The history of phytolith research in Australasian archaeology and palaeoecology

Publication Name

Vegetation History and Archaeobotany


Although phytolith research has come of age in archaeology and palaeoecology internationally, it has remained relatively marginalised from mainstream practice in Australasia. The region’s initial isolation from international scientific communities and uniqueness of its vegetation communities, has led to an exclusive set of challenges and interruptions in phytolith research. Examining a history of Australasian phytolith research presents the opportunity to recognise developments that have made phytoliths a powerful tool in reconstructing past environments and human uses of plants. Phytolith research arrived early in Australia (1903), after a convoluted journey from Germany (1835–1895) and Europe (1895–1943), but phytoliths were initially misidentified as sponge spicules (1931–1959). Formal understanding of phytoliths and their applications began in Australasia during the late 1950s, continuing throughout the 1960s and 1970s (1959–1980). After a brief hiatus, the modern period of phytolith analyses in Australasian archaeological and palaeoenvironmental research began in the 1980s (1984–1992), focusing on investigating the deep past. Advancements continued into the 1990s and early 2000s. Wallis and Hart declared in 2003 that Australian phytolith research had finally come of age, but more a fitting description would be that it had peaked. Since then phytolith research in Australasia slowed down considerably (2005-present). Local phytolith reference collections for Australasian flora, critical for identifying ancient phytoliths, are essentially no longer produced.

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