timber Roman timber trade trading

Long-distance timber trade underpinned the Roman Empire's construction

Long-distance timber trade underpinned the Roman Empire's construction

timber Roman timber trade trading
Some of the oak planks in situ in the foundation of the portico. Credit: Bernabei at al., 2019, CC-BY

The ancient Romans relied on long-distance timber trading to construct their empire, according to a study published December 4, 2019 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Mauro Bernabei from the National Research Council, Italy, and colleagues.

The timber requirements of ancient Rome were immense and complex, with different types of trees from various locations around the Roman Empire and beyond used for many purposes, including construction, shipbuilding and firewood. Unfortunately, the timber trade in ancient Rome is poorly understood, as little wood has been found in a state adequate for analysis. In this study, Bernabei et al successfully date and determine the origin and chronology of unusually well-preserved ancient Roman timber samples.

The twenty-four oak timber planks (Quercus species) analyzed in this study were excavated during Metro construction in Rome during 2014-2016. They formed part of a Roman portico in the gardens of via Sannio (belonging to what was once a lavishly decorated and rich property). The authors measured the tree-ring widths for each plank and ran statistical tests to determine average chronology, successfully dating thirteen of the planks.

By comparing their dated planks to Mediterranean and central European oak reference chronologies, the authors found that the oaks used for the Roman portico planks were taken from the Jura mountains in eastern France, over 1700km away. Based on the sapwood present in 8 of the thirteen samples, the authors were able to narrow the date these oaks were felled to between 40 and 60 CE and determined that the planks all came from neighboring trees. Given the timber's dimensions and the vast distance it travelled, the authors suggest that ancient Romans (or their traders) likely floated the timber down the Saône and Rhône rivers in present-day France before transporting it over the Mediterranean Sea and then up the river Tiber to Rome, though this cannot be confirmed.

The authors note that the difficulty of obtaining these planks--which were not specially sourced for an aesthetic function but used in the portico's foundations--suggests that the logistical organization of ancient Rome was considerable, and that their trade network was highly advanced.

Bernabei notes: "This study shows that in Roman times, wood from the near-natural woodlands of north-eastern France was used for construction purposes in the centre of Rome. Considering the distance, calculated to be over 1700km, the timber sizes, [and] the means of transportation with all the possible obstacles along the way, our research emphasises the importance of wood for the Romans and the powerful logistic organisation of the Roman society."


Citation: Bernabei M, Bontadi J, Rea R, Büntgen U, Tegel W (2019) Dendrochronological evidence for long-distance timber trading in the Roman Empire. PLoS ONE 14(12): e0224077. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0224077

Funding: WT received funding from the German Research Foundation (DFG, TE 613/3-2). UB received funding from the Czech Republic Grant Agency (17-22102s).

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.


Press release from the Public Library of Sciences.


Neanderthal extinction

Declining fertility rates may explain Neanderthal extinction, suggests new model

Declining fertility rates may explain Neanderthal extinction, suggests new model

Population modelling shows population could have dwindled to extinction due to demographics, not catastrophe

Neanderthal extinction
Spatial distribution and location of the 3 Neanderthal subpopulations.
Southern Europe (labeled A in green), Northern Europe (labelled B in yellow), and Eastern Europe (labeled C in purple) according to [61]. The full demographic model we used to simulate Neanderthal population dynamics was composed of three sub-models corresponding to each of the identified sub-populations. We included a migration parameter (noted ψ) to allow for individuals to move from a sub-population to another. Copyright: © 2019 Degioanni et al.
A new hypothesis for Neanderthal extinction supported by population modelling is put forward in a new study by Anna Degioanni from Aix Marseille Université, France and colleagues, published May 29, 2019 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

The lack of empirical data allowing testing of hypotheses is one of the biggest challenges for researchers studying Neanderthal extinction. Many hypotheses involve catastrophic events such as disease or climate change. In order to test alternative hypothetical extinction scenarios, Degioanni and colleagues created a Neanderthal population model allowing them to explore demographic factors which might have resulted in declining populations and population extinction over a period of 4,000-10,000 years (a time frame compatible with known Neanderthal history). The researchers created baseline demographic parameters for their Neanderthal extinction model (e.g. survival, migration, and fertility rates) based on observational data on modern hunter-gatherer groups and extant large apes, as well as available Neanderthal paleo-genetic and empirical data from earlier studies. The authors defined populations as extinct when they fell below 5,000 individuals.

The authors saw that in their model, extinction would have been possible within 10,000 years with a decrease in fertility rates of young (<20 year-old) Neanderthal women of just 2.7 percent; if the fertility rate decreased by 8 percent, extinction occurred within 4,000 years. If this decrease in fertility was amplified by a reduction in survival of infants (children less than one year old), a decrease in survival of just 0.4 percent could have led to extinction in 10,000 years.

The authors intended to explore possible Neanderthal extinction scenarios rather than to posit any definitive explanation. However, the researchers note that this study is the first to use empirical data to suggest that relatively minor demographic changes, such as a reduction in fertility or an increase in infant mortality, might have led to Neanderthal extinction. The authors note that modelling can be a useful tool in studying Neanderthals.

The authors add: "This study of the disappearance of the Neanderthals published today in PLOS ONE does not attempt to explain "why" the Neanderthals disappeared, but to identify "how" their demise may have taken place. This original approach is made on the basis of demographic modeling. The results suggest that a very small reduction in fertility may account for the disappearance of the Neanderthal population. According to this research, this decrease did not concern all female Neanderthals, but only the youngest (less than 20 years old)."

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

Humans used northern migration routes to reach eastern Asia

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


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

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

'Heading North' Out of Africa and into Asia

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

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

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

A "Green Gobi"?

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

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

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

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

Where did you come from, where did you go?

