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Original article in science news.org

Paleoartist Gabriela Amorós Seller draws on recent findings to depict ancient Iberian life

Bruce BowerMarch 9, 2021 at 8:00 am

painting of a Neandertal man and child on the Iberian plains
A Neandertal man and child lounge among ancient Iberian plants and animals near Bolomor Cave (about halfway up the hill on the left) in this painting depicting life in eastern Spain around a couple hundred thousand years ago.G. Amorós, Quat. Sci. Reviews, 2021

Here’s a scene guaranteed to melt the popular stereotype of Ice Age Neandertals as spear-wielding mammoth hunters confined to Eurasia’s frigid inner core.

New illustrations show what’s currently known about the environment inhabited periodically by Neandertals in Iberia, or what’s now Spain and Portugal, from at least 350,000 years ago to nearly 100,000 years ago. Paleoartist Gabriela Amorós Seller of the University of Murcia in Spain, used colored pencils to illustrate an idyllic view of a Neandertal man and child lounging on flat ground downslope from Bolomor Cave, near the Mediterranean coast of what’s now eastern Spain.

Excavations in the cave have produced evidence of the trees, plants and animals shown in the drawing, presented in the March 15 Quaternary Science Reviews. Amorós Seller also illustrated Bolomor Cave’s Neandertal-era entrance and surrounding greenery. She and her colleagues regard these scientifically informed drawings as more than simply appealing to the eye. Art that shows the basic makeup of an ancient environment can inspire scientists to ask new questions. For instance, her group now wants to explore how ancient Iberian plants grew in the wild and what they looked like before being modified over the past few thousand years by farming practices.  

illustration of the entrance to Bolomor Cave in Spain
Eastern Spain’s Bolomor Cave (illustrated) has hosted recent excavations that paint a detailed picture of what life was like for Neandertals who once inhabited that temperate region.G. Amorós, Quat. Sci. Reviews, 2021

Bolomor Cave Neandertals probably ate fruit, nuts and seeds of plants that once grew in the area, says coauthor José Carrión, an evolutionary biologist and botanist at the University of Murcia. Those plants included hazel shrubs, one of which appears just behind the Neandertal male, who is munching on a hazelnut. Strawberry trees, Mediterranean hackberry, myrtle shrubs, carob trees and chestnut trees — all shown in the drawings — were also available, he says.

Insights about local plant life during Neandertal times come largely from pollen grains and spores found in sediment layers in Bolomor Cave, previously reported by coauthor Juan Ochando, an evolutionary botanist also at the University of Murcia, and colleagues. These layers have also yielded remains of fire pits, burned animal bones, scorched tortoise shells and four Neandertal fossils — a piece of a leg bone, two teeth and part of a braincase.

The animal remains inform other parts of the drawings, such as the Neandertal child watching a tortoise inch its way forward. Tortoises were cooked and eaten at Bolomor Cave, along with frequent prey such as hares, rabbits, birds and deer. People also occasionally consumed large animals such as horses and hippos.

Neandertals most likely responded to relatively mild Iberian temperatures by wearing few or no clothes, the researchers suspect.

Whether they were a separate Homo species or an ancient variant of Homo sapiens, Neandertals had a largely unappreciated talent for finding and exploiting resource-rich parts of Iberia (SN: 3/26/20). Amorós Seller’s paintings vividly show some of that mammoth-free bounty.

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reprinted from Exeter.ac.uk

Early Muslim communities in Africa ate a cosmopolitan diet as the region became a trading centre for luxury goods, the discovery of thousands of ancient animal bones has shown.

Halal butchery practices became common when Islam spread through Ethiopia as vibrant communities developed because of the import and export of products around the Red Sea, and to Egypt, India, and the Arabian Peninsula, archaeologists have found.

New excavations at three sites in the east of the country completed by the University of Exeter and the Ethiopian Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage have uncovered around 50,000 animal bones dating from the eighth/ninth centuries onwards, and showing people living there at this early time ate a Muslim diet 400 years before major Mosques or burial sites were built in the 12th century.

