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

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

5,200-year-old grains in the eastern Altai Mountains redate trans-Eurasian crop exchange

5,200-year-old grains in the eastern Altai Mountains redate trans-Eurasian crop exchange

Agricultural crops dispersed across Eurasia more than five millennia ago, causing significant cultural change in human populations across the ancient world. New discoveries in the Altai Mountains illustrate that this process occurred earlier than believed

trans-Eurasian crop exchange
Dr. Xinying Zhou and his team from the IVPP in Beijing excavated the Tangtian Cave site during the summer of 2016. Credits: Xinying Zhou

Most people are familiar with the historical Silk Road, but fewer people realize that the exchange of items, ideas, technology, and human genes through the mountain valleys of Central Asia started almost three millennia before organized trade networks formed. These pre-Silk Road exchange routes played an important role in shaping human cultural developments across Europe and Asia, and facilitated the dispersal of technologies such as horse breeding and metal smelting into East Asia. One of the most impactful effects of this process of ancient cultural dispersal was the westward spread of northeast Asian crops and the eastward spread of southwest Asian crops. However, until the past few years, a lack of archaeobotanical studies in Central Asia left a dearth of data relating to when and how this process occurred.

This new study, led by scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, provides details of recently recovered ancient grains from the far northern regions of Inner Asia. Radiocarbon dating shows that the grains include the oldest examples of wheat and barley ever recovered this far north in Asia, pushing back the dates for early farming in the region by at least a millenium. These are also the earliest domesticated plants reported from the northern half of Central Asia, the core of the ancient exchange corridor. This study pulls together sedimentary pollen and ancient wood charcoal data with archaeobotanical remains from the Tiangtian archaeological site in the Chinese Altai Mountains to reveal how humans cultivated crops at such northern latitudes. This study illustrates how adaptable ancient crop plants were to new ecological constraints and how human cultural practices allowed people to survive in unpredictable environments.

The Northern Dispersal of Cereal Grains

The ancient relatives of wheat and barley plants evolved to grow in the warm and dry climate of the eastern Mediterranean and southwest Asia. However, this study illustrates that ancient peoples were cultivating these grasses over five and a half thousand kilometers to the northeast of where they originally evolved to grow. In this study, Dr. Xinying Zhou and his colleagues integrate paleoenvironmental proxies to determine how extreme the ecology was around the archaeological cave site of Tangtian more than five millennia ago, at the time of its occupation. The site is located high in the Altai Mountains on a cold, dry landscape today; however, the study shows that the ecological setting around the site was slightly warmer and more humid at the time when people lived in and around this cave.

The slightly warmer regional conditions were likely the result of shifting air masses bringing warmer, wetter air from the south. In addition to early farmers using a specific regional climate pocket to grow crops in North Asia, analysis showed that the crops they grew evolved to survive in such northern regions. The results of this study provide scholars with evidence for when certain evolutionary changes in these grasses occurred, including changes in the programed reliance of day length, which signals to the plant when to flower, and a greater resistance to cold climates.

trans-Eurasian crop exchange
Charred seeds from Tontian Cave site. Credits: Xinying Zhou

The Trans-Eurasian Exchange and Crop Dispersal

The ancient dispersal of crops across Inner Asia has received a lot of attention from biologists and archaeologists in recent years; as Dr. Spengler, one of the study's lead authors, discusses in his recent book Fruit from the Sands, these ancient exchange routes shaped the course of human history. The mingling of crops originating from opposite ends of Asia resulted in the crop-rotation cycles that fueled demographic growth and led to imperial formation. East Asian millets would become one of the most important crops in ancient Europe and wheat would become one of the most important crops in East Asia by the Han Dynasty. While the long tradition of rice cultivation in East Asia made rice a staple of the Asian kitchen, Chinese cuisine would be unrecognizable without wheat-based food items like steamed buns, dumplings, and noodles. The discovery that these plants dispersed across Eurasia earlier than previously understood will have lasting impacts on the study of cultivation and labor practices in ancient Eurasia, as well as the history cultural contact and shifts in culinary systems throughout time.

These new discoveries provide reason to question these views, and seem to suggest that mixed small-scale human populations made major contributions to world history through migration and cultural and technological exchange. "This study not only presents the earliest dates for domesticated grains in far North Asia," says Professor Xiaoqiang Li, director of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, "it represents the earliest beginning of a trans-Eurasian exchange that would eventually develop into the great Silk Road".

