Heritage Daily

Syndicate content
Latest archaeology news, archaeological discoveries from across the globe
Updated: 58 min 12 sec ago

New lobster-like predator found in 508 million-year-old fossil-rich site

Tue, 2015-03-31 11:55
What do butterflies, spiders and lobsters have in common?

They are all surviving relatives of a newly identified species called Yawunik kootenayi, a marine creature with two pairs of eyes and prominent grasping appendages that lived as much as 508 million years ago – more than 250 million years before the first dinosaur.

The fossil was identified by an international team led by palaeontologists at the University of Toronto (U of T) and the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, as well as Pomona College in California. It is the first new species to be described from the Marble Canyon site, part of the renowned Canadian Burgess Shale fossil deposit.

Yawunik had evolved long frontal appendages that resemble the antennae of modern beetles or shrimps, though these appendages were composed of three long claws, two of which bore opposing rows of teeth that helped the animal catch its prey.

“This creature is expanding our perspective on the anatomy and predatory habits of the first arthropods, the group to which spiders and lobsters belong,” said Cedric Aria, a PhD candidate in U of T’s Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and lead author of the resulting study published this week in Palaeontology. “It has the signature features of an arthropod with its external skeleton, segmented body and jointed appendages, but lacks certain advanced traits present in groups that survived until the present day. We say that it belongs to the ‘stem’ of arthropods.”

The study presents evidence that Yawunik was capable of moving its frontal appendages backward and forward, spreading them out during an attack and then retracting them under its body when swimming. Coupled with the long, sensing whip-like flagella extending from the tip of the claws, this makes the frontal appendages of the animal some of the most versatile and complex in all known arthropods.

“Unlike insects or crustaceans, Yawunik did not possess additional appendages in the head that were specifically modified to process food,” said Aria. “Evolution resulted here in a combination of adaptations onto the frontal-most appendage of this creature, maybe because such modifications were easier to acquire.

“We know that the larvae of certain crustaceans can use their antennae to both swim and gather food. But a large active predator such as a mantis shrimp has its sensory and grasping functions split up between appendages. Yawunik and its relatives tell us about the condition existing before such a division of tasks among parts of the organism took place.”

The Marble Canyon site is located in British Columbia’s Kootenay National Park, 40 kilometres south from the original Burgess Shale in Yoho National Park. Aria was part of the team that discovered the site in 2012, led by Jean-Bernard Caron, an associate professor at U of T’s Departments of Earth Sciences and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and curator of invertebrate palaeontology at the ROM, and Robert Gaines, associate professor at the Department of Geology at Pomona College in California, both co-authors of the study.

“Yawunik is the most abundant of the large new species of the Marble Canyon site, and so, as a predator, it held a key position in the food network and had an important impact on this past ecosystem,” said Caron. “This animal is therefore important for the study of Marble Canyon, and shows how the site increases the significance of the Burgess Shale in understanding the dawn of animals.”

The study benefited from cutting-edge techniques of fossil imagery, including so-called “elemental mapping,” which consists in detecting the atomic composition of the fossil and the sediment surrounding it.

“Our understanding of these organisms rests upon interpreting their fossil remains,” said Gaines. “These fossils are a composed of a mosaic of delicate original organic material and minerals that replicate parts of fossil anatomy.

“The scanning electron microscope allows us to make maps of the fossils that reveal their composition. This gives us a remarkable perspective on the fossils, allowing anatomical structures to be visualized more precisely. This technique also provides insight into the unusual fossilization process that was at work here.”

The new creature is named in tribute to the Ktunaxa People who have long inhabited the Kootenay area where the Marble Canyon locality was found. It owes its name to “Yawu?nik?”, a mythological figure described as a huge and fierce marine creature, killing and causing such mayhem that it triggered an epic hunt by other animals to bring the threat down.

“We wanted to acknowledge the Ktunaxa culture, and given the profile of Yawunik, it looked like a natural choice of name,” Aria said.

“Yawu?nik? is a central figure in the Ktunaxa creation story, and, as such, is a vital part of Ktunaxa oral history,” said Donald Sam, Ktunaxa Nation Council Director of Traditional Knowledge and Language. “I am ecstatic that the research team recognizes how important our history is in our territory, and chose to honour the Ktunaxa through this amazing discovery.”

University of Toronto

Categories: General

Earliest humans had diverse range of body types, just as we do today

Fri, 2015-03-27 13:46
One of the dominant theories of our evolution is that our genus, Homo, evolved from small-bodied early humans to become the taller, heavier and longer legged Homo erectus that was able to migrate beyond Africa and colonise Eurasia.

While we know that small-bodied Homo erectus – averaging less than five foot (152cm) and under 50kg – were living in Georgia in southern Europe by 1.77 million years ago, the timing and geographic origin of the larger body size that we associate with modern humans has, until now, remained unresolved.

But a joint study by researchers at the Universities of Cambridge and Tübingen (Germany), published today in the Journal of Human Evolution, has now shown that the main increase in body size occurred tens of thousands of years after Homo erectus left Africa, and primarily in the Koobi Fora region of Kenya. According to Manuel Will, a co-author of the study from the Department of Early Prehistory and Quaternary Ecology at Tübingen, “the evolution of larger bodies and longer legs can thus no longer be assumed to be the main driving factor behind the earliest excursions of our genus to Eurasia”.

Researchers say the results from a new research method, using tiny fragments of fossil to estimate our earliest ancestors’ height and body mass, also point to the huge diversity in body size we see in humans today emerging much earlier than previously thought.

“What we’re seeing is perhaps the beginning of a unique characteristic of our own species – the origins of diversity,” said Dr Jay Stock, co-author of the study from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology and Anthropology. “It’s possible to interpret our findings as showing that there were either multiple species of early human, such as Homo habilis, Homo ergaster and Homo rudolfensis, or one highly diverse species. This fits well with recent cranial evidence for tremendous diversity among early members of the genus Homo.”

“If someone asked you ‘are modern humans 6 foot tall and 70kg?’ you’d say ‘well some are, but many people aren’t,’ and what we’re starting to show is that this diversification happened really early in human evolution,” said Stock.

The study is the first in 20 years to compare the body size of the humans who shared the earth with mammoths and sabre-toothed cats between 2.5 and 1.5 million years ago. It is also the first time that many fragmentary fossils – some as small as toes and tiny ankle bones no more than 5cm long – have been used to make body size estimates.

Comparing measurements of fossils from sites in Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, and Georgia, the researchers found that there was significant regional variation in the size of early humans during the Pleistocene. Some groups, such as those who lived in South African caves, averaged 4.8 feet tall; some of those found in Kenya’s Koobi Fora region would have stood at almost 6 foot, comparable to the average of today´s male population in Britain.

