giant ostrich Crimean cave

Bird three times larger than ostrich discovered in Crimean cave

Bird three times larger than ostrich discovered in Crimean cave

First evidence that giant ostrich-like birds once roamed Europe

giant ostrich Crimean cave
PaleoArt of the bird discovered in a Crimean cave. It weighed three times the largest living bird, the common ostrich. Credit: Andrey Atuchin

A surprise discovery in a Crimean cave suggests that early Europeans lived alongside some of the largest ever known birds, according to new research published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

It was previously thought that such gigantism in birds only ever existed on the islands of Madagascar and New Zealand as well as Australia. The newly-discovered specimen, discovered in the Taurida Cave on the northern coast of the Black Sea, suggests a bird as giant as the Madagascan elephant bird or New Zealand moa. It may have been a source of meat, bones, feathers and eggshell for early humans.

"When I first felt the weight of the bird whose thigh bone I was holding in my hand, I thought it must be a Malagasy elephant bird fossil because no birds of this size have ever been reported from Europe. However, the structure of the bone unexpectedly told a different story," says lead author Dr Nikita Zelenkov from the Russian Academy of Sciences.

"We don't have enough data yet to say whether it was most closely related to ostriches or to other birds, but we estimate it weighed about 450kg. This formidable weight is nearly double the largest moa, three times the largest living bird, the common ostrich, and nearly as much as an adult polar bear."

It is the first time a bird of such size has been reported from anywhere in the northern hemisphere. Although the species was previously known, no one ever tried to calculate the size of this animal. The flightless bird, attributed to the species Pachystruthio dmanisensis, was probably at least 3.5 metres tall and would have towered above early humans. It may have been flightless but it was also fast.

While elephant birds were hampered by their great size when it came to speed, the femur of the current bird was relatively long and slim, suggesting it was a better runner. The femur is comparable to modern ostriches as well as smaller species of moa and terror birds. Speed may have been essential to the bird's survival. Alongside its bones, palaeontologists found fossils of highly-specialised, massive carnivores from the Ice Age. They included giant cheetah, giant hyenas and sabre-toothed cats, which were able to prey on mammoths.

Other fossils discovered alongside the specimen, such as bison, help date it to 1.5 to 2 million years ago. A similar range of fossils was discovered at an archaeological site in the town of Dmanisi in Georgia, the oldest hominin site outside Africa. Although previously neglected by science, this suggests the giant bird may have been typical of the animals found at the time when the first hominins arrived in Europe. The authors suggest it reached the Black Sea region via the Southern Caucasus and Turkey.

The body mass of the bird was reconstructed using calculations from several formulae, based on measurements from the femur bone. Applying these formulae, the body mass of the bird was estimated to be around 450kg. Such gigantism may have originally evolved in response to the environment, which was increasingly arid as the Pleistocene epoch approached. Animals with a larger body mass have lower metabolic demands and can therefore make use of less nutritious food growing in open steppes.

"The Taurida cave network was only discovered last summer when a new motorway was being built. Last year, mammoth remains were unearthed and there may be much more to that the site will teach us about Europe's distant past," says Zelenkov.

Read more


Ancient feces reveal parasites in 8,000-year-old village of Çatalhöyük

Ancient feces reveal parasites in 8,000-year-old village of Çatalhöyük

parasites whipworm Çatalhöyük
South area excavation of Çatalhöyük, Turkey, in 2003. Author: Ziggurat, CC BY-SA 3.0

New research published today in the journal Antiquity reveals that ancient faeces from the prehistoric village of Çatalhöyük have provided the earliest archaeological evidence for intestinal parasite infection in the mainland Near East.

People first gave up hunting and gathering and turned to farming in the Near East, around 10,000 years ago. The settlement of Çatalhöyük is famous for being an incredibly well preserved early village founded around 7,100 BC. The population of Çatalhöyük were early farmers, growing crops such as wheat and barley, and herding sheep and goats.

"It has been suggested that this change in lifestyle resulted in a similar change in the types of diseases that affected them. As the village is one of the largest and most densely populated of its time, this study at Çatalhöyük helps us to understand that process better," says study lead Dr Piers Mitchell of Cambridge's Department of Archaeology.

The toilet was first invented in the 4th millennium BC in Mesopotamia, 3000 years later than when Çatalhöyük flourished. It is thought the people living at Çatalhöyük either went to the rubbish tip (midden) to open their bowels, or carried their faeces from their houses to the midden in a vessel or basket to dispose of them.

