The Rise of the First Cities through Genetic Research

Juan Siliezar at The Harvard Gazette writes about new genetic research into the movement and interactions of inhabitants of different areas of Western Asia and the Levant in the Bronze and Iron Ages. According to the evidence, people traveled and interacted with their neighbors before the rise of cities (and not the other way around as previously thought).

MHAAM Genetic Gradient 6500 BCE

Quoting Siliezar’s article:

“The evidence reveals that a high level of mobility led to the spread of ideas and material culture as well as intermingling of peoples in the period before the rise of cities, not the other way around, as previously thought. The findings add to our understanding of exactly how the shift to urbanism took place.

“The researchers, made up of an international team of scientists including Harvard Professor Christina Warinner, looked at DNA data from 110 skeletal remains in West Asia from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age, 3,000 to 7,500 years ago. The remains came from archaeological sites in the Anatolia (present-day Turkey); the Northern Levant, which includes countries on the Mediterranean coast such as Israel and Jordan; and countries in the Southern Caucasus, which include present-day Armenia and Azerbaijan.

“Based on their analysis, the scientists describe two events, one around 8,500 years ago and the other 4,000 years ago, that point to long-term genetic mixing and gradual population movements in the region.

“’Within this geographic scope, you have a number of distinct populations, distinct ideological groups that are interacting quite a lot, and it hasn’t really been clear to what degree people are actually moving or if this is simply just a high-contact area from trade,’ said Warinner, assistant professor of anthropology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Sally Starling Seaver Assistant Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. ‘Rather than this period being characterized by dramatic migrations or conquest, what we see is the slow mixing of different populations, the slow mixing of ideas, and it’s percolating out of this melting pot that we see the rise of urbanism — the rise of cities.’ […]

“Historically, Western Asia, which includes today’s Middle East, is one of civilization’s most important geographical locations. Not only did it create some of humanity’s earliest cities, but its early trade routes laid the foundation for what would become the Silk Road, a route that commercially linked Asia, Africa, and Europe. […]

“The paper outlines how populations across Anatolia and the Southern Caucasus began mixing approximately 8,500 years ago. That resulted in a gradual change in genetic profile that over a millennium slowly spread across both areas and entered into what is now Northern Iraq. […]

“’What’s really interesting is that we see these populations are mixing genetically long before we see clear material culture evidence of this — so long before we see direct evidence in pottery or tools or any of these more conventional archaeological evidence artifacts,’ Warinner said. ‘That’s important because sometimes we’re limited in how we see the past. We see the past through artifacts, through the evidence people leave behind. But sometimes events are happening that don’t leave traces in conventional ways, so by using genetics, we were able to access this much earlier mixing of populations that wasn’t apparent before.’”

Interesting, especially the fact that genetic mixing predates evidence seen in artifacts. Sounds like there’s much to research in the future!

Read more at The Harvard Gazette or see the original article by Lily Agranat-Tamir et al. at Cell.

Found via File 770.

Image: The Max Planck-Harvard Research Center for the Archaeoscience of the Ancient Mediterranean (MHAAM) via Phys.org.

WoW: Shadowlands Character Customization Options

Details of Shadowlands, the next World of Warcraft expansion, have continued to slowly accumulate. Blizzard Watch and Wowhead, among others, have kept track of new character customization info.

Wowhead Shadowlands F Human Screencap

Here is an incomplete list as a note to self:

New options include new skin or fur tones (inclding black skin—finally!) and hair styles, makeup for human women, heterochromia (eyes of different colors), body tats or paint, cataracts, facial scars or markings, vines with leaves (Elven hair), some ear or tail size options, and the separation of beard and moustache sliders.

Wowhead Shadowlands F Dwarf Portrait

Not all options will be available to all races / classes, which might be annoying, but I understand the need for limiting options.

There’ll also be new special armor depending on which covenant you choose.

Shadowlands Night Fae Covenant Armor F Pandaren

We still don’t know all of the, er, detailed details, and of course these customizations may change or simply never be available in the finished game. But what we do know is already enough for me to realize I’ll be spending quite a bit of time in the barber shop after Shadowlands drops! LOL!

Images by Blizzard Entertainment: Female Human faces and hair via Wowhead (screencapped). Female Dwarf portrait via Wowhead. Night Fae covenant armor (cropped).

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

Happy Belated Birthday, Hubble!

Oh my goodness, the Hubble telescope has turned 30 years!

NASA Large Magellanic Cloud Apr 2020 Sm

More specifically, it’s been operating, up there in Earth orbit, for 30 years. It was projected to be in service only about 10 years when it launched on April 24, 1990, from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Impressive.

