On August 20th, 2017 we learned about

Ancient Romans special regard for eating jar-raised rodents

For all of the foodie-themed photos people share today, the world somehow lacks gratuitous shots of dormice being served for lunch. This seems like a missed opportunity, because edible dormice were one of the original foods to brag about, with scholars and elites writing down details about how the rodents were served in lieu of selfies and filtered photos. Like the particular interests of gourmands today, this interest wasn’t because edible dormice were a staple of the ancient Roman diet, or because they were necessarily that much tastier than any other roasted mammal. Serving up dormice was a way for hosts to dazzle their guests without making a huge investment in the process.

From pot to plate

A serving of edible dormouse (Glis glis) might include honey, poppy-seeds, pepper and bits of pork. The layered flavors alone would have been impressive to a Roman audience, as more modest meals would have been heavy on salted meat or fish, as the salt was a critical preservative for less-than-fresh foods. Dormice, on the other hand, didn’t need the space or resources a pig did, and they could be raised in a villa without much fuss. The animal was placed in a ceramic pot called a gliarium, where it was fed and watered until it was ready to be eaten. With small air holes and just enough room to move around, a dormouse didn’t have much to do besides sleep and fatten up.

Once it was time to eat, the fact that dormice weren’t actually difficult to raise didn’t seem to matter much. They were apparently valued enough that supplying them could be a profitable enterprise, but not really enough to amount to more than an appetizer. Like exotic foods of today, people made notes about eating a dormouse, particularly its size as testament to the host’s wealth, but their relative scarcity clearly helped make them more intriguing than your average squirrel or rat.

Dormice in decline

Dormice aren’t on many menus anymore, but their may still be in trouble. Hazel dormice (Muscardinus avellanarius) in England are in decline, with populations dropping 70 percent in 20 years. As their absence on Instagram proves, this decline isn’t due people making them into fancy appetizers again, but larger environmental problems. Habitat loss, climate change and local woodland management are all suspected to play a role in shrinking dormouse populations in England.

Source: Dormice, ostrich meat and fresh fish: the surprising foods eaten in ancient Rome by Emma Mason, History Extra

On July 25th, 2017 we learned about

Biologists offer new ways to learn human history from old books

For as often as my family checks out books from the library, I don’t think we’ve ever brought home any northern European furniture beetles at the same time. On the other hand, some bookmakers 900 years ago probably didn’t know they were including eggs in the cover they were making from wood and deer skins, so the fauna included in any particular book might not be discovered for some time. The paperback kids’ books we often check out probably can’t hide beetles, but there’s still a lot that could be discovered on their pages. Scientists now have non-destructive ways to sample and analyze proteins, DNA and other microscopic evidence, leading to whole new set of stories is being written about about books, almost completely independent of what’s written in them.

Layers of leather

A thorough study was recently conducted of a 900-year-old copy of The Gospel of Luke. The book was made with a wooden cover bound with deer hide, although DNA analysis revealed that even the cover was more complicated than previously assumed. Aside from the wholes made by Anobium punctatum larvae, the majority of the cover was covered in skin from a Roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), while the strap to close the book was made of fallow (Dama dama) or red deer skin (Cervus elaphus). Aside from revealing a bit more sophistication in the design of the book, this also told researchers about the wildlife that must have been living in England where the book was made. It was probably during a transition where the larger red and fallow deer were beginning to eclipse the native Roe deer, a fact that was even trickling down to book making.

Vellum variety

Along similar lines, a gentle rub of a polyvinyl chloride eraser on each page was able to pick up proteins, microbes and DNA from each piece of vellum. Vellum was an early form of parchment made from the skin of young animals, and while that was the expected material to be used in a book like this, the diversity of animals used across different pages was a surprise. Instead of a homogeneous collection of calf skin, sheep and even goat skins were used to make the 156 page manuscript. Previously, goats were thought to have only been used for book making in southern Europe, and researcher wonder if the small number of goat pages in the second half of the text may have been due to a shortage of preferred materials. It also coincided closely with when the primary scribe changed, possibly indicating a bigger disruption to the book’s production before it was completed.

