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Original Article:

By Karen Michelmore

abc.net.au

Archaeologists have uncovered a treasure trove of ancient artefacts — including evidence of a kangaroo cook-up — inside a remote cave in the far north-west of Australia.

An archaeological dig is underway in this cave, located about 10km from BHP Billiton’s Mining Area C iron ore mine in the West Australian Pilbara region.

The site in Western Australia’s Pilbara region is being leased by mining giant BHP Billiton, but of late a different kind of digging has been going on.

A team of scientists from Scarp Archaeology and BHP, led by Michael Slack, has already uncovered hundreds of ancient artefacts from the small cave in the Hamersley Ranges.

“The guys have just uncovered an ancient campfire that, given the depth below the surface and the relationship with the stones around it, we think is potentially around 20,000 years old,” Dr Slack said.

The remnants of the ancient camp fire consist of about 20cm of fine white ash and contains pieces of charcoal which will be sent off for radiocarbon dating.

“To make it even better, they found flake stone artefacts right next to the charcoal,” he said.

“So we’ll get a really good association between people and the campfire itself, and we’ll have a really clear idea of how old it is.”

It was possible the stone tools were used to cut the meat for the fire, as remnants of kangaroo bone were also found.

“We’ll have to have a look at them under the microscope, but they are the pieces that people were using in the site,” Dr Slack said.

“A family sitting around a campfire having a meal probably.”

Using garden trowels, the scientists are painstakingly digging centimetre by centimetre, through thousands of years of history.

“You only have to look at the ground in this cave and you’ll see hundreds and hundreds of little chips of stone, and these were all coming off stone artefacts that were used as tools,” Dr Slack said.

“Some of them just look really pretty, others you can see have lots of evidence of wear on the side.

“This little cave has hundreds of them on the surface which is very rare for the Pilbara.

“Quite often the caves have nothing … but they are lying around.

“We looked at a bunch of caves out here and as soon as we got to this one we thought, ‘wow we really want to come and do some archaeology here’ — it’s going to be really rich and there’s the potential there to tell a good story about what the Aboriginal people were doing here over possibly the last 40,000 years.”

Banjima man and traditional owner Garren Smith, who is working with the archaeologists, said stories about the site have been passed down over time.

“It’s good that they are doing this and getting the records, having a look at how old things are,” Mr Smith said.

“A lot of other young fellas and older people come out.

“A lot of stories have been passed on to us and now they’re just finding out about it.”

The site was discovered a decade ago by a survey party made up of Aboriginal traditional owners working with BHP Billiton as part of their mine compliance requirements.

Years later scientists returned to do a test dig in a 1m-square patch, and in the process uncovered a cache of stone tools, some of which are up to 32,000 years old, making it one of the oldest sites in the region.

“The artefacts span what’s known as the last glacial maximum, or what most people know as the last ice age, between 18000 years ago and 28,000 years ago,” Dr Slack said.

“It’s one of those jobs where you never know what the next hour or minute is going to find for you.

“It might be nothing, but every time you put a little trowel in the ground and touch something, it could be something really exciting,” he says.

Dr Slack, who is also president of the Australian Archaeological Association, said there are around 600 archaeologists working around Australia.

Fittingly, the Pilbara excavation coincides with National Archaeology Week, and is just one of many sites of archaeological interest around the country.

“There’s a growing number of these sorts of sites in Australia because there’s been a lot more research that’s been going on over the last 10 years in particular,” he says.

“But in terms of the size in Australia and the number of places that we know to be over 10,000 years, we are still only looking at dozens of places in the continent, in the period of up to 65,000-70,000 years [old].

“So they are really significant places to study and understand.”

 

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Different varieties of sweet potato on display at the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru. The sweet potato originated in the Americas and spread across the globe. Robert Scotland

Many botanists argued that humans must have carried the valuable staple to the Pacific from South America. Not so, according to a new study.

Carl Zimmer APRIL 12, 2018

Nytimes.com

Of all the plants that humanity has turned into crops, none is more puzzling than the sweet potato. Indigenous people of Central and South America grew it on farms for generations, and Europeans discovered it when Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean.

