Online Journal of Anthropology


Humans have been exploiting bees as far back as the Stone Age, according to new research from the University of Bristol published in Nature today.


Image of honeybee research on front cover of Nature
The research featured on the cover of Nature this week. The photograph shows a hollow log hive of the Cévennes, France revealing the details of circular comb architecture in Apis mellifera (© Eric Tourneret Credits: Nature


Previous evidence from prehistoric rock art is inferred to show honey hunters and Pharaonic Egyptian murals show early scenes of beekeeping. However, the close association between early farmers and the honeybee remained uncertain.


This study has gathered together evidence for the presence of beeswax in the pottery vessels of the first farmers of Europe by investigating chemical components trapped in the clay fabric of more than 6,000 potsherds from over 150 Old World archaeological sites.


The distinctive chemical ‘fingerprint’ of beeswax was detected at multiple Neolithic sites across Europe indicating just how widespread the association between humans and honeybees was in prehistoric times. For example, beeswax was detected in cooking pots from an archaeological site in Turkey, dating to the seventh millennium BC – the oldest evidence yet for the use of bee products by Neolithic farmers.
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A member of the prestigious Académie Française, René Girard was called “the new Darwin of the human sciences.” His many books offered a bold, sweeping vision of human nature, human history and human destiny. He died Nov. 4 at 91.


René Girard was one of the leading thinkers of our era – a provocative sage who bypassed prevailing orthodoxies and “isms” to offer a bold, sweeping vision of human nature, human history and human destiny.


Rene Girard in his library


French theorist René Girard was one of the leading thinkers of our era, a faculty member at Stanford since 1981 and one of the immortels of the Académie Française. Photo by L.A. Cicero


The renowned Stanford French professor, one of the 40 immortels of the prestigious Académie Française, died at his Stanford home on Nov. 4 at the age of 91, after long illness.


Fellow immortel and Stanford Professor Michel Serres once dubbed him “the new Darwin of the human sciences.” The author who began as a literary theorist was fascinated by everything. History, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, religion, psychology and theology all figured in his oeuvre.


International leaders read him, the French media quoted him. Girard influenced such writers as Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee and Czech writer Milan Kundera – yet he never had the fashionable (and often fleeting) cachet enjoyed by his peers among the structuralists, poststructuralists, deconstructionists and other camps. His concerns were not trendy, but they were always timeless.


In particular, Girard was interested in the causes of conflict and violence and the role of imitation in human behavior. Our desires, he wrote, are not our own; we want what others want. These duplicated desires lead to rivalry and violence. He argued that human conflict was not caused by our differences, but rather by our sameness. Individuals and societies offload blame and culpability onto an outsider, a scapegoat, whose elimination reconciles antagonists and restores unity.


According to author Robert Pogue Harrison, the Rosina Pierotti Professor in Italian Literature at Stanford, Girard’s legacy was “not just to his own autonomous field – but to a continuing human truth.”
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In the island chain called the Lesser Antilles, stretching from the Virgin Islands south to Trinidad and Tobago, a team of researchers lead by Theodore Schurr, an anthropology professor in the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Arts & Sciences, is solving a generations-old mystery: Do indigenous communities still exist in the Caribbean region today?


“We’re really trying to connect the dots and understand the migration, the flow of people in and out of the region,” said Schurr, who has worked in the area since 2012 and on similar genetics projects for more than two decades.


Theodore Schurr of the University of Pennsylvania


Theodore Schurr of the University of Pennsylvania


“Each island seems to have its distinct history.”


Schurr and his team, which includes Jill Gaieski of Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, Miguel Vilar, a Penn postdoc at the time of the research and now at the National Geographic Society, and Jada Benn Torres from Notre Dame University, focused their research on DNA samples from 88 participants in the First Peoples Community in Trinidad and the Garifuna people in St. Vincent.


By looking at mitochondrial DNA, Y-chromosomes and autosomal markers, three parts of the genome known for containing what Schurr described as “signals” of indigenous ancestry, the researchers eventually detected 42 percent indigenous ancestry from the maternal side, 28 percent from the paternal side.

