Origin of domestic horses finally established

Origin of domestic horses finally established

origin domestic horses domestic horse
Origin of domestic horses finally established. Farmer catching horses in north-central Kazakhstan. © Ludovic ORLANDO / CAGT / CNRS Photothèque

Horses were first domesticated in the Pontic-Caspian steppes, northern Caucasus, before conquering the rest of Eurasia within a few centuries. These are the results of a study led by paleogeneticist Ludovic Orlando, CNRS, who headed an international team including l’Université Toulouse III - Paul Sabatier, the CEA and l’Université d’Évry. Answering a decades-old enigma, the study is published in Nature on 20 October 2021.

By whom and where were modern horses first domesticated? When did they conquer the rest of the world? And how did they supplant the myriad of other types of horses that existed at that time? This long-standing archaeological mystery finally comes to an end thanks to a team of 162 scientists specialising in archaeology, palaeogenetics and linguistics.

A few years ago, Ludovic Orlando's team looked at the site of Botai, Central Asia, which had provided the oldest archaeological evidence of domestic horses. The DNA results, however, were not compliant: these 5500-year-old horses were not the ancestors of modern domestic horses1. Besides the steppes of Central Asia, all other presumed foci of domestication, such as Anatolia, Siberia and the Iberian Peninsula, had turned out to be false.

We knew that the time period between 4,000 to 6,000 years ago was critical but no smoking guns could ever be found” says CNRS research professor Orlando.

The scientific team, therefore, decided to extend their study to the whole of Eurasia by analysing the genomes of 273 horses that lived between 50,000 and 200 years BC. This information was sequenced at the Centre for Anthropobiology and Genomics of Toulouse (CNRS/Université Toulouse III - Paul Sabatier) and Genoscope2 (CNRS/CEA/Université d’Évry) before being compared with the genomes of modern domestic horses.

This strategy paid off: although Eurasia was once populated by genetically distinct horse populations, a dramatic change had occurred between 2000 and 2200 BC.

That was a chance: the horses living in Anatolia, Europe, Central Asia and Siberia used to be genetically quite distinct” notes Dr Pablo Librado, first author of the study.

Then, a single genetic profile, previously confined to the Pontic steppes (North Caucasus)3, began to spread beyond its native region, replacing all the wild horse populations from the Atlantic to Mongolia within a few centuries.

The genetic data also point to an explosive demography at the time, with no equivalent in the last 100,000 years” adds Orlando. “This is when we took control over the reproduction of the animal and produced them in astronomic numbers.”

But how can this rapid population growth be explained? Interestingly, scientists found two striking differences between the genome of this horse and those of the populations it replaced: one is linked to a more docile behaviour and the second indicates a stronger backbone. The researchers suggest that these characteristics ensured the animals’ success at a time when horse travel was becoming “global”.

The study also reveals that the horse spread throughout Asia at the same time as spoke-wheeled chariots and Indo-Iranian languages. However, the migrations of Indo-European populations, from the steppes to Europe during the third millennium BC4 could not have been based on the horse, as its domestication and diffusion came later. This demonstrates the importance of incorporating the history of animals when studying human migrations and encounters between cultures.

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Origin of domestic horses finally established. Horse mandible excavated from the Ginnerup archaeological site, Denmark, June 2021. (This site was included in the study.) © Lutz Klassen, East Jutland Museum

This study was directed by the the Centre for Anthropobiology and Genomics of Toulouse (CNRS/ Université Toulouse III – Paul Sabatier) with help from Genoscope (CNRS/CEA/Université d’Évry). The French laboratories Archéologies et sciences de l'Antiquité (CNRS/Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne/Université Paris Nanterre/Ministère de la Culture), De la Préhistoire à l'actuel: culture, environnement et anthropologie (CNRS/Université de Bordeaux/Ministère de la Culture) and Archéozoologie, archéobotanique : sociétés, pratiques et environnements (CNRS/MNHN) also contributed, as did 114 other research institutions throughout the world. The study was primarily funded by the European Research Council (Pegasus project) and France Genomique (Bucéphale project).

Some previous results of the Pegasus project:

Notes

1 Read this press release: Unsaddling old theory on origin of horses, 22 February 2018.
2 Genoscope is a department of CEA-Jacob.
3 The Pontic steppe is the western part of the Eurasian steppe. The home of the modern domestic horse is thought to be in the Don and Volga basins, east of the Dnieper.
4 For example, see this press release: 7,000 years of demographic history in France, 25 May 2020.

 

Press release from CNRS on the study, published on Nature, concerning the origin of domestic horses.

The new study on the origin of domestic horses, references:

Librado, P., (...), Orlando, Ludovic (2021). "The origins and spread of domestic horses from the Western Eurasian steppes". Nature, 20/10/2021. DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-04018-9

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Horses were domesticated in the Northern Caucasus steppes and then spread across Asia and Europe

 

A large group of researchers have conducted the largest genetic study carried out to date, which has made it possible to determine that the horses from which all current domestic horses descend were first domesticated in the steppes north of the Caucasus and, from there, spread to other regions of Asia and Europe.

Researchers from the Milá y Fontanals Institution (IMF) and the Institute of Archaeology (IAM) of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), together with scientists from the Museum of Human Evolution (MEH), the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of the University of Extremadura (UEx), the UCM-ISCIII Joint Centre for Human Evolution and Behaviour in Madrid, the Laboratory of Prehistoric Archaeology of the University Jaume I of Castellón (UJI) and the Faculty of Geological Sciences of the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM)have participated in the largest genetic study carried out to date, which has made it possible to determine that the horses from which all current domestic horses descend were first domesticated in the steppes north of the Caucasus and, from there, spread to other regions of Asia and Europe.

This study brings to an end a long-standing debate about the location and chronology of the earliest documented evidence of domestication of the horses that gave rise to today's populations, as well as aswering questions about when this domestication process began to spread to other regions of the world, thus replacing other types of horses that existed at the time. The results have been published in the October issue of prestigious international journal Nature.

This conclusion was reached by a team of 114 institutions and 162 researchers specialising in archaeology, palaeogenetics and linguistics, led by Professor Ludovic Orlando, CNRS researcher and principal investigator of the ERC-PEGASUS project, which, together with France Genomique-Projet Bucéphale, financed the research. The study involved sequencing the genomes of 273 remains of horses that inhabited various regions of Eurasia in a chronological arc extending from 50,000 to 200 BC. All the genetic information was sequenced at the Centre for Anthropobiology and Genomics of Toulouse, CAGT (CNRS/University of Toulouse III-Paul Sabatier) and Genoscope (CNRS/CEA/University of Évry), before being compared to the genomes of modern domestic horses. Thanks to the large battery of statistical analyses carried out, it has been possible to establish that between 2,200 and 2,000 BC, a drastic change took place in which the genetic profile existing in the Pontic steppes began to spread beyond its region of origin, thus replacing in a few centuries all wild horse populations from the Atlantic to Mongolia.

