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Arterial disease associated with modern day living is found in 3,000 year old skeletons

Tue, 2014-04-08 11:39
The first-ever skeletons with atherosclerosis, or clogged up arteries, have been found by archaeologists, according to new research.

After announcing the discovery of the oldest complete skeleton with metastatic cancer last month, the researchers from Durham University are now reporting five skeletons in the same group which show signs that may be related to a thickening of the arteries’ walls, known as atherosclerosis, a major risk factor for strokes and heart attacks.

The study is published in the International Journal of Palaeopathology, and forms part of a British Museum archaeological project.

Atherosclerosis and other cardiovascular diseases are the world’s leading causes of death today but they are almost unknown in past human populations. Up until now, atherosclerosis has only been reported in mummies.

The cause of atherosclerosis in the skeletons is not known. Aside from an unhealthy diet and smoking, the atherosclerosis can be caused by dental disease, infections or genetic factors.

The bioarchaeologists from Durham University say the discovery will help to shed new light on the factors leading to atherosclerosis and the evolution of the disease. The findings show that the condition is not only a product of modern living conditions but that factors leading to this chronic disease have plagued mankind for a very long time.

The skeletons are of three females and two males who were all between 35 and 50 years old when they died. They were found in underground chamber tombs at the archaeological site of Amara West in northern Sudan, situated on the Nile, 750km north of the country’s modern capital Khartoum.

The site is excavated by a team from the British Museum with the work in the cemeteries led by Durham University PhD student Michaela Binder.

In advanced atherosclerosis, the arteries become clogged up by substances called plaques, which in turn calcify leading to small, bone-like structures. These structures were found together with the skeletons which were examined using scanning electron microscopy and X-ray to analyse their origin.

Lead author, Michaela Binder, a PhD student and bioarchaeologist in the Department of Archaeology at Durham University said: “Very little is known about atherosclerosis in past human populations because it is very difficult to find evidence in skeletal human remains.

“Calcified arterial plaques in these 3,000-year-old skeletons show that atherosclerosis is not only a problem of modern lifestyle but may also be related to inflammation, genetic background and ageing in general.

“Insights gained from archaeological remains like these can really help us to understand the evolution and history of modern diseases.”

The excavated skeletons, now part of the British Museum collection, were from different graves and date between 1300 and 800BC. Graves goods associated with the individuals suggest they come from all parts of society including individuals of high and low social status. Two of the men with evidence of atherosclerosis are from the same tomb as the man suffering from metastatic cancer, as reported in PLOS ONE last month. There is currently no concrete evidence of any family ties between the individuals.

All skeletons with calcifications showed signs of severe dental disease as well as chronic respiratory diseases which are linked to vascular disease today. Genetic factors may also have played a part in predisposing this group of people to arterial disease.

Co-author, Professor Charlotte Roberts, a world-leading palaeopathologist at Durham University, said: “This find at Amara West is very rare and emphasises the special nature of this cemetery for preservation of evidence for disease. Along with the man with cancer, already reported, this contributes to knowledge about the history of cancer and heart disease, and shows how long these diseases have been plaguing the world’s population for a long time.”

The research was funded by the Leverhulme Trust and the Institute of Bioarcheaology Amara West Field School, with the permission of the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums in Sudan. The study is part of a research project led by the British Museum which has been investigating the experience of the people who lived there and who were buried within the ancient town.

Header Image : Artery with atherosclerosis – WikiPedia

Contributing Source : University of Durham

Categories: General

From athletes to couch potatoes: Humans through 6,000 years of farming

Tue, 2014-04-08 00:47
Human bones are remarkably plastic and respond surprisingly quickly to change. Put under stress through physical exertion – such as long-distance walking or running – they gain in strength as the fibres are added or redistributed according to where strains are highest.

The ability of bone to adapt to loading is shown by analysis of the skeletons of modern athletes, whose bones show remarkably rapid adaptation to both the intensity and direction of strains.

Because the structure of human bones can inform us about the lifestyles of the individuals they belong to, they can provide valuable clues for biological anthropologists looking at past cultures. Research by Alison Macintosh, a PhD candidate in Cambridge University’s Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, shows that after the emergence of agriculture in Central Europe from around 5300 BC, the bones of those living in the fertile soils of the Danube river valley became progressively less strong, pointing to a decline in mobility and loading.

Macintosh will present some of her results at the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Calgary, Alberta on 8-12 April, 2014. She will show that mobility and lower limb loading in male agriculturalists declined progressively and consistently through time and were more significantly affected by culture change in Central Europe than they were in females.

Work published by biological anthropologist Dr Colin Shaw (also Cambridge University) has enabled Macintosh to interpret this male decline in relation to Cambridge University students. Using Shaw’s study of bone rigidity among modern Cambridge University undergraduates, Macintosh suggests that male mobility among earliest farmers (around 7,300 years ago) was, on average, at a level near that of today’s student cross-country runners. Within just over 3,000 years, average mobility had dropped to the level of those students rated as sedentary, after which the decline slowed.

“Long-term biomechanical analyses of bones following the transition to farming in Central Europe haven’t been carried out. But elsewhere in the world they show regional variability in trends. Sometimes mobility increases, sometimes it declines, depending on culture and environmental context. After the transition to farming, cultural change was prolonged and its pace was rapid. My research in Central Europe explores whether – and how – this long term pressure continued to drive adaptation in bones,” said Macintosh.

Archaeological evidence has shown that the gradual intensification of agriculture was accompanied by rising production and complexity of metal goods, technological innovation and the extension of trade and exchange networks. “These developments are likely to have brought about changes in divisions of labour by sex and socioeconomic organisation as men and women began to specialise in certain tasks and activities – such as metalworking, pottery, crop production, tending and rearing livestock,” said Macintosh.

“I’m interested in how the skeleton adapted to people’s specific behaviours during life, and how this adaptation can be used to reconstruct long-term changes in behaviour and mobility patterns with cultural diversification, technological innovation, and increasingly more complex and stratified societies since the advent of farming.”

As a means of tracking changes in the structure of bones over time, Macintosh laser-scanned skeletons found in cemeteries across Central Europe, concentrating in particular on an analysis of engineering-based cross-sectional geometric properties as measures of the loading imposed on the lower limb bones during life. Her research took her to Germany, Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic and Serbia. The earliest skeletons she examined date from around 5300 BC and the most recent from around 850 AD – a time span of 6,150 years.

Using a portable desktop 3D laser surface scanner to scan femora and tibiae, she found that male tibiae became less rigid and that bones in both males and females became less strengthened to loads in one direction more than another, such as front-to-back in walking. These findings all indicate a drop in mobility. In other words, it is likely that the people to whom the skeletons belonged became, over generations, less intensely active and probably covered less distance, or carried out less physically demanding tasks, than those who had lived before them.

“Both sexes exhibited a decline in anteroposterior, or front-to-back, strengthening of the femur and tibia through time, while the ability of male tibiae to resist bending, twisting, and compression declined as well,” said Macintosh.

