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Scientists report first semiaquatic dinosaur, Spinosaurus

Mon, 2014-09-15 14:11
Enormous predator was over 9 feet longer than largest Tyrannosaurus Rex.

On Thursday scientists unveiled what appears to be the first truly semiaquatic dinosaur, Spinosaurus aegyptiacus. New fossils of the massive Cretaceous-era predator expose that it adapted to life in the water some 95 million years ago, providing the most compelling evidence to date of a dinosaur able to live and hunt in an aquatic environment. The fossils also indicate that Spinosaurus was the largest known predatory dinosaur to walk the Earth, measuring up to an impressive 9 feet longer than the world’s largest Tyrannosaurus rex specimen. These findings, published yesterday in the journal Science, are also featured in the October issue of National Geographic magazine as the cover story, which will be available online from September 11th. In addition, Spinosaurus will be the subject of a new exhibition at the National Geographic Museum, opening September 12th, as well as National Geographic/NOVA special airing on PBS November 5th at 9 p.m.

An international research team‒ including palaeontologists Nizar Ibrahim and Paul Sereno from the University of Chicago; Cristiano Dal Sasso and Simone Maganuco from the National History Museum in Milan, Italy; and Samir Zouhri from the Université Hassan II Casablanca in Morocco‒ discovered that Spinosaurus developed a variety of previously unknown aquatic adaptations. The researchers made conclusions after analysing new fossils uncovered in the Moroccan Sahara and a partial Spinosaurus skull and other remains housed in museum collections around the world as well as historical records and images from the first reported Spinosaurus discovery in Egypt over a century ago. According to lead author Ibrahim, a 2014 National Geographic Emerging Explorer, “Working on this animal was like studying an alien from outer space; it’s unlike any other dinosaur I have ever seen.”

The aquatic adaptations of Spinosaurus vary considerably from earlier members of the spinosaurid family that resided on land but were known to consume fish. These adaptations include:

  • Small nostrils located in the middle of the skull. The small size and placement of the nostrils farther back in the skull enabled Spinosaurus to breathe when part of its head was submerged in water.
  • Neurovascular openings at the end of the snout. Similar openings on the crocodile and alligator snouts contain pressure receptors that allow them to sense movement in water. It’s likely that these openings served a comparable function in Spinosaurus.
  • Giant, slanted teeth that interlocked at the front of the snout. The conical shape and location of the teeth were well-suited for catching fish.
  • A long neck and trunk that shifted the dinosaur’s centre of mass forward. This meant walking on two legs on land was nearly impossible, but facilitated movement in water.
  • Powerful forelimbs with curved, blade-like claws. These claws were perfect for hooking or slicing slippery prey.
  • A small pelvis and short hind legs with muscular thighs. Similar to the earliest whales, these adaptations were for paddling in water and differ markedly from other predatory dinosaurs that used two legs to move on land.
  • Particularly dense bones lacking the marrow cavities typical to predatory dinosaurs. Similar adaptations, which enable buoyancy control, are seen in modern aquatic animals like king penguins.
  • Strong, long-boned feet and long, flat claws. Unlike other predators, Spinosaurus had feet resembling some shore birds that stand on or move across on soft surfaces rather than perch. In fact, Spinosaurus possibly had webbed feet for walking on soft mud or paddling.
  • Loosely connected bones in the dinosaur’s tail. These bones allowed its tail to bend in a wave-like fashion, similar to tails that helped propel some bony fish.
  • Enormous dorsal spines covered the skin that created a huge “sail” of the dinosaur’s back. The tall, thin, blade-shaped spines were anchored by muscles and composed of dense bone with few blood vessels. This suggests the sail was meant for display and not to trap heat or store fat. The sail would have been visible even when the animal entered water.

Spinosaurus: Wikimedia

More than 100 years ago, German palaeontologist Ernest Freiherr Stromer von Reichenbach first discovered evidence of Spinosaurus in the Egyptian Sahara. Unfortunately, all of Stromer’s fossils were destroyed during the April 1944 allied bombing in Munich, Germany. Ibrahim, however, was able to track down Stromer’s surviving notes, sketches and photos in archives and at the Stromer family castle in Bavaria to supplement Stromer’s surviving publications.

The new Spinosaurus fossils were discovered in the Moroccan Sahara along desert cliffs known as the Kem Kem beds. This area was once a large river system, stretching from present-day Morocco to Egypt. At the time, a variety of aquatic life populated the system, including large sharks, coelacanths, lungfish and crocodile-like creatures, along with giant flying reptiles and predatory dinosaurs.

The most important of the new fossils, a partial skeleton unveiled by a local fossil hunter, was spirited out of the country. As a result, critical information about the context of the disovery was seemingly lost, and locating the local fossil hunter in Morocco was almost impossible. Ibrahim remarked, “It was like searching for a needle in a desert.” After an exhaustive search, Ibrahim finally found the man and confirmed the site of the original discovery.

To uncover some of the mysteries of Spinosaurus, the team created a digital model of the skeleton with funding provided by the National Geographic Society. The researchers Conducted CT scans on all of the new fossils, which will be repatriated to Morocco, complementing them with digital recreations of Stromer’s specimens. Missing bones were modelled based on known elements of related dinosaurs. According to Maganuco, “We relied upon cutting-edge technology to examine, analyse and piece together a variety of fossils. For a project of this complexity, traditional methods wouldn’t have been nearly as accurate.”

The researchers then used the digital model to create an anatomically precise, life-size 3-D replica of the Spinosaurusskeleton. After it was mounted, the researchers measured Spinosaurus from head to tail, confirming their calculation that the new skeleton was longer than the largest documented Tyrannosaurus by more than 9 feet. According to Sereno, head of the University of Chicago’s Fossil Lab, “What surprised us even more than the dinosaur’s size were its unusual proportions. We see limb proportions like this in early whales, not predatory dinosaurs.”

Dal Sasso added, “In the last two decades, several finds demonstrated that certain dinosaurs gave origins to birds. Spinosaurus represents an equally bizarre evolutionary process, revealing that predatory dinosaurs adapted to a semiaquatic life and invaded river systems in Cretaceous North Africa.”


Contributing Source: National Geographic Society

Header Image Source: WikiPedia

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Categories: General

Egypt’s heritage up for auction in sell-off by the American Institute for Archaeology St Louise Society Inc

Sun, 2014-09-14 14:04
Artefacts dating from the 12th dynasty, believed to be from the reign of Sesostris II (1897-1878 B.C.) have been placed up for auction at privately owned Bonhams auction house by the American Institute for Archaeology, St Louise Society Inc.

The assemblage of items was originally excavated in 1913-14 by the British School of Archaeology in Egypt from Tomb 124 at Harageh, the Fayum, near Lahun. They were then acquired by the AIA St. Louise Society Inc. in 1914 in return for their contributions in funding the research excavation.

“Provenance – Property of the Archaeological Institute of America, St. Louis Society Inc. Acquired circa 1914 in return for contributing to funding the excavation.”

The Bonhams auction house describes the assemblage as “There are no comparable assemblages of such deluxe objects known from tombs, either excavated or published, contemporary with those forming the Treasure of Harageh,”

“The Treasure is noteworthy for what appears to be the earliest attestation of actual shells in the design of Egyptian jewellery and for the unique travertine cosmetic spoon, the ankh-design of the handle of which is without parallel for the period.”

The auction is expected to raise between £80,000 – 120,000 and closes early October.

Auction lot:

• 5 banded travertine objects

• 7 silver cowrie shells

• 14 silver mounted shell pendants

• 10 silver and hardstone jewellery elements

• A unique silver bee Placing

Egypt’s heritage under the hammer is nothing new, recently Northampton Council faced widespread critism for auctioning the statue of Sekhemka for nearly £16m in order to raise funds for proposed extensions to the town’s museum. This led to Northampton Museum losing its Art Council accreditation.

The St Louise Society Inc, founded in 1906 is part of the American Institute of Archaeology and members have received the “Gold Medal” for their distinguished archaeological achievement by the Archaeological Institute of America.

Whilst it may seem surprising to see an archaeology group openly engaged in the sale of such important antiquities, it doesn’t breach the AIA charter for which they hold membership, nor break any laws.

AIA charter states “Refuse to participate in the trade in undocumented antiquities and refrain from activities that enhance the commercial value of such objects.

