Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A wooden toe: Egyptologists study 3,000-year-old prosthesis

Toe prosthesis of a female burial from the Theban tomb TT95, early first millennium BC. Egyptian Museum Cairo, JE100016a.
CREDIT
University of Basel, LHTT. Image: Matja� Kačičnik

It is likely to be one of the oldest prosthetic devices in human history: Together with other experts, Egyptologists from the University of Basel have reexamined an artificial wooden big toe. The find is almost 3000 years old and was discovered in a female burial from the necropolis of Sheikh ´Abd el-Qurna close to Luxor. This area is currently being studied using state-of-the-art methods.

The international team investigated the one-of-a-kind prosthesis using modern microscopy, X-ray technology, and computer tomography. They were able to show that the wooden toe was refitted several times to the foot of its owner, a priest's daughter. The researchers also newly classified the used materials and identified the method with which the highly developed prosthesis was produced and utilized. Experts from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo - where the prosthetic device was brought to after it had been found - and the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich were also involved in this study.

The artificial toe from the early first millennium BC testifies to the skills of an artisan who was very familiar with the human physiognomy. The technical know-how can be seen particularly well in the mobility of the prosthetic extension and the robust structure of the belt strap. The fact that the prosthesis was made in such a laborious and meticulous manner indicates that the owner valued a natural look, aesthetics and wearing comfort and that she was able to count on highly qualified specialists to provide this.

Life histories of a burial ground

The prosthesis from the Early Iron Age was found in a plundered shaft tomb that was cut into the bedrock of an older, long time idle burial chapel at the graveyard hill of Sheikh ´Abd el-Qurna to the west of Luxor. This chapel belongs to a group of monumental rock-cut tombs from the late 15th century BC which were built for a small upper class that was close to the royal family. Since the end of 2015, the University of Basel has been studying this ancient Egyptian elite cemetery, its long history of usage, and surroundings.

For this project, funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, microanalytic, scientifically oriented methods, as well as precision technology for surveying and photography were used. The researchers are looking into the materiality of archaeological remains and are thus gaining insight into the life histories of building structures and objects. These material biographies can provide information about the manufacturing practices, usages, personal skills, habits and preferences of people who were in contact with these objects.

A necropolis in 3-D

The oldest known tombs from Sheikh ´Abd el-Qurna date back to the early second millennium BC. The cemetery saw its heyday in the 15th century BC. However, many of these rock-cut structures were reused and in parts remodeled several times for burials during the first millennium BC. Much later, they served as dwellings mostly for locals - a process that began with the early Christian hermits and only ended in the early 20th century.

Together with the experts for geodesy and geology from the ETH Zurich, the Basel team of archaeologists is scientifically assessing the natural and artificial structures of the excavation area and its surroundings. The specialists are currently developing geometric precise digital elevation, landscape, and architecture models for this area. These will then be combined to an archaeological and geological 3-D map that will illustrate the morphology of the terrain as well as the investigated subterranean structures. On that basis, the researchers want to reconstruct and simulate the development of the cemetery and its use phases.


Ancient skulls shed light on migration in the Roman empire


Skeletal evidence shows that, hundreds of years after the Roman Republic conquered most of the Mediterranean world, coastal communities in what is now south and central Italy still bore distinct physical differences to one another - though the same could not be said of the area around Rome itself.

Using state-of-the-art forensic techniques, anthropologists from North Carolina State University and California State University, Sacramento examined skulls from three imperial Roman cemeteries: 27 skulls from Isola Sacra, on the coast of central Italy; 26 from Velia, on the coast of southern Italy; and 20 from Castel Malnome, on the outskirts of the city of Rome. The remains at the cemeteries in both Isola Sacra and Velia belonged to middle-class merchants and tradesmen, while those from Castel Malnome belonged to manual laborers. All of the remains date from between the first and third centuries A.D.

The researchers took measurements of 25 specific points on each skull using a "digitizer," which is basically an electronic stylus that records the coordinates of each point. This data allowed them to perform shape analysis on the skulls, relying on "geometric morphometrics" -- a field of study that characterizes and assesses biological forms.

"We found that there were significant cranial differences between the coastal communities, even though they had comparable populations in terms of class and employment," says Ann Ross, a professor of anthropology at NC State and co-author of a paper on the work.