“My results suggest that, following the transition to agriculture in Central Europe, males were more affected than females by cultural and technological changes that reduced the need for long-distance travel or heavy physical work. This also means that, as people began to specialise in tasks other than just farming and food production, such as metalworking, fewer people were regularly doing tasks that were very strenuous on their legs.”

Although there was some evidence for declining mobility in females as well, trends were inconsistent through time in most properties. Macintosh believes that this variation may indicate that women in these early farming cultures were performing a great variety of tasks – multi-tasking, in fact – or at least undertaking fewer tasks necessitating significant lower limb loading. There is evidence from two of the earliest cemeteries studied that females were using their teeth in processing activities to carry out tasks unlikely to have loaded their lower limbs much.

Interesting comparisons can be made between the archaeological evidence from Central European skeletons dating from around 7,300-1,150 years ago and data from modern farming populations elsewhere in the world.

A study by Panter-Brick in 1996 found that relative workload (as exhibited by time allocation and energy expenditure) between males and females in modern farming populations is much more variable than in foraging groups. As in early Central European farming communities, higher physical activity is recorded among males than females in Indian and Nepalese farming communities, but females have a higher relative workload than males in farming communities in the Upper Volta and the Gambia.

“This variability in the sexual division of labour in living agro-pastoralist groups shows the importance of context, ecology, and various cultural factors on sex differences in physical activity. So it is important when studying long-term trends in behavioural change between the sexes that the geographic region is kept small, to help control for some of this variability,” said Macintosh.

Female skeletons showed a major change in femoral bending and torsional rigidity from the Bronze Age into the Iron Age – between about 1450 BC and 850 BC in the samples studied– when women had the strongest femora of all the females examined in the study. This could be because the Iron Age sample included skeletons of Hungarian Scythians, a group for whom large animal husbandry, horsemanship and archery were particularly important. Scythian females are thought to have performed heavy physical work and were known to participate in combat.

“However, if this high Iron Age female bone strength in the femur was due to high mobility, it would also probably be visible in the tibia as well, which it was not. In that case, it could be something other than mobility that is driving this Iron Age female bone strength, possibly a difference in body size or genetics,” said Macintosh.

Because the skeleton holds a record of the loading it experiences during life, it can provide important clues about the behaviour of past people through prolonged cultural change. Overall, in the first 6,150 years of farming in Central Europe, the prosperity generated by intensive agriculture drove socioeconomic change and allowed for people to specialise in tasks other than food production.

Macintosh said: “In Central Europe, adaptations in human leg bones spanning this time frame show that it was initially men who were performing the majority of high-mobility tasks, probably associated with tending crops and livestock. But with task specialisation, as more and more people began doing a wider variety of crafts and behaviours, fewer people needed to be highly mobile, and with technological innovation, physically strenuous tasks were likely made easier. The overall result is a reduction in mobility of the population as a whole, accompanied by a reduction in the strength of the lower limb bones.”

Header Image : Wikipedia

Contributing Source : University of Cambridge

Categories: General

Transforming the rural fabric of the Carpathian Villages in Romania

Mon, 2014-04-07 20:34
The villages of Romania, particularly those in Southern Saxon Transylvania, are a unique survival.

These villages, the hay meadows and the forests which surround them are a last outpost of a central European Medieval landscape, forming a vast and extraordinary ensemble stretching for 100 miles from East to West, and about 60 miles from North to South. The architecture is of very gentle and unique nature, or was until recently, built using stone from the nearby hills, lime from local kilns, oak from the deep forests and handmade bricks and tiles by the Romanians who lived in the area.


Though similar to its neighbors, every village has specific architectural motifs, particularly noticeable in the decorative plasterwork on the facades but also, to the expert eye, in the woodwork of the grand oak-beamed barns, the fine stone and metal works, carved windows and the fretted gates of the houses. Whilst there are substantial funds from the European Union for agricultural projects in Romania, sources are scarce for saving the village architecture, unique both for its historic value and significant economic potential to the Romanian economy.

If the common notion is that the ‘developing world’ had much to benefit from heritage preservation for local growth and development, one that GHF initially adopted as its focal area of work, this term is no longer relevant since the ‘culture call’ has beckoned in developed countries as well, and more relevant than ever, in Europe and in China.

What we’re seeing in such regions today is the same series of challenges in the preservation of cultural heritage – the lack of jobs alongside the slowing economies, the challenges of sustainable tourism with lacking methodology and regulation. Add to that a disconnection on the part of local communities and a loss of this sense of ‘pride of place’, ultimately leading to sites being scraped and commercial centers rising with hope and anticipation for growth.

Historic architecture in this part of Romania has faced a number of challenges stemming from various pressures. This includes ongoing neglect, with a great number of Romanians working abroad, an unequal distribution of funds going mostly to agricultural grants and a lack thereof in preservation projects. The architectural landscape is further threatened by the stripping of traditional tiles intended for foreign sale as well as uncontrolled development which is evident in the unauthorized destruction of historic homes due to the ever increasing availability of cheap, modern construction materials.

Building from the bottom up

GHF is working with the Anglo Romanian Trust for Traditional Architecture (ARTTA) founded by William Blacker as well as Association Momentum, an organization run by conservation architect Mr. Eugen Vaida. The project brings together an interesting spectrum of partners including 25 town halls, the Romanian National Network for Rural Development, the local Directorates of the Ministry of Culture for the Regions of Brasov, Sibiu and Mures and The National Astra Museum in Sibiu.

“There is a great challenge in finding hand-made, traditional terracotta tiles. Nowadays they are produced only in small numbers and the art of making them is under threat since there are very few traditional makers left”, notes William Blacker.  Being a precise and delicate technology, if the knowledge is lost it will be almost impossible to recreate. Historically, every village in the region had a kiln, but today there are very few craftsmen left with the skills to run them, making it essential to train the next generation.

The ‘community development’ angle of this project relies on local labor and the teaching of traditional techniques to local communities. In order to preserve the homes, a special campaign was launched for the construction of a new kiln, leveraging the expertise of the existing tile makers who will partake in the business and train a new generation of tile makers, who will be able to supply the increasing demand for these materials and earn a decent and respectable living.

A multitude of local laborers are employed in this project, including for various basic skill construction and labor work. It is hoped that with the completion of the new kiln, expected early this summer, that permanent jobs will be assigned and the training of new kiln masters will begin.

If the historic structures are preserved using authentic techniques and development is sustainably managed, the value to the local communities and to Romania as a whole, in terms of tourism potential, would be significant. This, combined with efforts to promote locally produced organic food and protect the medieval hay meadows could transform Transylvania into a model for conservation of architecture and countryside.

Historic landscapes of Transylvania Romania – Brian Curran

The business of cultural heritage

How it all comes together is based on GHF’s holistic methodology called Preservation by Design™ which is composed of 4 key pillars: conservation science, planning, partnership and community development. When we look at some of the world’s most visited sites, usually, what we find is that one of these pillars is either improperly managed, weak in regulation or completely absent from the strategy. In the end, the only way to ensure the long-term sustainability of a site is by integrating each of these elements otherwise, any preservation project, no matter how great the vision, will be short lived in sustainability.

