Archive for February, 2017
ByCATHLEEN O’GRADY (US) –
Bones and burial grounds point male children getting better-quality food.
Around 7,000 years ago in China’s Central Plains, the Yangshao culture began to flourish along the Yellow River. It was another example of the same widespread Neolithic culture that was also emerging in Europe around the time, with new developments in pottery and agriculture. In China, it dominated the region for approximately 2,000 years.
Yangshao remains have offered a team of international researchers insight into an interesting question: did gender differences change alongside agricultural practices? They argue that gender inequality emerged along with the new crops among the Yangshao. The archaeological data has some interesting signs, but it’s possible that the researchers are overstating their case: the only evidence they have is of inequality in people’s diets, which doesn’t tell us much about the structure of inequality of societies.
Millet cereals were domesticated in the region as early as 10,000 years ago and were the primary crop of Yangshao cultures. Wheat, barley, and soybeans were introduced to the region after the end of Yangshao, around 4,000 years ago, although archaeological traces of them remain low for centuries. According to historical records, they were thought to be inferior foods, suitable only for protecting the poor against famine. That only changed around 2,000 years ago, when improved technological methods made it easier to refine them.
Agricultural changes aren’t only reflected in artifacts; they show up in excavated bones, too. Millet uses a type of photosynthesis that differs from the vast majority of plants, and it’s the only domesticated plant in Early China to use this type of photosynthesis. The result of this is that the carbon signature in the bones of people who ate primarily millet looks different from that of people who ate other plants. Nitrogen traces in bones can point to the quantity of animal products in an individual’s diet.
The researchers compared Yangshao bones with remains from the Bronze Age Eastern Zhou Dynasty, which lasted from 771 to 221 BC. In the Eastern Zhou bones, they found evidence that men and women were eating different diets: men’s bones had evidence of higher consumption of animal products and millet, while women’s bones showed evidence of higher consumption of the more recent (and scorned) crops of wheat, barley, and soy. The Yangshao bones, on the other hand, generally didn’t show a significant difference, with the exception of one of the five sites studied. This suggests that “meals were no longer shared at the household level during Eastern Zhou,” the authors write.
On its own, this is not evidence of a bias favoring males. There could be cultural reasons for a gender-based split in diet that weren’t actively bad for women—although the fact that women were eating more of the food that was considered low quality is a bit telling.
But other strands of evidence corroborate the inequality story: women’s bones from Eastern Zhou, but not Yangshao, showed more signs of childhood malnutrition, and size differences between the sexes increased from Yangshao to Eastern Zhou. Both of these signs indicate that male children had better quality food, pointing to greater parental investment in male children. And female graves in Eastern Zhou had fewer burial items and were less likely to have a coffin than male graves, while again, Yangshao graves were more egalitarian.
It’s an interesting result, but it’s always a mistake to draw too many parallels with modern society from archaeological research. It’s also not clear that this is really evidence of the first emergence of gender inequality in this region of China.
It is evidence of a massive cultural change in how the genders related to each other, certainly. But food-based inequality isn’t the only kind of gender inequality that a society might practice—there are plenty of inarguably patriarchal modern societies where families eat meals together. It’s entirely possible that Yangshao did have inequality, but that it took a different shape and would have left a different kind of archaeological presence.
An open question is how the change in gender practices and agriculture are interwoven. Did the change in agriculture itself lead to the change in gender norms? The causal story is likely to be complicated, and the authors of the paper steer clear of suggesting that one led to the other, but the relationship between them is something that future research can hopefully illuminate.
PNAS, 2016. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1611742114 (About DOIs).
This post originated on Ars Technica
When workers began digging out the Roman cities torched by Mount Vesuvius, the exquisite wall paintings, sumptuous villas and golden jewelry they found quickly grabbed the spotlight. But archaeologists are now looking to a less glamorous feature of these cities: the garbage.
Over the last few years, a team of researchers has taken a systematic look at street trash, buckets and even storage containers from Pompeii and other ruins to understand the relationship between ordinary Romans and their stuff. The extraordinary preservation of objects by volcanic debris allows for extraordinary insights into humdrum possessions, the researchers say.
“We’re actually starting to see evidence of people’s choices and how they dealt with their objects,” says Caroline Cheung, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, involved in the project. “We get a sense of how people were using them, how they were storing them, whether they were throwing them away or keeping them.”
Modest farmhouses and swanky country houses alike were entombed by the 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius, which killed an untold number of the 20,000-plus people living in Pompeii and the surrounding area. But the deadly volcanic flows also preserved artifacts with unprecedented fidelity.
The humble objects left behind show that people didn’t necessarily go easy on their possessions, even though the articles of everyday life were often purchased rather than homemade.
Take the objects discovered at a farmhouse near Pompeii, where the cooking range was so heaped with ashes that it’s clear “they just basically didn’t take out the garbage,” says Theodore Peña of the University of California, Berkeley. “Like frat boys.” Peña leads the project, which is taking a close look at artifacts found during previous excavations.