According to L. Orlando, "this replacement in the genetic composition of Eurasian populations is associated with significant genomic differences between this new type of horse and the horses of the populations that disappeared. On the one hand, this new type of horse from the steppes of the northern Caucasus had a more docile behaviour and, on the other hand, a more robust constitution in the vertebral skeleton".

The researchers suggest that these characteristics triggered the successful selection of these animals, at a time when horse travel was becoming widespread in Eurasia.

According to Pablo Librado (CNRS), first author of this research, "this study has also shown that the distribution of this new type of horse in Asia coincides with the appearance of light carts and the spread of Indo-Iranian languages. In contrast, the migration of Indo-European populations from the steppe zone to the heart of Europe during the third millennium BC did not use this new type of horse as a vector for its expansion. This result demonstrates the importance of also incorporating the genetic history of animals when analysing the dimension of human migrations and intercultural contacts".

The individuals analysed include equids from various sites on the Iberian Peninsula, including Casas del Turuñuelo (Guareña, Badajoz) and Cova Fosca (Alt Maestrat, Castelló).

The Cova Fosca was excavated by Francesc Gusi and Carmen Olaria. According to C. Olaria, professor of Prehistory at the UJI and co-author of this study,

"Cova Fosca has a very rich Holocene archaeozoological record. We were able to identify horse remains in ancient Neolithic levels, a very rare taxon in Iberian sites from this period. This uniqueness allowed us to publish years ago, together with Jaime Lira Garrido and Juan Luis Arsuaga, the first mitochondrial sequences of horses from this site".

According to J. L. Arsuaga, scientific director of the Museum of Human Evolution, professor of Palaeontology at the UCM, director of the UCM-ISCIII Joint Centre and co-author of this study,

"in Cova Fosca we found a unique mitochondrial lineage exclusive to Iberia that currently appears in very few horses, all of which are Iberian or of Iberian origin. In this new study we aimed to unveil the genomic secrets of the Cova Fosca".

Building Tartessos and Casas del Turuñuelo

origin domestic horses horse
A new study on the origin of domestic horses.View of animal slaughter documented in the courtyard of the building at Casas del Turuñuelo

Casas del Turuñuelo is one of the most impressive discoveries in peninsular archaeology in recent years. Its excavations are being carried out under a project directed by the IAM-CSIC and are being co-directed by Esther Rodríguez González and Sebastián Celestino, also researchers at the IAM-CSIC.

According to Esther Rodríguez González, co-author of this new study, "Turuñuelo is an architectural complex from the middle of the first millennium BC belonging to the Tartessos culture where we have found the largest hecatomb documented to date in a site of Mediterranean protohistory. This mass slaughter is notable for the large number of equids that have been differentiated in the courtyard of this site. For this study we selected Equid 4".According to Sebastián Celestino, also co-author of this research, "a multidisciplinary team of specialists from the humanities and biosciences has been created around Turuñuelo, which is generating a constant exchange of information and ideas, thus offering a great multidisciplinary approach to the study of this site".

Among the lines of research of "Construyendo Tartessos" [Building Tartessos], the genetic study of these slaughtered equids stands out. Jaime Lira Garrido (UEx/Centro Mixto UCM-ISCIII), who is a co-author of this study, explains that

"this latest work led by Professor Orlando has also allowed us to delve deeper into the evolutionary history of Iberian horses. In a previous study, Orlando and his team discovered that a genomic lineage developed on the Iberian Peninsula that is now extinct and very different from the rest of the ancient and modern Eurasian horse lineages described to date. The evolutionary origin of this lineage and the causes that led to its disappearance are still unknown. However, we have been able to identify in the Neolithic sample from the Cova Fosca the oldest evidence of this extinct lineage and that the Turuñuelo Equid 4 was, nevertheless, a descendant of this new type of horse that was so rapidly distributed throughout the known world some 4.000 years ago".

This study has been funded mainly by the European Research Council (PEGASUS project) and France Genomique (Bucéphale project).

 

Press release from Asociación RUVID on the new study on the origin of domestic horses.

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South Ural State University (SUSU) scientists and their foreign colleagues have continued study devoted to the time and place of horse domestication. A research group has established where exactly the focus of domestication is located in Eurasia. The results of the work have been published in the highly rated journal “Nature” (Top 10%).

The identical signs have been found in the genomes of domesticated horses in Eurasia. Specialists have noticed that remains of these animals have a strong spine. Probably, this is the reason for domesticated horses popularity and global spreading of horse travels.

The research group which includes PhD, SUSU professor Andrey Epimakhov has established the Pontic-Caspian steppes, northern Caucasus, is the centre of horse domestication. The process has occurred between 2000 and 2200 BC (the Bronze Age). Horses are distinct i n different presumed foci of domestication such as Anatolia, Siberia and the Iberian Peninsula, but several ages later the common genome has spreaded from the Atlantic to Mongolia within a few centuries.

Our research group that is led by paleo-geneticist Ludovic Orlando, National Center for Scientific Research (France), has analysed the genomes of 273 horses that lived between 50,000 and 200 years BC. The study has covered the whole of Eurasia to research presumed territories to be considered as primary foci of domestication. However, all of the territories have turned out to be false. For instance, the site of Botai, Central Asia, has provided the oldest archaeological evidence of domestic horses. Nevertheless, the DNA results are not compliant: these 5500-year-old horses are not the ancestors of modern domestic horses. On the contrary, the Ural 4000 years old samples don’t raise doubts in horse exploitation and chariot teams,” Andrey Epimakhov explained.

Research has also demonstrated that the horse spread throughout Asia at the same time as spoke-wheeled chariots and Indo-Iranian languages.

Remind that dental calculus research has helped scientists to determine the time and place of horse domestication. There are dairy diet markers that have been detected in samples found in the Volga region. Milk has been a part of people's ration since animal domestication.

 

Press release from the South Ural State University on the new study on the origin of domestic horses.