In the 18th century, however, Captain Cook stumbled across sweet potatoes again — over 4,000 miles away, on remote Polynesian islands. European explorers later found them elsewhere in the Pacific, from Hawaii to New Guinea.

The distribution of the plant baffled scientists. How could sweet potatoes arise from a wild ancestor and then wind up scattered across such a wide range? Was it possible that unknown explorers carried it from South America to countless Pacific islands?

An extensive analysis of sweet potato DNA, published on Thursday in Current Biology, comes to a controversial conclusion: Humans had nothing to do with it. The bulky sweet potato spread across the globe long before humans could have played a part — it’s a natural traveler.

Some agricultural experts are skeptical. “This paper does not settle the matter,” said Logan J. Kistler, the curator of archaeogenomics and archaeobotany at the Smithsonian Institution.

Alternative explanations remain on the table, because the new study didn’t provide enough evidence for exactly where sweet potatoes were first domesticated and when they arrived in the Pacific. “We still don’t have a smoking gun,” Dr. Kistler said.

The sweet potato, Ipomoea batatas, is one of the most valuable crops in the world, providing more nutrients per farmed acre than any other staple. It has sustained human communities for centuries. (In North America, it often is referred to as a yam; in fact, yams are a different species originating in Africa and Asia.)

Scientists have offered a number of theories to explain the wide distribution of I. batatas. Some scholars proposed that all sweet potatoes originated in the Americas, and that after Columbus’s voyage, they were spread by Europeans to colonies such as the Philippines. Pacific Islanders acquired the crops from there.

As it turned out, though, Pacific Islanders had been growing the crop for generations by the time Europeans showed up. On one Polynesian island, archaeologists have found sweet potato remains dating back over 700 years.

A radically different hypothesis emerged: Pacific Islanders, masters of open-ocean navigation, picked up sweet potatoes by voyaging to the Americas, long before Columbus’s arrival there. The evidence included a suggestive coincidence: In Peru, some indigenous people call the sweet potato cumara. In New Zealand, it’s kumara.

A potential link between South America and the Pacific was the inspiration for Thor Heyerdahl’s famous 1947 voyage aboard the Kon-Tiki. He built a raft, which he then successfully sailed from Peru to the Easter Islands.

Genetic evidence only complicated the picture. Examining the plant’s DNA, some researchers concluded that sweet potatoes arose only once from a wild ancestor, while other studies indicated that it happened at two different points in history.

According to the latter studies, South Americans domesticated sweet potatoes, which were then acquired by Polynesians. Central Americans domesticated a second variety that later was picked up by Europeans.

Hoping to shed light on the mystery, a team of researchers recently undertook a new study — the biggest survey of sweet potato DNA yet. And they came to a very different conclusion.

“We find very clear evidence that sweet potatoes could arrive in the Pacific by natural means,” said Pablo Muñoz-Rodríguez, a botanist at the University of Oxford. He believes the wild plants traveled thousands of miles across the Pacific without any help from humans.

Mr. Muñoz-Rodríguez and his colleagues visited museums and herbariums around the world to take samples of sweet potato varieties and wild relatives. The researchers used powerful DNA-sequencing technology to gather more genetic material from the plants than possible in earlier studies.

Their research pointed to only one wild plant as the ancestor of all sweet potatoes. The closest wild relative is a weedy flower called Ipomoea trifida that grows around the Caribbean. Its pale purple flowers look a lot like those of the sweet potato.

Instead of a massive, tasty tuber, I. trifida grows only a pencil-thick root. “It’s nothing we could eat,” Mr. Muñoz-Rodríguez said.

The ancestors of sweet potatoes split from I. trifida at least 800,000 years ago, the scientists calculated. To investigate how they arrived in the Pacific, the team headed to the Natural History Museum in London.

The leaves of sweet potatoes that Captain Cook’s crew collected in Polynesia are stored in the museum’s cabinets. The researchers cut bits of the leaves and extracted DNA from them.

The Polynesian sweet potatoes turned out to be genetically unusual — “very different from anything else,” Mr. Muñoz-Rodríguez said.

