Tag Archives: ancient

Thucydides and the plague of Athens – what it can teach us now



Pericles Funeral Oration on the Greek 50 Drachmai 1955 Banknote.
Shutterstock

Chris Mackie, La Trobe University

The coronavirus is concentrating our minds on the fragility of human existence in the face of a deadly disease. Words like “epidemic” and “pandemic” (and “panic”!) have become part of our daily discourse.

These words are Greek in origin, and they point to the fact that the Greeks of antiquity thought a lot about disease, both in its purely medical sense, and as a metaphor for the broader conduct of human affairs. What the Greeks called the “plague” (loimos) features in some memorable passages in Greek literature.

One such description sits at the very beginning of western literature. Homer’s Iliad, (around 700BC), commences with a description of a plague that strikes the Greek army at Troy. Agamemnon, the leading prince of the Greek army, insults a local priest of Apollo called Chryses.

Apollo is the plague god – a destroyer and healer – and he punishes all the Greeks by sending a pestilence among them. Apollo is also the archer god, and he is depicted firing arrows into the Greek army with a terrible effect:

Apollo strode down along the pinnacles of Olympus angered

in his heart, carrying on his shoulders the bow and the hooded

quiver; and the shafts clashed on the shoulders of the god walking angrily.

Terrible was the clash that rose from the bow of silver.

First he went after the mules and the circling hounds, then let go

a tearing arrow against the men themselves and struck them.

The corpse fires burned everywhere and did not stop burning.

Plague narratives

About 270 years after the Iliad, or thereabouts, plague is the centrepiece of two great classical Athenian works – Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, and Book 2 of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.

Thucydides (c.460-400BC) and Sophocles (490-406BC) would have known one another in Athens, although it is hard to say much more than that for a lack of evidence. The two works mentioned above were produced at about the same time. The play Oedipus was probably produced about 429 BC, and the plague of Athens occurred in 430-426 BC.

Thucydides writes prose, not verse (as Homer and Sophocles do), and he worked in the comparatively new field of “history” (meaning “enquiry” or “research” in Greek). His focus was the Peloponnesian war fought between Athens and Sparta, and their respective allies, between 431 and 404 BC.

Thucydides’ description of the plague that struck Athens in 430 BC is one of the great passages of Greek literature. One of the remarkable things about it is how focused it is on the general social response to the pestilence, both those who died from it and those who survived.

Statue portrait of historian Thucydides outside the Austrian parliament in Vienna.
Shutterstock

A health crisis

The description of the plague immediately follows on from Thucydides’ renowned account of Pericles’ Funeral Oration (it is important that Pericles died of the plague in 429 BC, whereas Thucydides caught it but survived).

Thucydides gives a general account of the early stages of the plague – its likely origins in north Africa, its spread in the wider regions of Athens, the struggles of the doctors to deal with it, and the high mortality rate of the doctors themselves.

Nothing seemed to ameliorate the crisis – not medical knowledge or other forms of learning, nor prayers or oracles. Indeed “in the end people were so overcome by their sufferings that they paid no further attention to such things”.

He describes the symptoms in some detail – the burning feeling of sufferers, stomachaches and vomiting, the desire to be totally naked without any linen resting on the body itself, the insomnia and the restlessness.

Michiel Sweerts’ Plague in an Ancient City (circa 1652).
Wikimedia

The next stage, after seven or eight days if people survived that long, saw the pestilence descend to the bowels and other parts of the body – genitals, fingers and toes. Some people even went blind.

Words indeed fail one when one tries to give a general picture of this disease; and as for the sufferings of individuals, they seemed almost beyond the capacity of human nature to endure.

Those with strong constitutions survived no better than the weak.

The most terrible thing was the despair into which people fell when they realized that they had caught the plague; for they would immediately adopt an attitude of utter hopelessness, and by giving in in this way, would lose their powers of resistance.

Lastly, Thucydides focuses on the breakdown in traditional values where self-indulgence replaced honour, where there existed no fear of god or man.