Dr. Xinying Zhou, who headed the study and directs a research team at the IVPP in Beijing, emphasizes that "this discovery is a testament to human ingenuity and the amazing coevolutionary bond between people and the plants that they maintain in their cultivated fields."

photo of the stone men (????? Chimulchek Culture) in the steppe area of Altai Mountains. These figures are characteristic of the peoples who live in the area around the time of occupation at Tongtian. These specific examples are located at the Chimulchek site (ca. 4000 years old) and not far from Tongtian Cave. Ceramic sherds from the cave suggest that the occupants in the cave shared similar cultural traits to other people in the region. Credits: Jianjun Yu


Title: 5200-year-old cereal grains from the eastern Altai Mountains predate the trans-Eurasian crop exchange
Authors: Xinying Zhou, Jianjun Yu, Robert Nicolas Spengler, Hui Shen, Keliang Zhao, Junyi Ge, Yige Bao, Junchi Liu, Qingjiang Yang, Guanhan Chen, Peter Weiming Jia, and Xiaoqiang Li
Publication: Nature Plants


The press release about the trans-Eurasian crop exchange is from Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History / DE

Dramatic change in ancient nomad diets coincides with expansion of networks across Eurasia

Dramatic change in ancient nomad diets coincides with expansion of networks across Eurasia

nomad pastoralists diets
Map of millet and wheat/barley consumption over time: a) 1000-500 cal BC, b) 500-200 cal BC, and c) 200 BC-AD 400. Credit: Map of millet and wheat/barley consumption over time: a) 1000-500 cal BC, b) 500-200 cal BC, and c) 200 BC-AD 400

A meta-analysis of dietary information recorded in the bones of ancient animals and humans recovered from sites scattered across the Eurasian steppe, from the Caucasus region to Mongolia, demonstrates that pastoralists spread domesticated crops across the steppe through their trade and social networks. Researchers from Kiel University sifted through previously published stable isotopic data and applied new quantitative analyses that calibrate human dietary intake against environmental inputs. The results have allowed them to better isolate the timing of the incorporation of agricultural products into the diets of pastoral nomads and, crucially, link burgeoning socio-political networks to this dietary transformation.

Through a big data project that explored over a thousand stable isotope data points, researchers were able to find evidence for an early transition to agriculture - based on dietary intake across Eurasia. "Our understanding of the pace of crop transmission across the Eurasian steppe has been surprisingly unclear due in part to a focus on the excavation of cemeteries, rather than settlements where people threw out their food," says Alicia Ventresca Miller, lead author, formerly of Kiel University and currently at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. "Even when settlement sites are excavated, the preservation of carbonized seed remains is often poor. This is what makes stable isotope analyses of human remains from this region so valuable - it provides direct insights into the dietary dynamics of ancient pastoralists who inhabited diverse environments."

Millet spreads across the Eurasian steppe

Millet, originally domesticated in China, appears to have been occasionally consumed at low levels by pastoralists inhabiting the far-flung regions of Siberia and southeastern Kazakhstan, possibly as early as the late third millennium. This initial uptake of millet coincided with the expansion of trans-regional networks across the steppe, when objects and ideas were first regularly exchanged over long-distances.

However, it was not until a thousand years later that millet became a regular feature of pastoralist diets. This timing coincides with the intensification of complex political structures at the transition to the Iron Age. Burgeoning socio-political confederations drove a marked increase in the exchange of costly prestige goods, which strengthened political networks - and facilitated the transfer of cultigens.

Wheat and Barley in the Trans-Urals

Despite taking part in these political networks, groups in the Trans-Urals invested in wheat and barley farming rather than millet. A dietary focus on wheat and barley may have been due to different farming techniques, greater water availability, or a higher value on these cultigens. "Our research suggests that cultigens were converted from a rare luxury during the Bronze Age to a medium demarcating elite participation in political networks during the Iron Age," states Cheryl Makarewicz of Kiel University.

Regional variation in millet consumption

While herding of livestock was widespread, not all regions adopted millet. In southwest Siberia, dietary intake was focused on pastoral animal products and locally available wild plants and fish. In contrast, the delayed adoption of millet by populations in Mongolia during the Late Iron Age coincides with the rise of the Xiongnu nomadic empire. "This is particularly interesting because it suggests that communities in Mongolia and Siberia opted out of the transition to millet agriculture, while continuing to engage with neighboring groups," explains Ventresca Miller.

This study shows the great potential of using the available isotope record to provide evidence for human dietary intake in areas where paleobotany is understudied. Further research should clarify the exact type of grains, for example broomcorn or foxtail millet, were fundamental to the shift in dietary intake and how networks of exchange linked different regions.