Undocumented antiquities are those which are not documented as belonging to a public or private collection before December 30, 1970, when the AIA Council endorsed the UNESCO Convention on Cultural Property, or which have not been excavated and exported from the country of origin in accordance with the laws of that country”

Jasmine Day, an Egyptologist & Cultural Anthropologist who first brought the auction to HeritageDaily’s attention stated: “The sale of Egyptian antiquities by organisations or institutions is a poor way to raise funds because it gives an impression that these items, however valuable at auction, are superfluous, unworthy of the institutions selling them – when in fact they are often pieces that many museums with smaller collections would like to have. Those museums are in no position to buy them, so they disappear into the private art market. The disrespect shown by some organisations to those who generously donated or diligently excavated the objects they would now sell is reprehensible.”

HeritageDaily informed the AIA, who have since released the following statement:

“The AIA has learned with the deepest concern that the AIA St. Louis Society proposes to auction certain antiquities in its possession.

The St. Louis Society has a long history within the AIA, but, at the same time, is a registered non-profit independent of the national AIA.

The national office of the AIA was not consulted prior to this decision and only became aware of the pending auction when an AIA member reported that the antiquities were being offered on an auction house website.

We are urgently investigating this matter and are working to find a solution that conforms to our firmly expressed ethical position concerning the curation of ancient artifacts for the public good.” – Read more 

Public Action is visible at : https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/21928/lot/160/


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Categories: General

Non-dominant hand vital to the evolution of the thumb

Thu, 2014-09-11 09:27
Research has unveiled that the non-dominant hand is likely to have played a vital role in the evolution of modern hand morphology.

In the largest experiment ever undertaken into the manipulative pressures experienced by the hand during stone tool production, biological anthropologists analysed the manipulative forces and frequency of use experienced by the thumb and fingers on the non-dominant hand during a series of stone tool production sequences that replicated early tool forms.

It is well known that one of the main distinctive features between humans and our closest evolutionary relatives, the great apes, is the morphology and manipulative capabilities of their hands. The key to this is the considerably larger, stronger and more robust thumb displayed by humans, with such a thumb allowing humans to forcefully and yet dexterously manipulate objects within the hand, an ability first thought to have evolved alongside the earliest stone tool use between 2.6–1.4 million years ago.

Until now however, the evolutionary pressures thought to have selected for this robust thumb anatomy have focused upon the use and production of stone tools with the dominant hand, with the influence exerted by the non-dominant hand having largely been overlooked, despite its vital role in the securing and repositioning of stone nodules (cores/nodules are the piece of raw material from which stone tools are produced).

Structure of the Hand: WikiPedia

In the research, PhD student Alastair Key and his research associate Christopher Dunmore, from the University of Kent’s School of Anthropology and Conservation, showed that the production of stone tools requires the thumb of the non-dominant hand to be considerably stronger and more robust than the fingers.

Their results have been published in the Journal of Human Evolution and demonstrate that the thumb and the non-dominant hand was not only required to exert and resist significantly more force than the fingers when manipulating stone cores, but that it was also recruited significantly more often. Therefore this means that our earliest stone tool production ancestors were likely to have experienced similar recruitment levels, with those individuals displaying a stronger, more robust thumb being more capable stone tool producers and thus having the evolutionary advantage.



Contributing Source: University of Kent

Header Image Source: WikiPedia

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Categories: General

Study traces ecological collapse over 6,000 years of Egyptian history

Wed, 2014-09-10 11:58
Ancient Egyptian artworks help scientists reconstruct how animal communities changed as climate became drier and human populations grew.

Depictions of animals in ancient Egyptian artifacts have helped scientists assemble a detailed record of the large mammals that lived in the Nile Valley over the past 6,000 years. A new analysis of this record shows that species extinctions, probably caused by a drying climate and growing human population in the region, have made the ecosystem progressively less stable.

The study, published September 8 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), found that local extinctions of mammal species led to a steady decline in the stability of the animal communities in the Nile Valley. When there were many species in the community, the loss of any one species had relatively little impact on the functioning of the ecosystem, whereas it is now much more sensitive to perturbations, according to first author Justin Yeakel, who worked on the study as a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and is now a postdoctoral fellow at the Santa Fe Institute.

Around six millennia ago, there were 37 species of large-bodied mammals in Egypt, but only eight species remain today. Among the species recorded in artwork from the late Predynastic Period (before 3100 BC) but no longer found in Egypt are lions, wild dogs, elephants, oryx, hartebeest, and giraffe.

“What was once a rich and diverse mammalian community is very different now,” Yeakel said. “As the number of species declined, one of the primary things that was lost was the ecological redundancy of the system. There were multiple species of gazelles and other small herbivores, which are important because so many different predators prey on them. When there are fewer of those small herbivores, the loss of any one species has a much greater effect on the stability of the system and can lead to additional extinctions.”

The new study is based on records compiled by zoologist Dale Osborne, whose 1998 book The Mammals of Ancient Egypt provides a detailed picture of the region’s historical animal communities based on archaeological and paleontological evidence as well as historical records. “Dale Osborne compiled an incredible database of when species were represented in artwork and how that changed over time. His work allowed us to use ecological modeling techniques to look at the ramifications of those changes,” Yeakel said.

The study had its origins in 2010, when Yeakel visited a Tutankhamun exhibition in San Francisco with coauthor Nathaniel Dominy, then an anthropology professor at UC Santa Cruz and now at Dartmouth. “We were amazed at the artwork and the depictions of animals, and we realized they were recording observations of the natural world. Nate was aware of Dale Osborne’s book, and we started thinking about how we could take advantage of those records,” Yeakel said.

Coauthor Paul Koch, a UCSC paleontologist who studies ancient ecosystems, helped formulate the team’s approach to using the records to look at the ecological ramifications of the changes in species occurrences. Yeakel teamed up with ecological modelers Mathias Pires of the University of Sao Paolo, Brazil, and Lars Rudolf of the University of Bristol, U.K., to do a computational analysis of the dynamics of predator-prey networks in the ancient Egyptian animal communities.

The researchers identified five episodes over the past 6,000 years when dramatic changes occurred in Egypt’s mammalian community, three of which coincided with extreme environmental changes as the climate shifted to more arid conditions. These drying periods also coincided with upheaval in human societies, such as the collapse of the Old Kingdom around 4,000 years ago and the fall of the New Kingdom about 3,000 years ago.

“There were three large pulses of aridification as Egypt went from a wetter to a drier climate, starting with the end of the African Humid Period 5,500 years ago when the monsoons shifted to the south,” Yeakel said. “At the same time, human population densities were increasing, and competition for space along the Nile Valley would have had a large impact on animal populations.”

The most recent major shift in mammalian communities occurred about 100 years ago. The analysis of predator-prey networks showed that species extinctions in the past 150 years had a disproportionately large impact on ecosystem stability. These findings have implications for understanding modern ecosystems, Yeakel said.

“This may be just one example of a larger pattern,” he said. “We see a lot of ecosystems today in which a change in one species produces a big shift in how the ecosystem functions, and that might be a modern phenomenon. We don’t tend to think about what the system was like 10,000 years ago, when there might have been greater redundancy in the community.”

University of California – Santa Cruz

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Categories: General

New Digital Map reveals stunning hidden archaeology of Stonehenge

Wed, 2014-09-10 10:03
A vast amount of previously unknown archaeological monuments have been unveiled around Stonehenge as part of an unprecedented digital mapping project that will transform our knowledge of this iconic landscape- including remarkable new findings on the world’s largest ‘super henge’, Durrington Walls.

The Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project, led by the University of Birmingham in conjunction with the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology, is the largest project its kind.

Remote sensing techniques and geophysical surveys have discovered hundreds of new features, which now form part of the most detailed archaeological digital map of the Stonehenge landscape ever produced. The surprising results of the survey, unveiled in full at the British Science Festival, include 17 previously unknown ritual monuments dating to the period when Stonehenge achieved its iconic shape. Dozens of burial mounds have been mapped in minute detail, including long barrow (a burial mound dating to before Stonehenge) which revealed a massive timber building, probable used for the ritual inhumation of the dead following a complex sequence of exposure and excarnation (defleshing), and which was finally covered by an earthen mound.

The project has also revealed exciting new, and completely unexpected, information regarding previously known monuments. Among the most significant relate to the Durrington Walls ‘super henge’, situated just a short distance from Stonehenge. This immense ritual monument, probably the largest of its type in the world, has a circumference of over 1.5 kilometers (0.93) miles.