In a storeroom of the kitchen, shelves held gear that “had the hell beaten out of it,” Peña says. There was a bronze bucket full of dents, perhaps where it had banged into the side of the well just outside the farmhouse. There were pots with bits of the rims broken off and a casserole so badly cracked that it was close to falling apart, but people had kept them to use again.
At a complex near Pompeii that seems to have been a wine-bottling facility, there were more than 1,000 amphorae, ceramic vessels that were the shipping containers of their day. Many were patched and waiting to be refilled, presumably with wine, Peña says.
When the researchers delved into street rubbish, they expected to find lots of broken glass, used for perfume bottles and other common items. Instead they found almost none, a sign that even shards of glass were being collected and made into something else.
It’s too early to say whether the people of Pompeii were thrifty adherents of recycling. But the indications so far are that “ceramics and other types of objects were being reused, repurposed or at least repaired,” Cheung says, in contrast to today’s “throwaway society. … If I break a cheap mug, I probably throw it away. I don’t even think about repairing it.”
The research is “very exciting,” says archaeologist Leigh Anne Lieberman, a graduate student at Princeton University who also studies items from the region but was not involved with Peña’s research. The analysis, she says, “allows us to ask questions we didn’t even know we had.”
The analysis also summons the long-gone Romans who once held the same items now being scrutinized nearly 2,000 years later. “Sometimes you look at a pot or lamp and see fingerprints of the person who made the object,” Cheung says. “That’s a tangible piece of the past that connects you to antiquity.”
Oetzi the famous “iceman” mummy of the Alps appears to have enjoyed a fine slice or two of Stone Age bacon before he was killed by an arrow some 5,300 years ago.
His last meal was most likely dried goat meat, according to scientists who recently managed to dissect the contents of Oetzi’s stomach.
“We’ve analysed the meat’s nanostructure and it looks like he ate very fatty, dried meat, most likely bacon,” German mummy expert Albert Zink said at a talk in Vienna late Wednesday.
More specifically, the tasty snack is thought to have come from a wild goat in South Tyrol, the northern Italian region where Oetzi roamed around and where his remains were found in September 1991.
Mummified in ice, he was discovered by two German hikers in the Oetztal Alps, 3,210 metres (10,500 feet) above sea level.
Scientists have used hi-tech, non-invasive diagnostics and genomic sequencing to penetrate his mysterious past.
These efforts have determined Oetzi died around the age of 45, was about 1.60 metres (five foot, three inches) tall and weighed 50 kilos (110 pounds).
He suffered a violent death, with an arrow severing a major blood vessel between the rib cage and the left shoulder blade, as well as a laceration on the hand.
As part of their latest discoveries, Zink’s team also found that Oetzi had an ulcer-inducing bacteria and may have suffered from stomach aches.
But for all his parasites, worn ligaments and bad teeth, he was in “pretty good shape”, Zink wrote in the renowned US magazine Science earlier this month.
by Blake de Pastino
A close look at bones found in a Yukon cave seems to confirm a controversial finding made decades ago, archaeologists say: that humans arrived in North America 10,000 years earlier than many experts believe.
The bones are the remains of horse, bison, mammoths, and other Ice Age fauna, originally excavated from the Bluefish Caves near the border of Alaska and the Yukon Territory in the 1970s and 1980s.
Back then, radiocarbon dating placed the bones at about 25, 000 years old — not in itself surprising, except that many of the bones appeared to have been butchered by humans.
And the earliest evidence of human activity on the continent — at least at the time — dated back a mere 14,000 years.
Anthropologist Lauriane Bourgeon at the University of Montreal has devoted her doctoral thesis to revisiting the controversy surrounding the Bluefish Caves bones.
And she has concluded that more than a dozen of the animal bones do indeed bear “indisputable evidence of butchery activity,” showing that humans were on the continent well before the end of the last Ice Age.
The implications of these findings are weighty, not only for the timing of the peopling of the Americas, but for the way in which people actually moved from Asia into what’s known as Eastern Beringia — the swath of North America immediately east of the Bering Strait.
“In addition to proving that Bluefish Caves is the oldest known archaeological site in North America,” Bourgeon and her colleagues write in the journal PLOS One, “the results offer archaeological support for the ‘Beringian standstill hypothesis,’ which proposes that a genetically isolated human population persisted in Beringia during the Last Glacial Maximum (ed: the Ice Age) and dispersed from there to North and South America.”
The caves were first excavated by Canadian archaeologist Jacques Cinq-Mars starting in 1977, who posited, based on radiocarbon dating at the time, that the scored and damaged animal bones were evidence of human activity in the Americas as much as 25,000 years ago.
Largely dismissed and later overlooked, the theory was recently taken up by Bourgeon.