Original publication:

Ventresca Miller and Makarewicz, Intensification in pastoralist cereal use coincides with the expansion of trans-regional networks in the Eurasian Steppe, Scientific Reports (2019). DOI:


Press release from Kiel University / Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel

Hoard of the rings: Unusual rings are a novel type of Bronze Age cereal-based product

Hoard of the rings: Unusual rings are a novel type of Bronze Age cereal-based product

Finding hints at unexpected diversity of cereal products for possible ritual purposes

Austria rings
The annular objects from the find assemblage in the debris layer of pit V5400. Credit: Heiss et al, 2019

Strange ring-shaped objects in a Bronze Age hillfort site represent a unique form of cereal-based product, according to a study published June 5, 2019 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Andreas G. Heiss of the Austrian Archaeological Institute (ÖAW-ÖAI) and colleagues.

Agricultural practices are well known in the archaeological record, but less understood is how food was produced and prepared by ancient cultures. In this study, Heiss and colleagues describe unusual cereal-derived rings from the Late Bronze Age site of Stillfried an der March in Austria. Between 900-1000 BCE, this settlement was a center of grain storage, and archaeological materials have been excavated from around 100 pits interpreted as grain storage pits.

This study focuses on the fragmentary charred remains of three ring-shaped objects, each around three centimeters across. Analysis confirms that they are made of dough derived from barley and wheat. The authors were able to determine that the dough was made from fine quality flour and then most likely shaped from wet cereal mixture and dried without baking. This time-consuming preparation process differs from other foods known from the site, leading the authors to suggest that these cereal rings may not have been made for eating.

These rings also bear a striking resemblance to clay rings interpreted as loom weights found in the same pit and may have been designed to imitate them. The unusual context of these cereal rings and the care that went into making them, suggests they may have been created for some unknown ritual purpose, thus expanding the list of ways the cultures of this time period are known to have used cereal products. Since such remains are scarce, the authors suggest that future studies sample more intensely for similar plant-based products that may typically be overlooked.

Heiss adds: "Prehistoric bakers produced so much more than just bread. A Late Bronze Age "odd" deposit from central European site Stillfried (Austria) yielded dough rings comparable to Italian tarallini, discovered together with a larger number of clay loom weights, likewise ring-shaped - resulting in new insights into the material culture of food, symbolism, and diversity of dishes."


Citation: Heiss AG, Antolín F, Berihuete Azorín M, Biederer B, Erlach R, Gail N, et al. (2019) The hoard of the rings. "Odd" annular bread-like objects as a case study for cereal-product diversity at the Late Bronze Age hillfort site of Stillfried (Lower Austria). PLoS ONE 14(6): e0216907.


Press release from the Public Library of Science

East Africa

Ancient DNA tells the story of the first herders and farmers in east Africa

Ancient DNA tells the story of the first herders and farmers in east Africa

A collaborative study that includes a SLU-Madrid archaeologist provides new insights on early human interaction

East Africa
Herders move goats through the Engaruka Basin in northern Tanzania's Rift Valley. Ancient DNA shows that this way of life spread to East Africa through multiple population movements. Credit: Katherine Grillo

ST. LOUIS, MO (May 30, 2019) - A collaborative study led by archaeologists, geneticists and museum curators is providing answers to previously unsolved questions about life in sub-Saharan Africa thousands of years ago. The results were published online in the journal Science Thursday, May 30.

Researchers from North American, European and African institutions analyzed ancient DNA from 41 human skeletons curated in the National Museums of Kenya and Tanzania, and the Livingstone Museum in Zambia.

"The origins of food producers in East Africa have remained elusive because of gaps in the archaeological record," said co-first author Mary Prendergast, Ph.D., professor of anthropology and chair of humanities at Saint Louis University's campus in Madrid, Spain.

"This study uses DNA to answer previously unresolvable questions about how people were moving and interacting," added Prendergast.

The research provides a look at the origins and movements of early African food producers.

The first form of food production to spread through most of Africa was the herding of cattle, sheep and goats. This way of life continues to support millions of people living on the arid grasslands that cover much of sub-Saharan Africa.

"Today, East Africa is one of the most genetically, linguistically, and culturally diverse places in the world," explains Elizabeth Sawchuk, Ph.D., a bioarchaeologist at Stony Brook University and co-first author of the study. "Our findings trace the roots of this mosaic back several millennia. Distinct peoples have coexisted in the Rift Valley for a very long time."

Previous archaeological research shows that the Great Rift Valley of Kenya and Tanzania was a key site for the transition from foraging to herding. Herders of livestock first appeared in northern Kenya around 5000 years ago, associated with elaborate monumental cemeteries, and then spread south into the Rift Valley, where Pastoral Neolithic cultures developed.