Tainted by touching

The paper books we encounter these days probably aren’t going to turn up with traces of deer or goats, but they are likely to have plenty of human DNA and microbes. Pages with hymns were found to have more human DNA, probably thanks to those pages being accessed, and based on the bacteria on the page, kissed, more frequently than other pages. The most common forms of bacteria on each page were Propionibacterium, which can promote acne, and Staphylococcus, which can cause staph infections if it gets under your skin. Before you worry about picking up a printed page, keep in mind that any popular technology that we put our hands on is likely to have bacteria wiped on it, including your favorite touchscreen.

Researchers have high hopes for these non-destructive ways to study old books. Understanding what lives, or lived, in a book’s pages can help with dating a book’s production, estimating the local availability of resources and even understanding who was doing the reading. A lot of history is recorded in these pages, even if it’s not the history any author intended to document.

Source: Goats, bookworms, a monk’s kiss: Biologists reveal the hidden history of ancient gospels by Ann Gibbons, Science

On July 6th, 2017 we learned about

Testing tar-based water bottles for the transmission of dangerous toxins

Keeping potable water portable has been one of humanity’s big challenges. The different flavors and smells of water are thanks to all the different materials water can pick up and carry from its containers, from stream beds to lead pipes. Some containers are more concerning than others, including some of our favorite plastics of today. As those bottles break down, small amounts of molecules like BPAs can end up in your water. As much as people are trying to avoid these contaminants today, they’re rather benign compared to the first “plastic” water bottles, which were made of something regarded as “nature’s asphalt.”

Bottled in bitumen

Bitumen is a form of petroleum that can be functionally solid at room temperature, but usually oozes like a very viscous liquid over long amounts of time. It’s composed of a variety of compounds, and can be found in a variety of natural settings, such as sandstone, bubbling up under lakes, or for the paleontologists, the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. Native American tribes living on islands of the coast of Southern California, collectively known as the Chumash, also found bitumen washing up on their beaches. The little balls of tar seep out of fissures under the ocean, and with a little work, the Chumash peoples realized that bitumen could also seal water into a container better than ceramics or skins.

The recipe for a Chumash water bottles required plant-fiber nets, pitch from trees, an abalone shell and of course a lot of bitumen. The netting was a framework to make the overall shape, which was generally bulbous with a narrow spout on the top. The shell helped provide some initial structure at the bottom, and the rest was made by slathering melted bitumen and pitch along the netting. It’s a sticky, smokey process, but researchers recently recreated it so that they could test exactly how many toxins these bitumen bottles may have been.

Safe to sip and sup?

The carefully recreated bottles were left to hold water for two months to simulate the passage of time, then tested. Mass spectrometry found that the water had picked up naphthalene, phenanthrene, and acenaphthalene, all of which can be toxic if ingested. Tests were also conducted with olive oil instead of water in order to simulate contact with other foods, since there is evidence that Chumash people ate meats and fish off bitumen-based bowls or plates. The olive oil picked up more toxins, but it may not be a perfect proxy for what the Chumash were actually eating. In the end, the most dangerous component in all these products was the smoke made during their production. That wouldn’t have harmed as many people, but anyone regularly making bitumen water bottles likely paid a price to do so.

These investigations weren’t just interested in water bottle technology. Skeletons of Chumash people from around 5,000 years ago turn up with an unusual number of health problems, including poor bone quality, smaller skulls, and bad teeth. The data from the recreated bitumen water bottles don’t fully explain these health problems, although it’s a tough connection to prove at this point. Most studies of toxicity are based around people that still have enough flesh to damage, and so there’s not a lot of information if you want to know how naphthalene might affect bones over a lifetime. Still, the amount of toxins leached into the water, oil and of course, smoke, do suggest that these water bottles contributed to health problems at a minimum.