A new survey reveals that this had an early phase when the monument was flanked with a row large posts or tones, perhaps up to three meters high and up to 60 in number, some of which may still survive beneath the massive banks surrounding the monument. Only revealed by the cutting-edge technology used in the project, the survey has added yet another dimension to this vast and mysterious structure.

Novel types of monument were also revealed including massive prehistoric pits, some of which appear to form astronomic alignments, plus new information on hundreds of burial grounds, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Roman settlements and fields at a level of detail never seen before. Taken together, these results- which will be featured in a major new BBC Two series titled Operation Stonehenge: What Lies Beneath- show that new technology is reshaping how archaeologists understand the landscape of Stonehenge and its development over a period of more than 11,000 years.

In the year marking the centenary of the First World War, the new Stonehenge map even impacts on our knowledge of the momentous event. Surveys have produced detailed maps of the practice trenches dug around Stonehenge to prepare the troops for battle on the western front, as well as maps of RAF/RFC Stonehenge- one of Britain’s first military airbuses used by the Royal Flying Corps between 1917 and 1920.

British project leader Vincent Gaffney, Chair in Landscape Archaeology and Geomatics at the University of Birmingham, said: ‘The Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project is unique at a global level. Not only has it revolutionised how archaeologists use new technologies to interpret the past, it has transformed how we understand Stonehenge and its landscape.

‘Despite Stonehenge being the most iconic of all prehistoric monuments and occupying one of the richest archaeological landscapes in the world, much of this landscape in effect remains terra incognita.

‘This project has revealed that the area around Stonehenge is teeming with previously unseen archaeology and that the application of new technology can transform how archaeologists and the wider public understand one of the best-studied landscapes on Earth.

‘New monuments have been revealed, as well as new types of monument that have previously never been seen by archaeologists. All of this information has been placed within a single digital map, which will guide how Stonehenge and its landscape are studied in the future.

‘Stonehenge may never be the same again.’

Professor Wolfgang Neubauer, Director of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute, said: Developing non-invasive methods to document our cultural heritage is one of the greatest challenges of our time and can only be accomplished by adapting the latest technology such as ground-penetrating radar arrays and high-resolution magnetometers. The developments of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology (LBI ArchPro) offer Europe the opportunity to carry out fundamental archaeological research at a scale and precision never previously attempted.

‘No landscape deserves to benefit from a study at this level of detail more than Stonehenge. The terabytes of digital survey data collected, processed and visualised by LBI ArchPro provide the base for the precise mapping of the monuments and archaeological features buried in the subsurface or still visible in the landscape surrounding Stonehenge. After centuries of research, the analysis of all mapped features makes it possible, for the first time, to reconstruct the development of Stonehenge and its landscape through time.’

The Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project is a collaboration between the University of Birmingham; Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology, Vienna and its international partners; University of Bradford; University of St Andrews; University of Nottingham, and the ‘ORBit’ Research Group of the department of Soil Management and the University Ghent, Belgium.

The project operates under the auspices of the National Trust and English Heritage.

Dr Nick Snashall, National Trust Archaeologist for the Avebury and Stonehenge World Heritage Site, said: ‘Using 21st-century techniques, the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes team have transformed our knowledge of this ancient, precious and very special landscape. Their work has revealed a clutch of previously unsuspected sites and monuments showing how much of the story of this world-famous archaeological treasure house remains to be told.’

Dr Heather Sebire of English Heritage, Curator of Stonehenge, said: ‘This is such an exciting project. The surveys will help us form an understanding of possible new sites which have not been recorded before but which will need further investigation.’


Contributing Source: University of Birmingham

Header Image Source: WikiPedia



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Categories: General

Enigmatic Viking fortress discovered in Denmark

Mon, 2014-09-08 14:11
It is the first time for over 60 years that a new Viking fortress is found in Denmark, says curator Nanna Holm of The Danish Castle Centre.

Søren Sindbæk, professor of medieval archaeology at Aarhus University, explains: “The Vikings have a reputation as a berserker and pirates. It comes as a surprise to many that they were also capable of building magnificent fortresses. An example of such a structure is the Trelleborg Ring Fortress, excavated between 1936-1941 (Shown in the header image of this article).

The discovery of the new Viking fortress is a unique opportunity to gain new knowledge about Viking war and conflicts, and we get a new chance to examine the Vikings’ most famous monuments. ” The previously excavated Trelleborg-type fortresses – Fyrkat, Aggersborg and Trelleborg – are nominated for inscription in UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites.

Søren Sindbæk and Nanna Holm at the excavation site.

It was new, precise laser measurements of the landscape that led curator Nanna Holm on the trail of the fortress. An almost invisible rise in the field was proved by new measurements to have a clear circular outline. Nanna Holm explains: “It is a huge monument. The fortress measures 145m from side to side. We recognize the ‘Trelleborg’ fortresses by the precise circular shape of the ramparts and by the four massive gates that are directed at the four corners of the compass. Our investigations show that the new fortress was perfectly circular and had sturdy timber along the front; we have so far examined two gates, and they agree exactly with the ‘Trelleborg’ plan. It is a marvelous find. ”

Søren Sindbæk has researched on Viking fortresses for years: “The discovery has been a piece of detective work. We suspected that one fortress was ‘missing’ in the island Zealand. The location at Vallø was quite the right setting in the landscape: in a place where the old main roads met and reached out to Køge river valley, in the Viking Age was a navigable fjord and one of Zealand’s best natural harbors. From there we worked our way forward step by step. ”

Together the team called in Helen Goodchild, an expert in archaeological geophysics from the University of York, England. Søren Sindbæk explains: “By measuring small variation in the earth’s magnetism we can identify old pits or features without destroying anything. In this way we achieved an amazingly detailed ‘ghost image’ of the fortress in a few days. Then we knew exactly where we had to put in excavation trenches to get as much information as possible about the mysterious fortress. ”

Nanna Holm stresses that the fortress was a real military installation, and probably also the scene of fighting. “We can see that the gates were burned-down; in the north gate we found massive, charred oak posts.” She also puts beyond doubt that the fortress belongs to the Viking age. “fortresses constructed in this manner are only known from the Viking Age. The burned wood in the gates will makes it possible to determine the age by means radiocarbon dating and dendrochronology. The samples have been sent, and we will be eager to hear the results. If we can establish exactly when the fortress was built, we may be able to understand the historic events, which the fortress was part of.”

Ground plan of the Fyrkat Viking fortress placed on top of the Vallø ringed fortress. The red lines show the outline of the Vallø excavation (click for larger photo). © Danish Castle Centre

Viking fortresses are some of Denmark’s most famous monuments. They attract tourists from all over the world, and they have repeatedly rewritten the history of Denmark. For Vallø Estate, which owns the fields where the fortress was discovered, it has been a surprise to learn that there is a large archaeological site on the estate land. Director Søren Boas keenly supports the investigations. “This is a unique monument, which will be of great cultural value for Denmark. We are very happy to support. “Keld Møller Hansen, director of the Museum of Southeast Denmark, which includes the Danish Castle Centre, hope that funds can be gathered for a major research project in collaboration with the University of Aarhus.

The site may prove to be an important discovery in the Viking history of Denmark, says Nanna Holm. “We are eager to establish, if the castle will turn out to be from the time of King Harald Bluetooth, like the previously known fortresses, or perhaps a former king’s work. As a military fortification from the Viking Age, the monument may help to unravel the position of Zealand in relation to the oldest Danish kingdom. ”

So far, only a small parts of the fortress is excavated. The list of unresolved issues is long, says Søren Sindbæk. “This is really exciting. A find like this does not happen many times in his life-time. The excavation has confirmed far more than we dared hope, but there is much more to learn. The next big question is whether there were large buildings inside the castle, as in the known Trelleborg fortresses. The find also raises the question as to whether there will be more new Viking fortresses to discover. The exploration will be a wonderful journey of discovery. ”

Aarhus University

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Categories: General

Copper Age settlement discovered in central Spain

Sun, 2014-09-07 01:38
Researchers from the Tübingen collaborative research center Resource Cultures (SFB 1070) have uncovered the remains of a previously unknown Copper Age settlement in the central Spanish region of Azután.

Working with colleagues from the University of Alcalá de Henares, they found shards and stone tools over an area of around 90 hectares.