“Basically every textbook on human evolution gives the perspective that one lineage of humans evolved larger bodies before spreading beyond Africa. But the evidence for this story about our origins and the dispersal out of Africa just no longer really fits,” said Stock. “The first clues came from the site of Dmanisi in Georgia where fossils of really small-bodied people date to 1.77 million years ago. This has been known for several years, but we now know that consistently larger body size evolved in Eastern Africa after 1.7 million years ago, in the Koobi Fora region of Kenya.”

“We tend to simplify our interpretations because the fossil record is patchy and we have to explain it in some way. But revealing the diversity that exists is just as important as those broad, sweeping explanations.”

Previous studies have been based on small samples of only 10-15 fossils because techniques for calculating the height and body mass of individuals required specific pieces of bone such as the hip joint or most of a leg bone. Stock and Will have used a sample size three times larger, estimating body size for over 40 specimens contained in collections all over Africa and Georgia, making it the largest comparative study conducted so far.

Instead of waiting for new fossils to be discovered and hoping that they contained these specific bones, Stock and Will decided to try a different approach and make use of previously over-looked fossils. In what Stock describes as a “very challenging project,” they spent a year developing new equations that allowed them to calculate the height and body mass of individuals using much smaller bones, some as small as toes. By comparing these bones to measurements taken from over 800 modern hunter-gatherer skeletons from around the world and applying various regression equations, the researchers were able to estimate body size for many new fossils that have never been studied in this way before.

“In human evolution we see body size as one of the most important characteristics, and from examining these ‘scrappier’ fossils we can get a much better sense of when and where human body size diversity arose. Before 1.7 million years ago our ancestors were seldom over 5 foot tall or particularly heavy in body mass.

“When this significant size shift to much heavier, taller individuals happened, it occurred primarily in one particular place – in a region called Koobi Fora in northern Kenya around 1.7 million years ago. That means we can now start thinking about what regional conditions drove the emergence of this diversity, rather than seeing body size as a fixed and fundamental characteristic of a species,” said Stock.

UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE – Header Image – This is a cast of the ‘Nariokotome Boy’ (Homo ergaster) skeleton. Credit : Jay Stock

Categories: General

WODC: Ancient D20 Die Emerges

Thu, 2015-03-26 17:49

Welcome to World of Dig Craft. In this series Liv Westring discusses current issues facing Archaeology, in Sweden and around the world.

Today, Liv is… dying… to tell us about an ancient D20!

Categories: General

Poisons, plants and Palaeolithic hunters

Thu, 2015-03-26 16:56
Dozens of common plants are toxic. Archaeologists have long suspected that our Palaeolithic ancestors used plant poisons to make their hunting weapons more lethal.

Now Dr Valentina Borgia has teamed up with a forensic chemist to develop a technique for detecting residues of deadly substances on archaeological objects.

We’re surrounded by poisonous plants: they thrive in our parks and gardens, hedgerows and woodlands. Foxgloves (Digitalis) look charming but their seeds can kill. The flowers of monkshood (Aconitum napellus) are a stunning blue but its roots can be deadly. Hemlock (Conium maculatum) is both common and extremely toxic as Shakespeare reminds us in Macbeth with the incantations of the witches.

Archaeologists have long believed that our ancestors used poisons extracted from such plants to make their weapons more lethal and kill their prey more swiftly. By dipping an arrow head into a poisonous paste, the hunter could ensure that an animal would receive a dose of toxic chemicals – alkaloids or cardenolides – that would either kill it immediately or slow it down.

Until very recently it has been impossible to prove that poisons extracted from plants were used by early societies. Now Dr Valentina Borgia, a specialist in Palaeolithic hunting weapons and Marie Curie Fellow at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, believes that she is on the brink of being able to prove that our ancestors used poisons as far back as 30,000 years ago.

Borgia has approached the likely use of poisons by our distant ancestors from a number of viewpoints. Her research looks at the ubiquity of poisonous plants in many local environments and their use both historically and by modern hunter-gatherers. Working with a forensic chemist she has also developed techniques capable of detecting tiny residues of poison on archaeological objects. She is now putting those techniques to the test with samples obtained from museum collections.

“We know that the Babylonians, Greeks and Romans used plant-based poisons both for hunting animals and in war. In fact, the word ‘toxic’ come from toxon, the Greek for bow. Taxus is a genus of the yew tree with a springy timber traditionally used to make bows. It also produces seeds used to poison arrows. In Britain, yews grown for their timber were planted in churchyards so that animals wouldn’t be poisoned by eating their berries,” says Borgia.

“Few hunter-gatherer societies remain today but all the groups that have survived employ poisons. The Yanomami people of the Amazonian rainforest use curare – a mix of Strychnos genus plants – to poison their arrows. In Africa, a variety of different plants are used to make poisons. Acokanthera, Strophantus and Strychnos are the most common.”

Many Northern Asian populations used monkshood (Aconitum) to kill large animals such as bear and Siberian ibex. Poisonous plants also feature in folklore. In Malaysia, darts are poisoned using Antiaris toxicaria, a poison that comes from the Upas tree. A Malaysian legend says: “Seven up, eight down and nine no life”. The victim takes seven steps uphill, eight steps downhill and a ninth final step.

In 2014, Borgia enlisted the expertise of forensic chemist Michelle Carlin (Northumbria University) to help her devise a method for identifying residues of poison. Carlin’s day-to-day work is focused on crime and the detection of illegal substances through chemical analysis. Using a highly specialist technique called liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry, she is able to detect invisible traces of drugs – such as cocaine in pocket linings.

The same technique can be used to detect the presence of poisons used thousands of years ago. Together Borgia and Carlin have created a database listing toxic plants and have developed a non-destructive method of collecting samples of residues from archaeological materials, by simply touching the item with cotton imbued with pure water.

Samples of poisonous plants were supplied to the researchers by the Botanic Garden at the University of Cambridge and Alnwick Castle in Northumberland. Alnwick has a Poison Garden where visitors can see 150 poisonous plants. Some (such as monkshood) are so toxic that Alnwick has to obtain a licence from the Home Office in order to cultivate them.

Another route to identification of plant residues is to look for the presence of starches which remain on the surface of the prehistoric weapons. Starch grains can be used to determine plant taxa: each species has distinctive size, shape and structure. Borgia has collaborated with a major expert in this methodology, Dr Huw Barton (University of Leicester) in order to use starching testing as one of her research tools.

