Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Natural disasters of the past can help solve future problems

Were you one of the many people who got stuck in an airport when the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010? It wasn't a major eruption, and it happened a long way from the heart of Europe. But it cost society an absolute fortune by paralysing air traffic across northern Europe.

According to Felix Riede, an associate professor of prehistoric archaeology at Aarhus University and the project manager of the Laboratory for Past Disaster Science, global warming and the increasing frequency of natural disasters constitute a huge challenge to modern society, which has a heavy infrastructure and increasing population density. Until now the solutions have involved expensive state intervention and technology-aided approaches, but Riede believes that the past contains a wealth of unexploited resources which could also provide solutions.

"The problem facing research into natural disasters is that they are so infrequent that it's hard to get statistically significant samples and draw up any general rules about how such events influence society. But if we extend the scope of our chronological perspective to include the deep past, we can find far more samples and data material to study."

Mixing the past and present to produce future scenarios

Felix Riede currently has a manuscript being reviewed by the journal "Natural Hazards", in which he outlines ways of using data from the past to predict future scenarios. He uses a novel comparative approach.

"Unlike much of the research done previously, which studies either individual events or many different societies and events, I propose a more formalised method known as 'natural experiments of history'. As in laboratory experiments, you try to keep your parameters identical so you can spot the influence of each individual parameter on the outcome of your experiment. We measure purely geological parameters, but we also measure vital factors such as economic, technological, religious and social parameters as well," explains Riede.

Three of the specific examples that he has compared are the volcanic eruption in Iceland in 2010, a volcanic eruption that took place in Central America around the year AD 536 (which also affected European society at the time), and a volcanic eruption 13,000 years ago near Lake Laach in Western Germany. The idea involves using the events of the past to produce a model of potential future events both in Europe and around the world.

"Combining data from the three eruptions enables us to develop a variety of scenarios. The Icelandic case shows us how much damage a relatively small eruption a long way from the heart of Europe can cause. What would happen if there was a new eruption in Central Europe like the Lake Laach incident? What would the consequences be for modern society? The Lake Laach volcano is still active, and it's right next to the Rhine, which plays a major role in the European economy. The region is also densely populated, and there are lots of nuclear power stations on both the French and German sides of the river. I doubt whether they are built to cope with this kind of worst-case scenario. There's only a small risk of Lake Laach erupting again, but the Icelandic eruption clearly revealed how fragile the system is in principle."

Don't ignore the strength of local communities

Felix Riede regards knowledge of past natural disasters as an unexploited but sustainable resource. He also thinks that human resources in local communities are important. In his article for "Natural Hazards", he explains his ideas about how Europe can create more resilient communities – which means communities that can resist external events.

"So far my research indicates that the most resilient communities are well-connected communities with a strong local base. In my view resilience in Europe should be strengthened at the lowest possible level. In other words, local communities should be strengthened by allocating responsibility to citizens and giving key individuals the right competences and knowledge. Priests, doctors and teachers could be involved, for instance – they're in touch with a lot of people and have access further up the system. Some of the measures that could be implemented to strengthen local communities and local resilience are relatively cheap – but the potential rewards are relatively large."

EurekAlert. 2013. “Natural disasters of the past can help solve future problems”. EurekAlert. Posted: November 13, 2013. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2013-11/au-ndo111313.php

Monday, December 30, 2013

What America's Forests Looked Like Before Europeans Arrived

European settlers transformed America's Northeastern forests. From historic records and fossils, researchers know the landscape and plants are radically different today than they were 400 years ago.

But little direct evidence exists to prove which tree species filled the forests before they were cleared for fields and fuel. Swamp-loving plants, like sedges and tussocks, are the fossil survivors, not delicate leaves from hardwood trees.

Now, thanks to a rare fossil discovery in the Pennsylvania foothills, scientists can tell the full story of America's lost forests.

The fossil site is a muddy layer packed with leaves from hardwood trees that lived more than 300 years ago along Conestoga Creek in Lancaster County, Pa. The muck was laid down before one of Pennsylvania's 10,000 mill dams, called Denlinger's Mill, was built nearby, damming the stream and burying the mud and leaves in sediment.

Researchers from Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., discovered the fossil leaves while investigating the lingering effects of milldams. The thousands of small dams — which powered mills, forges and other industry — changed the water table, altering the plants growing nearby and eventually changing the landscape from wetlands to deeply incised, quickly flowing streams.

Before Europeans arrived, American beech, red oak and sweet birch trees shaded Conestoga Creek, according to a study the researchers published today (Nov. 13) in the journal PLOS ONE. Some 300 years later, those trees are gone. The same spot is now home to mostly box elder and sugar maple trees, said Sara Elliott, the study's lead author and a research associate at the University of Texas at Austin's Bureau of Economic Geology.

"This is a very unusual opportunity to compare modern and fossil forest assemblages," Elliott told LiveScience. "It's like you're time traveling," she said.

Elliott carefully peeled apart hundreds of leaves stuck together by mud and layered like a pile of sticky notes. Washing the leaves in a variety of chemical baths helped Elliott determine the leaves' structure and species. The research was performed at Penn State University.

Other kinds of trees found in the fossil layer that have since vanished from North America include the American chestnut, which was attacked by an imported fungal disease called the chestnut blight. Leaves from swamp plants also appear in the mud, confirming that the forested spot was on the upslope edge of a nearby wetland.

"We had a valley margin forest growing right next to the valley bottom in conjunction with all these wetlands," Elliott said. "I think we really have a rather complete picture now of what the landscape was like in this region."

The three dominant tree species found in the fossil forest leaves still exist today in the Northeast, but in different proportions and in different places, Elliot said.

The scientists hope that identifying similar fossil tree-leaf sites will help the massive milldam restoration projects underway throughout the Northeast. The dams left a legacy of toxic sediment piled up behind their walls, as well as reshaped the landscape.

"Having a more complete and enhanced understanding of this past dynamic and complex landscape will help in restoring an ecologically diverse and functional system," Elliott said.

Oskin, Becky. 2013. “What America's Forests Looked Like Before Europeans Arrived”. Live Science. Posted: November 13, 2013. Available online: http://www.livescience.com/41198-old-growth-forests-before-europeans.html

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Early uses of chili peppers in Mexico

Mixe-Zoquean cultures may have had multiple culinary uses for chili peppers

Chili peppers may have been used to make spicy beverages thousands of years ago in Mexico, according to new research published November 13 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Terry Powis at Kennesaw State University and colleagues from other institutions.

Capsicum species are usually referred to as chili peppers, and their uses are well known in the history of Spain and Portugal. There are relatively few sites in Mesoamerica, Central America, and South America that contain remains of Capsicum, and therefore, we know little about how groups such as the Mayans and the Mixe-Zoquean, inhabitants of the site studied here, used chili peppers in those regions.

In this study, the authors used chemical extractions to reveal the presence of Capsicum residues in pottery samples from a site in southern Mexico. Some of these pottery vessels were over 2000 years old, dating from 400 BC to 300 AD.

They found Capsicum residue in multiple types of jars and vessels, which suggests that those cultures may have been using chili peppers for many different culinary purposes. For instance, Capsicum was found in a vessel called a sprouted jar, which is used for pouring a liquid into another container. The authors suggest that chili peppers may have been used to prepare spicy beverages or dining condiments. Powis elaborates, "The significance of our study is that it is the first of its kind to detect ancient chili pepper residues from early Mixe-Zoquean pottery in Mexico. While our findings of Capsicum species in these Preclassic pots provides the earliest evidence of chili consumption in well-dated Mesoamerican archaeological contexts, we believe our scientific study opens the door for further collaborative research into how the pepper may have been used either from a culinary, pharmaceutical, or ritual perspective during the last few centuries before the time of Christ."

EurekAlert. 2013. “Early uses of chili peppers in Mexico”. EurekAlert. Posted: November 13, 2013. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2013-11/plos-euo111213.php

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Dig for Hominid Bones Begins in Cradle of Humankind

An expedition to probe the deep recesses of a cave that may contain fossilized specimens of early humans is currently underway in South Africa.

An international team of paleoanthropologists is exploring the Rising Star Cave at a site in South Africa dubbed the Cradle of Humankind, which is located roughly 25 miles (40 kilometers) north of Johannesburg. The Cradle of Humankind is one of the richest fossil sites in Africa, and was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.

Over the weekend, researchers descended into the narrow cave to comb for fossils of ancient relatives to the human lineage. The scientists found several hominid fossils, including a mandible, which forms part of the lower jaw.

"The exploration team leader, Pedro Boshoff, and his two assistants, Steve Tucker and Rick Hunter, were able to access a chamber deep underground that is nearly impossible to get to, where they have found some significant fossils on the surface of the cave floor," Berger said in a statement.

The researchers will now retrieve the hominid fossils, and this work will involve squeezing through a small opening that measures only about 7 inches (18 centimeters) across, then descending roughly 100 feet (30 meters) underground. Berger and his colleagues will begin analyzing the specimens once the fossils are removed from the cave.

"We do not know as yet what species of hominin we have found, and we will not speculate," Berger said in a statement. "Our aim is to get the fossils out carefully, study them, compare them to other fossil material from around the world and then proceed to analyze and describe them."

The term "hominid" is used to describe ancestors to modern humans, or close relatives to early humans. The researchers are hoping to publish their findings from the Rising Star Cave expedition in late 2014, Berger added.

Berger previously took part in the discovery of remarkably well-preserved partial skeletons of the extinct species Australopithecus sediba at a separate site, called Malapa, in the Cradle of Humankind. Members of this species had humanlike faces, but longer arms and smaller brains than do modern humans. Researchers think these hominids may be immediate ancestors of humanity.

The individuals — a juvenile male and an adult female — lived 2 million years ago, and their skeletons were found near the surface in the remains of a limestone cave system. 

The Rising Star Cave excavation and subsequent scientific analysis will be featured in a National Geographic/NOVA television special, according to the National Geographic Society, which supported the expedition.

