Biology

A Day with Macedonian Archaeology – Epigenetic characteristics of the medieval population at the site “Crkvishte” v.Morodvis.

In addition to the attempts of forming an anthropological/morphological image for one researched population, the epigenetic characteristics that can be seen on the skeletal material are of a great significance. They are used in anthropological analysis to determine any genetic link between certain individuals (skeletons) because they are genetically conditioned.

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In this regard, the epigenetic variations that were present and carefully followed on the skeletal material from the medieval necropolis at the site “Crkvishte” v.Morodvis, brought valuable conclusions for the shaping of the anthropological profile on the population that lived between XII, XIII and XIV century.

From the epigenetic variations of this population, we can see that in most cases we have: intra sutural bones in the lamboid, sagittal, parieto-mastoid and occipito- mastoid suture ; parietal foramen that is missing on the both sides ; metopical suture.

We can see the presence of the very rare : os epiptericum, os incae unipartitum, os apicis multipartitum and os asterion.

 

 

From the epigenetic variation of the postcranial skeleton, we found the rare – sternal foramen, suprascapular foramen and a curved sternum (so called chicken breasts).

The great percentage of some specific epigenetic characteristics in this population indicates the possibility of setting up a hypothesis that most of them were in family relations.

By MA Mimica Velova Graorkovska

Molecular Archeology Puts Artifacts in Perspective

Buried inside the Earth, lay secrets. Archeologists piece together histories often lost to time as they unearth human remains and their long-lost possessions.

Where archeologists exhume secrets from the soil, molecular archeologists uncover secrets lying inside human remains. By piecing together ancient DNA, molecular archeologists can more definitively answer questions about our past.

“Some people in my field consider themselves to be molecular archaeologists as we tend to work with archaeological remains and use an archeological context to help infer the genetic patterns we see,” said Ripan Malhi, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois and affiliate of the Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB).

While the day-to-day rigor of being a professor may not seem illustrious, over the course of the year, Malhi’s lab makes amazing discoveries.

Ripan Malhi is a molecular archeologist at the University of Illinois. Photo by Brian Stauffer.

Ripan Malhi is a molecular archeologist at the University of Illinois. Photo by Brian Stauffer. ©

The Golden Era of ancient DNA

“We can do things now that we haven’t been able to do before,” Malhi said. “I like to say that ancient DNA is in a golden era. When I was a graduate student working on ancient DNA, it probably would’ve taken me years to sequence one complete mitochondrial genome and now we can do that in a week or so.”

Today Malhi’s lab studies complete genomes as well as DNA passed down from mothers to their offspring (called mitochondrial DNA) and from fathers to their offspring (called the y chromosome) to infer the evolutionary history of populations and species. Currently, research in the lab is split into two research areas: the evolutionary history of Native Americans and evolutionary genetics of non-human primates.

Last year, his lab found an ancestral link between ancient remains and their living descendants.

“The community members were really happy about the results because their oral histories have said that they’ve been there for a very long period of time as well,” Malhi said. “Now through scientific and DNA data we are able to show this connection in a different way. Being able to show that connection with something that they’ve known to be true was really satisfying.”

While most archeology doesn’t include DNA analyses, they can be vital to distinguish cultural processes from biological processes, Malhi said.

In the past, movement of arrowheads or pottery from one region to another indicated that a population might have moved. But in reality, Malhi said, a number of other factors could explain the distribution of artifacts.

“By combining DNA evidence with this cultural data we can distinguish whether people are moving or cultural artifacts are being traded from one community to the next,” Malhi said. “Using DNA evidence, we can show how genetic variants moved across the geographic landscape after neighboring groups intermarried.”

This work does more than solidify community backgrounds and establish migration patterns. It can also illustrate evolutionary process and show us how we may evolve with other organisms. One of Malhi’s students is studying how infectious diseases brought over after European contact affected Native Americans’ genomes.

How molecular archeology works

First, Malhi works with Native American communities to find out what questions they would like to answer. It’s a first step that scientists have often skipped in the past.

“They know their own history better than I’ll ever know it,” Malhi said. “They can look at the genetic patterns and give us ideas about what those patterns may represent.”

Malhi interacts with Native American communities and museum curators to discuss what the community members hope to learn from DNA analysis, the questions he wants to address, and how best to extract DNA from the ancestral remains.