Many museums with ethnographical collections have poisoned weapons in their displays and stores. Borgia has been able to collect samples from objects held by the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, the Pitts Rivers Museum in Oxford and the Museo Etnografico Pigorini of Roma (Italy) with the collaboration of her Italian colleague, Dr Jacopo Crezzini. The objects include a Chinese pot with Aconite poison inside (wrapped in a newspaper dated 13 July 1926), Malaysian darts poisoned with Upas, various African arrows and a glass tube containing curare.

“The wonderful craftsmanship used to create objects so strongly associated with poison is also significant. As the French philosopher Simondon says, there is no pure technical device free from symbolic meaning,” says Borgia. “These artefacts fully express this concept, as they show a high degree of care. A scary-looking Borneo harpoon, wonderfully carved, in the Cambridge museum is thought to have been made from a human bone. A card, conserved with it, warns ‘Care. Has been poisoned’.”

Carlin’s analysis of these samples of materials has shown that residues of poisons are easily detectable on the objects a century later and that the residues retained their chemical characteristics. Now the real challenge for the researchers is to go much further back in time.

Testing of a sample of six stone-tipped pre-dynastic Egyptian arrows, dating from 4,000 years BC and conserved in the Phoebe A Hearst Museum of Berkeley (USA), is now taking place. At the time these arrows where first studied, 40 years ago, the researchers removed small portions of the black residue present on the tips, and injected into a cat. The reaction of the poor animal (which did survive) was evidence of the presence of a poison on the arrows.

“Nowadays we have the right instruments to get more information without cruelty to animals. Initial tests strongly suggest the presence of Acokanthera, a poisonous plant on our database, but we can’t be completely certain as there are a number of components in the compound,” said Borgia.

“It made good sense for people to use poisons. On their own, Palaeolithic weapons with stone arrowheads may not have been deadly enough to immobilise or kill a large animal such as a red deer. Poisons plants were plentiful and the Prehistoric population knew the environment where they lived, they knew the edible plants and their potential as medicines and poisons. To fabricate a poison is easy and economic, and the risk is minimal. In addition, the making of poisons is often part of the tradition and the rituality of hunting.”

When archaeologists remove items from the ground in the course of field work, they brush off the soil adhering to the finds and sometimes even wash objects. Borgia is appealing to fellow archaeologists to contact her when they find weapons and not to clean up their finds. “Now we have this technique available, and have shown that it works, we need to test it as much as possible on archaeological samples,” she says.

Borgia denies that her family name (Lucrezia Borgia is legendary as a devious poisoner) prompted her interest in poisons but she delights in the Latin quip ‘nomen omen’. It translates roughly as ‘significant name’ and certainly the name Borgia has powerful historic resonances. Luckily for Borgia’s colleagues, her objectives are honourable and entirely academic.

She says: “Investigation of the use of poisons in Prehistoric periods adds to our understanding of hunting techniques and rituals, and also how the plant world was exploited. The Renaissance physician Paracelsus wrote that dosis facit venenum (the dose makes the poison). Ethnographic studies tell us that the most common toxic plants used in poisons were also used to treat diseases. Not surprisingly, the same substances are the basis for many medications still in use today.”


Categories: General

Assumed Missing – Reported Buried – the search for the lost Spitfires of Burma

Thu, 2015-03-26 14:13
It was a story which captivated the world’s media in 2012 and even attracted the support of British Prime Minister, David Cameron in talks with Myanmar President Thein Sein:

Did the Royal Air Force bury iconic Spitfire fighters in Burma on the orders of Lord Louis Mountbatten at the end of World War Two, as claimed by Lincolnshire Farmer and aviation enthusiast David Cundall?

In the Autumn of 2012, international computer gaming company Wargaming.net engaged a world-class team of independent archaeologists and geophysicists, to travel to Yangon International Airport, the former RAF Mingaladon, to work with Mr Cundall and a local Myanmar company in an attempt to “ground-truth” the legend of the buried Spitfires of Burma and find a solution to the mystery.

When they arrived in Yangon in January 2013 the team found a beautiful country poised between dictatorship and democracy and an ancient culture where the spirituality of Buddhism was running in tandem with the encroaching technology of the mobile phone, the Internet and the ATM.

They also found an archaeological site at Yangon Airport where the remains of World War Two and its aftermath lay cheek by jowl with a modern international airport and evidence of the previous attempts to find the legendary lost Spitfires.

Now for the first time this full colour illustrated report describes in forensic detail the archaeological work team undertook at Yangon International Airport and the detailed archive research which led up to it. The solution to the mystery of the buried Spitfires which the team proposes may not be that which was wanted or expected by those who wished to believe one of the most compelling legends of World War Two.

However, it does open a fascinating window onto our relationship with iconic moments in twentieth century history, with a sometimes forgotten war which cost the lives of over 22,000 Allied and 100,000 Japanese servicemen as well as up to 250,000 Burmese civilians and with that iconic machine which many people believe helped ensure the defeat of Nazi Germany, the Spitfire.


Assumed Missing Reported Buried as Published 23 March 2015 (Click link to download report)

We are publishing on line to make the report as widely available as possible.

We are also requesting that anyone downloading the report makes a donation of £3 or more should you choose to the Royal British Legion, which serves Service veterans and their families in time of need, including surviving veterans of the Burma Campaign.






Remember you can always donate by phone on 0845 845 1945

Or via your mobile.
To donate £3 text POPPY to 70020*
*Cost £3 plus standard network charges (typically £2.97 goes to the Poppy Appeal).

To donate £10, text POPPY to 70111*
*Cost £10 plus standard network charges (typically £9.92 goes to the Poppy Appeal).


Header Image Credit : Franck Cabrol

Categories: General

Study underscores complexity of geopolitics in the age of the Aztec empire

Wed, 2015-03-25 18:27
New findings from an international team of archaeological researchers highlight the complexity of geopolitics in Aztec era Mesoamerica and illustrate how the relationships among ancient states extended beyond warfare and diplomacy to issues concerning trade and the flow of goods.

The work was done by researchers from North Carolina State University, the Centro de Investigación y de Estudios Avanzados del Instituto Politécnico Nacional-Unidad Mérida, El Colegio de Michoacán and Purdue University.

The researchers focused on an independent republic called Tlaxcallan in what is now central Mexico, about 75 miles east of modern Mexico City. Tlaxcallan was founded in the mid-13th century and, by 1500, was effectively surrounded by the Aztec Empire – but never lost its independence. In fact, Tlaxcallan supported Cortés and played a critical role in the Spanish Conquest of Mexico in the 16th century.

The new research focuses on where the people of Tlaxcallan obtained their obsidian in the century before the arrival of Cortés. Obsidian is a volcanic glass that was widely used in everything from household tools and weapons to jewelry and religious objects. But Tlaxcallan did not have a source of obsidian within its territory – so where did it come from?

“It turns out that Tlaxcallan relied on a source we hadn’t expected, called El Paredón,” says Dr. John Millhauser, an assistant professor of anthropology at NC State and lead author of a paper on the work. “Almost no one else was using El Paredón at the time, and it fell just outside the boundaries of the Aztec Empire. So, one question it raises is why the Aztecs – who were openly hostile to Tlaxcallan – didn’t intervene.”

One possible explanation is that the Aztecs didn’t intervene because it would have been too much effort. “Obsidian was widely available and was an everyday good. It probably wasn’t worth the time and expense to try to cut off Tlaxcallan’s supply of obsidian from El Paredón because other sources were available,” Millhauser says.

The finding drives home how complex international relations were during the Aztec Empire’s reign.

“The fact that they got so much obsidian so close to the Aztec Empire makes me question the scope of conflict at the time,” Millhauser says. “Tlaxcallan was able to access a source of household and military goods from a source that required it to go right up to the border of enemy territory.”

At the same time, the research makes clear that there was an economic rift between Tlaxcallan and the Aztecs. Previous research shows that more than 90 percent of Aztec obsidian came from a source called Pachuca, further to the north. But the new research finds that only 14 percent of the obsidian at Tlaxcallan was from Pachuca – most of the rest came from El Paredón.

For this study, the researchers systematically collected artifacts from the surfaces of stone-walled terraces at the site of the pre-Columbian city of Tlaxcallan. A representative number of the artifacts were then analyzed using x-ray fluorescence. This information was compared with samples from known sources of obsidian in the region to determine where the obsidian artifacts came from.

“All of this drives home the fact that geopolitics mattered for the economies of ancient states,” Millhauser says. “Political stances and political boundaries influenced everyday behavior, down to the flow of basic commodities like obsidian. The popular conception of the Aztec Empire as all powerful before the arrival of Cortés is exaggerated. The region was a politically and culturally complicated place.”

North Carolina State University

Categories: General

Archeologists discover Maya ‘melting pot’

Tue, 2015-03-24 13:47
Archaeologists working in Guatemala have unearthed new information about the Maya civilization’s transition from a mobile, hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a sedentary way of life.

Led by University of Arizona archaeologists Takeshi Inomata and Daniela Triadan, the team’s excavations of the ancient Maya lowlands site of Ceibal suggest that as the society transitioned from a heavy reliance on foraging to farming, mobile communities and settled groups co-existed and may have come together to collaborate on construction projects and participate in public ceremonies.

The findings, to be published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, challenge two common assumptions: that mobile and sedentary groups maintained separate communities, and that public buildings were constructed only after a society had fully put down roots.

“There has been the theory that sedentary and mobile groups co-existed in various parts of the world, but most people thought the sedentary and mobile communities were separate, even though they were in relatively close areas,” said Inomata, a UA professor of anthropology and lead author of the PNAS study. “Our study presents the first relatively concrete evidence that mobile and sedentary people came together to build a ceremonial center.”

A public plaza uncovered at Ceibal dates to about 950 B.C., with surrounding ceremonial buildings growing to monumental sizes by about 800 B.C. Yet, evidence of permanent residential dwellings in the area during that time is scarce. Most people were still living a traditional hunter-gatherer-like lifestyle, moving from place to place throughout the rainforest, as they would continue to do for five or six more centuries.

The area’s few permanent residents could not have built the plaza alone, Inomata said.

“The construction of ceremonial buildings is pretty substantial, so there had to be more people working on that construction,” he said.

Inomata and his colleagues theorize that groups with varying degrees of mobility came together to construct the buildings and to participate in public ceremonies over the next several hundred years. That process likely helped them to bond socially and eventually make the transition to a fully sedentary society.

“This tells us something about the importance of ritual and construction. People tend to think that you have a developed society and then building comes. I think in many cases it’s the other way around,” Inomata said.

“For those people living the traditional way of life, ceremony, ritual and construction became major forces for them to adapt a new way of life and build a new society. The process of gathering for ritual and gathering for construction helped bring together different people who were doing different things, and eventually that contributed to the later development of Mayan civilization.”

The transition was gradual, with the Maya making the shift to a fully sedentary agrarian society, reliant on maize, by about 400 or 300 B.C., Inomata said.

“The most fascinating finding is that different peoples with diverse ways of life co-existed in apparent harmony for generations before establishing a more uniform society,” said Melissa Burham, a study co-author and a graduate student in the UA School of Anthropology. “Discovering an ancient ‘melting pot’ is definitely the unexpected highlight of this research.”

University of Arizona

Categories: General

HeritageDaily App

Sat, 2015-03-21 01:25
HeritageDaily App is an archaeology & heritage news application designed for mobile phones, reporting on all related scientific news, discoveries and articles from across the Globe.

Itunes Compatibility: Requires iOS 7.0 and above

Android: 2.3 and above


Categories: General

Did a volcanic cataclysm 40,000 years ago trigger the final demise of the Neanderthals?

Fri, 2015-03-20 22:21
The Campanian Ignimbrite (CI) eruption in Italy 40,000 years ago was one of the largest volcanic cataclysms in Europe and injected a significant amount of sulfur-dioxide (SO2) into the stratosphere.

Scientists have long debated whether this eruption contributed to the final extinction of the Neanderthals. This new study by Benjamin A. Black and colleagues tests this hypothesis with a sophisticated climate model.

Black and colleagues write that the CI eruption approximately coincided with the final decline of Neanderthals as well as with dramatic territorial and cultural advances among anatomically modern humans. Because of this, the roles of climate, hominin competition, and volcanic sulfur cooling and acid deposition have been vigorously debated as causes of Neanderthal extinction.

They point out, however, that the decline of Neanderthals in Europe began well before the CI eruption: “Radiocarbon dating has shown that at the time of the CI eruption, anatomically modern humans had already arrived in Europe, and the range of Neanderthals had steadily diminished. Work at five sites in the Mediterranean indicates that anatomically modern humans were established in these locations by then as well.”

“While the precise implications of the CI eruption for cultures and livelihoods are best understood in the context of archaeological data sets,” write Black and colleagues, the results of their study quantitatively describe the magnitude and distribution of the volcanic cooling and acid deposition that ancient hominin communities experienced coincident with the final decline of the Neanderthals.

In their climate simulations, Black and colleagues found that the largest temperature decreases after the eruption occurred in Eastern Europe and Asia and sidestepped the areas where the final Neanderthal populations were living (Western Europe). Therefore, the authors conclude that the eruption was probably insufficient to trigger Neanderthal extinction.

