My latest for Forbes discusses the new paper by Rascovan and colleagues, “Emergence and Spread of Basal Lineages of Yersinia pestis during the Neolithic Decline.”
Researchers investigated the hypothesis that the so-called “Neolithic Decline”—population decreases throughout Europe—was caused at least in part by pandemics. To do this, they cleverly made use of one feature of paleogenomics that often causes researchers to tear their hair out. When we sequence or genotype ancient DNA extractions, we get back data from all the DNA extracted from the ancient source, including large amounts of microbial DNA. This can be incredibly frustrating if you’re trying to reconstruct a genome of the human whose bone (or tooth, or hair) you’re extracting from; it can be enormously expensive to sequence enough DNA to get a whole human genome. However, in this case, the researchers were able to look at published datasets to see if they could find evidence of pathogens in DNA published from Neolithic individuals buried in a high-density passage grave in the Frälsegården cemetery in Falbygden (western Sweden).
You can read more here.
@ArchaeOhlrau, who works on Trypillia mega-sites (which Rascovan et al. implicated in the origins of plague), did a Twitter thread on this paper critiquing some of their interpretations and providing some much-needed context. For example,
And most importantly: there are no human remains from mega-sites. Thus, their hypothesis of a plague outbreak can’t be falsified. Inhumations occur at the end of Trypillia, during the transition to burial mounds or in special contexts like the Verteba cave.
— René Ohlrau 🇪🇺 (@ArchaeOhlrau) December 7, 2018
Despite the odds, members of the Hohokam culture were able to work together to bring an agricultural lifestyle to a harsh desert environment for one-thousand years. This success required collaborative labor to maintain a system of civil infrastructure in the form of an extensive system of canals. Repeated environmental catastrophes, however, can wear down even the most prepared societies. Something people today should perhaps keep in mind.
And Kristina Killgrove tackled the fascinating question of whether or not a gold artifact was a Roman nipple cover, connecting the difficulties of interpreting the purpose of ancient artifacts without projecting our own ideas upon the past to Tumblr’s new terms of service:
In response to recent terms-of-service changes at Tumblr that ban “adult content,” many users of the microblogging site are firing back, trolling the site’s administrators with non-pornographic images that they worry will be banned by the new policy. This “ancient Roman nipple cover” posted by peashooter85 is one such image, and it has gained tens of thousands of responses in a couple days’ time. There’s one problem, though: archaeologists are unsure about that identification.
You can read the full post here.
If you have any questions, feel free to drop them in the comment section or hit me up on Twitter. (Although if you see me on there too much, feel free to remind me that I should be working on my book or academic papers instead).
Edited to add: If you’d rather listen to a podcast than read, a new Archaeological Fantasies episode that I’m on just dropped!