Source: Plastic Water Bottles Might Have Poisoned Ancient Californians by Nick Stockton, Wired

On June 7th, 2017 we learned about

Moroccan fossils may force a reevaluation of when and where Homo sapiens got our start

In 1961, miners in Morocco found what appeared to be human skulls, jaws, arm and hip bones. The bones were all fossilized, but pinning down their exact age was difficult since they’d been removed from their original location. Now a second round of excavations from the same site, known as Jebel Irhoud, has uncovered more fossils, plus stone tools and crucially, charred flint from a campfire. Using a technique known as thermoluminescence with that flint, the site is now thought to have been inhabited between close to 300,000 years ago… just 100,000 years before anyone thought humans even existed.

(Im)perfect model for modernity

The idea that there were ancient hominids in Africa 300,000 years ago isn’t that shocking by itself. Other species, like Homo naledi, lived at that time too. Neanderthals had already left Africa altogether. However, the bones from Jebel Irhoud look strikingly like modern humans, and have been labeled as Homo sapiens. They’re not a perfect match though— they don’t have a modern chin, one specimen had a rather pronounced brow, and the shape of the brain case is tapered towards the back of the head. This has some anthropologists suggesting that these people were a transitional species, rather than truly modern humans, but even if that were the case, their overall similarity and age still merit some reexamination of humanity’s origins.

Overhauling our origin story

On one hand, 300,000-year-old humans may help make sense of a few things. The so-called Florisbad skull from South Africa was dated to be 260,000 years old, which made it seem like a weird outlier in the human family tree. However, if the Jebel Irhoud do represent even older members of H. sapiens, then the Florisbad skull fits into the story more neatly. Similarly, the tools found in Morocco were generally light weight, with spears that were appropriate for throwing instead of just stabbing. They’re not the only tools from this time period to have this degree of sophistication, and the thought is that if modern humans arose around 300,000 years ago, these tools might be more tightly bound to our evolution and success.

Of course, on the other hand, the location of Jebel Irhoud opens a whole host of new questions. Previously, the leading model was that H. sapiens started in Ethiopia around 200,000 years ago, with our oldest confirmed specimen dated as 195,000 years old. From that birthplace, it was though that humans started spreading out to other parts of the world, a narrative that doesn’t have space for humans to somehow be on the opposite side of the continent 100,000 years earlier. It seems that humans, or our very close ancestors, were actually spread across Africa, with no clear point of origin standing out at this point. To fill in more gaps, more fossils are needed. For better or for worse, those fossils might be all over the continent.

Source: Scientists Have Found the Oldest Known Human Fossils by Ed Yong, The Atlantic

On April 25th, 2017 we learned about

Mice moved into human homes before we could farm for food

The story of domestication sometimes sounds like a weird version of the Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly. Dogs were domesticated to eat our leftovers. Mice moved in to eat our farmed grain, and then cats were domesticated because they ate our mice. This pets-as-digestive-tracts model has been falling apart though, because even if the logic of it seems sound, the evidence isn’t really backing it up. Dogs probably did like our scraps, but so did cats, who have never been proven to be brought indoors to actually do anything about the mice. The mice themselves may not have turned up because of our farmed food, and likely moved into human settlements before anyone knew how to farm at all.

Researchers examining archaeological sites in Israel started comparing the mouse teeth that were found at various settlements. These ancient settlements were from as far back as 200,000 years ago, and included periods when humans made houses but didn’t farm to more modern dwellings that were built when people were cultivating their own plants. On the older end of this spectrum were the Natufians, who built stone houses, buried their dead, but didn’t plant any seeds to harvest. They were somewhat comparable to the modern Masai people of Kenya, who also build settlements without growing any crops (although they don’t quite hunt-and-gather either.)

A tale of two tails

The first mouse turns up in the archaeological record 15,000 years ago. These mice were longer-tailed than their wild relatives, and quickly came to dominate the remains found in human settlements. When these settled Natufians had to become more nomadic again 3,000 years later, the mice changed too, with the long-tailed house mouse populations decreasing. These trends were reversed one more time around 11,500 years ago when people really started farming, at which point the house mice took over indoor spaces once again. These population ratios also fit with what’s found around Masai settlements. Even if the species are different, there’s a similar balancing act between indoor, long-tailed mice and outdoor mice with shorter tails.

