Unexpected potential paths for the spread of Homo Sapiens across Asia in Late Pleistocene

Humans used northern migration routes to reach eastern Asia

New article suggests wetter climates may have allowed Homo sapiens to expand across the deserts of Central Asia by 50-30,000 years ago

 

Northern and Central Asia have been neglected in studies of early human migration, with deserts and mountains being considered uncompromising barriers. However, a new study by an international team argues that humans may have moved through these extreme settings in the past under wetter conditions. We must now reconsider where we look for the earliest traces of our species in northern Asia, as well as the zones of potential interaction with other hominins such as Neanderthals and Denisovans.

Archaeologists and palaeoanthropologists are increasingly interested in discovering the environments facing the earliest members of our species, Homo sapiens, as it moved into new parts of Eurasia in the Late Pleistocene (125,000-12,000 years ago). Much attention has focused on a 'southern' route around the Indian Ocean, with Northern and Central Asia being somewhat neglected. However, in a paper published in PLOS ONE, scientists of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Human Science in Jena, Germany, and colleagues at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, China, argue that climate change may have made this a particularly dynamic region of hominin dispersal, interaction, and adaptation, and a crucial corridor for movement.

'Heading North' Out of Africa and into Asia

"Archaeological discussions of the migration routes of Pleistocene Homo sapiens have often focused on a 'coastal' route from Africa to Australia, skirting around India and Southeast Asia," says Professor Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, a co-author of the new study. "In the context of northern Asia, a route into Siberia has been preferred, avoiding deserts such as the Gobi." Yet over the past ten years, a variety of evidence has emerged that has suggested that areas considered inhospitable today might not have always been so in the past.

"Our previous work in Saudi Arabia, and work in the Thar Desert of India, has been key in highlighting that survey work in previously neglected regions can yield new insights into human routes and adaptations," says Petraglia. Indeed, if Homo sapiens could cross what is now the Arabian Deserts then what would have stopped it crossing other currently arid regions such as the Gobi Desert, the Junggar Basin, and the Taklamakan Desert at different points in the past? Similarly, the Altai Mountains, the Tien Shan and the Tibetan Plateau represent a potentially new high altitude window into human evolution, especially given the recent Denisovan findings from Denisova Cave in Russia and at the Baishiya Karst Cave in China.

Nevertheless, traditional research areas, a density of archaeological sites, and assumptions about the persistence of environmental 'extremes' in the past has led to a focus on Siberia, rather than the potential for interior routes of human movement across northern Asia.

A "Green Gobi"?

The sand dunes of Mongol Els jutting out of the steppe in Mongolia. Many of these desert barriers only appeared after the Last Glacial Maximum (~20,000 years ago). Credit: Nils Vanwezer

Indeed, palaeoclimatic research in Central Asia has increasingly accumulated evidence of past lake extents, past records of changing precipitation amounts, and changing glacial extents in mountain regions, which suggest that environments could have varied dramatically in this part of the world over the course of the Pleistocene. However, the dating of many of these environmental transitions has remained broad in scale, and these records have not yet been incorporated into archaeological discussions of human arrival in northern and Central Asia.

"We factored in climate records and geographical features into GIS models for glacials (periods during which the polar ice caps were at their greatest extent) and interstadials (periods during the retreat of these ice caps) to test whether the direction of past human movement would vary, based on the presence of these environmental barriers," says Nils Vanwezer, PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and a joint lead-author of the study.

"We found that while during 'glacial' conditions humans would indeed likely have been forced to travel via a northern arc through southern Siberia, during wetter conditions a number of alternative pathways would have been possible, including across a 'green' Gobi Desert," he continues. Comparisons with the available palaeoenvironmental records confirm that local and regional conditions would have been very different in these parts of Asia in the past, making these 'route' models a definite possibility for human movement.

Where did you come from, where did you go?

Ancient lake landforms around Biger Nuur, Mongolia, which is evidence of larger lake sizes in the past. Credit: Nils Vanwezer

"We should emphasize that these routes are not 'real', definite pathways of Pleistocene human movement. However, they do suggest that we should look for human presence, migration, and interaction with other hominins in new parts of Asia that have been neglected as static voids of archaeology," says Dr. Patrick Roberts also of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, co-author of the study. "Given what we are increasingly discovering about the flexibility of our species, it would be of no surprise if we were to find early Homo sapiens in the middle of modern deserts or mountainous glacial sheets."

"These models will stimulate new survey and fieldwork in previously forgotten regions of northern and Central Asia," says Professor Nicole Boivin, Director of the Department of Archaeology at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, and co-author of the study. "Our next task is to undertake this work, which we will be doing in the next few years with an aim to test these new potential models of human arrival in these parts of Asia."

 

Press release from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History / Max-Planck-Instituts für Menschheitsgeschichte

 

Homo sapiens may have had several routes of dispersal across Asia in the Late Pleistocene

A new model identifies unexpected potential paths for the spread of human culture and technology

Eastern Asia Central Homo Sapiens migrations
Illustrated dispersal routes from the results of the Least Cost Path analysis: The three routes from the "wet" simulations and the single route from the "dry" simulation are presented together in conjunction with palaeoclimatic extents (glaciers and palaeolakes). Sites: 4. Obi-Rakhmat, 5. Shugnou, 8. Denisova, 9. Ust-Karakol, 10. Kara-Tenesh, 11. Kara-Bom, 12. Luotuoshi, 14. Gouxi, 15. Lenghu 1, 17. Chikhen Agui, 18. Tsagaan Agui, 19. Tolbor 4, 20. Kharganyn Gol 5, 21. Orkhon 1 & 7, 22. Makarovo 4, 23. Kandabaevo, 24. Varvarina Gora, 25. Tolbaga, 27. Shuidonggou 1, 28. Shuidonggou 9, 42. Yushuwan, 70. Shibazhan (75075). I. 'Altai' Route, II. 'Tian Shan' Route, III. 'Tarim' Route, IV. "Revised Overland' Route. Base map raster is from naturalearthdata.com. Credit: Li et al, 2019

Homo sapiens may have had a variety of routes to choose from while dispersing across Asia during the Late Pleistocene Epoch, according to a study released May 29, 2019 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Feng Li of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing and colleagues.