Next Malhi visits the communities or museums to pick up the remains. Sometimes he has the chance to be onsite during the excavation as the archeologists collect the remains with gloved hands to prevent modern DNA contamination, from their skin cells and microbiome.

At Malhi’s lab, the remains undergo a surface decontamination to ensure that modern DNA is not included in the final analysis. Then they drill out a sample about the size of a cavity from the bone or tooth. The sample is ground up to a fine dust then sequenced and analyzed.

Finally Malhi is able to look for genetic patterns by combining the new results with published results from various databases and combines that information with other anthropological information, such as the community’s oral histories or cultural artifacts from the archeological site.

Today molecular anthropologists like Malhi can turn DNA fragments that are only around 200 or so base pairs in length into a complete human genome made up of about three billion base pairs.

It’s more than a job

From interacting with Native American communities to seeing his students begin successful careers, Malhi said his job is really satisfying.

“It’s always fun to go back to communities and report results and see how people take those results and incorporate that knowledge and then ask new questions,” Malhi said. “I am now at this stage in my career where I have my students presenting at meetings.  They spent years working really hard developing their research. When they put it all together and present it and the audience gets excited about it and the students are excited about it—that’s a really good feeling, too.”

Malhi also values being a part of the Summer Internship for Native Americans in Genomics (SING) workshop, which facilitate discussions about how genomic research is conducted and to create a support network for Native American students in the sciences.

Malhi earned a Master’s degree and a doctorate in anthropology at the University of California at Davis. He also took molecular biology, population genetics, and other biological courses to complement the anthropology curriculum. Today a student interested in this field can pursue graduate degrees in biological or molecular anthropology.

“I recall hearing about a genetic study where an Italian population did not get heart disease because they had a natural genetic variant, and I realized there’s lots of genetic variation out there that can be interesting and useful,” Malhi said. “Then I learned about connections with history and how you can infer human history from DNA variation, and I was hooked.”

The Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB) is dedicated to interdisciplinary genomic research related to health, energy, agriculture and the environment. The Institute’s cadre of world-class scientists, collaborative laboratories, and state-of-the-art equipment create an environment that inspires discovery and stimulates bioeconomic development at the University of Illinois. For more information about the SING workshop, visit http://conferences.igb.illinois.edu/sing/.

A Lab Full of Shells

In the archaeology lab at the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH), I am continuing work on an assemblage from a site that I posted about for Day of Archaeology 2011 (http://www.dayofarchaeology.com/a-quiet-day-at-the-lab/), the Barton Village site. Located in western Maryland on the Potomac River, this multicomponent village site has been the subject of excavations for over twenty years by Dr. Bob Wall at the Towson University. The Barton site has yielded a large quantity of faunal remains – the boxes of bones fill an entire industrial shelving unit. When working with an assemblage this large, I generally sort, identify, photograph and capture data one bag at a time, with each bag from a separate provenience. This site has some interesting materials though that are worth removing from the rest and looking at separately. Specifically, this site has a fairly large number of mollusks.

Shells at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in the lab of Dr. Elizabeth Moore.

Shells at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in the lab of Dr. Elizabeth Moore.

When a site has a lot of mollusks, I find it useful to pull out all of them and identify them all at once. When working with a lot of the same thing, I find my identifications are more accurate and consistent if I do a lot at once instead of one this week, two next week, and so on. It also reduces the number of times I have to pull out specimens from the reference collection and is more efficient with my time.

Shells at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in the lab of Dr. Elizabeth Moore.

Shells at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in the lab of Dr. Elizabeth Moore.

In this photo you can see some reference material on the back of the counter and the archaeological specimens toward the front. This is a small portion of the mollusk reference material at VMNH. We have over 50 species of bivalves just from Virginia in our collection.

The mollusks from the Barton site make an interesting sample. So far we have identified almost 20 species of bivalves and gastropods – mussels and snails.

Shells at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in the lab of Dr. Elizabeth Moore.

Shells at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in the lab of Dr. Elizabeth Moore.

