Category Archives: Archaeology

Mathematician Reveals World’s Oldest Example Of Applied Geometry (Archeology / Maths)


A UNSW mathematician has revealed the origins of applied geometry on a 3700-year-old clay tablet that has been hiding in plain sight in a museum in Istanbul for over a century.

The tablet – known as Si.427 – was discovered in the late 19th century in what is now central Iraq, but its significance was unknown until the UNSW scientist’s detective work was revealed today.

Most excitingly, Si.427 is thought to be the oldest known example of applied geometry – and in the study released today in the Foundations of Science, the research also reveals a compelling human story of land surveying.

“Si.427 dates from the Old Babylonian (OB) period – 1900 to 1600 BCE,” says lead researcher Dr Daniel Mansfield from UNSW Science’s School of Mathematics and Statistics.

“It’s the only known example of a cadastral document from the OB period, which is a plan used by surveyors to define land boundaries. In this case, it tells us legal and geometric details about a field that’s split after some of it was sold off.”

This is a significant object because the surveyor uses what are now known as “Pythagorean triples” to make accurate right angles.

“The discovery and analysis of the tablet have important implications for the history of mathematics,” Dr Mansfield says. “For instance, this is over a thousand years before Pythagoras was born.”

Meet Si.427 

Close up of the back of Si.427  geometry clay highlighting characters that are currently unknown.

Si.427 is a hand tablet from 1900-1600 BC, created by an Old Babylonian surveyor. It’s made out of clay and the surveyor wrote on it with a stylus.

On the front, we see a diagram of a field.

The field is being split, and some of it is being sold.

That’s what the lines are for – they demarcate the boundaries of the different fields. The boundaries are really accurate – a lot more accurate than you’d expect for that time.

Si.427 is a hand tablet from 1900-1600 BC, created by an Old Babylonian surveyor. It’s made out of clay and the surveyor wrote on it with a stylus. Credit: Must credit UNSW Sydney

Our surveyor managed to be so precise by using Pythagorean triples – making the boundary lines he created truly perpendicular. In the simplest example of a Pythagorean triple, a triple has sides of 3, 4 and 5 – creating a perfect right angle.

On the back of the tablet we see text, written in cuneiform, one of the earliest systems of writing.

The text corresponds to the diagram on the front – describing things such as the size of the field.

At the bottom of the back of the tablet, we see large numbers – that’s the only thing we haven’t quite figured out.

Hot on the heels of another world-first find

In 2017, Dr Mansfield conjectured that another fascinating artefact from the same period, known as Plimpton 322, was a unique kind of trigonometric table.

“It is generally accepted that trigonometry – the branch of maths that is concerned with the study of triangles – was developed by the ancient Greeks studying the night sky in the second century BCE,” says Dr Mansfield.

“But the Babylonians developed their own ‘proto-trigonometry’ to solve problems measuring the ground, not the sky.”

The tablet revealed today is thought to have existed even before Plimpton 322 – in fact, surveying problems likely inspired Plimpton 322.

“There is a whole zoo of right triangles with different shapes. But only a very small handful can be used by Babylonian surveyors. Plimpton 322 is a systematic study of this zoo to discover the useful shapes,” says Dr Mansfield.

Tablet purpose revealed: surveying land

Back in 2017, the team speculated about the purpose of Plimpton 322, hypothesizing that it was likely to have had some practical purpose, possibly in the construction of palaces and temples, building canals or surveying of fields.

“With this new tablet, we can actually see for the first time why they were interested in geometry: to lay down precise land boundaries,” Dr Mansfield says.

“This is from a period where land is starting to become private – people started thinking about land in terms of ‘my land and your land’, wanting to establish a proper boundary to have positive neighbourly relationships. And this is what this tablet immediately says. It’s a field being split, and new boundaries are made.”

There are even clues hidden on other tablets from that time period about the stories behind these boundaries.

“Another tablet refers to a dispute between Sin-bel-apli – a prominent individual mentioned on many tablets including Si.427 – and a wealthy female landowner,” says Dr Mansfield.

Dr Mansfield sits in a museum room proudly holding tablet Si.427 in white-gloved hands
Dr Mansfield at the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul
Dr Mansfield walks past a very old stone wall on a cobblestone street
Dr Mansfield near the Archaeological Museum, Istanbul
Dr Mansfield's gloved hands hold the disc-shaped tablet, about 20cm across, which is cracked and has markings on the flat sides
Dr Mansfield examining Si.427 at the Archaelogical Museum in Istanbul

“The dispute is over valuable date palms on the border between their two properties. The local administrator agrees to send out a surveyor to resolve the dispute. It is easy to see how accuracy was important in resolving disputes between such powerful individuals.”

Dr Mansfield says the way these boundaries are made reveals real geometric understanding.

“Nobody expected that the Babylonians were using Pythagorean triples in this way,” Dr Mansfield says. “It is more akin to pure mathematics, inspired by the practical problems of the time.” 

