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K. Kris Hirst



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Honey Bees and Humans

Wednesday April 16, 2014

The honey bee (Apis mellifera), is a non-domesticated domestic partner of ours, which will come as no surprise to anyone who has been stung.

Honeybee Collecting Rock Art Image, Cueva de la Araña rock shelter, Spain
Mesolithic rock painting of a honey hunter harvesting honey and wax from a bees nest in a tree. At Cuevas de la Araña. ca 8000 to 6000 BC). Redraft of image by Amada44

We've been exploiting bees for honey and wax for at least 25,000 years (some scholars suggest that it was millions of years), and we started providing them a home, beehives, at least as long ago as the Iron Age.

Chachapoya Culture

Monday April 14, 2014

The people who built the 12th century "fortress" at Kuelap in the Andes mountains of Peru are called by ethnohistorians and archaeologists the Chachapoya.

Chachapoyan Sarcophagi at Karajia, Peru
Chachapoyan Sarcophagi at Karajia, Peru. Photo by Jorge Gobbi

The Chachapoya were a loose confederation of settlements, perched on high ridges of the Andes mountains. Central to the extensive trade network between the Amazon jungle and the central Andes, the Chachapoya gained a bad rep as a violent and warlike culture from the Inca and the Spanish who wrote about them.

Lactase Persistence in Southern Africa

Friday April 11, 2014

Two upcoming articles in the journal Current Biology describe newly identified migration patterns in Later Stone Age southern Africa, arising from recent findings about lactase persistence.

18th century engraving of Khoe herders protecting sheep and cattle at night.
18th century engraving of Khoe herders protecting sheep and cattle at night. Plate taken from Historic Farms of South Africa, by Dorothea Fairbridge, published by Oxford University Press (London, 1931). Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Image

The Khoisan, a collective term for Khoe cattle and sheep herders and San hunter-gatherers who speak one of the click languages, are often assumed to have been isolated throughout prehistory. What the new studies show is that, like so many things in life, our human story of the Later Stone Age is southern Africa is far more complex than that; and directly connected to the history of domestication of cattle and sheep.

Breton G, Schlebusch Carina M, Lombard M, Sjödin P, Soodyall H, and Jakobsson M. 2014. Lactase Persistence Alleles Reveal Partial East African Ancestry of Southern African Khoe Pastoralists. Current Biology (in press). doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.02.041

Macholdt E, Lede V, Barbieri C, Mpoloka Sununguko W, Chen H, Slatkin M, Pakendorf B, and Stoneking M. 2014. Tracing Pastoralist Migrations to Southern Africa with Lactase Persistence Alleles. Current Biology (in press). doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.03.027

The Chachapoya Ceremonial Center of Kuelap

Monday April 7, 2014

Last week, I posted a fairly blistering review of a video from the PBS series, Secrets of the Dead. I promised I would follow up with some scientific reports on the various sites mentioned: today, we look at Kuelap.

External Wall at Kuelap
External Wall at Kuelap. Justin Lambert / The Image Bank / Getty Images

In Carthage's Lost Warriors, much was made of these enormous walls which surround Kuelap, evidence, so the video said, that the Chachapoya had help building this fortress.

Turns out, this wall may have had defensive purposes, but it was also part cemetery....

Secrets of the Dead: Carthage's Lost Warriors

Wednesday April 2, 2014

Don't get me wrong: I love the PBS series Secrets of the Dead. It gives us all fresh insight into alternative ideas of archaeological and historical reality that, well, I guess we need. "Carthage's Lost Warriors" is alternative, alrighty.

Secrets of the Dead
Secrets of the Dead logo. WNET/PBS

In Carthage's Lost Warriors, Secrets of the Dead offers us a fabulous tale of a band of Carthagenians, Celts and Majorcans who cross the Atlantic (I'm really not sure when this is supposed to have happened, but the press release says 1,500 years before Columbus), land on the Brazilian coast, travel up the Amazon through the jungle and climb the Peruvian Andes.

