Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Multiple factors led to collapse and depopulation of ancient Maya


A new analysis of complex interactions between humans and the environment preceding the 9th century collapse and abandonment of the Central Maya Lowlands in the Yucat√°n Peninsula points to a series of events — some natural, like climate change; some human-made, including large-scale landscape alterations and shifts in trade routes — that have lessons for contemporary decision-makers and sustainability scientists.



Barbara Trapido-Lurie/Arizona State University

In their revised model of the collapse of the ancient Maya, social scientists B.L. "Billie" Turner and Jeremy "Jerry" A. Sabloff provide an up-to-date, human-environment systems theory in which they put together the degree of environmental and economic stress in the area that served as a trigger or tipping point for the Central Maya Lowlands.

The co-authors described the Classic Period of the Lowland Maya (CE 300-800) as a "highly complex civilization organized into networks of city-states," in their perspective article published Aug. 21 in the online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The ancient Maya in this hilly and riverless region confronted long-term climatic aridification, experienced decadal to century-level or longer droughts amplified by the landscape changes that they made, including large-scale deforestation indicated in the paleoecological record.

Previous to the collapse, the Maya occupied the area for more than 2,000 years, noted the authors, "a time in which they developed a sophisticated understanding of their environment, built and sustained intensive production [and water] systems, and withstood at least two long-term episodes of aridity."

CML Diagram of Human-Environment Dynamics



Barbara Trapido-Lurie/Arizona State University

They document the human-environment interactions that were severely stressed during the 9th century arid phase. "This environmental stress was complemented by a shift in commercial trade from across the peninsula to around it, which reduced the economy of the ruling elite to keep up the livelihood infrastructure to prevent the tipping point," said Turner, a Distinguished Sustainability Scientist with the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University.

"The decision was made to vacate the central lowlands rather than maintain the investment. This theory is not only consistent with the data on collapse but on the failure of the central lowlands to be reoccupied subsequently," said Turner.

"It acknowledges the role of climate change and anthropogenic environmental change, while also recognizing the role of commerce and choice," he said.

Co-author Sabloff noted that rather than a monolithic period of collapse, there were many variable patterns, which is consistent with the thesis Turner and he advance.

"The only way to explain the variability is to take a complex systems view," said Sabloff, president of the Santa Fe Institute.

"The Maya case lends insights for the use of paleo- and historical analogs to inform contemporary global environment change and sustainability," wrote the authors. "Balance between the extremes of generalization and context is required.

"Climate change, specifically aridity, was an important exogenous forcing on human-environment conditions throughout the Maya Lowlands," they concluded. "Complex system interactions generated the collapse and depopulation of the (Central Maya Lowlands) and fostered its long-term abandonment. This lesson — increasingly voiced in the literature — should be heeded in the use of analogs for sustainability science."

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Remains of Jews Massacred on Temple Mount Found?


The remains of thousands of Jews massacred by the Romans on the Temple Mount during the destruction of the Second Temple may have been uncovered, according to veteran archaeological journalist Benny Liss.

According to daily newspaper Israel HaYom, Liss screened a video clearly showing thousands of human skeletons in what appears to be a mass grave.

Liss "told the amazed audience that the film had been shot in a spacious, underground cavern in the area of the Mercy Gate [Sha'ar Harachamim in Hebrew, a sealed gate in the wall of the Old City, opposite the Mount of Olives, ed.], near the eastern wall of the Temple Mount, but just outside it," the newspaper reported. Liss raised the possibility that the skeletons were the remains of 6,000 Jews, mostly women and children, killed on the Temple Mount when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple.

The massacre is described in the writings of Josephus Flavius, who defected from the Jewish to the Roman side and witnessed the destruction...

Complete article.

Ancient Seal May Add Substance to the Legend of Samson



TAU researchers uncover a 12th century BCE seal depicting a man and lion in battle in Tel Beth Shemesh



The "Samson seal" found at Beth Shemesh._Photo: Raz Lederman, courtesy of Tel Beth Shemesh Excavations.

Tel Aviv University researchers recently uncovered a seal, measuring 15 millimetres (about a half-inch) in diameter, which depicts a human figure next to a lion at the archaeological site of Beth Shemesh, located between the Biblical cities of Zorah and Eshtaol, where Samson was born, flourished, and finally buried, according to the book of Judges. The scene engraved on the seal, the time period, and the location of the discovery all point to a probable reference to the story of Samson, the legendary heroic figure whose adventures famously included a victory in hand-to-paw combat with a lion.