"We think this is likely due to the fact that the area around Velia had a large Greek population, rather than an indigenous one," says Samantha Hens, a professor of biological anthropology at Sacramento State and lead author of the paper.

In addition, the skulls from Castel Malnome had more in common with both coastal sites than the coastal sites had with each other.

"This likely highlights the heterogeneity of the population near Rome, and the influx of freed slaves and low-paid workers needed for manual labor in that area," Hens says.

"Researchers have used many techniques -- from linguistics to dental remains - to shed light on how various peoples moved through the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire," Ross says. "But this is the first study we know of in which anyone has used geometric morphometrics to evaluate imperial Roman remains.

"That's important because geometric morphometrics offers several advantages," Ross says. "It includes all geometric information in three-dimensional space rather than statistical space, it provides more biological information, and it allows for pictorial visualization rather than just lists of measurements."

"The patterns of similarities and differences that we see help us to reconstruct past population relationships," Hens says. "Additionally, these methods allow us to identify where the shape change is occurring on the skull, for example, in the face, or braincase, which gives us a view into what these people actually looked like."


Saturday, June 17, 2017

Neanderthals in the Levant


According to the study published today in the journal Scientific Reports by an international team lead by Israeli researchers, Neanderthals in the Levant constituted a resilient population that survived successfully in caves and open landscapes 60,000 years ago, when dispersing modern humans reached the region.



The study was led by Dr. Ella Been from the Ono Academic College, Prof. Erella Hovers from the Institute of archaeology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Dr. Omry Barzilai from the Israel Antiquities Authority, with the assistance of Dr. Ravid Ekshtain (the Hebrew University of Jerusalem) and Dr. Ariel Malinsky-Buller (the Museum for Human Behavioral Evolution, Monrepos, Germany).

The study focused on the skeletal remains of two human individuals from the open-air site of ‘Ein Qashish, on the banks of the Qishon stream in northern Israel. The analyses shown that these bones represent the first Neanderthal remains outside caves in the Levant, and are among the very few of such finds worldwide. The remains were dated to the late Middle Paleolithic period, between 70,000 and 60,000 years ago by Dr. Naomi Porat from the Geological Survey of Israel.

The first individual is represented by a single upper molar tooth, and was studied by Dr. Stefano Benazzi and colleagues from the University of Ravena in Italy and the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig. This tooth is attributed to a Neanderthal using advanced imaging and statistical techniques.

The other individual, studied by Dr. Ella Been in collaboration with researchers from Bar-Ilan and Tel-Aviv Universities, is represented by lower limbs of a young Neanderthal (15-22 years in age), who suffered from injuries that caused limping. This individual was found within a rich archaeological level containing flint tools, animal bones, and some unusual finds for this period, such as a marine shell, pigments and an antler of a deer.

The fate of the Neanderthals and the nature of their interactions with modern humans are among the focal questions in the research of the Middle Paleolithic period, which lasted ca. 200,000 years. The Near East is the only region known today where the two populations existed during the Middle Paleolithic. The finds from ‘Ein Qashish allow, for the first time in the history of research in this region, to tie material culture remains in an open-air site with the Neanderthals, known until now only from cave sites. The current study indicates that Neanderthals repeatedly visited the site of ‘Ein Qashish and that the settlement system of Neanderthals groups included both caves and open-air sites.

Fieldwork at the site of ‘Ein Qashish and following research on the finds were conducted by researchers and students from the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University, and the University of Haifa.

״A number of researchers have recently claimed that Neanderthals were adapted to life in rugged mountainous terrains whereas modern humans adapted better to flat and open landscapes. The finds from ‘Ein Qashish show that Neanderthals inhabited sites in diverse topographic and ecological contexts.

Another contentious topic concerns the causes for the disappearance of the Neanderthals.  One of the prominent explanations offered was that it was difficult for Neanderthals groups in the Levant to cope with the environmental outcomes of a trend of increasing drying climate that was characteristic of the time period under study. The unique find from ‘Ein Qashish indicates that Neanderthal groups repeatedly returned to the open-air sites during this time. Our study suggests that Neanderthals were a resilient population that successfully existed in the north of Israel at the time that modern humans arrived from Africa some 60,000 years ago.”

