Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Ochre use by Middle Stone Age humans in Porc-Epic cave persisted over thousands of years

Middle Stone Age humans in the Porc-Epic cave likely used ochre over at least 4,500 years, according to a study published May 24, 2017 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Daniela Rosso from the University of Barcelona, Spain, and the University of Bordeaux, France, and colleagues.

Images of ochre, the iron-rich rock characterized by a red or yellow color, that was found at many Middle Stone Age sites.

Rosso et al (2017)

Ochre, an iron-rich rock characterized by a red or yellow color, is found at many Middle Stone Age sites. The largest known East African collection of Middle Stone Age ochre, found at Porc-Epic Cave in Ethiopia, weighs around 40kg and is thought to date to ca. 40,000 years ago. The authors of the present study conducted a detailed analysis of 3792 pieces of ochre, using microscopy and experimental reproduction of grinding techniques to assess how the ochre was processed and used over a 4,500-year timespan.

The researchers found that the cave inhabitants appeared to have persistently acquired, processed, and used the same types of ochre during this period.

Overall the inhabitants of the cave seem to have processed almost half of the ochre pieces, although the proportion of ochre which had been modified decreased progressively over the period. Whilst flaking and scraping of ochre pieces appeared to have become more common over time, the authors noted a reduction in the proportion of pieces which underwent grinding. The gradual nature of shifts in preferred processing techniques may indicate that they resulted from cultural drift within this practice.

Intensively modified ochre pieces show ground facets likely produced with different types of grindstones, at different times. According to the authors, these pieces were probably curated and processed for the production of small amounts of ochre powder. This is consistent with use in symbolic activities, such as the production of patterns or body painting, although a use for utilitarian activities cannot be discarded.

Whilst the increase of ochre use in certain layers could be explained by refining the dating of the sequence and acquiring environmental data, these authors state that their analysis of ochre treatment seems to reflect a "cohesive behavioral system shared by all community members and consistently transmitted through time."

Groundbreaking discovery of early human life in ancient Peru

A-tisket, A-tasket. You can tell a lot from a basket. Especially if it comes from the ruins of an ancient civilization inhabited by humans nearly 15,000 years ago during the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene ages.

Basket remnants retrieved from the site were made from diverse materials including a local reed that is still used today by modern basket makers. More elaborate baskets included segments made from domesticated cotton and were colored using some of the oldest dyes known in the New World. 
Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute

An archeologist from Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute is among a team of scientists who made a groundbreaking discovery in Huaca Prieta in coastal Peru - home to one of the earliest and largest pyramids in South America. Hundreds of thousands of artifacts, including intricate and elaborate hand-woven baskets excavated between 2007 and 2013 in Huaca Prieta, reveal that early humans in that region were a lot more advanced than originally thought and had very complex social networks.

For decades, archeologists exploring Peru have argued about the origins and emergence of complex society in Peru. Did it first happen in the highlands with groups who were dependent on agriculture or did it happen along the coast with groups who were dependent on seafood? Evidence from the site indicates a more rapid development of cultural complexity along the Pacific coast than previously thought as published in Science Advances.

"The mounds of artifacts retrieved from Huaca Prieta include food remains, stone tools and other cultural features such as ornate baskets and textiles, which really raise questions about the pace of the development of early humans in that region and their level of knowledge and the technology they used to exploit resources from both the land and the sea," said James M. Adovasio, Ph.D., D.Sc., co-author of the study and a world acclaimed archaeologist at FAU's Harbor Branch, who is the foremost authority on ancient textiles and materials such as those used in basketry.

Among the artifacts excavated are tools used to capture deep-sea fish-like herring. The variety of hooks they used indicate the diversity of fishing that took place at that time and almost certainly the use of boats that could withstand rough waters. These ancient peoples managed to develop a very efficient means of extracting seaside resources and devised complex techniques to collect those resources. They also combined their exploitation of maritime economy with growing crops like chili pepper, squash, avocado and some form of a medicinal plant on land in a way that produced a large economic surplus.

"These strings of events that we have uncovered demonstrate that these people had a remarkable capacity to utilize different types of food resources, which led to a larger society size and everything that goes along with it such as the emergence of bureaucracy and highly organized religion," said Adovasio.

Advosasio's focus of the excavation was on the extensive collection of basket remnants retrieved from the site, which were made from diverse materials including a local reed that is still used today by modern basket makers. More elaborate baskets included segments made from domesticated cotton and were colored using some of the oldest dyes known in the New World.

"To make these complicated textiles and baskets indicates that there was a standardized or organized manufacturing process in place and that all of these artifacts were much fancier than they needed to be for that time period," said Adovasio. "Like so many of the materials that were excavated, even the baskets reflect a level of complexity that signals a more sophisticated society as well as the desire for and a means for showing social stature. All of these things together tell us that these early humans were engaged in very complicated social relationships with each other and that these fancy objects all bespeak that kind of social messaging."

The late archeologist Junius B. Bird was the first to excavate Huaca Prieta in the late 1940s after World War II and his original collection is housed in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. This latest excavation is only the second one to take place at this site, but this time using state-of-the-art archeological technology. This recent excavation took approximately six years to complete and included a total of 32 excavation units and trenches, 32 test pits, and 80 geological cores that were placed on, around and between the Huaca Prieta and Paredones mounds as well as other sites. These artifacts are now housed in a museum in Lima, Peru.

Shared genetic heritage from Sicily to Cyprus

A new genomic study on southern Mediterranean reveals a genetic continuity across geographic and national borders. The map shows the sampling locations included in the study, with presence of Albanian, Greek or Italian languages.
Credit: Sarno et al. DOI 10.1038/s41598-017-01802-4
The study -- coordinated by the Human Biodiversity and Population Genomics group at the Department of Biological, Geological and Environmental Sciences (BiGeA) of the University of Bologna and funded by the National Geographic Society -- describes the genetic fingerprints of the Mediterranean people with high-density genomic markers and a wide sample of modern populations from Sicily and Southern Italy. Their genetic profiles were analyzed to reconstruct the combination of ancestry components and the demographic history of the region.

As one would expect, populations inhabiting the southeastern shores of Europe are the result of a complex, multi-layered history. One of these layers corresponds to a shared genetic background, extending from Sicily to Cyprus and involving Crete, the Aegean islands and Anatolia. "This shared Mediterranean ancestry possibly traces back to prehistoric times, as the result of multiple migration waves, with peaks during the Neolithic and the Bronze Age," says Stefania Sarno, researcher from the University of Bologna and lead author of the study. Apparently, the ancient Greek expansions (during the Magna Graecia foundation) were only one of the last events in a long history of East-West movements, where the Mediterranean Sea served as a preferential crossroads for the circulation of genes and cultures.

A new perspective for the diffusion of Indo-European languages

One of the most intriguing layers hidden in the Mediterranean genetic landscape involves an important Bronze Age contribution from a Caucasus (or Caucasus-like) source, accompanied by the virtual absence of the typical "Pontic-Caspian" genetic component from the Asian steppe. The latter is a very characteristic genetic signal well represented in North-Central and Eastern Europe, which previous studies associated with the introduction of Indo-European languages to the continent. "These new genomic results from the Mediterranean open a new chapter for the study of the prehistoric movements behind the diffusion of the most represented language family in Europe. The spread of these languages in the Southern regions, where Indo-European languages like Italian, Greek and Albanian are spoken nowadays, cannot be explained with the major contribution from the steppe alone," adds Chiara Barbieri from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena.

Linguistic and cultural isolates

The current genetic study also focuses on more recent historical layers that contributed to the present-day genetic makeup of the populations sampled, in particular in the cases of long-standing, non-Italian-speaking communities in Italy. For example, mainland Greece and Albania seem to have acquired additional genetic contributions during historic times, most likely related to the Slavic migrations in the Balkans. This recent Balkan genetic ancestry is still evident in some ethno-linguistic minorities of Sicily and Southern Italy, such as the Albanian-speaking Arbereshe. The Arbreshe migrated from Albania to Italy at the end of the Middle Ages and experienced geographic and cultural isolation, which played a part in their distinctive genetic composition.

A different case study is that of Greek-speaking communities from Southern Italy. The genetic features of these groups are compatible with the antiquity of their settlement and with a high cultural permeability with neighboring populations, combined with drift and effects of geographic isolation, as in the case of Calabrian Greeks. "The study of linguistic and cultural isolates in Italy proved to be important to understand our history and our demography," says Alessio Boattini, geneticist and anthropologist from the University of Bologna. "The cases of the Albanian- and Greek-speaking communities of Southern Italy help to shed light into the formation of these cultural and linguistic identities."