While the seal does not reveal when the stories about Samson were originally written, or clarify whether Samson was a historical or legendary figure, the finding does help to "anchor the story in an archaeological setting," says Prof. Shlomo Bunimovitz of TAU's Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations. Prof. Bunimovitz co-directs the Beth Shemesh dig along with Dr. Zvi Lederman.

"If we are right and what we see on the seal is a representation of a man meeting a lion, it shows that the Samson legend already existed around the area of Beth Shemesh during that time period. We can date it quite precisely," Prof. Bunimovitz adds.

The right place, the right time

The seal was discovered with other finds on the floor of an excavated house, dated by the archaeologists to the 12th century BCE.

Geographically, politically, and culturally, the legends surrounding Samson are set in this time period, also known as the period of the Judges, prior to the establishment of kingship in ancient Israel. The area of Beth Shemesh was a cultural meeting point where Philistines, Canaanites, and Israelites lived in close proximity, maintaining separate identities and cultures. Samson's stories skip across these cultural borders, Dr. Lederman says. Although he was from the Israelite tribe of Dan, Samson is frequently depicted stepping out into the world of the Philistines — even searching for a Philistine wife, much to the chagrin of his parents.

Although Samson did have some positive interactions with the Philistines — his infamous lion brawl took place on the way to his bachelor party with a group of Philistine men prior to his marriage to his first Philistine wife in Timnah — he is also reputed to have fought against the Philistines. In one tale, this ancient superman is said to have killed 1,000 Philistines with a single donkey's jaw bone.

"Samson has a very legendary aura," explains Dr. Lederman, calling the Samson stories "border sagas." On one hand, Samsom could cross the border and interact with the Philistines, but on the other, he met with danger and various challenges when he did stray out of his home territory. "When you cross the border, you have to fight the enemy and you encounter dangerous animals," Dr. Lederman says. "You meet bad things. These are stories of contact and conflict, of a border that is more cultural than political."

Cultural connections and conflicts

The Philistines were immigrants, one of a number of so-called "sea peoples," originating from the Aegean region. They settled along the southern coastal plain and the lowlands of present-day Israel, including Ashdod, Ashkelon Gaza, Gath, and Ekron. Here they created their own cultural and political enclave and were always seeking to expand their own territory. "The flourishing Canaanite village of Beth Shemesh, despite frequent destruction caused by their aggressive neighbors, was not abandoned or won by the Philistines and retained its original culture and identity", Dr. Lederman adds.

The border disputes and the Canaanite resistance to growing Philistine pressure and cultural influence created some identity changes, Prof. Bunimovitz believes. This period of contact and strife may have been the "meat" of the Samson legend incorporated in the Book of Judges, the seventh book of the Hebrew Bible that tells the stories of figures who champion the Israelite cause and fight against oppression through this historical period.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Researchers find evidence of ritual use of 'black drink' at Cahokia


People living 700 to 900 years ago in Cahokia, a massive settlement near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, ritually used a caffeinated brew made from the leaves of a holly tree that grew hundreds of miles away, researchers report.

The discovery – made by analyzing plant residues in pottery beakers from Cahokia and its surroundings – is the earliest known use of this "black drink" in North America. It pushes back the date by at least 500 years, and adds to the evidence that a broad cultural and trade network thrived in the Midwest and southeastern U.S. as early as A.D. 1050.

The new findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, highlight the cultural importance of Greater Cahokia, a city with as many as 50,000 residents in its heyday, the largest prehistoric North American settlement north of Mexico.

"This finding brings to us a whole wide spectrum of religious and symbolic behavior at Cahokia that we could only speculate about in the past," said Thomas Emerson, the director of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey and a collaborator on the study with researchers at the University of Illinois, the University of New Mexico, Millsaps College in Mississippi and Hershey Technical Center in Pennsylvania. The Archaeological Survey is part of the Prairie Research Institute at the U. of I.

University of New Mexico anthropology professor Patricia Crown and Hershey Technical Center chemist Jeffrey Hurst conducted the chemical analyses of plant residues on the Cahokian beakers, a project inspired in part by a similar analysis they led that found that people living in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, in A.D. 1100-1125 consumed liquid chocolate in special ceramic vessels found there.

Despite decades of research, archaeologists are at a loss to explain the sudden emergence of Greater Cahokia (which included settlements in present-day St. Louis, East St. Louis and the surrounding five counties) at about A.D. 1100 – and its rapid decline some 200 years later. A collection of ceremonial mounds, some of them immense, quickly rose from the floodplain more or less simultaneously on both sides of the Mississippi. The Cahokian mound builders spawned other short-lived settlements as far away as Wisconsin, Emerson said.

Greater Cahokia appears to have been a crossroads of people and cultural influences. The presence of the black drink there – made from a plant that grows hundreds of miles away, primarily on the Gulf coast – is evidence of a substantial trade network with the southeast.