The team, led by Professor Timothy Insoll, and involving archaeozoologist Jane Gaastra from the University of Exeter’s Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies, found the first evidence in Africa for ancient halal butchery during the excavations, at Harlaa, Harar, and Ganda Harla.

Previous excavations led by Professor Insoll have revealed the Mosques and burial sites, as well as the remains of luxury materials such as ceramics from China and Egypt, marine shell from the Red Sea and beads from India.

Harlaa was established in the 6th and 7th centuries before Islam arrived in Ethiopia. It was abandoned in the 15th century when Harlaa and Ganda Harlaa were established, possibly because of plague or environmental change, and with the increasing spread of Islam better places to farm could be lived in.

During the period from which the animal bones date people may have been using smaller Mosques not yet discovered by archaeologists, and built larger buildings for worship as Muslim communities grew.

Professor Insoll said: “We didn’t expect to find bones of this quality and quantity. They are so well preserved that we can clearly see both cuts and evidence of wear. We’ve also found bones in both residential areas and places of work”.

“This is significant new information about people’s religious identity at the time. It shows in the early days of Islam in the region people were just starting to adopt religious practices, so were sometimes pragmatic and didn’t follow all of them.”

Analysis of wear on the bones show cattle were used for ploughing and turning grinding stones, and other species such as camels, horses, and donkeys, may have been used as pack animals to carry trade goods and other commodities. Analysis of the age data of cattle bones at Harlaa indicated 80 to 90 per cent of animals survived beyond 3 years of age, showing they were kept for milk or for work rather than bred to eat.

Archaeologists found the remains of pigs in Harlaa and Ganda Harlaa, which could have been domesticated or wild, unexpected in an Islamic area, as pigs are haram, ot forbidden in Islamic halal diet. This suggests the region was cosmopolitan, with visitors and residents from different areas and with different religions. Another explanation could be that early Muslims in the area ate pork during this period for practical reasons. No pig remains were found at Harar, which was a city of Muslim scholarship and pilgrimage. Similar halal butchery techniques were used in all three sites, showing the influence of Muslim traders who arrived in the area and the spread of Islam to first Harlaa, and then Harar and Ganda Harla.

People also ate and hunted warthog, bushpig, aardvark, porcupine, hare, gennet, mongoose and leopard.

At Harlaa researchers also found evidence of marine fish imported from the Red Sea some 120 kilometres away. These had all been processed prior to being sent to Harlaa, either in dried or salted form to preserve them. This was indicated by the complete absence of fish heads showing these had 2 been removed, probably at the Red Sea coast. No local freshwater fish species were found suggesting the people eating the fish were used to a sophisticated diet.

Similar animal body portions were found at each site, indicating wealth or status may not have been a factor in access to meat.

The study, published in the Journal of African Archaeology, indicates that the discarded remains of meals eaten many hundreds of years ago can provide very important information on diet, but also religious conversion, trade, and the use of animals for transport and work purposes in Islamic societies in Africa which have been largely neglected by archaeologists.

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Dr. Sara Halwas, a specialist in ancient plant remains, takes notes while working at the Olson site Dr. Sara Halwas, a specialist in ancient plant remains, takes notes while working at the Olson site along the Gainsborough Creek southwest of Melita, Manitoba on Friday. Dr. Mary Malainey of Brandon University is the project director and principal investigator for a team of archaeologists working at the Olson site until July 28th. Tim Smith/The Brandon Sun

A rare find in southwestern Manitoba – modified bison shoulder blades – may lead to knowledge about a pre-contact agrarian Indigenous society in southwestern Manitoba.

The project was launched after Eric Olson found the objects rising from a creek bed 15 kilometres south of Melita – an hour and a half southwest of Brandon – in 2018.

The objects are hoes.

Brandon University anthropology professor Mary Malainey is leading the project, which began with initial investigations of the site last summer. The archaeological dig taking place this past week and next is a joint effort with the Manitoba Archaeological Society.

“To find bison scapula hoes, it’s really unusual. Complete hoes. Not just possible hoe fragments, in air quotes, but definite. No doubt about it. This is only the second site in Manitoba where we have that,” Malainey said.

The other site is in Lockport, north of Winnipeg.

