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bluefish cave bone

bluefish cave bone

 

Original Article:

westerndigs.org

by Blake de Pastino

A close look at bones found in a Yukon cave seems to confirm a controversial finding made decades ago, archaeologists say: that humans arrived in North America 10,000 years earlier than many experts believe.

The bones are the remains of horse, bison, mammoths, and other Ice Age fauna, originally excavated from the Bluefish Caves near the border of Alaska and the Yukon Territory in the 1970s and 1980s.

Back then, radiocarbon dating placed the bones at about 25, 000 years old — not in itself surprising, except that many of the bones appeared to have been butchered by humans.

And the earliest evidence of human activity on the continent — at least at the time — dated back a mere 14,000 years.

Anthropologist Lauriane Bourgeon at the University of Montreal has devoted her doctoral thesis to revisiting the controversy surrounding the Bluefish Caves bones.

And she has concluded that more than a dozen of the animal bones do indeed bear “indisputable evidence of butchery activity,” showing that humans were on the continent well before the end of the last Ice Age.

The implications of these findings are weighty, not only for the timing of the peopling of the Americas, but for the way in which people actually moved from Asia into what’s known as Eastern Beringia — the swath of North America immediately east of the Bering Strait.

Bluefish Caves are located near the Ogilvie Mountains in Yukon Territory. (Photo courtesy Lauriane Bourgeon)

Bluefish Caves are located near the Ogilvie Mountains in Yukon Territory. (Photo courtesy Lauriane Bourgeon)

“In addition to proving that Bluefish Caves is the oldest known archaeological site in North America,” Bourgeon and her colleagues write in the journal PLOS One, “the results offer archaeological support for the ‘Beringian standstill hypothesis,’ which proposes that a genetically isolated human population persisted in Beringia during the Last Glacial Maximum (ed: the Ice Age) and dispersed from there to North and South America.”

The caves were first excavated by Canadian archaeologist Jacques Cinq-Mars starting in 1977, who posited, based on radiocarbon dating at the time, that the scored and damaged animal bones were evidence of human activity in the Americas as much as 25,000 years ago.

Largely dismissed and later overlooked, the theory was recently taken up by Bourgeon.

In 2015, she published some of her preliminary findings, after having studied 5,600 bone fragments from Cave 2 of the Bluefish Caves.

Most of the scoring and hatching marks on the bones were made by scavenging animals and not humans, she said.

But at least two of the bones did betray the tell-tale signs of human butchery, she said, including the pelvis bone of a caribou that bore deep, parallel lines etched in them.

“That is typically the mark of a stone tool used to de-flesh or disarticulate a carcass,” she told Western Digs at the time.

But the oldest of the samples that she tested was no more than 14,000 years old.

(See full coverage of her 2015 study: “Butchered Bones Found in Yukon Cave Bear Marks of Early Americans, Study Finds“)

Today, she and her team have obtained even more impressive results.

Bourgeon’s full study covered 36,000 bones from Caves 1 and 2, studying them under a high-power microscope and comparing them to other bones that had been scarred by animals, broken by freeze-thaw cycles, or damaged by rockfall or other natural sources of abrasion.

She and her team concluded that 15 bone samples bore striations that they say are “confidently attributable to human activities.”

Unlike carnivore teeth, which leave wide, shallow, U-shaped depressions, these samples bore the signature of a hand-held tool, they assert.

“Series of straight, V-shaped lines on the surface of the bones were made by stone tools used to skin animals,” said Montreal’s Dr. Ariane Burke, adviser to Bourgeon and a co-author of the new study, in a press statement.

“These are indisputable cut-marks created by humans.”

The team also conducted its own series of radiocarbon tests on six of the bones with the butchery marks.

The youngest specimen was 12,000 years old and the oldest — the lower jaw of an extinct horse, said to have marks showing where its tongue was cut out — was 24,000 years old.

Taken together, these two data points suggest that Ice Age Alaska and Yukon were not only inhabited, the team asserts, but that it was inhabited by a genetically isolated population, because 24,000 years ago, the rest of the continent was covered in glaciers and impassable.

This idea — known as the Beringia standstill hypothesis — has been proposed by some geneticists, who have found molecular clues in the DNA of indigenous groups both east and west of the Bering Strait which suggest that the Americas’ earliest settlers lingered in Eastern Beringia for thousands of years before being able to migrate south.

“Our discovery confirms the ‘Beringian standstill hypothesis,’” said Burke in the statement.

