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.
CREDIT
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.
CREDIT
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.
CREDIT
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."

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Farmers in Roman Empire converted to Hun lifestyle -- and vice versa


Marauding hordes of barbarian Huns, under their ferocious leader Attila, are often credited with triggering the fall of one of history's greatest empires: Rome.

Historians believe Hunnic incursions into Roman provinces bordering the Danube during the 5th century AD opened the floodgates for nomadic tribes to encroach on the empire. This caused a destabilisation that contributed to collapse of Roman power in the West.

According to Roman accounts, the Huns brought only terror and destruction. However, research from the University of Cambridge on gravesite remains in the Roman frontier region of Pannonia (now Hungary) has revealed for the first time how ordinary people may have dealt with the arrival of the Huns.

Biochemical analyses of teeth and bone to test for diet and mobility suggest that, over the course of a lifetime, some farmers on the edge of empire left their homesteads to become Hun-like roaming herdsmen, and consequently, perhaps, took up arms with the tribes.

Other remains from the same gravesites show a dietary shift indicating some Hun discovered a settled way of life and the joys of agriculture -- leaving their wanderlust, and possibly their bloodlust, behind.

Lead researcher Dr Susanne Hakenbeck, from Cambridge's Department of Archaeology, says the Huns may have brought ways of life that appealed to some farmers in the area, as well learning from and settling among the locals. She says this could be evidence of the steady infiltration that shook an empire.

"We know from contemporary accounts that this was a time when treaties between tribes and Romans were forged and fractured, loyalties sworn and broken. The lifestyle shifts we see in the skeletons may reflect that turmoil," says Hakenbeck.

"However, while written accounts of the last century of the Roman Empire focus on convulsions of violence, our new data appear to show some degree of cooperation and coexistence of people living in the frontier zone. Far from being a clash of cultures, alternating between lifestyles may have been an insurance policy in unstable political times."

For the study, published today in the journal PLOS ONE, Hakenbeck and colleagues tested skeletal remains at five 5th-century sites around Pannonia, including one in a former civic centre as well as rural homesteads.

The team analysed the isotope ratios of carbon, nitrogen, strontium and oxygen in bones and teeth. They compared this data to sites in central Germany, where typical farmers of the time lived, and locations in Siberia and Mongolia, home to nomadic herders up to the Mongol period and beyond.

The results allowed researchers to distinguish between settled agricultural populations and nomadic animal herders in the former Roman border area through isotopic traces of diet and mobility in the skeletons.

All the Pannonian gravesites not only held examples of both lifestyles, but also many individuals that shifted between lifestyles in both directions over the course of a lifetime. "The exchange of subsistence strategies is evidence for a way of life we don't see anywhere else in Europe at this time," says Hakenbeck.

She says there are no clear lifestyle patterns based on sex or accompanying grave goods, or even 'skull modification' - the binding of the head as a baby to create a pointed skull - commonly associated with the Hun.

"Nomadic animal herding and skull modification may be practices imported by Hun tribes into the bounds of empire and adopted by some of the agriculturalist inhabitants."

The diet of farmers was relatively boring, says Hakenbeck, consisting primarily of plants such as wheat, vegetables and pulses, with a modicum of meat and almost no fish.

The herders' diet on the other hand was high in animal protein and augmented with fish. They also ate large quantities of millet, which has a distinctive carbon isotope ratio that can be identified in human bones. Millet is a hardy plant that was hugely popular with nomadic populations of central Asia because it grows in a few short weeks.

Roman sources of the time were dismissive of this lifestyle. Ammianus Marcellinus, a Roman official, wrote of the Hun that they "care nothing for using the ploughshare, but they live upon flesh and an abundance of milk."

"While Roman authors considered them incomprehensibly uncivilised and barely human, it seems many of citizens at the edge of Rome's empire were drawn to the Hun lifestyle, just as some nomads took to a more settled way of life," says Hakenbeck.

However, there is one account that hints at the appeal of the Hun, that of Roman politician Priscus. While on a diplomatic mission to the court of Attila, he describes encountering a former merchant who had abandoned life in the Empire for that of the Hun enemy as, after war, they "live in inactivity, enjoying what they have got, and not at all, or very little, harassed.


Egyptian ritual images from the Neolithic period






The around 6000-year-old rock engravings can hardly be seen today. They were pecked into the rock with a hard point.
CREDIT
© Photo: David SabelL

Egyptologists at the University of Bonn discovered rock art from the 4th millennium BC during an excavation at a necropolis near Aswan in Egypt. The paintings were engraved into the rock in the form of small dots and depict hunting scenes like those found in shamanic depictions. They may represent a link between the Neolithic period and Ancient Egyptian culture. The discovery earned the scientists the award for one of the current ten most important archeological discoveries in Egypt from the Minister of Antiquities in Cairo.