"We would expect this to have put the population at risk of diseases spread by contact with human faeces, and explains why they were vulnerable to contracting whipworm," says the study first author Marissa Ledger.

"As writing was only invented 3000 years after the time of Çatalhöyük, the people were unable to record what happened to them during their lives. This research enables us for the first time to imagine the symptoms felt by some of the prehistoric people living at Çatalhöyük who were infected by this parasite."

To look for the eggs of intestinal parasites, Cambridge researchers Mitchell, Ledger and Evilena Anastasiou used microscopy to study preserved pieces of human faeces (coprolites) from a rubbish tip, and soil formed from decomposed faeces recovered from the pelvic region of burials. The samples dated from 7,100-6150 BC.

To determine whether the coprolites excavated from the midden were from human or animal faeces, they were analysed for sterols and bile acids at the University of Bristol Mass Spectrometry Facility by Helen Mackay, Lisa Marie Shillito, and Ian Bull. This analysis demonstrated that the coprolites were of human origin.

Further microscopic analysis showed that eggs of whipworm were present in two of the coprolites, demonstrating that people from the prehistoric village were infected by this intestinal parasite.

"It was a special moment to identify parasite eggs over 8000 years old," said study co-author Evilena Anastasiou.

Whipworms are 3-5cm in length, and live on the lining of the intestines of the large bowel. Adult worms can live for 5 years. Male and female worms mate and their eggs are mixed in with the faeces. Whipworm is spread by the contamination of food or drink from human faeces that contain the worm eggs. A heavy infection with whipworm can lead to anaemia, diarrhoea, stunted growth and reduced intelligence in children.

"Now we need to find ancient faecal material from prehistoric hunter gathers in the Near East, to help us understand how this change in lifestyle affected their diseases." added Mitchell.

Read more


ZooArchNet humans' environmental impact

New data platform illuminates history of humans' environmental impact

New data platform illuminates history of humans' environmental impact

ZooArchNet humans' environmental impact
These jawbones come from animals collected at archaeological sites in the southeastern US. The bottom of the black bear jaw in the center box has been cut, possibly for use in a mask. Credit: Florida Museum photo by Kristen Grace

GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- The human environmental footprint is not only deep, but old.

Ancient traces of this footprint can be found in animal bones, shells, scales and antlers at archaeological sites. Together, these specimens tell the millennia-long story of how humans have hunted, domesticated and transported animals, altered landscapes and responded to environmental changes such as shifting temperatures and sea levels.

Now, that story is available digitally through a new open-access data platform known as ZooArchNet, which links records of animals across biological and archaeological databases.

Making these specimen records accessible digitally helps provide a long-term perspective on current biodiversity crises, such as animal extinction and habitat loss, and could lead to more informed conservation policies, said Michelle LeFebvre, postdoctoral associate at the Florida Museum of Natural History and lead author of a study introducing ZooArchNet.

"If we're interested in really understanding the long history of human-animal interactions and environmental change, these records are key," she said. "They fill a gap between paleontological and modern records and reconstruct biodiversity baselines from the earliest periods of human history."

Zooarchaeological specimens - which can range from a carved bone pin to a shell fragment from a heap of discarded oysters - provide both biologically and culturally important information, LeFebvre said.

ZooArchNet VertNet humans' environmental impact
These rodent remains from the Caribbean islands help illuminate the role humans played in transporting animals into areas where they had not previously lived. Historical specimens like these can inform modern conservation policies by refining scientists' understanding of animals' past distributions. Credit: Florida Museum photo by Kristen Grace

ZooArchNet connects the biological data for these ancient animal specimens in VertNet and other biodiversity databases with their associated archaeological information in cultural databases such as Open Context.

Robert Guralnick, co-principal investigator of ZooArchNet and Florida Museum associate curator of bioinformatics, said the platform's goal is "not to be 'yet another data portal,' but a connector across disciplines. In that way, ZooArchNet is more of a bridge than anything else, but it does that bridging in a formal way to make data work."

This interdisciplinary connection will enable data-rich biodiversity research essential for understanding humans' widespread impact on the environment, said Kitty Emery, co-principal investigator of ZooArchNet and Florida Museum associate curator of environmental archaeology.