As for offences against human law, no one expected to live long enough to be brought to trial and punished: instead everyone felt that a far heavier sentence had been passed on him.

The whole description of the plague in Book 2 lasts only for about five pages, although it seems longer.

The first outbreak of plague lasted two years, whereupon it struck a second time, although with less virulence. When Thucydides picks up very briefly the thread of the plague a little bit later (3.87) he provides numbers of the deceased: 4,400 hoplites (citizen-soldiers), 300 cavalrymen and an unknown number of ordinary people.

Nothing did the Athenians so much harm as this, or so reduced their strength for war.

A modern lens

Modern scholars argue over the science of it all, not the least because Thucydides offers a generous amount of detail of the symptoms.

Epidemic typhus and smallpox are most favoured, but about 30 different diseases have been posited.

Thucydides offers us a narrative of a pestilence that is different in all kinds of ways from what we face.

The lessons that we learn from the coronavirus crisis will come from our own experiences of it, not from reading Thucydides. But these are not mutually exclusive. Thucydides offers us a description of a city-state in crisis that is as poignant and powerful now, as it was in 430BC.The Conversation

Chris Mackie, Professor of Classics, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Ancient spells and charms for the hapless in love



Magic was an every day part of life in the Graeco-Roman empire.
John William Waterhouse

Adam Parker, The Open University

Valentine’s Days is not all love hearts and roses for everyone. For the hapless in love, the day can be a yearly reminder of failed romances, unrequited love and the seemingly unending search for the illusive “one”.

Such problems of the heart span cultures and history. The inhabitants of the Graeco-Roman world suffered the same heartaches and the same emotional highs and lows as we do today. While we are left with apps to swipe on, a greater belief in magic in this period provided interesting opportunities to find love.

Hope was placed on spells, mysterious words and magical objects to grant the gift of love on their users or to take it away from rivals.

Ticks and fish blood

The Greek Magical Papyri are a series of ancient spell books from Egypt from between the 2nd century BC and the 5th century AD. They are a sort of do-it-yourself guide to magical rituals that offers solutions to problems like finding a thief, keeping calm, curing fevers and demonic possession. Unsurprisingly, love charms feature prominently.

Depending on the lengths a hopeful lover was willing to go (and their level of lust/obsession/desperation) there was something for all levels of effort. Some spells are “simple”: “To get a certain [her] at the baths: rub a tick from a dead dog on the loins.”

Others require a bit more preparatory work. One advertised as the “irresistible love spell of attraction” asks the unlucky lover to use fish blood to write a spell invoking demons on the skin of an ass. They must then wrap it in vetch (a plant with pink flowers) and hide it in the mouth of a recently deceased dog.

Harpocrates seated on a lotus.
The Met Museum

Most spells required a special ingredient to be used in a specific way in combination with arcane words. These spells don’t leave archaeological traces for us to find. One love spell asked the user to have an iron ring inscribed with Harpocrates (the Hellenistic god of silence) seated on a lotus in their hands while they shouted magical words at the moon from a rooftop. Several such gemstones matching this description have been found.

Love potions themselves have a long history and are discussed in several ancient texts. A Demotic (written in ancient Egyptian) spell proposed the following method:

Take the fragment of the tip of your fingernail and apple seed together with blood from your finger… Pound the apple, add blood to it and put it in the cup of wine. Recite [the given spell] seven times over it and you should make the woman drink it at a special time.

This visceral recipe is a variant of a spell that also added semen, and the hair of a dead man to the mixture.

Rings, curses and more blood

Polemious’s gold ring.
The Trustees of the British Museum

A gold ring found in Corbridge, Northumberland, in 1935 is inscribed in Greek with ΠOΛEMIOYΦIΛTPON, “The love charm of Polemius”. Polemius was a man who either wore this ring to enhance his allure and sexual qualities or gave it to the object of his affections. If it was the latter, it may have been given conspicuously as a gift or hidden on or around them as a clandestine token. It is a uniquely personal object from the edge of the Roman Empire that speaks of the unfulfilled desires of a Greek-speaking man over 1,700 years ago.

