Photo by Olivier Dutour, École Pratique des Hautes Études – A photo from a 1994 excavation of the plague mass grave of l’Observance – Marseille.
An international team of researchers has uncovered new information about the Black Death in Europe and its descendants, suggesting it persisted on the continent over four centuries, re-emerging to kill hundreds of thousands in Europe in separate, devastating waves.
The findings address the longstanding debate among scientists about whether or not the bacterium Yersinia pestis –responsible for the Black Death—remained within Europe for hundreds of years and was the principal cause of some of the worst re-emergences and subsequent plague epidemics in human history.
Until now, some researchers believed repeated outbreaks were the result of the bacterium being re-introduced through major trade with China, a widely-known reservoir of the plague. Instead, it turns out the plague may never have left.
Arizona State University anthropologist Katie Hinde sees milk as more than food. For her, it is also personalized medicine and a carrier of information that affects immunity, brain function and metabolism in lasting ways.
Hinde was named to this year’s Grist 50 — a list of innovative individuals whose work points toward a better, more sustainable world — by Grist magazine.
ASU anthropologist Katie Hinde analyzes milk samples from across the globe, enhancing “precision nourishment” for the most fragile infants and children in neonatal and pediatric intensive-care units. Photo by Cary Allen-Blevins
Skeletal remains of a group of foragers massacred around 10,000 years ago on the shores of a lagoon is unique evidence of a violent encounter between clashing groups of ancient hunter-gatherers, and suggests the “presence of warfare” in late Stone Age foraging societies.
The deaths at Nataruk are testimony to the antiquity of inter-group violence and war
Marta Mirazón Lahr
The fossilised bones of a group of prehistoric hunter-gatherers who were massacred around 10,000 years ago have been unearthed 30 km west of Lake Turkana, Kenya, at a place called Nataruk.
Researchers from Cambridge University’s Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies (LCHES) found the partial remains of 27 individuals, including at least eight women and six children.
Twelve skeletons were in a relatively complete state, and ten of these showed clear signs of a violent death: including extreme blunt-force trauma to crania and cheekbones, broken hands, knees and ribs, arrow lesions to the neck, and stone projectile tips lodged in the skull and thorax of two men.
Several of the skeletons were found face down; most had severe cranial fractures. Among the in situ skeletons, at least five showed “sharp-force trauma”, some suggestive of arrow wounds. Four were discovered in a position indicating their hands had probably been bound, including a woman in the last stages of pregnancy. Foetal bones were uncovered.
The bodies were not buried. Some had fallen into a lagoon that has long since dried; the bones preserved in sediment.
The findings suggest these hunter-gatherers, perhaps members of an extended family, were attacked and killed by a rival group of prehistoric foragers. Researchers believe it is the earliest scientifically-dated historical evidence of human conflict – an ancient precursor to what we call warfare.
The origins of warfare are controversial: whether the capacity for organised violence occurs deep in the evolutionary history of our species, or is a symptom of the idea of ownership that came with the settling of land and agriculture.
The Nataruk massacre is the earliest record of inter-group violence among prehistoric hunter-gatherers who were largely nomadic. The only comparable evidence, discovered in Sudan in the 1960s, is undated, although often quoted as of similar age. It consists of cemetery burials, suggesting a settled lifestyle.
“The deaths at Nataruk are testimony to the antiquity of inter-group violence and war,” said Dr Marta Mirazón Lahr, from Cambridge’s LCHES, who directs the ERC-funded IN-AFRICA Project and led the Nataruk study, published today in the journal Nature.
“These human remains record the intentional killing of a small band of foragers with no deliberate burial, and provide unique evidence that warfare was part of the repertoire of inter-group relations among some prehistoric hunter-gatherers,” she said.
The site was first discovered in 2012. Following careful excavation, the researchers used radiocarbon and other dating techniques on the skeletons – as well as on samples of shell and sediment surrounding the remains – to place Nataruk in time. They estimate the event occurred between 9,500 to 10,500 years ago, around the start of the Holocene: the geological epoch that followed the last Ice Age.
Reconstruction of the original appearance of the megalithic mound.
People of the Neolithic age around 6,000 years ago were closely connected both in life and death. This became evident in a detailed archaeological and anthropological of a collective grave containing 50 bodies near Burgos, northern Spain. In the pioneering study, researchers used a whole array of modern methods to examine the way of life in the region at that time. Published in the academic journal PLOS ONE, the research was conducted by anthropologists at the University of Basel and archaeologists from the University of Valladolid.
The collective graves of the Neolithic period were made mostly of stone and were large enough to hold many bodies in a communal space. The megalithic tomb in Alto de Reinoso, Burgos differs from this in only one respect: the burial chamber had originally been made from wood over which a stone mound was erected afterwards. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the tomb was used by a community living between 3700 and 3600 AD and spanning about three to four generations. At least 47 bodies have been found. “While the lower layer has been relatively well preserved, numerous disturbances have been observed in the upper layers such as missing skulls, which could be due to a certain kind of ancestral worship,” says Prof. Manuel Rojo Guerra, from the University of Valladolid, Spain.
