Thursday, March 27, 2014

Ancient African cattle first domesticated in Middle East

Geneticists and anthropologists previously suspected that ancient Africans domesticated cattle native to the African continent nearly 10,000 years ago. Now, a team of University of Missouri researchers has completed the genetic history of 134 cattle breeds from around the world. In the process of completing this history, they found that ancient domesticated African cattle originated in the "Fertile Crescent," a region that covered modern day Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Israel.

In their study published in PLOS Genetics, Prof. Decker (University of Missouri) and a team of international researchers compared the similarities and differences among the genetics of many different cattle breeds to determine how the breeds are related. Their research found mixing of native cattle in Indonesia with imports from India, European and African cattle in Italy and Spain, and European and Asian cattle in Korea and Japan. The MU researchers also determined that unique American cattle breeds, such as Texas longhorns, are the result of breeding between Spanish cattle, transported from Europe by explorers in the 16th century, and breeds of Zebu, or Brahman cattle from India imported into the U.S. from Brazil in the late 1800s. Decker says these discoveries help advance genetics and uncover important information about human history.

Prof. Decker says the genetics of these African cattle breeds are similar to those of cattle first domesticated in the Middle East nearly 10,000 years ago, proving that those cattle were brought to Africa as farmers migrated south. Those cattle then interbred with wild cattle, or aurochs, which were native to the region, and changed their genetic makeup enough to confuse geneticists.

"In many ways, the history of cattle genetics mirrors human history," Decker said. "In the case of African cattle, anthropologists and geneticists used to suspect that domesticated African cattle were native to the continent, when in fact, they were brought by migrating peoples thousands of years ago. By better understanding the history of the animals we domesticate, we can better understand ourselves."

Decker also said that cattle breeding is important for animal farmers looking to maximize their herds' meat and dairy production. He says that understanding the genetic history of cattle breeds is important when looking for solutions to agricultural issues.

"Now that we have this more complete genetic history of cattle worldwide, we can better understand the diversity of the species," Decker said. "By understanding the variations present, we can improve cattle for agricultural purposes, whether that is through breeding more disease-resistant animals or finding ways to increase dairy or beef production."

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Grad student deciphers 1,800-year-old letter from Egyptian soldier

A newly deciphered 1,800-year-old letter from an Egyptian solider serving in a Roman legion in Europe to his family back home shows striking similarities to what some soldiers may be feeling here and now.

Rice Religious Studies graduate student Grant Adamson took up the task in 2011 when he was assigned the papyrus to work on during a summer institute hosted at Brigham Young University (BYU).

The private letter sent home by Roman military recruit Aurelius Polion was originally discovered in 1899 by the expedition team of Grenfell and Hunt in the ancient Egyptian city of Tebtunis. It had been catalogued and described briefly before, but to this point no one had deciphered and published the letter, which was written mostly in Greek.

Image courtesy of University of California, Berkley's Bancroft Library.

“This letter was just one of many documents that Grenfell and Hunt unearthed,” Adamson said. “And because it was in such bad shape, no one had worked much on it for about 100 years.” Even now portions of the letter’s contents are uncertain or missing and not possible to reconstruct.

Polion’s letter to his brother, sister and his mother, “the bread seller,” reads like one of a man who is very desperate to reach his family after sending six letters that have gone unanswered. He wrote in part:

“I pray that you are in good health night and day, and I always make obeisance before all the gods on your behalf. I do not cease writing to you, but you do not have me in mind. But I do my part writing to you always and do not cease bearing you (in mind) and having you in my heart. But you never wrote to me concerning your health, how you are doing. I am worried about you because although you received letters from me often, you never wrote back to me so that I may know how you.

“I sent six letters to you. The moment you have(?) me in mind, I shall obtain leave from the consular (commander), and I shall come to you so that you may know that I am your brother. For I demanded(?) nothing from you for the army, but I fault you because although I write to you, none of you(?) … has consideration. Look, your(?) neighbor … I am your brother.”

