Tag Archives: neolithic

Trade was thriving in Neolithic Italy, isotope study shows

In recent years, archaeological evidence has shown that ancient communities weren’t the isolated groups we once thought them to be. A new study further confirms this, showing that ancient Italians went to great lengths to import and export their goods.

Neolithic artifacts. Image credits; Michael Greenhalgh.

Mining and smelting were vital activities in the Neolithic. Italy, in particular, was home to complex networks of metalwork exchange, according to a new study.

An active Copper Age

Researchers analyzed 20 copper items (including axe-heads, halberds, and daggers) coming from archaeological sites, dating them and studying their isotopic make-up. This make-up is essentially a chemical signature that can be traced to their source.

Comparing the archaeological data with the chemical signatures, researchers found that most of the items were cast with copper mined in Tuscany, a region in central Italy. From Tuscany, these items spread as far as the Alps, indicating a thriving and very active trade system. Other items came from the Western Alps, and possibly the French Midi — an area in southern France.

It’s remarkable that as far as 6,000 years ago, people were trading across such large distances.

“The first systematic application of lead isotope analysis (a geological sourcing technique) to Copper Age metal objects from central Italy, 3600-2200 BC, has shed new light on the provenance of the copper used to cast them,” the study reads.

“The research has revealed that, while some of the copper was sourced from the rich ore deposits of Tuscany, as was expected, some is from further afield. This unforeseen discovery demonstrates that far-reaching metal exchange networks were in operation in prehistoric Europe over a thousand years before the Bronze Age.”

The researchers also found evidence of metal recycling. Basically, Italian smiths were re-casting previously-used metal. Old axe-heads were recast into newer, sharper weapons, as were halberds and knives.

This is a relatively rare practice, showing that iron ore was regarded as a very valuable resource. In addition to being imported from ore-rich Tuscany and other mining areas, these objects were probably traded among different networks and communities.

The study helps fill in a growingly-complex picture of ancient mining and trading across the Alps region. The authors now plan to carry out research on more objects, to uncover more trade routes and copper sources.

This was an important period in the evolution of human society. The first t state societies were emerging in Sumer, Egypt, and Crete, marking one of the biggest milestones of human society. Copper played a key role at the time, predominating in metalworking technology.

Ancient Dane’s life reconstructed from 5,700-year-old chewing gum

Artist interpretation of “Lola”, an Early Neolithic hunter-gatherer female who lived in Denmark. Credit: Tom Björklund.

While agriculture was spreading through many parts of Europe, communities of hunter-gatherers in Denmark still practiced their ancient lifestyles. This is what the life of “Lola”, a Neolithic Dane with dark skin, blue eyes, and dark hair, seems to suggest. Remarkably, information about Lola’s appearance, diet, lifestyle, and even medical history was not extracted from her remains — those were never found — but rather from a perfectly preserved 5,700-year-old “chewing gum”.

The ancient chewing gum is actually a piece of birch tar, a sticky substance that was primarily employed as a glue by Middle Pleistocene communities. However, early humans likely used the birch tar for other purposes. People would likely chew on the birch to give it malleability prior to employing the substance in tool manufacturing. They might have also chewed it for medical purposes, to soothe toothaches, suppress hunger, or simply because they liked the feeling as modern humans use chewing gum.

The ancient birch pitch with ruler for scale. Credit: Theis Jensen.

This particular piece of birch tar, which was recovered from a site in southern Denmark, was found sealed in mud. The substance was already primed for preservation thanks to its hydrophobic (water-repellant) properties, but the local environment helped protect the chewed substance from the elements.

“Almost everything is sealed in mud, which means that the preservation of organic remains is absolutely phenomenal,” said Tehis Jensen, co-author of the new study.

The pristine preservation of the sample allowed researchers at the University of Copenhagen to sequence the full genome of the person who last chewed on it. Not only that, they also extracted genetic information about the oral bacteria that inhabited Lola’s mouth, as well as information about her diet.

“It is the first time that an entire ancient human genome has been extracted from anything other than human bones,” Hannes Schroeder of the University of Copenhagen, told AFP.

Although her age could not be determined, the excellently preserved genome showed that the Neolithic female had dark hair, dark skin, and blue eyes.

These features were common among foragers in continental Europe. In fact, the genome traces Lola’s lineage to mainland Europe and not central Scandinavia. And, since remains on the ancient chewing gum contain duck and hazelnuts, Lola was likely a forager, too, despite the fact she lived during the Early Neolithic when agriculture was already established around Europe, particularly south of the Danube.

