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Findings on Neanderthal oral microbiomes offer new clues on evolution, health

Original article in eurekalert.org

10-May-2021Peer-Reviewed Publication

Harvard University

Gorillas
image: Grauer’s gorilla specimens at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren (Belgium), showing typical dental calculus deposits on the teeth that are stained dark likely as a result of their herbivorous diet. view more Credit: Katerina Guschanski

A new study looking at the evolutionary history of the human oral microbiome shows that Neanderthals and ancient humans adapted to eating starch-rich foods as far back as 100,000 years ago, which is much earlier than previously thought. 

The findings suggest such foods became important in the human diet well before the introduction of farming and even before the evolution of modern humans. And while these early humans probably didn’t realize it, the benefits of bringing the foods into their diet likely helped pave the way for the expansion of the human brain because of the glucose in starch, which is the brain’s main fuel source.

“We think we’re seeing evidence of a really ancient behavior that might have been part encephalization — or the growth of the human brain,” said Harvard Professor Christina Warinner, Ph.D. ’10. “It’s evidence of a new food source that early humans were able to tap into in the form of roots, starchy vegetables, and seeds.”

The findings come from a seven-year study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday that involved the collaboration of more than 50 international scientists. Researchers reconstructed the oral microbiomes of Neanderthals, primates, and humans, including what’s believed to be the oldest oral microbiome ever sequenced — a 100,000-year-old Neanderthal.

The goal was to better understand how the oral microbiome — a community of microorganisms in our mouths that help to protect against disease and promote health — developed since little is known about its evolutionary history.

“For a long time, people have been trying to understand what a normal healthy microbiome is,” said Warinner, assistant professor of anthropology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Sally Starling Seaver Assistant Professor at the Radcliffe Institute. “If we only have people today that we’re analyzing from completely industrialized contexts and that already have high disease burdens, is that healthy and normal? We started to ask: What are the core members of the microbiome? Which species and groups of bacteria have actually co-evolved with us the longest?”

The scientists analyzed the fossilized dental plaque of both modern humans and Neanderthals and compared them to those of humanity’s closest primate relatives, chimpanzees and gorillas, as well as howler monkeys, a more distant relative. 

Using newly developed tools and methods, they genetically analyzed billions of DNA fragments preserved in the fossilized plaque to reconstruct their genomes. It’s similar in theory to how archeologists painstakingly piece together ancient broken pots, but on a much larger scale.

The biggest surprise from the study was the presence of particular strains of oral bacteria that are specially adapted to break down starch. These strains, which are members of the genus Streptococcus, have a unique ability to capture starch-digesting enzymes from human saliva, which they then use to feed themselves. The genetic machinery the bacteria uses to do this is only active when starch is part of the regular diet. 

Both the Neanderthals and the ancient humans scientists studied had these starch-adapted strains in their dental plaque while most of the primates had almost no streptococci that could break down starch.

“It seems to be a very human specific evolutionary trait that our Streptococcus acquired the ability to do this,” Warinner said. 

The findings also push back on the idea that Neanderthals were top carnivores, given that the “brain requires glucose as a nutrient source and meat alone is not a sufficient source,” Warinner said.

Researchers said the finding makes sense because for hunter-gatherer societies around the world, starch-rich foods –underground roots, tubers (like potatoes), and forbs, as well as nuts and seeds, for example — are important and reliable nutrition sources. In fact, starch currently makes up about 60 percent of calories for humans worldwide.

“Its availability is much more predictable across the annual season for tropical hunter-gatherers,” said Richard W. Wrangham, Ruth B. Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology and one of the paper’s co-authors. “These new data make every sense to me, reinforcing the newer view about Neanderthals that their diets were more sapien-like than once thought, [meaning] starch-rich and cooked.”

The research also identified 10 groups of bacteria that have been part of the human and primate oral microbiome for more than 40 million years and are still shared today. While these bacteria may serve important and beneficial roles, relatively little is known about them. Some don’t even have names.

Focusing on Neanderthals and today’s humans, the analysis surprisingly showed the oral microbiome of both groups were almost indistinguishable. Only when looking at individual bacterial strains could they see some differences. For example, ancient humans living in Europe before 14,000 years ago during the Ice Age shared some bacterial strains with Neanderthals that are no longer found in humans today.

The differences and similarities from the study are all part of what makes us human, Warinner said. It also touches on the power of analyzing the tiny microbes that live in the human body, she said.

“It shows that our microbiome encodes valuable information about our own evolution that sometimes gives us hints at things that otherwise leave no traces at all,” Warinner said.

Original article: Greekreporter.com

June 27, 2021

Prehistoric Greece
Ancient grape seeds confirm that Greeks have been drinking wine for millennia. Credit: Nivet Dilmen, CC BY-SA 3.0

The oldest wine in Europe was discovered recently in ancient Philippi, northern Greece, the Department of History and Archaeology of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki announced.

The University presented research that indicates that making and drinking wine in Europe originates from prehistoric Greece.

Grecian Delight supports Greece

Thousands of ancient grape seeds and pomace were found in ancient Philippi house whose contents were preserved in a fire that occurred in 4300 B.C.

The Aristotle University of Thessaloniki Department of Archaeology has been conducting archaeobotanical research for the last twenty years. The research began with the use of archeological flotation, an archaeobotanical sampling technique where an archaeological deposit is placed in a flotation tank with water that dissolves the deposit until fragments of plants and other material float to the top.