However, the abrupt cold spell that followed the eruption would still have significantly impacted day-to-day life for Neanderthals and early humans in Europe. Black and colleagues point out that temperatures in Western Europe would have decreased by an average of 2 to 4 degrees Celsius during the year following the eruption. These unusual conditions, they write, may have directly influenced survival and day-to-day life for Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans alike, and emphasize the resilience of anatomically modern humans in the face of abrupt and adverse changes in the environment.

Geological Society of America

Categories: General

HH: What is a Celt?

Thu, 2015-03-19 17:49

Welcome to Hidden Histories. In this series, we take a closer look at the world around us and explore the hidden depths of our shared history.

Categories: General

Crocodile Ancestor Was Top Predator Before Dinosaurs Roamed North America

Thu, 2015-03-19 16:01
A newly discovered crocodilian ancestor may have filled one of North America’s top predator roles before dinosaurs arrived on the continent.

Carnufex carolinensis, or the “Carolina Butcher,” was a 9-foot long, land-dwelling crocodylomorph that walked on its hind legs and likely preyed upon smaller inhabitants of North Carolina ecosystems such as armored reptiles and early mammal relatives.

Paleontologists from North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences recovered parts of Carnufex’s skull, spine and upper forelimb from the Pekin Formation in Chatham County, North Carolina. Because the skull of Carnufex was preserved in pieces, it was difficult to visualize what the complete skull would have looked like in life. To get a fuller picture of Carnufex’s skull the researchers scanned the individual bones with the latest imaging technology – a high-resolution surface scanner. Then they created a three-dimensional model of the reconstructed skull, using the more complete skulls of close relatives to fill in the missing pieces.

The Pekin Formation contains sediments deposited 231 million years ago in the beginning of the Late Triassic (the Carnian), when what is now North Carolina was a wet, warm equatorial region beginning to break apart from the supercontinent Pangea. “Fossils from this time period are extremely important to scientists because they record the earliest appearance of crocodylomorphs and theropod dinosaurs, two groups that first evolved in the Triassic period, yet managed to survive to the present day in the form of crocodiles and birds,” says Lindsay Zanno, assistant research professor at NC State, director of the Paleontology and Geology lab at the museum, and lead author of a paper describing the find. “The discovery of Carnufex, one of the world’s earliest and largest crocodylomorphs, adds new information to the push and pull of top terrestrial predators across Pangea.”

Typical predators roaming Pangea included large-bodied rauisuchids and poposauroids, fearsome cousins of ancient crocodiles that went extinct in the Triassic Period. In the Southern Hemisphere, “these animals hunted alongside the earliest theropod dinosaurs, creating a predator pile-up,” says Zanno. However, the discovery of Carnufex indicates that in the north, large-bodied crocodylomorphs, not dinosaurs, were adding to the diversity of top predator niches.  “We knew that there were too many top performers on the proverbial stage in the Late Triassic,” Zanno adds. “Yet, until we deciphered the story behind Carnufex, it wasn’t clear that early crocodile ancestors were among those vying for top predator roles prior to the reign of dinosaurs in North America.”

As the Triassic drew to a close, extinction decimated this panoply of predators and only small-bodied crocodylomorphs and theropods survived. “Theropods were ready understudies for vacant top predator niches when large-bodied crocs and their relatives bowed out,” says Zanno.  “Predatory dinosaurs went on to fill these roles exclusively for the next 135 million years.”

Still, ancient crocodiles found success in other places. “As theropod dinosaurs started to make it big, the ancestors of modern crocs initially took on a role similar to foxes or jackals, with small, sleek bodies and long limbs,” says Susan Drymala, graduate student at NC State and co-author of the paper. “If you want to picture these animals, just think of a modern day fox, but with alligator skin instead of fur.”

N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences curator Vincent Schneider recovered the specimen, and it was analyzed by Zanno and Drymala, with contributions by Schneider. Sterling Nesbitt of Virginia Polytechnic Institute also contributed to the work. The researchers’ findings appear in the open access journal Scientific Reports.

NC State University

Categories: General

University researchers uncover the largest known bronze mask of Pan

Thu, 2015-03-19 15:22
A large bronze mask of the god Pan, the only of its kind, was uncovered at the University of Haifa’s excavation at Hippos-Sussita National Park.

According to Dr. Michael Eisenberg, bronze masks of this size are extremely rare and usually do not depict Pan or any of the other Greek or Roman mythological images. “Most of the known bronze masks from the Hellenistic and Roman periods are minature”.

It seems that in recent years, the mysteries of Hippos-Sussita have been revealing their secrets in an extraordinary way: first, a sculpture of Hercules was exposed by the winter rains of 2011, then, two years later, a basalt tombstone with a sculpture of the deceased’s bust was uncovered. Now there is a new surprise: the only finding of a bronze mask of unnatural size, in the form of the god Pan/Faunus.

Excavations at Hippos-Sussita are usually conducted in the summer. However, a series of intriguing structures on the ridge of the city, where the ancient road passed, led to a one-day dig in the winter. The dig focused on a basalt structure which the researchers assumed was a type of armoured hangar for the city’s projectile machines. The finding of a ballista ball made of limestone, a different material from the basalt that was customarily used at Hippos-Sussita to make balista balls, made them realize that it was an enemy’s projectile.

In light of this interesting find the researchers decided to search the structure for coins to help them date the the balls. It didn’t take long for the metal detector, operated by the capable hands of Dr. Alexander Iermolin, head of the conservation laboratory at the Institute of Archaeology at the University, to start beeping frantically. The archialogosts were not yet aware of what was in store for them: “After a few minutes we pulled out a big brown lump and realized it was a mask. We cleaned it, and started to make out the details: The first hints that helped us recognize it were the small horns on top of its head, slightly hidden by a forelock,” said Dr. Eisenberg.

Horns like the ones on the mask are usually associated with Pan, the half-man half-goat god of the shepherds, music and pleasure. A more thorough cleaning in the lab, revealed  strands of a goat beard, long pointed ears, and other characteristics that led Dr. Eisenberg to identify the mask as depicting a Pan/Faunus/Satyr. “The first thought that crossed my mind was, ‘Why here, beyond the city limits?’ After all, the mask is so heavy it could not have just rolled away. The mask was found nearby the remains of a basalt structure with thick walls and very solid masonry work, which suggested a large structure from the Roman period.

A Pan altar on the main road to the city, beyond its limits, is quite likely. After all, Pan was worshipped not only in the city temples but also in caves and in nature. The ancient city of Paneas, north of Hippos-Sussita, had one of the most famous worshipping compounds to the god Pan inside a cave. Because they included drinking, sacrificing and ecstatic worship that sometimes included nudity and sex, rituals for rustic gods were often held outside of the city”, Dr. Eisenberg explained.