Curses were used in the ancient world to condemn thieves, protect businesses, ruin rival chariot teams and to create better opportunities for lovers. Sometimes a desired partner was already in a relationship, and cursing their partner (to discredit, harm or kill them) offered a chance to change this. A lead curse tablet from Boetia, Greece, was written by someone jealously in love with a man called Kabeira and tries to damn his wife Zois:

I assign Zois the Eretrian, wife of Kabeira, to Earth and to Hermes — her food, her drink, her sleep, her laughter, her intercourse, her playing of the kithara, and her entrance, her pleasure, her little buttocks, her thinking, her eyes…

Curses were personal, private contracts between a person and a deity. The leaden tablets were often folded over and sometimes pierced with a nail, which often went through the written name of the curse’s target. They were thrown into rivers, sacred springs, hidden in secret places and even dug into the graves of the recently dead.

Magical and medicinal means were also suggested for resolving relatable problems in ancient relationships. Aelius Promotus, an Alexandrian physician, recommended that barley soaked in menstrual blood and wrapped in mule skin could be tied onto a woman as a contraceptive.

Opposingly, Marcellus of Bordeaux (4th-5th century AD) suggested that a waning sex drive could be cured by finding the right aphrodisiac. He suggested wearing the right testicle of a rooster in a pouch around the neck.

Roman magic may have been a cathartic experience for the heartbroken or an exhilarating one for the lovestruck. The idea that people will do whatever is within their power to find love belongs to a long and ever-evolving tradition. These spells, rituals, tokens and curses highlight the essential nature of love and heartbreak in the ancient world and implicitly connects our cultures across time.The Conversation

Adam Parker, PhD Candidate in Classical Studies, The Open University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Iran’s cultural heritage reflects the grandeur and beauty of the golden age of the Persian empire



The ancient Persian symbol of victory in Persepolis, capital of the ancient Achaemenid kingdom in Iran.
Delbars via Shutterstock

Eve MacDonald, Cardiff University

It’s simply not possible to do justice to the value of Iran’s cultural heritage – it’s a rich and noble history that has had a fundamental impact on the world through art, architecture, poetry, in science and technology, medicine, philosophy and engineering.

The Iranian people are intensely aware – and rightly proud of – their Persian heritage. The archaeological legacy left by the civilisations of ancient and medieval Iran extend from the Mediterranean Sea to India and ranges across four millennia from the Bronze age (3rd millennium BC) to the glorious age of classical Islam and the magnificent medieval cities of Isfahan and Shiraz that thrived in the 9th-12th centuries AD, and beyond.

The Persian Empire in 490 BC.
Department of History, United States Military Academy, West Point

The direct legacy of the ancient Iranians can be found across the Middle East, the Caucasus and Turkey, the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt and Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan.

In the 6th century BC, Iran was home to the first world empire. The Achaemenids ruled a multicultural superpower that stretched to Egypt and Asia Minor in the west and India and Pakistan in the east. They were the power by which all other ancient empires measured themselves. Their cultural homeland was in the Fars province of modern Iran. The word Persian is the name for the Iranian people based on the home region of the Achaemenids – Pars.

Some of the richest and most beautiful of the archaeological and historical heritage in Iran remains there. This includes Parsgardae, the first Achaemenid dynastic capital where King Cyrus(c. 590-529BC) laid down the foundations of law and the first declaration of universal rights while ruling over a vast array of citizens and cultures.

Relief sculpture from Persepolis: one of the immortals perhaps?
Angela Meier via Shutterstock

Nearby is the magnificent site of Persepolis, the great palace of the Achaemenid kings and hub of government and administration. Architecturally stunning, it is decorated with relief sculptures that still today leave a visitor in awe.

