A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
From the Trenches
By ZACH ZORICH
Monday, August 11, 2014
On the north coast of Peru near the Chira River, the beach is made up of a series of ridges—sand dumped by fierce El Niño storms—big enough to be seen in satellite images. Dan Sandweiss of the University of Maine believes that these ridges used to be larger and more numerous. His research team investigated enormous deposits of clamshells on the coast and showed that, for more than 5,000 years, people had been harvesting huge amounts of shellfish there. The shells were then discarded on the beach as garbage, with the effect of helping to stabilize the sand and keep it from being blown or washed away by the relentless winds and surf. In 1532, however, the Spanish Conquest brought disease and economic reorganization that left the area depopulated. Without anyone remaining to discard clamshells on the beach, the huge sand dunes they once solidified have, over time, been reduced to nothing more than a string of sand piles—showing just how much human presence, and absence, can shape landscapes. The lesson, according to Sandweiss, is that “whatever we do, it has unintended consequences.”
By SAMIR S. PATEL
Monday, August 11, 2014
In 2009, California state archaeologist E. Breck Parkman sifted through the charred and weathered remains of Burdell Mansion in northern California’s Olompali State Historic Park (“Digging the Age of Aquarius,” July/August 2009). The mansion had been home to a hippie commune known as “The Chosen Family,” which was loosely associated with the Grateful Dead and other prominent countercultural figures, for two years before the mansion burned down and the group disbanded in 1969. Among the finds there were 93 vinyl records. The records were without sleeves and, in almost all cases, labels. Parkman set out to identify them. He tried to play a few, without luck, and scrutinized the surviving labels for clues, such as stray words or a distinctive color scheme. He also examined codes stamped on the record and even measured track lengths to compare the sequences with known albums. He has identified 53 so far, which range from the expected (the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Nina Simone) to the markedly more mainstream (Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Burl Ives). The identifications confirm the surprising diversity of age and taste among the commune dwellers.
By ZACH ZORICH
Monday, August 11, 2014
When advancing a new idea about human evolution, it is best to be prepared for a bloody fight. This lesson was recently learned by biologist David Carrier and emergency room physician Michael Morgan, both of the University of Utah, when they published a paper theorizing that the human face looks the way it does, in part, because it evolved to take a punch. Carrier and Morgan examined emergency room statistics from Western societies and found that fights between untrained combatants most frequently resulted in injuries to the face, specifically parts of the jaw, cheekbones, nose, and bones around the eyes. According to their hypothesis, bones should have evolved to be sturdier at these stress points—and that is exactly what they found in the facial features of early humans. “The bones that break most frequently when modern humans fight are the ones that increase in size and robustness in the faces of the early hominins four to five million years ago,” says Carrier.
Yet this idea seems to have received almost universal scorn from paleoanthropologists, resulting in testy exchanges between the authors and critics in online forums. Owen Lovejoy of Kent State University believes that Carrier and Morgan’s hypothesis is an example of “adaptationism,” which he defines as assigning an evolutionary purpose to a particular trait when no such relationship exists. Lovejoy believes that the human face is an example of a “spandrel,” an architectural term repurposed by evolutionary biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin to mean a physical trait that evolves as a byproduct of other traits. For example, Lovejoy says, the shape of the human face is a result of brain size and the bones and muscles necessary for chewing. The ability to resist a punch, Lovejoy continues, is incidental, as it wouldn’t provide a significant evolutionary advantage.
Carrier counters that male hominins who were better able to resist punches would have been more successful in the competition for mates, which can be violent in many primate species. And where other primates use long, sharp canine teeth as primary weapons, hominins would have pummeled each other with their hands. Lovejoy reserves some of his strongest criticism for this idea.
He points out that over several million years, hominins have evolved smaller canine teeth, which are used to signal aggression in modern apes, suggesting that early human females didn’t prize aggression in their mates. “Females were choosing males with smaller canines, which means they were choosing nonaggressive males,” he says. The reason that hominins spread across the world while other primates did not may have been cooperation between males, he adds.
Both Carrier and Lovejoy are experts in evolutionary science—but not in the “sweet science.” Boxing trainer Hector Rock has mentored 21 world champions at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn, New York, in a career spanning four decades. His experience undercuts Carrier and Morgan’s theory as well. He emphasizes that throwing a punch and taking a punch involve the whole body, not just the hands and skull. “The body is the best part to punch,” he says, “under the ribs.” Carrier plans to continue researching how violence may have shaped the human body, but it remains to be seen whether paleoanthropologists have dealt a body blow to his ideas about the evolution of the human face.
By MALIN GRUNBERG BANYASZ
Monday, August 11, 2014
Just 20 minutes by car from the center of Florence, Italy, the town of Fiesole boasts great restaurants, shops, and incredible views of Florence’s iconic skyline from the hilltop monastery of San Francesco. Fiesole is rich in Roman ruins and provides significant insight into the development of the area’s older Etruscan civilization. The Etruscan town likely dates back to the ninth and eighth centuries B.C., and the settlement reached the height of its prosperity between the fifth and second centuries b.c. Archaeologist Marco de Marco of the Civic Archaeology Museum of Fiesole says that Vipsl, as ancient Fiesole was known, owed its fortunes to its strategic position on the roads linking central-southern Etruria to the Po Valley. This period came to an end with the Roman conquest of Fiesole in 90 B.C., which resulted in the destruction of most Etruscan buildings there.
Today, there are three main Etruscan features still visible. An Etruscan temple was found on the north side of the town, and archaeologists have been able to reconstruct its original layout from surviving pieces of its walls. City walls dating to the fourth century b.c. are also visible, and extend for approximately a mile and a half around the city. Outside these walls are the remains of Etruscan tombs known as the Via Bargillino tombs. Six in all, they date to the third century b.c., and consist of large stone slab walls and roofs. The Civic Archaeology Museum holds the tombs’ contents, including pottery, weapons, and tools. The Romans left their own mark on Fiesole after a brief period of abandonment following the conquest. In addition to reorganizing and rebuilding the original Etruscan temple, the Romans constructed both a theater and baths, as they did in many towns and settlements. The semicircular theater is one of the best preserved in Tuscany, and includes parts of the original seating (cavea), exit tunnels (vomitoria), and entrances.
While you’re there
The Civic Archaeology Museum of Fiesole documents the ancient history of the area, and includes more than 150 ancient Greek and Etruscan ceramic pieces. Nearby is a museum that covers a more recent period, the Bandini Museum, with spectacular Florentine paintings from the twelfth to fourteenth centuries a.d. Every Tuscan trip is a feast for all the senses, so be sure to try one of Fiesole’s ristorantes, trattorias, osterias, or pasticcerias.
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