Now the archeologists have begun to uncover the basalt structure, in the hopes of finding more clues to its purpose. They assume that it was used for defensive purposes “Perhaps in a later period, during the Pax Romana, when the city fortifications were not required, the building turned into a place of worship to the god of shepherds, and maybe what we have here is a magnificent fountain-head or burial offerings of a nearby mausoleum,” Dr. Eisenberg suggests.

As mentioned, the researchers are unfamiliar with any similar bronze mask from the Roman or Hellenistic era of Pan or a Satyr. “Most of the masks are usually similar in size to theater masks, are made of stone or terracotta and are of ritual, apotropaic, decorative or symbolic significance.

I contacted the curators of some of the world’s greatest museums, and even they said that they were not familiar with the type of bronze mask that we found at Hippos. Hippos-Sussita cannot compete in wealth with the ancient cultural centers of the Roman Empire and as such, a finding of this kind here, of all places, is amazing,” concluded Dr. Eisenberg.

University of Haifa

Categories: General

Human parasites found in medieval cesspit reveal links between Middle East and Europe

Thu, 2015-03-19 14:59
A new analysis of a medieval cesspit in the Christian quarter of the old city of Jerusalem has revealed the presence of a number of ancient parasite eggs, providing a window into the nature and spread of infectious diseases in the Middle East during the 15th century.

Researchers found evidence of six species of intestinal parasites in the over 500-year-old latrine. These included large quantities of roundworm and whipworm, both spread by faecal contamination of food and thought to be endemic to the region dating back to human evolution out of Africa.

This is an image of excavation deep down into the latrine by the Ecole Biblique de Jerusalem. Credit – Jean-Baptiste Humbert

Two of the parasites detected, Entamoeba dysentery and fish tapeworm, were common in northern Europe in the medieval period, but either very rare or almost completely absent among the populations of the medieval Middle East.

The fish tapeworm was prevalent in northern Europe due to the popularity of fish as a food and the nature of its preparation: often eaten raw, smoked or pickled – which doesn’t kill the parasite. According to Arabic texts of the time, in inland Syrian cities such as Jerusalem fish was not commonly eaten, and when consumed was always cooked thoroughly in accordance with local culinary traditions. This cooking kills the parasite and prevents its spread.

The team also found pieces of Italian pottery in the same cesspit, reinforcing the hypothesis of strong trading or religious links between Europe and Jerusalem during the late 1400s.

Researchers say the presence of these parasites in the latrine suggests it was either a town house whose owners were Jerusalem merchants that travelled to Europe on business, contracting parasites while there, or it was perhaps a hostel that accommodated European travellers such as merchants or pilgrims.

“While we can only suggest reasons as to why people made these journeys between northern Europe and Jerusalem’s Christian quarter, it does seem they brought with them unsuspecting hitch-hikers in their intestines,” said Dr Piers Mitchell from Cambridge University’s Division of Biological Anthropology, who conducted the study, recently published in the International Journal of Paleopathology.

“The presence of the fish tapeworm – which can reach ten metres long in humans, and coils around inside the intestine – combined with the fragments of pottery made in Italy, most likely indicates that travellers from northern Europe used this latrine during a visit to Jerusalem,” Mitchell said.

The team used a combination of microscopy and biomolecular analysis (ELISA) – to uncover parasite eggs – on 12 ‘coprolites': fossilised faeces, and some cesspit sediment. The cesspit itself, located a short distance north of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, was much more than a mere hole in the ground – with a vaulted roof, stone-built walls, and two ‘entry chutes’ for defecation on opposing sides.

All 12 coprolites were found to be riddled with both roundworm and whipworm, along with the sediment. These species are thought to have become progressively more common in the region following agriculture, and may have been spread by faecal contamination of food as a consequence of the use of human faeces as a crop fertiliser (as well as poor sanitation).

One coprolite tested positive for eggs of the fish tapeworm, which was the most unexpected discovery from the analysis. The researchers also found quantities of Taenia parasite eggs, indicating pork or beef tapeworm. Despite the dominance of Islam in the society during the Mamluk Period (1250-1516 AD), pigs would have still been consumed in the Christian quarter.

Mitchell says the health impacts of these parasites would have varied. “A light load of whipworm or roundworm would be likely to go unnoticed. A heavy load of these parasites in children, however, can lead to malnutrition, reduced intelligence and stunted growth. Dysentery may cause diarrhoea and abdominal cramps for a week or two and then settle, or it may cause death from dehydration and septicaemia.”

“This research highlights how we can use preserved parasite eggs in ancient toilets to spot past migrations and the spread of ancient diseases. Jerusalem’s importance to Christians in medieval Europe made it a key destination for both pilgrimage and trade. We can see these travellers took unexpected guests along with them.”

University of Cambridge

Categories: General

The first fine-scale genetic map of the British Isles

Thu, 2015-03-19 14:48
Many people in the UK feel a strong sense of regional identity, and it now appears that there may be a scientific basis to this feeling, according to a landmark new study into the genetic makeup of the British Isles.

An international team, led by researchers from the University of Oxford, UCL (University College London) and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute in Australia, used DNA samples collected from more than 2,000 people to create the first fine-scale genetic map of any country in the world.

Their findings, published in Nature, show that prior to the mass migrations of the 20th century there was a striking pattern of rich but subtle genetic variation across the UK, with distinct groups of genetically similar individuals clustered together geographically.

By comparing this information with DNA samples from over 6,000 Europeans, the team was also able to identify clear traces of the population movements into the UK over the past 10,000 years. Their work confirmed, and in many cases shed further light on, known historical migration patterns.

Key findings

There was not a single “Celtic” genetic group. In fact the Celtic parts of the UK (Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and Cornwall) are among the most different from each other genetically. For example, the Cornish are much more similar genetically to other English groups than they are to the Welsh or the Scots.

There are separate genetic groups in Cornwall and Devon, with a division almost exactly along the modern county boundary.

The majority of eastern, central and southern England is made up of a single, relatively homogeneous, genetic group with a significant DNA contribution from Anglo-Saxon migrations (10-40% of total ancestry). This settles a historical controversy in showing that the Anglo-Saxons intermarried with, rather than replaced, the existing populations.

The population in Orkney emerged as the most genetically distinct, with 25% of DNA coming from Norwegian ancestors. This shows clearly that the Norse Viking invasion (9th century) did not simply replace the indigenous Orkney population.

The Welsh appear more similar to the earliest settlers of Britain after the last ice age than do other people in the UK.

There is no obvious genetic signature of the Danish Vikings, who controlled large parts of England (“The Danelaw”) from the 9th century.

There is genetic evidence of the effect of the Landsker line – the boundary between English-speaking people in south-west Pembrokeshire (sometimes known as “Little England beyond Wales”) and the Welsh speakers in the rest of Wales, which persisted for almost a millennium.

