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Arctic Phytolith and Starch Project

L. Hartery Researching Microscopic Plant Remains (Photo Brian Kooyman)

L. Hartery Researching Microscopic Plant Remains © Brian Kooyman

Phytolith: As plant roots grow into the ground they absorb silica rich groundwater. As the water runs through plant cells, the silica is deposited, depending on plant species, between cells, within cell walls, and can also infill a cell completely. The silica deposits can create three-dimensional copies of the cells which are left behind even after a plant dies. Silica bodies (phytolitOhs) can be created in fruit, roots, leaves, stems, and hair follicles to create shapes diagnostic to plant species, enabling plants of the past to be identified. Starch grains are microscopic granules that serve as one of the food-storing mechanisms in plants. Phytoliths and starches are important to archaeologists since they are diagnostic to plant species. By testing soils and features, or even residues on artifact edges, scientists can determine the environment, or type of plant once used and consumed, at archaeological sites.

AARA Inc. has been collecting plants throughout the Eastern Canadian Arctic, Greenland, Labrador and Newfoundland to create a comparative collection for the purpose of phytolith and starch extraction.  The first phase of this project was implemented on the AC trip Baffin Explorer August 29th – Sept. 9th, 2007, which sailed throughout eastern Nunavut and southwest Greenland. Permission was granted for specimen collection from the Nunavut Government’s Department of Environment. This pan-Arctic collection, once processed, will be stored at a central place thereby providing access for all circumpolar archaeologists and scientists. The Arctic Phytolith Project is a by-product of the doctoral research of Latonia Hartery, who applied phytolith research to Peat Garden North, a Paleoeskimo site in Bird Cove, Newfoundland¹. Once a collection is made, it will be available to scholars worldwide.

By studying decay-resistant phytoliths, archaeologists can investigate the role of plants in ancient lifeways previously unknown to researchers in the Arctic. Newfoundland phytoliths studies is of particular interest as Paleoeskimo cultures inhabited the area thousands of years ago and would have had access to greater plant resources than in the far north.

AARA Inc. is proud to be part of the pioneering process that makes this technique applicable to Arctic studies.

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¹2006      A Microscopic Approach to Paleoeskimo Plant Use. In From Arctic to Avalon: Papers in Honour of Jim Tuck, edited by L. Rankin and P. Ramsden, pp. 71-79.  BAR International Series 1507, Oxford.

Starch of Sedum rosea (roseroot) (Photo Latonia Hartery)

Starch of Sedum rosea (roseroot) © Latonia Hartery

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