Typological analysis placed the finds in the Copper Age or Chalcolithic period – the transitional era after the Stone Age before metallurgists discovered that adding tin to copper produced much harder bronze, 4,000-5,000 years ago.

The Iberian Chalcolithic is marked by large fortified settlements in the southwest and more intensive use of natural resources than in the Neolithic period. It was believed that the central region around Toledo had been settled only sporadically at that time, as it is hemmed in by two mountains ranges, between which the River Tajo runs – and it would have been hard to cross 4,000 years ago.

The Dolmen de Azután grave chamber indicates major settlement in the Chalcolithic. Photo: Felicitas Schmitt/University of Tübingen

Today, the megalithic grave chamber of Azután (pictured) still hints at Chalcolithic settlement. The volume and concentration of the latest finds point towards large, long-term settlements in the region in the fourth and third centuries BC. The researchers, headed by Tübingen archaeologist Martin Bartelheim, took geomagnetic soundings and plan to compare those results with aerial photographs of the site to identify the size and structure of the settlement.

“With the new finds at Azután, we can confirm that there was intensive copperworking and settlement also in central Spain. Until now, it was thought that such activity was mostly limited to the fertile coastal regions in the south of the Iberian Peninsula,” says Felicitas Schmitt, a PhD student in the Resource Cultures collaborative research center.

At nearby Aldeanueva de San Bartolomé there is another, possibly fortified settlement, which shows signs of having been an early copper processing site. Ancient millstones and weights for nets recently found around Azután point to agriculture and fishing – and a division of labor, which marks a step along the road to the development of professional trades.

The researchers plan to trace the ancient trade routes across Spain via landscape surveys. Even today, the site is close to major roads along the river valley, and running across them are paths into the hills used by shepherds; such routes have crossed the Meseta since time immemorial.

In another study, PhD student Javier Escudero Carillo is comparing Azután with a similar Chalcolithic site on the Portuguese Algarve coast. There are clear parallels between the two regions. Felicitas Schmitt says “The two regions have similar tombs, burial rites, and objects. So we are working on the premise that rivers and shepherds’ paths played an important roles served as lines of communication even then.”

Universitaet Tübingen

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Categories: General

Ancient peach stones offer clues to fruit’s origins

Sun, 2014-09-07 01:32
As peach trees in the Niagara Region of Ontario give up the last of their fruit for the season, their ancestors halfway around the globe are clamouring for attention.

Credit : University of Toronto

In a study published today in PLOS ONE, Gary Crawford, a U of T Mississauga anthropology professor, and two Chinese colleagues propose that the domestic peaches enjoyed worldwide today can trace their ancestry back at least 7,500 years ago to the lower Yangtze River Valley in Southern China, not far from Shanghai.  The study, headed by Yunfei Zheng from the Zhejiang Institute of Archeology in China’s Zhejiang Province, was done in collaboration with Crawford and X. Chen, another researcher at the Zhejang Institute.

“Previously, no one knew where peaches were domesticated,” said Crawford. “None of the botanical literature suggested the Yangtze Valley, although many people thought that it happened somewhere in China.”

Radiocarbon dating of ancient peach stones (pits) discovered in the Lower Yangtze River Valley indicates that the peach seems to have been diverged from its wild ancestors as early as 7,500 years ago.

Archeologists have a good understanding of domestication – conscious breeding for traits preferred by people– of annual plants such as grains (rice, wheat, etc.), but the role of trees in early farming and how trees were domesticated is not well documented. Unlike most trees, the peach matures very quickly, producing fruit within two to three years, so selection for desirable traits could become apparent relatively quickly. The problem that Crawford and his colleagues faced was how to recognize the selection process in the archeological record.

Peach stones are well represented at archeological sites in the Yangtze valley, so they compared the size and structure of the stones from six sites that spanned a period of roughly 5,000 years. By comparing the size of the stones from each site, they were able to discern peaches growing significantly larger over time in the Yangtze valley, demonstrating that domestication was taking place. The first peach stones in China most similar to modern cultivated forms are from the Liangzhu culture, which flourished 4,300 to 5300 years ago.

“We’re suggesting that very early on, people understood grafting and vegetative reproduction, because it sped up selection,” Crawford said. “They had to have been doing such work, because seeds have a lot of genetic variability, and you don’t know if a seed will produce the same fruit as the tree that produced it. It’s a gamble. If they simply started grafting, it would guarantee the orchard would have the peaches they wanted.”

Crawford and his colleagues think that it took about 3,000 years before the domesticated peach resembled the fruit we know today.

“The peaches we eat today didn’t grow in the wild,” Crawford added. “Generation after generation kept selecting the peaches they enjoyed. The product went from thinly fleshed, very small fruit to what we have today. Peaches produce fruit over an extended season today but in the wild they have a short season. People must have selected not only for taste and fruit size, but for production time too.”

Discovering more about the origins of domesticated peaches tells us more about our human ancestors, too, Crawford noted.

Crops such as domesticated peaches indicate that early people weren’t passive in dealing with the environment. Not only did they understand grain production, but the woodlands and certain trees were being manipulated early on.

“There is a general sense that people in the past were not as smart as we are,” said Crawford. “The reality is that they were modern humans with the brain capacity and talents that we have now.

“People have been changing the environment to suit their needs for a very long time, and the domestication of peaches helps us understand this.”

University of Toronto

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Categories: General

First Neanderthal rock engraving found in Gibraltar Cave

Thu, 2014-09-04 16:29
The first example of a rock engraving attributed to Neanderthals has been discovered in Gorham’s Cave, Gibraltar, by an international team.

Credit : F. d’Errico

Dated at over 39 000 years old, it consists of a deeply impressed cross-hatching carved into rock.

Its analysis calls into question the view that the production of representational and abstract depictions on cave walls was a cultural innovation introduced into Europe by modern humans. On the contrary, the findings, published in PNAS on September 1, support the hypothesis that Neanderthals had a symbolic material culture.

The production of representational and abstract depictions on cave walls is seen as a key stage in the development of human cultures. Until now, this cultural innovation was considered to be a characteristic feature of modern humans, who colonized Europe around 40 000 years ago. It has also frequently been used to suggest that there were marked cognitive differences between modern humans and the Neanderthals who preceded them, and who did not express themselves in this way. The recent discovery in Gorham’s Cave changes the picture.

It consists of an abstract engraving in the form of a deeply impressed cross-hatching carved into the bedrock at the back of the cave. At the time it was identified it was covered by a layer of sediment shown by radiocarbon dating to be 39 000 years old. Since the engraving lies beneath this layer it is therefore older. This dating, together with the presence of Mousterian2 tools characteristic of Neanderthals in the sediments covering the engraving, shows that it was made by Neanderthals, who still populated the south of the Iberian peninsula at that time.

Researchers at the PACEA Laboratory (CNRS/Université de Bordeaux/Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication) undertook a microscopic analysis of the engraving, produced a 3D reconstruction of it, and carried out an experimental study, which demonstrated its human origin. The work also showed that the engraved lines are not the result of utilitarian activity, such as the cutting of meat or skins, but rather that of repeatedly and intentionally passing a robust pointed lithic tool3 into the rock to carve deep grooves. The lines were skilfully carved, and the researchers calculated that between 188 and 317 strokes of the engraving tool were necessary to achieve this result.

The discovery supports the view that graphic expression was not exclusive to modern humans, and that some Neanderthal cultures produced abstract engravings, using these to mark their living space.

CNRS (Délégation Paris Michel-Ange)

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Categories: General

History of the peoples of Africa: the role of agriculture

Thu, 2014-09-04 16:14
What phenomenon enabled the demographic growth of Bantu farmers in Africa and led to their genetic differentiation from the Pygmy hunter-gatherer communities?

Up to now, scientists thought that the emergence of agriculture on the continent 5,000 years ago played a major role. But an international team, including an IRD researcher, has revealed that the history of these peoples was played out long before. According to an extensive genomic study, the two types of population result from tens of thousands of years of adaptation to their different environments. However, the demographic boom the ancestors of the Bantus dates back to between 7,000 to 10,000 years ago, which might call into question the impact of agriculture, which emerged more than 2,000 years later.

Agriculture, a trigger element in history?