Adamson believes that Polion was stationed in the Roman province of Pannonia Inferior at Aquincum (modern day Budapest), but he said that the legion to which Polion belonged is known to have been mobile and may have traveled as far as Byzantium (modern day Istanbul).

“Polion was literate, and literacy was rarer then that it is now, but his handwriting, spelling and Greek grammar are erratic,” Adamson said, which made English translation of the damaged letter even more difficult. “He likely would have been multilingual, communicating in Egyptian or Greek at home in Egypt before he enlisted in the army and then communicating in Latin with the army in Pannonia.”

Adamson believes Polion wrote home in Greek because writing home in Egyptian was not really an option at the time, and because his family in Egypt most likely did not know much Latin.

To establish an approximate date for the letter, Adamson depended on handwriting styles and a few other more specific hints.

“Dating ancient papyri is generally hard to do very specifically unless there happens to be a date or known event mentioned in the text,” Adamson said. “But you can make a preliminary decision based on the handwriting.”

Another hint is the soldier’s Roman name Aurelius; he could have acquired it as part of a widespread granting of Roman citizenship in the year 212. And another hint is Polion’s reference to a “consular commander,” which suggests a date after 214 when the Roman province of Pannonia Inferior came under consular governance.

Because of the letter’s personal nature and common theme of familial concern, Adamson’s publication of it in the latest volume of the Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists has been receiving national and international media attention. News organizations from Finland to Spain and the U.S. have written about the letter this week.

“One thing that I think is important about this letter is that it reflects the emotions of a soldier in the ancient world,” said April DeConick, chair of Rice’s Religious Studies Department and Adamson’s faculty adviser. “His emotions are really no different than those of soldiers today, who are longing to go home.”

The papyrus, which was on loan to BYU in 2011, is housed at the University of California, Berkley’s Bancroft Library.

To read Polion’s complete letter as it survives and Adamson’s full paper, go to

Monday, March 17, 2014

The idea of the human soul in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt and Israel/Palestine

All cultures throughout time have tried to honor and commemorate those they have lost. A new exhibit at the Oriental Institute Museum will show how the living cared for the dead, and how the ancients conceptualized the idea of the human soul in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt and Israel/Palestine.

The exhibit, “In Remembrance of Me: Feasting with the Dead in the Ancient Middle East,” opens to the public April 8. The show is built around two themes: the regular offering of food and drink to nourish the dead in the afterlife, and the use of two- or three-dimensional effigies of the dead, often made of stone, to preserve their memory and provide a means of interaction between the living and the dead.

The Oriental Institute’s Neubauer Expedition to Zincirli, Turkey in 2008, during which an inscribed funerary monument was discovered, inspired the exhibit. The monument, which dates to about 735 B.C, is carved with an image of a man named Katumuwa seated before a table heaped with offerings and with a lengthy inscription in Aramaic—a language widely used in the ancient Middle East. The text proved to be the longest-known memorial inscription of its type.

Until the discovery of the stela, scholars did not know about the practice of enacting annual sacrifices for the soul of the deceased. The discovery also revealed that the people of Zincirli, located in the ancient Syro-Hittite region of southeastern Turkey, believed Katumuwa’s spirit resided in the monument.

“The text gave us a whole new understanding of the ancient belief system in eastern Turkey and northern Syria. Although Katumuwa knew that the realm of the dead could be a cruel and lonely place, the rituals he describes that his family would enact on his behalf would give him a happy afterlife,” said exhibit curator Virginia R. Herrmann, PhD’11. Herrmann, now a visiting professor at Dartmouth College, was part of the team that discovered the stela and co-curated “In Remembrance of Me.”

Before the discovery of the stela, it was not understood that, in eastern Turkey and northern Syria, such banquet scenes depicted on other monuments were special pleas to the viewer to make annual offerings of animal sacrifices and grapes or wine. Those offerings were directed not only to the deceased, but also to local gods. The biblical commandment to “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long” (Exodus 20:12), is rooted in the tradition expressed by the Katumuwa text.

