Anthropology/Archaeology Roundup

I have a backlog of anthropology/ancient history news articles, so that means it’s finally time to clear out the links:

Human ancestors were ‘grounded,’ new analysis shows (Science Daily). See my previous article. It’s long been assumed that we descended from tree-dwelling apes, and that ground-based locomotion evolved much later-possibly independently—in ancestral humans and apes. But this new study indicates that the common ancestor of chimps, bonobos and humans had already evolved for mobility on the ground:

In his research, Prang ascertained the relative length proportions of multiple bones in the primate foot skeleton to evaluate the relationship between species’ movement (locomotion) and their skeletal characteristics (morphology). In addition, drawing upon the Ardi fossils, he used statistical methods to reconstruct or estimate what the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees might have looked like.

Here, he found that the African apes show a clear signal of being adapted to ground-living. The results also reveal that the Ardi foot and the estimated morphology of the human-chimpanzee last common ancestor is most similar to these African ape species.

“Therefore, humans evolved from an ancestor that had adaptations to living on the ground, perhaps not unlike those found in African apes,” Prang concludes. “These findings suggest that human bipedalism was derived from a form of locomotion similar to that of living African apes, which contrasts with the original interpretation of these fossils.”

The original interpretation of the Ardi foot fossils, published in 2009, suggested that its foot was more monkey-like than chimpanzee- or gorilla-like. The implication of this interpretation is that many of the features shared by living great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans) in their foot and elsewhere must have evolved independently in each lineage — in a different time and place.

And, related: Humanity’s Early Ancestors Were Upright Walking Apes (Discover Magazine)

…bipedalism, or two-legged locomotion, was the first major evolutionary change in human ancestors, which is evident from bones. Other distinguishing features, like big brains, small molars and handcrafted stone tools, came millions of years later. Therefore, to find early members of our lineage, anthropologists look for ancient apes with skeletal traits indicative of habitual bipedalism — they regularly walked upright.So who were the first bipedal apes and would you recognize them as relatives?…

History of the Horse: Ancient DNA Reveals Lost Lineages (Discover Magazine)

For the last 5,000 or so years, the horse has done more than any other animal to affect the course of human history (sorry, dogs and cats…it’s not even close).

Horses have hauled us and our stuff (including our languages, cultures and diseases) all over the world. They’ve charged into battle, plowed fields and crisscrossed continents delivering news. And, after death, they’ve been broken down into a variety of useful products, from hides to food.

But the new research found that some of the traits we associate most closely with horses have only recently evolved. For example, the genetic variations associated with locomotive speed appear to be the product of selective breeding only in the last 1,000 or so years.

The European horse breeds nearly went extinct, and genetic diversity in horses is declining in general:

The genome-wide analysis also found that established populations of European horses were nearly wiped out in the 7th to 9th centuries thanks to the arrival and spread of horses with a Persian pedigree…

Beginning about 2,000 years ago, the diversity of the Y chromosome in domestic horses began to decline, likely because breeders were increasingly choosing specific stallions as studs. But the researchers also found that horses’ overall genetic diversity has fallen by about 16 percent just in the last 200 years, probably because of increased emphasis on the “purity” of a line.

The domestication of horses remains something of a mystery, but I find this author’s speculation a likely possibility:

Archaeological evidence of horse domestication points to the Botai culture of Central Asia at least 5,500 years ago, but those horses are genetically related to the wild Przewalski’s horse, not domestic horses. Various studies have suggested different areas of central and southwestern Eurasia as the homeland of the domestic horse, but the matter remains unresolved.

Personally, I’m betting that the earliest history of the horse took a course not unlike that of the dog: A sweeping 2016 paleogenetic study showed that dogs were domesticated more than once, at about the same time but in different locations, though one lineage eventually dominated.

BONUS: Here’s Brian Fagan on horse domestication from The Intimate Bond: How Animals Shaped Human History:

Capturing or controlling such fast-moving, potentially ferocious animals as tarpans would never have been easy, especially on the open steppe, where close stalking 1s difficult at best for someone on foot armed with only a bow and arrow or a spear. So the hunters often turned to carefully orchestrated ambushes and cooperative drives. Such hunts required dealing with horses at close quarters. Such circumstances must have been commonplace enough, so much so that hunters may have gotten into the habit of corralling some of the trapped mares alive or even hobbling them, allowing them to feed in captivity until it was time to kill them. They may have focused on slower-moving pregnant mares, which would then give birth in captivity. Their foals would have been more amenable to control if brought up in captivity from the beginning. This may have been how domestication took hold, through loose management of growing herds of mares, who still bred with wild stallions.