Ancient agriculture, including early rice farming, may have played a role in delaying the next ice age, according to new research.
A new analysis of ice-core climate data, archeological evidence and ancient pollen samples strongly suggests that agriculture by humans 7,000 years ago likely slowed a natural cooling process of the global climate, playing a role in the relatively warmer climate we experience today.
A study detailing the findings is published online in a recent edition of the journal Reviews of Geophysics, published by the American Geophysical Union.
“Early farming helped keep the planet warm,” said William Ruddiman, a University of Virginia climate scientist and lead author of the study, who specializes in investigating ocean sediment and ice-core records for evidence of climate fluctuations.
A dozen years ago, Ruddiman hypothesized that early humans altered the climate by burning massive areas of forests to clear the way for crops and livestock grazing. The resulting carbon dioxide and methane released into the atmosphere had a warming effect that “cancelled most or all of a natural cooling that should have occurred,” he said.
That idea, which came to be known as the “early anthropogenic hypothesis” was hotly debated for years by climate scientists, and is still considered debatable by some of these scientists. But in the new paper, Ruddiman and his 11 co-authors from institutions in the United States and Europe say that accumulating evidence in the past few years, particularly from ice-core records dating back to 800,000 years ago, show that an expected cooling period was halted after the advent of large-scale agriculture. Otherwise, they say, the Earth would have entered the early stages of a natural ice age, or glaciation period.
DNA from ancient British skeletons reveals immigrant history
Dr Duncan Sayer, University of Central Lancashire
For the first time, researchers have been able to directly estimate the Anglo-Saxon ancestry of the British population from ancient skeletons, showing how Anglo-Saxon immigrants mixed with the native population. Human remains excavated from burial sites near Cambridge provided the material for the first whole-genome sequences of ancient British DNA. Using a new analysis method to compare these ancient genomes with modern-day sequences, researchers have estimated that approximately a third of British ancestors were Anglo-Saxon immigrants.
What was the scale of the Anglo-Saxons migrations, how did they mix with the native population and how did they contribute to British ancestry? This has been a long-standing topic of debate among historians and archaeologists. Recently excavated skeletons dating to the late Iron Age and from the Anglo-Saxon period gave researchers the opportunity to solve this question with genomics.
“By sequencing the DNA from ten skeletons from the late Iron Age and the Anglo-Saxon period, we obtained the first complete ancient genomes from Great Britain. Comparing these ancient genomes with sequences of hundreds of modern European genomes, we estimate that 38 per cent of the ancestors of the English were Anglo-Saxons. This is the first direct estimate of the impact of immigration into Britain from the 5th to 7th Centuries AD and the traces left in modern England.”
Dr Stephan Schiffels, first author from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Cambridgeshire and the Max Plank Institute in Germany
Previous DNA studies have relied entirely on modern DNA and suggested anything between 10 per cent and 95 per cent contribution to the population. One such study suggested that Anglo Saxons didn’t mix with the native population, staying segregated. However, this newly published study uses ancient genetic information and disproves the earlier idea, showing just how integrated the people of Britain were. The ancient skeletons from Cambridgeshire were carbon dated, proving they were from the late Iron Age (approximately 50BC) and from the Anglo-Saxon era (around 500-700 AD). Complete genome sequences were then obtained for selected DNA samples to determine the genetic make-up of these Iron Age Britons and Anglo-Saxons.
Findings can safeguard central African hunter-gatherers
A Pygmy tribe collecting wild leaves for trade
THE FIRST scientific estimate of the Pygmy population in central Africa will help to provide support for the hunter-gatherer communities to overcome the varied threats they face.
Around 920,000 Pygmies are still living in forests in central Africa, according to what is the first measured estimate of the population and distribution of these indigenous groups who are often faced with disease, displacement, marginalisation, discrimination and deforestation.
However, there are considerable challenges to determining the numbers and actual geographic ranges of Pygmy communities, because of their mobility, lack of clear census data, and imprecise sources of information.
Pygmy communities live in rainforests across nine countries in central Africa — an area of some 178 million hectares — where they make up a very small minority of the total population. They identify closely with the forest and depend largely on wild forest products. Most Pygmy groups move around, for social and nutritional reasons, within a specific territory or group of territories to which they have affiliations through clan or marriage relations.
Photo from a 2015 CSI Camp co-hosted by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, NC State University, and the Montessori School of Raleigh. Photo credit: Ann Ross.
Biological anthropologists look at skeletal remains of past cultures to gain insight into how earlier peoples lived, and forensic anthropologists work with modern-day law enforcement to decipher skeletal evidence and solve crimes. Forensic experts at North Carolina State University have now published guidance on how research into modern-day forensic analysis of child-abuse victims can be used to shed light on how children of earlier cultures were treated.