This study doesn’t close the book on why mice came to live near people, but it suggests that growing grain wasn’t their primary motivation. Instead, it’s probably closer to the generalized scavenging made possible by being near people that attracted dogs and cats into our lives as well. As for the difference in tails, there’s a chance that a longer tailed helped the mice be more maneuverable and better escape danger, which would have been helpful when people trained their dogs to start catching them.

My second-grader said: As far as the tail-lengths go, “I have to disagree with that hypothesis.” There are lots of predators in the wild that a mouse would need to avoid, so why would being able to escape become more important inside a house?

So… yeah, it seems like a fair point. Also, some animals are known to have shorter or even detachable tails to avoid predators. A cheetah’s long tail helps it steer while it runs, but the prey they chase usually avoids long tails.

Maybe the longer tails were actually being used more like a monkey’s tail, as rats and harvest mice (Micromys minutus) have partially and fully prehensile tails, allowing them to hang on to more surfaces and crannies while maneuvering weird spaces, such as human-made shelves, boxes, etc.

Source: Mice lived with us 15,000 years ago even before farming took off by Sam Wong, New Scientist

On April 16th, 2017 we learned about

Drilled and filled cavities put dentistry’s start date in the Stone Age

5000 years ago, someone in Sumeria was worried they had “tooth worms.” It was probably just run-of-the-mill cavities, but people didn’t really know why their teeth could break down in their mouths. Lacking a real understanding of the root causes of tooth aches didn’t stop people from looking for remedies though, and people have been removing, wiring and medicating teeth for thousands of years. A discovery in Italy shows that dentistry may predate those Sumerian tooth worms though, with evidence of Stone Age fillings from nearly 13,000 years ago.

Carving for cavities

The two teeth show a lot of damage, but the assumption is that much of it was intentional. While paleolithic peoples likely demanded a lot of their teeth, using them as a third hand to hold or soften wood, hides and plants, these teeth seem to have been scraped on purpose. Instead of rough, random damage, an impressively smooth, regular pit was carved in the center of each tooth, much like your dentist would do with their drill to remove any infected tooth around a cavity and make a better seat for a filling.

Aside from the fact that this work was done without a modern dental drill, there obviously wasn’t modern fillings available either. To fill the teeth, it appears that fillings made of bitumen was used to fill the drilled hole. Bitumen is a thick, sticky substance that is usually derived from petroleum, and is most commonly used today in making asphalt cement. In Paleolithic era, bitumen was more often used as a glue in tools, but apparently dentists at the time felt it was a good way to fill in damaged teeth as well.

No signs of Novocaine

None of this sounds terribly pleasant for the patient, but a persistent tooth ache is hard to ignore. Hopefully, the dentist in question could at least recommend some of the pain-killing techniques used by Neanderthals in what is now Spain, as their teeth have turned up with traces of salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin. It wouldn’t have made this a painless procedure, but it seems better than nothing.

Source: Stone Age hunter-gatherers tackled their cavities with a sharp tool and tar by Bruce Bower, Science News

On March 23rd, 2017 we learned about

Capuchin monkeys inadvertently muddle the history of human tool making

Some of the first technology created by humans were sharpened stone flakes. While they might appear to be simple rocks at first glance, archaeologists have come to note the single sharp edge and flat sides that transform these rocks into tools. The edge would have allowed early hominids to cut meat, remove skin, or work with wood and grass. To create such a tool, our ancestors are thought to have needed advanced hand-eye coordination, as well as the ability to plan the flakes’ design.

…or they would have needed to be weirdo capuchin monkeys making flakes without even noticing.

Capuchin craftsmanship

Capuchin monkeys have been observed experimenting with tool use for many years. They use rocks like shovels to dig up spiders, twigs to poke into crevices for caterpillars, and may have been cracking open cashews in a hammer-and-anvil arrangement for over 700 years. They’re one of an ever-growing list of animals that partake in at least casual tool usage, but their creativity, and perhaps dumb luck, has set them apart.