The sweet potatoes found in Polynesia split off over 111,000 years ago from all other sweet potatoes the researchers studied. Yet humans arrived in New Guinea about 50,000 years ago, and only reached remote Pacific islands in the past few thousand years.

The age of Pacific sweet potatoes made it unlikely that any humans, Spanish or Pacific Islander, carried the species from the Americas, Mr. Muñoz-Rodríguez said.

Traditionally, researchers have been skeptical that a plant like a sweet potato could travel across thousands of miles of ocean. But in recent years, scientists have turned up signs that many plants have made the voyage, floating on the water or carried in bits by birds.

Even before the sweet potato made the journey, its wild relatives traveled the Pacific, the scientists found. One species, the Hawaiian moonflower, lives only in the dry forests of Hawaii — but its closest relatives all live in Mexico.

The scientists estimate that the Hawaiian moonflower separated from its relatives — and made its journey across the Pacific — over a million years ago.

But Tim P. Denham, an archaeologist at the Australian National University who was not involved in the study, found this scenario hard to swallow.

It would suggest that the wild ancestors of sweet potatoes spread across the Pacific and were then domesticated many times over — yet wound up looking the same every time. “This would seem unlikely,” he said.

Dr. Kistler argued that it was still possible that Pacific Islanders voyaged to South America and returned with the sweet potato.

A thousand years ago, they might have encountered many sweet potato varieties on the continent. When Europeans arrived in the 1500s, they likely wiped out much of the crop’s genetic diversity.

As a result, Dr. Kistler said, the surviving sweet potatoes of the Pacific only seem distantly related to the ones in the Americas. If the scientists had done the same study in 1500, Pacific sweet potatoes would have fit right in with other South American varieties.

Dr. Kistler was optimistic that the sweet potato debate would someday be settled. The world’s herbariums contain a vast number of varieties that have yet to be genetically tested.

“There are more than we could look at in a lifetime,” Dr. Kistler said.

For his part, Mr. Muñoz-Rodríguez plans on searching for more wild sweet potato relatives in Central America, hoping to get more clues to how exactly a thin-rooted weed gave rise to an invaluable crop.

Working out the history of crops like this could do more than satisfy our curiosity about the past. Wild plants hold a lot of genetic variants lost when people domesticated crops.

Researchers may find plants they can hybridize with domesticated sweet potatoes and other crops, endowing them with genes for resistance to diseases, or for withstanding climate change.

“Essentially, it’s preserving the gene pool that feeds the world,” Dr. Kistler said.

Caption1 The distribution of the sweet potato plant has baffled scientists. How could the plant arise from a wild ancestor in the Americas and wind up on islands across the Pacific? Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Caption2 Different varieties of sweet potato on display at the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru. The sweet potato originated in the Americas and spread across the globe. Robert Scotland

Link https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/12/science/sweet-potato-pacific-dna.html

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Research by an international team, led by the University of Bristol, has shed new light on the fate of the ancient people of Rapa Nui (Easter Island).

Source: Diet of the ancient people of Rapa Nui shows adaptation and resilience not ‘ecocide’

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Yeast microbes from the world’s oldest bottle of beer — a 220-year-old bottle found in one of Australia’s earliest shipwrecks — are being used to create a new, modern beer with the characteristic taste of the 18th-century brew.

Source: Oldest Beer Brewed from Shipwrecks 220-Year-Old Yeast Microbes

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CAPTION An illustration of a giant flightless bird known as Genyornis newtoni, surprised on her nest by a 1 ton, predatory lizard named Megalania prisca in Australia roughly 50,000 thousand years ago. CREDIT Illustration by Peter Trusler, Monash University

CAPTION
An illustration of a giant flightless bird known as Genyornis newtoni, surprised on her nest by a 1 ton, predatory lizard named Megalania prisca in Australia roughly 50,000 thousand years ago.
CREDIT
Illustration by Peter Trusler, Monash University

 

Original Article:

eurekalert.org

January, 2016

Ancient extinction of giant Australian bird points to humans

The first direct evidence that humans played a substantial role in the extinction of the huge, wondrous beasts inhabiting Australia some 50,000 years ago — in this case a 500-pound bird — has been discovered by a University of Colorado Boulder-led team.

