Whether we like it or not, people with more money and power than the rest of us--the rulers, chiefs, elites--have been a part of human society for thousands of years.
Sunken Garden of the Palace at Songo Mnara. Stephanie Wynne-Jones/Jeffrey Fleisher 2011.
Archaeologists are plagued with this, or so we say--people are overwhelmingly drawn to the really amazing artifacts, the luxurious villas, the evidence of conspicuous consumption in graves and middens. Seriously--all of that stuff is only a tiny fraction of how the world works and so a tiny fraction of the archaeological assemblages that have been collected in the world. But it's a loud fraction.
Here's a collection of the residences of royalty, part of the ongoing ancient houses collection I'm building.
December 8th is the traditional date for Bodhi Day, when the historical Buddha Siddartha Gautama is said to have reached enlightenment: when better to speak of the enlightening effects of archaeology?
Stupa at Sarnath, where the Buddha is said to have found enlightenment. Chris Moss
Several recent archaeological studies associated with the life of the Buddha have been conducted, most recently excavations at Lumbini in Nepal, said to have been his birthplace. The oldest phase of the Maya Devi shrine at Lumbini is securely dated between 550-800 BC, making it the earliest shrine associated with the Buddha to date.
- Archaeology of Buddhism
- Lumbini (Nepal)
- Who Was the Buddha? from N.S. Gill, About.com's expert in Ancient and Classical History
- Life of the Buddha, from Barbara O'Brien, expert in Buddhism
Coningham RAE, Acharya KP, Strickland KM, Davis CE, Manuel MJ, Simpson IA, Gilliland K, Tremblay J, Kinnaird TC, and Sanderson DCW. 2013. The earliest Buddhist shrine: excavating the birthplace of the Buddha, Lumbini (Nepal). Antiquity 87(338):1104-1123.
There's really no other way to look at it: new techniques of extracting and analyzing tiny fragments of mitochondrial DNA from very old bone are forcing scholars to rewrite human history.
The Sima de los Huesos hominins lived approximately 400,000 years ago during the Middle Pleistocene. Javier Trueba, MADRID SCIENTIFIC FILMS.
Analysis of the mtDNA from what looked like 400,000 year old Neanderthals in the Sima de los Huesos site in Spain has revealed instead that the hominins at Sima are not Neanderthal but instead are more closely related to the recently discovered Denisovan population.
That alone shakes up the scientific world, because for over a century, scholars have had to rely solely on morphological characteristics of ancient people to understand human evolutionary relationships. What this study, that of the recent Dmanisi study, and others in the past half a decade show is that morphology cannot necessarily be a reliable indicator of relatedness.
The work of Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology scholar Svänte Pääbo and others inventing and refining laboratory methods to winkle out mtDNA from ever-older human samples has continued and (I hope I hope) will continue to amaze us and overthrow our ideas of the course of human evolution. How exciting!
Meyer M, Fu Q, Aximu-Petri A, Glocke I, Nickel B, Arsuaga JL, Martinez I, Gracia A, Bermúdez de Castro JM, Carbonell E et al. 2013. A mitochondrial genome sequence of a hominin from Sima de los Huesos. Nature in press.
Some Recent News Stories
This month, the fourth edition of James Graham-Campbell's classic text The Viking World is published by Frances Lincoln LTD, via Aurum Press.
The Viking World - Cover Art Francis Lincoln LTD Publishing Group
The new version includes updates to several of the chapters, and is in a smaller format, which turns the oversized coffee table book into a more accessible format for the intent reader....
A recent article published in Nature Communications suggests, sort of, that cattle may have been domesticated in China.
Herd of cattle in Yunnan Province, China. timquijano.
The story is a little odd. Two conjoined jawbones (mandibles) were identified as taurine (Bos taurus, the humpless cattle type thought to have been domesticated in the Taurus Mountains about 10,500 years ago) have been recovered from the Kongni ditch in northeastern China.
The mandibles are AMS radiocarbon dated between 10,756 and 10,565 years ago, and mitochondrial DNA studies of it suggest to the scholars that the beast had a distinct mitochondrial structure, distinct from other types of aurochs. It looks domesticated, based on the tooth wear. If the scholars are correct in their surmise that this is evidence of early taurine domestication in China, it might be pretty amazing news--but they come from a place called the "Kongni Ditch" without any additional description and that worries me, and I'm strongly reminded that context, if not everything, is a big hunk of the pie.
I've sent away for some more information about the context, and I'll report it if and when I hear back.
It may turn out that there's another cattle domestication center in China--heck, how would I know? and science as we know is a moving target--but at the moment, this is an outlier, so caution is in order.
- Read more about cattle domestication
- Context is Everything, an essay on why this is an important concept in archaeology.
Zhang H, Paijmans JLA, Chang F, Wu X, Chen G, Lei C, Yang X, Wei Z, Bradley DG, Orlando L et al. . 2013. Morphological and genetic evidence for early Holocene cattle management in northeastern China. Nature Communications 4:2755.
A story in the journal Nature last week concerning the genetic history of a 4 year old Siberia boy dead 19,000 years promises to expand our understanding of the processes that led to colonizing the Americas.
