Archive for March, 2013

Project Palaeolithic Runway

By: The Scribe on March, 2013

No self-respecting actress would be caught dead on the red carpet wearing the same dress two years in a row… how horrible would that be? *dramatic swoon*

Even your average high school prom queen wouldn’t wear the same dress twice, much to the dismay of Mom and Dad. But if history is any indication, this isn’t unusual behaviour—in fact, it’s been going on for tens of thousands of years!

Scientists have discovered that ancient humans were no different from the fashionista next door, with some ancient people in a South African cave avoiding fashions they considered “outdated”… 75,000 years ago!

Archaeologists consider things like necklaces and bracelets to be marks of symbolic behaviour, because they represent individual identity or indicate one’s membership in a group. In Upper Palaeolithic sites from 40,000 years ago in ancient Europe, archaeologists have found many, many necklaces and bracelets made of materials like bone, ivory, stone, mollusc shells, and even human teeth!

But 40,000 years is nothing compared to what’s come out in a study published in the Journal of Human Evolution—according to a team led by archaeologist Marian Vanhaeren (University of Bordeaux), a cache of beads found in Blombos Cave in South Africa has revealed a change in how beads were strung together between 75,000-72,000 years ago.

This period was part of something called the “Still Bay Tradition”, which included bone awls, spear points and knives, and sixty-eight types of the south African tick shell all clustered together—each shell with a single hole, indicating they likely used to be strung individually on bracelets and necklaces.

The team studied the wear on the beads, re-strung them, and subjected them to a battery of tests to mimic human wear and sweat! And within the analysis, the team discovered that the wear patterns showed the way the beads were strung didn’t last long—like all fashions, the way they were worn changed time and time again.

This was apparently the earliest “evidence of a shift in ‘social norms’ or ‘customized style’, a change that ‘parallels the many similar changes in symbolic norms observed among more recent and historically known societies’.” Did the residents of Blombos Cave change their fashion ideas on their own, or did some other group influence their concepts and preferences with their own fashions? Who knows!

Either way, the changing fashion preferences of these ancient peoples shows that this period was one of dynamically shifting cultural innovation—especially considering that soon after the Still Bay period, the fashions changed yet again to use styles of decoration made with stone and bone tools.

They were certainly a long way from Forever 21’s ever-changing stock catalogue, but you can now rest assured that your ancestors also could not wear last year’s styles… perish the thought!

Lioness Statues Roar Back to the Surface

By: The Scribe on March, 2013

Recent excavations at Luxor’s west bank in Egypt have uncovered a previously undiscovered collection of black granite statues that depict the ancient Egyptian goddess Sekhmet in her lioness form. The excavation is part of an ongoing project at King Amenhotep III’s funerary temple at Kom Al-Hittan.

These aren’t the first statues from the funerary temple, either—the Egyptian-European project (led by German Egyptologist Horig Sourouzian) has uncovered 64 other statues of Sekhmet in a variety of shapes and sizes.

And typical to depictions of Sekhmet, the goddess is depicted in the new collection of statues with a human body and the head of a lioness, and sitting on a throne.

Finding so many statues of Sekhmet at this one location says a lot about the temple and the time period. The goddess played an important role during the 18th Dynasty, particularly during the reign of Tutankhamun’s grandfather, King Amenhotep III.

According to Egypt’s minister of state for antiquities, “some Egyptologists believe that King Amenhotep constructed a large number of goddess Sekhmets in an attempt to cure him of a specific disease that he suffered during his reign.” Although the goddess is best known for her aspect as goddess of war and destruction, she was also considered to have the ability to cure serious diseases.

Of the new statues found, they’re considered “very well preserved”, and one of the figure is over two meters tall!

And apparently this wasn’t the only place the lioness goddess held sway—on Luxor’s east bank, the temple of the goddess Mut also held numerous Sekhmet statues. The west bank temple, according to Luxor’s supervisor of antiquities, was a “symbol of stability and prosperity” during King Amenhotep III’s reign.

…or maybe he just really liked lions.

Dogs: Our Best Friends for Over 30,000 Years

By: The Scribe on March, 2013

Several recent discoveries of canine skulls have revealed to scientists that your darling little Buddy’s ancestors may have been man’s best friend 15,000 years earlier than they’d previously thought.

One of the skulls, found in the Altai Mountains of Siberia, has shown through DNA tests to be more closely related to modern domestic pets than wolves, showing that dogs may have been domesticated over 33,000 years ago—moving the earliest thought domestication out of East Asia and the Middle East.

The theory is that wolves moved from being wild creatures to domesticated creatures through a slow process, though exactly how has been debated (and still is) in many scientific circles. It is well documented that dogs were fully established within human societies about 10,000 years ago, with burials of dogs and humans found together in graves from Germany dated to 14,000 years ago.

This new skull and another fossil found in Goyet Cave (Belgium) now represent the two oldest potentially domestic dogs ever discovered—and along with DNA research, the anatomical examinations of the skulls showed them to be more like Lassie than the Big Bad.

The genetic sequences studied by researchers were compared to gene sequences of 72 modern dog species from 70 different breeds, as well as 30 wolves, 4 coyotes, and 35 “prehistoric canid species from the Americas.” ()

The results? Pretty much what they’d already learned from looking at the skulls, though the study did confirm that the Altai canid skull was from an ancient dog and not an ancient wolf, though the split from wolf would have happened rather recently in the dog’s ancestry.

That said, the DNA study was limited to just a portion of the genome, since working with ancient DNA presents its own set of challenges! According to researchers on the project, “additional discoveries of doglike remains are essential for further narrowing the time and region of origin for the domestic dog.”

Either way, give your Old Yeller a hug today—sounds like dogs have been putting up with us for a lot longer than most people would!

Eat Your Dinner, Build a Wall With the Leftovers

By: The Scribe on March, 2013

Want to know an ancient Chinese secret? Shhh… come closer… good. That rice you’re having for dinner? The sticky rice that’s easy to pick up with your chopsticks? It’s both tasty and practical! If you can’t finish what’s on your plate, no problem! We’ll just make it into a nice paste, and…

Well, the rest is ancient history.

Turns out scientists have discovered the secret behind a super-strong ancient Chinese mortar that was used to build city walls and buildings that could withstand earthquakes. Sticky rice, or the “sweet rice” that’s a mainstay in traditional Asian dishes, was developed into a “sticky rice mortar” about 1,500 years ago by mixing rice with slaked lime.

Slaked lime isn’t a piece of citrus fruit—it’s actually limestone that’s been heated to a very high temperature and then exposed to water. Sticky rice mortar is thought to have therefore been the world’s first composite mortar using organic and inorganic materials.

Sticky rice mortar just so happened to be more resistant to water than mortar made with pure lime, and thus was used to construct things like city walls, pagodas, buildings, and tombs—some of which have survived to today! Despite disturbances from things like modern construction and earthquakes, some of the sticky rice mortar structures have stayed strong over a thousand years later.

For example, a section of tomb from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) is so strong that even modern bulldozers have been unable to destroy or move it.

To get scientific about it, the complex carbohydrate found in sticky rice called “amylopectin” is the secret ingredient that gives the mortar its incredible strength. It’s also thought that the mortar actually gets stronger over time—yes, even over a thousand years later—because the chemical reaction simply continues to occur.

As a result, sticky rice mortar has been used for modern-day restoration work on ancient Chinese structures, such as the conservation project at 800-year-old Shouchang Bride in eastern China.

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