The new genetic results reveal that this spread of herding into Kenya and Tanzania involved groups with ancestry derived from northeast Africa, who appeared in East Africa and mixed with local foragers there between about 4500-3500 years ago. Previously, the origins and timing of these population shifts were unclear, and some archaeologists hypothesized that domestic animals spread through exchange networks, rather than by movement of people.

After around 3500 years ago, herders and foragers became genetically isolated in East Africa, even though they continued to live side by side. Archaeologists have hypothesized substantial interaction among foraging and herding groups, but the new results reveal that there were strong and persistent social barriers that lasted long after the initial encounters.

Another major genetic shift occurred during the Iron Age around 1200 years ago, with movement into the region of additional peoples from both northeastern and western Africa. These groups contributed to ancient ancestry profiles similar to those of many East Africans today. This genetic shift parallels two major cultural changes: farming and iron-working.

The study provided insight into the history of East Africa as an independent center of evolution of lactase persistence, which enables people to digest milk into adulthood. This genetic adaptation is found in high proportions among Kenyan and Tanzanian herders today.

Co-first author Mary Prendergast, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology and chair of humanities at Saint Louis University's campus in Madrid, Spain. Credit: Mary Prendergast

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Amazonia Llanos de Moxos Bolivia agriculture

Human settlements in Amazonia much older than previously thought

Human settlements in Amazonia much older than previously thought

Amazonia Llanos de Moxos Bolivia agriculture
An endless watery plain characterizes the Llanos. Picture by Sam Beebe, CC BY-SA 2.0

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Humans settled in southwestern Amazonia and even experimented with agriculture much earlier than previously thought, according to an international team of researchers.

"We have long been aware that complex societies emerged in Llanos de Moxos in southwestern Amazonia, Bolivia, around 2,500 years ago, but our new evidence suggests that humans first settled in the region up to 10,000 years ago during the early Holocene period," said Jose Capriles, assistant professor of anthropology. "These groups of people were hunter gatherers; however, our data show that they were beginning to deplete their local resources and establish territorial behaviors, perhaps driving them to begin domesticating plants such as sweet potatoes, cassava, peanuts and chili peppers as a way to acquire food."

The archaeological team conducted its study on three forest islands -- Isla del Tesoro, La Chacra and San Pablo -- within the seasonally flooded savanna of the Llanos de Moxos in northern Bolivia.

"These islands are elevated above the surrounding savanna, so they do not flood during the rainy season," said Capriles. "We believe people were using these sites recurrently as seasonal camps, particularly during the long rainy seasons when most of the Llanos de Moxos become flooded."

The team's excavations of the forest islands revealed human skeletons that had been intentionally buried in a manner unlike that of typical hunter gatherers and instead were more akin to the behaviors of complex societies -- characterized by political hierarchy and the production of food. Their results appear today in Science Advances.

"If these were highly mobile hunter gatherers you would not expect for them to bury their dead in specific places; instead, they would leave their dead wherever they died," said Capriles.

Capriles noted that it is rare to find human or even archaeological remains that predate the use of fired pottery in the region.

"The soils tend to be very acidic, which often makes the preservation of organic remains very poor," he said. "Also, organic matter deteriorates quickly in tropical environments and this region completely lacks any type of rock for making stone tools, so even those are not available to study."

According to Umberto Lombardo, earth scientist at the University of Bern, when the researchers first published their discovery of these archaeological sites in 2013, they had to base their conclusions on indirect evidence -- mostly geochemical analyses -- rather than direct evidence such as artifacts.

"Because of the lack of direct evidence many archaeologists were skeptical about our findings," said Lombardo. "They did not really believe that those forest islands were early Holocene archaeological sites. The current study provides strong and definitive evidence of the anthropocentric origin of these sites, because the archaeological excavations uncovered early Holocene human burials. These are the definitive proof of the antiquity and origin of these sites."

Capriles noted that the human bones on these forest islands were preserved despite the poor conditions because they were encased within middens -- or trash heaps -- containing abundant fragments of shell, animal bones and other organic remains.

"These people were foraging apple snails during the wet season and disposing of the shells in large heaps, called middens," said Capriles. "Over time, water dissolved the calcium carbonate from the shells and those carbonates precipitated over the bones, effectively fossilizing them."

Because the human bones were fossilized, the team was unable to date them directly using radiocarbon dating. Instead, they used radiocarbon dating of associated charcoal and shell as a proxy for estimating the time range that the sites were occupied.

"The abundant remains of burned earth and wood suggests that the people were using fire, likely to clear land, cook food and keep warm during long rainy days," said Capriles.