This was not, of course, the first time that people had wrestled with the problem of domesticating large, often frisky animals. The first groups to domesticate horses were accustomed to cattle management. Like cattle, horses travel in bands. As with cattle, too, there’s a lead female, who decides the route for the day. The others follow. Cattle and sheepherders had known for centuries that to control the leader was to control the herd, whether a flock of sheep or a small group of cattle. p. 138

No one knows precisely where horses were first domesticated, but if genetics is any guide, they were tamed in many locations between eastern Europe and the Caucasus. We will never find a genetically ancestral mare, the “Eve,” as it were, of Equus caballus, for crossbreeding with wild stallions was commonplace. With genetics inconclusive, we have to fall back on archaeological clues. These are contradictory at best. As is the case with cattle, it’s a question of interpreting slaughter curves compiled from jaws and teeth. They can tell us the ages of slaughtered beasts, but not necessarily what the patterns mean. Unfortunately, too, there was so much size variation in wild horse populations that diminishing size is an unreliable criterion. p. 139

Quite when people first rode horses is the subject of unending academic debate, largely because its virtually impossible to tell from archaeological finds. At first, people rode their beasts with some form of noseband of leather, rope, or sinew, which rarely survive in archaeological sites. Bits, bridles, and other equipment came into use centuries later than animal domestication. (The earliest bits date to about to 3000 BCE, made of rope, bone, horn, or hardwood. Metal bits appear between 1300 and 1200 BCE, originally made of bronze and later of iron.)’ But just how big a step was this? Perhaps the transition from herding to riding was much less than we think, accustomed as we are to bucking broncos and rodeos, also to terrified pedigree animals whose every instinct is to flee, flail out savagely, or bite. We shouldn’t forget char the first people to ride horses had almost certainly sat on the backs of oxen, which already plowed fields and served as occasional pack animals. Also the first horses to be ridden on the steppe were much smaller than some later breeds. Even more important, those who domesticated them were intimately familiar with the behavior of agitated horses confronted with the unfamiliar. p. 141

We are learning more about the domestication of sheep and goats:

At the ancient settlement of Aşıklı Höyük in central Turkey, archaeological evidence suggests that humans began domesticating sheep and goats around 8450 BC. These practices evolved over the next 1,000 years, until the society became heavily dependent on the beasts for food and other materials.

The team used the urine salts [left behind by humans and animals] to calculate the density of humans and animals at the site over time, estimating that around 10,000 years ago, the density of people and animals occupying the settlement jumped from near zero to approximately one person or animal for every 10 square meters. The results suggest that domestication may have been more rapid than previously expected. They also support the idea that the Neolithic Revolution didn’t have just one birthplace in the Fertile Crescent of the Mideast, but rather occurred across several locations simultaneously.

Switch from hunting to herding recorded in ancient urine (Science Daily)

Horses were just the beginning, however: Humans Domesticated Dogs And Cows. We May Have Also Domesticated Ourselves (Discover Magazine):

According to proponents [of the so-called self-domestication hypothesis, floated by Charles Darwin and formulated by 21st century scholars], as human societies grew in size and complexity, more cooperative, less combative individuals fared better. These behavioral traits are heritable to some extent and also linked with physical traits, such as stress hormone levels, testosterone during development and skull robustness. Tamer individuals more successfully passed on their genes, and so these traits prevailed in the human lineage. Over time, our species became domesticated.

So it’s thought that humans self-domesticated because aggressive individuals were gradually eliminated from society. A happy tale of “survival of the friendliest.”…

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about this, but this article provides a really good overview:

Researchers now know that breeding animals solely for tameness ultimately leads to full domestication. That’s thanks to an ongoing experiment in fox domestication, started in 1959 Soviet Russia…domesticates’ tameness results from smaller adrenal glands, which release less stress hormones. This physiology allows the creatures to stay cool in situations where wild animals would enter a “fight-or-flight” state.

Compared to their wild forbears, domesticated species are less aggressive and fearful towards humans. They often have floppy ears, curly tails, white spots on their heads, and smaller skulls, snouts and teeth. As adults, they look and act more like juveniles of the wild ancestors, and the males appear less masculine…affected features are influenced by or derive from neural crest cells, a specific class of stem cells. In developing vertebrate embryos, these cells form along the back edge of the neural tube (precursor to the brain and spine). They eventually migrate throughout the body, ultimately becoming many types of tissues, including parts of the skull, adrenal glands, teeth and the pigment cells affecting fur.