Lola was also lactose intolerant, fitting the narrative that lactase persistence only appeared in adults fairly recently after the introduction of dairy farming. This shows that the region where the birch was found may have been quite late in adopting agriculture.

The birch pitch also contained microbial DNA. Most of these organisms were harmless, but the researchers also identified a bacterium linked to gum disease, as well as DNA associated with pneumonia and a virus that causes mononucleosis (glandular fever).

All of these insights were gleaned from an unsuspecting piece of very old gum. Sounds like a good day for science!

The findings appeared in the journal Nature Communications.

Near east neolithic people fashioned jewelry out of human teeth

At a 9,000-year-old archaeological site, researchers unearthed a most peculiar find: human teeth drilled through the root. By all accounts, the ancient teeth must have been employed to fashion a necklace or some other kind of jewelry.

Credit: Journal of Archaeological Science.

Archaeologists found the three teeth at Çatalhöyük, a neolithic site in Turkey regarded by UNESCO as the most significant human settlement documenting early settled agricultural life. 

What’s more, researchers believe that Çatalhöyük, which was home to up to 8,000 inhabitants, was one of the very first egalitarian societies, as evidenced by distinctive homes, arranged back-to-back without doors or windows and the lack of monumental constructions (i.e. common burial grounds, temples, grand communal buildings). To get inside their homes, the inhabitants would use an opening through the roof which they would access via ladders.

At Çatalhöyük, archaeologists have found all sorts of artifacts, mainly tools. There are still many mysteries surrounding the site, including its sudden downfall. It’s believed that only 4% of the site has been excavated. During one recent dig, researchers found the three ornamental teeth.

Two of the teeth, a permanent premolar and a permanent molar, were found inside one of the dwellings at the site. The third, another permanent premolar, was found in a grave. All teeth came from adult individuals and showed no signs of disease, suggesting that they were likely removed post-mortem. Concerning their age, scientists have dated the teeth to sometime between 6300 and 6700 BCE.

Credit: Pixabay.

Researchers took silicone casts of the teeth to examine their wear and also employed microscopic and radiographic analyses in order to determine how the holes were drilled. The holes present in two of the teeth exhibited clear signs of intentional drilling. The hourglass-shaped holes suggest that the craftsman drilled from each side. After this procedure, the molars were polished. Wear on the inside of the hole suggests that the teeth were threaded in order to be worn as ornamentation.

It’s not clear at this point what ritualistic meaning this practice might have had — if there was any to begin with. Perhaps the teeth belonged to a deceased relative or high-status person which the wearer held in high regard. Perhaps they came from enemies. We can only speculate in the absence of more artifacts.

“The rarity of such artifacts in the prehistoric Near East suggests a profound symbolic meaning for this practice and these objects, and provides new insights into the funerary customs and symbolic importance of the use of human body parts during the Neolithic of the Near East,” the researchers wrote in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

Gender inequality emerged during the Neolithic, new study finds

Male and female figurine. Image credits: Oriental Institute Museum / Sailko.

Gender inequality is a pervasive and very challenging issue to address. We know that oftentimes, women are paid less than men for the same work and face many more hurdles in all cultures around the world, but the exact causes (and solutions) remain annoyingly difficult to find. Still, one particular aspect of it is crystal clear: the difference in physical strength.

While that may not be all that important in modern society, it was, almost certainly, the reason why men have dominated cultures for the past millennia. Being stronger and faster was a key advantage, one that’s very difficult to overcome or overlook. But when did this trend emerge?

According to a new study, it started sometime during the Neolithic.

Archaeologists at the University of Seville in Spain have studied prehistoric societies in the Neolithic Period in the Iberian Peninsula from the perspective of gender. They looked at two types of evidence: biological and funerary.

In the first category, the team focused on demographic proportions between men and women, as well as other clues such as diet, genetic data, and common diseases. For the funerary evidence, they analyzed how “important” a burial site was — whether it was an individual or collective burial, the position and orientation of the body, as well as any goods placed in the tomb.

They found that at the start of the Neolithic, there was no significant difference between men and women in this regards, suggesting a generally equal society. However, as things progressed, it started to change. A key indicator is the growing association of men with violence. Male bodies started exhibiting more arrow wounds, their tombs featured more weapons or projectiles, and men were increasingly depicted in fighting scenes in cave paintings, whereas women were not. Hunting and warfare were a masculine business. Conversely, women’s’ burial sites were more likely to contain ceramic pots, indicating a separation of gender roles.