After leaving Africa, Homo sapiens dispersed across the Asian continent during the Late Pleistocene, but it isn't known exactly what routes our species followed. Most models assume that the Gobi Desert and Altai Mountain chains of North and Central Asia formed impassable barriers on the way to the east, so archaeological exploration has tended to neglect those regions in favor of seemingly more likely paths farther north and south.

In this study, Li and colleagues use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software alongside archaeological and paleoclimate data to reconstruct the conditions of North and Central Asia over the Late Pleistocene and to identify possible routes of travel. Their data suggest that the desert and mountain regions were likely impassable during cold and dry glacial periods, but that during warmer and wetter interglacial times it would have been possible for human populations to traverse these regions via at least three routes following ancient lake and river systems.

The authors caution that these data do not demonstrate definite routes of dispersal and that more detailed models should be constructed to test these results. However, these models do identify specific routes that may be good candidates for future archaeological exploration. Understanding the timing and tempo of Homo sapiens dispersal across Asia will be crucial for determining how culture and technology spread and developed, as well as how our species interacted with our extinct cousins, the Neanderthals and Denisovans.

Roberts adds: "Our modelling of the available geographic and past climate data suggest that archaeologists and anthropologists should look for early human presence, migration, and interaction with other hominins in new parts of Asia that have been neglected as static voids. Given what we are increasingly discovering about the flexibility of our species, it would be of no surprise if we were to find early Homo sapiens in the middle of modern deserts or mountainous glacial sheets all across Asia. Indeed, it may be here that the key to our species' uniqueness lies".

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Citation: Li F, Vanwezer N, Boivin N, Gao X, Ott F, Petraglia M, et al. (2019) Heading north: Late Pleistocene environments and human dispersals in central and eastern Asia. PLoS ONE 14(5): e0216433. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0216433

Funding: This study was funded by Max-Planck-Gesellschaft (DE) to Nicole Boivin, Strategic Priority Research Program of Chinese Academy of Sciences grant XDB26000000 to Feng Li, and Youth Innovation Promotion Association of the Chinese Academy of Sciences grant 2017102 to Feng Li. 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 Sciences


apple

Exploring the origins of the apple

Exploring the origins of the apple

Apples originally evolved in the wild to entice ancient megafauna to disperse their seeds; more recently, humans began spreading the trees along the Silk Road with other familiar crops; dispersing the apple trees led to their domestication

wild horses apple
Horses eating wild apples in the Tien Shan Mountains. These domesticated horses demonstrate the process of seed dispersal that wild apple trees evolved to support millions of years ago, when large monogastric mammals such as these were prominent across Eurasia. Credit: Artur Stroscherer

Recent archaeological finds of ancient preserved apple seeds across Europe and West Asia combined with historical, paleontological, and recently published genetic data are presenting a fascinating new narrative for one of our most familiar fruits. In this study, Robert Spengler of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History traces the history of the apple from its wild origins, noting that it was originally spread by ancient megafauna and later as a process of trade along the Silk Road. These processes allowed for the development of the varieties that we know today.

The apple is, arguably, the most familiar fruit in the world. It is grown in temperate environments around the globe and its history is deeply intertwined with humanity. Depictions of large red fruits in Classical art demonstrate that domesticated apples were present in southern Europe over two millennia ago, and ancient seeds from archaeological sites attest to the fact that people have been collecting wild apples across Europe and West Asia for more than ten thousand years. While it is clear that people have closely maintained wild apple populations for millennia, the process of domestication, or evolutionary change under human cultivation, in these trees is not clear.

Several recent genetic studies have demonstrated that the modern apple is a hybrid of at least four wild apple populations, and researchers have hypothesized that the Silk Road trade routes were responsible for bringing these fruits together and causing their hybridization. Archaeological remains of apples in the form of preserved seeds have been recovered from sites across Eurasia, and these discoveries support the idea that fruit and nut trees were among the commodities that moved on these early trade routes. Spengler recently summarized the archaeobotanical and historical evidence for cultivated crops on the Silk Road in a book titled Fruit from the Sands, published with the University of California Press. The apple holds a deep connection with the Silk Road - much of the genetic material for the modern apple originated at the heart of the ancient trade routes in the Tien Shan Mountains of Kazakhstan. Furthermore, the process of exchange caused the hybridization events that gave rise to the large red sweet fruits in our produce markets.

Understanding how and when apple trees evolved to produce larger fruits is an important question for researchers, because fruit trees do not appear to have followed the same path towards domestication as other, better-understood crops, such as cereals or legumes. Many different wild and anthropogenic forces apply selective pressure on the crops in our fields, it is not always easy to reconstruct what pressures caused which evolutionary changes. Therefore, looking at evolutionary processing in modern and fossil plants can help scholars interpret the process of domestication. Fleshy sweet fruits evolve to attract animals to eat then and spread their seeds; large fruits specifically evolve to attract large animals to disperse them.

apple
The wild apples in the Tien Shan Mountains represent the main ancestral population for our modern apple. These trees produce large fruits, which are often red when ripe and have a varying array of flavors. These were the ancestors of the trees that people first started to cultivate and spread along the Silk Road. Credit: Prof. Dr. Martin R. Stuchtey

Large fruits evolved to attract ancient megafauna

While most scholars studying domestication focus on the period when humans first start cultivating a plant, in this study Spengler explores the processes in the wild that set the stage for domestication. Spengler suggests that understanding the process of evolution of large fruits in the wild will help us understand the process of their domestication. "Seeing that fruits are evolutionary adaptations for seed dispersal, the key to understanding fruit evolution rests in understanding what animals were eating the fruits in the past," he explains.