In domesticates, these tissues seem underdeveloped or smaller than their wild counterparts. A deficit in neural crest cells could explain this difference, i.e. the domestication syndrome.

In Soviet Russia, animal domesticates you, LoL!

In natural settings and experiments, people are far more prosocial. Chimps are reluctant to cooperate, quick to lose their tempers and prone to aggressive outbursts. Humans, in contrast, routinely communicate and cooperate with strangers. Even infants will use gestures to help others solve a task, such as finding a hidden object.

Scientists have also found evidence for self-domestication in human skeletal remains. Based on what’s happened to animal domesticates, it’s predicted that skulls should have become smaller and more feminine looking (in both sexes) with reduced brow ridges. Indeed, that’s what a 2014 Current Anthropology paper found, which measured Homo sapiens skulls from the Stone Age to recent times, about 200,000 years of human evolution. These results agree with previous studies reporting that average skull — and by proxy brain — volume in Homo sapiens has decreased by roughly 10 percent in the past 40,000 years.

It wasn’t all fun and games, however:

Anthropologist Richard Wrangham has argued that ancient societies likely used capital punishment to execute individuals who acted as belligerent bullies and violated community norms. Through sanctioned, punitive killings, troublemakers were weeded out of humanity’s gene poll.

And despite our propensity to cooperate, humans are obviously capable of war, murder and other atrocities towards our own kind. In his 2019 book The Goodness Paradox, Wrangham attributes this to two biologically distinct forms of aggression: reactive and proactive. The former comprises impulsive responses to threats, like a bar brawl sparked by escalating insults. The latter is planned violence with a clear goal, such as premeditated murder and war. Research suggests these forms of aggression are controlled by different brain regions, hormone pathways and genes — and therefore could be dialed up or down independently by distinct evolutionary pressures.

The book The 10,000 Year Explosion argued the same case:

Selection for submission to authority sounds unnervingly like domestication. In fact,there are parallels between the process of domestication in animals and the changes that have occurred in humans during the Holocene period. In both humans and domesticated animals, we see a reduction in brain size, broader skulls, changes in hair color or coat color, and smaller teeth. As Dmitri Belyaev’s experiment with foxes shows, some of the changes that are characteristic of domesticated animals may be side effects of selection for tameness.

As for humans, we know of a number of recent changes in genes involving serotonin metabolism in Europeans that may well influence personality, but we don’t know what effect those changes have had—since we don’t yet know whether they increase or decrease serotonin levels. Floppy ears are not seen in any human population (as far as we know), but then, changes in the external ear might interfere with recognition of speech sounds. Since speech is of great importance to fitness in humans, it may be that the negative effects of floppy ears have kept them from arising.

Some of these favored changes could be viewed as examples of neoteny—retention of childlike characteristics. Children routinely submit to their parents—at least in comparison to teenagers—and it’s possible that natural selection modified mechanisms active in children in ways that resulted in tamer human adults, just as the behaviors of adult dogs often seem relatively juvenile in comparison with adult wolf behavior.

If the strong governments made possible by agriculture essentially “tamed” people, one might expect members of groups with shallow or nonexistent agricultural experience to be less submissive, on average, than members of longtime agricultural cultures. One possible indicator of tameness is the ease with which people can be enslaved, and our reading of history suggests that some peoples with little or no evolutionary exposure to agriculture “would not endure the yoke,” as was said of Indians captured by the Puritans in the Pequot War of 1636. In the same vein, the typical Bushman, a classic hunter-gatherer, has been described as “the anarchist of South Africa.” pp. 112-113

It’s even written all over our faces: The history of humanity in your face (Science Daily)

Changes in the human face may not be due only to purely mechanical factors. The human face, after all, plays an important role in social interaction, emotion, and communication. Some of these changes may be driven, in part, by social context. Our ancestors were challenged by the environment and increasingly impacted by culture and social factors. Over time, the ability to form diverse facial expressions likely enhanced nonverbal communication.

Large, protruding brow ridges are typical of some extinct species of our own genus, Homo, like Homo erectus and the Neanderthals. What function did these structures play in adaptive changes in the face? The African great apes also have strong brow ridges, which researchers suggest help to communicate dominance or aggression. It is probably safe to conclude that similar social functions influenced the facial form of our ancestors and extinct relatives. Along with large, sharp canine teeth, large brow ridges were lost along the evolutionary road to our own species, perhaps as we evolved to become less aggressive and more cooperative in social contexts.