Sultana-Maria Valamoti, professor of Prehistoric Archaeology, director of the Laboratory for Interdisciplinary Research in Archaeology/ EDAE and the PlantCult Laboratory at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Innovation of the AUTH,  said that “These first steps were the starting point that led to today’s findings.

“Thousands of liters of soil have been processed by the method of flotation and a variety of archaeological sites have already been or are being researched archaeobotanically.

“Thanks to the work done at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, this data, often neglected by research, provides a wealth of information on the social and economic organization in northern Greece, the daily activities of people, their farming and agricultural practices, as well as specific symbolic activities from the 7th to the 1st millennium BC” Valamoti added.

University has been researching prehistoric Greece for decades

The Aristotle University of Thessaloniki Department of Archeology, who conducted the research and where Valamoti is a professor of prehistoric archaeology, has been at the vanguard of archeological research in Greece.

For years the department was led by George Hourmouziadis, the former Professor Emeritus of prehistoric archaeology, who led excavations in many prehistoric settlements in Thessaly and Macedonia (such as Dimini, Arkadikos and Dramas, etc.)

In 1992 he started the excavation of the neolithic lakeside settlement of Dispilio in Kastoria, Northwestern Greece. A myriad of items were discovered, which included ceramics, structural elements, seeds, bones, figurines, personal ornaments, three flutes (considered the oldest in Europe) and the Dispilio Tablet.

The discovery of the wooden tablet was announced at a symposium in February 1994 at the University of Thessaloniki. The site’s paleoenvironment, botany, fishing techniques, tools and ceramics were published informally in the June 2000 issue of Eptakiklos, a Greek archaeology magazine.

“I speak and I write using the soil as raw material… this soil is not similar to that which we put  in our pots every autumn. It is the soil of a strange garden, a garden where, thousands of years before, people like us, walked on the marks of their toil, anger, and of their rush and calm which they left behind. They left the footprints of their lives,” he noted on the occasion of the publication of his book “Logia kai Coma (Words and Soil).”

original article: phys.org

By  Trinity College Dublin

10,000-year-old DNA pens the first tales of the earliest domesticated goats
Indentation of several goat hooves in a brick from the archaeological site of Ganj Dareh. Credit: The ‘Tracking Cultural and Environmental Change project’.

New research has revealed the genetic makeup of the earliest goat herds. The findings, assimilated from DNA taken from the remains of 32 goats that died some 10,000 years ago in the Zagros mountains, provide clues to how early agricultural practices shaped the evolution of these animals.

Archaeological evidence has previously pointed to the Zagros Mountains of western Iran as providing the earliest evidence of goat management by humans. Here at the site of Ganj Dareh, the bone remains indicate deliberate slaughtering of male goats once they were fully grown.

In contrast, female goats were allowed to reach older ages, meaning early goat-keepers maximized the number of breeding female animals, similar to herders in the area today.

The close relationship between these early herders and goats can be seen in the very foundations of the settlement, with several bricks bearing the imprint of cloven goat hooves. However, their goats resembled the wild bezoar, with a larger body size and scimitar horn shape.

The international collaboration of researchers behind the study included individuals from Trinity College Dublin, the Smithsonian Institution, the University of Copenhagen, the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) and Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle (MNHN) of France, and the National Museum of Iran.

The landmark study has just been published in the international journal PNAS.

Dr. Kevin G Daly, research fellow in Trinity’s School of Genetics and Microbiology and first author of the paper, said: “Our study shows how archaeology and genetics can address highly important questions by building off ideas and results from both fields. Our genetic results point to the Zagros region as being a major source of ancestry of domestic goats and that herded, morphologically wild goats were genetically on the path to domestication by about 10,200 years ago.”

Links to modern goats

Genetic analyses enabled the researchers to determine that the ancient goats fell at the very base of the domestic goat lineage, suggesting that they were closely related to the animals first recruited during domestication.

A surprising find, however, was the discovery of a small number of goats of the 32 whose genomes appeared more like their wild relatives—the bezoar ibex. This strongly suggests these early goat herders continued to hunt goats from wild herds.

Dr. Daly added: “This first livestock keeping shaped the goats’ genomes. There were signs of reduced Y chromosome diversity—fewer males were allowed to breed, leading to an increased tendency of relatives mating. Surprisingly, the Zagros goat appeared to not have undergone a population bottleneck often associated with domestication and lacked strong signals of selection found in later domestic goats.”

Dan Bradley, professor of population genetics at Trinity, said: “Ancient DNA continues to allow us to plumb the depths of ancient prehistory and examine the origins of the world’s first livestock herds. Over 10,000 years ago, early animal farmers were practicing husbandry with a genetic legacy that continues today.”

10,000-year-old DNA pens the first tales of the earliest domesticated goats


Original article phys.org

by  Asociacion RUVID

New research shows that Siberian Neanderthals ate both plants and animals
Domingo Carlos Salazar and associate. Credit: Asociacion RUVID

Neanderthals, extinct cousins of modern humans, occupied Western Eurasia before disappearing and although it was once thought that they traveled as far east as Uzbekistan, in recent years an international research team with the participation of the University of Valencia discovered that they reached two thousand kilometers further East, to the Altai Mountains of Siberia. An international research team led by Domingo Carlos Salazar, CIDEGENT researcher of excellence at the University of Valencia, published today in the Journal of Human Evolution the first attempt to document the diet of a Neanderthal through a unique combination of stable isotope analysis and identification of plant micro-remnants in an individual.