Interestingly, out of all the aspects considered in this study, the ones that show the greatest difference between males and females are related to violence: projectiles, trauma including impact by arrowheads, and graphic depictions of war and hunting.

Although the social complexity involved in these processes is not really known, this indicates that gender roles (and subsequently, gender inequality) started to be contoured sometime during the Neolithic.

“The quantitative prevalence of males in the funerary record points to a bias against females and children within the funerary ideology,” researchers write. “Males also overwhelmingly predominate in Spanish Levantine rock art, particularly in hunting and war scenes; males are more frequently associated with traumatic injuries and impacts by projectiles and, at some sites, they were buried with arrowheads far more frequently than females.”

This study didn’t come out of nowhere. The application of gender archaeology in prehistoric societies has developed greatly in the past couple of decades, and the Iberian peninsula is a great environment to study it. This new paper, unprecedented in its sample size and scope, lays the foundations for an entirely new perspective on gender inequalities in the Neolithic.

The results of the study highlight the importance of approaches that analyze the social construction and the interaction between men and women in ancient times. During the Bronze Age (a period that followed the Neolithic), this trend became much clearer.

During the Neolithic, there don’t seem to be any signs of widespread or acute gender inequality in Neolithic society. However, there are some signs of an increasing predominance of men over women, leading researchers to believe that these are the origins of gender inequality.

The study has been published in the European Journal of Archaeology.

Stone-age peoples in the Iberian Peninsula shared graves with dogs

Stone age communities in the Iberian Peninsula buried dogs alongside humans, a new study reports. These animals were also fed a diet very similar to that of their owners. All in all, the findings showcase how tight the relationship between humans and dogs had grown by this time.

Pug.

Image via Pixabay.

Around the time that the Pit Grave culture arrived in the Iberian Peninsula — ‘imported’ by peoples migrating from Southern Europe some 4200 years ago — local tribes began ritualistically sacrificing and inhuming dogs. The sheer amount of cases recorded in the area suggests this practice was quite common, say researchers from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) and the University of Barcelona (UB). But, the dogs shared more than a resting place with their owners — they also had a diet very similar to that of their human owners.

Overall, the findings shine a light on human-dog interactions in the Neolithic communities of the Iberian Peninsula (today’s Spain), and the role these animals played in the day’s funerary practices.

Till death do us part — and then some more

The study analyzed the remains of twenty-six dogs found in funerary structures from four sites in the Barcelona region. Isotopic analyses were performed for eighteen of these canines to help determine how much control humans had over the dog’s lives — including aspects such as diet control.

The dogs were between one month and six years old (estimated based on their teeth) at the time of burial. Most were between twelve and eighteen months old. They were buried mainly in circular graves, together or near humans. A few specimens were found in separate graves, and one near the entrance of the mortuary chamber. The ages had to be estimated this way as most specimens were only partially complete. Full remains were recovered for a single animal which was buried near a child. None of the remains showed bone fractures nor marks left by evisceration, butchering, or predators.

Given their young age and lack of any signs of handling after death, the team believes these sacrifices and burials were ceremonial or religious in nature.

Main archaeological sites with dogs buried with humans in the study area.
Image credits Silvia Albizuri et al., (2019), JoSR.

“Choosing young animals aged up to one year old suggests there was an intention in the sacrifice. Although we can think it was for human consumption, the fact that these were buried near humans suggests there was an intention and a direct relation with death and the funerary ritual,” says first author Silvia Albizuri from the Prehistoric Studies and Research Seminar (SERP) of the UB.

“This hypothesis is consistent, in addition, with the fact that they are found in an area of cultural influence that gives a symbolic value to the dog during that period, such as Southern France or Northern Italy.”

The study also offers clues as to how these dogs lived. Isotopic analyses of both their and human remains revealed that most of these papers ate a diet similar to humans and their herbivorous animals. Cereal such as wheat and vegetables made up a large portion of a diet, which the team notes was likely “very similar to the [pig’s]”. The remains of two puppies showed very low nitrogen levels, which indicates a “mainly a vegetarian diet and which is clearly different from the rest of the dogs”, the authors explain. A few other adult specimens also showed signs of a mainly vegetarian diet. Only a handful of the dogs likely had menus rich in animal protein, they add.

“These data show a close coexistence between dogs and humans, and probably, a specific preparation of their nutrition, which is clear in the cases of a diet based on vegetables,” says co-author Eulàlia Subirà from the Research Group on Biological Anthropology (GREAB) of UAB.

