Archive for the ‘Archeology’ Category

Deciphering the Harappan script – probably proto-Dravidian

October 21, 2015

The Indus-Saraswati Valley civilisation reached its peak around 1,900 BCE. It had been flourishing there for over a millennium from about 3300 BCE. But various proto-Harappan cultures had existed in those fertile plains for almost 4,000 years before that (from about 7,000BCE). At their peak they occupied the entire Indus -Saraswati Valley and stretched as far as the Indo-Gangetic plain. At its peak there were some 1,000 settlements and at least 5 “great” cities that we now know of; Mohenjo-Daro, Harappa, Ganweriwala, Rakhigarhi and Dholavira. None of these are truly coastal and it is not improbable that one or perhaps two “great” coastal cities are now submerged and waiting to be discovered. Only about 10% of the known sites have been investigated and the Indus Valley script – which I call Harappan for convenience – has yet to deciphered.

Where Unicorns roamed - graphic by Nature

Where Unicorns roamed – graphic by Nature

But by about 1,000 BCE the glories of the civilisation had disappeared; not swept away in one fell swoop by some marauding invaders or by some great pestilence or some cataclysmic natural catastrophe, but gradually as cities and settlements were abandoned and the population gradually thinned out and reduced to a shadow of its heyday. Coming out of the ice-age around 20,000 years ago, sea-levels were almost 100m lower than today. By 7,000 BCE (9,000 years ago) sea levels were already about 30m lower than at present and were rising fast at around 8-10 m/millennium. The settlements in the region were either on the coast or followed the course of the great rivers. It was a 300 – 500 year process of desertification which saw the Saraswati dry up and the creation of the Thar desert.

Saraswati and Thar Desert

Saraswati and Thar Desert

Where they all went is mainly conjecture but it is likely that they “followed the water”. Some of the sources of the Saraswati would have diverted to flow into the Ganges. That would have taken some people westwards, back along the coast towards the then fertile Persian Gulf, some eastwards across the Indo-Gangetic plain and some southwards along the coast of the Indian subcontinent. Quite possibly some reached the Bay of Bengal and others reached south India and the Indian Ocean. But they did not move into empty spaces. The Indian subcontinent had been continuously settled from the times of homo erectus but by the time of the Toba eruption 74,000 years ago homo erectus had already been replaced by homo sapiens. So when the Harappans moved in, modern humans were already there, but not in large numbers. The earlier settlers probably included the few survivors of a pre-Toba wave of expansion who were then absorbed by later settlers – probably many arrival instances – over some 50,000 years.

Where the Harappans probably went

Where the Harappans probably went

In my narrative it is the Harappans and their language which provided the nucleus for, and eventually became, the family of Dravidian languages. In fact it is probable that some of the roots of what became Hinduism came also with them. I would even suggest that the specialisation of functions (administrators, priests, traders, craftsmen and labour) that must have existed in the meticulously planned, water-resourceful, trading cities of the Indus-Saraswati Valley led to the foundation of guilds and a stratified society. That probably laid the foundations of the caste system which, in its perverted form, currently disgraces the subcontinent.

Andrew Robinson looks at the state of the decipherment of the Harappan script in Nature.

Nature 526, 499–501 (22 October 2015) doi:10.1038/526499a.

Cracking the Indus script

Indus unicorn on a roughly 4,000-year-old sealstone, found at the Mohenjo-daro site. photo – Robert Harding/Corbis

The Indus civilization flourished for half a millennium from about 2600 bc to 1900 bc. Then it mysteriously declined and vanished from view. It remained invisible for almost 4,000 years until its ruins were discovered by accident in the 1920s by British and Indian archaeologists. Following almost a century of excavation, it is today regarded as a civilization worthy of comparison with those of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, as the beginning of Indian civilization and possibly as the origin of Hinduism. 