The analysis of Neanderthal bones and dental stones from Siberia sheds light on their dietary ecology, at the eastern limit of their expansion. It is a very dynamic region where Neanderthals also interacted with their enigmatic Asian cousins, the Denisovans. The work refers both to western Siberia, where there are studies that explain that modern humans responded with high mobility, and to the eastern part, where there is a lack of work that analyzes the behavior and subsistence of Neanderthals, who inhabited this Siberian forest steppe, which is drier and colder than the western one. Studying the diets of eastern Neanderthals allows us to understand their behaviors, mobility and potential adaptability.

A team of researchers from Spain, Germany, Canada, The Netherlands and Russia, led by physician and historian Domingo Carlos Salazar García from the University of Valencia, took bone samples and dental calculus from Neanderthal remains dated to 60 and 50 ka BP from the site of Chagyrskaya in the Altai Mountains in Southern Siberia, located just 100 km from the Denisova Cave. Analyzes of the stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes from one mandible (Chagyrskaya 6) revealed that this individual had a relatively high trophic level compared to the local food web, indicating that it consumed a large amount of animal protein from hunting large and medium-sized game. Using optical microscopy, the researchers identified a diverse assemblage of microscopic particles from plants preserved in the dental calculus from the same individuals as well as from others from the site. These plant microremains indicate that the inhabitants of Chagyrskaya also consumed a number of different plants.

These results can help us answer a long-standing enigma about the Altai Neanderthals: the region was tempting enough that Neanderthals colonized the area at least twice, but genetic data indicates they were barely hanging on, living only in small groups that were constantly at risk of extinction. The dietary data now indicates that this unusual habitation pattern was probably not due to a lack of adapting their diet to the local environment. Instead, other factors such as the climate or interaction with other hominins should be investigated in future studies.n

“Neanderthals were capable of having a diverse menu even in adverse climatic environments,” says Domingo C. Salazar García, “it was really surprising that these eastern Neanderthals had broadly similar subsistence patterns to those from Western Eurasia, showing the high adaptability of our cousins, and therefore suggesting that their dietary ecology was probably not a disadvantage when competing with anatomically modern humans.”

“These microremains provide some indication that even as Neanderthals expanded onto the vast and cold forest-steppe of Central Asia they retained patterns of plant use that could have been developed in Western Eurasia,” says Robert Power, researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Dietary ecology

“A better grasp of Neanderthal dietary ecology is not only the key to better understand why they disappeared, but also to how they interacted with other populations who they coexisted with, like the Denisovans,” says Bence Viola, assistant professor at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto.

“To really understand the diets of our ancestors and cousins, we need more studies like this one that make use of multiple different methods on the same individuals. We can finally understand both the plant and animal foods that they ate,” offers Amanda G. Henry, assistant professor at the Faculty of Archaeology of Leiden University.

“The steppe lowlands of the Altai Mountains were suitable for the habitation of the Neanderthals 60,000 years ago. Despite the sparse vegetation and its seasonal nature, the absence of tundra elements and relatively mild climate allowed eastern Neanderthals to keep the same food strategies as their western relatives,” says Natalia Rudaya, head of PaleoData Lab of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography Siberian Branch Russian Academy of Science.

original article: discover magazine.com

A Doggerland of the Great Lakes? Underwater rock formations on the lakebed of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron may have been created by hunters thousands of years ago.

Brianna Randall

Lake Huron - shutterstock

An aerial view of Lake Huron. (Credit: EdgarBullon/Shutterstock)

In 2007, underwater archeologist Mark Holley was scanning for shipwrecks on the bottom of Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay. Instead, he stumbled on a line of stones thought to be constructed by ancient humans — including one stone with what appeared to be a carving of a mastodon. The subsequent press conference generated excited headlines about a “Stonehenge-like structure” found under Lake Michigan. 

But these sensationalized headlines are misleading: there’s no “henge” to the structure. The stones are small and arranged in a V-shape instead of a circle. Plus, the supposed-mastodon image hasn’t been analyzed to prove whether it’s a carving or a natural feature of the rock.

The real underwater stone sensation lies 120 feet below neighboring Lake Huron: an area the size of a football field with dozens of 9,000-year-old artifacts and human-built stone structures that comprise the most complex prehistoric hunting structure ever found beneath the Great Lakes.

“It’s a Pompeii-type situation. Everything is totally preserved in cold, clear freshwater. You don’t get that often in archaeology,” says John O’Shea, an anthropology professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who has led the research on underwater sites in Lake Huron.

These underwater antiquities give us a glimpse of how prehistoric human communities worked together to find meat.

Crossing the Alpena-Amberley Ridge

When these stone structures were built, great sheets of glacial ice extended south from the North Pole, and water levels were much lower than they are today. The depth of the Great Lakes was up to 300 feet below modern levels, exposing miles more land than we currently see. 

Those exposed shorelines were productive, full of wildlife and plants that attracted hungry humans. Early hunting communities likely targeted migrating caribou in particular, a species that’s adapted to cold climates and is (and was) “very predictable,” according to O’Shea.

Each spring and summer, caribou migrated across a narrow strip of land called the Alpena-Amberley Ridge, which stretched diagonally across Lake Huron, connecting modern-day northeast Michigan to southern Ontario.