Front and side views of old Babylonian (ca. 1900-1600 BC) geometric tablet
2000 BC – We’re about to embark on what’s called the Old Babylonian period. People don’t have an understanding of perpendicular lines yet – they are just gauging with their hands what would make a rough right angle.
Close up of Si.427  geometry clay tablet characters.
1900-1600 BC “Old Babylonian” times – Tablet Si.427 is created.
Plimpton 322 tablet.
1900-1600 BC “Old Babylonian” times – Plimpton 322 is created. We’re entering a golden age: land becomes private, and boundaries are becoming precise – thanks to applied geometry.
Landscape of Greco-Roman world through Post-Classical History
300 BC-1800 – We move through history: from the Greco-Roman world through Post-Classical History, the Middle Ages, and eventually Modern History… During all this time, the tablet stays buried.
Imperial Museum of Constantinople with horse and cart at the front of the building.
1894 – Si.427 is discovered. It is taken to what was then the Imperial Museum of Constantinople.
Dr Mansfield holding Si.427.
2021 – UNSW scientists discover the significance of Si.427.

Creating right angles – easier said than done

One simple way to make an accurate right angle is to make a rectangle with sides 3 and 4, and diagonal 5. These special numbers form the 3-4-5 “Pythagorean triple” and a rectangle with these measurements has mathematically perfect right angles. This is important to ancient surveyors and still used today.

“The ancient surveyors who made Si.427 did something even better: they used a variety of different Pythagorean triples, both as rectangles and right triangles, to construct accurate right angles,” Dr Mansfield says.

However, it is difficult to work with prime numbers bigger than 5 in the base 60 Babylonian number system.

“This raises a very particular issue – their unique base 60 number system means that only some Pythagorean shapes can be used,” Dr Mansfield says.

“It seems that the author of Plimpton 322 went through all these Pythagorean shapes to find these useful ones.

“This deep and highly numerical understanding of the practical use of rectangles earns the name ‘proto-trigonometry’ but it is completely different to our modern trigonometry involving sin, cos, and tan.”

Hunting down Si.427

Dr Mansfield first learned about Si.427 when reading about it in excavation records – the tablet was dug up during the Sippar expedition of 1894, in what’s the Baghdad province in Iraq today.

“It was a real challenge to trace the tablet from these records and physically find it – the report said that the tablet had gone to the Imperial Museum of Constantinople, a place that obviously doesn’t exist anymore.

“Using that piece of information, I went on a quest to track it down, speaking to many people at Turkish government ministries and museums, until one day in mid 2018 a photo of Si.427 finally landed in my inbox.

“That’s when I learned that it was actually on display at the museum. Even after locating the object it still took months to fully understand just how significant it is, and so it’s really satisfying to finally be able to share that story.”

Next, Dr Mansfield hopes to find what other applications the Babylonians had for their proto-trigonometry.

There’s just one mystery left that Dr Mansfield hasn’t unlocked: on the back of the tablet, at the very bottom, it lists the numbers ‘25,29’ in big font – think of it as 25 minutes and 29 seconds.

 “I can’t figure out what these numbers mean – it’s an absolute enigma. I’m keen to discuss any leads with historians or mathematicians who might have a hunch as to what these numbers trying to tell us!”   

All images credit: UNSW


Reference: Daniel F. Mansfield, Plimpton 322: A Study of Rectangles, Foundations of Science (2021). DOI: 10.1007/s10699-021-09806-0


Provided by UNSW

Thomas Cromwell’s Tudor London Mansion Revealed in Unprecedented Detail (Archeology)

New insights come on anniversary of Cromwell’s death and ahead of the final part of the ‘Wolf Hall’ trilogy which hits West End later this year.

The magnificent London mansion of Thomas Cromwell has been revealed for the first time in an artist’s impression, following a new study which examines the building in unprecedented detail.

Dr Nick Holder, a historian and research fellow at English Heritage and the University of Exeter, has scrutinized an exceptionally rich source of information, including letters, leases, surveys and inventories, to present the most thorough insight to-date on “one of the most spectacular private houses” in 1530s London.

Published in the peer-reviewed Journal of the British Archaeological Association, his findings* – which have informed the artist’s impression created by illustrator Peter Urmston – include floor plans for the mansion, which had 58 rooms plus servants’ garrets, and a large garden.

The plans have been released before but the evidence behind them hasn’t been presented until now.

Together with an accompanying room-by-room analysis of another of Cromwell’s London homes, it provides a fascinating new insight into the life and personality of a man who was one of the architects of the English Reformation and helped engineer the annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, allowing him to marry Anne Boleyn.

Cromwell, who as Henry VIII’s henchman was the most powerful man in England, still captures the public imagination – and inspires novels, including Hilary Mantel’s award-winning Wolf Hall series, plays and TV series – today, almost 500 years after his death.

The mansion, next to the Austin Friars monastery in the City of London, cost Cromwell at least £1,600 to build, including around £550 on the land.

Cromwell had lived in Italy and spoke Italian and it is “very likely” the architecture contained fashionable new Italian Renaissance features, says Dr Holder.

Construction began in July 1535 and, like many building projects, there were hitches, including a delay in October the following year when the 80-strong team of workmen was sent to Yorkshire to fight the rebels of the Pilgrimage of Grace uprising.