For more than 100 years, Qubbet el-Hawa (English: hill of wind) has been a magnet for archeology. Over 80 burial mounds have been uncovered on the hill near Aswan in Egypt during countless excavations. The history of this necropolis for the provincial capital Elephantine extends from around 2200 to the 4th century BC. It was an important trading base for Egyptians in Nubia, and their nobles were buried in the burial mounds. Prof. Elmar Edel from the University of Bonn investigated and documented the necropolis from 1959 to 1984. "The majority of the objects in the Egyptian Museum in Bonn come from these field campaigns," reports Prof. Ludwig Morenz, who heads Egyptology at the Bonn alma mater.

A completely new aspect at Qubbet el-Hawa has now been uncovered during an excavation begun at the necropolis in 2015. The team led by Prof. Morenz with Amr El Hawary, Andreas Dorn, Tobias Gutmann, Sarah Konert and David Sabel discovered much older Neolithic rock art from the 4th millennium BC. "Style and iconography provide solid clues when dating these," says the scientist. "It opens up a new archeological dimension". Some of these engravings on the rock wall are clearly Egyptian in terms of iconography and stylistics, while others are clearly pre-Egyptian as regards the presentation method and motif.

The images were pecked into the rock with a hard point and are now barely perceivable due to their considerable age. Only the archeologically precise recording of the traces and the drawing of the outlines revealed the images with noteworthy iconography. The initially confusing-looking arrangement of dots allows three figures to be seen upon closer inspection: a hunter with bow, a dancing man with raised arms and, between them, an African ostrich.

"The archer clearly shows hunting for the large flightless bird, while the man with raised arms can be identified as a hunt dancer," reports Prof. Morenz. The dancer apparently wears a bird mask. The scene is reminiscent of the conceptual world of hunting, masks and shamanism, as known from many parts of the Earth - including of ostrich hunting by what are known as San (bushmen).

Such hunting and dancing scenes are new in Egyptology

"This social practice and the associated complex of ideas have barely been looked at in Egyptology," says Prof. Morenz. Small painted female figures with dancing, raised arms and a bird mask also come from the 4th millennium BC, and some clay masks were discovered a few years ago in the Upper Egyptian Hierakonpolis. These finds show astounding consistency with the rock paintings of Qubbet el-Hawa.

They may represent a link between the ancient Near Eastern and even southern European Neolithic period and Ancient Egyptian culture. "This opens up new horizons for research," says Prof. Morenz. However, the finds need to be investigated more closely. The much older rock art clearly has nothing to do with the necropolis directly and is probably linked to a prehistoric network of trails that also needs to be researched more intensively.

Under the Dead Sea, warnings of dire drought


Nearly 1,000 feet below the bed of the Dead Sea, scientists have found evidence that during past warm periods, the Mideast has suffered drought on scales never recorded by humans -- a possible warning for current times. Thick layers of crystalline salt show that rainfall plummeted to as little as a fifth of modern levels some 120,000 years ago, and again about 10,000 years ago. Today, the region is drying again as climate warms, and scientists say it will get worse. The new findings may cause them to rethink how much worse, in this already thirsty and volatile part of the world.

"All the observations show this region is one of those most affected by modern climate change, and it's predicted to get dryer. What we showed is that even under natural conditions, it can become much drier than predicted by any of our models," said lead author Yael Kiro, a geochemist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. The findings were just published in an early online edition of the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

The landlocked Dead Sea, straddling Israel, Jordan and Palestinian lands, is earth's lowest spot on land. Its current shoreline lies about 1,300 feet below sea level, and its floor extends down another 900 feet. Fed mainly by the Jordan River drainage, which extends also into Syria and Lebanon, it is a dead end for water, and so is extremely salty; its Biblical name in Hebrew is Yām ha-Melah, the sea of salt. In recent years, its level has dropped about four feet a year. But hot, dry weather is not the main cause yet; rather, booming populations in the region need more water than ever, and people are sucking so much from the watershed, very little reaches the Dead Sea, where evaporation is outweighing input.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that much of the region already has per capita water availability only a tenth of the world average. Rainfall has declined about 10 percent since 1950, and existing climate models say it could sink another 20 percent this century, even as population continues to grow. Israel is meeting demand by desalinating Mediterranean seawater, but poorer, landlocked Jordan and the Palestinian territories are desperate for more. In adjoining Syria, a record 1998-2012 drought likely stoked by climate change is believed to have helped spark the ongoing civil war, which has now claimed more than 500,000 lives and infected neighboring nations.

In 2010, scientists from a half-dozen nations drilled 1,500 feet into the deepest part of the seabed, bringing up a cross section of deposits recording 200,000 years of regional climate history--the longest such archive in the Mideast. (Around-the-clock drilling went for 40 days and 40 nights -- perhaps a respectful bow to the rainfall of the Biblical Flood.) The cores revealed alternating layers of mud washed in with runoff during wet times, and crystallized salt, precipitated out during dry times when the water receded. This instantly made it clear that the region has suffered epic dry periods, but the core was not analyzed in great detail until now.

