Supporting the future of ancient archaeobotany
As a student, Alemseged Beldados’ favourite subject was history. He was very keen to understand how human society developed over time, especially the transition from hunting and gathering to farming and agriculture.
However, the study of history does not go beyond a certain period and soon Alem realised to study pre-historic times, he would need to major in Archaeology.
With a DPhil in Environmental Archaeology, Alem is now lecturing Archaeobotany at Addis Ababa University. Archaeobotany is the study of ancient plant remains that helps us understand how people used plants in the past for food, fuel, medicine and building purposes. Alem’s research focuses on human-plant interactions and environmental contexts in the Horn of Africa over the last 5000 years.
Over the last four years, Alem has been identifying ancient plant remains from two archaeological sites – the Northern part of Ethiopia and at Kassala, border territory between Eritrea and Sudan. Plant remains are an important source of evidence on ancient environments and economies.
In Northern Ethiopia by floating excavated soil from settlement contexts, Alem found remains of wheat and barley dating back to about 1960 BC. Between the border of Ethiopia and Sudan, Alem recovered Sorghum remains. Sorghum is the fifth most popular cereal crop in the world, and is becoming increasingly popular around the world. The remains Alem identified were one of the most ancient sorghum remains in the world.
By analysing such plant remains from settlement contexts, Alem will be able to understand how agriculture started and evolved in these areas, the environmental context and subsistence base of ancient societies.
The excavation, treatment, storage and analysis of plant remains require extra caution. This is because the preserved plant remains are charred/desiccated and often fragile.
“One of the most significant economic revolutions in human prehistory is the transition from hunting and gathering to agricultural lifestyle. My research purpose is to understand that link. Oxford has world class laboratory facilities that are not available back home.”
In July 2019, Alem visited Oxford as an AfOx Visiting Fellow with the School of Archaeology and St Hugh’s College. He used the Fellowship opportunity to analyse ancient seed remains using the laboratories in the University. By seeing these seeds under microscopes, he was able to study distinct shape and features of different plants. Alem also used scanning electron microscopes and camera mounted microscopes in the University to take pictures of the remains. The microscopes give clear and publication standard images.
Alem also used his time in Oxford to plan an International conference with Professor Peter Mitchell from Oxford’s School of Archaeology. Taking place in September 2020, the Society of Africanist Archaeologists Conference (SAFA) is expected to draw more than 350 archaeologists from across the world. The meeting will enable archaeologists to update on current research results and discuss on future trends in the study of African Archaeology. Alem is currently an Executive Board Member of SAFA-representing Africa at large.
He has also planned future fieldwork projects and joint publications with colleagues in Oxford to continue the partnership developed during his 8 weeks fellowship stay.
Some of Alem’s recent publications include:
- Alemseged Beldados 2018. Climatic Oscillations and Human Adaption in the Last 4000 Years: Studies from Northeast Sudan and the Northern Horn of Africa, Journal of Ethiopian Studies, Vol 50: 1-26.
- Alemseged Beldados 2017. Archaeobotanical investigation of Charred and desiccated fruit stones and seeds from Late Holocene contexts in Kassala and its environs: window to past ecology and subsistence, Journal of Social Sciences & Humanities, Vol 8:1.
- Frank Winchell, Michael Brass, Andrea Manzo, Alemseged Beldados, Valentina Perna, Charlene Murphy, Chris Stevens and Dorian Q Fuller 2018. On the Origin and Dissemination of Domesticated sorghum and Pearl millet across Africa and into India: a view from the Butana Group of the far Eastern Sahel, Journal of African Archaeological Review, Springer Publisher, Vol. 35
The above publications and more are available at