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From the Trenches

Ötzi’s Sartorial Splendor

By JASON URBANUS

Monday, October 17, 2016

Trenches Italy Otzi Clothing Block

 

A new study has concluded that the wardrobe of the 5,300-year-old ice mummy known as Ötzi was assembled from five different animal species. Until recently, identifying the provenance of Ötzi’s surviving garments was difficult due to the degraded nature of the material. However, thanks to advances in genetic sequencing technology, a research team enriched and increased the existing DNA information so that the exact species of furs and leathers could be identified for six items: his coat, loincloth, leggings, shoe bindings, hat, and quiver. The analysis indicates that the coat (sheep and goat), loincloth (sheep), leggings (goat), and shoe bindings (cow) were made from domesticated animals, which were readily available through husbandry or trade. The fur hat (brown bear) and quiver (roe deer) were fabricated from the skins of wild species, and may have been acquired through hunting or scavenging. According to Niall O’Sullivan, researcher at the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman, Copper Age people such as Ötzi made deliberate decisions concerning a particular garment’s composition. “We can infer that ancient populations made considered choices when choosing raw material for manufacture,” he says, “[For example], the goat skin may have had a special characteristic such as flexibility that made it optimal for leggings.”

Coast over Corridor

By ZACH ZORICH

Monday, October 17, 2016

Trenches Canada Lake SedimentThe first people to migrate into the Americas, likely more than 16,000 years ago, probably traveled down the western coast rather than along an inland route, according to an environmental study of two lakes in British Columbia, Canada. The inland path from the Bering Strait to the continental United States and South America would have been a 900-mile-long, ice-free corridor between the Cordilleran ice sheet that covered the coastal mountain ranges to the west and the Laurentide ice sheet that covered the plains to the east. The lakes in the study are located in what was once a “bottleneck” between glaciers. A multinational team of scientists examined pollen and DNA samples from sediment cores taken near the lakes, and used a technique called metagenomics to get a highly detailed picture of how the ice-free corridor ecosystem developed over time. Rather than looking for DNA from a single species, metagenomics involves sequencing every bit of DNA in a sample to better understand entire ecosystems. “The level of diversity we can uncover with DNA technology is more extensive than people have recovered in the fossil record,” says Eske Willerslev of the Center for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen.

 

The researchers found that the corridor would not have been open before 14,700 years ago, and did not develop a stable ecosystem capable of supporting even small game until about 12,600 years ago. The metagenomic analysis revealed—among other things—traces of mammoth, bison, eagle, salmon, and beaver DNA from the ecosystem once it had matured. But this was thousands of years after the first Americans arrived, and means that they must have taken a different path. Next, Willerslev and the team hope to sample sites along the west coast of Canada and the United States to confirm their suspicions that this was the only viable route of entry.

Breaking Cahokia’s Glass Ceiling

By ERIC A. POWELL

Monday, October 17, 2016

Trenches Cahokia Shell Bead BurialIn 1967, archaeologists discovered a spectacular burial of two men accompanied by six male servants inside a mound in the city of Cahokia, which flourished near present-day St. Louis from around A.D. 1000 to 1250. The two bodies were found atop 22,000 shell beads that formed the shape of a bird, which in some Native American cultures is associated with military prowess. At the time it was thought that the burial was a kind of monument to male power, and it was assumed the men were warrior chiefs—part of a male-dominated hierarchy that controlled Cahokia.

 

When bioarchaeologists led by the Illinois State Archaeological Survey’s Thomas Emerson reexamined the remains, they were astonished to find that the skeletons in the bead burial actually belonged to a man and a woman, and that 12 bodies, including those of multiple women and a child, accompanied them. “We were flabbergasted,” says Emerson. “It’s long been gospel that these were all men.” He thinks the women were high-status members of the city’s nobility and that the discovery shows that class was more important than sex at Cahokia.

Evolve and Catch Fire

By DANIEL WEISS

Monday, October 17, 2016

Trenches Spain Flint BlockEvidence that early humans were tending fires around 800,000 years ago has been found in a cave in southeastern Spain. Excavations in Cueva Negra del Estrecho del Río Quípar have turned up hundreds of stones, stone artifacts, and animal bones, all with signs of having been subjected to fire. Dating of the site was based on evidence of a reversal of Earth’s magnetic field, known to have occurred around 780,000 years ago, in layers just above where the burned objects were found. “This is the oldest evidence of fire being tended for any site outside Africa, where fire is known from at least a million years ago,” says Michael Walker of the University of Murcia.

 

The benefits of controlled fire are clear—warmth, light, cooking—but a separate study suggests that modern humans evolved in a way that allowed them to take maximal advantage of it. The researchers found that modern humans have a genetic mutation that may have helped them tolerate intensely smoky conditions in caves. This may have offered an advantage over Neanderthals, who lacked the mutation.

Murder on the Mountain?

By JASON URBANUS

Monday, October 17, 2016

Trenches Greece Mt Lykaion GraveArchaeologists working near the purported birthplace of Zeus on Mt. Lykaion recently made an eerie and unexpected discovery. Over the past decade, a Greco-American team from the Mt. Lykaion Survey and Excavation Project has been investigating the Sanctuary of Zeus, one of ancient Greece’s most mysterious and sacred locales. Near the mountain’s summit there is a massive ash mound, 100 feet in diameter, that served as a sacrificial altar from the sixteenth to the fourth centuries B.C. In the past, archaeologists there had discovered tens of thousands of animal bones, mostly from sheep and goats, which were slaughtered as part of religious rituals. However, the most recent excavations also uncovered a human burial dating to the eleventh century B.C. among the animal remains. The adolescent individual was missing part of his skull, but was otherwise carefully laid out in a stone-lined grave. The discovery is intriguing because several ancient Greek writers, including Plato and Pausanias, mention human sacrifice occurring on Mt. Lykaion. According to project codirector David Gilman Romano, detailed examination of the skeleton is under way to determine whether there is any evidence of this practice. “The find is significant,” he says, “since it is the first example of human bones to be discovered at what is confirmed as a sacrificial altar to Zeus, where thousands of animal sacrifices were made in antiquity.”

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