The new study shows that the salt accumulated rapidly?an estimated half-inch per year in many cases. The researchers spotted two striking periods. About halfway down they found salty layers some 300 feet thick, indicating a long-term drop below the sea's current level. This came in a period between ice ages, 115,000 to 130,000 years ago, when variations in Earth's orbit brought temperatures about 4 degrees hotter those of the 20th century?equivalent to what is projected for the end of the 21st century. The lake refilled when glaciers readvanced in sub-polar regions and the Mideast climate cooled and became moister. The cores show a similar drop in lake level just 6,000 to 10,000 years ago, following the most recent ice age, when temperatures were probably a bit cooler than now.

The chemistry of tiny fluid bubbles within the salt allowed the researchers to extrapolate rainfall and runoff patterns of these periods. They calculated that runoff to the Dead Sea generally declined 50 to 70 percent compared to today, dwarfing current projections for this century. In the most extreme periods, it went down 80 percent, and this lasted for decades to centuries at a time. The declines are probably linked to broader shifts in atmospheric flow patterns. Storms coming in from the Mediterranean could have slackened, as they appear to be doing today; and then as now, higher temperatures increase evaporation of moisture from the land.

To alleviate growing water shortages, Jordan plans to break ground next year on a canal to bring in water from the Red Sea for desalination; leftover brine would be dumped into the Dead Sea, possibly stabilizing its level. But the project is controversial, because it could cause drastic environmental changes in both seas, and could still leave much of the rest of the region with inadequate water.

"The Dead Sea is wasting away today because humans are using up all its fresh water sources," said Steven Goldstein, a geochemist at Lamont-Doherty and coauthor of the paper who helped oversee the 2010 drilling. "Our study shows that in the past, without any human intervention, the fresh water nearly stopped flowing. This means that if it keeps getting hotter now, it could stop running again. This time, it would affect millions of people."



Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Agriculture, dietary changes, and adaptations in fat metabolism from ancient to modern Europeans


Good vs bad cholesterol. Margarine vs butter. Red meat vs. vegan. The causal links between fats and health have been a hotly debated topic for scientists, physicians and the public.

Now, evolutionary biologists are weighing in based on the increasing power of DNA analyses to explore how changes in diet over eons have caused human adaptations to genes regulating fat metabolism.

Nestled on the long arm of chromosome 11, two essential genes serve as key traffic police in the synthesis of vital fatty acids. These genes, called fatty acid desaturase 1 and 2 (FADS1 and 2), change dietary fat into components necessary for the heart, brain and muscle. They assist in the conversion of short-chain omega-3 and omega-6 poly-unsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) to long-chain PUFAs.

Scientists have recently shown that FADS genes are frequent targets of natural selection in humans. Before modern humans moved out of Africa, roughly 85,000 years ago, natural selection targeted variants in these genes presumably associated with changes in diet. After people moved out of Africa and encountered new environments, selection again targeted the FADS genes for humans to better adapt to local conditions. Previous studies have argued that the Inuit in Greenland have adapted to a diet rich in fatty acid from animal sources, and that some groups in India have adapted to a more vegetarian diet, through changes in the DNA in the FADS genes.

"The FADS genes seem to have been frequent targets of natural selection throughout human history as our diet has been changing as a consequence of new hunting or agricultural practices," says Rasmus Nielsen, a professor of Integrative Biology at UC Berkeley, and co-author of a new study on selection on FADS genes in Europe.

In the new study, Nielsen and his colleagues examine data from 101 Bronze Age individuals and present-day human data from the 1000 Genomes Project. Nielsen's research team analyzed adaptive mutations in the FADS region in Europeans, to determine which mutations might have been targeted by recent natural selection in Europeans and to investigate the physiological effects of the mutations.
They found that certain single DNA mutations (SNPs) have been targeted by selection in Europeans since the Bronze Age, and likely before that as well, to increase the production of the long-chain PUFAs: arachidonic and eicosapentaenoic acid.

This pattern mirrors the one observed in some Indian populations but is exactly opposite of that observed in the Greenlandic Inuit. Individuals on a more vegetarian diet ingest more short-chain PUFAs, while individuals having a high intake of animal fat ingest more long-chain PUFAs. The need for additional production of these PUFAs, therefore, depends on the dietary intake. As Inuit switched to a diet based on marine mammals, they would need to produce fewer long-chain PUFAs, but when people in India switched to a more vegetarian diet they would need to increase the production.

"We hypothesize that Europeans may be in the process of adapting to a diet rich in fatty acids derived from plant sources, but relatively poor in fatty acids derived from fish or mammals," said Nielsen. "The introduction and spread of agriculture in Europe likely produced a radical dietary shift in populations that embraced this practice. Agricultural diets would have led to a higher consumption of grains and other plant-derived foods, relative to hunter-gatherer populations. Alleles that increase the production long-chain PUFAs would, therefore, have been favored."

They also compared their mutational data to data from previous studies aimed at finding connections between genetic variants and factors influencing human health, including the Global Lipids Genetics Consortium of almost 200,000 Europeans. The mutations favored in Europeans are strongly associated with several health-related traits, such as cholesterol levels. Furthermore, they found an interaction between dietary intake of PUFAs and the advantageous genetic variants on cholesterol levels, suggesting that the advantageous variant may have a protective effect.

"Clearly, these genetic variants are very important for our understanding of the effects of a high intake of omega-3 and other of PUFAs," said Matthew Buckley, the lead author of the study and an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley at the time the study was done. "It is possible that variants in the FADS region may underlie individual differences in optimal dietary fatty acid profiles. If so, the FADS region variants might help guide the development of individualized diets informed by genomics. However, more epidemiological studies are needed to identify possible interactions between genetic variants in the FADS region and diet, before specific dietary recommendations can be made," warns Buckley.

Nielsen and his colleagues also compared the DNA in the FADS region to that found in the archaic genomes of Neanderthals and Denisovans, and found that the genetic variability in humans dates to a time from before humans split up from Denisovans and Neanderthals, "However, we don't see the pattern expected if the genetic variants were transferred by interbreeding from either of the groups, as has been observed in some other cases. It is possible that natural selection has been acting a very long time, in ways we don't quite understand, to maintain these old genetic variants in the population," said Fernando Racimo, a former Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley, now a researcher at the New York Genome Center.


Thursday, March 9, 2017

Discovery of widespread platinum may help solve Clovis people mystery


No one knows for certain why the Clovis people and iconic beasts -- mastodon, mammoth and saber-toothed tiger - living some 12,800 years ago suddenly disappeared. However, a discovery of widespread platinum at archaeological sites across the United States by three University of South Carolina archaeologists has provided an important clue in solving this enduring mystery.

The research findings are outlined in a new study released Thursday (March 9) in Scientific Reports, a publication of Nature. The study, authored by 10 researchers, builds on similar findings of platinum - an element associated with cosmic objects like asteroids or comets - found by Harvard University researchers in an ice-core from Greenland in 2013.

The South Carolina researchers found an abundance of platinum in soil layers that coincided with the "Younger-Dryas," a climatic period of extreme cooling that began around 12,800 ago and lasted about 1,400 years. While the brief return to ice-age conditions during the Younger-Dryas has been well-documented by scientists, the reasons for it and the demise of the Clovis people and animals have remained unclear.

"Platinum is very rare in the Earth's crust, but it is common in asteroids and comets," says Christopher Moore, the study's lead author. He calls the presence of platinum found in the soil layers at 11 archaeological sites in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina an anomaly.

"The presence of elevated platinum in archaeological sites is a confirmation of data previously reported for the Younger-Dryas onset several years ago in a Greenland ice-core. The authors for that study concluded that the most likely source of such platinum enrichment was from the impact of an extraterrestrial object," Moore says.

"Our data show that this anomaly is present in sediments from U.S. archaeological sites that date to the start of the Younger-Dryas event. It is continental in scale -- possibly global -- and it's consistent with the hypothesis that an extraterrestrial impact took place."

He says the Younger-Dryas coincides with the end of Clovis culture and the extinction of more than 35 species of ice-age animals. Moore says while evidence has shown that some of the animals were on the decline before Younger-Dryas, virtually none are found after it. 

Moore says that would indicate an extinction event for North America.

He also says the platinum anomaly is similar to the well-documented finding of iridium, another element associated with cosmic objects, that scientists have found in the rock layers dated 65 million years ago from an impact that caused dinosaur extinction. That event is commonly known as Cretaceous-Tertiary or K-Pg by scientists.

"In both cases, the anomalies represent the atmospheric fallout of rare elements resulting from an extraterrestrial impact," Moore says.

He says the K-Pg dinosaur extinction was the result of a very large asteroid impact while the Younger-Dryas onset impact is likely the result of being hit by fragments of a much smaller sized comet or asteroid, possibly measuring up to two-thirds a mile in diameter. 

"Another difference is that the Younger-Dryas impact event is not yet associated with any known impact crater," Moore says. "This may be because the fragments of the large object struck the glacial ice-sheet or exploded in the atmosphere. Several candidate craters are under investigation but have not been confirmed."

Moore says while his team's data does not contradict the Young-Dryas impact hypothesis, it also does not explain the likely effects that such an impact could have had on the environment, Paleoindians or ice-age animals.

Contributing to the study is Moore's university colleagues Mark Brooks, a geo-archaeologist who conducts research and excavations at the Savannah River Site, and archaeologist Albert Goodyear, who has spent decades documenting Clovis culture at the famed Topper site. Topper, located in Allendale County, South Carolina, along the banks of the Savannah River, is considered one of the most pristine U.S. sites for research on Clovis, one of the earliest ancient people.

Goodyear's work with Moore builds on research in which he found traces of extraterrestrial elements, including iridium, at the Younger-Dryas layer at Topper that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2012.

Moore, Goodyear and Brooks conduct research through the South Carolina Institute of Anthropology and Archaeology in the university's College of Arts and Sciences.

