Monday, February 8, 2016

New 'Little Ice Age' coincides with fall of Eastern Roman Empire and growth of Arab Empire


Researchers from the international Past Global Changes (PAGES) project write in the journal Nature Geoscience that they have identified an unprecedented, long-lasting cooling in the northern hemisphere 1500 years ago. The drop in temperature immediately followed three large volcanic eruptions in quick succession in the years 536, 540 and 547 AD (also known as the Common Era CE). Volcanoes can cause climate cooling by ejecting large volumes of small particles - sulfate aerosols - that enter the atmosphere blocking sunlight.

Within five years of the onset of the "Late Antique Little Ice Age", as the researchers have dubbed it, the Justinian plague pandemic swept through the Mediterranean between 541 and 543 AD, striking Constantinople and killing millions of people in the following centuries. The authors suggest these events may have contributed to the decline of the eastern Roman Empire.

Lead author, dendroclimatologist Ulf Büntgen from the Swiss Federal Research Institute said, "This was the most dramatic cooling in the Northern Hemisphere in the past 2000 years."

A later "Little Ice Age" between 14th and 19th centuries has been well documented and linked to political upheavals and plague pandemics in Europe, but the new study is the first to provide a comprehensive climate analysis across both Central Asia and Europe during this earlier period.

"With so many variables, we must remain cautious about environmental cause and political effect, but it is striking how closely this climate change aligns with major upheavals across several regions," added Büntgen.

The multidisciplinary research team made up of climatologists, naturalists, historians and linguists mapped the new climate information against a particularly turbulent period in history in Europe and central Asia. The volcanic eruptions probably affected food supplies - a major famine struck the region at precisely this time followed immediately by the pandemic.

Further south, the Arabian Peninsula received more rain allowing more vegetation to grow. The researchers speculate this may have driven expansion of the Arab Empire in the Middle East because the vegetation would have sustained larger herds of camels used by the Arab armies for their campaigns.

In cooler areas, several tribes migrated east towards China, possibly driven away by a lack of pastureland in central Asia. This led to hostilities between nomadic groups and the local ruling powers in the steppe regions of northern China. An alliance between these steppe populations and the Eastern Romans brought down the Sasanian Empire in Persia, the final empire in the region before the rise of the Arab Empire.

The researchers write, "The Late Antique Little Ice Age fits in well with the main transformative events that occurred in Eurasia during that time."

Large volcanic eruptions can affect global temperature for decades. The researchers suggest that the spate of eruptions combined with a solar minimum, and ocean and sea-ice responses to the effects of the volcanoes, extended the grip of the freezing climate for over a century.

Büntgen points out that their study serves as an example of how sudden climatological shifts can change existing political systems. "We can learn something from the speed and scale of the transformations that took place at that time," he said.

The temperature reconstruction, based on new tree-ring measurements from the Altai mountains where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan meet, corresponds remarkably well with temperatures in the Alps in the last two millennia. The width of tree rings is a reliable way to estimate summer temperatures.

The research is part of the Euro-Med2k working group of the international Past Global Changes (PAGES) project. Last week, (29 January 2016) members of the group published a comprehensive analysis of summer temperatures in Europe in the last 2000 years, concluding that current summer temperatures are unprecedented during this period. The Euro-Med2k Working Group reconstructs and models past climate in the Europe and Mediterranean regions (including southern Europe, the Middle East and northern Africa) over the last 2,000 years. PAGES is part of Future Earth - a major international research program to study global sustainability.

Signs of early settlement in the Nordic region date back to the cradle of civilization


The discovery of the world's oldest storage of fermented fish in southern Sweden could rewrite the Nordic prehistory with findings indicating a far more complex society than previously thought. The unique discovery by osteologist Adam Boethius from Lund University was made when excavating a 9,200 year-old settlement at what was once a lake in Blekinge, Sweden.

"Our findings of large-scale fish fermentation, a traditional way of preserving fish, indicate that not only was this area in Sweden settled at that time, it was also able to support a large community", says Adam Boethius, whose findings are now being published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The discovery is also an indication that Nordic societies were far more developed 9,200 years ago than what was previously believed. The findings are important as it is usually argued that people in the north lived relatively mobile lives, while people in the Levant -- a large area in the Middle East -- became settled and began to farm and raise cattle much earlier.

"These findings indicate a different time line, with Nordic foragers settling much earlier and starting to take advantage of the lakes and sea to harvest and process fish. From a global perspective, the development in the Nordic region could correspond to that of the Middle East at the time," says Adam Boethius.

