Through the Millennia

Kevin Lewis

May 11, 2024

Frequent disturbances enhanced the resilience of past human populations
Philip Riris et al.
Nature, forthcoming

The record of past human adaptations provides crucial lessons for guiding responses to crises in the future. To date, there have been no systematic global comparisons of humans' ability to absorb and recover from disturbances through time. Here we synthesized resilience across a broad sample of prehistoric population time-frequency data, spanning 30,000 years of human history. Cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses of population decline show that frequent disturbances enhance a population's capacity to resist and recover from later downturns. Land-use patterns are important mediators of the strength of this positive association: farming and herding societies are more vulnerable but also more resilient overall. The results show that important trade-offs exist when adopting new or alternative land-use strategies.

Female foragers sometimes hunt, yet gendered divisions of labor are real: A comment on Anderson et al. (2023) The Myth of Man the Hunter
Vivek Venkataraman et al.
Evolution and Human Behavior, forthcoming

Gendered divisions of labor are a feature of every known contemporary hunter-gatherer (forager) society. While gender roles are certainly flexible, and prominent and well-studied cases of female hunting do exist, it is more often men who hunt. A new study (Anderson et al., 2023) surveyed ethnographically known foragers and found that women hunt in 79% of foraging societies, with big-game hunting occurring in 33%. Based on this single type of labor, which is one among dozens performed in foraging societies, the authors question the existence of gendered division of labor altogether. As a diverse group of hunter-gatherer experts, we find that claims that foraging societies lack or have weak gendered divisions of labor are contradicted by empirical evidence. We conducted an in-depth examination of the data and methods of Anderson et al. (2023), finding evidence of sample selection bias and numerous coding errors undermining the paper's conclusions. Anderson et al. (2023) have started a useful dialogue to ameliorate the potential misconception that women never hunt. However, their analysis does not contradict the wide body of empirical evidence for gendered divisions of labor in foraging societies. Furthermore, a myopic focus on hunting diminishes the value of contributions that take different forms and downplays the trade-offs foragers of both sexes routinely face. We caution against ethnographic revisionism that projects Westernized conceptions of labor and its value onto foraging societies.

Radiocarbon chronology of Iron Age Jerusalem reveals calibration offsets and architectural developments
Johanna Regev et al.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 7 May 2024

Reconstructing the absolute chronology of Jerusalem during the time it served as the Judahite Kingdom's capital is challenging due to its dense, still inhabited urban nature and the plateau shape of the radiocarbon calibration curve during part of this period. We present 103 radiocarbon dates from reliable archaeological contexts in five excavation areas of Iron Age Jerusalem, which tie between archaeology and biblical history. We exploit Jerusalem's rich past, including textual evidence and vast archaeological remains, to overcome difficult problems in radiocarbon dating, including establishing a detailed chronology within the long-calibrated ranges of the Hallstatt Plateau and recognizing short-lived regional offsets in atmospheric 14C concentrations. The key to resolving these problems is to apply stringent field methodologies using microarchaeological methods, leading to densely radiocarbon-dated stratigraphic sequences. Using these sequences, we identify regional offsets in atmospheric 14C concentrations c. 720 BC, and in the historically secure stratigraphic horizon of the Babylonian destruction in 586 BC. The latter is verified by 100 single-ring measurements between 624 to 572 BC. This application of intense 14C dating sheds light on the reconstruction of Jerusalem in the Iron Age. It provides evidence for settlement in the 12th to 10th centuries BC and that westward expansion had already begun by the 9th century BC, with extensive architectural projects undertaken throughout the city in this period. This was followed by significant damage and rejuvenation of the city subsequent to the mid-eight century BC earthquake, after which the city was heavily fortified and continued to flourish until the Babylonian destruction.

