Neanderthals: pioneers in the use of marine resources

Neanderthals ate mussels, fish, and seals too

International research team with participation from University of Göttingen find it wasn't just Homo sapiens who sourced food from the sea -- impact on cognitive abilities suspected

Neanderthals marine
View on the Figueira Brava cave with its three entrances. Credits: João Zilhão

Over 80,000 years ago, Neanderthals were already feeding themselves regularly on mussels, fish and other marine life. The first robust evidence of this has been found by an international research team with the participation of the University of Göttingen during an excavation in the cave of Figueira Brava in Portugal. Dr Dirk Hoffmann at the Göttingen Isotope Geology Department dated flowstone layers - calcite deposits that form like stalagmites from dripping water - using the uranium-thorium method, and was thus able to determine the age of the excavation layers to between 86,000 and 106,000 years. This means that the layers date from the period in which the Neanderthals settled in Europe. The use of the sea as a source of food at that time has so far only been attributed to anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens) in Africa. The results of the study were published in the journal Science.

Cracked-open and burnt fragments of pincers of the edible crab (cancer pagurus). Credits: João Zilhão

The cave of Figueira Brava is located 30 kilometres south of Lisbon on the slopes of the Serra da Arrábida. Today it is located directly on the waterfront, but at that time it was up to two kilometres from the coast. The research team, coordinated by the first author of the study, Professor João Zilhão from the University of Barcelona, found that the Neanderthals living there were able to routinely harvest mussels and fish, and to hunt seals. Their diet included mussels, crustaceans and fish as well as waterfowl and marine mammals such as dolphins and seals. Food from the sea is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and other fatty acids that promote the development of brain tissue.

Until now, it has always been suspected that this consumption increased the cognitive abilities of the human populations in Africa. "Among other influences, this could explain the early appearance of a culture of modern people that used symbolic artefacts, such as body painting with ochre, the use of ornaments or the decoration of containers made of ostrich eggs with geometric motifs," explains Hoffmann. "Such behaviour reflects human's capacity for abstract thought and communication through symbols, which also contributed to the emergence of more organised and complex societies of modern humans".

Neanderthals marine
Horizontal exposure of a mussel shell bed. Credits: João Zilhão

The recent results of the excavation of Figueira Brava now confirm that if the habitual consumption of marine life played an important role in the development of cognitive abilities, this is as true for Neanderthals as it is for anatomically modern humans. Hoffmann and his co-authors previously found that Neanderthals made cave paintings in three caves on the Iberian Peninsula more than 65,000 years ago and that perforated and painted shells must also be attributed to the Neanderthals.

###

Original publication: J. Zilhão et al., Last Interglacial Iberian Neandertals as fisher-hunter-gatherers, Science, 10.1126/science.aaz7943

See: https://science.sciencemag.org/cgi/doi/10.1126/science.aaz7943

 

 

Press release from the University of Göttingen

 

Science publishes study on Neanderthals as pioneers in marine resource exploitation

Neanderthals marine
Cracked-open and burnt fragments of Cancer pagurus pincer? Credits: José Paulo Ruas © João Zilhão

The journal Science has published a study led by the ICREA researcher João Zilhão, from the University of Barcelona, which presents the results of the excavation in Cueva de Figueira Brava, Portugal, which was used as shelter by Neanderthal populations about between 86 and 106 thousand years ago. The study reveals fishing and shellfish-gathering contributed significantly to the subsistence economy of the inhabitants of Figueira Brava. The relevance of this discovery lies in the fact that so far, there were not many signs of these practices as common among Neanderthals.

Regarding the consequences of this study, João Zilhão notes that "an influent model on our origins suggests the common consumption of water resources -rich in Omega3 and other fatty acids that favour the development of brain tissues- would have increased the cognitive skills of modern anatomy humans. That is, those humans who, in Africa, were contemporaries of Neanderthals and are usually regarded as the only ancestors of the current Homo sapiens". But the results of the excavation of Figueira Brava state that, if this common consumption of marine resources played an important role in the development of cognitive skills, it did so on the entire humanity, including Neanderthals, and not only the African population that spread later".

