Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Genetics preserves traces of ancient resistance to Inca rule

IMAGE: The fortress of Kuelap, popularly known as 'the Machu Picchu of the north,' dominates the landscape at an elevation of 3,000 meters. view more 
Credit: Chiara Barbieri
The Chachapoyas region was conquered by the Inca Empire in the late 15th century. Knowledge of the fate of the local population has been based largely on Inca oral histories, written down only decades later after the Spanish conquest. The Inca accounts claim that the native population was forcibly resettled out of Chachapoyas and dispersed across the Inca Empire.

However, a new study in Scientific Reports, by an international team including researchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, uses genetic evidence to reveal that despite Inca conquest, the population of Chachapoyas has remained genetically distinct, and not assimilated with that of the Inca heartland.

Despite their spectacular achievements, from the first cities of the Americas to the Inca Empire, the indigenous peoples of the Andes left no written histories. One legacy that can now be read, however, is the genetic diversity of their descendants today, especially when taken together with the rich archaeology of the Andes and the prehistory of its native languages. This is the approach taken in a new study in Scientific Reports to test the demographic legacy of the Incas.

The study emerges out of a collaboration between research institutes in Peru and in Germany, including the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. The focus is on a key region in the cloud-forest transition between the Andes and Amazonia in northern Peru. Here the Incas encountered fierce resistance from the "Warriors of the Clouds," the Chachapoyas culture, noted particularly for its distinctive body-shaped sarcophagi and the monumental fortress of Kuelap, the "Machu Picchu of the north."

Particularly to punish and to secure control over such rebellious lands, the Incas are thought to have resettled millions of people across the "Four Quarters" of their empire, Tawantinsuyu.

Chachapoyas was reportedly singled out for such treatment, making it an ideal case for using genetics to test the accuracy of Inca oral histories, which were not written down until almost a century later, by the Spanish conquistadors.

"By targeting various linguistic indicators, we were able to pinpoint a genetic signal in Chachapoyas that turned out to be far more diverse than we expected, especially in the male line, from father to son," explains Chiara Barbieri, a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, and lead author of the study. "First of all, there's still a strong surviving Native American component, despite all the admixture with European genes ever since the Spanish conquest. What's more, here the native component is quite different from the main genetic network in the highlands of central and southern Peru. This is where the Inca Empire and its predecessors originated, and their conquests, road networks and empire-building ended up homogenizing the genetic make-up here."

The current study reveals how the people of Chachapoyas, by contrast, remained relatively isolated. "So it seems that some genetic legacy of the Chachapoyas did indeed resist Inca impacts, all the way through to today," explains Barbieri.

Two Peruvian geneticists, José Sandoval and Ricardo Fujita of the Universidad San Martin de Porres in Lima, Peru, also took part in the study. "These latest samples are part of a wider genetic coverage of Peru that we've been building up for years. It's these groups like the Chachapoya, culturally and linguistically highly distinctive, who have the most to tell us about our ancestors: where they came from, where they migrated to, what interactions they had with each other, and so on. Also, the Chachapoyas culture left such extensive archaeological remains that there are good prospects for recovering ancient DNA, to complement the modern picture."

Paul Heggarty, a linguist and senior author of the study, also of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, was first motivated to launch this project after unexpected results from a linguistic fieldwork trip to Chachapoyas. He was able to find a few remaining elderly speakers of an indigenous language that most assumed was already extinct in this region. "Quechua is one of our most direct living links to the people of the New World before Columbus. It still has millions of speakers, more than any other language family of the Americas - but not in Chachapoyas anymore. There are only a dozen or so fluent speakers now, in a few remote villages, so we need to act fast if we're to work out its real origins here."

The Chachapoyas form of Quechua has usually been classified as most closely related to the Quechua spoken in Ecuador, but the new DNA results show no close connections between the Quechua-speakers in these two areas. "Linguists need to rethink their traditional view of the family tree of Quechua languages, and the history of how they spread through the Andes," notes Heggarty. "It seems that Quechua reached Chachapoyas without any big movement of people. This also doesn't fit with the idea that the Incas forced out the Chachapoyas population wholesale."

