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From the Trenches

Big Data, Big Cities

By ERIC A. POWELL

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Mexico-Teotihuacan-Avenue-DeadAncient cities such as Teotihuacan may have had more in common with today’s sprawling metropolises than scholars previously imagined. University of Colorado Boulder archaeologist Scott Ortman and his colleagues have found that equations used to describe growth patterns in today’s urban centers also work when applied to early cities.

 

Scientists developed these mathematical models to predict how population growth affects a modern city’s population density, infrastructure, and economic production. But Ortman noticed that while the models depend on a number of variables, such as the rate of social interaction and the size of the settled area, none relied on a specific modern technology. “I thought that if this approach had any legs at all then it ought to apply to any human society, past and present,” he says.

 

If he is correct, then ancient settlements would have become denser in a mathematically predictable way as their populations grew. To test the theory, Ortman and his colleagues analyzed archaeological data collected during surveys of some 1,500 settlements throughout the Valley of Mexico. These ranged from small farming hamlets dating to 1500 B.C. to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, which, at its height around A.D. 1500, was home to some 200,000 people. The team found that, just as with modern cities, the equations accurately predicted the relationship between settlement size and population density. According to Ortman, this insight means that archaeological data could have a role to play in modern policy debates surrounding issues such as the economics of rapid urbanization. “There’s a tendency for social scientists to think that the Industrial Revolution made all prior human history irrelevant to what’s going on now,” says Ortman. “But if the basic processes that underlie urban growth phenomena have been the same throughout time, then the archaeological record is a store of human experience that has something to offer public discourse about the issues we face as we move into the future.”

Our Lady of the Lake

By JENNIFER PINKOWSKI

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Iznick-Church-Lake

 

Archaeologists were surprised by the discovery of a Byzantine basilica in just six feet of water, 60 feet from the shore of Turkey’s Lake Iznik, near the ancient city of Nicaea. Locals knew there were ruins in the lake, but scholars were unaware of the 100-by-60-foot structure until Uludag University’s Mustafa Sahin recently spotted the clear footprint of the church in an aerial photo taken by the local municipality. Sahin thinks it’s likely the church was built in the late fourth or early fifth century, less than 100 years after Nicaea hosted the First Ecumenical Council in A.D. 325, convened by the emperor Constantine to establish key doctrines for the Eastern Roman Empire.

England's Oldest Footprints

By ZACH ZORICH

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Englands-Oldest-FootprintsNearly a million years ago, a small group of hominins walked near an estuary on the English coast 140 miles northeast of London, leaving footprints in the soft mud, which then hardened. Last summer, archaeologists working at the nearby site of Happisburgh, which dates to around the same time, discovered those footprints. They are the oldest footprints known outside of Africa—49 of them, made by at least five individuals, including some children. “One can imagine a small family group walking along the edge of the estuary looking for seaweed or shellfish,” says Nicholas Ashton of London’s Natural History Museum. Some of the footprints were lifted out of the site in a block of sediment before they could be eroded away by the tide. The sediment will be CT scanned to provide a more detailed picture of the stature and gait of the people, probably Homo antecessor, who made the prints.

Secrets of Bronze Age Cheese Makers

By ERIC A. POWELL

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Bronze-Age-Cheese-Mummy-Lump-Combo

 

Bronze Age mummies in China’s Taklamakan Desert were buried with the earliest known pieces of cheese affixed to their necks and chests. Chemist Andrej Shevchenko of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden came to that conclusion after analyzing several enigmatic pieces of yellow matter found on the mummies, which date to between 1980 and 1450 B.C.

 

Shevchenko was able to isolate proteins characteristic of cheese in the samples, and was even able to identify the kinds of yeast and bacteria used in the fermentation process. “That’s what makes this so exciting,” says Shevchenko. “We know that cheese was made as early as the sixth millennium B.C.., but this is the first evidence that shows just how people were making it.” Shevchenko points out that just 20 years ago organic matter such as these pieces of cheese might have been ignored and disposed of. “With the technology we have now, no one should throw out anything,” says Shevchenko.

Clash of the War Elephants

By ROGER ATWOOD

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

War-Elephants-Raphia

 

Elephants were the tanks of ancient Mediterranean warfare, commonly used for trampling and intimidating enemies. Yet there was only one battle in which African elephants and their Asian cousins are known to have met—the Battle of Raphia, in Gaza, in 217 B.C. According to the historian Polybius, it wasn’t even a contest. He writes that the African pachyderms, under the command of the Ptolemaic pharaoh of Egypt, panicked and tried to flee at the sight of the larger Asian elephants of the Seleucid army. Yet African savannah elephants are typically bigger and stronger than Asian ones. Had Polybius gotten it wrong? Modern writers have speculated that the Egyptians had African forest elephants, a smaller species than the savannah variety. Later Roman and Carthaginian armies, including Hannibal’s forces, might also have used forest elephants. 

 

That idea has crept into modern accounts, depictions, and even video games such as Age of Empires, in which war elephants have the rounded ears and dwarfish proportions of the forest dwellers. Now geneticists have found that the species of elephant that the Egyptians had access to came from modern-day Eritrea in East Africa, and share no genetic markers with forest elephants. “The idea that they used forest elephants was not based on evidence, but it got repeated over and over,” says geneticist Alfred Roca of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “It makes no sense. Forest elephants lived in the Congo basin, thousands of miles from the Mediterranean.” The matter of Polybius’ account remains unsettled.

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