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Piece of bone from medieval cemetery in Northern Finland.
Credit: Maria Lahtinen

 

Original Article:

sciencedaily.com

 

Researchers investigated the diet of people buried in the Ii Hamina, Northern Finland, cemetery from the 15th to the 17th centuries by analysing isotopes in the bones of the deceased. Isotopes preserve information on the various nutrient sources used by humans during their lifetime. A study reveals that the dominant protein source was small fish, such as roach or Baltic herring.

Researchers investigated the diet of people buried in the Ii Hamina cemetery from the 15th to the 17th centuries by analysing isotopes in the bones of the deceased. Isotopes preserve information on the various nutrient sources used by humans during their lifetime. A study published in the Environmental Archaeology journal reveals that the dominant protein source was small fish, such as roach or Baltic herring.

The medieval cemetery of Ii Hamina is located next to the centre of the Ii municipality. Through investigations conducted at the cemetery, significant knowledge has been gained on past human generations in Northern Ostrobothnia and in Finland in general.

The study of the diet of medieval Ii residents indicated a very large share of fish-based food. Of all protein consumed, as much as 70% may have been fish. On the one hand, this is evidence of the importance of waterways; on the other hand, it indirectly indicates the insignificance of farming and dairying in the region.

Sufficient but unbalanced nutrition

A previous study already revealed that medieval residents of Ii had no significant trouble finding food.

“This new study confirms the notion that the diet in Ii was very likely sufficient,” says researcher Maria Lahtinen from the Finnish Museum of Natural History Luomus, part of the University of Helsinki.

The recently published study indicates that the fish consumed by the residents of Ii was probably from the middle of the food web, in other words roach, Baltic herring or other species feeding on benthic and other invertebrates. Species-specific findings cannot, however, be gained through isotope analysis, so the species mentioned are based on guesswork.

Seal hunting, on the other hand, most likely did not play a significant role in medieval Ii, the study finds.

In prior studies, the dental health of the deceased has also been investigated, revealing a very protein-rich diet compared to today. On average, the population at that time was also shorter. These factors are evidence of an unbalanced diet.

Another finding in the new study was an individual whose bone isotope consistency differed from others. The diet of this individual was much closer to living habits based primarily on farmed food. The bones of altogether 98 buried individuals were analysed in the study, which makes it very likely that this individual was originally from somewhere else or in some way enjoyed a special status in the community.

 

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Original Article:

Szymon Zdziebłowski 

Scienceinpoland.pap.pl

 

The development of agriculture in Europe not only revolutionised food acquisition, but also brought changes in the light sources our ancestors used, says archaeologist Dr. Krzysztof Tunia.

In the area of present-day Poland, until about the 5th millennium BC, to light up the darkness people used light from bonfires and probably torches in the form of wooden fins. Lighting changed with the knowledge of agriculture and farming coming from the Middle East to Europe.

Why did this happen? “Along with the more advanced farming system, the capability to manufacture a variety of ceramic vessels appeared. During excavations in Poland territory – mainly on the Baltic coast – we find not only kitchen forms, but also items that had a different function. They were probably simple lamps” – explains archaeologist from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology PAS Dr. Krzysztof Tunia. He refers to items in the form of shallow “baths” or “boats”. He adds that their main part was a container for flammable substance. The light was obtained by igniting a submerged plant wick.

According to the scientist, the “brightest” area in the late Mesolith and early Neolithic was the Baltic Sea zone, including the northern part of present Poland, where archaeologists find many vessels that served as lamps. The deeper inland you go on the European continent, the less light sources are found. Inland, in his opinion, was dominated by torches. These are usually not preserved to our times and archaeologists do not encounter them during excavations.

Some ceramic lamps used in Central Europe were probably suspended with strings, as their appearance indicates. These objects are cubes with a few centimetres long edges, with a depression in the middle and four holes in the corners. Other lamps were made in the form of figures of bulls, also with a recess on the back and with holes.

