Dr Alex Pryor of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology works on the role of plant foods during the last ice age, in the European Upper Palaeolithic, specifically plant underground storage organs (USOs) and the carbohydrates they provide.
Above: Two vascular bundles (xylem and phloem) are visible in the lower half, with a bundle of raphide crystals of calcium oxalate to the right. The two spherical objects mid left are individual cells swollen during the charring process.
This research has included building a reference collection of roots and USOs of plants grown in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, burning them, and photographing the charcoal residue using a scanning electron microscope to give clear images of surviving cellular structure, particularly of features such as surviving vascular tissues and druse crystals.
These photos are being used to identify and learn about carbonised fragments of USOs recovered from a Palaeolithic campsite excavated in the Czech Republic, dated to 30,000 years ago.
Above: Cross-section of charred Equisetum telmateia rhizome. This plant has an aerenchymous structure with large air cavities surrounding a small concentration of parenchyma tissue.
Pryor, A.J.E., Steele, M., Jones, M.K., Svoboda, J., Beresford-Jones, D.G., 2013. Plant foods in the Upper Palaeolithic at Dolní Vĕstonice? Parenchyma redux. Antiquity 87, 971-984.