More than a thousand Indus settlements covered at least 800,000 square kilometres of what is now Pakistan and northwestern India. It was the most extensive urban culture of its period, with a population of perhaps 1 million and a vigorous maritime export trade to the Gulf and cities such as Ur in Mesopotamia, where objects inscribed with Indus signs have been discovered. Astonishingly, the culture has left no archaeological evidence of armies or warfare.

Most Indus settlements were villages; some were towns, and at least five were substantial cities …  boasted street planning and house drainage worthy of the twentieth century ad. They hosted the world’s first known toilets, along with complex stone weights, elaborately drilled gemstone necklaces and exquisitely carved seal stones featuring one of the world’s stubbornly undeciphered scripts. …

The Indus script is made up of partially pictographic signs and human and animal motifs including a puzzling ‘unicorn’. ….. 

Whatever their differences, all Indus researchers agree that there is no consensus on the meaning of the script. There are three main problems. First, no firm information is available about its underlying language. Was this an ancestor of Sanskrit or Dravidian, or of some other Indian language family, such as Munda, or was it a language that has disappeared? Linear B was deciphered because the tablets turned out to be in an archaic form of Greek; Mayan glyphs because Mayan languages are still spoken. Second, no names of Indus rulers or personages are known from myths or historical records: no equivalents of Rameses or Ptolemy, who were known to hieroglyphic decipherers from records of ancient Egypt available in Greek. ……

……. Nevertheless, almost every researcher accepts that the script contains too many signs to be either an alphabet or a syllabary (in which signs represent syllables), like Linear B. It is probably a logo-syllabic script — such as Sumerian cuneiform or Mayan glyphs — that is, a mixture of hundreds of logographic signs representing words and concepts, such as &, £ and %, and a much smaller subset representing syllables.

As for the language, the balance of evidence favours a proto-Dravidian language, not Sanskrit. Many scholars have proposed plausible Dravidian meanings for a few groups of characters based on Old Tamil, although none of these ‘translations’ has gained universal acceptance. ……… A minority of researchers query whether the Indus script was capable of expressing a spoken language, mainly because of the brevity of inscriptions. ……. This theory seems unlikely, for various reasons. Notably, sequential ordering and an agreed direction of writing are universal features of writing systems. Such rules are not crucial in symbolic systems. Moreover, the Indus civilization must have been well aware through its trade links of how cuneiform functioned as a full writing system. ……….

What the Harappans wrote and spoke was not Dravidian itself, but it was very likely a proto-Dravidian language, which, with many other influences from what already existed in the South Indian regions they moved into, became the family of Dravidian languages existing today. And it could explain why a Dravidian language can be found today in what is Afghanistan.

Dravidian language subgroups - map Wikipedia

Dravidian language subgroups – map Wikipedia

 

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Ancient Chinese teeth confirm many and older Out of Africa events

October 15, 2015

Over at 6,000 generations I post about the new paper about the 47 human teeth found in Fuyan Cave, Daoxian, China which are between 80,000 and 120,000 years old.

The 47 human teeth found in Fuyan Cave, Daoxian, China. photo S. XING AND X-J. WU via DiscoveryNews

There were clearly many Out of Africa or Africarabia events starting from 130,000 years ago both before and after the Toba explosion.

80,000-120,000 year old modern humans in S China confirm many and older Out of Africa events

The single Out of Africa event for modern humans is clearly far too simplistic. It is also clear that there were many back to Africa movements as well. Humans expanded sometimes because their old habitats were no longer viable. But, it seems, humans also explored and expanded into new territories from regions of plenty and where they maintained some contact with where they had come from. Probably, just because they could.

A jawbone with a Neanderthal for a great-great-grandmother

May 30, 2015

That humans today have genes from Neanderthals, Denisovans and some other ancient cousin species seems to be quite clear from the genetic evidence (though I am always quite amazed at the wondrous ability to extract DNA from ancient bones). In fact, it seems that the mainstream of AMH had various breeding encounters with these other species at many different times and (presumably) at many geographic locations. These encounters could not have been rare isolated events suggesting that there was more than a little promiscuity in the pleistocene.