Cromwell also seems to have undertaken a “land grab”, confiscating a 22-foot strip of land to enlarge his garden, which may have had a bowling alley and tennis court.

The mansion, which boasted bedding made cloth of gold, damask and velvet, acted as a family home, an administrative base and a venue for entertainment. It may even have been designed in the anticipation, or perhaps fear, of a visit from the king.

Prestigious visitors would have been guided up the large stair tower to one of the sumptuous first-floor halls, the parlor or the ladies’ parlor. The heated halls were decorated with tapestry hangings and one had three distinctive oriel (bay) windows.

The mansion was also a store for Cromwell’s personal armouy – in reality enough for a small army. This included several hundred sets of “almayne revettes” (German plate armor for infantry), nearly 100 sallets and bascinets (head-pieces and helmets) and weaponry including 759 bows, complete with hundreds of sheaves of arrows.

Cromwell would, however, have had little time to enjoy his spectacular new home before he was executed for treason in 1540.

He had moved to the mansion from a 14-room neighboring townhouse, for which he probably paid £4 a year in rent. Documents, including two inventories from Cromwell’s tenancy, provide a room-by-room description of this home and its contents, which included 28 rings, three of which Cromwell was wearing at the time of the inventory. They also give an intriguing glimpse into his religious outlook.

Dr Holder says: “We think of Cromwell as Henry VIII’s henchman, carrying out his policy, including closing down the monasteries, and we know that by about 1530 Cromwell became one of the new Evangelical Protestants.

“But when you look at the inventory of his house in the 1520s, he doesn’t seem such a religious radical, he seems more of a traditional English Catholic.

“He’s got various religious paintings on the wall, he’s got his own holy relic, which is very much associated with traditional Catholics, not with the new Evangelicals, and he’s even got a home altar. In the 1520s he seems like much more of a conventional early Tudor Catholic gentleman.”

The coats of arms of his patron Cardinal Wolsey and former patron, Thomas Grey, which were on display in the townhouse, meanwhile, reveal a sense of loyalty beneath Cromwell’s ruthless exterior, says Dr Holder.

The exceptionally detailed analysis was made possible thanks to a “treasure trove” of documents held in the archives of the Drapers’ Company, the trade group that bought Cromwell’s mansion after his death.

Dr Holder adds: “These two houses were the homes of this great man, they were the places where he lived with his wife and two daughters, where his son grew up. It was also the place he went back to at night after being with Henry VIII at court and just got on with the hard graft of running the country.

“No one else has looked at these two houses in quite as much detail comparing all the available evidence. This is about as close as you are going to get to walking down these 16th-century corridors.”

*https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00681288.2021.1923812

Featured image: Artist conception of the Cromwell home. Peter Urmston


Provided by Taylor & Francis Group 

Roman Road Discovered In The Venice Lagoon (Archeology)

The discovery of a Roman road submerged in the Venice Lagoon is reported in Scientific Reports this week. The findings suggest that extensive settlements may have been present in the Venice Lagoon centuries before the founding of Venice began in the fifth century.

During the Roman era, large areas of the Venice Lagoon which are now submerged were accessible by land. Roman artifacts have been found in lagoon islands and waterways, but the extent of human occupation of the lagoon during Roman times has been unclear.

Mapping the lagoon floor using sonar, Fantina Madricardo and colleagues discovered 12 archaeological structures aligned in a northeasterly direction for 1,140 meters, in an area of the lagoon known as the Treporti Channel. The structures were up to 2.7 meters tall and 52.7 meters long. Previous surveys of the Treporti Channel uncovered stones similar to paving stones used by Romans during road construction, indicating that the structures may be aligned along a Roman road. The researchers also discovered an additional four structures in the Treporti Channel that were up to four meters tall and 134.8 meters long. Based on its dimensions and similarity to structures discovered in other areas, the largest of these structures is thought to be a potential harbor structure, such as a dock. Previously collected geological and modeling data indicates that the road is located on a sandy ridge that was above sea level during the Roman era but is now submerged in the lagoon.

The findings suggest that a permanent settlement may have been present in the Treporti Channel during the Roman era. The authors propose that the road may have been linked to a wider network of Roman roads in the Italian Veneto Region and may have been used by travelers and sailors to journey between what is now the city of Chioggia and the Northern Venice Lagoon.

Archaeology: Roman road discovered in the Venice lagoon
High resolution bathymetry of the Treporti Channel (The numbers 1 to 12 indicate the alignment of structures. The letters a to d identify other structures found in the area. The zoom-in pictures show the detail of some of the archaeological structures: the sites 3, 8-9 and 10 (bottom-right) and the structure a (top-left), with the profiles I-II and III-IV, that could possibly be possibly part of a harbour structure. The lower part of the picture represents the bathymetric profile extracted along all identified structures (white dashed line). Credit: Federica Foglini.

Featured image: (Left) the reconstruction of the Roman Road in the Treporti Channel in the Venice Lagoon made on the basis of the multibeam data. Credit: Antonio Calandriello and Giuseppe D’Acunto. (Right) the same area now submerged. Credit: Fantina Madricardo.