Agriculture has been a major technological cultural and environmental revolution for humanity. Particularly in Central Africa, where it has fundamentally changed the landscapes and livelihoods of sub-Saharan populations since it emerged there 5,000 years ago. He was hitherto recognised that the development of this practice, thanks to the abundance of the resources created, had enabled the demographic and geographical growth of the population having adopted it, which was later known as “Bantus” in Africa. This farming people would then have gradually differentiated genetically from the pygmy hunter-gatherers communities living in forests. A genomic study, published in the Nature Communications journal, has just challenged this assumption.

Much older events

This work, conducted in Central Africa, reveals a very different scenario: the genetic differentiation between the Pygmies and the ancestors of the Bantus, and the demographic growth of the latter, occurred long before the advent of agriculture on the continent. The researchers analysed the genomes of more than 300 people, half of them village farmers and the other half Pygmies. It is apparent that the genetic differentiation of the two populations proves to be ancient and is the result of tens of thousands of years of adaptation to their different environments. In addition, the ancestors of the Bantus experienced very strong growth of their populations between 7,000 and 10,000 years ago, or more than 2,000 years before the emergence of agriculture. This demographic boom forced them to cultivate the land to provide for their needs, and not the other way around.

Belated yet intense exchanges

Another lesson learned from this study: genetic mixing between the two societies did indeed take place at some point in the evolution, but it happened much later than scientists believed, less than 1,000 years ago, despite the contacts which Pygmies and Bantus have maintained for 5,000 years. The fact that these two populations coexisted for 4,000 years without mixing genetically reflects their specific socio-economic structures and the special status that the Pygmies have long had in the eyes of their contemporaries. However, over the last thousand years, this mixing took place in an intense way: the genomes of the Pygmy communities today have up to 50% of the genetic material inherited from their farmer neighbours.

By questioning the impact of the discovery of agriculture on the history of genetics and demographics in Africa, this work highlights a major question: what phenomenon allowed the development of the ancestors of the Bantus? Researchers are now exploring environmental factors.

Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD)


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Categories: General

From Silk Tunics to Relics

Thu, 2014-09-04 16:09
Archaeologists from the University of Bonn, working with restorers, are preserving and studying 4th-century tunics ascribed to St. Ambrose.

In the course of examining these valuable silk garments, they have made surprising scholarly discoveries regarding the development of early relic worship. In a few days they will return to Milan with a mobile lab to continue the project at the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio.

Saint Ambrose is the patron saint of grocers, beekeepers, and gingerbread bakers. He is also the patron saint of study, which explains why his attributes include the book and the flagellum, in addition to the beehive. What is more, Ambrose (339-397) is also the patron saint of Milan, where his bones rest in the Basilica that bears his name, Sant’Ambrogio. Born in Trier, Germany, he began his career as a politician, becoming elected, in 374, the influential Bishop of the emperor’s residenceof Milan. He enacted relic worship, and would become frequently quoted in the catechism. The Ambrosian chants are associated with him, and he is honored as a Doctor of the Church. Surprisingly though, the tunics at Sant’Ambrogio, which are associated with the saint and worshipped as relics, are little known.

“These are marvelously beautiful vestments of sumptuous silk that have been ascribed to the saint,” says Professor Dr. Sabine Schrenk of the department of Christian Archaeology at the University of Bonn. One of them has intricate depictions of hunting scenes with trees and leopards, while the other valuable textile is keptrather simple. There is yet no conclusive proof that these tunics date to the late 4th century, though they certainly cannot be dated very much later. Hence they are very significant testimony for the Late Antique and Early Christian periods.

In the course of many centuries, time took its toll on these famous textiles. “If these fragile silk threads are to be preserved for a long time to come, it is critical to remove harmful layers of dust,” says Cologne textile restorer Ulrike Reichert, who has headed her own restoration workshop in the Dellbrück neighborhood for many years, specializing in preserving early silk textiles. The cloth is painstakingly cleaned with a tiny vacuum cleaner and delicate brushes. “For this we have had to carefully free the material from the protective glass that had been laid over it,” says Professor Schrenk’s colleague Katharina Neuser.

Rescue Project: The Mobile Lab

Professor Schrenk and the team of restorers have taken their mobile lab to Milan several times in the last two years, with support from the Gielen-Leyendecker Foundation, to learn more about the origin and history of these textiles beyond the restoration works. “These pieces were revered as the tunics of St. Ambrose probably by the 11th century,” says Professor Schrenk. Aribert, the Archbishop of Milan, arranged for the placement of a textile band on the site where the tunics were kept. “It’s a kind of woven museum label indicating the significance of the relics,” says the Bonn scholar. Presumably, however, a red cross had already been sewn onto one of the vestments much earlier, as an indicator of their significance for the Church.

These tunics have been kept and exhibited in various ways over the centuries. For a while they were stored packed in a chest, sandwich-like, between two other layers of fabric. Until the Second World War, the relics were kept in a frame mounted to an altar in the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio; they then got new glass frames in the Basilica’s museum, where they remained until a few years ago. To protect them from the light they were then placed in storage drawers. “The pressure of heavy glass plates only aggravated the effect of many centuries of deterioration,” says Professor Schrenk. So the decision to have these valuable silks restored was made.

While the project’s researchers and restorers have already made tremendous progress, they will still have their hands full in the coming years. “Based on the textiles, the Ambrose project reveals the evolution of early relic worship in a surprising way,” says Professor Schrenk. The project will also shed new light on the economic history of Late Antiquity. It is well known that silk was not yet produced in 4th-century Europe and Asia Minor; the expensive thread was imported from China. However, Professor Schrenk is skeptical about the scholarly consensus that all silks of the time were woven in the eastern Mediterranean, primarily in Syria. “Milan at the time, being the emperor’s residence, had access to ample patronage, and used silk in grand fashion. I would be very surprised if there had not been silk workshops there at the time,” says the archaeologist.

Universität Bonn  – Header Image : In Milan’s Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio: Prof. Dr. Sabine Schrenk (r.) of the University of Bonn and Cologne textile restorer Ulrike Reichert with the valuable tunics. Photo © JochenSchaal-Reichert

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Categories: General

How good is the fossil record?

Thu, 2014-09-04 16:05
Methods have been developed to try to identify and correct for bias in the fossil record but new research from the Universities of Bristol and Bath, suggests many of these correction methods may actually be misleading.

The study, led by Dr Alex Dunhill, formerly at the Universities of Bristol and Bath and now at the University of Leeds, explored the rich and well-studied fossil record of Great Britain. Professional geological work has been done in the British Isles for over 200 years and the British Geological Survey (dating from the 1830s) has amassed enormous, detailed knowledge of every inch of the rocks and fossils of the islands.

Together with collaborators from the Universities of Bristol and Bergen, Dr Dunhill compared biodiversity through the last 550 million years of the British fossil record against a number of geological and environmental factors including the area of sedimentary rock, the number of recorded fossil collections and the number of named geological ‘formations’. All of these measures have been used as yardsticks against which the quality of the fossil record can be assessed – but the new study casts doubt on their usefulness.

Dr Dunhill said: “We suspected that the similar patterns displayed by the rock and fossil records were due to external factors rather than the number of fossils being simply dictated by the amount of accessible rock. Our work shows this is true. Factors such as counts of geological formations and collections cannot be used to correct biodiversity in the fossil record.”

The study benefits from the application of advanced mathematical techniques that not only identify whether two data sets correlate, but also whether one drives the other.

The results show that out of all the geological factors, only the area of preserved rock drives biodiversity. Therefore, the other geological factors – counts of fossil collections and geological formations – are not independent measures of bias in the fossil record.

Co-author, Bjarte Hannisdal from the University of Bergen, said: “We can learn more by analysing old data in new ways, than by analysing new data in old ways.”

This discovery fundamentally alters the way we view the diversity of life through time. It shows that both the preservation of rock and the preservation of fossils were probably driven by external environmental factors like climate change and sea level. This better explains the similarities between the rock and fossil records, as both responding to the same external factors. The alternative idea, that rock preservation was driving the fossil record is now strongly queried by this study. Perhaps the record of biodiversity in the fossil record is more accurate than previously feared.

Professor Michael Benton from the University of Bristol, another co-author of the study, said: “Palaeontologists are right to be cautious about the quality of the fossil record, but perhaps some have been too cautious. The sequence of fossils in the rocks more or less tells us the story of the history of life, and we have sensible ways of dealing with uncertainty. Some recent work on ‘correcting’ the fossil record by using formation counts may produce nonsense results.”