"We often think that our dramatic influence on the natural world is a modern phenomenon, but in reality, humans have shaped the environment for hundreds of thousands of years," she said. "Factoring that history into current studies of biodiversity can provide ancient lessons about how and why people make certain decisions about using their environment. Why do people hunt some animals to extinction and domesticate others? What motivates them to shift from sustainable environmental uses to ones that decimate landscapes? The human component provides that side of the equation - an essential piece of the puzzle when trying to solve modern environmental problems."

As conservation groups prioritize species on the brink, zooarchaeological records can offer insights into where animals lived in the past, how their distribution has shifted, what roles people may have played in their movements and how close relationships between people and domesticated animals have evolved over time. Sometimes these records tell a surprising story, LeFebvre said.

Her work with historical records of hutia, Caribbean rodents that resemble small capybaras, shows that indigenous people transported some of these animals to new islands, expanding their range into areas where they had not lived previously. These records can lead to better-informed conservation of hutia, several species of which are currently vulnerable to extinction or in danger of disappearing from certain islands, LeFebvre said.

"When you see people saying, 'This critter is native to this island chain,' these records help us say, 'Actually, it was human-introduced and we should think about what that may mean for conservation efforts over time,'" she said. "Zooarchaeological specimens really contribute to what we conceptualize as natural distributions."

Zooarchaeological specimens can also provide insights into how, when and why humans domesticated animals in the distant past. Research by Emery and her colleague Erin Thornton of Washington State University on the earliest uses of the Mexican domesticated turkey, the ancestor of modern domestic turkeys, highlights how motivations for raising animals can change over time.

"Our recent work suggests that these birds were first domesticated for their feathers and symbolic links to power and prestige, rather than as a source of food," she said.

Archaeology can also illuminate how people contended with challenges such as rising sea levels and fluctuating temperatures in the past.

Ongoing work by LeFebvre and Neill Wallis, Florida Museum associate curator of archaeology, shows that the diet of people on Florida's Gulf Coast transitioned from freshwater to marine food sources as the climate cooled 1,400 years ago.

"Humans have dealt with climate change in the past, though not at the same scale of devastation we're facing now," LeFebvre said. "Reconstructing their responses provides us with a critical perspective. Where did people go? What changes in animals and plants happened in the past that we can anticipate happening again? We have a long human record that we can look back to and model off of."

One of the steps in the creation of ZooArchNet was designing protocols to standardize and publish zooarchaeological data in ways that both biodiversity and archaeological researchers could use, Emery said.

"Zooarchaeologists have been getting data out there, but until now, the data have not been discoverable, searchable and usable in an open-access way by the larger biological research community," she said. "ZooArchNet allows zooarchaeological data to be part of the massive interdisciplinary movement toward biodiversity data sharing and accessibility while preserving the human component of how life on Earth has changed."

LeFebvre said that making zooarchaeological data discoverable via ZooArchNet means "the sky's the limit" for new types of interdisciplinary collaborations and research questions.

"If we want to conduct studies that will help inform policy, the data need to be open to all kinds of minds and disciplines. That's the contribution I'm most excited to be a part of. That's bigger than any one discipline or research community - that's huge."

Read more


labor practices Middle East Allison Mickel Lehigh University

Better labor practices could improve archaeological output

Better labor practices could improve archaeological output

New analysis illuminates how much archaeological knowledge production has fundamentally relied upon site workers' active choices in responding to labor conditions

 

labor practices Middle East Allison Mickel Lehigh University
An excavation site in Petra, Jordan. Credit: Allison Mickel

Archaeological excavation has, historically, operated in a very hierarchical structure, according to archaeologist Allison Mickel. The history of the enterprise is deeply entangled with Western colonial and imperial pursuits, she says. Excavations have been, and often still are, according to Mickel, led by foreigners from the West, while dependent on the labor of scores of people from the local community to perform the manual labor of the dig.

In a recently published paper examining some of this history specifically in the context archaeological excavations undertaken in the Middle East? Mickel writes: "Even well into the 20th century, locally hired excavation workers continued to benefit little from working on archaeological projects, still predominantly directed by European and American researchers who paid extremely low wages and did not share their purpose, progress, hypotheses, or conclusions with local community members."

Over time, the teams have gotten smaller in size, but hiring and labor practices remain the same, explains Mickel, an assistant professor of anthropology at Lehigh University, who specializes in the Middle East.

"We haven't really changed the hierarchy of how we hire or the fact that workers are paid minimum wage--sometimes as little as a few dollars a day, which is not very much to spend even in their own context, for work that is dangerous and has a lot of risk to it," she says.

In a new paper, "Essential Excavation Experts: Alienation and Agency in the History of Archaeological Labor," published in Archaeologies: Journal of the World Archaeological Congress, Mickel illuminates the ways that nineteenth century archaeologists working in the Middle East managed local labor in ways that reflected capitalist labor management models. She focuses on two case studies from early Middle Eastern archaeology by examining the memoirs of two 19th century archaeologists: Italian archaeologist Giovanni Battista Belzoni, known for his work in Egypt, and British archaeologist Sir Austen Henry Layard, best known for his work in Nimrud, an ancient Assyrian city about 20 miles south of Mosul, Iraq.

Mickel's analysis reveals the different ways local laborers responded to similar conditions. Her examination ultimately reveals how much archaeological knowledge has fundamentally relied upon the active choices made by the local laborers who do the digging.

Divergent responses to exploitative labor practices

Mickel argues that the framework established by the German philosopher and economist Karl Marx of the capitalist mode of production can be seen in 19th century archaeological work in the Middle East and, in many ways, in archaeological projects today. This includes Marx's assertion that, she writes, "...the capitalist mode of production leads to workers experiencing a sense of powerlessness and an inability to fulfill the potential of their own skills, expertise, and abilities."

In Mickel's analysis, Belzoni's approach to securing and retaining local laborers for his work in Egypt, which began in 1816, exemplified the conditions of modes of production that lead to his workers' "...alienation in the Marxist sense," beginning with how little he paid them.

She writes: "Monetarily devaluing the archaeological work of native Egyptians in this way engenders an understanding that archaeological labor is quite literally of little worth--one that in Marx's view deeply impacts the self-image of the workers in a production process. Not only were the workers paid next to nothing for performing the manual labor of Belzoni's endeavors, they were also not involved in the conceptualization of the project. In the end, the antiquities were subsequently shipped thousands of miles away, challenging both ideologically and spatially any relationship between the workers and the archaeological objects being unearthed through excavation, as well as the knowledge gleaned from them."

Mickel also writes about Belzoni's use of strongarm tactics to maintain the workforce he employed. These include resorting to physical violence and bribery?strategies Belzoni used, in one example, on a foreman to force laborers to return to work during a strike.

During his famed excavation of the Memnon Head in 1816, Belzoni had to leave the site for an extended period of time in order to raise funds. He believed, writes Mickel, "...that the workers and their families were too lazy to dig on their own..."

"Indeed," she continues, "no substantial digging proceeded in Belzoni's absence by the time he returned. The reasons for this surely have nothing to with any indolence on the part of the native Egyptian workforce, but rather can be explained in terms of alienation."

In examining Layard's memoir, Mickel finds that although Layard worked in the same region and during the same time period as Belzoni, his workers' responded to similar working conditions very differently.

"Operating under extremely similar circumstances," writes Mickel, "the groups of workers examined here made very divergent decisions about how best to respond to an exploitative labor system, whether to rise up demonstratively against it or to resist the devaluation of their work by establishing themselves as essential to the production of artifacts and historical knowledge."

Layard's strategies for hiring and managing a local labor force had much in common with Belzoni's, including elements of capitalist labor relations modes such as low wages. Additionally, Layard's memoirs suggest "...that he viewed the total excavation endeavor as metaphorically signifying the superiority of Western civilization over Oriental peoples and cultures."

And yet Layard's workmen, explains Mickel, often appear in his writing as trusted experts in the excavation process: "These men developed impressive excavation abilities that Layard himself recognized, repeatedly hiring the same groups of people for season after season and site after site. One native Assyrian man whom he hired again and again, Hormuzd Rassam, ultimately went on to lead his own excavations on behalf of the British Museum at places like Nimrud and Nineveh; Rassam even published his own archaeological memoirs for popular distribution like Layard and other archaeologists of the time"

Mickel compares these two contexts and concludes: "Operating under extremely similar circumstances, the groups of workers examined here made very divergent decisions about how best to respond to an exploitative labor system, whether to rise up demonstratively against it or to resist the devaluation of their work by establishing themselves as essential to the production of artifacts and historical knowledge."

Focusing attention on the divergent decision these two groups of laborers made reveals how much is owed to archaeological workers' localized responses to a structure designed to maximize benefit to the archaeologists and minimize workers' control within the project, asserts Mickel.

