italian genetic

Exploring the origins of genetic divergence within the Italian population

Genetic adaptations of early Italian ancestors to environmental changes, such as those that occurred soon after the Last Glacial Maximum, may explain some of the genetic differences between northern and southern Italian populations today, according to a study published in BMC Biology. The research suggests that northern and southern Italian populations may have begun to diverge genetically as early as 19,000-12,000 years ago and constitutes the earliest known evidence of genetic divergence in Italy so far.

A team of researchers at the University of Bologna sequenced the genomes of 38 unrelated participants from different regions in Italy, each the third generation of their family native to each region. The genomes were selected as representative of known genetic differences across the Italian population and over 17 million distinct genetic variants were found between individuals. The authors compared these variations with existing genetic data from 35 populations across Europe and the Mediterranean and with variants previously observed in 559 ancient human remains, dating from the Upper Palaeolithic (approx. 40,000 years ago) to the Bronze Age (approx. 4,000 years ago).

Prof. Marco Sazzini, lead author of the study said: “When comparing sequences between modern and ancient genome samples, we found early genetic divergence between the ancestors of northern and southern Italian groups dating back to the Late Glacial, around 19,000-12,000 years ago. Migrations during the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods, thousands of years later, then further differentiated their gene pools. Divergence between these ancestral populations may have occurred as a result of temperature rises and subsequent shrinking of glaciers across Northern Italy during this time, allowing ancestors who survived the glaciation period to move north, separating from groups who remained in the south.”

Further analyses also revealed signatures ascribable to specific biological adaptations in northern and southern Italian genomes suggestive of habitation in differing climates. The genetic history of northern Italians showed changes in the genes responsible for regulating insulin, body-heat production and fat metabolism, whilst southern Italians showed adaptations in genes regulating the production of melanin and responses to pathogens.

Prof. Sazzini said: “Our findings suggest that the ancestors of northern Italians adapted to lower environmental temperatures and the related high-calorie diets by optimising their energy metabolism. This adaptation may play a role in the lower prevalence of Type 2 Diabetes recorded in Northern Italy today. Conversely, southern Italian ancestors adapted to a warmer climate with higher UV levels by increasing melanin production, which may explain the lower incidence rates of skin cancers recorded across Southern regions. The genomes of southern Italians also showed changes in the genes encoding mucins, which play a role in protection against pathogens, and genetic variants linked to a longer lifespan. Further research in this area may help us understand how the observed genetic differences can impact population health or predisposition to a number of diseases.”

The authors caution that although correlations may be drawn between evolutionary adaptations and current disease prevalence among populations, they are unable to prove causation, or rule out the possibility that more recent gene flow from populations exposed to diverse environmental conditions outside of Italy may have also contributed to the different genetic signatures seen between northern and southern Italians today.

 

italian genetic
Adaptive events evolved by ancestors of N_ITA/S_ITA clusters and their health implications for present-day Italians. The putative selective pressures having plausibly prompted local adaptations are displayed on the left, while biological processes subjected to natural selection are reported on the map along with their impact on present-day disease susceptibility. Distribution of biological adaptations having the potential to modulate the longevity phenotype (e.g., involving the mTOR signaling, arachidonic acid metabolism, and FoxO signaling pathways) in the overall Italian population, but especially in people from Southern Italy, is represented by the arrow on the right. Putative selective pressures, biological processes, and distribution of adaptations potentially modulating longevity are color-coded as follows: N_ITA, blue; S_ITA, red. Picture from the paper, credits Sazzini, M., Abondio, P., Sarno, S. et al., CC BY 4.0

Sazzini, M., Abondio, P., Sarno, S. et al. Genomic history of the Italian population recapitulates key evolutionary dynamics of both Continental and Southern Europeans. BMC Biol 18, 51 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12915-020-00778-4

 

Press release from Springer.


millets Mongolia

How millets sustained Mongolia's empires

How millets sustained Mongolia's empires

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

 

