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original article from theconversation.com


Katherine Woo March 21, 2021 9.08pm EDT

The world’s oceans hold their secrets close, including clues about how people lived tens of thousands of years ago.

For a large portion of humanity’s existence, sea levels were significantly lower (up to 130 metres) than they are today, exposing millions of square kilometres of land. And the archaeological record is clear: people in the past lived on these coastal plains before the land slipped beneath the waves.

Archaeology already tells us these drowned landscapes played significant roles in human history. Major events such as human migrations across the globe and the invention of maritime technology took place along these now-drowned shorelines.

But these sites can be hard to find. 

In two papers published this week our team reports on a breakthrough in detecting and excavating one particular type of coastal archaeological site — shell middens — on what is now the seabed.

The rich trove of evidence in these middens offer clues on how people adapted during times of sea-level rise and climate change.

It was long thought shell middens would be unlikely to survive the effects of rising sea levels – or if they had, it would be impossible to distinguish them from natural debris on the ocean floor. Our new findings suggest that’s not necessarily the case.

Underwater archaeologist excavating a shell midden
Scuba diver excavating shell midden. Author supplied.

Read more: In a first discovery of its kind, researchers have uncovered an ancient Aboriginal archaeological site preserved on the seabed


A new way to detect and excavate underwater middens

In recent decades, archaeologist have systematically searched the globe for evidence of these submerged cultural landscapes. 

However, rough currents and poor visibility can make it difficult to find and record underwater sites. 

Danish field crew take cores of the sea floor to determine whether middens are present.

In two journal articles published this week, our team has announced new ways of detecting and excavating shell middens from what is now the seabed.

Previously, shell middens were hard to differentiate from natural shell deposits. 

But our examination of three shell middens between 7,300 and 4,500 years old – from the Gulf of Mexico, the United States and Eastern Jutland in Denmark – demonstrate how submerged middens not only survive, but retain a distinct “signature” which can be used to separate them from naturally accumulated debris on the sea floor.

By using microscopy, geological and geophysical techniques, 3D reconstructions, and biological and ecological studies, we teased out different strands of evidence that offer new insights into how we might find other midden sites in watery depths around the globe.

Box core
We teased out different strands of evidence that offer new insights into how we might find and excavate other midden sites in watery depths around the globe. Author supplied.

Challenging what we thought we knew about ancient coastal communities

What we’ve found so far challenges current ideas about coastal use in the Gulf of Mexico and northern Europe. 

In the Gulf of Mexico, there is a gap in midden sites from between 5,000 and 4,500 years ago along the coastline of our study area. New results suggest localised sea-level changes, not lack of occupation, explain that gap. 

In Denmark, the discovery of these middens (which are rare in the south) hints this type of site was more common than previously thought. That shifts our understandings of how intensive coastal use may have been between 7,300 and 5,000 years ago. 

Importantly, both studies imply our histories of past coastal use may need to be rewritten as more such sites are found. Previously, many archaeologists assumed that people only occupied stable coastal zones. However, in both of our study areas, this was not the case. 

Furthermore, older examples of similar middens likely lie offshore in multiple regions. Our new methods can make the search for such sites easier and more efficient.

Clues about adapting to a changing environment

Research at these sites is generating critical information that is beginning to fill in missing pieces of the puzzle of the human past.

Shell middens are complex, culturally significant sites. Some are the result of people discarding food refuse, tools, and other remnants of daily life. In other cases middens are purposefully built for cultural reasons, including burials. Often they are a mix of both. 

In undersea shell middens we can find discarded tools and ornaments, old living surfaces, and in some cultures, human burials.

They thus provide fundamental information about past food choices, tool technology, trade practices, and cultural values. These different types of information allow us to infer how people adapted their cultures over time. They also hint at how people interacted with their surrounding environments even as sea levels rose and the climate changed.

Understanding the past can help us contend with the future

These findings are not just important for our understandings of the past. They have direct and significant impacts on modern people, especially the rights of Indigenous and First Nations people across the globe. 

These Nations have long impressed on us their deep connections with marine environments and seascapes. However, recognition of these relationships in western environmental and heritage conservation policies has been slow and deeply inadequate. 

These new findings support Indigenous and First Nations people to manage the cultural heritage of their ancestral lands and waters by documenting these relationships into the deep past.

The discovery of these underwater sites, and the promise of more to be found, means industry, developers, archaeologists, and government bodies must reassess how we manage and protect ancient Indigenous heritage in these underwater settings. That is especially true as offshore mining and development accelerates. 

Peter Moe Astrup, Curator of Maritime Archaeology at Moesgaard Museum, co-authored this article.

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Sambaqui societies had sophisticated diet. Study suggests that hunter-gatherer communities living in coastal Atlantic Forest areas between 8,000 and 1,000 years ago consumed a range of plants and more carbohydrates than expected for the period and region.

Source: Study puts the Neotropics on the map of the world’s food production centers in antiquity

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Topic: it’s been 4 years!!!
For all of you who are keeping track and for you who don’t, this is the four year anniversary for ancient foods! Technicality it was yesterday September 1 st but who’s counting? I don’t seem able to reblog that first post but here is a link for any who are interested. I have been pleased with the overall response to my endeavor and hope to bring everyone more on my favorite topic for many years to come.
new world cereal- maze

Now on to today’s topic:Shell Middens in the Amazon

10,000-yr-old remains of hunter-gatherer settlements identified in ‘forest islands’

Previously unknown archeological sites in forest islands reveal human presence in the western Amazon as early as 10,000 years ago, according to research published August 28 in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Umberto Lombardo from the University of Bern, Switzerland and colleagues from other institutions.

The study focuses on a region in the Bolivian Amazon thought to be rarely occupied by pre-agricultural communities due to unfavorable environmental conditions. Hundreds of ‘forest islands’- small forested mounds of earth- are found throughout the region, their origins attributed to termites, erosion or ancient human activity. In this study, the authors report that three of these islands are shell middens, mounds of seashells left by settlers in the early Holocene period, approximately 10,400 years ago.

Samples of soil from these three mounds revealed a dense accumulation of freshwater snail shells, animal bones and charcoal forming the middens. The mounds appear to have formed in two phases: an older layer composed primarily of snail shells, and an overlying layer composed of organic matter containing pottery, bone tools and human bones. The two are separated by a thin layer rich in pieces of burnt clay and earth, and the uppermost layer of deposits was also seen to contain occasional fragments of earthenware pottery. Radiocarbon analysis of two middens indicates that humans settled in this region during the early Holocene, approximately 10,400 years ago, and shells and other artefacts built up into mounds over an approximately 6,000 year period of human use. The sites may have been abandoned as climate shifted towards wetter conditions later. Lombardo adds, “We have discovered the oldest archaeological sites in western and southern Amazonia. These sites allow us to reconstruct 10,000 years of human-environment interactions in the Bolivian Amazon.”

Cited article:
eurekalert.org
August 28, 2013

Original article:
plosone.org

20130902-104523.jpg
Figure 4. Details of recovered burnt earth, shells and bone remains from excavations at SM1.
This photo is from the original article

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