Many fruiting plants in the apple family (Rosaceae) have small fruits, such as cherries, raspberries, and roses. These small fruits are easily swallowed by birds, which then disperse their seeds. However, certain trees in the family, such as apples, pears, quince, and peaches, evolved in the wild to be too large for a bird to disperse their seeds. Fossil and genetic evidence demonstrate that these large fruits evolved several million years before humans started cultivating them. So who did these large fruits evolve to attract?

The evidence suggests that large fruits are an evolutionary adaptation to attract large animals that can eat the fruits and spread the seeds. Certain large mammals, such as bears and domesticated horses, eat apples and spread the seeds today. However, prior to the end of the last Ice Age, there were many more large mammals on the European landscape, such as wild horses and large deer. Evidence suggests that seed dispersal in the large-fruiting wild relatives of the apple has been weak during the past ten thousand years, since many of these animals went extinct. The fact that wild apple populations appear to map over glacial refugial zones of the Ice Age further suggests that these plants have not been moving over long distances or colonizing new areas in the absence of their original seed-spreaders.

Trade along the Silk Road likely enabled the development of the apple we know today

Silk Road apple
Venders in every Central Asian bazaar sell a diverse array of apples. This women in the Bukhara bazaar is selling a variety of small sweet yellow apples, which she locally cultivated in Uzbekistan. Some of the fruits sold in these markets today travel great distances, similar to how they would have during the peak of the Silk Road. Credit: Robert Spengler

Wild apple tree populations were isolated after the end of the last Ice Age, until humans started moving the fruits across Eurasia, in particular along the Silk Road. Once humans brought these tree lineages back into contact with each other again, bees and other pollinators did the rest of the work. The resulting hybrid offspring had larger fruits, a common result of hybridization. Humans noticed the larger fruiting trees and fixed this trait in place through grafting and by planting cuttings of the most favored trees. Thus, the apples we know today were primarily not developed through a long process of the selection and propagation of seeds from the most favored trees, but rather through hybridization and grafting. This process may have been relatively rapid and parts of it were likely unintentional. The fact that apple trees are hybrids and not "properly" domesticated is why we often end up with a crabapple tree when we plant an apple seed.

This study challenges the definition of "domestication"' and demonstrates that there is no one-shoe-fits-all model to explain plant evolution under human cultivation. For some plants, domestication took millennia of cultivation and human-induced selective pressure - for other plants, hybridization caused rapid morphological change. "The domestication process is not the same for all plants, and we still do not know much about the process in long-generation trees," notes Spengler. "It is important that we look past annual grasses, such as wheat and rice, when we study plant domestication. There are hundreds of other domesticated plants on the planet, many of which took different pathways toward domestication." Ultimately, the apple in your kitchen appears to owe its existence to extinct megafaunal browsers and Silk Road merchants.

 

 

Press release from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History / Max-Planck-Institut für Menschheitsgeschichte


What kind of beer did the Pharaohs drink?

Cocktails with Cleopatra?

Israeli scientists resurrect yeast from ancient beer jugs to recreate 5,000-year-old brew

beer antiquity
Beer cruse from Tel Tzafit/Gath archaeological digs, from which Philistine beer was produced. Credit: Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority.

What kind of beer did the Pharaohs drink? In ancient times, beer was an important ingredient in people's daily diet. Great powers were attributed to beer in the ancient world, particularly for religious worship and healing properties. The pottery used to produce beer in antiquity served as the basis for this new research. The research was led by Dr. Ronen Hazan and Dr. Michael Klutstein, microbiologists from the School of Dental Medicine at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HUJI). They examined the colonies of yeast that formed and settled in the pottery's nano-pores. Ultimately, they were able to resurrect this yeast to create a high-quality beer...that's approximately 5,000 years old.

Many cooks were invited into this'beer kitchen to isolate the yeast specimens from the ancient debris and to create a beer with it. First the scientists reached out to vintners at Kadma Winery. This winery still produces wine in clay vessels, proving that yeast may be safely removed from pottery, even if it had lain dormant in the sun for years.

The yeast was then photographed by Dr. Tziona Ben-Gedalya at Ariel University's Eastern R&D Center. Following her initial examination, the team reached out to archaeologists Dr. Yitzhak Paz from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAI), Professor Aren Maeir at Bar Ilan University and Professors Yuval Gadot and Oded Lipschits from Tel Aviv University. These archaeologists gave them shards of pottery that had been used as beer and mead (honey wine) jugs back in ancient times--and miraculously, still had yeast specimens stuck inside. These jars date back to the reign of Egyptian Pharaoh Narmer (roughly 3000 BCE), to Aramean King Hazael (800 BCE) and to Prophet Nehemiah (400 BCE) who, according to the bible, governed Judea under Persian rule.

The researchers, with the help of HUJI student Tzemach Aouizerat, cleaned and sequenced the full genome of each yeast specimen and turned them over to Dr. Amir Szitenberg at the Dead Sea-Arava Science Center for analysis. Szitenberg found that these 5,000-year yeast cultures are similar to those used in traditional African brews, such as the Ethiopian honey wine tej, and to modern beer yeast.

Now it was time to recreate the ancient brew. Local Israeli beer expert Itai Gutman helped the scientists make the beer and the brew was sampled by Ariel University's Dr. Elyashiv Drori, as well as by certified tasters from the International Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), under the direction of brewer and Biratenu owner Shmuel Nakai. The testers gave the beer a thumbs up, deeming it high-quality and safe for consumption.

Dr. Ronen Hazan tests a sample at Hadassah Medical Center-Hebrew University of Jerusalem School. Credit: Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority.

Dr. Ronen Hazan, Hebrew University-Hadassah School of Dental Medicine: "The greatest wonder here is that the yeast colonies survived within the vessel for thousands of years--just waiting to be excavated and grown. This ancient yeast allowed us to create beer that lets us know what ancient Philistine and Egyptian beer tasted like. By the way, the beer isn't bad. Aside from the gimmick of drinking beer from the time of King Pharaoh, this research is extremely important to the field of experimental archaeology--a field that seeks to reconstruct the past. Our research offers new tools to examine ancient methods, and enables us to taste the flavors of the past."