Seleucid and Parthian Iran

When the Achaemenids fell to the armies of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, what followed was great upheaval and also one of the most extraordinary moments in human history. The mixing of Persian and eastern Mediterranean cultures created the Hellenistic Age. The Macedonian King Seleucus (died 281BC) and his Persian wife Apame ruled a hybrid kingdom that mixed Greek, Persian, Jewish, Bactrian, Armenian, Sogdian and Aramaean cultures and religions.

With new cities, religions and cultures, this melting pot encouraged the rise of a thriving connectivity that linked urban centres in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Syria (where many of the Hellenistic sites (such as Apamea) have been devastated in recent years by war and looting). The great city of Seleucia-on-Tigris/Ctesiphon, just south of Baghdad on the Tigris river in modern Iraq, became the western capital and centre for learning, culture and power for a thousand years.

Hellenistic rulers gave way to Parthian kings in the 2nd century BC and the region was ruled by the Arsacid dynasty whose homeland, around Nisa, was the northern region of the Iranian world. The Parthian Empire witnessed growing connectivity between east and west and increasing traffic along the silk routes. Their control of this trade led to conflict with the Romans who reached east to grasp some of the resulting spoils.

Facade of Mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah in Isfahan city.
Fotokon via Shutterstock

It was also a time of religious transition that not only witnessed the rise of Buddhism, but also a thriving Zoroastrian religion that intersected with Judaism and developing Christianity. In the biblical story of the birth of Christ, who were the three kings – the Magi with their gifts for Jesus – but Persian priests from Iran coming to the side of child messiah, astronomers following the comet.

The Sasanians

The last great ancient kingdom of the Iranians was the Sasanian empire based around a dynasty that rose out of the final years of the Arsacid rule in the 3rd century AD. The Sasanians ruled a massive geopolitical entity from 224-751AD. They were builders of cities and frontiers across the empire including the enormous Gorgan wall. This frontier wall stretched 195km from the Caspian Sea to the mountains in Turkmenistan and was built in the 5th century AD to protect the Iranian agricultural heartland from northern invaders like the Huns.

The line of the Gorgan Wall and fort viewed from aerial photograph
Alchetron, Author provided

The wall is a fired-brick engineering marvel with a complex network of water canals running the whole length. It once stood across the plain with more than 30 forts manned by tens of thousands of soldiers.

The Sasanians were the final pre-Islamic dynasty of Iran. In the 7th century AD the armies of the Rashidun caliphs conquered the Sasanian empire, bringing with them Islam and absorbing much of the culture and ideas of the ancient Iranian world. This fusion led to a flowering of early medieval Islam and, of the 22 cultural heritage sites in Iran that are recognised by UNESCO, the 9th century Masjed-e Jāmé in Isfahan is one of the most stunningly beautiful and stylistically influential mosques ever built.

This was a thriving period of scientific, artistic and literary output. Rich with poetry that told of the ancient Iranian past in medieval courts where bards sang of great deeds. These are stories that we now believe reached the far west of Europe in the early medieval period possibly through the crusades and can only emphasise the long reach of the cultures of ancient and medieval Iran.

Iranian cultural heritage has no one geographic or cultural home, its roots belong to all of us and speak of the vast influence that the Iranians have had on the creation of the world we live in today. Iran’s past could never be wiped off the cultural map of the world for it is embedded in our very humanity.The Conversation

Eve MacDonald, Lecturer in Ancient History, Cardiff University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Holy bin chickens: ancient Egyptians tamed wild ibis for sacrifice



A scene from the Books of the Dead (based at the Egyptian Museum) shows the ibis-headed god Thoth recording the result of “the final judgement”.
Wasef et al./PLOS ONE, CC BY-SA

Sally Wasef, Griffith University and David Lambert, Griffith University

These days, not many Aussies consider the ibis a particularly admirable creature.

But these birds, now colloquially referred to as “bin chickens” due to their notorious scavenging antics, have a grandiose and important place in history – ancient Egyptian history, to be precise.

Using DNA from ibis mummies buried around 2,500 years ago, our research published today explores this bird’s stature in ancient times, and how it was reared.

