Even back then, we had some of the 3D scanning technologies that could have allowed us to digitally document and preserve the Buddhas. We did not yet anticipate the scale of destruction that would leave hundreds of global heritage sites damaged or obliterated in the 15 years since that event.
The loss of this cultural heritage has spurred teams of researchers and nonprofit organizations to race to make 3D scans, architectural plans and detailed photographic records of heritage sites around the world, knowing they could be destroyed at any time. Advances in 3D scanning technologies, drone use and even tourists’ online posting of images are giving preservationists a new set of tools to prevent the permanent loss of cultural artifacts.
The preservation race begins
In the 1990s, several international heritage organizations were created to highlight the importance of cultural heritage to history, tourism and ethnic identity. One such group is UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre, founded in 1992. The archaeological and heritage communities cheered these efforts at preservation of important places, sites, buildings and landscapes that were being threatened or destroyed by expanding cities, hydroelectric projects, coastal erosion and other perils.
They also acknowledged that heritage, largely for the first time, had become a target of military campaigns. Once heritage sites became identified with particular cultures, beliefs or histories, those places became vulnerable to people, including the Taliban and the Islamic State group, seeking to destroy those identities.
Just last week the destruction of a sixth-century Christian monastery in Iraq caught the attention of the world. This is just one in a long list of sites destroyed by the IS group that began in 2014, and caught the attention of the world with the February 2015 video release of the destruction of the Mosul Museum, where some of the most important early Assyrian sculptures were housed.
Project Mosul, created one week after the video was released, is the brainchild of Chance Coughenour and Matthew Vincent, Ph.D. student researchers in Europe’s Initial Training Network for Digital Cultural Heritage (ITN-DCH). They scoured the Internet for photographs of the sculptures and artifacts, crowd-sourced for tourist photos and collected images from U.S. military personnel who had visited the museum. That material became the basis for the digital reconstruction of the destroyed artifacts using basic photogrammetry. This technique uses photos from multiple angles of the same object to construct a 3D model of it.
The destruction of Buddhist sculptures in Bamiyan led to an early success in digital preservation: Dr. Fabio Remondino of the Bruno Kessler Foundation in Trento, Italy, used photogrammetry among other techniques to digitally reconstruct the Bamiyan Buddhas.
The effort is spreading. The Zamani Project from the University of Cape Town has spent the last 12 years documenting Africa’s most important cultural and heritage buildings, sites and landscapes. Importantly, its data are freely available and accessible.
The Democratization of Science project at the newly formed Center for Virtualization and Applied Spatial Technologies located at the University of South Florida has a similar mission: documenting, preserving and protecting the world’s cultural and natural heritage through the use of digital visualization and 3D virtualization. And like the Zamani Project, it will democratize science by delivering digital data and heritage resources to the global community.
Our project at the University of South Florida is using 3D imaging to scan entire museum collections, archaeological sites and ancient landscapes around the world. Sites and collections are chosen based on their research potential and need for preservation. Projects and laboratories with similar missions are beginning in many universities and research centers, especially in the U.K., Italy and Spain.
New technologies are making this work easier and more comprehensive. Unmanned aerial vehicles are transforming our ability to document large structures and landscapes at extremely high resolution. New methods and software for stitching together photographs to create accurate 3D reconstructions have made the creation of virtual reconstructions affordable for both students and the public.
However, the development of high-resolution 3D laser scanners has made the largest impact. This equipment aims laser beams at surfaces, records the reflected light and assembles a very sharp 3D image of the space. Combining all these, we now have the tools to digitally preserve what extremist groups would like to destroy.
The attempts to destroy some of the world’s heritage have had quite the opposite effect: an entirely new area of research and scientific practice that has transformed archaeology, heritage, paleontology, museum studies, architecture and a suite of other disciplines.
Equally relevant is the new emphasis on the democratization of knowledge through the digital availability of these data. Now any student, scholar or interested individual has access to some of the most important historical and archaeological specimens, buildings and cities in the world. These efforts bring our global cultural heritage to everyone, while helping to ensure the preservation of our heritage in an increasingly hostile world.
Find out more about Project Mosul
Written by Herbert Maschner
Professor of Anthropology and Geosciences, and Executive Director of the Center for Virtualizaiton and Applied Spatial Technologies (CVAST), University of South Florida.