Chow, Denise. 2013. “Dig for Hominid Bones Begins in Cradle of Humankind”. Live Science. Posted: November 11, 2013. Available online: http://www.livescience.com/41113-cradle-of-humankind-fossil-excavation.html

Friday, December 27, 2013

Written on her bones: the life of a Mixtec woman

A study of the skeleton of a young Mixtec woman who lived in the Late Post Classic period (A.D. 1250-1540) in Mexico, has revealed a range of both genetic diseases and work related skeletal damage. The results are now part of an exhibition in the Regional Historical Museum of Ensenada, Baja California called Itandikaa Ndiko’o Flor de la eternidad (Itandikaa Ndiko’o - Flower of Eternity).

Physical anthropologist Martha Alfaro Castro and a teams of doctors from the Civil Hospital of Oaxaca who are specialists in genetics, orthopaedics, radiology and dentistry, conducted an interdisciplinary study of the skeleton, found in 2007 in the Mixteca Alta of Oaxaca during a rescue excavation.

The different phases of the analysis, as well as some of the major pathologies detected in the skeletal remains, are presented in 37 photographs as well as seven watercolours created by Oaxacan artist Arrona Ernesto Santiago and acrylic on bark paper by Juan Francisco Lopez Ruiz.

Genetic syndrome

The archaeological materials were transferred to the laboratory of the Centro INAH Oaxaca Osteology, where anthropologist Alfaro Castro performed the analysis of the skeletal remains.

“She suffered a genetic syndrome known as Klippel-Feil Syndrome, that usually causes facial asymmetry and merging of some cervical vertebrae, with the consequent shortening of the neck and mobility limitation in this anatomic region,”  explained Alfaro.

“She also presented a deformation of the shoulder blades, caled Sprengel Deformation , responsible for further asymmetry of the shoulders that gave the women the appearance of having one shoulder higher than the other”  the researcher concluded.

An active life

The osteological evidence, the archaeological context and ethnohistoric sources indicate that women probably belonged to a lower social stratum and despite the health problems associated with the genetic syndrome had an active life and performed a variety of physical tasks from a very early age.

There is osteological evidence to suggest that she was carrying heavy loads on her back with the help of a band or backstrap – which caused vertebrae compression (see painting above).  She also spent much of her time squatting or kneeling which corresponds to tasks such as shelling corn and maize cobs, as well as preparing clay for pottery making, which caused some changes in bones in the region of the knee and feet.

“Normally we see the elite of the society, but here we can meet and appreciate the life and work of an ordinary person from the Mixtec culture.” said Alfaro Castro.

The exhibition is presented in the city of Ensenada on the initiative of the director of the Baja California INAH Centre, archaeologist Bendímez Julia Patterson, and the director of the Regional Historical Museum of Ensenada, Mario Acevedo Andrade, with the purpose of making aspects of ancient cultures of the south such as the Mixteca more accessible.


The exhibition will be at the Regional Historical Museum of Ensenada, until January 2014, the site is located in avenue Gastelum s/n, Ensenada, Baja California.

Past Horizons. 2013. “Written on her bones: the life of a Mixtec woman”. Past Horizons. Posted: November 10, 2013. Available online: http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/11/2013/written-on-her-bones-the-life-of-a-mixtec-woman

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Researchers uncover origins of cattle farming in China

An international team of researchers, co-led by scientists at the University of York and Yunnan Normal University, has produced the first multi-disciplinary evidence for management of cattle populations in northern China, around the same time cattle domestication took place in the Near East, over 10,000 years ago.

The domestication of cattle is a key achievement in human history. Until now, researchers believed that humans started domesticating cattle around 10,000 years ago in the Near East, which gave rise to humpless (taurine) cattle, while two thousand years later humans began managing humped cattle (zebu) in Southern Asia.

However, the new research, which is published in Nature Communications, reveals morphological and genetic evidence for management of cattle in north-eastern China around 10,000 years ago, around the same time the first domestication of taurine cattle took place in the Near East. This indicates that humans may have started domesticating cows in more regions around the world than was previously believed.

A lower jaw of an ancient cattle specimen was discovered during an excavation in north-east China, and was carbon dated to be 10,660 years old. The jaw displayed a unique pattern of wear on the molars, which, the researchers say, is best explained to be the results of long-term human management of the animal. Ancient DNA from the jaw revealed that the animal did not belong to the same cattle lineages that were domesticated in the Near East and South Asia.

The combination of the age of the jaw, the unique wear and genetic signature suggests that this find represents the earliest evidence for cattle management in north-east China; a time and place not previously considered as potential domestication centre for cattle.

The research was co-led in the Department of Biology at the University of York by Professor Michi Hofreiter and Professor Hucai Zhang of Yunnan Normal University.

Professor Hofreiter said: "The specimen is unique and suggests that, similar to other species such as pigs and dogs, cattle domestication was probably also a complex process rather than a sudden event." Johanna Paijmans, the PhD student at York who performed the DNA analysis, said: "This is a really exciting example of the power of multi-disciplinary research; the wear pattern on the lower jaw itself is already really interesting, and together with the carbon dating and ancient DNA we have been able to place it in an even bigger picture of early cattle management."

EurekAlert. 2013. “Researchers uncover origins of cattle farming in China”. EurekAlert. Posted: November 8, 2013. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2013-11/uoy-ruo110713.php

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Pagan Roots? 5 Surprising Facts About Christmas

When you gather around the Christmas tree or stuff goodies into a stocking, you're taking part in traditions that stretch back thousands of years — long before Christianity entered the mix.

Pagan, or non-Christian, traditions show up in this beloved winter holiday, a consequence of early church leaders melding Jesus' nativity celebration with pre-existing midwinter festivals. Since then, Christmas traditions have warped over time, arriving at their current state a little more than a century ago.

Read on for some of the surprising origins of Christmas cheer, and find out why Christmas was once banned in New England.

1. Early Christians had a soft spot for pagans

It's a mistake to say that our modern Christmas traditions come directly from pre-Christian paganism, said Ronald Hutton, a historian at Bristol University in the United Kingdom. However, he said, you'd be equally wrong to believe that Christmas is a modern phenomenon. As Christians spread their religion into Europe in the first centuries A.D., they ran into people living by a variety of local and regional religious creeds.

Christian missionaries lumped all of these people together under the umbrella term "pagan," said Philip Shaw, who researches early Germanic languages and Old English at Leicester University in the U.K. The term is related to the Latin word meaning "field," Shaw told LiveScience. The lingual link makes sense, he said, because early European Christianity was an urban phenomenon, while paganism persisted longer in rustic areas.

Early Christians wanted to convert pagans, Shaw said, but they were also fascinated by their traditions.

"Christians of that period are quite interested in paganism," he said. "It's obviously something they think is a bad thing, but it's also something they think is worth remembering. It's what their ancestors did."

Perhaps that's why pagan traditions remained even as Christianity took hold. The Christmas tree is a 17th-century German invention, University of Bristol's Hutton told LiveScience, but it clearly derives from the pagan practice of bringing greenery indoors to decorate in midwinter. The modern Santa Claus is a direct descendent of England's Father Christmas, who was not originally a gift-giver. However, Father Christmas and his other European variations are modern incarnations of old pagan ideas about spirits who traveled the sky in midwinter, Hutton said.

2. We all want that warm Christmas glow

But why this fixation on partying in midwinter, anyway? According to historians, it's a natural time for a feast. In an agricultural society, the harvest work is done for the year, and there's nothing left to be done in the fields.

"It's a time when you have some time to devote to your religious life," said Shaw. "But also it's a period when, frankly, everyone needs cheering up."

The dark days that culminate with the shortest day of the year — the winter solstice — could be lightened with feasts and decorations, Hutton said.

"If you happen to live in a region in which midwinter brings striking darkness and cold and hunger, then the urge to have a celebration at the very heart of it to avoid going mad or falling into deep depression is very, very strong," he said.

Stephen Nissenbaum, author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist "The Battle for Christmas" (Vintage, 1997), agreed.

"Even now when solstice means not all that much because you can get rid of the darkness with the flick of an electric light switch, even now, it's a very powerful season," he told LiveScience.

3. The Church was slow to embrace Christmas

Despite the spread of Christianity, midwinter festivals did not become Christmas for hundreds of years. The Bible gives no reference to when Jesus was born, which wasn't a problem for early Christians, Nissenbaum said.

"It never occurred to them that they needed to celebrate his birthday," he said.

With no Biblical directive to do so and no mention in the Gospels of the correct date, it wasn't until the fourth century that church leaders in Rome embraced the holiday. At this time, Nissenbaum said, many people had turned to a belief the Church found heretical: That Jesus had never existed as a man, but as a sort of spiritual entity.

"If you want to show that Jesus was a real human being just like every other human being, not just somebody who appeared like a hologram, then what better way to think of him being born in a normal, humble human way than to celebrate his birth?" Nissenbaum said.

Midwinter festivals, with their pagan roots, were already widely celebrated, Nissenbaum said. And the date had a pleasing philosophical fit with festivals celebrating the lengthening days after the winter solstice (which fell on Dec. 21 this year). "O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born … Christ should be born," one Cyprian text read.

4. The Puritans hated the holiday

But if the Catholic Church gradually came to embrace Christmas, the Protestant Reformation gave the holiday a good knock on the chin. In the 16th century, Christmas became a casualty of this church schism, with reformist-minded Protestants considering it little better than paganism, Nissenbaum said. This likely had something to do with the "raucous, rowdy and sometimes bawdy fashion" in which Christmas was celebrated, he added.

In England under Oliver Cromwell, Christmas and other saints' days were banned, and in New England it was illegal to celebrate Christmas for about 25 years in the 1600s, Nissenbaum said. Forget people saying, "Happy holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas," he said.

"If you want to look at a real 'War on Christmas,' you've got to look at the Puritans," he said. "They banned it!"