The rise of heritage philanthropy has been prominent in recent years, taking shape in many ‘corporate responsibility’ programs, now an integral part of any multinational organization that respects itself. This is also evident in Italy – a country rich in cultural heritage and a long list of ‘at risk’ cultural resources – where luxury brands such as Tod’s and Bvlgari are answering the ‘culture call’ are ‘adopting’ heritage sites and sponsoring their preservation.

Without such sponsorships, most likely the government would assume responsibility and allocate emergency funds or alternatively, request assistance from the European Union. Still, these independent philanthropic initiatives indicate a conscience awareness of the value of heritage and the importance of protecting what is Italian by nature, also suggesting the importance of pride of place.

Similar initiatives are noted at some of GHF’s project sites. GHF’s sponsors include private investors who view preservation of cultural history as a way to advance societies, promote education and create economic engines. As key figures themselves in galvanizing growth and investment, these heritage philanthropists view the involvement of local communities as a key part of the equation in GHF’s heritage economics model.

Bringing in a foreign team with the skills and expertise is relatively easy if the project is well defined and the excavations contribute to human knowledge but looking beyond this, if locals are ‘walled out’ of the project, there will be no connection to the site from a community standpoint and no benefits to the local economy.

Engaging the local community also bears an emotional footprint which means that they need to be a part of the discussions between partners and government on how to preserve their heritage, its value to their livelihood and what collaborative actions need to be taken to execute the project and define regulations. Such initiatives require time and planning and they do not always form the groundwork for every preservation project.

To overcome this challenge in Romania, GHF has chosen the village of Biertan as part of a developing initiative with the Romanian bank, Banca Comerciala Româna

(BCR). Biertan will serve as a prototype for community engagement guided by a master plan to be developed by GHF for the commune’s historic resources. This master plan will address items such as heritage value, sustainable tourism and management and plans to integrate Romanian and Roma (Gypsy) heritage in the Saxon villages.

No matter what the scope is of a preservation project, the official stakeholders of any site are the surrounding community. Factoring them in allows GHF to effectively calculate the human capacity and economic impact of the project, for example: how many new jobs are introduced, what skills are available and what kind of training is needed, what intangible heritage can be leveraged to diversify income.

Carpathian Villages Romania : Brian Curran

In the case of Romania, while professional guidance is provided by a U.K. team, local laborers are the official contractors to execute the project, first and foremost to kick start the local economy, and secondly, they essentially possess the know-how and experience to perform the work on site. In addition, the craft of traditional tiles and bricks is not merely preserved but also cultivated and taught to a new generation who also acquire new skills, work opportunities and obtain a more cohesive sense of cultural identity.

What the project has to offer to local villagers may be best explained through the story of Alin Kenst, a young man from Apos, Romania.

He has been permanently involved in the kiln project from the onset, taking care of everyday tasks and the actual construction. While his job as a day laborer in Spain helped to send money home, the project in Romania offers him a firmer sense of security. The duration of winter was spent caretaking for the project’s sole horse used to mill the clay, a job that secured sixty euros per month. With his earnings, and for the first time in many years, he was able to purchase one half of a pig for the Christmas holiday. Small change for some, but a big help for Alin and his family. Having no educational background or specific skills, his monthly stipend – 140 euros in total – allows him to live decently and purchase the required medications for his mother.

The preservation model at the Carpathian Villages is built on the success of other ‘tried and tested’ GHF projects including Gobekli Tepe, the site of the world’s oldest known temple in Turkey. There, fifty local laborers have constructed a temporary shelter which currently protects the excavation areas and the site entire from external pressures such as weather and potential looting. The ‘human impact’ factor is significant. These same laborers, now recognized as specialists in this field, have also been employed to construct the permanent shelter (designed by a German architecture firm), a project that will not only protect the site but also offer an improved hands-free experience for visitors and lay the foundations for sustainable tourism.

Incoming tourism also requires management skills and technical hands-on instruction. Tariq Yildiz is one of the young local workers from Orencik, the nearest village and location of the site’s conservation lab – he has been working alongside his father and brother to build the shelter and protect the excavations. Thanks to the project and the financial improvement to their lives, Tariq will be the first from his town to ever attend university and pursue a degree in business and tourism.

While the notion of investing in cultural heritage is not necessarily a breakthrough, the way GHF approaches preservation and the dialogue with the local community certainly set the NGO apart. Working into its second decade, GHF will have to address many more challenges but ten years of Preservation by Design™ and peer-assisted research have rightly earned the NGO a place in top ranks with some of the world’s leading preservation bodies.

Precisely when the preservation project will be completed is still unknown, but even then, the real work begins after the Palo-Alto based NGO will roll down its sleeves and hand over the project to its original caretakers. It is also unclear to what extent the Romanians living abroad will seek to return home and claim responsibility for their cultural heritage but GHF hopes that through resilient partnership and collaboration with local municipalities and the Romanian government, they will be able to overcome the various pressures and make room for economic programs that benefit the communities and remain committed to the revival of Transylvania’s historic cultural fabric.

Header Image : Historic tiles Transylvania Romania – Credit : Brian Curran

Written by Elinor Betesh - Global Heritage Fund

GHF PR & Communications Manager


Categories: General

Q&A: how archives make history

Mon, 2014-04-07 16:24
The early modern period (1500-1800) saw a surge in the keeping of records. A conference later this week (9-10 April 2014) at the British Academy will look at the origins of the archives that shape our understanding of history. We asked ten of the speakers to tackle some fundamental questions.

Archives unlock doors to the past. For the past seven years historian Dr John-Paul Ghobrial has been in pursuit of an extraordinary traveller called Elias of Babylon. Elias lived in the 17th century and journeyed from his birthplace in Mosul (Iraq) across Europe and as far as Peru and Mexico. Ghobrial’s research on the trail of Elias has taken him to archives in Europe, the Middle East and South America, as he has pieced together the clues left behind by Elias during his global adventuring.

Ghobrial, a specialist in the early modern period at Oxford University, is among the speakers addressing an international audience at a conference later this week (9-10 April 2014) at the British Academy. ‘Transforming Information: Record Keeping in the Early Modern World’ will look at the ways in which our understanding of the past has been shaped by archives. Ghobrial will talk about Eastern Christians who, like Elias, started new lives in Europe in the 17th century.  Many used their linguistic talents to work as archivists and copyists of Middle Eastern manuscripts.

Convened by three Cambridge University historians, the two-day event will focus on an era that saw an explosion in record keeping as a result of a growth in literacy, burgeoning bureaucracy and advances in technology.  In many respects, there are parallels between this transformation and the information revolution taking place today as a result of digitisation.