"Overall, the study illustrates how both genetic and cultural viewpoints can inform our knowledge of the complex dynamics behind the formation of our Mediterranean heritage, especially in contexts of extensive -- both geographically and temporally -- admixture," says Davide Pettener, professor of Anthropology from the University of Bologna. "These results," adds Prof. Donata Luiselli, who co-led the project, "will be further developed in future studies integrating data from other disciplines, in particular linguistics, archeology and palaeogenomics, with the study of ancient DNA from archaeological remains."

Viking army camp uncovered by archaeologists in England

A huge camp which was home to thousands of Vikings as they prepared to conquer England in the late ninth century has been uncovered by archaeologists.

Established in Torksey, on the banks of the River Trent in Lincolnshire, the camp was used as the Vikings' defensive and strategic position during the winter months.

The research, conducted by archaeologists at the Universities of Sheffield and York, has revealed how the camp was used by thousands of Viking warriors, women and children who lived there temporarily in tented accommodation.

They also used the site as a base to repair ships, melt down stolen loot, manufacture, trade and play games.

Professor Dawn Hadley, who led the research from the University of Sheffield's Department of Archaeology said: "The Vikings' camp at Torksey was much more than just a handful of hardy warriors -- this was a huge base, larger than most contemporary towns, complete with traders, families, feasting, and entertainment.

"From what has been found at the site, we know they were repairing their boats there and melting down looted gold and silver to make ingots -- or bars of metal they used to trade.

"Metal detectorists have also found more than 300 lead game pieces, suggesting the Vikings, including, women and children, were spending a lot of time playing games to pass the time, waiting for spring and the start of their next offensive."

The findings have now been used to create a virtual reality experience giving users an opportunity to experience what life was like in a Viking army camp.

The virtual reality experience has been developed by researchers at the University of York and is part of an exhibition at the Yorkshire Museum that opens on Friday (19 May 2017).

All the scenes featured in the virtual reality experience are based on real objects found by archaeologists and metal detectorists at Torksey.

Professor Julian Richards, from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, said: "These extraordinary images offer a fascinating snap shot of life at a time of great upheaval in Britain.

"The Vikings had previously often raided exposed coastal monasteries and returned to Scandinavia in winter, but in the later ninth century they came in larger numbers, and decided to stay. This sent a very clear message that they now planned not only to loot and raid -- but to control and conquer."

Dr Gareth Beale from York's Digital Creativity Labs added: "The new research by the Universities of Sheffield and York has been used to create the most realistic images of the camp to date, based on real findings. These images are also believed to be the most realistic Virtual Reality ever created anywhere of the Viking world."

The exact location and scale of the camp in Lincolnshire has been debated for many years, but now the research by Sheffield and York is beginning to reveal the true extent of the camp. It is now thought to be at least 55 hectares in size, bigger than many towns and cities of the time, including York.

There have also been more than a thousand finds by metal detectorists and archaeologists, including over 300 coins. They include more than 100 Arabic silver coins which would have come to the area through established Viking trade routes.

More than 50 pieces of chopped up silver, including brooch fragments and ingots have been found along with rare hackgold. Evidence has been found that these items were being processed at the camp -- chopped up to be melted down. Other finds include the 300 gaming pieces, iron tools, spindle whorls, needles and fishing weights.

Using landscape analysis, the research has been able to reveal the topography of the camp. With the River Trent to the west and surrounding land prone to flooding to this day, its strength as a defensive position becomes clear.

The beginnings of agriculture

The beginnings of agriculture changed human history and has fascinated scientists for centuries.
Researchers from the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield have shed light on how hunter-gatherers first began farming and how crops were domesticated to depend on humans.

Domesticated crops have been transformed almost beyond recognition in comparison with their wild relatives -- a change that happened during the early stages of farming in the Stone Age.

For grain crops like cereals, the hallmark of domestication is the loss of natural seed dispersal -- seeds no longer fall off plants but have become dependent on humans or machines to spread them.

Professor Colin Osborne, from the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield, said: "We know very little about how agriculture began, because it happened 10,000 years ago -- that's why a number of mysteries are unresolved. For example why hunter-gatherers first began farming, and how were crops domesticated to depend on people.

"One controversy in this area is about the extent to which ancient peoples knew they were domesticating crops. Did they know they were breeding domestication characteristics into crops, or did these characteristics just evolve as the first farmers sowed wild plants into cultivated soil, and tended and harvested them?"

The new research, published in the journal Evolution Letters, shows the impact of domestication on vegetable seed size.

Any selective breeding of vegetables by early farmers would have acted on the leaves, stems or roots that were eaten as food, but should not have directly affected seed size.

Instead, any changes in vegetable seed size must have arisen from natural selection acting on these crops in cultivated fields, or from genetic links to changes in another characteristic like plant or organ size. In the last instance, people might have bred crops to become bigger, and larger seeds would have come along unintentionally.

The University of Sheffield researchers gathered seed size data from a range of crops and found strong evidence for a general enlargement of seeds due to domestication.

They discovered domesticated maize seeds are 15 times bigger than the wild form, soybean seeds are seven times bigger. Wheat, barley and other grain crops had more modest increases in size (60 per cent for barley and 15 per cent for emmer wheat) but these changes are important if they translate into yield.

"We found strong evidence for a general enlargement of seeds due to domestication across seven vegetable species," said Professor Osborne.

"This is especially stunning in a crop like a sweet potato, where people don't even plant seeds, let alone harvest them. The size of this domestication effect falls completely within the range seen in cereals and pulse grains like lentils and beans, raising the possibility that at least part of the seed enlargement in these crops also evolved during domestication without deliberate foresight from early farmers."

Professor Osborne added: "Our findings have important implications for understanding how crops evolved, because they mean that major changes in our staple crops could have arisen without deliberate foresight by early farmers.

"This means that unconscious selection was probably more important in the genesis of our food plants than previously realised. Early increases in the yields of crops might well have evolved in farmers' fields rather than being bred artificially.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

India: Scientists have identified migrating humans from Africa, Iran and Central Asia over a period of 50,000 years

In addition to its vast patchwork of languages, cultures and religions, the Indian Subcontinent also harbours huge genetic diversity. Where did its peoples originate? This is an area of huge controversy among scholars and scientists. A University of Huddersfield PhD student is lead author of an article that tries to answer the question using genetic evidence.

A problem confronting archaeogenetic research into the origins of Indian populations is that there is a dearth of sources, such as preserved skeletal remains that can provide ancient DNA samples. Marina Silva and her co-authors have instead focused on people alive in the Subcontinent today.

They show that some genetic lineages in South Asia are very ancient. The earliest populations were hunter-gatherers who arrived from Africa, where modern humans arose, more than 50,000 years ago. But further waves of settlement came from the direction of Iran, after the last Ice Age ended 10-20,000 years ago, and with the spread of early farming.

These ancient signatures are most clearly seen in the mitochondrial DNA, which tracks the female line of descent. But Y-chromosome variation, which tracks the male line, is very different. Here the major signatures are much more recent. Most controversially, there is a strong signal of immigration from Central Asia, less than 5,000 years ago.

This looks like a sign of the arrival of the first Indo-European speakers, who arose amongst the Bronze Age peoples of the grasslands north of the Caucasus, between the Black and Caspian Seas. They were male-dominated, mobile pastoralists who had domesticated the horse -- and spoke what ultimately became Sanskrit, the language of classical Hinduism -- which more than 200 years ago linguists showed is ultimately related to classical Greek and Latin.

Migrations from the same source also shaped the settlement of Europe and its languages, and this has been the subject of most recent research, said Marina Silva. She has tried to tip the balance back towards India, and her findings are discussed in the article titled A genetic chronology for the Indian Subcontinent points to heavily sex-biased dispersals. It appears in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology.


Tuesday, May 9, 2017

'Humanlike' ways of thinking evolved 1.8 million years ago, suggests new study

By using highly advanced brain imaging technology to observe modern humans crafting ancient tools, an Indiana University neuroarchaeologist has found evidence that human-like ways of thinking may have emerged as early as 1.8 million years ago.

The results, reported May 8 in the journal Nature Human Behavior, place the appearance of human-like cognition at the emergence of Homo erectus, an early apelike species of human first found in Africa whose evolution predates Neanderthals by nearly 600,000 years.

"This is a significant result because it's commonly thought our most modern forms of cognition only appeared very recently in terms of human evolutionary history," said Shelby S. Putt, a postdoctoral researcher with The Stone Age Institute at Indiana University, who is first author on the study. "But these results suggest the transition from apelike to humanlike ways of thinking and behaving arose surprisingly early."

