Drones enable the first detailed mapping of the High Plateaus Basin in the Moroccan Atlas

Drones enable the first detailed mapping of the High Plateaus Basin in the Moroccan Atlas

The CENIEH has used this technology to assess how the landscape of this area in the Atlas chain has evolved, which is key to understanding human evolution in North Africa during the Quaternary

drones Atlas
Alfonso Benito driving the drones. Credits: M.G:Chacón (IPHES)

The Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH) has led a paper just published in the Journal of Maps, according to which, with the help of drones, it has been possible to obtain high-resolution aerial images and topographies, fundamental to compiling the first detailed map of the High Plateaus Basin, a region in Eastern Morocco key to understanding human evolution in North Africa during the Quaternary.

“We used the drones from our Digital Mapping and 3D Analysis Laboratory to analyze how the landscape in this intramountain basin in the Atlas chain has evolved, and thus distinguish the different geological formations”, says the lead author of this work, Alfonso Benito Calvo, head of the Geomorphology and Formation Processes line of research at CENIEH.

In the zone studied, there are abundant geological materials on great plains marked by fluvial channels which led finally to the formation of shallow lakes and wetlands. From that moment, deep valleys began to be incised, leaving fluvial terraces and buttes, formed under arid conditions with frequent climatic changes.

“Numerous archaeological remains of different chronologies are preserved today in this geological record, indicating the great potential of the region for studying the archaeological history of North Africa from the Pliocene to the present day”, states Benito Calvo.

This work was conducted under the auspices of a Spanish-Moroccan project, directed by the IPHES (Instituto Catalán de Paleoecología Humana y Evolución Social), in Tarragona, and Mohammed I University (Oujda, Morocco), and has institutional support from the local and regional authorities of the Moroccan province of Jerada,  the Fundación Palarq and the Ministerio de Cultura y Deporte.

Aerial photo of Gara Soultana, in the valley of El Haï river. Credits: Alfonso Benito Calvo

Full bibliographic information

Benito-Calvo, A., Haddoumi, H., Aouraghe, H., Oujaa, A., Chacón, M. G., & Sala-Ramos, R. (2020). Geomorphological analysis using small unmanned aerial vehicles and submeter GNSS (Gara Soultana butte, High Plateaus Basin, Eastern Morocco). Journal of Maps, 16(2), 459-467. doi: 10.1080/17445647.2020.1773329.

Press release from CENIEH


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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flint tools

Early humans deliberately recycled flint to create tiny, sharp tools

Early humans deliberately recycled flint to create tiny, sharp tools

Exceptional conditions at Israel's Qesem Cave preserved 400,000-year-old 'tool kit,' Tel Aviv University researchers say

flint tools
Experimental activity of cutting tubers with a small recycled flake and a close-up of its prehension (inset). Credit: Flavia Venditti/AFTAU

A new Tel Aviv University study finds that prehistoric humans "recycled" discarded or broken flint tools 400,000 years ago to create small, sharp utensils with specific functions. These recycled tools were then used with great precision and accuracy to perform specific tasks involved in the processing of animal products and vegetal materials.

The site of Qesem Cave, located just outside Tel Aviv, was discovered during a road construction project in 2000. It has since offered up countless insights into life in the region hundreds of thousands of years ago.

In collaboration with Prof. Cristina Lemorini of Sapienza University of Rome, the research was led jointly by postdoctoral fellow Dr. Flavia Venditti in collaboration with Profs. Ran Barkai and Avi Gopher. All three are members of TAU's Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures. It was published on April 11 in the Journal of Human Evolution.

In recent years, archaeologists working in caves in Spain and North Africa and digs in Italy and Israel have unearthed evidence that prehistoric people recycled objects they used in daily life. Just as we recycle materials such as paper and plastic to manufacture new items today, early hominids collected discarded or broken tools made of flint to create new utensils for specific purposes hundreds of thousands of years ago.

"Recycling was a way of life for these people," Prof. Barkai says. "It has long been a part of human evolution and culture. Now, for the first time, we are discovering the specific uses of the recycled 'tool kit' at Qesem Cave."

Exceptional conditions in the cave allowed for the immaculate preservation of the materials, including micro residue on the surface of the flint tools.

"We used microscopic and chemical analyses to discover that these small and sharp recycled tools were specifically produced to process animal resources like meat, hide, fat and bones," Venditti explains. "We also found evidence of plant and tuber processing, which demonstrated that they were also part of the hominids' diet and subsistence strategies."

According to the study, signs of use were found on the outer edges of the tiny objects, indicating targeted cutting activities related to the consumption of food: butchery activities and tuber, hide and bone processing. The researchers used two different and independent spectroscopic chemical techniques: Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) and scanning electron microscopy coupled with energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (SEM-EDX).

"The meticulous analysis we conducted allowed us to demonstrate that the small recycled flakes were used in tandem with other types of utensils. They therefore constituted a larger, more diversified tool kit in which each tool was designed for specific objectives," Venditti says.