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

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

Isotopic analysis and the imperial importance of millets

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

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

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

Rethinking Mongolian prehistory

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

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

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

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

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

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Publication information:

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

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

Publication: Scientific Reports

DOI: 10.1038/s41598-020-60194-0

 

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


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

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

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

 

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

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

Earliest dairy consumption & a possible path of entry

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

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

Multiple different animal species were used for their milk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Publication information:

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

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

Publication: Nature Ecology & Evolution

DOI: 10.1038/s41559-020-1120-y

 

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


Archaeologists find Bronze Age tombs lined with gold near the Griffin Warrior

Archaeologists find Bronze Age tombs lined with gold

The family tombs are near the 2015 site of the 'Griffin Warrior,' a military leader buried with armor, weapons and jewelry.

A gold ring depicts bulls and barley, the first known representation of domesticated animals and agriculture in ancient Greece. Credits: UC Classics

Archaeologists with the University of Cincinnati have discovered two Bronze Age tombs containing a trove of engraved jewelry and artifacts that promise to unlock secrets about life in ancient Greece.

The UC archaeologists announced the discovery Tuesday in Greece.

Jack Davis and Sharon Stocker, archaeologists in UC's classics department, found the two beehive-shaped tombs in Pylos, Greece, last year while investigating the area around the grave of an individual they have called the "Griffin Warrior," a Greek man whose final resting place they discovered nearby in 2015.

Like the Griffin Warrior's tomb, the princely tombs overlooking the Mediterranean Sea also contained a wealth of cultural artifacts and delicate jewelry that could help historians fill in gaps in our knowledge of early Greek civilization.

UC's team spent more than 18 months excavating and documenting the find. The tombs were littered with flakes of gold leaf that once papered the walls.

"Like with the Griffin Warrior grave, by the end of the first week we knew we had something that was really important," said Stocker, who supervised the excavation.

"It soon became clear to us that lightning had struck again," said Davis, head of UC's classics department.

Bronze Age Tombs Griffin Warrior Pylos
UC archaeologists discovered two large family tombs at Pylos, Greece, strewn with flakes of gold that once lined their walls. The excavation took more than 18 months. Credits: UC Classics

The Griffin Warrior is named for the mythological creature -- part eagle, part lion -- engraved on an ivory plaque in his tomb, which also contained armor, weaponry and gold jewelry. Among the priceless objects of art was an agate sealstone depicting mortal combat with such fine detail that Archaeology magazine hailed it as a "Bronze Age masterpiece."

Artifacts found in the princely tombs tell similar stories about life along the Mediterranean 3,500 years ago, Davis said. A gold ring depicted two bulls flanked by sheaves of grain, identified as barley by a paleobotanist who consulted on the project.

"It's an interesting scene of animal husbandry -- cattle mixed with grain production. It's the foundation of agriculture," Davis said. "As far as we know, it's the only representation of grain in the art of Crete or Minoan civilization."

UC archaeologists found a sealstone made from semiprecious carnelian in the family tombs at Pylos, Greece. The sealstone was engraved with two lionlike mythological figures called genii carrying serving vessels and incense burners facing each other over an altar and below a 16-pointed star. The other image is a putty cast of the sealstone. Credits: UC Classics

Like the grave of the Griffin Warrior, the two family tombs contained artwork emblazoned with mythological creatures. An agate sealstone featured two lion-like creatures called genii standing upright on clawed feet. They carry a serving vase and an incense burner, a tribute for the altar before them featuring a sprouting sapling between horns of consecration, Stocker said.

Above the genii is a 16-pointed star. The same 16-pointed star also appears on a bronze and gold artifact in the grave, she said.

"It's rare. There aren't many 16-pointed stars in Mycenaean iconography. The fact that we have two objects with 16 points in two different media (agate and gold) is noteworthy," Stocker said.

The genius motif appears elsewhere in the East during this period, she said.