The study's conclusions are based upon brain activity in modern individuals taught to create two types of ancient tools: simple Oldowan-era "flake tools" -- little more than broken rocks with a jagged edge -- and more complicated Acheulian-era hand axes, which resemble a large arrowhead. Both are formed by smashing rocks together using a process known as "flintknapping."

Oldowan tools, which first appeared about 2.6 million years ago, are among the earliest used by humanity's ancestors. Acheulian-era tool use dates from 1.8 million to 100,000 years ago.

Putt said that neuroarchaeologists look to modern humans to understand how pre-human species evolved cognition since the act of thinking -- unlike fossilized bones or ancient artifacts -- leave no physical trace in the archaeological record.

The methods used to conduct studies on modern humans crafting ancient tools was limited until recently by brain imaging technology. Previous studies depended on placing people within the confines of a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine -- essentially a narrow mental tube -- to observe their brain activity while watching videos of people crafting tools.

Putt's study, by contrast, employed more advanced functional near-infrared spectroscopy -- a device that resembles a lightweight cap with numerous wires used to shine highly sensitive lasers onto the scalp -- to observe brain activity in people as they learned to craft both types of tools with their hands.

In the study, 15 volunteers were taught to craft both types of tools through verbal instruction via videotape. An additional 16 volunteers were shown the same videos without sound to learn toolmaking through nonverbal observation. These experiments were conducted in the lab of John P. Spencer at the University of Iowa, where Putt earned her Ph.D. before joining IU. Spencer is now a faculty member at the University of East Anglia.

The resulting brain scans revealed that visual attention and motor control were required to create the simpler Oldowan tools. A much larger portion of the brain was engaged in the creation of the more complex Acheulian tools, including regions of the brain associated with the integration of visual, auditory and sensorimotor information; the guidance of visual working memory; and higher-order action planning.

"The fact that these more advanced forms of cognition were required to create Acheulean hand axes -- but not simpler Oldowan tools -- means the date for this more humanlike type of cognition can be pushed back to at least 1.8 million years ago, the earliest these tools are found in the archaeological record," Putt said. "Strikingly, these parts of the brain are the same areas engaged in modern activities like playing the piano."

Homo naledi's surprisingly young age opens up more questions on where we come from

Scientists today announced that the Rising Star Cave system has revealed yet more important discoveries, only a year and a half after it was announced that the richest fossil hominin site in Africa had been discovered, and that it contained a new hominin species named Homo naledi by the scientists who described it.

The age of the original Homo naledi remains from the Dinaledi Chamber has been revealed to be startlingly young in age. Homo naledi, which was first announced in September 2015, was alive sometime between 335 and 236 thousand years ago. This places this population of primitive small-brained hominins at a time and place that it is likely they lived alongside Homo sapiens. This is the first time that it has been demonstrated that another species of hominin survived alongside the first humans in Africa.

The research, published today in three papers in the journal eLife, presents the long-awaited age of the naledi fossils from the Dinaledi Chamber and announces the new discovery of a second chamber in the Rising Star cave system, containing additional specimens of Homo naledi. These include a child and a partial skeleton of an adult male with a remarkably well-preserved skull.

The new discovery and research was done by a large team of researchers from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), James Cook University, Australia, the University of Wisconsin, Madison, United States, and more than 30 additional international institutions have today announced two major discoveries related to the fossil hominin species Homo naledi.

The team was led by Professor Lee Berger of The University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, and a National Geographic Explorer in Residence. The discovery of the second chamber with abundant Homo naledi fossils includes one of the most complete skeletons of a hominin ever discovered, as well as the remains of at least one child and another adult. The discovery of a second chamber has led the team to argue that there is more support for the controversial hypothesis that Homo naledi deliberately disposed of its dead in these remote, hard to reach caverns. 1The dating of Homo naledi is the conclusion of the multi-authored paper entitled: The age of Homo naledi and associated sediments in the Rising Star Cave, South Africa, led by Professor Paul Dirks of James Cook University and the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).

The naledi date is surprisingly recent. The fossil remains have primitive features that are shared with some of the earliest known fossil members of our genus, such as Homo rudolfensis and Homo habilis, species that lived nearly two million years ago. On the other hand, however, it also shares some features with modern humans. After the description of the new species in 2015, experts had predicted that the fossils should be around the age of these other primitive species. Instead, the fossils from the Dinaledi Chamber are barely more than one-tenth that age.

"The dating of naledi was extremely challenging," noted Dirks, who worked with 19 other scientists from laboratories and institutions around the world, including labs in South Africa and Australia, to establish the age of the fossils. "Eventually, six independent dating methods allowed us to constrain the age of this population of Homo naledi to a period known as the late Middle Pleistocene."

The age for this population of hominins shows that Homo naledi may have survived for as long as two million years alongside other species of hominins in Africa. At such a young age, in a period known as the late Middle Pleistocene, it was previously thought that only Homo sapiens (modern humans) existed in Africa. More critically, it is at precisely this time that we see the rise of what has been called "modern human behaviour" in southern Africa - behaviour attributed, until now, to the rise of modern humans and thought to represent the origins of complex modern human activities such as burial of the dead, self-adornment and complex tools.

The dating game

The team used a combination of optically stimulated luminescence dating of sediments with Uranium-Thorium dating and palaeomagnetic analyses of flowstones to establish how the sediments relate to the geological timescale in the Dinaledi Chamber.

Direct dating of the teeth of Homo naledi, using Uranium series dating (U-series) and electron spin resonance dating (ESR), provided the final age range. "We used double blinds wherever possible," says Professor Jan Kramers of the University of Johannesburg, a uranium dating specialist. Dr. Hannah Hilbert-Wolf, a geologist from James Cook University who also worked on the Dinaledi Chamber, noted that it was crucial to figure out how the sediments within the Dinaledi Chamber are layered, in order to build a framework for understanding all of the dates obtained.

"Of course we were surprised at the young age, but as we realised that all the geological formations in the chamber were young, the U-series and ESR results were perhaps less of a surprise in the end," added Professor Eric Roberts, from James Cook University and Wits, who is one of the few geologists to have ever entered the Dinaledi Chamber, due to the tight 18cm-wide constraints of the entrance chute.

Dr. Marina Elliott, Exploration Scientist at Wits and one of the original "underground astronauts" on the 2013 Rising Star Expedition, says she had always felt that the naledi fossils were 'young'. "I've excavated hundreds of the bones of Homo naledi, and from the first one I touched, I realised that there was something different about the preservation, that they appeared hardly fossilised."

Homo naledi's significant impact

In an accompanying paper, led by Berger, entitled Homo naledi and Pleistocene hominin evolution in subequatorial Africa, the team discuss the importance of finding such a primitive species at such a time and place. They noted that the discovery will have a significant impact on our interpretation of archaeological assemblages and understanding which species made them.

"We can no longer assume that we know which species made which tools, or even assume that it was modern humans that were the innovators of some of these critical technological and behavioural breakthroughs in the archaeological record of Africa," says Berger. "If there is one other species out there that shared the world with 'modern humans' in Africa, it is very likely there are others. We just need to find them."

John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Wits University, an author on all three papers, says: "I think some scientists assumed they knew how human evolution happened, but these new fossil discoveries, plus what we know from genetics, tell us that the southern half of Africa was home to a diversity that we've never seen anywhere else".

"Recently, the fossil hominin record has been full of surprises, and the age of Homo naledi is not going to be the last surprise that comes out of these caves I suspect," adds Berger.

A new chamber and skeleton

In a third paper published at the same time in eLife, entitled New fossil remains of Homo naledi from the Lesedi Chamber, South Africa, the team announces the discovery of a second chamber, within the Rising Star cave system, which contains more remains of Homo naledi.

"The chamber, which we have named the Lesedi Chamber, is more than a hundred meters from the Dinaledi Chamber. It is almost as difficult to access, and also contains spectacular fossils of naledi, including a partial skeleton with a wonderfully complete skull," says Hawks, lead author on the paper describing the new discovery. Fossil remains were first recognised in the chamber by Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker in 2013, as fieldwork was underway in the Dinaledi Chamber.

The name "Lesedi" means "light" in the Setswana language. Excavations in the Lesedi Chamber began later, and would take nearly three years.

No easy access

"To access the Lesedi Chamber is only slightly easier than the Dinaledi Chamber," says Elliott, who was lead excavator of the fossils from the new locality. "After passing through a squeeze of about 25cm, you have to descend along vertical shafts before reaching the chamber. While slightly easier to get to, the Lesedi Chamber is, if anything, more difficult to work in due to the tight spaces involved."

