Archive for the ‘biological archaeology’ Category

Mass grave in Poland embodies the violent beginning of the Bronze Age

May 15th, 2019
This is the Late Neolithic mass grave at Koszyce, Poland.

Enlarge / This is the Late Neolithic mass grave at Koszyce, Poland. (credit: Image courtesy of Piotr Wodarczak)

Sometime between 2880 and 2776 BCE, 15 family members were hastily buried together in a single pit, their shattered skulls telling a story of violent death. Yet someone interred the dead with the pottery, tools, and ornaments typical of a proper burial in their culture, a culture we know today by the name of its most common ceramic artifact: the Globular Amphora. And someone seems to have made the effort to put the closest family members alongside one another in the pit.

Today, the grave near the village of Koszyce in southern Poland is the only record of one particular act of brutal violence during a turbulent time in European prehistory.

Out of the blue

It seems that no one in the seasonal camp of pastoralists was prepared for the raiders. Nearly all of the dead are women and children. Though women in the past (and today) could be formidable fighters, no weapons are buried with them to suggest that was the case here. Almost none of their bones show signs of broken limbs raised in defense (known as parry fractures), so it doesn’t look like they went down fighting. Instead, most appear to have died from crushing blows to the back of their skulls, as if they’d been captured and executed.

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Posted in ancient DNA, ancient europe, Archaeology, biological archaeology, bronze age, mass grave, neolithic, science | Comments (0)

DNA from medieval Crusader skeletons suggests surprising diversity

April 22nd, 2019
DNA from medieval Crusader skeletons suggests surprising diversity

Enlarge (credit: Claude Doumet-Serhal)

European soldiers and civilians poured into the Levant from in the 12th and 13th centuries, often killing or displacing local Muslim populations and establishing their own settlements in an effort to seize control of sites sacred to three major religious groups.

But in a new study, DNA from the skeletons of nine soldiers hints that the armies of the Crusades were more diverse and more closely linked with local people in Lebanon than historians previously assumed. The genetic evidence suggests that the Crusaders also recruited from among local populations and European soldiers sometimes married local women and raised children, some of whom may have grown up to fight in later campaigns.

Living and dying side by side

For centuries, the mingled, charred bones of at least 25 soldiers lay buried in two mass graves near the ruins of the Castle of St. Louis, a 12th- to 13th-century Crusader stronghold near Sidon, in south Lebanon. Several of the skeletons (all apparently male) bore the marks of violent death, and the artifacts mingled with the bones—buckles of medieval European design, along with a coin minted in Italy in 1245 to commemorate the Crusades—mark the pit's occupants as dead Crusader soldiers, burned and buried in the aftermath of a battle. From nine of them, geneticist Marc Haber and his colleagues at the Wellcome Sanger Institute obtained usable DNA sequences. They offer a rare look into the ranks of the soldiers who fought on one side of the 200-year series of wars.

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Posted in ancient DNA, Archaeology, biological archaeology, crusades, medieval history, population genetics, science | Comments (0)

Climate change may have driven a band of Neanderthals to cannibalism

March 31st, 2019
Climate change may have driven a band of Neanderthals to cannibalism

(credit: Photograph by ORNL)

A new study suggests that a group of Neanderthals in southeast France resorted to cannibalism to survive lean times. If that says anything about Neanderthals, it’s that they weren’t so different from us—for better and for worse.

The bones in the cave

Something awful happened in Moula-Guercy cave in southeastern France around 120,000 years ago. Archaeologists excavating the site in the early 1990s found the bones of six Neanderthals near the eastern wall of the cave, disarticulated and mingled with bones from deer and other wildlife. That mixing of bones, as though the dead Neanderthals had been discarded with the remains of their food, is strange enough; there’s plenty of evidence that Neanderthals typically buried their dead. But at Moula-Guercy, at least six Neanderthals—two adults, two teenagers, and two children—received very different treatment. Their bones and those of the deer show nearly-identical marks of cutting, scraping, and cracking, the kind of damage usually associated with butchering.

“When numerous human remains are discovered on an undisturbed living floor, with similar patterns of damage, mixed with animal remains, stone tools, and fireplaces, they can legitimately interpreted as evidence of cannibalism,” wrote Alban Defleur and Emmanuel Desclaux in a recent paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

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Posted in ancient people did stuff, Archaeology, biological archaeology, cannibalism, forensic archaeology, hominins, interglacial, Neanderthals, paleoanthropology, science | Comments (0)

People brought food from all over Britain to feast near Stonehenge

March 20th, 2019
Prehistoric stone circle in the English countryside.

Enlarge / Feasts at nearby Durrington Walls drew attendees from all over Britain. (credit: Stefan Kühn / Wikimedia)

The remnants of prehistoric monuments still dot the modern British landscape. Around 4,500 years ago, people gathered at these sites or in nearby communities for annual winter feasts where the main delicacy on the menu was pork. Chemical analysis of the pig bones left behind after feasts at four major henge sites in southern Britain reveals a surprisingly far-flung network of Neolithic travel.

This little piggy went to Stonehenge...

