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A Bronze Age wooden container found in an ice patch at 2,650m in the Swiss Alps could help archaeologists shed new light on the spread and exploitation of cereal grains following a chance discovery.

CREDIT
Archaeological Service of the Canton of Bern

Original Article:

Eurekalert.org

 

The team of archaeologists were expecting to find a milk residue left behind in the container — perhaps from a porridge-type meal wolfed down by a hunter or herder making their way through a snowy Alpine pass.

But instead they discovered lipid-based biomarkers for whole wheat or rye grain, called alkylresorcinols.

The team say the discovery of these biomarkers in the residue could be used as a new tool to help archaeologists map and trace the development of early farming in Eurasia.

The domestication of plants, such as wheat, was one of the most significant cultural and evolutionary steps of our species, but direct evidence of their use in early culinary practices and economies has remained frustratingly elusive.

Plants quickly degrade in archaeological deposits therefore archaeologists are increasingly using molecular techniques to look for their remains.

Dr André Colonese, from BioArCh, Department of Archaeology, University of York, said : “We didn’t find any evidence of milk, but we found these phenolic lipids, which have never been reported before in an archaeological artefact, but are abundant in the bran of wheat and rye cereals and considered biomarkers of wholegrain intake in nutritional studies.”

“This is an extraordinary discovery if you consider that of all domesticated plants, wheat is the most widely grown crop in the world and the most important food grain source for humans, lying at the core of many contemporary culinary traditions.

“One of the greatest challenges of lipid analysis in archaeology has been finding biomarkers for plants, there are only a few and they do not preserve very well in ancient artefacts. You can imagine the relevance of this study as we have now a new tool for tracking early culinary use of cereal grains, it really is very exciting. The next step is to look for them in ceramic artefacts,” Dr Colonese added.

The team combined microscopic and molecular analyses to identify lipids and proteins using gas chromatography mass spectrometry, a technique routinely applied to ceramic artefacts. Over the last 30 years, thousands of ceramic artefacts from Europe have been analyzed for their molecular content, most revealing evidence of milk and meat products, but hardly any evidence of cereals.

Dr Jessica Hendy, from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, said: “The evidence of cereals came from the detection of lipids, but also from preserved proteins. This analysis was able to tell us that this vessel contained not just one, but two types of cereal grains — wheat and barley or rye grains.

Combining these two kinds of molecular analysis, along with microscopy, is strong evidence that cereals were being transported across this alpine pass.”

“Detecting a molecular marker for cereals also has widespread implications for studying early farming. It enables us to piece together when and where this important food crop spread through Europe,” Dr Hendy added.

Dr Francesco Carrer, from Newcastle University, said: “This evidence sheds new light on life in prehistoric alpine communities, and on their relationship with the extreme high altitudes. People travelling across the alpine passes were carrying food for their journey, like current hikers do. This new research contributed to understanding which food they considered the most suitable for their trips across the Alps.”

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The study involved collaboration between the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, the Archaeological Service of the Canton of Bern, the Integrative Prähistorische und Naturwissenschaftliche Archäologie, Newcastle University, the University of Copenhagen and the University of Oxford, and is published in Scientific Reports.

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A global team of researchers has published the first-ever Wild Emmer wheat genome sequence in Science magazine. Wild Emmer wheat is the original form of nearly all the domesticated wheat in the world, including durum (pasta) and bread wheat. Wild emmer is too low-yielding to be of use to farmers today, but it contains many attractive characteristics that are being used by plant breeders to improve wheat.

Source: Wheat genome sequencing provides ‘time tunnel’ — boosting future food production & safety

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photo: Prof Gary Lee Todd

photo: Prof Gary Lee Todd

 

Original Article:

arstechnica.co.uk

ByCATHLEEN O’GRADY (US) –

 

Bones and burial grounds point male children getting better-quality food.