Jairo Valqui, another linguist co-author from the National University of San Marcos in Lima, adds a further perspective on an even earlier language layer. "Once Quechua and Spanish arrived, the local Chachapoyas languages died out. Recovering anything from them is a real puzzle and a challenge for linguists. They left very few traces, but there are some characteristic combinations of sounds, for example, that still survive in people's surnames and in local placenames, like Kuelap itself."

Valqui, himself a Chachapoyano, also makes a point of taking these genetic results back to the local population. "For Peruvian society today, this matters. There's long been an appreciation of the Incas, but often at the cost of sidelining everything else in the archaeological record across Peru, and the diversity in our linguistic and genetic heritage too. As these latest findings remind us: Peru is not just Machu Picchu, and its indigenous people were not just the Incas."

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Revising the story of the dispersal of modern humans across Eurasia

IMAGE: Map of sites and postulated migratory pathways associated with modern humans dispersing across Asia during the Late Pleistocene. view more 
Credit: Bae et al. 2017. On the origin of modern humans: Asian perspectives. Science. Image by: Katerina Douka and Michelle O'Reilly
Most people are now familiar with the traditional "Out of Africa" model: modern humans evolved in Africa and then dispersed across Asia and reached Australia in a single wave about 60,000 years ago. However, technological advances in DNA analysis and other fossil identification techniques, as well as an emphasis on multidisciplinary research, are revising this story. Recent discoveries show that humans left Africa multiple times prior to 60,000 years ago, and that they interbred with other hominins in many locations across Eurasia.

A review of recent research on dispersals by early modern humans from Africa to Asia by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the University of Hawai'i at Manoa confirms that the traditional view of a single dispersal of anatomically modern humans out of Africa around 60,000 years ago can no longer be seen as the full story. The analysis, published in the journal Science, reviews the plethora of new discoveries being reported from Asia over the past decade, which were made possible by technological advances and interdisciplinary collaborations, and shows that Homo sapiens reached distant parts of the Asian continent, as well as Near Oceania, much earlier than previously thought. Additionally, evidence that modern humans interbred with other hominins already present in Asia, such as Neanderthals and Denisovans, complicates the evolutionary history of our species.

New model: Multiple dispersals of modern humans out of Africa, beginning as early as 120,000 years ago

The authors brought together findings from multiple recent studies to refine the picture of human dispersals out of Africa and into Asia. While scientists once thought that humans first left Africa in a single wave of migration about 60,000 years ago, recent studies have identified modern human fossils in far reaches of Asia that are potentially much older. For example, H. sapiens remains have been found at multiple sites in southern and central China that have been dated to between 70,000 and 120,000 years ago. Additional finds indicate that modern humans reached Southeast Asia and Australia prior to 60,000 years ago.

However, other recent studies do confirm that all present-day non-African populations branched off from a single ancestral population in Africa approximately 60,000 years ago. This could indicate that there were multiple, smaller dispersals of humans out of Africa beginning as early as 120,000 years ago, followed by a major dispersal 60,000 years ago. While the recent dispersal contributed the bulk of the genetic make-up of present-day non-Africans, the earlier dispersals are still evident.

"The initial dispersals out of Africa prior to 60,000 years ago were likely by small groups of foragers, and at least some of these early dispersals left low-level genetic traces in modern human populations. A later, major 'Out of Africa' event most likely occurred around 60,000 years ago or thereafter," explains Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

Multiple interbreeding events

Recent genetic research has resolved the question of whether or not modern humans interbred with other ancient hominins - they definitely did. Modern humans interbred not only with Neanderthals, but also with our recently-discovered relatives the Denisovans, as well as a currently unidentified population of pre-modern hominins. One estimate is that all present-day non-Africans have 1-4% Neanderthal heritage, while another group has estimated that modern Melanesians have an average of 5% Denisovan heritage. In all, it is now clear that modern humans, Neanderthals, Denisovans and perhaps other hominin groups likely overlapped in time and space in Asia, and they certainly had many instances of interaction.