“That makes it very, very, very special. And the fact that Eric found the hoes after they had eroded out of the creek bank … we have to worry about (that) because the erosion is affecting the site. It’s really important that if we want to get the information, that we act as quickly as possible.”

Malainey figures the 2014 flood brought the hoes to the surface.

Cataloguing more objects and other preserved materials to fill out the story of the Indigenous society that lived and likely gardened in the area is the goal this year. Keeping in mind the hoes found had eroded out of the creek bed — what Malainey calls a secondary context — last year’s investigations were to determine if there was anything left of an original site.

“Are there any intact, undisturbed materials in primary context? The answer was yes. That’s why we’re going back,” she said.

Ultimately, Malainey is looking for proof of a gardening society, which was not found at the Lockport site or other research sites — the smoking gun, as she calls it.

Meanwhile, Amber Flett, past president of the Manitoba Archaeological Society and senior archaeologist with InterGroup Consultants, reached out to the Dakota Ojibway Tribal Council and First Nations in southwestern Manitoba within 150 kilometres of the site.

Flett said she contacted Long Plain First Nation, Dakota Tipi First Nation, Birdtail Sioux Dakota Nation and, nearest to the site, Canupawakpa Dakota First Nation. She sent out initial emails to describe the initial find, as well as the 2019 activities.

“This year, we wanted to invite the First Nations out to see the site and participate if they wanted to dig and such,” Flett said, adding responses were positive.

“The ones we heard back from, we are getting a few people, like Birdtail Sioux, Dakota Tipi and Canupawakpa.”

Flett asked Canupawakpa if it would be interested in doing a blessing ceremony at the site prior to the work starting. Elder Greg Chatkana performed the ceremony Wednesday.

“It’s too soon to say which Indigenous population made and used the hoes,” Malainey said.

“We know that the people who lived in that area probably lived there for about 200 years from the late 1400s to the 1600s or 1700s. We also know that with the fur trade there was a whole lot of movement of people. Because of the incredible displacement and migration that was associated with the fur trade, it’s very difficult to say which ethnic group was in that area.”

She added: “Could they be Siouxan? Yes. Could they be something else, like Algonquian? Yes. But we don’t know.”

Malainey emphasized that the project does not involve Indigenous burial grounds.

“In that area, there are many, many, many burial mounds. We do not want anything to do with the burial mounds. We are looking for that evidence of agriculture. We’re looking for the fields. We’re looking for the storage pits. We’re looking for their houses,” she said.

“We are not going anywhere near the burial mounds. That was really important for us.”

Malainey will have extra help from professional archaeologists who are volunteering. For example, Sara Halwas will collect soil cores from the site. She plans to study the remains of domesticated crops and other plants recovered from them as a post-doctoral research project at the University of Manitoba.

In addition, the surrounding prairie will be examined using ground-penetrating radar (GPR), according to the initial Brandon University news release.

“We hope the GPR survey will help us locate the former village of the pre-contact Indigenous farmers,” Malainey stated.

Flett said she believes this will be a multi-year project.

“Hopefully, it will continue to grow. It’s based on funding.”

This year’s effort were made possible thanks to financial contributions from Manitoba Heritage Grants Program, the Manitoba Archeological Society, Brandon University, and the Canada Summer Jobs program.

Weather permitting, public archaeology activities will be held today, tomorrow, and July 25 and 26, including presentations and site tours.

Those interested are invited to meet the researchers in the grassy plain west of Highway 83, approximately 500 metres north of the junction with 10N on those days at 10 a.m. or noon. For more information, a message for Malainey can be left at malaineym@brandonu.ca or 204-727-9734.

The Brandon Sun is in contact with Chatkana to discuss the possibility of a future story about the archeological project from the First Nation’s perspective.

© Copyright 2020 Battlefords News Optimist

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Not just metals, hierarchical societies and fortified settlements: a new food also influenced economic transformations in the Bronze Age around 3500 years ago. This is evidenced by frequent archaeological discoveries of remains of broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum L.), a cereal with small, roundish grains. A major study by the Collaborative Research Centre 1266 “Scales of Transformation – Human-Environmental Interaction in Prehistoric and Archaic Societies” at Kiel University (CAU) was published yesterday (13 August) in the journal Scientific Reports. It shows how common millet got onto the menu in Bronze Age Europe. Intensive trade and communication networks facilitated the incredibly rapid spread of this new crop originating from the Far East.

