Preliminary Investigation of the Plant Macro-Remains from Dolni Vestonice II, and Its Implications for the Role of Plant Foods in Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Europe

Article excerpt

For the most part the Pleistocene, and even the earliest post-glacial, is a blank when it comes to evidence of humans eating plants. No wonder the old men's stories, of chaps who hunt great mammals and eat their meat, still dominate our unthinking visions of hunter-gathering in that period. Some real evidence, slight though it is, from a classic European Upper Palaeolithic site provides a more balance view.


The role of plant foods in the diet of European hunter-gatherers during the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic is the subject of active debate, but little serious study. Despite analyses of plant remains from European Mesolithic sites (e.g. Price 1987; papers in van Zeist et al. 1991; Zvelebil in press) the results are generally sparse and restricted to very few taxa. For the Palaeolithic the evidence is still sparser, even if one includes the plant food remains recovered from Franchthi Cave, Greece (Hansen 1991) and Mezhirich in the Ukraine (Adovasio et al. 1992).

This paucity of data contrasts with evidence for the significant role of plant foods in early hunter-gatherer diet in other parts of the world with a similar vegetal resource base. In parts of North America, a range of wild plant foods have been recovered from sites of both Archaic hunter-gatherers (e.g. papers in Neusius 1986; and in Phillips & Brown 1985) and, increasingly, Palaeo-Indian hunter-gatherers (e.g. Frison 1991; Meltzer 1993). In the Near East rich assemblages of plant-food remains have been analysed from occupations of equivalent age to the European Upper Palaeolithic, and even earlier (Akazawa 1987; Garrard et al. 1988; Goren-Inbar et al. 1992; Hillman 1975; 1989; work in progress; Hillman et al. 1989a; 1989b; Kislev et al. 1992; McLaren in press; Potts et al. 1985; van Zeist & Bakker-Heeres 1984; van Zeist & Casparie 1968).

In addition to such direct evidence, heavy dependence on plant foods by pre-agrarian populations is also indicated by ethnoecological modelling (Hillman 1989; Hillman et al. 1989a; 1989b). A similar probability is implied by nutritional evidence suggesting that human energy requirements are unlikely to be fulfilled throughout the year by a largely meat-based diet, except in coastal and arctic habitats (Speth 1991; Speth & Spielmann 1983; notwithstanding the critique of Bunn & Ezzo 1993).

The gaps in current knowledge are, however, becoming more widely acknowledged, and van Andel (1990: 28) has suggested that determining the nature and use of the plant resource base for the Upper Palaeolithic is a 'major challenge', while Zvelebil (in press) says much the same of the European Mesolithic. There is clearly a need for empirical research from sites throughout Europe if the question of pre-agrarian plant use is to be properly addressed. This paper presents the results of one such study, and discusses some of the reasons for the paucity of data so far obtained.

Dolni Vestonice

Dolni Vestonice, in the Czech Republic, consists of two site clusters: Dolni Vestonice, I, excavated 1924-1979, and Dolni Vestonice, II, excavated in a rescue operation from 1985 to 1987. The sites form part of an Upper Palaeolithic Moravian group which appear to have been occupied during a warm phase or phases preceding the last glacial maximum. The Dolni Vestonice sites are located near the confluence of two rivers, on the lower slopes of the Pavlov Hills, an outcrop of Jurassic limestone rising c. 500 m above the surrounding lowlands, offering the occupants a variety of potential resource environments. Both site clusters consist of settlements with hearths and pits, and with large accumulations of mammoth bones near by, together with the bones of several other animal species (Klima 1963; Svoboda 1990; 1991; Vandiver et al. 1989). It has been suggested that Dolni Vestonice and the other Moravian sites share a number of features, including subsistence practices, with those of the Ukraine (including the site of Mezhirich) occupied roughly ten millennia later (Soffer 1985: 486). …