University of Bristol

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Categories: General

Trinity geologists re-write Earth’s evolutionary history books

Thu, 2014-09-04 16:01
Geologists from Trinity College Dublin have rewritten the evolutionary history books by finding that oxygen-producing life forms were present on Earth some 3 billion years ago – a full 60 million years earlier than previously thought.

These life forms were responsible for adding oxygen (O2) to our atmosphere, which laid the foundations for more complex life to evolve and proliferate.

Working with Professors Joydip Mukhopadhyay and Gautam Ghosh and other colleagues from the Presidency University in Kolkata, India, the geologists found evidence for chemical weathering of rocks leading to soil formation that occurred in the presence of O2. Using the naturally occurring uranium-lead isotope decay system, which is used for age determinations on geological time-scales, the authors deduced that these events took place at least 3.02 billion years ago. The ancient soil (or paleosol) came from the Singhbhum Craton of Odisha, and was named the ‘Keonjhar Paleosol’ after the nearest local town.

The pattern of chemical weathering preserved in the paleosol is compatible with elevated atmospheric O2 levels at that time. Such substantial levels of oxygen could only have been produced by organisms converting light energy and carbon dioxide to O2 and water. This process, known as photosynthesis, is used by millions of different plant and bacteria species today. It was the proliferation of such oxygen-producing species throughout Earth’s evolutionary trajectory that changed the composition of our atmosphere – adding much more O2 – which was as important for the development of ancient multi-cellular life as it is for us today.

Quentin Crowley, Ussher Assistant Professor in Isotope Analysis and the Environment in the School of Natural Sciences at Trinity, is senior author of the journal article that describes this research which has just been published online in the world’s top-ranked Geology journal, Geology. He said: “This is a very exciting finding, which helps to fill a gap in our knowledge about the evolution of the early Earth. This paleosol from India is telling us that there was a short-lived pulse of atmospheric oxygenation and this occurred considerably earlier than previously envisaged.”

The early Earth was very different to what we see today. Our planet’s early atmosphere was rich in methane and carbon dioxide and had only very low levels of O2. The widely accepted model for evolution of the atmosphere states that O2 levels did not appreciably rise until about 2.4 billion years ago. This ‘Great Oxidation Event’ event enriched the atmosphere and oceans with O2, and heralded one of the biggest shifts in evolutionary history.

Micro-organisms were certainly present before 3.0 billion years ago but they were not likely capable of producing O2 by photosynthesis. Up until very recently however, it has been unclear if any oxygenation events occurred prior to the Great Oxidation Event and the argument for an evolutionary capability of photosynthesis has largely been based on the first signs of an oxygen build-up in the atmosphere and oceans.

“It is the rare examples from the rock record that provide glimpses of how rocks weathered,” added Professor Crowley. “The chemical changes which occur during this weathering tell us something about the composition of the atmosphere at that time. Very few of these ‘paleosols’ have been documented from a period of Earth’s history prior to 2.5 billion years ago. The one we worked on is at least 3.02 billion years old, and it shows chemical evidence that weathering took place in an atmosphere with elevated O2 levels.”

There was virtually no atmospheric O2 present 3.4 billion years ago, but recent work from South African paleosols suggested that by about 2.96 billion years ago O2 levels may have begun to increase. Professor Crowley’s finding therefore moves the goalposts back at least 60 million years, which, given humans have only been on the planet for around a tenth of that time, is not an insignificant drop in the evolutionary ocean.

Professor Crowley concluded: “Our research gives further credence to the notion of early and short-lived atmospheric oxygenation.

This particular example is the oldest known example of oxidative weathering from a terrestrial environment, occurring about 600 million years before the Great Oxidation Event that laid the foundations for the evolution of complex life.”

Trinity College Dublin

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Categories: General

T. Rex times seven: New dinosaur species is discovered in Argentina

Thu, 2014-09-04 15:55
Scientists have discovered and described a new supermassive dinosaur species with the most complete skeleton ever found of its type. At 85 feet long and weighing about 65 tons in life, Dreadnoughtus schrani is the largest land animal for which a body mass can be accurately calculated.

Its skeleton is exceptionally complete, with over 70 percent of the bones, excluding the head, represented. Because all previously discovered super-massive dinosaurs are known only from relatively fragmentary remains, Dreadnoughtus offers an unprecedented window into the anatomy and biomechanics of the largest animals to ever walk the Earth.

“Dreadnoughtus schrani was astoundingly huge,” said Kenneth Lacovara, an associate professor in Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences, who discovered the Dreadnoughtus fossil skeleton in southern Patagonia in Argentina and led the excavation and analysis. “It weighed as much as a dozen African elephants or more than seven T. rex. Shockingly, skeletal evidence shows that when this 65-ton specimen died, it was not yet full grown. It is by far the best example we have of any of the most giant creatures to ever walk the planet.”

Lacovara and colleagues published the detailed description of their discovery, defining the genus and species Dreadnoughtus schrani, in the journal Scientific Reports from the Nature Publishing Group today. The new dinosaur belongs to a group of large plant eaters known as titanosaurs. The fossil was unearthed over four field seasons from 2005 through 2009 by Lacovara and a team including Lucio M. Ibiricu of the Centro Nacional Patagonico in Chubut, Argentina; the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Matthew Lamanna, and Jason Poole of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, as well as many current and former Drexel students and other collaborators. These included three current NSF Graduate Research Fellows–current GRF Kristyn Voegele, and former GRFs Elena Schroeter and Paul Ullmann–all co-authors of this paper.

Kenneth Lacovara surrounded by the skeleton of Dreadnoughtus schrani. Kenneth Lacovara

“The quality of this specimen has allowed us to study this new species in numerous aspects giving us closer to a holistic view than is possible for most dinosaur species,” said Voegele. “This could only be accomplished by collaborating with multiple experts–and without this collaboration our knowledge of this taxon would be fragmentary and not live up to the completeness and quality of the specimen. The NSF GRFP has enabled myself and two fellow collaborators to preform detailed analyses of this new species.”

“The fellowship awarded in 2013 acknowledged Kristyn’s scientific potential, and supports her contributions to this exciting discovery,” said Gisele Muller-Parker, program director for the Graduate Research Fellowship Program. “In addition to her research on dinosaur anatomy and biomechanics, Kristyn has been involved in a variety of related outreach activities, including an annual Community Dig Day and a Fossil Discovery Station for school visits at a fossil site in New Jersey.”

NSF funding also included an Earth Sciences award of the Geobiology and Low-Temperature Geochemistry program.

National Science Foundation – Header Image : Kenneth Lacovara surrounded by the skeleton of Dreadnoughtus schrani. Kenneth Lacovara

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Categories: General

Modern population boom traced to pre-industrial roots

Thu, 2014-09-04 15:47
By the end of the Roman Empire, humanity had crossed a critical threshold of social organization that allowed more people to take advantage of economies of scale, says anthropologist Aaron Stutz. “The Consummation of Empire,” by Thomas Cole, portrays the wealth and culture of the period.

The foundation of the human population explosion, commonly attributed to a sudden surge in industrialization and public health during the 18th and 19th centuries, was actually laid as far back as 2,000 years ago, suggests an extended model of detailed demographic and archeological data.

The Public Library of Science One (PLOS ONE) recently published the analytical framework developed by Aaron Stutz, an associate professor of anthropology at Emory’s Oxford College.

“The industrial revolution and public health improvements were proximate reasons that more people lived longer,” Stutz says. “If you dig further in the past, however, the data suggest that a critical threshold of political and economic organization set the stage 1,500 to 2,000 years ago, around the start of the Common Era. The resulting political-economic balance was the tipping point for economies of scale: It created a range of opportunities enabling more people to get resources, form successful families, and generate enough capital to transfer to the next generation.”

Population dynamics have been a hot topic since 1798, when English scholar Thomas Robert Malthus published his controversial essay that population booms in times of plenty will inevitably be checked by famine and disease. “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man,” he wrote. The so-called Malthusian Catastrophe theory was penned just prior to the global census size reaching one billion.

Around 1800, the human population reached one billion. “The First Birthday Party,” by Frederick Daniel Hardy, celebrates the strong intergenerational ties that helped make this milestone possible.

While it took hundreds of thousands of years for humans to reach that one billion milestone, it took only another 120 years for humanity to double to two billion. And during the past 50 years, the human population has surged to near eight billion.

