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Top 10

The First Bakers

Shubayqa, Jordan

By ERIC A. POWELL

Monday, December 10, 2018

Top Ten Jordan Stone FireplaceAbout 14,400 years ago in the Black Desert of northeastern Jordan, someone was tinkering with the recipe for the perfect pita. This auspicious moment in culinary history has been captured by researchers who sampled the contents of two stone fireplaces at the site of Shubayqa 1. The team, led by University of Copenhagen archaeobotanist Amaia Arranz-Otaegui, found that the people living at this small campsite, hunter-gatherers who belonged to a culture known as the Natufians, were making unleavened bread-like products at least 4,000 years before the dawn of agriculture. Charred remains from the ovens suggest Natufians gathered wild cereals and tubers to make flour for the bread, which, at the time, was probably not a staple food, but a rare treat reserved for special occasions. “We were very surprised to find bread made before the origins of agriculture,” says Arranz-Otaegui. “Archaeologists have tended to ignore food remains that we don’t recognize, and I’m sure the remains of bread-like products even more ancient than these are everywhere.”

 

Meanwhile, a Stanford University team analyzed residues on three Natufian stone mortars unearthed roughly 150 miles west of Shubayqa 1, in Israel’s Raqefet Cave. They detected evidence that Natufians were brewing beer from wild wheat and barley 13,000 years ago, well before those grains were domesticated. The two discoveries suggest that our prehistoric ancestors were bakers and brewers thousands of years before they even contemplated becoming full-time farmers. 

Oldest Sketch

Blomboschfontein Nature Reserve, South Africa

By MARLEY BROWN

Monday, December 10, 2018

Top Ten South Africa Blombos CaveTop Ten South Africa Decorated Stone FlakeThe world’s oldest known drawing has been identified on a small stone flake recovered in South Africa’s Blombos Cave. The tiny fragment measures less than two inches long and barely half an inch wide and features a crosshatch pattern of visible lines. A research team first used microscopic and chemical analysis to determine that the marks are composed of ochre pigment lying on the flake’s surface. They then attempted to replicate the pattern using pieces of ochre. Doing so required a firm hand and controlled motions, explains Christopher Henshilwood of the University of Bergen. This led his team to conclude that a human deliberately applied them with an ochre crayon around 73,000 years ago. “The design almost certainly had some meaning to the maker,” Henshilwood says. “It probably formed part of a common symbolic system understood by other people in their group.

Bronze Age Plague

Samara, Russia

By DANIEL WEISS

Monday, December 10, 2018

Top Ten Russia Bronze Age SkeletonsThe bacterium that causes bubonic plague, Yersinia pestis, has been responsible for some of the most devastating pandemics in history, including the Black Death, which killed more than half of Europe’s population in the fourteenth century. The first recorded outbreak was the sixth-century A.D. Justinian Plague, but researchers have now found evidence that a virulent form of the bacterium was circulating at least as early as 1800 B.C.

 

The team sequenced the genomes of Y. pestis recovered from two Bronze Age skeletons—one male and one female—buried together in southwestern Russia. They determined that the strain with which the pair was infected had developed mutations that allowed it to be carried by fleas. Researchers are unsure how earlier known strains of the bacterium were spread, but they are certain that fleas spread plague efficiently, allowing it to reach pandemic levels. “We know of a lot of historical outbreaks of disease for which the causes have not yet been identified,” says Maria Spyrou of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. “Now that we know that Y. pestis has been capable of causing epidemics in humans for the past 4,000 years, we have to start screening more material to determine whether it could have been involved.” The team hopes to find evidence of early plague outbreaks that have gone unrecorded.

An Eccentric Artifact

Prêles, Switzerland

By DANIEL WEISS

Monday, December 10, 2018

Top Ten Switzerland Bronze ArtifactsSwiss archaeologists were baffled when they first saw the bronze hand wearing a gold foil bracelet. All the evidence—including radiocarbon dating of vegetable glue used to affix the gold foil and the style of a bronze dagger found along with the hand—suggests the unusual artifact was fashioned in the mid-second millennium B.C. But nothing like it is known from the period.

 

At the site where the hand was found—a spectacular plateau in the shadow of the Alps and the Jura Mountains—archaeologists unearthed a man’s skeleton, along with a missing finger from the bronze hand as well as a bronze pin and spiral and several gold flakes. The hand’s purpose is enigmatic. “It may have been this man’s insignia,” says Andrea Schaer of the Archaeological Service of the Canton of Bern, “and when he died it was buried with him.” She says the hand also may have served as a symbolic replacement for one perhaps lost by the man during his life, though it is too delicate to have been a practical prosthetic.

Early Americans

Florence, Texas

By LYDIA PYNE

Monday, December 10, 2018

Top Ten Texas Gault Site Stone ToolsOne of the most intriguing questions in American archaeology is, Who were the earliest people in the Americas? For much of the past 80 years, scholars have thought that they were members of the Clovis culture, whose ancestors came to North America from Siberia some 13,000 years ago. In recent decades, however, archaeologists have come to believe that people reached North America far earlier. A new discovery from the Gault site, in central Texas, offers robust evidence not only for a much earlier peopling of the Americas, but also of a previously unknown tool tradition that is older and more varied than scholars ever expected.

 

Archaeologists have found stone tools including projectile points, blades, and flake tools at the Gault site, the oldest of which date to between 20,000 and 16,000 years ago, thousands of years older than any of the fluted stone spear points for which the Clovis are known. “What we’re seeing is a well-developed toolkit,” says Tom Williams of Texas State University. “These were clearly people adapted to surviving in their environment.”

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