“These objects come from areas south of the Carpathians, but perhaps they will be also found in Poland” – says Dr. Tunia.

He adds that so far very few ceramic forms have been discovered in southern Poland, in the shape of double-cone, small vessels with holes for hanging. It can not be ruled out that they were used as lamps, Dr. Tunia believes.

“The main problem was access to flammable substances. Only by the sea there was a sufficiently large amount of available raw material for the production of combustible material used in lamps – it was the fat obtained from marine animals”. The farther south of the Baltic coast, the more common torches were. “I think that torches were not wrapped or smeared with anything, people used the natural resins in the wood material” – said Dr. Tunia.

Archaeologists, like detectives, find indirect evidence for the use of torches in prehistory. For example, during the excavations at a striped flint mine in Krzemionki Opatowskie that was active already in the Neolithic period, they found charcoal – most likely the remains of torches or fires burned there. The first possibility is more likely, because a bonfire would consume too much oxygen miners needed to breathe. Fires were burned near the bottoms of vertical shafts, where torches necessary to illuminate the darkness in the shaft would be lit up – archaeologists believe.

Lines made with charcoal, visible on mine walls, are also considered evidence of the use of torches. Dr Tunia thinks these are traces of charred tips being removed by rubbing the torch against the wall to create a larger flame.

According to the archaeologist, starting from the Neolithic period one can gradually see the desire to light up the darkness among the inhabitants of Europe, but their life was still regulated by the natural rhythm of day and night. Lighting was usually needed in places the sunlight never reached – in the mines, caves or … huts. In households, hearths and fires were being replaced by more advanced clay furnaces. They generated less smoke, they kept warm longer, but they were bad sources of light.

“The darkness was deeper still because those houses did not have many openings. It seems that the main function of a hut was to provide shelter and heat for its inhabitants, and the aspect of interior lighting – especially through openings in the walls, windows and doors – was secondary. In any case, valuable heat would escape through these holes” – says Tunia. Artificial light, even to a limited extent, was needed at any time of the day, for example to prepare a meal.

Only the outlines of prehistoric houses and their foundations or underground parts survive to our times. Reconstructing them is very difficult. It most often is based on ethnographic analogies. “And here we often see that in communities still living outside the mainstream of civilization, the huts are dark, without window openings, smoky, but providing shelter and warmth. I had the opportunity to see such houses in Andean communities” – adds the archaeologist.

According to Dr. Tunia, specialized analyses of possible ceramic lamps could bring advances in research on prehistoric lighting. “They have not been analysed so far, so it will be the next step to understanding an important aspect of our ancestors` lives” – the scientist concludes.

PAP – Science in Poland

 

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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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Original Article:

Ruth Schuster Mar 21, 2018

Haaretz.com

Compelling archaeological evidence shows that the Neolithic people of Boncuklu developed farming by themselves, not from migrants, but their neighbors in Pinarbasi would have none of it

Remains of a Neolithic home in Boncuklu, Turkey, some 10,000 years ago. Prof. Douglas Baird

When humans figured out how to farm food rather than spear or collect it is fiercely debated. So is how agricultural knowledge spread. Now a paper published this week suggests that hunter-gatherers on the Anatolian plateau in Turkey started farming 10,000 years ago by learning from the neighbors rather than from, say, migrants swarming in with hoes in hand.

Until now farming had been assumed to have spread through migration, explains the paper published this week in the U.S. journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But evidently there were villages that rejected the newfangled sow-and-grow techniques.

Let’s start with the village of hunter-gatherers called Boncuklu. It and similar communities initiated (started) farming in central Anatolia some 10,000 years ago by adopting crops from areas to their south and east, Prof. Douglas Baird of the University of Liverpool tells Haaretz.

At Boncuklu, the researchers found stone tools different from the Levantine style. They also found burned seeds and remains of wheat chaff – and they found weeds known to have plagued early farming sites.