Dr. Yitzchak Paz, Israel Antiquities Authority: "We are talking about a real breakthrough here. This is the first time we succeeded in producing ancient alcohol from ancient yeast. In other words, from the original substances from which alcohol was produced. This has never been done before."

Prof. Yuval Gadot, Tel Aviv University's Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures: "We dug at Ramat Rachel, the largest Persian site in the Judaean kingdom, and found a large concentration of jugs with the letters J, H, D - Yahud - written on them. In a royal site like Ramat Rachel it makes sense that alcohol would be consumed at the home of the Persian governor."

Prof. Aren Maeir, Bar-Ilan University's Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology: "These findings paint a portrait that supports the biblical image of drunken Philistines."

L'chaim! The Israeli research team samples their ancient brew. Credit: Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority.

Press release from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem


Barbados peccary pigs

Archaeological discovery upends a piece of Barbados history

True identity of imposter 'pigs' on 17th century map overturns early colonial history of Barbados

Barbados peccary pigs
Map of Barbados published in A True & Exact History of the Island of Barbados (1657) by Richard Ligon. (A) smooth form “pig”; (B and C) hairy form “pig”. © 2019 Giovas et al., CC BY 4.0

Which came first, the pigs or the pioneers? In Barbados, that has been a historical mystery ever since the first English colonists arrived on the island in 1627 to encounter what they thought was a herd of wild European pigs.

A recent discovery by an SFU archaeologist is shedding new light on the matter. Christina Giovas uncovered the jaw bone of a peccary, a South American mammal that resembles a wild pig, while researching a larger project on prehistoric animal introductions in the Caribbean.

"I didn't give it much notice at the time, but simply collected it along with other bones," says Giovas, the lead author of a study just published in PLOS ONE. "It was completely unexpected and I honestly thought I must have made a mistake with the species identification."

Giovas and collaborators George Kamenov and John Krigbaum of the University of Florida radiocarbon-dated the bone and conducted strontium isotope analysis to determine the age and whether the peccary was born on Barbados or had been imported from elsewhere.

The results showed the peccary was local and dated to 1645-1670, when the English wrote their account of finding wild European pigs on the Caribbean island. The researchers were not only able to show there had been a previously undetected historic peccary introduction but that the region's earliest celebrated maps depicted peccaries that had been mistaken for pigs by the English.

Giovas says the findings upend Barbados' accepted colonial history and reflect how quickly Europeans began to alter New World environments by altering species distributions.

"Checking historical and archaeological records, we determined the most likely source of peccary introduction was from Spanish or Portuguese ships passing the island in the 16th century--and most likely left as a source of meat for future visiting sailors," she says.

Barbados peccary pigs
Right partial mandible of a peccary (Tayassuidae) collected from the Chancery Lane site, Barbados. © 2019 Giovas et al., CC BY 4.0

Press release from the Simon Fraser University


birch bark chewing gums

Chewing gums reveal the oldest Scandinavian human DNA

Chewing gums reveal the oldest Scandinavian human DNA

birch bark chewing gums
This is an excavation of the site in the 1990's. Credit: Per Persson/Stockholm University

The first humans who settled in Scandinavia more than 10,000 years ago left their DNA behind in ancient chewing gums, which are masticated lumps made from birch bark pitch. This is shown in a new study conducted at Stockholm University and published in Communications Biology.

There are few human bones of this age, close to 10 000 years old, in Scandinavia, and not all of them have preserved enough DNA for archaeogenetic studies. In fact, the DNA from these newly examined chewing gums is the oldest human DNA sequenced from this area so far. The DNA derived from three individuals, two females and one male, creates an exciting link between material culture and human genetics.

Ancient chewing gums are as of now an alternative source for human DNA and possibly a good proxy for human bones in archaeogenetic studies. The investigated pieces come from Huseby-Klev, an early Mesolithic hunter-fisher site on the Swedish west coast. The sites excavation was done in the early 1990's, but at this time it was not possible to analyse ancient human DNA at all, let alone from non-human tissue. The masticates were made out of birch bark tar and used as glue in tool production and other types of technology during the Stone Age.

"When Per Persson and Mikael Maininen proposed to look for hunter-gatherer DNA in these chewing gums from Huseby Klev we were hesitant but really impressed that archaeologists took care during the excavations and preserved such fragile material", says Natalija Kashuba, who was affiliated to The Museum of Cultural History in Oslo when she performed the experiments in cooperation with Stockholm University.

"It took some work before the results overwhelmed us, as we understood that we stumbled into this almost 'forensic research', sequencing DNA from these mastic lumps, which were spat out at the site some 10 000 years ago!" says Natalija Kashuba. Today Natalija is a Ph.D. student at Uppsala University.

Exciting link between material culture and human genetics

The results show that, genetically, the individuals whose DNA was found share close genetic affinity to other hunter-gatherers in Sweden and to early Mesolithic populations from Ice Age Europe. However, the tools produced at the site were a part of lithic technology brought to Scandinavia from the East European Plain, modern day Russia. This scenario of a culture and genetic influx into Scandinavia from two routes was proposed in earlier studies, and these ancient chewing gums provides an exciting link directly between the tools and materials used and human genetics.

Emrah Kirdök at Stockholm University conducted the computational analyses of the DNA. "Demography analysis suggests that the genetic composition of Huseby Klev individuals show more similarity to western hunter-gatherer populations than eastern hunter-gatherers", he says.