"The discovery is quite unique as a find like this has never been made before. That is partly because fish bones are so fragile and disappear more easily than, for example, bones of land animals. In this case, the conditions were quite favourable, which helped preserve the remains", says Adam Boethius.

The fermentation process is also complex in itself. Because people did not have access to salt or the ability to make ceramic containers, they acidified the fish using, for example, pine bark and seal fat, and then wrapped the entire content in seal and wild boar skins and buried it in a pit covered with muddy soil. This type of fermentation requires a cold climate.

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Download article: Something Rotten in Scandinavia: The World's Earliest Evidence of Fermentation (2016). By Boethius, Adam, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0305440316000170

Thursday, February 4, 2016

DNA evidence uncovers major upheaval in Europe near end of last Ice Age


DNA evidence lifted from the ancient bones and teeth of people who lived in Europe from the Late Pleistocene to the early Holocene -- spanning almost 30,000 years of European prehistory -- has offered some surprises, according to researchers who report their findings in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on Feb. 4, 2016. Perhaps most notably, the evidence shows a major shift in the population around 14,500 years ago, during a period of severe climatic instability.

"We uncovered a completely unknown chapter of human history: a major population turnover in Europe at the end of the last Ice Age," says leading author Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany.

The researchers pieced this missing history together by reconstructing the mitochondrial genomes of 35 hunter-gatherer individuals who lived in Italy, Germany, Belgium, France, the Czech Republic, and Romania from 35,000 to 7,000 years ago. Mitochondria are organelles within cells that carry their own DNA and can be used to infer patterns of maternal ancestry.

"There has been a real lack of genetic data from this time period, so consequently we knew very little about the population structure or dynamics of the first modern humans in Europe," Krause says.

The new data show that the mitochondrial DNA of three individuals who lived in present-day Belgium and France before the coldest period in the last Ice Age -- the Last Glacial Maximum -- belonged to haplogroup M. This is remarkable because the M haplogroup is effectively absent in modern Europeans but is extremely common in modern Asian, Australasian, and Native American populations.

The absence of the M haplogroup and its presence in other parts of the world had previously led to the argument that non-African people dispersed on multiple occasions to spread across Eurasia and Australasia. The researchers say the discovery of this maternal lineage in Europe in the ancient past now suggests instead that all non-Africans dispersed rapidly from a single population, at a time they place around 50,000 years ago. Then, at some later stage, the M haplogroup was apparently lost from Europe.

"When the Last Glacial Maximum began around 25,000 years ago, hunter-gatherer populations retreated south to a number of putative refugia, and the consequent genetic bottleneck probably resulted in the loss of this haplogroup," explains first author of the study Cosimo Posth of Germany's University of Tübingen.

The researchers say their biggest surprise, however, was evidence of a major turnover of the population in Europe around 14,500 years ago, as the climate began to warm. "Our model suggests that during this period of climatic upheaval, the descendants of the hunter-gatherers who survived through the Last Glacial Maximum were largely replaced by a population from another source," says Adam Powell, another senior author at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

The researchers say the next step is to construct a more comprehensive picture of the past by analyzing the complete genomes of these ancient individuals along with additional specimens representing more times and places.


Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Humans evolved by sharing technology and culture


Our early ancestors, Homo sapiens, managed to evolve and journey across the earth by exchanging and improving their technology.

Blombos Cave in South Africa has given us vast knowledge about our early ancestors. In 2015, four open access articles, with research finds from Blombos as a starting point, have been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

"We are looking mainly at the part of South Africa where Blombos Cave is situated. We sought to find out how groups moved across the landscape and how they interacted," says Christopher S. Henshilwood, Professor at the University of Bergen (UiB) and University of the Witwatersrand and one of the authors of the articles.

The technology of our ancestors

Since its discovery in the early 1990s, Blombos Cave, about 300 kilometres east of Cape Town, South Africa, has yielded important new information on the behavioural evolution of the human species. The cave site was first excavated in 1991 and field work has been conducted there on a regular basis since 1997 - and is on-going. Blombos contains Middle Stone Age deposits currently dated at between 100,000 and 70,000 years, and a Later Stone Age sequence dated at between 2,000 and 300 years.

The researchers from UiB and Witswatersrand have now been looking closer at technology used by different groups in this and other regions in South Africa, such as spear points made of stone, as well as decorated ostrich eggshells, to determine whether there was an overlap and contact across groups of Middle Stone Age humans. How did they make contact with each other? How would contact across groups affect one group? How did the exchange of symbolic material culture affect the group or groups?