Zilhão member of the Prehistoric Studies and Research Seminar (SERP-UB), lists the research study in the line of "proof that accumulated over the last decade to show Neanderthals had a symbolic material culture". Two years ago, in 2018, the journals Science and Science Advances published two studies co-led by João Zilhão which showed that more than 65,000 years ago, Neanderthals made cave paintings in at least three caves in the Iberian Peninsula: La Pasiega, Maltravieso and Ardales (Science). Furthermore, more than 115,000 years ago, they used perforated marine shells and with ocher remains, such as the ones from Cueva de los Aviones (Murcia, Spain), as pendants and shell containers with residues of complex mixes of pigment (Science Advances). These findings, the most recent one being the one in Figueira Brava, "support a view on human evolution in which the known fossil variants, such as Neanderthals' in Europe and its African anatomy contemporaries -more similar to ours-, should be understood as remains from our ancestors, not as different higher-lower species", notes Zilhão.

Pieces of clam Ruditapes decussatus, found in the site. Credits: Mariana Nabais © João Zilhão

A 50% of the diet of the inhabitants in Figueira Brava was built by coastal resources: molluscs (limpet, mussel and clams; crustaceans (brown crab and spider crab); fish (shark, eel, sea bream, mullet); birds (mallard, common scoter, goose, cormorant, gannet, shag, auk, egret, loon), and mammals (dolphin, seal). This was completed with the hunt of deer, goats, horses, aurochs and other small preys such as tortoises. Among the other carbonised plants were olive trees, vines, fig trees and other Mediterranean climate typical species, among which the most abundant was the stone pine -its wood was used as combustible. Pine forests were exploited as fruit tree gardens: mature pines, albeit closed, were taken from the branches and stored in the cave, where the fire could open them so as to take the pines.

The study also provides other results, such as the idea of the concept of Neanderthals as cold and tundra peoples, experts on hunting mammoths, rhinos, buffalos and reindeers, is biased. "Most Neanderthals would have lived in southern regions, specially in Italy and in the Iberian Peninsula, and its lifestyle would have been very similar to those in Figueira Brava", notes Zilhão.

Another important affirmation in the study is the familiarity of humans with the sea and its resources as something older and wider than what was thought. "This could probably help explain how, between 45,000 and 50,000 years ago, humans could cross the Timor Sea to colonize Australia and New Guinea, and then, about 30,000 years ago, the closest islands to the western Pacific", says Zilhão.

###

Article reference:

J. Zilhão, D. E. Angelucci, M. Araújo Igreja, L. J. Arnold, E. Badal, P. Callapez, J. L. Cardoso, F. d'Errico, J. Daura, M. Demuro, M. Deschamps, C. Dupont, S. Gabriel, D. L. Hoffmann, P. Legoinha, H. Matias, A. M. Monge Soares, M. Nabais, P. Portela, A. Queffelec, F. Rodrigues, P. Souto. "Last Interglacial Iberian Neandertals as fisher-hunter-gatherers", Science, 367, March 27, 2020.

 

Press release from the University of Barcelona

 

Neanderthals: Pioneers in the use of marine resources

Neanderthals slurping seashells by the seashore? This scene may startle those accustomed to imagining Homo neanderthalensis as a people of cold climes who hunted large herbivores. Yet an international team including scientists from three laboratories affiliated with the CNRS and partner institutions* have just demonstrated that Neanderthals hunted, fished, and gathered prodigious volumes of seafood and other marine animals: they discovered remains of molluscs, crustaceans, fish, birds, and mammals in a Portuguese cave (Figueira Brava) occupied by Neanderthals between 106,000 and 86,000 BCE. The diversity of marine food resources found there even exceeds that observed at other, much more recent Portuguese sites, dated to 9,000-7,500 BCE. The team's findings, published in Science (27 March 2020), suggest that many Neanderthal groups--living in Mediterranean climates far from the mammoth hunts of the frigid steppes--shared these dietary habitats.