The abundance of the opportunistic pests suggests they flourished as the ancients cultivated their crops. Similar evidence of proto-weeds was used in Israel to demonstrate early cultivation as much as 23,000 years ago near the Kinneret – the Sea of Galilee.

The Anatolian plateau folk seem also to have begun adopting the sheep and more commonly, the goat, the archaeologists deduced from analysis of bones. This seems to be closer to when livestock were domesticated – though each species was evidently domesticated at somewhat different times in different places.

Baird agrees with the consensus that cultivation of plants began in the Fertile Crescent, including the Levant and northern Mesopotamia, and the Zagros Mountains of today’s Iran. Only later would it reach  

central Turkey, he says, though adds: “Animal herding may well be a rather different situation.”

The clue of the nonexistent villages

The evidence that farming wasn’t brought to central Anatolia by migrants but developed among the indigenous population relies on analysis of stone tools and DNA, Baird explains.

Boncuklu is just one of several central Anatolian sites that have undergone archaeological exploration and analysis. All had the same indigenous material culture, especially stone tools, and were clearly part of a local tradition extending back 5,000 years earlier, Baird says.

This central Anatolian material culture is not at all like that of the early farming communities in northern Syria or southeast Turkey.

Also, if farmers had migrated to the plateau and colonized it, their remains likely would have turned up in the future. “Since we are largely talking settled village communities, you would expect to see their sites in the archaeological record, exactly as we do see with the colonization of Cyprus in the early Neolithic,” Baird says.

Which brings us to genetics. “In addition, the ancient DNA evidence now clearly shows that there is a distinctive local gene pool in the early Neolithic at places like Boncuklu, different from the genetics of Levantine Neolithic populations,” he says.

Moreover, this hunter-gatherer-turned-farming population would live on. The team discovered that the Neolithic Anatolian gene pool contributed substantially to later Neolithic populations in central and western Anatolia and indeed to the first farmers of southeast Europe, Baird says. “So I think we can say that there weren’t lots of Levantine migrants running around in central Anatolia at the beginnings of the Neolithic there,” he adds.

Signs of prehistoric ‘trade’

So in short, weeds and wheat suggest the good burghers of Bocuklu, who lived in mud-brick homes, may have still subsisted mainly from hunting and gathering, but were starting to farm 10,000 years ago. And analysis of stone tools and genetics suggests these people picked up the knack rather than had the knowledge imported from even earlier farmers in the Fertile Crescent.

Farming know-how may have come with prehistoric “trading” – the exchange of materials, artifacts and even possibly people. Trading brides seems to have been not rare, from antiquity to this day.

“We have evidence, for example, of obsidian moving from central Anatolia to the Levant being exchanged between communities, and Mediterranean seashells used as beads coming from the south coast of Turkey onto the Anatolian plateau,” Baird says. “We are potentially talking about something akin to trade but without the mercantile/commercial associations of the term. Exchange may have been as much about building social relationships as it was about acquiring materials.”

Still, we can’t even guess how close the communities from which agriculture spread to central Anatolia may have been; our knowledge of early prehistoric sites in these areas is scanty, Baird says.

One unexpected deduction is that the people of central Anatolia seem to have found this lifestyle convenient.

“Unexpectedly, this low-level food production persisted for at least five centuries. Archaeologists usually consider these kinds of food-production systems to be short-lived and transitional, but our research suggests a stable and persistent use of crops and herd animals as a minor part of the economy for a long time. This does not fit existing theory,” says Andrew Fairbairn, the project’s co-director and an associate professor at the University of Queensland.

Farming is for little people?

Fun fact: Just 30 kilometers from Boncuklu lay the contemporary prehistoric hamlet of Pinarbasi, which Baird excavated in 2003 and 2004. The Pinarbasis would have none of this farming frippery, it seems.

“Evidence suggests these communities resisted the adoption of farming and maintained a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, showing the spread of agriculture beyond the Fertile Crescent was neither uniform nor inevitable,” the team wrote.

