Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Birmingham Qur'an manuscript dated among the oldest in the world


 
A Qur’an manuscript held by the University of Birmingham has been placed among the oldest in the world thanks to modern scientific methods.

Radiocarbon analysis has dated the parchment on which the text is written to the period between AD 568 and 645 with 95.4% accuracy. The test was carried out in a laboratory at the University of Oxford. The result places the leaves close to the time of the Prophet Muhammad, who is generally thought to have lived between AD 570 and 632.

Quran 7th century 1 Cadbury Research Library

Researchers conclude that the Qur’an manuscript is among the earliest written textual evidence of the Islamic holy book known to survive. This gives the Qur’an manuscript in Birmingham global significance to Muslim heritage and the study of Islam.

Susan Worrall, Director of Special Collections (Cadbury Research Library), at the University of Birmingham, said: ‘The radiocarbon dating has delivered an exciting result, which contributes significantly to our understanding of the earliest written copies of the Qur’an. We are thrilled that such an important historical document is here in Birmingham, the most culturally diverse city in the UK.’

The Qur’an manuscript is part of the University’s Mingana Collection of Middle Eastern manuscripts, held in the Cadbury Research Library. Funded by Quaker philanthropist Edward Cadbury, the collection was acquired to raise the status of Birmingham as an intellectual centre for religious studies and attract prominent theological scholars.

Consisting of two parchment leaves, the Qur’an manuscript contains parts of Suras (chapters) 18 to 20, written with ink in an early form of Arabic script known as Hijazi. For many years, the manuscript had been misbound with leaves of a similar Qur’an manuscript, which is datable to the late seventh century.

Susan Worrall said: ‘By separating the two leaves and analysing the parchment, we have brought to light an amazing find within the Mingana Collection.’

Dr Alba Fedeli, who studied the leaves as part of her PhD research, said: ‘The two leaves, which were radiocarbon dated to the early part of the seventh century, come from the same codex as a manuscript kept in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris.’

MS1572A folio 1 verso and folio 2 recto
Explaining the context and significance of the discovery, Professor David Thomas, Professor of Christianity and Islam and Nadir Dinshaw Professor of Interreligious Relations at the University of Birmingham, said: ‘The radiocarbon dating of the Birmingham Qur’an folios has yielded a startling result and reveals one of the most surprising secrets of the University’s collections. They could well take us back to within a few years of the actual founding of Islam.

‘According to Muslim tradition, the Prophet Muhammad received the revelations that form the Qur’an, the scripture of Islam, between the years AD 610 and 632, the year of his death. At this time, the divine message was not compiled into the book form in which it appears today. Instead, the revelations were preserved in “the memories of men”. Parts of it had also been written down on parchment, stone, palm leaves and the shoulder blades of camels. Caliph Abu Bakr, the first leader of the Muslim community after Muhammad, ordered the collection of all Qur’anic material in the form of a book. The final, authoritative written form was completed and fixed under the direction of the third leader, Caliph Uthman, in about AD 650.

‘Muslims believe that the Qur’an they read today is the same text that was standardised under Uthman and regard it as the exact record of the revelations that were delivered to Muhammad.
‘The tests carried out on the parchment of the Birmingham folios yield the strong probability that the animal from which it was taken was alive during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad or shortly afterwards. This means that the parts of the Qur’an that are written on this parchment can, with a degree of confidence, be dated to less than two decades after Muhammad’s death. These portions must have been in a form that is very close to the form of the Qur’an read today, supporting the view that the text has undergone little or no alteration and that it can be dated to a point very close to the time it was believed to be revealed.’

Dr Muhammad Isa Waley, Lead Curator for Persian and Turkish Manuscripts at the British Library, said: ‘This is indeed an exciting discovery. We know now that these two folios, in a beautiful and surprisingly legible Hijazi hand, almost certainly date from the time of the first three Caliphs. According to the classic accounts, it was under the third Caliph, Uthman ibn Affan, that the Qur’anic text was compiled and edited in the order of Suras familiar today, chiefly on the basis of the text as compiled by Zayd ibn Thabit under the first Caliph, Abu Bakr. Copies of the definitive edition were then distributed to the main cities under Muslim rule.