“Unfortunately, we have a lot of experience in studying the skeletal remains of children in criminal investigations to determine how they were treated and how they died,” says Ann Ross, a professor of anthropology at NC State and lead author of a paper describing the work. “We can use what we’ve learned in modern populations to provide insight into the behavior of historic and prehistoric populations – particularly in regard to child labor, child abuse and child murder.”
The skeletons of children are vastly different from those of adults; they’re not just smaller. In their paper, the researchers draw on decades of research to explain how the biomechanics and healing of child skeletons change, depending on the child’s age.
The Iceman’s maternal genetic line originated in the Alps and is now extinct.
A study was published last week on the DNA of Helicobacter pylori, the pathogen extracted from the stomach of Ötzi, the ice mummy who has provided valuable information on the life of Homo Sapiens; new research at the European Academy of Bolzano/Bozen (EURAC) further clarifies the genetic history of man who lived in the Eastern Alps over 5,300 years ago. In 2012 a complete analysis of the Y chromosome (transmitted from fathers to their sons) showed that Ötzi’s paternal genetic line is still present in modern-day populations. In contrast, studies of mitochondrial DNA (transmitted solely via the mother to her offspring) left many questions still open. To clarify whether the genetic maternal line of the Iceman, who lived in the eastern Alps over 5,300 years ago, has left its mark in current populations, researchers at the European Academy of Bolzano/Bozen (EURAC) have now compared his mitochondrial DNA with 1,077 modern samples. The study concluded that the Iceman’s maternal line — named K1f — is now extinct. A second part of the study, a comparison of genetic data of the mummy with data from other European Neolithic samples, provided information regarding the origin of K1f: researchers postulate that the mitochondrial lineage of the Iceman originated locally in the Alps, in a population that did not grow demographically. The study, which also clarifies Ötzi’s genetic history in the context of European demographic changes from Neolithic times onwards, was published in Scientific Reports, an open access journal of the Nature group.
“The mummy’s mitochondrial DNA was the first to be analysed, in 1994.” says Valentina Coia, a biologist at EURAC and first author of the study. “It was relatively easy to analyse and — along with the Y chromosome — allows us to go back in time, telling us about the genetic history of an individual. Despite this, the genetic relationship between the Iceman’s maternal lineage and lineages found in modern populations was not yet clear.” The most recent study regarding the analysis of Ötzi’s complete mitochondrial DNA, conducted in 2008 by other research teams showed that the Iceman’s maternal lineage — named K1f — was no longer traceable in modern populations. The study did not make clear, however, whether this was due to an insufficient number of comparison samples or whether K1f was indeed extinct. Valentina Coia explains further: “The first hypothesis could not be ruled out given that the study considered only 85 modern comparison samples from the K1 lineage — the genetic lineage that also includes that of Ötzi — which comprised few samples from Europe and especially none from the eastern Alps, which are home to populations that presumably have a genetic continuity with the Iceman. To test the two hypotheses, we needed to compare Ötzi’s mitochondrial DNA with a larger number of modern samples.” The EURAC research team, in collaboration with the Sapienza University of Rome and the University of Santiago de Compostela, thus compared the mitochondrial DNA of the Iceman with that from 1,077 individuals belonging to the K1 lineage, of which 42 samples originated from the eastern Alps and were for the first time analysed in this study. The new comparison showed that neither the Iceman’s lineage nor any other evolutionarily close lineages are present in modern populations: the researchers therefore lean towards the hypothesis that Ötzi’s maternal genetic branch has died out.
University of Cincinnati research on ancient burial tombs unlocks the mysteries of pre-Roman social status and cultural change, including urbanization, militarism and even likely shifts in drinking patterns.
Death is inevitable, but what death shows us about the social behaviors of the living is not.
19th century watercolor of the Tomb of the Dancers. Source/Sena Chiesa and Arslan 2004.
And recent University of Cincinnati research examining the ancient bereavement practices from the Central Apulian region in pre-Roman Italy helps shed light on economic and social mobility, military service and even drinking customs in a culture that left no written history.
For instance, by focusing on the logistics of burials, treatment of deceased bodies and grave contents dating from about 525-200 BC, UC Classics doctoral student Bice Peruzzi found indication of strong social stratification and hierarchy. She also found indications of the commonality of military service since men’s tombs of the era routinely contained metal weaponry lying across or near the skeletal remains.
Another example: in the second half of the 4th century, an impressive increase in the number of tombs over a 50-year period indicates newer social groups gaining access to ceremonial burials that included use of the space by the living for a brief period of dancing and banqueting.
“After going through volumes of collected material, I realized that there was so much more that could be said about what was happening in the development of this particular culture,” says Peruzzi. “In spite of having no written history, I was able to distinguish three different periods and then connect them to the larger Mediterranean history to see how their society changed.”
She recently presented her findings on these funerary practices in their broader historical context at the 2016 Archaeological Institute of America/Society for Classical Studies Annual Meeting in San Francisco.