“This land bridge was only two to 10 miles wide, giving a huge advantage to early hunters looking to ambush animals,” says O’Shea. 

Like deer and elk, caribou follow linear features and don’t like to step over a line of brush or stone. Early humans capitalized on this by constructing two long, converging stone lines that narrowed to a choke point. At the convergence to the two lines, hunters hid behind big boulders, ready to kill the migrating caribou.

O’Shea and his colleagues have found these stone lines and hunting blinds on the Alpena-Amberley Ridge beneath Lake Huron, most notably in a 300-foot-long ambush area called the Drop 45 Drive Lane. Because the artifacts are so deep, they haven’t been affected by waves and ice or covered by sand and algae. 

“I’ve seen campfire rings with charcoal still inside them, stone tools, and even rings that were used to stake down the edges of a tent or tipi,” says O’Shea, who is also an expert scuba diver. 

Divers collecting samples at the Drop 45 Drive Lane. (Credit: John O’Shea)

Similar hunting structures have been found throughout North America, particularly closer to the Arctic where they were used more recently by traditional native hunters. 

“Comparing the Lake Huron structures to similar hunting techniques around the world gives us a clearer picture of how these rocks might have been used,” says Hans VanSumeren, a marine technology professor and the director of the Great Lakes Water Study Institute at Northwestern Michigan College.

The underwater artifacts and stone structures were carefully vetted to determine whether they were natural or human-made. First, teams use remote sonar mapping to find potential archaeological sites, then they deploy remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) for more detailed investigations, or send down divers to recover samples for further testing. 

“It’s really exciting because it’s the earliest signs of occupation,” says VanSumeren. 

What’s the Story Behind Lake Michigan’s “Stonehenge”?

Back to the media-hyped “Stonehenge” Holley found in Lake Michigan: It might be a small version of a prehistoric hunting structure, similar to the one found in Lake Huron. As for why it was falsely labeled in headlines, VanSumeren says that a hunting blind underwater “doesn’t have the same ring to it” as an internationally recognized prehistoric structure like Stonehenge. 

“There’s clearly a lot of rocks there. But the jury’s out on whether it was intentional construction,” says O’Shea, who dove to the site several years ago with Holley.

Unlike the Caribbean-clear deep water where the Drop 45 Drive Lane was discovered in Lake Huron, the shallow rocks Holley found in Grand Traverse Bay were 35 feet underwater. They are coated in algae, sediment, and invasive mussels, making it difficult to determine if the rocks are natural or human-built. O’Shea hopes Holley will submit his findings for peer-review, which he calls “the gold standard” for scientists.

“You need to produce the receipts to convince people that what you have is real,” says O’Shea, “especially if you’re working underwater where most people can’t go.”

Credit John O’Shea

Divers collecting samples at the Drop 45 Drive Lane. (Credit: John O’Shea)

original article from theconversation.com


Katherine Woo March 21, 2021 9.08pm EDT

The world’s oceans hold their secrets close, including clues about how people lived tens of thousands of years ago.

For a large portion of humanity’s existence, sea levels were significantly lower (up to 130 metres) than they are today, exposing millions of square kilometres of land. And the archaeological record is clear: people in the past lived on these coastal plains before the land slipped beneath the waves.

Archaeology already tells us these drowned landscapes played significant roles in human history. Major events such as human migrations across the globe and the invention of maritime technology took place along these now-drowned shorelines.

But these sites can be hard to find. 

In two papers published this week our team reports on a breakthrough in detecting and excavating one particular type of coastal archaeological site — shell middens — on what is now the seabed.

The rich trove of evidence in these middens offer clues on how people adapted during times of sea-level rise and climate change.

It was long thought shell middens would be unlikely to survive the effects of rising sea levels – or if they had, it would be impossible to distinguish them from natural debris on the ocean floor. Our new findings suggest that’s not necessarily the case.

Underwater archaeologist excavating a shell midden
Scuba diver excavating shell midden. Author supplied.

Read more: In a first discovery of its kind, researchers have uncovered an ancient Aboriginal archaeological site preserved on the seabed


A new way to detect and excavate underwater middens

In recent decades, archaeologist have systematically searched the globe for evidence of these submerged cultural landscapes. 

However, rough currents and poor visibility can make it difficult to find and record underwater sites. 

Danish field crew take cores of the sea floor to determine whether middens are present.

In two journal articles published this week, our team has announced new ways of detecting and excavating shell middens from what is now the seabed.

Previously, shell middens were hard to differentiate from natural shell deposits. 

But our examination of three shell middens between 7,300 and 4,500 years old – from the Gulf of Mexico, the United States and Eastern Jutland in Denmark – demonstrate how submerged middens not only survive, but retain a distinct “signature” which can be used to separate them from naturally accumulated debris on the sea floor.

By using microscopy, geological and geophysical techniques, 3D reconstructions, and biological and ecological studies, we teased out different strands of evidence that offer new insights into how we might find other midden sites in watery depths around the globe.

Box core
We teased out different strands of evidence that offer new insights into how we might find and excavate other midden sites in watery depths around the globe. Author supplied.

Challenging what we thought we knew about ancient coastal communities

What we’ve found so far challenges current ideas about coastal use in the Gulf of Mexico and northern Europe. 

In the Gulf of Mexico, there is a gap in midden sites from between 5,000 and 4,500 years ago along the coastline of our study area. New results suggest localised sea-level changes, not lack of occupation, explain that gap. 