The stack of plastic boxes in the photo is just the shells that have been sorted and identified and rehoused so they don’t get crushed. There is another entire box of shells yet to be identified. One of the specimens we have identified is from the genus Marginella, a sea snail whose closest source would be from the Atlantic coast almost 150 miles to the east. Marginella were frequently traded by Native American tribes in the east and can be found at many sites. The rest of the specimens identified so far are freshwater species and were probably gathered locally for eating or for bead and tool making. Two of the larger specimens of freshwater mussel were modified into scrapers with serrated edges. One of the species identified was thought to have been introduced to the Potomac in the late 19th century, but its context here is 17th century. I’m withholding the name here because while I have had the identification reviewed and confirmed, the publication extending the range of this species is not yet out.

If you want to learn more about eastern mollusks, you can find some great information, identification keys, and manuals at http://naturalsciences.org/research-collections/research-specialties/invertebrates/arthur-bogan.

Neanderthal Funerary Practices: Too savage to mourn?

My name is Sarah, and I’m a PhD student at the University of Southampton. I would love to be able to tell you I’m scrambling around in the dirt playing with some real archaeology, but right now I’m sat at my desk reading about how other people played around in the dirt and feeling a little envious. I’m actually reading excavation reports and articles about Neanderthal remains from across the world, from the famous La Chapelle-aux-Saints in France to Kebara in Israel.

Cast of a Neanderthal skull on display Sterkfontein Caves, South Africa. Taken by Sarah Schwarz (@archaeosarah)

Cast of a Neanderthal skull on display Sterkfontein Caves, South Africa. Taken by Sarah Schwarz (@archaeosarah)

My PhD project focuses on Neanderthal funerary practices – which, in short, is anything and everything that Neanderthals could have done with their dead. (This is normally the point where the entire dinner table goes quiet and I’m left trying to decipher whether the faces staring back at me are confused, intrigued, or terrified). I’m looking for evidence of any and all types of funerary practices, such as burial/inhumation; funerary caching, curation, defleshing and disarticulation. This involves me going through every record I can possibly find of every scrap of Neanderthal remains across the world and examining each individual for characteristic signs of each type of funerary practice – for example, a pit feature for a burial or cut marks for defleshing.

But why is that important? The treatment and honour of the dead through funerary practices and rituals is a key part of our society, and although a culturally sensitive issue it’s something every society does in some way. It is a key emotional display of our humanity, and the cognitive ability to understand the concept of death and being aware of one’s own mortality is quite a realisation. The ability to be able to understand that death will come to us all one day, and to understand that intervention in the lives of others can at least stave off the inevitable for a little longer is an obvious conclusion for us – but it is clear in the Neanderthal world too. For example, the ‘Old Man’ of Shanidar (Shanidar 1, Iraq) was an elderly individual with several traumatic injuries and deformities, which could have required the assistance of others to survive, shows that Neanderthals had this understanding. And understanding how this evolved in Neanderthals helps us understand how the same characteristics, emotions, and rituals evolved in modern humans.

What struck me was how easily the concept of a Neanderthal burying a relative or friend could be so easily dismissed, and how the idea that Neanderthals were a bit brutish and slow still seems to be the popular stereotype for this species. The idea that Neanderthals were a bit daft and weren’t capable of the same things as modern humans also frustrates me – just because we haven’t dug up a Neanderthal who died in middle of updating his Facebook status on his iPad, it doesn’t mean they were stupid. On the contrary, Neanderthals appear to have been routinely honouring their deceased loved ones well before Homo sapiens ever decided to join them in Europe.

Neand Facebook

A hint that things might not be looking up for Ned…

 

Although I’m still in the early stages of my PhD, so far the pattern emerging appears to be that the early Neanderthals began by defleshing and disarticulating individuals (I am deliberately avoiding the use of the term ‘cannibalism’ because I cannot conclusively prove they were routinely consuming the remains), and from around 115,000 years BP the later Neanderthals begin burying them. And it doesn’t matter if they’re male or female, old or young, everyone is treated in the same way across the Neanderthal world. What a lovely thought.

I still have a lot of work to do on my research, so hopefully by next year’s Day of Archaeology I will have more to tell you. But in the mean time I’m sure my cheery topic will continue to destroy dinner party conversations for some time to come, and maybe, I will be on my way to mastering the art of discussing taboo subjects without scaring the general population.

Sarah Schwarz

PhD Student, CAHO, University of Southampton

Follow me on Twitter: @archaeosarah

Or read more about my research on my blog: http://archaeosarah.wordpress.com/

A Day in the Life of an Archaeobotanist

8AM: As an archaeobotanist I can have a bit of variety in my work schedule. I can be called on to go on site at very short notice, but generally my base is in the office, doing assessments and analysis on any plant remains retrieved from site.

