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Archive for June, 2012

Topic: Ancient Terraces

BATTIR, West Bank — In this scenic Palestinian village in the West Bank hills near Bethlehem, just south of Jerusalem, a week is said to last eight days, not seven. That is because Battir’s eight extended families take daily turns watering their crops from the natural springs that feed their ancient agricultural terraces, a practice they say has worked for centuries.

The water flows through a Roman-era irrigation system down into a deep valley where a railway track — a section of the Jaffa-Jerusalem railway built in Ottoman times — roughly marks the 1949 armistice line between the West Bank and Israel. The area is dotted with tombs and ruins upon ruins of bygone civilizations.

When the World Heritage Committee of Unesco— the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — meets in St. Petersburg, Russia, over the next two weeks, this pastoral area will be thrust into the spotlight at least momentarily as the villagers and conservation experts fight to save what they say is a unique living cultural and historical landscape.       

The experts say the Battir terraces are under imminent threat because Israel plans to build a section of its West Bank security barrier right through the valley, parallel to the railway track. They are seeking to have Battir nominated as a World Heritage site on an emergency basis, a move that might persuade Israel to change its plans for the construction.

“The people here constructed their village while always preserving the terraces,” said Hassan Muamer, 27, a civil engineer working for the Battir Landscape Eco-Museum. “It was part of the mentality,” he added. “It is living history.”

But the effort to secure a nomination for Battir has been bogged down by internal Palestinian disagreements, designs and interests. The formal submission of the case was blocked at the last minute on the grounds that it had come too late. Instead, the Palestinian delegation to Unesco is pushing a higher-profile, more political effort to have Bethlehem’s venerated Church of the Nativity and pilgrimage route inscribed on the list of World Heritage sites on an emergency basis.

A panel of experts has already determined that although the church needs renovation and conservation, it does not appear to be in imminent danger and therefore does not qualify for emergency status. Leaders of the three churches that share control of the Church of the Nativity, always leery of prospective changes to the delicate status quo, also expressed some early reservations.

When Unesco granted Palestinians full membership in the organization last October, Israel and the United States viewed the development as part of a contentious, wider Palestinian campaign for international recognition of statehood in the absence of an agreement with Israel. The step cost Unesco one-quarter of its yearly budget — 22 percent, or about $70 million, contributed by the United States, and 3 percent contributed by Israel.

Now some Palestinian and Western officials say that by pushing the case of the Church of the Nativity, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, the Palestinian leadership is putting prestige above professional and technical considerations.

In response to the criticism, the Palestinian ambassador to Unesco, Elias Sanbar, wrote a letter condemning what he called “a persistent campaign of rumors aimed at discrediting Bethlehem’s candidacy” by “those who do not want to see Palestine exercise its legitimate rights.” He attached a statement from two of the three church leaders expressing their thanks to the Palestinian leadership for its efforts to safeguard and advance the Christian congregations’ freedom and cause.

Still, experts in the Palestinian territories say Battir is in more urgent need of protection.

“If Battir is submitted only next year, it may be too late,” said Giovanni Fontana Antonelli, the cultural heritage program specialist at the Unesco office in Ramallah, in the West Bank. “If the wall goes through the valley, it will totally destroy the integrity of the site,” he added.

Noting that the terraces are supported by dry stone walls made up of many millions of stones, Mr. Fontana characterized the valley as “not monumental but historical, an example of outstanding engineering.”

“The work of human beings there needs to be valued,” he said. “It is the work of centuries.”

Israel says its barrier, a system of fences and walls, razor wire and patrol roads, is essential to prevent Palestinian suicide bombers from reaching Israeli cities.

The villagers have petitioned the Supreme Court in Israel to have the barrier rerouted here to prevent the destruction of the striking beauty of the area and its ancient system of cultivation. A court decision is pending. The conservationists hope that a recommendation from the World Heritage Committee may help persuade the court not to reject the villagers’ petition.

Local Palestinians like Raed Samara, a planning and development expert who has been active in promoting the case of Battir, say construction of a barrier would destroy the tranquillity that has prevailed here for decades.

The steep slopes across from Battir are in Israel, making this shared landscape a transboundary site in the Unesco lexicon.

“Nobody thinks that Israel’s security concerns are not legitimate or important,” said Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli director of Friends of the Earth Middle East, an organization that works to promote cooperation on environmental issues in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories. But, he added, “there are alternative ways to bring about security without destroying 4,000 years of cultural heritage for the Israelis, the Palestinians and all of humanity.”