According to Capriles, a gap exists between the people his team studied who lived on the forest islands between 10,000 and 4,000 years ago and the rise of complex societies, which began around 2,500 years ago.

"This paper represents the first step in the effort to learn more about the people who inhabited southwestern Amazonia for thousands of years but we know nothing about," said Lombardo.

Capriles added, "Are the people we found direct predecessors of those later, more complex societies? There are still questions to be answered and we hope to do so in future research."

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From hunting to herding in the Early Neolithic settlement of Aşıklı Höyük

Switch from hunting to herding recorded in ancient pee

Urine salts reveal timing and scale of neolithic revolution at Turkish site

Study authors Jay Quade (left) and Jordan Abell (right) looking for optimal samples at the site of an ancient Turkish settlement where salts left behind by animal and human urine give clues about the development of livestock herding. Credit: Güneş Duru

The transition from hunting and gathering to farming and herding is considered a crucial turning point in the history of humanity. Scholars think the intensive food production that came along with the Neolithic Revolution, starting around 10,000 B.C., allowed cities to grow, led to technological innovation and, eventually, enabled life as we know it today.

It has been difficult to work out the details of how and when this took place. But a new study published in Science Advances begins to resolve the scale and pace of change during the first phases of animal domestication at an ancient site in Turkey. To reconstruct this history, the authors turned to an unusual source: urine salts left behind by humans and animals.

Whereas dung is commonly used in all sorts of studies, “this is the first time, to our knowledge, that people have picked up on salts in archaeological materials, and used them in a way to look at the development of animal management,” says lead author Jordan Abell, a graduate student at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

The team used the urine salts to calculate the density of humans and animals at the site over time, estimating that around 10,000 years ago, the density of people and animals occupying the settlement jumped from near zero to approximately one person or animal for every 10 square meters. The results suggest that domestication may have been more rapid than previously expected. They also support the idea that the Neolithic Revolution didn’t have just one birthplace in the Fertile Crescent of the Mideast, but rather occurred across several locations simultaneously.

Connecting the Dots

At the ancient settlement of Aşıklı Höyük in central Turkey, archaeological evidence suggests that humans began domesticating sheep and goats around 8450 BC. These practices evolved over the next 1,000 years, until the society became heavily dependent on the beasts for food and other materials.

Students working on the western Section of Aşıklı Höyük, where the evidence was found. Credit: Güneş Duru

As it happened, co-authors Susan Mentzer from the University of Tübingen and Jay Quade from the University of Arizona, where Abell worked on this project as an undergraduate, had previously documented some unusually high levels of salts around Aşıklı Höyük, and were perplexed by what they meant. Using this data and others, the new study supports the idea that the salts likely came from the urine of humans, sheep and goats. The study uses the abundance of the salts over time to track the growth of the community and its animals over a period of 1,000 years.

A Rapid Transition

Working with Turkish archaeologists, including Istanbul University’s Mihriban Özbaşaran, who heads the Aşıklı Höyük dig, the team collected 113 samples from all across the site — from trash piles to bricks and hearths, and from different time periods — to look at patterns in the sodium, nitrate and chlorine salt levels.

They found that, overall, the urine salts at Aşıklı Höyük increased in abundance over time. The natural layers before the settlement was built contained very low levels of salts. The oldest layers with evidence of human habitation, spanning 10,400 to 10,000 years ago, saw slight increases but remained relatively low in the urine salts. Then the salts spike during a period from 10,000 to 9,700 years ago; the amount of salts in this layer is about 1,000 times higher than in the preceding ones, indicating a rapid increase in the number of occupants (both human and animal). After that, the concentrations decrease slightly.

Abell says these trends line up with previous hypotheses based on other evidence from the site — that the settlement transitioned first from mostly hunting sheep and goats to corralling just a few, then changed to larger-scale management, and then finally shifted to keeping animals in corrals on the periphery of the site as their numbers grew. And although the timing is close to what the study authors expected, the sharp change around 10,000 years ago “may be new evidence for a more rapid transition” toward domestication, says Abell.

Using the salt concentrations, the team estimated the number and density of people plus sheep and goats at Aşıklı Höyük, after accounting for other factors that might have influenced the salt levels. They calculated that around 10,000 years ago, the density of people and animals occupying the settlement jumped from near zero to approximately one person or animal for every 10 square meters. By comparison, modern-day semi-intensive feedlots have densities of about one sheep for every 5 square meters.