The analyses suggest there was a substantial migration across the channel after the original post-ice-age settlers, but before Roman times. DNA from these migrants spread across England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, but had little impact in Wales.

Many of the genetic clusters show similar locations to the tribal groupings and kingdoms around end of the 6th century, after the settlement of the Anglo-Saxons, suggesting these tribes and kingdoms may have maintained a regional identity for many centuries.

The Wellcome Trust-funded People of the British Isles study analysed the DNA of 2,039 people from rural areas of the UK, whose four grandparents were all born within 80km of each other. Because a quarter of our genome comes from each of our grandparents, the researchers were effectively sampling DNA from these ancestors, allowing a snapshot of UK genetics in the late 19th Century. They also analysed data from 6,209 individuals from 10 (modern) European countries.

To uncover the extremely subtle genetic differences among these individuals the researchers used cutting-edge statistical techniques, developed by four of the team members. They applied these methods, called fineSTRUCTURE and GLOBETROTTER, to analyse DNA differences at over 500,000 positions within the genome.

They then separated the samples into genetically similar individuals, without knowing where in the UK the samples came from. By plotting each person onto a map of the British Isles, using the centre point of their grandparents’ birth places, they were able to see how this distribution correlated with their genetic groupings.

The researchers were then able to “zoom in” to examine the genetic patterns in the UK at levels of increasing resolution. At the broadest scale, the population in Orkney (islands to the north of Scotland) emerged as the most genetically distinct. At the next level, Wales forms a distinct genetic group, followed by a further division between north and south Wales.

tThen the north of England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland collectively separate from southern England, before Cornwall forms a separate cluster. Scotland and Northern Ireland then separate from northern England. The study eventually focused at the level where the UK was divided into 17 genetically distinct clusters of people.

Dr Michael Dunn, Head of Genetics & Molecular Sciences at the Wellcome Trust, said: “These researchers have been able to use modern genetic techniques to provide answers to the centuries’ old question – where we come from. Beyond the fascinating insights into our history, this information could prove very useful from a health perspective, as building a picture of population genetics at this scale may in future help us to design better genetic studies to investigate disease.”

Wellcome Trust

Categories: General

AF: Outlaws

Wed, 2015-03-18 15:19

Welcome to Archae-Facts, the place to find bite-sized chunks of Archaeological Trivial!

Today, we think about what it means to be an outlaw.

Categories: General

Beetles beat out extinction

Wed, 2015-03-18 13:43
Today’s rich variety of beetles may be due to an historically low extinction rate rather than a high rate of new species emerging, according to a new study. These findings were revealed by combing through the fossil record.

“Much of the work to understand why beetles are diverse has really focused on what promotes speciation,” says lead author Dena Smith, Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology and Associate Professor of Geological Sciences at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History. “By looking at the fossil history of the group, we can see that extinction, or rather lack of extinction may be just as important, if not more important, than origination. Perhaps we should be focusing more on why beetles are so resistant to extinction.” Smith’s study with her coauthor, Jonathan Marcot, Research Assistant Professor of Animal Biology at the University of Illinois, will appear in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

To fully explore the evolution of the insect order, Coleoptera, Smith and Marcot used publications that document the fossil record of beetles from international literature as far back as the early 19th century and open access database projects including the EDNA Fossil Insect Database and the Catalogue of Fossil Coleoptera. The team constructed a database of 5,553 beetle species from 221 unique locations. Given the patchy nature of the data at the species level, they performed analyses at the family level and found that the majority of families that are living today also preserved in the fossil record.

The study explores beetles as far back as their origins in the Permian period, 284 million years ago. When compared to the fossil record of other animal groups such as clams, corals, and vertebrates, beetles have among the lowest family-level extinction rates ever calculated. In fact, no known families in the largest beetle subgroup, Polyphaga, go extinct in their evolutionary history. The negligible beetle extinction rate is likely caused by their flexible diets, particularly in the Polyphaga, which include algae, plants, and other animals.

“There are several things about beetles that make them extremely flexible and able to adapt to changing situations,” Smith says. She points to beetles’ ability to metamorphose–a trait shared by many insects–when considering their environmental flexibility. Soft-bodied larvae vary greatly from winged, exoskeleton-ensconced adults. “This means that they can take advantage of very different types of habitats as a larva and then as an adult,” she adds. “Adult beetles can be highly mobile and research that has focused on glacial-interglacial cycles has shown that they can move quickly in response to any climate fluctuations.”

The study explores beetles as far back as their origins in the Permian period, 284 million years ago. Both authors emphasize that illustrating such a history would not have been possible without the fossil record–an often underutilized resource in exploring the evolution of insects.

“I think people have been hesitant to jump into studying insect fossils because there has been the misperception that they are so fragile and rarely fossilize,” Smith says. “I am hoping that this study demonstrates that the fossil record is quite good and can be used in many ways to study the evolution of this diverse and important group.”

Marcot adds, “Not only have these groups gone un-studied, but there are certain things that we can learn from the fossil record that we just can’t learn any place else.”

Other insect groups might be similar to Coleoptera in terms of their extinction resistance, and Smith hopes that their work will inspire other entomologists to delve into the fossil record of their favorite insect. For now she is actively working to digitize more fossil specimens, paving the way for future studies to be conducted on a finer scale. The project, known as the Fossil Insect Collaborative and funded by the National Science Foundation, is expected to make available more than half a million fossil insect specimens from the major U.S. collections–many with associated images–in a searchable online database.

“Being a curator of a museum collection, I know that there are many species in our cabinets that have not yet been studied and described,” Smith says. “Once we are able to bring those specimens out of the cabinets and make them more accessible to the broader research community, I think we will be able to look at species level patterns and other really interested questions about the macroevolutionary history of insect groups.”

National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent)


Categories: General

Big toe’s big foot holds evolutionary key

Wed, 2015-03-18 13:41
Our skeletons hold tell-tale signs that show that human bipedalism – walking upright and on two feet – are unique to humans especially when compared to our closest living relatives, apes.

Exactly when these signs first appear in our evolutionary history is one of the fundamental questions driving the study of human evolution, or Palaeoanthropology, today.

An interdisciplinary team led by scientists at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, has combined visualisation techniques, engineering principles, and statistical analysis into a powerful new way of analysing the structure of long bones.

In the initial study, titled Cortical structure of hallucal metatarsals and locomotor adaptations in hominoids, and published in the open access journal PLoS One, the group of scientists documents foot differences between living humans and other apes that will be a starting point for their future studies investigating how far back in our evolutionary history the modern human pattern of bone structure in the hallucal metatarsal emerged.