The increasing evidence of interactions suggests that the spread of material culture is also more complicated than previously thought. "Indeed, what we are seeing in the behavioral record is that the spread of so-called modern human behaviors did not occur in a simple time-transgressive process from west to east. Rather, ecological variation needs to be considered in concert with behavioral variation between the different hominin populations present in Asia during the Late Pleistocene," explains Christopher Bae of the University of Hawai'i at Manoa.

In light of these new discoveries, our understanding of human movements across the Old World has become much more complex, and there are still many questions left open. The authors argue for the development of more complicated models of human dispersals and for conducting new research in the many areas of Asia where none has been done to date. Additionally, it will be important to review materials collected prior to the development of modern analytic methods, to see what more can now be learned from them. "Fortunately," states Katerina Douka, also of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, "there have been an increasing number of multidisciplinary research programs launched in Asia over the past few decades. The information that is being reported is helping to fill in the gaps in the evolutionary records."

"It is an exciting time to be involved with interdisciplinary research projects across Asia," adds Bae.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Storytellers promoted cooperation among hunter-gatherers before advent of religion

Storytelling promoted co-operation in hunter-gatherers prior to the advent of organised religion, a new UCL study reveals.

The research shows that hunter-gatherer storytellers were essential in promoting co-operative and egalitarian values before comparable mechanisms evolved in larger agricultural societies, such as moralising high-gods.

Storytellers were also more popular than even the best foragers, had greater reproductive success, and were more likely to be co-operated with by other members of the camp, according to the research published today in Nature Communications.

The researchers, led by Daniel Smith, Andrea Migliano and Lucio Vinicius from UCL's Department of Anthropology and funded by the Leverhulme Trust, based their findings on their study of the Agta, an extant hunter-gatherer group descended from the first colonisers of the Philippines more than 35,000 years ago.

They asked three elders to tell them stories they normally told their children and each other, resulting in four stories narrated over three nights. They found the stories about humanised natural entities such as animals or celestial bodies promoted social and co-operative norms to co-ordinate group behaviour.

One, about the male sun falling out with the female moon before settling their differences over who should illuminate the sky by agreeing to share the duty, one during the day and the other during the night. The story promotes sex equality and co-operation between the sexes, which is common among forager societies.

The UCL study showed that 70% of a sample of 89 stories from seven different hunter-gatherer societies concerned reinforcing and regulating social behaviour.

"These stories appear to co-ordinate group behaviour and facilitate co-operation by providing individuals with social information about the norms, rules and expectations in a given society", according to Daniel Smith.

Consistent with this interpretation, Agta camps with a greater proportion of skilled story-tellers possessed increased levels of co-operation.

Almost 300 members from 18 Agta camps were also asked to choose who they would most like to live with, with skilled storytellers nearly twice as likely to be nominated as less skilled individuals.
Potentially because they receive increased social support in return for telling stories, the study found that skilled storytellers had on average 0.53 more children than those who were not skilled, demonstrating the reproductive benefits of being a good storyteller.

The authors state that storytelling may have been pivotal in organising human social behaviour by promoting co-operation, spreading co-operative norms and representing punishment of norm-breakers.

"Hunter-gatherer religions do not have moralising gods and yet they are highly cooperative towards the whole community. Thus, storytelling in hunter-gatherers was a precursor to more elaborate forms of narrative fiction such as moralising high-gods, common in post-agricultural populations", said Andrea Migliano, the last author of the paper.

Archaeologists revise chronology of the last hunter-gatherers in the Near East

New research by a team of scientists and archaeologists based at the Weizmann Institute of Science and the University of Copenhagen suggests that the 15,000-year-old 'Natufian Culture' could live comfortably in the steppe zone of present-day eastern Jordan - this was previously thought to be either uninhabitable or only sparsely populated.