###

Researchers from Centre de recherche en archéologie, archéosciences, Histoire (CNRS/Université de Rennes), from De la préhistoire à l'actuel : culture, environnement et anthropologie laboratory (CNRS/Université de Bordeaux/Ministère de la Culture) and Travaux de recherches archéologiques sur les cultures, les espaces et les sociétés laboratory (CNRS/Université de Toulouse Jean Jaurès/Ministère de la Culture).

 

Press release from the CNRS


Bone circles made from the remains of mammoths reveal clues about Ice Age

Mysterious bone circles made from the remains of mammoths reveal clues about Ice Age

Mysterious bone circles made from the remains of dozens of mammoths have revealed clues about how ancient communities survived Europe's ice age.

About 70 of these structures are known to exist in Ukraine and the west Russian Plain.

The majority of the bones found at the site investigated, in the Russian Plains, are from mammoths. A total of 51 lower jaws and 64 individual mammoth skulls were used to construct the walls of the 30ft by 30ft structure and scattered across its interior Credits: Alex Pryor

New analysis shows the bones at one site are more than 20,000 years old, making it the oldest such circular structure built by humans discovered in the region. The bones were likely sourced from animal graveyards, and the circle was then hidden by sediment and is now a foot below current surface level.

The majority of the bones found at the site investigated, in the Russian Plains, are from mammoths. A total of 51 lower jaws and 64 individual mammoth skulls were used to construct the walls of the 30ft by 30ft structure and scattered across its interior. Small numbers of reindeer, horse, bear, wolf, red fox and arctic fox bones were also found.

bone cicles mammoths
Credits: Alex Pryor

Archaeologists from the University of Exeter have also found for the first time the remains of charred wood and other soft non-woody plant remains within the circular structure, situated just outside the modern village of Kostenki, about 500km south of Moscow. This shows people were burning wood as well as bones for fuel, and the communities who lived there had learned where to forage for edible plants during the Ice Age. The plants could also have been used for poisons, medicines, string or fabric. More than 50 small charred seeds were also found - the remains of plants growing locally or possibly food remains from cooking and eating.Dr Alexander Pryor, who led the study, said: "Kostenki 11 represents a rare example of Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers living on in this harsh environment. What might have brought ancient hunter gatherers to this site? One possibility is that the mammoths and humans could have come to the area on masse because it had a natural spring that would have provided unfrozen liquid water throughout the winter - rare in this period of extreme cold.

"These finds shed new light on the purpose of these mysterious sites. Archaeology is showing us more about how our ancestors survived in this desperately cold and hostile environment at the climax of the last ice age. Most other places at similar latitudes in Europe had been abandoned by this time, but these groups had managed to adapt to find food, shelter and water."

bone cicles mammoths
Credits: Alex Pryor

The last ice age, which swept northern Europe between 75-18,000 years ago, reached its coldest and most severe stage at around 23-18,000 years ago, just as the site at Kostenki 11 was being built. Climate reconstructions indicate at the time summers were short and cool and winters were long and cold, with temperatures around -20 degrees Celsius or colder. Most communities left the region, likely because of lack of prey to hunt and plant resources they depended upon for survival. Eventually the bone circles were also abandoned as the climate continued to get colder and more inhospitable.

Previously archaeologists have assumed that the circular mammoth bone structures were used as dwellings, occupied for many months at a time. The new study suggests this may not always have been the case as the intensity of activity at Kostenki 11 appears less than would be expected from a long term base camp site.

Other finds include more than 300 tiny stone and flint chips just a few millimetres in size, debris left behind the site's inhabitants as they knapped stone nodules into sharp tools with distinctive shapes used for tasks such as butchering animals and scraping hides.

The research, conducted by academics from the University of Exeter, University of Cambridge, Kostenki State Museum Preserve, University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Southampton, is published in the journal Antiquity.

 

Press release "Mysterious bone circles made from the remains of mammoths reveal clues about Ice Age" from the University of Exeter.