Speakers from Europe and the USA will share their expertise in fields as diverse as French feudal records, information gathering in early modern Japan, and the use and misuse of papers at the epicentre of the Spanish empire.  The sessions will consider from multiple viewpoints how, and just as importantly why, the archives that underpin much of historical research came into being.

Professor Alexandra Walsham, who is organising the conference with colleagues Dr Kate Peters and Liesbeth Corens, said: “When we examine an archive today in a library or online, we are seeing it stripped of the context that is so important to its meaning and significance. The creation, organisation, preservation and destruction of archives are never neutral or impartial activities: they reflects a society’s fundamental preoccupations and priorities.

She continued: “The conference will look at the major surge in record-keeping in the early modern world against the backdrop of wider technological, intellectual, political, religious and economic developments. It should not be assumed that an archive provides unmediated access to the past; rather record keeping practices fundamentally shape – and skew – our vision of history.”

We asked ten of the conference participants to answer some key questions about archives with particular reference to the period 1500 to 1800.

1. What constitutes an archive in the early modern period?

Filippo de Vivo (Birkbeck, University of London) replies:

Today, we think of archives as repositories of sources for the use of modern historians. But they originated as working tools of organisations (large or small) that produced large amounts of documents in the course of their activities. In the early modern period, many institutions showed an increasing awareness of the importance of preserving those records as information (about something: for example, population size) or proof (of, and often against, something: for example, territorial boundaries). Far from neutral collections, they were instruments of conflict.

As for their aspect and arrangement, think of cabinets, with chests and drawers – the word archive comes from the Latin arca, for box – but bags were also common. They were stacked at the back of offices with secretaries writing at their desks, and they increasingly occupied separate rooms; replete with documents bound or simply bundled together, they stretched back decades and even centuries. Some were neat and tidy, as indicated by this picture of the Venetian chancery – but others must have been decidedly messier, and we know that many different kinds of people went to archives to find out about legal precedents, fiscal duties, property rights, and so on: archives were full with people as much as papers.

2. How is our understanding of history shaped by archives?

Jesse Spohnholz (Washington State University) responds:

In the early 19th century archives began to acquire a privileged status among the new academic historians; they were seen to offer the most direct access to voices from past centuries. For all the opportunities that archives offer, they structure and limit our understanding of the past. Consider the decision of what records to keep and what to set aside. From the Middle Ages, archives were established by political or religious institutions, whose officials aimed to preserve the authority of those institutions. Thus evidence in archives is not simply descriptive of the past, but prescriptive of how a people understood their present and wanted later generations to understand the past. One result is a privileging of male voices with the result that religion and politics look more male-dominated to us today than they may have been.

Similarly, because state and church officials recorded and preserved records of their activities from their own perspective, historians have sometimes overemphasized the importance of centralised states and official churches in the pre-modern era, or have treated as marginal those people who those officials wanted to treat as marginal (so-called heretics or rebels). The actions of pre-modern record keepers have sometimes led historians to focus too much attention on kings, princes, magistrates, and clergy, and too little on the people who ignored, flaunted, deceived or skirted the attention of those institutions. By their very nature, archives align themselves with a side in past conflicts; and when historians use archives as representations of the past without considering the voices they intentionally excluded, they often inadvertently do much the same thing.

3. How are archives created?

Arnold Hunt (British Library) writes:

Archives grow and develop over time. They are the creation, not of a single person, but of a long succession of clerks, secretaries, archivists and curators who have reshaped and reorganised them. As a curator myself, I’m intrigued by the ways that the physical organisation of archives can affect – and sometimes obstruct – their use by historians. As the old saying goes: where do you hide a leaf? In a forest. Where do you hide a document? In an archive.

The archives held at the British Library have often been rearranged in the course of cataloguing. Sometimes this is inevitable.  If an archive arrives in a suitcase, two cardboard boxes and a carrier bag, what do you do? You have to create some sort of order out of chaos. But by imposing ‘order’ on the archive we also impose meaning and interpretation. Until quite recently we used to organise correspondence according to a system that reflected (probably unconsciously) the British class structure: ‘Royal Correspondence’ (the royal family), ‘Special Correspondence’ (the great and the good), and ‘General Correspondence’ (everybody else). Nowadays we organise it by ‘fonds’ and ‘sub-fonds’, but in 100 years’ time I daresay this system will seem equally quaint and arbitrary and our successors will wonder why we adopted it.

I’ve been trying to reconstruct some of the ways that early modern archives were originally organised – not an easy task, when the contents of the archives have been shuffled and reshuffled over the centuries. Secretaries played a crucial role in the making and storing of written records, but they are often shadowy figures whose intermediary role is only visible to us in the notes or ‘endorsements’ that they scribbled on the backs of letters as they filed them away. I want to bring these ‘invisible technicians’ to the centre of attention.

4. Why were some records kept and others lost – and what can we learn from the gaps, silences and absences? 

Kate Peters (Cambridge University) answers:

Most records were kept for the administrative purposes of the creating institution; the majority recorded transactions that either confirmed or exercised authority, or transferred resources. State records, and their keepers, therefore played an important role in the projection and maintenance of political power. My research explores this in the context of the political upheavals of the English civil wars.

The collapsing authority of the Stuart monarchy is evident in the desperate attempts of Thomas Wilson, keeper of the State Paper Office, to control what was in his record office, and who could see it. Records considered ‘disadvantageous’ to the king were destroyed or locked away. Parliamentary regimes in their turn asserted their authority through record-keeping, establishing statutory provision to access the king’s papers, and prohibiting the removal of records from London because it would be prejudicial to the estates of his subjects. Records of the hated prerogative courts were destroyed.  Parliamentary ordinances established registers of all estates and monies seized; by 1649, Levellers were calling for county record offices. Over the course of the English revolution state record keeping was transformed from a system by which the king’s authority was maintained, to one by which the rights of subjects, and later citizens, were asserted.

Record-keeping was a deeply political act: decisions about what was kept and what was destroyed can tell us a great deal about changing notions of legitimacy and political participation.

Image: Warrant from John Bradshaw, regicide and President of the Council of State in the republican regime asking for royalist papers to be sent to the State Paper Office ‘for publique use’ (National Archives)

5. What can we learn about (and from) the organisation of archives?

Kiri Paramore (Leiden University) writes:

How an archive is organised helps us understand when, how, and by whom it was used. My research focuses on the Confucian knowledge systems of early-modern Japan. Confucian discourse and correspondence at that time linked senior shogunal officials with the outside world, but also with simple village teachers. So writings of shogunal retainers, for instance, regularly turn up in forgotten archives of private figures of little status in peripheral areas. After kicking in the door of an old rice store (kura) housing a rich, forgotten private archive in northern Japan last year, the first thing a colleague did was to take photographs of how that room had looked (and been organised) when it was sealed 200 years ago. This helps to understand how, and by whom, the archive had been used.