 

I arrive at the office (Museum of London Archaeology) around 8am. First order of business is usually making a cup of tea and eating breakfast while I wait for my computer to boot up. Then I check through any emails that arrived overnight before starting on my current project.

 

The practical work I’m doing today is part of an environmental assessment for a large waterfront site in London. Around 250 bulk environmental samples were taken during excavation at the site. We processed these in flotation tanks and now it’s my job to scan through the clean remains under a low powered microscope to see if they’re archaeologically interesting, recording very broadly what’s present. Once I’ve finished scanning all the flots, I’ll produce tables of the remains and write a report with recommendations for the next stage of work. This might include anything from recommending further archaeobotanical work on certain samples, to beetle analysis or wood species identification.

Cups of tea: 1.

 

where the magic happens

My work space

10 am: I’ve assessed two flots so far this morning – I could easily have spent much longer on them, but keeping to deadlines and budget is very important in commercial archaeology. Both samples contained lots of stems, some meadow type taxa, bran (the outer layer of cereal grains) and some fruit remains like fig seeds and apple endocarp (the tough bit around the seeds). At this stage I’d suggest they might be mixed dumps of stabling waste and household waste, but I’ll leave it to the analysis stage to really investigate.

Cups of tea: 2

Flots assessed: 2

 

12pm: Not much to report I’m afraid. I’ve assessed two more flots, one with quite a lot of wood chips in it, which might suggest woodworking at the site. At least all the flots have lots of plant remains though! I’ll often have to slog through loads of samples with nothing interesting at all turning up.

 

I’ve also been reminded of one of the perils of being married to another archaeologist – I have been tasked with carrying a metal detector home on the bus so he doesn’t have to come in to the office on Monday morning to collect it himself.

Cups of tea: 3

Flots assessed: 4

 

12.30pm LUNCH!

Cups of tea: 5

Flots assessed: 4.5

Lunchtime conversation topics: Tim Burton movies, Start Trek TNG, cheese fondue.

 

2pm: Still plugging away at the flots, and am now assessing one that’s full of charred wheat chaff as well as waterlogged wood chips. A pretty odd mix, but then all sorts of things float up on a river bank, as anyone who’s taken a walk along the Thames foreshore could tell you. I’ve also fielded a few tech queries from one of the less IT literate of my colleagues here, and a phone call about flotation tank meshes. Ah, the adventurous life of an archaeobotanist.

Cups of tea: Still 5

Flots assessed: 6

 

3.30pm: Had a good chat with our timber specialist about exotic wood timbers (exotic for us being anything not native to the British Isles). Working in London, which has been a trading hub since the Romans founded the city in the first century AD, means that we get woods from all over the world turning up in excavations, particularly in postmedieval deposits. Wood species ID is another one of my jobs at MOLA, so we often work together on assemblages.

Cups of tea: 6

Flots assessed: 8

 

3.30-4pm: For the last half hour of my working day I’ll be replying to emails, tidying up my workspace and washing my lab ware, and filling out my timesheet for the week.

 

And maybe I’ll squeeze in one last cup of tea.

Texas Hole Droppers

Welcome all to a day in CRM archaeology in Texas! Today the heat is West Texas has reached over 104°F. My crew is currently working on surveying a large 4,000 acre area where a potential reservoir will be located. Our day starts off in the cooler hours, with breakfast at 6:00 AM and to work by 7:00 AM. We began by laying out transects using a Trimble Unit within previously portioned off grid squares.

Then it is on to shovel testing, which as all those who have experience in this know that it is very hard work. Shovel test units in Texas are generally 30 CM X 30 CM and go to depths of 80 CM.

Around 9:30 AM we take a well deserved snack break, which today includes some yummy summer sausage (venison). Sadly, a few crew members were unable to partake in the break since they were attending to one of the many flat tires we have had so far in the seven weeks of work.

Of course, we do have time to take in the lovely West Texas scenery between shovel tests!

We generally end our work day around 2:00 PM due to the heat. Today we did not find any cultural materials but we are still in high spirits! At least we got to see a few wild hogs, wild turkeys and a lone coyote!