“They would probably do so to obtain a better control of their tasks on security and to save the time they would have to spend looking for food. This management would explain the homogeneity of the size of the animals.”

The study stands out because not much is known about how dogs were involved in prehistoric burial customs. The number of dog remains and their proximity to humans in burial sites through the Iberian Peninsula is quite exceptional from this point of view, the team explains. Later individual burials are known in the region, but the team’s findings suggest this was a general practice among Neolithic tribes in the Iberian Peninsula up until the Iron age.

It also helps us better understand how dogs came to be man’s best friend.

“Recently, we saw dogs have ten genes with a key function for starch and fat digestion, which would make the carbohydrates assimilation more efficient than its ancestor’s, the wolf. Our study helps reaching the conclusion that during the Neolithic, several vegetables were introduced to their nutrition,” notes Eulàlia Subirà.

Furthermore, the findings also suggest that dogs played an important role in the lives of Neolithic populations in the area, perhaps for their role in protecting herds and settlements. This role may be the vital relation that turned them into a companion in death or symbols in funerary rituals, the researchers conclude.

The paper “Dogs in funerary contexts during the Middle Neolithic in the northeastern Iberian Peninsula (5th–early 4th millennium BCE)” has been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

The most remote tribe in the world — untouched and uncontacted

Over the years, we’ve all heard of uncontacted tribes in various parts of the world, but the Sentinelese people probably take the crown. Inhabiting an isolated, unexplored island beyond India’s eastern coast, the Sentinelese violently reject all contact, maintain a completely primitive lifestyle, and by all accounts they haven’t even learned how to make fire.

The Sentinelese don’t like it when boats come too close. Image credits: Christian Caron // Creative Commons.

Pre-Neolithic

In 2006, two fishermen in the Bay of Bengal had a bit too much to drink. They anchored their small boat to a rock and then went to sleep. Unfortunately for them, the anchor came loose and the boat started to drift, ending up on a remote island — an island inhabited by tribal people who greeted them with a hail of arrows and javelins. These tribal individuals fiercely reject all external human contact, so without much thought, they killed the two fishermen, burying them in two shallow graves. When the coast guard tried to retrieve the two bodies by helicopter, they were also met with the similar treatment, but thankfully, they were high up enough to escape unscathed.

Unbeknownst to the two unfortunate fishermen, they had drifted into what is probably the last pre-Neolithic culture on Earth: the Sentinelese. The Neolithic began around 10,000 years ago — so these people live as our ancestors did 10,000 years ago. They maintain a hunter-gatherer society, subsisting through hunting, fishing, picking wild plants and collecting coconuts, which arrive as flotsam. For hunting, they use flatbows and javelins. For fishing, they use bow-like harpoons.

Interestingly, they have been known to use untipped arrows as warning shots.

They seem to also fish using nets, with which they also collect shellfish from their lagoon. They build rudimentary canoes, but only for coastal excursions — never sailing into the open sea. Sometimes, the Sentinelese also collect wild honey, using a rake-type tool to pull it down.

They live in shelter-type huts with no side walls. Sometimes, they fashion a floor from palm leaves. They also seem to have larger, communal buildings, whose purpose is not exactly understood. The Sentinelese wear no clothes — only leaves, fiber strings, or decorations. Headbands from vines appear to be fashionable among men.

Studies have found no evidence that the Sentinelese are aware of agricultural practices, or are even capable of producing fire. The only times they use fire is when it is produced spontaneously. When this happens, they use these embers inside dwellings, but they don’t seem to be able to produce it on their own.

They truly are the most isolated tribe in the world. Let’s take a step back and consider just how amazing this is: this is the 21st century, in the Bay of Bengal. Just 50 km east, there lies the modern city of Port Blair, and these people don’t know how to make fire. How did it get to this?

North Sentinel Island. Image credits: NASA Earth Observatory image created by Jesse Allen.

Isolation

The Sentinelese inhabit an unexplored island called North Sentinel island, located in the Andaman Islands. The Andaman Islands form an archipelago in the Bay of Bengal between India, to the west, and Myanmar, to the north and east.

The earliest history of the Andaman Islands is not known, but we do know that the islands have been inhabited for several thousands of years. The oldest archaeological evidence dates back some 2,200 years, though the islands have been almost certainly inhabited for thousands of years. The Andaman people are actually regarded as a key stepping stone in the so-called “Great Coastal Migration” — a period of migration, some 60,000 years ago, when early human populations migrated from Africa along the southern coast of Asia, from the Arabian peninsula via Persia and India to Southeast Asia and Oceania.