Every archive has its own story.Archives of states are particularly interesting. For instance, the fact that military intelligence records are kept with anthropological or ethnological materials in academic archives of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868) indicates how that regime used such material. Short commentaries in vernacular language attached to each foreign (Chinese, Manchu, Dutch) document suggest this archive was created for the less educated but hereditarily more senior liege lords who were making real decisions about foreign relations.

How different thematic folios were organised gives us an insight into the perceptions of the original compiler, but also of his state employer, and about issues of academic practice, civilisational categorisation (whether a country or culture was seen as ‘civilised’, ‘barbarian’ or something in between), and the use of information during this time of rapid global transformation.

Image: A typical Tokugawa period ‘kura’ for rice storage (Kiri Paramore)

6. What archives are you using in your current research?

Jennifer Bishop (Cambridge University) responds:

I am currently working with the records of the London Goldsmiths’ Company. The Company kept extensive records that cover every aspect of corporate life in the early modern period, from the regulation of trade and the assessment of skill, to the arbitration of personal disputes between goldsmiths and their friends, colleagues, and neighbours. The Company court minutes provide a rich source of information about the everyday activities and interactions of goldsmiths at all levels of the Company hierarchy. This detailed information allows us to reconstruct the personal and professional ties that bound company members together, and gave them a sense of communal and occupational identity, in the early modern period.

These Goldsmiths’ records were written by the Company clerk, who was also responsible for their safekeeping: the court books were kept locked in a chest in the clerk’s room in Company Hall, and nobody could access them without his permission. The clerk occupied a unique position in the Company, both participating in and commenting on the practices and rituals of corporate life. These records may therefore be read not only as documentary evidence of official business, but as creative texts that reflect the personal concerns and habits of the clerks who wrote them. As such, the Company records highlight important intersections between the literary, social, and corporate spheres of early modern London.

Image: Goldsmiths’ Company court minutes book (October 1557) (Goldsmiths’ Company)

7. What particular challenges do archives present to you as a researcher?

Liesbeth Corens (Cambridge University) writes:

One of the main challenges (but also delights) about research in archives is that they were and are precious to people. The sense of responsibility to protect the memory of past communities and individuals has motivated the creation, selection, and censoring of record collections across the centuries. This makes analysing an archive and its development revealing, as the motivations behind archives give us insights into the preoccupations of past communities. But sometimes the records are of such value – emotionally and materially – that access to them is restricted.

In my research on English Catholics, I often handle documents which are to me interesting glimpses of past communities but for many Catholics are sacred relics and part of devotional cultures. These written relics are an explicit illustration of a much wider process in which records have significance other than mere records of past actions. These sensitivities have shaped what has been passed down across generations and how it is understood. Keepers protect both the materiality and interpretation of the records in their care: the fragility of records sometimes means they are not open for research or some elements of ancestors’ less virtuous past are not shown very easily. The negotiations between protecting and analysing the past are fascinating to study and a challenging but rewarding exercise.

8. What is the relationship between private and public record-keeping?

Heather Wolfe (Folger Shakespeare Library) comments:

There are lots of similarities between how public records and private evidences and personal papers were stored in early modern England, in terms of bags, boxes, chests, bundles, files, drawers, and labels. Archival principles of arrangement didn’t exist – antiquarians and others complained about how disorganized and dirty and mouse-eaten the public records were, and then other people went in and tried to clean them up and make sense of them, and then other people borrowed them and neglected to return them, and then other people got frustrated and tried to have them returned, to no avail! Clerks and keepers were torn between keeping up with the vast amount of documentation being produced on a daily basis by a wide range of bureaucratic entities, and dealing with an overwhelming backlog – the same challenge that faces archivists today.

The private papers, or muniments, of England’s landed gentry, were typically easier to keep under control. Property deeds were arranged by county, and each property might be “defended” with centuries’-worth of deeds, in case ownership was ever contested. Bills and receipts were often bundled together, and large account books and pedigrees maintained and saved. Different families saved other kinds of personal documents in a range of ways.

Some people saved their correspondence and personal papers, for example, or copied their letters into letter books and discarded the originals, while others burned or recycled them. Unless you came from a family with a long history in a single home with a “muniment” room, the chances of your papers surviving were pretty slim.

9. How can we best facilitate access to archives?

Valerie Johnson (National Archives) suggests:

Access to archives is a complex thing. When digitisation started coming in, it was widely seen as ‘democratising the archive’, and obviously, if something is digitised and available online, it massively increases access for those who might live hundreds or even thousands of miles away.  But what happens if that digitised document is in medieval Latin? Digitising it doesn’t improve ‘access’ at all for most people:  they can’t read the handwriting and even if they could, they can’t understand the language.

So some things that look like an easy fix, aren’t.  And though digitisation is great for standard series like the census, putting material online can take the document out of context. Good cataloguing is in my opinion hugely important in opening up for others the potential treasure that might lie waiting to be uncovered within an archive.  And access to the physical archive remains important – most people still get a huge thrill from having the original record in their own hands, feeling that there is nothing to beat the touch (and sometimes the smell) of the real thing.

But access to archives can only happen if there are archives to access – so the best way to facilitate access to archives is to value archivists, and their work.

10. What has been your most memorable or frustrating ‘archive moment’?

Mary Laven (Cambridge University) reports:

My most frustrating archive moment occurred after the publication of my first book: Virgins of Venice: Enclosed Lives and Broken Vows in the Renaissance Convent. I wanted to embark on a new project in an unfamiliar Italian city, and so I decided to spend a month in Parma in Northern Italy looking at what appeared from the archive catalogue to be an extensive collection of early modern criminal records. On day one I was told that these records were invisibili (literally invisible, or unseeable, though I think this was an archivist’s euphemism for ‘mislaid’). Resolution: never again shall I broach a new archive without corresponding first with the staff.

More positively, I reckon my most memorable archive moment is about to happen. Yesterday I flew to central Italy with eight colleagues. We’re working on an ERC-funded collaborative project based in Cambridge: ‘Domestic Devotions: The Place of Piety in the Renaissance Italian Home’. Our intention is to make a collective assault on the archives of the Marche. For the first time in my life this means that I’ll be working alongside colleagues in a shared endeavour. Any problems with the palaeography? I’ll ask one of the post-docs. Unsure what that devotional object was used for? My PhD student will know for sure. It’s going to be bliss.

Header Image : British Library – WikiPedia

Contributing Source : University of Cambridge

Categories: General

Ancient shrimp-like animals had ‘modern’ hearts and blood vessels

Mon, 2014-04-07 13:02
In 520 million-year-old fossil deposits resembling an ‘invertebrate version of Pompeii,’ researchers have found an ancestor of modern crustaceans revealing the first-known cardiovascular system in exquisitely preserved detail.

An international team of researchers from the University of Arizona, China and the United Kingdom has discovered the earliest known cardiovascular system, and the first to clearly show a sophisticated system complete with heart and blood vessels, in fossilized remains of an extinct marine creature that lived over half a billion years ago. The finding sheds new light on the evolution of body organization in the animal kingdom and shows that even the earliest creatures had internal organizational systems that strongly resemble those found in their modern descendants.