"DNA from these ancient chewing gums have an enormous potential not only for tracing the origin and movement of peoples long time ago, but also for providing insights in their social relations, diseases and food.", says Per Persson at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo. "Much of our history is visible in the DNA we carry with us, so we try to look for DNA where ever we believe we can find it", says Anders Götherström, at the Archaeological Research Laboratory at Stockholm University, where the work was conducted. The study is published in Communications Biology.

birch bark chewing gums
This is a masticate being examined. Credit: Natalija Kashuba/Stockholm University

Press release from Stockholm University


Uralic languages Siberia

Ancient DNA suggests that some Northern Europeans got their languages from Siberia

Ancient DNA suggests that some Northern Europeans got their languages from Siberia

Uralic languages Siberia
Estonian Grammar by Heinrich Stahl, published 1637 in Reval (Tallinn). Public Domain

Most Europeans descend from a combination of European hunter-gatherers, Anatolian early farmers, and Steppe herders. But only European speakers of Uralic languages like Estonian and Finnish also have DNA from ancient Siberians. Now, with the help of ancient DNA samples, researchers reporting in Current Biology on May 9 suggest that these languages may have arrived from Siberia by the beginning of the Iron Age, about 2,500 years ago, rather than evolving in Northern Europe.

The findings highlight the way in which a combination of genetic, archaeological, and linguistic data can converge to tell the same story about what happened in particular areas in the distant past.

"Since the transition from Bronze to Iron Age coincides with the diversification and arrival time of Finnic languages in the Eastern Baltic proposed by linguists, it is plausible that the people who brought Siberian ancestry to the region also brought Uralic languages with them," says Lehti Saag of University of Tartu, Estonia.

Although researchers knew that the Uralic-speaking people share common Siberian ancestry, its arrival time in the Eastern Baltic had remained uncertain. To characterize the genetic ancestry of people from the as-yet-unstudied cultural layers, Saag along with Kristiina Tambets and colleagues extracted DNA from the tooth roots of 56 individuals, 33 of which yielded enough DNA to include in the analysis.

"Studying ancient DNA makes it possible to pinpoint the moment in time when the genetic components that we see in modern populations reached the area since, instead of predicting past events based on modern genomes, we are analyzing the DNA of individuals who actually lived in a particular time in the past," Saag explains.

Their data suggest that the Siberian ancestry reached the coasts of the Baltic Sea no later than the mid-first millennium BC--around the time of the diversification of west Uralic/Finnic languages. It also indicates an influx of people from regions with strong Western hunter-gatherer characteristics in the Bronze Age, including many traits we now associate with modern Northern Europeans, like pale skins, blue eyes, and lactose tolerance.

"The Bronze Age individuals from the Eastern Baltic show an increase in hunter-gatherer ancestry compared to Late Neolithic people and also in the frequency of light eyes, hair, and skin and lactose tolerance," Tambets says, noting that those characteristics continue amongst present-day Northern Europeans.

The researchers are now expanding their study to better understand the Iron Age migration processes in Europe. They say they will also "move forward in time and focus on the genetic structure of the medieval time period."

Read more


freshwater mussel shells mother-of-pearl

Freshwater mussel shells were material of choice for prehistoric craftsmen

Freshwater mussel shells were material of choice for prehistoric craftsmen

A new study suggests that 6000-years-ago people across Europe shared a cultural tradition of using freshwater mussel shells to craft ornaments.

freshwater mussel shells mother-of-pearl
These are prehistoric shell ornaments made with freshwater mother-of-pearl. Credit: Jérôme Thomas (UMR CNRS 6282 Biogeosciences, University of Burgundy-Franche-Comté)

An international team of researchers, including academics from the University of York, extracted ancient proteins from prehistoric shell ornaments - which look remarkably similar despite being found at distant locations in Denmark, Romania and Germany - and discovered they were all made using the mother-of-pearl of freshwater mussels.

The ornaments were made between 4200 and 3800 BC and were even found in areas on the coast where plenty of other shells would have been available.

Archaeological evidence suggests the ornaments, known as "double-buttons", may have been pressed into leather to decorate armbands or belts.

Cross-cultural tradition

Senior author of the study, Dr Beatrice Demarchi, from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York and the University of Turin (Italy), said: "We were surprised to discover that the ornaments were all made from freshwater mussels because it implies that this material was highly regarded by prehistoric craftsmen, wherever they were in Europe and whatever cultural group they belonged to. Our study suggests the existence of a European-wide cross-cultural tradition for the manufacture of these double-buttons".

Freshwater molluscs have often been overlooked as a source of raw material in prehistory (despite the strength and resilience of mother-of-pearl) because many archaeologists believed that their local origin made them less "prestigious" than exotic marine shells.

Co-author of the paper, Dr André Colonese, from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, said: "The ornaments are associated with the Late Mesolithic, Late Neolithic and Copper Age cultures. Some of these groups were still living as hunter gatherers, but in the south they were farmers with switching to a more settled lifestyle.

"The fact that these ornaments look consistently similar and are made from the same material suggests there may have been some kind of interaction between these distinct groups of people at this time.

"They may have had a shared knowledge or tradition for how to manufacture these ornaments and clearly had a sophisticated understanding of the natural environment and which resources to use."

Evolution

Mollusc shells contain a very small proportion of proteins compared to other bio-mineralised tissues, such as bone, making them difficult to analyse.

The researchers are now working on extracting proteins from fossilised molluscs, a method which they have dubbed "palaeoshellomics". These new techniques could offer fresh insights into some of the earliest forms of life on earth, enhancing our knowledge of evolution.

Dr Demarchi added: "This is the first time researchers have been able to retrieve ancient protein sequences from prehistoric shell ornaments in order to identify the type of mollusc they are made from.

"This research is an important step towards understanding how molluscs and other invertebrates evolved. We hope that using these techniques we will eventually be able to track an evolutionary process which began at least 550 million years ago."

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"Palaeoshellomics" reveals the use of freshwater mother-of-pearl in prehistory is published in the journal eLife.

The research was carried out by researchers at the University of York, University of Turin and Ca' Foscari University (Italy), Universities of Burgundy-Franche-Comté and Lille (France), the University of Bradford (UK), the Moesgaard Museum (Denmark), the Landesamt für Denkmalpflege im Regierungspräsidium Stuttgart and the Niedersächsisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege (Germany).