“Genetic isolation would have corresponded to geographical isolation.

“During the Last Glacial Maximum, Beringia was isolated from the rest of North America by glaciers and steppes too inhospitable for human occupation to the West.

“It was potentially a place of refuge.”

A growing body of evidence has been discovered since the ‘70s that shows a substantial human presence in the Americas before 14,000 years ago.

But there’s limited archaeological evidence to suggest that the continent was populated a full 25,000 years ago.

To that, Bourgeon and her team say, future research must focus on both archaeological and genetic evidence, specifically in the region around the Bering Strait, in order to get to the bottom of how and when the continent was populated.

“More research effort is required in Beringia clearly, to substantiate the existence of a standstill population and fully understand the prehistory of the first people of the Americas,” they write.

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Stone Tools

Stone Tools

 

Original Article:

eurekaert.org

Harved University

Processing food before eating likely played key role in human evolution, study finds

 

How much time and effort do you spend chewing?

Although you probably enjoy a few leisurely meals every day, chances are that you spend very little time and muscular effort chewing your food. That kind of easy eating is very unusual. For perspective, our closest relatives, chimpanzees, spend almost half their day chewing, and with much greater force.

When and how did eating become so easy? And what were its consequences?

According to a new Harvard study, our ancestors between 2 and 3 million years ago started to spend far less time and effort chewing by adding meat to their diet and by using stone tools to process their food. The researchers estimate that such a diet would have saved early humans as many as 2.5 million chews per year, and made possible further changes that helped make us human. The study is described in a March 9 paper published in Nature.

One of the biggest puzzles in human evolution is how species such as Homo erectus evolved smaller teeth, smaller faces, and smaller guts, and yet managed to get more energy from food to pay for their bigger brains and bodies before cooking was invented. “What we showed is that…by processing food, especially meat, before eating it, humans not only decrease the effort needed to chew it, but also chew it much more effectively” said Katie Zink, the first author of the study, and a lecturer working in the lab of Daniel Lieberman, the Edwin M. Lerner II Professor of Biological Sciences.

By changing their diets to include just 33 percent meat, and processing their food – slicing meat and pounding vegetables – before eating, Zink and Lieberman found that the muscular effort required per chew and the number of chews required per day was reduced by almost 20 percent. They also found that by simply slicing meat with the sorts of simple tools available more than 2 million years ago, humans were able to swallow smaller, more easily digestible pieces than would have been possible without using tools.

“Eating meat and using stone tools to process food apparently made possible key reductions in the jaws, teeth and chewing muscles that occurred during human evolution,” Zink said.

But testing a process as basic as chewing isn’t as easy – or as attractive – as it might sound.

“What Katie did was creative but sometimes, frankly, a little stomach-churning,” Lieberman said. “Not only did she have people come into the lab, chew raw meat and other foods, and spit them out, but then she had to analyze the stuff.”

It wasn’t just any food – or any meat – that subjects noshed on.

To approximate the toughness and texture of the game that early humans ate, Zink and Lieberman (after much experimentation) settled on using goat – which subjects chewed raw while Zink used instruments attached to their jaw to measure the effort involved.

In each trial, volunteers were given, in random order, a selection of foods prepared in several ways – raw, sliced, pounded and cooked goat, as well as several vegetables, including carrots, beets and yams. After chewing each morsel until they would normally swallow, subjects spit out the food. Zink then spread the individual food particles out onto a tray, photographed them, and digitally measured their sizes.

“What we found was that humans cannot eat raw meat effectively with their low-crested teeth. When you give people raw goat, they chew and chew and chew, and most of the goat is still one big clump – it’s like chewing gum,” Lieberman said. “But once you start processing it mechanically, even just slicing it, the effects on chewing performance are dramatic.”

But why study chewing at all?

“Chewing is one of the key characteristics of being a mammal,” Lieberman explained. “Most other animals, like reptiles, barely chew their food — they just swallow it whole. The evolution of the ability to chew food into smaller particles gave mammals a big boost of extra energy because smaller particles have a higher surface area to volume ratio, allowing digestive enzymes to then break food down more efficiently.”

Most mammals, however, eat a relatively low-quality diet- think of cows eating grass and hay – that they need to spend most of the day chewing. Even humans’ closest ape relatives, with a diet that consists mainly of fruit, must spend nearly half their day chewing to extract enough energy from their food, Lieberman said.