What? No evidence of farming was found at Pinarbasi. “They must have known about it but decided not to adopt it,” Baird says.

That may not have been a good choice. Boncuklu seems to have survived at least 500 years after Pinarbasi, Baird adds – and its people may be with us to this very day.

“We think that at least elements of the Boncuklu community continued to exist in the region, contributing population to the large site at Catalhoyuk, which is only 10 kilometers away, that follows on immediately after Boncuklu is abandoned,” he says. “People at Catalhoyuk have a lot of domestic and ritual practices very similar to those we see at Boncuklu.”

How many people are we talking about, anyway? Boncuklu and Pinarbasi each probably had between 50 to 150 people at any one time, though obviously it would have varied, Baird notes. And one group seems to have survived, while one may not have.

In other words, while the desultory farming taking place in early Boncuklu was not a major economic activity, it was a local development and may have had enormous consequences for posterity.

The research was conducted by an international team led by Baird and Fairburn with Assistant Professor Gokhan Mustafaoglu and included researchers from Bournemouth University, University College London, the University of Reading, Cornell University, Middle Eastern Technical University Ankara, Trakya University, Bulent Ecevit University Zonguldak, Peking University and Harvard University, as well as the universities of Liverpool and Queensland.

 

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IMAGE: AN ANCIENT IRRIGATION SYSTEM ALONG THE TIAN SHAN MOUNTAINS OF CHINA ALLOWED THE CULTIVATION OF CROPS IN ONE OF THE WORLD’S DRIEST CLIMATES. view more
CREDIT: IMAGE COURTESY OF YUQI LI, WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY IN ST. LOUIS.

 

Using satellite imaging and drone reconnaissance, archaeologists from Washington University in St. Louis have discovered an ancient irrigation system that allowed a farming community in northwestern China to raise livestock and cultivate crops in one of the world’s driest desert climates.

Source: Did ancient irrigation technology travel Silk Road?

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Eurekalert.org9-Nov-2017
New research shows that early farmers who migrated to Europe from the Near East spread quickly across the continent, where they lived side-by-side with existing local hunter-gatherers while slowly mixing with those groups over time
Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History