The hunter-gatherers of the Natufian Culture, which existed in modern-day Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria between c. 14,500 - 11,500 years ago, were some of the first people to build permanent houses and tend to edible plants. These innovations were probably crucial for the subsequent emergence of agriculture during the Neolithic era.

Previous research had suggested that the centre of this culture was the Mount Carmel and Galilee region, and that it spread from here to other parts of the region. The new study by the Copenhagen-Weizmann team, published in Scientific Reports, challenges this 'core region' theory.

The new paper is based on evidence from a Natufian site located in Jordan, c. 150 km northeast of Amman. The site, called Shubayqa 1, was excavated by a University of Copenhagen team led by Dr. Tobias Richter from 2012-2015.

The excavations uncovered a well-preserved Natufian site, which produced a large assemblage of charred plant remains. These kinds of botanical remains are rare at many other Natufian sites in the region, and enabled the Weizmann-Copenhagen team to obtain the largest number of dates for any Natufian site yet in Israel or Jordan.

"We dated more than twenty samples from different layers of the site, making it one of the best and most accurately dated Natufian sites anywhere. The dates show, among other things, that the site was first settled not long after the earliest dates obtained for northern Israel, ca. 14,600 years ago. This suggests that the Natufian either expanded very rapidly, which we think is unlikely, or that it emerged more or less simultaneously in different parts of the region," Dr. Richter reports, adding:

"The early date of Shubayqa 1 also shows that Natufian hunter-gatherers were more versatile than previously thought. Past research had linked the emergence of the Natufian to the rich habitat of the Mediterranean woodland zone. But the early dates from Shubayqa show that these late Pleistocene hunter-gatherers were also able to live quite comfortably in more open parkland steppe zones further east. Some of their subsistence appears to have relied heavily on the exploitation of club rush tubers, as well as other wild plants. They also hunted birds, gazelle and other animals," says Tobias Richter.

Precise dating methodology
The dating was undertaken by Professor Elisabetta Boaretto at the Weizmann Institute of Science using Accelerator Mass Spectrometry, or AMS, dating. Boaretto is head of the D-REAMS lab in the Weizmann Institute - one of the few labs in the world that works with the technology and methods to analyze even the smallest organic remains from a site and precisely date them.

Using a specially designed mass spectrometer, Boaretto is able to reveal the amount of carbon-14 in a sample down to the single atom. Based on the half-life of the radioactive carbon-14 atoms, the dating done in her lab is accurate to around 50 years, plus or minus. For the analysis of the specimen from Shubayqa, the team was able to select only short-lived plant species or short-lived plant parts, such as seeds or twigs, to obtain the dates. This ensured the highest possible accuracy for the dates.

Boaretto says that the "core area" theory may have come about, in part, because the Mt. Carmel sites have been the best preserved and studied, until now. In addition to calling into question the idea of the Natufian beginning in one settlement and spreading outwards, the study suggests that the hunter-gatherers who lived 12,000 to 15,000 years ago were ingenious and resourceful. They learned to make use of numerous plants and animals where ever they were, and to tend them in a way that led to early settlement.

The authors say that this supports a view in which there were many pathways to agriculture and "the 'Neolithic way of life' was a highly variable and complex process that cannot be explained on the basis of single-cause models."

Monday, December 4, 2017

Bronze Age artifacts used meteoric iron

You may already be surprised to hear there are iron objects dating back to the Bronze Age, but their meteorite origin is even more astonishing. Though meteorites had already been recognized as one source of this metal, the scientific community couldn't determine whether they accounted for most or simply a few Bronze Age iron artifacts. Albert Jambon, as part of his work at the Institut de minéralogie, de physique des matériaux et de cosmochimie (CNRS / UPMC / IRD / Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle),[1] has demonstrated that iron used during the Bronze Age is always meteoric and he explained how this practice was abandoned during the Iron Age. His work is published in the December 2017 issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The Iron Age began in Anatolia and the Caucasus around 1200 BCE. But nearly 2,000 years earlier, various cultures were already fashioning objects out of iron. These items were extremely rare and always greatly treasured. Iron ore abounds on the Earth's surface. So what made these artifacts so valuable? Initial research had shown that some were made with iron from meteorites, which led scientists to wonder how many others were. Albert Jambon gathered the available data and conducted his own nondestructive chemical analyses of samples using a portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometer.