She adds, "The research also demonstrates that the Qesem inhabitants practiced various activities in different parts of the cave: The fireplace and the area surrounding it were eventually a central area of activity devoted to the consumption of the hunted animal and collected vegetal resources, while the so-called 'shelf area' was used to process animal and vegetal materials to obtain different by-products."

"This research highlights two debated topics in the field of Paleolithic archaeology: the meaning of recycling and the functional role of small tools," Prof. Barkai observes. "The data from the unique, well-preserved and investigated Qesem Cave serve to enrich the discussion of these phenomena in the scientific community."

"Our data shows that lithic recycling at Qesem Cave was not occasional and not provoked by the scarcity of flint," Venditti concludes. "On the contrary, it was a conscious behavior which allowed early humans to quickly obtain tiny sharp tools to be used in tasks where precision and accuracy were essential."

The researchers are continuing to investigate prehistoric recycling by applying their analysis to other sites in Africa, Europe and Asia.

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Medicinal plants may be a key to understanding other cultures

Medicinal plants may be a key to understanding other cultures

medicinal plants herbal medicine ethnobotany Amazigh Morocco High Atlas
Irene Teixidor-Toneu together with one of the Amazigh women who contributed to her thorough research on plant use in the High Atlas. Credit: Dag Inge Danielsen/UiO

A new methodology for comparing herbal medicine across societies can also be used to understand the transfer of cultural traditions.

“I did a thorough documentation of the natural remedies, mostly plants, used by the Amazigh people in the High Atlas. Then, I studied how modernization in its various forms influences the use of plants,” explains Irene Teixidor-Toneu, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oslo, Norway.

“To summarize, there is a change in the use of substances, since people are open to medication prescribed by the doctor. At the same time, traditional knowledge and beliefs concerning plant use are kept alive, although traditions also change over time.”

Having spent almost a year in the Moroccan High Atlas mountains, ethnobotanist Irene Teixidor-Toneu finished her PhD on the use of medicinal plants in Amazigh (Berber) villages.

Her scientific article, describing the methodology, was published in the October issue of the journal Nature Plants. She is currently working at the Natural History Museum in Oslo, where her methods will be applied to map the use of medicinal plants in Scandinavia from Viking times until today, in a project that was launched in November 2018.

"The traditional way of life is under threat a lot of places, it's not simply about biodiversity, says Irene Teixidor Toneu. Credit: Dag Inge Danielsen/UiO

Modern or traditional medicine?Her PhD dissertation was devoted to the transmission of knowledge about medicinal plants used by a defined group of people.These were some of the basic questions Teixidor-Toneu studied:

  • Why are certain plants selected for medical use?
  • How are they used?
  • How does usage change over time?

If you were to ask a pharmacist, one obvious explanation to why certain plants are used,is that they contain phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are compounds developed in order help plants thrive or fight competitors, predators, or pathogens. Many phytochemicals have therapeutic effects.

However, there is always a combination of reasons why a plant is selected for use, according to Teixidor-Toneu.

From her field work in the High Atlas in Morocco. Credit: Irene Teixidor Toneu

Faith and loreEthnobiology is defined as the interdisciplinary study of how human cultures interact with and use their native plants and animals. Ethnobotany is defined as the plant lore of indigenous cultures, also the systematic study of such lore.

Irene Teixidor-Toneu explains:

“In studies of plant diversity and conservation, there are a lot of ecological models that don’t take people into account at all. If you think of the vegetation in the Mediterranean area, as an example, nothing makes sense if you don’t consider humans and their influence. After all, the region has been shaped and developed by man for millennia.”

From colouring to foodMost of us probably think of food, spice and medicine, when the subject of plant use is brought up. However, there is a multitude of historic and present practices. Like fumigation.

Fumigation is the physical process of burning and making smoke out of a plant. This can be ritual or medical or a combination of both. It can be done to clean out a dirty room, to remove fleas and ticks and other insects. In Morocco, the Amazigh burn plant that are rich in resins in order to clean the stables for their animals.

Other uses vary from producing and dyeing textiles, making furniture and utensils, construction of houses to providing fodder and veterinary medicine.

The interdisciplinary aspect is one reason why Irene Teixidor-Toneu finds ethnobotany so fascinating:

”There has been a patchwork of approaches and methods because people from different backgrounds have come together, with no common theoretical framework. Researchers from the humanities and natural scientists often have different approaches. In recent years, we have seen some articles trying to unite and define ethnobiology as one discipline, but there are still many ways to regard the interaction of people and plants.”

Constructing family treesTeixidor-Toneu has provided a significant contribution through her perspective article recently published in Nature Plants, with co-authors Fiona Jordan (evolutionary anthropologist, University of Bristol) and Julie A. Hawkins (phylogenetist, University of Reading).

Basically, it is a summary of the theoretical analysis for her PhD work. The article proposes a framework to study plant uses. This framework uses phylogenetic comparative methods applied to anthropological data, which involves – to put it simply - the construction of language family trees.