“This is the first preserved vascular system that we know of,” said Nicholas Strausfeld, a Regents’ Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Arizona’s Department of Neuroscience, who helped analyze the find.

Being one of the world’s foremost experts in arthropod morphology and neuroanatomy, Strausfeld is no stranger to finding meaningful and unexpected answers to long-standing mysteries in the remains of creatures that went extinct so long ago scientists still argue over where to place them in the evolutionary tree.

The 3-inch-long fossil was entombed in fine dustlike particles – now preserved as fine-grain mudstone – during the Cambrian Period 520 million years ago in what today is the Yunnan province in China. Found by co-author Peiyun Cong near Kunming, it belongs to the species Fuxianhuia protensa, an extinct lineage of arthropods combining advanced internal anatomy with a primitive body plan.

Fuxianhuia is relatively abundant, but only extremely few specimens provide evidence of even a small part of an organ system, not even to speak of an entire organ system,” said Strausfeld, who directs the UA Center for Insect Science. “The animal looks simple, but its internal organization is quite elaborate. For example, the brain received many arteries, a pattern that appears very much like a modern crustacean.”

In fact, Strausfeld pointed out, Fuxianhuia‘s vascular system is more complex than what is found in many modern crustaceans.

“It appears to be the ground pattern from which others have evolved,” he said. “Different groups of crustaceans have vascular systems that have evolved into a variety of arrangements but they all refer back to what we see in Fuxianhuia.”

“Over the course of evolution, certain segments of the animals’ body became specialized for certain things, while others became less important and, correspondingly, certain parts of the vascular system became less elaborate,” Strausfeld said.

Strausfeld helped identify the oldest known fossilized brain in a different specimen of the same fossil species, as well as the first evidence of a completely preserved nervous system similar to that of a modern chelicerates, such as a horseshoe crab or a scorpion.

“This is another remarkable example of the preservation of an organ system that nobody would have thought could become fossilized,” he said.

This image shows a schematic reconstruction of the animal, outlining the cardiovascular system in red, the brain and central nervous system in blue and the gut in green. Credit: Nicholas Strausfeld

In addition to the exquisitely preserved heart and blood vessels, outlined as traces of carbon embedded in the surrounding mineralized remains of the fossil, it also features the eyes, antennae and external morphology of the animal.

Using a clever imaging technique that selectively reveals different structures in the fossil based on their chemical composition, collaborator Xiaoya Ma at London’s Natural History Museum was able to identify the heart, which extended along the main part of the body, and its many lateral arteries corresponding to each segment. Its arteries were composed of carbon-rich deposits and gave rise to long channels, which presumably took blood to limbs and other organs.

“With that, we can now start speculating about behavior,” Strausfeld explained. “Because of well-supplied blood vessels to its brain, we can assume this was a very active animal capable of making many different behavioral choices.”

Researchers can only speculate as to why the chemical reactions that occurred during the process of fossilization allowed for this unusual and rare kind of preservation, and as to why only select tissues were preserved between a few rare and different specimen.

“Presumably the conditions had to be just right,” Strausfeld said. “We believe that these animals were preserved because they were entombed quickly under very fine-grained deposits during some kind of catastrophic event, and were then permeated by certain chemicals in the water while they were squashed flat. It is an invertebrate version of Pompeii.”

Possibly, only one in thousands of fossils might have such a well-preserved organ system, Strausfeld said.

At the time Fuxianhuia crawled on the seafloor or swam through water, life had not yet conquered land.

“Terrible sand storms must have occurred because there were probably no plants that could hold the soils,” Strausfeld said. “The habitats of these creatures must have been inundated with massive fallouts from huge storms.”

Tsunamis may also be the cause for the exceptional preservation.

“As the water withdraws, animals on the seafloor dry,” Strausfeld said. “When the water rushed back in, they might become inundated with mud. Under normal circumstances, when animals die and are left to rot on the seafloor, they become unrecognizable. What happened to provide the kinds of fossils we are seeing must have been very different.”

Header Imnage : Fuxianhuia – WikiPedia

Contributing Source : University of Arizona

Categories: General

Humans and saber toothed tiger met at Schöningen 300.000 years ago

Sat, 2014-04-05 14:34
Scientists of the Lower Saxony Heritage Authority and of the University of Tübingen excavating at the Schöningen open-cast coal mine in north-central Germany have discovered the remains of a saber-toothed cat preserved in a layer some 300,000 years old.

The discovery was made in the same stratum in which wooden spears were found, indicating that early humans also inhabited the area, which at that time was the bank of a shallow lake.

The discovery sheds new light on the relationship between early humans and beasts of prey. It is highly likely that humans were confronted by saber-toothed cats at the Schöningen lakeside.

In that case, all the human could do was grab his up to 2.3m long spear and defend himself. In this context, the Schöningen spears must be regarded as weapons for defense as well as hunting – a vital tool for human survival in Europe 300,000 years ago.

Officials from the Lower Saxony heritage authority and archaeologists from the Universities of Tübingen and Leiden uncovered a first tooth of a young adult homotherium latidens in October 2012. Measuring more than a meter at the shoulder and weighing some 200kg, the saber-tooth was no pussycat. It had razor-sharp claws and deadly jaws with upper-jaw canines more than 10cm long.

The find shows that the saber-toothed cat died out later in central Europe than previously believed. Along with the sensational wooden spears, the same level has yielded bones and stone tools indicating that early humans – probably homo heidelbergenis – hunted horses and camped along a 100m stretch of the lakeside.

The new finds demonstrate that a long time before anatomically modern humans, homo sapiens sapiens have reached Europe some 40,000 years ago, early man was able to defend himself against highly dangerous animals with his weapon technology. The results of the researchers’ study have just been published in a report by the Lower Saxony heritage authority, the Niedersächsisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege.

Header Image Credit : Niedersächsisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege

Contributing Source : Universitaet Tübingen

Categories: General

Sex and History: Talking sex with objects from the past

Sat, 2014-04-05 14:13
A ground-breaking initiative from the University of Exeter, the Sex and History project, is offering schools a new way to tackle difficult topics in sex education.

Led by Professor of History Kate Fisher and Classicist Dr Rebecca Langlands, Sex and History has produced a new “taster” teaching resource for secondary schools, which offers an effective way of addressing some of the most difficult issues in sex education – through the examination and discussion of ancient artefacts.

Designed for young people aged between 14-19, the resource utilises objects such as an 18th century chastity belt, Roman phallic amulets worn by soldiers and children, and an ivory copulating couple from late 19th century China, amongst others. The artefacts are from the vaults of the Science Museum, collected by Sir Henry Wellcome from across the globe and have never been on public display.

Professor Fisher and Dr Langlands’ extensive research has shown that by creating a safe environment and using these historical artefacts to discuss how sexual practices and conventions have changed over the course of history, today’s young people can be encouraged to discuss their own views, ideas and concerns about sex.

