Taxonomy term

human history

Isotopes could reveal ancient American turquoise trade

For centuries before the arrival of Europeans, turquoise was prized among pre-Hispanic cultures of North America. Caches of the distinctive, creamy-blue-green mineral have been unearthed in crypts and other ritually significant structures in what are now the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. Farther south, in Mesoamerica, archaeologists have found elaborate mosaic masks and ornamentation made of turquoise pieces. Despite multiple anthropological and historical hints, identifying where the turquoise used by different civilizations came from has proven difficult. But in a recent study, scientists have described a geochemical fingerprinting technique that may help parse the geographic origins of turquoise specimens and illuminate trade routes in ancient America.
 
09 Nov 2015

Travertine buildup reflects ancient Rome's water usage

By the third century, Rome had 11 aqueducts — engineered rivers enclosed by masonry — that supplied water to more than a million people in the metropolis, as well as to the city’s many extravagant public baths and fountains. But just how much water was being sourced from distant rivers, lakes and mountain springs has long been a mystery. Now, scientists are putting some impressive numbers to ancient Rome’s water usage based on a study of travertine deposits that built up over time in the Anio Novus aqueduct as freshwater flowed through it to the city.
 
08 Nov 2015

Kennewick Man related to modern Native Americans

After two decades of controversy surrounding the origins of Kennewick Man — a 9,000-year-old skeleton found on the banks of the Columbia River in Washington state — a genomic analysis has revealed that he was, in fact, related to modern Native Americans. The 1996 discovery of the well-preserved skeleton led to a protracted legal battle among scientists, Native American tribes and the federal government over the disposition of the remains, and sparked a scientific debate about the origins of the first Americans. 
 
11 Oct 2015

Widening the window of human dispersal into Arabia

The vast sea of sand that is much of the Arabian Peninsula presents a formidable barrier to travel, even with today’s modern conveniences. How and when our ancestors crossed this dry expanse after leaving Africa — on their way to populating the rest of the world — has long been a mystery. Now, a new paleoclimate study paints a wetter picture of Arabia during the time of human expansion, and the findings may change scientists’ thinking about the route and timing of early human migrations out of Africa.

31 Jul 2015

Pre-settlement erosion rates illuminated

Humans are one of the most powerful erosive agents on Earth, moving copious amounts of sediment to and fro, mainly through agriculture and development. But quantifying how much we actually move — often a necessary step for developing sustainable land management practices — hinges on determining erosion rates in an area before humans intervened. A new study using surface exposure dating to estimate pre-colonial erosion rates in the southeastern U.S. has now clarified the natural background rate in more detail than ever before, revealing the dramatic human impact on the regional landscape.

 
31 May 2015

Ancient moss reveals tsunami timing

Fishermen trawling Norway’s waters have long known of a place where the seafloor drops precipitously into the abyss. It’s called Storegga — or “great edge” — and it’s actually the steep headwall of the largest undersea landslide in recent geologic history. The slide triggered a tsunami that flooded the shores of the North Sea, reaching as far as Greenland, and likely affecting the Stone Age people that inhabited Northern Europe at the time.

 
14 May 2015

Down To Earth With: John Underhill

“The Odyssey” follows Odysseus’ 10-year journey home to Ithaca after the Trojan War. John Underhill, a stratigrapher at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, has been on his own odyssey over the past seven years — to test whether Ithaca actually existed. For centuries, scholars assumed that the people and places described by Homer in his epic poems were fictional, but archaeological finds elsewhere, such as Troy and Mycenae, have proven that these stories were grounded in reality.
 
01 Jun 2011

Benchmarks: May 18, 1952: Stonehenge's age solved with Carbon-14

Like sentinels standing guard over a millennia-old secret, the 8-meter-tall stones of Stonehenge rise above the rolling green hills of England’s Salisbury Plain. The origin, date and purpose of the arrangement of the giant standing stones, located about 145 kilometers west of London, have puzzled people for thousands of years. But in 1952, physical chemist Willard Libby, a professor at the University of Chicago in Illinois, finally provided a concrete answer to one of the site’s most enduring questions: when it was built. To do this, Libby used a brand-new geochemical technique that he had been developing based on the radioactive isotope carbon-14. Only a few years later, his work on this groundbreaking technique earned him a Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

18 May 2010

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