Reference: Madricardo, F., Bassani, M., D’Acunto, G. et al. New evidence of a Roman road in the Venice Lagoon (Italy) based on high resolution seafloor reconstruction. Sci Rep 11, 13985 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-92939-w


Provided by Nature Publishing Group

Why Weren’t New World Rabbits Domesticated? (Archeology)

Archaeologists find the answer in rabbit social behavior

Domesticated rabbits come in all sizes and colors, including tiny Netherland Dwarfs, floppy-eared French lops, Flemish Giants, and fluffy Angoras. 

These breeds belong to Europe’s only rabbit species, originally limited to the Iberian Peninsula and Southern France and used for meat and fur since the last Ice Age, culminating in domestication about 1,500 years ago. 

The Americas, on the other hand, have many rabbit species with ranges throughout both continents. The archaeological record shows rabbits were used as extensively in the Americas as they were on the Iberian Peninsula, with clear archaeological evidence that rabbits were being deliberately raised. Why, then, were rabbits domesticated in Europe and not the Americas?

Nawa Sugiyama
Nawa Sugiyama © UCR

Recent work by archaeologists Andrew Somerville of Iowa State University and UC Riverside’s Nawa Sugiyama found a simple answer: European rabbits live readily in large social groups while American cottontail rabbits do not. The less social nature of American cottontails combined with greater species diversity created a situation where rabbit husbandry did not lead to domestication. 

Sugiyama looked to Teotihuacan, a major city in Mexico about 2,000 years ago, where cottontail rabbits comprised 23% of the animal remains during the Classic period. This was more than any other animal used for meat, including wild deer, as well as domesticated turkeys and dogs. The proportion of rabbit bones increased toward the city center, suggesting they were probably being raised, not hunted. 

Rabbit bones found in the stomach contents of an eagle sacrificed at the Sun Pyramid in Teotihuacan
The bones of two rabbits found in the stomach contents of an eagle sacrificed at the Sun Pyramid in Teotihuacan, Mexico. (Nawa Sugiyama)

Rabbits were buried at the Sun and Moon Pyramids and are found in the stomach contents of sacrificial carnivores, such as eagles and pumas. Rabbit bones found in the carnivore stomachs contain a type of carbon that indicates a diet unusually rich in corn or cactus, suggesting human-raised rabbits had, in turn, been fed to the carnivores. 

“The rabbits were probably fed corn, but the carbon isotopes don’t distinguish between corn and cactus, so we can’t say for certain,” Sugiyama said.

Moreover, 46% of the animal bones excavated in one apartment compound were from rabbits that had been fed a similar diet of agricultural crops, and the amount of phosphate in the floor of one room indicates a location where rabbits urinated and were probably housed. A stone statue of a rabbit was also found in the complex’s central plaza, reinforcing the importance of rabbit husbandry to the residents. 

A thousand years later, the 16th century Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez described the sale of rabbits at the Aztec marketplace of Tlateloco. Over at least a millennia of husbandry and extensive use for food, fur, and ritual, however, the rabbits of Mexico did not become domesticated — a mutualistic, multigenerational relationship characterized by human-controlled reproduction.

To understand why, Somerville compared the behavioral ecology of European rabbits and American cottontails against criteria that “prime” or preadapt animals for domestication. Animals that have been domesticated usually live in groups with resident males. They also have young that imprint easily and require parental care, a promiscuous mating system, tolerance for a wide variety of environments, and low reactivity to humans. 

European and American rabbits were similar across all criteria except social behavior. European rabbits live in underground family burrows, called warrens, of up to 20 individuals that include males, who defend their breeding territory from other males. Warrens made it easy for people to locate and manage wild rabbit populations, then mimic those conditions in captivity, where rabbits readily reproduced.

American cottontails, on the other hand, are solitary, live entirely above ground, and tend to fight in enclosures together. Males do not defend a breeding territory and pursue more opportunistic mating strategies. 

Somerville and Sugiyama conclude that their solitary nature, tendency to fight in enclosures, dispersed territories, and less predictable mating systems made it possible to raise rabbits without forming the kind of mutual relationship that would eventually give humans enough control over a species to direct its evolution. Greater species diversity also made it less likely that any one of them would become domesticated.

The open-access paper, “Why were New World rabbits not domesticated?” is published in Animal Frontiers and available here.

Header photo: An Eastern Cottontail rabbit. (Peter Broster on Wikimedia Commons)


Reference: Andrew D Somerville, Nawa Sugiyama, Why were New World rabbits not domesticated?, Animal Frontiers, Volume 11, Issue 3, May 2021, Pages 62–68, https://doi.org/10.1093/af/vfab026


Provided by UCR

New Discoveries From The Period Of The Bar-Kochba Revolt (Archeology)

Archaeological finds recently discovered in the Wadi Rashash Basin in southeastern Samaria may refute accepted assumptions about the period of the revolt

In the summer of 2020, Dr. Dvir Raviv of the Department of Israel Studies and Archeology at Bar-Ilan University conducted an archeological survey in the Wadi Rashash Basin in southeastern Samaria. The Jewish population in the area between the Great Revolt and the Bar Kochba Revolt.