Around 7,000 years ago in China’s Central Plains, the Yangshao culture began to flourish along the Yellow River. It was another example of the same widespread Neolithic culture that was also emerging in Europe around the time, with new developments in pottery and agriculture. In China, it dominated the region for approximately 2,000 years.

Yangshao remains have offered a team of international researchers insight into an interesting question: did gender differences change alongside agricultural practices? They argue that gender inequality emerged along with the new crops among the Yangshao. The archaeological data has some interesting signs, but it’s possible that the researchers are overstating their case: the only evidence they have is of inequality in people’s diets, which doesn’t tell us much about the structure of inequality of societies.

Millet cereals were domesticated in the region as early as 10,000 years ago and were the primary crop of Yangshao cultures. Wheat, barley, and soybeans were introduced to the region after the end of Yangshao, around 4,000 years ago, although archaeological traces of them remain low for centuries. According to historical records, they were thought to be inferior foods, suitable only for protecting the poor against famine. That only changed around 2,000 years ago, when improved technological methods made it easier to refine them.

Agricultural changes aren’t only reflected in artifacts; they show up in excavated bones, too. Millet uses a type of photosynthesis that differs from the vast majority of plants, and it’s the only domesticated plant in Early China to use this type of photosynthesis. The result of this is that the carbon signature in the bones of people who ate primarily millet looks different from that of people who ate other plants. Nitrogen traces in bones can point to the quantity of animal products in an individual’s diet.

The researchers compared Yangshao bones with remains from the Bronze Age Eastern Zhou Dynasty, which lasted from 771 to 221 BC. In the Eastern Zhou bones, they found evidence that men and women were eating different diets: men’s bones had evidence of higher consumption of animal products and millet, while women’s bones showed evidence of higher consumption of the more recent (and scorned) crops of wheat, barley, and soy. The Yangshao bones, on the other hand, generally didn’t show a significant difference, with the exception of one of the five sites studied. This suggests that “meals were no longer shared at the household level during Eastern Zhou,” the authors write.

On its own, this is not evidence of a bias favoring males. There could be cultural reasons for a gender-based split in diet that weren’t actively bad for women—although the fact that women were eating more of the food that was considered low quality is a bit telling.

But other strands of evidence corroborate the inequality story: women’s bones from Eastern Zhou, but not Yangshao, showed more signs of childhood malnutrition, and size differences between the sexes increased from Yangshao to Eastern Zhou. Both of these signs indicate that male children had better quality food, pointing to greater parental investment in male children. And female graves in Eastern Zhou had fewer burial items and were less likely to have a coffin than male graves, while again, Yangshao graves were more egalitarian.

It’s an interesting result, but it’s always a mistake to draw too many parallels with modern society from archaeological research. It’s also not clear that this is really evidence of the first emergence of gender inequality in this region of China.

It is evidence of a massive cultural change in how the genders related to each other, certainly. But food-based inequality isn’t the only kind of gender inequality that a society might practice—there are plenty of inarguably patriarchal modern societies where families eat meals together. It’s entirely possible that Yangshao did have inequality, but that it took a different shape and would have left a different kind of archaeological presence.

An open question is how the change in gender practices and agriculture are interwoven. Did the change in agriculture itself lead to the change in gender norms? The causal story is likely to be complicated, and the authors of the paper steer clear of suggesting that one led to the other, but the relationship between them is something that future research can hopefully illuminate.

PNAS, 2016. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1611742114 (About DOIs).

This post originated on Ars Technica

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wheat-produce

 

Cereals were domesticated in Syria long before they appeared in Iraq or Iran.

Ancient plant remains suggest that the domestication of cereals, which led to the beginning of agriculture, appeared at different times in the Levant and in the eastern Fertile Crescent. Some countries, such as ancient-days Turkey, Iran and Iraq, saw Neolithic populations exploiting legumes, fruits and nuts long before they cultivated cereals.

