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


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


East Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Amazonia Llanos de Moxos Bolivia agriculture

Human settlements in Amazonia much older than previously thought

Human settlements in Amazonia much older than previously thought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Switch from hunting to herding recorded in ancient pee

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

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

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

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

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

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

Connecting the Dots

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

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

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

A Rapid Transition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Broader Revolution

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

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

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

 

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

 

Urine salts provide evidence of Early Neolithic animal management

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

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

Press release from the American Association for the Advancement of Science


Megalith tombs were family graves in European Stone Age

Megalith tombs were family graves in European Stone Age

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

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

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

Paternal continuity through time

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

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

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

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

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

The Ansarve tomb was used by distinct groups

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Publication

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

Facts

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

Press release from Uppsala University, by Linda Koffmar.


Sorghum bicolor introgression North-East Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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barley Sweden Finland agriculture farming hunter gatherers Pitted Ware Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cereal perhaps used to brew beer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grain age determined through radiocarbon dating

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

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

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The study was published in the Scientific Reports journal on 20 March 2019. The research article, entitled "Maritime Hunter-Gatherers Adopt Cultivation at the Farming Extreme of Northern Europe 5000 Years Ago", is freely available on the journal's website: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-41293-z

This is how the Inuit culture of the Baltic Sea was born. Read more on the University of Helsinki website: https://www.helsinki.fi/en/news/language-culture/a-5000-year-old-barley-grain-discovered-in-aland-southern-finland-turns-researchers-understanding-of-ancient-northern-livelihoods-upside-down

Press release from the University of Helsinki


Saffron comes from Attica - origin of the saffron crocus traced back to Greece

Saffron comes from Attica - origin of the saffron crocus traced back to Greece

Crocus cartwrightianus. Credit: Frank Blattner/IPK

The origin of C. sativus has long been the subject of speculation and research, as this knowledge would enable breeders to introduce genetic diversity into the otherwise genetically uniform plant species. Two new studies have now shown that the saffron crocus originated from a Greek ancestor.

Since ancient times, saffron has been giving dishes a golden-yellow hue and an aromatic flavour. The use of the stigmas of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) is depicted in frescos from Crete and Santorini, which are as old as 3600 years. Nowadays, the valuable plant is mainly cultivated in Iran accounting for more than 90% of the saffron production. Due to its hardiness, small batches of the saffron crocus are even grown and harvested in more unlikely countries such as Switzerland and Germany. Possibly partially due to its widespread agricultural adoption, the origin of saffron has until recently been a subject of speculation. Now, two independent studies have been able to trace the roots of C. sativus back to Greece.

saffron Attica Greece Athens Crocus sativus
Map providing the distribution area of Crocus cartwrightianus (dashed line). In red the Attica region is depicted where the saffron crocus originated. Credit: Frank Blattner

The saffron crocus is a triploid and male-sterile plant. This means that the plant can only be propagated vegetatively. In this case, parts of the corms (bulb-like structures of the stem) of the saffron plants are broken off and then these daughter-corms are used to grow new adult plants. A consequence of this form of reproduction is that there is no room for improving saffron quality by crossing different cultivars. Thus all modern saffron plants are genetically nearly identical. Knowing the origin, in particular the originating plant species, would enable saffron breeders to use new genotypes to broaden the diversity of the saffron crocus.

Researchers of the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK Gatersleben) decided to tackle the mystery of saffron's origin, by comparing molecular markers of wild crocus species with those of our cultivated saffron crocus. In the research group of Frank Blattner, plant material was obtained through sample-collecting excursions from native stands of all relevant species. Through the analyses of genome-wide single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and the investigation of the chloroplast genomes of the different crocus species, the researchers were able to pinpoint the species with the highest genetic similarity to C. sativus. As such, the wild crocus species C. cartwrightianus from Greece was identified as the sole progenitor of the modern saffron plant, and the area in the vicinity of the Greek capital Athens as the region where it evolved.

C. cartwrightianus had already been postulated as a possible progenitor of C. sativus, however the high intra-specific genetic diversity present in C. cartwrightianus had led to unclear results during previous investigations. Now, in the IPK-study, an unambiguous total of 99.3% of the alleles of C. sativus could be recovered in C. cartwrightianus.

These results were confirmed by an independent complementary study performed by researchers at TU Dresden. The Dresden scientists in Thomas Schmidt's group performed comparative chromosome analysis with fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) of different crocus species, and could also demonstrate that C. sativus resulted from the fusion of the genomes of two C. cartwrightianus plants, an event called "autopolyploidisation".