“It’s mind-boggling,” Stutz says. “The human population has not behaved like any other animal population. We haven’t stayed in any kind of equilibrium with what we would consider a typical ecological niche.”

Economic historians and demographers have focused on societal changes that occurred during the Industrial Revolution as the explanation for this super-exponential population growth. An archeologist by training, Stutz wanted to explore further back in time.

“Archeologists are interested in looking at much earlier changes in human society,” Stutz says. “In addition to looking at data, we dig up things like people’s houses, community courtyards, agricultural fields, harbors and so on. That gives us this sort of holistic view of how human society and the environment influence one another over time.”

During the Roman Empire, “a huge swath of the population was feeding, quite literally, the dynamism that was taking place,” Stutz says. “Thumbs Down,” by Jean-Leon Gerome, dramatizes just how cruel and capricious life could be for the individual.

His analysis found that that the potential for the human population to burgeon despite environmental degradation, conflict and disease could be traced to a subtle interaction between competition and organization. At a certain tipping point, this interaction created opportunities for individuals to gain more control over their lives and prosper, opening the door to economies of scale.

Stutz cites the Roman Empire, which spanned 500 years, from just before the Common Era to 476 CE, as a classic example of passing through this threshold. One of the largest and most prosperous empires in history, it is noteworthy for economic and political organization, literature, and advances in architecture and engineering. And yet, on an individual level, life was not necessarily so grand. Farm laborers and miners were ground into short, miserable lives to produce all those surplus goods for trading and empire building. And large numbers of young males had to serve in the military to ward off rebellions.

“The vast majority of people who lived under Roman rule had a life expectancy into their late 20s or early 30s,” Stutz says. “A huge swath of the population was feeding, quite literally, the dynamism that was taking place in terms of economic and political development. Their labor increased the potential for providing more democracy and competition on the smaller scale. That, in turn, led to a more complex, inter-generational dynamic, making it possible to better care for offspring and even transfer resources to them.”

The tipping point had been reached, Stutz says, and the trend continued despite the collapse of the Roman Empire. “The increasingly complex and decentralized economic and political entities that were built up around the world from the beginning of the Common Era to 1500 CE created enough opportunities for individuals, states and massive powers like England, France and China to take advantage of the potential for economies of scale,” Stutz says.

This revised framework for the underpinnings of human population dynamics could lead to better understanding of how economic and political organization is affecting modern-day society, he adds.

“We might wind up being back in a situation where a growing part of the population is basically providing labor to sustain a minority,” Stutz says. “You could certainly point to the sweat shops in the developing world. Another potential example is the growing income inequality that’s been well-documented in the United States over the last couple of decades.”

Emory Health Sciences

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Categories: General

Exceptionally well preserved insect fossils from the Rhône Valley

Tue, 2014-09-02 11:59
In Bavaria, the Tithonian Konservat-Lagerstätte of lithographic limestone is well known as a result of numerous discoveries of emblematic fossils from that area (for example, Archaeopteryx).

Now, for the first time, researchers have found fossil insects in the French equivalent of these outcrops – discoveries which include a new species representing the oldest known water treader.

This is a fossilized aquatic bug from the Orbagnoux outcrop of the Rhone valey: Gallomesovelia grioti (scale bar 1 mm).

Despite the abundance of fossils in the equivalent Bavarian outcrops, fewer fossils have been obtained from the Late Kimmeridgian equivalents of these rocks in the departments of Ain and Rhône in France. Many outcrops are recorded (for example Cerin and Orbagnoux), but the fauna found there is essentially of marine origin, being made up of crustaceans and fishes. Some layers have provided dinosaur footprints, but until today’s announcement the only known terrestrial organisms were plant remains transported into the ancient lagoons.

During the course of two field expeditions in 2012 and 2013 French researchers working with the help of two active teams of amateur scientists (Société des Naturalistes et Archéologues de l’Ain and the Group ‘Sympetrum Recherche et Protection des Libellules’) discovered the first insects from the Orbagnoux outcrop, together with traces of activities of these organisms on leaves and in the sediment.

The newly discovered insect was described today, in the open access journal PeerJ. The bug was 6 mm long and is the oldest record of the aquatic bug lineage of the Gerromorpha which comprises the water striders and the water measurers. This is the oldest known water treader (Mesoveliidae), the sister group of all other gerromorphan lineages. In a similar manner to some of its recent relatives, this aquatic bug could have lived in brackish environments.

In addition, traces of insect activity on plants were found, comprising surface feeding traces on Zamites leaves. Such traces are quite rare in the fossil record and in this situation they demonstrate the presence of strictly terrestrial insects on the emerged lands that were surrounded by these Jurassic lagoons.


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Categories: General

Researchers search for evidence of earliest inhabitants of Central Great Plains

Mon, 2014-09-01 22:03
A team led by University of Kansas Distinguished Professor Rolfe Mandel in July excavated a northeast Kansas site in Pottawatomie County seeking to find artifacts tied to the Clovis and Pre-Clovis peoples, the founding populations of the Americas.

The team is awaiting the results of dating of sediment samples tied to recovered artifacts, and if the sediments are confirmed to be more than 13,500 years old it would open the door to a discovery of the earliest evidence of people inhabiting this part of the state and the Central Great Plains.

“If we want to know about the history of the arrival of people in the Great Plains, this is the sort of work that’s going to unravel that,” said Mandel, who in addition to his appointment with the Department of Anthropology is also a senior scientist with the Kansas Geological Survey. “We all have inherent interest in history, so this tells us something about the early occupants of the Great Plains and this part of the Great Plains. It will tell us a lot about the history of the peopling of the Americas and in particular the peopling of the Great Plains, especially the Central Great Plains, where it’s been pretty much a black hole in terms of unraveling that story.”

The 20 days of excavating a bank on the north end of Tuttle Creek and the Big Blue River — known as the Coffey Site —this summer was part of KU’s ODYSSEY Project, which Mandel directs, and it gives KU undergraduate and graduate students archeological field experience. ODYSSEY team members have made the only other discovery of Clovis period people inhabiting Kansas or Nebraska when they discovered a stratified Clovis-age site at Kanorado, which is near Goodland in northwest Kansas on the Colorado border.

Image Credit : University of Kansas

Mandel was hopeful the recent dig at Tuttle Creek would yield evidence that Clovis people inhabited the site in northeast Kansas at least 13,500 years ago, but he said based on the depth of the artifacts in the bank, it’s possible their findings could be associated with the earlier Pre-Clovis people.

“There’s no question that there’s something there. It’s a matter of getting a handle on the age of it,” Mandel said.
Items recovered in July included portions of two projectile points — that were likely tied to spear points — and a hafted drill. Although the spear points and drill found this summer are considerably younger than Clovis, a spear point and another artifact found at the Coffey site last summer represent the immediate successors of Clovis. Mandel said that below these items are artifacts that may be the material remains of Clovis or Pre-Clovis people. A key test in attempting to date the artifacts is determining when the sediments containing them were last exposed to light before being buried.

Another key in trying to verify the age of artifacts is whether they are found to be resting in horizontal or vertical positions. Mandel said artifacts in vertical positions are less likely to be associated with the age of the sediments containing them because it’s possible the items could have fallen down a crack in the sediments, for example.

“If you’re going to have an extraordinary hypothesis that this could be tied to Pre-Clovis, you have to have extraordinary evidence, and so it has to be done extremely systematically,” Mandel said. “It has to be done in a very meticulous way.”

As they analyze the materials, including the tools recovered from the bank to try to tie them to Clovis or Pre-Clovis people, Mandel said the Paleoindian population was known to bring items from long distances, so it may help scholars map population movement in early America and the Central Great Plains.

“We’re talking about small family units, hunters and gatherers,” he said. “It’s a group of five or six, maybe a little bit larger wandering across the landscape. They’re following herds of animals. Of course, at that time, the assemblage of animals looked a lot different than what it does today.”

In addition to hunting megafauna, that included mammoth, large extinct forms of bison, and American camel, the inhabitants in the area likely also gathered a variety of plant foods.

“They were constantly on the move, taking advantage of resources,” Mandel said. “Given that they were small groups, they didn’t leave a lot behind. They didn’t live in villages. That didn’t happen until about 2,000 years ago, in more recent time.”

As the analysis of the artifacts from July’s dig continues, Mandel — who has spent a large part of his career looking for clues to verify the earliest inhabitants of the region — waits to find out how significant of a discovery the ODYSSEY Project participants made during their hot, long hours digging and excavating on the river bank in northeast Kansas.