Early Neolithic grave from Bátaszék (Hungary).
CREDIT
Anett Osztás

New research answers a long-debated question among anthropologists, archaeologists and geneticists: when farmers first arrived in Europe, how did they interact with existing hunter-gatherer groups? Prior studies have suggested these early Near Eastern farmers largely replaced the pre-existing European hunter-gatherers. Did the farmers wipe out the hunter-gatherers, through warfare or disease, shortly after arriving? Or did they slowly out-compete them over time? The current study, published today in Nature, suggests that these groups likely coexisted side-by-side for some time after the early farmers spread across Europe. The farming populations then slowly integrated local hunter-gatherers, showing more assimilation of the hunter-gatherers into the farming populations as time went on.
The Neolithic transition – the shift from a hunter-gatherer to a farming lifestyle that started nearly 10,000 years ago – has been a slowly unraveling mystery. Recent studies of ancient DNA have revealed that the spread of farming across Europe was not merely the result of a transfer of ideas, but that expanding farmers from the Near East brought this knowledge with them as they spread across the continent.
Numerous studies have shown that early farmers from all over Europe, such as the Iberian Peninsula, southern Scandinavia and central Europe, all shared a common origin in the Near East. This was initially an unexpected finding given the diversity of prehistoric cultures and the diverse environments in Europe. Interestingly, early farmers also show various amounts of hunter-gatherer ancestry, which had previously not been analyzed in detail.
The current study, from an international team including scientists from Harvard Medical School, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, focused on the regional interactions between early farmers and late hunter-gatherer groups across a broad timespan in three locations in Europe: the Iberian Peninsula in the West, the Middle-Elbe-Saale region in north-central Europe, and the fertile lands of the Carpathian Basin (centered in what is now Hungary). The researchers used high-resolution genotyping methods to analyze the genomes of 180 early farmers, 130 of whom are newly reported in this study, from the period of 6000-2200 BC to explore the population dynamics during this period.
“We find that the hunter-gatherer admixture varied locally but more importantly differed widely between the three main regions,” says Mark Lipson, a researcher in the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and co-first author of the paper. “This means that local hunter-gatherers were slowly but steadily integrated into early farming communities.”
While the percentage of hunter-gatherer heritage never reached very high levels, it did increase over time. This finding suggests the hunter-gatherers were not pushed out or exterminated by the farmers when the farmers first arrived. Rather, the two groups seem to have co-existed with increasing interactions over time. Further, the farmers from each location mixed only with hunter-gatherers from their own region, and not with hunter-gatherers, or farmers, from other areas, suggesting that once settled, they stayed put.
“One novelty of our study is that we can differentiate early European farmers by their specific local hunter-gatherer signature,” adds co-first author Anna Szécsényi-Nagy of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. “Farmers from Spain share hunter-gatherer ancestry with a pre-agricultural individual from La Braña, Spain, whereas farmers from central Europe share more with hunter-gatherers near them, such as an individual from the Loschbour cave in Luxembourg. Similarly, farmers from the Carpathian Basin share more ancestry with local hunter-gatherers from their same region.”
The team also investigated the relative length of time elapsed since the integration events between the populations, using cutting-edge statistical techniques that focus on the breakdown of DNA blocks inherited from a single individual. The method allows scientists to estimate when the populations mixed. Specifically, the team looked at 90 individuals from the Carpathian Basin who lived close in time. The results – which indicate ongoing population transformation and mixture – allowed the team to build the first quantitative model of interactions between hunter-gatherer and farmer groups.
“We found that the most probable scenario is an initial, small-scale, admixture pulse between the two populations that was followed by continuous gene flow over many centuries,” says senior lead author David Reich, professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School.
These results reflect the importance of building thorough, detailed databases of genetic information over time and space, and suggest that a similar approach should be equally revealing elsewhere in the world.

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Original article:

Sciencenordic.com
By: Rasmus Kragh Jakobsen

A new study shows that the Mesopotamian farmers during a food crisis did not try to farm their land more intensively, but converted more land to arable land. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Ancient grain from the Middle East has given scientists an insight into how some of the world’s first cities developed.
Small, charred remains of grain that are at least 8,500 years old provide a fingerprint of ancient farming and how villages suddenly expanded over the course of a few hundred years into the large city states in ancient Mesopotamia—a historical area in present-day Syria and Iraq.
The grain can now reveal that as cities expanded and the need for food grew, so did the land dedicated to growing crops.
“It’s very exciting because until now the theory was that as the towns grew, they cultivated the land more intensively,” says archaeobotanist Mette Marie Hald from the National Museum of Denmark, who participated in the study.
“The study gives us an indirect indication of the political control of cities and how we imagine cities were established,” she says.
New knowledge on early city life
Arable farming made the cultivatable land valuable, and when land was inherited it could have laid the ground for a ruling elite of farmers and the beginnings of social inequality.
“It’s exciting and groundbreaking research, and the study strikes to the heart of many years of debate surrounding the economy and organisation of the early city societies,” says Tim Skuldbøl, archaeologist from the University of Copenhagen who also studies early urbanism but did not take part in the new study.
“Today, most people live in a city but don’t understand how they came about and why cities are organised the way they are. This archaeological research is important to understand the basic sociological building blocks that helped to form our urban societies today,” says Skuldbøl.
The study is published in the scientific journal, Nature Plants.
Villages shot up as settlement mounds
In the Khabur Valley in Northeast Syria, runs one of history’s most important rivers, the Euphrates. Together with the Tigris River, they define the region of Mesopotamia—which also means land between the rivers—where the world’s first civilisations emerged.
In the valley, archaeologists have found several ancient cities. One of them is Tell Brak, which was described by British archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan in the 1930s.
At first glance, Tell Brak looks like a small hill, but preserved under the surface are houses built upon houses.
“They have torn down houses and built on top of the old foundations, so the occupation level has risen over thousands of years. Now, it’s 40 to 60 metres high and like a small mountain,” says Hald.
Food for 30,000 inhabitants
Among the remains, archaeologists have discovered temples, large administrative buildings, and even long sewage pipes. But how the city grew to be so big, was still a mystery.
Eight thousand years ago, arable farming was just beginning with grain fields of wheat and barley. At this time, animals, such as cows, goats, and sheep, were domesticated.
At this time, people lived in villages of perhaps 100 to 200 people, and then suddenly, some 6,000 years ago, over a period of a few centuries, these villages grew to cities of more than 10,000 inhabitants.
The development of arable farming, which provided food for all these people, is a key piece of the puzzle to understand how these cities grew so quickly.
Atomic physics meets archaeology
In recent years, archaeologists have obtained a new peep-hole that allows them to see back in time. Amazingly enough, packets of information have survived 8,000 years in the form of grain from burned down houses.
“It’s a bit mean, but when a house burns down, we archaeologists are really happy because then grains are burnt and don’t rot. They can lie in the earth for thousands of years,” says Hald.
Most of us think of fire as a frightful, destructive power, but grain is strong enough to survive and save its secrets.