As Dr Langlands explained, the objects were found to be the perfect catalyst for getting young people to talk openly about the issues that mattered to them when it came to sex. She said:”They immediately kick started conversations with young people in a way that is usually very difficult to achieve in a classroom context. Traditionally sex education can be uncomfortable for teachers and pupils alike, and the availability of internet pornography poses new challenges. Young people are often well aware of the biological facts of reproduction, STIs and contraception, but lack the opportunity for discussion of important wider social issues such as body image, love, consent, and intimacy.”

The new teaching resource, designed in partnership with the Relationships and Sex Education Hub (RSE Hub), is linked to a stunning new exhibition of historical artefacts ‘Intimate Worlds’, at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery (RAMM) in Exeter. This will be the first ever dedicated display of Wellcome’s sexually related material.

Professor Fisher explained: “These intriguing artefacts from ancient cultures act as a productive and challenging stimulus, but they also provide a safe distance to discuss sensitive subjects. Using them encouraged young people to find new ways of discussing relationships and sex without embarrassment. They were talking about history, about places and times far away. It was no longer sex education or about putting them in the spotlight, but it was about broader cultures.”

As part of the Sex and History project a group of Exeter College students aged between 16 and 17 were involved in a workshop that used illustrations of the sexual objects from the Sir Henry Wellcome’s collection as a basis for exploring ideas around sex and sexual relationships.

Laura Kerslake, a lecturer in Ethics at Exeter College was impressed by the way students openly discussed the sex related objects and their significance. She said:“The objects allowed them to talk about sex without feeling self-conscious or thinking about themselves. Especially because they are ancient erotic objects, not a modern cultural image, but from different cultures that are far removed from young people’s own lives, which helps to make them feel safe whilst participating in the discussion. This approach takes the embarrassment out of it and reduces the possibility of students putting up barriers to learning.”

“It’s also a great way to help teachers who may be faced with a wall of silence when teaching sex education. What was nice was seeing them looking at the different language they use to talk about sex and body parts, some of the students don’t have that vocabulary so it’s a way of getting them to talk about it and understand the terminology.”

The ‘Intimate Worlds’ exhibition opens on the 5th April and showcases an extraordinary range of objects from the Wellcome Collection relating to human sexuality, including Chinese erotic glass painting, Greek vases and African fertility dolls. Despite the challenging theme, ‘Intimate Worlds’ is no “shock horror” display. Instead, this is precisely the kind of serious educational and socially beneficial exhibition that the original collector, pharmaceutical billionaire Sir Henry Wellcome dreamed of for his collection.

The exhibition provides an insight into the cultural diversity of attitudes and practices towards sex and prompts questions about modern attitudes towards censorship, the boundaries between childhood and adulthood, control of sexuality, fertility and contraception, pleasure and power relations. The exhibition runs until 29 June at RAMM in Exeter.

The Sex and History project has received funding from Museums Libraries and Archives, The Wellcome Trust, REACT Pump priming; Catalyst Fund and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Header Image : Roman terracotta lamp, 1st century AD. Science Museum/Wellcome Collection.

Contributing Source : University of Exeter

Categories: General

Byzantine monastery and mosaic floor discovered

Fri, 2014-04-04 15:18
An impressive monastery and mosaic dating to the Byzantine period was discovered at the entrance to Hura in the northern Negev during the course of an IAA salvage excavation for the purpose of building a highway interchange.

The structure, measuring 20 × 35 meters, is divided into halls built along an east–west axis, the most outstanding of which are the prayer hall and dining room due to the breathtaking mosaic carpets revealed in them.

The prayer hall is paved with a mosaic on which a pattern of leaves is vibrantly portrayed in blue, red, yellow and green colors. The dining room floor is a colorful mosaic pavement depicting floral motifs, geometric decorations, amphorae, baskets and even a pair of birds.

According to Daniel Varga, excavation director on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “It seems that this monastery, located near the Byzantine settlement of Horbat Hur, is one monastery in a series of monasteries situated alongside a road that linked Transjordan with the Be’er Sheva‘ Valley”.

The mosaic carpets also include four Greek dedicatory inscriptions denoting the names of the monastery’s abbots: Eliyahu, Nonus, Solomon and Ilrion, and the dates when the pavements were constructed in the different halls. These inscriptions also aided archaeologists in dating the monastery to the second half of the sixth century CE.

One of the inscriptions is bi-lingual. In addition to the Greek there is also a section of the inscription that is written in the Syriac language.

Skyview Company, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The entrance to the monastery was located in the west. The monastery’s western wing, which is divided into four service rooms, is paved with a white mosaic, much of which was destroyed following the collapse of the building at the end of the Byzantine period.

Various pottery assemblages were discovered during the excavation of the monastery. These include large storage vessels such as different kinds of amphorae and jars, cooking pots, kraters and bowls. In addition, numerous and sundry glass vessels ascribed to the Byzantine period were discovered, as well as coins. These finds indicate there was a rich material culture in the monastery.

The Israel Antiquities Authority, together with the Netivei Israel Company, Hura municipality and Wadi ‘Attir Association, plan on relocating the monastery, including its mosaics, to the Wadi ‘Attir agricultural/tourism project adjacent to Hura.

Header Image Credit : Assaf Peretz, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Contributing Source : IAA

Categories: General

Amborella, a record of the evolution of flowering plants

Fri, 2014-04-04 14:48
The sole survivor of the oldest line of flowering plants, Amborella is the last witness of the great biological success these plants have had over millions of years.

The sequencing of its genome, which was just published in the journal Science, can help better understand the evolution of these plants, which has led to an incredible diversity of more than 300,000 species identified today.

The researchers also trace the history of Amborella itself, showing highly original evolutionary mechanisms in this shrub, whose so-called “mitochondrial” DNA now contains the entire genomes of other species. Lastly, in New Caledonia, where the plant is endemic, they highlight the existence of two ice age refuge areas, without which the plant would not be here today to bear witness to the past.

An open window on a common ancestor

Why did flowering plants suddenly proliferate on Earth millions of years ago? To lift part of the veil on this enigma, the researchers of the “Amborella Genome Project”, coordinated by Penn State University in the United States and bringing together researchers from ten countries, focused on this New Caledonian shrub. In fact, it is the last vestige of the oldest line of flowering plants. This makes it a sort of witness to ancient times. The sequencing of its genome helped the researchers reconstruct that of the common ancestor of all flowering plants, showing that the latter saw its genome double approximately 200 million years ago. In other words, its DNA was “duplicated”, which is to say completely copied, until it numbered 14,000 encoding genes. This molecular mechanism, called “duplication”, is one of the engines of evolution. Among these 14,000 encoding genes, many evolved over geological time, to provide flowering plants with new functions, such as the ability of seeds to store nutrient reserves. This work shows that the doubling of the genome of their common ancestor then helped flowering plants to achieve the incredible diversity of the more than 300,000 species observed today.