“But we humans have done something really remarkable,” he said. “We eat even higher-quality foods than chimpanzees, and spend an order of magnitude less time chewing them.”

Making that change, however, presented early humans with a new challenge.

One of the critical components of that higher-quality diet is meat, which – despite being calorically dense – is very difficult for humans to chew effectively.

“Meat has a lot of nutrients, but it is also very elastic. You can think of it as being like a rubber band,” Zink said. “So the problem is that we can’t break it down with our flat, low-cusped teeth. But if you slice it up, then you do not need to use your teeth to break it down as much, and you swallow much smaller particles. Cooking makes chewing even easier.”

That pre-processing, and the reductions in chewing effort that came with it, Zink and Lieberman said, may have opened the door to one of the most important lifestyle changes in human evolution – the emergence of hunting and gathering.

“With the origin of the genus Homo…we went from having snouts and big teeth and large chewing muscles to having smaller teeth, smaller chewing muscles, and snoutless faces” Lieberman said. “Those changes, and others, allowed for selection for speech and other shifts in the head, like bigger brains. Underlying that, to some extent, is the simplest technology of all: slicing meat into smaller pieces, and pounding vegetables before you chew them.”

The impact that higher-quality diets and easier chewing could have on early humans is clear if you imagine what day-to-day life might have been like millions of years ago.

“Suppose you go out hunting for antelopes like impala or kudu, but at the end of the day you come back empty-handed, which happened fairly often for early humans,” Lieberman said. “Chimps couldn’t survive that way – they would then have to spend all night eating.

“Following the invention of hunting and gathering, though, humans can benefit from a division of labor,” he continued. “Someone else may have come back with an impala, or some tubers you could eat. And instead of spending all night eating it, you’d spend a lot less time, energy and effort to chew it by pounding it or cutting it with just a few stone stone tools. What a dramatic shift!”

Though many aspects of our biology changed when the genus Homo evolved, Zink and Lieberman said that processing food before eating almost surely played a significant role.

“One of the innovations that helped make us human is cutting up and pounding our food,” Lieberman said. “Extra-oral processing first by using stone tools and then by cooking played a very important role in human evolution because it released selection for big faces and big teeth, which then enabled selection for shorter faces which were important for speech, and enabled us to grow big brains and have large bodies. We are partly who we are because we chew less.”

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Arachis ipaensis, left, and Arachis duranensis, right, are the two species of wild peanut that crossed to provide the genetic blueprint for today's modern peanut varieties. (Credit: Merritt Melancon/University of Georgia)

Arachis ipaensis, left, and Arachis duranensis, right, are the two species of wild peanut that crossed to provide the genetic blueprint for today’s modern peanut varieties. (Credit: Merritt Melancon/University of Georgia)

Arachis ipaensis, one of the wild peanut varieties that helped to create the modern peanut, was found in the foothills of the Andes in Bolivia and Argentina in the 1970s. (Credit: Merritt Melancon/University of Georgia)

Arachis ipaensis, one of the wild peanut varieties that helped to create the modern peanut, was found in the foothills of the Andes in Bolivia and Argentina in the 1970s. (Credit: Merritt Melancon/University of Georgia)

 

Original Article:

News.uga.edu

Writer: J. Merritt Melanin, Feb 2016

 

Athens, Ga. – Researchers at the University of Georgia, working with the International Peanut Genome Initiative, have discovered that a wild plant from Bolivia is a “living relic” of the prehistoric origins of the cultivated peanut species.

The peanut that is grown by farmers today is the result of hybridization between two wild species. The hybrid was cultivated by ancient inhabitants of South America and, by selection, was transformed into today’s crop plant.

Comparisons of the DNA sequences of one of the wild species and the cultivated peanut showed that they are almost exactly same; in fact, they are 99.96 percent identical. It’s an unprecedented similarity.

“It’s almost as if we had traveled back in time and sampled the same plant that gave rise to cultivated peanuts from the gardens of these ancient people,” said David Bertioli, an International Peanut Genome Initiative, or IPGI, plant geneticist of the Universidade de Brasília, who is working at UGA.

This discovery forms part of a study that appears in this month’s Nature Genetics journal, published by the UGA-led IPGI. Scott Jackson, director of the UGA Center for Applied Genetic Technologies in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, serves as chair of the IPGI. Bertioli is lead author on the paper.