Oldest Acheulean North Africa Oued Boucherit

The oldest Acheulean evidence in North Africa

The oldest Acheulean evidence in North Africa

The CENIEH in collaboration with CNRPAH leads a study reporting the discovery of the oldest Acheulean lithic assemblage found in North Africa, dated to about 1.7 million years
Oldest Acheulean North Africa Oued Boucherit
View of the valley of Oued Boucherit (Algeria). Photo credits: Mathieu Duval

A new work published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews, led by the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH) in collaboration with the Centre National de Recherches Préhistoriques, Anthropologiques et Historiques (CNRPAH) (Algeria), describes the most recent advances in the current investigation performed in the valley of Oued Boucherit, located about 20 km east of the city of Sétif (Algeria).

There, the sedimentary deposits hosts a unique succession of fossiliferous and archaeological levels ranging from 3.9 Ma to 1.7 Ma. Perhaps the most noticeable outcome of this work is the discovery of the oldest evidence of Acheulean lithic industries in North Africa. Dated to 1.7 million years (Ma), it is about 400,000 years older than those recently reported at Thomas Quarry locality (Casablanca, Morocco).

'This is an exceptional discovery', indicates Dr Mathieu Duval, Ramón y Cajal Researcher at CENIEH and lead author of the work, 'because it could drastically modify our vision and understanding of early human origins and migrations throughout the African continent'.

While the French paleontologist Camille Arambourg already mentioned in the 1950s the presence of Acheulean lithic industries (typically characterized by the presence of tools like handaxes or picks) in that area, their exact origin has remained unclear until now. Field prospections carried out over the last years have allowed to find new lithic pieces, and more importantly, to define a clear stratigraphic context and provide an age.

In 2018, another important discovery from this same area was published in the journal Science: the oldest lithic industries (Oldowan-like; typically characterized by small flakes and pebble tools) in North Africa, dated to 2.4 Ma. ‘Now, Oued Boucherit hosts the oldest Oldowan and Acheulean lithic assemblages found in North Africa’ says Prof. Mohamed Sahnouni, coordinator of the Archaeology Program at CENIEH and co-author of the work. ‘This area allows us to precisely study the emergence and evolution of Acheulean and Oldowan lithic industries, like perhaps very few other localities in Africa,’ adds the researcher who has been actively working in the area since the 1990s.

These discoveries drastically change our current vision about the origin and dispersion of the first lithic industries within Africa. Currently, the oldest Oldowan and Acheulean evidence are located in East Africa, dating to about 2.6 million years (Ma) and 1.8 Ma, respectively. Less than 5 years ago, the evidence was more than half a million years older than those found in North Africa.

Oldest Acheulean North Africa
Biface stone tool from Oued Boucherit (Algeria) dated to 1.7 million years. Photo credits: Mohamed Sahnouni

Now, the recent discoveries made at Oued Boucherit indicate instead that these industries appear in North Africa very close in time to those in East Africa. While these results may suggest in first instance a much faster dispersion of these lithic industries from East Africa than previously anticipated, the plausibility of a multiple African origin scenario for stone tool manufacture and use cannot be discarded.

At the forefront of geochronology

‘This work perfectly illustrates the reason why the Geochronology and Geology Program was designed’ explains Prof. J.M. Parés, Coordinator of this Program and co-author of the article. ‘Thanks to a combination of various dating methods applied at CENIEH, namely palaeomagnetism and Electron Spin Resonance dating, we have been able to provide a solid chronological framework to such an old site, something perhaps unthinkable 20 years ago,’ concludes the researcher.

The Geochronology and Geology Program at CENIEH, Spain, hosts a unique combination of world-class facilities and international researchers fully dedicated to Human Evolutionary studies. One of the main research lines of the program consists in of refining the chronology of the early human occupations in the Mediterranean area, with a special emphasis on the combination of different dating methods in order to obtain more robust chronologies. The work at Oued Boucherit is just the latest example of this investigation carried out for more than a decade since the inauguration of the Centre in 2009.

Full bibliographic information:
Duval M., Sahnouni M., Parés J.M., van der Made J., Abdessadok S., Harichane Z., Chelli Cheheb R., Boulaghraif K., Pérez-González A. (2021). The Plio-Pleistocene sequence of Oued Boucherit (Algeria): a unique chronologically-constrained archaeological and paleontological record in North Africa. Quaternary Science Reviews 271. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quascirev.2021.107116.
Press release from CENIEH

Earliest art in British Isles discovered in Jersey

Earliest art in British Isles discovered in Jersey

Prehistoric societies in the British Isles were creating artistic designs on rock as long ago as the late Ice Age, archaeologists have confirmed.

Rare evidence

The plaquettes provide the earliest evidence of artistic expression discovered in the British IslesFor the first time, archaeologists have analysed the ancient markings made on a group of flat stones, known as plaquettes, uncovered at Les Varines, Jersey, and believe they date from the late ice age – some 15,000 years ago.

Ten fragments of stone plaquettes extensively engraved with abstract designs were uncovered at Les Varines, Jersey, between 2014 and 2018. Since then, a team of archaeologists led by Newcastle University, working with the Natural History Museum, have been analysing the prehistoric markings and believe they represent the earliest evidence of artistic expression discovered in the British Isles.

The plaquettes are believed to have been made by the Magdalenians, an early hunter gatherer culture dating from between 23,000 and 14,000 years ago. The Magdalenian era saw a flourishing of early art, from cave art and the decoration of tools and weapons to the engraving of stones and bones.

Examples of etched Magdalenian plaquettes have previously been discovered at sites in France, Spain and Portugal. Although Magdalenian settlements are known to have existed as far north-west as Britain, no similar examples of artistic expression have previously been discovered in the British Isles of such an early date. The engraved fragments represent the first evidence of engraved stone plaquettes found in the British Isles and Ireland, seemingly predating cave art and engraved bone found previously at Creswell Crags, Derbyshire.

The research and excavation team, which also included experts from the UCL Institute of Archaeology, the universities of St. Andrews, Strathclyde, Liverpool, Wales Trinity St David, and York, as well as the British Museum, analysed the stones for traces of how the markings were made.

The analysis revealed that the plaquettes are engraved with groups of fine lines, thought to have been purposefully made using stone tools. The geometric designs are made up of a combination of straight lines more or less parallel to each other and longer, curved incisions. The research team say that the two types of marks are likely to have been produced using the same tools, possibly by the same engraver and in short succession, giving new insight into the processes used to create the ancient designs.

Dr Chantal Conneller, Senior Lecturer, Newcastle University, said: “These engraved stone fragments provide exciting and rare evidence of artistic expression at what was the farthest edge of the Magdalenian world.”

