A dozen of the world’s earliest known masks have been brought together for the first time for an exhibition at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The rare stone artifacts were sculpted by early farmers whose immediate ancestors had given up hunting and gathering and settled in the Judean Hills, the location of the modern city of Jerusalem, and in the fringes of the nearby Judean Desert.
That momentous change in lifestyle, along with the first stirrings of organized religion, may have prompted the farmers to create the stark stone images for their cult rituals.
Debby Hershman, curator of the museum’s Prehistoric Cultures Department, has spent the last decade conducting the first comprehensive study of the 15 known stone masks from the Neolithic era—those on exhibit plus three others. “Many of them look like dead people,” she says. “In fact, I think they’re portraits of specific people—probably important ancestors.” Read more.
The mitochondrial DNA of the first Near Eastern farmers has been sequenced for the first time. In the research, published in the journal PLOS Genetics, experts analysed samples from three sites located in the birthplace of Neolithic agricultural practices: the Middle Euphrates basin and the oasis of Damascus, located in today’s Syria and date at about 8,000 BC.
The study is focused on the analysis of mitochondrial DNA —a type of non-Mendelian maternally inherited DNA— from the first Neolithic farmers, by means of samples obtained by the UAB research group which were first processed by the UB research group.
Agricultural and husbandry practices originated around 12,000 years ago in a region of the Near East known as the Fertile Crescent. This phenomenon, known as “Neolithic”, meant a profound social, cultural and economic transformation of human populations (agricultural production, sedentary farming lifestyle, origin of the first cities and modern societies, etc.). Read more.
Feast or famine was the rule for Europe’s first farmers, archaeologists report. A population bust followed boom times in early agriculture from France to Ireland, a catalog of radiocarbon dates reveals.
Farming first moved into Europe from Greece around 8,500 years ago, spreading to Ireland and northern Europe over the next several thousand years. The switch from hunting and gathering to farming was a giant step forward for humanity, but the results from early Europe point to tough times for early farmers.
"Likely it played out in stark terms of soil degradation, probably ending in disease and warfare," says anthropologist Sean Downey of the University of Maryland in College Park, a co-author of the new Nature Communications journal study. “It’s fairly depressing and Malthusian, what happened.” Read more.
Europe’s first farmers helped spread a revolutionary way of living across the continent. They also spread something else. A new study reveals that these early agriculturalists were fertilizing their crops with manure 8000 years ago, thousands of years earlier than previously thought.
Fertilizer provides plants with all sorts of nutrients that they need to grow strong and healthy, including, most importantly, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. That’s why farmers all over the world, in countries rich and poor, put manure on their crops. Nevertheless, it may not be intuitively obvious that spreading animal dung around plants is good for them, and archaeologists had found no evidence for the practice earlier than about 3000 years ago. Read more.
Perhaps there was peace in the valley, after all. Thousands of years ago, foragers and early farmers in the Balkans lived in peaceful coexistence, according to a new study of skeletal remains. But this cozy picture, which includes cultural exchange and also apparently intermating, may not apply to the spread of farming everywhere, other researchers caution.
The transition from hunting and gathering to farming was one of the most momentous upheavals in human prehistory. That transition marks the beginning of the Neolithic period, which started nearly 11,000 years ago, when people of the Near East domesticated plants and animals and settled down in sedentary communities with permanent houses. In Europe, meanwhile, roving foragers of so-called Mesolithic cultures continued to hunt, fish, and gather wild plants. Read more.
Stone Age farmers lived through routine violence, and women weren’t spared from its toll, a new study finds.
The analysis discovered that up to 1 in 6 skulls exhumed in Scandinavia from the late Stone Age — between about 6,000 and 3,700 years ago — had nasty head injuries. And contrary to findings from mass gravesites of the period, women were equally likely to be victims of deadly blows, according to the study published in the February issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.
Linda Fibiger, an archaeologist at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and her colleagues focused on the late Stone Age, when European hunter-gatherers had transitioned into farming or herding animals. Read more.
Modern Europeans’ genetic profile may have been partly cultivated by early Mediterranean farmers who moved to what’s now Scandinavia, where they paired up with resident hunter-gatherers.
DNA taken from 5,000-year-old skeletons previously excavated in Sweden unveils a scenario in which agricultural newcomers from the south interbred with northern hunter-gatherers, say evolutionary genetics graduate student Pontus Skoglund of Uppsala University in Sweden and his colleagues. Their findings feed into a picture of many early migrations of farmers into Europe, which often would have included interactions with local hunter-gatherers.
Pieces of DNA extracted from an ancient farmer’s remains buried in southern Sweden display gene variants most like those found in people now living in Greece and Cyprus, the scientists report in the April 27 Science. DNA retrieved from the bones of three hunter-gatherers interred on an island off Sweden’s coast contains distinctive gene variants that most resemble those of native Finns. Read more.
Scientists have long held that some of the rainforests of Central Africa disappeared about 3,000 years ago, abruptly replaced by savannas due to a dramatic shift in the regional climate. However, the conclusions of a recent study now suggest that it was not climate change alone that may have been responsible for the shift — that humans may have had a big hand, as well.
Germain Bayon and a research team of colleagues conducted a geochemical analysis of a marine sediment core taken at the mouth of the Congo River and determined that the sediment had undergone very significant chemical weathering around 3,000 years ago. While climate change at the time was a factor, the weathering also coincided with the arrival of Bantu-speaking farmers from the region that now encompasses modern-day Cameroon and Nigeria. Read more.