"One problem is we don't have any writing from the Minoan or Mycenaean time that talks of their religion or explains the importance of their symbols," Stocker said.

UC's team also found a gold pendant featuring the likeness of the Egyptian goddess Hathor.

"Its discovery is particularly interesting in light of the role she played in Egypt as protectress of the dead," Davis said.

The identity of the Griffin Warrior is a matter for speculation. Stocker said the combination of armor, weapons and jewelry found in his tomb strongly indicate he had military and religious authority, likely as the king known in later Mycenaean times as a wanax.

Likewise, the princely tombs paint a picture of accumulated wealth and status, she said. They contained amber from the Baltic, amethyst from Egypt, imported carnelian and lots of gold. The tombs sit on a scenic vista overlooking the Mediterranean Sea on the spot where the Palace of Nestor would later rise and fall to ruins.

"I think these are probably people who were very sophisticated for their time," she said. "They have come out of a place in history where there were few luxury items and imported goods. And all of a sudden at the time of the first tholos tombs, luxury items appear in Greece.

"You have this explosion of wealth. People are vying for power," she said. "It's the formative years that will give rise to the Classic Age of Greece."

The antiquities provide evidence that coastal Pylos was once an important destination for commerce and trade.

"If you look at a map, Pylos is a remote area now. You have to cross mountains to get here. Until recently, it hasn't even been on the tourist path," Stocker said. "But if you're coming by sea, the location makes more sense. It's on the way to Italy. What we're learning is that it's a much more central and important place on the Bronze Age trade route."

The princely tombs sit close to the palace of Nestor, a ruler mentioned in Homer's famous works "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey." The palace was discovered in 1939 by the late UC Classics professor Carl Blegen. Blegen had wanted to excavate in the 1950s in the field where Davis and Stocker found the new tombs but could not get permission from the property owner to expand his investigation. The tombs would have to wait years for another UC team to make the startling discovery hidden beneath its grape vines.

Excavating the site was particularly arduous. With the excavation season looming, delays in procuring the site forced researchers to postpone plans to study the site first with ground-penetrating radar. Instead, Stocker and Davis relied on their experience and intuition to focus on one disturbed area.

"There were noticeable concentrations of rocks on the surface once we got rid of the vegetation," she said.

Those turned out to be the exposed covers of deep tombs, one plunging nearly 15 feet. The tombs were protected from the elements and potential thieves by an estimated 40,000 stones the size of watermelons.

The boulders had sat undisturbed for millennia where they had fallen when the domes of the tombs collapsed. And now 3,500 years later, UC's team had to remove each stone individually.

"It was like going back to the Mycenaean Period. They had placed them by hand in the walls of the tombs and we were taking them out by hand," Stocker said. "It was a lot of work."

At every step of the excavation, the researchers used photogrammetry and digital mapping to document the location and orientation of objects in the tomb. This is especially valuable because of the great number of artifacts that were recovered, Davis said.

"We can see all levels as we excavated them and relate them one to the other in three dimensions," he said. UC's team will continue working at Pylos for at least the next two years while they and other researchers around the world unravel mysteries contained in the artifacts.

"It has been 50 years since any substantial tombs of this sort have been found at any Bronze Age palatial site. That makes this extraordinary," Davis said.

 

Press release from the University of Cincinnati, by Michael Miller.


Tollense Vallery Bronze Age battlefield

A warrior on a unique Bronze Age battlefield site in the Tollense Valley

Lost in Combat? Researchers discover belongings of a warrior on unique Bronze Age battlefield site

Tollense Vallery Bronze Age battlefield
This collection of objects was found by divers in the Tollense river and is probably the contents of a personal pouch of a warrior who died 3,300 years ago on the battlefield. Credit: Volker Minkus

Recent archaeological investigations in the Tollense Valley led by the University of Göttingen, the State Agency for Cultural Heritage in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and the University of Greifswald have unearthed a collection of 31 unusual objects. Researchers believe this is the personal equipment of a Bronze Age warrior who died on the battlefield 3,300 years ago.  This unique find was discovered by a diving team headed by Dr Joachim Krüger, from the University of Greifswald, and seems to have been protected in the river from the looting, which inevitably followed fighting.  The study was published in Antiquity.