The designs were only briefly viewed by their makers. Engraving soft stone creates a powder within the incisions that makes them visible. This swiftly disperses, meaning that the engravings are only clear at the moment of their making. “In this context, the act or moment of engraving, was more meaningful than the object itself,” explained Dr Conneller.

art British Isles prehistoric

Purposeful artistic direction

Dr Silvia Bello, Researcher at the Natural History Museum, London, added: “Microscopic analysis indicates that many of the lines, including the curved, concentric designs, appear to have been made through layered or repeated incisions, suggesting that it is unlikely that they resulted from the stones being used for a functional purpose. The majority of the designs are purely abstract, but others could depict basic forms such as animals, landscapes or people. This strongly suggests that the plaquettes at Les Varines were engraved for purposeful artistic decoration.”

The stones discovered at Les Varines, in the south east of Jersey, were found in an area thought to have been used as a hearth. Three of the fragments had been recovered from an area of granite slabs which may have served as paving, highlighting that the plaquettes were engraved in a domestic context.

Dr Ed Blinkhorn, Senior Geoarchaeologist at University College London and director of excavations at the site, said: "The plaquettes were tricky to pick apart from the natural geology at the site - every stone needed turning. Their discovery amongst hearths, pits, paving, specialist tools, and thousands of flints shows that creating art was an important part of the Magdalenian pioneer toolkit, as much at camp as within caves."

 “The engraved stones are firmly domestic art - this may have been important as people moved back into northern Europe towards the end of the last Ice Age,” added Dr Conneller. “The people at Les Varines are likely to have been pioneer colonisers of the region and creating engraved objects at new settlements may have been a way of creating symbolic relationships with new places.”

The research took place as part of the Ice Age Island project, funded by Jersey Heritage, the British Academy, the Society of Antiquaries and the British Museum and the ‘Human behaviour in 3D’ project funded by the Calleva Fundation and is published in PLOS ONE.

 

Reference: “Artists on the edge of the world: An integrated approach to the study of Magdalenian engraved stone plaquettes from Jersey (Channel Islands)” by Silvia M. Bello, Edward Blinkhorn, Andrew Needham, Martin Bates, Sarah Duffy, Aimée Little, Matt Pope, Beccy Scott, Andrew Shaw, Mark D. Welch, Tim Kinnaird, Lisa Millar, Ruth Robinson, Chantal Conneller. PLOS ONE https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0236875

 

 

 

Press release from the Newcastle University on the prehistoric markings that represent the earliest evidence of art discovered in the British Isles


The recovery of fluted points from America and Arabia provides example of independent invention

An Iconic Native American Stone Tool Technology Discovered in Arabia

The recovery of distinctive fluted points from both America and Arabia provides one of the best examples of ‘independent invention’ across continents

A new paper published in the journal PLOS ONE examines fluted projectile points from southern Arabia, detailing production methods and technical aspects that indicate differences in function from the technology of the Americas, despite similarities in form. Findings from experimentation and comparative analysis suggest that highly-skilled, convergent technologies can have varying anthropological implications.
The sites of Manayzah (Yemen) and Ad-Dahariz (Oman) yielded dozens of fluted points. The Arabian examples date to the Neolithic period, about 8,000 to 7,000 years ago, at least two thousand years later than the American examples. Credits: Joy McCorriston, OSU

 

A new study led by archaeologists from the CNRS, the Inrap, the Ohio State University and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, reports on fluted points from the archaeological sites of Manayzah in Yemen and Ad-Dahariz in Oman. Fluted stone tools are a distinctive, technologically advanced form of projectile points, including spearheads and arrowheads. Fluting is a specific technique that involves the extraction of an elongated flake along the length of a projectile point, leaving a distinctive groove or depression at the base of the spearhead or arrowhead.

Fluting is a distinct technological tradition invented by early human cultures that spread across the Americas. Fluted point technology is very well known in North America, evidenced by finds across the continent dating from 13,000 to 10,000 years ago. As lead author Dr. Rémy Crassard of the CNRS notes, "Until the early 2000s, these fluted points were unknown elsewhere on the planet. When the first isolated examples of these objects were recognized in Yemen, and more recently in Oman, we recognized that there could be huge implications."

The sites of Manayzah and Ad-Dahariz yielded dozens of fluted points. The Arabian examples date to the Neolithic period, about 8,000 to 7,000 years ago, at least two thousand years later than the American examples. As Professor Petraglia of the Max Planck explains, "Given their age and the fact that the fluted points from America and Arabia are separated by thousands of kilometers, there is no possible cultural connection between them. This is then a clear and excellent example of cultural convergence, or independent invention in human history."

fluted projectile points Arabia America Manayzah Ad-Dahariz fluting
Fluting is a specific technique that involves the extraction of an elongated flake along the length of a projectile point, leaving a distinctive groove or depression at the base of the spearhead or arrowhead. Credit: Rémy Crassard, CNRS

The new PLOS ONE article carefully examines the fluted points found in south Arabia. Detailed technological analysis, backed up by stone tool experiments and replication by an expert modern flintknapper, illustrate the similarities between the American and Arabian fluting procedures.

In addition to the similarities, the authors of the new study also investigated the contrasts between the technologies of the two regions. Technological differences were apparent in the nature and location of the flute. The authors emphasize that the 'fluting method' was likely a mental conceptualization of stone tool manufacture, more than just a technical way to produce a projectile and hafting zone. Whereas the apparent function of fluting in the Americas is to facilitate hafting, or attaching the point to a shaft, most of the Arabian fluted points do not have hafting as a functional final aim. The fluting concept and the method itself are the same in both American and Arabia, yet the final aim of fluting appears to be different.

Arabian and American fluted point technologies were highly specialized stone tool production methods. The PLOS ONE study of Arabian fluting technology demonstrates that similar innovations and inventions were developed under different circumstances and that such highly-skilled and convergent production methods can have different anthropological implications. As discussed in the article, Professor McCorriston argues that "fluting in Arabia was used as a display of skill, rather than serving a purely functional purpose such as hafting, as is more widely accepted in the Americas."

In Arabian prehistory, southern Arabia experienced developments of local origin, with multiple examples of inventions and innovations not culturally transmitted by outside traditions. The fluting method is then a hallmark of this indigenous development in the south Arabian Neolithic.

 

Publication

Rémy Crassard, Vincent Charpentier, Joy McCorriston, Jérémie Vosges, Sofiane Bouzid, Michael PetragliaFluted-point technology in Neolithic Arabia: An independent invention far from the Americas, PLOS ONE

 

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

 

In ancient Arabia, some tools were created to show off skills

Fluted projectile points were used like a “peacock’s feathers”

This rock shelter was part of the excavation of the Manayzah site in Yemen. Credits: Joy McCorriston

People living in southern Arabia some 8,000 years ago created intricate stone weapons that were not just useful, but designed to “show off” their tool-making skills, a new study suggests.

Researchers from the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), The Ohio State University and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History excavated and examined projectile points – such as spearheads and arrowheads – created during the Neolithic period in what is now Yemen and Oman.

They found that the Arabians independently invented a process to create projectile points – called fluting – that was first used by people living in North America thousands of years earlier.

But there was one key difference between fluting as it was used in North America and the way it was used in Arabia, said Joy McCorriston, co-author of the study and professor of anthropology at Ohio State.

In North America, fluting was used just to make the arrowhead or spearhead more functional. But in Arabia, people also used it to demonstrate their technical skills.

“It was like a peacock’s feathers – it was all for appearance. They used fluting to show just how skilled they were at using this very difficult technology, with its heightened risk of failure,” McCorriston said.

The study was published today (Aug. 5, 2020) in the journal PLOS ONE.

The scientists studied projectile points from two archaeological sites: Manayzah, in Yemen, and Ad-Dahariz, in Oman. McCorriston and a team from Ohio State oversaw the excavation in Manayzah, which lasted from 2004 to 2008.

Finding fluted points outside of North America was an important discovery, said Rémy Crassard of CNRS, lead author of the study.

“These fluted points were, until recently, unknown elsewhere on the planet. This was until the early 2000s, when the first isolated examples of these objects were recognized in Yemen, and more recently in Oman,” Crassard said.

Fluting involves a highly skilled process of chipping off flakes from a stone to create a distinctive channel. It is difficult and takes much practice to perfect, McCorriston said.

In North America, almost all fluting on projectile points was done near the base, so that the implement could be attached with string to the arrow or spear shaft. In other words, it had a practical application, she said.

But in this study, the researchers found some Arabian points with fluting that appeared to have no useful purpose, such as near the tip.

As part of the study, the researchers had a master technician in flintknapping – the shaping of stones – attempt to create projectile points in a way similar to how researchers believe the ancient Arabians did.

“He made hundreds of attempts to learn how to do this. It is difficult and a flintknapper breaks a lot of these points trying to learn how to do it right,” McCorriston said.

The question, then, is why would these Neolithic people do this when it was so costly and time-consuming and didn’t make the points more useful? In addition, they only used fluting on some points.

“Of course, we can’t say for sure, but we think this was a way for skilled toolmakers to signal something to others, perhaps that one is a good hunter, a quick study, or dexterous with one’s hands,” she said.

“It showed one was good at what one did. This could improve one’s social standing in the community.”

The findings suggested that while there were many similarities between the American and Arabian fluted points, there were also differences. The way that people performed the fluting in the two places was different, which is not surprising since they were separated by thousands of miles and thousands of years, McCorriston said.

Finding the fluted points in Arabia provides one of the best examples of “independent invention” across continents, said co-author Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute.

“Given their age, and the fact that the fluted points from America and Arabia are separated by thousands of kilometers, there is no possible cultural connection between them,” Petraglia said.

“This is a clear and excellent example of cultural convergence, or independent invention, in human history.”

This study is part of the larger Roots of Agriculture in Southern Arabia (RASA) project, co-led by McCorriston. The project, which included 12 years of field work in Yemen, explored the first use of domesticated animals in Arabia and the societies that developed around them.

Their work is featured in a new book co-edited by McCorriston, Landscape History of Hadramawt: The Roots of Agriculture in Southern Arabia (RASA Project 1998-2008). The book won The Jo Anne Stolaroff Cotsen Prize, which honors outstanding studies in archaeology.

 

 

Press release from the Ohio State University

Native American stone tool technology found in Arabia

fluted projectile points Arabia America Manayzah Ad-Dahariz fluting
Stone fluted points dating back some 8,000 to 7,000 years ago, were discovered on archaeological sites in Manayzah, Yemen and Ad-Dahariz, Oman. Until now, the prehistoric technique of fluting had been uncovered only on 13,000 to 10,000-year-old Native American sites. Credits: © Jérémie Vosges / CNRS

Stone fluted points dating back some 8,000 to 7,000 years ago, were discovered on archaeological sites in Manayzah, Yemen and Ad-Dahariz, Oman. Spearheads and arrowheads were found among these distinctive and technologically advanced projectile points. Until now, the prehistoric technique of fluting had been uncovered only on 13,000 to 10,000-year-old Native American sites. According to a study led by an international team of archaeologists from the CNRS(1), Inrap, Ohio State University and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, the difference in age and geographic location implies there is no connection between the populations who made them. This is therefore an example of cultural convergence for an invention which required highly-skilled expertise. And yet, despite similar fluting techniques, the final aim appears to be different. Whereas in the Americas the points were used to facilitate hafting, or attaching the point to a shaft, fluting in Arabia was possibly a mere display of knapping skills.

Notes

(1) Researchers based in France are affiliated with the Centre français de recherche de la péninsule arabique (CNRS / Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs; formerly CEFAS), the laboratoire Archéorient de la Maison de l'Orient et de la Méditerranée (CNRS / Université Lumière Lyon 2 / AMU / ENS Lyon / Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1 / Université Jean Moulin / Université Jean Monnet) and the laboratoire Archéologies et sciences de l'antiquité (CNRS / Université Panthéon-Sorbonne / Université Paris Nanterre / Ministère de la culture).

 

Press release from CNRS


seafood Arabia out of Africa

Seafood helped prehistoric people migrate out of Africa, study reveals

Seafood helped prehistoric people migrate out of Africa, study reveals

Prehistoric pioneers could have relied on shellfish to sustain them as they followed migratory routes out of Africa during times of drought, a new study suggests.

seafood out of Africa Arabia Farasan Islands
Living specimen of the marine mollusc Conomurex fasciatus. Millions of these shells were found on the Farasan Islands in Saudi Arabia as the food refuse of prehistoric fishers. Photo credit: Dr Niklas Hausmann

The study examined fossil reefs near to the now-submerged Red Sea shorelines that marked prehistoric migratory routes from Africa to Arabia. The findings suggest this coast offered the resources necessary to act as a gateway out of Africa during periods of little rainfall when other food sources were scarce.