The discovery of this mammal, belonging to a family which was thought to only exist in Europe, reveals that the two continents were connected ‑free of natural barriers‑ due to the disappearance of the ancient Paratethys Sea.
A study led by the Institute of Geology of the Russian Academy of Sciences presents a new species, the Amphilagus tomidai, found in south-eastern Siberia (Russia) and dating back to the Middle Miocene, about 14 million years ago. The discovery of this mammal, an ancestor of the present-day rabbit, represents an important biogeographic link that confirms the widespread distribution of this group as well as the relationship between Asia and Europe during this period.
“Amphilagus is a genus that was traditionally thought to only exist in Europe, but remains of this mammal were recently located in Asia. The discovery of this mammal on the continent of Asia indicates that there were some paleogeographic and environmental conditions that favoured the expansion of this species towards the east,” explains Chiara Angelone, a researcher at the Catalan Institute of Palaeontology Miquel Crusafont and co-author of the study published in the journal ‘Historical Biology’.
According to the study, the Miocene –which began 23 million years ago and ended 5.3 million years ago– gave rise to the barrier-free linking of Europe and Asia which would have allowed for the spread of this animal.
An ancestor of the present-day rabbit
The Paratethys Sea –which was located to the south of Europe and spanned from the northern Alps to the Aral Sea in western Asia– had disappeared, and a lack of high mountains here meant that there were no barriers to hinder this animal’s expansion. This situation favoured the spread of the mammal among open landscapes, aided by a cool, dry climate.
“These ancient animals help us to better understand the climatic and paleogeographic conditions of that period in time. Some discoveries add new insight into what we already know. Others, such as this one, uncover remarkable stories,” explains Angelone.
The mammal that was unearthed is the northern-most Eurasian specimen of the Amphilagus genus ‑a large lagomorph with primitive features. Its teeth have roots and do not continuously grow as do the teeth of present-day lagomorphs, an animal order that includes the families of rabbits, hares and pikas.
This newly discovered animal also possesses a simple, lower third premolar and a hypoconulid –an additional cusp at the back of the mouth– among the lower molariform teeth.
The Amphilagus genus, which appeared in Europe during the Upper Oligocene, is not free from controversy. According to the authors of the study, all European lagomorphs whose teeth had roots are considered part of the Amphilagus genus, thus making it necessary to re-evaluate this genus.
U of T Scarborough PhD candidate Ornella Bertrand along with Associate Professor Mary Silcox and undergraduate student Farrah Amador-Mughal recently reconstructed two endocasts of Paramys, the oldest and best-preserved rodent skulls on record. What they found was surprising.
“The brain was certainly larger than we expected considering the time period,” says Bertrand. “Even more surprising is that it was almost as large, and in some cases larger, than primitive primates of the same time period.”
The key difference is that Paramys was relatively smaller than even the most primitive primates in the neocortex region, the part of the brain that deals with “higher” brain functions like sight and hearing.
“This tells us that something is going on in the neocortex of early primates that is not observable in early rodents. ” says Bertrand. “The changes in the neocortex of rodents occurred later in time and with less intensity than in primates.”
“It also sheds some light on what’s unique about primate brains – they were not always exceptionally large, but they were certainly ‘smart’,'” adds Silcox.
One of the specimens of Paramys was a large rodent by modern standards – about three kilograms, roughly the size of a small cat – that lived during the mid-Eocene, some 47 to 49 million years ago. Bertrand and Silcox also examined the skull of another with a body mass of about one kilogram that lived around 50 to 52 million years ago.
The goal of the research was to better understand brain evolution in early rodents. While there’s been some research looking at how the neocortical surface of primates has increased over time, practically nothing prior to this has been done on rodents.
What fascinates both Bertrand and Silcox is that Paramys‘s brain was larger than some later occurring rodents, which contradicts the idea that brains generally increase in size over time.
“It’s been assumed for a while that mammal brain size increases over time. The idea is that it’s probably an evolutionary arms race because if prey become smarter predators have to adapt. But these animals were already pretty smart prey items to begin with,” says Silcox.
The research also shows that the obsession with brain size, especially in the human paleontological literature, makes little sense since size is not the only indicator of intelligence.