The Andaman Islands.

The Sentinelese are classified as Negritos, a loosely connected group of peoples inhabiting isolated regions in South East Asia. The Negrito peoples show strong physical similarities with the pygmy peoples of Africa (such as very dark skin tone and peppercorn hair) but are genetically closer to their surrounding populations in Austronesia. The Sentinelese also appear to be markedly taller than other Andamanese peoples.

More recently, between 800-1200, the Tamil Chola dynasty created an empire that eventually engulfed the Andaman Islands. Not much is known about the islands before or after that — until 12 December 1755, when ships from the Danish East India Company arrived in the nearby Nicobar Islands, where they established a small colony. By now, several distinct populations were inhabiting the islands.

In 1789 the British arrived even closer — they set up a naval base and penal colony on Chatham Island next to Great Andaman, which is now the town of Port Blair (just 50 km from the Sentinelese). This colony was abandoned due to disease but was permanently re-established in 1852. Still, not much was known about the natives, and neither the Danish or the British had much interest in studying them.

That changed during the First Burmese War, fought between the British and the Burmese Kingdoms. Some British crews were unfortunate enough to shipwreck in the Andaman islands where they were brutally attacked. They then learned that some of these people were cannibals, and the Andamans maintained a reputation for cannibalism ever since.

It’s important to note, however, that the Sentinelese don’t appear to be cannibals — the two fishermen they killed were buried in shallow graves, not eaten.

Map showing comparative distributions of Andamanese indigenous peoples, pre-18th century vs present-day. Map created by CJLL Wright; after data from Man and Weber.

Contact

British, military

Still, the North Sentinel Island completely avoided external contact — until 1867, when the ship Nineveh wrecked on the reef surrounding the island. The ship’s crew of 86 reached the beach in boats. After three days, they were attacked by the Sentinelese with iron-tipped spears. They managed to escape and were rescued not long after.

In 1880, however, an official survey visited the island. The British policy at the time was to visit all islands inhabited by unfriendly tribals, take a prisoner, and shower him with gifts in the hope that this would gain the peoples’ trust. So heading an armed expedition, 20-year-old Maurice Vidal Portman reached North Sentinel Island. Threatened by the armed soldiers, the Sentinelese appeared to run into the jungle whenever spotted. Finally, after several days, Portman managed to find an elderly couple and their four children — he kidnapped all of them. Shortly after that, the elderly couple became ill and died, probably from contracting diseases to which they did not have immunity. The four children were given gifts and then released back to the island. Without a single gesture, the children ran into the jungle and never looked back.

Likely spooked by this failure, the British completely ignored the island and focused on other tribes. Again, North Sentinel Island was completely isolated — for about a hundred years.

Scientific expeditions

In 1967, the Indian government began a series of “Contact Expeditions” to the island, under anthropological guidance. They wanted to establish contact with the tribes in the archipelago. Spoiler alert: it didn’t turn out so well.

The first expedition witnessed the Sentinelese retreat into the jungle. The anthropologists tried to send gifts via the water, but were unsuccessful in establishing any form of contact with the Sentinelese. Then, in 1974, a National Geographic expedition shooting a documentary was even less successful.

After their boat passed the reef and was nearing the island, the National Geographic crew and the accompanying police were met with a hail of arrows. The police (dressed in jackets with padded armor) landed and left gifts in the sand: a miniature plastic car, some coconuts, a live tied up pig, a doll, and aluminum cookware. The Sentinelese response to this? Another hail of arrows — one of which struck the documentary director in the thigh. Participants recall that the man who hit the director laughed proudly and then retreated into the shade as his fellow tribesmen continued the attack. Then, the man buried the pig and the doll. The Sentinelese did, however, take the coconuts and the aluminum cookware. You can watch live footage of that here:

Attempts have been made to bring in Onge-speaking individuals — one of the most common languages in the area. However, exchanges were short and brutal, and the Onge-speaking individuals couldn’t understand a word of what the Sentinelese were saying. In fact, their language appears to not have any similarities to any language, from the archipelago or beyond it.

More recently (the 1990s), the Sentinelese seem to have mellowed out a bit, allowing boats to come closer to the shore, and even greeting visitors unarmed –ma but only for a few minutes. After this brief peaceful greeting, they return to menacing gestures and warning shots.

Current status

Given how the Sentinelese strongly oppose any form of contact, the current policy of the Indian government is simply to avoid these islands. Aside from their violent behavior, the Sentinelese also have a completely unadapted immune system, so exposing them to the outside world could be devastating.

In theory, North Sentinel Island is under Indian control, but in practice, the Sentinelese exercise complete sovereignty over their affairs and the involvement of the Indian authorities is restricted to occasional monitoring. When the two fishermen were killed, no one was prosecuted, and there are no plans to do so. Visits are ever more brief and infrequent, and despite many groups and organizations discussing plans for making contact with them, nothing has materialized. Acces to the island is forbidden. We don’t even know how many Sentinelese there are — estimates range wildly from 15 to 500. The one thing we do know is that they can throw javelins and arrows from quite a distance.

Indian authorities were worried that the devastating 2004 tsunami could have wiped them completely. A helicopter was sent to the island to bring food to survivors, and it found that as far as the eye can tell, the Sentinelese were doing fine. A bowman greeted the helicopter with the familiar warning shots.

What drove these people to the extreme isolation they seem so willing to fight for? What made them so unique that 10,000 years of progress went past them untouched? Could we learn something from them — perhaps, something about the human nature? The Sentinelese raise many questions, but answers are few and far between.

We can see them from drones, we can see them from helicopters, and sometimes, we can even see them from their very island. But at least for now, communication is out of the question — and it’s probably best if things continue to stay that way. The Sentinelese are no doubt vulnerable to the numerous diseases modern society has grown accustomed too, and there’s a good chance a potential meeting will end up being a disaster.

Emiliana huxleyi

Humanity has contended with rising seas before — and it didn’t go well for us

Some 7,600 years ago, human civilization in Southeastern Europe suddenly came to a halt. New research sought answers as to why this happened, and the findings paint a stark reminder of the toll rising seas can inflict on our society.

Emiliana huxleyi

Coccolithophore Emiliana huxleyi.
Image credits Jörg Bollmann.

The Neolithic revolution was the first major transformation humanity had paused — the transition foraging to farming. Spreading out from the Middle East, this wave of change took peoples used to hunt and forage wherever they pleased and tied them down, hoe in hand, to sedentary — but oh so lucrative — farms and fields.

Can’t till the sea, though

Around 7,600 years ago, however, the revolution paused — no new agricultural settlements seemed to pop up in Southeastern Europe around the time, existing communities declined, and the progress of civilization as a whole came to a standstill. Up until now, we didn’t have any inkling as to why this happened, but new research from the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre, the Goethe University in Frankfurt, and the University of Toronto sheds some light on this mysterious period.

According to their findings, this lull in progress was due to an abrupt rise in sea levels in the northern Aegean Sea. Evidence of this event was calcified in the fossils of tiny marine algae preserved in seafloor sediments.

The impact this event had on societal dynamics and overall development during the time highlights the potential economic and social threats posed by sea level rise in the future, the team says. Given that climate-change-associated changes in sea level are virtually unavoidable, the team hopes their findings will help us better prepare for the flooding ahead.

“Approximately 7,600 years ago, the sea level must have risen abruptly in the Mediterranean regions bordering Southeastern Europe. The northern Aegean, the Marmara Sea and the Black Sea recorded an increase of more than one meter. This led to the flooding of low-lying coastal areas that would have been ideal areas for settlement,” says lead author Professor Dr. Jens Herrle.

The findings are based on a sediment core retrieved from the sea floor of the northern Aegean Sea. Herrle and his team used this core to reconstruct salinity levels in this part of the Mediterranean from 11,000 and 5,000 years ago. However, the core was also rich in tiny, calcified fossils of Emiliania huxleyi, a coccolithophore (a species of photosynthesizing plankton that’s ubiquitous even today).

Analyzing them under a scanning electric microscope, the team observed significant size changes in these algae — which indicate a change in the salinity of surface water in the Aegean during their lifetime.

“These calcifying algae evidence two rapid decreases in the salt content, at approximately 8,400 and again 7,600 years ago, which can only be explained by the fact that a higher volume of low-saline surface water flowed from the Black Sea into the northern Aegean at these times,” Herrle explains.

Such a rapid rise in sea levels would need a source, and the team says, surprisingly, it can be traced back to North America:

“The source of this may have been Lake Agassiz in North America. This glacial meltwater lake was enclosed in ice and experienced a massive breach during this period, which emptied an enormous volume of water into the ocean.”

The evidence supports a link between the two timeouts in the Neolithic revolution and the flooding events. The event 8,400 years ago coincides with archaeological findings suggesting that settlements in low-lying areas were under significant hardship from encroaching seas and other associated climatic changes. The renewed rise just 800 years later likely amplified these communities’ woes, keeping them from making the transition to agriculture.