A Middle Palaeolithic incised bear bone from the Dziadowa Skała Cave, Poland: The oldest marked object north of the Carpathian Mountains
Tomasz Płonka et al.
Journal of Archaeological Science, June 2024

A fragment of an ursid radius with seventeen incisions (one of them incomplete) was excavated in the 1950s in the Dziadowa Skała Cave in the Częstochowa Upland in southern Poland from a deposit with faunal remains from the Eemian (ca 130-115 kyr). This object has been cited as the earliest evidence of Neanderthal cognitive abilities in the region, but it has been never studied in detail. The artefact has now been re-examined using microscopy and X-ray computed tomography. For this study we revised the determination of the bone and studied the morphology and metric parameters of the incisions (length, width, depth and opening angle). We also used experiments, statistical analysis and an analysis of the incisions' topography to establish the techniques behind their manufacture. The obtained results show that the bone was marked using a retouched stone tool, and that the incisions were produced during a single episode by a right-handed individual using repeated unidirectional movements of the tools' cutting edge. The incisions are evidently an effect of a deliberate action, not a side-effect of some practical activity. The bear radius from Dziadowa Skała is thus yet another piece of evidence for the emergence of symbolic culture, evolved by hominins in Africa and Eurasia, and represents the oldest example of marked bone north of the Carpathian Mountains.

The first peoples of the Atacama Desert lived among the trees: A 11,600- to 11,200-year-old grove and congregation site
Paula Ugalde et al.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 30 April 2024

In deserts, water has been singled out as the most important factor for choosing where to settle, but trees were likely an important part of the landscape for hunter-gatherers beyond merely constituting an economic resource. Yet, this critical aspect has not been considered archaeologically. Here, we present the results of mapping and radiocarbon dating of a truly unique archaeological record. Over 150 preserved stumps around five Late Pleistocene/Early Holocene archaeological campsites (12,800 to 11,200 cal BP) show that trees were key features in the creation of everyday habitats for the first inhabitants of the Atacama Desert. At two of these sites, QM12 and QM35, the spatial and chronological correlation between trees and hearths reveals that people located their homes under the tree canopy. At residential site QM35, artifact distribution coincides with a grove dated to ~11,600 to 11,200 cal BP. A third residential area (QM32) occurred along the grove margins ~12,000 to 11,200 cal BP. Based on the distinct cultural material of these two camps, we propose that two different groups intermittently shared this rich wetland-grove environment. The tree taxa suggest a preference for the native Schinus molle, a tree scarcely present on the landscape today, over the endemic, nitrogen-fixing Strombocarpa tamarugo, both for toolmaking and firewood and even though the S. tamarugo was locally more abundant. Together with the spatial and chronological coincidence of campsites, hearths, and trees, we propose that people spared the most abundant and resilient species to create their homes, in turn promoting fertility oases amid the Atacama's hyperaridity.

Psychoactive and other ceremonial plants from a 2,000-year-old Maya ritual deposit at Yaxnohcah, Mexico
David Lentz et al.
PLoS ONE, April 2024

For millennia, healing and psychoactive plants have been part of the medicinal and ceremonial fabric of elaborate rituals and everyday religious practices throughout Mesoamerica. Despite the essential nature of these ritual practices to the societal framework of past cultures, a clear understanding of the ceremonial life of the ancient Maya remains stubbornly elusive. Here we record the discovery of a special ritual deposit, likely wrapped in a bundle, located beneath the end field of a Late Preclassic ballcourt in the Helena complex of the Maya city of Yaxnohcah. This discovery was made possible by the application of environmental DNA technology. Plants identified through this analytical process included Ipomoea corymbosa (xtabentun in Mayan), Capsicum sp. (chili pepper or ic in Mayan), Hampea trilobata (jool), and Oxandra lanceolata (chilcahuite). All four plants have recognized medicinal properties. Two of the plants, jool and chilcahuite, are involved in artifact manufacture that have ceremonial connections while chili peppers and xtabentun have been associated with divination rituals. Xtabentun (known to the Aztecs as ololiuhqui) produces highly efficacious hallucinogenic compounds and is reported here from Maya archaeological contexts for the first time.


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