Along the way, of course, they influence various cultures of South America with their wily European ways. We all need a good laugh now and then.

It's baloney. Fun baloney, and I'm going to get hate mail for saying so, but baloney none the less.

Taming Wild Horses

Monday March 31, 2014

Archaeological and DNA evidence shows that the partnership between people and horses began in the western steppe region of Eurasia, somewhere in what is today Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, or Uzbekistan.

Przewalski's Horse (Equus ferus przewalskii)
Przewalski's Horse (Equus ferus przewalskii). Pictured are Przewalski's horses, the closest wild relative of the domestic horse ancestor. image courtesy of Vera Warmuth

The evidence includes DNA investigations into this pretty horse, pronounced (p)shuh-VALS-ki, and the only remaining wild species of horse on the planet.

Archaeological Investigations at Treblinka: A Video Review

Thursday March 27, 2014

This Saturday, March 29th, 2014, the Smithsonian channel premieres a new video, dedicated to new excavations at one of Adolph Hitler's death camps, that of Treblinka, Poland.

Treblinka: Hitler's Killing Machine (Title Card)
Treblinka: Hitler's Killing Machine (Title Card). Smithsonian Channel

The video Treblinka: Hitler's Killing Machine documents the efforts of forensic archaeologist Caroline Sturdy-Colls to find physical evidence of the long-rumored death camp at Treblinka, a camp that the Nazis did their very best to erase from the landscape. Ha, ha. As has been illustrated many times in many places on the globe, you can't hide from the archaeologist's trowel.

Ozette: 18th Century Mud Slide Catastrophe

Wednesday March 26, 2014

Mudslide calamities like the one in the northwestern United States in March 2014 are uncommon, but not unique. About 1750, several Pacific coastal houses of a Makah whaling village were buried by a sudden mudslide.

Ozette Archaeological District
Ozette Archaeological District. Photo from National Register of Historic Places, National Park Service, Washington, D.C

Ozette was a Makah fishing village, located on the coast of the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state. From ~400 AD through the early 1900s, Ozette was the base of operations for whaling by Native Americans known as the Makah. About 1750, a large section of the village was suddenly buried under a mud slide. The people eventually moved miles away, and it wasn't until coastal erosion in the 1970s exposed the ruins when the village became visible again.

To archaeologists, Ozette is important in part for what the ruins can teach us about 18th century Makah whaling life, but also because it was a joint project instigated by the descendants of the people who had lived and died there. When the Makah people found the ruins of Ozette eroding out on their beaches, they asked archaeologists at Washington State University to help out. That project in the 1970s was one of the first joint Native American and academic projects ever conducted in American archaeology.

The Plague of Athens

Monday March 24, 2014

To close out our visit to the darker side of history, let's visit the Plague of Athens, which killed an estimated 300,000 people in the 5th century BC.

Bust of Pericles, Royal Ontario Museum
Bust of Pericles, Royal Ontario Museum photo by Olga Berrios

The plague began at the outset of the Peloponnesian War, and among its victims was the Greek hero Pericles, and the Greek historian Thucydides, who survived to tell us all about it.

The Medieval Black Death

Friday March 21, 2014

Plague Week continues with a discussion of the pandemic plague everyone has heard of, known as the Black Death. You can't get more ominous of a name than that, and it was fully justified.

Copper Engraving of Plague Dr. Beak, circa 1656
Copper engraving of Doctor Schnabel [that is, Dr. Beak], a plague doctor in seventeenth-century Rome, with a satirical macaronic poem, circa 1656. The weird looking beak structure held a variety of herbs thought to protect the doctor from his patients.Ian Spackman

As with the Justinian plague, scholars have pinpointed the perpetrator of the medieval Black Death as the Yersinia pestis bacterium. This monstrous plague erupted in 14th century Europe and Asia. Archaeological studies of the massive burial pits used to inter the victims, like East Smithfield, UK, have been the source of terrific scientific research into the origin, progress and (thanks, science!) prevention and treatment of the deadly disease.

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