On a recent evening, Mohannad Abu Hassan, a schoolteacher, was working a small triangular plot in the valley with his son Muhammad, 12. Water poured in from one corner as they turned the rich soil planted with green beans, zucchini, eggplant and chard. As soon as they were finished watering, a sprightly elderly woman, a distant relative, skipped down to a nearby plot across the railway track and turned her water on. In the old core of the village, children bathed in the cool waters of the central spring.

Until the late 1940s, Battir was the last stop before Jerusalem on the Jaffa-Jerusalem railway. The train platform used to turn into a bustling market, and the villagers maintained strong connections with the city. The train does not stop here anymore, and most of the produce is now for home use or for local sale. But the villagers are keeping up with the times, swapping news about the Unesco effort through a Facebook group of 2,000 residents and supporters.

Akram Bader, the mayor of Battir, recently traveled to Unesco headquarters in Paris to push his case and plans to go to St. Petersburg. “For three months I couldn’t sleep,” Mr. Bader said. “I cannot imagine my village divided. If we have lived in peace these last 60 years, we can live the same way forever.”

Original article:

nytimes.com

June 25, 2012

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Topic: Cow, unique ancient find

Archaeologists excavating an Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Cambridgeshire say the discovery of a woman buried with a cow is a “genuinely bizarre” find.

 

 

The grave was uncovered in Oakington by students from Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Central Lancashire.

At first it was thought the animal skeleton was a horse.

Student Jake Nuttall said: “Male warriors might be buried with horses, but a woman and a cow is new to us.”

He added: “We were excited when we thought we had a horse, but realising it was a cow made it even more bizarre.”

Co-director of the excavation, Dr Duncan Sayer, from the University of Central Lancashire, said: “Animal burials are extremely rare, anyway.

“There are only 31 horse burials in Britain and they are all with men.

“This is the first animal to be discovered with a woman from this period – the late 5th Century – and it’s really interesting that it’s a cow, a symbol of economic and domestic wealth and power.

“It’s also incredibly early to find any grave of a woman buried with such obvious wealth.”

‘Unique’ burial

The skeleton was found with grave goods including brooches and hundreds of amber and decorated glass beads.

“She also had a complete chatelaine [keychain] set, which is an iron girdle and a symbol of her high status,” Dr Sayer said.

“It indicates she had access to the community’s wealth.

“She is almost certainly a regional elite – a matriarchal figure buried with the objects that describe her identity to the people who attended her funeral.”

Joint director Dr Faye Simpson, from Manchester Metropolitan, said: “A cow is a big thing to give up.

“It’s a source of food and something that would have been very expensive to keep, so to sacrifice it would be a big decision.

“They would have wanted to give her something really important to show respect and they wouldn’t have done that for just anybody.

Dr Sayer added: “The cow burial is unique in Europe which makes this an incredibly exciting and important find.

“I don’t think I’ll find anything as significant as this again in my lifetime.”

Original article:

bbc.co.uk

June 25, 2012

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Topic: Nutcracker man:

It’s not hard to understand why Paranthropus boisei is often called the Nutcracker Man. The hominid’s massive molars and enormous jaw make it seem pretty obvious that the species spent a lot of time chomping on hard nuts and seeds. Yet, the only direct evidence of P. boisei‘s meals—the chemistry and microscopic scratches of the teeth—hint that the species probably didn’t crack nuts all that much, instead preferring the taste of grass. A team of anthropologists that recently reviewed the possible diets of several early hominid species has highlighted this paradox of the Nutcracker Man and the difficulties in reconstructing the diets of our ancient kin.

The first place anthropologists start when analyzing diet is the size and shape of the hominid’s teeth and jaws. Then they look for modern primates that have similar-looking dentition to see what they eat. For example, monkeys that eat a lot of leaves have molars with sharp cusps for shearing the tough foliage. On the other hand, monkeys that eat a lot of fruit have low, rounded molar cusps. If you found a hominid with either of those traits, you’d have a starting point for what the species ate.

But the morphology of a species’ teeth and jaws only shows what the hominid was capable of eating, not necessarily what it typically ate. In some cases, these physical traits might reflect the fallback foods that a species relied on when its preferred foods were unavailable during certain times of the year. Frederick Grine of Stony Brook University in New York and colleagues point this out in their recent review in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Grine and colleagues note that other lines of evidence directly record what an individual ate. One method is to look at the chemistry of a tooth’s dental enamel. As the enamel forms, atoms that an individual consumes become incorporated in the tooth. One of the most common elements to look for is carbon. Because different plants have unique ratios of carbon isotopes based on how they undergo photosynthesis, the carbon isotopes act as a stamp that records what the individual once ate. Researchers look for two main plant groups: C3 plants are trees, fruits and herbaceous plants that grow in environments with cooler seasons while C4 plants are the grasses and sedges that grow in tropical, warm regions. Finding the isotopic traces of C3 or C4 plants in teeth indicate a hominid ate those plants (or animals that ate those plants).