Although it is not currently possible to distinguish between human and livestock urine salts, the urine salt analysis method can still provide a helpful estimate of sheep and goat abundance. Over the 1,000 year period, the team calculated that an average of 1,790 people and animals lived and peed on the settlement every day. In each time period, the estimated inhabitants were much higher than the number of people that archaeologists think the settlement’s buildings would have housed. This indicates that the urine salt concentrations can indeed reflect the relative amounts of domesticated animals over time.

Aşıklı Höyük Turkey Neolithic Revolution
View from the rooftops of reconstructed Aşıklı Höyük houses from the 8th and 9th century BC. Credit: Güneş Duru

The researchers plan to further refine their methods and calculations in the future, and hope to find a way to differentiate between human and animal urine salts. They think the methodology could be applied in other arid areas, and could be especially helpful at sites where other physical evidence, such as bones, is lacking.

A Broader Revolution

The study’s results also help shed light on the geographic spread of the Neolithic Revolution. It was once thought that farming and herding originated in the Fertile Crescent, which spans parts of modern-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Territories, then spread outward from there. But mounting evidence, including today’s study, indicates that domestication and the transition to Neolithic lifestyles took place concurrently over a broad and diffuse swath of the region.

Anthropologist and co-author Mary Stiner from the University of Arizona said that the new method could help to clarify the larger picture of humanity’s relationship to animals during this transitional period. “We might find similar trends in other archaeological sites of the period in the Middle East,” she said, “but it is also possible that only a handful of long-lasting communities were forums for the evolving human-caprine relationships in any given region of the Middle East.”

Güneş Duru and Melis Uzdurum from Istanbul University were also authors on the paper.


Press release from the Earth Institute at the Columbia University, by Sarah Fecht


Urine salts provide evidence of Early Neolithic animal management

Urine salts elucidate Early Neolithic animal management at Aşıklı Höyük, Turkey

A close examination of midden soil layers at the early Neolithic site of Aşıklı Höyük in Turkey reveals that they are highly enriched in sodium, chlorine, and nitrate salts commonly found in human and goat and sheep urine, offering a distinct signal for following the management of those animals through the history of the site. The findings, along with an enriched nitrogen signal in the soil, suggest a new way for archaeologists to study the evolution of animal management at this critical point in human history, at similarly dry, thickly stratified sites that may not contain other domestication evidence such as animal bones or dung, or the presence of corrals or other animal enclosures. Jordan Abell and colleagues used several techniques to identify these soluble urine salts and to distinguish them from natural geological salt deposition at Aşıklı Höyük. The researchers found a 5-10 times increase in these salts between about 10,400 BP to 10,000 BP, and a 10-1000 times increase between 10,400 and 9,700 BP, demonstrating increasing reliance upon and eventual domestication of sheep and goats over this time. Based on these salt concentrations, Abell et al. estimate that about 1,790 humans and animals lived and urinated on the site per day for roughly 1,000 years of occupation. High soluble nitrogen levels in the trash heaps of the site are similar to those seen in modern feedlots, the researchers note.

Press release from the American Association for the Advancement of Science

Megalith tombs were family graves in European Stone Age

Megalith tombs were family graves in European Stone Age

In a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, an international research team, led from Uppsala University, discovered kin relationships among Stone Age individuals buried in megalithic tombs on Ireland and in Sweden. The kin relations can be traced for more than ten generations and suggests that megaliths were graves for kindred groups in Stone Age northwestern Europe.

Agriculture spread with migrants from the Fertile Crescent into Europe around 9,000 BCE, reaching northwestern Europe by 4,000 BCE. Starting around 4,500 BCE, a new phenomenon of constructing megalithic monuments, particularly for funerary practices, emerged along the Atlantic façade. These constructions have been enigmatic to the scientific community, and the origin and social structure of the groups that erected them has remained largely unknown. The international team sequenced and analysed the genomes from the human remains of 24 individuals from five megalithic burial sites, encompassing the widespread tradition of megalithic construction in northern and western Europe.

The team collected human remains of 24 individuals from megaliths on Ireland, in Scotland and the Baltic island of Gotland, Sweden. The remains were radiocarbon-dated to between 3,800 and 2,600 BCE. DNA was extracted from bones and teeth for genome sequencing. The team compared the genomic data to the genetic variation of Stone Age groups and individuals from other parts of Europe. The individuals in the megaliths were closely related to Neolithic farmers in northern and western Europe, and also to some groups in Iberia, but less related to farmer groups in central Europe.

Paternal continuity through time

The team found an overrepresentation of males compared to females in the megalith tombs on the British Isles. Credit: Göran Burenhult

The team found an overrepresentation of males compared to females in the megalith tombs on the British Isles.