Read more at the NASA website:

Happy belated birthday, Hubble! Thank you for all of the space pics you’ve sent down.

Found via File 770.

Image: Large Magellanic Cloud, a vast star-forming region composed of the giant red nebula (NGC 2014) and its smaller blue neighbor (NGC 2020), by NASA / ESA / STScl via NASA

New Find: Neanderthals Worked with Fibers to Make Yarn or Cord

The world’s oldest yarn or cord has been found. The fragment was discovered at the prehistoric cave site Abri du Maras in the south of France.

Scientific Reports Hardy et al Neanderthal Fiber

The 3-ply cord fragment was made from fibers by twisting, likely of inner conifer bark, and found on a stone tool. A number of artefacts at the same site also have plant / wood fibers adhering to their surfaces, but the remains are not extensive enough to classify as cords.

The researchers estimate the meaning of the find thus:

“While it is clear that the cord from Abri du Maras demonstrates Neanderthals’ ability to manufacture cordage, it hints at a much larger fibre technology. Once the production of a twisted, plied cord has been accomplished it is possible to manufacture bags, mats, nets, fabric, baskets, structures, snares, and even watercraft. […]

“Ropes and baskets are central to a large number of human activities. They facilitate the transport and storage of foodstuffs, aid in the design of complex tools (hafts, fishing, navigation) or objects (art, decoration). The technological and artistic applications of twisted fibre technologies are vast. Once adopted, fibre technology would have been indispensable and would have been a part of everyday life.”

 

Fascinating! Like the research team says, fiber making allows for an incredibly large variety of material culture, from utilitarian objects to clothing to decorative motifs. As a bit of a fiber nerd, it’s tantalizing to think that people were making yarn already 40,000 years ago.

Found via CNN. Read more in Scientific Reports.

Image: Hardy, B.L., Moncel, M., Kerfant, C. et al. in “Direct evidence of Neanderthal fibre technology and its cognitive and behavioral implications” via Scientific Reports

Syltholm Woman: A Late Mesolithic Individual with Brown Skin and Blue Eyes

Britain’s Cheddar Man has gotten company: a DNA analysis of remnants left in a wad of chewed birch pitch from 5,700 years ago in Denmark showed that the chewer was a woman and likely had dark skin, dark brown hair, and blue eyes.

BBC Syltholm Individual Artists Reconstruction

The pitch was found at Syltholm, a Late Mesolithic / Early Neolithic site, on the southern coast of Lolland island, Denmark. Apart from the human DNA, it contained also microbial DNA (from the chewer’s oral microbiome) as well as plant and animal DNA potentially from a recent meal.

Nature Jensen et al Syltholm Birch Pitch Map
Denmark’s coastline 6,000 years ago and the findsite of the chewed birch pitch at Syltholm on Lolland

Like the Cheddar Man, the Syltholm individual was genetically more closely related to western hunter-gatherers from mainland Europe than hunter-gatherers from central Scandinavia. It’s even possible that some hunter-gatherer groups genetically distinct from Neolithic farming communities survived for much longer than previously assumed, says the study.

The results of the DNA sequencing by Theis Jensen et al. was published in Nature Communications.

It’s very exciting to be able to compare data from DNA analyses with archaeology; maybe one day we can also combine linguistic research to try to tease out even more details about our ancient ancestry.

My only complaint is that the process is so slow—think of how much more we could do in an entirely peaceful world, say, with no military budgets to hog the funding for humanities. (Oh, hey—there might be a bit more of a Star Trek fan in me than I previously thought.) It’s a good time to be an early history geek anyway. 🙂

Found via BBC.

Images: Artist’s reconstruction by Tom Björklund via BBC. Map of Denmark with birch pitch findsite by Jensen et al. via Nature Communications.

Trailer for Tomiris

Apparently, there is a Kazakhstani movie on the historical female leader Tomyris of the Massagetae, and we also have a trailer with English subtitles:

TOMIRIS – Official trailer (HD) (English subtitles) by SATAIFILM on YouTube

We know for sure that Tomyris fought Persians in the 500s BCE, but as far as we know she did not unite all the people of the steppe as the movie claims. Well, it wouldn’t be the first movie to play fast and loose with history.

At this writing, IMDB only has the most rudimentary information and gives the year 2019 for release. Director Akan Satayev’s credits include a dozen or so writing and producing projects, mostly local and directed at a decidedly non-English-speaking audience.

It’s possible, then, that Tomiris will also remain outside of the Anglo-American market. I, for one, would find that sad, for the production looks really interesting (although I could do with a little less blood flying around).

Come to think of it, I should have a look to see if I can find any movies of ancient Persia or thereabouts. Anything you can suggest would be welcome!