In addition to Topper, the remaining 10 archaeological sites that Moore, Goodyear and others on their team conducted research in 2016 included Arlington Canyon on Santa Rosa Island, California; Murray Springs, Arizona; Blackwater Draw, New Mexico; Sheriden Cave, Ohio; Squires Ridge and Barber Creek, North Carolina; and Kolb, Flamingo Bay, John Bay and Pen Point, South Carolina.

Moore says the bottom line of the study and paper in the journal Scientific Reports is the presence of an easily identifiable hemispheric marker (platinum) in sediment layers for the start of Younger-Dryas. That discovery contributes to the body of evidence that a potential cosmic impact event occurred and warrants further scientific investigation.


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Silk Road structured by ecological strategies of nomadic herders


Nearly 5,000 years ago, long before the vast east-west trade routes of the Great Silk Road were traversed by Marco Polo, the foundations for these trans-Asian interaction networks were being carved by nomads moving herds to lush mountain pastures, suggests new research from Washington University in St. Louis.

"Our model shows that long-term strategies of mobility by highland nomadic herders structured enduring routes for seasonal migrations to summer pastures, which correspond significantly with the evolving geography of 'Silk Road' interaction across Asia's mountains," said Michael Frachetti, lead author of the study and an associate professor of anthropology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University.

The study, forthcoming in the journal Nature, combines satellite analysis, human geography, archaeology and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to show that 75 percent of ancient Silk Road sites across highland Inner Asia fall along the paths its model simulates as optimal for moving herds to and from prime mountain meadows.

The model's innovative approach of tracing pasture-driven pathways suggests a number of alternate routes to many known Silk Road sites. It also provides a high-resolution mapping of other possibly important Silk Road routes that are previously unidentified and little researched, including an unexplored corridor into the Tibetan Plateau to the south of Dunhuang, China.

For over a century, the Silk Road -- a term coined in 1877 by German explorer Baron von Richthofen -- has intrigued modern historians and archaeologists who wish to understand the emergence of what many consider the world's most complex ancient overland trade system.

"The locations of ancient cities, towns, shrines and caravan stops have long illustrated key points of interaction along this vast network, but defining its many routes has been far more elusive," Frachetti said. "As a result, there is little known of the detailed pathways used for millennia by merchants, monks and pilgrims to navigate and interact across the highlands of Inner Asia."

Scholars have previously traced Silk Road trade corridors by modeling the shortest "least-cost" paths between major settlements and trade hubs. This connect-the-dots approach makes sense in lowland areas where direct routes across arid plains and open deserts correlate with ease of travel between trade centers. But it's not the way highland pastoralists traditionally move in rugged mountain regions, Frachetti argues.

"The routes of Silk Road interaction were never static, and certainly not in the mountains," Frachetti said. "Caravans traversing Asia were oriented by diverse factors, yet in the mountains their routes likely grew out of historically ingrained pathways of nomads, who were knowledgeable and strategic in mountain mobility."

Though Inner Asia's massive mountains separated oasis societies living in hot, arid lowlands, the region's mountain nomads were united by a shared ecological challenge: hot summers that left lowland pastures parched and barren. In response, mobile pastoralists evolved a similar strategy for success across the entire mountain corridor: escaping the grass-withering summer heat by driving flocks to higher elevations, Frachetti contends.

"Archaeology documents the development of mountain-herding economies in highland Asia as early as 3000 B.C., and we argue that centuries of ecologically strategic mobility on the part of these herders etched the foundational routes and geography of ancient trans-Asian trade networks," Frachetti said.

To test this theory, Frachetti and colleagues designed a model that simulates highland herding mobility as "flows" directed by seasonally available meadows. Although the model is generated without using Silk Road sites in its calculations, the pathways it projects show remarkable geographic overlap with known Silk Road locations compiled independently by Tim Williams, a leading Silk Road scholar at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London.

"The development of the Silk Roads through lowland deserts, fertile piedmonts and oases was influenced by many factors. However, the overlay of pasture-driven routes and known Silk Road sites indicate that the highland Silk Roads networks (750 m to 4,000 m) emerged in relation to long-established seasonal mobility patterns used by nomadic herders in the mountains of Inner Asia" said Williams, a co-author of this study. Williams also is author of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) thematic study of the Silk Roads, which underpinned the UNESCO World Heritage serial transnational nominations.

Frachetti, who directs the Spatial Analysis, Interpretation, and Exploration (SAIE) laboratory at Washington University, has studied nomadic herding cultures and their ancient trade networks around the world. He has led excavations at sites in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries.

His field work documents that these societies had inter-continental connections spanning thousands of years, a phenomenon he traces to the antiquity of cross-valley pathways that, once engrained, formed the grassroots network that became the Silk Road.

Proving that theory is challenging because the Silk Road's central corridor runs through some of Inner Asia's most remote mountain ranges: the Hindu Kush in Northern Afghanistan; the Pamir in Tajikistan; the Dzhungar in Kazakhstan; the Tian Shan in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Xinjiang (China); and the Altai Mountains in Kazakhstan, Russia and Mongolia.

His approach relies on the creative application of GIS and Remote Sensing tools normally used to simulate the flow of streams, rivers and other drainage through watersheds. In hydrological applications, "flow accumulation" relies on the known properties of water being pulled to lower elevations by gravity, generating calculations that show how runoff feeds into a network of ever-larger streams and rivers.

Frachetti swaps gravity for grass and uses the flow accumulation algorithm to calculate how the quality of lush pasture might channel flows of seasonally nomadic herders across a massive, 4,000-kilometer-wide cross-section of Asia's mountainous corridor.

The study area, which spans portions of Iran, India, Russia, Mongolia and China, was divided into a grid of one-kilometer cells, each of which received a numerical rating for grass productivity based on the reflectance of vegetation detected in multi-spectral satellite imagery. GIS software was used to calculate paths highland herders likely followed as pursuit of best-available grazing pulled them toward lowland settlements. The most likely routes were defined as those with the greatest cumulative flow over top pastures.

As Frachetti has found in earlier research, nomads do not wander aimlessly. Pastoralist movement through the mountains is rooted in local knowledge of the landscape and is guided by ecological factors, like the seasonal productivity of grassy meadows. Most confine their migrations to a small regular orbit that is closely repeated from year to year.

His flow model accommodates variation through time in the scale and distribution of prime highland grasslands, but suggests that the broad geography of mountain pasture has not changed drastically over the past several thousand years. Routes oriented for the best grazing would be well known to nomads making similar seasonal migrations over many generations.

Varying the simulated mobility model over 500 iterations (the rough equivalent of 20 generations), well-defined, grass-driven mobility patterns emerged. When the route-building process is shown dynamically, small pasture-based paths appear as rivulets and streams that converge over zones of rich pasture to form rivers of nomadic mobility.

While the study provides broad support for Frachetti's theories about the early evolution of the Silk Road, it also provides a roadmap for future research aimed at uncovering ancient structures of social participation across the mountains of Central Asia.

It also offers lessons, he suggests, about the importance of participation and connectivity in overcoming the great challenges that continue to confront civilizations.

"This model demonstrates that these rugged mountains were not huge barriers that forced regional communities into isolation, but acted as channels for economic and political forms of participation that supported long-standing connections between neighboring communities," Frachetti said. "It illustrates that civilization's greatest accomplishments -- evidenced in the amazing scale of Silk Road connectivity -- often arise organically in environments where connectivity is the norm; isolation here would be a formula for disaster."


Dental plaque DNA shows Neandertals used 'aspirin'


Ancient DNA found in the dental plaque of Neandertals - our nearest extinct relative - has provided remarkable new insights into their behaviour, diet and evolutionary history, including their use of plant-based medicine to treat pain and illness.

Published today in the journal Nature, an international team led by the University of Adelaide's Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) and Dental School, with the University of Liverpool in the UK, revealed the complexity of Neandertal behaviour, including dietary differences between Neandertal groups and knowledge of medication.

"Dental plaque traps microorganisms that lived in the mouth and pathogens found in the respiratory and gastrointestinal tract, as well as bits of food stuck in the teeth - preserving the DNA for thousands of years," says lead author Dr Laura Weyrich, ARC Discovery Early Career Research Fellow with ACAD.

"Genetic analysis of that DNA 'locked-up' in plaque, represents a unique window into Neandertal lifestyle - revealing new details of what they ate, what their health was like and how the environment impacted their behaviour."

The international team analysed and compared dental plaque samples from four Neandertals found at the cave sites of Spy in Belgium and El Sidrón in Spain. These four samples range from 42,000 to around 50,000 years old and are the oldest dental plaque ever to be genetically analysed.

"We found that the Neandertals from Spy Cave consumed woolly rhinoceros and European wild sheep, supplemented with wild mushrooms," says Professor Alan Cooper, Director of ACAD. "Those from El Sidrón Cave on the other hand showed no evidence for meat consumption, but appeared instead to have a largely vegetarian diet, comprising pine nuts, moss, mushrooms and tree bark - showing quite different lifestyles between the two groups."

"One of the most surprising finds, however, was in a Neandertal from El Sidrón, who suffered from a dental abscess visible on the jawbone. The plaque showed that he also had an intestinal parasite that causes acute diarrhoea, so clearly he was quite sick. He was eating poplar, which contains the pain killer salicylic acid (the active ingredient of aspirin), and we could also detect a natural antibiotic mould (Penicillium) not seen in the other specimens."

"Apparently, Neandertals possessed a good knowledge of medicinal plants and their various anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties, and seem to be self-medicating. The use of antibiotics would be very surprising, as this is more than 40,000 years before we developed penicillin. Certainly our findings contrast markedly with the rather simplistic view of our ancient relatives in popular imagination."

Neandertals, ancient and modern humans also shared several disease-causing microbes, including the bacteria that cause dental caries and gum disease. The Neandertal plaque allowed reconstruction of the oldest microbial genome yet sequenced - Methanobrevibacter oralis, a commensal that can be associated with gum disease. Remarkably, the genome sequence suggests Neandertals and humans were swapping pathogens as recently as 180,000 years ago, long after the divergence of the two species.

The team also noted how rapidly the oral microbial community has altered in recent history. The composition of the oral bacterial population in Neandertals and both ancient and modern humans correlated closely with the amount of meat in the diet, with the Spanish Neandertals grouping with chimpanzees and our forager ancestors in Africa. In contrast, the Belgian Neandertal bacteria were similar to early hunter gatherers, and quite close to modern humans and early farmers.

"Not only can we now access direct evidence of what our ancestors were eating, but differences in diet and lifestyle also seem to be reflected in the commensal bacteria that lived in the mouths of both Neandertals and modern humans," says Professor Keith Dobney, from the University of Liverpool.

"Major changes in what we eat have, however, significantly altered the balance of these microbial communities over thousands of years, which in turn continue to have fundamental consequences for our own health and well-being. This extraordinary window on the past is providing us with new ways to explore and understand our evolutionary history through the microorganisms that lived in us and with us."


Neanderthals at El Sidrón ate a diet of wild mushrooms, pine nuts and moss


The studies of Neanderthal fossil remains found at dig sites across Europe continue to provide information about their lifestyles. In the last few years, genome analysis of their fossilised remains has provided a large amount of information about these individuals. The latest study, published in Nature magazine, and in which scientific investigators from the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) collaborated, provides information about the diet of the Neanderthals who inhabited the El Sidrón site in Asturias, northern Spain.

Analysis of genetic material preserved in the calcified dental plaque from these Neanderthals shows that their diet included wild mushrooms, pine nuts and moss, yet no evidence has been found to show they ate meat. This contrasts with the information obtained from the individual, Spy II, in Belgium in whose dental plaque there is DNA from rhinoceros and mouflon and, to further support the theory, other large herbivore fossils were found alongside their remains.

"We were surprised not to find any remains of meat in the Asturias Neanderthals, given that they were thought to be predominantly meat eaters. However, we have found evidence they enjoyed a varied diet including a wide range of plants. What's more, some of these plants may well have been cooked before being eaten" points out CSIC investigator, Antonio Rosas, who works in Spain's National Natural Science Museum.

The genomic analyses of dental plaque showed these Asturian Neanderthals ate wild mushrooms (Schizophyllum commune), pine nuts (Pinus koraiensis), moss (Physcomitrella patens), and western balsam-poplar (Populus trichocarpa).

Neanderthals were familiar with medicinal plants

While all we know about one of these individuals is that she was a left-handed adult female, one other individual is considered the 'Star of the Show' by the project investigators. As previous studies have pointed out, this male individual appears to have used his mouth to sharpen the blades of stone tools (rather like a third hand), leading to chipping on the enamel and dentine on his upper teeth. Now, the study of his dental plaque has brought new and quite unique information to light.

"We have evidence that this Neanderthal self-medicated. We have discovered that the plaque preserved in his teeth contains sequences of the pathogen Enterocytozoon bieneusi which causes gastrointestinal problems, including serious diarrhoea. Additionally, thanks to a hole in his jaw we know he had a dental abscess. Both health issues must have caused him intense pain", Rosas points out.

What is more, this Neanderthal's dental plaque contains traces of DNA from both the natural antibiotic fungus, penicillium, as well as from poplar, a tree whose bark, roots and leaves contain silicic acid, the active ingredient in well-known medications.

This is not the first nod in this direction, given that the researchers at El Sidrón had already taken part in a study which clearly showed that Neanderthals recognised the curative and nutritional properties of some plants, since they took camomile and yarrow, most probably to help digest heavy meals.

Exchange of microorganisms between Neanderthals and sapiens

The scientific investigators compared Neanderthal oral micro-biotic data with human samples from Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers, African nomads, the first Neolithic farmers as well as from present-day man.

"Micro-biotic information is key to learning about the host's health. Neanderthals for example have fewer potentially pathogenic bacteria than we do. In today's human population a link has been seen between oral micro-biotics and a spectrum of health issues such as cardiovascular problems, obesity, psoriasis, asthma, colitis and gastroesophageal reflux", highlights CSIC researcher Carles Lalueza-Fox, who works at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (a CSIC-University of Pompeu Fabra shared centre).

Furthermore, the dental plaque from the individuals at El Sidrón has also made it possible to retrieve the oldest complete microorganism genome: the ancient Methanobrevibacter oralis, which is now classified as a Neanderthal subspecies. The Neanderthal and modern human strains appear to have diverged between 112,000 and 143,000 years ago, after the two evolutionary lines split.

"Today we know that crossbreeding took place on two occasions between sapiens and those Neanderthals who later lived in the Siberian region, but not with those in Asturias. If there was micro-biotic transfer between the Asturias Neanderthals and sapiens, then perhaps a cross-line existed between them, although we are yet to identify that", concludes Lalueza Fox.

