Sunday, April 12, 2009

Prehistoric Bears Ate Everything And Anything, Just Like Modern Cousins

ScienceDaily (Apr. 13, 2009) — By comparing the craniodental morphology of modern bear species to that of two extinct species, researchers from the University of Málaga have discovered that the expired plantigrades were not so different from their current counterparts. The cave bear, regarded as the great herbivore of the carnivores, was actually more omnivorous than first thought.
The short-faced bear, a hypercarnivore, also ate plants depending on their availability. The work offers key insights into the evolution of the carnivore niches during the Ice Age.
The team of palaeontologists have reconstructed the trophic ecology, or eating habits, of two extinct bear species that lived during the Pleistocene (between 2.59 million and 12,000 years ago): the short-faced bear (Arctodus simus) of North America and the cave bear (Ursus spelaeus) of Europe. The morphometric analysis carried out on the eight bear species in existence today has confirmed that prehistoric bears were not fussy eaters.
'Knowing what the extinct bears ate is of utmost relevance to finding out about the evolution of carnivore niches in the Pleistocene when climatic conditions were changing', explains Borja Figueirido, lead author of the study and researcher for the Ecology and Geology Department of the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Málaga. Scientists have discovered that, even at that time, bears were 'great opportunists' thanks to their morphological and ecological flexibility.
The study, published recently in the Journal of Zoology, focuses on two species of prehistoric bear because scientists believed that they had disparate feeding preferences. It was presumed that the short-faced bear was a carnivore and the cave bear an herbivore; 'probably the most herbivorous species of the Ursus genus', asserts Figueirido.
'The study has revealed that the craniodental morphologies of these two bears are more suited to the omnivorous diet than the specialised diet previously put forward', the researcher points out.
Fossilised skulls, great biomarkers
The researchers studied the osteological material of the current species (skull and jaw) and the same anatomical elements of the fossilised remains of the extinct bears, conserved in various international museums.
Through a statistical analysis, the experts determined the patterns of morphological variation in bears in order to prove that, rather than ancestral/descendent relations, 'the pattern had more relation to trophic ecology than to phylogenetic heritage', highlights Figueirido.
Given the glaciations of the Pleistocene (in the Quaternary period), prehistoric bears, with morphologies similar to those of present-day omnivores, ate a bit of everything depending on the resources available to them, determined by the climatic conditions. For the palaeontologist, 'during that period there was, in principle, a wide variety of prey and vegetation available, but there was also competition amongst the predators of the time'.
Today there are cases of bears with specialised eating habits. From a morphological and ecological perspective, the polar bear (Ursus maritimus), exclusively carnivorous, and the panda bear (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), strictly herbivorous, have the greatest challenge to change their eating habits in the face of climatic change. 'Although not as specialised as that of a lion, if the few resources that the giant panda and the polar bear depend on were to disappear, their situation would be complicated', confirms Figueirido.
'The study has revealed that the craniodental morphologies of these two bears are more suited to the omnivorous diet than the specialised diet previously put forward', the researcher points out.
Journal reference:
Figueirido et al. Ecomorphological correlates of craniodental variation in bears and paleobiological implications for extinct taxa: an approach based on geometric morphometrics. Journal of Zoology, 2009; 277 (1): 70 DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-7998.2008.00511.x
Adapted from materials provided by Plataforma SINC, via AlphaGalileo.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Was A 'Mistress Of The Lionesses' A King In Ancient Canaan?

ScienceDaily (Apr. 11, 2009) — The legend is that the great rulers of Canaan, the ancient land of Israel, were all men. But a recent dig by Tel Aviv University archaeologists at Tel Beth-Shemesh uncovered possible evidence of a mysterious female ruler.
Tel Aviv University archaeologists Prof. Shlomo Bunimovitz and Dr. Zvi Lederman of the Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations have uncovered an unusual ceramic plaque of a goddess in female dress, suggesting that a mighty female “king” may have ruled the city. If true, they say, the plaque would depict the only known female ruler of the region.
The plaque itself depicts a figure dressed as royal male figures and deities once appeared in Egyptian and Canaanite art. The figure’s hairstyle, though, is womanly and its bent arms are holding lotus flowers -- attributes given to women. This plaque, art historians suggest, may be an artistic representation of the “Mistress of the Lionesses,” a female Canaanite ruler who was known to have sent distress letters to the Pharaoh in Egypt reporting unrest and destruction in her kingdom.
“We took this finding to an art historian who confirmed our hypothesis that the figure was a female,” says Dr. Lederman. “Obviously something very different was happening in this city. We may have found the ‘Mistress of the Lionesses’ who’d been sending letters from Canaan to Egypt. The destruction we uncovered at the site last summer, along with the plaque, may just be the key to the puzzle.”
A Lady Ruler in Pre-Exodus Canaan
Around 1350 BCE, there was unrest in the region. Canaanite kings conveyed their fears via clay tablet letters to the Pharaoh in Egypt, requesting military help. But among all the correspondence by kings were two rare letters that stuck out among the 382 el‑Amarna tablets uncovered a few decades ago by Egyptian farmers. The two letters came from a “Mistress of the Lionesses” in Canaan. She wrote that bands of rough people and rebels had entered the region, and that her city might not be safe. Because the el-Amarna tablets were found in Egypt rather than Canaan, historians have tried to trace the origin of the tablets.
“The big question became, ‘What city did she rule?’” Dr. Lederman and Prof. Bunimovitz say. The archaeologists believe that she ruled as king (rather than “queen,” which at the time described the wife of a male king) over a city of about 1,500 residents. A few years ago, Tel Aviv University’s Prof. Nadav Naaman suggested that she might have ruled the city of Beth Shemesh. But there has been no proof until now.
“The city had been violently destroyed, in a way we rarely see in archaeology,” says Prof. Bunimovitz, who points to many exotic finds buried under the destruction, including an Egyptian royal seal, bronze arrowheads and complete large storage vessels. They suggest a large and important city-state, well enmeshed within East Mediterranean geo-political and economic networks.
Time for a New Interpretation of Biblical History?
Tel Aviv University archaeologists say that the new finds might turn the interpretation of pre-biblical history on its head. The people of the time were pagans who had a very elaborate religious system.
“It was a very well-to-do city,” says Lederman. “Strangely, such extensive destruction, like what we found in our most recent dig, is a great joy for archaeologists because people would not have had time to take their belongings. They left everything in their houses. The site is loaded with finds,” he says, adding that the expensive items found in the recent level points to it as one the most important inland Canaanite cities.
The discovery of the plaque, and the evidence of destruction recorded in the el-Amarna tablets, could confirm that the woman depicted in the figurine was the mysterious “Mistress of the Lionesses” and ruled Canaanite Beth Shemesh. “There is no evidence of other females ruling a major city in this capacity,” Lederman and Bunimovitz say. “She is the only one. We really hope to find out more about her this summer.”
Adapted from materials provided by American Friends of Tel Aviv University.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Largest 17th Century Bead Repository Found In Coastal Georgia