Egypt pigment Egyptian blue

A pigment from ancient Egypt to modern microscopy

A pigment from ancient Egypt to modern microscopy

Göttingen research team produces new nanosheets for near infrared imaging

Egypt pigment Egyptian blue
Egyptian blue: the researchers obtained the nanosheets from this powder. Credits: University of Göttingen

Egyptian blue is one of the oldest manmade colour pigments. It adorns, for instance, the crown of the world famous bust of Nefertiti. But the pigment can do even more. An international research team led by Dr Sebastian Kruss from the Institute of Physical Chemistry at the University of Göttingen has produced a new nanomaterial based on the Egyptian blue pigment, which is ideally suited for applications in imaging using near infrared spectroscopy and microscopy. The results have been published in the journal Nature Communications.

Microscopy and optical imaging are important tools in basic research and biomedicine. They use substances that can release light when excited. Known as "fluorophores", these substances are used to stain very small structures in samples, enabling clear resolution using modern microscopes. Most fluorophores shine in the range of light visible to humans. When using light in the near infrared spectrum, with a wavelength starting at 800 nanometres, light penetrates even deeper into tissue and there are fewer distortions to the image. So far, however, there are only a few known fluorophores that work in the near infrared spectrum.

The research team has now succeeded in exfoliating extremely thin layers from grains of calcium copper silicate, also known as Egyptian blue. These nanosheets are 100,000 times thinner than a human hair and fluoresce in the near infrared range. "We were able to show that even the smallest nanosheets are extremely stable, shine brightly and do not bleach," says Dr Sebastian Kruss, "making them ideal for optical imaging."

The scientists tested their idea for microscopy in animals and plants. For example, they followed the movement of individual nanosheets in order to visualise mechanical processes and the structure of the tissue around cell nuclei in the fruit fly. In addition, they integrated the nanosheets into plants and were able to identify them even without a microscope, which promises future applications in the agricultural industry. "The potential for state-of-the-art microscopy from this material means that new findings in biomedical research can be expected in the future," says Kruss.

Egypt pigment Egyptian blue
Near-infrared image of nanosheets taken from a plant. Credits: University of Göttingen

###

The study involved scientists from the Institute of Physical Chemistry, the Third Institute of Physics, the Department of Developmental Biochemistry and the Institute of Geology as well as the Department of Dermatology, Venereology and Allergology of the University Medical Center Göttingen and the University of California Riverside.

Original publication: Selvaggio et al. "Exfoliated near infrared fluorescent silicate nanosheets for (bio)photonics". Nature Communications, DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-15299-5

See also - https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-15299-5

 

 

Press release "A pigment from ancient Egypt to modern microscopy" from the University of Göttingen


mantis petroglyph Iran

Ancient mantis-man petroglyph discovered in Iran

Ancient mantis-man petroglyph discovered in Iran

mantis petroglyph Iran
The 'squatter mantis man' petroglyph next to a 10 cm scale bar. Credits: Dr. Mohammad Naserifard, CC-BY 4.0

A unique rock carving found in the Teymareh rock art site (Khomein county) in Central Iran with six limbs has been described as part man, part mantis. Rock carvings, or petroglyphs, of invertebrate animals are rare, so entomologists teamed up with archaeologists to try and identify the motif. They compared the carving with others around the world and with the local six-legged creatures which its prehistoric artists could have encountered.

Entomologists Mahmood Kolnegari, Islamic Azad University of Arak, Iran; Mandana Hazrati, Avaye Dornaye Khakestari Institute, Iran; and Matan Shelomi, National Taiwan University teamed up with freelance archaeologist and rock art expert Mohammad Naserifard and describe the petroglyph in a new paper published in the open access Journal of Orthoptera Research.

The 14-centimetre carving was first spotted during surveys between 2017 and 2018, but could not be identified due to its unusual shape. The six limbs suggest an insect, while the triangular head with big eyes and the grasping forearms are unmistakably those of a praying mantid, a predatory insect that hunts and captures prey like flies, bees and even small birds. An extension on its head even helps narrow the identification to a particular genus of mantids in this region: Empusa.

