genomes Scythians

Ancient Genomes Trace the Origin and Decline of the Scythians

Ancient Genomes Trace the Origin and Decline of the Scythians

Generally thought of as fierce horse-warriors, the Scythians were a multitude of Iron Age cultures who ruled the Eurasian steppe, playing a major role in Eurasian history. A new study published in Science Advances analyzes genome-wide data for 111 ancient individuals spanning the Central Asian Steppe from the first millennia BCE and CE. The results reveal new insights into the genetic events associated with the origins, development and decline of the steppe’s legendary Scythians.

Because of their interactions and conflicts with the major contemporaneous civilizations of Eurasia, the Scythians enjoy a legendary status in historiography and popular culture. The Scythians had major influences on the cultures of their powerful neighbors, spreading new technologies such as saddles and other improvements for horse riding. The ancient Greek, Roman, Persian and Chinese empires all left a multitude of sources describing, from their perspectives, the customs and practices of the feared horse warriors that came from the interior lands of Eurasia.

An aerial view of Hun-Xianbi culture burials. Both horses and warriors can be identified. Credits: © Zainolla Samashev

Still, despite evidence from external sources, little is known about Scythian history. Without a written language or direct sources, the language or languages they spoke, where they came from and the extent to which the various cultures spread across such a huge area were in fact related to one another, remain unclear.

The Iron Age transition and the formation of the genetic profile of the Scythians

A new study published in Science Advances by an international team of geneticists, anthropologists and archeologists lead by scientists from the Archaeogenetics Department of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, helps illuminate the history of the Scythians with 111 ancient genomes from key Scythian and non-Scythian archaeological cultures of the Central Asian steppe. The results of this study reveal that substantial genetic turnovers were associated with the decline of the long-lasting Bronze Age sedentary groups and the rise of Scythian nomad cultures in the Iron Age. Their findings show that, following the relatively homogenous ancestry of the late Bronze Age herders, at the turn of the first millennium BCE, influxes from the east, west and south into the steppe formed new admixed gene pools.

Mound 4 of the Eleke Sazy necropolis in eastern Kazakhstan. Credits: © Zainolla Samashev

The diverse peoples of the Central Asian Steppe

The study goes even further, identifying at least two main sources of origin for the nomadic Iron Age groups. An eastern source likely originated from populations in the Altai Mountains that, during the course of the Iron Age, spread west and south, admixing as they moved. These genetic results match with the timing and locations found in the archeological record and suggest an expansion of populations from the Altai area, where the earliest Scythian burials are found, connecting different renowned cultures such as the Saka, the Tasmola and the Pazyryk found in southern, central and eastern Kazakhstan respectively. Surprisingly, the groups located in the western Ural Mountains descend from a second separate, but simultaneous source. Contrary to the eastern case, this western gene pool, characteristic of the early Sauromatian-Sarmatian cultures, remained largely consistent through the westward spread of the Sarmatian cultures from the Urals into the Pontic-Caspian steppe.

The decline of the Scythian cultures associated with new genetic turnovers

The study also covers the transition period after the Iron Age, revealing new genetic turnovers and admixture events. These events intensified at the turn of the first millennium CE, concurrent with the decline and then disappearance of the Scythian cultures in the Central Steppe. In this case, the new far eastern Eurasian influx is plausibly associated with the spread of the nomad empires of the Eastern steppe in the first centuries CE, such as the Xiongnu and Xianbei confederations, as well as minor influxes from Iranian sources likely linked to the expansion of Persian-related civilization from the south.

Although many of the open questions on the history of the Scythians cannot be solved by ancient DNA alone, this study demonstrates how much the populations of Eurasia have changed and intermixed through time. Future studies should continue to explore the dynamics of these trans-Eurasian connections by covering different periods and geographic regions, revealing the history of connections between west, central and east Eurasia in the remote past and their genetic legacy in present day Eurasian populations.

