Monday May 13, 2013
This week, PBS airs "Caveman Cold Case", the latest episode of the long-running series Secrets of the Dead, featuring archaeological evidence of survival cannibalism by Neanderthals some 49,000 years ago.
Secrets of the Dead: WNET and PBS
"Caveman Cold Case" describes archaeological and paleoanthropological research at El Sidrón and Gorham's Cave, two Neanderthal sites that together provide insight into how good--and very bad indeed--life for Neanderthals could get.
I have to say Secrets of the Dead, the series which blends history and science for PBS, is on occasion a little over the top for starchy old me, a little over-emphatic maybe on the non-scientific aspects of the past. But it's always entertaining, and it is undeniable that the episodes make the connection between science and history come alive. "Caveman Cold Case" is an excellent example of communicating scientific research to the public, and I recommend it heartily.
El Sidrón Cave. Photo Credit: © Terra Mater Factual Studios/Photographer Ruth Berry/Bernhard Popovic
Secrets of the Dead: "Caveman Cold Case" premieres this Wednesday, May 15, 2013 on PBS. Check local listings
Friday May 10, 2013
Chinese archaeologists have found evidence pushing back the domestication of the sago palm at least 3,500 years earlier than was thought.
Sago Palm Garden, Bogor, West Java, Indonesia. Toksave
Sago palms, like other tropical trees, are difficult to identify archaeologically since they don't have hard-cased seeds that might survive the millennia: archaeologists have to rely instead on microscopic plant residues such as starch granules and opal phytholiths. In this case, scholars had often wondered how long ago the sago, with its tremendous store of easily-harvested starch, might have been uprooted from its original swampy habitat and cultivated closer to home.
The study, published in PLoS ONE on Wednesday, also included evidence that about 5,000 years ago, the hunter-gatherers at the Xincun site on the southern coast of China relied on bananas, acorns, and roots and tubers, but that sago trees were likely cultivated, before the introduction of rice turned them into full time farmers.
Yang X, Barton HJ, Wan Z, Li Q, Ma Z, Li M, Zhang D, and Wei J. 2013. Sago-type Palms Were an Important Plant Food Prior to Rice in Southern Subtropical China. PLoS ONE 8(5):e63148. (open source)
Monday May 6, 2013
Arguably the best sword makers in world history were medieval Islamic blacksmiths, makers of the fearsome Damascus steel blades.
Damascus Steel: Sabre #10, Berne Historical Museum, Switzerland, made by Assad Ullah in the 17th Century. Peter Paufler ©2006
Working with raw iron "wootz" steel imported from India and Sri Lanka, the smiths created a miracle of a weapon, strong and sharp and marked with watery blue tracing, which together scared the daylights out of European crusaders. By the mid-18th century, however, the wootz sources dried up, and the sword-making technology was lost to the ages.
In 2006, an article appeared in Nature, describing the mechanical processes which were hypothesized to create the stunning Damascene steel workmanship: crystallographers Peter Paufler and colleagues argued that carbon nanotubes were part of the matrix of the steel, created by the inclusion of minute quantities of various minerals which were either present in wootz or added by the blacksmiths. I wrote an article about Paufler's research that year and it has remained a popular topic.
Late last winter, I received an email from Madeleine Durand-Charre, a metallurgist who expressed some doubt concerning Paufler's description of the process of nanotube formation. Dr. Paufler responded, and I'm happy to say, the entire debate is hosted here. The resulting discussion is a fascinating one for those of us who think of modern science as part alchemy!
Read more of this discussion of nanotechnology in Damascene steel swords.
Friday May 3, 2013
A recent paper in the journal Science describes investigations by Mayanist Takeshi Inomata and colleagues at Ceibal, a Maya capital site in Guatemala. Those excavations recently revealed the earliest known E-Group in the Maya lowlands, ca 1000 BC.
Excavations at one of three circular structures found on top of Platform A-24 at Ceibal, Guatemala. © Takeshi Inomata
E-Groups are patterned complexes of structures, consisting of a plaza with a pyramid on the west side and a rectangular platform on the east, with three smaller structures perched on top of the platform. They are common throughout the Maya world, and before this discovery at Ceibal, the earliest one known was at the Olmec site of La Venta, some 200-300 years later.
Nicoletta Maestri, contributing writer to the Archaeology pages here at About, has assembled a photo essay for us, describing the work at Ceibal, and the implications of the E-Group complex.
Inomata T, Triadan D, Aoyama K, Castillo V, and Yonenobu H. 2013. Early Ceremonial Constructions at Ceibal, Guatemala, and the Origins of Lowland Maya Civilization. Science 340:467-471.