Our findings suggest ancient Egyptian priests practised short-term taming of the wild sacred ibis. This was likely done somewhere in natural ibis habitats, such as local lakes or wetlands. Also, it was probably done close to the Thoth temple at Tuna el Gebel, in a bid to meet an ibis demand fuelled by religious burial rituals.

We’ve bin chicken out some DNA

The preservation of bodies through mummification is a hallmark of ancient Egyptian civilisation.

Unfortunately, unfavourable environmental conditions such as high temperatures, humidity and alkaline conditions often result in scepticism about the authenticity of genetic results from ancient Egyptian human remains.




Read more:
Friday essay: the rise of the ‘bin chicken’, a totem for modern Australia


However, animal mummies in the region are much more common. And the sacred ibis, (Threskiornis aethiopicus), is by far the most common bird mummy in ancient Egypt’s underground catacombs, with more than two million found.

The Egyptian sacred ibis looks very similar to the Australian white ibis (Threskiornis molucca). We once thought they were both sacred ibises, but the two are actually sister species in the ibis family.

Our analysis of 14 sacred ibis mummies, which we collected ourselves from catacombs, helped reveal the role of this bird in ancient Egyptian society and religion.

We collected sacred ibis mummy remains from the ibis catacomb in Saqqara.
Author provided

We analysed and compared mitochondrial DNA, which is a section of DNA inherited from the mother and passed only through females. In doing so, we were able to compare the genetic diversity among the ancient ibis mummies to that of modern sacred ibis populations in Africa.

All hail the Ibis

Ancient Egyptians thought animals were incarnations of gods on Earth. They worshipped the sacred ibis as the god Thoth, which was responsible for maintaining the universe, judging the dead, and overseeing systems of magic, writing, and science.

It’s not surprising then, that professionally mummified Ibises were sacrificially offered to Thoth at his annually celebrated festival. In fact, offering sacred ibis mummies in ancient Egypt was a common practice between the 26th Dynasty (664-525 BC) and the early Roman Period (AD 250).




Read more:
Mummies have had a bad wrap – it’s time for a reassessment


For ancient Egyptian priests, the mummification of animals like ibises was not simply a ritual duty, but also a profitable business. Considering the number of ibis mummies found, one has to wonder how the priests secured supplies for this practice.

Some evidence from ancient Egyptian text suggests the birds may have been raised in dedicated large-scale farms over the long term – either next to or within temple enclosures.

In the writings of the priest and scribe Hor of Sebennytos, from the second century BC, he reported regularly feeding about 60,000 sacred ibises with “clover and bread”. This could be interpreted as domestication, or controlled breeding.

In 1825, French naturalist Georges Cuvier described the skeleton of an ibis mummy from Thebes that he’d unwrapped, saying:

One sees that this mummy must have come from a domestic bird in the temples, because its left humerus was broken and reset. It is highly improbable that a wild bird with a wing broken would have been able to capture prey and escape predators. Hence it would have been unable to survive long enough to have healed.

Researchers today have also suggested the seasonal taming of ancient wild ibises, wherein the birds were reared over a single generation by priests, in natural habitats close to temples. Moreover, it seems they were not domesticated, which would have required breeding in captivity over many generations.

The rearing is thought to have occurred at locations such as the Lake of the Pharaoh, in which a natural basin was filled annually by flood waters from the Nile River.

These actions were almost certainly aimed at collecting a large number of adult birds, which were required for the Egyptian ritual of offering a mummified ibis to please Thoth.

1.75 million birds, then suddenly none?

Millions of sacred ibis mummies have been found stacked floor-to-ceiling along kilometres of dedicated catacombs in Egypt.

It’s believed that about 10,000 mummies were deposited annually in the Sacred Animal Necropolis at Saqqara.




Read more:
A recipe for mummy preservation existed 1,500 years before the Pharaohs


This amounts to an estimated 1.75 million birds deposited at this location alone. Another catacomb at Tuna el-Gebel contains approximately four million sacred ibis mummies, the largest known number of any mummified birds at a single Egyptian site.

But these birds disappeared from Egypt around 1850, centuries after the cessation of the mummification practice. How and why they disappeared remains a mystery.

Clearly, the people of today treat the ibis in a very different way to the ancient Egyptians. For the latter, they were sacred birds that held a special place in society.

Perhaps we should remember that and recognise, at least a little, their honoured status in the past.The Conversation

Sally Wasef, Postdoctoral research fellow, Griffith University and David Lambert, Professor of Evolutionary Biology, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Forgotten citadels: Fiji’s ancient hill forts and what we can learn from them



While most Fijian settlement is coastal, new research into mountain settlements can teach us about this country pre-colonisation. Pictured is the Seseleka hill fort, 420 metres above sea level.
Patrick Nunn

Patrick D. Nunn, University of the Sunshine Coast

Far away from Fiji’s golden beaches and turquoise seas lies what might appear to many people – visitors and Fijian alike – another reality. One that is hidden, almost forgotten, yet one that recent research is helping bring out from the shadows.

Fiji is not known for its hill forts, but it was not so long ago that they were almost ubiquitous. Consider the comment of colonial official Basil Thomson in 1908 who noted that “almost every important hilltop in western Viti Levu [the largest island in Fiji] is crowned with an entrenchment of some kind”.

The evidence for people having once occupied mountain tops in Fiji is plentiful yet today barely known and hardly studied. This evidence hits you the first time you see it. You are on a perspiring, muscle-aching uphill walk along one of the steep-sided volcanic ridge lines when suddenly the ground in front of you unexpectedly drops away.

There is a deep ditch artificially cut across the ridge, an impediment to your progress today but doubly so 400 years ago when its base would have been lined with sharpened sticks to impale unwanted visitors. On the upslope side of the ditch you find a stone platform – on which a guard house would have been built – and above, a series of cross-ridge stone walls.

In the case of the hill fort of Vatutaqiri on the Vatia Peninsula (northern Viti Levu), we mapped a series of five concentric stone walls built from hundreds of rocks that must have been rolled uphill from the base of the mountain. Like many such hill forts, the Vatutaqiri summit comprises an artificial mound, in this case some 12 metres high, with a flat top, likely to have been a symbolic refuge and/or a lookout post.

One of the five concentric stone walls on the flanks of Vatutaqiri hill fort, Vatia Peninsula, Fiji.
Patrick Nunn

Researching and dating the hill forts

A three-year research project, just concluded, in collaboration with the Fiji Museum sought to understand the hill forts of Bua (northern Fiji). At the outset, we knew only that such places existed here because written accounts described them.

These include that of Commodore Wilkes of the US Navy who described in 1845 “a high and insulated peak […] which has a town perched on its very top.” We identified this peak as Seseleka, 420 metres above sea level, and mapped and excavated it as part of this project.

Maps of Seseleka hill fort, Bua, Fiji. Map A shows the approach to the summit of Seseleka along steep-sided ridge lines cut by artificial ditches and stone walls. Map B shows the summit of Seseleka with the main residential area to the west (with yavu or stone house platforms) and lookout mounds along its axis.
Patrick Nunn

As shown in our map, the flat-topped summit of Seseleka comprises an ocean-facing terrace with the remains of residence platforms (yavu) slightly below a series of three artificial mounds used as lookouts.

Pot shards and edible shellfish remains are scattered around, the latter well suited to radiocarbon dating. There is also an artificial pool (toevu) on top of Seseleka from the mud in the bottom of which we extracted carbon samples for dating.

The results show that people were living on top of Seseleka as early as AD 1670, probably earlier, utilising earthenware for cooking and storage, periodically going down to the coast to collect shellfish that were brought back for less-mobile inhabitants to consume.

In total, we re-discovered 16 hill forts in Bua and, through a range of techniques from radiocarbon dating to the collection and analysis of oral traditions, have helped fill in some details of this poorly-known period of Fiji history.