Mount Pleasant Henge is a stone circle about 70km (44 miles) southwest of Stonehenge, near the coast of the English Channel. West Kennet Palisaded Enclosures is a set of circular ditches and palisades near the famous stone circle at Avebury, about 39km (24 miles) north of Stonehenge, while Marden Henge, between Avebury and Stonehenge, is a 14-hectare site surrounded by ditches and embankments that once held its own circle of standing stones. Durrington Walls, a large settlement (which eventually built its own stone circle) just 3km (1.86 miles) northeast of Stonehenge, was closely linked with the iconic monument itself.

"Stonehenge is for the dead, Durrington Walls for the living: the place of the builders of Stonehenge and the places of Stonehenge's feasts," archaeologist Richard Madgwick of Cardiff University told Ars Technica. Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of ancient feasting at all four sites: broken ceramics, discarded stone tools, and the bones of butchered pigs. Those 4,500-year-old leftovers suggest that these sites were hubs linking a Neolithic social network that connected far-flung communities from Scotland to Wales.

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Posted in ancient england, ancient europe, ancient people did stuff, Archaeology, avesbury, biological archaeology, durrington walls, isotope analysis, isotopes, marden henge, mount pleasant henge, neolithic, nitrogen isotopes, oxygen isotopes, science, stable carbon isotopes, Stable isotope, stonehenge, strontium isotopes, sulfur isotopes, zooarchaeology | Comments (0)

How to display the severed heads of your enemies, the Iron Age way

January 30th, 2019
How to display the severed heads of your enemies, the Iron Age way

Enlarge (credit: Roure et al. 2019)

Archaeologists found microscopic traces of conifer resin and plant oils on bone fragments from skulls scattered just inside the walls of Le Cailar, a 2,500-year-old walled settlement near the Rhone River in southern France. That suggests that the heads had been embalmed with resin and plant oil before being displayed at the settlement, a practice described in ancient Roman texts and portrayed in sculptures at other Celtic sites across southern France. According to those texts and sculptures, it’s likely that the skulls belonged to defeated enemies.

“The head of the most famous enemy”

The fragments of at least a hundred human skulls lay buried in an open area just inside the town’s walls. They were mingled with weapons, coins, and broken pottery in a layer dating to 300 to 200 BCE, when the town was an Iron Age Celtic community. Many of the bones bear the telltale cut marks of decapitation but also evidence of the work that went into preparing these grisly trophies for display.

On some of the skulls, bone had been chipped, cut, or scraped away to widen the foramen magnum—the hole at the back of the skull where the spinal cord enters—probably to remove the brain. Scrape marks on the undersides of some of the skulls’ lower jaws suggest that ancient embalmers may also have removed the tongues.

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Posted in ancient europe, ancient people did stuff, Archaeology, biological archaeology, celtic, decapitation, forensic archaeology, mass spectrometry, science, severed heads | Comments (0)

A medieval woman’s work left blue pigment on her teeth

January 9th, 2019

Archaeologists recently unearthed the skeleton of a woman they say was probably a skilled artist who helped produce the richly illustrated religious texts of medieval Europe. The woman lived sometime between 997 and 1162 CE, according to radiocarbon dating of her teeth, at a small women’s monastery called Dalheim in Lichtenau, Germany. And she died with tiny flecks of expensive lapis lazuli pigment still caught in her teeth, probably from licking the tip of her paintbrush to make a finer point.

There’s something in your teeth

During the Middle Ages, the vivid blue pigment called ultramarine was made with powdered, purified lazurite crystals, which come from the rare stone lapis lazuli. Because it’s only mined in northeast Afghanistan, the mineral had to travel thousands of miles by land and sea through far-flung trade networks to reach Europe. It was fabulously expensive, ranking alongside silver and gold, and it would have been used to paint illustrations in only the most lavish, ornate, and expensive illuminated manuscripts. That means that only the most skilled, experienced painters would have access to it. Obviously, this unnamed medieval woman must have been exceptionally good at her work.

She died somewhere between the ages of 45 and 60, and her bones suggest a life of very little physical work or disease, which is exactly what you’d expect from a woman who spent her days painting at an isolated monastery. Anthropologist Christina Warinner of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and her colleagues took samples of her fossilized dental plaque, or calculus, in 2014 to check for microscopic remains of plants, which would offer clues about the medieval woman’s diet. But when they dissolved the sample to extract the plant bits, the process also released hundreds of tiny blue particles.

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Posted in anthropology, Archaeology, biological archaeology, cemeteries, dental calculus, forensic archaeology, illuminated manuscripts, medieval Europe, medieval history, middle ages, monasteries, science, skeleton, Women | Comments (0)

The skulls of ancient pearl divers come with abnormal ear canal bone growths

December 28th, 2018
This temporal bone from a male skull unearthed at the site of a pre-Columbian village near the Gulf of Panama has bony bumps characteristic of surfer's ear.

Enlarge / This temporal bone from a male skull unearthed at the site of a pre-Columbian village near the Gulf of Panama has bony bumps characteristic of surfer's ear. (credit: Smith-Guzman and Cooke)

Surfers, divers, and others who spend time in cold water sometimes suffer from a condition called "surfer’s ear," in which a small bony bump forms in the temporal bone, blocking part of the ear canal. Archaeologists recently found the same bony growths in the skulls of people who lived in pre-Columbian Panama up to 2,400 years ago. They suspect the skulls are the remains of expert pearl divers who spent their lives freediving for valuable items on the ocean floor.