The text also revealed that the rituals took place not just at the grave or in the home, but in a private mortuary chapel next door to a temple—exactly the setting where the Katumuwa stela was discovered. The stela itself is in the Gaziantep Museum in eastern Turkey, but a precise facsimile of its front has been produced for the exhibit.
The exhibit also features a video produced by video artist Travis Saul, MFA’12, in collaboration with Herrmann and her colleague and exhibit co-curator, Oriental Institute Associate Professor David Schloen. It provides background on the site of Zincirli, the discovery of the stela, a recreation of the rituals enacted to commemorate the soul of Katumuwa, and a recitation of the text in Aramaic and English.

Other sections of the exhibit explore how commemoration and communication with the dead was enacted, the importance of banquet scenes, and how the concept of the soul differed in ancient Egypt, Iraq and Israel/Palestine.

Artifacts include a stone plaque from Mesopotamia that shows a banquet, an Egyptian wooden model of men preparing food that was thought to provide food eternally for the deceased, and stone schematic human figures that living relatives thought to have contained the soul of the dead.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A major turning point in the history of printing of Hebrew books

A major turning point in the history of printing in general and of Hebrew books in particular, this rare incunable, has a value is estimated at $1,000,000-1,500,000.  Printed in Hebrew in Bologna in January 1482, the volume represents the very first appearance in print of all five books of the Pentateuch as well as the first to which vocalisation and cantillation marks have been added. It is equally the first time that the printed Biblical text is accompanied by Rashi's commentary and the paraphrase in Aramaic (Targum Onkelos). The significance of this edition is demonstrated by the fact that this format is still in use today when printing the Torah.

Essential to reading and chanting the text of the Torah, the addition of vocalisation and cantillation marks represented a considerable challenge for 15th century printers. Abraham ben Hayyim of Pesaro was the first to overcome this technical difficulty during the printing of the present Pentateuch. Having overcome this first hurdle, he also had the talent and intelligence to frame the Biblical text with Rashi's commentaries in order to facilitate the parallel study of the text. The majority of the copies were printed on vellum in accordance with the precepts of the Law. 

The back of the present copy bears the signature of three 16th and 17th century censors, testifying to its presence in an Italian library until at least the mid 17th century: Luigi da Bologna in 1599, Camillo Jaghel in 1613 and Renato da Modena in 1626. The censors had the task of examining and checking all books, both manuscript and printed, in order to authorise or ban ownership and distribution of the work: the text of the Rashi commentary here bears the marks of their work, having been erased or crossed out in a number of places.

Over the last hundred years only two copies of this rare edition have come to auction: the first in 1970, printed on vellum and complete, the second in 1998, printed on paper and missing eight pages. The Pentateuch to be presented next April is printed on vellum, complete (apart from the rear free end paper) and in exceptionally fresh condition.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Mongol Empire rode wave of mild climate, says study

Researchers studying the rings of ancient trees in mountainous central Mongolia think they may have gotten at the mystery of how small bands of nomadic Mongol horsemen united to conquer much of the world within a span of decades, 800 years ago. The rise of the great leader Genghis Khan and the start of the largest contiguous empire in human history was propelled by a temporary run of nice weather.

The rings show that exactly when the empire rose, the normally cold, arid steppes of central Asia saw their mildest, wettest weather in more than 1,000 years. Grass production must have boomed, as did vast numbers of war horses and other livestock that gave the Mongols their power. But the tree rings, spanning 1,112 years from 900 to 2011, also exhibit an ominous modern trend. Since the mid-20th century, the region has warmed rapidly, and the rings show that recent drought years were the most extreme in the record—possibly a side effect of global warming. In a region already pressed for water, the droughts have already helped spark a new migration in a vast region where people until now have lived the same way for centuries, moving herds from place to place and living in tents. Now, those herders are being driven rapidly into cities, and there could be greater future upheavals. The study appears in this week's early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Before fossil fuels, grass and ingenuity were the fuels for the Mongols and the cultures around them," said lead author Neil Pederson, a tree-ring scientist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. "Energy flows from the bottom of an ecosystem, up the ladder to human society. Even today, many people in Mongolia live just like their ancestors did. But in the future, they may face serious conditions."