Another very exciting and important discovery: a Denisovan jawbone indicates that Denisovans (or a close ancestor) were the first inhabitants of the high-altitude Tibetan plateau. There they developed particular genetic adaptations to the altitude, and then much later passed these adaptations to the ancestors of modern humans living there today.

Our protein analysis shows that the Xiahe mandible belonged to a hominin population that was closely related to the Denisovans from Denisova Cave,” said co-author Frido Welker, from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

The discovery may explain why individuals studied at Denisova Cave had a gene variant known to protect against hypoxia (oxygen deficiency) at high altitudes. This had been a puzzle because the Siberian cave is located just 700m above sea level.

Present-day Sherpas, Tibetans and neighbouring populations have the same gene variant, which was probably acquired when Homo sapiens mixed with the Denisovans thousands of years ago. In fact, the gene variant appears to have undergone positive natural selection (which can result in mutations reaching high frequencies in populations because they confer an advantage).

“We can only speculate that living in this kind of environment, any mutation that was favourable to breathing an atmosphere impoverished in oxygen would be retained by natural selection,” said Prof Hublin.”And it’s a rather likely scenario to explain how this mutation made its way to present-day Tibetans.”

Denisovans: Primitive humans lived at high altitudes (BBC).

First hominins on the Tibetan Plateau were Denisovans (Science Daily)

I wonder: Could the legends of the Yeti be a memory of the ancient Denisovans? Now that’s really speculating!

Details of the history of inner Eurasia revealed (Science Daily). There are three major ecological regions, and three major peoples in this region of the world:

This vast area can also be divided into several distinct ecological regions that stretch in largely east-west bands across Inner Eurasia, consisting of the deserts at the southern edge of the region, the steppe in the central part, taiga forests further north, and tundra towards the Arctic region. The subsistence strategies used by indigenous groups in these regions largely correlate with the ecological zones, for example reindeer herding and hunting in the tundra region and nomadic pastoralism on the steppe.

They found three distinct genetic groupings, which geographically are arranged in east-west bands stretching across the region and correlating generally to ecological zones, where populations within each band share a distinct combination of ancestries in varying proportions.

The northernmost grouping, which they term “forest-tundra,” includes Russians, all Uralic language-speakers, which includes Hungarian, Finnish and Estonian, and Yeniseian-language speakers, of which only one remains today and is spoken in central Siberia. The middle grouping, which they term “steppe-forest,” includes Turkic- and Mongolic-speaking populations from the Volga and the region around the Altai and Sayan mountains, near to where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan meet. The southernmost grouping, “southern-steppe,” includes the rest of Turkic- and Mongolic-speaking populations living further south, such as Kazakhs, Kyrgyzs and Uzbeks, as well as Indo-European-speaking Tajiks.

Because the study includes data from a broad time period, it is able to show shifts in ancestry in the past that reveal previously unknown interactions. For example, the researchers found that the southern-steppe populations had a larger genetic component from West and South Asia than the other two groupings. This component is also widespread in the ancient populations of the region since the second half of the first millennium BC, but not found in Central Kazakhstan in earlier periods. This hints at a population movement from the southern-steppe region to the steppe-forest region that was previously unknown…

Interestingly, this is also where the horse was first domesticated, although we don’t know exactly when or where as we saw above. Anyways, back to the first farmers:

The First Anatolian farmers were local hunter-gatherers that adopted agriculture (Science Daily)

Farming was developed approximately 11,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, a region that includes present-day Iraq, Syria, Israel, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan as well as the fringes of southern Anatolia and western Iran. By about 8,300 BCE it had spread to central Anatolia, in present-day Turkey. These early Anatolian farmers subsequently migrated throughout Europe, bringing this new subsistence strategy and their genes. Today, the single largest component of the ancestry of modern-day Europeans comes from these Anatolian farmers. It has long been debated, however, whether farming was brought to Anatolia similarly by a group of migrating farmers from the Fertile Crescent, or whether the local hunter-gatherers of Anatolia adopted farming practices from their neighbors.

A new study by an international team of scientists led by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and in collaboration with scientists from the United Kingdom, Turkey and Israel, published in Nature Communications, confirms existing archaeological evidence that shows that Anatolian hunter-gatherers did indeed adopt farming themselves, and the later Anatolian farmers were direct descendants of a gene-pool that remained relatively stable for over 7,000 years.