“Size is certainly important, but we’re starting to look at different measures that give us a more nuanced understanding of how brains, especially in primates, evolved over time,” says Silcox.
The severe and rapid collapse of Native American populations in what is now the modern state of New Mexico didn’t happen upon first contact with Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s, as some scholars thought. Nor was it as gradual as others had contended.
Rather than being triggered by first contact in the 1500s, rapid population loss likely began after Catholic Franciscan missions were built in the midst of native pueblos, resulting in sustained daily interaction with Europeans.
The indirect effects of this demographic impact rippled through the surrounding forests and, perhaps, into our atmosphere.
Those are the conclusions of a new study by a team of scientists looking for the first time at high resolution reconstructions of human population size, tree growth and fire history from the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico.
“Scholars increasingly recognize the magnitude of human impacts on planet Earth, some are even ready to define a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene,” said anthropologist and fire expert Christopher Roos, an associate professor at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, and a co-author on the research.
“But it is an open question as to when that epoch began,” said Roos. “One argument suggests that indigenous population collapse in the Americas resulted in a reduction of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere because of forest regrowth in the early colonial period. Until now the evidence has been fairly ambiguous. Our results indicate that high-resolution chronologies of human populations, forests and fires are needed to evaluate these claims.”
A contentious issue in American Indian history, scientists and historians for decades have debated how many Native Americans died and when it occurred. With awareness of global warming and interdisciplinary interest in the possible antiquity of the Anthropocene, resolution of that debate may now be relevant for contemporary human-caused environmental problems, Roos said.
Findings of the new study were published Jan. 25, 2016 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Native American Depopulation, Reforestation, and Fire Regimes in the Southwest U.S., 1492-1900 C.E.”
The researchers offer the first absolute population estimate of the archaeology of the Jemez Province — an area west Santa Fe and Los Alamos National Lab in northern New Mexico. Using airborne remote sensing LiDAR technology to establish the size and shape of rubble mounds from collapsed architecture of ancestral villages, the researchers were able to quantify population sizes in the 16th century that were independent of historical documents.
To identify the timing of of the population collapse and its impact on forest fires, the scientists also collected tree-ring data sets from locations adjacent to the Ancestral Jemez villages and throughout the forested mountain range. This sampling framework allowed them to refine the timing of depopulation and the timing of fire regime changes across the Jemez Province.
Their findings indicate that large-scale depopulation only occurred after missions were established in their midst by Franciscan priests in the 1620s. Daily sustained interaction resulted in epidemic diseases, violence and famine, the researchers said. From a population of roughly 6,500 in the 1620s fewer than 900 remained in the 1690s – a loss of more than 85 percent of the population in a few generations.
“The loss of life is staggering,” said anthropologist Matthew Liebmann, an associate professor at Harvard University and lead author on the PNAS article.
“Imagine that in a room with 10 people, only one person was left at the end of the day,” Liebmann said. “This had devastating effects on the social and economic lives of the survivors. Our research suggests that the effects were felt in the ecology of the forests too.”
Other scientists on the team include Josh Farella and Thomas Swetnam, University of Arizona; and Adam Stack and Sarah Martini, Harvard University.
The researchers studied a 100,000-acre area that includes the ancestral pueblo villages of the Jemez (HEY-mehz) people. Located in the Jemez Mountains of north central New Mexico, it’s a region in the Santa Fe National Forest of deep canyons, towering flat-topped mesas, as well as rivers, streams and creeks.
Today about 2,000 Jemez tribal members live at the Pueblo of Jemez.
The authors note in their article that, “Archaeological evidence from the Jemez Province supports the notion that the European colonization of the Americas unleashed forces that ultimately destroyed a staggering number of human lives,” however, they note, it fails to support the notion that sweeping pandemics uniformly depopulated North America.”
“To better understand the role of the indigenous population collapse on ecological and climate changes, we need this kind of high-resolution paired archaeological and paleoecological data,” said Roos. “Until then, a human-caused start to Little Ice Age cooling will remain uncertain. Our results suggest this scenario is plausible, but the nature of European and American Indian relationships, population collapse, and ecological consequences are probably much more complicated and variable than many people had previously understood them to be.”
Curator's Choice: Dr Alexandra Loske on George IV and his cherished giraffe at Brighton’s Royal Pavilion
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