In the late 1100s, the Mongol tribes were racked by disarray and internal warfare, but this ended with the sudden ascendance of Genghis (also known as Chinggis) Khan in the early 1200s. In just a matter of years, he united the tribes into an efficient horse-borne military state that rapidly invaded its neighbors and expanded outward in all directions. Genghis Khan died in 1227, but his sons and grandsons continued conquering and soon ruled most of what became modern Korea, China, Russia, eastern Europe, southeast Asia, Persia, India and the Mideast. The empire eventually fragmented, but the Mongols' vast geographic reach and their ideas—an international postal system, organized agriculture research and meritocracy-based civil service among other things--shaped national borders, languages, cultures and human gene pools in ways that resound today. Genghis Khan's last ruling descendants ran parts of central Asia into the 1920s.

Some researchers have postulated that the Mongols expanded because they were fleeing harsh weather at home--but Pederson and colleagues found the opposite. In 2010, Pederson and coauthor Amy Hessl, a tree-ring scientist at West Virginia University, were studying wildfires in Mongolia when they came across a stand of gnarled, stunted Siberian pines growing out of cracks in an old solid-rock lava flow in the Khangai Mountains. They knew that on such dry, nearly soil-less surfaces, trees grow very slowly, are exquisitely sensitive to yearly weather shifts, and may live to fantastic ages.

In a series of expeditions, Pederson, Hessl and colleagues sampled the pines' rings, sawing cross-sections from dead specimens, and removing harmless straw-like cores from living ones. They found that some trees had lived for more than 1,100 years, and likely could survive another millennium; even dead trunks stayed largely intact for another 1,000 years before rotting. One piece of wood they found had rings going back to about 650 B.C. These yearly rings change with temperature and rainfall, so they could read past weather by calibrating ring widths of living trees with instrumental data from 1959-2009, then comparing these with the innards of much older trees. The trees had a clear and startling story to tell. The turbulent years preceding Genghis Khan's rule were stoked by intense drought from 1180 to 1190. Then, from 1211 to 1225—exactly coinciding with the empire's meteoric rise--Mongolia saw sustained rainfall and mild warmth never seen before or since.

"The transition from extreme drought to extreme moisture right then strongly suggests that climate played a role in human events," said Hessl. "It wasn't the only thing, but it must have created the ideal conditions for a charismatic leader to emerge out of the chaos, develop an army and concentrate power. Where it's arid, unusual moisture creates unusual plant productivity, and that translates into horsepower. Genghis was literally able to ride that wave." (Each Mongol warrior had five or more horses, and ever-moving herds of livestock provided nearly all food and other resources. The rest probably depended on the Mongols' brilliant cavalry skills, smart political maneuvering and savvy adaptions of urbanized peoples' technologies.)

The tree rings show that after the empire's initial expansion, Mongolia's weather turned back to its more normal dryness and cold, though with many ups and downs over the hundreds of years since. The 20th and early 21st centuries are the exception. In the last 40 years, temperatures in parts of the country have gone up by as much 4.5 degrees F—well over the global mean rise of 1 degree. And, since the 1990s, the country has suffered a series of devastating summer droughts, often followed by a dzud—an unusually long, cold winter. The tree rings show that the most recent drought, from 2002-2009, compares in length and paucity of rainfall only to those of the pre-empire 1120s and 1180s. Perhaps more important: the drought of the 2000s was the hottest in the entire record. The heat evaporated water stored in soil, lakes and vegetation, and, in combination with repeated dzuds, devastated livestock. The last dzud alone, in 2009-10, killed at least 8 million animals and destroyed the livelihoods of countless herders. Now, displaced Mongol herders have formed a new invasion force—this time all headed to the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, which has swollen to hold nearly half the country's population of 3 million.