They also built the world’s earliest temple (that we know of). We also know that they didn’t stay put. Anatolian farmers moved around the Mediterranean and into Iberia (Spain). From there, it appears they migrated northward to the British Isles, where they displaced the original hunter-gatherer populations. It is they who brought the tradition of megalithic stone building (and presumably feasting) to prehistoric Britain.

Researchers compared DNA extracted from Neolithic human remains found across Britain with that of people alive at the same time in Europe. The Neolithic inhabitants were descended from populations originating in Anatolia (modern Turkey) that moved to Iberia before heading north. They reached Britain in about 4,000BC.

The migration to Britain was just one part of a general, massive expansion of people out of Anatolia in 6,000BC that introduced farming to Europe.Before that, Europe was populated by small, travelling groups which hunted animals and gathered wild plants and shellfish.
One group of early farmers followed the river Danube up into Central Europe, but another group travelled west across the Mediterranean. DNA reveals that Neolithic Britons were largely descended from groups who took the Mediterranean route, either hugging the coast or hopping from island-to-island on boats. Some British groups had a minor amount of ancestry from groups that followed the Danube route.

When the researchers analysed the DNA of early British farmers, they found they most closely resembled Neolithic people from Iberia (modern Spain and Portugal). These Iberian farmers were descended from people who had journeyed across the Mediterranean. From Iberia, or somewhere close, the Mediterranean farmers travelled north through France. They might have entered Britain from the west, through Wales or south-west England…

In addition to farming, the Neolithic migrants to Britain appear to have introduced the tradition of building monuments using large stones known as megaliths. Stonehenge in Wiltshire was part of this tradition.

Although Britain was inhabited by groups of “western hunter-gatherers” when the farmers arrived in about 4,000 BC, DNA shows that the two groups did not mix very much at all. The British hunter-gatherers were almost completely replaced by the Neolithic farmers, apart from one group in western Scotland, where the Neolithic inhabitants had elevated local ancestry. This could have come down to the farmer groups simply having greater numbers…

Professor Thomas said the Neolithic farmers had probably had to adapt their practices to different climatic conditions as they moved across Europe. But by the time they reached Britain they were already “tooled up” and well-prepared for growing crops in a north-west European climate…

Stonehenge: DNA reveals origin of builders (BBC). Interesting that both Spain and Britain became the main centers of shepherding and wool production during the Middle Ages. Here’s an additional comment from Reddit r/history:

Someone working on aDNA here. The Mediterranean route is closely related to Cardium Pottery cultures. Radiocarbon dates suggest that there was a rapid spread about 5500 BCE – including into Sardinia, the South French and Iberian coasts; which has been interpreted as evidence for seafaring spread of agricultural societies. These early farmers slowly and progressively intermixed with surrounding Hunter Gatherers (which were as different from the Early farmers as present-day Chinese are to Europeans!), until these were completely absorbed. Before agriculture (and broadly the people who brought it) moved on to Britain, there was about a 1000 year break – why is kind of unknown.

From a historical period closer to our own time, the DNA of several Crusaders was examined and found to be fairly diverse. However, it appears that Europeans didn’t have much of a lasting imprint on the local populations in the Levant:

Archaeological evidence suggested that 25 individuals whose remains were found in a burial pit near a Crusader castle near Sidon, Lebanon, were warriors who died in battle in the 1200s. Based on that, Tyler-Smith, Haber, and their colleagues conducted genetic analyses of the remains and were able to sequence the DNA of nine Crusaders, revealing that three were Europeans, four were Near Easterners, and two individuals had mixed genetic ancestry.

Throughout history, other massive human migrations — like the movement of the Mongols through Asia under Genghis Khan and the arrival of colonial Iberians in South America — have fundamentally reshaped the genetic makeup of those regions. But the authors theorize that the Crusaders’ influence was likely shorter-lived because the Crusaders’ genetic traces are insignificant in people living in Lebanon today. “They made big efforts to expel them, and succeeded after a couple of hundred years,” says Tyler-Smith.

“Historical records are often very fragmentary and potentially very biased,” Tyler-Smith says. “But genetics gives us a complementary approach that can confirm some of the things that we read about in history and tell us about things that are not recorded in the historical records that we have. And as this approach is adopted by historians and archaeologists as a part of their field, I think it will only become more and more enriching.”