The flightless bird, known as Genyornis newtoni, was nearly 7 feet tall and appears to have lived in much of Australia prior to the establishment of humans on the continent 50,000 years ago, said CU-Boulder Professor Gifford Miller. The evidence consists of diagnostic burn patterns on Genyornis eggshell fragments that indicate humans were collecting and cooking its eggs, thereby reducing the birds’ reproductive success.

“We consider this the first and only secure evidence that humans were directly preying on now-extinct Australian megafauna,” said Miller, associate director of CU-Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. “We have documented these characteristically burned Genyornis eggshells at more than 200 sites across the continent.”

A paper on the subject appears online Jan. 29, in Nature Communications.

In analyzing unburned Genyornis eggshells from more than 2,000 localities across Australia, primarily from sand dunes where the ancient birds nested, several dating methods helped researchers determine that none were younger than about 45,000 years old. Burned eggshell fragments from more than 200 of those sites, some only partially blackened, suggest pieces were exposed to a wide range of temperatures, said Miller, a professor in CU-Boulder’s Department of Geological Sciences.

Optically stimulated luminescence dating, a method used to determine when quartz grains enclosing the eggshells were last exposed to sunlight, limits the time range of burned Genyornis eggshell to between 54,000 and 44,000 years ago. Radiocarbon dating indicated the burnt eggshell was no younger than about 47,000 years old.

The blackened fragments were likely burned in transient, human fires — presumably to cook the eggs — rather than in wildfires, he said.

Amino acids — the building blocks of proteins -decompose in a predictable fashion inside eggshells over time. In eggshell fragments burned at one end but not the other, there is a tell-tale “gradient” from total amino acid decomposition to minimal amino acid decomposition, he said. Such a gradient could only be produced by a localized heat source, likely an ember, and not from the sustained high heat produced regularly by wildfires on the continent both in the distant past and today.

Miller also said the researchers found many of the burnt Genyornis eggshell fragments in tight clusters less than 10 feet in diameter, with no other eggshell fragments nearby. Some individual fragments from the same clusters had heat gradient differences of nearly 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, conditions virtually impossible to reproduce with natural wildfires there, he said.

“We can’t come up with a scenario that a wildfire could produce those tremendous gradients in heat,” Miller said. “We instead argue that the conditions are consistent with early humans harvesting Genyornis eggs, cooking them over fires, and then randomly discarding the eggshell fragments in and around their cooking fires.”

Another line of evidence for early human predation on Genyornis eggs is the presence of ancient, burned eggshells of emus — flightless birds weighing only about 100 pounds and which still exist in Australia today — in the sand dunes. Emu eggshells exhibiting burn patterns similar to Genyornis eggshells first appear on the landscape about 50,000 years ago, signaling they most likely were scorched after humans arrived in Australia, and are found fairly consistently to modern times, Miller said.

The Genyornis eggs are thought to have been roughly the size of a cantaloupe and weighed about 3.5 pounds, Miller said.

Genyornis roamed the Australian outback with an astonishing menagerie of other now-extinct megafauna that included a 1,000-pound kangaroo, a 2-ton wombat, a 25-foot-long-lizard, a 300-pound marsupial lion and a Volkswagen-sized tortoise. More than 85 percent of Australia’s mammals, birds and reptiles weighing over 100 pounds went extinct shortly after the arrival of the first humans.

The demise of the ancient megafauna in Australia (and on other continents, including North America) has been hotly debated for more than a century, swaying between human predation, climate change and a combination of both, said Miller. While some still hold fast to the climate change scenario — specifically the continental drying in Australia from about 60,000 to 40,000 years ago — neither the rate nor magnitude of that change was as severe as earlier climate shifts in Australia during the Pleistocene epoch, which lacked the punch required to knock off the megafauna, said Miller.