Past fluctuations in sea levels have already had a significant effect on human history during the early days of agriculture, the authors note, warning that it would be unwise to dismiss the challenges it will place in our path in the future.

“Due to climate change, we expect global sea levels to rise by up to one meter over the next 100 years,” Herrle adds. “Millions of people could thus be displaced from coastal regions, with severe social and economic consequences.”

The paper “Black Sea outflow response to Holocene meltwater events” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Lower bovine jaw.

Neolithic cattle farmers were much more specialized than you’d think

Ancient farmers 5,400 years ago had much a much more refined understanding of animal rearing than you’d suspect, research from the University of Basel reveals.

Lower bovine jaw.

A lower bovine jaw found in the settlement.
Image credits University of Basel.

The study was performed by researchers from Switzerland, Germany, and the UK, led by Prof. Jörg Schibler from the University of Base. It focused on the ancient settlement of Arbon Bleiche 3, which once hugged the southern bank of Lake Constance, Switzerland.

Arbon Bleiche 3 is considered to be one of the most important Neolithic sites in the country of banks and chocolate. This is largely thanks to Lake Constance, whose silt deposits helped preserve the bits of organic material (such as houses’ timber elements) in their original form. Using dendrochronological (tree-ring dating) methods, the researchers were able to date the wood’s age down to the year. As such, they were able to determine that the settlement saw occupation for only 15 years in the 34th century BC.

 

Now that they had a “when”, the team also wanted to know “what was going on” during the time this settlement saw use — in particular, they were curious to see the socio-economic system the inhabitants were using 5,400 years ago. And the fastest way to get a glimpse into that system was to look at livestock and land use patterns in the community.

Toothy questions

Teeth and bones from some 25 heads of cattle were also unearthed at the site, which the team used to get their answers. Using strontium and carbon isotope analysis, the team was able to determine that the farmers in Arbon Bleiche 3 used three different livestock rearing strategies in parallel.

The herd was divided into three groups. One was kept close to the village around the year, a second one was kept on pastures far from the settlement. The third group alternated between these pastures, being sent on more distant pastures for a few months every year. Analysis of enamel and plant traces in the teeth suggests that some of the cattle were taken to higher pastures during the warmer seasons, potentially signaling the birth of modern Alpine pastoral farming.

Seeing such a specialized distribution of grazing lands hint to a more elevated society and more complex social systems than previously believed. Using a wider grazing land allows more animals to be reared while avoiding overgrazing, but requires social systems robust enough to dictate who gets to graze where, and then to ensure that these social contracts are observed.

The team further reports that different cattle herds moved about in different ways. Beyond the 27 houses and the farmer families that lived there, other groups specializing in different kinds of cattle farming also resided in Arbon Bleiche 3. All of which further point to refined social systems governing the settlement, as well as a keen understanding of the wants and needs of different species of livestock.

The paper “High-resolution isotopic evidence of specialised cattle herding in the European Neolithic” has been published in the journal PLOS One.

greek-embrace

Embracing neolithic couple found buried in Greek cave

A rare Neolithic-era burial site was discovered by the northern entrance of the Alepotrypa (“Foxhole”) Cave in southern Greece. The skeleton remains show how a couple was laid to rest in embrace, close to a burial of another male and female who were found in fetal position – the most common burial position during the Neolithic. The embracing couple’s skeletons were dated with the C14 method to 3800 BC while their DNA analysis confirmed the remains were those of a male and female.

Till death do us apart

greek-embrace

Image: George Papathanassopoulos

The findings were unearthed in one of the most important Neolithic cemeteries, found in the greater area of the Neolithic Diros Cave, in western Mani, where excavations have yielded children, embryo and adult burials dated from 4200 to 3800 BC. According to archaeological findings, the cave was used as both settlement and cemetery from Early to Final Neolithic (6000-3200 BC). During its final years at a settlement, a great earthquake sealed the entrance of the cave and the remains of its inhabitants inside for eons. It wasn’t until 1958 when speleologists Yiannis and Anna Petrocheilos discovered the sealed entrance to the cave that this long lost Neolithic community surfaced back in collective consciousness.

Excavations following the discovery immediately started and continue to this day. Dr. George Papathanassopoulos is head of the excavations efforts and one of the researchers who reported the grave of the embracing couple – a rarity among neolithic graves. The fact that an ossuary and several ceramic urns, beads and other offerings were found in the grave points to “an organized society,” he said.

