Archive for the ‘biological archaeology’ Category

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

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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)

Ancient skull found among debris in burned Brazilian museum

October 25th, 2018
Ancient skull found among debris in burned Brazilian museum

Enlarge (credit: Gian Cornachini via Wikimedia Commons)

Archaeologists are celebrating the recovery of an 11,500-year-old skull from the burned rubble of the National Museum of Brazil following a devastating fire on September 2. The skull belongs to a woman, now nicknamed Luzia, who died in a cave in southeastern Brazil early in the history of the settling of the Americas. Archaeologists in the 1970s unearthed about a third of her skeleton, including her remarkably well-preserved skull, her pelvis and lower spine, part of her right femur (the large bone of the upper leg), her left tibia (the shin bone), and left radius (one of the bones of the forearm).

An early American

According to radiocarbon dating done in 2013, Luzia died sometime between 11,243 and 11,710 years ago, which places her bones among the oldest evidence we have of the early population of the Americas. When archaeologists retrieved the charred, cracked pieces of skull and femur from the remains of the museum’s first floor earlier this week, they salvaged a rare and vital source of information about how humans spread through the Americas.

Although archaeologists also found flint tools at the site, Luzia herself had been left alone in the cave with no other human remains nearby. That suggests an unexpected death, perhaps in an accident or an encounter with large Pleistocene wildlife. And at just under 1.5 m (5 ft) tall, Luzia certainly wouldn’t have been much of a match for a saber-toothed cat.

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Posted in 3d scanning, ancient DNA, Archaeology, biological archaeology, museums, paleoanthropology, paleogenomics, peopling of the americas, pleistocene, science, South America, South American archaeology | Comments (0)