A praying mantis, Empusa hedenborgii, which may have inspired the petroglyph, according to the research team. Credits: Mr Mahmood Kolnegari, CC-BY 4.0

Even more mysterious are the middle limbs, which end in loops or circles. The closest parallel to this in archaeology is the 'Squatter Man,' a petroglyph figure found around the world depicting a person flanked by circles. While they could represent a person holding circular objects, an alternative hypothesis is that the circles represent auroras caused by atmospheric plasma discharges.

It is presently impossible to tell exactly how old the petroglyphs are, because sanctions on Iran prohibit the use of radioactive materials needed for radiocarbon dating. However, experts Jan Brouwer and Gus van Veen examined the Teymareh site and estimated the carvings were made 40,000-4,000 years ago.

One can only guess why prehistoric people felt the need to carve a mantis-man into rock, but the petroglyph suggests humans have linked mantids to the supernatural since ancient times. As stated by the authors, the carving bears witness, "that in prehistory, almost as today, praying mantids were animals of mysticism and appreciation."

Sarkubeh village [Markazi province], the closest human habitation to the petroglyph site. Credits: Mr Mahmood Kolnegari, CC-BY 4.0

###

Original source:

Kolnegari M, Naserifard M, Hazrati M, Shelomi M (2020) Squatting (squatter) mantis man: A prehistoric praying mantis petroglyph in Iran. Journal of Orthoptera Research 29(1): 41-44. https://doi.org/10.3897/jor.29.39400

Press release from Pensoft Publishers.


Jurassic Isle of Skye

Dinosaur stomping ground in Scotland's Isle of Skye reveals thriving middle Jurassic ecosystem

Dinosaur stomping ground in Scotland reveals thriving middle Jurassic ecosystem

Dozens of footprints expand the list of dinosaurs known to have lived in the region

Jurassic Isle of Skye
Dinosaurs on the Isle of Skye. Credits: Jon Hoad

During the Middle Jurassic Period, the Isle of Skye in Scotland was home to a thriving community of dinosaurs that stomped across the ancient coastline, according to a study published March 11, 2020 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Paige dePolo and Stephen Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland and colleagues.

The Middle Jurassic Period is a time of major evolutionary diversification in many dinosaur groups, but dinosaur fossils from this time period are generally rare. The Isle of Skye in Scotland is an exception, yielding body and trace fossils of diverse Middle Jurassic ecosystems, serving as a valuable location for paleontological science as well as tourism.

In this paper, dePolo and colleagues describe two recently discovered fossil sites preserving around 50 dinosaur footprints on ancient coastal mudflats. These include the first record on the Isle of Skye of a track type called Deltapodus, most likely created by a stegosaurian (plate-backed) dinosaur. These are the oldest Deltapodus tracks known, and the first strong evidence that stegosaurian dinosaurs were part of the island's Middle Jurassic fauna. Additionally, three-toed footprints represent multiple sizes of early carnivorous theropods and a series of other large tracks are tentatively identified as some of the oldest evidence of large-bodied herbivorous ornithopod dinosaurs.

All tracks considered, these two sites expand the known diversity of what was apparently a thriving ecosystem of Middle Jurassic dinosaurs in Scotland, including at least one type of dinosaur (stegosaurs) not previously known from the region. These findings reflect the importance of footprints as a source of information supplemental to body fossils. Furthermore, the authors stress the importance of revisiting previously explored sites; these new sites were found in an area that has long been popular for fossil prospecting, but the trackways were only recently revealed by storm activity.

Lead author dePolo says: "These new tracksites help us get a better sense of the variety of dinosaurs that lived near the coast of Skye during the Middle Jurassic than what we can glean from the island's body fossil record. In particular, Deltapodus tracks give good evidence that stegosaurs lived on Skye at this time."