Burial of Mal'ta child redrawn from Gerasimov (1935), with photos of the plaque and swan from the burial and a representative Venus figurine from the excavation. Kelly E. Graf
Archaeologists have known for a few hundred years that the Native American/First People who settled the America continents arrived from Asia along the Bering Strait. But the complex history of population of the Americas has been a political conflagration since the 1920s, when the first hint of how long ago that occurred was identified at Clovis, New Mexico. Not to mention the academic heat that transpired in the 1980s and eventually lead to the wide acceptance of Preclovis.
The latest information, from a central Siberian site called Mal'ta, adds to the complexity of the processes, but doesn't refute anything we've learned so far: the Americas were populated by several waves of people over a period of several thousands of years beginning at least 20,000 years ago.
- Read a lot more on Mal'ta, which before all this happened, was best known for a terrific set of Siberian Upper Paleolithic ivory art.
Raghavan M, Skoglund P, Graf KE, Metspalu M, Albrechtsen A, Moltke I, Rasmussen S, Reedik M, Campos PF, Balanovska E et al. 2013. Upper Paleolithic Siberian genome reveals dual ancestry of Native Americans. Nature: in press.
Eagles and hawks and other birds of prey have fascinated humans for at least 90,000 years, expressed as the collection of wings and (presumably) feathers for use as personal decoration.
Wadi Jilat 22. Insets include Imperial Eagle and tanged knives from the site collections. Photos: Andrew Garrard (photo of Jilat), Frankie Chu (Imperial Eagle), Bryan Byrd (Tanged Knives)
Archaeologists have found evidence of raptor wing bones and talons at sites throughout Eurasia, but until recently, what they haven't found is sites where the eagles were captured and processed to produce those wings. A 17,000 year old site in the Wadi Jilat of Jordan is the newly identified exception to that rule.
- Raptor Processing in the Levantine Epipaleolithic: A photo essay
- More on Wadi Jilat
- The Azraq Basin Archaeological Project
Martin L, Edwards Y, and Garrard A. 2013. Broad spectrum or specialised activity? Birds and tortoises at the Epipalaeolithic site of Wadi Jilat 22 in the eastern Jordan steppe. Antiquity 87(337):649-665.
There's no argument about it--DNA research has truly taught us much about our past. The latest bit of information is about the history of dogs.
A lateral view of a Palaeolithic dog from the Goyet Cave (Belgium), calibrated age of 36,000 years Before the Present. Image courtesy of Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences
A new study published in Science last week lends support to the idea that dog domestication began in the European Paleolithic perhaps as long ago as 30,000 years ago. While we've known about European Paleolithic dogs over the past few years, this article adds a bit of support to an argument that was all about morphology.
Thalmann O, Shapiro B, Cui P, Schuenemann VJ, Sawyer SK, Greenfield DL, Germonpré MB, Sablin MV, López-Giráldez F, Domingo-Roura X et al. . 2013. Complete mitochondrial genomes of ancient canids suggest a European origin of domestic dogs. Science 342(6160):871-874.
Continuing with our Incan theme for the fall, is a visit to the primary stone quarry for the Inca stonemasons: Rumiqolqa.
The smooth blue-gray stone wall of the Qoricancha Temple in Cusco was built of finely cut ashlars quarried at Rumiqolqa. Ed Nellis
Rumiqolqa means "stone storehouse" in Quechua, and it may well have been first used by the Wari Empire [~550-900 AD]. According to recent geochemical research, stones from this quarry were moved a thousand miles along the Inca Road to Ecuador. A most remarkable place indeed.
While I was hanging around Inca ruins in Peru, one of the biggest stories in paleoanthropology broke: a new, nearly complete Lower Paleolithic hominid skull, including its jaw, reported at Dmanisi.
The Dmanisi D4500 early Homo cranium in situ. Photo courtesy of Georgian National Museum.
Dmanisi, located in the Republic of Georgia about 85 kilometers from the capital of Tbilisi, is the jumping off point, or at least the one we've found so far, for Homo erectus dispersing from Africa and headed out into the larger world about 1.8 million years ago. There are currently no Homo sites known outside of Africa as old or older than Dmanisi.
Although the identification of a nearly complete 1.8 million year old skull at the oldest Homo site outside of Africa would be big enough news, there's more. The scholars report that comparing all five of the Dmanisi skulls found to date shows an astonishing range of variation in form: so much variation in fact that had the skulls been found in different sites in Africa, they might have been assigned different species: Homo ergaster, H. rudolfensis, H. habilis or H. erectus.
Dmanisi Skulls 1-5 (left to right), and a Dmanisi landscape. Image courtesy of M. Ponce de León and Ch. Zollikofer, University of Zurich, Switzerland
That led them to conclude that we shouldn't rule out the possibility, the strong possibility, that there was only one species of Homo in the world when they left Africa and we've been looking at the sparse, patchy and incomplete evidence too narrowly.
Lordkipanidze D, Ponce de León MS, Margvelashvili A, Rak Y, Rightmire GP, Vekua A, and Zollikofer CPE. 2013. A complete skull from Dmanisi, Georgia, and the evolutionary biology of early Homo. Science 342:326-331.
Gibbons A. 2013. Stunning Skull Gives a Fresh Portrait of Early Humans. Science 342:297-298.
Also see these excellent sources for understanding Dmanisi: