Image courtesy of ARS
Areawide Pest Management Research
Pollen Collection Helps Plot the Past
October 8, 2002
Archaeologists seeking clues about the life of settlers in early
America are the latest experts to make use of an
Agricultural Research Service special
collection of more than 8,000 types of pollen. ARS scientist Gretchen D.
Jones's collection of glass slides and light and scanning electron micrographs
(SEMs)--a type of highly detailed photograph-- of various pollen species will
be featured tonight on a Public Broadcasting
Service science special. The study of pollen is called palynology.
Previously, the Smithsonian Institution
in Washington, D.C., and the National Center for Ecological Analysis
and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, Calif., have utilized Jones' collection
of pollen, the dusty mass of tiny, yellow microspores produced by seed
plants. The collection is maintained at the ARS Areawide
Pest Management Research Unit (APMRU) in College Station, Texas.
The collection, started in 1988, now contains more than 8,200
types, or taxa, of pollen from the United States, Canada, Brazil, Belize and
Mexico. The main emphasis of the collection is pollen taxa from Texas. Jones'
collection stands out because it includes all three types of sample
records--glass slides, as well as two types of micrographs. Other collections
generally contain only one or two of these forms.
It's the SEMs that make Jones' collection so sought after. These
photographs provide an x-ray type of image that can show minute details of
something as small as a pollen grain. Pollen grain SEMs can be analyzed by
archaeologists who want to learn which plants would have produced the pollen
found on ancient fossils.
Today, the PBS Scientific
American Frontiers program premiers its "Unearthing Secret America" episode. It
focuses on archeological finds in Jamestown, and Williamsburg, Va.; and at
Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home in Charlottesville, Va. They shed light on
life in early America--particularly on the origins and growth of slavery.
Portions of Jones' pollen collection will be shown in this
episode to illustrate how archaeologists analyzed pollen to determine what
settlers ate, what medicinal plants they used, and whether they were hunters or
More information on the collection can be found on the Internet
ARS is the U.S. Department of
Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.