The evolutionary record saved

In parallel, the IRD researchers analysed the genetic variability in Amborella populations in New Caledonia to reconstitute its evolutionary history in its natural habitat. The genomes of each Amborella population show that their common ancestor dates back at least 2 million years. The researchers also observed that the populations diminished drastically approximately 320,000 years ago. A series of other more or less important reductions then occurred. Why did the Amborella populations decline? The question remains open.

Throughout its evolution, the genetic diversity of Amborella has been structured into four geographically distinct groups on Grande Terre, to occupy a broad ecological niche. The researchers found the existence of two mountain ranges that served as refuges during the last ice ages (~21,000 years ago) and from which Amborella recolonized new territories. Without these two ice-age refuges, it would not have survived to the present, like so many New Caledonian species, and would not have been able to help researchers to explore the past of flowering plants. 

Several genomes in one

Another major discovery, also published in Science: the IRD researchers contributed to finding in Amborella a highly original transfer mechanism from other plant species with so-called “mitochondrial” genomes. Mitochondrial DNA or “mtDNA”, is distinct from the DNA contained in the cell nucleus. This special DNA helps trace the maternal line in the phylogenetic trees of species.

Therefore, population geneticists often study it. The researchers sequenced that of Amborella, showing that it integrated the DNA of six other species, including other flowering plants that appeared after the New Caledonian shrub. Such “horizontal” transfers, also called species-to-species without passing through sexual reproduction, had already been found for isolated single genes. But this was the first time that researchers observed this mechanism on the scale of entire mitochondrial genomes! In this same study, the researchers proposed a model to explain this singular phenomenon, which is still not well understood.

Contributing Source : Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD)

Categories: General

Hummingbird evolution soared after they invaded South America 22 million years ago

Fri, 2014-04-04 14:35
A newly constructed family tree of the hummingbirds, published today in the journal Current Biology, tells a story of a unique group of birds that originated in Europe, passed through Asia and North America, and ultimately found its Garden of Eden in South America 22 million years ago.

These early hummingbirds spread rapidly across the South American continent, evolved iridescent colors – various groups are known today as brilliants, topazes, emeralds and gems – diversified into more than 140 new species in the rising Andes, jumped water gaps to invade North America and the Caribbean, and continue to generate new species today.

“Our study provides a much clearer picture regarding how and when hummingbirds came to be distributed where they are today,” said lead author Jimmy McGuire, a UC Berkeley associate professor of integrative biology and curator of herpetology (reptiles and amphibians) in the campus’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.

There are now 338 recognized hummingbird species, but that number could double in the next several million years, according to the study’s authors, who come from UC Berkeley, Louisiana State University and the universities of New Mexico, Michigan and British Columbia.

“We are not close to being at the maximum number of hummingbird species,” McGuire said. “If humans weren’t around, they would just continue on their merry way, evolving new species over time.”

Hummingbird ancestors arose in Eurasia 42 million years ago

For more than 12 years, McGuire and his colleagues collected DNA data from 451 birds representing 284 species of hummingbirds and their closest relatives, ultimately sequencing six nuclear and mitochondrial genes. They used the data to arrange the living groups in a family tree, and concluded that the branch leading to modern hummingbirds arose about 42 million years ago when they split from their sister group, the swifts and treeswifts. This probably happened in Europe or Asia, where hummingbird-like fossils have been found dating from 28-34 million years ago.

Somehow, he said, hummingbirds found their way to South America, probably via Asia and a land bridge across the Bering Strait to Alaska. They left no survivors in their ancestral lands, but once they hit South America about 22 million years ago, they quickly expanded into new ecological niches and evolved new species represented by nine distinct groups known today as topazes, hermits, mangoes, brilliants, coquettes, mountain gems, bees, emeralds, and the single-species group Patagona (the Giant Hummingbird, Patagona gigas).

About 12 million years ago, the common ancestor of the bee and mountain gem hummingbird groups made the jump into North America, which at the time was still separated from South America by a few hundred miles of water. Once these hummingbirds had “prepared the ground” by initiating co-evolution with North American plants, McGuire said, they were later followed several times by other hummingbird lineages, including representatives of the mangoes and emeralds, and then by many more species when the Isthmus of Panama formed connecting South and North America about 4 million years ago.

About 5 million years ago, hummingbirds invaded the Caribbean, and did so five more times since. One of these groups, the bee hummingbirds, which originated in North America, participated in the Caribbean invasion, and even re-colonized South America alongside existing lineages. This group experienced the highest diversification rates of any hummingbird group – 15 times that of the lowest, the topazes – which is on a par with that of classic examples of rapid adaptation to a new environment (adaptive radiation).

The genetic analysis shows that the diversity of hummingbirds continues to rise today, with the origination rate of new species exceeding extinction rates. And despite the fact that they feed primarily on nectar and tiny insects, some places contain more than 25 species in the same geographic area.

“When it comes to vertebrate animals, hummingbirds are about as diverse as they come,” he said.

From herps to hummingbirds

McGuire, a herpetologist whose main interest is the evolution of reptile and amphibian diversity in Southeast Asia, became interested in hummingbird flight by accident while a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin. While there he collaborated with Robert Dudley, an expert on hummingbird flight and now a fellow UC Berkeley professor of integrative biology, and Dudley’s student, Doug Altshuler, now at the University of British Columbia. They wanted to understand how hummingbirds are able to live at high elevations, including at over 15,000 feet in the Andes Mountains, despite the reduced air density, which makes flying harder. Such a study required, however, that they understand how the various species are related, and McGuire volunteered to do a genetic analysis to construct a phylogeny (the equivalent of a genealogy but for species).

One unanswered question, he said, is how hummingbirds got a toehold in South America at all, since today they are dependent on plants that coevolved with them and developed unique feeding adaptations.

“It is really difficult to imagine how it started, since hummingbirds are involved in this coevolutionary process with plants that has led to specializations we typically associate with hummingbird plants, such as tubular, often red flowers, with dilute nectar,” he said. “They drive the evolution of their own ecosystem. The evolution of hummingbirds has profoundly affected the evolution of the New World flora via codiversification.”

McGuire hopes to continue hummingbird studies with his colleagues, exploring how they’ve adapted to a diverse variety of ecological niches and, in particular, how they tolerate reduced oxygen availability at high elevations.

“Everything about hummingbirds is extreme,” said McGuire, who initiated work on the current phylogenetic analysis as an assistant professor at Louisiana State University before joining the UC Berkeley faculty in 2003. “They have this incredible hovering flight, with wing beat frequencies of 60 times per second, which is nuts. They have the highest metabolic rate for their size of any vertebrate; they are little machines that run on oxygen at a high rate. They also have the largest hippocampal formation in the brain of any bird, which is tied to spatial learning, presumably because they visit the same flower clusters over and over again, and must remember where and when they most recently slurped the nectar from individual flowers. It is amazing that evolution can take an animal to such extremes.”

Header Image : Patagona gigas

Contributing Source : University of California – Berkeley

Categories: General