Every little grain records a piece of history of the conditions under which it was cultivated, in the form of stable isotopes of nitrogen and carbon.
Two routes to large towns
The scientists measured isotopes in 276 samples of grain discovered in Tell Brak and four other ancient cities in the northern region of Mesopotamia, dating to between 8,000 and 4,000 years ago: Tell Leilan, Tell Sabi Abyad, Tell Zeidan, and Hamoukar.
They compared the analysis with modern samples from test fields in France, Spain, Morocco, and Denmark, where old varieties of grain are grown under controlled conditions with manuring and irrigation.
Together with the knowledge of ancient climate, scientists can estimate very precisely how much or how little manure or irrigation was used. By comparing this with the archaeological layer which the samples came from, they could follow the development of agricultural practices through time.
The bigger the cities became, the less manure they used, which is surprising as further south in Iraq, they used widespread irrigation and farmed the land very intensively.
But now they know that practices to the north were very different, which means that there were at least two ways in which cities could expand.
Farmers made their own choices about their grain
The differences are probably closely related to the climate: Not enough rain in the dry south requiring irrigation versus the wetter northern region requiring less work-intensive input, where food output was boosted by converting more of the landscape to fields.
The grains also held clues of the socio-economic system of the time, revealing who held power in these early cities.
“It’s interesting that we find large pots filled with different crops in private homes, and from the isotope values we can see that they had very different manuring levels, so they must have come from different fields,” says Hald.
“It shows us that individual households had different fields around the town, where some were manured and others weren’t,” she says.
In other words, the grain suggests that there was no centralised arable economy, but that each farmer made their own choices.
Large farmers had power
If a king or nobleman controlled the fields, then all of the harvest would probably be collected centrally and then distributed. In this case, archaeologists might expect to see more consistent isotope values in the grain found in various households.
“Later, we see massive grain stores, where the crops must have come in from all the fields and stored in these large rooms, and distributed among the population,” says Hald.
“So what we see here is an indirect indication of how a town became controlled, and it doesn’t look like there was a strong centralised power at this time, and the society—at least agriculturally speaking—is still rather egalitarian,” she says.
In later deposits, the archaeologists found remains of temples, large storerooms, and administrative buildings, which suggests a central power had developed from the early agribusiness.
So it appears that the development began with a collective of important farmers.
“The extensive agriculture paved the way for some powerful families. You can say roughly that instead of a central royal power, in terms of economy, these cities may have been controlled by a team of large families,” says Hald.

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