TIME anthropology

The Lost Hobbits of the Eastern Arctic

Wooden dolls were used both in ceremonies and as children's toys by the lost Paleo-Eskimos
Wooden dolls were used both in ceremonies and as children's toys by the lost Paleo-Eskimos University of Aberdeen/Qantiruuq, Inc

Scientists never understood what became of the Paleo-Eskimos who once peopled the north. Now they know—and there's new reason to miss them

Every indigenous group European explorers found when they first reached the Americas, from the Aztecs to the Inca to the Maya to the obscure Taino people were descended from a hardy bunch of immigrants who trekked over from Siberia more than 12,000 years ago, then spread east and south from there.

But when the Vikings began visiting Greenland and Baffin Island they bumped up against an indigenous group with a very different heritage—the Arctic dwelling people formerly known as Eskimos and now mostly called the Inuit. Based on archaeological evidence, scientists had established that they first came over from Siberia about 6,000 years ago and spread eastward across the very northernmost reaches of Canada, on the margins of the Arctic Ocean.

Then about 700 years ago, these so-called Paleo-Eskimos, gave way to a newer group known as the Thule culture. They displaced the earlier arrivals, just as our own invading ancestors had displaced the Neanderthals in Europe some 40,000 years earlier. What wasn’t clear, however, was whether the Paleo-Eskimos (or the Dorset, the name given to the last stage of Paleo-Eskimo cultural evolution) were simply absorbed into this new, more modern culture or whether, they vanished from the Earth, as the Neanderthals did.

But now it is, thanks to new paper in Science. Based on genetic analysis of 169 ancient human remains from Siberia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland, along with genome analyses of modern indigenous people, the authors can say definitively that the Paleo-Eskimos did indeed vanish; that the Inuit people who live in the North American Arctic today are the direct descendants of the Thule invaders; and that neither group is related to the Native American tribes that came to inhabit the rest of the Americas.

Exactly how the Dorset people were overwhelmed is unclear. Unlike the Neanderthals, they evidently didn’t mate with the invaders. “In other places,” said co-author Eske Willerslev of the Center for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen’s National Museum of Natural History, at a press briefing, “we see people meeting, maybe fighting, but also having sex with each other.”

But the Paleo-Eskimos were genetically distinct. “There is some genetic admixture with the Thule,” said lead author Maanasa Raghavan, also at the Center for GeoGenetics “but it happened thousands of years earlier, most likely in the Old World.”

Instead, argued co-author William Fitzhugh, of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, “they were probably just overwhelmed.” The Thule, he explained, had bows and arrows, dogsleds and large whaling crews he calls “almost military” in their organization. The Dorset, by contrast, had much simpler tools, and lived in small, isolated villages.

“Socially and technologically,” he said, “they were no match for this Thule machine that spread across their territory in less than 100 years.” They were either pushed out into fringes where couldn’t survive, or they were annihilated, he said.

Until that happened, however, the Paleo-Eskimos were an astonishing success story, given that they endured in the harshest of climates, without major disruption for a staggering 5,000 years. It’s extraordinary, said Fitzhugh, that they maintained genomic and cultural continuity over such a long period, while other world cultures were going through radical changes.

“One might almost say,” said Fitzhugh,”that they were the Hobbits of the eastern Arctic—a strange, isolated, conservative people whose history we’re just starting to get to know.”

TIME Archaeology

What Bronze Age Wine Snobs Drank

Remains of a Bonze Age happy hour
Remains of a Bonze Age happy hour Andrew Koh

There were some fine vintages 3,000 years ago, and a new study reveals how ancient mixologists made them finer still

It’s hardly news that the ancients drank wine — the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians all imbibed, as did pretty much any other civilization in which alcohol wasn’t prohibited for religious reasons. “We have written records,” says Brandeis University archaeologist Andrew Koh. “We’ve found jars marked ‘wine.’ We’ve found wine residues. It’s pictured everywhere.”

That being the case, you might think a cache of 40 wine jars unearthed from a room in the Bronze Age Canaanite palace at Tel Kabri, which stood more than 3,600 years ago in what’s now modern Israel, would be no big deal.

But you’d be wrong. “In the past,” says Koh, lead author of a paper describing the discovery in the latest issue of the journal PLOS One, “we wouldn’t have been able to say much more than ‘this is a bunch of containers that held wine.’”

Thanks to an unprecedentedly sophisticated analysis of the deposits inside those containers, however, Koh, who has a joint appointment in Brandeis’ Classical Studies and Chemistry Departments, along with two colleagues, can conclude much more, specifically that the wine was flavored with — deep breath, now — honey, storax resin, terebinth resin, cedar oil, cyperus, juniper and possibly mint, myrtle and cinnamon as well.

Not only that: on one side of the room, the wine was mostly unflavored; in the middle, it contained about half that long list of ingredients; and in a small adjoining room it contained them all. In fact, Koh and his colleagues think this wasn’t really a storage facility at all. It was a sort of kitchen, where wine was brought in from the surrounding area — the jars were made from local clay — and a brewmaster of some sort subtly flavored them before they were served in the banquet hall next door.

“We’ve known about the existence of these complex wines for a long time,” says Koh, “and we’ve even got recipes. But to find examples of the actual wines, that’s what makes the science so compelling.”

The additives aside, the wine itself was the same from jar to jar. That, plus the fact that wine was generally not saved from one season to the next, led Koh and his co-authors to conclude that it was all from a single year’s vintage. And that particular vintage clearly never made it into the banquet hall — almost certainly because an earthquake collapsed the walls, breaking the jars and spilling what was inside.

Although this palace stood — and perhaps fell — on what is now Israeli soil, it wasn’t an Israelite palace. Biblical chronology suggests that the Jews were slaves in Egypt at the time. During the Exodus, when Moses led his people to the Promised Land of milk and honey, it was people like these winemakers they ended up conquering.

The excavations at Tel Kabri aren’t over. Koh and his team will return next year, and, he says, “We’re confident we’ll find other rooms, maybe with jars of olive oil. We might also find statues, jewelry, the kind of stuff the public likes.”

That’s not what the archaeologists care about, however. “We’re more interested,” Koh says, “in knowing how people lived.”

TIME

Newly Discovered Tomb in Greece Largest Ever

The sepulcher appears to date from the reign of Alexander the Great

A team of archaeologists may have discovered a new tomb in Greece that is the burial site of a high profile individual during the reign of Alexander the Great.

The tomb, which dates to 300 BCE and sits under a burial mound near the ancient city of Amphipolis in Greece’s northern Macedonia region, appears to be the largest ever discovered in the country. Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras called the find “clearly extremely significant.”

“It is certain that we stand before an especially significant finding. The land of Macedonia continues to move and surprise us, revealing its unique treasures, which combine to form the unique mosaic of Greek history of which all Greeks are very proud,” Samaras said.

A five-yard wide road leads up to the tomb, atop which experts believe once sat a 16-foot tall lion sculpture previously discovered at the site. Carved sphinxes stood to either side of the entrance and the compound was encircled by a 500-yard marble wall. The tomb is believed to be that of a top general or close relative of Alexander the Great, the warrior king who ruled Macedonia and conquered a massive swath of the ancient world.

The possibility that the tomb is Alexander’s has been ruled out, as he is believed to have died in Babylon and been transported to Egypt for burial in 323 BCE.

Archaeologists have been excavating the tomb since 2012 and hope to know definitively who was buried there by the end of the month.

[The Telegraph]

TIME Archaeology

Museum Finds Misplaced 6,500-Year-Old Human Skeleton in the Cellar

Ancient Skeleton
6,500-year-old human remains are displayed at the The Penn Museum, part of the University of Pennsylvania,, Aug. 5, 2014, in Philadelphia. The museum announced Tuesday that it had rediscovered in its own storage rooms a 6,500-year-old human skeleton believed to have been a man at least 50 who stood 5 feet, 9 inches tall. Matt Rourke—AP

But it had only been missing for 85 years, so

An archaeology museum in Philadelphia said Tuesday it found a 6,500-year-old human skeleton in its own basement.

Yes. Its own basement.

Researchers at the Penn Museum, which is associated with the University of Pennsylvania, said they found documentation for the human skeleton while digitizing old records. The remains are extremely rare and date to 4,500 BCE. They were unearthed by archaeologists around 1930 during an excavation of the ancient city of Ur in modern day Iraq beneath the city’s cemetery, itself dating back to 2,500 BCE, Reuters reports.

The skeleton, which scientists have named Noah, is roughly 2,000 years older than any other remains found at the excavation site. The find could give scholars a new depth of understanding into everyday life during the little-understood time period.

Noah’s remains indicate he was muscular, about five feet-ten-inches tall and died at 50 years old.

[Reuters]

TIME Archaeology

The Bodies in the Bogs: An Eerie Gift From the Iron Age

Tollund man, victim of human sacrifice by ritual strangulation in Denmark.
Tollund man, victim of human sacrifice by ritual strangulation in Denmark. Werner Forman—UIG/Getty Images

There are cold cases and there are cold cases, but it’s hard to beat the one that came to light on May 6, 1950, in Silkeborg, Denmark. The local folks were already on edge after reports that a schoolboy from Copenhagen had recently gone missing, and when two brothers from the nearby town of Tollund went digging for peat in a Silkeborg bog, they made a gruesome discovery: a buried body with a rope around its neck showing no signs of decomposition. This was a murder — and it was clearly a fresh one.

Except it wasn’t. The body wore no clothes other than a pointed, leatherized, sheepskin cap that seemed not of this era. The rope was handwoven, not machine-made. And the face of the victim was covered with stubble — clearly not belonging to a young boy. All that, plus the noose, plus the ancient history of the site, suggested that this was not a body from the early years of the space age, but the latter years of the Iron Age. Carbon dating confirmed that — placing the man’s death somewhere between 375 B.C. and 210 B.C.

The extraordinarily well-preserved state of what became known as the Tollund Man was due to the unique chemistry of the bog, with its lack of oxygen, cool temperatures and bacteria-unfriendly acidic environment. The fact that there were remains to unearth at all suggested that, despite the noose, this man was not technically murdered or hanged as a criminal. If he had been, he would have been cremated. Rather, he was probably ritually hanged as a spiritual sacrifice.

Some parts of the man’s body did not fare as well as others. His arms and hands were reduced to little more than a thin layer of toughened tissue covering bones. But his internal organs — particularly heart, lungs and liver — were very well preserved. He is thought to have been about 40 when he died and stood no taller than about 5 ft. 3 in. (1.6 m).

The Tollund Man is by no means the only bog person to have been uncovered in recent decades. About a thousand others have been found in Ireland, England, Denmark and the Low Countries. This July 27, which is, yes, International Bog Day, is a good time to tip a hat to these unglamorous mires of mud and decayed vegetation. They provide an extraordinary look into an often mysterious past — and allow the people of the Iron Age to make themselves mutely known in the modern one.

TIME Archaeology

The Strangest Beast on the First Americans’ Menu

Remains of the day: post-Clovis humans consider what used to be called dinner
Remains of the day: post-Clovis humans consider what used to be called dinner RONALDO SCHEMIDT; AFP/Getty Images

An early ancestor of the elephant and an early ancestor of modern humans lived together in North America. That was good news for the hungry people, but not for the proto-elephants

There were a lot of things on the menu for early Americans—deer, antelope, buffalo. But if you really wanted to eat well, and you were an especially early early American, there was nothing quite like a good haunch of gomphothere. That, it turns out, may have been one of the staples of the prehistoric Clovis culture, and while plenty of people never heard of this particular predator or its prey, the fact that they crossed paths is very big news.

The Clovis people are believed to be the earliest occupants of North America, arriving in the southwestern part of the continent somewhere between 13,000 and 13,500 years ago. Gomphotheres, a faintly freakish, four-tusked ancestor of the elephant, had the humans beat by a lot, first appearing on the scene as far back as 33 million years ago. The scientific wisdom had always been that the two species never co-existed, but the scientific wisdom hadn’t reckoned with a site called El Fin del Mundo (the end of the world) in northwestern Mexico.

Researchers from the University of Arizona, the National Autonomous University of Mexico and elsewhere began exploring the site in 2007, after a local rancher reported finding animal remains. They continued digging until 2012, and in a paper just published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), revealed conclusive proof that the gomphotheres thundered and the Clovis people hunted at the same time and in the same place—and the Clovis got the better of the deal.

The first discoveries at the site were a few complete Clovis spear points, along with bones that appeared to be from a large bison. That made it a nice find, but hardly a remarkable one. The following year, however, the investigators unearthed a mandible that was not remotely bison-like, but was entirely gomphothere-like, and that changed everything.

Further digging revealed the complete remains of two gomphotheres—one 13 to 24 years old and the other a comparative juvenile at 10-12 years old. Mingled in with the bones were more spear points and though weathering on the bones made it hard to look for the cut marks and gouges that usually indicate butchering, the signs of a hunt were unmistakable. For one thing, animals that die natural deaths leave bones arranged in more or less the proper skeletal configuration. In this case, however, the remains were stacked in two distinct, non-anatomical piles.

The fact that some of the spear points the investigators unearthed were mingled in with the bones suggests that the Clovis hunters either simply tossed them there after they were done with the remains, or that the points were somehow lost in the flesh of the carcass and too hard to retrieve. The condition of the points suggests they may indeed have been well-embedded. “Three of the four points are complete,” the researchers wrote, “but the fourth is missing its base due to an impact-related snap.”

History was not kind to either the gomphothere or the Clovis culture. The proto-elephants eventually died off and were replaced by the modern, two-tusked model. And the Clovis culture eventually dispersed and settled into different sub-cultures, each adapting to the conditions on its own part of the continent. Some archaeologists think that the gomphothere might have had the last laugh, since the end of the Clovis line could have been caused by the disappearance of it and other such “megafauna” to hunt. The prey went down, but it may have taken the predator culture with it.

TIME Archaeology

Relics of ‘End of World’ Plague Excavated in Egypt

The plague is believed to have claimed the lives of 5,000 people a day in Rome alone

A new archaeological discovery in Egypt includes traces of an ancient disease that some in the Roman Empire considered a harbinger of the apocalypse.

The discovery was made in Luxor by members of the Italian Archaeological Mission to Luxor, LiveScience reports. Researchers uncovered the remains of bodies covered with lime, presumably used to disinfect the diseased, as well as three kilns in which the lime was made. They also found human remains scattered throughout a site that bears traces of a bonfire —likely a place where many disease victims were incinerated.

An analysis of pottery remains in the kilns indicates that the findings date from the 3rd century A.D., when a vicious plague claimed the lives of thousands living in the Roman Empire, including at least two emperors. The epidemic, which Carthaginian bishop Cyprian wrote signaled the end of the world, struck around 250 A.D. It is now considered to have significantly contributed to the empire’s decline.

The disease has been dubbed “the plague of Cyprian,” as the bishop wrote extensively about its effects on the human body. The “intestines are shaken with a continual vomiting, [and] the eyes are on fire with the injected blood,” he wrote in Latin in his De mortalitate. Most modern-day scientists believe the deaths were caused by smallpox.

TIME Archaeology

Bachelor Party Discovers 3-Million-Year-Old Elephant Fossil

A celebratory bro gathering casually stumbled upon the well-preserved bones of a beast that predates woolly mammoths

Some bachelor parties are like the “wolf pack” in The Hangover, wreacking havoc wherever they go; others accidentally end up making valuable contributions to natural history — like one did in New Mexico earlier this month.

A group of guys were reportedly hiking through Elephant Butte Lake State Park when a strange protruding object caught their eye, the Telegraph reports. After they dug a little deeper — literally — they unearthed an excellently preserved elephant skull, and, thinking they discovered woolly mammoth bones, snapped pictures for the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.

According to the museum, it wasn’t a woolly mammoth, but in fact something much older: the skull of a stegomastodon, an ancestor of modern elephants that first walked in North America around 15 million years ago and went extinct about 10,000 years ago.

Archeologists promptly recovered the 1,000-pound remains, which they say are the most complete of their kind, and will put them on display after they finish studying them.

Now, let’s hope the groom’s marriage lasts as long as the fossils did.

Correction appended: The original version of this story incorrectly described the location of Elephant Butte Lake State Park.

[Telegraph]

TIME Science

The Exosuit Lets Researchers Stay Submerged for Hours

Wear it to the Enchantment Under the Sea dance

Though it may not seem like it, the bottom of the sea is about as alien as space; perhaps even more so (within the bit of space we’ve explored, I should say), considering all of the strange creatures that dwell fathoms beneath the surface. Below certain depths, we can only speculate what’s deeper down—it’s that unknowableness that makes the seas and skies such fertile homes for our imagination.

Archaeologists have plumbed the depths nearly as much as marine biologists, and have run into many of the same problems; particularly that of staying beneath the waves long enough to properly get their hands on a historical artifact. Enter the Exosuit: Shiny and vaguely human-shaped with clamping grips for hands, it looks like gear from a future manned mission to space.

Even so, it solves the problem nicely—wearing the suit, researchers can stay beneath the surface almost indefinitely.

“With the Exosuit, our bottom time becomes virtually unlimited,” Brendan Foley, co-director of field operations at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Deep Submergence Laboratory (and the first lab to test the suit), told New Scientist. “Now we can have an archaeologist in the suit for hours, and we’ll only have to come up to answer the call of nature.”

TIME fashion

These Are the World’s Oldest Pants

German Archaeological Institute

5,000 years old and still in fashion.

Jeans may have been invented in 1873, but these trousers beat that date by a long shot. A pair of wool pants was recently discovered in a graveyard in western China’s Tarim Basin dating back to around 3,300 years ago. They’re the oldest pants archaeologists have ever found—though they look like they might fit in quite well at Anthropology.

The ancient pants were created for horse-riding, and it shows in the design. They feature straight fitting legs (no bell-bottom here) and a wide crotch with a sewn reinforcement, plus elegant bands of patterned decoration. Rather than the modern method of cutting down large pieces of fabric, the early pants were woven on a loom in precisely-sized segments to form the final garment, like nomad couture.

The find “supports the idea that trousers were invented for horse riding by mobile pastoralists,” University of Pennsylvania China expert Victor Mair tells Science News. So if pants were invented to ride horses in China 5,000 years ago, what excuse do we have for creating crop-tops?

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