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Original post archaeology.org

Barbados

By MARLEY BROWN

November/December 2020Alcohol Antigua Rum Distillery(The Stapleton Collection/Bridgeman Images)

1823 illustration of a rum distillery in AntiguaAlcohol Caribbean Punch Bowl(Courtesy Frederick H. Smith)

Punch bowlIn the 1640s, English landholders in Barbados began cultivating sugarcane after failing to compete in the tobacco market dominated by Virginia planters, beginning a revolution that would transform sugar from a rare, exotic commodity into a staple of modern life. This profound shift in global commerce was founded on a system of slavery for which millions of captive Africans were transported to plantations across the Americas. These enslaved Africans brought with them millennia-old knowledge of fermenting grains and palm sap to produce alcohol. They were indispensable in developing the process by which sugarcane juice or molasses, a byproduct of sugar refining, was fermented into alcohol and distilled, producing rum. Archaeologist Frederick Smith of North Carolina A&T State University explains that while rum began as a drink for sailors and the lower classes, it grew in popularity in both the New World and Europe. Eventually, it became an essential component of the Triangle Trade, in which valuable raw materials, including sugar, tobacco, cotton, and furs, were sent to Europe from the Americas, and manufactured goods were exchanged for enslaved people in Africa. “Rum was both a prized ingredient in punch served at elite gatherings in Europe and the colonies, and an important trade commodity in Africa,” Smith says. West Africans, he explains, also incorporated rum into religious ceremonies that survived the horrors of the journey across the Atlantic and attempts by slavers and planters to separate captives from members of their ethnic and linguistic communities. “Rum,” he says, “became a versatile substance that facilitated connection with the spiritual world and promoted group identity within enslaved communities.”

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Original in archaeology.org

Israel

By DANIEL WEISS

November/December 2020Alcohol Israel Byzantine Mosaic(Photo © the Israel Museum Jerusalem, by Elie Posner)

Byzantine mosaicAlcohol Israel Byzantine Grape Seeds Gaza Jar(Courtesy Daniel Fuks, Archaeobotany Lab, Bar-Ilan University, Courtesy Davida Eisenberg-Degen, Israel Antiquities Authority, Omer, Israel)

Grape seeds and Gaza jarIn the Byzantine eravinum Gazetum, or Gaza wine, was shipped from the port of Gaza throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. “Gaza wine was considered a sweet, white luxury wine, praised by poets and mentioned in travelers’ accounts,” says archaeobotanist Daniel Fuks of Bar-Ilan University. The wine was packaged in ceramic “Gaza jars,” whose long, thin shape made them appropriate for transport via camel and boat. These jars have been recovered as far away as Britain, Germany, and Yemen, a testament to the spirit’s wide appeal.

The Negev Highlands, some 30 to 60 miles inland from Gaza, has long been considered a likely site for Gaza wine production. Texts from the fourth to seventh centuries A.D. describe vineyards there, and several large Byzantine winepresses have been discovered. Now, an archaeobotanical study led by Fuks provides clear evidence of the rise and fall of extensive grape growing in the Negev Highlands, as well as its apparent connection to the Gaza wine trade.

To track the intensity of local viticulture over time, Fuks and his team calculated the ratio of grape seeds to cereal grains from 11 trash mounds at three sites. They found the proportion of grape seeds rose from practically nothing in the third century to modest levels in the fourth to mid-fifth centuries. It peaked in the early sixth century before dropping sharply in the mid-sixth to mid-seventh centuries. The percentage of Gaza jars among the pottery in the trash mounds followed a strikingly similar trajectory. According to Fuks, this suggests that from roughly the fourth to sixth centuries, local farmers developed a commercial scale of viticulture connected to Mediterranean trade via Gaza.

Many scholars have linked the decline in the market for Gaza wine to the Islamic conquest of the region in the mid-seventh century. Fuks’ findings, however, indicate grape production in the Negev Highlands fell off a century earlier. Among the possible explanations, he says, are global cooling that may have led to unusually destructive flooding in the area and the outbreak of the Justinian plague in A.D. 541, which could have eroded demand for luxury goods throughout the region and reduced the supply of farmworkers.

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Happy Thanksgiving everyone. On this occasion I am at home celebrating with only my husband. Stay safe and well!

Ancientfoods

Cornucopia, horn of plenty Cornucopia, horn of plenty

Original Article:

STEPHENIE LIVINGSTON, November 18, 2015

news.fl.edu

It’s that time of year when children make cardboard turkeys and draw the Mayflower, while we prepare to fill our tables with stuffing and pumpkin pie the way most of us imagine the Pilgrims did at the first Thanksgiving in 1621.