Climate models predict that as the world warms, heat in inner Asia will continue to rise substantially faster than the global mean. Pederson says this means that droughts and other extreme weather will probably worsen and become more frequent. This could further reduce livestock and hurt the few crops the region grows (only 1 percent of Mongolia is arable land). New mining ventures and other industrial activities may employ some of the many people fleeing the countryside—but these also consume water, and it is not clear where that will come from.

"This last big drought is an example of what may happen in the future, not just in Mongolia but in a lot of inner Asia," said Pederson. "The heat is a double whammy—even if rainfall doesn't change, the landscape is going to get drier."

Previous studies by others have advanced the idea that climate swings can change history. These include events such as the disappearance of the Maya, the expansion and fall of Roman imperial power, and, in a separate Lamont-led study, the 13th-century collapse of southeast Asia's Angkor civilization. Most focus on droughts, floods or other disasters that arguably have cut off empires; the new study is one of the few to explore the more complex question how climate might have invigorated one.


 IMAGE: More rainfall means more grass, which would mean more war horses for Mongol cavalry. Ecologist Byambasurem Oyunsanaa plots plant abundance on the modern steppe.
Click here for more information.

The researchers "make a compelling argument that climate played a role in facilitating the Mongol migration," said David Stahle, a paleoclimatologist at the University of Arkansas who has studied the mysterious disappearance of the English Roanoke colony off North Carolina, coinciding with what tree rings show was a disastrous drought. "But," said Stahle, "we live in a sea of coincidence—something like that is hard to prove. There could be a lot of other factors. They've provided an incredibly important climate record, and put the idea out there, so it will stimulate a lot of historical and archeological research."

The tree-ring study is the first in a related series by a larger interdisciplinary team working with Pederson and Hessl. Hanqin Tian, an ecologist at Auburn University in Alabama who studies modern grasslands, is working on models to correlate ancient grass production with the tree-ring records of weather. In coming months, team member Avery Cook Shinneman, a biologist at the University of Washington, plans to analyze sediments taken from the bottoms of Mongolian lakes. These can be read somewhat like tree rings to estimate the abundance of livestock over time, via layers of fungal spores that live in the dung of animals; this would confirm whether animal populations did indeed boom. The conquering Mongols left very few written records of their own, but Nicola Di Cosmo, a historian at the Institute for Advanced Study in New Jersey and coauthor of the current paper, will study accounts of the time left in China, Persia and Europe that might provide further clues.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Natural selection has altered the appearance of Europeans over the past 5,000 years

Ancient DNA from archaeological skeletons shows that European’s had darker skin, hair, and eye pigmentation 5,000 years ago

There has been much research into the factors that have influenced the human genome since the end of the last Ice Age. Anthropologists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) and geneticists at University College London (UCL), working in collaboration with archaeologists from Berlin and Kiev, have analyzed ancient DNA from skeletons and found that selection has had a significant effect on the human genome even in the past 5,000 years, resulting in sustained changes to the appearance of people.

The results of this current research project have been published this week in an article entitled "Direct evidence for positive selection of skin, hair, and eye pigmentation in Europeans during the last 5,000 years" in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

For a number of years population geneticists have been able to detect echoes of natural selection in the genomes of living humans, but those techniques are typically not very accurate about when that natural selection took place. The researchers in Mainz and London now decided to take a new approach. This involved analyzing DNA from archaeological skeletons and then comparing the prehistoric data with that of contemporary Europeans using computer simulations. Where the genetic changes could not be explained by the randomness of inheritance, the researchers were able to infer that positive selection played a role, i.e., that frequency of a certain mutation increased significantly in a given population.

While investigating numerous genetic markers in archaeological and living individuals, Sandra Wilde of the Palaeogenetics Group at the JGU Institute of Anthropology noticed striking differences in genes associated with hair, skin, and eye pigmentation. "Prehistoric Europeans in the region we studied would have been consistently darker than their descendants today," says Wilde, first author of the PNAS article. "This is particularly interesting as the darker phenotype seems to have been preferred by evolution over hundreds of thousands of years. All our early ancestors were more darkly pigmented." However, things must have changed in the last 50,000 years as humans began to migrate to northern latitudes.