5. Gifts are a new (and surprisingly controversial) tradition

While gift-giving may seem inextricably tied to Christmas, it used to be that people looked forward to opening presents on New Year's Day.

"They were a blessing for people to make them feel good as the year ends," Hutton said. It wasn't until the Victorian era of the 1800s that gift-giving shifted to Christmas. According to the Royal Collection, Queen Victoria's children got Christmas Eve gifts in 1850, including a sword and armor. In 1841, Victoria gave her husband, Prince Albert, a miniature portrait of her as a 7-year-old; in 1859, she gave him a book of poetry by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

All of this gift-giving, along with the secular embrace of Christmas, now has some religious groups steamed, Nissenbaum said. The consumerism of Christmas shopping seems, to some, to contradict the religious goal of celebrating Jesus Christ's birth. In some ways, Nissenbaum said, excessive spending is the modern equivalent of the revelry and drunkenness that made the Puritans frown.

"There's always been a push and pull, and it's taken different forms," he said. "It might have been alcohol then, and now it's these glittering toys."

Pappas, Stephanie. 2012. “Pagan Roots? 5 Surprising Facts About Christmas”. Live Science. Posted: December 22, 2012. Available online: http://www.livescience.com/25779-christmas-traditions-history-paganism.html

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Indians and Europeans Share 'Light-Skin' Mutation

Indians share a gene with Europeans that plays a significant role in coding for lighter skin, new research suggests.

The study, published today (Nov. 7) in the journal PLOS Genetics, also revealed that the gene, which is responsible for 27 percent of skin color variation in Indians, was positively selected for in North, but not South Indian populations. When something is "selected for," that means it provides some advantage and so gets passed down to offspring, becoming more prevalent in a population over time.

Many shades

The Indian subcontinent has an enormous variation in skin color.

"We have dark brown [tones], yellow tones and whitish-pinkish tones," said study lead author Chandana Basu Mallick, a biologist at the University of Tartu in Estonia. "We have quite a range and diversity in the biological spectrum of skin color."

But because South Asian gene studies are relatively rare, it wasn't clear which genes contributed to this variation. Past research has found at least 126 genes that code for pigmentation in general, Basu Mallick said.

Genetic mosaic

To find out, Basu Mallick and her colleagues took skin color measurements for about 1,228 individuals in Southern India. The researchers then conducted a genetic analysis and found that about 27 percent of the skin color variation was due to a variation in a skin pigmentation gene. Called SLC24A5, this gene codes for lighter skin and is present in almost 100 percent of Europeans.

The team also examined the gene in 95 people around the subcontinent and found that both South Asian and European populations inherited this particular variant from a common ancestor who lived sometime between 22,000 and 28,000 years ago.

"We don't know the origin of this mutation. We just know that they have a common ancestor," Basu Mallick told LiveScience, referring to both South Asians and Europeans.

The team then looked for the gene in more than 2,000 people from 54 ethnic groups around the subcontinent. Some groups, such as populations in Tibet and Burma, didn't have the gene variant at all, whereas the Northwestern tip of the subcontinent had a nearly 90 percent prevalence of the gene.

Lighter skin has less melanin, a pigment that blocks the sun's UV rays; the body uses these rays to make vitamin D. The SLC24A5 gene is linked to less melanin production, so the gene may have become more common in Europe because it allowed people's skin to make more vitamin D in the continent's low-light conditions.

But in India, the prevalence of the gene in different populations didn't correlate with latitude, but instead seemed strongly linked to language, geography and demographic history. The study also showed that the gene was positively selected for in North, but not South India (though both light- and dark-skinned people live in both regions).

It's not clear exactly what caused the gene to be favored in certain regions, but it probably wasn't the production of vitamin D alone, the study suggests.

"The demographic history of the population and their ancestry also contribute in this variation," Basu Mallick said.

Ghose, Tia. 2013. “Indians and Europeans Share 'Light-Skin' Mutation”. Live Science. Posted: November 7, 2013. Available online: http://www.livescience.com/41040-skin-color-genes-identified-india.html

Monday, December 23, 2013

Homo Erectus: Facts About the 'Upright Man'

Homo erectus, or "upright man," was an ancient ancestor of modern humans that lived between 2 million and 100,000 years ago. Compared to modern Homo sapiens, which evolved just 200,000 years ago, the ancient man had a long reign.H. erectus is the first human ancestor to have similar limb and torso proportions to those seen in modern humans, without the adaptations needed to swing from the branches, suggesting it had adapted to walking on two feet in a more open, grassland environment.

Body size

Homo erectus was taller than earlier human ancestors. For instance, one of the most complete fossil skeletons ever found, a 1.5-million-year-old specimen of an adolescent male known as Turkana Boy, was 5 feet 3 inches (1.6 meters) tall. The iconic, 3.2-million-year-old Australopithecus skeleton dubbed Lucy, in comparison, was just 3 feet 7 inches (1.1 meters) tall at death. The species also had more variation in height — with more tall and short individuals — than more primitive humans.

Notably, H. erectus also had much larger brains than its precursors. Those bigger brains and bodies required more food and energy to survive. Wear on the teeth of H. erectus fossils suggest the ancient man ate a fairly diverse diet, and most scientists believe the species ate more animal protein compared to older human species.

Homo erectus' larger brain may explain why it displays so many distinctly human behaviors.  For instance, ancient tools reveal the human ancestor was butchering animals by at least 1.75 million years ago, and may have harnessed fire to cook food as early as 1.9 million years ago. The species' increased smarts may have also enabled it to expand into so many different environments.


Homo erectus likely first evolved from an earlier human ancestor, known as Homo habilis, somewhere in East Africa, but spread out from there. Fossils dating from about 1.8 million years ago until about 100,000 years ago have been found in Southeast Asia, Europe, the Caucasus, India and China.

H. erectus would eventually give rise to a host of other early humans, such as Homo heidelbergensis and Homo floresiensis, though scientists still don't agree on whether the species is a direct human ancestor to Homo sapiens.  Anthropologists also disagree on whether all the Homo erectus fossils found around the world represent one species, or several slightly different ones (some anthropologists consider Turkana Boy, for instance, to be a slightly different species dubbed Homo ergaster).

Notable fossils

The first Homo erectus fossil was a 1-million-year-old skull discovered by Dutch surgeon Eugene Dubois in Indonesia in 1891. Other notable fossils include the 1.77-million-year-old skull of an elderly man, discovered in Dmanisi, Georgia.  The man had lost all his teeth and much of his jaw had deteriorated long before death, leading researchers to believe that other members of the group must have cared for him, one of the first examples of such compassionate social behavior in a human ancestor.

Other H. erectus fossils have been found in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, where anthropologists have discovered primate and early human ancestor fossils going back almost 25 million years.

Ghose, Tia. 2013. “Homo Erectus: Facts About the 'Upright Man'”. Live Science. Posted: November 7, 2013. Available online: http://www.livescience.com/41048-facts-about-homo-erectus.html

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Lusatian culture cemetery revealed in Poland

A large Lusatian culture community cemetery dating back 2500 years from the late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age, was excavated by archaeologists in Łęgowo near Wągrowiec, Poland.

“We examined 151 graves, which contained cremations…we counted more than a thousand ceramic artefacts and pots placed in the graves by mourners” – Marcin Krzepkowski, head of research explained to Science and Scholarship in Poland (PAP).

A range of cremated burials

Cremated remains from this period – contemporary with the famous fortified settlement in Biskupin – were normally placed in urns.

Common practices observed in the Łęgowo cemetery consisted of:

  • urns with bowl like lids
  • inverted vessels
  • Scoops and cups placed on their sides within larger ceramic containers.

In addition, the grave pits usually contained a dozen or so other vessels. In a few cases, there were as many as 40.

“Among the thousand vessels we have discovered there are richly ornamented examples. For the last journey, the deceased also received bronze items, including pins, a sickle and a razor” – said Krzepkowski.

Child graves

Especially moving are the graves of children. The youngest of which were buried with miniature vessels and even clay rattles.

In one of the child graves the archaeologists found a spoon whose handle contained the stylised head of a bird and in another, a richly decorated bowl showed the figure of a bird.

“A quite unique discovery in this part of the Poland is a small rectangular clay object, associated with the cult of hearth and home, so-called moon idol. Such objects are usually found in Silesian cemeteries, mostly from the area of Wrocław” – said the archaeologist.

The Lusatian Culture

The people of what is called the Lusatian culture lived in the basin of the Vistula and Oder rivers, as well in today’s Saxony, Brandenburg, northern Czech Republic and Lusatia. These people were mainly cereal farmers, who also bred cattle, pigs and goats. The society straddled the end of the Bronze Age and the advent of the Iron Age and in addition to open settlements, there were also fortified towns, considered by many to be tribal centres.

The areas occupied by the Lusatian culture is well known  for the bronze treasures that have come to light including both personal ornaments and tools (mainly axes and sickles).

The first record regarding excavating a cemetery of the Lusatian in the Wągrowiec area dates from the fifteenth century AD. The chronicler Jan Długosz wrote that “born from the womb of the earth are pots, by themselves, only by the art of nature, without any human helping, of all sorts of different shapes, similar to those people use, though delicate and soft, while still rooted in their family soil in the ground, yet when they are removed they become tight and hardened in the sun or wind”.

Excavations at the cemetery in Łęgowo were completed in September 2013 and although the site was already known to archaeologists from nineteenth century documentary sources, more extensive work was possible due to the planned extension of the provincial road No. 196 and preceding rescue excavations.

The work was carried out by the Regional Museum in Wągrowiec, in collaboration with Arthur Dębski (Mos Maiorum Archaeology and Preservation Laboratory) and Marcin Krzepkowski (Laboratory of Archaeological Documentation).