In Denmark, the discovery of these middens (which are rare in the south) hints this type of site was more common than previously thought. That shifts our understandings of how intensive coastal use may have been between 7,300 and 5,000 years ago. 

Importantly, both studies imply our histories of past coastal use may need to be rewritten as more such sites are found. Previously, many archaeologists assumed that people only occupied stable coastal zones. However, in both of our study areas, this was not the case. 

Furthermore, older examples of similar middens likely lie offshore in multiple regions. Our new methods can make the search for such sites easier and more efficient.

Clues about adapting to a changing environment

Research at these sites is generating critical information that is beginning to fill in missing pieces of the puzzle of the human past.

Shell middens are complex, culturally significant sites. Some are the result of people discarding food refuse, tools, and other remnants of daily life. In other cases middens are purposefully built for cultural reasons, including burials. Often they are a mix of both. 

In undersea shell middens we can find discarded tools and ornaments, old living surfaces, and in some cultures, human burials.

They thus provide fundamental information about past food choices, tool technology, trade practices, and cultural values. These different types of information allow us to infer how people adapted their cultures over time. They also hint at how people interacted with their surrounding environments even as sea levels rose and the climate changed.

Understanding the past can help us contend with the future

These findings are not just important for our understandings of the past. They have direct and significant impacts on modern people, especially the rights of Indigenous and First Nations people across the globe. 

These Nations have long impressed on us their deep connections with marine environments and seascapes. However, recognition of these relationships in western environmental and heritage conservation policies has been slow and deeply inadequate. 

These new findings support Indigenous and First Nations people to manage the cultural heritage of their ancestral lands and waters by documenting these relationships into the deep past.

The discovery of these underwater sites, and the promise of more to be found, means industry, developers, archaeologists, and government bodies must reassess how we manage and protect ancient Indigenous heritage in these underwater settings. That is especially true as offshore mining and development accelerates. 

Peter Moe Astrup, Curator of Maritime Archaeology at Moesgaard Museum, co-authored this article.

Original article: Kanu.org

By MELISSA SEVIGNY  MAR 17, 2021

File image #3521, AMNH Library, Anasazi pottery, Pueblo Bonito, Chcao Canyon, New Mexico
CREDIT AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY


A thousand years ago, the Ancestral Puebloans in Chaco Canyon crafted cylinder-shaped drinking vessels. They look like tall water glasses decorated with beautiful triangles and zigzag lines. Archeologists think these jars had a special purpose: they were used for drinking chocolate.

Patricia Crown, a researcher at the University of New Mexico, noticed the jars looked similar to vessels used by the Mayans for chocolate drinking. Crown tested pottery sherds from Chaco Canyon, and, sure enough, turned up chemical markers specific to cacao. The finding implies extensive trade or migration between the residents of the Colorado Plateau and their neighbors in Mesoamerica. Chocolate must have been among the goods carried up from the south, along with copper bells and scarlet macaws.

It’s not clear how Southwest people prepared their cacao. But the Mayans and Aztecs sweetened it with honey or added ground maize. They made the chocolate light and frothy by pouring it from jar to jar. Crown suspects frothing wasn’t just to improve the taste, but a kind of performance art, as well.

Around the start of the 12th century, the people of Chaco Canyon stopped using the chocolate drinking vessels—in a dramatic way. They piled up more than a hundred of the jars in a room and set fire to it. But they didn’t give up chocolate… they just drank it out of mugs instead.

Today, the Chaco Heritage Tribal Association is conducting the first-ever tribal led survey of the Chaco area, with Hopi, Zuni, and Pueblo people looking back to the lives of their ancestors.

Worth One’s Salt

original article LSU.edu

The earliest known record of salt being sold in a marketplace in the Maya region depicted in a mural at Calakmul, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.

Photo Credit: Rogelio Valencia, Proyecto Arqueológico Calakmul

Researchers at LSU uncover more on the ancient Maya commodity

03/22/2021

BATON ROUGE – The first documented record of salt as an ancient Maya commodity at a marketplace is depicted in a mural painted more than 1,000 years ago at Calakmul, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. In the mural that portrays daily life, a salt vendor shows what appears to be a salt cake wrapped in leaves to another person, who holds a large spoon over a basket, presumably of loose, granular salt.

This is the earliest known record of salt being sold at a marketplace in the Maya region. Salt is a basic biological necessity and is also useful for preserving food. Salt also was valued in the Maya area because of its restricted distribution.

Salt cakes could have been easily transported in canoes along the coast and up rivers in southern Belize, writes LSU archaeologist Heather McKillop in a new paper published in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology. She discovered in 2004 the first remnants of ancient Maya salt kitchen buildings made of pole and thatch that had been submerged and preserved in a saltwater lagoon in a mangrove forest in Belize. Since then, she and her team of LSU graduate and undergraduate students and colleagues have mapped 70 sites that comprise an extensive network of rooms and buildings of the Paynes Creek Salt Works. 

“It’s like a blueprint for what happened in the past,” McKillop said. “They were boiling brine in pots over fires to make salt.”

Her research team has discovered at the Paynes Creek Salt Works, 4,042 submerged architectural wooden posts, a canoe, an oar, a high-quality jadeite toolstone tools used to salt fish and meat and hundreds of pieces of pottery.

I think the ancient Maya who worked here were producer-vendors and they would take the salt by canoe up the river. They were making large quantities of salt, much more than they needed for their immediate families. 