His collection of iron artifacts includes beads from Gerzeh (Egypt, ?3200 BCE); a dagger from Alaca Höyük (Turkey, ?2500 BCE); a pendant from Umm el-Marra (Syria, ?2300 BCE); an axe from Ugarit (Syria, ?1400 BCE) and several others from the Shang dynasty civilization (China, ?1400 BCE); and the dagger, bracelet, and headrest of Tutankhamen (Egypt, ?1350 BCE).

His analyses revealed that each of these Bronze Age artifacts was made with meteoric iron. When large celestial bodies like our planet are forming, nearly all nickel drifts towards the molten iron core. Thus, it is extremely rare to find nickel on the surface. However, some meteorites are created when celestial bodies are shattered. If these meteorites are composed of core material, they mostly contain iron with high levels of nickel and cobalt. This characteristic makes it possible to identify the source of iron.

Meteoric iron is also already in a metal state, ready for use, which explains why it went into all Bronze Age iron artifacts. In contrast, the iron compounds in terrestrial ores must first undergo the process of reduction, which removes bound oxygen to yield the desired metal. This is the basis of smelting in furnaces, a breakthrough that marked the beginning of the Iron Age. With smelting, Iron Age cultures could forget rare extraterrestrial metal and tap into terrestrial iron ores, which were far more abundant and easier to procure. Albert Jambon's findings refute certain theories proposing that nickel-laden iron alloys were obtained from terrestrial ores.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Adornments told about the culture of prehistoric people

IMAGE: This is bone jewelry found at Sungir in the burial of children (1-3) and in the cultural layer (4). view more 
Credit: Vladislav Zhitenev
Vladislav Zhitenev, a Russian archaeologist from MSU, studied bone jewelry found at Sungir Upper Paleolithic site. A group led by Vladislav Zhitenev found out that many items were crafted specifically for burial purposes, while others were worn on a daily basis. The style of the jewelry was influenced by many cultures of Europe and the Russian Plain. The article was published in EPAUL 147.

Sungir Upper Paleolithic site is located in Vladimir Region and is dated back to 29,000-31,000 years. Scientist began to study his place over thirty years ago. The encampment of prehistoric hunters includes a burial site of a 40-50 year old man and a grave of two children who died 10-14 years of age. Archaeological excavation revealed over 80 thousand different objects
"This children's grave contains more adornments and other burial items than any other Upper Paleolithic burial site in Eurasia," - says Vladislav Zhitenev, the author of the study, doctor of historical sciences, and assistant professor of the Archaeology Department of the Faculty of History, MSU. Currently all findings are kept in the State Vladimir-Suzdal Museum Reserve.

Having studied pendants made from the teeth of Arctic fox, bone beads, and other personal ornaments, scientists found out that these items were worn for a long time as they exhibited rubbing marks and other signs of tear. Other ornaments found at the burials were made in a hurry and don't look so smooth and convenient. Evidently, they were crafted specifically for the burial ceremony. These items include a large horse figurine with a disproportionately short back led. Although the surface of the figurine had been polished, it has a lot of manufacturing and processing marks.

It is still unknown why the grave of children appeared to contain so many objects including worn ones. According to one version, people used the child burial to make a sacrifice to save the community from an adversity of some kind, such as illness or hunger. Burial items were made not only by experienced craftsmen, but by children as well. One of the tusk disks found in the children's grave was made carelessly and unskillfully. It is likely it was crafted by a kid.

Adornments are elements of a non-verbal language used by prehistoric people to tell friends from enemies and to learn about one's social status and standing. By studying personal ornaments scientists learn more about different aspects of intercultural communication in the Upper Paleolithic period.