Because its ancestors were two different species, today’s peanut carries two separate genomes, designated “A” and “B” subgenomes. Their high similarity means they are very difficult to map out separately when sequencing the cultivated peanut genome. So, as a first step, researchers built their models using the two wild, ancestral peanut species collected by botanists in the wooded foothills of the Andes in Bolivia and Argentina decades ago.

The genome of one of them, Arachis duranensis, is about as similar to the A subgenome as could be expected. However, what really caught their attention was that the genome of the other species, A. ipaensis, was found to be virtually identical to the B subgenome.

Soon after its collection in 1971, the botanists who collected A. ipaensis realized that it was peculiar. The population of A. ipaensis was very small and isolated, and its closest relatives grew hundreds of miles to the north. They questioned how it arrived in the location where they found it growing.

Prompted by the extraordinary DNA identity, the scientists used information from decades-old botanical collections, knowledge of the seasonal movements of ancient hunter-gatherer-farmers and molecular DNA clock calculations to work out that the plants’ seeds had almost certainly been transported by humans about 10,000 years ago.

“Everything fit,” Bertioli said. “It’s the only place where A and B genome species have ever been found growing close together. The region is right next to the region where, even today, the most primitive types of cultivated peanut are grown, and the date is right in the time frame that plant domestication was happening in South America.”

The movement of the B genome species into the range of the A genome species meant that the hybridization could happen, probably courtesy of a native bee, and the cultivated peanut species was formed. The rest is history, Bertioli said.

The new peanut genome sequences were released in 2014 to researchers and plant breeders around the globe. Their use is advancing the breeding of more productive and more resilient peanut varieties. The paper in Nature Genetics represents the first official publication of the IPGI.

The effort to sequence the peanut genome took several years. While peanuts have been successfully bred for intensive cultivation, relatively little was known about the legume’s genetic structure because of its complexity, according to Peggy Ozias-Akins, a senior author on the paper and director of the UGA Institute of Plant Breeding, Genetics and Genomics. The sequences provide researchers access to 96 percent of all peanut genes and provide the DNA map needed to more quickly identify and genetically tag genes that confer desirable traits, such as drought- and disease-resistance.

A consortium of peanut growers, peanut shellers, brokers and food manufacturing groups provided $6 million in funding for the genome sequencing effort through The Peanut Foundation.

Victor Nwosu, program manager for Mars Chocolate and chairman of the board of directors of The Peanut Foundation, is enthusiastic about the advances these discoveries will facilitate.

“The peanut genome project will lead to reduction in production costs through development of disease-resistant varieties and improved yield for farmers, speed of selection and release of new varieties for breeders and potential for improvement of nutritional value of peanuts for consumers,” Nwosu said. “We are beginning to see these benefits already.”

The genome sequence assemblies and additional information are available at http://peanutbase.org/.

The International Peanut Genome Initiative brings together scientists from the U.S., China, Brazil, India, Australia, Japan and Israel to delineate peanut genome sequences, characterize the genetic and phenotypic variation in cultivated and wild peanuts and develop genomic tools for peanut breeding. The initial sequencing was carried out in Shenzhen, China, by the BGI, known previously as the Beijing Genomics Institute.

Assembly was done at the BGI, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service in Ames, Iowa, and the University of California, Davis. The project was funded by the peanut industry through The Peanut Foundation and by Mars Inc. and three Chinese academies: the Henan Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and Shandong Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

A complete list of the institutions involved with the project and the other funding sources is available at http://peanutbioscience.com/.

The study, “The genome sequences of Arachis duranensis and Arachis ipaensis, the diploid ancestors of cultivated peanut,” will be available online at http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/ng.3517.

 

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 Researchers at the Neolithic site of Mogou, West China, where eastern and western cereals met. Courtesy Martin Jones

Researchers at the Neolithic site of Mogou, West China, where eastern and western cereals met. Courtesy Martin Jones

millet

millet

Original Article:

popular archaeology

December 2015

UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE—New research shows a cereal familiar today as birdseed was carried across Eurasia by ancient shepherds and herders laying the foundation, in combination with the new crops they encountered, of ‘multi-crop’ agriculture and the rise of settled societies. Archaeologists say ‘forgotten’ millet has a role to play in modern crop diversity and today’s food security debate.

The domestication of the small-seeded cereal millet in North China around 10,000 years ago created the perfect crop to bridge the gap between nomadic hunter-gathering and organised agriculture in Neolithic Eurasia, and may offer solutions to modern food security, according to new research.