Another way to directly sample diet is to look at the characteristic microscopic markings on a tooth’s surface that form when chewing certain foods. Eating tough grasses and tubers, for example, will leave behind scratches; hard nuts and seeds create pits. One drawback of this method is that a tooth’s microwear is constantly reshaped whenever an individual eats. So, the markings found by anthropologists probably represent an individual’s “last meal,” whatever he or she was eating in the days before death. If a hominid had a diet that changed seasonally, part of the diet may not be reflected in the tooth’s surface wear.

With all of these methods in mind, Grine and his colleagues considered the probable diets of several early hominid species. A comparison of the closely related P. bosei and Paranthropus robustus emphasized the puzzle of the Nutcracker Man.

P. robustus lived in South Africa 1.2 million to 1.8 million years ago when the region was an open grassland. The species’ giant, thickly enameled molars and premolars (better known as bicuspids) and heavy jaw suggest P. robustus was chewing hard objects. The surface wear on the teeth also point to eating hard foods and resemble the wear patterns seen in modern mangabey monkeys, which often eat nuts. The teeth’s enamel chemistry further supports this conclusion: As much as 60 percent of the species’ diet consisted of C3 plants, which would include hard-shelled nuts and fruits (carbon chemistry can’t detect which part of a plant an animal ate).

P. boisei lived in the wooded and open grasslands of East Africa at about the same time P. robustus was alive. It had an even larger jaw and teeth, with the biggest molars of any hominid. These traits indicate the species was a powerful chewer. But the wear patterns on the molar lack the deep pits that characterize those of hard-object eaters. Instead, the patterns match those of gelada baboons, which eat a lot of tough grasses. A grass diet is further hinted at by the carbon isotopes in P. boisei teeth: As much as 77 percent of their diet consisted of C4 plants (grasses and sedges).

Grine and his colleagues suggest there may be a way to reconcile the paradox of P. boisei. Instead of being adaptations to cracking open hard objects, the species’ massive teeth and jaws may have been traits that helped P. boisei handle very abrasive foods, including any grit clinging to blades of grass. Or perhaps the species’ used its giant molars to grind its food in a unique way. These are ideas that anthropologists should further investigate.

Although P. boisei‘s diet seems puzzling, one thing is clear: The apparent mismatch between the various lines of evidence demonstrate that anthropologists still have a lot to learn about what our ancestors ate.

Original article:
smithsonian.com
June 25, 2012

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Topic: Cheese

Milk products may be why the hunter-gatherer lifestyle was given up in favor of a more settled, and yogurt-eating, existence.

THE GIST

People were processing dairy products in the African Sahara more than 7,000 years ago.

The first dairy farmers lived in Anatolia, now modern-day Turkey.

Dairy farming may have pushed people to settle down.

More than 7,000 years ago, prehistoric people in the African Sahara were making dairy products, such as butter, yogurt and cheese.

The discovery, based on the identification of dairy fats on ancient pottery shards found in Libya, is the first to provide a definitive date for early dairy farming in Africa. Adding to findings from Europe and the Middle East, the study points to milk products as a main reason why people in many places may have chosen to give up the hunter-gatherer lifestyle in favor of a more settled existence.

“What we’re really beginning to know is that cattle were incredibly significant to early peoples,” said Julie Dunne, an archaeological scientist at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. “They gave a remarkably calorific source of food and allowed populations to expand dramatically. Milk and dairying seem to be so significant in human development, remarkably so.”

Plenty of research has documented the domestication of sheep, goats and cattle, as well as the use of dairy products, beginning around 9,000 years ago in parts of modern-day Turkey, 8,000 years ago in eastern Europe and 6,000 years ago in Britain.

In Africa, details have been murkier. Fossil evidence suggests the arrival of domesticated milk-producers in North Africa by about 8,000 years ago with an increase in animal numbers over the next 1,000 years, but remains are spotty. And even though archaeologists have discovered vivid rock art depicting cattle and even milking scenes in Algeria and other parts of the Sahara, it is impossible to accurately date those paintings.

For the new study, Dunne and colleagues analyzed organic residues on 81 well-dated pieces of pottery taken from the Takarkori rock shelter in the Libyan Sahara. The samples turned out to be incredibly well preserved, containing fat residues at high concentrations, probably because of the region’s dry conditions — though the climate there was much wetter during the period considered in the new study.

Evidence showed that some pots were used to hold plant oils. But many contained chemical signatures that were unambiguously from animal fats, the researchers report today in the journal Nature. Analyses revealed the remains of dairy products made from cow, goat and sheep’s milk, dating back to between 7,200 and 5,800 years ago.

At that time, Africans had not yet developed the genetic mutations that allow people to digest milk, according to other research. So, the Sahara’s lactose-intolerant dairy farmers were likely making yogurt and cheese rather than drinking straight from the udders of their animals. Only after people learned to process dairy foods did their bodies develop the ability to drink pure milk — through mutations that appear to have happened independently as many as three or four times in Africa.

It is now becoming clear that dairying was a transformative development in human history, said Joachim Burger, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Mainz in Germany. Given their carbohydrate and nutrient profiles, dairy products would have been far superior to what people could get from hunting and gathering alone. And when our ancestors figured that out, society changed forever.

“The general question behind all this is what actually made man to become sedentary and change his lifestyle completely,” Burger said. “Milk is not just a side effect of this change. It may even be a driving force behind it.”

Original article:

DiscoveryNews

By Emily Sohn Wed Jun 20, 2012

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Topic early hunting- tools

At a site in the Homa Peninsula of Lake Victoria, Kenya, scientists are uncovering stone tools and fossils that are shedding new light on their manufacture and use, as well as early human habitat and behavior.
Led by co-directors Dr. Thomas Plummer of Queens College, City University of New York and Dr. Rick Potts of the Smithsonian Institution, excavations at the site, called Kanjera South, have revealed a large and diversified assortment of Oldowan stone tools, fossil animal remains and other flora and faunal evidence that is building a picture of hominin, or early human, life and behavior in a grassland environment about 2 million years ago. Oldowan stone tools represent the earliest known human or hominin stone tool industry, named after the Olduvai Gorge, where Louis Leakey first discovered examples in the 1930’s. This early industry was typically composed of simple “pebble tools” such as choppers, scrapers and pounders, a type of technology used from about 2.6 to 1.7 million years ago.
According to Plummer, the site “has yielded approximately 3700 fossils and 2900 artifacts…….This represents one of the largest collections of Oldowan artifacts and fauna found thus far”.
But more significant than the numbers is what the analysis of the finds and the site has revealed.
Says Plummer, “the ca. 2.0 Ma sediments at Kanjera South…..provide some of the best early evidence for a grassland dominated ecosystem during the time period of human evolution, and the first clear documentation of human ancestors forming archaeological sites in such a setting”.
The site thus shows clear evidence that early humans of this time period were inhabiting and utilizing a grassland environment, in addition to other types of environments, a signal of critical adapatation that led to evolutionary success. Moreover, analysis of the makeup of the tools and the geography and geology of the area suggested that these hominins were transporting what they must have consideed to be the highest quality materials from relatively distant locations to produce the most effective and efficient tools for butchering animals. Cut marks made by stone blades on fossil bones, particularly small antelopes, showed signs that the animals may have been hunted, or at least encountered first, by the early humans before other preying animals reached the carcasses.
“The overall pattern of hominin access to the complete carcasses of small antelopes may be the signal of hominin hunting”, writes Plummer. “If so, this would be the oldest evidence of hunting to date in the archaeological record”.
Use of stone tools by these early humans apparently went beyond butchery.
“Thus far, the use-wear on the quartz and quartzite subsample of Kanjera artifacts confirms that animal butchery was conducted on-site, but also demonstrates the processing of a variety of plant tissues, including wood (for making wooden tools?) and tubers. This is significant, because the processing of plant materials appears to have been quite important, but would otherwise have been archaeologically invisible”.

Plummer’s detailed article about the research and findings is published in the June 12, 2012 issue of Popular Archaeology Magazine.

Original article:
popular archaeology
June 13, 2012

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Topic: Amazon

 

New study results suggest a lop-sided dispersal of ancient population groups in the Amazon Basin before Columbus.

The spread of indigenous pre-Columbian settlements in the Amazon Basin was not an even one, according to an analysis of the results of a recent study conducted by researchers from four research institutions.

The researchers, from the Florida Institute of Technology, the Smithsonian Institution, Wake Forest University and the University of Florida, led by Florida Tech’s Crystal McMichael and Mark Bush, were attempting to determine the impact of human population in Amazonia before the Europeans arrived. Their hypothesis: If the Pre-Columbian Amazon was a landscape highly altered by humans, then most of the Amazon’s current biodiversity could be the result of human impact. Because the Amazon Basin represents one of the planet’s most significant areas of biodiversity, the question of how Amazonia was modified by humans in the past contributes to our understanding of rainforest ecology and informs us in our conservation efforts.

The team collected 247 soil cores from 55 locations in the central and western Amazon, sites like river banks and locations that archeological evidence had indicated were occupied by people. They also collected cores farther from the rivers, where historical and archaeological data were lacking. By using markers set in the cores, they were able to track the chronology of fire, vegetation and human alterations in the soil. No samples were collected form the eastern Amazon, as it has already been thoroughly studied.

Their finds suggested that the early inhabitants of the central and western Amazon were concentrated near rivers and lakes, living in small groups, with some larger populations along some rivers. Even in the larger settlements, there was no evidence of high population and large-scale agriculture. Their impact on the rainforest was, for the most part, limited to the river banks, with little impact on the outlying forests. These results overturn the long-held notion that all of Amazonia was a highly populated area with large-scale agriculture before the Europeans arrived. At least in the central and western portions of the Amazon, people actually lived in smaller, mobile groups.

Said Bush: “There is strong evidence of large settlements in eastern Amazonia, but our data point to different cultural adaptations in the central and western Amazon, which left vast areas with very little human imprint.” Adds McMichael: “The amazing biodiversity of the Amazon is not a byproduct of past human disturbance…..We also can’t assume that these forests will be resilient to disturbance, because many have never been disturbed, or have only been lightly disturbed in the past. Certainly there is no parallel in western Amazonia for the scale of modern disturbance that accompanies industrial agriculture, road construction, and the synergies of those disturbances with climate change.”

The detailed research report appears in the 15 June 2012 issue of Science. Science is published by AAAS, the nonprofit science society.

Original Article:

 

Popular Archaeology.

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Topic Hunter-Gather to Farmers

The possible discovery of the earliest toilet in Southern Vietnam could give up clues about how Southeast Asia evolved from a traditional hunter gatherer society to a farming community, new research from The Australian National University reveals.

 

 

Dr. Marc Oxenham led a team of Australian and Vietnamese specialists on a seven-week archaeological excavation of a 3,300 to 3,700 year old Neolithic village site in Southern Vietnam earlier this year. ‘Rach Nui’ is a 5-metre tall ancient human-made mound surrounded by small tidal streams and mangrove swamps. The site is about 30km south of modern-day Ho Chi Minh City.

The team believe they found Vietnam’s earliest latrine when they stumbled across more than 30 preserved faeces belonging to humans and dogs that contained fish and shattered animal bones.

“A detailed analysis of these will provide a wealth of information on both the diet of humans and dogs at Rach Nui, but also on the types of parasites each had to contend with,” Dr. Oxenham said.

Dr. Oxenham said about 4000 years ago, major economic, behavioral and genetic changes led to Southeast Asians swapping a lifestyle of hunting, gathering and fishing for farming.

“These hunter gatherers were highly mobile, always moving from place to place to find food resources. The agriculturists had a more sedentary, stable existence, and because they stayed in one place, they were able to grow crops. And of course, population size grows with a much more stable food source.

“So what we tend to find in places like Southern Vietnam is a lot more evidence of these people in the landscape. Because they were sedentary and the population size was expanding, they left mounds like Rach Nui with evidence of their lives. Their trash built up over time in once place.”

Dr. Oxenham said the team uncovered the remnants of multiple living or housing platforms, built up over many generations from crushed shell, pottery and dried branches, fired to produce cement-like floors.

The team also found betel nut – a red palm fruit chewed extensively in for stimulant properties – and foxtail millet – the first time foxtail has ever been found to have been grown in Vietnam at this very early period of time.

“The presence of foxtail millet is really exciting. It not only confirms that this community was growing domesticated crops at this time, but this variety of millet is from China and may provide clues into the origins of farming in Southern Vietnam, and indeed, Southeast Asia as a whole,” Dr. Oxenham said.

Dr. Oxenham added that the menu of the Rach Nui community differed from other Neolithic communities, and, apart from pigs and dogs, tended to include animals found in swampy environments such as crocodiles, turtles, macaques and monitor lizards, catfish, shellfish, and mud crabs.

Original article:

phys.org

June 14, 2012

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