In 2015, she published some of her preliminary findings, after having studied 5,600 bone fragments from Cave 2 of the Bluefish Caves.
Most of the scoring and hatching marks on the bones were made by scavenging animals and not humans, she said.
But at least two of the bones did betray the tell-tale signs of human butchery, she said, including the pelvis bone of a caribou that bore deep, parallel lines etched in them.
“That is typically the mark of a stone tool used to de-flesh or disarticulate a carcass,” she told Western Digs at the time.
But the oldest of the samples that she tested was no more than 14,000 years old.
(See full coverage of her 2015 study: “Butchered Bones Found in Yukon Cave Bear Marks of Early Americans, Study Finds“)
Today, she and her team have obtained even more impressive results.
Bourgeon’s full study covered 36,000 bones from Caves 1 and 2, studying them under a high-power microscope and comparing them to other bones that had been scarred by animals, broken by freeze-thaw cycles, or damaged by rockfall or other natural sources of abrasion.
She and her team concluded that 15 bone samples bore striations that they say are “confidently attributable to human activities.”
Unlike carnivore teeth, which leave wide, shallow, U-shaped depressions, these samples bore the signature of a hand-held tool, they assert.
“Series of straight, V-shaped lines on the surface of the bones were made by stone tools used to skin animals,” said Montreal’s Dr. Ariane Burke, adviser to Bourgeon and a co-author of the new study, in a press statement.
“These are indisputable cut-marks created by humans.”
The team also conducted its own series of radiocarbon tests on six of the bones with the butchery marks.
The youngest specimen was 12,000 years old and the oldest — the lower jaw of an extinct horse, said to have marks showing where its tongue was cut out — was 24,000 years old.
Taken together, these two data points suggest that Ice Age Alaska and Yukon were not only inhabited, the team asserts, but that it was inhabited by a genetically isolated population, because 24,000 years ago, the rest of the continent was covered in glaciers and impassable.
This idea — known as the Beringia standstill hypothesis — has been proposed by some geneticists, who have found molecular clues in the DNA of indigenous groups both east and west of the Bering Strait which suggest that the Americas’ earliest settlers lingered in Eastern Beringia for thousands of years before being able to migrate south.
“Our discovery confirms the ‘Beringian standstill hypothesis,’” said Burke in the statement.
“Genetic isolation would have corresponded to geographical isolation.
“During the Last Glacial Maximum, Beringia was isolated from the rest of North America by glaciers and steppes too inhospitable for human occupation to the West.
“It was potentially a place of refuge.”
A growing body of evidence has been discovered since the ‘70s that shows a substantial human presence in the Americas before 14,000 years ago.
But there’s limited archaeological evidence to suggest that the continent was populated a full 25,000 years ago.
To that, Bourgeon and her team say, future research must focus on both archaeological and genetic evidence, specifically in the region around the Bering Strait, in order to get to the bottom of how and when the continent was populated.
“More research effort is required in Beringia clearly, to substantiate the existence of a standstill population and fully understand the prehistory of the first people of the Americas,” they write.
By Brenton Driedger
Royal Alberta Museum archaeologists are about to start a lengthy and intricate process of figuring out what ancient Albertans cooked for supper.
Last year, they dug up a 1,600-year-old roasting pit at Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump in southern Alberta. The oven was intact and still had a prepared meal inside, which could make it the only known artifact of its kind.
“Somebody — probably celebrating the success of a hunt — had a big feast afterward and prepared a bison calf and some kind of a dog, maybe part-wolf, in a pit side by side,” Bob Dawe, the Royal Alberta Museum’s lead archaeologist on the project, said.
“They roasted it overnight in the ground. It would have been a delectable feast in the morning.”
The roasting pit was first discovered in 1990, but archaeologists didn’t excavate it until last year, before packing it up and moving it to Edmonton.
That process involved laying fiberglass-reinforced plaster strips all over it until they hardened. Dawe said when the plaster hardened, they could pick up the pit with a crane and put it on a truck bound for Edmonton. That was a lot of work, but there’s still a lot left to do.
“It looks like a 3,000-pound plaster lozenge, not quite two metres in diametre and about half a metre thick,” Dawe laughed.
“We retrieved this assembly of rocks and sediment and bones intact with some great difficulty.”
Dawe expects it to take months to cut off the top, scrape away the dirt, and carefully clean and preserve every bone. They want it ready to display when the new museum opens in downtown Edmonton later this year.
One of the barriers to the work will be psychological, since one set of remains belongs to a dog.
“A lot of dog-lovers are a little concerned that a dog was part of the meal, and as a dog lover myself I find that a little bit bothersome, but people have been using dogs as food in the Americas for 10,000 years and they still use dogs as food all over the world,” said Dawe.
“I have a dog, and I’m sure my dog would be unhappy to hear that I’m digging up one of his ancestors.”