“It’s a small record. It’s probably dispersed. It’s been possibly modified by the geological process, including deep burial, and so it’s very elusive,” Mandel said. “It’s very difficult to find.”

The University of Kansas

The University of Kansas


The University of Kansas

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Categories: General

Plant Life Forms in the Fossil Record: When Did the First Canopy Flowers Appear?

Mon, 2014-09-01 21:47
Most plant fossils are isolated organs, making it difficult to reconstruct the type of plant life or its ecosystem structure.

In their study for GEOLOGY, published online on 28 Aug. 2014, researchers Camilla Crifò and colleagues used leaf vein density, a trait visible on leaf compression fossils, to document the occurrence of stratified forests with a canopy dominated by flowering plants.

Using a 40-meter-tall canopy crane equipped with a gondola, they were able to collect leaves from the very top of trees in Panama and the United States. They measured leaf vein density in 132 species from two Panamanian tropical forests and one temperate forest in Maryland (USA). The team also compared the leaf vein values of canopy-top and forest-bottom leaves (i.e., leaf litter on the forest floor).

The authors show that venation density, like plant metabolism (i.e., transpiration and photosynthesis), is higher in the leaves located in the forest canopy and decreases in leaves at lower levels. Furthermore, they found that leaves from the forest floor, which are the closest analog to fossil floras, preserve this pattern.

The team also reanalyzed vein density data from the literature from the Early Cretaceous (132.5 million years ago) to the Paleocene (58 million years ago) to determine when flowering plants became part of the upper forest canopy. Vein density values similar to present ones appeared about 58 million years ago, indicating that the emergence of flowering plants in the canopy occurred by the Paleocene.

Geological Society of America – Header Image : Photograph of the research canopy crane in the Parque Natural San Lorenzo (tropical rainforest), Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Panamá, and a detail of the venation of a fossil angiosperm leaf from the Paleocene (Cerrejón formation, Colombia). Leaf vein density can be used in the fossil record to shed light on the origin of the Neotropical forest. Designed by Lina Gonzalez, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (Panamá). Photos by Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and Andrés Baresch, Stanford University. Click on image for a higher resolution version. See related article by Crifò et al.

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Categories: General

London Mapping Project

Sun, 2014-08-31 21:41
The London History Group was launched mid 2014 as a community engagement project, building on local knowledge to promote the less known historical sites of London and create an exciting story that can be traced on the ground.

A partnership between HeritageDaily and Historvius,  the project is run by community archaeologists and historians who are working with an active social audience to advise on the history on their doorsteps.

These sites are explored, photographed and their positions mapped within the platform, enabling tourists and Londoners alike to discover these monuments for themselves.

Unlike most sites that feature places to visit in London, The London History Group is searching for those locations that slip through being featured in the usual tourism guides. From the city walls, roman fort, ruined priories and underground crypts.

Some of the sites: London Wall – Coopers Row The London Wall is a defensive wall that encircled the City of London.

London Wall – Credit : London History Group

The wall was built between 190 and 225 AD, it continued to be developed by the Romans until at least the end of the 4th century, making it among the last major building projects undertaken by the Romans before Britannia looked to its own defences in AD 410.

Along with Hadrian’s Wall and the road network, the London Wall was one of the largest construction projects carried out in Roman Britain. Once built, the wall was 2 miles long and about 6 m high, encircling the entire Roman city.

Despite Londinium being abandoned and left to ruin by the Romans, the wall remained in active use as a fortification for more than another 1,000 years. It was repaired when Anglo Saxon rule was returned to London by Afred the Great during a period of Viking sieges and raids, where he carried out building projects to rebuild crumbling defences, recut the defensive ditch (Roman fossa that encircled the walls of Londinium) and found the re-settlement of Lundenburg within the walls.

The wall was further modified in the medieval period, with the addition of crenellations, gates and bastion towers. This formed part of a defensive line that incorporated The Tower of London, Baynard’s Castle and Montfichet’s Tower.

It was not until as late as the 18th and 19th centuries that the wall underwent substantial demolition, although even then large portions of it survived by being incorporated into other structures. Amid the devastation of the Blitz in WW2, some of the tallest ruins in the bomb-damaged city centre were actually remnants of the Roman wall.

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Saxon Barrow Cemetary Greenwich Park contains a large Saxon barrow cemetery of approximately 50 round barrows.

Saxon Barrow Cemetary – Credit : London History Group

At their simplest, round barrows are hemispherical mounds of earth and/or stone raised over a burial placed in the middle, whether inhumation burials or cremations.

They were originally investigated in 1784 by Rev. James Douglas who’s discoveries included inhumations (some in coffins), with grave goods that included a spearhead (Swanton Type H3), a shield boss, a knife and four beads. Fragments of hair and cloth were also recorded.

Twenty barrows are still visually identifiable today, and up to 5m in diameter with slight elevation over the surrounding topology.

An RCHME survey, topographically and using geophysical methods as part of the Greenwich Park Survey (Sep-1993 to Feb-1994) identified a total of thirty-one barrows surviving, with the remainder having been destroyed or flattened in 1844.

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Magpie Alley (Whitefriar’s Crypt) Tucked away in a tiny alley near Fleet Street lies the remains of the Whitefriar’s Crypt.

Magpie Alley (Whitefriar’s Crypt) – Credit : London History Group

Only a crypt remains today of what was once a late 14th century priory belonging to a Carmelite order known as the White Friars. During its heyday, the priory sprawled the area from Fleet Street to the Thames. At its western end was the Temple and to its east was Water Lane (now called Whitefriars Street). A church, cloisters, garden and cemetery were housed in the ground.

The roots of the Carmelite order go back to its founding on Mount Carmel, which was situated in what is today Israel, in 1150. The order had to flee Mount Carmel to escape the wrath of the Saracens in 1238.

Like many Catholic sites, the friary was dissolved by Henry VIII during the reformation in 1538, with the site gifted to the King’s Armourer.

They crypt itself was discovered in 1896 in Britton’s Court, where it was used as a cellar. Supposedly a similar crypt was also discovered in proximity but was destroyed during the rapid expansion of London.

During the 1980′s, the crypt was meticulously removed in order to allow the redevelopment of the area. It was lifted across the road to a new resting site by crane, where it now resides behind a glass screen for public viewing.

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Lesnes Abbey Lesnes Abbey is a ruined abbey in the London Borough of Bexley which is classed as an ancient scheduled monument.

Lesnes Abbey – Credit : London History Group

After the Norman Conquest in 1066, the area of Lesnes passed into ownership of Bishop Odo, as mentioned in the Domesday Survey. The year 1178 saw the foundation of the Abbey of St Mary and St Thomas the Martyr at Lesnes by Richard de Luci, Chief Justiciar of England.

In 1381 Abel Ker of Erith led an uprising linked to the famous Peasants’ Revolt and forced the abbot of the abbey to swear an oath to support them. After this they marched to Maidstone to join the main body of men led by Wat Tyler.

It was one of the first monasteries to be closed after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1524, and the monastic buildings were all pulled down, except for the Abbott’s Lodging.

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London Lighthouse Located deep within the Docklands at Trinity Buoy Wharf, where the River Lee meets the River Thames, lies London’s only lighthouse.

London Lighthouse – Credit : London History Group

In 1803, the site came to be used by The Elder Brethren of Trinity House which is now known as Corporation of Trinity House, and the seawall here was reconstructed in 1822, built by George Mundy of Old Ford.

The site was used as a maintenance depot, and storage facility for the many buoys that aided navigation on the Thames; and the wharf for docking and repair of lightships. The original lighthouse was built by the engineer of Trinity House, James Walker, in 1852, and was demolished in the late 1920s.

The surviving lighthouse was built in 1864-6 by James Douglass for Trinity House. It was used for lighting trials for Trinity House’s lights around England & Wales. Michael Faraday also carried out experiments there.

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How you can help?

Part of the LHG project involves scouting historical sites for accuracy of research and image content. We are reaching out to Londoners, to pass on their local knowledge and help us to uncover the past on their doorsteps.

To inform us of any local historical sites, or to submit any content to the website and images.. Please contact us

Alternatively, join our facebook group and post a site on the wall for investigation by our historians. Facebook Group

Visit The London History Group

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Categories: General