Vladislav Zhitenev found out that the man and the children lived relatively at the same time separated by several generations at most. This is confirmed by the identical style of peronal ornaments found in their graves. The children were buried at the same time, but the time period between their death and the passing of the man is still unknown. Radiocarbon dating method failed to provide an answer as it is not accurate to the year when applied to such prehistoric specimens. But when radiocarbon dating gives only approximate results, archaeologists turn to implicit data.

"When looking at an item, one can always see a master's hand. Many adornments from the burial sites of the man and the children were crafted in the same way, as if by the same person. Alternatively, this technique could have been passed within the family, say, from father to son or from grandmother to granddaughter," - explains Vladislav Zhitenev. Therefore, the man and the children were separated in time by no more than several dozen years.

Sungir adornments are difficult to classify and include into a certain cultural tradition, as they had been influenced by many cultures. On the one hand, they have a lot in common with the Aurignacian culture that was widely spread in Western and Central Europe in the Early Upper Paleolithic Stone Age. On the other hand, Sungir findings resemble those from some early sites in Kostenki. Finally, all these items are combined with stone objects crafted using a Neanderthal technology, although the remains found in Sungir belonged to Homo sapiens.

Having studied Sungir adornments, scientists found out that a part of them was crafted specifically for the burial ceremony, and another one was worn on a daily basis; the man and the children lived roughly at the same time; and the crafting style was influenced by many cultures including the Aurignacian culture and the culture of the Russian Plain.

In his further studies Vladislav Zhitenev plans to focus on intercultural communication, for example, to find difference between the sites with and without a Neanderthal component.

First original Greek copy of Jesus' secret revelations to his brother

IMAGE: A piece of the Coptic translation of the First Apocalypse of James from the Nag Hammadi Codex V. view more 
Credit: Image of artifact from the Nag Hammadi Library, Oxford University.

The first-known original Greek copy of a heretical Christian writing describing Jesus' secret teachings to his brother James has been discovered at Oxford University by biblical scholars at The University of Texas at Austin.

To date, only a small number of texts from the Nag Hammadi library -- a collection of 13 Coptic Gnostic books discovered in 1945 in Upper Egypt -- have been found in Greek, their original language of composition. But earlier this year, UT Austin religious studies scholars Geoffrey Smith and Brent Landau added to the list with their discovery of several fifth- or sixth-century Greek fragments of the First Apocalypse of James, which was thought to have been preserved only in its Coptic translations until now.

"To say that we were excited once we realized what we'd found is an understatement," said Smith, an assistant professor of religious studies. "We never suspected that Greek fragments of the First Apocalypse of James survived from antiquity. But there they were, right in front of us."

The ancient narrative describes the secret teachings of Jesus to his brother James, in which Jesus reveals information about the heavenly realm and future events, including James' inevitable death.

"The text supplements the biblical account of Jesus' life and ministry by allowing us access to conversations that purportedly took place between Jesus and his brother, James -- secret teachings that allowed James to be a good teacher after Jesus' death," Smith said.

Such apocryphal writings, Smith said, would have fallen outside the canonical boundaries set by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, in his "Easter letter of 367" that defined the 27-book New Testament: "No one may add to them, and nothing may be taken away from them."

With its neat, uniform handwriting and words separated into syllables, the original manuscript was probably a teacher's model used to help students learn to read and write, Smith and Landau said.

"The scribe has divided most of the text into syllables by using mid-dots. Such divisions are very uncommon in ancient manuscripts, but they do show up frequently in manuscripts that were used in educational contexts," said Landau, a lecturer in the UT Austin Department of Religious Studies.
The teacher who produced this manuscript must have "had a particular affinity for the text," Landau said. It does not appear to be a brief excerpt from the text, as was common in school exercises, but rather a complete copy of this forbidden ancient writing.

Smith and Landau announced the discovery at the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting in Boston in November and are working to publish their preliminary findings in the Greco Roman Memoirs series of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri.