Prehistoric cultivation and plant gathering in Finland: An archaeobotanical study

Santeri Vanhanen

Tutkimustuotos: OpinnäyteVäitöskirjaArtikkelikokoelma


Better knowledge of cultivation and plant gathering enables a deeper understanding of prehistoric societies. People-plant interactions have resulted in the creation of human ecological niches and, over time, people began to increasingly gain their subsistence from productive economies. However, in Finland prehistoric cultivation and plant gathering remain poorly understood. What plants were gathered during the prehistoric period, and how would they have been used? When do the first signs of cultivation occur, and where did it originate from? How did cultivation develop after its introduction?

This study reviews and expands on archaeobotanical data on cultivation and plant gathering in Finland. The aim is to provide a long-term perspective of plant-people interactions in the area. Such knowledge is valuable for scholars studying prehistoric societies, plant use and agricultural history.

The primary method employed in this study is the archaeobotanical analysis of plant macrofossils. This method enables species-level identifications of plant remains found at archaeological sites. In this study, such plant remains were retrieved from flotation samples gathered at archaeological sites in Finland and Sweden. Altogether, approximately 800 samples were studied. In addition, several remains of plants were directly accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) radiocarbon dated, thus enabling an absolute chronology for these particular remains. Secondary methods employed in the study include the anthracological analysis of wood charcoal, ethnography and geochemistry.

A review of charred and waterlogged plant remains from the Stone Age in Finland show that numerous wild plants were collected. During the Holocene thermal maximum, hazel and water chestnut grew further north than today. Wild plants were used throughout Finland during the Stone Age, although the number of taxa diminished northwards. Use of starch-rich plants, such as water-lilies, appears to have decreased after the onset of agriculture.

The earliest macrofossil remains of cultivated plants in Finland, naked barley and naked wheat, were found at Pitted Ware Culture sites on the Åland Islands. Radiocarbon dates show that these remains date from the years 3300–2500 cal BC.
Cultivated plants occur for the first time in mainland Finland during the second millennium BC. Radiocarbon-dated plant remains indicate continuous cultivation of barley on mainland Finland since approximately 1500 cal BC. The early development of plant cultivation is, however, poorly understood.

Larger assemblages of plant remains have been discovered during the first millennium AD. At Isokylä, in southern Finland, such assemblages show that barley was the main crop cultivated during the Iron Age, cal AD 200–550. Both hulled and naked barley were cultivated together with other crops. Here, the earliest find of hemp in Finland was discovered and directly dated to cal AD 258–425.
The Late Iron Age can be considered as a period of agricultural expansion. The site of Orijärvi shows that permanent field cultivation, with hulled barley as the main crop, was conducted from approximately cal AD 600 onwards.

The results of this study have implications especially for studies of prehistoric societies, which can be better understood with a deeper knowledge of their plant use. Plants not only provided nutrients, medicine, fuel and construction materials, but people could even construct their niches by removing or preserving certain plants in their surroundings. The active role of humans should be considered when studying past environmental changes, for example via pollen analytical studies.

Cereal grains found at Pitted Ware Culture sites on Åland forces us to consider whether these hunter-gatherers could have conducted small-scale cultivation, possibly even reaching mainland Finland. Cultivation most probably originated from east-central Sweden, where it was first introduced by the Funnel Beaker Culture approximately 4000 cal BC.

Later, continuous cultivation throughout the Bronze Age must have had social consequences, and the appearance of numerous cairns might well be associated with an increasing reliance on agriculture. The Iron Age find of hemp at Isokylä might indicate contacts with areas farther south.

Remains of ancient fields and the archaeobotanical material at Orijärvi and other similar sites show that field cultivation was conducted in Finland at the latest since the Late Iron Age. These finds call into question whether we can consider slash-and-burn cultivation as the earliest cultivation method in Finland.
Myöntävä instituutio
  • Helsingin yliopisto
Painoksen ISBN978-951-51-5606-8
TilaJulkaistu - 2019
OKM-julkaisutyyppiG5 Tohtorinväitöskirja (artikkeli)


  • 615 Historia ja arkeologia

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