Early Challenges

Kevin Lewis

February 24, 2024

A submerged Stone Age hunting architecture from the Western Baltic Sea
Jacob Geersen et al.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 20 February 2024 


The Baltic Sea basins, some of which only submerged in the mid-Holocene, preserve Stone Age structures that did not survive on land. Yet, the discovery of these features is challenging and requires cross-disciplinary approaches between archeology and marine geosciences. Here, we combine shipborne and autonomous underwater vehicle hydroacoustic data with up to a centimeter range resolution, sedimentological samples, and optical images to explore a Stone Age megastructure located in 21 m water depth in the Bay of Mecklenburg, Germany. The structure is made of 1,673 individual stones which are usually less than 1 m in height, placed side by side over a distance of 971 m in a way that argues against a natural origin by glacial transport or ice push ridges. Running adjacent to the sunken shoreline of a paleolake (or bog), whose youngest phase was dated to 9,143 ±36 ka B.P., the stonewall was likely used for hunting the Eurasian reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) during the Younger Dryas or early Pre-Boreal. It was built by hunter–gatherer groups that roamed the region after the retreat of the Weichselian Ice Sheet. Comparable Stone Age megastructures have become known worldwide in recent times but are almost unknown in Europe. The site represents one of the oldest documented man-made hunting structures on Earth, and ranges among the largest known Stone Age structure in Europe. It will become important for understanding subsistence strategies, mobility patterns, and inspire discussions concerning the territorial development in the Western Baltic Sea region.

Ochre-based compound adhesives at the Mousterian type-site document complex cognition and high investment
Patrick Schmidt et al.
Science Advances, February 2024 


Ancient adhesives used in multicomponent tools may be among our best material evidences of cultural evolution and cognitive processes in early humans. African Homo sapiens is known to have made compound adhesives from naturally sticky substances and ochre, a technical behavior proposed to mark the advent of elaborate cognitive processes in our species. Foragers of the European Middle Paleolithic also used glues, but evidence of ochre-based compound adhesives is unknown. Here, we present evidence of this kind. Bitumen was mixed with high loads of goethite ochre to make compound adhesives at the type-site of the Mousterian, Le Moustier (France). Ochre loads were so high that they lowered the adhesive’s performance in classical hafting situations where stone implements are glued to handles. However, when used as handheld grips on cutting or scraping tools, a behavior known from Neanderthals, high-ochre adhesives present a real benefit, improving their solidity and rigidity. Our findings help understand the implications of Pleistocene adhesive making.

Cases of trisomy 21 and trisomy 18 among historic and prehistoric individuals discovered from ancient DNA
Adam Benjamin Rohrlach et al.
Nature Communications, February 2024 


Aneuploidies, and in particular, trisomies represent the most common genetic aberrations observed in human genetics today. To explore the presence of trisomies in historic and prehistoric populations we screen nearly 10,000 ancient human individuals for the presence of three copies of any of the target autosomes. We find clear genetic evidence for six cases of trisomy 21 (Down syndrome) and one case of trisomy 18 (Edwards syndrome), and all cases are present in infant or perinatal burials. We perform comparative osteological examinations of the skeletal remains and find overlapping skeletal markers, many of which are consistent with these syndromes. Interestingly, three cases of trisomy 21, and the case of trisomy 18 were detected in two contemporaneous sites in early Iron Age Spain (800-400 BCE), potentially suggesting a higher frequency of burials of trisomy carriers in those societies. Notably, the care with which the burials were conducted, and the items found with these individuals indicate that ancient societies likely acknowledged these individuals with trisomy 18 and 21 as members of their communities, from the perspective of burial practice.

The 10,000-year biocultural history of fallow deer and its implications for conservation policy
Karis Baker et al.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 20 February 2024 


Over the last 10,000 y, humans have manipulated fallow deer populations with varying outcomes. Persian fallow deer (Dama mesopotamica) are now endangered. European fallow deer (Dama dama) are globally widespread and are simultaneously considered wild, domestic, endangered, invasive and are even the national animal of Barbuda and Antigua. Despite their close association with people, there is no consensus regarding their natural ranges or the timing and circumstances of their human-mediated translocations and extirpations. Our mitochondrial analyses of modern and archaeological specimens revealed two distinct clades of European fallow deer present in Anatolia and the Balkans. Zooarchaeological evidence suggests these regions were their sole glacial refugia. By combining biomolecular analyses with archaeological and textual evidence, we chart the declining distribution of Persian fallow deer and demonstrate that humans repeatedly translocated European fallow deer, sourced from the most geographically distant populations. Deer taken to Neolithic Chios and Rhodes derived not from nearby Anatolia, but from the Balkans. Though fallow deer were translocated throughout the Mediterranean as part of their association with the Greco-Roman goddesses Artemis and Diana, deer taken to Roman Mallorca were not locally available Dama dama, but Dama mesopotamica. Romans also initially introduced fallow deer to Northern Europe but the species became extinct and was reintroduced in the medieval period, this time from Anatolia. European colonial powers then transported deer populations across the globe. The biocultural histories of fallow deer challenge preconceptions about the divisions between wild and domestic species and provide information that should underpin modern management strategies.

New insights on the origin of fired steatite beads in China
Siwen Xu et al.
Journal of Archaeological Science, March 2024 


Glazed steatite beads represent one of the earliest vitreous materials, and their appearance and diffusion signal prehistoric important developments of technology exchange and globalization. However, little is known about their early spread in East Asia. In this study, we present a comprehensive characterization of glazed/fired steatite beads unearthed from the Xiaohe Cemetery (1980-1450 BCE) in northwest China using multi-analysis techniques. In particular, the potential of near-infrared (NIR) spectroscopy for rapid and in situ characterization of fired steatite beads is demonstrated. The remaining glaze is successfully identified by SEM-EDS and optical photothermal infrared (O-PTIR) spectroscopy. The results indicate that these beads were fired and exhibit some connections with the Indus Valley, thereby proposing a potential spread route of artifacts and technology from the Indus Valley to northwest China. Moreover, the introduction of fired steatite beads and faience beads into China has presented different spread patterns, which were linked to climate change. When fired steatite and faience beads were introduced into central China, they played a significant role in the ritual revolution during the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BCE).


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