze charred plant remains from old fireplaces at the Madjedbebe site. They are discarded leftovers from meals that were cooked and shared tens of thousands of years ago. It was found that the samples contained preserved remains of fruits, nuts, seeds, palm trunks as well as roots and tubers. “Many of the plant-based foods found took a lot of time and good knowledge to prepare,” explains Florin. The results challenge earlier theories that assumed that early modern humans ate with minimal effort and did not have a varied diet.

The plant remains found at Madjedbebe suggest that the earliest Australians were skilled gatherers and used various techniques to feed on a variety of plant foods, some of which were time consuming to prepare. “The find is so interesting because there is hardly any evidence worldwide that plants were used in the diets of early humans,” says Florin. It is the earliest record of plant-based foods consumed by people outside of Africa or the Middle East. “With these results, we can understand what the first Australians ate and how they have adapted to this environment over the past 65,000 years.”

Florin worked closely with the Mirarr Aborigines to learn about the uses of the plants in the area today. The local knowledge of plants and land made it possible to interpret the archaeological finds. Several of the plants found had to be processed in order to be able to eat them. This included laboriously removing the pandanus nuts from their shells, peeling and boiling roots, tubers and palms, and pounding the palm kernel to separate the edible starch from the less digestible fibers.

The Madjedbebe fossils provide information about the relationship between humans and plants at that time. This covers a long period of time, from the use of the region through two glacial phases, the rise in sea level to the creation of the famous Kakadu wetlands.

The award will be presented on Thursday, February 4th at 11 a.m. via Zoom .

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