Hawks points out that while the Lesedi Chamber is "easier" to get into than the Dinaledi Chamber, the term is relative. "I have never been inside either of the chambers, and never will be. In fact, I watched Lee Berger being stuck for almost an hour, trying to get out of the narrow underground squeeze of the Lesedi Chamber." Berger eventually had to be extracted using ropes tied to his wrists.

The presence of a second chamber, distant from the first, containing multiple individuals of Homo naledi and almost as difficult to reach as the Dinaledi Chamber, gives an idea of the extraordinary effort it took for Homo naledi to reach these hard-to-get-to places, says Hilbert-Wolf.

"This likely adds weight to the hypothesis that Homo naledi was using dark, remote places to cache its dead," says Hawks. "What are the odds of a second, almost identical occurrence happening by chance?"

So far, the scientists have uncovered more than 130 hominin specimens from the Lesedi Chamber. The bones belong to at least three individuals, but Elliot believes that there are more fossils yet to be discovered. Among the individuals are the skeletal remains of two adults and at least one child. The child is represented by bones of the head and body and would likely have been under five years of age. Of the two adults, one is represented by only a jaw and leg elements, but the other is represented by a partial skeleton, including a mostly complete skull.

Meeting naledi

The team describes the skull of the skeleton as "spectacularly complete". "We finally get a look at the face of Homo naledi," says Peter Schmid of Wits and the University of Zurich, who spent hundreds of hours painstakingly reconstructing the fragile bones to complete the reconstruction.

The skeleton was nicknamed "Neo" by the team, chosen for the Sesotho word meaning "a gift". "The skeleton of Neo is one the most complete ever discovered, and technically even more complete than the famous Lucy fossil, given the preservation of the skull and mandible," says Berger.

The specimens from the Lesedi Chamber are nearly identical in every way to those from the Dinaledi Chamber, a remarkable finding in and of itself. "There is no doubt that they belong to the same species," says Hawks. The Lesedi Chamber fossils have not been dated yet, as dating would require destruction of some of the hominin material. "Once described, we will look at the way forward for establishing the age of these particular fossils," says Dirks. Elliot adds, however, that as the preservation and condition of the finds are practically identical to that of the naledi specimens from the Dinaledi Chamber the team hypothesizes that their age will fall roughly within the same time period.

Berger believes that with thousands of fossils likely remaining in both the Lesedi and Dinaledi Chambers, there are decades of research potential. "We are going to treat ongoing extraction of material from both of these chambers with extreme care and thoughtfulness and with the full knowledge that we need to conserve material for future generations of scientists, and future technological innovations," he says.

52 scientists from 35 departments and Institutions were involved in the research.

Wits Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Professor Adam Habib said: "The search for human origins on the continent of Africa began at Wits and it is wonderful to see this legacy continue with such important discoveries"

"The National Geographic Society has a long history of investing in bold people and transformative ideas," said Gary E. Knell, president and CEO of the National Geographic Society, a funder of the expeditions that recovered the fossils and established their age. "The continued discoveries from Lee Berger and his colleagues showcase why it is critical to support the study of our human origins and other pressing scientific questions."

Public display

The original fossils of these new discoveries, as well as those from the original Rising Star Expedition will be put on public display at the Maropeng, the Official Visitors Centre for the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site from May 25th. This exhibit of the largest display of original fossil hominin material in history forms part of an exhibition called "Almost Human".

The exhibition will be housed in 'The Gallery'. This state-of-the-art exhibition space was built as part of the Gauteng Infrastructure Upgrade Project. This is the second completed construction, the first being the upgrade to the Hominin House facilities at Maropeng.

Maropeng is getting ready to receive thousands of visitors wanting to the see the exhibition and the new fossils. In 2015, when Homo naledi was first put on display, some 3 500 visitors per day made their way to Maropeng. "It was an extraordinary thing to experience," says Michael Worsnip, Managing Director of Maropeng. "It was something like a pilgrimage - a wonderful celebration of our heritage as a country, a continent and a planet."

Hominid lived alongside modern humans

JAMES COOK UNIVERSITY's Professor Paul Dirks and Associate Professor Eric Roberts have spent the past few years analysing fossils of the hominid Homo naledi, found deep in a cave system in South Africa in 2013. The pair were involved in investigating the site and describing the find in a paper released in 2015.

Professor Dirks said using state-of-the-art dating techniques at JCU and other facilities in laboratories around the world, they have now found Homo naledi to be between 236,000 and 335,000 years old.

"The oldest dated fossils of Homo sapiens in Africa are around 200,000 years old. And now we have a very primitive looking hominid that probably existed at the same time as them. This is the first time one of these primitive hominids has been found in association with more modern humans in Africa," he said.

Professor Dirks said dating was performed on fossil remains, as well as the surrounding sediments. We have also started work on fossils found in a recently uncovered second chamber deep in the cave system and distinct from the original site of the Homo naledi discovery. He said the implications of the new dates are profound.

"When we first identified the fossils, most of the paleo-anthropologists on site were convinced that they would be a million or two million years old, but we have now shown they are much more recent. It means that a primitive hominid persisted on the landscape in Africa for a very substantial period of time. Well beyond what paleo-anthropologists predicted to be possible."

He said the structure of Homo naledi's hands meant it could have been a toolmaker.

"The new dating puts it on the landscape at a time from which we find lots of tools in Africa in the middle stone-age. One of the implications of the new dates is that it's no longer automatically possible for us to assume that early homosapiens that were making these tools."

Associate Professor Eric Roberts said they are confident of the new dates.

"Much of the initial work on the age range was done here at JCU in our advanced analytic centre. But to get the final date range we used ten different labs and six different techniques which also involved double-blind testing."

Dr Roberts said the second chamber is even deeper in the cave system.

"It's significant because one of the questions after the discovery of the first chamber was whether we had what is known as a 'chimera' - meaning some mythical animal composed of different parts of other animals that doesn't really exist.

"But the new chamber shows the species is what we originally interpreted it as. We have the same morphology on a skeleton and two other partial skulls in the chamber," he said.

Dr Roberts said working in the tight confines of the cave system is challenging.

"The site is difficult to get to and requires some very tight squeezes. Pretty much the only geologists to have worked in the newly discovered second chamber so far are JCU scientists. And the ones that have gotten in are as small as myself or smaller."

Professor Dirks said it's anyone's guess why the hominids were in the cave system to begin with.

"There's a big debate, on whether it's a burial ground or they were trapped there. They could have been chased by lions or other humans, they could have got stuck in the cave. There are enormous storms in the region and there is evidence of meteorite impacts of a similar age in the area. You can speculate all you like, but at the moment the original hypothesis that they were placed there on purpose, still holds."

He said the find shows the history of evolution is far more complicated than just a straight sequential history.

"We have many different branches on the family tree and it is only fairly recently that there is only one survivor on the landscape. The new dating of the fossils opens up all sorts of possibilities for an interchange of tool use, cultural activities and behaviours between Homo naledi and homo sapiens," said Professor Dirks.

Friday, May 5, 2017

The genetic history of Bantu speakers and their relationship to African-Americans

As Bantu-speaking people migrated across Africa, they acquired advantageous genetic mutations through admixture. This material relates to a paper that appeared in the May 5, 2017, issue of Science, published by AAAS. The paper, by E. Patin at Institut Pasteur in Paris, France, and colleagues was titled, "Dispersals and genetic adaptation of Bantu-speaking populations in Africa and North America."
Patin et al., Science (2017) / Etienne Patin / Institut Pasteur
Researchers have used genetic analysis to model the much-debated migration paths, and mingling patterns, of Bantu-speaking people as they disseminated across Africa. Their results reveal how Bantu-speaking peoples (BSPs), which today account for one-third of sub-Saharan Africans, attained gene variations associated with resistance to malaria and lactose digestion. They also shed light on the genetic diversity of modern African-Americans. Many aspects of BSP genetic history, including how they dispersed from western central Africa throughout the continent and whether they acquired advantageous genes in the process, remain unknown.

To gain more insights, Etienne Patin et al. analyzed a total of 548,055 high-quality single nucleotide polymorphisms of 2,055 modern individuals from 57 populations across Africa. Using modelling software, the researchers found that BSPs first moved southward through the rainforest before migrating further south and east, which has been debated. As they dispersed through the rainforest, BSPs encountered local populations of rainforest hunter-gatherers (RHGs), resulting in an admixture event roughly 800 years ago.

Analyses of data allowed the authors to identify adaptive genes that BSPs likely acquired from other African populations, including specific immune-related genes. Lastly, to better understand the genetic contribution of BSPs to present-day African Americans of North America, the team estimated the African ancestry of 5,244 African Americans from various locations on the North American continent. Among other findings, the authors report that African Americans in these locations retain approximately 16% western RHG ancestry, suggesting that African Americans are more genetically diverse than previously suggested.