But there’s just one catch, according to archaeologists at the Florida Museum of Natural History: The Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving wasn’t the first.

The nation’s real first Thanksgiving took place more than 50 years earlier near the Matanzas River in St. Augustine, Florida, when Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and 800 soldiers, sailors and settlers joined local Native Americans in a feast that followed a Mass of Thanksgiving, according to Kathleen Deagan, distinguished research curator emerita of historical archaeology at the museum, located on the University of Florida campus.

Instead of flat-top hats and oversized buckles, conquistadors wore…

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Original article in UTM.utoronto.ca

Friday, October 16, 2020 – 3:09pmTy Burke

In the fertile river valley along the border of modern-day India and Pakistan, the Indus Valley Civilization built some of the largest cities in the ancient world. Feeding such a large population would have been a significant challenge. New research from Kalyan Sekhar Chakraborty reveals one of the ways the civilization was able to sustain so many people. The postdoctoral researcher at the University of Toronto Mississauga has shown that dairy was being produced as far back as 2500 BCE. It is the earliest known dairy production in India, and could have helped produce the type of food surplus needed for trade.

In a report published in Nature, Chakraborty used molecular analysis techniques to study residues from ancient pottery, and demonstrate that dairy fats were not only present, but relatively common. He studied 59 shards of pottery from Kotada Bhadli, a small site in the present-day Indian state of Gujarat. Twenty-two of them showed evidence of dairy lipids. It is the earliest known dairy production in India, and dates to the height of the Indus Valley Civilization.

“We found that dairy was an integral part of their diet at a site that dates to about 2500 BCE,” says Chakraborty, who is conducting his post-doctoral research with Heather Miller, an anthropology professor at UTM.

“This would have allowed the accumulation of a surplus of animal protein, without affecting the number of animals in your herd. The question becomes the role of dairy. Why is it so important in this ancient settlement? It is something that could be exchanged between settlements and regions. It is an opportunity for different economic specializations to develop.” 

Chakraborty worked with Professor Greg Slater of McMaster University to determine that dairy was being produced. Pottery is porous and absorbs some of the food cooked inside it. Chakraborty looked for lipids because they don’t dissolve in water. Centuries later, it’s still possible to identify which types of fat are present using a technique called stable isotope analysis.

Using an organic solvent to dissolve the residues, Chakraborty and Slater used were able to identify which lipids were present. They analyzed palmitic and stearic acids – both abundant at archaeological sites. Depending on the carbon isotopes present, it’s possible to determine if the lipids in the residue came from plants, fish, or ruminant animals. 

They were also able to determine which type of ruminant animals were being used for dairy production. Cows and water buffalo ate a diet that consisted primarily of millet, while sheep and goats grazed on nearby grasses. These plants have different photosynthetic processes that produce different acids. From their analysis, the researchers were able to determine that the dairy residues came from animals that had eaten millet.

Chakraborty credits Slater with helping him navigate the chemistry needed to prove that dairy production was occurring. The archaeological record suggested it, but it was impossible to be sure. 

“Archaeological remains have their limitations. You can identify certain things. If animals were used for meat, there will be cut marks on their bones, but uses like dairy are generally invisible,” says Chakraborty.

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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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It fell to the bottom of a loch 2,500 years ago – its story long untold as it remained hidden by the deep, dark waters.
Original article: Scotsman.com

Monday, 20th July 2020, 5:00 pm

Monday, 20th July 2020, 4:58 pm

Updated 

The replica crannog on Loch Tay, where the butter was found.

Now, the wooden butter dish remains one of the most evocative items left behind by Scotland’s ancient water dwellers who made their homes on Loch Tay.

The dish was recovered during earlier excavations on the loch where at least 17 crannogs, or Iron Age wooden houses, were once dotted up and down the water.

Built from alder with a life span of around 20 years, the structures simply collapsed into the loch once they had served their purpose, with an incredible array of objects taken with them.

The 2,500-year-old butter dish and the remains of the butter. PIC: Scottish Crannog Centre.

The 2,500-year-old butter dish and the remains of the butter. PIC: Scottish Crannog Centre.

Among them was the dish which, remarkably, still carried traces of butter made by this Iron Age community.

Rich Hiden, archaeologist at the Scottish Crannog Centre, said the item had helped to illuminate the everyday life of the crannog dwellers who farmed the surrounding land, grew barley and ancient wheats such as spelt and emmer, and reared animals.

The crannogs were probably considered high-status sites which offered good security as well as easy access to trading routes along the Tay and into the North Sea.

Mr Hiden said conditions at the bottom of the loch had offered the perfect environment to preserve the butter and the dish.

