Old Order

Kevin Lewis

September 05, 2020

An aesthetic of resistance: Beauty and power in northern Mesopotamia
Akiva Sanders
Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, forthcoming


This article analyzes the role of the popular production and use of decorated ceramics in apparent episodes of resistance to and the ultimate collapse of central authority over the course of the seventh to fourth millennium BCE in northern Mesopotamia. In order to accomplish this goal, criteria for identifying and evaluating episodes of large-scale resistance in the archaeological record are presented. This presentation is followed by a description of three possible episodes of this nature, sensitive to the production, use, and discard of decorated ceramics within these episodes. These episodes are set within the context of broader regional trends concerning aesthetic elaboration in multiple media and contemporaneous techniques of production, administration, and control. The evidence presented supports the conclusion that independent small-scale production and consumption of decorated ceramics enabled the creation of coalitions of commoners that ultimately had the power to destabilize centralized coercive administrative regimes.

Monumental landscapes of the Holocene humid period in Northern Arabia: The mustatil phenomenon
Huw Groucutt et al.
The Holocene, forthcoming


Between 10 and six thousand years ago the Arabian Peninsula saw the most recent of the ‘Green Arabia’ periods, when increased rainfall transformed this generally arid region. The transition to the Neolithic in Arabia occurred during this period of climatic amelioration. Various forms of stone structures are abundant in northern Arabia, and it has been speculated that some of these dated to the Neolithic, but there has been little research on their character and chronology. Here we report a study of 104 ‘mustatil’ stone structures from the southern margins of the Nefud Desert in northern Arabia. We provide the first chronometric age estimate for this type of structure – a radiocarbon date of ca. 5000 BC – and describe their landscape positions, architecture and associated material culture and faunal remains. The structure we have dated is the oldest large-scale stone structure known from the Arabian Peninsula. The mustatil phenomenon represents a remarkable development of monumental architecture, as hundreds of these structures were built in northwest Arabia. This ‘monumental landscape’ represents one of the earliest large-scale forms of monumental stone structure construction anywhere in the world. Further research is needed to understand the function of these structures, but we hypothesise that they were related to rituals in the context of the adoption of pastoralism and resulting territoriality in the challenging environments of northern Arabia.

Harsh environments promote alloparental care across human societies
Jordan Martin et al.
Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences, August 2020


Alloparental care is central to human life history, which integrates exceptionally short interbirth intervals and large birth size with an extended period of juvenile dependency and increased longevity. Formal models, previous comparative research, and palaeoanthropological evidence suggest that humans evolved higher levels of cooperative childcare in response to increasingly harsh environments. Although this hypothesis remains difficult to test directly, the relative importance of alloparental care varies across human societies, providing an opportunity to assess how local social and ecological factors influence the expression of this behaviour. We therefore, investigated associations between alloparental infant care and socioecology across 141 non-industrialized societies. We predicted increased alloparental care in harsher environments, due to the fitness benefits of cooperation in response to shared ecological challenges. We also predicted that starvation would decrease alloparental care, due to prohibitive energetic costs. Using Bayesian phylogenetic multilevel models, we tested these predictions while accounting for potential confounds as well as for population history. Consistent with our hypotheses, we found increased alloparental infant care in regions characterized by both reduced climate predictability and relatively lower average temperatures and precipitation. We also observed reduced alloparental care under conditions of high starvation. These results provide evidence of plasticity in human alloparenting in response to ecological contexts, comparable to previously observed patterns across avian and mammalian cooperative breeders. This suggests convergent social evolutionary processes may underlie both inter- and intraspecific variation in alloparental care.

Origins of music in credible signaling
Samuel Mehr et al.
Behavioral and Brain Sciences, August 2020, Pages 1-41


Music comprises a diverse category of cognitive phenomena that likely represent both the effects of psychological adaptations that are specific to music (e.g., rhythmic entrainment) and the effects of adaptations for non-musical functions (e.g., auditory scene analysis). How did music evolve? Here, we show that prevailing views on the evolution of music — that music is a byproduct of other evolved faculties, evolved for social bonding, or evolved to signal mate quality — are incomplete or wrong. We argue instead that music evolved as a credible signal in at least two contexts: coalitional interactions and infant care. Specifically, we propose that (1) the production and reception of coordinated, entrained rhythmic displays is a co-evolved system for credibly signaling coalition strength, size, and coordination ability; and (2) the production and reception of infant-directed song is a co-evolved system for credibly signaling parental attention to secondarily altricial infants. These proposals, supported by interdisciplinary evidence, suggest that basic features of music, such as melody and rhythm, result from adaptations in the proper domain of human music. The adaptations provide a foundation for the cultural evolution of music in its actual domain, yielding the diversity of musical forms and musical behaviors found worldwide.

Death is not the end: Radiocarbon and histo-taphonomic evidence for the curation and excarnation of human remains in Bronze Age Britain
Thomas Booth & Joanna Brück
Antiquity, forthcoming


Cremated and unburnt human remains have been recovered from a variety of British Bronze and earliest Iron Age archaeological contexts (c. 2500–600 BC). Chronological modelling of 189 new and extant radiocarbon dates from a selection of these deposits provides evidence for the curation of human remains for an average of two generations following death, while histological analysis of bone samples indicates mortuary treatment involving both excarnation and the exhumation of primary burials. Curated bones came from people who had been alive within living or cultural memory, and their power probably derived from relationships between the living and the dead.

A seventeenth-century Mycobacterium tuberculosis genome supports a Neolithic emergence of the Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex
Susanna Sabin et al.
Genome Biology, August 2020

Background: Although tuberculosis accounts for the highest mortality from a bacterial infection on a global scale, questions persist regarding its origin. One hypothesis based on modern Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex (MTBC) genomes suggests their most recent common ancestor followed human migrations out of Africa approximately 70,000 years before present. However, studies using ancient genomes as calibration points have yielded much younger dates of less than 6000 years. Here, we aim to address this discrepancy through the analysis of the highest-coverage and highest-quality ancient MTBC genome available to date, reconstructed from a calcified lung nodule of Bishop Peder Winstrup of Lund (b. 1605–d. 1679).

Results: A metagenomic approach for taxonomic classification of whole DNA content permitted the identification of abundant DNA belonging to the human host and the MTBC, with few non-TB bacterial taxa comprising the background. Genomic enrichment enabled the reconstruction of a 141-fold coverage M. tuberculosis genome. In utilizing this high-quality, high-coverage seventeenth-century genome as a calibration point for dating the MTBC, we employed multiple Bayesian tree models, including birth-death models, which allowed us to model pathogen population dynamics and data sampling strategies more realistically than those based on the coalescent.

Conclusions: The results of our metagenomic analysis demonstrate the unique preservation environment calcified nodules provide for DNA. Importantly, we estimate a most recent common ancestor date for the MTBC of between 2190 and 4501 before present and for Lineage 4 of between 929 and 2084 before present using multiple models, confirming a Neolithic emergence for the MTBC.


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