A first-ever find in Egypt: A funeral garden

The Djehuty Project, led by research professor, José Manuel Galán, from the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), has discovered a 4,000-year-old funerary garden- the first such garden ever to be found- on the Dra Abu el-Naga hill in Luxor, Egypt. The discovery comes during the 16th year of archaeological excavations which are sponsored this year by Técnicas Reunidas and Indra.

The discoveries made by this project shed light on a key epoch when, for the first time, Thebes (now Luxor) became the capital of the unified kingdom of Upper and Lower Egypt about 4,000 years ago.

Dr. Jose Galán explains, "We knew of the possible existence of these gardens since they appear in illustrations both at the entrances to tombs as well as on tomb walls, where Egyptians would depict how they wanted their funerals to be. The garden itself consisted of a small rectangular area, raised half a meter off the ground and divided into 30 cm2 beds. In addition, next to the garden, two trees were planted. This is the first time that a physical garden has ever been found, and it is therefore the first time that archaeology can confirm what had been deduced from iconography. The discovery and thorough analysis of the garden will provide valuable information about both the botany and the environmental conditions of ancient Thebes, of Luxor 4,000 years ago".

Galán continues, "The plants grown there would have had a symbolic meaning and may have played a role in funerary rituals. Therefore, the garden will also provide information about religious beliefs and practices as well as the culture and society at the time of the Twelfth Dynasty when Thebes became the capital of the unified kingdom of Upper and Lower Egypt for the first time. We know that palm, sycamore and Persea trees were associated with the deceased's power of resurrection. Similarly, plants such as the lettuce had connotations with fertility and therefore a return to life. Now we must wait to see what plants we can identify by analysing the seeds we have collected. It is a spectacular and quite unique find which opens up multiple avenues of research".

"Digging in a necropolis not only allows us to discover details about the world of funerals, religious beliefs and funerary practices, it also helps us discover details about daily life, about society and about the physical environment, both plant and animal. The necropolis thus becomes, as the ancient Egyptians themselves believed, the best way to understand and embrace life", concludes the CSIC researcher.

The garden, or funeral garden, was unearthed in an open courtyard at the entrance of a Middle Kingdom rock-cut tomb very probably from the Twelfth Dynasty, circa 2000 BCE. The garden, measuring 3m x 2m, is raised and is divided into a grid arrangement of 30 cm2 beds distributed in rows of five or seven beds.

According to experts, these small beds may have contained different types of plants and flowers. In addition, at the centre of the raised garden there two beds which are set higher than the others where small trees or shrubs probably grew.

In one corner, the researchers recovered a still upright tamarisk shrub complete with its roots and 30cm-long trunk, beside which was a bowl containing dates and other fruit which may have been given as an offering.

In addition, attached to the facade of the tomb, which the garden is related to for the time being, a small mud-brick chapel (46cm high x 70cm wide x 55cm deep) with three stelae, or stone tombstones, in its interior was also uncovered. These are dated later than the tomb and the garden, coming from the Thirteenth Dynasty, around the year 1800 BCE. One of them belongs to Renef-seneb, and the other to "the soldier ("citizen") Khememi, the son of the lady of the house, Satidenu." On each, reference is made to Montu, a local god from ancient Thebes, and to the funerary gods Ptah, Sokar and Osiris.

"These finds highlight the importance of the area around the Dra Abu el-Naga hill as a sacred centre for a wide range of worship activities during the Middle Kingdom. This helps us understand the high density of tombs in later times as well as the religious symbolism that this area of the necropolis holds", concludes the CSIC researcher.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Precision chronology sheds new light on the origins of Mongolia's nomadic horse culture

According to new research, nomadic horse culture -- famously associated with Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes -- can trace its roots back more than 3,000 years in the eastern Eurasian Steppes, in the territory of modern Mongolia.

The study, published online March 31 in Journal of Archaeological Science, produces scientific estimates of the age of horse bones found from archaeological sites belonging to a culture known as the Deer Stone-Khirigsuur Complex. This culture, named for the beautiful carved standing stones ("deer stones") and burial mounds (khirigsuurs) it built across the Mongolian Steppe (Figure 2), is linked with some of the oldest evidence for nomadic herding and domestic livestock use in eastern Eurasia. At both deer stones and khirigsuurs, stone mounds containing ritual burials of domestic horses - sometimes numbering in the hundreds or thousands - are found buried around the edge of each monument (Figure 3).

A team of researchers from several academic institutions - including the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Yale University, University of Chicago, the American Center for Mongolian Studies, and the National Museum of Mongolia - used a scientific dating technique known as radiocarbon dating to estimate the spread of domestic horse ritual at deer stones and khirigsuurs.

When an organism dies, an unstable radioactive molecule present in living tissues, known as radiocarbon, begins to decay at a known rate. By measuring the remaining concentration of radiocarbon in organic materials, such as horse bone, archaeologists can estimate how many years ago an animal took its final step. Many previous archaeological projects in Mongolia produced radiocarbon date estimates from horse remains found at these Bronze Age archaeological sites. However, because each of these measurements must be calibrated to account for natural variation in the environment over time, individual dates have large amounts of error and uncertainty, making them difficult to aggregate or interpret in groups.

By using a statistical technique known as Bayesian analysis - which combines probability with archaeological information to improve precision for groups of radiocarbon dates - the study authors were able to produce a high-precision chronology model for early domestic horse use in Mongolia. Lead author William Taylor, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, says that this model "enables us for the first time to link horse use with other important cultural developments in ancient Mongolia and eastern Eurasia, and evaluate the role of climate and environmental change in the local origins of horse riding."

According to the study, domestic horse ritual spread rapidly across the Mongol Steppe at around 1200 BC - several hundred years before mounted horsemen are clearly documented historical records. When considered alongside other evidence for horse transport in the Deer Stone-Khirigsuur Complex these results suggest that Mongolia was an epicenter for early horse culture - and probably early mounted horseback riding.

The study has important consequences for our understanding of human responses to climate change. For example, one particularly influential hypothesis argues that horse riding and nomadic herding societies developed during the late second millennium BCE, as a response to drought and a worsening climate. Taylor and colleagues' results indicate instead that early horsemanship took place during a wetter, more productive climate period - which may have given herders more room to experiment with horse breeding and transport.

In recent years, scholars have become increasingly aware of the role played by Inner Asian nomads in early waves of globalization. A key article by Dr. Michael Frachetti and colleagues, published this month in Nature argues that nomadic movement patterns shaped the early trans-Eurasian trade networks that would eventually move goods, people, and information across the continent. The development of horsemanship by Mongolian cultures might have been one of the most influential changes in Eurasian prehistory - laying the groundwork for the economic and ecological exchange networks that defined the Old World for centuries to come.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Prehistoric alpine farming much earlier than previously assumed

The people in Switzerland were on the move in the High Alps and running alpine pastures 7,000 years ago and therefore much earlier than previously assumed. A study by the University of Bern that combines archaeological knowledge with findings from palaeoecology comes to this conclusion. Prehistoric finds from the Schnidejoch Pass played a crucial part in this.

Did shepherds actually drive their herds from Lower Valais to the Bernese Oberland and graze their sheep there around 5,000 BC? Many factors indicate that this theory, which would have just been dismissed as speculation until recently, reflects reality. "We have strong indications that argue that people were on the move in the mountains with their animals much earlier than previously assumed," says Albert Hafner, Professor of Prehistoric Archaeology at University of Bern.

Albert Hafner and Christoph Schwörer, environmental scientist and specialist in vegetation history at the Institute of Plant Sciences at University of Bern, have just provided the chain of evidence that supports this assumption in an article in the Quaternary International specialist journal. Both scientists are members of the Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research at University of Bern "The combination of two approaches," explains Albert Hafner, "allowed us to collect better data and also interpret it with a new perspective. Neither archaeology nor palaeoecology would have come to these new findings on their own."

According to the study, this is how we have to imagine early alpine farming between Valais and the Bernese Oberland: the region around today's Sitten was populated by people who ran arable and cattle farming around 5,000 BC. They kept sheep and goats, among others. However, the steep and dry slopes in Lower Valais did not produce much feed, which is why the shepherds undertook a two-day hike as far as the Bernese Oberland where they found good grazing opportunities below the Schnidejoch Pass situated at 2,756 metres above sea level. This nomadic pasture farming was only possible as the glaciers drastically retreated during the so-called Holocene Climatic Optimum. The Schnidejoch did not have any ice for several centuries.