"In Europe we find a particularly wide range of genetic variation in terms of pigmentation," adds co-author Dr. Karola Kirsanow, who is also a member of the Palaeogenetics Group at Mainz University. "However, we did not expect to find that natural selection had been favoring lighter pigmentation over the past few thousand years."

The signals of selection that the Mainz palaeogeneticists and their colleagues at University College London have identified are comparable to those for malaria resistance and lactase persistence, meaning that they are among the most pronounced that have been discovered to date in the human genome. The authors see several possible explanations.

"Perhaps the most obvious is that this is the result of adaptation to the reduced level of sunlight in northern latitudes," says Professor Mark Thomas of UCL, corresponding author of the study. "Most people of the world make most of their vitamin D in their skin as a result UV exposure. But at northern latitudes and with dark skin, this would have been less efficient. If people weren’t getting much vitamin D in their diet, then having lighter skin may have been the best option."

"But this vitamin D explanation seems less convincing when it comes to hair and eye color," Wilde continues. "Instead, it may be that lighter hair and eye color functioned as a signal indicating group affiliation, which in turn played a role in the selection of a partner." Sexual selection of this kind is common in animals and may also have been one of the driving forces behind human evolution over the past few millennia.

"We were expecting to find that changes in the human genome were the result of population dynamics, such as migration. In general we expect genetic changes due to natural selection to be the exception rather than the rule. At the same time, it cannot be denied that lactase persistence, i.e., the ability to digest the main sugar in milk as an adult, and pigmentation genes have been favored by natural selection to a surprising degree over the last 10,000 years or so," adds Professor Joachim Burger, senior author of the study. "But it should be kept in mind that our findings do not necessarily mean that everything selected for in the past is still beneficial today. The characteristics handed down as a result of sexual selection can be more often explained as the result of preference on the part of individuals or groups rather than adaptation to the environment."

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Sardis dig yields coins and an enigmatic trove: ritual egg in a pot

A ritual deposit, found intact beneath a first century Roman house in Sardis. The deposit, found inside two bowls, includes a number of small implements, a unique coin and an egg. The hole in the egg was made in antiquity.

Photos: Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/Harvard University

By any measure, the ancient city of Sardis — home of the fabled King Croesus, a name synonymous with gold and vast wealth, and the city where coinage was invented — is an archaeological wonder.

The ruins of Sardis, in what is now Turkey, have been a rich source of knowledge about classical antiquity from the 7th century B.C., when the city was the capital of Lydia, through later Greek and Roman occupations.

Scholars digging at Sardis, the capital of ancient Lydia later occupied by Greeks and Romans. Sardis, in modern Turkey, was the fabled home of King Croesus, the richest man of his day, according to lore.

Now, however, Sardis has given up another treasure in the form of two enigmatic ritual deposits, which are proving more difficult to fathom than the coins for which the city was famous.

“The two deposits each consist of a small pot with a lid, a coin, a group of sharp metal implements and an egg, one of which is intact except for a hole carefully punched in it in antiquity,” explains Will Bruce, a classics graduate student a the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has been digging at Sardis for the past six years. Bruce made the finds last summer.

The dig at Sardis is overseen by Nicholas Cahill, a UW-Madison professor of art history. Cahill has directed field research at Sardis for decades. Both ritual deposits, says Cahill, date from the Roman era of Sardis, about A.D. 70 or 80.

An inverted bowl, covering another bowl with a ritual deposit, emerges from the earth. The bowls contained a ritual deposit of a coin, small metal implements and an egg.

Bruce and his team were excavating below the floor of a first century room, built over the ruins of an earlier building, which had probably been destroyed in a massive earthquake in A.D. 17.

Digging beneath the floor, Bruce and his colleagues first uncovered a thin-walled, nearly intact jug and, nearby, an assemblage of mostly unbroken pottery. “It looked like we were reaching a more intact deposit instead of fill,” says Bruce.

