Through the ages

Kevin Lewis

June 25, 2017

Geography, Transparency, and Institutions
Joram Mayshar, Omer Moav & Zvika Neeman
American Political Science Review, forthcoming


We propose a theory in which geographic attributes explain cross-regional institutional differences in (1) the scale of the state, (2) the distribution of power within state hierarchy, and (3) property rights to land. In this theory, geography and technology affect the transparency of farming, and transparency, in turn, affects the elite’s ability to appropriate revenue from the farming sector, thus affecting institutions. We apply the theory to explain differences between the institutions of ancient Egypt, southern Mesopotamia, and northern Mesopotamia, and also discuss its relevance to modern phenomena.

New fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco and the pan-African origin of Homo sapiens
Jean-Jacques Hublin et al.
Nature, 8 June 2017, Pages 289–292


Fossil evidence points to an African origin of Homo sapiens from a group called either H. heidelbergensis or H. rhodesiensis. However, the exact place and time of emergence of H. sapiens remain obscure because the fossil record is scarce and the chronological age of many key specimens remains uncertain. In particular, it is unclear whether the present day ‘modern’ morphology rapidly emerged approximately 200 thousand years ago (ka) among earlier representatives of H. sapiens or evolved gradually over the last 400 thousand years. Here we report newly discovered human fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, and interpret the affinities of the hominins from this site with other archaic and recent human groups. We identified a mosaic of features including facial, mandibular and dental morphology that aligns the Jebel Irhoud material with early or recent anatomically modern humans and more primitive neurocranial and endocranial morphology. In combination with an age of 315 ± 34 thousand years (as determined by thermoluminescence dating), this evidence makes Jebel Irhoud the oldest and richest African Middle Stone Age hominin site that documents early stages of the H. sapiens clade in which key features of modern morphology were established. Furthermore, it shows that the evolutionary processes behind the emergence of H. sapiens involved the whole African continent.

A matter of months: High precision migration chronology of a Bronze Age female
Karin Margarita Frei et al.
PLoS ONE, June 2017


Establishing the age at which prehistoric individuals move away from their childhood residential location holds crucial information about the socio dynamics and mobility patterns in ancient societies. We present a novel combination of strontium isotope analyses performed on the over 3000 year old “Skrydstrup Woman” from Denmark, for whom we compiled a highly detailed month-scale model of her migration timeline. When combined with physical anthropological analyses this timeline can be related to the chronological age at which the residential location changed. We conducted a series of high-resolution strontium isotope analyses of hard and soft human tissues and combined these with anthropological investigations including CT-scanning and 3D visualizations. The Skrydstrup Woman lived during a pan-European period characterized by technical innovation and great social transformations stimulated by long-distance connections; consequently she represents an important part of both Danish and European prehistory. Our multidisciplinary study involves complementary biochemical, biomolecular and microscopy analyses of her scalp hair. Our results reveal that the Skrydstrup Woman was between 17–18 years old when she died, and that she moved from her place of origin -outside present day Denmark- to the Skrydstrup area in Denmark 47 to 42 months before she died. Hence, she was between 13 to 14 years old when she migrated to and resided in the area around Skrydstrup for the rest of her life. From an archaeological standpoint, this one-time and one-way movement of an elite female during the possible “age of marriageability” might suggest that she migrated with the aim of establishing an alliance between chiefdoms. Consequently, this detailed multidisciplinary investigation provides a novel tool to reconstruct high resolution chronology of individual mobility with the perspective of studying complex patterns of social and economic interaction in prehistory.

Dietary adaptation of FADS genes in Europe varied across time and geography
Kaixiong Ye et al.
Nature Ecology & Evolution, May 2017


Fatty acid desaturase (FADS) genes encode rate-limiting enzymes for the biosynthesis of omega-6 and omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFAs). This biosynthesis is essential for individuals subsisting on LCPUFA-poor diets (for example, plant-based). Positive selection on FADS genes has been reported in multiple populations, but its cause and pattern in Europeans remain unknown. Here we demonstrate, using ancient and modern DNA, that positive selection acted on the same FADS variants both before and after the advent of farming in Europe, but on opposite (that is, alternative) alleles. Recent selection in farmers also varied geographically, with the strongest signal in southern Europe. These varying selection patterns concur with anthropological evidence of varying diets, and with the association of farming-adaptive alleles with higher FADS1 expression and thus enhanced LCPUFA biosynthesis. Genome-wide association studies reveal that farming-adaptive alleles not only increase LCPUFAs, but also affect other lipid levels and protect against several inflammatory diseases.