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Funding: This study was funded by Max-Planck-Gesellschaft (DE) to Nicole Boivin, Strategic Priority Research Program of Chinese Academy of Sciences grant XDB26000000 to Feng Li, and Youth Innovation Promotion Association of the Chinese Academy of Sciences grant 2017102 to Feng Li. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.


Press release from the Public Library of Sciences

Ancient fish ponds in the Bolivian savanna supported human settlement

Ancient fish ponds in the Bolivian savanna supported human settlement

Detailed study of taxa supports intentional maintenance of fish habitat for food

Interior of circular pond with canal exit visible in the center of the far margin. Credit: Prestes-Carneiro et al., 2019

A network of fish ponds supported a permanent human settlement in the seasonal drylands of Bolivia more than one thousand years ago, according to a new study published May 15, 2019 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Gabriela Prestes-Carneiro of Federal University of Western Para, Brazil, and colleagues. The study is the first to document the full range of fish species likely kept in these constructed ponds, and provides new insights into how humans modified the savannah environment to cope with the months-long droughts that characterize this region of the Amazon Basin.

The Llanos de Mojos region in central Bolivia is a vast plain which receives flooding rains from October to April, and then virtually no precipitation the rest of the year. Beginning about 500 AD, humans began to create monumental earthen mounds in the region, on which permanent settlements were established. One, called Loma Salavtierra, located more than 50 kilometers from the nearest major river, has become an important archaeological site. Previous work has established the existence of a series of shallow ponds rimmed by low earthen walls and connected by canals, which are believed to have captured rainfall and stored it throughout the dry season, potentially built to serve multiple purposes including water storage, drainage, and fish management.

fish ponds Bolivia
Fish remains from Loma Salvatierra. Credit: Prestes-Carneiro et al., 2019

In the current study, the authors conducted osteological and taxonomic identifications on the remains of over 17,000 fish found in midden piles at the site with the aid of a comparative collection. They identified more than 35 different taxa of fish, with four types of fish predominating: swamp-eels, armored catfish, lungfish, and tiger-fish, all of which are adapted to conditions of low oxygen and fluctuating water levels, as would be expected to arise in the ponds during the long dry period between annual rains.

Together with evidence of similar pond networks elsewhere in the region, the authors suggest that their results point to the use of these ponds for harvesting fish year-round, far from any rivers, permanent natural ponds, or other open-water habitat. Further studies will be needed to investigate fish storage and holding activities, and whether these activities changed in response to precipitation and landscape fluctuations.

The authors add: "The savanna, in contrast to the large Amazonian rivers, presents a distinct set of fishing habitats where humans likely established specific fishing strategies."

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imitation amber pine resin Iberian peninsula

First examples of Iberian prehistoric 'imitation amber' beads at gravesites

First examples of Iberian prehistoric 'imitation amber' beads at gravesites

Unscrupulous traders might have cheated rich customers with fake amber beads

imitation amber beads pine resin Iberian peninsula
These are amber bead samples studied in this paper. Credit: Odriozola et al., 2019, CC BY

Prehistoric Iberians created "imitation amber" by repeatedly coating bead cores with tree resins, according to a study published May 1, 2019 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Carlos Odriozola from Universidad de Sevilla, Spain, and colleagues.

Many studies have confirmed the ornamental and symbolic importance of amber to European prehistoric peoples. This study is the first to discuss potential prehistoric Iberian "imitation amber" beads made using the application of repeated resinite coatings on top of a bead core.

The authors obtained beads from two prehistoric sites in Spain: two from a cave tomb at the La Molina site in Sevilla, dating from the 3rd millennium BC, and four from a burial site in Cova del Gegant near Barcelona, dating from the 2nd millennium BC. Using infrared spectroscopy, an electron microscope probe, x-ray diffraction, and spectroscopy, the authors were able to study the chemical composition and structure of all six bead cores and coatings.

The beads from Cova del Gegant had a mollusk shell core, covered by a multilayered coating made up of tree resins, most likely pine. The beads were covered by a calcium-containing white deposit, which likely precipitated post-burial from the bone tissue of buried individuals. The beads from La Molina were also composed of a core covered by an amber-like resin, as well as two topmost layers of cinnabar and calcite which probably coated the beads post-burial.

The authors speculate these coating technologies were used to imitate amber's translucence, shine, and color, since during this prehistoric period, amber was relatively rare and highly in demand. However, both tomb sites contained other exotic materials such as ivory, gold and cinnabar, so it's not clear why individuals able to obtain these rare goods would use amber alternatives. The authors speculate that, especially in the Cova del Gegant where "imitation amber" was found directly alongside true amber beads, unscrupulous traders may have substituted low-cost fake amber to cheat their buyers. The authors also suggest chemical analysis of apparent "amber" artifacts could prevent erroneous amber identification in future studies of such Iberian sites.


Citation: Odriozola CP, Garrido Cordero JÁ, Daura J, Sanz M, Martínez-Blanes JM, Avilés MÁ (2019) Amber imitation? Two unusual cases of Pinus resin-coated beads in Iberian Late Prehistory (3rd and 2nd millennia BC). PLoS ONE 14(5): e0215469. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0215469

Funding: This research was funded by the MINECO/AEI/FEDER -EU under contract HAR2012-34620 and HAR2017-83474-P. José Ángel Garrido Cordero acknowledges the University of Seville for a PhD grant under the V Plan Propio de Investigación de la Universidad de Sevilla. Montserrat Sanz acknowledges the program Juan de la Cierva for a postdoctoral grant (FJCI-2014-21386). Daura holds a postdoctoral grant (SFRH/BPD/ 100507/2014?) from the Portuguese Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia using funding from the FSE/POPH.

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.


Press release from the Public Library of Sciences (PLOS)