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.

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.

The Graceful Curves of the Vogelherd Horse

Like the Stone Age twig horse I blogged about a few years ago, this ivory horse is rather magnificent:

https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Datei:4_Pferd_Vogelherd_Kopie.jpg

Found in the Vogelherd cave in south-western Germany, it’s carved from woolly mammoth ivory with flint tools in the Aurignacian period, from 40,000 to 28,000 BCE.

Like other animal figurines found in the same layers, the horse appears astonighingly lively and graceful. I’ve done a little bit of wood carving in my life, and—like all sculpting—it definitely takes not just skill but also pre-planning. I can’t imagine what carving ivory with flint would be like, but I’ve no doubt there are quite a few tricks that go into it.

Whatever the use of the Vogelherd horse was, it’s clear that the maker(s) invested time and significant effort into making their art—a good indication that the creativity, dedication, and determination of the modern human do have deep roots.

Found via The Ice Age (@Jamie_Woodward_) on Twitter.

Image: horse figurine from the Vogelherd cave via Wikipedia (Baden-Württemberg, Germany; c. 32,000-35,000 BCE; ivory)

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

Cheddar Man: A European Mesolithic Male with Blue Eyes and Brown Skin

I saw these headers go by earlier this spring, but didn’t really have time to really dive into it until now. Well, better late than never, as they wisely say. 🙂

Despite the name, the Cheddar Man isn’t some silly cheese ad bloke. Instead, he has opened doors to very intriguing discoveries about European population during the later Stone Age.

The remains of an anatomically modern human male from about 10,000 years ago were found near Bristol in Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, England in 1903. Recent DNA analysis of the skeleton—Britain’s oldest (almost) complete one—suggests that he had blue eyes, dark curly or wavy hair, and dark brown to black skin.

Natural History Museum Tom Barnes Cheddar Man Bust Closeup

They also found that the Cheddar Man belonged to the same population as Mesolithic individuals whose bones were recovered from Spain, Luxembourg, and Hungary, usually referred to as western European Mesolithic hunter-gatherers or European early modern humans.

Hannah Devlin at The Guardian writes most aptly:

“The discovery shows that the genes for lighter skin became widespread in European populations far later than originally thought – and that skin colour was not always a proxy for geographic origin in the way it is often seen to be today.

“Tom Booth, an archaeologist at the Natural History Museum who worked on the project, said: ‘It really shows up that these imaginary racial categories that we have are really very modern constructions, or very recent constructions, that really are not applicable to the past at all.’”

A new bust model of Cheddar Man was made by Kennis & Kennis Reconstructions. (See a photo of the previous model made by a team at the University of Manchester here.) They took measurements of the skeleton, scanned the skull, and 3D printed a base for their model. Then they applied certain conventions to shape the face.

I fully confess I’m having a hard time keeping track of the exact timespans and geographical limits of the various Stone Age eras in Eurasia and Africa—what’s paleolithic, mesolithic, or neolithic and where and at what time. But it is so fascinating (and delightful!) that we continue to develop new methods of finding more about our past, and that so many different disciplines seek to understand where we came from and what makes us tick.

Image: closeup of the model of Cheddar Man by Tom Barnes / Channel 4 via Natural History Museum, London

A Random Find: Ancient and Early Medieval Persian or Iranic Women’s Clothing

I randomly ran into a collection of recreations of Persian or Iranic women’s clothing from different eras, from ancient times to a few hundred years ago. Below are the five oldest outfits.

Tumblr Non-West Hist Persian Iranic 2nd Millenium BC
“Second Millennium B.C. From the collection of Ph. Ackerman”
Tumblr Non-West Hist Persian Iranic Elam
“Elam. 3rd millennium B.C. – Silver vase found at Marvdasht – Iran Bastan Museum”

They seem to be images of modern interpretations based on artwork of various kinds: statuettes, carvings, reliefs, paintings, and drawings.

Tumblr Non-West Hist Persian Iranic Achaemenian
“Achaemenian II”
Tumblr Non-West Hist Persian Iranic Parthian
“Parthian II. Statue found at Harta – Baghdad Museum”
Tumblr Non-West Hist Persian Iranic Sassanian
“Sassanian period I (224-652 A.D.). Silver plate – Walter Art Gallery in Baltimore”

 

Aren’t they fascinating? The images clearly come from a print publication, but apart from that I unfortunately don’t have any source information.

I don’t know much about these eras and areas, but I can’t escape the impression that these recreations may be relatively old and, perhaps, not entirely reliable. For instance, the Sassanian dress seems very polyester-like (too shiny). On the other hand, a lot of the draping looks very plausible. It would be so interesting to read an analysis on each outfit by the researchers / creators.

I’ve long been into early history, specifically of textiles and clothing, usually the older the better. Sadly, it’s an area that we tend to have very spotty evidence. I’m so glad digitization and the Internet help get more information out to interested audiences. There are so many more sources and preserved fragments than many may realize, and now we get to see them!