Gene flow in the late pleistocene (Kay Prüfer et al)

It has been thought that most of the Neanderthal/AMH interactions must have taken place in the Middle East or central Asia, but new work indicates that these interactions took place in Europe as well. DNA analysis of a jawbone from a Romanian cave from about 40,000 years ago had a Neanderthal for a great-great- grandparent.

I take this grandparent to be a Neanderthal grandmother who was abducted by some marauding group of promiscuous humans only because the ensuing child survived to give rise to us and it is the human environment which has continued. The picture I have is that our Neanderthal genes today are due mostly to the Neanderthal females who were “impressed” into service by an aggressive and expanding human population. There may well have been Neanderthal male – human female offspring but they would more likely have been brought up in a Neanderthal environment, which – along with them -has not survived.

Ewen Callaway reports in Nature News:

Early European may have had Neanderthal great-great-grandparent

One of Europe’s earliest known humans had a close Neanderthal ancestor: perhaps as close as a great-great-grandparent.

The finding, announced on 8 May at the Biology of Genomes meeting in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, questions the idea that humans and Neanderthals interbred only in the Middle East, more than 50,000 years ago.

Qiaomei Fu, a palaeogenomicist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, told the meeting how she and her colleagues had sequenced DNA from a 40,000-year-old jawbone that represents some of the earliest modern-human remains in Europe. They estimate that 5–11% of the bone’s genome is Neanderthal, including large chunks of several chromosomes. (The genetic analysis also shows that the individual was a man). By analysing how lengths of DNA inherited from any one ancestor shorten with each generation, the team estimated that the man had a Neanderthal ancestor in the previous 4–6 generations. (The researchers declined to comment on the work because it has not yet been published in a journal).

……. All humans who trace their ancestry beyond sub-Saharan Africa carry a sliver of Neanderthal DNA — around 1–4% of their genomes. Researchers have long thought it most likely that early humans exiting Africa interbred with resident Neanderthals somewhere in the Middle East around 50,000—60,000 years ago, before travelling on to Asia, Europe and the rest of the world.

That possibility has gained support in the past year. Last year, a team that included Fu used the genome of a 45,000-year-old human from Siberia to date his Neanderthal ancestors to between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago (when modern humans were probably starting to leave Africa)2. Another reported finding the 55,000-year-old partial skull of a human in an Israeli cave not far from sites at which Neanderthals lived around the same time3.

But radiocarbon dating of remains from sites across the continent suggests that humans and Neanderthals lived together in Europe for up to 5,000 years in some areas — plenty of time for them to have met and interbred there, too.

But the AMH / Neanderthal co-existence was not a short-lived thing.

Encounters between AMH and Neanderthals probably took place at different times in different places to leave the genetic signal of some 3% Neanderthal genes in non-African AMH. Early encounters would have taken place in central Asia (perhaps 50,000 years ago) with later encounters in Europe (c. 30,000 years ago). Now new methods of radiocarbon dating at archaeological sites is providing evidence which indicates that Neanderthals and AMH overlapped for many hundreds of generations.

 

 

The Anthropocene began 400,000 years ago when fire was “controlled”

March 13, 2015

A new paper tries to address when the “age of man” – the Anthropocene – bagan. The authors argue for 1610 when “an unusual drop in atmospheric carbon dioxide and the irreversible exchange of species between the New and Old Worlds” began.

I find this a rather arrogant Eurocentric fantasy which is less than convincing. Animal species – and humans – reached the Americas and Australia and Europe long before that.  The Norsemen took rats over to the Americas 500 years before that. Dog species from India crossed to Australia somehow 10,000 years ago. Darwin did not take wild-life to the Galapagos – they were already there. That the ancient civilizations of Egypt and China and the Mohenjo-Daro Valley were not part of the “Age of Man” seems to me to be just arrogance. That the Greeks or the Romans came before the “Age of Man” borders on stupidity. The Age of Man must begin when the dominance of the species Homo becomes established and sustainable.  While there is no other species which uses tools  as widely as Humans some other species do use tools. But there is no other species at all which can start a fire let alone control it.