The burial of a social elite known as 'Golden Man' from the Eleke Sazy necropolis. Credits: © Zainolla Samashev

Press release from Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena on the new study that helps illuminate the history of the Scythians with 111 ancient genomes from archaeological cultures of the Central Asian steppe.


Augsburg Art Cabinet games

Parlour games 400 years ago – almost like today

In a new thesis from Uppsala University, art historian Greger Sundin studied 16th and 17th century games that have been preserved in princely collections for example. Right at the end of his work on the thesis, he and a colleague were able to solve an over 300 year old riddle about a game in the Augsburg Art Cabinet.

Augsburg Art Cabinet games
Carved chess pieces on a board of ebony, mother-of-pearl and inlaid silver in Philipp Hainhofer’s Pomeranian Art Cabinet (Berlin). Photo: Greger Sundin

In these times of self-isolation, as people spend a lot of time indoors with only a few others, many Monopoly games and Ludo sets have probably seen the light after many years lying forgotten in a drawer. There is nothing modern about playing board games and parlour games for entertainment and to pass the time. Many of the games we play today go back to at least the latter part of the 16th century. Chess is an example of a game that has been around for a very long time. The same is true of draughts and backgammon. Various forms of the Game of the Goose, in which players move their pieces along a track according to the total number shown on dice, also have a long history.

Everyone played these games, in every social class. Often the same types of game too, although chess was fairly expensive given all the pieces that needed to be carved. Card games, on the other hand, were easy to come by after the introduction of the printing press, and their use exploded in the 16th century (at the expense of games of dice).

“Studying games is a way of really getting close to the people who came before us. The frustration of unco-operative dice would have been as strong in 1620 as in 2020,” says Dr Greger Sundin, curator at Gustavianum, Uppsala University Museum.

Augsburg Art Cabinet games
The Augsburg Art Cabinet at Gustavianum, Uppsala University Museum. Credit: Mikael Wallerstedt

The collections of the University Museum include the Augsburg Art Cabinet, which was finished in 1631. It is the best preserved, most famous art cabinet commissioned by the Augsburg merchant and art dealer Philipp Hainhofer (1578–1647). He filled his art cabinets with objects from around the world – everything from shells, minerals and animal parts to scientific instruments, relics and art objects. And games.

The Augsburg Art Cabinet was a gift to King Gustavus Adolphus from the City of Augsburg in 1632 and it contains a large number of games and pastimes. In his thesis, Greger Sundin used these games as a springboard for exploring what various board and card games looked like and how they were used in princely collecting in the early 17th century. Were they used as games in the same way as today? Were games in art cabinets intended to be used or were they intended to represent games instead, in a context in which so much was just for show?

After having closely studied the games preserved from Hainhofer’s cabinets around Europe, Greger Sundin drew the conclusion that the games were not only viewed. They were also used, presumably by the owners of the cabinets and their guests. He also noted that all the games were very accessible in the cabinets so that they could easily be taken out and played.

Gilded balls to roll through the arcades in a Tafelspiel. The points you score are shown in Roman numerals above each arcade. Games from the Augsburg Art Cabinet in Uppsala. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

After having studied hundreds of games, Greger Sundin was able to reconstruct both how they were used and how contemporary attitudes affected their design, materials and rules. He was also able to deduce from the games included in the art cabinets that Hainhofer not only listened to his clients but also chose them based on his own great interest in games.

In the very last weeks before the thesis was to go to print, Greger Sundin and a colleague in Germany were able to solve a riddle about a mysterious game in the Augsburg Art Cabinet, the name and rules of which had already been forgotten when it was first described in Sweden in 1694.

Augsburg Art Cabinet games
‘Unfaithful neighbours’ or perhaps ‘Go to Hell’ (Höllfahren in German). The board was used for moving pieces while the players played cards. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

They established that the imaginatively decorated game was ‘Unfaithful neighbours’ or perhaps ‘Go to Hell’ (Höllfahren in German). The board was used for moving pieces while the players played cards. Depending on where you landed, different rules applied. For example, you had to be quiet or address someone in a specific way. If you failed to follow the rules, you moved a step closer to the centre, where people were being cooked in a pot. If you ended up there, you lost. The last player left was the winner and took all the money. Hainhofer, the creator of the art cabinets, used to play this type of game on his travels.