She writes: "What would the archaeological record look like if this was not the case? How would archaeological knowledge be transformed if the means of its production were not controlled by archaeologists alone but shared with local stakeholders?"

Digging and questioning

As part of her work, Mickel supervises and participates in excavations in regions such as Petra, Jordan and Çatalhöyük, Turkey, while researching the history of archaeology and its contemporary practice.

Mickel has spent two to three months each summer in Turkey and Jordan, and between 2011 and 2015 spent a year at both sites, conducting dissertation fieldwork on a Fulbright grant.

"What I find in [Petra and Çatalhöyük] is relevant to a lot of other contexts because archaeology is fairly regional in its practice," she says.

Beyond digging, Mickel examines records of archaeological excavations for the individuals listed as site workers. She visits their homes and asks questions about the site workers' experiences on the excavations.

"I found that this system has led to one in which workers are doing this dance all the time in archaeology where they are integral to carrying out an excavation, they work for almost nothing, they are good at what they do, they have decades of experience in addition to generational knowledge that's been handed down. ... Most of these people, for context, their fathers worked in archaeology, their grandfathers worked in archaeology--it's almost like a family business for them to be there. So they have a ton of knowledge, but if I tell them how much I admire their expertise, they react really negatively to that label of expertise."

Mickel believes that an improvement of labor practices would benefit not just workers, but archaeology as a whole. She argues for ways in which the field could be producing better science if archaeologists were to change their labor practices.

"This isn't charity work," says Mickel. "If we want to have better archaeology, if we want to know more about the past, then we need to find ways to benefit from the knowledge that local people have been hiding for decades and decades and decades from us."

###

Read more about this story in Lehigh's newsroom: Allison Mickel Examines the Limiting Labor Practices of Modern Archaeological Excavations.

 

Press release from Lehigh University


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

Switch from hunting to herding recorded in ancient pee

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

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

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

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

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

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

Connecting the Dots

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

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

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

A Rapid Transition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Broader Revolution

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

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

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

 

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

 

Urine salts provide evidence of Early Neolithic animal management

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

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

Press release from the American Association for the Advancement of Science


desert kites U2 spy plane Iraq Near East

Declassified U2 spy plane images reveal bygone Middle Eastern archaeological features

Declassified U2 spy plane images reveal bygone Middle Eastern archaeological features

Researchers from Penn and Harvard are the first to make archaeological use of U2 spy plane imagery, and have created a tool that allows other researchers to identify and access the Cold War-era photos

desert kites U2 spy plane Iraq Near East
FIGURE 12. Chains of desert kites as visible in U2 imagery from mission 1554, January 30, 1960 (Roll 14L, Frame 1783). Web map version at https://arcg.is/0jreeP.

In the 1950s and early '60s, with the Cold War at its peak, the United States flew U2 spy planes across Europe, the Middle East, and central eastern Asia, taking images of interesting military targets. Though the missions typically connected Point A to Point B, say an air field and an important city, in many cases the camera kept recording between those spots, capturing thousands of photos of the desert, steppes, fields, and villages below.

Such a collection can represent a goldmine for landscape archaeologists like Emily Hammer of the University of Pennsylvania and Jason Ur of Harvard University. But for decades, all film and documents from these missions--code-named CHESS by the U.S. government--remained classified. And even when they became public in 1997, they weren't indexed or scanned.

Until now, the majority of this kind of historical aerial documentation came from the CORONA spy satellite program, which the U.S. ran between 1959 and 1972. But only the highest-resolution CORONA images, taken during the program's final five years, are useful for most archaeological purposes. The U2 photos are earlier and a higher resolution than even the best CORONA images, offering the chance to see historical features undecipherable by CORONA or already gone by the time of those missions.

Knowing the potential insight offered by the U2 images, Hammer and Ur began sifting through the materials. By analyzing thousands of high- and low-resolution frames, they discovered many historical and archeological features, including prehistoric hunting traps, 3,000-year-old irrigation canals, and 60-year-old marsh villages no longer visible today. The work, which they published in the journal Advances in Archaeological Practice, represents the first archaeological use of U2 spy plane imagery--and a new and exciting window into history.

"The photos provide a fascinating look at the Middle East several decades ago, showing, for example, historical Aleppo long before the massive destruction wrought in the ongoing civil war," says Hammer, an assistant professor in Penn's Near Eastern languages and civilizations department. "Plus, the work and the accompanying online resources will allow other researchers to identify and access U2 photos for the first time."