This was their living,” said McKillop, who is the Thomas & Lillian Landrum Alumni Professor in the LSU Department of Geography & Anthropology. 

She investigated hundreds of pieces of pottery including 449 rims of ceramic vessels used to make salt. Two of her graduate students were able to replicate the pottery on a 3D printer in McKillop’s Digital Imaging Visualization in Archaeology lab at LSU based on scans taken in Belize at the study site. She discovered that the ceramic jars used to boil the brine were standardized in volume; thus, the salt producers were making standardized units of salt.

“Produced as homogeneous units, salt may have been used as money in exchanges,” McKillop said.

An ethnographic interview with a modern day salt producer in Sacapulas, Guatemala collected in 1981 supports the idea that the ancient Maya also may have viewed salt as a valuable commodity: 

“The kitchen is a bank with money for us…So when we need money at any time during the year we come to the kitchen and make money, salt.”

Additional Link:

Salt as a commodity or money in the Classic Maya economy, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0278416521000106?dgcid=author

Contact Alison Satake
LSU Media Relations
c. 510-816-8161
asatake@lsu.edu

A pot 3D printed in the LSU Digital Imaging & Visualization in Archeology Lab by archeology students based on scans collected at the ancient Maya salt works field site.Photo Credit: LSU

Original article in National Geographic

BY SARAH GIBBENS

Waste left over from the coffee-making process can jolt destroyed forests back to life.

Just like us, forests move faster with a little coffee in their system.

A recent experiment tested whether coffee pulp, a leftover of the coffee growing process, could help bring Costa Rica’s rainforests back to life. Researchers from the University of Hawai’i at Manoa tested two plots to see how the coffee waste would affect deforested land, covering one parcel of grass with about 20 inches of the pulp and leaving the other untouched.

At each site, land had been exploited for years, either to grow coffee or raise cattle, and was eventually abandoned. It was dominated by invasive grasses, primarily an African species called palisade grass, used to feed grazing livestock. The grass can reach 16 feet tall when not trimmed by grazing animals, preventing native rainforests from easily regrowing.

After two years, the plot of land given a boost from coffee showed a dramatic improvement. Eighty percent of the plot was covered by young tree canopy, some trees already 15 feet—including tropical species that can grow as tall as 60 feet—versus just 20 percent in the untreated plot. In the coffee-fueled plot, trees were also four times taller on average, soil samples were more nutrient-rich, and invasive grasses had been eliminated.

The results were published in the journal Ecological Solutions and Evidence.

Not only does it give coffee producers a sustainable way to dispose of their waste, she says, but it also speeds up the timeline to bring back destroyed forests.

“It’s an amazing win-win situation,” says Rebecca Cole, a study author and ecologist from the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. “It takes tropical forest hundreds of years to grow back. To have [such] tall trees in only two years is really spectacular.”

More research needs to be done, Cole acknowledges, to understand the long-term impacts of coffee pulp and whether it causes any unforeseen pollution.

Still, says Cole, “This really was like a forest on caffeine. I think it’s really promising.”

LOOKING FOR A WIN-WIN

Coffee beans are the seeds of a fruit called a coffee cherry that, when picked, looks like a bright red or yellow cherry. To get coffee beans, producers remove the fruit’s skin, pulp, and other filmy bits. They then dry and roast the remains to make the grounds that end up in your morning cup. Approximately half the weight of a coffee harvest will end up as waste.

In Costa Rica, says Rakan Zahawi, a study author and director of the Lyon Arboretum at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, coffee producers typically take all that leftover coffee residue to storage lots where it’s left to decompose.

In the early 2000s, Zahawi visited a similar restoration project using orange peels.

“The difference was night and day,” he says of forests treated with oranges and those left untouched, “There was a huge difference.”

The idea stuck with him when he began working in Costa Rica and took notice of the waste generated by the country’s large coffee industry. If the excess coffee pulp could be put to good use somehow, Cole and Zahawi thought, everyone involved—the coffee producers, land owners, and environmentalists—could benefit.

“Essentially it’s a major waste product that’s expensive to process, and they give it away for free,” says Cole. Rather than paying for the waste to be composted and stored, the only cost to the researchers was renting dump trucks to shuttle the pulp.

HOW AND WHY IT WORKS

The idea works like this: spread a foot and a half of the coffee pulp on an area covered in pasture grasses and the foliage underneath will smother and cook until it’s asphyxiated, dies, and decomposes.

“You essentially kill all the roots and rhizomes of the grasses,” says Zahawi.

Zahawi and Cole found that as the decomposed remains of the grasses mix with the coffee’s nutrient-rich layer, it creates a fertile soil. That, in turn, attracts insects, which attracts birds, who then drop seeds into the plot, as does the wind.

Then comes the rebirth.

“It looks like a mess for the first two or three years, and then there’s this explosion of new plants coming in,” says Zahawi. “It’s so nutrient rich they’re sort of growing on steroids.”

The key, they found, was to pile on the pulp—using a thick enough layer of pulp in an area flat enough for it not to wash away, and in a climate with a dry period that allowed the coffee to really bake. Essentially, it became like a very successful compost heap.

“If you stick your hand in this gook, it’s really hot—not scalding but hot enough to smother [the grass],” says Zahawi.

A plastic tarp spread across a field and pinned down by weights would also kill the grasses. But “then you have all this plastic waste,” says Zahawi. And new, fertile soil would still need  to be brought in to attract new plants.