The two sites near the settlement of Wadi Rashash are Horbat Jaba’it and Horbat al-Marjim. A large mapping system (documented as early as the 1980s) was re-mapped at Horbat Jaba’it, where pottery fragments – mainly jars and cooking pots – were found for the first time, allowing its installation to be dated to the days of the Bar Kochba revolt (136-132). A dozen coins from the Second Temple period were found on the ruins – from the Hasmonean period, from the days of Agrippa I, from the days of the emperors Claudius and Nero and a coin from the second year of the Great Revolt (68-67) bearing the inscription “Herut Zion”.

coin

A large, branched hiding system was discovered in Horbat al-Marjim, in addition to a system documented in a previous survey at the site. Dozens of fragments of pottery, glass and metal vessels dating to two periods – Iron Age 2 (8th-9th centuries BCE) and the days of the Bar-Kochba revolt were found in the cavities. Rome.

On the northern cliff of the Wadi Rashash Canyon, which stretches east of the Great Waterfall, were found three natural cave complexes in which evidence of human use in ancient times was discovered. The inhabitants of these caves enjoyed both the proximity to the inhabited area and the proximity to natural water sources – Ein Rashash and Ein Duma. Wadi Rashash Cave is the most prominent of the caves surveyed and is located in the eastern part of the canyon, c. 200 m east of the waterfall. The opening of the cave is located at the bottom of a vertical and slightly stepped cliff, c. 30 m above the creek channel.

In view of the crumbling nature of the cliff rocks it is possible that in ancient times the cave was larger and in the past centuries part of its ceiling collapsed. This option is supported by a relatively large amount of pottery found at the site and may teach about a relatively large group of refugees who fled to this cave. Antiquities robbers who have visited the cave in recent years have emptied much of the cave’s contents while creating a large dirt estuary at the front. In the mounds of dirt at the bottom of the cave and in the estuary at the front, the survey team discovered many finds that were probably brought to the site by Jewish refugees at the end of the Bar-Kochba revolt, as well as two potsherds – a jar and a bowl – from the Iron Age 2.

coin

The Bar Kochba finds include pottery fragments – mainly jars and cooking pots – as well as a bronze coin from the third year of the Bar Kochba revolt (135-134 AD). The inside of the coin is decorated with a musical instrument, probably a violin, and around it is the inscription “Shimon” (Bar-Kochba’s first name); On the back is a palm tree in a wreath, surrounded by the inscription “To Herut Yerushalayim”, from which a few letters survived. The palm is a symbol of victory, and the violin, being one of the vessels of the temple,  expresses a longing for a temple that was a sword at that time.

The location of Wadi Rashash Cave, only about a kilometer and a half from Horbat Jabit and Horbat al-Marjim, sites where hiding systems from the Second Revolt were discovered, suggests that the origin of the refugees who fled to the cave in question was from these sites.

The bar-Kochba coin from Wadi Rashash indicates the presence of a Jewish population in the area until the end of the Bar-Kochba revolt, in contrast to a claim previously made in a study that the Jewish settlement north of Jerusalem was destroyed during the Great Revolt and not blown afterwards. According to Dr. Raviv, several dozen refugees probably hid in the caves of Wadi Rashash, and in all the dozens of known refuge caves throughout Eretz Yehuda and especially in the desert, thousands of refugees hid . The coin with the inscription “Shimon” is the first evidence Roman, ruled by the manager of Bar-Kochba.

Coin, cave and rebellion

Coin photography: Tal Rogovsky

Photo by Wadi Rashash (above): Yehezkel Blumstein 

Photo of the cave (below): Dvir Raviv


Provided by Bar-Ilan University

Let’s Replace ‘Ancestry’ in Forensics With Something More Accurate (Archeology)

A new study finds forensics researchers use terms related to ancestry and race in inconsistent ways, and calls for the discipline to adopt a new approach to better account for both the fluidity of populations and how historical events have shaped our skeletal characteristics.

“Forensic anthropology is a science, and we need to use terms consistently,” says Ann Ross, corresponding author of the study and a professor of biological sciences at North Carolina State University. “Our study both highlights our discipline’s challenges in discussing issues of ancestral origin consistently, and suggests that focusing on population affinity would be a way forward.”

Race is a social construct – there’s no scientific basis for it. Population affinity, in the context of forensic anthropology, is determined by the skeletal characteristics associated with groups of people. Those characteristics are shaped by historic events and forces such as gene flow, migration, and so on. What’s more, these population groups can be very fluid.

In practical terms, that this means that race can be wildly misleading in a forensic context. For example, a missing person may have been listed as Black on their driver’s license because of their skin color. But their skeletal remains may not indicate they were of African descent, because their bone structure may reflect other aspects of their ancestry.

“Like many disciplines, forensic anthropology has been coming to terms with issues regarding race,” Ross says. “Some people in the discipline want to do away completely with assessing an individual’s place of origin. Others say that conventional approaches still have value in helping to identify human remains.

“In this paper, we are recommending a third path. This study is focused on finding ways to evaluate human variation that give us valuable information in forensic and anthropological contexts, but that avoid clinging to the use of outdated defaults such as race.”

In one part of the study, the researchers looked at all of the papers published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences between 2009 and 2019 that referenced ancestry, race or related terms. The goal of this content analysis was to determine if the terms were being used consistently within the field. And they were not.

“The Journal of Forensic Sciences is the flagship journal for forensic sciences in the U.S., and even there we found inconsistencies in how our field uses these terms,” Ross says. “Inconsistent terminology opens the door to confusion, misunderstanding and misuse within the discipline.”

In a second part of the study, the researchers used geometric morphometric data and spatial analysis methods to evaluate the validity of terms such as “European” or “African” to describe the ancestral origin of human remains.

Altogether, the researchers evaluated nine datasets, comprising data on 397 people. The datasets were of human remains collected in Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Guatemala, Panama, Puerto Rico, Peru, Spain and a population of enslaved Africans that had been buried in Cuba. All of the remains, except for those of the enslaved Africans, were from the 20th or 21st centuries.

“Regarding the data we have on the remains of enslaved Africans, we want to acknowledge the value that data collected from such samples can contribute to discussions of human variation, while also noting that the history and ethics of human skeletal collections, in general, is often dubious,” Ross says. “Such body harvesting all too often occurred under the umbrella of scientific racism, without the permission of the deceased or next of kin, and disproportionately targeted marginalized populations.”

In their review of recent papers, the researchers found that forensics experts often still referred to remains as being of African, Asian or European origin.

“But our analysis of these nine datasets shows that this approach is wrong, because it’s not that simple,” Ross says.

“Let’s use Panama as an example,” says Ross, who is from Panama. “There have been huge movements of people into this area from all over the world over the past 500 years: indigenous peoples who predate colonialism, colonizers from Europe, slaves from Africa, immigrants from Asia. The contemporary remains we see in Panama reflect all of those influences.”

Ross also noted that the analysis of the nine datasets also highlighted a flaw in the contemporary idea of “clines.” The idea of clines is basically that, while there are changes from one group of people to another, populations who are geographically close to each other are more similar than populations that are geographically distant. However, the researchers found that this assumption can be misleading.

For example, Panama and Colombia share a border, but very different historical forces have acted on Panama and Colombia in recent centuries – so the skeletal characteristics of remains from those two countries are much less similar than one would anticipate.

“All of this is important for multiple reasons, such as taking meaningful steps to reduce racism in our field, and ensuring that we are communicating clearly with each other within the discipline,” Ross says. “It is also important because marginalized people are most often the people whose remains go unidentified. Labeling them as ‘Hispanic’ or ‘Black’ is misleading. We, as forensic anthropologists, need to change the way we think about origin. We need to begin thinking about physical markers in the context of population affinity and how we can use that to both communicate clearly and to help understand who we are seeing when we work with unidentified remains. We need to ensure that we are not contributing – even inadvertently – to structural inequities and racism.

“This also means that we are faced with a wide range of new research questions. As a field, much of our work has focused on looking at data from the remains of historic populations. I think we need to begin doing more work that can help us better understand the ways in which historical events have helped to shape the skeletal characteristics of modern populations.”

The study, “Ancestry Studies in Forensic Anthropology: Back on the Frontier of Racism,” is published open access in the journal Biology. The paper was co-authored by Shanna Williams, a clinical associate professor of biomedical sciences at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville.


Provided by NC State

DNA From 1,600-year-old Iranian Sheep Mummy Brings History to Life (Archeology)

A team of geneticists and archaeologists from Ireland, France, Iran, Germany, and Austria has sequenced the DNA from a 1,600-year-old sheep mummy from an ancient Iranian salt mine, Chehrābād. This remarkable specimen has revealed sheep husbandry practices of the ancient Near East, as well as underlining how natural mummification can affect DNA degradation.

The incredible findings have just been published in the international, peer-reviewed journal Biology Letters.

The salt mine of Chehrābād is known to preserve biological material. Indeed, it is in this mine that human remains of the famed “Salt Men” were recovered, dessicated by the salt-rich environment. The new research confirms that this natural mummification process – where water is removed from a corpse, preserving soft tissues that would otherwise be degraded – also conserved animal remains.

The research team, led by geneticists from Trinity College Dublin, exploited this by extracting DNA from a small cutting of mummified skin from a leg recovered in the mine.

While ancient DNA is usually damaged and fragmented, the team found that the sheep mummy DNA was extremely well-preserved; with longer fragment lengths and less damage that would usually be associated with such an ancient age. The group attributes this to the mummification process, with the salt mine providing conditions ideal for preservation of animal tissues and DNA.

The salt mine’s influence was also seen in the microorganisms present in the sheep leg skin. Salt-loving archaea and bacteria dominated the microbial profile – also known as the metagenome – and may have also contributed to the preservation of the tissue.

The mummified animal was genetically similar to modern sheep breeds from the region, which suggests that there has been a continuity of ancestry of sheep in Iran since at least 1,600 years ago.

