🧐 Ancient Beat #36: Catastrophic sex, biodynamic calendars, and ancient commerce
Hi folks! Welcome to issue #36 of Ancient Beat. With the big day fast approaching, this seems like a good time to let you know that at some point in the next month or so, I’ll be taking a couple of weeks off. My wife is (very) pregnant, and I’ll be taking time to focus fully on her and our first baby. So if you realize you haven’t heard from me in a couple of weeks, that’s why. I haven’t forgotten about you. 😃
Without further ado, here’s the latest ancient news. 👇
🗞 Ancient News: Top 5
Sex With Humans – Not Climate Change, Disease or War – Spelled the End for Neanderthals, Scientists Believe — After reading the title of this article, I wondered how long it would take for a “make love, not war” joke to make an appearance. It took two sentences. Many of us will know that there are a ton of theories out there as to why Neanderthals went extinct. Well, a new paper proposed that rather than war, climate change, etc., it may have been about sex. We find Neanderthal DNA in Homo sapiens, but we don’t find sapiens DNA in Neanderthals, which suggests that Neanderthals were joining Homo sapiens groups, and this may have left fewer breeding-age people in Neanderthal communities. According to Chris Stringer, “If Homo sapiens were breeding into the Neanderthal gene pool it was very rare, or it was not successful,” the latter alluding to the fact that hybridization sometimes only works in one direction. He went on to say, “Perhaps Homo sapiens groups acted like sponges in absorbing pockets of late Neanderthals, and maybe that, as much as anything else, led to the eventual demise of the Neanderthals as a viable population.”
Ancient DNA Reveals a Hidden History of Human Adaptation — A new study analyzed genetic data from over a thousand people who lived in Europe and Asia over the last 45,000 years. The researchers found 50 “hard sweeps”, where a rare and beneficial genetic variant swept through a population rapidly after a change in conditions. One of the most notable hard sweeps occurred in early Anatolian farmers, and it affected a genetic region associated with the immune system. Changes in the immune system make a lot of sense to me, at a time when their lifestyles became more sedentary. While hard sweeps have been noted in other species, there hasn’t been much evidence in humans until now. Some say it is rare because our cultural innovations have made hard sweeps largely unnecessary. Others say they happen, but they’re more subtle in humans. But this study suggests that if genetic mixing events (e.g. migrations), which obscure hard sweeps, are widespread, hard sweeps might have been much more common than we thought. And if true, this would indicate that human ingenuity and cultural innovation have not always been enough to overcome environmental challenges — sometimes evolution lends a hand.
Coins, Shells, Almond Kernels - New Finds in Ephesus — A fascinating window into ancient business practices has been discovered at the ancient city of Ephesus in Turkey. A well-preserved Byzantine commercial and dining district was unearthed, and several business premises have been excavated in an area of 170 square meters. According to the coins (four gold and 700 copper) found at the site, these businesses date to about 615 CE. The rooms excavated to date include a cookshop, storage room, tavern, lamp shop, souvenir shop for Christian pilgrims, and a workshop with an adjoining sales room. Also found were bottles made for pilgrims, crockery, seafood, fruit, nuts, legumes, and more. All of this is beneath a fire layer, which is why it is so well-preserved.
Stones Found in Turkey's Kayseri Province Reveal a 1700-Year-Old Biodynamic Agricultural Calendar — Researchers analyzed red markings found on five cut stones that were discovered nearly a decade ago in Develi, Turkey. They found that the markings are a 1,700-year-old biodynamic agricultural calendar. Farmers were using these stones to schedule activities according to the positions of the moon and stars. The calendar was used in the Roman period and is the first known example in Anatolia.
Lidar Survey Reveals Urban Sprawl of Ancient Maya City — A 36-square-mile lidar survey has revealed a large urban settlement with residential compounds clustered around temples, shrines, and (possibly) marketplaces. All of this was found in the area of Calakmul in Mexico, which was the capital of the Kaanul dynasty between 635 and 850 CE. The settlement was supported by an agricultural system with canals, terraces, walls, and dams. This indicates that Calakmul may have been the most crowded ancient Maya urban center during their peak — even denser than Tikal. Previous estimates placed the city at 50,000 inhabitants, but this now needs to be recalculated.
That’s it for the free Top 5! If you’re a free subscriber and you’d like to read another 20 headlines and 5 pieces of content covering new evidence about the peopling of South America, Viking treasure hoards, Pictish stones, a water-powered stone-cutting workshop, a new way to analyze the use of fire, (very) ancient beekeeping, and more, sign up for the paid plan below.
🗞 Ancient News: Deep Dive
Ancient DNA Analysis Sheds Light on the Early Peopling of South America — The analysis of DNA from two ancient individuals unearthed in northeast Brazil supports a north-to-south migration toward South America down the Pacific coast, and it also suggests a migration in the opposite direction along the Atlantic coast — something which came as a surprise to the researchers. The migration happened about 1,000 years ago and covered 3,270 miles from Uruguay to Panama. According to the new model suggested by this study, settlement of the Atlantic coast didn’t occur until after the peopling of the Pacific coast and the Andes. A couple of other interesting things came out of the study too. Both Neanderthal and Denisovan ancestry were found within the individuals. And strong Australasian signals were found in an ancient genome from Panama — how this signal got there without leaving a trace in North America is unknown.