A history of the Crusades, as told by crusaders’ DNA (Science Daily)

Crusader armies were remarkably genetically diverse, study finds (Guardian)

Why didn’t a civilization emerge along the Mississippi river valley? (Ask Reddit) Of course, it did: the Mississippian culture. The real question is, why was it not the most advanced New World civilization, rather than the cultures which appeared farther south in the Yucatan and the Andes mountains? One answer might be the frequent and terrible flooding of the river valley:

The Mississippi changes course quite often, which would break down any long term settlements. Wunderground, when it was good, had a wonderful article on this, and how it’s desperate to change course now, but that would destroy the trade routes etc., along the river, and make New Orleans a ghost town, which shows that what happened in the past, can happen again to our civilization.

That’s true of the Yellow River in China (“China’s Sorrow”), and in fact, containing the Yellow River may have been a spur for civilizational development in China. But its situation was different:

That is actually true of the Yellow River too. There were over 1,000 recorded floods, 18 documented major course changes, and the river made giant swamps/lakes that came and went, and just a lot of shenanigan with that river. I think what helped was that it is long enough and the civilization originated around its upper reaches rather than its incredibly problematic lower reaches, and by the time stable populations started living in the the worst flood plains, the population and technology were enough to prevent/mitigate most floods and handle a few really bad ones (i.e. losing a million or two is bad, but won’t be civilization ending)…[a] combination of where civilization developed, the technology to modify the river’s flow, and population is what saved China.

How differently did Eastern and Western Roman Empires cope and deal with the Barbarians? (Reddit history) Top comment:

The Eastern and Roman Empires weren’t separate entities as such at this point: Theodosius later ruled over both. I’m not sure there’s an issue of ‘learning from’ the experience differently but rather different underlying conditions. A huge amount of ink has been spilt on why the West fell (and the East didn’t) but I think some likely elements

– The Western Empire had the less wealthy provinces. Money was vital both for paying armies and for paying off barbarians: later on, the East paid barbarians to go away who went to the West instead…

– The Western provinces simply had more of a vulnerable extended border with barbarian tribes than the East. The East had to deal with Sassanians but they were a single enemy who could be negotiated with, and there was relative peace in the 5th century. Until the Arab conquests the richest provinces were harder to reach for enemies while being well-connected for friends by the Mediterranean. The Hellespont was a natural barrier for easy passage from Europe into Asia.

– The West had more usurpers and less stable continuity of power. As Emperors tended (probably rightly) to see usurpers as more a threat than barbarians, civil wars tended to sap ability to stop barbarians.

– I’m less sure of this one as a cause of the problems, but some attribute the West’s problems to the fact its emperors were more often dominated by military strongmen (weak emperors in the East being usually dominated by civilians). However, you can equally argue those strongmen helped stave off the fall!
In terms of surviving a thousand years, the Eastern empire was reduced to something of a rump state by the Arab conquests (Peter Heather says it became a ‘satellite state’ of the Caliphate, with its ability to act dependent on the rise and falls of their strength rather than vice versa). While the East saw times of regaining strength, by 1453 it was more a city-state than an Empire and successor states in the West had been stronger for some time, albeit without the same institutional continuity.

The Feasting Theory rides again! The secret to a stable society? A steady supply of beer doesn’t hurt (Science Daily)

A thousand years ago, the Wari empire stretched across Peru. At its height, it covered an area the size of the Eastern seaboard of the US from New York City to Jacksonville. It lasted for 500 years, from 600 to 1100 AD, before eventually giving rise to the Inca. That’s a long time for an empire to remain intact, and archaeologists are studying remnants of the Wari culture to see what kept it ticking. A new study found an important factor that might have helped: a steady supply of beer…

Nearly twenty years ago, Williams, Nash, and their team discovered an ancient Wari brewery in Cerro Baúl in the mountains of southern Peru. “It was like a microbrewery in some respects. It was a production house, but the brewhouses and taverns would have been right next door,” explains Williams. And since the beer they brewed, a light, sour beverage called chicha, was only good for about a week after being made, it wasn’t shipped offsite — people had to come to festivals at Cerro Baúl to drink it. These festivals were important to Wari society — between one and two hundred local political elites would attend, and they would drink chicha from three-foot-tall ceramic vessels decorated to look like Wari gods and leaders. “People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state,” says Williams. In short, beer helped keep the empire together…

By looking at the chemical makeup of traces of beer left in the vessels and at the chemical makeup of the clay vessels themselves, the team found two important things. One, the vessels were made of clay that came from nearby, and two, the beer was made of pepper berries, an ingredient that can grow even during a drought. Both these things would help make for a steady beer supply — even if a drought made it hard to grow other chicha ingredients like corn, or if changes in trade made it hard to get clay from far away, vessels of pepper berry chicha would still be readily available.