 

Press release from University of York


ayahuasca Cueva del Chileno Bolivia

Ayahuasca fixings found in 1,000-year-old bundle in the Andes

Ayahuasca fixings found in 1,000-year-old bundle in the Andes

New evidence that the mind-blowing brew goes back millennia

ayahuasca Cueva del Chileno Bolivia
Ritual bundle with leather bag, carved wooden snuff tablets and snuff tube with human hair braids, pouch made of three fox snouts, camelid bone spatulas, colorful textile headband and wool and fiber strings. Credit: Photos courtesy of Juan Albarracín-Jordán and José Capriles.

Today's hipster creatives and entrepreneurs are hardly the first generation to partake of ayahuasca, according to archaeologists who have discovered traces of the powerfully hallucinogenic potion in a 1,000-year-old leather bundle buried in a cave in the Bolivian Andes.

Led by University of California, Berkeley, archaeologist Melanie Miller, a chemical analysis of a pouch made from three fox snouts sewn together tested positive for at least five plant-based psychoactive substances. They included dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and harmine, key active compounds in ayahuasca, a mind-blowing brew commonly associated with the Amazon jungle.

"This is the first evidence of ancient South Americans potentially combining different medicinal plants to produce a powerful substance like ayahuasca," said Miller, a researcher with UC Berkeley's Archaeological Research Facility who uses chemistry and various technologies to study how ancient humans lived.

She is lead author of the study, published today (Monday, May 6) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Miller's analysis of a scraping from the fox-snout pouch and a plant sample found in the ritual bundle -- via liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry -- turned up trace amounts of bufotenine, DMT, harmine, cocaine and benzoylecgonine. Various combinations of these substances produce powerful, mind-altering hallucinations.

The discovery adds to a growing body of evidence of ritualistic psychotropic plant use going back millennia, said Miller, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Otago in New Zealand who conducted the research during her doctoral studies at UC Berkeley.

"Our findings support the idea that people have been using these powerful plants for at least 1,000 years, combining them to go on a psychedelic journey, and that ayahuasca use may have roots in antiquity," said Miller.

The remarkably well-preserved ritual bundle was found by archaeologists at 13,000-foot elevations in the Lipez Altiplano region of southwestern Bolivia, where llamas and alpacas roam. The leather kit dates back to the pre-Inca Tiwanaku civilization, which dominated the southern Andean highlands from about 550 to 950 A.D.

In addition to the fox-snout pouch, the leather bundle contained intricately carved wooden "snuffing tablets" and a "snuffing tube" with human hair braids attached, for snorting intoxicants; llama bone spatulas; a colorful woven textile strip and dried plant material. All the objects were in good shape, due to the arid conditions of the Andean highlands.

Though the cave where the artifacts were found appeared to be a burial site, an excavation did not turn up human remains. Moreover, the plants found in the bundle do not grow at those altitudes, suggesting the bundle's owner may have been a traveling shaman or another expert in the rituals of psychotropic plant use, or someone who was part of an extensive medicinal plant trading network.

"A lot of these plants, if consumed in the wrong dosage, could be very poisonous," Miller said. "So, whoever owned this bundle would need to have had great knowledge and skills about how to use these plants, and how and where to procure them."

Of particular fascination to Miller is the pouch made of three fox snouts. She describes it as "the most amazing artifact I've had the privilege to work with."

"There are civilizations who believe that, by consuming certain psychotropic plants, you can embody a specific animal to help you reach supernatural realms, and perhaps a fox may be among those animals," Miller said.

Ayahuasca is made from brewing the vines of Banisteriopsis Caapi and the leaves of the chacruna (Psychotria viridis) shrub. The leaves release DMT, and the vines release harmine -- and therein lies the secret of the ayahuasca effect.

"The tryptamine DMT produces strong, vivid hallucinations that can last from minutes to an hour, but combined with harmine, you can have prolonged out-of-body altered states of consciousness with altered perceptions of time and of the self," Miller said.

Once the drugs take effect, ayahuasca users typically enter a purgative state, which means they vomit a lot.

Though its use is currently fashionable among Silicon Valley techies, Hollywood celebrities and spiritual awakening-seekers worldwide, Miller says these latest archaeological findings pay homage to ayahuasca's ancient history.

Miller joined the Cueva del Chileno excavation project when archaeologists Juan Albarracín-Jordán of the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés in Bolivia and José Capriles of Pennsylvania State University sought her expertise to identify the plant matter they had found in the bundle.

She traveled for two days to reach the cave site near the remote south Bolivian village of Lipez and helped with the final phases of the excavation. The bundle was transported to a laboratory in La Paz and, once permits were in place, samples were exported to the lab of Christine Moore, chief toxicologist with the Immunalysis Corp. in Pomona, California.

Moore's lab provided the liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry technology needed to conduct toxicology tests on the samples. Once the contents of the Andean bundle tested positive for five kinds of psychotropic substances, Miller's research team was over the moon.

"We were amazed to see the incredible preservation of these compounds in this ritual bundle," said Miller. "I feel very lucky to have been a part of this research."

 

Press release from University of California Berkeley

Ancient ritual bundle contained multiple psychotropic plants

ayahuasca Cueva del Chileno
The researchers found a ritual bundle in the Cueva del Chileno rock shelter located in southwestern Bolivia. Credit: Jose Capriles, Penn State

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- A thousand years ago, Native Americans in South America used multiple psychotropic plants -- possibly simultaneously -- to induce hallucinations and altered consciousness, according to an international team of anthropologists.

"We already knew that psychotropics were important in the spiritual and religious activities of the societies of the south-central Andes, but we did not know that these people were using so many different compounds and possibly combining them together," said Jose Capriles, assistant professor of anthropology, Penn State. "This is the largest number of psychoactive substances ever found in a single archaeological assemblage from South America."