Bearded capuchins (Sapajus libidinosus) in Brazil’s Serra da Capivara National Park were observed banging rocks together, but not for the sake of getting at fruit or nuts. They were hitting pieces of quartz together with two-handed, overhead strikes, and then licking the broken stones. Researchers aren’t sure if they were trying to lick up silicon or possibly lichen to fill some sort of nutritional need, but they were sure about the stone byproducts of this activity. Many of the resulting pieces of stone were nearly identical to what has been assumed to be carefully crafted stone flakes of human ancestors. The monkeys took no notice of the fine edges or flat sides that would attract an archaeologist, but even the accidental creation of such an object is very significant.

Accident or innovation?

Sharp flakes of stone have always been assumed to be a marker of human-like intelligence and development. They were supposed to be the starting point for human artifacts, kicking off the chain of development that gives us the computer you’re reading this on. Even with other tool-using animals in the world, the sharp flakes of rock were supposed to require more deliberate creation, and were different from the broken rocks wielded by other primates like Chimpanzees and Macaques. If capuchins are making them accidentally, it means that stone flakes alone can’t be considered a reliable marker for hominid activity. Sometimes flakes have been found with other artifacts, like butchered bones or old fire pits, but on their own, we can’t be so sure we’re seeing signs of an innovative Australopithecus, or just a lucky one that wanted to lick some lichen.

In the mean time, we’ll have to watch the capuchins to see if they take notice of the utility of their flaked stones. Maybe this is a window to how specific tool creation got started in the first place?

Source: Capuchin monkeys produce sharp stone flakes similar to tools, Science Daily

On March 7th, 2017 we learned about

Life on a Viking-age farm seen through the lens of a lost toy

Normally I’m not too happy about my kids leaving their belongings where they’ll get lost, but a discovery by archaeologists in Norway has made me reconsider the value of lost toys. A toy boat, along with a handful of other discarded or lost objects, was recently found in what had once been a well for a farm. Nobody is reading too much into why a child may have dropped their boat into a well, but the craftsmanship and mere existence of the toy does reveal a number of details about life at the Viking farm 1000 years ago.

Premium plaything

The boat was carved from a single piece of wood, and featured a nicely rendered bough and keel. It also had a hole carved in the center of the deck, presumably for a mast. Between the mast and the materials involved, there’s a decent chance that the toy would have fared well in the water (but probably not in the water in the well…) To the child at the time, the toy was probably rather exciting, representing some of the most advanced technology of that age, like a toy spaceship might today.

Archaeologists are also studying what that boat represents about the child’s life on the farm. The craftsmanship of the carving would have taken some time, indicating that someone had the time in their schedule to make it. Along those lines, the child apparently had time to play with the boat, indicating that they weren’t needed as labor on the farm every day either. Archaeologists believe that trading activity in the local town may have boosted the local economy, allowing farmers to do more than subsist from their crops.

A shoe worth saving

Other objects, namely an old shoe, follow this line of thinking. The shoe would barely rate as a minimal, padded slipper by today’s standards, but it was probably a nice enough item for the farmers 1000 years ago to bother repairing. The leather on the sole shoes signs of being patched, but only to a point. The heal is worn through, which was apparently damage not worth repairing further, at which point it was discarded. Together with the boat, it seems that while these farmers weren’t the richest people in their society, they could be considered comfortable enough to enjoy a few amenities here and there… eventually tossing those items into a well.

Source: Archaeologists excavate 1,000-year-old toy boat in abandoned well by Nancy Bazilchuk, Phys.org

On February 28th, 2017 we learned about

Significant sophistication seen in carved and painted Stone Age slabs

A European painter has been turning heads recently thanks to their innovative use of materials, and how those materials influence the overall composition of their imagery. Animals are rendered not in fine lines, but in bold spots, carved out of stone slabs. The shape of the stone ‘canvases’ play a role too, with natural edges being incorporated as part of the subjects’ silhouettes. There’s enough to these depictions of natural landscapes to arouse our curiosity, but sadly, we’ll never be able to fully know the motivations of the artist, or artists, because they’ve been dead for 38,000 years.

Life drawing in limestone

We do know that whatever drove the creation of these images, their creator worked hard to make them. Making these images probably required first rubbing down the surface of the ‘canvas’ rock to flatten and smooth it out. Then a second tool was used to scrape out each individual cupule, or divot-like mark that made up the various animals depicted. This was as many as 60 individual cupules in a single animal, and more likely took hours to complete. That might not sound like the biggest commitment, but considering this task was being accomplished in a time of hunting and gathering, it shows a decent commitment to a project that didn’t directly increase your lifespan.

Aside from the technical demands of carving in stone, there is a degree of sophistication worth noting in these depictions. As described above, an image of a mammoth is carved in profile, with the top edge of the stone slab being used as the animal’s silhouette, complete with shoulder hump and convex neck curve. The cupules don’t seem to be used as random ornament, but are instead used on animals’ bodies, possibly to suggest the texture of their fur. These techniques were also found at multiple archaeological sites from around the same time period, suggesting that they were not flukes, but part of the local cultural repertoire. Basically, art was enough a part of these people’s lives that they spent time and energy to develop it.

Space for art in the stone age

In a world saturated with images and iconography, that might not seem that unusual. However, the Aurignacian people who created these images hadn’t really been out of Africa for terribly long by the time these caves paintings were created. Their world was one of rocky shelters among snow, ice and glaciers, and so there were probably many aspects of basic survival to be concerned about. Nonetheless, involved cave paintings, carvings, bead and clay figurines point to an early need or desire to create and record the world as the Aurignacian’s saw it, which in an era of selfies and customization, is actually pretty relatable after all.

Source: Prehistoric Pointillism? Long Before Seurat, Ancient Artists Chiseled Mammoths Out of Dots by Lorraine Boissoneault, Smithsonian

On February 16th, 2017 we learned about

Ancient ceramics found to mark fluctuations in Earth’s magnetic field

Three thousand years ago, a potter stamped a jar with a royal seal, inadvertently recording a bit of geological data that we’ve only recently been able to interpret. The seal inscribed in the fired pottery wasn’t the mystery— rulers near what is now Jerusalem regularly demanded tax payments in the form of stamped jars of oil or wine. The hidden record trapped in these pieces of pottery was actually tiny, magnetically-sensitive bits of iron, which captured a snapshot of the Earth’s magnetic field at the moment the clay was hardened.

Polarized particles in pottery

The Earth has a magnetic field that is thought to be generated by large amounts of iron in the planet’s core. This field helps us with everything from keeping our compasses working to blocking damage to our atmosphere from solar wind. There’s been some concern over the last 180 years when measurements found that the magnetic field seemed to be weakening, which is not a trend we’d want to see continue, lest we end up with a thin atmosphere like what you have on Mars. However, figuring out how strong this trend was was difficult, because we only have data from the date the magnetometer was invented, 180 years ago.

This brings us back to our stamped pots. When those pots were made, their clay contained ferrous particles that were sensitive to the Earth’s magnetic field. When the clay was still soft, those particles had enough range of motion to orient themselves to the field’s alignment. When the pottery was fired in a kiln, the particles positioning became locked and preserved by the hardened clay, a bit like what’s been found in dead, magnetized cockroaches. By looking at the alignment of these particles, researches were able to estimate the strength of the planet’s magnetic field at different times.

Putting the pieces together

However, to compare those measurements to our more recently measured data, researchers also needed some kind of chronological reference point. Fortunately, the stamps on each pot corresponded to specific rulers, and each time there was a political upheaval, a new stamp would be introduced, giving researchers reference points sometimes as precise as a 30-year time span. They could then build a timeline of magnetic field measurements, checking on what the Earth was up to 3000 years ago.

The good news is that there was a lot of fluctuation in the Earth’s magnetic field. Over the 600 years recorded in ancient pottery, the strength of the field both increased and decreased, suggesting that what we’re now experiencing is a natural fluctuation, and not necessarily an indication of a one-way trend towards a less magnetic future. The next question is why there’d be this much fluctuation, but that seems to be beyond the scope of the pottery at this point.

Source: Iron Age Potters Carefully Recorded Earth's Magnetic Field — By Accident by Rae Ellen Bichell, The two-way