The authors of the study argue that this steady supply of beer could have helped keep Wari society stable. The Wari empire was huge and made up of different groups of people from all over Peru. “We think these institutions of brewing and then serving the beer really formed a unity among these populations, it kept people together,” says Williams.

The study’s implications about how shared identity and cultural practices help to stabilize societies are increasingly relevant today. “This research is important because it helps us understand how institutions create the binds that tie together people from very diverse constituencies and very different backgrounds,” says Williams. “Without them, large political entities begin to fragment and break up into much smaller things. Brexit is an example of this fragmentation in the European Union today. We need to understand the social constructs that underpin these unifying features if we want to be able to maintain political unity in society.”

I don’t know about that last part, we have more microbreweries than ever in the United States, yet we haven’t been more divided since the Civil War :(.

The microbrewery came to a dramatic end, however:

Then, after the brewery had run for hundreds of years, it hosted one final blowout bash. The artifacts at the site, the researchers believe, are a snapshot of what it looked like during its final hours.

Based on the positions of the artifacts, as well as ash and other sediments, it appears that this last festival ended with the Wari intentionally burning down the brewery. Festival-goers smashed their cups onto the smoldering ashes; the fermentation jars were toppled, the pieces strewn about the brewery; and seven necklaces of shell and semi-precious stones were ceremoniously laid on the ruins. The whole thing was covered with sediment.

Why they did this is unclear. But one thing’s for sure: It was a clear signal that the brewery was now closed.

If you’re curious to recreate the bonding experience of the ancient Wari, don’t despair! You may get your opportunity:

The Field Museum had already partnered with Off Color Brewing in Chicago to make a dino-themed brew called Tooth and Claw. And when the Field Museum’s marketing team got wind of the Wari research, they wondered if Off Color might be interested in making a chicha, too.

There were a few roadblocks. The Wari recipe makes a brew that only keeps for five days. That’s slightly problematic in the modern beverage industry. Plus, to legally call a drink a “beer,” certain recipe standards have to be met — fermented corn and pepper berries don’t quite cut it.

But the group persevered. Instead of replicating the exact recipe, they decided, they’d just work to replicate the flavor in the form of a modern ale. Off Color obtained flavor-packing ingredients from the source: purple maize and pink peppercorns from Peru.
The brewers went through multiple iterations with the archaeologists until they got the taste just right. The beer first came out in 2016 and was so popular Off Color is re-releasing it this June.

The Field Museum helped supply Discover with a six-pack of Off Color’s Wari Ale. And, for my personal tastes, the pepper-berry-chicha mimic is delicious. It’s a little sour but doesn’t make you pucker; a little fruity but not too sweet. It’s light and refreshing, and a fabulous shade of purple.

A Brewery in Peru Ran For Centuries, Then Burned After One Epic Ancient Party. (Discover Magazine). I may have to take a field trip to Chicago to try this out.

Was There a Civilization On Earth Before Humans? (The Atlantic)

We’re used to imagining extinct civilizations in terms of the sunken statues and subterranean ruins. These kinds of artifacts of previous societies are fine if you’re only interested in timescales of a few thousands of years. But once you roll the clock back to tens of millions or hundreds of millions of years, things get more complicated.

When it comes to direct evidence of an industrial civilization—things like cities, factories, and roads—the geologic record doesn’t go back past what’s called the Quaternary period 2.6 million years ago. For example, the oldest large-scale stretch of ancient surface lies in the Negev Desert. It’s “just” 1.8 million years old—older surfaces are mostly visible in cross section via something like a cliff face or rock cuts. Go back much farther than the Quaternary and everything has been turned over and crushed to dust.

The authors don’t believe that there was, but they use it as a thought experiment to document the long-term effects of human industrial civilization. Perhaps this hypothetical ancient civilization was George R.R. Martin’s Westeros? They do seem to live with extinct megafauna.

Imagine if geography was maximized to spread cultural developments around the world. That’s the idea this guy had: Welcome to Jaredia (World Dream Bank). Diamond has a brand new book out: Upheaval by Jared Diamond review – how nations cope with crisis (Guardian)

The Ancient Earth globe.