Dr Greger Sundin, curator at Gustavianum, Uppsala University Museum. Credit: Frida Klang

Full bibliographic information

Greger Sundin (2020) A Matter of Amusement: The Material Culture of Philipp Hainhofer’s Games in Early Modern Princely Collections, Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, 2020.

Press release from the Uppsala University on games in princely collections and the Augsburg Art Cabinet.


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


The ancient history of Neandertals in Europe

The ancient history of Neandertals in Europe

Early ancestors of the last Neandertals lived in Europe already 120,000 years ago

This is the femur of a male Neandertal from Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave, Germany. Credit: © Oleg Kuchar, Museum Ulm

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, have retrieved nuclear genome sequences from the femur of a male Neandertal discovered in 1937 in Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave, Germany, and from the maxillary bone of a Neandertal girl found in 1993 in Scladina Cave, Belgium. Both Neandertals lived around 120,000 years ago, and therefore predate most of the Neandertals whose genomes have been sequenced to date.

Neandertals Europe
This is the Maxillary bone of a Neandertal girl from Scladina Cave, Belgium. Credit: © J. Eloy, AWEM, Archéologie andennaise

By examining the nuclear genomes of these two individuals, the researchers could show that these early Neandertals in Western Europe were more closely related to the last Neandertals who lived in the same region as much as 80,000 years later, than they were to contemporaneous Neandertals living in Siberia. "The result is truly extraordinary and a stark contrast to the turbulent history of replacements, large-scale admixtures and extinctions that is seen in modern human history", says Kay Prüfer who supervised the study.

Intriguingly, unlike the nuclear genome, the mitochondrial genome of the Neandertal from Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave in Germany is quite different from that of later Neandertals - a previous report showed that more than 70 mutations distinguish it from the mitochondrial genomes of other Neandertals. The researchers suggest that early European Neandertals may have inherited DNA from a yet undescribed population. "This unknown population could represent an isolated Neandertal population yet to be discovered, or may be from a potentially larger population in Africa related to modern humans", explains Stéphane Peyrégne who led the analysis.

 

Press release from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology / Max-Planck-Institut für evolutionäre Anthropologie


Ancient DNA from Roman and medieval grape seeds reveal ancestry of wine making

Ancient DNA from Roman and medieval grape seeds reveal ancestry of wine making

wine France Roman era
A vineyard by Pic Saint Loup Mountain in southern France. Credit: S. Ivorra CNRS/ISEM

A grape variety still used in wine production in France today can be traced back 900 years to just one ancestral plant, scientists have discovered.

With the help of an extensive genetic database of modern grapevines, researchers were able to test and compare 28 archaeological seeds from French sites dating back to the Iron Age, Roman era, and medieval period.

Utilising similar ancient DNA methods used in tracing human ancestors, a team of researchers from the UK, Denmark, France, Spain, and Germany, drew genetic connections between seeds from different archaeological sites, as well as links to modern-day grape varieties.

It has long been suspected that some grape varieties grown today, particularly well-known types like Pinot Noir, have an exact genetic match with plants grown 2,000 years ago or more, but until now there has been no way of genetically testing an uninterrupted genetic lineage of that age.

Dr Nathan Wales, from the University of York, said: "From our sample of grape seeds we found 18 distinct genetic signatures, including one set of genetically identical seeds from two Roman sites separated by more than 600km, and dating back 2,000 years ago.

"These genetic links, which included a 'sister' relationship with varieties grown in the Alpine regions today, demonstrate winemakers' proficiencies across history in managing their vineyards with modern techniques, such as asexual reproduction through taking plant cuttings."