‘The Muslim community was not wealthy enough to stockpile animal skins for decades, and to produce a complete Mushaf, or copy, of the Holy Qur’an required a great many of them. The carbon dating evidence, then, indicates that Birmingham’s Cadbury Research Library is home to some precious survivors that – in view of the Suras included – would once have been at the centre of a Mushaf from that period. And it seems to leave open the possibility that the Uthmanic redaction took place earlier than had been thought – or even, conceivably, that these folios predate that process. In any case, this – along with the sheer beauty of the content and the surprisingly clear Hijazi script – is news to rejoice Muslim hearts.’

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Archaeology of the Viking Age


The Viking hit-and-run raids on monastic communities such as Lindisfarne and Iona were the most infamous result of burgeoning Scandinavian maritime prowess in the closing years of the Eighth Century.

These skirmishes led to more expansive military campaigns, settlement, and ultimately conquest of large swathes of the British Isles. But Dr Steve Ashby, of the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, wanted to explore the social justifications for this spike in aggressive activity.

Previous research has considered environmental, demographic, technological and political drivers, as well as the palpable lure of silver and slave and why these forms of wealth became important at this stage.

Dr Ashby said: "I wanted to try to discover what would make a young chieftain invest in the time and resources for such a risky venture. And what were the motives of his crew?"

In research published in Archaeological Dialogues, Dr Ashby argues that focusing on the spoils of raiding is to ignore half the picture as the rewards of such voyages consisted of much more than portable wealth.

Dr Ashby says: "The lure of the exotic, of the world beyond the horizon, was an important factor. Classic anthropology has shown that the mystique of the exotic is a powerful force, and something that leaders and people of influence often use to prop up their power base. It is not difficult to see how this would have worked in the Viking Age."

The acquisition not just of silver but of distinctive forms of Anglo-Saxon, Frankish, and Celtic metalwork were tangible reminders of successful sorties, symbols of status and power, as well as calls-to-arms for future raids. Many of the large quantity of Christian artefacts found in Scandinavian contexts (particularly Norwegian pagan burials) escaped melting and recycling, not because of some form of artistic appreciation, but because they were foundation stones for power, and touchstones in any argument for undertaking military activity.

Dr Ashby says there was also a clear motive for joining raiding parties rather than blindly following their leaders. Raiding activity provided not only an opportunity for violence and the accumulation of wealth, but an arena in which individuals could be noticed by their peers and superiors. It was an opportunity to build reputations for skill, reliability, cunning, or courage. Just as leaders of raiding parties stood to gain more than portable wealth, so too their followers could seek intangible social capital from participation.

"The lure of the raid was thus more than booty; it was about winning and preserving power through the enchantment of travel and the doing of deeds. This provides an important correction to models that focus on the need for portable wealth; the act of acquiring silver was as important as the silver itself," Dr Ashby adds.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

New evidence that farming began far earlier than previously thought -- some 23,000 years ago

Until now, researchers believed farming was "invented" some 12,000 years ago in the Cradle of Civilization -- Iraq, the Levant, parts of Turkey and Iran -- an area that was home to some of the earliest known human civilizations. A new discovery by an international collaboration of researchers from Tel Aviv University, Harvard University, Bar-Ilan University, and the University of Haifa offers the first evidence that trial plant cultivation began far earlier -- some 23,000 years ago.

The study focuses on the discovery of the first weed species at the site of a sedentary human camp on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. It was published in PLOS ONE and led by Prof. Ehud Weiss of Bar-Ilan University in collaboration with Prof. Marcelo Sternberg of the Department of Molecular Biology and Ecology of Plants at TAU's Faculty of Life Sciences and Prof. Ofer Bar-Yosef of Harvard University, among other colleagues.

"While full-scale agriculture did not develop until much later, our study shows that trial cultivation began far earlier than previously believed, and gives us reason to rethink our ancestors' capabilities," said Prof. Sternberg. "Those early ancestors were more clever and more skilled than we knew."