Did a cardiac arrhythmia influence Beethoven’s music? (Science Daily)

The story of handwriting in 12 objects (BBC)

Why India (and only India) is called a “subcontinent” (TYWKIWDBI)

Associating color with sounds is not just for synesthetes, and the pairing appear to be universal. (Science Daily)

‘Spectacular’ ancient public library discovered in Germany (Guardian)

Are dingoes just feral dogs? (Anthropocene)

Evidence for a giant flood in the central Mediterranean Sea (

A lot of people have speculated as to when capitalism first got started. Now, I think we may finally have an answer. The way I see it, capitalism truly began when we started to rip each other off: Prehistoric Traders Cheated Rich People With Fake Amber Jewelry (Discover Magazine):

The researchers know the beads are fakes, but are still working out why they exist. Odriozola and colleagues propose three possible explanations. The first plays on the fact that amber is rare. It’s possible a shortage of real amber inspired the creation of imitations. Alternatively, the production of a low-cost product that serves the same social function as amber for members of society who could not afford the real gems is plausible. But the third possibility appears the most likely: Traders who could not acquire the valuable and rare items developed counterfeits to sell as the real thing and cheat their clients.

The researchers say this last option might have been the case in Cova del Gegant, where the four resin-covered beads were found alongside two genuine amber beads that are nearly identical in size and shape. Visually, the authentic beads and the counterfeits look exactly the same.

“The quest for power and wealth are conspicuous behaviors in humankind that would fit perfectly on middlemen cheating wealthy people to acquire wealth and power,” Odriozola said. Plus, Odriozola says, if the tradesmen fooled him and his colleagues, who are well-trained archaeologists, with the fake amber, then it’s almost certain they also pulled one over on the wealthy community members.

And thus, capitalism was born, ha!

3 thoughts on “Anthropology/Archaeology Roundup

  1. Before you abandon the website, I have three questions.
    -are you still going to write a book?
    -are you going to still maintain or archive this website, like you did your previous one?
    -I’ve always wanted to know what your name / internet handle is.

    • 1. Yes, I would like to. Initially, I thought I might try to do a “big history” type of book, similar in spirit to H.G. Well’s Outline of History, but with the latest information about prehistory. I also wanted to do a history book with a focus on the types of things history books often ignore, such as climate change, technology, energy use, economics, social dynamics, etc.

      With my latest foray in Julian Jaynes’ work, I’m coming over to the idea of basing a book off of that. Sort of a combination of a book about Jayne’s ideas, the reactions to them, and subsequent similar ideas (such as Ian McGilchrist’s). It would also be an update with the latest research. A lot of subsequent research has added significantly to Jayne’s hypothesis. In my case, it would be less about trying to convince people that the thesis is necessarily correct, but a foray into all the ways that ancient thinking and society was different from our own.

      What makes that idea so compelling is that it gives me a framework to write about a lot of the subjects I talk about here: religion, consciousness, history, anthropology, archaeology, social order, etc. It also gives them some sort of overarching organization that a series of blog posts just doesn’t have. So that’s what I’m thinking right now. That’s a VERY brief overview, of course. I may have more to say about it.

      2. Certainly, I would never intentionally take my writing offline, unless something unexpected happens. In fact, it’s the only backup I have in many cases! I’m still fence-sitting on the idea of abandoning the blog. Really, it feels the ideas of the alt-right have utterly won – even people who I used to think were sympathetic to social reform have signed on to Social Darwinism, eugenics, radical hereditarianism, extreme hierarchy, and so forth. They see various members of the alt-right as heroes above criticism (which was their intent). It makes writing not so fun 🙁

      So I may concentrate on other ideas, and may just shut off comments, which makes me sad, since I do like hearing from readers, and 99% of what I get is great. I’ll probably focus more on history, anthropology and other science topics, and let our Passion Play repeat of the 1930’s play out without comment.

      3. My real name? Well, you can send me an email at, but I don’t want to just put it out there for privacy reasons. That why I use a pseudonym, which is very similar to my real name.


  2. > it feels the ideas of the alt-right have utterly won
    It is certainly exhausting to be surrounded by folk who openly declare that suffering people have only themselves to blame. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, postmodernism appears to be eating the Left. Currently I’m trying to follow the ludicrously radical course charted by Miroslaw Wolf in his book ‘Exclusion and Embrace’: there are oppressors, and we must forgive them.

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