Past Horizons. 2013. “Lusatian culture cemetery revealed in Poland”. Past Horizons. Posted: November 6, 2013. Available online: http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/11/2013/lusatian-culture-cemetery-revealed-in-poland

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Grammatical structures as a window into the past

New world atlas of colonial-era languages reveals massive traces of African and Pacific source languages

A new large-scale database and atlas of key structural properties of mixed languages from the Americas, Africa and Asia-Pacific has been published by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, in a joint project with colleagues at the University of Gießen and the University of Zurich, and involving a consortium of over 80 other researchers from around the world. These languages mostly arose as a result of colonial contacts between European traders and colonizers and indigenous and slave populations. The Atlas of Pidgin and Creole Language Structures, published by Oxford University Press and as a free online publication, contains in-depth comparable information on syntactic and phonological patterns of 76 languages. While most of these languages have words derived from the languages of the European (and sometimes Arab) colonizers, their grammatical patterns can often be traced back to the African and Pacific languages originally spoken by the indigenous populations, as the new atlas shows clearly.

Following the model of the highly successful World Atlas of Language Structures, the Leipzig team and their colleagues assembled a consortium of linguists who are specialists in 76 pidgin, creole and other languages arising from intensive language contact in the last few centuries. "Experts on understudied languages often work in isolation, but in order to see the bigger picture, we needed to bring their expertise together and create large-scale comparable datasets", explains Susanne Maria Michaelis of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. She and her colleagues worked with experts on 25 languages of the Americas, 25 African languages, and 26 Asia-Pacific languages over several years. The result is an atlas of 130 maps showing a selection of grammatical features, plus two dozen maps showing sociolinguistic information as well as a substantial number of maps on the kinds of sound segments used.

Many of the maps reveal striking similarities between Caribbean languages such as Jamaican and Haitian Creole and the languages spoken by the slaves who were forced to work for the European colonists from the 17th century. Since the great majority of slaves in the New World colonies were brought from Africa, the Caribbean languages in many ways resemble the African languages. "You cannot see this easily in the words, which typically sound like Spanish, French or English, but closer examination of grammatical patterns such as tense and aspect systems leads us directly to African and Asian languages", says Philippe Maurer of the University of Zurich. For example, in Jamaican, the past tense of action verbs requires no special tense marker, unlike in English: For 'The men dug the hole', Jamaican has "Di man-dem dig di huol". This pattern occurs widely in West African languages. A number of such African patterns can even be found in the vernacular English variety of African-Americans in the United States.

"Grammatical structures have the potential to preserve older historical states and thus to serve as a window into the human past, but they are also rather difficult to compare across languages", comments Martin Haspelmath of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. "Finding comparative concepts that allow experts coming from different research traditions to characterize their highly diverse languages in a comparable way has been a major challenge." But with the new database and the atlas built from it, researchers can now address a wide variety of questions more systematically.

While individual similarities between African languages and the languages spoken by the descendants of the slaves had long been noted, the Atlas of Pidgin and Creole Language Structures now provides far more systematic data on a much wider variety of structural features. "What is striking is that you see the influence of the indigenous languages also in Asia and the Pacific, areas which traditional creolists often neglected", says Susanne Maria Michaelis. For example, in the Portuguese creole variety of Sri Lanka, 'I like it' is literally 'To me it is liking', as in a typical South Asian language.

EurekAlert. 2013. “Grammatical structures as a window into the past”. EurekAlert. Posted: November 4, 2013. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2013-11/m-gsa110413.php

Friday, December 20, 2013

Civilizations Rise and Fall On the Quality of Their Soil

Great civilisations have fallen because they failed to prevent the degradation of the soils on which they were founded. The modern world could suffer the same fate.

This is according to Professor Mary Scholes and Dr Bob Scholes who have published a paper in the journal, Science, which describes how the productivity of many lands has been dramatically reduced as a result of soil erosion, accumulation of salinity, and nutrient depletion.

"Cultivating soil continuously for too long destroys the bacteria which convert the organic matter into nutrients," says Mary Scholes, who is a Professor in the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences at Wits University.

Although improved technology -- including the unsustainably high use of fertilisers, irrigation, and ploughing -- provides a false sense of security, about 1% of global land area is degraded every year. In Africa, where much of the future growth in agriculture must take place, erosion has reduced yields by 8% and nutrient depletion is widespread.

"Soil fertility is both a biophysical property and a social property -- it is a social property because humankind depends heavily on it for food production," says Bob Scholes, who is a systems ecologist at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

Soil fertility was a mystery to the ancients. Traditional farmers speak of soils becoming tired, sick, or cold; the solution was typically to move on until they recovered. By the mid-20th century, soils and plants could be routinely tested to diagnose deficiencies, and a global agrochemical industry set out to fix them. Soil came to be viewed as little more than an inert supportive matrix, to be flooded with a soup of nutrients.

This narrow approach led to an unprecedented increase in food production, but also contributed to global warming and the pollution of aquifers, rivers, lakes, and coastal ecosystems. Activities associated with agriculture are currently responsible for just under one third of greenhouse gas emissions; more than half of these originate from the soil.

Replacing the fertility-sustaining processes in the soil with a dependence on external inputs has also made the soil ecosystem, and humans, vulnerable to interruptions in the supply of those inputs, for instance due to price shocks.

However, it is not possible to feed the current and future world population with a dogmatically "organic" approach to global agriculture. Given the large additional area it would require, such an approach would also not avert climate change, spare biodiversity, or purify the rivers.

To achieve lasting food and environmental security, we need an agricultural soil ecosystem that more closely approximates the close and efficient cycling in natural ecosystems, and that also benefits from the yield increases made possible by biotechnology and inorganic fertilisers.

Science Daily. 2013. “Civilizations Rise and Fall On the Quality of Their Soil”. Science Daily. Posted: November 4, 2013. Available online: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/11/131104035245.htm

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Burning rock: Fire setting at the Stone Age Melsvik chert quarries

In the Melsvik Stone Age chert quarries near Alta in Northern Norway there are dozens of extraction marks that are difficult to explain by other ancient techniques than fire setting. Hence within the Melsvik archaeological project, run by the University Museum of Tromsø, experimentation was carried out with fire in order to substantiate that it actually formed an important method of breaking loose small and big pieces of stone.

The idea was that it is not necessary with big fires and high temperatures, but that small, controlled “bonfires” are enough to create shear stress and cracking. In this way high temperatures greatly reducing the quality of the chert for tool making are avoided.

The Melsvik chert quarries are so far the most important ones discovered in Northern Norway. They may be dated all the way back to the so-called “pioneer phase” around 9500 BC, not long after the ice sheet of the last Ice Age retreated up north. But the quarries were particularly in use in the Early-Middle Mesolithic (7-8000 BC), providing material for knives, arrowheads, scrapers and so on for the region. Archaeological excavation was initiated in 2012 following plans to build a new highway right through parts of the site. Though preservation of the whole site would certainly have been the best, the parts that will soon disappear offer a great opportunity to undertake experiments with ancient extraction techniques, in particular fire setting.

The quarry

The chert deposit is situated on a small hill, forming thin layers (usually less than half a metre thick) above and within Precambrian dolomite (from stromatolites). This peculiar geology, where chert is often “draped” around dissolving dolomite (“karst”), implies that there are often hollows between the chert and the dolomite. Thus, at places the chert seems to stand under quite some tension, which can be tested by banging it with big stones: The feeling is that they “come back” to you (recoil) and hence breaking bigger pieces loose with such a brutal technique is basically out of the question. In addition, the chert is extremely hard, compact and tough. Though intensive cleavage in several directions characterise the deposit, there are barely natural, open cracks and fissures, making it almost impossible to extract by using hammerstones and bone (and stone) wedges. On repeated blows with all kinds of hammerstones, which have been tested at length, what you usually get is pulverised stone and the one or the other small piece, mostly unsuitable for tool making. Stone Age man was thus bound to employ more efficient techniques.

Evidence of fire setting

On looking at the horizontal to slightly sloping, excavated quarry faces there are at least 30, probably 50 or more, round, shallow depressions measuring about 0.5 to 1 metres across. They usually have convex surfaces at the bottom, which is a strong indicator that fire was used in their creation. They are certainly not a natural phenomenon. In addition, beside and below zones of such depressions there are rather thick layers of broken-up chert pieces and chert gravel, all with sharp edges, but without traces from direct, man-made working, such as bulbs of percussion. Such layers ought to represent the waste from fire setting. Charcoal from burning is difficult to find, but soot layers are not unusual. In this respect it should be recalled that Stone Age charcoal is generally not very common at these northerly latitudes due to poor preservation conditions.

An additional indicator of elevated temperatures is a range of sharp-edged chert fragments with a dull, white colour. The natural colour of the chert ranges from shiny greyish white to bluish and purplish. It becomes dull white upon exposure to fire above, say, 300-400 centigrade, which has been tested by burning it in bonfires. This is a result of micro-cracking leading to increase in surface area, which alters the light reflection properties of chert.

Fire setting experiments

With all these indications of Stone Age fire setting, we set out to replicate the method. What we had at hand were:

  • Birch wood for burning. Pine and mountain ash were also available in the Mesolithic up north, but not oak, which gives higher burning temperatures.
  • Hammerstones, stone wedges and fire-hardened bone and antler wedges – all in different sizes – to aid in removal of cracked stone. All tools were found or produced specifically for the project; we did not use any of the masses of hammerstones found during excavation.
  • A thermocouple to measure temperature. Unfortunately, it didn’t arrive in time, so temperature control was only possible in one of the experiments.

Over four days five experiments were made, each lasting from about one to three hours:

  1. One single fire at a slightly sloping chert surface.
  2. First two, then four fires around a small, elevated chert outcrop.
  3. Two fires along a vertical face.
  4. First two, then four fires at and around a small, elevated outcrop with a hole down to underlying dolomite.
  5. Two fires at a slightly sloping surface.

The short-lived, small fires

Each fire had a diameter of about half a metre across, generally consuming some 10-20 small birch logs. The objective with two or more fires beside each other was to create shear stress in the area in between and simultaneously keep the temperature low in these areas. Such fires performed the best, both at sloping surfaces where the rock was under significant natural tension and around slightly elevated outcrops. The chert usually started to break at the surface after only 5-10 minutes, whereas it usually took some 45 minutes to one hour to create deep, lateral cracks more than 15 cm below the rock surface, for example between two fires.