Hammer and Ur have both conducted research in the Middle East for decades, in Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. They've also both used CORONA spy satellite imagery extensively. However, many of those image sets didn't date back as far as Hammer wished they would. "We knew that U2 spy planes must have taken thousands of images across large parts of the Middle East, but there was no easy way to access or reproduce the film negatives," she says.

A chance encounter with Lin Xu, a researcher who had retrieved U2 images of his hometown in China, led Hammer and Ur to press on. "Seeing the amazing quality of those archival photos," Hammer says, "we knew that it would be worth the detective work it would take to build a systematic index of them."

It wasn't an easy process. Ahead of time, they had to select the film rolls they wanted moved from the National Archives' storage center in Kansas to the aerial film section in Maryland. Once there, the researchers unspooled hundreds of feet of film over a light table to identify pertinent frames, then photographed the negatives in pieces using a 100-millimeter macro lens. Later, they stitched together and adjusted each frame, before geo-referencing the photos using GIS software to match up images with coordinates of real-world places.

Despite the tedium of some of the individual tasks, the process excited Hammer. "As you turn the spool of a film roll following the path of the U2 plane, you may not know exactly what you'll see in unfamiliar places, so there's often a sense of exploration and discovery," she says. "Other times, the pilots were flying over regions I knew by heart from travel and study, and I would almost hold my breath, hoping that the plane had veered just a little to the right or left."

The hours of work paid off, revealing many important archaeological features, including prehistoric hunting traps called desert kites in eastern Jordan, an Assyrian canal system in northern Iraq, and marshes in southern Iraq, case studies the researchers highlighted in their paper.

Desert kites, stone-wall structures that date back 5,000 to 8,000 years, were used to trap gazelle and other similar animals. The dry desert of eastern Jordan preserved many of them, but agricultural expansion in western Jordan dismantled or destroyed many more. The satellite images bring them back to life, showcasing a web of diamond-shaped enclosures with what look like long kite tails, offering the best view, to date, of these important hunting tools.

canal system Assyrians Iraq U2 spy plane Middle East
FIGURE 16. Ancient canals in northern Iraq: (a) U2 photograph of the subterranean canal above the Assyrian capital city of Nimrud (Mission 1554 Frame 398, January 29, 1960); (b) U2 photograph of Assyrian canals, tunnels, and sites at Negub (Mission 8648 Frame 853, October 30, 1959); (c) canals and site on the right bank of the Upper Zab River (Mission 1554 Frame 402, January 20, 1960). Web map version at https://arcg.is/uDb94; (d) DigitalGlobe image showing the growth of the modern town of Khabat over the features in 16c (June 2, 2016).

The second feature, the canal system in northern Iraq, provides insight into how an early empire maintained its power and governed, Hammer explains. "The Assyrians built the first large, long-lasting, multi-cultural empire of the ancient world, so many people are interested in how they organized territory, controlled people, built their huge cities, and managed the land," she says. "The irrigation system fed the royal capitals, made agricultural surplus production possible, and provided water to villages."

Finally, the U2 images of southern Iraq present the layout, size, and environmental position of Marsh Arab communities in the late 1950s and early 1960s, many of which disappeared after massive hydroelectric dams in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq impounded the rivers, and especially after the government of Saddam Hussein deliberately drained the marshes. Before that, "people lived a unique lifestyle there for thousands of years, herding water buffalo, building houses and all manner of things out of reeds, living on floating islands of reeds, planting date palms, and fishing," Hammer says. "Now we can study the spatial organization, demography, and lifestyles of these communities."

Though the three archaeological features represent different historical time scales, going back thousands of years or just decades, they all demonstrate how humans are changing the natural landscape, often in ways visible only from a 70,000-foot view.

Aerial images like those from the U2 spy missions allow archaeologists like Hammer and Ur to travel back in time. "The activities of ancient human communities frequently left large-scale traces on the landscape," Hammer says. "You can't see these patterns when you're standing on top of them, but just like stepping back from the blobs of paint on an Impressionist painting reveals the full picture, aerial and satellite imagery allow the patterns to emerge."

###

Emily Hammer is an assistant professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also in the Anthropology and Art and Archaeology of the Mediterranean World graduate groups and is part of the Price Lab for Digital Humanities.

Jason Ur is a professor of anthropology in the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University and director of its Center for Geographic Analysis.