Now a forgotten crop in the West, this hardy grain – familiar in the west today as birdseed – was ideal for ancient shepherds and herders, who carried it right across Eurasia, where it was mixed with crops such as wheat and barley. This gave rise to ‘multi-cropping’, which in turn sowed the seeds of complex urban societies, say archaeologists.

A team from the UK, USA and China has traced the spread of the domesticated grain from North China and Inner Mongolia into Europe through a “hilly corridor” along the foothills of Eurasia. Millet favours uphill locations, doesn’t require much water, and has a short growing season: it can be harvested 45 days after planting, compared with 100 days for rice, allowing a very mobile form of cultivation.

Nomadic tribes were able to combine growing crops of millet with hunting and foraging as they travelled across the continent between 2500 and 1600 BC. Millet was eventually mixed with other crops in emerging populations to create ‘multi-crop’ diversity, which extended growing seasons and provided our ancient ancestors with food security.

The need to manage different crops in different locations, and the water resources required, depended upon elaborate social contracts and the rise of more settled, stratified communities and eventually complex ‘urban’ human societies.

Researchers say we need to learn from the earliest farmers when thinking about feeding today’s populations, and millet may have a role to play in protecting against modern crop failure and famine.

“Today millet is in decline and attracts relatively little scientific attention, but it was once among the most expansive cereals in geographical terms. We have been able to follow millet moving in deep history, from where it originated in China and spread across Europe and India,” said Professor Martin Jones from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, who is presenting the research findings today at the Shanghai Archaeological Forum.

“These findings have transformed our understanding of early agriculture and society. It has previously been assumed that early agriculture was focused in river valleys where there is plentiful access to water. However, millet remains show that the first agriculture was instead centred higher up on the foothills – allowing this first pathway for ‘exotic’ eastern grains to be carried west.”

The researchers carried out radiocarbon dating and isotope analysis on charred millet grains recovered from archaeological sites across China and Inner Mongolia, as well as genetic analysis of modern millet varieties, to reveal the process of domestication that occurred over thousands of years in northern China and produced the ancestor of all broomcorn millet worldwide.

“We can see that millet in northern China was one of the earliest centres of crop domestication, occurring over the same timescale as rice domestication in south China and barley and wheat in west China,” explained Jones.

“Domestication is hugely significant in the development of early agriculture – humans select plants with seeds that don’t fall off naturally and can be harvested, so over several thousand years this creates plants that are dependent on farmers to reproduce,” he said.

“This also means that the genetic make-up of these crops changes in response to changes in their environment – in the case of millet, we can see that certain genes were ‘switched off’ as they were taken by farmers far from their place of origin.”

As the network of farmers, shepherds and herders crystallised across the Eurasian corridor, they shared crops and cultivation techniques with other farmers, and this, Jones explains, is where the crucial idea of ‘multi-cropping’ emerged.

“The first pioneer farmers wanted to farm upstream in order to have more control over their water source and be less dependent on seasonal weather variations or potential neighbours upstream,” he said. “But when ‘exotic’ crops appear in addition to the staple crop of the region, then you start to get different crops growing in different areas and at different times of year. This is a huge advantage in terms of shoring up communities against possible crop failures and extending the growing season to produce more food or even surplus.

“However, it also introduces a more pressing need for cooperation, and the beginnings of a stratified society. With some people growing crops upstream and some farming downstream, you need a system of water management, and you can’t have water management and seasonal crop rotation without an elaborate social contract.”

Towards the end of the second and first millennia BC larger human settlements, underpinned by multi-crop agriculture, began to develop. The earliest examples of text, such as the Sumerian clay tablets from Mesopotamia, and oracle bones from China, allude to multi-crop agriculture and seasonal rotation.

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Harder to explain for the archeologists were the remains of animals in the pits. Picture: Institute of Archeology and Ethnography SB RAS

Harder to explain for the archeologists were the remains of animals in the pits. Picture: Institute of Archeology and Ethnography SB RAS

 

Fish was processed by putting it in pits in the red-coloured ground to give it a 'special smell'. Picture: Institute of Archeology and Ethnography SB RAS

Fish was processed by putting it in pits in the red-coloured ground to give it a ‘special smell’. Picture: Institute of Archeology and Ethnography SB RAS

 

Original Article:

Siberian times.com

By Olga Gertcyk, November 2015

The find in Novosibirsk region has left archeologists with many questions, since some animals kept alive in two metre-deep pits at the smokehouse were not at the time native to this area. Excavations in the summer found the ancient smokehouse, along with bone and stone tools.