He said: “Because of the fantastic anaerobic conditions, where there is very light, oxygen or bacteria to break down anything organic, you get this type of sealed environment.

“When they started excavating, they pulled out this square wooden dish, well around three quarters of a square wooden dish, which had these really nice chisel marks on the sides as well as this grey stuff.”

Liped analysis on this matter found that it was dairy material, with experts believing it likely originated from a cow.

Holes in the bottom of the wooden dish further suggest that it was used for the buttering process.

Cream would have been churned until thickened until it splits to form the buttermilk, with a woven cloth – possibly made from nettle fibres – placed in the dish with the clumps of cream then further pushed through to separate the last of the liquid.Read MoreBreakthrough in study of Scotland’s ancient loch dwellers

The butter then may have been turned into cheese by adding rennet, which naturally forms in a number of plants, including nettles.

Mr Hiden said: “This dish is so valuable in many ways. To be honest, we would expect people of this time to be eating dairy. In the early Iron Age, they had mastered the technology of smelting iron ore into to’s so mastering the technology of dairy we would expect.

“So while it may not surprise us that they are eating dairy, what is so important about this butter dish is that it helps us to identify what life was like in the crannogs and the skills and the tools that they had

“To me, that is archaeology at its finest. It is using the object itself to unravel the story. The best thing about this butter dish is that is so personal and offers us such a complete snapshot of what was happening here.

He added: “It is not just a piece of wood. You look at it and you start to extrapolate so much. If you start to pull one thread, you look at the tool marks and you see they were using very fine chisels to make this kind of object. They were probably making their own so that gives another aspect as to how life was here.”

It is believed that 20 people and animals lived in a crannog at any one time. Many trees were used to fashion the homes, with the Iron Age residents having a solid knowledge of trees with their houses thatched with reed and bracken.

Hazel was woven into panels to make walls and partitions.

Plans are underway to relocate the Scottish Crannog Centre to a bigger site at Dalerb, with three to four crannogs to be built in the water there.

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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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By Associated PressMEXICO CITY —

Latimes.com

The number of mammoth skeletons recovered at an airport construction site north of Mexico City has risen to at least 200, with a large number still to be excavated, experts said Thursday. 

Archeologists hope the site that has become “mammoth central” — the shores of an ancient lake bed that both attracted and trapped mammoths in its marshy soil — may help solve the riddle of their extinction. 

Experts said that finds are still being made at the site, including signs that humans may have made tools from the bones of the lumbering animals that died somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago. 

There are so many mammoths at the site of the new Santa Lucia airport that observers have to accompany each bulldozer that digs into the soil to make sure work is halted when mammoth bones are uncovered. 

“We have about 200 mammoths, about 25 camels, five horses,” said archeologist Rubén Manzanilla López of the National Institute of Anthropology and History, referring to animals that went extinct in the Americas. 

The site is only about 12 miles from artificial pits, essentially shallow mammoth traps, that were dug by early inhabitants to trap and kill dozens of mammoths. 

Manzanilla López said evidence is beginning to emerge suggesting that even if the mammoths at the airport died natural deaths after becoming stuck in the mud of the ancient lake bed, their remains may have been carved up by humans. Something similar happened at the mammoth-trap site in the hamlet of San Antonio Xahuento, in the nearby township of Tultepec.

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While tests are still being carried out on the mammoth bones to try to find possible butchering marks, archeologists have found dozens of mammoth-bone tools — usually shafts used to hold other tools or cutting implements — like ones in Tultepec.

“Here we have found evidence that we have the same kind of tools, but until we can do the laboratory studies to see marks of these tools or possible tools, we can’t say we have evidence that is well-founded,” Manzanilla López said.

Paleontologist Joaquin Arroyo Cabrales said the airport site “will be a very important site to test hypotheses” about the mass extinction of mammoths.

 

“What caused these animals’ extinction, everywhere there is a debate, whether it was climate change or the presence of humans,” Arroyo Cabrales said. “I think in the end the decision will be that there was a synergy effect between climate change and human presence.”

Ashley Leger, a paleontologist at the California-based Cogstone Resource Management company, who was not involved in the dig, noted that such natural death groupings “are rare. A very specific set of conditions that allow for a collection of remains in an area but also be preserved as fossils must be met. There needs to be a means for them to be buried rapidly and experience low oxygen levels.”

The site near Mexico City now appears to have outstripped the Mammoth Site at Hot Springs, S.D. — which has about 61 sets of remains — as the world’s largest find of mammoth bones. Large concentrations have also been found in Siberia and at Los Angeles’ La Brea tar pits.