Adapting and evolving

"The pattern we are seeing is that when demographics change, people interact more. For example, we have found similar patterns engraved on ostrich eggshells in different sites. This shows that people were probably sharing symbolic material culture, at certain times but not at others" says Dr Karen van Niekerk, a UiB researcher and co-author.

This sharing of symbolic material culture and technology also tells us more about Homo sapiens' journey from Africa, to Arabia and Europe. Contact between cultures has been vital to the survival and development of our common ancestors Homo sapiens. The more contact the groups had, the stronger their technology and culture became.

"Contact across groups, and population dynamics, makes it possible to adopt and adapt new technologies and culture and is what describes Homo sapiens. What we are seeing is the same pattern that shaped the people in Europe who created cave art many years later," Henshilwood says.


Monday, February 1, 2016

English towns that welcomed medieval Jews more tolerant of modern-day immigration


Modern-day tolerance towards immigrants is significantly higher in English towns that welcomed medieval Jews, according to new research into persistent regional variations in attitudes to immigration.

A study by Professor David Fielding, an economist at New Zealand's University of Otago, shows that, on average, feelings towards 21st-century immigrants are significantly more positive among survey respondents in constituencies in England that were home to a Jewish immigrant community in the Middle Ages.

Towns with a substantial medieval Jewish population were identified by the presence of a chest, or archa, where by law all local contracts between Jews and Christians had to be deposited. By the mid-13th century, 30 English towns housed such chests.

The study, published in the British Journal of Political Science, additionally found that people surveyed in these constituencies also showed less support for the anti-immigration UKIP and BNP political parties.

The research involved modelling responses to survey questions from the British Election Studies of 2005 and 2010 while taking respondents' socioeconomic and constituency characteristics into account.

In the journal article, Professor Fielding writes that, "the results consistently point to a significant difference between English towns with a Jewish heritage and those without: in the twenty-first century, towns that welcomed medieval Jews show less anti-immigrant sentiment and less support for far-right parties."

"The results here also suggest the persistence of an underlying cultural trait, of which attitudes towards a specific ethnic minority are just one expression, since the Jewish community was expelled from England in 1290 and there was no substantial foreign immigration until four centuries later."

Professor Fielding says the findings imply that certain cities have an inherent ability to cope more easily with ethnic diversity.

"Policies that persuade such cities to take advantage of this ability by encouraging immigration or investment in activities that require more racial tolerance (such as international trade and tourism) could promote economic growth at the local and national levels."

Turtle soup, perchance? Prehistoric man had a penchant for tortoises



Grilled, boiled or salted? Turtles, or tortoises, are rarely consumed today, but a select few cultures, primarily those in East Asia, still consider turtle soup, made from the flesh of the turtle, a delicacy.

According to a new discovery at Qesem Cave near Tel Aviv, the site of many major findings from the late Lower Paleolithic period, they are not alone in their penchant for tortoise. Tel Aviv University researchers, in collaboration with scholars from Spain and Germany, have uncovered evidence of turtle specimens at the 400,000-year-old site, indicating that early man enjoyed eating turtles in addition to large game and vegetal material. The research provides direct evidence of the relatively broad diet of early Paleolithic people -- and of the "modern" tools and skills employed to prepare it.

"Culinary and cultural depth" to the Paleolithic diet


"Until now, it was believed that Paleolithic humans hunted and ate mostly large game and vegetal material," said Prof. Barkai. "Our discovery adds a really rich human dimension -- a culinary and therefore cultural depth to what we already know about these people."

The research team discovered tortoise specimens strewn all over the cave at different levels, indicating that they were consumed over the entire course of the early human 200,000-year inhabitation. Once exhumed, the bones revealed striking marks that reflected the methods the early humans used to process and eat the turtles.

"We know by the dental evidence we discovered earlier that the Qesem inhabitants ate vegetal food," said Prof. Barkai. "Now we can say they also ate tortoises, which were collected, butchered and roasted, even though they don't provide as many calories as fallow deer, for example."

According to the study, Qesem inhabitants hunted mainly medium and large game such as wild horses, fallow deer and cattle. This diet provided large quantities of fat and meat, which supplied the calories necessary for human survival. Until recently, it was believed that only the later Homo sapiens enjoyed a broad diet of vegetables and large and small animals. But evidence found at the cave of the exploitation of small animals over time, this discovery included, suggests otherwise.