Ancient Vitamin D Deficiency: Long-Term Trends
Megan Brickley et al.
Current Anthropology, June 2017, Pages 420-427


Vitamin D deficiency is now widely recognized as one of the most common health conditions in the world, with important consequences for overall health. Levels of deficiency appear to be rising, but the extent to which past humans were affected by vitamin D deficiency and the roles of this hormone in past human health are currently unknown. The discovery that mineralization defects in tooth dentin reflect periods of deficiency and are preserved in our earliest ancestors offers a unique opportunity to provide information on past social and cultural organization and, with further work, to contribute to ongoing debates on change in skin pigmentation. Here we show that humans from some of the earliest Middle Eastern and European communities were affected by deficiency, but levels and severity appear to have increased notably through time. On a simple comparative scale, severity of deficiency was four times as high in Greek communities in 1948 CE as in early farming communities from ca. 3000 BCE; some individuals in the later periods would have had rickets. Research using interglobular dentin in humans and nonhuman primates has the potential to fill in many important gaps in understanding past and present aspects of vitamin D deficiency.

Paleogenomic Evidence for Multi-generational Mixing between Neolithic Farmers and Mesolithic Hunter-Gatherers in the Lower Danube Basin
Gloria González-Fortes et al.
Current Biology, 19 June 2017, Pages 1801–1810


The transition from hunting and gathering to farming involved profound cultural and technological changes. In Western and Central Europe, these changes occurred rapidly and synchronously after the arrival of early farmers of Anatolian origin, who largely replaced the local Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. Further east, in the Baltic region, the transition was gradual, with little or no genetic input from incoming farmers. Here we use ancient DNA to investigate the relationship between hunter-gatherers and farmers in the Lower Danube basin, a geographically intermediate area that is characterized by a rapid Neolithic transition but also by the presence of archaeological evidence that points to cultural exchange, and thus possible admixture, between hunter-gatherers and farmers. We recovered four human paleogenomes (1.1× to 4.1× coverage) from Romania spanning a time transect between 8.8 thousand years ago (kya) and 5.4 kya and supplemented them with two Mesolithic genomes (1.7× and 5.3×) from Spain to provide further context on the genetic background of Mesolithic Europe. Our results show major Western hunter-gatherer (WHG) ancestry in a Romanian Eneolithic sample with a minor, but sizeable, contribution from Anatolian farmers, suggesting multiple admixture events between hunter-gatherers and farmers. Dietary stable-isotope analysis of this sample suggests a mixed terrestrial/aquatic diet. Our results provide support for complex interactions among hunter-gatherers and farmers in the Danube basin, demonstrating that in some regions, demic and cultural diffusion were not mutually exclusive, but merely the ends of a continuum for the process of Neolithization.

Increased sedimentation following the Neolithic Revolution in the Southern Levant
Yin Lu et al.
Global and Planetary Change, May 2017, Pages 199–208


The Dead Sea drainage basin offers a rare combination of well-documented substantial climate change, intense tectonics and abundant archaeological evidence for past human activity in the Southern Levant. It serves as a natural laboratory for understanding how sedimentation rates in a deep basin are related to climate change, tectonics, and anthropogenic impacts on the landscape. Here we show how basin-wide erosion rates are recorded by thicknesses of rhythmic detritus laminae and clastic sediment accumulation rates in a long core retrieved by the Dead Sea Deep Drilling Project in the Dead Sea depocenter. During the last ~ 11.5 kyr the average detrital accumulation rate is ~ 3‐4 times that during the last two glacial cycles (MIS 7c-2), and the average thickness of detritus laminae in the last ~ 11.6 kyr is ~ 4.5 times that between ~ 21.7 and 11.6 ka, implying an increased erosion rate on the surrounding slopes during the Holocene. We estimate that this intensified erosion is incompatible with tectonic and climatic regimes during the corresponding time interval and further propose a close association with the Neolithic Revolution in the Levant (beginning at ~ 11.5 ka). We thus suggest that human impact on the landscape was the primary driver causing the intensified erosion and that the Dead Sea sedimentary record serves as a reliable recorder of this impact since the Neolithic Revolution.

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