The team also exploited the sheep’s DNA preservation to investigate genes associated with a woolly fleece and a fat-tail – two important economic traits in sheep. Some wild sheep – the asiatic mouflon – are characterised by a “hairy” coat, much different to the woolly coats seen in many domestic sheep today. Fat-tailed sheep are also common in Asia and Africa, where they are valued in cooking, and where they may be well-adapted to arid climates.

The team built a genetic impression of the sheep and discovered that the mummy lacked the gene variant associated with a woolly coat, while fibre analysis using Scanning Electron Microscopy found the microscopic details of the hair fibres consistent with hairy or mixed coat breeds. Intriguingly, the mummy carried genetic variants associated with fat-tailed breeds, suggesting the sheep was similar to the hairy-coated, fat-tailed sheep seen in Iran today.

“Mummified remains are quite rare so little empirical evidence was known about the survival of ancient DNA in these tissues prior to this study,” says Conor Rossi, PhD candidate in Trinity’s School of Genetics and Microbiology, and the lead author of the paper.

“The astounding integrity of the DNA was not like anything we had encountered from ancient bones and teeth before. This DNA preservation, coupled with the unique metagenomic profile, is an indication of how fundamental the environment is to tissue and DNA decay dynamics.

Dr Kevin G Daly, also from Trinity’s School of Genetics and Microbiology, supervised the study. He added:

“Using a combination of genetic and microscopic approaches, our team managed to create a genetic picture of what sheep breeds in Iran 1,600 years ago may have looked like and how they may have been used.

“Using cross-disciplinary approaches we can learn about what ancient cultures valued in animals, and this study shows us that the people of Sasanian-era Iran may have managed flocks of sheep specialised for meat consumption, suggesting well developed husbandry practices.”

Featured image: The mummified sheep leg from which DNA was obtained. Image courtesy of Deutsches Bergbau-Museum Bochum and Zanjan Cultural Heritage Centre, Archaeological Museum of Zanjan. © Deutsches Bergbau-Museum Bochum and Zanjan Cultural Heritage Centre, Archaeological Museum of Zanjan.


Provided by Trinity College Dublin

Study Reveals New Aspects Related To Plant Processing in a Neolithic Settlement in Turkey (Archeology)

Researchers from Pompeu Fabra University and the University of Leicester have discovered at the site of Çatalhöyük (Anatolia, Turkey) a wide variety of hitherto unknown wild resources. The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, has used an innovative approach, based on the analysis of microscopic plant remains extracted from grinding implements from different domestic contexts.

A study conducted by researchers from the UPF Culture and Socio-Ecological Dynamics research group (CaSEs) and the University of Leicester (UK) has provided a highly dynamic image surrounding the use and importance of hitherto unknown wild plant resources at the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük (Anatolia, Turkey). The researchers carried out their work combining the analysis of microbotanical remains and use-wear traces in various stone implements recovered from the site, which in the past hosted one of mankind’s first agricultural societies.

The researchers carried out their work combining the analysis of microbotanical remains and use-wear traces in various stone implements recovered from the site

Çatalhöyük is a world heritage archaeological site located in Anatolia (Turkey), which was inhabited during the Neolithic, between 7,100 and 6,000 BC. This site has received worldwide attention due to its size and because it is one of the first urban centres with a high density of agglomerated dwellings, to which entry was gained through the roof and which contained elaborate wall paintings inside. The settlement was studied continuously for nearly three decades and provided a wealth of archaeobotanical remains (charred remains of plants) and a wide range of stone artefacts and tools used to process plant resources.

An innovative approach that analyses residue trapped on the surface of grinding implements

Despite the extensive research conducted in the area, much of what is known about agricultural practices and the use of plant resources, both at Çatalhöyük and in many other archaeological settlements, is based on the study of charred remains. However, these remains occur causally, either when cooking food or due to accidental fire, which gives a limited image of the use of plant resources in the past.

“We recovered residues trapped in the pits and crevices of these stone artefacts that date back to the time of being used, and then carried out studies of microbotanical remains and thus reveal what types of plants had been processed with these artefacts in the past”

The study, led by Carlos G. Santiago-Marrero, a predoctoral researcher with the Culture and Socio-Ecological Dynamics (CaSEs) research group of the UPF Department of Humanities, together with Carla Lancelotti and Marco Madella, ICREA-UPF research professors and members of CaSEs, and Christina Tsoraki, of the School of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Leicester (UK), used an innovative approach based on the analysis of microscopic remains taken from grinding implements from three domestic contexts, attributed to the Middle (6,700-6,500 BC) and Late (6,500 -6,300 BC) periods of occupation.

“We recovered residues trapped in the pits and crevices of these stone artefacts that date back to the time of being used, and then carried out studies of microbotanical remains and thus reveal what types of plants had been processed with these artefacts in the past”, the researchers explain.

Among the microscopic remains studied by the researchers are phytoliths, from the deposition of opal silica in plant cells and cell walls, that provide clues about the presence of anatomical parts, such as the stems and husks of plants, including wheat and barley. Another residue studied are starches, glucose compounds, created by plants to store energy, which are found in large quantities in many edible parts of plants, such as seeds and tubers.