Images found via Non-Western Historical Fashion on Tumblr.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Ancient Clay Cup Animation

Oh, wow: quite possibly the oldest attempt at animation ever comes from some four thousand years ago. It’s a depiction of a goat jumping up a tree to eat the leaves:

The sequence laid flat looks like this:

Wikimedia Burnt City Iran Clay Cup Reproduction

And here’s a photo of the cup:

Wikimedia Burnt City Iran Clay Cup

Found via The Real Iran on Tumblr. My Tumblr source doesn’t unfortunately give any more info, but it sounds like the cup was found in the Bronze Age site of Shahr-e Sūkhté (or Shahr-e Sukhteh) in Sistan, southeastern Iran.

Just reading the Wikipedia page for Shahr-e Sūkhté makes my imagination run—a large trading route hub with connections to Mesopotamia, Central Asia, and India with rich material culture would make an excellent setting for historical or speculative fiction. (For example, among the archaeological finds from the Burnt City is apparently the world’s first artificial eyeball.)

Finding real-world inspiration like this is when I really wish I was a writer!

Images: Animation via Wikimedia. Reproduction via Wikimedia. Cup photo via Wikimedia (Shahr-e Sūkhté, Iran; late half of 3rd millennium BCE; clay).

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?


5,000-Year-Old Beer Comes Alive

How would you like to make beer and get college credit for it? Students at Stanford got to do just that. Their final project for Professor Li Liu’s course Archaeology of Food: Production, Consumption and Ritual involved practical experiments with ancient brewing techniques and materials. The oldest “recipe” they tried is 5,000 years old:

“Liu, together with doctoral candidate Jiajing Wang and a group of other experts, discovered the 5,000-year-old beer recipe by studying the residue on the inner walls of pottery vessels found in an excavated site in northeast China. The research, which was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provided the earliest evidence of beer production in China so far.”

The materials for the ancient Chinese beer contained millet, barley, Job’s tears (Chinese pearl barley), and traces of yam and lily root parts. The students tried other combinations as well. Watch a short video explaining the experiments:

Stanford students recreate 5,000-year-old Chinese beer recipe by Stanford

Professor Liu’s research also shows it’s possible that barley (a very popular beer grain even today) may have been introduced to China from western Asia hundreds of years before previously thought and specifically for brewing instead of a food crop.

Fascinating! It shows that as long as we have records—or material remnants, not just written word—there have been people interested in the minutiae of food and food production. I for one am grateful to be able to enjoy the fruits of such a long history of delicious experiments.

This post has been edited.

Geeks eat, too! Second Breakfast is an occasional feature in which we talk about food with geeky connections and maybe make some of our own. Yum!

Paleolithic Siberian Unicorn

Besides being an awesome name for a band, paleolithic Siberian unicorn is an apt description of an animal otherwise known as Elasmotherium.

160630elasmotheriumElasmotherium was a prehistoric relative of the rhinoceros that ranged across central Asia and eastern Europe. It stood over 2 meters tall at the shoulder and its body was as long as 4.5 meters. Its distinguishing feature was an enormous horn on its face. The exact size and shape of the horn have never been determined, since no horn remains have been found, but the bony basis for the horn can be clearly seen on preserved skulls.

Elasmotherium was long thought to have gone extinct over 350,000 years ago, but recent work on a skull found in Kazakhstan has shown that the animal survived until at least 29,000 years ago. That puts living Elasmotheria in the middle of the upper (more recent) paleolithic (40,000-10,000 years ago). Humans certainly lived alongside them and may have depicted them in cave art.

Some have speculated that Elasmotheria survived even longer and may have been the inspiration for fantastical animals including unicorns, as described by eastern European legends, and the Chinese qilin. It’s impossible to verify such ideas, but they’re fun to think about.

Image: Elasmotherium via Wikimedia (c. 1920; painting; by Heinrich Harder)

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

Possible Prehistoric Twig Toy

In an article at SAPIENS, archaeologist Stephen E. Nash discusses the difficulty of interpreting prehistoric life due to the fact that artifacts made of perishable materials are so rarely preserved to be found. It’s a quick, fascinating read, but what jumped at me was this image of a split-twig figurine that Dr. Nash shared:

Denver Museum of Nature & Science
Figurine of a deer or bighorn sheep, accession number DMNS/A1291.1, by Denver Museum of Nature & Science via SAPIENS (Dolores Cave near Gunnison, Colorado; c. 2,500 BCE; split twigs)

Found in Dolores Cave near Gunnison, Colorado, and at 4,500 years old it’s apparently the oldest and easternmost example of an artifact style found in dry cave environments across the American West. It’s unknown whether the figurine had ritualistic (or magical) uses or whether it was a child’s toy.

Regardless of what its function was, the figurine is an intriguing example of Stone Age material culture. Like Dr. Nash points out, much of the coverage of prehistoric cultures concentrates on artifacts made of nonperishable materials—stone, bone, shells, metal, or the like. It’s exhilarating to see something that could basically have been the equivalent of a twig toy horse.

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?