Past studies have highlighted two main hypotheses to describe and explain the beginnings of plant domestication. In the 1990s, the belief was that domesticated plants had first appeared in Turkey, and that this was a rapid process that spread to the neighbouring regions in a short space of time.

In contrast, the recent dominant theory is that cereal domestication was a protracted process that developed all over the Middle East from 11,600 to 10,700 years ago. However, it remained unclear whether domestication happened at the same time in the different countries or if there was regional diversity.

In the new research, published in PNAS, researchers have tried to answer this question. They have shown that the cultivation of cereals during the Neolithic was only common in the southern-central Levant – such as in southern Syria. It took more time to arrive in other regions of the eastern Fertile Crescent – such as Iraq, Iran and southern Turkey.

Legumes rather cereals

The researchers started working at the archaeological Neolithic site of Tell Qarassa North in southern Syria. There, plant remains suggest that by 10,700 years ago cereals such as barley were being cultivated in important proportions. The study presents it as one of the earliest sites in the Middle East with evidence of morphologically domesticated wheat and barley.

But when the scientists from the University of the Basque Country and the University of Copenhagen looked at the evidence from sites located in the eastern Fertile Crescent, they found no evidence of similar practices at this time.

Their analysis suggests that domesticated-type cereals only appeared around 400 to 1,000 years later in Iraq, Iran and southern Turkey. Legumes, fruits and nuts likely dominated people’s diets until then.

“It was surprising to discover that despite being considered very important, and despite their dominant role in our agriculture, domesticated cereals might not have been so important in Neolithic times, in many regions” study author and archaeobotanist Amaia Arranz Otaegui told IBTimes UK.

“On most of the archaeological sites, researchers usually focus on cereal remains despite the archaeological often being quite poor. I would like to shift this focus and have us look at the record for other plants, because that may help us better understand ancient cultures and better characterise their agriculture”.

The study thus emphasises the need to re-assess the importance that scientists attribute to cereals such as wheat and barley and to investigate past exploitation of other plants such as lentils, beans and peas because they were potentially crucial to the diets of people living in the eastern Fertile Crescent more than 10,000 years ago.

The site of Tell Qarassa North where researchers found evidence of cereal domestication.Juan José Ibañez

The site of Tell Qarassa North where researchers found evidence of cereal domestication.Juan José Ibañez

 

Original Article:

ibtimes.co.uk

By Léa Surugue December 5

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Right: Photograph during excavation exhibiting excellent dry preservation of plant remains Left: A well-preserved, desiccated barley grain found at Yoram Cave Credit: Uri Davidovich

Right: Photograph during excavation exhibiting excellent dry preservation of plant remains Left: A well-preserved, desiccated barley grain found at Yoram Cave Credit: Uri Davidovich

 

Original Article:

popular-archaeology.com

 

BAR-ILAN UNIVERSITY—An international team of researchers has succeeded for the first time in sequencing the genome of Chalcolithic barley grains. This is the oldest plant genome to be reconstructed to date. The 6,000-year-old seeds were retrieved from Yoram Cave in the southern cliff of Masada fortress in the Judean Desert in Israel, close to the Dead Sea. Genetically, the prehistoric barley is very similar to present-day barley grown in the Southern Levant, supporting the existing hypothesis of barley domestication having occurred in the Upper Jordan Valley.

Members of the research team are from the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK) in Gatersleben, Germany; Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel; Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel; the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany; and the University of Haifa, Israel; The James Hutton Institute, UK; University of California, Santa Cruz, USA; University of Minnesota St. Paul, USA; University of Tübingen, Germany.

The analyzed grains, together with tens of thousands of other plant remains, were retrieved during a systematic archaeological excavation headed by Uri Davidovich, from the Institute of Archaeology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Nimrod Marom, from Zinman Institute of Archaeology, University of Haifa, Israel. The archaeobotanical analysis was led by Ehud Weiss, of Bar-Ilan University. The cave is very difficult to access and was used only for a short time by humans, some 6,000 years ago, probably as ephemeral refuge.