Author Brusatte adds: "These new tracksites give us a much clearer picture of the dinosaurs that lived in Scotland 170 million years ago. We knew there were giant long-necked sauropods and jeep-sized carnivores, but we can now add plate-backed stegosaurs to that roster, and maybe even primitive cousins of the duck-billed dinosaurs too. These discoveries are making Skye one of the best places in the world for understanding dinosaur evolution in the Middle Jurassic."

 

Press release from the Public Library of Science.

Citation: dePolo PE, Brusatte SL, Challands TJ, Foffa D, Wilkinson M, Clark NDL, et al. (2020) Novel track morphotypes from new tracksites indicate increased Middle Jurassic dinosaur diversity on the Isle of Skye, Scotland. PLoS ONE 15(3): e0229640. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0229640

 


Task division in hunters-gatherers does not depend on the capacities of each gender

Task division in hunters-gatherers does not depend on the capacities of each gender

 

In current hunter-gatherer groups, women usually transport greater loads than men, therefore some scientists had indicated they were energetically more efficient when performing these tasks. The Paleophysiology and Ecology of hominins group of the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución humana (CENIEH), headed by doctors Ana Mateos and Jesus Rodriguez, has published a paper in the American Journal of Human Biology, showing that men and women use the same energy carrying a load of certain weight.

An experimental study was designed to conduct this research, in which the energy used during the load carriage by men and women was compared, measuring different body parameters. 48 volunteers of both genders participated in the tests developed in the BioEnergy Laboratory of CENIEH.

Actually, the energy cost depends solely on the body size of the individual, not on the gender. As Olalla Prado, lead author, explains, “besides the obvious differences in the body size between genders, there is no evidence of any physiological advantage favoring women in the transport of loads”.

Nevertheless, despite having lesser body size, normally women carry more weight than men among the hunter-gatherer groups. On this regards Ana Mateos indicates that in indigenous groups like the Ache, the Pume, the Efe, the Hiwi, or the !Kung, men and women invest different times in the activities of searching for and carrying resources. “In addition, the energy cost used in these tasks also depends on their abilities and their physiological and/or reproductive conditions”, she adds.

Therefore, that division of work must be explained by other factors. In those societies, women were dedicated to tasks that involved less risk, although not less importance, this way improving the viability of the group. Assuring the reproductive success is essential; lactation periods are long, and children must stay near their mothers during the first years of life. Exposing pregnant women or children to risky activities would have disastrous consequences for the group.

“Therefore, a division of tasks like that seen in those groups, is much more efficient, without that meaning differences in the capacity of one or the other gender to perform them”, concludes Jesus Rodriguez.

energy cost
Volunteer a the BioEnery Lab/CENIEH

Full bibliographic information

Prado-Nóvoa, O., Rodríguez, J., Vidal-Cordasco, M., Zorrilla-Revilla, G., Mateos, A. 2019. No sex differences in the economy of load-carriage. American Journal of Human Biology, e23352

millets Mongolia

How millets sustained Mongolia's empires

How millets sustained Mongolia's empires

Stable isotope analyses reveals dramatic diet diversification at the onset of the steppe's earliest empires

 

The historic economies of Mongolia are among the least understood of any region in the world. The region's persistent, extreme winds whisk away signs of human activity and prevent the buildup of sediment which archaeologists rely on to preserve the past. Today crop cultivation comprises only a small percent of Mongolia's food production, and many scholars have argued that Mongolia presents a unique example of dense human populations and hierarchical political systems forming without intensive farming or stockpiling grains.

The current study, led by Dr. Shevan Wilkin of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History provides, for the first time, a detailed glimpse into the diets and lives of ancient Mongolians, underscoring the importance of millets during the formation of the earliest empires on the steppe.