Evidence among the weeds

Although weeds are considered a threat or nuisance in farming, their presence at the site of the Ohalo II people's camp revealed the earliest signs of trial plant cultivation -- some 11 millennia earlier than conventional ideas about the onset of agriculture.

The plant material was found at the site of the Ohalo II people, who were fisher hunter-gatherers and established a sedentary human camp. The site was unusually well preserved, having been charred, covered by lake sediment, and sealed in low-oxygen conditions -- ideal for the preservation of plant material. The researchers examined the weed species for morphological signs of domestic-type cereals and harvesting tools, although their very presence is evidence itself of early farming.

"This uniquely preserved site is one of the best archaeological examples worldwide of the hunter-gatherers' way of life," said Prof. Sternberg. "It was possible to recover an extensive amount of information on the site and its inhabitants."

"Because weeds thrive in cultivated fields and disturbed soils, a significant presence of weeds in archaeobotanical assemblages retrieved from Neolithic sites and settlements of later age is widely considered an indicator of systematic cultivation," according to the study.

Early gatherers

The site bears the remains of six shelters and a particularly rich assemblage of plants. Upon retrieving and examining approximately 150,000 plant specimens, the researchers determined that early humans there had gathered over 140 species of plants. These included 13 known weeds mixed with edible cereals, such as wild emmer, wild barley, and wild oats.

The researchers found a grinding slab -- a stone tool with which cereal starch granules were extracted -- as well as a distribution of seeds around this tool, reflecting that the cereal grains were processed for consumption. The large number of cereals showing specific kinds of scars on their seeds indicate the likelihood of those cereals growing in fields, and the presence of sickle blades indicates that these humans deliberately planned the harvest of cereal.

The new study offers evidence that early humans clearly functioned with a basic knowledge of agriculture and, perhaps more importantly, exhibited foresight and extensive agricultural planning far earlier than previously believed.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Genetic studies link indigenous peoples in the Amazon and Australasia



Native Americans living in the Amazon bear an unexpected genetic connection to indigenous people in Australasia, suggesting a previously unknown wave of migration to the Americas thousands of years ago, a new study has found.

"It's incredibly surprising," said David Reich, Harvard Medical School professor of genetics and senior author of the study. "There's a strong working model in archaeology and genetics, of which I have been a proponent, that most Native Americans today extend from a single pulse of expansion south of the ice sheets--and that's wrong. We missed something very important in the original data."

Previous research had shown that Native Americans from the Arctic to the southern tip of South America can trace their ancestry to a single "founding population" called the First Americans, who came across the Bering land bridge about 15,000 years ago. In 2012, Reich and colleagues enriched this history by showing that certain indigenous groups in northern Canada inherited DNA from at least two subsequent waves of migration.

The new study, published July 21 in Nature, indicates that there's more to the story.

Pontus Skoglund, first author of the paper and a postdoctoral researcher in the Reich lab, was studying genetic data gathered as part of the 2012 study when he noticed a strange similarity between one or two Native American groups in Brazil and indigenous groups in Australia, New Guinea and the Andaman Islands.

"That was an unexpected and somewhat confusing result," said Reich, who is also an associate member of the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT and a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator. "We spent a really long time trying to make this result go away and it just got stronger."

Skoglund and colleagues from HMS, the Broad and several universities in Brazil analyzed publicly available genetic information from 21 Native American populations from Central and South America. They also collected and analyzed DNA from nine additional populations in Brazil to make sure the link they saw hadn't been an artifact of how the first set of genomes had been collected. The team then compared those genomes to the genomes of people from about 200 non-American populations.

The link persisted. The Tupí-speaking Suruí and Karitiana and the Ge-speaking Xavante of the Amazon had a genetic ancestor more closely related to indigenous Australasians than to any other present-day population. This ancestor doesn't appear to have left measurable traces in other Native American groups in South, Central or North America.

