Kevin Lewis

September 19, 2020

Holocene coastal evolution preceded the expansion of paddy field rice farming
Ting Ma et al.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, forthcoming


Rice agriculture is the foundation of Asian civilizations south of the Yangtze River. Although rice history is well documented for its lower Yangtze homeland area, the early southward expansion of paddy rice farming is poorly known. Our study investigates this process using a compilation of paleoenvironmental proxies from coastal sediment cores from southeast China to Thailand and Island Southeast Asia. We propose that a shortage of land suitable for paddy fields, caused by marine transgression, constrained rice agriculture during the mid-Holocene. Rapid expansion of coastal plains, particularly in deltaic basins, over the past three millennia has coincided with increases in land suitable for rice cultivation. Our study also helps explain the past population movements of rice farmers.

Rib cage anatomy in Homo erectus suggests a recent evolutionary origin of modern human body shape
Markus Bastir et al.
Nature Ecology & Evolution, September 2020, Pages 1178–1187


The tall and narrow body shape of anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens) evolved via changes in the thorax, pelvis and limbs. It is debated, however, whether these modifications first evolved together in African Homo erectus, or whether H. erectus had a more primitive body shape that was distinct from both the more ape-like Australopithecus species and H. sapiens. Here we present the first quantitative three-dimensional reconstruction of the thorax of the juvenile H. erectus skeleton, KNM-WT 15000, from Nariokotome, Kenya, along with its estimated adult rib cage, for comparison with H. sapiens and the Kebara 2 Neanderthal. Our three-dimensional reconstruction demonstrates a short, mediolaterally wide and anteroposteriorly deep thorax in KNM-WT 15000 that differs considerably from the much shallower thorax of H. sapiens, pointing to a recent evolutionary origin of fully modern human body shape. The large respiratory capacity of KNM-WT 15000 is compatible with the relatively stocky, more primitive, body shape of H. erectus.

Quaternary influx of proximal coarse-grained dust altered circum-Mediterranean soil productivity and impacted early human culture
Rivka Amit; Yehouda Enzel & Onn Crouvi
Geology, forthcoming


The carbonate mountainous landscape around most of the Mediterranean is karstic, is almost barren, and has thin soils. Erosion of preexisting thicker soils is a common hypothesis used to explain this bare terrain. An alternative hypothesis is that in the Mediterranean region, thin soils are attributed to long-distance transport of very fine, silty clay dust, resulting in low mass accumulation rates. Even if accreted over millennia, such dust cannot produce thick, highly productive soils. A pronounced anomaly in the Mediterranean is the thick, more productive soil of the semiarid southern Levant (SL). These soils contain order-of- magnitude coarser grains than the characteristic thin soils in the Mediterranean and a high proportion (>70%) of coarse silt quartz sourced from the nearby Sinai-Negev erg, the primary contributor of the Negev loess. This proximal intense dust supply produced greatly thicker soils. However, influx of coarse silt quartz loess is a geologically recent phenomenon in the SL. Pre-loess (i.e., older than 200 ka, pre-coarse-silt influx) SL soils are much finer and were generated by long-distance dust from the Sahara and Arabia like most other Mediterranean soils. Thus, we hypothesize that the geologically recent Negev Desert loess interval caused a drastic change in mountainous soil properties within the SL, enriching the Levant’s ecology and affecting early human development. The high amounts of coarse silt deposited on the landscape have contributed to the unique sustainable agriculture in the SL, which assisted in transforming the Levant into “the land of milk and honey” and a cradle of civilizations.

Population genomics of the Viking world
Ashot Margaryan et al.
Nature, 17 September 2020, Pages 390–396


The maritime expansion of Scandinavian populations during the Viking Age (about AD 750–1050) was a far-flung transformation in world history. Here we sequenced the genomes of 442 humans from archaeological sites across Europe and Greenland (to a median depth of about 1×) to understand the global influence of this expansion. We find the Viking period involved gene flow into Scandinavia from the south and east. We observe genetic structure within Scandinavia, with diversity hotspots in the south and restricted gene flow within Scandinavia. We find evidence for a major influx of Danish ancestry into England; a Swedish influx into the Baltic; and Norwegian influx into Ireland, Iceland and Greenland. Additionally, we see substantial ancestry from elsewhere in Europe entering Scandinavia during the Viking Age. Our ancient DNA analysis also revealed that a Viking expedition included close family members. By comparing with modern populations, we find that pigmentation-associated loci have undergone strong population differentiation during the past millennium, and trace positively selected loci — including the lactase-persistence allele of LCT and alleles of ANKA that are associated with the immune response — in detail. We conclude that the Viking diaspora was characterized by substantial transregional engagement: distinct populations influenced the genomic makeup of different regions of Europe, and Scandinavia experienced increased contact with the rest of the continent.