Tollense Vallery Bronze Age battlefield
These are the battlefield remains from the layer where objects were found at the site near the Tollense river in Weltzin. Credit: Stefan Sauer

The archaeological records of the European Bronze Age are dominated by settlement finds, hoards and evidence of funeral sites.  However, the site at the river Tollense in Northern Germany is very different and provides for the first time in Europe the evidence of a prehistoric battlefield.  Over 12,000 pieces of human bone have already been recovered from the valley and osteoanthropologist Ute Brinker, from the State Agency has identified more than 140 individuals – young adult males in good physical condition. Their bones showed signs of recent trauma – the result of close and long-range weapons – and healed lesions, which probably indicate they were accustomed to combat. Isotopic results suggested that at least some of the group were not from the local area, but until now, it was not clear how far they travelled.

 

The discovery of a new set of artefacts from the remains of battle provides important new clues. The divers could document a number of Bronze finds in their original position on the river ground, among them a decorated belt box, three dress pins and also arrow heads. Surprisingly they also found 31 objects (250g) tightly packed together, suggesting they were in a container made of wood or cloth that has since rotted away. The items include a bronze tool with a birch handle, a knife, a chisel and fragments of bronze. Radiocarbon dating of the collection of objects demonstrates that the finds belong to the battlefield layer and they were probably the personal equipment of one of the victims. The finds were studied in a Master’s thesis by Tobias Uhlig and the new results make it increasingly clear that there was a massive violent conflict in the older Nordic Bronze Age (2000–1200 BC). In fact, recent evidence suggests that it is likely to have been on a large scale, clearly stretching beyond regional borders.

Tollense Vallery Bronze Age battlefield
This is a human skull found in the Tollense valley with fatal trauma caused by a Bronze arrowhead. Credit: Volker Minkus

Professor Thomas Terberger, from the Department of Pre- and Early History at the University of Göttingen, says, “This is the first discovery of personal belongings on a battlefield and it provides insights into the equipment of a warrior. The fragmented bronze was probably used as a form of early currency. The discovery of a new set of artefacts also provides us with clues about the origins of the men who fought in this battle and there is increasing evidence that at least some of the warriors originated in southern Central Europe.”

 

Original publication: Tobias Uhlig et al. Lost in combat? A scrap metal find from the Bronze Age battlefield site at Tollense (2019), Antiquity. DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2019.137

 

Press release (No. 207 - 15.10.2019) from the University of Göttingen / DE


Levänluhta jewellery links Finland to a European exchange network

Levänluhta jewellery links Finland to a European exchange network

Levänluhta
Archaeological findings of Levänluhta in the Finnish National Museum's exhibition. In the front arm rings and necklaces found from the burial site, made out of copper alloy. Credit: Elisabeth Holmqvist-Sipilä

The Levänluhta water burial site, dating back to the Iron Age (300-800 CE), is one of Finland's most famous archaeological sites. Nearly one hundred individuals, mainly women or children, were buried in a lake located at Isokyrö in SW Finland, during the Iron Age. Some of the deceased were accompanied by arm rings and necklaces made out of copper alloy, bronze or brass.

Style of jewellery domestic but material from abroad

"The origin of the metals used in these pieces of jewellery was determined on the basis of the objects' geochemical and lead isotope compositions. The jewellery of the deceased is stylistically typical Finnish Iron Age jewellery, making it probable that they were cast in local workshops. However, the metals used to make these objects are unlikely to be originally from the region, since copper ores had not yet been discovered here during the Iron Age," says Elisabeth Holmqvist-Sipilä, a postdoctoral researcher.