"I would argue that it was the first pan-Indian city in North America, because there are both widespread contacts and emigrants," Emerson said. "The evidence from artifacts indicates that people from a broad region (what is now the Midwest and southeast U.S.) were in contact with Cahokia. This is a level of population density, a level of political organization that has not been seen before in North America."

How this early experiment in urban living held together for as long as it did has remained a mystery.

"People have said, well, how would you integrate this?" Emerson said. "One of the obvious ways is through religion."

Europeans were the first to record the use of what they called "the black drink" by Native American men in the southeast. This drink, a dark tea made from the roasted leaves of the Yaupon holly (ilex vomitoria) contains caffeine.

Different groups used the black drink for different purposes, but for many it was a key component of a purification ritual before battle or other important events. Its high caffeine content – as much as six times that of strong coffee, by some estimates – induced sweating. Rapid consumption of large quantities of the hot drink allowed men to vomit, an important part of the purification ritual.

At the same time the black drink was in use at Cahokia, a series of sophisticated figurines representing agricultural fertility, the underworld and life-renewal were carved from local pipestone. Most of these figures were associated with temple sites.

"We postulate that this new pattern of agricultural religious symbolism is tied to the rise of Cahokia – and now we have black drink to wash it down with," Emerson said.

The beakers, too, appear to be a Cahokia invention. They look like single-serving, cylindrical pots with a handle on one side and a tiny lip on the other. Many are carved with symbols representing water and the underworld and are reminiscent of the whelk shells used in black drink ceremonies (recorded hundreds of years later) in the southeast, where the Yaupon holly grows.

The researchers chose to look for evidence of black drink in the beakers because the pots were distinctive and fairly rare, Emerson said. The team found key biochemical markers of the drink – theobromine, caffeine and ursolic acid – in the right proportions to each other in each of the eight beakers they tested. The beakers date from A.D. 1050 to 1250 and were collected at ritual sites in and around Cahokia.

Cahokia was ultimately a failed experiment. The carving of figurines and the mound building there came to an abrupt end, and the population dwindled to zero. But its influence carried on. Cahokian influences in art, religion and architecture are seen as far away as Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Wisconsin, Emerson said.

A genetic map of the Jewish Diasporas


A new genetic analysis focusing on Jews from North Africa has provided an overall genetic map of the Jewish Diasporas. The findings support the historical record of Middle Eastern Jews settling in North Africa during Classical Antiquity, proselytizing and marrying local populations, and, in the process, forming distinct populations that stayed largely intact for more than 2,000 years. The study, led by researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, was published online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Our new findings define North African Jews, complete the overall population structure for the various groups of the Jewish Diaspora, and enhance the case for a biological basis for Jewishness," said study leader Harry Ostrer, M.D. , professor of pathology, of genetics and of pediatrics at Einstein and director of genetic and genomic testing for the division of clinical pathology at Montefiore Medical Center. Dr. Ostrer noted that obtaining a comprehensive genetic fingerprint of various Jewish subpopulations can help reveal genetic links to heart disease, cancer, diabetes and other common diseases.

In a previous genetic analysis, the researchers showed that modern-day Sephardic (Greek and Turkish), Ashkenazi (Eastern European) and Mizrahi (Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian) Jews that originated in Europe and the Middle East are more related to each other than to their contemporary non-Jewish neighbors, with each group forming its own cluster within the larger Jewish population. Further, each group demonstrated Middle-Eastern ancestry and varying degrees of mixing with surrounding populations. Two of the major Jewish populations—Middle Eastern and European Jews—were found to have diverged from each other approximately 2,500 years ago.

The current study extends that analysis to North African Jews—the second largest Jewish Diaspora group. Their relatedness to each other, to other Jewish Diaspora groups, and to their non-Jewish North African neighbors had not been well defined. The study also included members of Jewish communities in Ethiopia, Yemen and Georgia. In all, the researchers analyzed the genetic make-up of 509 Jews from 15 populations along with genetic data on 114 individuals from seven North African non-Jewish populations.

North African Jews exhibited a high degree of endogamy, or marriage within their own religious and cultural group in accordance with custom. Two major subgroups within this overall population were identified: Moroccan/Algerian Jews and Djerban (Tunisian)/Libyan Jews. The two subgroups varied in their degree of European mixture, with Moroccan/Algerian Jews tending to be more related to Europeans—most likely stemming from the expulsion of Sephardic Jews from Spain during the Inquisition, starting in 1492. Ethiopian and Yemenite Jewish populations also formed distinctive genetically linked clusters, as did Georgian Jews .