A slight surprise for all of the involved researchers was that the main growing regions for saffron are clearly located outside the distribution area of its progenitor C. cartwrightianus, with C. sativus prospering in drier regions and at higher elevations. They suspect that the explanation to this also lies within the origin story of saffron - it was probably the genome-fusing autopolyploidisation event that led to ecological shift of saffron, away from the habitats in the Mediterranean vegetation zone of Greece.

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Summary

  • Saffron, the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus), is the most expensive spice worldwide. The male-sterile triploid plant has been propagated vegetatively for at least 3600 years, but the origin of the saffron crocus have long been subject of speculation.
  • A study analysing the chloroplast genomes and genome-wide DNA polymorphisms in crocus species was performed at the IPK Gatersleben. It shows that saffron evolved in Attica, Greece, through the combination of two different genotypes of the wild crocus C. cartwrightianus. The findings are supported by a recent independent study performed at TU Dresden.
  • This clarification of the parent species will probably enable plant breeder to overcome the low genetic diversity of the saffron crocus by creating new saffron genotypes with C. cartwrightianus individuals.
  • Studies available through https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ympev.2019.03.022 and https://doi.org/10.1111/nph.15715.

 

 

Press release from Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK Gatersleben)

 

 


farming agriculture

Food for thought: Why did we ever start farming?

Food for thought: Why did we ever start farming?

The reason that humans shifted away from hunting and gathering, and to agriculture -- a much more labor-intensive process -- has always been a riddle. It is only more confusing because the shift happened independently in about a dozen areas across the globe.

"A lot of evidence suggests domestication and agriculture doesn't make much sense," says Elic Weitzel, a Ph.D. student in UConn's department of anthropology. "Hunter-gatherers are sometimes working fewer hours a day, their health is better, and their diets are more varied, so why would anyone switch over and start farming?"

Weitzel sought to get to the root of the shift in his new paper in American Antiquity, by looking at one area of the world, the Eastern United States.In a nutshell, he looked for evidence to support either of two popular theories.

One theory posits that in times of plenty there may have been more time to start dabbling in the domestication of plants like squash and sunflowers, the latter of which were domesticated by the native peoples of Tennessee around 4,500 years ago.

The other theory argues that domestication may have happened out of need to supplement diets when times were not as good. As the human population grew, perhaps resources shifted due to reasons such as over-exploitation of resources or a changing climate. "Was there some imbalance between resources and the human populations that lead to domestication?"

Weitzel tested both hypotheses. He did this by analyzing animal bones from the last 13,000 years and taken from a half-dozen archeological sites in northern Alabama and the Tennessee River valley, where human settlements and their detritus give clues about how they lived, including what they ate. He coupled the findings with pollen data taken from sediment cores collected from lakes and wetlands, cores that serve as a record about the types of plants present at different points in time. The findings are ... mixed.

Weitzel found pollen from oak and hickory, leading to the conclusion that forests composed of those species began to dominate the region as the climate warmed, but also led to decreasing water levels in lakes and wetlands. Along with the decreasing lakes, the bone records showed a shift from diets rich in water fowl and large fishes to subsistence on smaller shellfish.

Taken together, that data provides evidence for the second hypothesis: There was some kind of imbalance between the growing human population and their resource base, effected perhaps by exploitation and also by climate change.

But Weitzel also saw support for the first hypothesis in that an abundance of oak and hickory forest supported an equally prevalent game species population. "That is what we see in the animal bone data," says Weitzel. "Fundamentally, when times are good and there are lots of animals present, you'd expect people to hunt the prey that is most efficient," says Weitzel. "Deer are much more efficient than squirrels for example, which are smaller, with less meat, and more difficult to catch."

A single deer or goose can feed several people, but if over-hunted, or if the landscape changes to one less favorable for the animal population, humans must subsist on other smaller, less efficient food sources. Agriculture, despite being hard work, may have become a necessary option to supplement diet when imbalances like these occurred.

Despite the mixed results, the findings supporting domestication happening in times when there was less than an ideal amount of food is significant, says Weitzel.

"I think that the existence of declining efficiency in even one habitat type is enough to show that ... domestication happening in times of plenty isn't the best way to understand initial domestication." The broader context of this research is important, says Weitzel, because looking to the past and seeing how these populations coped and adapted to change can help inform what we should do as today's climate warms in the coming decades.

"Having an archaeological voice backed by this deep-time perspective in policy making is very important."

farming agriculture
Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

Press release from the University of Connecticut