For some time, it has been used by anthropologists to gain understanding of the evolution of political, religious, social and material culture. It has not previously been applied to plant use, as pointed out by the editor of Nature Plants in the editorial:

“Normally we associate the use of (…) phylogenetic analyses to determine the relationships between species and groups of organisms, tracing their evolution back to putative common ancestors. (…) Teixidor-Toneu et al. have applied comparative phylogenetic methods, not to plants themselves but to the medicinal roles to which they have been put. Even within ethnobotany this is not a common approach, but the ability to use multiple types of data can produce robust and detailed information about how cultural information is transmitted”

Medicinal plants are of special interest because of their role in maintaining people’s health. Phylogenetic comparative methods can enable researchers to study the diversity of medicinal plant applications across cultures, and also to infer changes in plant use over time.

These methods can be applied to single medicinal plants as well as the entire set of plants used by a culture for medicine, known as a pharmacopoeia.

One of the Berber villages in Imlil in the Moroccan High Atlas, where Irene Teixidor-Toneu did her field studies. Credit: Dag Inge Danielsen/UiO

Plants and cultural knowledge are both endangered“I think the main significance of our paper is that it opens up new opportunities for studying plant use. At the moment, we are well aware that that biodiversity is threatened. Cultural diversity and traditional lifestyles are also threatened. In other words, many plants as well as the knowledge about how to use them, are endangered. Therefore, there is an urgent need to understand how various threatening factors interact and how use and knowledge change over time,” Irene Teixidor-Toneu explains, and adds:

“We are trying to understand plant use across cultures. The first thing we need to understand is how cultures are related. We use phylogeny models, or pedigrees, to trace relationships between people and cultures, based on language similarities.”

“Having traced evolutionary relationships between cultures, we can identify and try to understand the ways plants are used in different cultures. Within this framework we can also study how uses change, and it can be linked to geographical models. So, we end up with what we could call a biocultural geography.”

Full bibliographic information

Comparative phylogenetic methods and the cultural evolution of medicinal plant use. Irene Teixidor-Toneu, Fiona M. Jordan & Julie A. Hawkins. Nature Plants volume 4, pages 754–761 (2018)

 

Press release from Titan.uio.no/ (NO)


Caelian Hill Ian Haynes Rome Transformed project Paolo Liverani

New research aims to transform study of eight hundred years of Rome

New research aims to transform study of eight hundred years of Rome

An international, interdisciplinary team led by Newcastle University's Professor Ian Haynes aims to revolutionise understanding of Rome and its place in the transformation of the Mediterranean World

Caelian Hill Ian Haynes Rome Transformed project Paolo Liverani
Caelian Hill, one of the Seven Hills of Rome, Italy

Emperors and Popes

The £2.1 million (€2.4 million) project funded by the European Research Council will pioneer a radically new methodology designed to analyse complex urban landscapes, exploring buildings buried up to 10 metres below the modern ground surface. Its focusses on a ‘forgotten’ quarter of Rome which, while omitted from most tourist itineraries, served as home to emperors and popes for generations. Between the first and eighth centuries AD, many of the most powerful people on earth lived in and around the Caelian Hill in the south-east of the city.

Drawing together diverse strands of data to visualise the way this area changed over eight centuries, the team will examine in detail the character of its many features, from palaces and the world’s first cathedral, to fortifications, aqueducts and private homes. Revealing in turn how these related to each other and to prevailing political, military and religious ideas, Professor Haynes and his team will transform the way major shifts in the chronological, geographical and ideological history of Rome are understood.

Ideological shifts

Ian Haynes Newcastle University
Professor Ian Haynes project director

Ian, Professor of Archaeology in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology, who has directed archaeological investigations in the area around the Caelian Hill with Professor Paolo Liverani of the University of Florence for over 10 years – said:

“It is a tremendous privilege to be able to take this work forward. This grant not only allows us to develop a new cost-effective methodology applicable to the study of many of the world’s historic cities, delivering vital information to planners, heritage bodies, civil engineers, historians and archaeologists, it also helps us understand better some of the major ideological shifts that formed the world we live in.

“Over the course of this five-year project, we will be looking at the interplay of ideas, architecture, and infrastructure in the Caelian quarter to make the first ever large-scale assessment of the political, military and religious regenerations that emerged in this forgotten quarter of Rome. This matters because what happened here repeatedly shaped the development of Europe, the Middle East and north Africa”.

Rome Transformed

The project will involve colleagues from across Newcastle University, alongside the University of Florence, the British School at Rome and the National Research Centre for Italy’s Institute of Science for Cultural Heritage.

Involving extensive archival research, wide-ranging subterranean investigation, the largest geo-radar and laser scanning survey ever conducted in Rome, and using the latest digital 3D techniques, the Rome Transformed project will visualise five major transformations in the political, military and religious ideas that shaped ancient Rome over eight centuries.

Team members include archaeologists, architectural visualisers, botanists, computer scientists, engineers, geographers, geophysicists, historians, hydrologists and topographers.

 

Press release from the Newcastle University