The genetic markers from this ancestor don't match any population known to have contributed ancestry to Native Americans, and the geographic pattern can't be explained by post-Columbian European, African or Polynesian mixture with Native Americans, the authors said. They believe the ancestry is much older--perhaps as old as the First Americans.

In the ensuing millennia, the ancestral group has disappeared.

"We've done a lot of sampling in East Asia and nobody looks like this," said Skoglund. "It's an unknown group that doesn't exist anymore."

The team named the mysterious ancestor Population Y, after the Tupí word for ancestor, "Ypykuéra."

Reich, Skoglund and colleagues propose that Population Y and First Americans came down from the ice sheets to become the two founding populations of the Americas.

"We don't know the order, the time separation or the geographical patterns," said Skoglund.

Researchers do know that the DNA of First Americans looked similar to that of Native Americans today. Population Y is more of a mystery.

"About 2 percent of the ancestry of Amazonians today comes from this Australasian lineage that's not present in the same way elsewhere in the Americas," said Reich.

However, that doesn't establish how much of their ancestry comes from Population Y. If Population Y were 100 percent Australasian, that would indeed mean they contributed 2 percent of the DNA of today's Amazonians. But if Population Y mixed with other groups such as the First Americans before they reached the Americas, the amount of DNA they contributed to today's Amazonians could be much higher--up to 85 percent.

To answer that question, researchers would need to sample DNA from the remains of a person who belonged to Population Y. Such DNA hasn't been obtained yet. One place to look might be in the skeletons of early Native Americans whose skulls some researchers say have Australasian features. The majority of these skeletons were found in Brazil.

Reich and Skoglund think that some of the most interesting open questions about Native American population history are about the relationships among groups after the initial migrations.

"We have a broad view of the deep origins of Native American ancestry, but within that diversity we know very little about the history of how those populations relate to each other," said Reich.

The Most Ancient Hebrew Scroll since the Dead Sea Scrolls has been Deciphered


Shay Halevi

For the first time, advanced technologies made it possible to read parts of a scroll that was completely burnt c. 1,500 years, inside the Holy Ark of the synagogue at Ein Gedi. At the end of extremely challenging efforts which lasted over a year, the scientists and researchers were amazed to see verses from the beginning of the Book of Leviticus, suddenly coming back to life.

The rare find was presented at a press conference in Jerusalem, attended by the Minister of Culture and Sports, MK Miri Regev, and the director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Mr. Israel Hasson.

The parchment scroll was unearthed in 1970 in archaeological excavations in the synagogue at Ein Gedi, headed by the late Dr. Dan Barag and Dr. Sefi Porath. However, due to its charred condition, it was not possible to either preserve or decipher it.

The Lunder Family Dead Sea Scrolls Conservation Center of the Israel Antiquities Authority which uses state of the art and advanced technologies to preserve and document the Dead Sea scrolls enabled the discovery of this important find. It turns out that part of this scroll is from the beginning of the Book of Leviticus, written in Hebrew, and dated by C14 analysis to the late sixth–century CE. To date, this is the most ancient scroll from the five books of the Hebrew Bible to be found since the Dead Sea scrolls, most of which are ascribed to the end of the Second Temple period (first century BCE-first century CE).

The Israel Antiquities Authority has been cooperating with scientists from Israel and abroad to preserve and digitize the Dead Sea Scrolls. About a year ago Merkel Technologies Company, Ltd. Israel, offered their professional assistance in performing high resolution 3D scanning of some Dead Sea Scrolls fragments and phylactery (tefillin) cases by means of a Micro-CT scanner.

The fragment of the Ein Gedi scroll was scanned along with the phylacteries and phylactery cases. The Israel Antiquities Authority then sent the outcome of these scans to Professor Brent Seales of the University of Kentucky who developed a digital imaging software which allows to virtually unroll the scroll and visualize the text. Thus, the great surprise and excitement when the first 8 verses of the Book of Leviticus suddenly became legible.