The study was undertaken by Drs Tea Jashashvili and Kristian Carlson from the Wits Evolutionary Studies Institute (ESI), Mark Dowdeswell, a senior lecturer in the Wits School of Statistics and Actuarial Sciences, and Dr Renaud Lebrun, a research engineer at the French Institut des Sciences de l’Evolution de Montpellier.

In addition to offering crucial evolutionary insights into the timing and appearance of modern human gait, this method will significantly advance the study of bone biology and functional morphology in hominin fossils. “This approach shows tremendous research potential for bone biologists and functional morphologists, particularly those interested in limb structure,” says Jashashvili.

For the initial study, the team focused on the shaft of the foot bone that is connected to the big toe, otherwise known as the hallucal metatarsal, in groups of modern humans, gorillas and chimpanzees. The big toe, or hallux, plays a pivotal role during the propulsive phase of walking and running in humans. In other living apes the big toe is more thumb-like in facilitating grasping capabilities that are advantageous during climbing and other arboreal behaviors.

By combining two previously developed methods – the colour map technique that allows structural patterns to be visualised; and the penalised discriminant analysis that allows for these patterns to be quantitatively tested – the approach of the team provides a comprehensive way of documenting structural differences related to these different uses of the hallux.

By adapting and applying these techniques, the team is able to identify areas of maximum contrast in shape and size (morphometrics) between the modern species – basically rendering 2D-images from 3D CT-scans to create a “colour map” where each colour expresses different quantities of specific properties.

Consensus maps of chimps and humans show difference in the patterns between two functional groups for hallucal metatarsal shafts.
Credit : Wits University

“This study is an exemplar proof-of-principle analysis for a technique that can advance the general fields of bone biology and functional morphology by introducing a powerful new means of analysing long bone shafts, particularly their structural properties. In our first study, we have documented exciting structural differences between humans, chimpanzees, and gorillas, some of which were predictable based on their gait differences. The unexpected structural differences we observed are equally intriguing. We are eager now to begin examining how far back in evolutionary time these differences can be traced,” says Carlson.

“In biological research, such as genetics and brain studies, it is increasingly common to address questions using data derived through the discretization or partitioning of underlying processes. The continuous nature of tubular bones in living beings, for instance, is a good example of how visualisation of patterns can provide different information on form-function relationships in order to distinguish between the groups and the variations expressed within groups,” says Dowdeswell.

In this study, the scientists focused on particular questions:

1) Do metatarsal cortical bone thickness and properties measuring resistance to bending (e.g., second moments of area) between humans, chimpanzees and gorillas reflect how each group uses their feet during observed or reported locomotor repertoires?

2) Within each group, are there diaphyseal regions where lower structural variability is expressed and can these regions be spatially distinguished from regions of higher structural variability? In addressing these questions, the researchers have provided new insights into the evolution of hominoid feet, organisation of the structural integration of bone, and advanced the use of colour maps in visualising continuous thickness distributions. Collectively, this offers the potential to better understand functional morphology of long bone diaphyses.

University of the Witwatersrand

Categories: General

Scientists offer new perspectives on China’s long history of reunifications

Wed, 2015-03-18 13:34
Archaeologists from The Field Museum in Chicago, IL and Shandong University (Jinan, China) have investigated the historical processes leading up to China’s political unification through the juxtaposition of macro- and micro-scale analysis.

The study offers new perspectives on how human impacts of infrastructural investments, interactive technologies, social contracts, and ideologies that were implemented during the Qin and Han Dynasties and before have helped establish the rough spatial configuration of what is today China.

Why humans cooperate in large social groupings is a key question for contemporary research. Thus, the repeated historical renegotiation of China’s continent-scale political consolidations remains a scholarly focus after more than a generation of attention.

“Two millennia ago, Rome and the Han dominated their respective regions,” said Gary M. Feinman, MacArthur Curator of Anthropology at The Field Museum. “While the two were roughly equal in their spatial extents at their peaks, the bounds of the Roman Empire were never historically reconstituted. In contrast, Chinese regions were reintegrated perpetually into one political unit. Why is that?”

Feinman and his colleagues question the widely advanced perspective that China’s reunifications were simply due to the periodic threats from nomadic peoples to its north. While this view is not entirely discounted, the authors argue that the persistent reunifications were in part the consequence of social and economic actions that were taken during the Bronze and Iron Ages prior, during, and just after China’s first unification under the Qin emperor.

The study used two distinct sets of data: first, the authors drew on documents that mostly pertain to the macro-scale.

Beginning with the aristocratic Shang rule in the second millennium B.C., the authors cite precocious developments in urbanization, high-intensity metal production and early writing as a few of the cultural practices of the region that were later adopted by the Zhou, who were the first to consolidate a large part of central China. Writings by Confucius during this time period typify a shift in leadership and governance from aristocratic forms to more explicit moral codes and defined social expectations for all.

Eventually, centralized authority largely broke down, leaving 5-10 formerly vassal states to vie for control during the Warring States era (453-221 B.C.). One of these local polities, the Qin state, began an episode of conquest that culminated in China’s political unification. Changes set in motion during these times underpinned a national identity and the course of subsequent Chinese history.

For example, numerous roads were built, river transport was improved, and efforts were made to connect the walls that had been built at the northern limits of three of the warring states. Once linked, they became China’s Great Wall.

Following a short period of Qin rule, dynastic power shifted to the Han, who maintained many of the unifying initiatives of the Qin. Ultimately the Han Dynasty produced political, social and ideological foundations for empire that have endured for more than a millennium

The team also analyzed the results of an 18-year systematic archaeological settlement pattern study that they implemented in a small region on the coast of the Shandong Province.

“China’s first great wall, the Great Wall of the Qi state, was built east-to-west across much of what is today Shandong Province,” said Feinman. “It defined the southern limits of the Qi polity, which was the last of the warring states to be engulfed by the Qin armies before unification. We were able to follow the easternmost extension of the Qi wall for 50 kilometers as it ran across the northern limits of our study region. Based on our survey, the political border that the wall demarcated in the Warring States period likely had been a kind of boundary for more than 1,500 years.”

Eventually, the wall was breached and the Qin defeated the Qi state, resulting in China’s first episode of unification.” Our perspective draws on data from the early history of China through its first episode of unification to offer an alternative perspective as to why China has reunified several times subsequently at a more or less comparable scale,” said Feinman.

The study concludes that the globally unmatched tendency for China to be politically unified so repeatedly was in large part the consequence of social constructions; of a mixture of political ideals, institutional structures and relations, unified communication technologies, commerce networks, and collective traditions and memories negotiated and adopted during the Shang, Zhou, Qin, and Han eras.

Field Museum

Categories: General