Open questions remain

"In some cases in history, we know that slow-moving animals like tortoises were used as a 'preserved' or 'canned' food," said Dr. Blasco. "Maybe the inhabitants of Qesem were simply maximizing their local resources. In any case, this discovery adds an important new dimension to the knowhow, capabilities and perhaps taste preferences of these people."

According to Prof. Gopher, the new evidence also raises possibilities concerning the division of labor at Qesem Cave. "Which part of the group found and collected the tortoises?" Prof. Gopher said. "Maybe members who were not otherwise involved in hunting large game, who could manage the low effort required to collect these reptiles -- perhaps the elderly or children."

"According to the marks, most of the turtles were roasted in the shell," Prof. Barkai added. "In other cases, their shells were broken and then butchered using flint tools. The humans clearly used fire to roast the turtles. Of course they were focused on larger game, but they also used supplementary sources of food -- tortoises -- which were in the vicinity."

The researchers are now examining bird bones that were recently discovered at Qesem Cave.


Saturday, January 30, 2016

1,700-year-old funerary inscriptions exposed in Zippori




 Researcher Aharoni Amitai with the inscriptions uncovered in Zippori
Copyright: Miki Peleg, courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority



Three 1,700 year old funerary inscriptions written in Aramaic and Greek were recently revealed in Moshav Zippori in the north. This occurred in the wake of information received from residents of the moshav which resulted in uncovering the inscriptions in a joint effort carried out by researchers of the Kinneret Institute for Galilean Archaeology of the Kinneret Academic College and the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Aramaic was the everyday language used by the Jews in the period of the Mishnah and Talmud, but some of them also spoke and read Greek, and thus there are also funerary inscriptions in that language. The two Aramaic inscriptions mention individuals referred to as "rabbis" who were buried in the western cemetery of Zippori; their names have not yet been deciphered.

According to Dr. Motti Aviam of the Kinneret Institute for Galilean Archaeology, the importance of the epitaphs lies in the fact that these reflect the everyday life of the Jews of Zippori and their cultural world. Researchers are uncertain as to the meaning of the term "rabbi" at the time when Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi resided in Zippori together with the Tannaim and after him by the Amoraim - the large groups of sages that studied in the city’s houses of learning.

One of the surprises in the newly discovered inscriptions is that one of the deceased was called "the Tiberian". This is already the second instance of someone from Tiberias being buried in the cemetery at Zippori. It is quite possible that Jews from various parts of Galilee were brought to Zippori to be buried in the wake of the important activity carried out there by Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi. Another possibility is that the man moved to Zippori and died there, but wanted to be remembered as someone who originally came from Tiberias.

In the second Aramaic epitaph the word le-olam (forever) appears for the first time in inscriptions found at Zippori. The term le-olam is known from funerary inscriptions in Bet She‘arim and elsewhere and means that the deceased’s burial place will remain his forever and that no one will take it from him. Both inscriptions end with the Hebrew blessing shalom.  

The Greek inscription mentions the name Jose, which was very common amongst Jews living in Israel and abroad.



The Greek inscription at Zippori
Copyright: Miki Peleg, courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority


So far, 17 funerary inscriptions have been documented in the Zippori study, most of them written in Aramaic, which was the everyday language of Jews in Israel at that time. Contrasting this are the funerary inscriptions found in Tiberias - the second capital of the Galilee - which were mainly written in Greek. Several of the ancient inhabitants from Zippori are mentioned in these inscriptions, which include the names of rabbis and often have the names of the professions they were engaged in.

Zippori was the first capital of the Galilee from the time of the Hasmonean dynasty until the establishment of Tiberias in the first century CE. The city continued to be central and important later on and was where Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi resided and compiled the Mishnah. The Jewish life in the city was rich and diverse as indicated by the numerous ritual baths discovered in the excavation; while at the same time the influence of Roman culture was also quite evident as reflected in the design of the town with its paved streets, colonnaded main roads, theater and bathhouses. The wealth of inscriptions from the cemeteries attests to the strong Jewish presence and the city’s social elite in the Late Roman period.

The inscriptions will be studied by a team of researchers consisting of Dr. Motti Aviam, Aharoni Amitai and the historian Dr. Jacob Ashkenazi of the Kinneret Institute for Galilean Archaeology and Miki Peleg, the Lower Galilee District Archaeologist of the Israel Antiquities Authority. This joint effort is also likely to lead to new discoveries soon. Upon completion of their research the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Kinneret Academic College will present the inscriptions to the general public.