One archaeological grape seed excavated from a medieval site in Orléans in central France was genetically identical to Savagnin Blanc. This means the variety has grown for at least 900 years as cuttings from just one ancestral plant.

This variety (not to be confused with Sauvignon Blanc), is thought to have been popular for a number of centuries, but is not as commonly consumed as a wine today outside of its local region.

The grape can still be found growing in the Jura region of France, where it is used to produce expensive bottles of Vin Jaune, as well as in parts of Central Europe, where it often goes by the name Traminer.

Although this grape is not so well known today, 900 years of a genetically identical plant suggests that this wine was special - special enough for grape-growers to stick with it across centuries of changing political regimes and agricultural advancements.

Dr Jazmín Ramos-Madrigal, a postdoctoral researcher from the University of Copenhagen, said: "We suspect the majority of these archaeological seeds come from domesticated berries that were potentially used for winemaking based on their strong genetic links to wine grapevines.

"Berries from varieties used for wine are small, thick-skinned, full of seeds, and packed with sugar and other compounds such as acids, phenols, and aromas - great for making wine but not quite as good for eating straight from the vine. These ancient seeds did not have a strong genetic link to modern table grapes.

"Based on writings by the Roman author and naturalist, Pliny the Elder, and others, we know the Romans had advanced knowledge of winemaking and designated specific names to different grape varieties, but it has so far been impossible to link their Latin names to modern varieties.

"Now we have the opportunity to use genetics to know exactly what the Romans were growing in their vineyards."

Of the Roman seeds, the researchers could not find an identical genetic match with modern-day seeds, but they did find a very close relationships with two important grape families used to produce high quality wine.

These include the Syrah-Mondeuse Blanche family - Syrah is one of the most planted grapes in the world today - and the Mondeuse Blanche, which produces a high quality AOC (protected regional product) wine in Savoy, as well as the Pinot-Savagnin family - Pinot Noir being the "king of wine grapes".

Dr Wales said: "It is rather unconventional to trace an uninterrupted genetic lineage for hundreds of years into the past. Instead of exploring broad patterns in genetic ancestry, as in most ancient DNA projects, we had to think like forensics scientists and find a perfect match in the database.

"Large databases of genetic data from modern crops and optimized palaeogenomic methods have vastly improved our ability to analyse the history of this and other important fruits.

"For the wine industry today, these results could shed new light on the value of some grape varieties; even if we don't see them in popular use in wines today, they were once highly valued by past wine lovers and so are perhaps worth a closer look."

The researchers now hope to find more archaeological evidence that could send them further back in time and reveal more grape wine varieties.

Archaeological excavation of Roman farm at Mont Ferrier site in Tourbes, France. Grape seeds closely related to Pinot Noir and Savagnin Blanc were excavated from a well dating to the first century CE. Credit: M. Compan, Inrap

Read more


Details of first historically recorded plague pandemic revealed by ancient genomes

Details of first historically recorded plague pandemic revealed by ancient genomes

Analysis of 8 new plague genomes from the first plague pandemic reveals previously unknown levels of plague diversity, and provides the first genetic evidence of the Justinianic Plague in the British Isles

Justinianic Plague Yersinia pestis
Map and phylogenetic tree showing the newly published (yellow) and previously published (turquoise) genomes. Shaded areas and dots represent historically recorded outbreaks of the First Pandemic. Credit: Marcel Keller

An international team of researchers has analyzed human remains from 21 archaeological sites to learn more about the impact and evolution of the plague-causing bacterium Yersinia pestis during the first plague pandemic (541-750 AD). In a study published in PNAS, the researchers reconstructed 8 plague genomes from Britain, Germany, France and Spain and uncovered a previously unknown level of diversity in Y. pestis strains. Additionally, they found the first direct genetic evidence of the Justinianic Plague in the British Isles.

