Charred root and tubers found archaeologically are often interpreted as human foods. However, roots and tubers can also provide evidence for animal diet, medicines, fuel use, building materials, agricultural practices, or be a by-product of plant processing activities.

Human Consumption

Many reports of archaeological root and tubers identify them as human foods, particularly in analyses of hunter-gatherer societies. It was hypothesised by Clarke (1976) and Zvelebil (1994) that in pre-agricultural Europe hunter-gatherers gained most of their carbohydrates from plant foods, specifically starch rich roots and tubers. Root and tuber material has been identified in Mesolithic samples from sites in the Netherlands, Denmark, Poland, Spain, the Czech Republic and has been interpreted as food remains in each (Kubiak-Martens 1996, 1999, 2002; Holden et al 1995; Perry 1991; Mason et al 1994).

Support for this is found in ethnographic studies of Indigenous people of North America. Canadian Indians gathered, roasted, stored and traded roots and tubers, gaining 50% of their carbohydrates from underground storage organs (Hunn, Turner, French 1998). In agricultural societies certain root and tubers form a major part of the human diet during famine (Mabey 1972).