Fish was processed by putting it in pits in the red-coloured ground to give it a ‘special smell’. The smokehouse was uncovered at Tartas-1 site in Vengerovo district where experts have been studying burials and other ritual facilities for over 10 years.

‘This year we came across an unusual facility, a Neolithic smokehouse,’ said Dr Vyacheslav Molodin, deputy director of the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography, in Novosibirsk. The building is very large and dates back to Neolithic times, the Stone Age, according to stone tools.’

Smoking fish in this way is still done by groups in Siberia and the extreme north, he said. ‘This method is known and is still used by some Siberian and Extreme North ethnic groups. The fish starts smelling, but it didn’t bother our ancestors.’

The smokehouse was uncovered at Tartas-1 site in Vengerovo district where experts have been studying burials and other ritual facilities for over 10 years. Picture: The Siberian Times

The smokehouse was uncovered at Tartas-1 site in Vengerovo district where experts have been studying burials and other ritual facilities for over 10 years. Picture: The Siberian Times

Harder to explain for the archeologists were the remains of animals in the pits. A skeleton of a wolverine – a mammal that resembles a small bear – was found here. Yet the wolverine is not typical here. It is a native of the taiga and is not typical in the steppe where Tartas-1 is located.

Ermine remains were found here too, as were bones of domesticated animals and coprolites (fossilised dung). Remains of a dog and a fox were located in other storage areas. Dr Molodin alleged that the animals could have been kept there for ritual purposes. ‘For some time the pits were used for ritual purposes but it’s a huge mystery which we have yet to understand,’ he said.

 

 

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Skye excavation in Staffin Bay

Skye excavation in Staffin Bay

Hazelnut Shells

Hazelnut Shells

Original Article:

BBC.com

By Steven McKenzie
BBC Scotland Highlands and Islands reporter

October 2015

The remains of hazelnuts eaten by some of Skye’s earliest inhabitants were found at a dig on the island, archaeologists have revealed.
Hazelnuts were a favourite snack of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, according to archaeologists at the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI).
The shells found at an excavation above Staffin Bay could be 8,000-years-old.
UHI carried out the dig along with Staffin Community Trust, school children and volunteers.

Dan Lee, lifelong learning and outreach archaeologist at UHI, said: “We have found lots of fragments of charred hazelnut shells in the lower soil samples.

“They are the ideal thing to date as they have a short life span and were a Mesolithic favourite.

“There is so much material in the samples we took that we will not be able to process them all with the current budget, but all is pointing to lots of potential to go back for another phase and include them in that.”

He added: “We have what we need for now, to allow us to date the Mesolithic activity at the site.”

Other finds made at the five-day dig included flints and a piece of bone possibly handcrafted into shape for use as a toggle or bead.

 

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A 9,000-year-old barbecue pit was recently discovered at Prastio Mesorotsos in Cyprus. Credit: Andrew McCarthy

A 9,000-year-old barbecue pit was recently discovered at Prastio Mesorotsos in Cyprus.
Credit: Andrew McCarthy

 

Original article:

livescience.com

By Megan Gannon, Live Science Contributor | September 02, 2015

 

Before there was pottery in Cyprus, there was barbecue.

And in the spirit of the Stone Age, archaeologists on the Mediterranean island recreated a prehistoric pit feast this summer — feeding 200 people with pig and goat, slow-roasted underground — to test the cooking methods of Neolithic chefs.

A 9,000-year-old barbecue pit was recently discovered at Prastio Mesorotsos, a site in the Diarizos Valley outside of Paphos, which has been almost continuously occupied from the Neolithic era to the present. It took three years of excavations before archaeologists from the University of Edinburgh got to the bottom of the stone-lined, ash-covered pit, and only last summer could they say with some certainty that they were looking at an ancient oven. But the pit was so big — about 8 feet (2.5 meters) across and 3 feet (1 meter) deep — that Andrew McCarthy, director of the expedition, wasn’t sure if cooking in it would actually work. [See Photos of the Neolithic Feast]

“I think it’s probably the closest to the theoretical maximum that a pit oven of this type could be,” McCarthy told Live Science, referring to the fact that too big of a space would’ve taken too much energy to keep hot enough. “It was kind of at the limits of what’s possible. After we reported on what was found, we decided that the best thing to do would be to test our hypothesis in a number of ways.”