 According to this study, despite possible genetic flow between Neanderthal and early Homo sapiens populations and climatic fluctuations, the Neanderthals in the Levant were a resilient population that survived successfully in the region when modern humans reached it again some 60,000 years ago.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Jerusalem tower younger than thought


Recently uncovered remains of a massive stone tower built to guard Gihon Spring -- a vital water supply just downhill from the ancient city of Jerusalem.
CREDIT
Weizmann Institute of Science

Gihon Spring, just downhill from the ancient city of Jerusalem, was crucial to the survival of its inhabitants, and archaeologists had uncovered the remains of a massive stone tower built to guard this vital water supply. Based on pottery and other regional findings, the archaeologists had originally assigned it a date of 1,700 BCE. But new research conducted at the Weizmann Institute of Science provides conclusive evidence that the stones at the base of the tower were laid nearly 1,000 years later. Among other things, the new results highlight the contribution of advanced scientific dating methods to understanding the history of the region.

Dr. Elisabetta Boaretto, Head of the Weizmann Institute of Science's D-REAMS Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory and track leader within the Max Planck-Weizmann Center for Integrative Archaeology and Anthropology, had the opportunity to date the tower as part of her ongoing cooperative research projects with the Israel Antiquity Authority (IAA). Since 2012, Dr. Joe Uziel and Nahshon Szanton of the IAA, in continuing the excavations around the tower, have discovered that the base of the tower was not built on bedrock. "The boulders in the tower's base, in and of themselves," explains Boaretto, "do not yield any information other than the fact that whoever placed them there had the ability to maneuver such heavy stones. But underneath the boulders, the soil exhibits the layers typical of archaeological strata, and these can reveal the latest date that the site was occupied before the tower was built."

The unique and methodical approach of the D-REAMS lab team begins by planning and executing the field sampling and excavation from the beginning - together with the site archaeologists. "Getting one's hands dirty is all part of building a reliable chronology," says Boaretto. During field work conducted with the archaeologists and later in her laboratory with postdoctoral fellow Dr. Johanna Regev, Boaretto identified several clearly-delineated strata. From these, they carefully collected remains of charcoal, seeds and bones - organic matter that can be definitively dated through radiocarbon dating.

The first dating was conducted on mid-to-lower levels of sediment, and these dates indeed agreed with those originally proposed. "But there was another half-meter of sediment between the material we had dated and the large cornerstone," says Boaretto. "At a glance, we thought this might represent another few hundred years before the stone was placed." The presence of separate, sequential layers, which they identified using microarchaeological tools and radiocarbon dating, enabled the researchers to attach dates to the strata just below the tower.

The radiocarbon dating method is based on counting the radioactive 14C atoms in a sample. These carbon atoms are found in all living things in a small, but stable ratio to that of regular carbon, and they begin to decay at a known rate after death. At the Weizmann Institute of Science, the count of 14C atoms in a sample is performed with an accelerator, so it can return highly accurate results on something as small as a seed.

The date revealed by this radiocarbon dating was sometime around 800-900 BCE. That is nearly 1,000 years later than thought, and it moves the building of the tower to another historical period entirely, from the Middle Bronze Age to the Iron Age.

To complete the study, Boaretto and her team asked whether any explanation could allow the tower to have been built earlier - repairs, for example - but the presence of the large boulders sitting above layers of earth containing the remains of everyday activities would appear to be fairly conclusive evidence that the later date is the correct one. Boaretto: "The conclusive, scientific dating of this massive tower, placing it in a later era than was presumed, will have repercussions for other attempts to date construction and occupation in ancient Jerusalem."

Study sheds light on Neanderthal-Homo sapiens transition


Archaeologists at The Australian National University (ANU) and the University of Sydney have provided a window into one of the most exciting periods in human history -- the transition between Neanderthals and modern humans.

An archaeological dig in a cave in the Moravian region of the Czech Republic has provided a timeline of evidence from 10 sedimentary layers spanning 28,000 to 50,000 years ago. This is the period when our modern human ancestors first arrived in Europe.

The dig, in a cave near the Czech border with Austria and around 150kms north of Vienna, has unearthed over 20,000 animal bones as well as stone tools, weapons and an engraved bone bead that is the oldest of its kind in Central Europe.

ANU archaeologist Dr Duncan Wright said the project was so important because it gives some of the earliest evidence of modern human activity in the region. This was a period when humans were moving substantial distances and bringing with them portable art objects.