The Justinianic Plague began in 541 in the Eastern Roman Empire, ruled at the time by the Emperor Justinian I, and recurrent outbreaks ravaged Europe and the Mediterranean basin for approximately 200 years. Contemporaneous records describe the extent of the pandemic, estimated to have wiped out up to 25% of the population of the Roman world at the time. Recent genetic studies revealed that the bacterium Yersinia pestis was the cause of the disease, but how it had spread and how the strains that appeared over the course of the pandemic were related to each other was previously unknown.

In the current study, an international team of researchers led by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History analyzed human remains from 21 sites with multiple burials in Austria, Britain, Germany, France and Spain. They were able to reconstruct 8 new Y. pestis genomes, allowing them to compare these strains to previously published ancient and modern genomes. Additionally, the team found the earliest genetic evidence of plague in Britain, from the Anglo-Saxon site of Edix Hill. By using a combination of archaeological dating and the position of this strain of Y. pestis in its evolutionary tree, the researchers concluded that the genome is likely related to an ambiguously described pestilence in the British Isles in 544 AD.

High diversity of Y. pestis strains during the First Pandemic

The researchers found that there was a previously unknown diversity of strains of Y. pestis circulating in Europe between the 6th and 8th centuries AD. The 8 new genomes came from Britain, France, Germany and Spain. "The retrieval of genomes that span a wide geographic and temporal scope gives us the opportunity to assess Y. pestis' microdiversity present in Europe during the First Pandemic," explains co-first author Marcel Keller, PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, now working at the University of Tartu. The newly discovered genomes revealed that there were multiple, closely related strains of Y. pestis circulating during the 200 years of the First Pandemic, some possibly at the same times and in the same regions.

Despite the greatly increased number of genomes now available, the researchers were not able to clarify the onset of the Justinianic Plague. "The lineage likely emerged in Central Asia several hundred years before the First Pandemic, but we interpret the current data as insufficient to resolve the origin of the Justinianic Plague as a human epidemic, before it was first reported in Egypt in 541 AD. However, the fact that all genomes belong to the same lineage is indicative of a persistence of plague in Europe or the Mediterranean basin over this time period, instead of multiple reintroductions."

Sampling of a tooth from a suspected plague burial. Credit: Evelyn Guevara

Possible evidence of convergent evolution in strains from two independent historical pandemics

Another interesting finding of the study was that plague genomes appearing towards the end of the First Pandemic showed a big deletion in their genetic code that included two virulence factors. Plague genomes from the late stages of the Second Pandemic some 800-1000 years later show a similar deletion covering the same region of the genomes. "This is a possible example of convergent evolution, meaning that these Y. pestis strains independently evolved similar characteristics. Such changes may reflect an adaptation to a distinct ecological niche in Western Eurasia where the plague was circulating during both pandemics," explains co-first author Maria Spyrou of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

The current study offers new insights into the first historically documented plague pandemic, and provides additional clues alongside historical, archaeological, and palaeoepidemiological evidence, helping to answer outstanding questions. "This study shows the potential of palaeogenomic research for understanding historical and modern pandemics by comparing genomes across millennia," explains senior author Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. "With more extensive sampling of possible plague burials, we hope to contribute to the understanding of Y. pestis' microevolution and its impact on humans during the course of past and present pandemics."

Lunel-Viel (Languedoc-Southern France). Victim of the plague thrown into a demolition trench of a Gallo-Roman house; end of the 6th-early 7th century. Credit: 1990; CNRS - Claude Raynaud

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


Alcmonavis poeschli

First birds: Archaeopteryx gets company

First birds: Archaeopteryx gets company

Researchers at LMU Munich describe a hitherto unknown bird from the late Jurassic period. It is the second bird capable of flight, after the famous Archaeopteryx, to be identified from this era.