ScienceDaily (Apr. 9, 2009) — French and Chinese blue glass, Dutch layered glass, Baltic amber: roughly 70,000 beads manufactured all over the world have been excavated at one of the Spanish empire's remotest outposts, the Santa Catalina de Guale Mission.
The beads were found as part of an extensive, ongoing research project led by a team of scientists from the American Museum of Natural History on St. Catherines Island off the coast of Georgia. Comprising the largest repository ever from Spanish Florida, the beads enlighten archaeologists about past trade routes and provide clues to the social structure and wealth of the people.
"This is the northernmost outpost of the Spanish empire, but we see evidence of ancient trade routes from China via Manila's galleons to Mexico and Spain," says Lorann Pendleton, Director of the Archaeology Laboratory at the Museum. "We also have found perhaps the first evidence of Spanish beadmaking, along with beads from the main centers of Italy, France, and the Netherlands."
The mission of Santa Catalina de Guale was inhabited by Franciscan missionaries and local people for most of the 17th century. The mission was a major source of grain for Spanish Florida and a provincial capital until1680, when the mission was abandoned after a British attack. Since 1974, David Hurst Thomas, Curator of Anthropology at the Museum, and colleagues have been carefully unearthing this part of the island's history.
The current research is based on the complete excavation of the church's cemetery and extensive survey and excavation in other parts of the mission. Years of analysis reveal roughly 130 different types of beads on the island, and numbers of specimens per type range from one to 20,000. Most of the more common beads are of Venetian and potentially French origin, with new research suggesting that one of the most common beads of the 17th century, the Ichtucknee blue, was manufactured in France. Some of the unique beads, though, may be Spanish, Chinese, Bohemian, Indian, or Baltic in origin.
While roughly 2,000 beads were found elsewhere at the mission (such as in the convent), most were found in the cemetery under the church. These were items intentionally deposited with individuals as grave goods, and the analysis of these items shows that there were subtle temporal and spatial changes in how the cemetery was used. Most burials found with large numbers of beads appear to date to the earlier part of the mission's history (the first half of the 17th century); items found with burials that date to the latter half of the 17th century are more likely to be religious medallions and rosaries. But because almost half the beads in the cemetery were buried with a few individuals who tended to be near the altar, it is often assumed that they were of high status in the community.
"A higher number of beads were found toward the altar, and some of the highest-status individuals (by number of beads) were children," says Pendleton. "This gives us lots of information about Guale society and means that status was ascribed with birth."
Elliot Blair, graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, agrees but points out that "the picture that is emerging is turning out to be much more complicated than people had thought. It's hard to say whether the presence of the beads reflects native or church hierarchies, the presence of wealthy individuals, or something else entirely. Still, this is the largest assemblage of beads ever found in a Spanish mission in La Florida, and the study of these materials has yielded considerable information about how Guale society, burial practices, and Spanish missionization changed during the 17th century."
The number of beads found on St. Catherines Island suggests that Santa Catalina de Guale was a relatively wealthy outpost. The island is fertile and was the capital of a mission province, both potential explanations for the high number of beads found when compared to other missions.
"St. Catherines was a frontier mission, but it also was a bread basket for the east-coast Spanish empire," explains Pendleton. "The missionaries at St. Augustine were always starving—you can read this in the letters written at the time—because that area was too humid and hot for corn to grow easily. St. Catherines was able to trade corn for beads."
The new research, authored by Blair, Pendleton, and bead expert Peter Francis, Jr., is published in the Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History. Francis, who did much of the detailed analysis of where beads were manufactured, died while on a research trip to Ghana, Africa, in 2002. The research was funded in part by the Edward John Noble Foundation.
Adapted from materials provided by American Museum of Natural History, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.