Found via Helsingin Sanomat (NB. Finnish only).

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

Living in a Science Fictional Present: Food from Air, Water from Sunlight

“I’m going to have to science the shit out of this” is my favorite line from the movie The Martian. The amazing thing about our species is that we do that every day, and every once in a while it pays off in a phenomenal way. Below are two cases that have the potential to do just that.

Researchers at the Lappeenranta-Lahti University of Technology LUT and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd. have created a process for making protein from air. Specifically, it uses carbon dioxide, water, and electricity, plus added nutrients.

Solar Foods Solein Protein Powder Sm

Apparently they’ve had a test installation running since June. The resulting protein powder, dubbed Solein, looks like flaky meal and reportedly tastes like wheat.

Read more at Yle news (Finnish only), or in English at The Guardian or Solar Foods website.

Professor Peng Wang from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia lead a study introducing a strategy to produce fresh water. Essentially, a distillation unit attached to photovoltaic panels evaporates seawater at relatively low temperatures more efficiently than conventional solar stills and yet generates electricity at the same time.

BBC News Wenbin Wang Solar Panel Water Purifier Concept

More at BBC News and journal Nature Communications.

Images: Solein protein powder by Solar Foods. Combined solar panel and water purifier by Wenbin Wang via BBC News.

Striking Iron: A New Exhibition at the National Museum of African Art

One of the current exhibits at the National Museum of African Art is “Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths”. It focuses on blacksmithing in sub-Saharan Africa and features works dating from the 17th century to recent times: not just weapons, but other tools and implements such as musical instruments.

The range and design of shapes is truly impressive. Below are just some of the examples.

Smithsonian African Art Iron Exhibit Ceremonial Knives

I wasn’t familiar with the concept of rain wands (image below) before. They were planted in the earth with the intention of drawing the life force of the Earth up toward the heavens in order to bring down rain.

Smithsonian African Art Iron Exhibit Rain Wands

Various kinds of sound instruments are also displayed, including lamellophones.

Smithsonian African Art Iron Exhibit Lamellophone

And, since it’s ironworking, there are weapons.

Smithsonian African Art Iron Exhibit Double-bladed Dagger

I’m especially struck by the multiple elaborate curls of the ceremonial knives and the rain wand in the shape of a three-headed snake. Simply stunning.

The exhibition runs until October 20, 2019.

Found via NPR—make sure to visit the article for more photos!

Images: Ceremonial knives by Olivia Sun for NPR (Democratic Republic of the Congo; 19th century; iron). Rain wands by Olivia Sun for NPR (Nigeria; iron). Lamellophone (chisanji) via Smithsonian (Chokwe artist, Angola; late 19th century; wood and iron). Double-bladed dagger by Olivia Sun for NPR (late 19th-century Sudan; iron, bone, and crocodile skin).

Spring 2019: Tolkien Exhibition at The Morgan in NYC

The Morgan Library and Museum is going to have a Tolkien exhibition.

Morgan Library The Hobbit Tolkien Exhibition 2019

From the exhibit description:

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth celebrates the man and his creation. The exhibition will be the most extensive public display of original Tolkien material for several generations. Drawn from the collections of the Tolkien Archive at the Bodleian Library (Oxford), Marquette University Libraries (Milwaukee), the Morgan, and private lenders, the exhibition will include family photographs and memorabilia, Tolkien’s original illustrations, maps, draft manuscripts, and designs related to The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion.”

They’ve also made an introductory video:

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth by The Morgan Library & Museum on YouTube

Related program includes a lecture, gallery talks, workshops, and family programming, among others. The exihibit is open January 25 through May 12, 2019. More information at The Morgan website.

Found via Locus.

Image cropped from the cover illustration for The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, via The Morgan

Chance to Watch Coverage of InSight’s Mars Landing

On Monday, November 26, 2018, NASA Television is bringing coverage of InSight’s Mars landing to a website or social media near you!

NASA JPL-Caltech Simulated InSight Landing on Mars

From NASA’s press release:

“NASA’s Mars Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) lander is scheduled to touch down on the Red Planet at approximately 3 p.m. EST Nov. 26, and viewers everywhere can watch coverage of the event live on NASA Television, the agency’s website and social media platforms.”

There are a few pre-landing broadcasts, and on the landing day, coverage will start early in the morning. The landing itself is expected to take place from 2 to 3:30 p.m. EST, with post-landing news conference to wrap up the event.

Wow, sounds incredible. Even though the cameras are “only” inside JPL Mission Control and the mission itself will be covered by audio “only”, it’s the closest I can get to experiencing touching down on another celestial object. I will have to make time for this!

Found via File 770.

Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech.