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From the Trenches

The Rabbit Farms of Teotihuacán


Monday, October 17, 2016

Trenches Teotihuacan RabbitAt its peak between the first and fifth centuries A.D., the ancient Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacán accommodated as many as 100,000 people, which made it the largest urban center in the New World. However, archaeologists have sometimes questioned how the city was able to sustain such a sizeable population. Large settlements in other parts of the world usually relied on the domestication of large four-legged mammals such as cattle, sheep, and goats, but these animals were mostly unavailable to the Teotihuacános. A recent study determined that the city’s inhabitants systematically bred leporids—especially cottontails and jackrabbits—for food, fur, and other products that played a crucial role in the city’s food supply and economy. New examination of material from an apartment complex that was excavated several years ago shows that the structure was undoubtedly used for breeding and butchering rabbits. Isotope analysis of the abundant leporid remains indicates that the diet of these animals consisted of human-cultivated crops such as maize or agave, rather than wild plants. “The evidence for leporid management or breeding is important,” says study coleader Andrew Somerville, “because it demonstrates that although New World peoples did not have the fortune of having as many naturally available mammals for domestication as did Old World peoples, they still engaged in intensive relationships with the animals that were there.”

Codex Subtext


Monday, October 17, 2016

Trenches Mexico Selden NaturalTrenches Mexico Selden HyperspectralIn the mid-1500s, a family of the Mixtec people in Oaxaca, Mexico, recorded their historic deeds in a book now known as the Selden Codex. But books were scarce at the time, so they took an old text, covered it with white gesso, and then painted their new narrative on top. Now researchers in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom have been able to use a technique called hyperspectral imaging to see parts of the older text without damaging the newer one. The images are not sharp enough to read or date the glyphs, but several identifiable figures have emerged, including a line of spear-carrying men possibly marching off to war.

Piltdown’s Lone Forger


Monday, October 17, 2016

Trenches England Piltdown Painting


You see before you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the coldest of cases, an archaeological fraud perpetrated more than 100 years ago, concerning the evolution of humankind, the scientific process, and personal ambition. It centers on Piltdown Man, paleoanthropology’s greatest whodunit.


In February 1912, amateur fossil collector Charles Dawson wrote to Arthur Smith Woodward, distinguished Keeper of Geology at the British Museum of Natural History (now just the Natural History Museum), to tell him of a new find, “a thick portion of a human(?) skull.” The previous decades had seen the identification of Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis, and scientists and antiquarians were on the hunt for more—specifically human ancestors with apelike features and bigger, humanlike brains. Two years of excavation at the site of Dawson’s find, Piltdown, Sussex, yielded a simian jawbone with two molars, a canine tooth, parts of a humanlike skull, stone tools, and mammal fossils. Surely the find, named Eanthropus dawsonii (“Dawson’s dawn man”), would be Dawson’s long-coveted ticket into the Royal Society. “People wanted to believe it,” says Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, who recalls seeing the Piltdown finds on display as a child in the 1950s. “Britain was ready for Piltdown Man.” Dawson died in 1916, but not before he wrote to Woodward of another find, at a site known as Piltdown II, of a tooth and more animal fossils, which Dawson’s wife turned over to the museum.


Trenches England Piltdown SiteDoubts dogged Piltdown Man, primarily because the bones didn’t appear to fit with later finds in Africa and Asia. In 1953, Kenneth Oakley, a scientist at the museum, confirmed suspicions and exposed Piltdown Man as a fraud. The jawbone was probably from an orangutan and the skull from a modern human, he found, and they had been manipulated and stained. There have been a number of suspects over the years, in varying conspiratorial combinations. Suspicion usually falls on four: Dawson, Woodward, Teilhard de Chardin (a Jesuit priest who uncovered the canine tooth), and Martin Hinton (a museum volunteer later found to have, among his effects, stained and modified bones). Now the testimony of a multidisciplinary group of scientists who revisited the Piltdown finds with the latest in spectroscopic, radiographic, and genetic technology has placed the spotlight on a single culprit. Their work shows that the Piltdown I and II finds carry the same modus operandi of staining and modification, and that the tooth from Piltdown II likely came from the jawbone from Piltdown I. “The science showed us these hominin specimens are all connected,” says Isabelle De Groote, a paleoanthropologist from Liverpool John Moores University. “They carry the signature of a single forger.” There is only one person associated with the finds at Piltdown II, one man with means, motive, and opportunity to commit the infamous hoax: Charles Dawson. “The tie-up of Piltdown I and II means that it is more than circumstantial,” Stringer says. “I think we can show with a very high degree of certainty that he possessed the orangutan jawbone that created the fakes at both sites. It’s got to be him.”


Dawson was an experienced fossil collector who wrote or coauthored more than 50 scientific publications. He knew precisely what would excite the scientific world and how to obtain bone samples. He was also not reserved in his ambition, having written to Woodward in 1909, “I have been waiting for the big ‘find’ which never seems to come along.” Says Stringer, “Dawson got tired of waiting and decided to help things along.” He also had a history of faking discoveries, including inscribed Roman bricks. These new finds appear to acquit Woodward of fraud, but not of a surfeit of naïveté and a lack of scientific scrutiny. With his work on fossil fish long having been overshadowed by his connection to the fraud, he leaves a lesson for us: Healthy science relies on healthy skepticism.

Off the Grid


Monday, October 17, 2016

Trenches France Basin SucellusThe Gallo-Roman site at present-day Saint-Romain-en-Gal in Rhône, France, was discovered in 1967 when the construction of a high school revealed remains of Vienne, a city known in antiquity as Vienna. It was the capital of the Allobroges, a Gallic tribe, and became a Roman colony in 47 B.C. under the rule of Julius Caesar. Ultimately, Vienna was one of the most important and prosperous towns in Roman Gaul due to its location on the Rhône River. Vienna occupied both sides of the river, with the residential and commercial district on the east, and the political and religious center on the west. The site was excavated annually between 1981 and 2012, when funding dried up. M’hammed Behel, director and conservator at the Gallo-Roman Museum there says it is one of the biggest Roman sites in the country.


The site

The 17-acre archaeological site and museum, on the east bank, reveal Vienne’s ancient vitality. Archaeologists have uncovered a craftsmen’s district that features the significant ruins of a mill for fulling, a cleansing step in textile processing. In Roman times, fulling was conducted by slaves, who worked the cloth while ankle-deep in tubs of human urine—a resource so central to the business that it was taxed. Other parts of the site include homes, a commercial area with market halls and warehouses, and the wrestlers’ baths, which contain marble toilets and remarkable frescoes. Exhibits re-create daily life in Roman Gaul, in the form of reconstructions, models, and living history displays. A number of beautiful mosaics—just a fraction of the 250 or so that have been discovered at the site, such as the olive-colored Punishment of Lycurgus and the famous Mosaic of the Ocean Gods—can also be seen. Some of the last finds on the site before excavation halted are a bone pin depicting a woman with an intricate hairstyle and a mausoleum from what was probably Vienna’s first church, dating to around A.D. 450.


Trenches France Mosaic Ocean Gods SilloWhile you’re there

The region’s reputation for fine wine extends back to the time of the Allobroges tribe, having been praised by no less than Plutarch and Pliny the Elder. The Vitis Vienna vineyard itself, which dates to the Roman era, was virtually lost to insect infestation before being resurrected in the 1990s, and is now back in production. The mountainous area is also well known for its cheeses, fresh produce, and hearty alpine fare, including chicken liver cake and marmite dauphinoise, a rich broth of veal, beef, pork, and chicken.