Within that assemblage, Bruce began to carefully uncover an inverted bowl, which turned out to be sitting on top of another bowl. The bowls, still filled with dirt, were carefully removed and immediately turned over to conservators who cleaned and dissembled them to find a set of small pointed instruments, a coin with a lion and portrait of Nero, and the intact egg.

Graduate student Will Bruce excavates a coin horde at Sardis, which was the home of King Croesus, a name synonymous in myth and history with gold and wealth.

“The ritual offerings were dug into pits in the floor, after the room was constructed,” says Cahill. “We know they were renovating the room periodically, because in another part of the space there was a dump of painted wall plaster buried under the floor, presumably in a renovation.”

“The meaning of these deposits is still quite open to interpretation,” notes Cahill, “but burying votive deposits below ground or in a wall was a fairly common practice,” perhaps as a ritual offering to protect the house. Roman literary sources suggest eggs were used in particular rituals.

For the archaeologists, part of the intrigue is that similar groups of bowls, needles, coins and eggs were discovered at Sardis more than 100 years ago when the temple of Artemis was excavated by Princeton University archaeologists. “It is an exact parallel to what they found in the early 20th century,” according to Cahill.

A gold coin found at Sardis. Another coin, bearing the likeness of Emporer Nero, was also found.

The coin was also unique. Sardis is famous as the place where coinage was invented in the Western world, first using electrum, an alloy of silver and gold, and later of pure gold and silver. Nearby sources of gold made ancient Lydia, and King Croesus, fabulously wealthy. While these Lydian coins are very rare, coins and coin hoards from later Greek and Roman occupiers of Sardis are routinely found.

But the coin found with the egg, says Cahill, seems to be special.

“The coin has a portrait of Nero on the front. The original reverse was hammered flat, and the image of a lion engraved in its place, which is very odd.” Expert numismatists have never seen anything like it. “The image of the lion is important because it is emblematic of the Lydian kings and of their native mother goddess Cybele,” Cahill says.

The discovery is unusual, Cahill notes, because finding ritualistic objects intact and in place after thousands of years is no everyday discovery, even in a rich archaeological context such as Sardis. “Ancient ritual was important to people. It is most unusual to find such fragile things so perfectly preserved.”

Monday, March 3, 2014

Talking Neanderthals challenge the origins of speech

We humans like to think of ourselves as unique for many reasons, not least of which being our ability to communicate with words. But ground-breaking research by an expert from the University of New England shows that our 'misunderstood cousins,' the Neanderthals, may well have spoken in languages not dissimilar to the ones we use today.

Pinpointing the origin and evolution of speech and human language is one of the longest running and most hotly debated topics in the scientific world. It has long been believed that other beings, including the Neanderthals with whom our ancestors shared Earth for thousands of years, simply lacked the necessary cognitive capacity and vocal hardware for speech.

Associate Professor Stephen Wroe, a zoologist and palaeontologist from UNE, along with an international team of scientists and the use of 3D x-ray imaging technology, made the revolutionary discovery challenging this notion based on a 60,000 year-old Neanderthal hyoid bone discovered in Israel in 1989.

"To many, the Neanderthal hyoid discovered was surprising because its shape was very different to that of our closest living relatives, the chimpanzee and the bonobo. However, it was virtually indistinguishable from that of our own species. This led to some people arguing that this Neanderthal could speak," A/Professor Wroe said.

"The obvious counterargument to this assertion was that the fact that hyoids of Neanderthals were the same shape as modern humans doesn't necessarily mean that they were used in the same way. With the technology of the time, it was hard to verify the argument one way or the other."

However advances in 3D imaging and computer modelling allowed A/Professor Wroe's team to revisit the question.

"By analysing the mechanical behaviour of the fossilised bone with micro x-ray imaging, we were able to build models of the hyoid that included the intricate internal structure of the bone. We then compared them to models of modern humans. Our comparisons showed that in terms of mechanical behaviour, the Neanderthal hyoid was basically indistinguishable from our own, strongly suggesting that this key part of the vocal tract was used in the same way.

"From this research, we can conclude that it's likely that the origins of speech and language are far, far older than once thought."