Temperatures reached and material achieved

The temperature just below the centre of the fire reached 4-500 degrees centigrade after 20-30 minutes, whereas it was in the range of 40-60 degrees at depths of 15-20 cm after about one hour. This could be controlled by placing hands on the chert after removal of broken-up material. After the initial surface cracking, the chert typically developed parallel, lateral cracks further down, breaking loose flakes with a thickness of 3-5 cm, weighing from a few hundred grams to a kilo or more. However, in one experiment (2) it was possible to break loose a block weighing some 20-30 kg and with a maximum thickness of about 15 cm. Of course, a lot of smaller, sharp fragments were also produced.

Sounds of cracking stone

In cases where the rock was under significant natural tension, cracking proceeded with much sound. The rock literally came alive. Surface cracking sounded like making popcorn, with small chert fragments jumping up to two metres into the air. Formation of deeper cracks was followed by lengthy “krrrrks” as tension was released. The video gives a good indication of the sounds!

Fire setting at vertical walls

Fire setting at vertical chert faces (3) was not very successful. One reason is that it is difficult to transmit heat to a vertical face without building protective walls around the fire, the other that the places selected did not seem to stand under much natural tension. Although the rock cracked, it only produced a few pieces useful for tool making, the rest being too small.

On looking at the distribution of fire setting marks in the quarry, it is evident that they are most common at horizontal to slightly sloping surfaces. However, it may well be that the method was also employed at vertical walls. What can probably be said, is that protective walls were not built in the quarry in the Stone Age. This is because not found much fieldstone has been found with clear fire marks during excavation. Such would have been used to build walls.

Cooling by water and removal of material

The effect of rapid cooling was also tested by pouring water over the hot surfaces. Generally, it didn’t seem to have much effect, other than giving swift access to the fire set places for removal of flakes and blocks. Removal was undertaken using stone and bone/antler tools only, and it worked excellently. Banging a little bit here and a little bit there helped in freeing cracked stone, and when this was not enough banging in simple wedges (stone/bone/antler) did the job.

Good and bad stone

Clearly, the uppermost cracked stone was totally unusable for tool making. However, the deeper layers that had been exposed to temperatures of less than perhaps 200-100 degrees – often even less – seemed perfectly suitable for making the kind of relatively small tools that are found during the excavations in and near the quarry – and at other Mesolithic sites in the region. However, one cannot be entirely certain of the quality of the raw material produced before it is tested. Replication of tools will be undertaken at a later date.

With limited knowledge and experience, as compared to Stone Age people, the most important result was perhaps not that it is indeed possible to produce seemingly suitable stone for tool making by fire setting, but that the final forms of the fire set surfaces greatly resembled the old ones in the quarry.

Moreover, waste from the experiments – sharp-edged fragments of all sizes up to several kilos – very much resemble what is found in the old waste heaps. These are thus crucial indications that fire setting was actually used at the Melsvik chert quarry 10.000 years ago. Stone Age people used their brains in extracting stone – not brute force!

Storemyr, Per.. 2013. “Burning rock: Fire setting at the Stone Age Melsvik chert quarries”. Past Horizons. Posted: Available online: http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/11/2013/burning-rock-fire-setting-stone-age-melsvik-chert-quarries

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Norwegian Vikings Purchased Silk from Persia

The Norwegian Vikings were more oriented towards the East than we have previously assumed, says Marianne Vedeler, Associate Professor at the Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo in Norway. After four years of in-depth investigation of the silk trade of the Viking Age, she may change our perceptions of the history of the Norwegian Vikings. The silk trade was far more comprehensive than we have hitherto assumed.

The Norwegian Vikings maintained trade connections with Persia and the Byzantine Empire. A network of traders from a variety of places and cultures brought the silk to the Nordic countries. Her details are presented in the book "Silk for the Vikings," to be published by Oxbow publishers this winter, but in this article you can glimpse some of her key findings.

In the Oseberg ship, which was excavated nearly a hundred years ago, more than one hundred small silk fragments were found. This is the oldest find of Viking Age silk in Norway.

At the time when the Oseberg silk was discovered, nobody conceived that it could have been imported from Persia. It was generally believed that most of it had been looted from churches and monasteries in England and Ireland.

Lots of Viking silk

Since the Oseberg excavation, silk from the Viking Age has been found in several locations in the Nordic countries. The last finding was made two years ago at Ness in Hamarøy municipality, Nordland county. Other Norwegian findings of silk from the Viking Age include Gokstad in Vestfold county, Sandanger in the Sunnmøre district and Nedre Haugen in Østfold county.

The highest number of burial sites containing silk from the Viking Age have been found at Birka in the Uppland region, a few miles west of Stockholm.

"Even though Birka has the highest number of burial sites containing silk, there are no other places where so much and such varied silk has been found in a single burial site as in Oseberg," says Marianne Vedeler to the research magazine Apollon.

In Oseberg alone, silk from fifteen different textiles, as well as embroideries and tablet-woven silk and wool bands were discovered. Many of the silk pieces had been cut into thin strips and used for articles of clothing. The textiles had been imported, while the tablet-woven bands most likely were made locally from imported silk thread.

Marianne Vedeler has collected information on silk and its trade in the Nordic countries. She has also studied manuscripts on silk production and trade along the Russian rivers as well as in Byzantium and Persia.

"When seeing it all in its totality, it's more logical to assume that most of the silk was purchased in the East, rather than being looted from the British Isles."


Vedeler believes that in the Viking Age, silk was imported from two main areas. One was Byzantium, meaning in and around Constantinople, or Miklagard, which was the Vikings' name for present-day Istanbul. The other large core area was Persia.

The silk may have been brought northwards along different routes.

One possibility is from the South through Central Europe and onwards to Norway, but I believe that most of the silk came by way of the Russian rivers Dnepr and Volga.

The Dnepr was the main route to Constantinople, while the Volga leads to the Caspian Sea. The river trade routes were extremely dangerous and difficult. One of the sources describes the laborious journey along the Dnepr to Constantinople:

"A band of traders joined up in Kiev. Along the river they were attacked by dangerous tribesmen. They needed to pass through rapids and cataracts. Then, slaves had to carry their boat."

Persian patterns

On the basis of the silk that has been found, there are indications that more silk came to Norway from Persia than from Constantinople.

Large amounts of the Oseberg silk have patterns from the Persian Empire. This silk is woven using a technique called samitum, a sophisticated Oriental weaving method. Many of the silk motifs can be linked to religious motifs from Central Asia.

Another pattern depicts a shahrokh, a bird that has a very specific meaning in Persian mythology; it represents a royal blessing. In the Persian myth, the shahrokh bird is the messenger that brings the blessing to a selected prince. In a dream, the bird visits the prince holding a tiara, a tall head adornment, in its beak. The prince then wakes up and knows that he is the chosen one. The image of the imperial bird was popular not only in silk weaving, but also in other art forms in Persia. The motif gained widespread popularity in Persian art.

It's an amusing paradox that silk textiles with such religious and mythological images were highly prized and used in heathen burial sites in the Nordic countries as well as in European churches.


In the Orient, silk was essential for symbolizing power and strength. There was an entire hierarchy of different silk qualities and patterns reserved for civil servants and royalty.

Even though silk was a prominent status symbol for the Vikings, they failed to get their hands on the best silk.

Most likely, the bulk of the silk imported to Scandinavia was of medium or below-medium quality.

In Byzantium, major restrictions were imposed on the sale of silk to foreign lands. The punishment for illegal sale of silk was draconian. The Persian lands also imposed strict restrictions on the sale and production of silk.

In Byzantium, it was illegal to buy more silk than what could be bought for the price of a horse. A foreign trader was allowed to buy silk for ten numismata, while the price of a horse was twelve numismata.

"However, several trade agreements that have been preserved show that traders from the North nevertheless had special trade privileges in Byzantium."

Silk was not only a trade commodity. Certain types of silk were reserved for diplomatic gifts to foreign countries, as described in Byzantine as well as Persian sources. In Europe, silk became especially popular for wrapping sacred relics in churches.

Some of the silk found in Norway may be gifts or spoils of war, but archaeological as well as written sources indicate that silk was traded in the Nordic countries.

"We may safely assume that the Vikings engaged in trade, plunder, exchange of gifts and diplomatic relations in equal measure."

A possible example of loot found in the Oseberg ship is a piece of silk with an image of a cross.

This was long before the introduction of Christianity. The silk piece may have been sewn locally, but it is also highly likely that it was purloined from an Irish church.

Possibly China

At Gokstad, thin strips of hammered gold wrapped around silk threads were among the findings. "These threads are highly exclusive. We do not know their origin, but we suspect that they may have come from even further east, in the direction of China," says Vedeler, who will now travel to China to find out more.

As yet, Vedeler must draw conclusions regarding the origin of the silk by investigating weaving technologies and patterns. With time, she wishes to make use of a new method which is being developed at the University of Copenhagen and which will be able to reveal the geographic origin of artefacts.

Science Daily. 2013. “Norwegian Vikings Purchased Silk from Persia”. Science Daily. . Posted: November 1, 2013. Available online: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/11/131101091735.htm

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Archaeological site revealing 6000 years of occupation

As part of the development of an industrial park in Pays de Sainte Odile, Inrap has just completed a major search of over 7.5 acres, which has resulted in the discovery of  a succession of Neolithic, Gallic, Gallo-Roman and Merovingian societies.

Neolithic necropolis from 6900 years ago

To the south east within the excavation area, archaeologists have unearthed a complex containing twenty burials dating from 4900 to 4750 BCE.