"We found paternal continuity through time, including the same Y-chromosome haplotypes reoccurring over and over again," says archaeogeneticist Helena Malmström of Uppsala University and co-first author. "However, female kindred members were not excluded from the megalith burials as three of the six kinship relationships in these megaliths involved females."

A likely parent-offspring relation was discovered for individuals in the Listhogil Tomb at the Carrowmore site and Tomb 1 at Primrose Grange, about 2 km distance away from each other. Credit: Göran Burenhult

The genetic data show close kin relationships among the individuals buried within the megaliths. A likely parent-offspring relation was discovered for individuals in the Listhogil Tomb at the Carrowmore site and Tomb 1 at Primrose Grange, about 2 km distance away from each other. "This came as a surprise. It appears as these Neolithic societies were tightly knit with very close kin relations across burial sites," says population-geneticist Federico Sanchez-Quinto of Uppsala University and co-first author.

The Ansarve tomb was used by distinct groups

Megalith tombs Ansarve site Listhogil site Primrose Grange Carrowmore site archaeogenetics
The Ansarve site on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea is embedded in an area with mostly hunter-gathers at the time. Credit: Magdalena Fraser

The Ansarve site on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea is embedded in an area with mostly hunter-gathers at the time. "The people buried in the Ansarve tomb are remarkably different on a genetic level compared to the contemporaneous individuals excavated from hunter-gather-contexts, showing that the burial tradition in this megalithic tomb, which lasted for over 700 years, was performed by distinct groups with roots in the European Neolithic expansion," says archaeogeneticist Magdalena Fraser of Uppsala University and co-first author.

"That we find distinct paternal lineages among the people in the megaliths, an overrepresentation of males in some tombs, and the clear kindred relationships point to towards the individuals being part of a patrilineal segment of the society rather than representing a random sample from a larger Neolithic farmer community," says Mattias Jakobsson, population-geneticist at Uppsala University and senior author of the study.

"Our study demonstrates the potential in archaeogenetics to not only reveal large-scale migrations, but also inform about Stone Age societies and the role of particular phenomena in those times such as the megalith phenomena," says Federico Sanchez-Quinto.

"The patterns that we observe could be unique to the Primrose, Carrowmore, and Ansarve burials, and future studies of other megaliths are needed to tell whether this is a general pattern for megalith burials," says osteoarchaeologist Jan Storå of Stockholm University.




Sánchez-Quinto et al. (2019) Megalithic tombs in western and northern Neolithic Europe were linked to a kindred society, PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1818037116 (Open access)


This study is part of the Atlas project, a multidisciplinary effort to understand Eurasian and Scandinavian prehistory, funded by Riksbankens Jubileumsfond and the Knut and Alice Wallenberg foundation.

Press release from Uppsala University, by Linda Koffmar.

Sorghum bicolor introgression North-East Africa

Beer and fodder crop has been deteriorating for 6,000 years

Beer and fodder crop has been deteriorating for 6,000 years

Sorghum bicolor introgression North-East Africa
The inflorescence of Sorghum bicolor. Photo by Matt Lavin from Bozeman, Montana, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0

The diversity of the crop Sorghum, a cereal used to make alcoholic drinks, has been decreasing over time due to agricultural practice. To maintain the diversity of the crop and keep it growing farmers will need to revise how they manage it.

Sorghum bicolor is a crop widely used for animal feed, and making beer.

The history of sorghum from its original domesticated state to todays domesticated cereal has been found to be heavily influenced by human action, continuing to treat the plant as we currently do could mean the continued degradation of the crop.

One current type of sorghum harvested is called Sorghum bicolor, but there are several different sorghum types, and in the past they have been saving each other by sharing undamaged genes, in a process called introgression.

The wild ancestors of sorghum represent genomes that have not been damaged through cultivation. Although we don't harvest the wild ancestors of sorghum it's necessary to keep them alive as the ability to adapt to their surroundings by introgression could be crucial in the future of Sorghum bicolor to threats of climate change, meaning crops have to adapt to new environments.

In Sorghum bicolor, damage to their genes is happening by the way it's farmed, meaning their core genome functions are accumulating damage over time, therefore we need to repair the crops genomic damage or productivity could decline.

Professor Robin Allaby, from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Warwick comments:

"Sorghum bicolor is the world's fifth most important cereal crop and the most important crop in arid zones. It's used for animal feed and beer and is grown particularly in North-Eastern Africa generating an economy there.

"If we can't save sorghum's ancestors and use those genes to help Sorghum bicolor repair its genomic damage we could risk damaging the crop further. This could mean less animal feed, food and beer, as well as potentially damaging trade in North-East Africa."

