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Modern chocolate shaped like Maya glyphs, the written language they used to communicate. ARINA HABICH/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Original Article:

sciencemag.org

By Joshua Rapp

 

Your Hershey bar may have been worth its weight in gold in Mayan times. A new study reveals that chocolate became its own form of money at the height of Mayan opulence—and that the loss of this delicacy may have played a role in the downfall of the famed civilization.

The study is on the right track, says David Freidel, an anthropologist and Maya expert at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, who was not involved with the work. Chocolate “is a very prestigious food,” he says, “and it [was] almost certainly a currency.”

The ancient Maya never used coins as money. Instead, like many early civilizations, they were thought to mostly barter, trading items such as tobacco, maize, and clothing. Spanish colonial accounts from the 16th century indicate that the Europeans even used cacao beans—the basis for chocolate—to pay workers, but it was unclear whether the substance was a prominent currency before their arrival.

To find out, Joanne Baron, an archaeologist with the Bard Early College Network—a network of schools that focus on college-level teaching for high school–aged students—in Newark, New Jersey, analyzed Mayan artwork. She focused on published research and other available Maya images during the Classic Maya period from about 250 C.E. to about 900 C.E. in the southern Maya lowlands in modern-day Mexico and Central America. The objects—including murals, ceramic paintings, and carvings—depict typical market exchanges and tribute payments to Maya kings.

Chocolate didn’t pop up much in the earliest art, Baron found, but it became more prevalent by the 8th century C.E. That’s also around the time people seem to be using it as money—that is, an item widely accepted as payment for goods or services rather than a one-off barter. The Maya usually consumed their cacao as a hot drink, a steamy broth served in a clay cup. One of the earliest depictions of it used in exchange dates to the mid-7th century. In a painted mural displayed in a pyramid that may have been a central marketplace near the Guatemalan border, a woman offers a bowl of what looks like frothing hot chocolate to a man in return for dough used for making tamales. This early depiction suggests that although chocolate was being bartered at this point, it may not have been traded as a form of currency, Baron says.

But later evidence shows that chocolate became a little more like coins—in the form of fermented and dried cacao beans. Baron documented about 180 different scenes on ceramics and murals from about 691 C.E. through 900 C.E. which show commodities delivered to Maya leaders as a tribute, or a kind of tax. Goods like tobacco and maize grain are sometimes given as tribute, but the items that pop up most in these scenes are pieces of woven cloth and bags labeled with the quantity of dried cacao beans they contain, she reports in Economic Anthropology.

Baron believes the fact that Maya kings collected cacao and woven cloth as tax shows that both had become a currency at this point. “They are collecting way more cacao than the palace actually consumes,” she says, adding that the surplus was probably used to pay palace workers or to buy things at the marketplace.

Freidel says cacao was almost universally loved by the Maya. But it would have been far more prized than crops like maize because cacao trees are susceptible to crop failure and didn’t grow well near Maya cities.

Some scholars believe drought led to the downfall of the Classic Maya civilization. Baron speculates that the disruption of the cacao supply which fueled political power may have led to an economic breakdown in some cases.

Freidel says the rise in artistic depictions of cacao may not necessarily indicate increased importance as a currency. As the Classic Maya period unfolded, he says, more and more people wrote things down and painted murals or pottery scenes. “Is it actually getting more important or are we just learning more about it?”

He is also skeptical that the loss of cacao contributed to the Maya’s downfall. Cacao beans were not the only type of currency, Freidel notes—woven cloth and other goods like maize grain or certain types of green stone were also possibly used as money. “My guess is that one commodity crashing would not cause the system to crash.”

 

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Researchers sample the contents of Ötzi the Iceman’s stomach to figure out the exact species of plants and animals that made up his final meal.

 

original article:

Nationalgeographic.com

By maya wei-haas

 

5,300 Years Ago, Ötzi the

Iceman Died.

Now We Know His Last Meal.

It took 20 years to find his stomach. Now researchers know what was inside—in excruciating detail.

 

ÖTZI THE ICEMAN’S stomach wasn’t where it was supposed to be. The misplaced organ eluded researchers for some 20 years. But in 2009, while looking at new radiographic scans, they finally found it—inexplicably pushed up under his ribs, where the lower lungs usually sit. What’s more, it was completely full.

Since 1991, when a pair of hikers found the 5,300-year-old hunter in the Ötztal Alps, researchers have been scouring Ötzi’s frozen, shriveled form for clues to life in the past and his violent demise. They’ve studied his sheepskin coat and goat skin tights; scrutinized his tooth decay; ogled his likely frostbite-induced nub on his toe; ruminated over parasitic worm eggs in his gut; and cataloged every tattoo inked on his skin.

And now, after putting the stomach contents through a battery of tests, the researchers determined the ice mummy’s final meal: dried ibex meat and fat, red deer, einkorn wheat, and traces of toxic fern. The results, published this week in the journal Current Biology, offer a stunningly detailed peek into an ancient diet and hint at possible food preparation methods.