The researchers were searching for ancient occupations in the dry rock shelters of the now-dry Sora River valley in southwestern Bolivia when they found a ritual bundle as part of a human burial. The bundle -- bound in a leather bag -- contained, among other things, two snuffing tablets (used to pulverize psychotropic plants into snuff), a snuffing tube (for smoking hallucinogenic plants), and a pouch constructed of three fox snouts.

The team used accelerator mass spectrometry radiocarbon dating to determine the age of the outer leather bag and found that it was about 1,000 years old.

"This period in this location is associated with the disintegration of the Tiwanaku state and the emergence of regional polities," said Capriles.

The team found psychoactive compounds in an animal-skin pouch constructed of three fox snouts stitched together. Credit: Jose Capriles, Penn State

In addition, the team used a scalpel to obtain a tiny scraping from the interior of the fox-snout pouch and analyzed the material using liquid chromatography with tandem mass spectrometry.

"This method is highly sensitive and very effective for detecting the presence of minute amounts of specific compounds from very small samples," said Melanie Miller, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Otago, New Zealand, and research affiliate at the University of California, Berkeley, who was responsible for analyzing the samples.

The researchers identified the presence of multiple psychoactive compounds -- cocaine, benzoylecgonine (the primary metabolite of cocaine), harmine, bufotenin, dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and possibly psilocin (a compound found in some mushrooms) -- from at least three different plant species (likely Erythroxylum coca, a species of Anadenanthera and Banistesteriopsis caani). The results will appear during the week of May 6 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

According to Capriles, the fox-snout pouch likely belonged to a shaman.

"Shamans were ritual specialists who had knowledge of plants and how to use them as mechanisms to engage with supernatural beings, including venerated ancestors who were thought to exist in other realms," said Capriles. "It is possible that the shaman who owned this pouch consumed multiple different plants simultaneously to produce different effects or extend his or her hallucinations.'"

Capriles noted that the co-occurrence of harmine and DMT, which are the primary ingredients of ayahuasca -- a beverage that is reported to induce hallucinations and altered consciousness -- in the pouch suggests the use of this beverage as one of the drugs in the shaman's kit.

The ritual bundle included two carved and decorated wooden snuffing tablets that would have been used as a platform on which to pulverize psychotropic plants. Credit: Jose Capriles, Penn State

"Some scholars believe that ayahuasca has relatively recent origins, while others argue that it may have been used for centuries, or even millennia," said Capriles. "Given the presence of harmine and DMT together in the pouch we found, it is likely that this shaman ingested these simultaneously to achieve a hallucinogenic state, either through a beverage, such as ayahuasca, or through a composite snuff that contained these plants in a single mixture. This finding suggests that ayahuasca may have been used up to 1,000 years ago."

Not only does the presence of numerous compounds suggest simultaneous use of drugs and earlier use of ayahuasca, in particular, but it also indicates intricate botanical knowledge by the owner of the pouch and an effort to acquire hallucinogenic plants, as the plants came from different regions of mostly tropical South America.

"The presence of these compounds indicates the owner of this kit had access to at least three plants with psychoactive compounds, but potentially even four or five," said Miller. "None of the psychoactive compounds we found come from plants that grow in this area of the Andes, indicating either the presence of elaborate exchange networks or the movement of this individual across diverse environments to procure these special plants. This discovery reminds us that people in the past had extensive knowledge of these powerful plants and their potential uses, and they sought them out for their medicinal and psychoactive properties."

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Other authors on the paper include Juan Albarracin-Jordan, research associate, Universidad Mayor de San Andrés, Bolivia; and Christine Moore, chief toxicologist at Immunalysis Corporation.

The National Geographic Society Grant and the Bartolome de Las Casas Foundation supported this research.

Press release from Penn State

 


Genome analysis of yams reveals new cradle of crop domestication in West Africa

Genome analysis of yams reveals new cradle of crop domestication in West Africa

Yam genomics supports West Africa as a major cradle of crop domestication

yams
Wild yams, photo credits: Marco Schmidt [1], CC BY-SA 2.5
Yams as seen today in West Africa descended from a forest species, a new study finds. The results challenge the hypothesis that domestication of sub-Saharan African plants mostly arose in tropical savannahs. Critically, they also advance researchers' understanding of West African crops' domestication history, helping to identify a major cradle of domestication around the Niger River. One of the best-known domestication cradles in the world is the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East, where wheat, barley, oat, lentil and chickpea, among other crops, first appeared in the archaeological records.

The history of crop domestication is much less documented in sub-Saharan Africa, in part because archaeological studies are largely fragmentary. Previous studies of domestication in Africa suggest an origin encompassing a large area from Senegal to Somalia, while more recent studies have challenged this hypothesis - proposing a more restricted domestication origin near the Niger River Basin. To assess whether areas near the Niger Basin could be considered major hotspots of domestication, Nora Scarcelli and colleagues investigated the domestication of yam, a major staple crop originating from Africa. They used genome re-sequencing to analyze 167 "wild" and domesticated yam species from the country.

Their analysis, which included sophisticated statistical modeling, suggests that that cultivated yam was domesticated from a forest species, D. praehensilis, starting in the Niger River basin. Its domestication process involved adaptations to the open field environment and human selection that increased tuber size and starch content in the cultivated yam. The study further suggests that the Niger River region played a major role in African agriculture, comparable to the Fertile Crescent in the Near East.

 

Press release from the American Association for the Advancement of Science


Toss it if it’s 481 years old – but not if it’s a year older

Toss it if it’s 481 years old – but not if it’s a year older

Norway conserves archaeological finds from 1537, but not when they’re from 1538 or later. That means we know less about people’s everyday lives during the last 481 years.

Stoneware from around 1700. This was thrown in a bin. Photo: NIKU, Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research

These have been the rules since Norway set the protection limit for archaeological deposits in the country’s first cultural heritage law in 1905.

This law deemed that archaeological material originating before 1537 should be protected. Anything later was no big deal.

The chosen date was anything but random.