Cole says the most common way to restore forests is to plant trees. But compared to just dumping coffee byproduct and letting nature do the planting, it’s labor intensive and expensive.

“I was kind of skeptical it was going to work. I thought we would just have a greener patch of grass,” she says. Instead, they got the beginnings of a new rainforest.

ROADBLOCKS AND NEEDED RESEARCH

While Cole and Zahawi’s experiment with coffee pulp successfully jump-started forest growth, there are downsides.

“Coffee pulp is really stinky,” says Cole, who was raised on a Costa Rican coffee farm. “I grew up with the smell but a lot of people find it pretty offensive.”

It also attracts a lot of flies and other insects that, despite attracting seed-dispersing birds, are pests for nearby humans.

“There’s also some concern that it will have negative effects on watersheds. There can be some contamination,” says Cole. Coffee pulp contains nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus that can negatively impact streams and lakes, causing excess algae growth, for example. The pulp may also contain traces of pesticides used during production.

While this experiment was carried out away from water sources, Cole says their future research will look at the potential impact on surrounding areas.

Previous work using orange peels to regrow forests in Costa Rica was met with some backlash. When orange juice maker Del Oro began a partnership with a local protected area to spread truckloads of peels on former cattle pasture, its local competitor, TicoFrut, alleged the program was simply a way to dump waste. The program was stopped by Costa Rican authorities, who sided with the competing juice company.

A PROMISING FUTURE FOR FORESTS?

Dan Janzen and Winnie Hallwachs, a married team of tropical ecologists at the University of Pennsylvania, weren’t surprised by the ecological success of Cole and Zahawi’s reforestation experiment; Janzen forged the relationship between Del Oro and the protected area in 1996 for the same purpose and introduced Zahawi to the concept.

Two decades ago, he saw similar success.

Six months after the orange peels were distributed, Janzen said the small one-hectare plot “looked and smelled horrible.”

“[One and a half] years later it was all gone, and in its place were no invasive African pasture grasses, but a marvelous species-rich patch of broadleaf plants growing from deep black loam soil. Basically, we had fertilized the place very intensively. We were sold,” Janzen writes over email.

He thinks coffee pulp may escape the same fate as the failed orange peel project, saying it’s “less tangled in thorny political issues,” and grown by more small producers rather than two large competing companies.

In addition to researching the long-term impacts, Cole is interested in testing other agricultural by-products. As long as the crop waste is nutrient-rich and not harmful to human health, she would expect similar results.

Article from smithsonianmag.com

Scientists suggest 10,000-year-old barbed points washed up on Dutch beaches were made for cultural reasons

Human Bone Carved Into a Barbed Point
One of the human bone points analyzed in the study, found by Willy van Wingerden in January of 2017. (Willy van Wingerden)

By Bridget Alexsmithsonianmag.com 
December 21, 2020

As the Ice Age waned, melting glaciers drowned the territory of Doggerland, the ground that once connected Britain and mainland Europe. For more than 8,000 years, distinctive weapons—slender, saw-toothed bone points—made by the land’s last inhabitants rested at the bottom of the North Sea. That was until 2oth-century engineers, with mechanical dredgers, began scooping up the seafloor and using the sediments to fortify the shores of the Netherlands. The ongoing work has also, accidentally, brought artifacts and fossils from the depths to the Dutch beaches.

Fossil-hunter hobbyists collected these finds, amassing nearly 1,000 of the jagged bone weapons, known to archaeologists as Mesolithic barbed points. Not only known from the North Sea, barbed points have been found at sites from Ireland to Russia, dating between 8,000 to 11,000 years ago, when the last foragers inhabited Europe before farmers arrived. Mesolithic people likely fastened the points to longer shafts to make arrows, spears and harpoons, key for their hunting and fishing livelihoods. But scholars mostly ignored the barbed points dotting Dutch beaches because they weren’t recovered from systematic digs of proper archaeological sites, like the barbed points found in the U.K. and continental Europe.

Now a team, led by Leiden University archaeologists, has analyzed some of the washed-up weapons, performing molecular measurements to determine which species the barbed points were made from. The scientists mainly wanted to test if this kind of analysis, which depends on proteins surviving in bone, was even possible for artifacts buried underwater for millennia. Not only did the method work, it delivered shocking results: While most of the roughly 10,000-year-old points were made of red deer bone two were fashioned from human skeletons.

“As an expert in this field, I really wasn’t expecting that. It’s really cool,” says Newcastle University archaeologist Benjamin Elliott, who was not involved in the research. Never before have archaeologists found unambiguous evidence that ancient Europeans carefully crafted human bones into deadly weapons.

The study scientists puzzled over why Mesolithic people used red deer and human skeletons for their weapons. “What’s going on with these points?” says Virginie Sinet-Mathiot, an anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, who worked on the project. “What does it mean?”

Practical or economic concerns seemed unlikely explanations: Other raw materials like antler would have been more readily available and durable. Rather, the researchers concluded that ancient hunters chose these particular bones for symbolic reasons, related to their social or spiritual beliefs.

“This was not an economic decision,” says archaeologist Joannes Dekker, lead author of the study, forthcoming in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. The economic move would have been for ancient hunter-gatherers to produce strong points, quickly from animal parts leftover from meals. In that case, researchers would expect to find points made from antler as well as bones of aurochs, other deer species and Eurasian elk. These creatures roamed Mesolithic Doggerland, and experiments by modern archaeologists have shown their bones make excellent projectile weapons.

