Building a starch reference collection for South East Asia 

A  project undertaken at The Centre for Geoarchaeology and Palaeoenvironmental Research, School of Environmental Science and Management, Southern Cross University, Lismore, and supervised by C Lentfer, W Boyd and M Morwood

Starch grains fossilise in soils and often remain on stone tools and other artefacts as residues. In addition to pollen and phytolith studies, starch grain analysis give archaeologists, ethnobotanists and palaeoenvironmentalists further opportunity to find out more about past environments and how prehistoric peoples lived, utilized resources, and evolved. In particular, since many plants, including major food staples such as yam, taro and sweet potato, are poor phytolith producers and/or have low pollen production e.g., Colocasia esculenta (taro), analysis of starch has the potential to provide information that might otherwise be overlooked. Hence in addition to complementing pollen and phytolith studies for palaeoenvironmental reconstruction, starch analysis can play a key role in finding out about prehistoric people; what plants they ate, how they processed food, used  resources, and where and when they started to cultivate crops and domesticate plants.

Building a starch reference collection for Southeast Asia is fundamental to the development of fossil starch studies in the region.  Now, as archaeologists are becoming acquainted with the application of starch analysis to archaeology in particular, there is a rising need for the compilation of a comprehensive reference collection. The Niah Cave project in Kalimantan, the Liang Bua project in Flores and several more major projects presently being undertaken by Indonesian archaeologists and international colleagues would find such a collection useful. In point of fact, starch analyses of ecofacts and sediments are an important focus of both the Liang Bua and Niah Cave projects and will be integral to a major new research program “Astride the Wallace Line: 1.5 million years of human evolution, dispersal, culture and environmental change in Indonesia” presently being conducted by Associate Professor Mike Morwood and his team of Indonesian and international associates.

Over a period of three years this project aims to build a comprehensive starch reference collection for the Southeast Asian region. While the primary focus of the collection will be on starch from useful plants and closely related flora, other plants that are considered to be important environmental indicators will also be targeted.

The project commenced in June, 2002 and continue for another two years. Project participants include researchers from three institutions; Carol Lentfer and Bill Boyd from the Southern Cross University (SCU), Lismore, NSW, Australia, Mike Morwood from the University of New England (UNE), NSW, Australia  and Netty Polhaupessy from the Geological Research and Development Centre (GRDC), Bandung, Java, Indonesia. Most of the laboratory work is undertaken at the Quaternary Geology Laboratory (QGL) in Bandung but some training of Indonesian research assistants is to be undertaken at the Southern Cross University. To facilitate access to the collection by researchers it is to be made in triplicate; one to be housed at the GRDC in Indonesia, and the other two to be housed at Australian Institutions.

Captions to Figures

Figure 1. Starch grains from banana cultivar, Musa acuminata AAA.

Figure 2. Dr. Netty Polhaupessy standing at the entrance of the Quaternary Geology Laboratory in Bandung.

Figure3. Field assistant Mario Sampur and man from village at Liang Bua collecting plants in July 2002. Mario is shown pulling the roots of a plant out of the ground for the starch reference collection.

Figure4. Carol Lentfer recording field notes at Rana Mese, Flores, July 2002.

Figure 5. Drs Netty Polhaupessy and Mike Morwood at Lake Rana Mese. Plants were collected from the forests surrounding the crater lake.

Figure 6. Morning tea break at the Liang Bua excavation site. Starch residues have been found on stone tools excavated from this site.

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