Another sector contains a dozen Neolithic tombs where most of the deceased are wearing necklaces and bracelets composed of small beads and shells. One individual is also wearing two round, stone armbands. Flint tools and pottery abound and the decorated ceramics assign the occupation to the end of the Grossgartach culture which represents the first major Middle Neolithic group at around 4750 BCE. At that time the vast ” Danube ” cemeteries disappear in favour of small burial groups. This transitional period is not well documented in Alsace, so the necropolis of Obernai is now a good reference point.

Gallic farm from 2160 years ago

In the northern section of the site are the remains of a Gallic farm which initially consisted of ​​an enclosure of 8000 m². It has an unusual plan with two doors arranged in the corners with one of them incorporating a monumental porch. The interior of the enclosure shows traces of buildings, storage pits and many artefacts assigned to La Tène period ( 150-130 BCE). These artefacts which consist of brooches, glass ornaments, ceramics, amphorae and coins give an idea of the importance of the farm and the owner’s wealth.

Beyond the southern ditches of the enclosure archaeologists have uncovered some less well understood features and fifty metres to the east is also a set of habitation structures and storage pits. The discovery of fragments of human skulls, weapons, some graves of children and animals may suggests a religious context, perhaps the presence of a shrine. One pit, in particular contained a shield.

Peoples of eastern origin from 1650 years ago

Archaeologists and anthropologists have studied a Merovingian necropolis consisting of eighteen burials oriented west/east. Four graves contained artefacts and three contained silver earrings. The most ornate of the graves contained two small gold pins on the chest of the deceased, which may have fastened a garment such as a veil. A chatelaine was connected to a belt with various objects attached including a silver mirror, similar to those used by the Alano – Sarmatian populations of the Caucasus, a tweezer set and several large coloured glass beads and amber. This female also had a triangular antler comb, decorated with geometric motifs and horse heads at either end.

Besides the grave goods, the eastern origin of the individuals is attested by the presence of an intentionally deformed skull. During the Merovingian era, this practice is primarily associated with the Huns from Central Asia. Intentional distortion requires the use of boards or links that compress the head from an early age. This practice is thought to allow the elite to distinguish themselves and emphasise their social group. Burials such as this have been discovered in isolation in northern Gaul, Germany and Eastern Europe and often include rich furnishings. They would appear to represent the graves of dignitaries and their families who were incorporated in to the Roman army at the time of “the great migration”.

The necropolis of Obernai is one of the few important groups discovered in France and it demonstrates for the first time the treatment of an Eastern community in Alsace at the end of the Roman Empire.

Past Horizons. 2013. “Archaeological site revealing 6000 years of occupation”. Past Horizons. Posted: November 1, 2013. Available online: http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/11/2013/archaeological-site-revealing-6000-years-of-occupation

Monday, December 16, 2013

Alaska Spear Points Raise Questions About Early Man

The discovery of fluted spear points in northwest Alaska strongly suggests that early humans carrying American technology lived on the central Bering Land Bridge about 12,000 years ago, showing that peopling of the Americas was more complex than previously believed, according to a research team led by a Texas A&M University professor.

Ted Goebel, professor of anthropology, along with colleagues Mike Waters, Heather Smith and Kelly Graf, all associated with the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M, and researchers from Baylor University, the University of Georgia, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Desert Research Institute have had their findings published in the online version of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The project was funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, and National Park Service’s Shared Beringia Heritage Program.

The researchers focused on an area in Alaska called Serpentine Hot Springs, now part of the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve located on the Seward Peninsula. Park archaeologists in 2005 discovered a fragment of a fluted spear point, long known as a hallmark of North American Paleoindian cultures. Goebel and the team later excavated the site, finding more fluted points.

“This shows for sure that there were humans on the land bridge by the end of the Ice Age, 12,000 years ago, because the spear points were found with charcoal and bone radiocarbon dated to that time,” Goebel explains.

“Several of the spear points were found in our excavation along with charred animal bones, probably caribou which ancient humans butchered and ate there at the site.  So the question becomes, ‘Who were these people , and where did they come from?’”

Goebel says that among the earliest residents of North America were members of the Clovis culture, thought to date to about 13,000 years ago. Clovis people specifically fashioned their stone spear tips with grooved, or fluted, bases. Such human-made projectile points have been known in Alaska since 1947, having been found at as many as 20 different archaeological sites.

“But no one has been able to determine the age of fluted points in Alaska  – were they younger, the same age as, or older than the Clovis residents in temperate North America?” Goebel says.

Scientists have chiefly considered two scenarios about Alaska’s fluted point makers:  either they were a pre-Clovis population that moved southward at the end of the Pleistocene era, or they were post-Clovis migrants who spread from south to north.

“The evidence from Serpentine supports the second theory – that either Paleoindian people or technologies were moving in a reverse migration pattern, from south to north, or more specifically, from the high plains of central Canada in a northerly direction into Alaska,” he points out.

Goebel says the findings show new possibilities about when and from where the early settlers of the Bering land bridge arrived.

“Not all of Beringia’s early residents may have come from Siberia, as we have traditionally thought,” he notes.  “Some may have come from America instead, although millennia after the initial migration across the land bridge from Asia. If the fluted points do not represent a human migration, they at least indicate the surprisingly early spread of an American technology into Arctic Alaska.”

He notes that the fluted points were used by the Serpentine residents as weapon tips for hunting large animals, such as caribou or bison. The bow and arrow would not appear in Alaska for several thousand more years.

“We know these early settlers were very mobile – they traveled great distances,” Goebel adds.

“Humans carried tools made of the volcanic glass called obsidian to the site from nearly 300 miles inland in central Alaska. The artifacts and other debris they left behind suggests very short stays, perhaps just several days and nights.

“Nonetheless, fluted points have yet to be found in neighboring Chukotka (in Russia) suggesting that the fluted-point makers never made it any further west than the Seward Peninsula. By 12,000 years ago, the land bridge was becoming swamped by the rising Bering and Chukchi seas.”

Tamu Times. 2013. “Alaska Spear Points Raise Questions About Early Man”. Tamu Times. Posted: October 31, 2013. Available online: http://tamutimes.tamu.edu/2013/10/31/alaska-spear-points-raise-questions-about-early-man/#.UpO_A4

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Tuberculosis found in 7000 year old bodies

Tuberculosis was present in Europe as early as 7000 years ago, according to new research published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

Muriel Masson and colleagues at the University of Szeged examined 71 individuals for their skeletal palaeopathology from a late Neolithic Tisza culture population of the 7000-year-old site of Hódmezővásárhely-Gorzsa in southern Hungary.

A disease called Hypertrophic Pulmonary Osteopathy (HPO) is characterized by symmetrical new bone formations on the long bones caused by periostitis. Most recently in the Middle East, the skeletal remains of a 12-month old infant recovered from the underwater Neolithic site of Atlit-Yam, Israel, dated to 9250-8160 BP, were described as showing evidence of HOA, in addition to Mycobacterium tuberculosis aDNA and mycolic cell wall biomarkers.[1].

Numerous cases of infections and metabolic diseases HPO is however a rare find in the archaeological record. The oldest documented cases in Europe include a Merovingian skeleton from the site of Les Rues des Vignes (Nord, France) dated AD500 to 700.

The researchers here found numerous cases of infections and metabolic diseases, and some skeletons showed signs of HPO which offered the potential of isolating tuberculosis. They focused on one skeleton in particular to verify this hypothesis, and analysed the ancient DNA and lipids from the bones to do so. Both tests confirmed the presence of the bacterial complex associated with tuberculosis.

This is one of the earliest known cases of HPO and tuberculosis to date, and helps shed new light on this European community in prehistoric times.

Masson concludes, “This is a crucial find from a fantastic site. It is not only the earliest occurrence of fully-developed HPO on an adult skeleton to date, but also clearly establishes the presence of Tuberculosis in Europe 7000 years ago.”

Past Horizons. 2013. “Tuberculosis found in 7000 year old bodies”. Past Horizons. Posted: October 31, 2013. Available online: http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/10/2013/tuburculosis-found-in-7000-year-old-body

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Elongation in Acheulean handaxes: A matter of choice

Researchers at the University of Liverpool have found that long and slender stone tools were made by human ancestors at least a million years ago – nearly twice as long ago as generally thought.

Materials such as branches, twigs, and stems were readily available to both animal and human tool makers from millions of years ago, but research at Liverpool has now shown that elongate forms were also made out of stone by human ancestors much earlier than is usually recognised.

Professor John Gowlett, as a member of an international team based on the University’s Department of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology, is working at Kilombe in Kenya, where he has found a number of hand axe tools that are very long and narrow.

Special attraction

Professor Gowlett said: “Psychologists have shown that moderately elongate forms are often favoured, especially those in the ratio 0.61. But there also seems to be a special attraction to far longer and slenderer forms.

“Some of the stone tools from Kilombe and other early sites are almost two and a half times as long as broad and there is no way this can occur by accident. They must have been carefully crafted.

“Usually such slender shapes are found far later in the fine blade tools made by Homo sapiens.  The hand-axes were made by the earlier Homo erectus.

“As the concentrations of elongate tools are rare on the Kilombe site, they were probably made to carry out tasks of animal butchery or plant preparation which did not occur very often.

“They show that when the need arose early humans were capable of strikingly sophisticated behaviour.”

Past Horizons. 2013. “Elongation in Acheulean handaxes: A matter of choice”. Past Horizons. Posted: October 31, 2013. Available online: http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/10/2013/elongation-in-acheulean-handaxes-a-matter-of-choice

Friday, December 13, 2013

A Bewitching History: Why Witches Ride Broomsticks

Among the throngs of this year's trick-or-treaters, hundreds of Americans will be dressed as Miley Cyrus or a minion from "Despicable Me," but more will go with a fail-safe getup. "Witch" once again reigns as the No. 1 costume for adults, according to the National Retail Federation's 2013 Halloween survey.

Many of the pointy-hatted sorcerers who roam the streets this Oct. 31 will be carrying broomsticks or besoms. But few likely know the murky tale of how witches came to be associated with those familiar household objects.