One Viking’s Lost Silver Treasure Discovered By Metal Detector Enthusiast — A metal detectorist discovered 46 pieces of silver from the Viking age in a field in Stjørdal, Norway. The find includes two intact rings, as well as fragments of Arab coins, a braided neck ring, arm rings, and necklaces that had been cut to pieces. Most of the pieces weigh less than a gram, indicating that they were used as forms of payment. Interestingly, most of a bracelet that had been cut into eight pieces was still present, meaning that its owner had recently cut it, but had not used it as payment. The bracelet is likely from Denmark, meaning that this person had probably traveled there. The cache may have been an offering to the gods, or it may have been hidden for safekeeping. At the time (1,100 years ago), the silver would have been worth about 60% of a cow.
1000-Year-Old Viking Age Treasure Hoard Uncovered in Stockholm — In a similar story, while excavating a wooden floor in one of 20 Viking structures found in Stockholm County, Sweden, archaeologists found a ceramic pot containing jewelry. The hoard included silver coin pendants, torque-style neck rings, arm rings, a finger ring, and two pearls. The coin pendants came from England, Bohemia, Bavaria, and Arabia, suggesting a pretty big trade network. The site dates to 400 CE into the middle ages, and one of the coins is from the 10th century.
Ancient Stone Tools Uncovered on Norfolk Island by Australian Archaeologists Will Rewrite History — Two basalt adzes (similar to axes, mostly used for making canoes) were discovered on Norfolk Island, Australia. They have a distinctive Polynesian style. The site seems to have been a manufacturing site for the tools, as flakes have also been found, and one of the adzes was never finished. Due to the dating of the other Polynesian site on the island, the archaeologists believe this one will date to between the 13th and 15th centuries. According to Kris Helgen, “Because so little was previously known of Polynesian history on the island, this is an absolutely transformative find… This is just the beginning of being able to learn more about this fantastic new site.
Inscribed Pictish Stone Unearthed in Scottish Cemetery — A Pictish stone cross slab was found at a cemetery near Doune, Scotland. It dates to between 500 and 700 CE and is 4 feet tall. It features a knotted circular cross, birds (maybe pelicans), a bull, and an inscription in ogham script. The pelicans have Christian symbolism and the bull could represent a family, region, or god. This is the first cross slab found in the area, which was a neutral zone between Picts, Romans, and eventually the Britons.
1,500-Year-Old Stone-Cutting Workshop Discovered in Tripolis, Denizli, Turkey — A 1,500-year-old stone-cutting workshop was found in the ancient city of Tripolis in Turkey, along with metal saw parts and an inscription containing orders. The saw was able to cut stone thanks to a waterwheel which produced 1 kilowatt of energy. The stone was then sent to nearby cities.
Massive Roman-Era Column Base of Limestone Unearthed in the Foothills of Mount Hermon, Golan Heights — The base of a huge limestone column from the Roman era was unearthed in the region of Golan Heights. It is different from contemporary architecture in the area, and its purpose and origin are not clear. It measures 190 cm in diameter and is 80 cm high. That’s pretty big and yes, that is a person in the photo below. This area, in the foothills of Mount Hermon is filled with springs, making it an attractive location for settlements.
Burial Grounds and Bullets Uncovered at Site of Last Mayan Stronghold — Burials, ceramics, and Spanish bullets have been found at the last Mayan city to resist the European conquest: Tayasal in Guatemala. According to Suarlin Cordova, “More than 100 years passed in which the northern part of Guatemala was totally outside of Spanish rule, and this happened mainly because the jungle functioned as a natural border that made the arrival of the Spaniards to these places very difficult.”
Finds from the 3,400-Year-Old Mycenaean Civilization Were Unearthed at Yassıtepe Mound in Turkey — Mycenaean tomb and vessels were discovered during excavations at the site of Yassitepe in Turkey. They date back 3,400 years. According to Zafer Derin, “People were not burned at that time. They put the dead in stone graves and chests. A double-handled jug called 'pelike', in which fragrant olive oil was carried, and 'pyxis', used to carry cream, were placed next to the dead. They also left jewelry made of agate stone in the graves.”
2,000-Year-Old Roman Road Discovered in England, Archaeologists Believe — A road with large stones typical of Roman style has been uncovered in Worcestershire, England. So far, 10 meters of the road have been revealed and it is 2.9 meters wide. It is near the ancient Roman city of Vertis. Further investigation and dating are planned.
Excavations at a Remote Ancient Site on Crete Island Unearth Large Public Building — A section of a public building was discovered at the site of Lissos in Crete. It may have been an odeum (for musical activities) or a bouleuterion (where a legislative council met). The building appears to have been built in the 1st century CE. So far, a stage, corridors, a vaulted roof, and 14 rows of seats have been unearthed.