The Protestant Reformation came to Norway in 1537, and with it both the Middle Ages and a large part of the country’s self-determination disappeared. The Catholic Archbishop was key to providing a kind of balance of power between Norway and Denmark, but that soon ended when he was chased out of the country.

When the first Cultural Heritage Act was adopted as a new and independent Norway was being formed, the archaeological heritage and material history originating during Danish and Swedish rule weren’t seen as worthy of protection.

"The individuals who designed the law had a perception of the Middle Ages as Norway's golden age," says Christopher McLees. He recently completed his doctoral degree at Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) with a thesis that addresses this seemingly strange protection limit.

The age limit for buried archaeological deposits hasn’t changed since the original law was passed and remains part of Norway's current cultural heritage law. McLees believes this is a problem.

The scope of historical knowledge that we are losing is steadily widening as the material remains of the lives of previous generations are being neglected and destroyed.

People are surprised

In recent years, excavations of cultural layers containing newer objects and building remains have been occurring at Trondheim Torg, right in the heart of the city. This is only happening because archaeologists received a rare exception to the rule. Normally, excavators would have free rein to go ahead with construction in the post-Reformation deposit layers here.

“Passers-by who hear this are surprised – and appalled,” says the new Doctor McLees, who works as an adviser and researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU). He has been familiar with the issue for decades.

He and others have had to watch while several-hundred-year-old history was destroyed forever at construction sites. This time, archaeological finds from the 16th century and later are also being recorded. They include trash, products, tools and built objects left by craftsmen and other ordinary people, who lived and worked in what were then the city outskirts before Cicignon's reconstruction of Trondheim after the great fire of 1681.

Archaeologists have been granted an exception to the Norwegian Cultural Heritage Act in downtown Trondheim and can save objects that date from after 1537. Photo: Steinar Brandslet, NTNU

Others besides random people on the street are surprised as well. Archaeologists from other countries are often astonished when they hear about the strict distinction, where objects from one year must be conserved, but objects from the following year are not. Denmark implements a flexible age limit, in which archaeologists argue for conservation on a case-by-case base. Sweden’s limit is currently set to 1850 and adjusted over time.

Economic reasons

The age limit for conserving cultural remains set in 1905 went beyond merely historical and national-romantic reasons, and those were the economic aspects. Norway was full of objects and buildings that were several hundred years old. Not everything could be protected if room was to be made for our current age.

“Then, just like now, society didn’t want to incur additional costs,” McLees says.

And it costs money to take care of old things. Impinging on property rights and imposing constraints on development were factors that probably also contributed to retaining the 1905 age limit.

Special rules

But several other types of protection and special exceptions besides the Cultural Heritage Act exist. These include shipwrecks and cargo more than 100 years old, and all Sami cultural remains originating prior to 1917. Exceptions are made for special cultural monuments and environments of more recent vintage – so they can’t simply be destroyed.

It’s quite paradoxical that standing buildings from before 1650 are automatically protected, while cellars – and sometimes the foundations of buildings that burned down or that people intentionally let fall into ruin because they were in the way of something else – are not.

Norway Cultural Heritage Act 1905 1537
Baby crib. All Sami objects older than 100 years are protected. But they are among the exceptions in Norway. Photo: Åge Hojem, NTNU University Museum

Everyday life disappearing

In the past, protection has often focused on conserving special or grand objects rather than preserving the history of the common folk. Ethnologists, historians, architects and cultural historians have dominated the decision making in terms of what to conserve. They have often prioritized and valued written, aesthetic and visible sources more highly as sources of knowledge about our recent past.

“Archaeology and the invisible buried material remains of daily life have ended up low on the list of priorities,” McLees says.

Archaeologists are interested in more than impressive churches, the king's gold or flashy buildings. They want to uncover the history hidden underground and how ordinary people like you and me actually lived in the past – the kinds of clothes they wore, what they ate, the tools they used, and the things that occupied them in their daily lives. In this context, a cooking pot or a shoe can tell just as exciting a story as a gold ring or a beautifully painted portrait.

“This is also a part of history that people today can relate to,” McLees says.

Often, it’s probably easier to understand conserving a striking mansion than the buried ruins of buildings and backyards in parts of the city where people on the lower rungs of society lived and died. But what would tell future archaeologists most about your everyday life – your mobile phone or a Picasso painting?

Protections changing – for some things

Internationally, cultural heritage agencies have long been aware of the need to conserve the material history of our most recent past. Norway is also undergoing an awakening in the academic and management realms of heritage protection, and post-Reformation archaeology is gaining greater significance.

The Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage has prioritized ten themes in recent history and plans to protect important cultural monuments within each of them. The conservation strategy includes defence and war history, industry, old traffic routes and particularly important post-1537 archaeological sites, including cultural layers in cities and towns. Separate rules have been established for national minorities, such as the Kven and Roma peoples, who are entitled to extra protection of their past.

"The Directorate for Cultural Heritage’s proposal is at least in part a delayed response to the fact that the Norwegian authorities have actually committed to conserving more of our cultural heritage through the European Malta Convention," McLees said.

Hermetically sealed

Although McLees welcomes this much delayed measure, he is not optimistic about the effectiveness of the conservation strategy or the future management of Norway’s recent archaeological heritage.

“The criteria for selecting the objects for permanent protection haven’t been specified. This form of protection will put a hermetic lid on the selected cultural monuments. They’ll continue to gradually deteriorate, and won’t be able to be used as sources for research or historical writing,” he says.

The 1537 age limit will also stand in most cases, and the remaining material sources of the past 500 years of history will continue to disappear and be neglected.

McLees believes the stories written about our near future will still have gaps and be inadequate.

“They’ll leave out what has always been indispensable in the lives of human beings through the ages – material objects.

Source: McLees, Christopher. Materialities of Modernity and Social Practice in Trondheim c.1500-1800: An Archaeological Contribution to the Study of Post-Medieval Norway.

 

Press release from Gemini Research News, by Steinar Brandslet / NO