“The LORD summoned Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When any of you bring an offering of livestock to the LORD, you shall bring your offering from the herd or from the flock. If the offering is a burnt-offering from the herd, you shall offer a male without blemish; you shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, for acceptance in your behalf before the LORD. You shall lay your hand on the head of the burnt-offering, and it shall be acceptable in your behalf as atonement for you. The bull shall be slaughtered before the LORD; and Aaron’s sons the priests shall offer the blood, dashing the blood against all sides of the altar that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting. The burnt-offering shall be flayed and cut up into its parts. The sons of the priest Aaron shall put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire.Aaron’s sons the priests shall arrange the parts, with the head and the suet, on the wood that is on the fire on the altar. (Leviticus 1:1-8).

This is the first time in any archaeological excavation that a Torah scroll was found in a synagogue, particularly inside a Holy Ark.





According to Dr. Sefi Porath, discoverer of the scroll in the 1970 Ein Gedi excavations, "The deciphering of the scroll, which was a puzzle for us for 45 years, is very exciting. Ein Gedi was a Jewish village in the Byzantine period (fourth–seventh century CE) and had a synagogue with an exquisite mosaic floor and a Holy Ark. The settlement was completely burnt to the ground, and none of its inhabitants ever returned to reside there again, or to pick through the ruins in order to salvage valuable property. In the archaeological excavations of the burnt synagogue, we found in addition to the charred scroll fragments, a bronze seven-branched candelabrum (menorah), the community’s money box containing c. 3,500 coins, glass and ceramic oil lamps, and vessels that held perfume. We have no information regarding the cause of the fire, but speculation about the destruction ranges from Bedouin raiders from the region east of the Dead Sea to conflicts with the Byzantine government.”

According to Pnina Shor, curator and director of IAA's Dead Sea Scrolls Projects, “Dealing with the Dead Sea Scrolls on a daily basis is really a privilege. The knowledge that we are preserving the most important find of the 20th century and one of the western world’s most important cultural treasures causes us to proceed with the utmost care and caution and use the most advanced technologies available today. This discovery absolutely astonished us: we were certain it was just a shot in the dark but decided to try and scan the burnt scroll anyway. Now, not only can we bequeath the Dead Sea Scrolls to future generations, but also a part of the Bible from a Holy Ark of a 1,500-year old synagogue!”


Genome analysis pins down arrival and spread of first Americans


The original Americans came from Siberia in a single wave no more than 23,000 years ago, at the height of the last Ice Age, and apparently hung out in the north - perhaps for thousands of years - before spreading in two distinct populations throughout North and South America, according to a new genomic analysis.

The findings, which will be reported in the July 24 issue of Science, confirm the most popular theory of the peopling of the Americas, but throws cold water on others, including the notion of an earlier wave of people from East Asia prior to the last glacial maximum, and the idea that multiple independent waves produced the major subgroups of Native Americans we see today, as opposed to diversification in the Americas.

This Ice Age migration over a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska is distinct from the arrival of the Inuit and Eskimo, who were latecomers, spreading throughout the Arctic beginning about 5,500 years ago.

The findings also dispel the idea that Polynesians or Europeans contributed to the genetic heritage of Native Americans.

The analysis, using the most comprehensive genetic data set from Native Americans to date, was conducted using three different statistical models, two of them created by UC Berkeley researchers. The first, developed by the lab of Yun Song, a UC Berkeley associate professor of statistics and of electrical engineering and computer sciences, takes into account the full DNA information available from the genomes in the study. A second method, developed by Rasmus Nielsen, a UC Berkeley professor of integrative biology, and graduate student Kelley Harris, requires much less computation, but relies on a summary of the genome data. These and a third method developed by researchers at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, England, all yielded consistent results. Song and Nielsen are two of three corresponding authors of the paper.

Modern and ancient genomes

The data consisted of the sequenced genomes of 31 living Native Americans, Siberians and people from around the Pacific Ocean, and the genomes of 23 ancient individuals from North and South America, spanning a time between 200 and 6,000 years ago.

"There is some uncertainty in the dates of the migration and the divergence between the norther and southern Amerindian populations," Song noted, "but as we get more ancient genomes sequenced, we will be able to put more precise dates on the times of migration."