Earthquake damage as a catalyst to abandonment of a Middle Bronze Age settlement: Tel Kabri, Israel
Michael Lazar et al.
PLoS ONE, September 2020


For years there has been much speculation surrounding the abandonment of the Middle Bronze Age IIB palace of Tel Kabri, ca. 1700 BCE. There are no weapons, hoards of money and jewelry, or visible evidence for fire, which rules out hostile attack or conquest. There are also no indications of drought or environmental degradation that might have forced the inhabitants to vacate the site, nor mass graveyards to indicate a pandemic. The current study uses micro-geoarchaeological methods to show that the demise of the palace was rapid, with walls and ceilings collapsing at once prior to abandonment. Macroscopic data (stratigraphic and structural) from five excavation seasons were reexamined, showing that at least nine Potential Earthquake Archaeological Effects (PEAEs) are found and associated with the last occupation phase of the site’s palace. All lines of evidence point to the possibility that an earthquake damaged the palace, possibly to a point where it was no longer economically viable to repair. This conclusion is compounded by the discovery of a 1–3 m wide trench that cuts through the palace for 30 m, which may be the result of ground shaking or liquefaction caused by an earthquake. This study shows the importance of combining macro- and micro-archaeological methods for the identification of ancient earthquakes, together with the need to evaluate alternative scenarios of climatic, environmental, and economic collapse, as well as human-induced destruction before a seismic event scenario can be proposed.

Microbial biomarkers reveal a hydrothermally active landscape at Olduvai Gorge at the dawn of the Acheulean, 1.7 Ma
Ainara Sistiaga et al.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, forthcoming


Landscape-scale reconstructions of ancient environments within the cradle of humanity may reveal insights into the relationship between early hominins and the changing resources around them. Many studies of Olduvai Gorge during Pliocene–Pleistocene times have revealed the presence of precession-driven wet–dry cycles atop a general aridification trend, though may underestimate the impact of local-scale conditions on early hominins, who likely experienced a varied and more dynamic landscape. Fossil lipid biomarkers from ancient plants and microbes encode information about their surroundings via their molecular structures and composition, and thus can shed light on past environments. Here, we employ fossil lipid biomarkers to study the paleolandscape at Olduvai Gorge at the emergence of the Acheulean technology, 1.7 Ma, through the Lower Augitic Sandstones layer. In the context of the expansion of savanna grasslands, our results represent a resource-rich mosaic ecosystem populated by groundwater-fed rivers, aquatic plants, angiosperm shrublands, and edible plants. Evidence of a geothermally active landscape is reported via an unusual biomarker distribution consistent with the presence of hydrothermal features seen today at Yellowstone National Park. The study of hydrothermalism in ancient settings and its impact on hominin evolution has not been addressed before, although the association of thermal springs in the proximity of archaeological sites documented here can also be found at other localities. The hydrothermal features and resources present at Olduvai Gorge may have allowed early hominins to thermally process edible plants and meat, supporting the possibility of a prefire stage of human evolution.

River networks and funerary metal in the Bronze Age of the Carpathian Basin
Paul Duffy
PLoS ONE, September 2020


Archaeologists use differences in metals from burial contexts to identify variation in social inequalities during the European Bronze Age. Many have argued that these social inequalities depended on access to, and control of, trade routes. In this paper, I model critical gateways in the Tisza river — a river system in the Carpathian Basin that might have enabled privileged access to metal in some areas but not others. I then evaluate the concentration of metal on different topological nodes of the river network in an attempt to understand what best explains the distribution of metals across this landscape. I do this by describing Bronze Age metal consumption and display in cemeteries from four micro-regions of the Tisza, and compare them with network ‘betweenness centrality’ values for locations along the river. I find support for the argument that favourably located river nodes had better access to metal in the earlier part of the Bronze Age.


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