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Snails have been hailed as nutritious delicacies, providing early humans with part of their healthy diet for thousands of years. But more recently, the shells left behind by pre-historic snails are providing scientists with clues to ancient environmental conditions.


A geology professor digs for ancient snails in a deep pit.


Yurena Yanes unearths ancient snail shells (gastropods) from beneath a paleontological site. Photo By: Yurena Yanes and Melanie Schefft


Existing research tells us that during the Holocene period (last 11,500 years) personal lifestyles changed from strictly hunting and gathering to the beginning of agricultural food production. But why?


New findings from University of Cincinnati geologist Yurena Yanes suggest that natural climate change that occurred seven to six thousand years ago warmed the environment and enhanced the conditions for growing enough agriculture to help sustain the growing human population.


As part of a new project looking at snail shells from Northeastern Morocco, Yanes, assistant professor of geology in UC’s McMicken College of Arts and Sciences, analyzed oxygen isotope samples from the ancient shells. What she has observed is clear evidence for significant climate change in that area that accounts for the introduction of early agricultural development in Northwest Africa.
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A continuing look at a Maya village in El Salvador frozen in time by a blanket of volcanic ash 1,400 years ago shows the farming families who lived there went about their daily lives with virtually no strong-arming by the elite royalty lording over the valley.


Instead, archaeological evidence indicates the significant interactions at the ancient village of Ceren took place among families, village elders, craftspeople and specialty maintenance workers, says a new University of Colorado Boulder study funded by the National Science Foundation. The best preserved ancient Maya village in all of Latin America, Ceren was blasted by toxic gas, pummeled by lava bombs and then choked by a 17-foot layer of ash falling over several days after the Loma Caldera volcano less than half a mile away erupted about A.D. 660.


Discovered in 1978 by University of Colorado Boulder anthropology Professor Payson Sheets, Ceren has been dubbed the “New World Pompeii” by some media and scientists. The degree of preservation is so great that researchers can see the marks of finger swipes in ceramic bowls and human footprints in gardens that host ghostly ash casts of corn stalks. Researchers also uncovered thatched roofs, woven blankets and bean-filled pots.


Some Mayan archaeological records document “top-down” societies where the elite living among palaces, pyramids, temples and tombs made most political and economic decisions in a particular region, at times exacting tribute or labor from villages, said Sheets. But at Ceren, the villagers appear to have had free reign regarding their architecture, crop selections, religious activities and economics.
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Pliobates cataloniae roamed the Earth 11.6 million years ago


Newly Discovered Pliobates cataloniae Roamed Earth 11.6 Million Years Ago


A team of researchers from the George Washington University (GW) and the Institut Català de Paleontologia Miquel Crusafont (ICP) identified a new genus and species of small ape that existed before the evolutionary split of humans/great apes (hominids) and gibbons (the ‘lesser apes’ or hylobatids). Named Pliobates cataloniae, the new species has important implications for reconstructing the last common ancestor of the two groups (the living hominoids).


The findings were published Thursday in Science magazine.


“This fossil discovery is providing a missing chapter to the beginning of ape and human history,” said Sergio Almécija, assistant professor of anthropology in the Center for the Advanced Study of Human Paleobiology at GW’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. “We used to think that small apes evolved from larger-bodied apes, but this new species tells us that small and large apes may have co-existed since hominoids originated. Alternatively, Pliobates might indicate that great apes evolved from gibbon-size ape ancestors.”


The discovery fills a gap in the fossil record, giving researchers another piece of information about the evolution of great and small apes. Anthropologists previously thought that great apes were present before small apes, mainly due to the lack of small apes and ancient gibbons in the fossil record. Pliobates has forced them to consider the role that small apes played in hominoid evolution.
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overhead view of people working on an excavation site


Participants in the University of Wyoming’s Archaeological Field School work at the site of a mammoth kill near LaPrele Creek in Converse County during the past summer. A new study by UW researchers supports the hypothesis that hunting by humans led to the extinction of mammoths and other large mammals in the Americas between 12,600 and 15,000 years ago. (UW Photo)


Radiocarbon analysis of the decline and extinction of large mammals in the Americas supports the idea that hunting by humans led to the animals’ demise — and backs the generally accepted understanding of when humans arrived in, and how they colonized, the Western Hemisphere.