Thanks to combining these two lines, the researchers have shown that although the community of Çatalhöyük was based on an agricultural economy by definition, growing cereals and vegetables (wheat, oats, peas), there continued to be much exploitation of wild resources outside the spectrum of domestic resources, which had not yet been found at this site.

Use of wild plant resources to diversify the diet, through complex processing

“Microbotanical evidence has contributed to our knowledge about the plants used in the past and helped identify the presence of wild plants and various aspects related to possible strategies to exploit these resources, both to diversify the diet and to replace any calorie deficit that may have arisen in times of scarcity”, the researchers assert. These wild plant resources were as important as domestic ones, and were most likely used regularly to supplement the core diet.

These wild plant resources were as important as domestic ones, and were most likely used regularly to supplement the core diet.

“Among our findings we have shown that the community used a wide range of tuberous plants, many of them belonging to potentially toxic taxonomic families, which require complex processing or use. This shows the great phytocultural knowledge possessed by this community”, the authors underscore. And they add: “Many of these tuberous plants had highly restrictive seasonal life cycles, which has helped us to infer the possible means of organizing and exploiting the plant environment at different times of the year”.

Moreover, another important aspect revealed by the study is the processing of wild millet seeds, which had never been found among the charred remains of plants on the site.

Use-wear traces on the surfaces of processing implements denoting various uses

The analysis of use-wear traces on the surfaces of plant processing implements, produced by use in various activities, has allowed the researchers to infer different tasks for which the tools were used.

Thanks to these analyses, they have discovered very diverse life histories of these implements and the close relationship with various aspects related to the processing of plant resources and other domestic activities. “By combining microbotanical evidence with use traces, we have discovered processes such as grain husking, the milling of legumes, tubers and cereals, and even the use of these implements in other activities not related to plant processing”.

Featured image: A) Set of stone tools, storage area of building 52; B) Use-wear trace observed on the surface of stone implements; C) Wheat inflorescence phytolith; D) Wheat starch grain. © UPFB


Reference article: Santiago-Marrero, C., Tsoraki, C., Lancelotti, C., and Madella, M. (June 2021). “A microbotanical and microwear perspective to plant processing activities and foodways at Neolithic Çatalhöyük”. PLOS ONE https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0252312


Provided by Universitat Pompeu Fabra Barcelona

The Oldest Cities in the New World (Archeology)

Archaeologist relates the facts about some of the most ancient cities in the world.

The great Step Pyramid of Djoser in Egypt is popularly touted as the first and oldest ancient monumental pyramid ever built.

But think again.

Even before the ancients raised their massive stones in place in Egypt, more than 7700 miles to the southwest, on another continent, ancient people were constructing massive monumental structures, including pyramidal edifices in what is today known as Peru. At sites like CaralBandurriaAsperoHuaricanga, and Sechin Bajo, all located within the north/central coastal region of Peru, massive construction requiring organized, community effort was underway as early as 3500/36000 BCE. That’s nearly 1,000 years before the Djoser pyramid and about 500 years before the Sialk zigurrat, the oldest Mesopotamian zigurrat, located in present-day Iran.

Dr. Kimberly Munro, an Andean archaeologist, has been exploring and investigating ancient sites in Peru for over a decade. She is the director of the Cosma Archaeological Project, a long-term research project involving excavation and survey in the Andean central highlands. “For the Andean region specifically, the origins of state development has long been debated,” writes Munro in an article recently published in Popular Archaeology. “The Andes is a peculiar case study, given that unlike the other 5 “cradles of civilization” located throughout the rest of the Prehistoric world, Andean state development did not rely entirely on an agricultural revolution. Large scale public monuments are found along the coast by at least 3700 BCE, and many early centers, especially in the highlands, predate intensive agriculture.”

Detail view of one of the pyramids of Caral, which dates back to 2800 BCE.  Kimberly Munro

Notwithstanding these early site discoveries, she maintains, there is room to question the suggestion by many archaeologists that this early development arose first in the coastal and lower river valley regions. There may be reason to seriously consider looking eastward toward the highlands, as well, to sites like Kotosh, near the town of Huánuco in the central highlands. She also points, for example, to a site known as La Galgada, located on the Tablachaca branch of the upper Santa River Valley at 1,100 masl (meters above sea level) in Peru’s Department of Ancash region. La Galgada features massive dual mounds, temples, and a sunken circular plaza.  “Dates for La Galgada range from 3000 to 1700 BCE,” she wrote to Popular Archaeology. “However, the base of the mound and presumably earliest constructions were never reached, indicating there may be earlier structures deep within the complex.”

Munro relates what is known to date about these ancient Peruvian cities in a major feature premium article now published at Popular Archaeology. She also plans to lead groups of interested participants on special tours/treks of these ancient sites, and many more, in the future. Anyone interested in participating in this activity may send an email expressing interest to populararchaeology@gmail.com. As these activities are developed, interested potential participants will be informed of the details and provided the opportunity to register with the group. Readers can also follow Dr. Munro’s archaeology updates on Instagram: @the.field.professor. Pictured here, Dr. Munro is on location at La Galgada.

Cover Image: Top Left: View of the pyramids of Caral. Kimberly Munro


Provided by Popular Archeology