Thursday, July 31, 2008

Polynesians in Ancient South America?

A new study of DNA from ancient and modern chickens has shed light on the controversy about the extent of pre-historic Polynesian contact with the Americas.

The study questions recent claims that chickens were first introduced into South America by Polynesians, before the arrival of Spanish chickens in the 15th century following Christopher Columbus.

It is published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA (July 28) by an international research group, including scientists from the University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD).

ACAD Director Professor Alan Cooper says there has been considerable debate about the existence and degree of contact between Polynesians and South Americans, with the presence of the sweet potato throughout the Pacific often used as evidence of early trading contacts.

“Similarly, Polynesians are known to have spread chickens across the Pacific at least as far as Easter Island, but were not thought to have introduced them to South America,” he says

A recent study claimed to have found the first direct evidence of a genetic link between ancient Polynesian and apparently pre-Columbian chickens from archaeological sites in Chile, supporting the idea that there was extensive contact between Polynesia and South America and that chicken and ‘chips’ had been traded in opposite directions.

The current work challenges this conclusion however, by generating DNA data from 41 native Chilean chicken specimens, and comparing these with over 1000 modern domestic chickens from around the world, and the previously published DNA from Polynesian and Chilean chicken bones.

“The results showed that the ancient Polynesian and Chilean chickens possessed a genetic sequence that is the most common in the world today, the so-called ‘KFC’ gene” Professor Cooper says. “This sequence would undoubtedly have been common in the early Spanish chickens, and therefore provides no evidence of Polynesian contact. So while we can say the KFC chicken was popular amongst early Polynesian voyagers, we certainly can’t use it as evidence for trade with South America”.

The researchers did find a highly unusual DNA sequence in the ancient Easter Island chickens, which originate from Indonesia or the Philippines, but this apparently did not get passed on to South America. “This is important because Easter Island is commonly thought of as a major jumping off point for Polynesian contact with South America,” says team member and ACAD PhD student Nicolas Rawlence.

According to project leader Dr Jaime Gongora from Sydney University, many people in South America like to believe they are descendants of Polynesians. “This study does not disprove this idea, but we have found no evidence to support pre-historic contact.”

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Tell Edfu in Southern Egypt

A University of Chicago expedition at Tell Edfu in southern Egypt has unearthed a large administration building and silos that provide fresh clues about the emergence of urban life.

The discovery provides new information about a little understood aspect of ancient Egypt—the development of cities in a culture that is largely famous for its monumental architecture.

The archaeological work at Tell Edfu was initiated with the permission of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, headed by Zahi Hawass, under the direction of Nadine Moeller, Assistant Professor at the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago. Work late last year revealed details of seven silos, the largest grain bins found in ancient Egypt as well as an older columned hall that was an administration center.

Long fascinated with temples and monuments such as pyramids, scholars have traditionally spent little time exploring the residential communities of ancient Egypt. Due to intense farming and heavy settlement over the years, much of the record of urban civilization has been lost. So little archaeological evidence remains that some scholars believe Egypt did not have a highly developed urban culture, giving Mesopotamia the distinction of teaching people how to live in cities.

"The traditional view of ancient Egypt has been biased by the fact that most excavation work so far has focused on temples and tombs. The mounds which comprise the remains of Egyptian cities were either ignored, buried under modern towns, or else destroyed by modern agricultural activities. Edfu is one of the very few remaining city mounds that are accessible for scientific study," said Gil Stein, Director of the Oriental Institute.

"The work at Edfu is important and innovative in that it finally allows us to examine ancient Egypt as an urban society, whose cities and towns housed bureaucrats, craft specialists, priests, and farmers. Nadine Moeller's discovery of silos and local administrative buildings shows us how these cities actually functioned as places where the agricultural wealth of the Nile valley was mobilized for the state. Grain as currency provided the sinews of power for the pharoahs," he added.

"Ancient Egyptian administration is mainly known from texts, but the full understanding of the institutions involved and their role within towns and cities has been so far difficult to grasp because of the lack of archaeological evidence with which textual data needs to be combined," Moeller said.

At Tell Edfu, archaeologists have uncovered what amounts to a downtown area. The community, halfway between the modern cities of Aswan and Luxor, was a provincial capital an important regional center. Tell Edfu is also rare, in that almost 3,000 years of Egyptian history are preserved in the stratigraphy of a single mound.

The administrative building and silos were at the heart of the ancient community. Because grain was a form of currency, the silos functioned as a bank and a food source. The silos' size indicates the community was apparently a prosperous urban center.

The grain bins are in a large silo courtyard of the 17th Dynasty (1630-1520 B.C.) and consist of at least seven round, mud-brick silos. With a diameter between 5.5 and 6.5 meters, they are the largest examples discovered within a town center.

The team unearthed an earlier building phase for the hall that predated the silos. In that phase, a mud-brick building with 16 wooden columns stood at the site. The pottery and seal impressions found in the hall date it to the early 13th Dynasty (1773-1650 B.C.). The building layout indicates that it may have been part of the governor's palace, which was typical of provincial towns.

There is no exact parallel for such a columned hall being part of the administrative buildings. Scribes did accounting, opened and sealed containers, and received letters in the column hall. The ostraca, or inscribed pottery shards, list commodities written on them.

The administrative center was used when Egypt's political unity was lost and a small kingdom developed at Thebes (modern Luxor) and controlled most of Upper Egypt.

"During this period, we can see an increase in connections between the provincial elite, such as the family of the governor, to the royal family at Thebes, who were keen on strengthening bonds through marriage, or by awarding important offices to these people," Moeller said.

"It is exactly at this period when Edfu seems to have been very prosperous, which can now be confirmed further by archaeological discoveries such as this silo-court, a symbol for the wealth of the town," she said.