Up to now, archaeologists have assumed that copper used in the Iron Age came mainly from the copper ores discovered in southern Scandinavia. However, this interpretation has in recent years been called into question, since the copper found in archaeological metal discoveries in Sweden has also been determined to be imported.

In a study conducted in collaboration between archaeologists at the University of Helsinki and the Geological Survey of Finland, the origin of the bronze and brass jewellery found at Levänluhta was investigated by comparing their geochemical composition and lead isotope ratios to known copper ores in Finland, Sweden and elsewhere in Europe. The study was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

Copper tracks lead to southern Europe

"The results demonstrate that the copper used in the objects was not from Finland or the nearby regions; rather, it has travelled to Finland along extensive exchange networks, most likely from southern Europe," says Holmqvist-Sipilä.

Based on the lead isotope ratios, the copper in the objects has its origins in the copper ores found in Greece and Bulgaria. These regions produced a large quantity of copper in the Bronze and Iron Age, which spread around Europe as various object forms, distributed as presents, loot and merchandise. Metals were also recycled by melting old objects into raw material for new casts. It may be possible that metals that ended up in Finland during the Bronze Age were recycled in the Levänluhta region.

The findings of this project, funded by the Emil Aaltonen Foundation, demonstrate that products of the copper exchange network of continental Europe also reached Finland across the Baltic Sea, thus making it possible to link the region with the extensive copper exchange system known to have extended throughout Europe. The results also illustrate the temporally and technologically multi-layered nature of prehistoric metal artefacts: raw materials found their way here through a number of hands, most likely over a long period of time and across very great distances. In domestic artisan workshops, these metals of international origin were manufactured into pieces of jewellery in domestic Iron Age fashion, perhaps embodying the local identity and place of residence of the bearer.

 

Press release from the University of Helsinki


Kemune palace Mittani Mitanni Empire

Archaeologists uncover palace of the Mittani Empire in the Duhok province of the Kurdistan Region/ Iraq

Archaeologists uncover palace of the Mittani Empire in the Duhok province of the Kurdistan Region/ Iraq

German-Kurdish research team came upon a surprising discovery as ruins emerge from the waters of the Tigris River

Kemune palace Mittani Mitanni Empire
Aerial view of Kemune Palace from the west. Copyright University of Tübingen, eScience Center, and Kurdistan Archaeology Organization

German and Kurdish archaeologists have uncovered a Bronze Age palace on the eastern bank of the Tigris River in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. As the international research team reports, the site of Kemune can be dated to the time of the Mittani Empire, which dominated large parts of northern Mesopotamia and Syria from the 15th to the 14th century BCE. The Mittani Empire is one of the least researched kingdoms of the Ancient Near East. The archaeologists now hope to obtain new information about the politics, economy, and history of the empire by studying cuneiform tablets discovered in the palace.

Last autumn, receding waters in the Mosul Dam reservoir unexpectedly brought to light remains of an ancient city. Archaeologists launched a spontaneous rescue excavation of the ruins exposed by the ebbing waters. It was headed by Dr. Hasan Ahmed Qasim (Duhok) and Dr. Ivana Puljiz (Tübingen), as a joint project between the University of Tübingen and the Kurdistan Archaeology Organization (KAO) in cooperation with the Duhok Directorate of Antiquities. Kurdish archaeologist Hasan Ahmed Qasim explains its significance: "The find is one of the most important archaeological discoveries in the region in recent decades and illustrates the success of the Kurdish-German cooperation." The project was largely financed by the KAO and its sponsor, Kurdisch businessman Hersh Isa Swar.

As Ivana Puljiz of the Tübingen Institute for Ancient Near Eastern Studies (IANES) reports, the site shows a carefully designed building with massive interior mud-brick walls up to two meters thick. She says some walls are more than two meters high and some of the rooms have plastered walls. "We have also found remains of wall paintings in bright shades of red and blue," Puljiz says. "In the second millennium BCE, murals were probably a typical feature of palaces in the Ancient Near East, but we rarely find them preserved. So discovering wall paintings in Kemune is an archaeological sensation.”