Beneath the surface

The skulls were part of a large collection examined by archaeologists Nicole Smith-Guzman and Richard Cooke of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. They found the telltale bumps on the temporal bones of eight skulls with intact ear canals—seven men and one woman. Among the skulls that still had intact ear canals on both sides, 12.2 percent of the men and 3.3 percent of the women had surfer’s ear on at least one side. Most had mild or moderate cases, but one man had enough growth to block more than two-thirds of his ear canal, which may have been enough to cause noticeable hearing loss.

The relatively low frequency of the growths suggests a select group of mostly men who, for some reason, regularly ended up with cold water in their ear canals.

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Posted in ancient people did stuff, ancient south america, Archaeology, biological archaeology, divers, diving, forensic archaeology, freediving, panama, Pre-Columbian civilizations, science, skeleton, South America, South American archaeology | Comments (0)

Medieval skeleton’s boots reveal harsh realities of life on the Thames

December 6th, 2018

The skeleton had lain buried for about 500 years in the muddy silt of Chamber’s Wharf, a site located at a bend in the river just downstream from the Tower of London. Debris in the river tends to accumulate in bends like this one, so there’s no way to be sure exactly where the man fell in. But he ended up face-down in the mud at Chamber’s Wharf, with one arm stretched over his head and the other twisted to the side. The tide-washed sediment would have covered him quickly, the team says, holding his body in place and helping preserve the thigh-high leather boots he was wearing when he died.

The boots are a tangible, deeply personal link to how the unknown man lived, and they offer some hints at how he probably died. They’re comparable to the tall wading boots currently worn by fishermen, sewage workers, water utility crews, and many other industrial workers wear today: thigh-high boots with sturdy reinforced double soles, stuffed with a material that might be moss to keep the wearer’s feet warm or make the boots fit more snugly.

Based on their design, the boots date to the late 1400s or early 1500s, and they’re not the sort of item the man would have taken to his grave on purpose. Leather was a valuable commodity at the time, and almost no one in the working class would have buried such an expensive pair of boots—not when they, or their material, could be reused. Like his awkward final resting position, the man’s boots suggest an untimely, unexpected death.

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Posted in ancient people did stuff, Archaeology, biological archaeology, forensic archaeology, medieval england, medieval history, science, thames river | Comments (0)

Medieval dental plaque sheds light on how our microbiomes have changed

November 25th, 2018
Medieval dental plaque sheds light on how our microbiomes have changed

(credit: Liam Lanigan)

The communities of bacteria that live in our mouths have changed drastically since the Middle Ages, according to a new study of remains buried in a medieval Danish cemetery. And it turns out that some people may have been more predisposed to tooth and gum disease than others, thanks in part to the bacterial communities that lived in their mouths.

Ancient dental plaque

Biochemist Rosa Jersie-Christensen of the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research sampled hardened dental plaque, called calculus, from the skeletal remains of 21 Danish men who lived in the village of Tjærby between 1100 and 1450 CE. She and her colleagues chose men for the study because male immune systems tend to have stronger inflammatory responses, which would make it easier to find proteins associated with inflammation.

Overall, the men’s dental health wasn’t great—about what you might expect from a group of medieval villagers. All 21 showed some signs of gum disease, or periodontitis, along with at least minor cavities. Several had lost teeth sometime before their death.

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Posted in ancient diets, ancient disease, ancient proteins, biological archaeology, cemeteries, dental, medieval, medieval medicine, microbiome, microbiota, Oral health, paleopathology, proteins, science, skeleton | Comments (0)

Neanderthal teeth reveal lead exposure and difficult winters

October 31st, 2018
Neanderthal teeth reveal lead exposure and difficult winters


A new study of oxygen isotope ratios and heavy metals in the tooth enamel of Neanderthals who lived and died 250,000 years ago in southeast France suggests that they endured colder winters and more pronounced differences between seasons than the region’s modern residents. The two Neanderthals in the study also experienced lead exposure during their early years, making them the earliest known instances of this exposure.

Enduring harsh winters

Tooth enamel forms in thin layers, and those layers record the chemical traces of a person’s early life—from climate to nutrition to chemical exposures—a little like tree rings on a much smaller scale. Archaeologist Tanya Smith of Griffith University and her colleagues examined microscopic samples of tooth enamel from two Neanderthal children from the Payre site in southeastern France. The teeth were radiocarbon dated to around 250,000 years ago, and the set of samples recorded about three years of life.

One important clue to past environments is oxygen, which comes from the water a person drank or the plants they ate. The ratio of the oxygen-18 isotope to oxygen-16 depends on temperature, precipitation, and evaporation. Generally, higher ratios of oxygen-18 indicate warmer, drier conditions with more evaporation.

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Posted in Archaeology, biological archaeology, isotope analysis, Neanderthals, paleoanthropology, paleoclimate, science, teeth | Comments (0)