The Lost Stomach

In the late 90s, with Ötzi’s stomach nowhere to be found, researchers studied the nitrogen isotopes of the mummy’s hair for dietary clues, which suggested the Iceman was a vegetarian. Later analysis of his colon contents pointed to Ötzi’s omnivorous ways, revealing he ate not only cereals but also red deer and goat meat in the day before his death.

 

They located the wandering organ by examining Ötzi’s gall stones, which form in the gallbladder, a small sack sitting below the liver near the stomach. By lining up the position of surrounding organs in radiographic images, the team finally found the stomach.

To sample it, however, scientists had to first defrost the mummy, which is kept at a chilly 21.2 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent microbial invasion. They then used an endoscopic tool to pull 11 blobs of brownish yellow material from his stomach and intestines.

Unlike the mushy intestinal material, the crumbly stomach stuffs were essentially freeze dried, study author Frank Maixner explains. “It has an interesting appearance, actually,” he says.

The research team first took a peek under magnification. “Already under a microscope it was clear it was an omnivore diet,” says Maixner, who is a microbiologist at the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano, Italy. Tiny flecks of undigested fibers of plants and meat were visible in the sample, surrounded by a cloudy haze of fat. The team then began their array of tests, which included DNA, proteins, lipids, metabolites, and more.

Ötzi’s Last Meal

Lipids and protein analysis indicate that Ötzi was eating both muscle and fat of the ibex (Capra ibex), a goat still common in the Ötztal Alps. The high-fat stomach contents would have supported energy-intensive treks. “Even though maybe ibex fat tastes horrible,” Maixner jokes.

But curiously, though DNA analysis suggests red deer (Cervus elaphus) was also part of the meal, researchers couldn’t figure out what part of the creature Ötzi ate. One possibility is that he consumed its organs, like the spleen, liver, or brain. Degradation may also be an issue. “It’s really hard to say,” Maixner says.

They could, however, look at meat preparation. By studying the meat’s microstructures and chemistry and comparing it to modern cooked and uncooked meats, they surmised Ötzi’s meat was not heated above 140 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s most likely the meat was dried for preservation, Maixner says, since fresh meat spoils quickly. The presence of carbon flecks also hint the meat could have been smoked.

Ötzi also ate einkorn wheat and the toxic bracken fern. When eaten in sufficient doses, bracken has been associated with anemia in cattle, and blindness in sheep. It may also have carcinogenic effects. Yet some people still eat small quantities of the plant.

It’s possible Ötzi also indulged in this greenery. “ You can go as far as he might have treated stomach ache with this fern since we knew that he suffered from some stomach pathogens,” says Maixner. But he adds, “this, for me at least, goes a little bit too far.” Another possibility is that he wrapped his food in fern, accidentally ingesting pieces along with his snack—an idea previously proposed for Ötzi’s ingested moss.

Peeking at the Past Through Ötzi’s Stomach

Together, the diet shows a well-prepared meal, with some fiber, protein and lots of energy-rich fat. “They had knowledge on making preparing the proper clothes, the proper hunting equipment, and this is also true for the diet,” Maixner says. “They were clearly well prepared.”

Though it’s just a single sample, the results give a surprisingly detailed look into Ötzi’s final hours. “I don’t know if we’re going to get a whole lot better than this,” says Katherine Ryan Amato, a biological anthropologist at Northwestern University who wasn’t involved in the work.

Researchers have long used indirect methods to look at diet, broadly looking at transitions through time, she explains. “This actually lets us get at it on a finer scale and talk about it in more detail,” she says, “which is really exciting.”

The events surrounding Ötzi’s death are still debated. His many recent wounds point to violent conflict, and some say Ötzi fled into the mountains while being hunted down. But Maixner says that the last meal points to a slightly different story: “I personally think he was prepared for this trek.”

The mix of cereals and meats—and just two completed arrows in his deer hide quiver—suggests he hadn’t just eaten a fresh kill. Instead, in the hours before his death, Ötzi likely consumed the contents of what Maixner calls “a well-prepared doggy bag.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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An international team of scientists reports the oldest unambiguous hunting lesions documented in the history of humankind. The lesions were found on skeletons of two large-sized extinct fallow deer killed by Neandertals about 120,000 years ago around the shores of a small lake (Neumark-Nord 1) near present-day Halle in the eastern part of Germany.

Source: Neandertals practiced close-range hunting 120,000 years ago

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A multidisciplinary team of experts from the University of Cincinnati determined that the sandy soils of Chaco Canyon were not too salty to grow crops such as maize, beans and squash for the more than 1,200 people who occupied this beautiful but harsh landscape during its most prolific years. The study suggests people of Chaco Canyon largely were self-sufficient.

Source: Ancestral people of Chaco Canyon likely grew their own food

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Ancient winepress in Tzippori.

 

By Mara Vigevani/TPS

jewishpress.com

An ancient winepress dating back to the Byzantine period was discovered two weeks ago at the Tzippori National Park in the central Galilee region an during archaeological excavations, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority said Sunday.

The excavations, led by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, in cooperation with the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and sponsored by the Israel Antiquities Authority, took place in a 3.5 meter deep ancient water reservoir with a ceiling that rests on five arches from the Roman period.