“Wheat, maize and rice now dominate our cereal farming. Millet is regarded as a niche crop suitable mainly for birdseed,” explained Professor Wiebke Kirleis from CRC 1266. As this cereal is once more experiencing increasing attention as a gluten-free food, however, it makes the results of the study even more exciting, she added.

Millet was domesticated in north-east China in about 6000 BC and quickly became a staple crop. It is a drought-tolerant, fast-growing cereal that is rich in minerals and vitamins. With a growing time of just 60 to 90 days from sowing to harvest, it was grown by both farmers and pastoralists, and was consumed by both humans and domestic animals. Over thousands of years, pastoral groups spread millet westward from East Asia. The earliest millet in Central Asia comes from archaeological sites in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and the Kashmir Valley, and is dated to about 2500 BC.

“In Europe, curiously, broomcorn millet has been found at many Neolithic sites, which date from between 6500 and 2000 BC, depending on the region,” said Kirleis. Is it possible that millet was domesticated in China at around the same time? Wheat, barley and our domestic animals were only introduced to Europe thousands of years after they were domesticated in the “Fertile Crescent” – a region extending from the Persian Gulf through northern Syria to Jordan. Was there a special relationship with China? Doubts about this hypothesis arose following the radiocarbon-dating (14C) of a few grains of millet in 2013. These tiny grains had infiltrated older archaeological layers through root channels and earthworm activity. When millet first appeared and was cultivated in Europe remained unknown.

A group of researchers at the Collaborative Research Centre “Scales of Transformation” (CRC 1266), led by Wiebke Kirleis, set out to answer this question. They researched not only the spread of millet cultivation in Europe, but also focused their attention on the prehistoric population’s acceptance of this exotic cereal and examined which agricultural and social phenomena were associated with this innovation.

As millet ripens within three months after sowing, it can be grown as a catch crop between the summer harvest and winter sowing of wheat or barley in central and southern Europe. Further north, it probably served as a reserve crop if late frost had destroyed spring-sown crops. Surplus grain from the extra harvest increased food security and supported a steadily growing population.

Working with almost thirty research institutions across Europe, the archaeobotanists Dragana Filipović and Marta Dal Corso from the team led by Wiebke Kirleis, together with John Meadows from the Leibniz Laboratory for Radiometric Dating and Stable Isotope Research at Kiel University and the Centre for Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology (ZBSA) in Schleswig, radiocarbon-dated millet from 75 prehistoric sites (6th-1st century BC). The results show that millet cultivation did not begin in the Early Stone Age, but was first introduced around 1500 BC, and that the new crop spread incredibly rapidly across much of Central Europe 3500 years ago. “This indicates that there were extensive trade and communication networks during the Bronze Age. But the study also shows that millet was quickly and widely recognised as a versatile addition to the then emmer- and barley-dominated cuisine,” concluded Kirleis.

Millet evidently spread along established trade routes for bronze objects (including weapons), gold and amber. These transformation processes of food strategies and their social dimensions are a key issue for CRC 1266. Future research in CRC 1266 will examine what social dynamics were associated with the introduction of this new food in this distinct period of upheaval in European prehistory, as the highly productive and connected world of Bronze Age Europe was also a stage for conflict. Evidence of battles and numerous fortifications are testimony of this.

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Pottery fragments found at the Havnø kitchen midden, Northern Denmark. Credit: Harry Robson, University of York.

York.ac.uk

Hunter-gatherer groups living in the Baltic between seven and six thousand years ago had culturally distinct cuisines, analysis of ancient pottery fragments has revealed.

An international team of researchers analysed over 500 hunter-gatherer vessels from 61 archaeological sites throughout the Baltic region.