The research team, led by the University of York, focused on the remains of 15,000 shells dating back 5,000 years to an arid period in the region. With the coastline of original migratory routes submerged by sea-level rise after the last Ice Age, the shells came from the nearby Farasan Islands in Saudi Arabia.

Plentiful

The researchers found that populations of marine mollusks were plentiful enough to allow continuous harvests without any major ecological impacts and their availability would have enabled people to live through times of drought.

Lead author, Dr Niklas Hausmann, Associate Researcher at the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, said: "The availability of food resources plays an important role in understanding the feasibility of past human migrations – hunter-gatherer migrations would have required local food sources and periods of aridity could therefore have restricted these movements.

“Our study suggests that Red Sea shorelines had the resources necessary to provide a passage for prehistoric people.”

Healthy population

The study also confirms that communities settled on the shorelines of the Red Sea could have relied on shellfish as a sustainable food resource all year round.

Dr Hausmann added: “Our data shows that at a time when many other resources on land were scarce, people could rely on their locally available shellfish. Previous studies have shown that people of the southern Red Sea ate shellfish year-round and over periods of thousands of years. We now also know that this resource was not depleted by them, but shellfish continued to maintain a healthy population.”

Fossil reefs

The shellfish species found in the archaeological sites on the Farasan Islands were also found in abundance in fossil reefs dating to over 100 thousand years ago, indicating that these shellfish have been an available resource over longer periods than archaeological sites previously suggested.

Co-author of the study, Matthew Meredith-Williams, from La Trobe University, said: "We know that modelling past climates to learn about food resources is extremely helpful, but we need to differentiate between what is happening on land and what is happening in the water. In our study we show that marine foods were abundant and resilient and being gathered by people when they couldn't rely on terrestrial food."

 

Shellfish resilience to prehistoric human consumption in the southern Red Sea: Variability in Conomurex fasciatus across time and space is published in Quaternary International. The research was funded by the European Research Council.

 

Press release on seafood helping prehistoric people migrate out of Africa from the University of York

 


Tell es-Sin

New findings on the Byzantine necropolis Tell es-Sin in Syria

New findings on the Byzantine necropolis Tell es-Sin in Syria

A study published in the journal Bioarchaeology of the Near East reveals the features of the population that was buried in the necropolis of Tell es-Sin in Syria, a Byzantine archaeological site dating from the 5th to 7th centuries AC. located in the left side of the Euphrates River. The principal researchers of the new anthropological study on Tell es-Sin -in the middle of a transit area for the ancient Byzantine forces and the Persian Sassanids- are Laura Martínez, from the Faculty of Biology of the University of Barcelona, and Ferran Estebaranz-Sánchez, from the Faculty of Biosciences of the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

Other participants are the researcher Juan Luis Montero-Fenollós, lecturer from the University of la Coruña and director of the excavation project in the site of Tell es-Sin, and other experts from Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée (France), the Yarmouk University (Jordan) and the Mykolas Romeris University (Lithuania).

Tell es-Sin represents one of the most important necropolis from the Fertile Crescent to the Near East

Ancient Syria’s Hill of Teeth

The site of Tell es-Sin -from Arabic “Hill of Teeth”- covers an area of twenty-five hectares is divided into the acropolis, the lower town, and necropolis -which covers seven hecctares. It is in the south-eastern of the current city of Deir ez-Zor -frontier between Syria and Iraq- and it is considered a kastron, that is, a place with administrative and military functions. Both the size and urban structure of the site and its fortified nature suggest it would have been an ancient polis whose ancient name is still unknown.

Tell es-Sin represents one of the most important necropolis from the Fertile Crescent to the Near East, but authors say “it is still very much unknown”. The new study wants to focus on the knowledge of frontier populations in the Byzantine Empire during the 6th-7th centuries, a period in which necropolis and skeleton remains are not abundant.

A fortification in the middle of the military Near East

“Mesopotamia was a strategic defensive area regarding the entrances and invasions from the Persians and the Arabians. In this context, Tell es-Sin could have been affected by the territorial and military reorganization by the emperor Justinian, who promoted fortifications of lime populations in the middle of the 6th century”, notes Laura Martínez, lecturer at the Department of Evolutionary Biology, Ecology and Environmental Sciences at the Faculty of Biology, and first author of the study.

The first archaeological excavations of the Byzantine necropolis of Tell es-Sin date from 1978 and were led by Asad Mahmoud, general director of Antiquities and Museums in Deir ez-Zor at the moment. In 2005, the study of the first Syrian-Spanish archaeological mission -coordinated by the University of la Coruña- highlighted the relevance of the necropolis of Tell es-Sin, which was part of the Eastern limes Diocletianus together with Tell es-Kasra and Circesium (current Buseira). The experts identified a total of 170 hypogea in a necropolis that could have about one thousand tombs.
Tombs and Byzantine archaeology in Syrian territory

As Ferran Estebaranz-Sánchez notes, “samples from Tell es-Sin represent an heterogeneous and biased series of skeleton remains corresponding to tombs that were sacked during the years. This anthropological study wanted to provide information on the sex, age of death, height and other morphological variables of the excavated individuals in the site using traditional biometrics”.

The analysed sample -only a small part out of the total burials in Tell es-Sin -includes human remains from ten excavated hypogea in the Syrian-Spanish mission. A total of 71 individuals were analysed (at least, eighteen would correspond to men, and twelve to women).

According to the experts, they did not observe bias regarding sex or age in the studied remains, and they highlight the lack of children compared to other areas (they could have been buried in other niches in the entrance of the tomb). Likewise, there is at least between one and five individuals buried inside every niche (the average is three bodies per niche, including sub-adults and adults), according to the model of collective burial typical from ancient Syria.

Despite the fragmented state of the remains, the team could estimate the height of most individuals. “The average height we estimate considering the upper long bones is 174.5 for men and 159.1 for women. These figures are similar to those estimated with the diameter of the femur head: 176.1 cm for males and 164.5 for females”, notes Estebaranz Sánchez.

“In conclusion -he continues-, the estimated height for the Byzantine population in Tell es-Sin is similar to other contemporary Byzantine populations”.

About 25% of the individuals presented cribra orbitalia and 8.5% of porotic hyperostosis, alterations in brain bones associated to anaemia or lack of iron or vitamins,  rickets, infection and other inflammatory conditions.