Miller and others suspect Australia’s first inhabitants traveled to the northern coast of the continent on rafts launched from Indonesian islands several hundred miles away. “We will never know the exact time window humans arrived on the continent,” he said. “But there is reliable evidence they were widely dispersed across the continent before 47,000 years ago.”

Evidence of Australia megafauna hunting is very difficult to find, in part because the megafauna there are so much older than New World megafauna and in part because fossil bones are easily destroyed by the chemistry of Australian soils. said Miller.

“In the Americas, early human predation on the giant animals in clear — stone spear heads are found embedded in mammoth bones, for example,” said Miller. “The lack of clear evidence regarding human predation on the Australia megafauna had, until now, been used to suggest no human-megafauna interactions occurred, despite evidence that most of the giant animals still roamed Australia when humans colonized the continent.”

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Co-authors on the new study include Research Professor Scott Lehman, doctoral student Christopher Florian and researcher Stephen DeVogel of CU-Boulder; Research Fellow John Magee of the Australian National University; and researchers from seven other Australian institutions. The study was funded in part by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Australian Research Council.

 

 

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ROCA

Aerial view and location of Roca. Image: Laboratory of Sciences Applied to Archaeology, University of Salento (Italy)

Mycenaean cups from Roca. Image: Laboratory of Sciences Applied to Archaeology, University of Salento (Italy)

Mycenaean cups from Roca. Image: Laboratory of Sciences Applied to Archaeology, University of Salento (Italy)

Original Article:

pasthorizonspr.com

Dec 2015

The sharing of food and alcoholic beverages is extremely important today as in the past because provides a wealth of information on societies where this occurred. So far however, most of these practices known through archaeology have been primarily those undertaken by people from the same individual community or regional district.

The Bronze Age site of Roca (2) in Southern Italy, has produced clear evidence for the existence at this place of one of the earliest inter-cultural feasting ‘party’ in Mediterranean Europe, dating to c.a. 1200 BC.

This small (about 3 hectares nowadays, although it was larger in the past) but monumental fortified settlement (its stone walls measured up to 25m in width), located on the Adriatic coast of Apulia, southern Italy, has been investigated for many years by a team from the University of Salento. Such a research has demonstrated the existence of a long-lasting and intense relationship with Minoan and Mycenaean Greece at least from c.a. 1400 BC and of more sporadic connections since the earliest Bronze Age occupation at the site. One of the areas of the settlement (investigated a few years ago) has produced the largest set of ceramics of Mycenaean type ever found in the same context west of Greece (more than 380 vessels). This pottery was associated with abundant local ceramics, remains of meals and of numerous animal sacrifices. A recent study (1) suggests this was the result of a large-scale feast in which it is possible to recognise the participation of groups of people with two distinct cultural backgrounds.

One is the southern Italian component, hinted by the local ceramic material as well as by the very modality of the sacrifices. Analyses of bones have shown that after the killings, extensive portions (e.g. one entire leg, or the head) were separated from the carcasses and deposited in the ground and covered up with leaves and branches that left impressions on the back of the thick crushed limestone pavement that sealed all this. Such a ritual procedure seems not to be attested in the Mycenaean world, where animal sacrifices normally involve the use of fire, but finds some parallels in other Bronze Age sites in Southern Italy.

The second cultural component was the Aegean one, broadly intended, and this is suggested by the copious presence of Aegean style pottery (both imported and locally made) as well as by the very nature of the feast. Evidence for large feasting events involving the presence of a considerable number of people at the same time (the count of participants estimated on the basis of the consumption of the meat of the sacrificed animals alone was between 530 and 176 people) is lacking in Italian Bronze Age, but these events were relatively common in the Aegean world. Also, the probable use of alcoholic drinks (suggested by the recovery of both Aegean style wine cups and large transport stirrup jars, the ancestors of classical amphorae) is an element that is not present in southern Italy but widespread in the Minoan/Mycenaean world, where this was an important part of Palatial societies.

The broad context in which this event took place provides clues on some of the possible reasons behind it. In the Late Bronze Age, after the fall of Mycenaean palaces, the links between Italy (including the north of the peninsula, rich in metal resources) and the societies that continued to inhabit the Aegean, had increased considerably. East-west connections did not affect only the central Mediterranean region as indeed at the same time many ‘western looking’ artefacts (both ceramics and metal types) started to appear in main sites in Greece.