Revolutionary War Prison Camp Found in Pennsylvania — Postholes which would have made up the stockade around Camp Security have been discovered in Pennsylvania in the United States. Camp Security was a prison camp in the Revolutionary War which housed over 1,000 prisoners from the Battle of Yorktown (1781): English, Scottish, and Canadian privates and noncommissioned officers.
Traces of Medieval Church Unearthed in Southern Poland — The foundations of a medieval church were discovered in Poland during conservation work at the Chapel of St. Jacob. The church, which was known as the Church of John the Baptist was destroyed by mercenaries in the Thirteen Years’ War back in 1455. They were not paid by the king, so they burned down the town of Czeladż, destroyed the church, and stole 100 draft horses.
Archaeologists Have Unearthed the ‘Tupperware of Antiquity’ and Other Artifacts in a Buried Roman House — The ongoing excavation of a house owned by an elite family in the ancient Roman city of Falerii Novi in Italy has revealed coins, nails, tools, glass and bronze vessels, and pottery from Africa. The city was founded in 241 BCE and inhabited until 700 CE.
Derby Racecourse: Roman Pottery Found in Football Pitch Dig — Hundreds of artifacts that date to Roman times and earlier have been unearthed at a race course in Derby, England. Finds include a lot of Roman pottery and a ditch with pottery from the Iron Age. This area is known to be a center of pottery production and it is located half a mile from a Roman fort.
1,800-Year-Old Mosaic Floor Found in Perrhe — An 1,800-year-old mosaic was found in the ancient city of Perrhe in Turkey. Perrhe was one of the largest cities in the kingdom of Commagene. The mosaic is 12 square meters and consists of black, white, and blue pieces.
Remains of Roman Villa and Kilns Found During Archaeological Dig in Wakefield Village — While preparing land for a housing development, a 2,000-year-old Roman villa and 16 kilns were found in Wakefield, England. A medieval flour processing plant was also found.
A Stone Age Child Buried With Bird Feathers, Plant Fibers And Fur Investigated In Finland — The acidity of the soil in Finland means that organic material doesn’t usually survive for long, so burials rarely have objects made of bones, teeth, furs, etc., despite evidence of such burial goods in surrounding regions. But the soil from a 6,000 BCE child’s burial has been re-examined and the researchers found fibers and hairs with the use of transmitted-light and electron microscopy. The burial once included feathers from waterfowl and a falcon, and either dog or wolf hairs. The feathers may have been from fletching, a bed, or clothing, and the hair could have been from footwear or a furry friend laid to rest with the child. They also found plant fibers that may have been used in clothing, fishing nets, or really just about anything else. These finds provide helpful insights into Stone Age burial habits.
How Human Ancestors Used Fire – New Methods Give Answers — An archaeologist has developed a more accurate technique for identifying how fire was used by our ancestors. In a nutshell, she realized that we weren’t drawing the right conclusions about burnt bones under certain conditions. Soil conditions have an impact on the bones, and this has not been taken into account until now. The new toolkit will help us to more accurately decide whether a site has no traces of fire because there was no fire, or because remains have not been preserved, which will allow us to better understand the story of human evolution.
Exceptionally Rare 1,300-Year-Old Golden Pommel Found in Blairdrummond, Scotland — A beautiful sword pommel made of gold, and dated to 1,300 years ago, was discovered by a metal detectorist in Blairdrummond, Scotland. It is encrusted with garnets and includes religious motifs and mythical creatures. The style seems to be a blend of cultures, and it is quite unique.
❤️ Recommended Content
As always, let’s start with a one-star review of an ancient site — this time, the Roman Forum. I’ll warn you, this one’s pretty intense. Brace yourselves. Ready? Here’s the review: “Higgledy-piggledy.”
If I’m being honest, I wrote this one up as news, then realized it’s from 2015. 🙄 But it’s super interesting so I’m putting it down here. This article discusses (old) research showing that humans have been harvesting beehive products for at least 8,500 years. According to Richard Evershed, “The lack of a fossil record of the honeybee means it’s ecologically invisible for most of the past 10,000 years. Although evidence from ancient Egyptian murals and prehistoric rock art suggests humankind’s association with the honeybee dates back over thousands of years, when and where this association emerged has been unknown — until now.”
This article didn’t make the cut above because it’s not specifically about humans, but it’s an interesting study that still involves us, so here we are. In short, a new study found that social mammals (like us) evolved faster than solitary ones.
Here’s an article in the Hindustan Times where the author attempts to identify the exact date of the Mahabharata war: October 23 - November 9, 900 BCE. After doing a little digging, I see that a rough date of 1000 BCE has been proposed by some, so those line up pretty nicely. But others say it happened even earlier, or that it didn’t happen at all.
Here’s an interesting article suggesting that ancient people may have used echolocation — something that is apparently used to some degree by humans today — to navigate caves.
That’ll do it. Have a wonderful weekend, my friends! And as always, let me know your thoughts!
Until next time, thanks for joining me.
(newish twitter: @jamesofthedrum)
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