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  Why study starch? The long and short of it is that size, shape, and optical and chemical properties of starch are useful in the determination of taxonomic species. Starch characteristics can be used in place of, or in combination with other features of the plant to facilitate the identification of macro archaeological plant remains, or even small pieces of modern plant materials which for one reason or the other are lacking the traditional "key" taxonomic characters. As in the case of pollen and phytolith analyses, the study of fossil starch grains can help the ethnobotanist to better understand the diet of ancient human cultures.

The taxonomic usefulness of starch was long ago noted by Edward Tyson Reichert (1913), whose monumental work on "The Differentiation and Specificity of Starches in Relation to Genera, Species, Etc." has today become a classic in its field. He writes:

"It must have been recognized by Leeuwenhoek, and by many of the investigators of the earliest part of the last century, that starches from different sources are not morphologically identical, but if so it does not seem to have attracted any particular attention until the investigations of Fritzsche (Ann. d. Physik. u. Chernie, 1834, xxxii, 129). . . Fritzsche described the starches obtained from a variety of plants. . . He noted not only that the starches from different sources were different, but also that often the form was so characteristic as to determine the plant, or, at least, indicate the genus and family from which the specimen was obtained. This statement was confirmed some years later by Schleiden (Principles of Botany, 1849, 14), who examined a number of starches, mostly not described by Fritzsche. From the differences observed he was enabled to tabulate the various forms, and he published a classification that has continued to be quoted in various standard works, even at the present time."

Starch List Server: Please direct questions on starch to

Identification Keys by Early Workers

* Kraemer
* Meyer
* Muter
* Nägeli
* Schleiden
* Winton

Illustrations of Starch Grains

* Canna Plate from Reichert (1913)
* SEM of Ancient Solanum maglia Starch
* SEM of Ancient Maize
* Drawings of Ancient Starch from Towle, 1961

Light and Chemical Reactions of Starch

The starches of various plant species can be distinguished from one another by using a combination of light and chemical tests. These tests are described in detail in an article entitled "The Differential Analysis of Starches" by James B. McNair (Botanical Series, Vol. IX, Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, pp. 1-44, June 19, 1930).


An interference figure (or "Maltese cross") is seen when starch grains are examined under the polarization microscope. Intensity, distinctness, shape, regularity and position of the interference figure varies from species to species. With respect to intensity, potato starch has a value of 90 ("very high"), daffodil (Narcissus poeticus) a value of 50 (or "moderate"), and Richardia albo-maculata a value of 30 (or "low"). Intermediate gradations are readily expressed by both words and numbers (see Polarization Chart).


Iodine. Use 0.25 per cent Lugol's solution (the latter made by dissolving 5.0 grams of iodine plus 10.0 grams of potassium iodide in 100 ml of distilled or deionized water). Several drops are placed on a specimen and examined microscopically under low power. Potato starch, used as a color standard, is taken as having a value of 60 (or "moderately deep"). Crinum moorei has a value of 30 (or "light"). Intermediate values are given in the Iodine Reaction Chart.

Swelling Agents:

Chloral hydrate-iodine solution. Prepared by saturating a saturated solution of chloral hydrate with iodine. Several drops are placed on the specimen and examined under the polarizing microscope. The time for the disappearance of the Maltese cross (or gelatinization) is noted (see Chloral Hydrate-Iodine Chart).

Other Reagents: Purdy's solution (an aqueous solution of KOH), Pyrogallic acid, chromic acid, and ferric chloride. Use of these reagents is similar to that described for the above Chloral hydrate-iodine solution (see Purdy's Solution Chart; Pyrogallic Acid Chart; Chromic Acid Chart and Ferric Chloride Chart).

Temperature of Gelatinization:

A small quantity of starch is placed in a test tube holding 10 cc of water and slowly warmed in a water bath. The specimen is periodically removed from the water bath and observed under the polarization microscope for the occurrence of any optical changes. The time for gelatinization is noted (see Temperature of Gelatinization Chart).

Did You Know That. . .

Starch paste was used by the ancient Egyptians to cement strips of papyrus stems together for use as writing paper as early as 4000 B.C.

A procedure for starch production was given in a Roman treatise by Cato in the year 184 B.C.

Pliny the Elder (23-74 A.D.) states that the Romans used wheat starch to make papyrus documents, as well as to stiffen and whiten cloth and powder the hair.

Dioscorides (1st century A.D.), in his Greek Herbal, recommended the use of wheat starch for the treatment of ulcers, sores and eye inflamtions.

Chinese paper documents of about 312 A.D. were coated with a starch sizing to provide resistance to ink penetration. Starches from rice, wheat and barley were commonly used at that time.

Abu Mansur, an Arabian teacher and pharmacologist, described a method in which wounds could be treated with the use of an artificial "honey" made by mixing starch with saliva in the year 975 A.D.

Starch was used in northern Europe to stiffen linen, possibly as early as the 14th century. Colored and uncolored starches were used as cosmetics, and uncolored starch primarily as hair powder. Blue starch was used by the Puritans until its use was banned by Queen Elizabeth in 1596.

Yellow starch was fashionable during the middle ages until a notorious women prisoner wearing a bright yellow-starched ruffle was publicly executed. Red starch cosmetics remained in fashion for many years (from Whistler, et al., 1984, Starch Chemistry and Technology).