The palace ruins are preserved to a height of some seven meters. Two phases of usage are clearly visible, Puljiz says, indicating that the building was in use for a very long time. Inside the palace, the team identified several rooms and partially excavated eight of them. In some areas, they found large fired bricks which were used as floor slabs. Ten Mittani cuneiform clay tablets were discovered and are currently being translated and studied by the philologist Dr. Betina Faist (University of Heidelberg). One of the tablets indicates that Kemune was most probably the ancient city of Zakhiku, which is mentioned in one Ancient Near Eastern source as early as the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 1800 BC). This indicates the city must have existed for at least 400 years. Future text finds will hopefully show whether this identification is correct.

In ancient times, the palace stood on an elevated terrace above the valley, only 20 meters from what was then the eastern bank of the Tigris River. In the Mittani period, a monumental terrace wall of mud-bricks was built against the palace’s western front to stabilize the sloping terrain. Overlooking the Tigris Valley, the palace must have been an impressive sight.

Archaeological surveys carried out by the Collaborative Research Center “ResourceCultures” (SFB 1070) under the direction of Dr. Paola Sconzo (University of Tübingen) in the vicinity of the palace indicate that a larger city adjoined it to the north. "We discovered the site of Kemune already in 2010 when the dam had low water levels; even at that time we found a Mittani cuneiform tablet and saw remains of wall paintings in red and blue,” says Hasan Ahmed Qasim, “But we couldn’t excavate here until now.” The area was flooded following the construction of the Mosul Dam in the mid-1980s. But a lack of rain and water released to ease dry conditions in southern Iraq meant that the water level dropped so far in the summer and autumn of last year that archaeologists could excavate the site for the first time.

"The Mittani Empire is one of the least researched empires of the Ancient Near East," explains Puljiz. “Information on palaces of the Mittani Period is so far only available from Tell Brak in Syria and from the cities of Nuzi and Alalakh, both located on the periphery of the empire. Even the capital of the Mittani Empire has not been identified beyond doubt.” The discovery of a Mittani palace in Kemune is therefore of great importance for archaeology.

The Mittani Empire

The Mittani Empire covered an area reaching from the eastern Mediterranean coast to the east of present-day northern Iraq from the 15th century to the middle of the 14th century BCE. Its heart was in what is now northeastern Syria, where its capital Washukanni was probably located. Akkadian cuneiform texts from the site of Tell el-Amarna in present-day Egypt show that the Mittani kings interacted as equals with the Egyptian pharaohs and the kings of Hatti and Babylonia. For example, it is known that the Mittani king Tushratta gave his daughter’s hand in marriage to Pharaoh Amenophis III. Mittani lost its political significance around 1350 BCE. Its territories came under the control of the neighboring empires of the Hittites and Assyrians. The Mittani culture is known for its typical painted ceramics. The vessels are characterized by carefully-executed light painting on a dark background. Their conspicuous appearance enables archaeologists to date the sites where fragments of such vessels are found to the time of the Mittani Empire.

 

Press release from the University of Tübingen


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

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

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

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

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

Millet spreads across the Eurasian steppe

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

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

Wheat and Barley in the Trans-Urals

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

Regional variation in millet consumption

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

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

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Original publication:

Ventresca Miller and Makarewicz, Intensification in pastoralist cereal use coincides with the expansion of trans-regional networks in the Eurasian Steppe, Scientific Reports (2019). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-35758-w

 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Citation: Heiss AG, Antolín F, Berihuete Azorín M, Biederer B, Erlach R, Gail N, et al. (2019) The hoard of the rings. "Odd" annular bread-like objects as a case study for cereal-product diversity at the Late Bronze Age hillfort site of Stillfried (Lower Austria). PLoS ONE 14(6): e0216907. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0216907

 

Press release from the Public Library of Science


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."

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