Simon L. Lewis, Mark A. Maslin. Defining the Anthropocene. Nature, 2015; 519 (7542): 171 DOI: 10.1038/nature14258

Summary: Time is divided by geologists according to marked shifts in Earth’s state. Recent global environmental changes suggest that Earth may have entered a new human-dominated geological epoch, the Anthropocene. Here we review the historical genesis of the idea and assess anthropogenic signatures in the geological record against the formal requirements for the recognition of a new epoch. The evidence suggests that of the various proposed dates two do appear to conform to the criteria to mark the beginning of the Anthropocene: 1610 and 1964. The formal establishment of an Anthropocene Epoch would mark a fundamental change in the relationship between humans and the Earth system.

The advent and control of fire led – eventually but inevitably –  to the Stone Age transforming into the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. And in due course it has given the Machine Age, the Electrical Age, the Plastics Age and the current Semiconductors Age. All these “Ages” are surely part of the Anthropocene. There is a case to be made for the advent of stone tools defining Man but I think there is a much stronger case to be made for the advent and control of fire being what defines and distinguishes “Man” from all other animals.

Once fire was harnessed, the dominance of Homo Sapiens not just over other species but also over the environment became inevitable. Fire saw humans through the Ice Ages. The Stone Age plus fire gave the Bronze Age. The Bronze Age + fire led to the Iron Age. It was fire in its various avatars (hearths to ovens to smelters, or energy to steam to electricity) which helped transform one Age to the next.

The one single capability which initiated the divergence of humans from all other animals and which has resulted in the inevitable development and domination of modern humans is the control of fire. And that was around 400,000 years ago. The Age of Man began when Homo Erectus learned to produce fire at will and to contain fire in a hearth. I would even speculate that without fire Homo Erectus would not have survived to evolve into Homo Sapiens. Without fire Homo Sapiens would not have thrived through the ice ages or left the tropics to colonise more northern climes.

The Age of Man started long before 1610. Perhaps 1610 is a date of great significance – but that was not the start of the Age of Man. The Anthropocene started with fire 400,000 years ago.

 

Mysterious 6,000 year old Neolithic tool

February 15, 2015

Photo: Trond Meling, Universitetet i Stavanger

 

It is wooden, about 6,000 years old and was found at a stone age settlement at Sømmevågen, near Stavanger Airport in Norway. It is about 20cm long.

The slit which looks to be about 10cm long and about 0.5cm wide suggests to me that its application was connected to the collection/gathering/ sorting and twisting of some kind of fibre material (early rope?). My guess is that this is an early “weaving” tool.

Wooden stone age tools are rare but not unknown. The remains of wooden paddles, handles for axes, lances and even front-weighted throwing spears have been found. Certainly the use of natural fibres to make string/rope would have been known by this time. To “weave” these into early versions of strip and cloth would have required some wooden tools.

“Filthy” Vikings were plagued by gut parasites

January 5, 2015

The observations of a 10th century Arab traveller, Ahmad ibn Fadlān ibn al-Abbās ibn Rāšid ibn Hammād, about the hygiene of the Vikings more than a thousand years ago, are being confirmed by new DNA analyses. Ibn Fadlan describes the Eastern Vikings while the new DNA studies are about the Western Vikings, but their living conditions and habits would have been very similar. ScienceNordic reports that a new DNA study “conducted on thousand-year-old parasite eggs recovered from Viking faeces, shows that both the Vikings and their domestic animals were plagued by parasites — which most likely enjoyed excellent living conditions in a dirty world in which domestic animals and humans lived in unhygienically close proximity to each other”.