They found striking contrasts in food preferences and culinary practices between different groups – even in areas where there was a similar availability of resources. Pots were used for storing and preparing foods ranging from marine fish, seal and beaver to wild boar, bear, deer, freshwater fish, hazelnuts and plants.

The findings suggest that the culinary tastes of ancient people were not solely dictated by the foods available in a particular area, but also influenced by the traditions and habits of cultural groups, the authors of the study say.

Rich variety

A lead author of the study, Dr Harry Robson from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, said: “People are often surprised to learn that hunter-gatherers used pottery to store, process and cook food, as carrying cumbersome ceramic vessels seems inconsistent with a nomadic life-style.

“Our study looked at how this pottery was used and found evidence of a rich variety of foods and culinary traditions in different hunter-gatherer groups.”

The researchers also identified unexpected evidence of dairy products in some of the pottery vessels, suggesting that some hunter-gatherer groups were interacting with early farmers to obtain this resource.

Dr Robson added: “The presence of dairy fats in several hunter-gatherer vessels was an unexpected example of culinary ‘cultural fusion’. The discovery has implications for our understanding of the transition from hunter-gatherer lifestyles to early farming and demonstrates that this commodity was either exchanged or perhaps even looted from nearby farmers.”

Cultural habits

Lead author of the study, Dr Blandine Courel from the British Museum, added: “Despite a common biota that provided lots of marine and terrestrial resources for their livelihoods, hunter-gatherer communities around the Baltic Sea basin did not use pottery for the same purpose. Our study suggests that culinary practices were not influenced by environmental constraints but rather were likely embedded in some long-standing culinary traditions and cultural habits.”

The study, led by the Department of Scientific Research at the British Museum, the University of York and the Centre for Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology (Stiftung Schleswig-Holsteinische Landesmuseen, Germany), used molecular and isotopic techniques to analyse the fragments of pottery.

Revolutionised understanding

Senior author, Professor Oliver Craig from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, said: “Chemical analysis of the remains of foods and natural products prepared in pottery has already revolutionised our understanding of early agricultural societies, we are now seeing these methods being rolled out to study prehistoric hunter-gatherer pottery. The results suggest that they too had complex and culturally distinct cuisines.”

 

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First posted Aug 20, 2010
via A window on the ancient community

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On this day ten years ago…
via An archaeological window on ancient farming

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Stone Age harpoons found in southern Norway speak of perilous fishing. But now the traces from this time are slowly crumbling away.

 
Sciencenorway.no

The whole story starts with a farmer.

Specifically, the farmer at Jortveit farm in southern Norway. Around the beginning of the 1930s he decided to drain a wetland near the farm so he could cultivate new land.

But while he was working on the deep drainage trenches, strange things started to crop up. Bones from a bluefin tuna and a killer whale. And huge fish hooks and harpoons made of bones. In the middle of the wetland!

The tools eventually ended up in the University Museum of Antiquities in Oslo, where they were studied by archaeologists. The bones, on the other hand, were examined by geologists at the Natural History Museum.

But none of the researchers could make sense of what they had.

Putting the tools and bones in context

The archaeologist at the time thinks the tools must have come from a settlement. They are reminiscent of Stone Age finds from elsewhere. But the site is far too low compared to the sea level at that time.

The geologist, for his part, can’t understand what this killer whale was doing so far up on land. Was it stranded there more than 6,000 years ago, during a period when the sea level was dropping?

According to the documentation, none of the researchers ask the obvious question:

Why were these bones and tools in the same place? Was there a connection between them?

Now, Svein Vatsvåg Nielsen, a PhD candidate from the University of Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History, has finally put the pieces together – almost 90 years after they were found.

Very rare stone age finds

“In 2017, I wanted to study some artefacts from the storage magazine for my doctoral work,” Nielsen says.

The tools from the Jortveit farm were particularly interesting.

Stone-age objects of bone are very rare because bones easily rot and disappear. Most bone and wood finds date from the Middle Ages and later because of this.

But the fish hooks and harpoons from Jortveit were probably much older. Just extremely well preserved.

Nielsen had read about the old find and knew the gear had originally been discovered along with fish and whale bones. Could the bones and the tools be from the same time? Maybe, combined, they could say something about the find.