Read more

barley Sweden Finland agriculture farming hunter gatherers Pitted Ware Culture

A 5,000-year-old barley grain discovered in Finland changes understanding of livelihoods

A 5,000-year-old barley grain discovered in Finland changes understanding of livelihoods

barley Sweden Finland agriculture farming hunter gatherers Pitted Ware Culture
Researchers determined the age of millennia-old barley grains using radiocarbon dating. Credit: photo by Santeri Vanhanen, CC-BY 4.0 licence

New findings reveal that hunter-gatherers took to farming already 5,000 years ago in eastern Sweden, and on the Aland Islands, located on the southwest coast of Finland

On the basis of prior research, representatives of the Pitted Ware Culture from the Stone Age have been known as hard-core sealers, or even Inuits of the Baltic Sea. Now, researchers have discovered barley and wheat grains in areas previously inhabited by this culture, leading to the conclusion that the Pitted Ware Culture adopted agriculture on a small scale.

A study carried out in cooperation with parties representing the discipline of archaeology and the Department of Chemistry at the University of Helsinki, as well as Swedish operators in the field of archaeology (The Archaeologists, a governmental consultant agency, and Arkeologikonsult, a business), found grains of barley and wheat in Pitted Ware settlements on Finland's Aland Islands and in the region of modern Stockholm.

The age of the grains was ascertained using radiocarbon dating. Based on the results, the grains originated in the period of the Pitted Ware culture, thus being approximately 4,300-5,300 years old. In addition to the cereal grains, the plant remnants found in the sites included hazelnut shells, apple seeds, tuberous roots of lesser celandine and rose hips.

The study suggests that small-scale farming was adopted by the Pitted Ware Culture by learning the trade from farmers of the Funnel Beaker Culture, the latter having expanded from continental Europe to Scandinavia.

Other archaeological artefacts are also evidence of close contact between these two cultures.

"The grains found on Aland are proof that the Pitted Ware Culture introduced cultivation to places where it had not yet been practised," says Santeri Vanhanen, a doctoral student of archaeology at the University of Helsinki.

In the study, the age of cereal grains found at the sites tagged with numbers in the map were determined with radiocarbon dating. These findings demonstrate that hunter-gatherers adopted farming on the Åland Islands on the southwestern coast of Finland and in eastern Sweden already 5,000 years ago. Credit: Santeri Vanhanen, CC-BY 4.0 licence

Cereal perhaps used to brew beer?

The 5,000-year-old barley grain found on Aland is the oldest grain of cereal ever found in Finland. The researchers also found a handful of barley and wheat grains a few hundred years younger, representing either common wheat or club wheat.

"We also dated one barley grain found in Raseborg, southern Finland. This grain and the other earliest grains found in mainland Finland date back some 3,500 years, some 1,500 years behind Aland according to current knowledge," Vanhanen explains.

In prior studies, it has been extremely difficult to demonstrate that the hunter-gatherer population would have adopted farming during recorded history, let alone in the Stone Age. Research on ancient DNA has in recent years proven that the spread of agriculture in Europe was almost exclusively down to migrants.

"We find it possible that this population, which was primarily specialised in marine hunting, continued to grow plants as the practice provided the community with social significance."

From time to time, an abundance of pig bones are found at Pitted Ware sites, even though pigs were not an important part of their daily nourishment. For instance, the bones of more than 30 pigs were found in a grave located on the island of Gotland.

"Members of the Pitted Ware culture may have held ritual feasts where pigs and cereal products were consumed. It's not inconceivable that grains might even have been used to brew beer, but the evidence is yet to be found," Vanhanen continues.

Santeri Vanhanen is a doctoral student of archaeology at the University of Helsinki. Credit: Marko Marila

Grain age determined through radiocarbon dating

The research relies primarily on archaeobotanical methodology, which helps examine plant remains preserved in archaeological sites. In this study, soil samples were collected from the sites, from which plant remains were extracted using a flotation method. The plant remains are charred; in other words, the grains and seeds have turned into carbon after having come to contact with fire.

Plant remains can be identified by examining them through a microscope and comparing them to modern plant parts. The age of individual grains can be determined with radiocarbon dating, based on the fractionation of the radioactive carbon-14 isotope. This way, the age of a grain aged several millennia can be determined with a precision of a few centuries.


The study was published in the Scientific Reports journal on 20 March 2019. The research article, entitled "Maritime Hunter-Gatherers Adopt Cultivation at the Farming Extreme of Northern Europe 5000 Years Ago", is freely available on the journal's website:

This is how the Inuit culture of the Baltic Sea was born. Read more on the University of Helsinki website:

Press release from the University of Helsinki