The fact that the scientists found predominately red deer and human bones suggests, “There must have been some other reason, a cultural reason, why it was important to use these species,” says Dekker, a Masters student at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

The specific motivations driving this Doggerland fad, though, remain a mystery. “You can measure modern bone to see its properties as a projectile point,” says Dekker. “You can’t measure the thoughts in the head of a Mesolithic hunter-gatherer.”

Still, knowing Mesolithic people used human bones this way is a major discovery. “The human stuff is a complete shock,” says Elliott.

Barbed Points
This graphic shows the barbed points analyzed in the study, the beaches they were found on, and the probable dredging location of the original sediments in the North Sea. (Dekker et al. in press JAS: Reports, original file provided by Dekker)

According to him, earlier researchers had floated the idea that human bone comprised some especially long barbed points found in Ireland. Those speculations were based on the fact that there weren’t many large mammals, besides humans, on the island back when the artifacts were made. But until recently, no technology existed to test those claims.

Generally, archaeologists can eyeball a bone, and based on its size and contours, know the body part and animal type from which it came. But that’s nearly impossible for barbed points because the identifying features have been whittled and worn away through manufacture, use and burial.

Over the past decade, a new technology has been developed that solves this problem. The method, Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry or ZooMS, detects the molecular building blocks of collagen, the main protein in bone. Because these collagen components differ slightly between animal types, measuring them can indicate the species of a bone—even for skeletal bits or sculpted artifacts that can’t be identified by visual features.

During ZooMS, scientists chemically dissolve a dash of powdered bone to extract collagen molecules, which are run through a measurement instrument. The method has proven handy for distinguishing between bones of similar-looking creatures like sheep and goat, or rat and mouse. And for Stone Age sites, the process has been used to scan thousands of matchstick-sized skeletal pieces to find rare Neanderthal, Denisovan and Homo sapiensspecimens among heaps of animal bones. Since its introduction in 2009, ZooMS has been successfully used on remains from dozens of sites worldwide, dating from the Stone Age to modern times.

But scientists questioned whether the method would work on Mesolithic Doggerland points; millennia under the sea may have destroyed the collagen proteins. “The challenge here was would we be able to extract collagen and to perform species identifications from material that had been submerged in water for such a long time,” says Sinet-Mathiot, who works to innovate ZooMS protocols through her research.

In 2018, Dekker decided to try, in a small project for his bachelor’s thesis in archaeology at Leiden University. Dekker got permission from a dozen collectors to scrap or chip a bit of bone from their barbed points. He brought the samples to the Max Plank Institute in Leipzig, Germany and worked with Sinet-Mathiot to run the ZooMS analysis. Collaborators at the University of Groningen measured radiocarbon dates, confirming the artifacts were Mesolithic age.

For scholars of European prehistory, the new results are tantalizing, but present more questions than answers. Because the study only tested ten points, washed ashore, scientists don’t know how often, and under what circumstances, people armed themselves with human bones. “It’s super interesting that they found two humans in there, out of ten analyzed in total,” says Theis Zetner Trolle Jensen, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Copenhagen, who was not involved in the study. “But it might very well be that they found the needle in the haystack.”

Earlier this year Jensen and colleagues published a much larger ZooMS study, which determined the animal types comprising 120 Mesolithic barbed points recovered from peat bogs of Denmark and Sweden. They found bones from red deer, moose, bovine and a few brown bear—but not one from Homo sapiens. And, they concluded the Mesolithic crafters chose bone types with preferable mechanical properties. The hunters picked their mediums for practical reasons, not cultural considerations.

The differing results raise the possibility that only inhabitants of Doggerland turned human bones into deadly points during the Mesolithic. “It might be that there are strange people there… people that did different things,” Jensen says.

He and other scholars hope these questions will be clarified through more ZooMS work of barbed points. Although the new study analyzed a small number of artifacts, it showed the scientific value of artifacts washed onto Dutch shores.

“Ideally we’d love [the artifacts] to come from securely excavated contexts,” says Elliott. But Doggerland sites lie beneath the North Sea, so out-of-context beach finds offer invaluable, accessible evidence. “We can’t be snobby about it,” he says. “We have to really embrace it and try to get as much information and understanding from those artifacts as we possibly can.”

Everyday more fossils and artifacts appear on Dutch beaches, enticing a growing number of collector hobbyists. The Facebook group for this community now includes some 600 members, according to its moderator Erwin van der Lee of Rotterdam. “The competition is also very large,” he says.

Rick van Bragt, a university student in The Hague, has found about 10,000 ancient items since he began searching nearly ten years ago. Van Bragt and van der Lee entered their barbed points in the ZooMS study. While van der Lee’s artifact failed to produce results, van Bragt’s point was identified as red deer from 8,000 years ago. Both collectors were fascinated by the news that human bone formed two of the points.

Beyond bone points, the tides washing over Dutch beaches drop shark teeth, flint tools made by Neanderthals, fossils from long-extinct mammoths and other treasures. Spotting the finds takes practice though, and most beachgoers are unaware of what’s there. In the summer, “there’s a lot of people on the beach and they just step on everything,” says Van Bragt. “They don’t see it.”

Editor’s Note, December 21, 2020: This article mistakenly stated 21st-century engineers dredged the seafloor; it was 20th century engineers that started the work.

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