Oldest plant genome reconstructed to date

Most examination of archaeobotanical findings has been limited to the comparison of ancient and present-day specimens based on their morphology. Up to now, only prehistoric corn has been genetically reconstructed. In this research, the team succeeded in sequencing the complete genome of the 6,000-year-old barley grains. The results are now published in the online version of the journal Nature Genetics.

“These archaeological remains provided a unique opportunity for us to finally sequence a Chalcolithic plant genome. The genetic material has been well-preserved for several millennia due to the extreme dryness of the region,” explains Ehud Weiss, of Bar-Ilan University. In order to determine the age of the ancient seeds, the researchers split the grains and subjected half of them to radiocarbon dating while the other half was used to extract the ancient DNA. “For us, ancient DNA works like a time capsule that allows us to travel back in history and look into the domestication of crop plants at distinct time points in the past,” explains Johannes Krause, Director of the Department of Archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena. The genome of Chalcolithic barley grains is the oldest plant genome to be reconstructed to date.

Domestication of barley completed very early

Wheat and barley were already grown 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, a sickle-shaped region stretching from present-day Iraq and Iran through Turkey and Syria into Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. Up to this day, the wild forms of these two crops persist in the region and are among the major model species studied at the Institute of Evolution in the University of Haifa. “It was from there that grain farming originated and later spread to Europe, Asia and North Africa,” explains Tzion Fahima, of the University of Haifa.

“Our analyses show that the seeds cultivated 6,000 years ago greatly differ genetically from the wild forms we find today in the region. However, they show considerable genetic overlap with present-day domesticated lines from the region,” explains Nils Stein, who directed the comparison of the ancient genome with modern genomes at the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK), Gatersleben, with the support of Robbie Waugh and colleagues at the James Hutton Institute, Dundee, Scotland, and Gary Muehlbauer, University of Minnesota, USA. “This demonstrates that the domestication of barley in the Fertile Crescent was already well advanced very early.”

The comparison of the ancient seeds with wild forms from the region and with so-called ‘landraces’ (i.e., local barley lines grown by farmers in the Near East) enabled to geographically suggest, according to Tzion Fahima and his colleagues at the University of Haifa and Israel’s Tel-Hai College, “the origin of the domestication of barley within the Upper Jordan Valley – a hypothesis that is also supported by two archaeological sites in the surrounding area where the hitherto earliest remains of barley cultivation have been found.

Immigrants “trust” in extant landraces

Also the genetic overlap with present-day domesticated lines from the region is revealing to the researchers. “This similarity is an amazing finding considering to what extent the climate, but also the local flora and fauna, as well as the agricultural methods, have changed over this long period of time,” says Martin Mascher, from the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research, the lead author of the study. The researchers therefore assume that conquerors and immigrants coming to the region did not bring their own crop seeds from their former homelands, but continued cultivating the locally adapted extant landraces.

New insights into the origins of our crop plants

Combining archaeology, archaeobotany, genetics and computational genomics in an interdisciplinary study has produced novel insights into the origins of our crop plants. “This is just the beginning of a new and exciting line of research,” predicts Verena Schuenemann, from Tuebingen University, the second lead author of the study. “DNA-analysis of archaeological remains of prehistoric plants will provide us with novel insights into the origin, domestication and spread of crop plants.”

Source: Bar-Ilan University news release.

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The site is submerged.



Wheat was present in Britain 8,000 thousand years ago, according to new archaeological evidence.

Fragments of wheat DNA recovered from an ancient peat bog suggests the grain was traded or exchanged long before it was grown by the first British farmers.

The research, published in Science, suggests there was a sophisticated network of cultural links across Europe.

The grain was found at what is now a submerged cliff off the Isle of Wight. 

Farming of plants and animals first appeared in the Near East, with the technology spreading along two main routes into Europe.