Those findings by University of Wyoming researchers are reported this week in an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a major scientific journal. The study was conducted by Professor Todd Surovell and graduate student Spencer Pelton in UW’s Department of Anthropology; Professor Richard Anderson-Sprecher in the Department of Statistics; and Assistant Professor Adam Myers in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.
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DNA links many Native Americans to infants in Alaskan grave


University of Utah scientists deciphered maternal genetic material from two babies buried together at an Alaskan campsite 11,500 years ago. They found the infants had different mothers and were the northernmost known kin to two lineages of Native Americans found farther south throughout North and South America.


By showing that both genetic lineages lived so far north so long ago, the study supports the “Beringian standstill model.” It says that Native Americans descended from people who migrated from Asia to Beringia – the vast Bering land bridge that once linked Siberia and Alaska – and then spent up to 10,000 years in Beringia before moving rapidly into the Americas beginning at least 15,000 years ago.


“These infants are the earliest human remains in northern North America, and they carry distinctly Native American lineages,” says University of Utah anthropology professor Dennis O’Rourke, senior author of the paper set for online publication the week of Oct. 26 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


“We see diversity that is not present in modern Native American populations of the north and we see it at a fairly early date. This is evidence there was substantial genetic variation in the Beringian population before any of them moved south.”


Another theory was that the two Native Americans lineages evolved as the people moved south and dispersed, not while they still were in Beringia, says Justin Tackney, the new study’s first author and a University of Utah anthropology doctoral student. But finding those lineages in the infants only a few thousand years after the migration south began indicates those lineages already were present before the migration started.
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New research dates plague back to the early Bronze Age, showing it had been endemic in humans across Eurasia for millennia prior to first recorded global outbreak, and that ancestral plague mutated into its bubonic, flea-borne form between the 2nd and 1st millennium BC.


New research using ancient DNA has revealed that plague has been endemic in human populations for more than twice as long as previously thought, and that the ancestral plague would have been predominantly spread by human-to-human contact – until genetic mutations allowed Yersinia pestis (Y. pestis), the bacterium that causes plague, to survive in the gut of fleas.


These mutations, which may have occurred near the turn of the 1st millennium BC, gave rise to the bubonic form of plague that spreads at terrifying speed through flea – and consequently rat – carriers. The bubonic plague caused the pandemics that decimated global populations, including the Black Death, which wiped out half the population of Europe in the 14th century.


Before its flea-borne evolution, however, researchers say that plague was in fact endemic in the human populations of Eurasia at least 3,000 years before the first plague pandemic in historical records (the Plague of Justinian in 541 AD).

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In the Middle Ages only wealthy town people could afford to eat and drink from beautiful, colored glazed cups and plates. But the glazing was made of lead, which found its way into the body if you ate acidic foods. This has been revealed by chemical investigations of skeletons from cemeteries in Denmark and Germany.


Being wealthy in the Middle Ages was not all benefits: Wealthy people were more exposed to the toxic heavy metal lead than the poor.


“Lead poisoning can be the consequence when ingesting lead, which is a heavy metal. In the Middle Ages you could almost not avoid ingesting lead, if you were wealthy or living in an urban environment. But what is perhaps more severe, is the fact that exposure to lead leads to lower intelligence of children”, says Associate Professor Kaare Lund Rasmussen, Department of Physics, Chemistry and Pharmacy, University of Southern Denmark (SDU).


Together with colleagues Rasmussen has published a series of chemical and anthropological analyzes of 207 skeletons from six cemeteries in northern Germany and Denmark. The paper is published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. The work was performed in collaboration with other SDU scientists:  Professor Jesper Lie Boldsen from the Institute of Forensic Medicine and postdoc Lilian Skytte and Ph.D. student Anne Juul Jensen from the research group CHART at Department of Physics, Chemistry and Pharmacy.

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Antrocom, Volume 11, Number 2, 2015

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