The El Sidrón cave

The El Sidrón cave, situated in Piloña, in Asturias in northern Spain, has provided the finest Neanderthal collection in the Iberian Peninsula and is one of the most active archaeological dig sites in the world. Discovered in 1994, around 2,500 skeletal remains from at least 13 individuals of both sexes and of varying ages who lived there around 49,000 years ago have been recovered.

The multidisciplinary team which worked at El Sidrón consisted of palaeontologist Antonio Rosas from CSIC's National Natural Science Museum, the geneticist, Carles Lalueza-Fox, from the CSIC / Institute of Evolutionary Biology's Pompeu Fabra University mixed centre, and the archaeologist, Marco de la Rasilla, from the University of Oviedo in Asturias.

At El Sidrón, the team developed a pioneering protocol, known as 'clean excavation', which minimises the risk of contaminating the early DNA with that of modern-day human DNA from the researchers working on the cave excavation. This allowed both nuclear and mitochondrial DNA to be extracted from teeth and skeletal remains

Australia: Aboriginal have a 50,000 years connection to country


DNA in hair samples collected from Aboriginal people across Australia in the early to mid-1900s has revealed that populations have been continuously present in the same regions for up to 50,000 years - soon after the peopling of Australia.

Published today in the journal Nature, the findings reinforce Aboriginal communities' strong connection to country and represent the first detailed genetic map of Aboriginal Australia prior to the arrival of Europeans.

These are the first results from the Aboriginal Heritage Project, led by the University of Adelaide's Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) in partnership with the South Australian Museum.

Researchers analysed mitochondrial DNA from 111 hair samples that were collected during a series of remarkable anthropological expeditions across Australia from 1928 to the 1970s and are part of the South Australian Museum's unparalleled collection of hair samples.

Mitochondrial DNA allows tracing of maternal ancestry, and the results show that modern Aboriginal Australians are the descendants of a single founding population that arrived in Australia 50,000 years ago, while Australia was still connected to New Guinea. Populations then spread rapidly - within 1500-2000 years - around the east and west coasts of Australia, meeting somewhere in South Australia.

"Amazingly, it seems that from around this time the basic population patterns have persisted for the next 50,000 years -showing that communities have remained in discrete geographical regions," says project leader Professor Alan Cooper, Director of ACAD, University of Adelaide.

"This is unlike people anywhere else in the world and provides compelling support for the remarkable Aboriginal cultural connection to country. We're hoping this project leads to a rewriting of Australia's history texts to include detailed Aboriginal history and what it means to have been on their land for 50,000 years - that's around 10 times as long as all of the European history we're commonly taught."

A central pillar of the Aboriginal Heritage Project is that Aboriginal families and communities have been closely involved with the project from its inception and that analyses are only conducted with their consent. Importantly, results are first discussed with the families to get Aboriginal perspectives before scientific publication. The research model was developed under the guidance of Aboriginal elders, the Genographic Project, and professional ethicists.

This is the first phase of a decade-long project that will allow people with Aboriginal heritage to trace their regional ancestry and reconstruct family genealogical history, and will also assist with the repatriation of Aboriginal artefacts.

"Aboriginal people have always known that we have been on our land since the start of our time," says Kaurna Elder Mr Lewis O'Brien, who is one of the original hair donors and has been on the advisory group for the study. "But it is important to have science show that to the rest of the world. This is an exciting project and we hope it will help assist those of our people from the Stolen Generation and others to reunite with their families."

"Reconstructing the genetic history of Aboriginal Australia is very complicated due to past government policies of enforced population relocation and child removal that have erased much of the physical connection between groups and geography in Australia today," says Dr Wolfgang Haak, formerly at ACAD and now at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany.

The South Australian Museum's collection of hair samples, complete with rich cultural, linguistic, genealogical and geographical data, comes from the expeditions run by the Board of Anthropological Research from the University of Adelaide.

"This Aboriginal Heritage Project is able to exist because of the extensive records collected by Norman Tindale and Joseph Birdsell and others on those expeditions, which are held in trust for all at the South Australian Museum. They include detailed information about the birthplaces, family history and family trees, film, audio and written records - allowing a wide range of approaches to be used by this project to reconstruct history," says Brian Oldman, Director of the South Australian Museum.

"The South Australian Museum's Aboriginal Family History Unit has also been instrumental to the project and has worked closely with the University team to consult with Aboriginal families and communities to obtain permission for tests to be performed," he says.

Professor Cooper says: "We are very grateful for the enthusiasm and overwhelming support for this project we have received from Aboriginal families, and the Cherbourg, Koonibba, and Point Pearce communities in particular."

The research will be extended to investigate paternal lineages and information from the nuclear genome. Team member Dr Ray Tobler, postdoctoral researcher in ACAD with Aboriginal heritage on his father's side, has an Australian Research Council (ARC) Indigenous Discovery Fellowship to extend the AHP research, to examine how the longevity of Aboriginal populations in different habitats across Australia has shaped the remarkable physical diversity found across modern Aboriginal Australians.