The archaeologists were very surprised when they found the wine press as they had never previously encountered a winepress installed in secondary use in an ancient water reservoir.

“This is the first time we found a wine press in a place that was previously used as a water reservoir. Probably the owners of the vineyards thought it was a convenient location as it was close to their vines,” Dr. Zvika Zuk, chief archaeologist of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority told Tazpit Press Service.

According to the researchers, the water reservoir was adapted to a winepress in the 4th century C.E.

“The winepress was found in the largest water reservoir in the Tzippori National Park, which is part of the impressive water system at the site that also includes long aqueducts that provided water to the ancient city of Tzippori,” Zuk said.

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eurekalert.org

 

Archaeologists at Lund University in Sweden have found carbonised germinated grains showing that malt was produced for beer brewing as early as the Iron Age in the Nordic region. The findings made in Uppåkra in southern Sweden indicate a large-scale production of beer, possibly for feasting and trade.

“We found carbonised malt in an area with low-temperature ovens located in a separate part of the settlement. The findings are from the 400-600s, making them one of the earliest evidence of beer brewing in Sweden”, says Mikael Larsson, who specialises in archaeobotany, the archaeology of human-plant interactions.

Archaeologists have long known that beer was an important product in ancient societies in many parts of the world. Through legal documents and images, it has been found, for example, that beer was produced in Mesopotamia as early as 4 000 BCE. However, as written sources in the Nordic region are absent prior to the Middle Ages (before ca 1200 CE), knowledge of earlier beer production is dependent on botanical evidence.

“We often find cereal grains on archaeological sites, but very rarely from contexts that testify as to how they were processed. These germinated grains found around a low-temperature oven indicate that they were used to become malt for brewing beer”, says Mikael Larsson.

Beer is made in two stages. The first is the malting process, followed by the actual brewing. The process of malting starts by wetting the grain with water, allowing the grain to germinate. During germination, enzymatic activities starts to convert both proteins and starches of the grain into fermentable sugars. Once enough sugar has been formed, the germinated grain is dried in an oven with hot air, arresting the germination process. This is what happened in the oven in Uppåkra.

“Because the investigated oven and carbonised grain was situated in an area on the site with several similar ovens, but absent of remains to indicate a living quarter, it is likely that large-scale production of malt was allocated to a specific area on the settlement, intended for feasting and/or trading”, explains Mikael Larsson.

Early traces of malt in connection with beer brewing have only been discovered in two other places in the Nordic region. One is in Denmark from 100 CE and one is in Eketorp on Öland from around 500 CE.

“From other archaeological sites in the Nordic region, traces of the bog-myrtle plant have been found, which indicates beer brewing. Back then, bog-myrtle was used to preserve and flavour beer. It wasn’t until later during the Middle Ages that hops took over as beer flavouring”, Mikael Larsson concludes.

Facts: Method

Two-litre soil samples are taken from various archaeological contexts – in houses, in pits, around hearths and ovens. The plant material found is usually preserved in a carbonised state. The soil is mixed with water and the carbon rises to the surface and is sieved through a fine mesh. The particles extracted are dried and studied under a microscope.

Facts: Uppåkra

Uppåkra is currently the largest Iron Age settlements in southern Scandinavia and served as a densely populated political and religious centre of power for more than 1 000 years, from 100s BCE to the 1 000s CE. The many findings made of imported luxury items such as jewellery and glass bowls, and from a developed production of crafts, indicate that the location was both rich and a significant trading centre.

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13-Jun-2018

University of British Columbia

eurekalert.org

 

Agricultural activity by humans more than 2,000 years ago had a more significant and lasting impact on the environment than previously thought. The finding– discovered by a team of international researchers led by the University of British Columbia– is reported in a new study published today in the journal Science Advances.

The researchers found that an increase in deforestation and agricultural activity during the Bronze Age in Ireland reached a tipping point that affected Earth’s nitrogen cycle– the process that keeps nitrogen, a critical element necessary for life, circulating between the atmosphere, land and oceans.

“Scientists are increasingly recognizing that humans have always impacted their ecosystems, but finding early evidence of significant and lasting changes is rare,” said Eric Guiry, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral research fellow in UBC’s department of anthropology. “By looking at when and how ancient societies began to change soil nutrients at a molecular level, we now have a deeper understanding of the turning point at which humans first began to cause environmental change.”

For the study, the researchers performed stable isotope analyses on 712 animal bones collected from at least 90 archaeological sites in Ireland. The researchers found significant changes in the nitrogen composition of soil nutrients and plants that made up the animals’ diet during the Bronze Age.

The researchers believe the changes were the result of an increase in the scale and intensity of deforestation, agriculture and pastoral farming.

While these results are specific to Ireland during the Bronze Age, Guiry said the findings have global implications.

“The effect of human activities on soil nitrogen composition may be traceable wherever humans have extensively modified landscapes for agriculture,” he explained. “Our findings have significant potential to serve as a model for future research.”

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The study, “Anthropogenic changes to the Holocene nitrogen cycle in Ireland,” was co-authored by researchers at the Institute of Technology Sligo, Trent University, the University of Oxford, Queen’s University Belfast, and Simon Fraser University.

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