The international team concluded that the northern and southern Native American populations diverged between 11,500 and 14,500 years ago, with the northern branch leading to the present day Athabascans and Amerindians broadly distributed throughout North America. The southern branch peopled Central and South America, as well as part of northern North America.

"The diversification of modern Native Americans appears to have started around 13,000 years ago when the first unique Native American culture appears in the archeological record: the Clovis culture," said Nielsen. "We can date this split so precisely in part because we previously have analyzed the 12,600-year-old remains of a boy associated with the Clovis culture."

One surprise in the genetic data is that both populations of Native Americans have a small admixture of genes from East Asians and Australo-Melanesians, including Papuans, Solomon Islanders and Southeast Asian hunter gatherers.

"It's a surprising finding and it implies that New World populations were not completely isolated from the Old World after their initial migration," said Eske Willerslev from the Centre for GeoGenetics at the Natural History Museum, University of Copenhagen, who headed the study. "We cannot say exactly how and when this gene flow happened, but one possibility is that it came through the Aleutian Islanders living off the coast of Alaska."

Song added that the state-of-the-art statistical methods that his and Nielsen's labs developed "are being made publicly available so that they can be used by others to study complex demographic histories of other populations."


Monday, July 6, 2015

A Two Thousand Year Miqwe Below a Jerusalem Living Room Floor



An ancient, two thousand year old ritual bath (miqwe) was discovered below a living room floor during renovations carried out in a private house in the picturesque neighborhood of ‘Ein Kerem in Jerusalem. Archaeologists of the Israel Antiquities Authority were amazed to discover that a pair of wooden doors beneath a stylized rug in the middle of a pleasant family’s living room concealed an ancient ritual bath.

Today (Wednesday) the owners of the place were awarded a certificate of appreciation by the Israel Antiquities Authority for exhibiting good citizenship in that they reported the discovery of the miqwe and thereby contributed to the study of the Land of Israel.

The miqwe, which is complete and quite large (length 3.5 m, width 2.4 m, depth 1.8 m), is rock-hewn and meticulously plastered according to the laws of purity appearing in the halacha. A staircase leads to the bottom of the immersion pool. Pottery vessels dating to the time of the Second Temple (first century CE) and traces of fire that might constitute evidence of the destruction of 66-70 CE were discovered inside the bath. In addition, fragments of stone vessels were found which were common during the Second Temple period because stone cannot be contaminated and remains pure.

According to Amit Re’em, Jerusalem District Archaeologist, “Such instances of finding antiquities beneath a private home can happen only in Israel and Jerusalem in particular. Beyond the excitement and the unusual story of the discovery of the miqwe, its exposure is of archaeological importance.

‘Ein Kerem is considered a place sacred to Christianity in light of its identification with “a city of Judah” – the place where according to the New Testament, John the Baptist was born and where his pregnant mother Elisabeth met with Mary, mother of Jesus. Despite these identifications, the archaeological remains in ‘Ein Kerem and the surrounding area, which are related to the time when these events transpired (the Second Temple period), are few and fragmented. The discovery of the ritual bath reinforces the hypothesis there was a Jewish settlement from the time of the Second Temple located in the region of what is today ‘Ein Kerem.”

The owners of the place said, “Initially, we were uncertain regarding the importance of the find revealed below our house and we hesitated contacting the Israel Antiquities Authority because of the consequences we believed would be involved in doing so. At the same time, we had a strong feeling that what was situated beneath the floor of our house is a find of historical value and our sense of civic and public duty clinched it for us. We felt that this find deserves to be seen and properly documented. We contacted the Israel Antiquities Authority at our own initiative in order that they would complete the excavation and the task of documenting the discovery. Representatives of the IAA arrived and together we cleaned the miqwe. To our joy and indeed to our surprise, we found them to be worthy partners in this fascinating journey. The IAA archaeologists demonstrated great professionalism, interest and pleasantness. They were solely concerned with preserving and investigating the finds.”