The story — full of sex, drugs and Christian inquisitors — starts with poisonous plants like black henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), sometimes called stinking nightshade.

Flying ointments

Ingesting henbane, which is rich in powerful alkaloids, can cause hallucinations (if it doesn't kill you first). According to legend, witches used herbs with psychoactive properties like henbane in their potions, or "flying ointments." Some historical accounts suggest witches applied these ointments to their nether regions. And what better applicator than a wooden staff?

Lady Alice Kyteler, Ireland's earliest known accused witch, was condemned to death for using sorcery to kill her husband in 1324. (Kyteler escaped, and her maid was burned at the stake in her stead.)

The English historian Raphael Holinshed later recounted the case and described some of the supposedly damning evidence authorities found against Kyteler: "In rifleing the closet of the ladie, they found a pipe of ointment wherewith she greased her staffe, upon which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin."

Another oft-cited account comes a from 15th-century manuscript by theologian Jordanes de Bergamo. In his "Quaestio de Strigis" of 1470, Bergamo writes of witches who on "certain days or nights they anoint a staff and ride on it to the appointed place or anoint themselves under the arms and in other hairy places."

It's hard to know whether or not witches actually did the deeds they were rumored to have done (like mounting hallucinogen-laced wooden staffs in their covens). Sources from the era when fears about witchcraft peaked are unreliable and biased, noted Charles Zika, a professor at the University of Melbourne, who has written about the imagery of witchcraft. Modern knowledge of witches often comes from manuals written by inquisitors, ecclesiastical judges and testimony by accused witches — much of it produced under duress or torture, Zika explained.

"A lot of it we can't trust as descriptions of social reality at all," Zika told LiveScience.

Sexy witches

The explicit implications of staff riding, and the sexual nature of witches in images throughout the Renaissance, are difficult to ignore. Artists like Albrecht Dürer and Hans Baldung depicted them naked. The witch in one engraving by the Italian artist Parmigianino is not riding a broom, but rather a gigantic, anatomically graphic phallus.

But racy images of witches fit in with a culture in which there was much speculation about female sexuality, Zika said.

"It's bound up with an anxiety about women and what place they have in society at a time when Europe was undergoing fundamental changes and transformations in society," Zika said. With the Protestant Reformation, some religious leaders established bans on drinking and dancing, brothels were closed and marriage was more strictly codified and controlled.

In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, images of witches riding up and out of chimneys start to dominate. During this period, women also were more closely associated with domestic space than they were 200 years earlier, Zika said. At that time, too, brooms are depicted more and more often in relation to domestic work in art.

"It seems to me that this idea of them flying out the chimney is actually kind of a protest against this confinement in domestic space," Zika said. "Witchcraft is symbolically in some ways freeing individuals from that kind of conception of their realm."

Can witches really fly?

Though the image of the broomstick stuck, early depictions in 15th- and 16th-century Europe show witches flying on a wide range of items, including stools, cupboards, wardrobes and two-pronged cooking forks, Zika said. But rarely are witches shown getting aloft on their own.

"There are very few representations of what you might call flying witches — they're usually riding some implement or animal," he explained.

"It's not their own bodies that are propelling them," Zika said. "The explanation in the theological handbooks is that they are being supported by demons and devils that are holding them."

Hundreds of years later, it can be tough to tease out what people and artists of the Renaissance actually believed about witches. In any case, some brave, if ill-advised, modern accounts suggest witches' flying potions probably worked. In his book "The Long Trip: A Prehistory of Psychedelia" (Daily Grail Publishing, 2008), author Paul Devereux recounts folklorist Will-Erich Peuckert's 20th-century experimentation with a mixture of belladonna, henbane and Datura:

"We had wild dreams. Faces danced before my eyes which were at first terrible. Then I suddenly had the sensation of flying for miles through the air. The flight was repeatedly interrupted by great falls. Finally, in the last phase, an image of an orgiastic feast with grotesque sensual excess."

Gannon, Megan. 2013. “A Bewitching History: Why Witches Ride Broomsticks”. Live Science. Posted: October 30, 2013. Available online: http://www.livescience.com/40828-why-witches-ride-broomsticks.html

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Drone mapping the pyramids of Zuleta in Ecuador

The Pyramids of Zuleta are one of the hidden treasures of the Andes. Built around 1,000 years ago, by the native Caranqui people, these earthen mounds and platform pyramids dominate the landscape near Hacienda Zuleta in the mountains of northern Ecuador and 110 kilometres north of Quito.

Unlike much of our planet, high resolution aerial imagery and digital elevation models are unavailable for this part of the world. This is due to the fog that often blankets the area and the agrarian nature of the region. As a part of a team of archaeologists who visited the site in August 2013, we aimed to change that.

A challenging task

Using a small, hand-launched, Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV aka drone) equipped with a downward facing camera and a sophisticated autopilot system, we documented the site as it has never been seen—from extremely low altitude and at high resolution.  This was a challenging task as most of the pyramids are located in the bottom of a steep constricted canyon inhabited by Andean Condors. To make things more challenging there were high winds, clouds, and quirks of the micro-climates within the canyon to contend with. In spite of that, we were able to fly nine missions and collect hundreds of photographs in just a couple of days.

The UAV flies in a defined pattern and collects photographs. The onboard autopilot insures that each image has 60% or more overlap with adjacent images. These overlapping images allow for the data to be processed into 3D and digital terrain models (DTMs) using photogrammetric and cutting edge Structure from Motion technologies. All of the data are GIS ready. While basic processing allowed us to see the mapped data in the field, it was necessary to further develop it using a high-end processing farm in Maryland, once we were back in the United States.

New discoveries

This approach has already led to the discovery of many more mounds that are not obvious to the naked eye but stand out in the data. Furthermore, it is the first time the detailed spatial relationship between each of the earthen structures can be explored with precision. This data will be used to track the condition of the mounds over time and has created a digital snapshot of their current state for future generations to ponder. This was accomplished with only a few days of fieldwork and under harsh conditions. To create a map of similar accuracy using traditional survey approaches would have taken weeks and lacked the aerial imagery this approach provides.

Our team has conducted similar mapping missions in Australia, Belize, Belgium, Fiji, France, Germany, The Republic of Kiribati, Peru, and South Africa. We look forward to continuing these sorts of projects elsewhere and helping to preserve and understand our past.

The archaeological mapping and processing team included Chet Walker and Mark Willis. The rest of the archaeological team was made up of Steve Athens and David O. Brown. Athens and Brown are experts on the archaeology of the Andes and have worked for decades in the region. We would like to thank Fernando Polanco Plaza, the general manager of Hacienda Zuelta, for his hospitality and dedication to preserving the rich heritage of Ecuador.

Willis, Mark. 2013. “Drone mapping the pyramids of Zuleta in Ecuador”. Past Horizons. Posted: October 29, 2013. Available online: http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/10/2013/drone-mapping-pyramids-zuleta-ecuador

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Voodoo: Facts About Misunderstood Religion

Voodoo (or, more correctly, voudon) is an Afro-Caribbean religion originating in Haiti. While some confuse voodoo with voudon, voodoo is best understood as a sensationalized pop-culture caricature of voudon.

Voudon teaches belief in a supreme being called Bondye, an unknowable and uninvolved creator god. Voudonbelievers worship many spirits (called loa), each one of whom is responsible for a specific domain or part of life. So, for example, if you are a farmer you might give praise and offerings to the spirit of agriculture; if you are suffering from unrequited love, you would praise or leave offerings for Erzulie Freda, the spirit of love, and so on. In addition to helping (or impeding) human affairs loa can also manifest themselves by possessing the bodies of their worshipers.

Leslie Desmangles, a Haitian professor at Hartford's Trinity College writing in "The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal" notes that "The use of the term 'voudon' in Haiti refers to a whole assortment of cultural elements: personal creeds and practices, including an elaborate system of folk medical practices; a system of ethics transmitted across generations [including] proverbs, stories, songs, and folklore... voudon is more than belief; it is a way of life."

Haiti is most closely associated with voudon, though followers of the religion can be found in Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, the United States and elsewhere. Followers of voudon also believe in a universal energy and a soul that can leave the body during dreams and spirit possession. In Christian theology, spiritual possession is usually considered to be an act of evil, either Satan or some demonic entity trying to enter an unwilling human vessel. In voudon, however, possession by loa is desired. In a ceremony guided by a priest or priestess this possession is considered a valuable, first-hand spiritual experience and connection with the spirit world.

History of voudon

Voudon originated with slaves who combined elements of their West African traditions and beliefs with the Roman Catholicism imposed upon them by their masters in a process called syncretism. A 1685 law forbade the practice of African religions and required all masters to Christianize their slaves within eight days of their arrival, and slavery was condoned by the Catholic Church as a tool for converting Africans to morally upright Christians. Slaves forced to adopt Catholic rituals thus gave them double meanings, and in the process many of their spirits became associated with Christian saints. Furthermore, Desmangles notes, "Many of the African spirits were adapted to their new milieu in the New World. Ogun, for instance, the Nigerian spirit of ironsmiths, hunting and warfare took on a new persona... He became Ogou, the military leader who has led phalanxes into battle against oppression. In Haiti today, Ogou inspires many political revolutions that oust undesirable oppressive regimes."

Though Haitian slavery ended in the early 1800s, followers of voudon were often persecuted by authorities who demonized their religion. An 1889 book titled "Hayti, or the Black Republic" falsely attributed human sacrifices, cannibalism and other atrocities to voudon, further spreading fear of the religion. Many fundamentalist Christians still regard voudon and voodoo with suspicion, associating it with the occult, black magic and Satanism. Even today "voodoo" is often used as an adjective to describe something that is unknowable, mysterious, or simply unworkable (for example in 1980 George H. W. Bush famously disparaged Ronald Reagan's monetary policies as "voodoo economics").