Alcmonavis poeschli
The illustration shows the wing of Alcmonavis poeschli as it was found in the limestone slab. Alcmonavis poeschli is the second known specimen of a volant bird from the Jurassic period. Copyright: O. Rauhut, LMU/SNSB

Archaeopteryx's throne is tottering. Since the discovery of the first fossil of the primal bird in 1861, it had been considered the only bird from the Jurassic geological period. Today's birds are thought to be direct descendants of carnivorous dinosaurs, with Archaeopteryx representing the oldest known flying representative of this lineage. All of the specimens that have been found up to now come from the region of the Solnhofen Archipelago, which during the Jurassic era spanned across what is today the Altmühl Valley, in the area between Pappenheim and Regensburg. Archaeopteryx lived here in a landscape of reef islands about 150 million years ago. A team led by Professor Oliver Rauhut has taxonomically identified a bird unknown until now: Alcmonavis poeschli, the second bird from the era identified as capable of flight. "This suggests that the diversity of birds in the late Jurassic era was greater than previously thought," says Rauhut, paleontologist at the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences as well as the Bavarian State Collection of Paleontology and Geology.

Only a wing of Alcmonavis poeschli was discovered. "At first, we assumed that this was another specimen of Archaeopteryx. There are similarities, but after detailed comparisons with Archaeopteryx and other, geologically younger birds, its fossil remains suggested that we were dealing with a somewhat more derived bird," says Rauhut. According to the team's taxonomic studies, which are currently featured in the scientific journal eLifeAlcmonavis poeschli was not merely somewhat larger than Archaeopteryx; apparently it could also fly better. "The wing muscles indicate a greater capacity for flying," says Rauhut. Alcmonavis poeschli exhibits numerous traits lacking in Archaeopteryx but present in more recent birds. This suggests that it was adapted better to active, flapping flight.

The discovery of Alcmonavis poeschli has implications for the debate over whether active flapping birds arose from gliding birds. "Its adaptation shows that the evolution of flight must have progressed relatively quickly," says Dr. Christian Foth from the University of Fribourg (Switzerland), one of the co-authors of the study.

The bird now being described for the first time derives its name from the old Celtic word for the river Altmühl, Alcmona, and its discoverer Roland Pöschl, who leads the excavation at the Schaudiberg quarry close to Mörnsheim. A fossil of Archaeopteryx was also discovered in the same unit of limestones. The two primal birds thus apparently lived at the same time in what was then a subtropical lagoon landscape in southern Germany.

 

Press release from the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München


freshwater mussel shells mother-of-pearl

Freshwater mussel shells were material of choice for prehistoric craftsmen

Freshwater mussel shells were material of choice for prehistoric craftsmen

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

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

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

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

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

Cross-cultural tradition

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

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

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

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

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

Evolution

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

 

Press release from University of York


OCR: Modern Tool for Old Texts

OCR: Modern Tool for Old Texts

The OCR4all tool ensures converting historical printings into computer-readable texts. It is very reliable, user-friendly, and open source. It was developed by scientists at the University of Würzburg.

OCR OCR4all University of Würzburg Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg
Page from a french version of the "Narrenschiff". Such old fonts can be reliably converted into computer-readable text with OCR4all. Source: Dresden State and University Library (Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden), CC BY-SA 4.0

Historians and other Humanities’ scholars often have to deal with difficult research objects: centuries-old printed works that are difficult to decipher and often in an unsatisfactory state of conservation. Many of these documents have now been digitized – usually photographed or scanned – and are available online worldwide. For research purposes, this is already a step forward.

However, there is still a challenge to overcome: bringing the digitized old fonts into a modern form with text recognition software that is readable for non-specialists as well as for computers. Scientists at the Center for Philology and Digitality at Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (JMU) in Bavaria, Germany, have made a significant contribution to further development in this field.

With OCR4all, the JMU research team is making a new tool available to the scientific community. It converts digitized historical prints with an error rate of less than one percent into computer-readable texts. And it offers a graphical user interface that requires no IT expertise. With previous tools of this kind, user-friendliness was not always given as the users mostly had to work with programming commands.

Developed in cooperation with the humanities

The new OCR4all tool was developed under the direction of Christian Reul together with his computer science colleagues Professor Frank Puppe (Chair of Artificial Intelligence and Applied computer science) and Christoph Wick as well as Uwe Springmann (Digital Humanities expert) and numerous students and assistants.