The paper is published in the Journal of Parasitology:

Trousers were invented for riding horses

June 3, 2014

Trousers were invented at least 3,000 years ago – for riding

The Tarim Basin in Central Asia with its hot but exceedingly dry climate has yielded a number of well preserved mummies and over 500 tombs have been found and excavated in the last 50 years. A new paper describes the finding of well preserved trousers from 3,000 to 3,300 years ago.

Whether these were the first ever trousers cannot be determined of course. But these remains found in Central Asia tell us that horse riding is at least 3,000 years old (and herding, capturing, breaking and training horses must have been “invented” well before that).

Chinese trousers 3000 years old - photo M Wagner, German Archaeological Institute

Chinese trousers 3000 years old – photo M Wagner, German Archaeological Institute

Dark-skinned, blue-eyed hunter gatherer

January 27, 2014

Light skin genes in Europe less than 7,000 years old

Genetic analysis of ancient skeletons is bringing pictures of our ancestors to light in vivid colours. What is particularly astounding to me is the mobility of our ancestors – and their genes – already in the pleistocene.

Less than 350 generations for the light skin gene to have spread all over Europe seems to be a very short time. But that is what is concluded from the genetic analysis of two hunter-gatherer skeletons discovered in a cave in the mountains of north-west Spain in 2006.

hunter gatherer from brana

 

Read the rest of this post

DNA sequenced from a 400,000 year old hominin from Spain

December 4, 2013

After developing techniques for extracting and analysing DNA from ancient (c. 40,000 years ago) Neanderthal and Denisovan specimens the Max Planck team have now taken a giant leap backwards in time in extracting and analysing an almost complete mitochondrial genome sequence of a 400,000-year-hominin. The specimen is from  Sima de los Huesos, a unique cave site in Northern Spain. The results show that it is related to the mitochondrial genome of Denisovans, extinct relatives of Neandertals in Asia. DNA this old has until recently been retrieved only from the permafrost.

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The Sima de los Huesos hominins lived approximately 400,000 years ago during the Middle Pleistocene. © Kennis & Kennis, Madrid Scientific Films

The result itself is of great interest but it is the development of the techniques for extracting and analysing – without any contamination – and with sufficient confidence, the entire MtDNA sequence in such old specimens that is quite revolutionary. Archaeological evidence – and particularly of of such age – is subject to a great deal of subjective interpretation. But dating techniques and now DNA extraction techniques are removing much of this subjectivity and they are now providing the anchor points around which the evolutionary narrative must be built. And this narrative is now of a much more complex story of hominin expansions and admixture than has generally been thought. Ancient and presumed extinct hominin species are now showing themselves within us.

“Our results show that we can now study DNA from human ancestors that are hundreds of thousands of years old. This opens prospects to study the genes of the ancestors of Neandertals and Denisovans. It is tremendously exciting” says Svante Pääbo, director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Matthias Meyer, Qiaomei Fu, Ayinuer Aximu-Petri, Isabelle Glocke, Birgit Nickel, Juan-Luis Arsuaga, Ignacio Martínez, Ana Gracia, José María Bermúdez de Castro, Eudald Carbonell, Svante PääboA mitochondrial genome sequence of a hominin from Sima de los HuesosNature, 2013; DOI: 10.1038/nature12788

Read the whole post in 6,000 Generations

 

The first string? Man-made, twisted, fibre, cords at least 90,000 years ago

November 22, 2013

The man in question may well have been Neanderthal. Fibre artefacts rot easily and the oldest remains found of a man-made, twisted, fibre “cord” or “string” dates from only about 30,000 years ago. A new paper describes perforations in upto 90,000 year old, stone and tooth artefacts as well as shells from Abri du Maras and other Neanderthal sites in France, indicating they had once been threaded on “strings” and worn as pendants.

This post has beeen shifted to 6,000 Generations


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