Voodoo and zombies

The more sensational aspects of voudon, such as belief in zombies and animal sacrifice, have provided fodder for countless television shows and movies in the form of voodoo. Zombies are an especially good example of how a religious element can be taken out of context and become a global phenomenon.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "zombie" first appeared in English around 1810 when historian Robert Southey mentioned it in his book "History of Brazil." But this "zombi" was not the familiar brain-eating manlike monster but instead, like many voudon loa, a West African deity. The word later came to suggest the vital, human force leaving the shell of a body, and ultimately a creature human in form but lacking self-awareness, intelligence and a soul.

The original Haitian zombies were not villains but victims. Haitian zombies were said to be people brought back from the dead (and sometimes controlled) through magical means by priests called bokors. Sometimes, the zombification was done as punishment (striking fear in those who believed that they could be abused even after death), but often the zombies were said to have been used as slave labor on the island's farms and sugarcane plantations (though no evidence of the zombie-filled farms was ever found).

The voodoo popular in movies and fiction bears little resemblance to real voudon beliefs or practices. Voodoo has become a prominent feature of the New Orleans tourism industry, with countless shops, tours, exhibits, and museums capitalizing on that city's historic (and, some experts say, tenuous) connection to voudon. Of course, stripping sacred objects and rituals out of their original context for commercial exploitation is nothing new: witness Chinese-made Native American dream catchers for sale at dollar stores.

In the end, voudon has a largely undeserved reputation as a sinister religion. Though some voudon rituals involve animal sacrifices, it is hardly unique; many other religious traditions involve animal bloodletting including Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism. The irony is that voudon's best-known and most sensational features — including voodoo dolls and zombies — have little to do with its actual beliefs and practices.

Radford, Benjamin. 2013. “Voodoo: Facts About Misunderstood Religion”. Live Science. Posted: October 30, 2013. Available online: http://www.livescience.com/40803-voodoo-facts.html

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Forbidden City: Home to Chinese Emperors

The Forbidden City (also called Zijin Cheng) is a 72-hectare (178 acres) palace complex in Beijing that was used by the emperors of China from A.D. 1420 to 1911.

In total, 24 emperors occupied the Forbidden City, so named because it could only be accessed by the emperor, his immediate family, his women and thousands of eunuchs (castrated male servants) and officials. It was renovated constantly throughout its 600-year history.

The complex consists of about 980 buildings, mainly in yellow and red colors, surrounded by a wall 32 feet (10 meters) high and a moat 171 feet (52 meters) wide. The city is configured on a north-south axis that aligns with the pole star, emphasizing the emperor’s position as the son of heaven. “The whole palace context is built along a central axis, the axis of the world,” said University of Sydney professor Jeffrey Riegel in a 2008 BBC/History Channel documentary, “everything in the four directions suspend from this central point represented by these palaces.”

The southern portion, which is also called the outer court, ends in the Hall of Supreme Harmony (the largest building) and tended to be where official business was carried out. The northern portion, which is also known as the inner court, had the residences of the emperor and his family as well as the harem where his concubines were kept.

It was difficult for an ordinary male to enter the Forbidden City, said Chen Shen, the curator of a Forbidden City exhibition set to open at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum in 2014, at a recent media presentation. He said that for a common man to enter he would likely have to become a eunuch, having his genitals cut off.  Even then “you still have to work your way up for many, many, many years before you get close to the emperor and his women.”

Shen added that the Forbidden City is, today, a major tourist destination attracting millions of visitors each year. On a single day in 2013, October 2, “the Forbidden City welcomed 175,000 visitors making it the most visited World Heritage destination in the world.”


The palace complex was ordered built by Zhu Di (the Yongle Emperor) who lived A.D. 1360-1424. He was crowned emperor in 1402 after forcefully overthrowing his nephew. After his ascension, he decided to move the imperial capital from Nanjing to his power base in what was then called Beiping, renaming the city Beijing “the northern capital.”

Moving the capital and building a new palace complex was an immense operation that meant expanding China’s canal system and mobilizing about 1 million workers to cut down trees, quarry rocks, make bricks and transport supplies, among the many other necessary activities.

The emperor felt that heaven had turned against him when, in 1421, lightning strikes resulted in three of his palaces burning down. “I am frightened to the very core of my being and I don’t know what to do …” said the emperor in a document quoted by Riegel in the documentary. Despite Zhu Di’s bad fortune the Forbidden City continued to be used by China’s emperors in both good times and bad.

Entering the City

The Meridian Gate, which towers as high as 125 feet (38 meters), is located in the south and serves as the formal entranceway to the city. It leads visitors through a series of courtyards that end in the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the central and largest building where the emperor would conduct business.

Officials had to wait outside the Meridian Gate at about 3 a.m. to be admitted for their work, the gateway also serving public ceremonial purposes, writes Geremie Barme, a professor at the Australian National University, in his book "The Forbidden City" (Profile Books, 2008). “From the gate’s parapets, emperors presided over military ceremonies and victory parades, as well as the annual proclamation of the calendar which determined agricultural and ritual activities throughout the empire.”

The Hall of Supreme Harmony sits on a dais and stands about 115 feet (35 meters) tall, writes Marilyn Shea, a professor at the University of Maine, in a 2009 online article. “At the top of the building, at each end of the roof ridge, are two dragons facing one another,” she writes noting that each dragon is more than 11 feet (3 meters) long and weighs close to five tons.

Barme notes that in later times, after a line of rulers from Manchuria formed the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), another building known as the “Hall of Mental Cultivation” took over, in practice, as the main workplace of the emperor.

Change of dynasties

One of the most important events to happen in the Forbidden City occurred in 1644. In that year, a rebel army attacked Beijing, forcing the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Youjian (the Chongzhen emperor) to commit suicide.

A Manchu army from Manchuria was invited by the remaining Ming supporters to march on Beijing and kick the rebels out. They succeeded but the price of their success was the founding of a new, Manchu-led, dynasty known as the Qing. Their rulers would go on to rebuild Beijing, and much of the Forbidden City, after the devastation brought by the rebel forces. They incorporated Manchu customs into the daily life of the city while continuing to respect earlier Ming customs. The Qing Dynasty would be the last imperial dynasty of China, ending in 1912 with the abdication of the 5-year-old Puyi.

An emperor’s retirement abode

The Qing Dynasty reached the height of its power under Hongli (the Qianlong emperor) who reigned 1736-1795. In 1795, after ruling for 60 years, he officially retired as emperor so that the length of his rule would not surpass that of his grandfather.

In doing so, he built a retirement palace called Ningshougong (Tranquility and Longevity Palace) in the northeast part of the Forbidden City, writes Nancy Berliner in an article published in the book "The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City" (Peabody Essex Museum, 2010). It included a “twenty-seven pavilion garden” spanning two acres that “would reference nature and inner harmony, with places for leisurely contemplation, poetry writing, Buddhist meditation, and delighting in the visual arts,” Berliner writes.

In practice, the Qianlong emperor was never able to fully enjoy this palace or his retirement, retaining unofficial power up until his death in 1799. His rule would represent the height of the Qing Dynasty, the 19th century being one of decline.

The two Dowagers

In the 19th century, the Dowagers, mothers of the emperors, would gain greater influence. Dowager Cixi, who lived 1835-1908, would gain great power when her 5-year-old son, the Tongzhi Emperor, ascended the throne in 1861. For a time, she ruled literally “behind the screen” along with Dowager Ci’an (who died in 1881), telling Tongzhi and his successor what to do.

This period of rule was one of decline for the Qing Dynasty, something which some authors have tried to blame on the Dowagers, Cixi in particular. A major problem the Qing had to deal with was the relative decline of their own military in comparison to that of the Western powers. Barme notes that after the failed 1900 Boxer Rebellion, a foreign army occupied Beijing, looting the Forbidden City.

The imperial throne did not last long after Cixi’s 1908 death. In 1911, an uprising forced the 5-year-old emperor Puyi and his Dowager mother to flee the Forbidden City. He formally abdicated the following year and China would never have an emperor again. The Palace Museum was founded in the Forbidden City in 1925. Today this museum has about 1.5 million artifacts from the city under its care.

Forbidden City under Mao

Even without the emperors, there was still much history left to be made in the Forbidden City. In the Chinese civil war that broke out after World War II, the retreating Nationalists moved about 600,000 treasures, originally from the Forbidden City, to Taiwan, where they are now part of a Palace Museum in Taipei.

When the communists under Mao took control of Beijing, they didn’t know what to do with the Forbidden City. Barme notes in his book that the palace complex, with the opulence it afforded the emperor, seemed at odds with Mao’s way of thinking and plans were proposed to tear it down. They were never put into action, however, and when Richard Nixon made his groundbreaking trip to China in 1972, he visited the Forbidden City.

Unexplored history

Today, there are still many more stories waiting to be told about the Forbidden City. The Palace Museum in Beijing has more than 1.5 million artifacts from the city, including many which have yet to be published despite a program that has produced 60 volumes in the last few decades.

Chen Shen told LiveScience in an interview that when his team was putting together the new exhibition they made a week-long trip to the vaults where many treasures of the emperors and their families are being stored, including their textiles, bronzes, paintings, silver and gold utensils, documents, thrones and personalized cups among many other objects. Of the 250 artifacts his team selected for the Toronto exhibition, about 50 have never been published and 80 had never left the Forbidden City at all.

For educators and documentary makers, telling the numerous stories about the Forbidden City is also a challenge. Recently the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation supported a 100-episode documentary co-produced by CCTV9 and the Palace Museum that tells as much of the story as possible.

Today the importance of the Forbidden City is again undisputed. Whatever doubts Mao had about the Forbidden City had when he first entered it have been swept aside and today it is recognized as one of the greatest heritage sites in China and indeed the world. “This building still stands today as the symbol of the Chinese people and their great and glorious history,” said McGill University professor Robin Yates in the BBC/History Channel documentary.

Jarus, Owen. 2013. “Forbidden City: Home to Chinese Emperors”. Live Science. . Posted: Available online: http://www.livescience.com/40764-forbidden-city.html