Sediment analysis and prehistoric finds

The two researchers support their theory on the one hand with prehistoric finds from the Schnidejoch situated above the Lenk and on the other hand by the analysis of sediment cores from Lake Iffig (Iffigensee) just a few kilometres away.

A melting ice field on the Schnidejoch Pass has exposed several hundreds of these kinds of objects since 2003. Including remnants of containers made out of wood, which were very probably used to transport food. The Valais shepherds probably transported provisions in them for the time that they spent with their animals on the Bernese side of the pass.

Indications of early alpine farming are also provided by the rings made out of plaited twigs which were used to hold the posts of mobile fences together. The rings originate from the Early Bronze Age (from 2,100 BC). What is interesting though is that one tradition from this phase of prehistoric alpine farming in the Bernese Oberland was preserved over thousands of years: cattle farmers can be seen in a historic photo from the Thun region who are building a mobile fence using rings made out of plaited twigs -- probably using the same method that their Valais ancestors applied around 5,000 BC. "This is obviously an extremely simple and convenient technique that could last long in traditional communities ," says Albert Hafner.

Strong indications of very early pastoralism in the area of the Schnidejoch is mainly provided by the reconstruction of the region's vegetation history. Christoph Schwörer analysed the composition of sediment deposits from Lake Iffig for this. The pollen was of particular interest in the process. From the composition of this pollen it can be deduced which plant species were very widespread in a specific location in the past. For example, nettles, among others, can be evidenced for the time after 5,000 BC. These nutrient-loving plants frequently appear in places where cattle were fenced in overnight. Spores from the Sporormiella, a fungus that thrives extremely well on cattle dung was also found in the sediment core.

 When the glaciers advanced again during a colder climatic phase just under a thousand years after the oldest Schnidejoch finds, the route over the pass became impassable again. There is also no indication of the Valais shepherds and their sheep in the lake sediments from Lake Iffig during this time.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Medieval Jewish graves unearthed in Rome

The burial area where the bodies were found during building construction in the Trastevere district of Rome. Photo courtesy of Rome's Archaeological Superintendency

Italian archaeologists have discovered the remains of 38 skeletons buried in a Jewish cemetery in Rome more than 500 years ago, offering further evidence of their ubiquity and persecution under papal rule.

The well-preserved skeletons were found during excavations beneath a building in an area identified on ancient maps as “Campus Iudeorum” – Latin for “Field of Jews” — in the Trastevere quarter of Rome just across the Tiber River from the Italian capital.
The burial area where the bodies were found during building construction in the Trastevere district of Rome. Photo courtesy of Rome’s Archaeological Superintendency
The bodies were believed to have been buried there between the mid-14th and mid-17th centuries, and the discovery is giving archaeologists new insights into how the community lived and died in the medieval era.

The skeletons were discovered during excavations nearly 20 feet beneath a large modern building undergoing renovation.  Apart from the cemetery, archaeologists also found the remains of an ancient tannery at the site dating back to the era of Roman Emperor Septimius Severus in the third century.

Rossi, from Rome’s Archaeological Superintendency, said the graves confirmed customary Jewish funeral practices: The bodies were buried in plain wooden caskets without any objects and were only identified after a fragment of a Hebrew epigraph was found at the dig.

She said the absence of headstones was a result of decrees issued by Pope Urban VIII, who ruled in 1625 that Jews be buried in unmarked graves and ordered headstones to be removed from existing graves.

The only Hebrew inscription, a fragment, came from a layer where the graves were obliterated so without a doubt that was the result of Pope Urban VIII decrees in October 1625.
Apart from the skeletons, the only objects found were two gold rings found on a woman’s fingers and part of an iron scale attached to a man’s hand, which Rossi said may have been an indication of his profession or his honesty.

Experts said the skeletons were predominantly adult males and there were few children. Scientific analysis also showed signs of a poor hygiene and inadequate diet lacking in protein.

The first recorded news about the Field of Jews on ancient maps dates back to 1363 when the Company of Death, a military corps, ordered a cemetery to be set aside on a plot of land in Trastevere.

Rome’s Jewish community has welcomed the discovery and pledged to rebury the 38 bodies with the prayers and rituals of a Jewish funeral.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Steppe migrant thugs pacified by Stone Age farming women

An article in the journal Antiquity argues that Yamnaya warriors belonging to raiding parties married local Stone Age women, settling and adopting an agrarian lifestyle; during this process a Proto-Germanic language and the Corded Ware Culture was formed

In an earlier study Professor Kristian Kristiansen from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden and Lundbeck Foundation Professor Eske Willerslev from the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen, and their research teams, showed that the large demographic changes during the first part of the Bronze Age happened as a result of massive migrations of Yamnaya people from the Pontic-Caspian steppes into Neolithic Europe. They were also able to show that plague was widespread in both Europe and Central Asia at this time.

Corded ware vessel, an axe and two discs made of amber from an early male grave.
Danish National Museum
Now Professor Kristiansen and Professor Willerslev with co-authors reveal a more detailed view of the mechanism behind the emerging culture known as the Corded Ware Culture -- the result of the encounter between the Yamnaya and the Neolithic people. Professor Kristian Kristiansen says: "We are now for the first time able to combine results from genetics, strontium isotopes on mobility and diet, and historical linguistics on language change, to demonstrate how the integration process unfolded on the ground after the Yamnaya migrations from the steppe. In our grand synthesis we argue that Yamnaya migrants were predominantly males, who married women who came from neighbouring Stone Age farming societies" These Stone Age Neolithic societies were based on large farming communities reflected in their collective burial ritual often in big stone chambers, so called megaliths. Very different from the traditions of the incoming migrants.

The origin of the Yamnaya

The Yamnaya people originated on the Caspian steppes where they lived as pastoralists and herders, using wagons as mobile homes. From burial pits archaeologists have found extensive use of thick plant mats and felt covers. Their economy was based on meat, dairy products and fish, they were tall and rather healthy with little caries in their teeth. No agriculture is documented. Barrows were aligned in groups forming lines in the landscape to mark seasonal routes and after death diseased people were put into individual graves under small family barrows. Their burial ritual thus embodied a new perception of the individual and of small monogamous family groups as the foundation of society. The continent encountered by the Yamnaya people around 3000 BC had seen a decline in the agrarian Stone Age societies, thereby allowing space for incoming migrants. This decline was probably the result of a widespread plague from Siberia to the Baltic.

"The disease dynamic here may have been comparable to the European colonization process in America after Christopher Columbus", says Kristiansen. "Perhaps Yamnaya brought plague to Europe and caused a massive collapse in the population".

"Black Youth" as migrating males and their marriage to Neolithic women

In the new synthesis article, Kristiansen and colleagues argue for a dominance of males during the early phase after the migrations, and correspond to the old Indo-European mythology of later times. These sources talk about war-bands of youths - called "Black Youth" -- who were employed in pioneer migrations as a dynamic force. Evidence from strontium isotopic analyses, published in 2016 by Kristiansen together with Douglas Price and Karl Goran Sjogren, showed that a majority of the women in Corded Ware burials in south Germany were non-locals who had married in from Neolithic societies, since they had a Neolithic diet in their childhood. These results now form part of the new synthesis. Professor Kristian Kristiansen says: "Existing archaeological evidence of a strong 90% male dominance in the early phase of the Corded Ware/Single Grave Culture settlement in Jutland, Denmark, and elsewhere can now be explained by the old Indo-European tradition of war bands of young males who did not have any inheritance to look forward to. Therefore they were probably more willing to make a career as migrating war bands."

These Neolithic women also brought new knowledge of pottery production, and started to imitate pottery containers made of wood from the Yamnaya migrants. In this way a new pottery culture was created called Corded Ware, because of the cord impressions around the neck of the pots. They were made for beer drinking, and the new migrants also learned how to grow barley from the in-married Neolithic women in order to produce beer.

Rapid genetic changeover from Neolithic to Corded Ware cultures after 3000 BC

Eske Willerslev undertook the ancient DNA analyses together with Morten Allentoft and Martin Sikora. Professor Willerslev says:

"In our big Bronze Age study, published in 2015 we were astonished to see how strong and fast the genetic changeover was from the Neolithic to the Corded Ware. There was a heavy reduction of Neolithic DNA in temperate Europe, and a dramatic increase of the new Yamnaya genomic component that was only marginally present in Europe prior to 3000 BC. Moreover, the apparent abruptness with which this change occurred indicates that it was a large-scale migration event, rather than a slow periodic inflow of people".