“The type of burial in fetal position is common in the Neolithic era, but the specific double burial in embrace is one of the earliest known examples. At some point, they will be exhibited in the museum following its extension,” he said.

This might be the earliest Neolithic couple to be buried together. Elsewhere, in Italy, archaeologists discovered in 2011 the remains of a couple buried 5,000 to 6,000 years ago, their arms still wrapped around each other in an enduring embrace. Italians dubbed them the “Lovers of Valdaro” after the Mantova suburb of farmland and factories.

The world’s first evidence of a human ritual burial is the Mungo Man, dated 40,000 years old and found in Australia. Being the oldest human remains in Australia, the Mungo Man provides an insight into early expansion and adaptation of modern humans, Homo sapiens, to the deteriorating climate of the world’s driest inhabited continent. As far as funeral decorations are concerned, humans have been decorating graves with flowers for almost 14,000 years.

Manure was used by European farmers 8000 years ago

A new study has shown that European farmers used far more sophisticated practices than was previously thought. The Oxford research found that Neolithic farmers used manure as a fertilizer as early as 6000 BC.

agriculture manure

It has been previously assumed that manure wasn’t used in agriculture until Roman times. This technique is fairly complex, because dung takes a while to break down, and the crops benefit from its nutrients over many years. This clearly indicates a long term commitment to agriculture – and involvement in the same fields.

In order to reach this conclusions, they conducted an isotopic analysis, and found that enriched levels of nitrogen-15, a stable isotope abundant in manure, have been found in the charred cereal grains and pulse seeds taken from 13 Neolithic sites found in Europe.

The meaning of this discovery goes much further than just “they used dung for fertilizing”.

‘The fact that farmers made long-term investments such as manuring in their land sheds new light on the nature of early farming landscapes in Neolithic times. The idea that farmland could be cared for by the same family for generations seems quite an advanced notion, but rich fertile land would have been viewed as extremely valuable for the growing of crops. We believe that as land was viewed as a commodity to be inherited, social differences in early European farming communities started to emerge between the haves and the have-nots.’, explained lead author Dr Amy Bogaard from the School of Archaeology at the University of Oxford.

Neolithic man: the first lumberjack?

During the Neolithic period, man made the big jump from hunter-gatherer to farmer and agriculturalist, eventually moving on to larger and larger settlements, with a variety of animals and plants. The transition also brought significant changes in terms of economy, architecture, and apparently, woodworking.

Dr. Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University‘s Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations has shed some new light on human evolution during that period, demonstrating a direct connection between the development of an agricultural society and woodworking tools.

“Intensive woodworking and tree-felling was a phenomenon that only appeared with the onset of the major changes in human life, including the transition to agriculture and permanent villages,” says Dr. Barkai, whose research was published in the journal PLoS One.

Prior to the Neolithic, there is no evidence that tools were strong enough to carve wood – let alone cut trees. But new archaeological evidence suggests that as the period progressed, lumberjacking and wood carpentry developed side by side agriculture. The use of functional woodworking tools in the Neolithic has never been studied until now, and through this study, archaeologists unearthed evidence of unexpected carpentry sophistication.

Polished axe from the Neolithic period. Credits: Tel Aviv University

The early part of the Neolithic is split into two distinct periods: Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) and Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB). Agriculture and domesticated animals appear only in PPNB, so the transition is a really important moment in human history. However, in PPNA, humans remained hunter gatherers, but they started settling into more permanent settlements for the first time. Axes associated with this period are smaller and more delicate, used for light carpentry but not cutting down trees. In PPNB, the tools evolved, not only in terms of sophistication, but also in terms of size, becoming heavy and powerful enough to cut trees and complete various building projects.

“We can document step by step the transition from the absence of woodworking tools, to delicate woodworking tools, to heavier woodworking tools,” Dr. Barkai says, and this follows the “actual transition from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agriculture.”

He also identifies a trial-and-error phase during which people were trying to develop a large enough axe for the task. This was extremely important, because it allowed a new architecture to emerge, one strong enough to support the adjustment to a permanent settlement. Not only were people settling in villages, but their houses were taking different shapes – literally. The round and oval structures of earlier domiciles were replaced by rectangular structures in PPNB, explains Dr. Barkai.

“Evidence tells that us that for each home, approximately 10 wooden beams were needed. Prior to this, there were no homes with wooden beams.”

They were also able to create buildings pens and fences for domesticated animals, which was also an important step towards settling down. So in a way, something seemingly as unimportant as developing axes allowed permanent settlements to develop, leading to growing comfort and villages.

Journal reference: PLoS ONE