OCR4all originates from the JMU Kallimachos project, which is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. This cooperation between the Humanities and computer science will be continued and institutionalized in the newly founded JMU Center for Philology and Digitality.

In developing OCR4all, computer scientists have collaborated with the Humanities at JMU – including German and Romance studies and literature studies in the project "Narragonien digital". The aim was to digitize the "Narrenschiff", a moral satire by Sebastian Brant, a bestseller of the 15th century that was translated into many languages. Furthermore, OCR4all has been frequently used in the JMU's Kolleg "Medieval and Early Modern Times".

OCR4all is freely available to the public on the GitHub platform (with instructions and examples): https://github.com/OCR4all

Each print shop had its own font

Christian Reul explains the challenges involved in the development of OCR4all: Automatic text recognition (OCR = Optical Character Recognition) has been working very well for modern fonts for some time now. However, this has not yet been the case for historical fonts.

"One of the biggest problems was typography," says Reul. One of the reasons for this is that the first printers of the 15th century did not use uniform fonts. "Their printing stamps were all carved by themselves, each printing house practically had its own letters.”

Error rates below one percent

Whether e or c, whether v or r - it is often not easy to distinguish in old prints, but software can learn to recognize such subtleties. To do so, it has to be trained on sample material. In his work, Reul has developed methods to make training more efficient. In a case study with six historical prints from the years 1476 to 1572, the average error rate in automatic text recognition was reduced from 3.9 to 1.7 percent.

Not only the methodology was improved, JMU computer scientist Christoph Wick has also decisively further refined the technical component by developing the Calamari OCR tool, which is also freely available and has since been fully integrated into OCR4all. Therefore, one gained even better results: Now, even for the oldest printed works, error rates of less than one percent can be achieved in general.

Lexical projects

Reul has also convinced external partners of the quality of Würzburg's OCR research. In cooperation with the "Zentrum für digitale Lexikographie der deutschen Sprache" (Berlin), Daniel Sanders' "Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache" (Dictionary of the German Language) has been digitally indexed and a scientific publication on this work is currently being prepared. The various lines of this text often contain different fonts, representing different semantic information. Here, the existing approach to character recognition was extended in such a way that not only the text but also the typography and thus the complex content structure of the lexicon may be reproduced very precisely.

The computer scientist from Würzburg will soon complete his doctoral thesis, but he is also willing to proceed working with OCR in the future: "The computer science behind OCR is extremely exciting," he says. A possible project in the near future: the creators of the "Idiotikon", a dictionary of the Swiss-German language, have indicated their interest in collaboration since they might well need the Würzburg's specialist knowledge.

JMU Center for Philology and Digitality

Website Christian Reul

Web Links

OCR4all on GitHub

Calamari on GitHub

Link to publication (case study with six historical books)

Publication combining methodological and technical improvements

Center for Philology and Digitality

The JMU Center for Philology and Digitality is the result of an initiative launched by Professors Dag Nikolaus Hasse, Fotis Jannidis and Ulrich Konrad. The Center bridges the gap between the Humanities, computer science and Digital Humanities. It represents the first building block for a new Humanities Center on the JMU North Campus.

A new building for the ZPD is to be erected there, close to the Graduate School building.  From 2022 on one expects around 100 people working in the new ZPD building on a total area of 2,700 square metres. The total cost of the building is estimated at 15 million euros. A digital lab, research rooms and lecture halls are planned on the ground floor of the ZPD. The upper floors will be used primarily for offices and communication rooms.