But where were the bones?

Bones on the move

Nielsen contacted the University of Oslo’s Natural History Museum — which was immediately open to letting him try to date the old fish bones.

Finding the bones in question, however, was another matter.

The museum had just gone through the process of a big move, and the new location of the bones was somewhat unclear. Eventually the bones were found, and Nielsen was able to date material from both the gear and the whale and fish bones.

Fishing site from the Stone Age?

The finds were from the same period — somewhere between 3700 and 2500 years BC.

At that time, the sea was higher than today, and the area where the field is located was probably a lagoon. Maybe this was not a settlement at all, but a fishing area!

“It was known that people had come across a number of bones in the wetland in this area, both before and after the 1931 discovery,” Nielsen says.

But no additional archaeological excavations were ever undertaken on the site.

Might there still be more artefacts there that had not been destroyed by the ravages of time?

“I suggested to my colleagues that we could do an excavation, as part of the field work requirements for students at the University of Oslo,” Nielsen says.

Piles of bones

In the summer of 2018, Nielsen finally put a shovel into the ground.

He and the students dug through layers of arable land and hard clay. They found an arrowhead first, but nothing more.

Further down, the clay became moist and sticky. This was definitely old seabed! It was tough to dig in. It didn’t smell very good either. They dug a metre into the ground, but still found nothing.

“We had almost given up,” Nielsen says.

But then something happened. At around 125 centimetres below the surface, bones appeared. Piles of them.

Mostly bluefin tuna

Today, after three seasons of excavations, Nielsen has made a huge number of discoveries from the field. He recently published a scientific article about them, in the Journal of Wetland Archaeology.

The finds include arrowheads, fish hooks and harpoons. But mostly bones. Some of the bones are from cod or small whales, but they are mainly from bluefin tuna — a giant of a fish.

Together, the bones and the implements tell a story, Nielsen says.

People from nearby settlements fished in the lagoon. Occasionally, bluefin tuna followed schools of herring or mackerel into the lagoon. Then people were probably able to hunt them from boats.

All the bones at the bottom may be due to the fact that the fishermen cleaned the fish before they went ashore. Or they may be the remains of fish that escaped but were too injured to survive.

Coincidence unlikely

“It’s unlikely that so many bluefin tuna just ended up there by chance,” says Nielsen.

If some natural phenomenon had killed the fish in the lagoon, there would be bones from many different species there, not just from bluefin tuna.

The harpoons from the wetland are also very similar to harpoons that archaeologists know were used solely to catch big fish or small whales.

“It would be an incredible coincidence if these rare harpoons and fish bones were just randomly collected there, says Nielsen.

A glimpse of life outside the settlement

Interpreting archaeological finds is always associated with a great deal of uncertainty.

“We haven’t found a fish with a hook in its mouth,” Nielsen says.

Still, he believes the evidence from the wetland gives us insight into a little of the everyday lives of these people, which we didn’t previously have.

“Usually we only see what people did on land, and just right around where they lived. We typically do excavations of a hundred square metres around homes. But as soon as people leave their residences, we have no idea what they are doing. They disappear into in the fog for us,” he said.

“But this gives us an insight into what they did in their boats,” he said.

We even get a hint as to what happened when things went wrong, when an unlucky hunter lost an arrow over a gunwale, or a harpoon snapped and the fish swam away.

Dangerous fishing

The finds clearly raise an interesting question: What else might lie under the Jortveit farm field? In theory, the extremely good conditions in the wetland may have preserved everything.

“There could have been people out in boats hundreds of times a year. And there are signs that there has been activity on the site over a period of a thousand years,” he says.

What might have been lost during all that time?

Jars, utensils and articles of wood and bones. Yes, even whole boats.

Or in the extreme, dramatic situation, life.

“It’s a risky endeavour to catch a bluefin with harpoon from a boat,” says Nielsen.

The fish are very strong. If the foot of an unlucky fisherman got stuck in the fishing line, it is not unlikely that his story would have ended at a depth of nine metres.

“I’ve been thinking about it — we might suddenly find a skull! But we haven’t found one yet,” he says.