"In the early layers the items we've found are locally made flakes, possibly used by small communities living and hunting in the vicinity to kill animals or prepare food, but around 40,000 years ago we start to see objects coming from long distances away," Dr Wright said.

"Dating from this same time we unearthed a bead made from mammal bone. This is the oldest portable art object of its type found anywhere in central Europe and provides evidence of social signalling, quite possibly used as a necklace to mark the identity of the wearer.

"So between these two periods, we've either seen a change in behaviour and human movement or possibly even a change in species."

Archaeologist Ladislav Nejman of the University of Sydney said one of the biggest questions is the beginnings of human exploration of this landscape by Homo sapiens who arrived in this area for the first time. "We've found that somewhere between 40-48,000 years ago people became highly mobile," Dr Nejman said.

"Instead of moving short distances near the cave where they lived, they were walking for hundreds of kilometres quite often. We know that because we found various artefacts where the raw material comes from 100-200 kilometres away.

"The artefacts were also made of different materials from different regions. Some from the North-West, some from the North, some from the East."

However in layer 10, which represents an earlier time period between 48-45,000 years ago, all the recovered stone artefacts were made using local raw material, which indicates that the high residential mobility came later.

Dr Nejman said the study also revealed valuable new information about the climate of the region.

"We haven't had such a long sequence of sedimentary layers before that we could test," he said.

"The climate changed quite often from warmer to colder, and vice versa, but at all times it was much colder than the interglacial period that we have lived in for the past 10,000 years."

Samples from the site have been sent through for analysis using a new technique, called ancient sediment DNA analysis. This is the first scientific method that can detect which species were present even without the bones of these species. It tests remnant DNA preserved in the sediment.

Dr Wright said the results will shed new light on a period of transition between two species of humans and also give clearer evidence about the activities of our modern human ancestors in a period and region where little is known.

"We can tell by the artefacts that small groups of people camped at this cave. This was during glacial periods suggesting they were well adapted to these harsh conditions" Dr Wright said.

"It's quite possible that the two different species of humans met in this area."


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Military correspondence from the First Temple period discovered


Using advanced imaging technology, Tel Aviv University researchers have discovered a hitherto invisible inscription on the back of a pottery shard that has been on display at The Israel Museum for more than 50 years.


This is the inscription found on reverse of ostraca at Arad.
CREDIT
American Friends of Tel Aviv University (AFTAU)

The ostracon (ink-inscribed pottery shard) was first found in poor condition in 1965 at the desert fortress of Arad. It dates back to ca. 600 BCE, the eve of the kingdom of Judah's destruction by Nebuchadnezzar. The inscription on its front side, opening with a blessing by Yahweh, discusses money transfers and has been studied by archaeologists and biblical scholars alike.

"While its front side has been thoroughly studied, its back was considered blank," said Arie Shaus of TAU's Department of Applied Mathematics, one of the principal investigators of the study published today in PLOS ONE. The study can be found at http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0178400.

"Using multispectral imaging to acquire a set of images, Michael Cordonsky of TAU's School of Physics noticed several marks on the ostracon's reverse side. To our surprise, three new lines of text were revealed," Shaus said.

The researchers were able to decipher 50 characters, comprising 17 words, on the back of the ostracon. "The content of the reverse side implies it is a continuation of the text on the front side," said Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin of TAU's Department of Applied Mathematics, another principal investigator of the study.

The multidisciplinary research was conducted by Faigenbaum-Golovin, Shaus, and Barak Sober, all doctoral students in TAU's Department of Applied Mathematics, and by Dr. Anat Mendel-Geberovich of TAU's Department of Archaeology. Additional collaborators include Prof. David Levin and Prof. Eli Turkel of TAU's Department of Applied Mathematics, Prof. Benjamin Sass of TAU's Department of Archaeology, as well as Michael Cordonsky and Prof. Murray Moinester of TAU's School of Physics. The research team was co-led by Prof. Eli Piasetzky of TAU's School of Physics and Prof. Israel Finkelstein of TAU's Department of Archaeology.

"Using multispectral imaging, we were also able to significantly improve the reading of the front side, adding four 'new' lines," said Sober.