The accepted of arrival on the British mainland is around 6,000 years ago, as ancient hunter gatherers began to grow crops such as wheat and barley.

The DNA of the wheat – known as einkorn – was collected from sediment that was once a peat bog next to a river. 

Scientists think traders arrived in Britain with the wheat, perhaps via land bridges that connected the south east coast of Britain to the European mainland, where they encountered a less advanced hunter gatherer society.

The wheat may have been made into flour to supplement the diet, but a search for pollen and other clues revealed no signs that the crop was grown in Britain until much later.

Cultural connection

Dr Robin Allaby of the University of Warwick, who led the research, said 8,000 years ago the people of mainland Britain were leading a hunter-gatherer existence, while at the same time farming was gradually spreading across Europe. 

“Common throughout neolithic Southern Europe, einkorn is not found elsewhere in Britain until 2,000 years after the samples found at Bouldnor Cliff,” he said.

“For the einkorn to have reached this site there needs to have been contact between mesolithic [the culture between paleolithic and neolithic] Britons and neolithic farmers far across Europe. 

“The land bridges provide a plausible facilitation of this contact. As such, far from being insular, mesolithic Britain was culturally and possibly physically connected to Europe.”

The research shows that scientists can analyse genetic material preserved within the sediments of the landscapes stretching between Britain and Europe in prehistoric times. 

Co-researcher Prof Vincent Gaffney, of the University of Bradford, said the find marked a new chapter in British and European history. 

“It now seems likely that the hunter-gather societies of Britain, far from being isolated were part of extensive social networks that traded or exchanged exotic foodstuffs across much of Europe,” he said.

Tangible link

And Garry Momber of the Maritime Archaeology Trust, which collected the samples from the site, said work in the Solent had opened up an understanding of the UK’s formative years in a way that he never dreamed possible. 

“The material remains left behind by the people that occupied Britain as it was finally becoming an island 8,000 years ago, show that these were sophisticated people with technologies thousands of years more advanced than previously recognised. 

“The DNA evidence corroborates the archaeological evidence and demonstrates a tangible link with the continent that appears to have become severed when Britain became an island.”


By Helen Briggs

Original article:

BBC.com

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Plant particles found during the excavation of this Neolithic cemetery in Nubia (Sudan) turned out to be traces of domestic cereals when analysed in a lab. copyright: D. Usai/ S. Salvatori

A research team successfully identified ancient barley and wheat residues in grave goods and on teeth from two Neolithic cemeteries in Central Sudan and Nubia, showing that humans in Africa were already exploited domestic cereals 7,000 years ago and thus five hundred years earlier than previously known.

The results of the analyses were recently published in the open access journal PLOS ONE.

Barley and wheat crops

Dr. Welmoed Out from Kiel University said, “With our results we can verify that people along the Nile did not only exploit gathered wild plants and animals but had crops of barley and wheat.”

These types of crops were first cultivated in the Middle East about 10,500 years ago and spread out from there to Central and South Asia as well as to Europe and North Africa – the latter faster than expected.

The diversity of the diet was much greater than previously assumed,” states Out and adds: “Moreover, the fact that grains were placed in the graves of the deceased implies that they had a special, symbolic meaning.”

The research team, coordinated by Welmoed Out and the environmental archaeologist Marco Madella from Barcelona, implemented, among other things, a special high-quality light microscope as well as radiocarbon analyses for age determination. Hereby, they were supported by the fact that mineral plant particles, so-called phytoliths, survive very long, even when other plant remains are no longer discernible. In addition, the millennia-old teeth, in particular adherent calculus, provide evidence on the diet of these prehistoric humans due to the starch granules and phytoliths contained therein.



One of the graves at the Neolithic cemetery in Nubia (Sudan), containing a skeleton and plant material deposited behind the skull (white area at the left picture margin). Copyright: D. Usai/ S. Salvatori

Original article:

Past horizons



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