Poorer conditions

Nielsen has stopped feeling frustrated that not everything can be excavated.

“No, we have to take what we get,” he says.

The hope is nevertheless to undertake a slightly more extensive project on the site in the future, with even more analyses of sediments and finds.

However, it might be wise not to wait too long.

“What is a pity is that the drainage in the wetland has resulted in worse conditions for preservation. The finds from 1932 are actually better preserved today than the finds we are making now,” he said.

A picture of two fish hooks clearly shows the difference. The hook found in the 1930s is clearly in better condition than the one recently excavated. Nevertheless, it is not outside of the realm of possibilities that something truly unique still lies under the field.

“It would be fantastic to find a boat,” says Nielsen.

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Credit Dr Edmar Almeida de Oliveira

Exeter.ac.uk

Innovation by ancient farmers to improve soil fertility continues to have an impact on the biodiversity of the Amazon, a major new study shows.

Early inhabitants fertilized the soil with charcoal from fire remains and food waste. Areas with this “dark earth” have a different set of species than the surrounding landscape, contributing to a more diverse ecosystem with a richer collection of plant species, researchers from the State University of Mato Grosso in Brazil and the University of Exeter have found.

The legacy of this land management thousands of years ago means there are thousands of these patches of dark earth dotted around the region, most around the size of a small field. This is the first study to measure the difference in vegetation in dark and non-dark earth areas in mature forests across a region spanning a thousand kilometers.

The team of ecologists and archaeologists studied abandoned areas along the main stem of the Amazon River near Tapajós and in the headwaters of the Xingu River Basin in southern Amazonia.

Lead author Dr Edmar Almeida de Oliveira  said: “This is an area where dark earth lush forests grow, with colossal trees of different species from the surrounding forest, with more edible fruit trees, such as taperebá and jatobá.”

The number of indigenous communities living in the Amazon collapsed following European colonization of the region, meaning many dark earth areas were abandoned.

The study, published in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography, reveals for the first time the extent to which pre-Columbian Amerindians influenced the current structure and diversity of the Amazon forest of the areas they once farmed.

Researchers sampled around 4,000 trees in southern and eastern Amazonia. Areas with dark earth had a significantly higher pH and more nutrients that improved soil fertility. Pottery shards and other artefacts were also found in the rich dark soils.

Professor Ben Hur Marimon Junior, from the State University of Mato Grosso, said: “Pre-Columbian indigenous people, who fertilized the poor soils of the Amazon for at least 5,000 years, have left an impressive legacy, creating the dark earth, or Terras Pretas de Índio

Professor José Iriarte, an archaeologist from the University of Exeter, said: “By creating dark earth early inhabitants of the Amazon were able to successfully cultivate the soil for thousands of years in an agroforestry system

“We think ancient communities used dark earth areas to grow crops to eat, and adjacent forests without dark earth for agroforestry.”

Dr Ted Feldpausch, from the University of Exeter, who co-authored the study with Dr Luiz Aragão from the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) in Brazil, said: “After being abandoned for hundreds of years, we still find a fingerprint of the ancient land-use in the forests today as a legacy of the pre-Colombian Amazonian population estimated in millions of inhabitants.

“We are currently expanding this research across the whole Amazon Basin under a project funded by the UK Natural Environment Research Council(NERC) to evaluate whether historical fire also affected the forest areas distant from the anthropogenic dark earths”.

Many areas with dark earth are currently cultivated by local and indigenous populations, who have had great success with their food crops. But most are still hidden in the native forest, contributing to increased tree size, carbon stock and regional biodiversity. For this reason, the lush forests of the “Terra Preta de Índio” and their biological and cultural wealth in the Amazon must be preserved as a legacy for future generations, the researchers have said. Areas with dark earth are under threat due to illegal deforestation and fire.

 “Dark earth increases the richness of species, an important consideration for regional biodiversity conservation. These findings highlight the smallscale longterm legacy of preColumbian inhabitants on the soils and vegetation of Amazonia,” said co-author Prof Beatriz Marimon, from the State University of Mato Grosso.

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On this day ten years ago…
via Farming’s rise cultivated fair deals

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