A request for more wine

"Tel Arad was a military outpost -- a fortress at the southern border of the kingdom of Judah -- and was populated by 20 to 30 soldiers," said Dr. Mendel-Geberovich. "Most of the ostraca unearthed at Arad are dated to a short time span during the last stage of the fortress's history, on the eve of the kingdom's destruction in 586 BCE by Nebuchadnezzar. Many of these inscriptions are addressed to Elyashiv, the quartermaster of the fortress. They deal with the logistics of the outpost, such as the supply of flour, wine, and oil to subordinate units."

"The new inscription begins with a request for wine, as well as a guarantee for assistance if the addressee has any requests of his own," said Shaus. "It concludes with a request for the provision of a certain commodity to an unnamed person, and a note regarding a 'bath,' an ancient measurement of wine carried by a man named Ge'alyahu."

"The newly revealed inscription features an administrative text, like most of the Arad inscriptions," said Dr. Mendel-Geberovich. "Its importance lies in the fact that each new line, word, and even a single sign is a precious addition to what we know about the First Temple period."

"On a larger scale, our discovery stresses the importance of multispectral imaging to the documentation of ostraca," said Faigenbaum-Golovin. "It's daunting to think how many inscriptions, invisible to the naked eye, have been disposed of during excavations."

"This is ongoing research," concluded Sober. "We have at our disposal several additional alterations and expansions of known First Temple-period ostraca. Hence, the future may hold additional surprises."

Monday, June 12, 2017

Neolithic Revolution - dietary practices are reflected in the genes of Europeans


A recently published Cornell University study describes how shifts in the diets of Europeans after the introduction of farming 10,000 years ago led to genetic adaptations that favored the dietary trends of the time.

Before the Neolithic revolution that began around 10,000 years ago, European populations were hunter-gatherers that ate animal-based diets and some seafood. But after the advent of farming in southern Europe around 8,000 years ago, European farmers switched to primarily plant-heavy diets.

The study - the first to separate and compare adaptations that occurred before and after the Neolithic Revolution - reveals that these dietary practices are reflected in the genes of Europeans.

"The study shows what a striking role diet has played in the evolution of human populations," said Alon Keinan, associate professor of computational and population genomics and the paper's senior author. Kaixiong Ye, a postdoctoral researcher in Keinan's lab, is the paper's lead author.

The study has implications for the growing field of nutritional genomics, called nutrigenomics. Based on one's ancestry, clinicians may one day tailor each person's diet to her or his genome to improve health and prevent disease.

The study shows that vegetarian diets of European farmers led to an increased frequency of an allele that encodes cells to produce enzymes that helped farmers metabolize plants. Frequency increased as a result of natural selection, where vegetarian farmers with this allele had health advantages that allowed them to have more children, passing down this genetic variant to their offspring.

The FADS1 gene found in these vegetarian farmers produces enzymes that play a vital role in the biosynthesis of omega-3 and omega-6 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFA). These LCPUFAs are crucial for proper human brain development, controlling inflammation and immune response. While omega-3 and omega-6 LCPUFA can be obtained directly from animal-based diets, they are absent from plant-based diets. Vegetarians require FADS1 enzymes to biosynthesize LCPUFA from short-chain fatty acids found in plants (roots, vegetables and seeds).

Analysis of ancient DNA revealed that prior to humans' farming, the animal-based diets of European hunter-gatherers predominantly favored the opposite version of the same gene, which limits the activity of FADS1 enzymes and is better suited for people with meat and seafood-based diets.

Analysis of the frequencies of these alleles in Europeans showed that the prevalence of the allele for plant-based diets decreased in Europeans until the Neolithic revolution, after which it rose sharply. Concurrently, the opposite version of the same gene found in hunter-gatherers increased until the advent of farming, after which it declined sharply.

The researchers also found a gradient in the frequencies of these alleles from north to south since the Neolithic Era, including modern-day populations. All farmers relied heavily on plant-based diets, but that reliance was stronger in the south, as compared to northern Europeans - whose farmer ancestors drank more milk and included seafood in their diet.

Plant-based alleles regulate cholesterol levels and have been associated with risk of many diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease, cardiovascular disease, arthritis and bipolar disorder.

"I want to know how different individuals respond differently to the same diet," Ye said. Future studies will investigate additional links between genetic variation, diets and health, so that "in the future, we can provide dietary recommendations that are personalized to one's genetic background," he added.