The prevalence of degenerative joint diseases was low, according to the study. Regarding dental samples, about 2.8% of teeth presented caries, lower figures compared to other contemporary byzantine sites in the area that could be related to a low sample analysed in Tell es-Sin.

Tell es-Sin: the end of a site with the arrival of Islam

The end of the site of Tell es-Sin -in the first quarter of the 7th century AC- coincided with the wars against the Persian Sassanids and Islamic Arabian tribes. Despite the conditions of the site of Tell es-Sin and the current situation -after the ISIS occupation- the discovery and excavation of graves that were not sacked is essential to study the knowledge of this population.

“This is why we are now analysing the buccal microstriations to infer the diet of the population and therefore complete the biocultural model of frontier populations with great ancient empires”, conclude Laura Martínez and Ferran Estebaranz Sánchez.

Article reference: 

Martínez, L. M.; Estebaranz-Sánchez, F.;  Khawam, R.; Anfruns, J.;  Alrousan, M.;  Pereira, P.; Pérez-Pérez, A.; Montero-Fenollós, J. L. “Human remains from Tell es-Sin, Syria, 2006-2007”Bioarchaeology of the Near East, April, 2020.

Press release from the University of Barcelona


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.


An army of Lego Classicists is ready to conquer social networks

Adults and children alike, they know LEGO; however, the enthusiasts of the classical world in particular should take advantage of social networks and not lose sight of the LEGO CLASSICIST project. The project was conceived from an idea of Liam D. Jensen, aka The Lego Classicist, an Australian archivist. An army of classicists is now conquering the web and the scholars of the ancient world as well, thanks to a perfect mix of pop art and ancient history.

As revealed by Liam himself, everything started by chance. The idea of recreating the Classics via the LEGO bricks surpassed all expectations. It has been a celebration of the ancient world and, above all, of the work of many scholars that love their job and allow us to know history and archaeology as much as possible, even if they have been working for different organisations and in different fields. Liam uses social networks in an innovative and inclusive way, and announces a new member of the LEGO Classicist family from time to time.

Liam at work, creating one of his LCs. Photo © Liam D. Jensen

In a short time, and thanks to the crowd of people being intrigued by the initiative, the project has become an international one. The power of communication also goes through gaming and the capability of breaking down barriers, which is typical of the renowned LEGO figures: they have gained such a huge popularity worldwide because they are able to create scenarios and adventures that are always fresh and diverse. Many important public figures joined the LC family, among them there is Mary Beard, whose minifigure has become viral to the point that even the BBC talked about that, and she also appeared on the prestigious German archaeology journal Antike Welt, on SALON, the newsletter of the Society of Antiquaries of London, and at the University of Cambridge. Mary Beard herself then used her minifigure during her tv show, Front Row Late.

Presently, Italy may boast three LEGO minifigures, based on important scholars: Alessandra Giovenco, an archivist from the British School at Rome, professor Massimo Osanna, archaeologist and general director at the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, and professor Giacomo Pardini, an archaeologist and numismatist, professor at the University of Salerno. Therefore we asked Liam, so that he may tell us more about his project and on the subject of some of the most significant characters involved.

LEGO CLASSICIST
From left to right: Alessandra Giovenco, Massimo Osanna and Giacomo Pardini. Photo © Liam D. Jensen

When and how was the Lego Classicists Project conceived?

The first Lego figure that went on social media was on the 20thFebruary 2016, but it was not until there were over 3 figures that I came up with the name Lego Classicists and made a Facebook page for them. That was really when it was born.

How many classicists does it include? Are there various or unique types or scholarly specialisations being included?

There are now over 90 in the LC family and I mostly choose scholars directly in the classical discipline but I also like to push outside of these to other ancient world disciplines (such as Egyptian) and I include anyone whom I feel brings support to the study of history, such as Conservators, Librarians and Archivists.

Who was your first character?

Technically the first figure who was made almost by chance is Dr. Tom Hillard, who is a Roman historian and an old friend of the family. But the one who - for the first time - made me start creating them on purpose was Michael Turner, who was the curator and master-mind of the three famous Lego ancient world models that include Lego Pompeii and Lego Colosseum, so I consider Michael to be the first official figure, as he is the real inspiration for the Lego Classicists family.

Starting from Australia, you conquered the world of classicists. Would you have expected such a great interest?

I had absolutely no idea that it would reach the world like this as it really started as just gifts to my friends, but I am so pleased to be inspiring the whole world of Classics in this fun new way.

LEGO CLASSICIST

Italy is being represented by three characters. Could you please tell us about them?

Massimo Osanna and his LC alter ego

Prof. Massimo Osanna’s figure was a request by the Nicholson Museum, Sydney University, when they asked me to make a personal gift for Prof. Osanna and a second one to be placed into the Lego Pompeii model that is still in the Museum today. It was delivered to Prof. Osanna in person at Pompeii by two academics from the University of Sydney.

Alessandra Giovenco is the Archivist at the British School at Rome and I had the very great pleasure of meeting her in my role as an archivist when I delivered a collection to the BSR in 2016.  Our daily conversations together inspired me to bring her into the LC family and I asked the Director of the British School at Rome to give it to her in person on my behalf.

Giacomo Pardini and his LC

Professor Giacomo Pardini had tagged me into a photo with a Lego figure of himself made by his nephew with the words “Almost a Lego Classicist”. Since then we have had an ongoing communication related to Lego and Classics so I felt it was very important to have him join the family properly (although I still think his nephew’s figure is better than mine). I sent his figure to him by mail at the University of Salerno and he received it a few days ago.

All three have responded in the same way that cannot be expressed in words but it is in the looks on their faces that you can see in the photos they send me with their figures. They have all been delighted. Of course, the Romans played a huge role in the development of much of modern culture, so it’s only fitting that there should be many Italian members of the Lego Classicists family in the future.

What is the message that you are trying to convey with your project?

I hope that Lego Classicists gives everyone an excuse to celebrate the ancient world and its study. It aims to help to join the community of international classicists together, to further highlight their work and to make classics and the ancient world more accessible to a wider audience. The real message - I hope - is the idea of serious play and bringing playful yet dignified new perspectives to the study of classical history.

The first Lego Classicist for 2020 is professor Giacomo Pardini from the University of Salerno. Could you please tell us if any other Italian classicist is going to join this great family?

I am in communication with one Italian classicist now whom I hope will join the Lego Classicists family soon and I have another one or two more in mind which will be revealed later.

What is the International Lego Classicism Day and how can we be involved?