New words and new Proto-Germanic dialect

The Yamnaya brought the Indo-European languages into Bronze Age Europe, but as herders, they did not have words for crops or cultivation, unlike the Neolithic farmers. As the Corded Ware Culture developed it adopted words related to farming from the indigenous Neolithic people, which they were admixing with. Guus Kroonen, a historical linguist, was able to demonstrate that these new words did not belong to the original Indo-European languages. Therefore it was possible to conclude that the Neolithic people were not speaking an Indo-European language, as did the Yamnaya migrants. Thus, the process of genetic and cultural admixture was accompanied by a process of language admixture, creating the foundations for later Germanic languages, termed Proto-Germanic.

The birth of the Bronze Age

The Yamnaya migrations from the Pontic-Caspian steppe into temperate Europe changed the course of history: they brought not only a new language, but also new ideas about how society was organized around small monogamous families with individual ownership to animals and land. This new society became the foundation for the Bronze Age, and for the way European societies continued to develop to the present.

Study reveals 10,000 years of genetic continuity in northwest North America

A study of the DNA in ancient skeletal remains adds to the evidence that indigenous groups living today in southern Alaska and the western coast of British Columbia are descendants of the first humans to make their home in northwest North America more than 10,000 years ago.

Researchers are analyzing DNA from ancient individuals found in southeast Alaska, coastal British Columbia, Washington state and Montana. A new genetic analysis of some of these human remains finds that many of today's indigenous peoples living in the same regions are descendants of ancient individuals dating to at least 10,300 years ago.
Graphic by Julie McMahon, University of Illinois
"Our analysis suggests that this is the same population living in this part of the world over time, so we have genetic continuity from 10,000 years ago to the present," said University of Illinois anthropology professor Ripan Malhi, who led the study with University of Chicago postdoctoral researcher John Lindo; Penn State University biology professor Michael DeGiorgio; Rosita Worl, the director of the Sealaska Heritage Institute in Juneau, Alaska; and University of Oklahoma anthropology professor Brian M. Kemp.

The findings, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also suggest that these early American peoples had a complex population history, the researchers report.

The new work comes on the heels of earlier studies of ancient Americans that focused on mitochondrial DNA, which occurs outside the nucleus of cells and is passed only from mothers to their offspring.

"Mitochondrial DNA just traces the maternal line - your mother's mother's lineage - so, you're missing information about all of these other ancestors," said Lindo, the first author on the paper. "We wanted to analyze the nuclear genome so we could get a better assessment of the population history of this region."

The team looked at genomic data from Shuká Káa (Tlingit for "Man Before Us"), an ancient individual whose remains - found in a cave in southeastern Alaska - date to about 10,300 years ago. They also analyzed the genomes of three more individuals from the nearby coast of British Columbia whose remains date to between 6,075 and 1,750 years ago.

"Interestingly, the mitochondrial type that Shuká Káa belonged to was also observed from another ancient skeleton dated to about 6,000 years ago," Kemp said. "It seems to disappear after that. The nuclear DNA suggests that this is probably not about population replacement, but rather chance occurrence through time. If a female has no children or only sons, the mitochondrial DNA is not passed to the next generation. As a male, Shuká Káa could not have passed on his own mitochondrial DNA; he must have had some maternal relatives that did so."

The researchers turned their attention to nuclear DNA, which offers a more comprehensive record of a person's ancestry.

"DNA from the mitochondria and Y chromosome provide unique yet sometimes conflicting stories, but the nuclear genome provides a more comprehensive view of past events," DeGiorgio said.

"The data suggest that there were multiple genetic lineages in the Americas from at least 10,300 years ago," Malhi said.

The descendants of some of those lineages are still living in the same region today, and a few are co-authors on the new study. Their participation is the result of a long-term collaboration between the scientists and several native groups who are embracing genomic studies as a way to learn from their ancestors, said Worl, who is Tlingit, Ch'áak' (Eagle) moiety of the Shangukeidí­ (Thunderbird) Clan from the Kawdliyaayi Hít (House Lowered From the Sun) in Klukwan, Alaska.

"We supported DNA testing of Shuká Káa because we believed science ultimately would agree with what our oral traditions have always said - that we have lived in southeast Alaska since time immemorial. The initial analysis showed the young man was native, and now further studies are showing that our ancestral lineage stems from the first initial peopling of the region," said Worl, who also is an anthropologist. "Science is corroborating our oral histories.\\

Kent State archaeologist explains innovation of 'fluting' ancient stone weaponry

Approximately 13,500 years after nomadic Clovis hunters crossed the frozen land bridge from Asia to North America, researchers are still asking questions and putting together clues as to how they not only survived in a new landscape with unique new challenges but adapted with stone tools and weapons to thrive for thousands of years.

Pictured is a collection of Clovis point replicas and casts in the archaeology lab at Kent State University.
Kent State University
Kent State University's Metin Eren, Ph.D., director of archaeology and assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences, and his colleagues are not only asking these questions but testing their unique new theories. They want to better understand the engineering, techniques and purposes of Clovis weapon technologies. Specifically, they study stone projectile points, such as arrowheads and spear points, made by flint knapping, the ancient practice of chipping away at the edges of rocks to shape them into weapons and tools.

In their most recent article published online in the Journal of Archaeological Science, Eren and his co-authors from Southern Methodist University (Brett A. Story, David J. Meltzer and Kaitlyn A. Thomas), University of Tulsa (Briggs Buchanan), Rogers State University (Brian N. Andrews), Texas A&M University and the University of Missouri (Michael J. O'Brien) explain the flint knapping technique of "fluting" the Clovis points, which could be considered the first truly American invention. This singular technological attribute, the flake removal or "flute," is absent from the stone-tool repertoire of Pleistocene Northeast Asia, where the Clovis ancestors came from.

Archaeologists have debated for years as to why the Clovis added this flute feature to their points. Basically, it is a thin groove chipped off at the base on both sides, perhaps first made by accident, which logically makes it very thin and brittle. However, after several types of testing, the researchers have reported that this thinning of the base can make it better able to withstand and absorb the shock of colliding with a hard object, such as the bone of a mastodon or bison.

This fluted point turned out to be an invention that allowed these colonizers to travel great distances with some confidence that their weaponry would hold up at least long enough until they could find the next rock quarry to make new points.

"It was risky and couldn't have been easy to learn how to do this effectively," Eren explained. "Archaeological evidence suggests that up to one out of five points break when you try to chip this fluted base, and it takes at least 30 minutes to produce a finished specimen. So, though it was a time-consuming process and risky technique, successfully fluted Clovis points would have been extremely reliable, especially while traveling great distances into unknown regions on a new continent. They needed points that would hold up and be used over and over again."

In their article, the researchers compared standardized computer models of fluted and unfluted points, as well as experimental "real-world" test specimens, and found that the fluted-point base does in fact act as a "shock absorber," increasing point robustness and ability to withstand physical stress via stress redistribution and damage relocation. In other words, upon impact, the brittle base of the spearhead crumples and absorbs some energy, which prevents fatal breaks elsewhere on the point so it could be reused.

"It's amazing to think that people 12,000 years ago were flaking shock absorbers and engineering stone weapons in a way that it took 21st century modern engineering to figure out," Eren said.

"As engineers, we don't typically get to work with archaeologists, but this project has allowed us the exciting opportunity to provide additional tools from engineering mechanics to explore how fluting affects the behavior of Clovis points," Story said.

New DNA research shows true migration route of early farming in Europe 8,000 years ago

A NEW article co-authored by experts at the University of Huddersfield bolsters a theory that the spread of agriculture throughout Europe followed migration into the Mediterranean from the Near East more than 13,000 years ago - thousands of years earlier than widely believed.

This was during the Late Glacial period and initially the migrants were hunter-gatherers. But they later developed a knowledge of agriculture from further newly-arrived populations from the Near East - where farming began - and during the Neolithic, approximately 8,000 years ago, they began to colonise other parts of Europe, taking their farming practices with them.

The University of Huddersfield is home to the Archaeogenetics Research Group, which uses DNA analysis to solve questions from archaeology, anthropology and history. It is headed by Professor Martin Richards, and the issue of the genetic ancestry of Europeans has been one of his major research areas for many years.

Now he is a principal contributor to the article that appears in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. It describes how the researchers used almost 1,500 mitochondrial genome lineages to date the arrival of people in different regions of Europe.

It was found that in central Europe and Iberia, these could mainly be traced to the Neolithic. However, in the central and eastern Mediterranean, they predominantly dated to the much earlier Late Glacial period.

The authors write that: "This supports a scenario in which the genetic pool of Mediterranean Europe was partly a result of Late Glacial expansions from a Near Eastern refuge, and that this formed an important source pool for subsequent Neolithic expansions into the rest of Europe".

Professor Richards explained that he and his co-researchers carried out their latest investigations using modern DNA samples because in Italy and Greece there is an acute shortage of pre-Neolithic skeletal remains from which ancient samples can be taken. The warmth of the climate has resulted in low levels of preservation.