For now, the mammoths seem to be everywhere at the site and the finds may slow down, but not stop, work on the new airport.

 

Mexican Army Capt. Jesus Cantoral, who oversees efforts to preserve remains at the army-led construction site, said “a large number of excavation sites” are still pending detailed study, and that observers have to accompany backhoes and bulldozers every time they break ground at a new spot.

The airport project is so huge, he noted, that the machines can just go work somewhere else while archeologists study a specific area.

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University of Tübingen archaeologists discover rare evidence of early winemaking at Tell el-Burak in Lebanon


Wine had great importance in the Iron Age Mediterranean. In particular, the Phoenicians – the inhabitants of the central coastal Levant – were considered to have played an important role in the spread and popularity of wine. However, no installation for winemaking was known in their homeland. Now, the first Iron Age wine press in present-day Lebanon has been discovered during excavations at the Phoenician site of Tell el-Burak. Dr. Adriano Orsingher and Professor Jens Kamlah from the Institute of Biblical Archaeology, and Dr. Silvia Amicone and Dr. Christoph Berthold from the Competence Center Archaeometry – Baden-Württemberg (CCA-BW) at the University of Tübingen, together with Professor Hélène Sader from the American University in Beirut, investigated the construction of the 7th century BCE wine press and the building materials used in it. They found that when the Phoenicians built the wine press, they used a plaster mixed from lime and fragments of crushed ceramics. Later, in Roman times, this technique for making a lime-based plaster was further developed. The study has been published in the latest issue of the journal Antiquity.

Since 2001, the site of Tell el-Burak has been excavated by by a joint Lebanese-German mission. The Tell el-Burak Archaeological Project has uncovered the remains of a small Phoenician settlement, inhabited from the late eighth to the middle of the fourth century BCE. It is likely that the settlement was founded by the nearby town of Sidon to supply it with agricultural products. Tell el-Burak was bordered to the southwest and southeast by a 2.5-meter-wide terrace wall. “South of one of these walls we discovered a well-preserved wine press. It had been built on the slope of the hill,” the authors report.

Hardwearing, water-resistant material

Analyses carried out at the Tübingen CCA-BW within the framework of the ResourceCultures collaborative research center (1070) have now provided new data on the composition and technology of the Iron Age plaster of which the wine press was made. “A good-quality lime plaster could be difficult to produce,” say the authors, “The Phoenicians refined the process by using recycled ceramic shards. This made it possible to build better and at the same time more stable buildings.” A local and innovative tradition of lime plaster had developed in southern Phoenicia, they add, “The finished plaster was water-resistant and hardwearing. The Romans adopted this technique for making their buildings.” An ongoing organic residue analysis at the University of Tübingen may determine whether all three plastered structures at Tell el-Burak were connected to wine production. 

Earlier research in Tell el-Burak showed that grapes were cultivated on a large scale in the area surrounding the village. “We assume that wine was produced there on a large scale for several centuries. For the Phoenicians it was very important – they also used wine in religious ceremonies,” say the authors. The earlier discovery of a large number of amphorae – often used to transport liquids and other foodstuffs – indicates that the Phoenicians also traded their wine. “The city of Sidon was on sea trade routes in the eastern Mediterranean. Phoenicians played an important role in the spread of wine in the Mediterranean area, and their tradition of wine consumption was passed on to Europe and North Africa.” So far there has been little evidence of wine production in Phoenicia, the authors said. “This new discovery provides many clues as to how the pioneers of wine produced the drink.”

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Prehistoric ancestors

News.mit.edu

Some of the oldest remains of early human ancestors have been unearthed in Olduvai Gorge, a rift valley setting in northern Tanzania where anthropologists have discovered fossils of hominids that existed 1.8 million years ago. The region has preserved many fossils and stone tools, indicating that early humans settled and hunted there.

Now a team led by researchers at MIT and the University of Alcalá in Spain has discovered evidence that hot springs may have existed in Olduvai Gorge around that time, near early human archaeological sites. The proximity of these hydrothermal features raises the possibility that early humans could have used hot springs as a cooking resource, for instance to boil fresh kills, long before humans are thought to have used fire as a controlled source for cooking.

“As far as we can tell, this is the first time researchers have put forth concrete evidence for the possibility that people were using hydrothermal environments as a resource, where animals would’ve been gathering, and where the potential to cook was available,” says Roger Summons, the Schlumberger Professor of Geobiology in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (EAPS).

Summons and his colleagues have published their findings today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study’s lead author is Ainara Sistiaga, a Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow based at MIT and the University of Copenhagen. The team includes Fatima Husain, a graduate student in EAPS, along with archaeologists, geologists, and geochemists from the University of Alcalá and the University of Valladolid, in Spain; the University of Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania; and Pennsylvania State University.