Being located at the junction between the Adriatic and the Ionian Sea, Roca acquired a considerable importance in these connections, acting as a mediating node. The feasting practices demonstrated at Roca give us a first concrete snapshot of the details of what these encounters between people possibly coming from distant locales might have looked like.

rock research project

Bibliography

(1) Iacono, F. 2015. ‘Feasting at Roca: Cross-Cultural Encounters and Society in the Southern Adriatic during the Late Bronze Age’. European Journal of Archaeology 18 (2): 259–81. doi:10.1179/1461957114Y.0000000074.
http://www.maneyonline.com/doi/abs/10.1179/1461957114Y.0000000074

(2) Pagliara, C., R. Guglielmino, L. Coluccia, I. Malorgio, M. Merico, D. Palmisano, M. Rugge, and F. Minonne. 2008. ‘Roca Vecchia (Melendugno, Lecce), SAS IX: Relazione Stratigrafica Preliminare sui Livelli di Occupazione Protostorici (Campagne di Scavo 2005-2006)’. Rivista di Scienze Preistoriche, 58: 239–80.
http://digital.casalini.it/10.1400/206245

 

Francesco Iacono
Francesco Iacono is a specialist in Mediterranean prehistory, but his broader research interests include social theory, approaches to ceramics, the history and politics of archaeology, and heritage. He has collaborated with institutions in the UK, Italy, Greece, and Albania. He has a PhD from the Institute of Archaeology, UCL and is currently a postdoctoral fellow (funded by the Institute for Aegean Prehistory) at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge.

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A University of Otago PhD student analysing dental calculus (hardened plaque) from ancient teeth is helping resolve the question of what plant foods Easter Islanders relied on before European contact.

Known to its Polynesian inhabitants as Rapa Nui, Easter Island is thought to have been colonised around the 13th Century and is famed for its mysterious large stone statues or moai.

Otago Anatomy PhD student Monica Tromp and Idaho State University’s Dr John Dudgeon have just published new research clearing up their previous puzzling finding that suggested palm may have been a staple plant food for Rapa Nui’s population over several centuries.

However, no other line of archaeological or ethnohistoric evidence supports palm having a dietary role on Easter Island; in fact evidence points to the palm becoming extinct soon after colonization.

Nevertheless, the researchers had found that the vast majority of phytoliths (plant microfossils) embedded within the calculus were from palm trees.

The teeth were from burials excavated in the early 1980s from multiple coastal archaeological sites around the island.

To clear up the mystery, the pair undertook further analysis, newly published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. This included identifying starch grains in the dental calculus removed from 30 teeth.

After removing and decalcifying the plaque from each tooth, Ms Tromp and Dr Dudgeon identified starch grains that were consistent with modern sweet potato. None of the recovered grains showed any similarities to banana, taro or yam, other starchy plants that are hypothesised to be part of the diet.

The researchers went on to test modern sweet potato skins grown in sediment similar to that of Rapa Nui’s and found that as tubers grow, their skins seem to incorporate palm phytoliths from the soil.

“So this actually bolsters the case for sweet potato as a staple and important plant food source for the Islanders from the time the island was first colonised,”Ms Tromp says.

She and Dr Dudgeon are the first biological anthropologists to study dental calculus in the Pacific.

“It is an excellent target for looking at the plant component of ancient diets as microfossils become embedded in dental calculus throughout a person’s life. You can get a good idea of some of the plant foods people were eating, which is not an easy task.

“This research also shows that the plant foods you find evidence for in dental calculus can come from the environment that foods are grown in and not necessarily from the food itself – this finding has the potential to impact dental calculus studies worldwide.”

Determining plants’ role in ancient Oceanic diets is extremely difficult due to the scarcity of plant remains, but this research of microscopic plant remains is providing one more piece of the dietary

Dec 16, 2014

2015/01/img_1223.jpg

Original article:
otago.ac.nz

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