"We haven't been able to fill the gap with ancient DNA, so we found a way to get round that by looking at modern samples. Instead of dating the lineages across Europe as a whole we have dated them firstly in the Mediterranean area and then we have looked at what happens if you assume that they have arrived in that area and then moved on," said Professor Richards.

Now he hopes that new sources of ancient DNA in Italy and Greece will be discovered, so that his migration scenario can be tested more directly.

"In the past, it's been difficult to recover DNA from these kinds of environments but there have been so many technical developments in the recovery of ancient DNA in the last few years that I think it will happen soon." In fact, another team of researchers has already confirmed one of the paper's main predictions, by looking at pre-Neolithic DNA from Sardinia, just one week ago.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Students Unearth a 2000-Year-Old Jewish Settlement near Bet Shemesh

Photo: Assaf Peretz

Some 240 eleventh-grade students from Jerusalem’s Boyer High School have discovered an original and rewarding way of reducing their travel costs to Poland: Working for an entire week on archaeological excavations at Ramat Bet Shemesh, far from their computers and air-conditioned classroom

The students have been involved in unearthing exciting archaeological finds at the site. In recent months, the remains of a Jewish settlement dating to the Second Temple period at the site have been found to include an extensive complex of ritual baths and underground hiding refuges. The excavations are being carried out with funding provided by the Ministry of construction and Housing prior to the building of a new residential neighborhood in Ramat Bet Shemesh, in cooperation with the Israel Antiquities Authority and with the participation of pre-army course cadets.
The settlement, whose ancient name is unknown, has so far yielded eight ritual baths, cisterns, and hiding refuges, along with rock-hewn industrial installations. The houses themselves have not survived and their stones were taken to construct buildings in later periods. 

According to Sarah Hirshberg, Shua Kisilevitz and Sarah Levevi-Eilat, excavation directors on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “The settlement’s extraordinary significance lies in its imposing array of private ritual baths, which were incorporated in the residential buildings. Each household had its own ritual bath and a cistern. Some of the baths uncovered are simple and others are more complex and include an otzar, or collecting basin, into which the rainwater would drain. It is interesting to note that the local inhabitants adhered strictly to the rules regarding purity and impurity.” 

Underneath the dwellings and rock-hewn installations, another surprising discovery was unearthed, dating to the time of the Bar Kokhba Revolt (second century CE)—a winding labyrinth of hiding refuges connected to sophisticated and elaborate complexes. In some of the underground complexes, the rebels breached a cistern to provide those in hiding with access to water. One of the caves also yielded intact ceramic jars and cooking pots that were probably used by the rebels. The finds show that the settlement continued to exist even after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

Minister of Construction and Housing, Yoav Galant: “Past and present are coming together in a city that has known division and now lives in harmony. We will soon be signing a roof agreement with Bet Shemesh to ensure future development. There is nothing more positive than the fact that students learning about the attempt to annihilate their people are involved in strengthening our ties with Israel and remembering the generations of the past.”

Background information on ritual baths: 

In antiquity, Judaism was already unique in its strict adherence to bodily cleanliness, as commanded in the Bible: “And bathe his body in water, and he shall be clean” (Leviticus 14:9). The act of bathing for purification purposes is also referred to in Hebrew as tvila, or ‘immersion’. During the Hasmonean period (second century BCE) there was an increased emphasis on observing purity (“ritual purity was widespread in Israel” – Tosefta, Tractate Shabbat 1:14) and a detailed code of religious laws was compiled to implement the biblical commandments in everyday life. It was during this period that special water installations, or ritual baths, began to be used for immersion.

The ritual bath is a water installation that is unique to the people of Israel. In order to fulfill their religious and spiritual purpose and cleanse a person of any impurities, the baths were installed according to Jewish religious rules. The bath has to be hewn in the bedrock or connected to the ground; it must be sealed so that its water will not seep out; and only rainwater or spring water must be used, as opposed to ‘drawn’ water.


Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Settled villages made ecological impact long before agriculture

Long before the advent of agriculture, hunter-gatherers began putting down roots in the Middle East, building more permanent homes and altering the ecological balance in ways that allowed the common house mouse to flourish, new research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates.
"The research provides the first evidence that, as early as 15,000 years ago, humans were living in one place long enough to impact local animal communities -- resulting in the dominant presence of house mice," said Fiona Marshall, study co-author and a professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. "It's clear that the permanent occupation of these settlements had far-reaching consequences for local ecologies, animal domestication and human societies."
Marshall, a noted expert on animal domestication, considers the research exciting because it shows that settled hunter-gatherers rather than farmers were the first people to transform environmental relations with small mammals. By providing stable access to human shelter and food, hunter-gatherers led house mice down the path to commensalism, an early phase of domestication in which a species learns how to benefit from human interaction.
The findings have broad implications for the processes that led to animal domestication.
"The findings provide clear evidence that the ways humans have shaped the natural world are tied to varying levels of human mobility," said Marshall, the James W. and Jean L. Davis Professor in Arts & Sciences. "They suggest that the roots of animal domestication go back to human sedentism thousands of years prior to what has long been considered the dawn of agriculture."
Led by Thomas Cucchi of National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, France, and Lior Weissbrod of the University of Haifa in Israel, the study set out to explain large swings in the ratio of house mice to wild mice populations found during excavations of different prehistoric periods at an ancient Natufian hunter-gatherer site in the Jordan Valley of Israel.
Examining tiny species-related variations in the molar shapes of fossilized mice teeth dating back as far as 200,000 years, the team built a timeline showing how the populations of different mice fluctuated at the Natufian site during periods of varying human mobility.
The analysis revealed that human mobility influenced competitive relationships between two species of mice -- the house mouse (Mus musculus domesticus) and a short-tailed field mouse (M. macedonicus) -- that continue to live in and around modern settlements in Israel. These relationships are analogous to those of another pair of species called spiny mice which Weissbrod and Marshall discovered among semi-nomadic Maasai herders in southern Kenya."
Findings indicate that house mice began embedding themselves in the Jordan Valley homes of Natufian hunter-gatherers about 15,000 years ago, and that their populations rose and fell based on how often these communities picked up and moved to new locations.
When humans stayed in the same places for long runs of time, house mice out-competed their country cousins to the point of pushing most of them outside the settlement. In periods where drought, food shortages or other conditions forced hunter-gatherers to relocate more often, the populations of house mice and field mice reached a balance similar to that found among modern Maasai herders with similar mobility patterns.
The study confirms that house mice were already a fixture in the domiciles of eastern Mediterranean hunter-gatherer villages more than 3,000 years before the earliest known evidence for sedentary agriculture.
It suggests that the early hunter-gatherer settlements transformed ecological interactions and food webs, allowing house mice that benefited from human settlements to out-compete wild mice and establish themselves as the dominant population.
"The competition between commensal house mice and other wild mice continued to fluctuate as humans became more mobile in arid periods and more sedentary at other times -- indicating the sensitivity of local environments to degrees of human mobility and the complexity of human environmental relationships going back in the Pleistocene," said Weissbrod, currently a research fellow at the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa.
Weissbrod's research involves analysis of microvertebrate remains from a wide range of prehistoric and historic sites in Israel and the Caucasus dealing with paleoecology and human-ecosystem interactions.
A 2010 graduate of the doctoral program in archaeological anthropology at Washington University, he began research for this study as part of a dissertation examining fluctuations in populations of mice and other small animals living around Maasai cattle herding settlements in Kenya.
Marshall helped Weissbrod to develop the ethnographic context for underlying research questions about the ecological impact of human mobility. Together they built field-based ecological frameworks for understanding changing animal human interactions through time focusing on mice and donkeys.
Working from his lab in Paris, Cucchi used a new technique called geometric morphometrics to identify the mouse fossils and reliably distinguish telltale differences in the miniscule remains of house mice and wild species. The method relies on high resolution imaging and digital analysis to categorize species-related variations in molar outlines nearly as thin as a single millimeter.
The findings, and the techniques used to document them, are important to archaeological research in a broader sense because they lend further support to the idea that fluctuations in ancient mouse populations can be used as a proxy for tracking ancient shifts in human mobility, lifestyle and food domestication.
"These findings suggest that hunter-gatherers of the Natufian culture, rather than later Neolithic farmers, were the first to adopt a sedentary way of life and unintentionally initiated a new type of ecological interaction -- close coexistence with commensal species such as the house mouse," Weissbrod said. "The human dynamic of shifts between mobile and sedentary existence was unraveled in unprecedented detail in the record of fluctuations in proportions of the two species through time."