So, before the team dug their archaeological trenches at Prastio Mesorotsos this summer, they planned a big party and dug a replica fire pit outside of a nearby restaurant, Extreme View Cafe, whose proprietors were very interested in and helpful with the project, McCarthy said.

Slightly cheating, the team used modern metal picks and shovels to build the oven. (“To get to know how to use stone tools, we would have had to train for a long time,” McCarthy said.) But to gather their other party supplies, they did stick admirably close to ancient methods. They scoured local riverbeds for big igneous stones that would retain and radiate heat, and they hauled their choice rocks uphill in sacks or with a yoke made from a stick and baskets — a time-consuming and painstaking task. “We pretty much came to the conclusion that this would have been a slow process of collecting stones — maybe even over the course of years,” McCarthy said.

With buckets on their heads, McCarthy and his team collected the clay that they would use to hold the 400 stones in place around the outside of the oven. They made their own charcoals out of lemon and carob wood. They tanned 10 goat skins that would be used as parcels for the meat. And they crafted meat hooks out of sapling wood.

Prehistoric inhabitants left McCarthy with some idea of what should be served at the feast, as bones from pigs, goats and deer had been found at the site. When it came time to source the food, McCarthy called a local restaurateur who knew a good butcher, and they ordered a 150-lb. (70 kilograms) pig, skin on, head detached. (They left the unpleasant business of gutting the pig to the butcher.) The team also got an 80-lb. (38 kg) goat. Deer, now extinct in Cyprus, was left off the menu.

Days before the feast, the team let a fire burn in the stone-lined pit for 24 hours so that the ground, possibly still cold and damp from a wet winter, wouldn’t suck the heat out of their oven. The day before the party, it was time to light the charcoals, and cover them with another layer of stones so the meat wouldn’t directly touch the heat source. When the oven was ready, the team tossed on the pig, which had been stuffed with bulgur wheat, wild fennel stems, anise and bay leaves before getting sewn up tightly with hemp twine and packed into a blanket. The goat meat had been chopped up and divided into two parcels, spiced with herbs like wild oregano.

The team packed more herbs on top of the meat, before sealing the oven with stonesand a clay-and-mud mixture. Then they lit another fire on top of the closed pit so that heat wouldn’t escape overnight. [The 7 Most Mysterious Archaeological Finds on Earth]

Not until the party time were they able to excavate the meat and perform a taste test. “I think it was a success,” said McCarthy, adding that he was nervous about how the meat would turn out. “It really was delicious. You could taste the lemon wood and the carob and the bay leaf. It infused into the meat.”

Not only was the team able to feed nearly 200 guests who were happy to take part in the experiment, but they also ate leftovers for a week. Leftovers may have sustained prehistoric partygoers for even longer.

“I’ve been told that the fat that’s rendered from the pig liquefies to some extent and you can put meat in a container of the fat,” McCarthy said. “The fat itself will go rancid, but the meat will not, and you can store it for up to a year.”

While preparing the pit roast, the team inadvertently recreated some of the more elusive, sensory elements of such a prehistoric feast — namely, the spectacle of the three-day-long fire required to heat the oven.

“A fire of this size sustained for three days is probably something you wouldn’t have seen all the time,” McCarthy said. “If you think about this being a feast, a festival or big inter-community gathering, you would have had light and heat throughout the night. This is a very dramatic spot, and where the oven is located is almost like an amphitheater — it’s between two rocks, it’s shaded and sheltered, but at night it would have been a real stage, and you can imagine dancing and storytelling and all sorts of activities taking place there.”

The replica pit has been turned over to the owners of the restaurant, but McCarthy hopes that he’ll be able to go back and test how Neolithic people would have maintained an oven like this for reuse. Near the original ancient barbecue pit, the archaeologists also found a roughly contemporary, but much smaller, domed oven about 1.5 feet (0.5 meters) wide. McCarthy thinks this feature was likely used not for feasts but for everyday cooking. He hopes to build a replica of that oven next year to test if it would have been used for cooking meat, baking bread or perhaps toasting grains to make beer.

Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science.

The team cooked a whole pig and a chopped-up goat for more than 24 hours in the oven, which was sealed with stones and clay. Credit: Photo courtesy of Andrew McCarthy

The team cooked a whole pig and a chopped-up goat for more than 24 hours in the oven, which was sealed with stones and clay.
Credit: Photo courtesy of Andrew McCarthy

 

 

 

 

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