Isotopic analysis and the imperial importance of millets

millets Mongolia
Mongolian landscape with pastoral herd of sheep and goats. Credits: Alicia Ventresca Miller

Collaborating with archaeologists from the National University of Mongolia and the Institute of Archaeology in Ulaanbaatar, Dr. Wilkin and her colleagues from the MPI SHH sampled portions of teeth and rib bones from 137 previously excavated individuals. The skeletal fragments were brought back to the ancient isotope lab in Jena, Germany, where researchers extracted bone collagen and dental enamel to examine the ratios of stable nitrogen and carbon isotopes within. With these ratios in hand, scientists were able to reconstruct the diets of people who lived, ate, and died hundreds to thousands of years ago.

Researchers tracked the trends in diet through the millennia, creating a "dietscape" which clearly showed significant differences between the diets of Bronze Age peoples and those who lived during the Xiongnu and Mongol Empires. A typical Bronze Age Mongolian diet was based on milk and meat, and was likely supplemented with small amounts of naturally available plants. Later, during the Xiongnu Empire, human populations displayed a larger range of carbon values, showing that some people remained on the diet common in the Bronze Age, but that many others consumed a high amount of millet-based foods. Interestingly, those living near the imperial heartlands appear to have been consuming more millet-based foods than those further afield, which suggests imperial support for agricultural efforts in the more central political regions. The study also shows an increase in grain consumption and increasing dietary diversity through time, leading up to the well-known Mongolian Empire of the Khans.

Rethinking Mongolian prehistory

Horses are still used by many for transport across Mongolia. Credits: Shevan Wilkin

The new discoveries presented in this paper show that the development of the earliest empires in Mongolia, like in other parts of the world, was tied to a diverse economy that included the local or regional production of grain. Dr. Bryan K. Miller, a co-author who studies the historical and archaeological records of Inner Asian empires, remarks that "these regimes were like most empires, in that they directed intricate political networks and sought to amass a stable surplus - in this case a primarily pastoral one that was augmented by other resources like millet."

"In this regard," Dr. Miller adds, "this study brings us one step closer to understanding the cultural processes that led humanity into the modern world."

The view that everyone in Mongolian history was a nomadic herder has skewed discussions concerning social development in this part of the world. Dr. Wilkin notes that "setting aside our preconceived ideas of what prehistory looked like and examining the archaeological record with modern scientific approaches is forcing us to rewrite entire sections of humanity's past." Dr. Spengler, the director of the archaeobotany labs at the MPI SHH, emphasizes the importance of this discovery, noting that "this study pulls the veil of myth and lore off of the real people who lived in Mongolia millennia ago and lets us peak into their lives."

millets Mongolia
Cultivated land in northern Mongolia. Credits: Alicia Ventresca Miller

###

Publication information:

Title: Economic Diversification Supported the Growth of Mongolia's Nomadic Empires

Authors: Shevan Wilkin, Alicia Ventresca Miller, Bryan K. Miller, Robert N. Spengler, William T. T. Taylor, Ricardo Fernandes, Madeleine Bleasdale, Jana Zech, S. Ulziibayar, Erdene Myagmar, Nicole Boivin, Patrick Roberts

Publication: Scientific Reports

DOI: 10.1038/s41598-020-60194-0

 

Press release from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History / DE


5,000-year-old milk proteins point to the importance of dairying in eastern Eurasia

5,000-year-old milk proteins point to the importance of dairying in eastern Eurasia

Recent findings push back estimates of dairying in the eastern Steppe by more than 1,700 years, pointing to migration as a potential means of introduction

 

Today dairy foods sustain and support millions around the world, including in Mongolia, where dairy foods make up to 50% of calories consumed during the summer. Although dairy-based pastoralism has been an essential part of life and culture in the eastern Eurasian Steppe for millennia, the eastward spread of dairying from its origin in southwest Asia and the development of these practices is little understood. The current study, led by Shevan Wilkin and Jessica Hendy of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, presents the earliest evidence for dairy consumption in East Asia, circa 3000 BCE, and offers insights into the arrival and evolution of dairy pastoralism in prehistoric Mongolia.

dairying Eurasia
These are horses on the steppe. Credits: Björn Reichhardt

Earliest dairy consumption & a possible path of entry

The highly mobile nature of pastoralist societies and the severe winds of the Eastern Steppe make detecting occupied sites with direct evidence into the lives and culture of ancient Mongolians exceedingly rare. Instead, the researchers looked for clues in ritual human burial mounds, often marked by stone monuments and occasionally featuring satellite animal graves.

In collaboration with the National University of Mongolia, researchers analyzed dental calculus from individuals ranging from the Early Bronze Age to the Mongol Period. Three-quarters of all individuals contained evidence that they had consumed dairy foods, which demonstrates the widespread importance of this food source in both prehistoric and historic Mongolia. The study's results include the earliest direct evidence for dairy consumption in East Asia, identified in an individual from the Afanasievo site of Shatar Chuluu, which dates to roughly 3000 BCE. Previous DNA analysis on this individual revealed non-local genetic markers consistent with Western Steppe Herder populations, presenting Early Bronze Age Afanasievo migrations westward via the Russian Altai as a viable candidate for the introduction of dairy and domestic livestock into eastern Eurasia.

Multiple different animal species were used for their milk

dairying Eurasia
These are sheep and goat herds in Mongolia. Credits: Björn Reichhardt

By sequencing the milk proteins extracted from the dental calculus, the scientists were able to determine which animal species were being used for dairy production, and thereby help to trace the progression of domestication, dairying, and pastoralism in the region. "Modern Mongolians use cow, sheep, goat, yak, camel, horse and reindeer for milk today, yet when each of these species were first utilized for dairy in Mongolia remains unclear," says Shevan Wilkin, lead author of the study. "What is clear is that the crucial renewable calories and hydration made available through the incorporation of dairying would have become essential across the arid and agriculturally challenging ancient Eastern Steppe."

The earliest individuals to show evidence of dairy consumption lived around 5000 years ago and consumed milk from ruminant species, such as cattle, sheep, and goats. A few thousand years later, at Bronze Age sites dated to after 1200 BCE, the researchers find the first evidence of horse milk consumption, occurring at the same time as early evidence for horse bridling and riding, as well as the use of horses at ritual burial sites. In addition, the study shows that during the Mongol Empire circa 1200-1400 CE, people also consumed the milk of camels. "We are excited that through the analysis of proteins we are able to see the consumption of multiple different animal species, even sometimes in the same individual. This gives us a whole new insight into ancient dairying practices" says Jessica Hendy, senior author of the study.

Millenia after the first evidence of horse milk consumption, horses remain vital to the daily lives of many in modern Mongolia, where mounted pastoralists rely on them to manage large herds of livestock, transport people and supplies, and provide a primary source of meat and milk. "Our findings suggest that the incorporation of horses into dairy pastoralism in Eastern Eurasia was closely linked to a broader economic transformation in the use of horses for riding, movement, and diet," says William Taylor of the University of Colorado-Boulder, one of the study's coauthors.

Although the earliest individual sampled in this study showed evidence of dairy consumption, the researchers hope future studies will examine individuals from previous time periods. "In order to form a clearer picture of the origins of dairying in this region, we need to understand the impact of western steppe herder migrations and confirm whether dairying was occurring in Mongolia prior to their arrival," Shevan Wilkin concludes.

dairying Eurasia
This is a horse burial at Morin Mort, Mongolia. Credits: William Taylor

###

Publication information:

Title: Dairy pastoralism sustained Eastern Eurasian steppe populations for 5000 years

Authors: Shevan Wilkin, Alicia Ventresca Miller, William T.T. Taylor, Bryan K. Miller, Richard W. Hagan, Madeleine Bleasdale, Ashley Scott, Sumiya Gankhuyg, Abigail Ramsoe, S. Uliziibayar, Christian Trachsel, Paolo Nanni, Jonas Grossmann, Ludovic Orlando, Mark Horton, Philipp W. Stockhammer, Erdene Myagmar, Nicole Boivin, Christina Warinner, Jessica Hendy

Publication: Nature Ecology & Evolution

DOI: 10.1038/s41559-020-1120-y

 

Press release from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History / DE