 

Press release from University of Pennsylvania

Pictures and captions from the paper Near Eastern Landscapes and Declassified U2 Aerial Imagery, by Emily Hammer and Jason Ur, Advances in Archaeological Practice, published online: 12 March 2019; 2019 © Society for American Archaeology. The article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence CC BY 4.0.


farmers from Anatolia hunter-gatherers Turkey agriculture

First Anatolian farmers were local hunter-gatherers that adopted agriculture

First Anatolian farmers were local hunter-gatherers that adopted agriculture

The first farmers from Anatolia, who brought farming to Europe and represent the single largest ancestral component in modern-day Europeans, are directly descended from local hunter-gatherers who adopted a farming way of life

An international team, led by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and in collaboration with scientists from the United Kingdom, Turkey and Israel, has analyzed 8 pre-historic individuals, including the first genome-wide data from a 15,000-year-old Anatolian hunter-gatherer, and found that the first Anatolian farmers were direct descendants of local hunter-gatherers. These findings provide support for archaeological evidence that farming was adopted and developed by local hunter-gatherers who changed their subsistence strategy, rather than being introduced by a large movement of people from another area. Interestingly, while the study shows the long-term persistence of the Anatolian hunter-gatherer gene pool over 7,000 years, it also indicates a pattern of genetic interactions with neighboring groups.

Farming was developed approximately 11,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, a region that includes present-day Iraq, Syria, Israel, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan as well as the fringes of southern Anatolia and western Iran. By about 8,300 BCE it had spread to central Anatolia, in present-day Turkey. These early Anatolian farmers subsequently migrated throughout Europe, bringing this new subsistence strategy and their genes. Today, the single largest component of the ancestry of modern-day Europeans comes from these Anatolian farmers. It has long been debated, however, whether farming was brought to Anatolia similarly by a group of migrating farmers from the Fertile Crescent, or whether the local hunter-gatherers of Anatolia adopted farming practices from their neighbors.

A new study by an international team of scientists led by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and in collaboration with scientists from the United Kingdom, Turkey and Israel, published in Nature Communications, confirms existing archaeological evidence that shows that Anatolian hunter-gatherers did indeed adopt farming themselves, and the later Anatolian farmers were direct descendants of a gene-pool that remained relatively stable for over 7,000 years.

Local hunter-gatherers adopted an agricultural lifestyle

For this study, the researchers newly analyzed ancient DNA from 8 individuals, and succeeded in recovering for the first time whole-genome data from a 15,000-year-old Anatolian hunter-gatherer. This allowed the team to compare that individual's DNA to later Anatolian farmers, as well as individuals from neighboring regions, to determine how they were related. They also compared the individuals newly analyzed in the study to existing data from 587 ancient individuals and 254 present-day populations.

The researchers found that the early Anatolian farmers derived the vast majority of their ancestry (~90%) from a population related to the Anatolian hunter-gatherer in the study. "This suggests a long-term genetic stability in central Anatolia over five millennia, despite changes in climate and subsistence strategy," explains Michal Feldman of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

"Our results provide additional, genetic support for previous archaeological evidence that suggests that Anatolia was not merely a stepping stone in a movement of early farmers from the Fertile Crescent into Europe," states Choongwon Jeong of the Max Planck Institute of the Science of Human History, co-senior author of the study. "Rather, it was a place where local hunter-gatherers adopted ideas, plants and technology that led to agricultural subsistence."

Genetic interactions with neighbors warrant further study

In addition to the long-term stability of the major component of the Anatolian ancestry, the researchers also found a pattern of interactions with their neighbors. By the time that farming had taken hold in Anatolia between 8,300-7,800 BCE, the researchers found that the local population had about a 10% genetic contribution from populations related to those living in what is today Iran and the neighboring Caucasus, with almost the entire remaining 90% coming from Anatolian hunter-gatherers. By about 7000-6000 BCE, however, the Anatolian farmers derived about 20% of their ancestry from populations related to those living in the Levant region.

"There are some large gaps, both in time and geography, in the genomes we currently have available for study," explains Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, senior author on the study. "This makes it difficult to say how these more subtle genetic interactions took place - whether it was through short-term large movements of people, or more frequent but low-level interactions." The researchers hope that further research in this and neighboring regions could help to answer these questions.

farmers from Anatolia hunter-gatherers Turkey agriculture
This is the burial of a 15,000 year old Anatolian hunter-gatherer. Credit: Douglas Baird

Press release from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History/Max-Planck-Institut für Menschheitsgeschichte (MPI-SHH)