LEGO CLASSICIST

 International Lego Classicism Day is a social media event I have been running since 2017 on the 20th of February, which is the Anniversary of Lego Classicists, and I like to use this date as a way to encourage everyone to celebrate, engage, and play with ancient history through Lego bricks.


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

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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
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41477-019-0581-y

 

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


Neandertals underwater clam shells

Neandertals went underwater to collect clam shells and pumice for their tools

Neandertals went underwater for their tools

Neandertals collected clam shells and pumice from coastal waters to use as tools

Neandertals underwater clam shells
General morphology of retouched shell tools, Figs C-L are from the Pigorini Museum. Credit: Villa et al., 2020 CC-BY

Neandertals collected clam shells and volcanic rock from the beach and coastal waters of Italy during the Middle Paleolithic, according to a study published January 15, 2020 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Paola Villa of the University of Colorado and colleagues.

Neandertals are known to have used tools, but the extent to which they were able to exploit coastal resources has been questioned. In this study, Villa and colleagues explored artifacts from the Neandertal archaeological cave site of Grotta dei Moscerini in Italy, one of two Neandertal sites in the country with an abundance of hand-modified clam shells, dating back to around 100,000 years ago.

The authors examined 171 modified shells, most of which had be retouched to be used as scrapers. All of these shells belonged to the Mediterranean smooth clam species Callista chione. Based on the state of preservation of the shells, including shell damage and encrustation on the shells by marine organisms, the authors inferred that nearly a quarter of the shells had been collected underwater from the sea floor, as live animals, as opposed to being washed up on the beach. In the same cave sediments, the authors also found abundant pumice stones likely used as abrading tools, which apparently drifted via sea currents from erupting volcanoes in the Gulf of Naples (70km south) onto the Moscerini beach, where they were collected by Neandertals.

These findings join a growing list of evidence that Neandertals in Western Europe were in the practice of wading or diving into coastal waters to collect resources long before Homo sapiens brought these habits to the region. The authors also note that shell tools were abundant in sediment layers that had few stone tools, suggesting Neandertals might have turned to making shell tools during times where more typical stone materials were scarce (though it's also possible that clam shells were used because they have a thin and sharp cutting edge, which can be maintained through re-sharpening, unlike flint tools).

The authors add: "The cave opens on a beach. It has a large assemblage of 171 tools made on shells collected on the beach or gathered directly from the sea floor as live animals by skin diving Neandertals. Skin diving for shells or fresh water fishing in low waters was a common activity of Neandertals, according to data from other sites and from an anatomical study published by E. Trinkaus. Neandertals also collected pumices erupted from volcanoes in the gulf of Naples and transported by sea to the beach."

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Citation: Villa P, Soriano S, Pollarolo L, Smriglio C, Gaeta M, D'Orazio M, et al. (2020) Neandertals on the beach: Use of marine resources at Grotta dei Moscerini (Latium, Italy). PLoS ONE 15(1): e0226690. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0226690

Funding: National Science Foundation Grant 1118143, BCS Archaeology, to PV (PI) and SS (co-PI). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

 

Press release from the Public Library of Science

Beach-combing Neanderthals dove for shells

Did Neanderthals wear swimsuits? Probably not. But a new study suggests that some of these ancient humans might have spent a lot of time at the beach. They may even have dived into the cool waters of the Mediterranean Sea to gather clam shells.

The findings come from Grotta dei Moscerini, a picturesque cave that sits just 10 feet above a beach in what is today the Latium region of central Italy.

In 1949, archaeologists working at the site dug up some unusual artifacts: dozens of seashells that Neanderthals had picked up, then shaped into sharp tools roughly 90,000 years ago.

Now, a team led by Paola Villa of the University of Colorado Boulder has uncovered new secrets from those decades-old discoveries. In research published today (editor's note: January 15) in the journal PLOS ONE, she and her colleagues report that the Neanderthals didn't just collect shells that were lying out on the beach. They may have actually held their breath and went diving for the perfect shells to meet their needs.

Villa, an adjoint curator in the CU Museum of Natural History, said the results show that Neanderthals may have had a much closer connection to the sea than many scientists thought.

"The fact they were exploiting marine resources was something that was known," Villa said. "But until recently, no one really paid much attention to it."

Cave discoveries

When archaeologists first found shell tools in Grotta dei Moscerini, it came as a surprise. While Neanderthals are well-known for crafting spear tips out of stone, few examples exist of them turning shells into tools.

But the find wasn't a fluke. The 1949 excavation of the cave unearthed 171 such tools, all valves from shell belonging to a local species of mollusk called the smooth clam (Callista chione). Villa explained that the ancient humans used stone hammers to chip away at these shells, forming cutting edges that would have stayed thin and sharp for a long time.

"No matter how many times you retouch a clam shell, its cutting edge will remain very thin and sharp," she said.

But did the Neanderthals, like many beachgoers today, simply collect these shells while taking a stroll along the sand?

To find out, Villa and her colleagues took a closer look at those tools. In the process, they found something they weren't expecting. Nearly three-quarters of the Moscerini shell tools had opaque and slightly abraded exteriors, as if they had been sanded down over time. That's what you'd expect to see, Villa said, on shells that had washed up on a sandy beach.

The rest of the shells had a shiny, smooth exterior.

Those shells, which also tended to be a little bit bigger, had to have been plucked directly from the seafloor as live animals.

"It's quite possible that the Neanderthals were collecting shells as far down as 2 to 4 meters," Villa said. "Of course, they did not have scuba equipment."

Researchers also turned up a large number of pumice stones from the cave that Neanderthals had collected and may have used as abrading tools. The stones, Villa and her colleagues determined, washed onto the Moscerini beach from volcanic eruptions that occurred more than 40 miles to the south.

Going for a dip

She's not alone in painting a picture of beach-loving Neanderthals.

In an earlier study, for example, a team led by anthropologist Erik Trinkaus identified bony growths on the ears of a few Neanderthal skeletons. These features, called "swimmer's ear," can be found in people who practice aquatic sports today.

For Villa, the findings are yet more proof that Neanderthals were just as flexible and creative as their human relatives when it came to eking out a living--a strong contrast to their representation in popular culture as a crude cavemen who lived by hunting or scavenging mammoths.

"People are beginning to understand that Neanderthals didn't just hunt large mammals," Villa said. "They also did things like freshwater fishing and even skin diving."

Other coauthors on the new study included researchers from the French National Centre for Scientific Research, the University of Geneva, Roma Tre University, Sapienza University of Rome and the University of Pisa.

Press release from the University of Colorado at Boulder