Atchison, J. and R. Fullagar. 1998. Starch residues on pounding implements from Jinmium rock shelter. In A Closer Look. Recent Australian Studies of Stone Tools, ed. Richard Fullagar. Sydney: Archaeological Computing Laboratory, University of Sydney. Pages 109-126.

Fritzche, C.J. 1834. Ann. d. Physik. u. Chemie. Vol. 32.

Fullagar, R., T. Loy, and S. Cox. 1998. Starch grains, sediments and stone tool function: evidence from Bitokara, Papua New Guinea. In A Closer Look. Recent Australian Studies of Stone Tools, ed. Richard Fullagar. Vol. 6, Pages 49-60. Sydney: Archaeological Computing Laboratory, University of Sydney.

Gunther, R.T., ed. 1959. The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides. Hafner. New York.

Kraemer, H. 1907. A Text-book of Botany and Pharmacognosy. Philadelphia, London. Lippincott.

Leeuwenhoek, A. 1719. Epistolae Physiologicae super Compluribus Naturae Arcanus. Epistolae 26.

Loy, T.H. 1990. Prehistoric organic residues: Recent advances in identification, dating, and their antiquity. In Archaeometry '90, ed. Ernst Pernicka. Basel, Boston. Springer Verlag. Pages 645-656.

Loy, T.H. 1994. Methods in the analysis of starch residues on prehistoric stone tools. In Tropical Archaeobotany, ed. Jon. G. Hather. London. Routledge. Pages 86-114.

Loy, T.H., M. Spriggs and S. Wickler. 1992. Direct evidence for human use of plants 28,000 years ago: starch residues on stone artifacts from the northern Solomon Islands. Antiquity 66: 898-912.

McNair, J.B. 1930. The differential analysis of starches. Chicago Field Museum of Natural History, Botanical Series 9.

McNair, J.B. 1965. Studies in Plant Chemistry. Published by the author. Los Angeles, California.

Meyer, A. 1895. Untersuchungen uber die Die Stärkekörner. Wesen und Lebensgeschichte der Stärkekörner der hoheren Pflanzen. Jena.

Muter, J. 1906. Organic Materia Medica. In Leffmann, H. and W. Beam, Select Methods in Food Analysis. P. Blakiston. Philadelphia.

Nägeli, C. 1858. Die Stärkekörner, Morphologische, physiologische, chemisch-physicalisch und systematisch-botanische Monographie. Zürich.

Piperno, D.R. and Irene Holst. 1998. The presence of starch grains on prehistoric stone tools from the humid neotropics: Indications of early tuber use and agriculture in Panama. Journal of Archaeological Science 25: 765-776.

Radley, J.A. 1968. Starch and Its Derivatives. Chapman and Hall. London.

Reichert, E.T. 1913. The Differentiation and Specificity of Starches in Relation to Genera, Species, Etc. Washington. Carnegie Institute.

Schleiden, M.J. 1849. Principles of Scientific Botany. London.

Therin, M. 1994. Subsistence through starch: The examination of subsistence changes on Garua Island, West New Britain, Papua New Guinea, through the extraction and identification of starch from sediments. BA (Hon), University of Sydney.

Therin, M. 1998. The movement of starch grains in sediments. In A Closer Look. Recent Australian Studies of Stone Tools, ed. Richard Fullagar. Vol. 6, Pages 62-72. Sydney: Archaeological Computing Laboratory, University of Sydney.

Towle, M.A. 1961. The Ethnobotany of Pre-Columbian Peru. Viking Fund Publication Anthropology., No. 30, Chicago, Illinois.

Ugent, D. 1994. Chemosystematics in archaeology: A preliminary study of the use of chromatography and spectrophotometry in the identification of four prehistoric root crop species from the desert coast of Peru. In Tropical Archaeobotany, ed. Jon. G. Hather. London. Routledge. Pages 215-226.

Ugent, D., S. Pozorski and T. Pozorski. 1981. Prehistoric remains of the sweet potato from the Casma Valley of Peru. Phytologia 49: 401-415.

Ugent, D., S. Pozorski and T. Pozorski. 1982. Archaeological potato tuber remains from the Casma Valley of Peru. Economic Botany 36(2): 182-192.

Ugent, D., S. Pozorski and T. Pozorski. 1983. Restos arqueológicos de tubérculos de papas y camotes del Valle de Casma en el Perú. Boletin de Lima 25: 1-17.

Ugent, D., S. Pozorski and T. Pozorski. 1984. New evidence for ancient cultivation of Canna edulis in Peru. Economic Botany 38(4): 417-432.

Ugent, D., S. Pozorski and T. Pozorski. 1986. Archaeological manioc (Manihot) from coastal Peru. Economic Botany 40: 78-102.

Ugent, D., T. Dillehay and C. Ramírez. 1987. Potato remains from a late pleistocene settlement in southcentral Chile. Economic Botany 41(1): 17-27.

Whistler, R.L., J.N. Bemiller and E.F. Paschall. 1984. Starch: Chemistry and Technology. Academic Press. New York.

Winton, A.L. 1906. The Microscopy of Vegetable Foods. New York. Wiley.

Link to Etnobotanical Leaflets

Southern Illinois University Carbondale / Ethnobotanical leaflets / EBL Starch Research Page
Last updated: 14-April-2004 / du