An unexpected reconstruction

In 2016, Sistiaga joined an archaeological expedition  to Olduvai Gorge, where researchers with the Olduvai Paleoanthropology and Paleoecology Project were collecting sediments from a 3-kilometer-long layer of exposed rock that was deposited around 1.7 million years ago. This geologic layer was striking because its sandy composition was markedly different from the dark clay layer just below, which was deposited 1.8 million years ago.

“Something was changing in the environment, so we wanted to understand what happened and how that impacted humans,” says Sistiaga, who had originally planned to analyze the sediments to see how the landscape changed in response to climate and how these changes may have affected the way early humans lived in the region.

It’s thought that around 1.7 million years ago, East Africa underwent a gradual aridification, moving from a wetter, tree-populated climate to dryer, grassier terrain. Sistiaga brought back sandy rocks collected from the Olduvai Gorge layer and began to analyze them in Summons’ lab for signs of certain lipids that can contain residue of leaf waxes, offering clues to the kind of vegetation present at the time.

“You can reconstruct something about the plants that were there by the carbon numbers and the isotopes, and that’s what our lab specializes in, and why Ainara was doing it in our lab,” Summons says. “But then she discovered other classes of compounds that were totally unexpected.”

An unambiguous sign

Within the sediments she brought back, Sistiaga came across lipids that looked completely different from the plant-derived lipids she knew. She took the data to Summons, who realized that they were a close match with lipids produced not by plants, but by specific groups of bacteria that he and his colleagues had reported on, in a completely different context, nearly 20 years ago.

The lipids that Sistiaga extracted from sediments deposited 1.7 million years ago in Tanzania were the same lipids that are produced by a modern bacteria that Summons and his colleagues previously studied in the United States, in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park.

One specific bacterium, Thermocrinis ruber, is a hyperthermophilic organism that will only thrive in very hot waters, such as those found in the outflow channels of boiling hot springs.

“They won’t even grow unless the temperature is above 80 degrees Celsius [176 degrees Fahrenheit],” Summons says. “Some of the samples Ainara brought back from this sandy layer in Olduvai Gorge had these same assemblages of bacterial lipids that we think are unambiguously indicative of high-temperature water.”

That is, it appears that heat-loving bacteria similar to those Summons had worked on more than 20 years ago in Yellowstone may also have lived in Olduvai Gorge 1.7 million years ago. By extension, the team proposes, high-temperature features such as hot springs and hydrothermal waters could also have been present.

“It’s not a crazy idea that, with all this tectonic activity in the middle of the rift system, there could have been extrusion of hydrothermal fluids,” notes Sistiaga, who says that Olduvai Gorge is a geologically active tectonic region that has upheaved volcanoes over millions of years — activity that could also have boiled up groundwater to form hot springs at the surface.

The region where the team collected the sediments is adjacent to sites of early human habitation featuring stone tools, along with animal bones. It is possible, then, that nearby hot springs may have enabled hominins to cook food such as meat and certain tough tubers and roots.

“The authors’ comprehensive analyses paint a vivid picture of the ancient Olduvai Gorge ecosystem and landscape, including the first compelling evidence for ancient hydrothermal springs,” says Richard Pancost, a professor of biogeochemistry at the University of Bristol, who was not involved in the study. “This introduces the fascinating possibility that such springs could have been used by early hominins to cook food.”

“Why wouldn’t you eat it?”

Exactly how early humans may have cooked with hot springs is still an open question. They could have butchered animals and dipped the meat in hot springs to make them more palatable. In a similar way, they could have boiled roots and tubers, much like cooking raw potatoes, to make them more easily digestible. Animals could have also met their demise while falling into the hydrothermal waters, where early humans could have fished them out as a precooked meal.

“If there was a wildebeest that fell into the water and was cooked, why wouldn’t you eat it?” Sistiaga poses.

While there is currently no sure-fire way to establish whether early humans indeed used hot springs to cook, the team plans to look for similar lipids, and signs of hydrothermal reservoirs, in other layers and locations throughout Olduvai Gorge, as well as near other sites in the world where human settlements have been found.

“We can prove in other sites that maybe hot springs were present, but we would still lack evidence of how humans interacted with them. That’s a question of behavior, and understanding the behavior of extinct species almost 2 million years ago is very difficult, Sistiaga says. “I hope we can find other evidence that supports at least the presence of this resource in other important sites for human evolution.”

This research was supported, in part, by the European Commission (MSCA-GF), the NASA Astrobiology Institute, and the Government of Spain.

 

 

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