 

Press release from the Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg, JMU, by Robert Emmerich


University and State Library of Bonn books

600 books believed lost return to the University Library in Bonn

Books believed lost are back in Bonn
After more than 70 years 600 volumes return to the University Library in Bonn

Medieval documents belong to the now returned collection. This document comes from the Belgian monastery Valdieu (Valley of God) and is from the year 1255. Photo: Volker Lannert/Uni Bon

The University and State Library of Bonn (ULB) is celebrating the return of more than 600 volumes that had disappeared during the immediate post-war period. Among them are numerous historical works of high cultural and material value. It is the greatest successful return of lost books in the 200-year history of the University Library. In 2017, individual pieces of the book treasure, which had been privately owned for seventy years, appeared at the London auction house Sotheby's. The University of Bonn managed to obtain a quick and complete repatriation of the books.

According to estimates, the University and State Library lost up to 180,000 volumes during World War II. Many books were irretrievably destroyed in the bombing that devastated the University’s main building on October 18th, 1944. But even in the depots, where many books had been placed as a precautionary measure to protect them against the effects of war, an unknown number of volumes disappeared at the end of the war and in the immediate postwar period. Whether they were destroyed or stolen cannot be reconstructed today.

Sometimes books from this period return to Bonn after decades and on partly tortuous paths. Michael Herkenhoff, who is responsible for manuscripts at ULB, recalls: "We received a book back in 2011 and three books in 2018, which American soldiers had taken away at the end of the war. In the first case, the soldier returned the book himself, in the second case the heirs gave them back to the library." The books returned now were in the private possession of a Belgian. "These are of immense cultural and material value," says Dr. Herkenhoff, "and include medieval and modern manuscripts and documents, historical maps, early 15th-century prints, rare prints of the 16th century and numerous colored bird books."

Sotheby's contacted Bonn’s University and State Library

ULB director Dr. Ulrich Meyer-Doerpinghaus (left) and Dr. Michael Herkenhoff assess the returned books. Photo: Volker Lannert/Uni Bonn

The fact that the volumes belong to the ULB was noticed when the Belgian owner, who had inherited the books, offered these valuable pieces to the London auction house Sotheby's. The director of ULB, Ulrich Meyer-Doerpinghaus, says: "Sotheby's informed us after a thorough examination of the origin of the works to be auctioned. The return could then be resolved quickly and by mutual agreement with the Belgian owner."

How exactly the manuscripts and old prints arrived in Belgium is unknown. Dr. Herkenhoff says: "Many valuable volumes were stored between 1946 and 1950 in a bunker in Bonn. They may have been stolen during the period of Belgian occupation in Bonn.”

Books are back in BonnULB director Dr. Ulrich Meyer-Doerpinghaus (left) and Dr. Michael Herkenhoff assess the returned books. Photo: Volker Lannert/Uni Bonn

The rapid repatriation of more than 600 volumes was facilitated by the support of the Cultural Foundation of the Federal States and the Ministry of Culture and Science of North Rhine-Westphalia. "After more than 70 years, this treasure is back where it belongs. Thanks to the outstanding work of the responsible staff members, the return of this historic collection to Bonn’s University and State Library took place with mutual understanding and without any conflicts", says Dr. Hildegard Kaluza from the Ministry of Culture and Science of North Rhine-Westphalia. "I am very happy that the books are now once again available to researchers and the interested public." Prof. Dr. Markus Hilgert, Secretary General of the Cultural Foundation of the Federal States, emphasizes the enormous cultural significance of the volumes.
"Many of the old prints are not found in any other German library. They are an important testimony to the invention of book printing," he says.
"The compilation is returning to its original location, strengthening, among other things, the collection focus of the ULB - Romance Language and Literature."

The Rector of the University of Bonn Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Michael Hoch thanked everyone involved for their exemplary cooperation and adds: "I am especially pleased for our researchers, above all for our students.
It is now again possible for them to work scientifically with these unique testimonies from the old stock of our University and State Library."

University and State Library of Bonn books
Historical works are also among the returned pieces. This illustration is from the family book of Wilhelm Weyer. It contains numerous entries, especially of members of Lower Rhine families from the first half of the 17th century. Photo: Volker Lannert/Uni Bonn

Press release from the University of Bonn / Universität Bonn