A plausible explanation is that some 700 years ago, when sea levels in Fiji fell slightly, a food crisis resulted, which led to warfare and the abandonment of coastal sites for mountain-top ones.




Read more:
Rise and fall: social collapse linked to sea level in the Pacific


A few weeks ago, we returned from a reconnaissance trip looking for hill forts in the high volcanic islands of the Kadavu group (southern Fiji). On the pristine stellate island of Ono, we visited and mapped five hill forts, including ones on the summits of Qilai and Uluisolo, the latter reputed to be the place where the god Tanovu who battled the recalcitrant god of distant Nabukelevu island once lived.

But the least expected find was on top of the mountain named Madre where numerous large rocks have been rolled up onto its summit and arranged, it seems, in ways consistent with megalithic structures elsewhere in the world.

In a first for Fiji, there seems to be the remains of a dolmen (a stone tomb) on the summit of Madre.

The dolmen on the hill fort at the summit of Madre, Ono Island, Fiji.
Patrick Nunn

The Fijian word for village is “koro”, used today to refer to any nucleated settlement, mostly along the islands’ coasts. But up until about the 1830s, the word koro was used only to refer to a mountain-top village, thus the name Korolevu means “big village”, Korovatu means “rocky village” and Koronivalu means “war town”. The study of place names can help illuminate history in countries like Fiji where written history is incomplete.

On Ono Island in Kadavu, the researchers stayed in the villages of Vabea and Waisomo and made several ascents of the formidable mountain behind them. This mountain – and the impressive hill fort that sprawls across it – is named Korovou, meaning “new village”, in this sense a new hill fort built, presumably, after another was abandoned. Where its predecessor was, no one is sure … yet.

The author would like to acknowledge his co-researchers in the three-year study of Buan hill forts – Elia Nakoro and Niko Tokainavatu (Fiji Museum), Michelle McKeown (Landcare New Zealand), Paul Geraghty and Frank Thomas (University of the South Pacific), and Piérick Martin, Brandon Hourigan and Roselyn Kumar (University of the Sunshine Coast).The Conversation

Patrick D. Nunn, Professor of Geography, School of Social Sciences, University of the Sunshine Coast

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


How ancient seafarers and their dogs helped a humble louse conquer the world



Male (left) and female Heterodoxus spiniger from Borneo.
Natural History Museum, London, Author provided

Loukas Koungoulos, University of Sydney

This is the story of how a parasitic, skin-chewing insect came to conquer the world.

For more than a century, scientists have been puzzled as to how an obscure louse native to Australia came to be found on dogs across the world. Heterodoxus spiniger evolved to live in the fur of the agile wallaby.

Despite little evidence to back the idea, many researchers believed it was linked to people from Asia bringing the dingo to Australia in ancient times. Perhaps people later took dingoes infested with this parasite back home, where it spread to local dogs, and onwards from there.




Read more:
Dingoes do bark: why most dingo facts you think you know are wrong


But when we approached the question again using the most up-to-date information, my colleague Peter Contos and I came up with a completely different explanation – one that better fits what we know of ancient migration and trade in the Asia-Pacific region.

As we report in the journal Environmental Archaeology, this louse probably originated not in Australia but in New Guinea, an island with a long history of intimate connection with seafaring Asian cultures.

Louse on the loose

H. spiniger is a tiny louse that lives on mammals around the world, mostly dogs. Using its clawed legs to hang on, it bites and chews at the skin and hair of its hosts to draw the blood on which it feeds.

As all its closest relatives are specialised parasites of marsupials, mostly other wallabies, logic suggested that H. spiniger must have evolved within Australia. It also seemed logical it would have spread first to the dingo, Australia’s native dog.

Our first task was to figure out just how far away from Australia it had spread; this would inform the likely pathways by which it could have travelled to the wider world.

We looked at museum collections, entomological surveys, and veterinary research reports to generate a map of its worldwide distribution.

Global distribution of H. spiniger.
Lougoulos and Contos, Author provided

The specimens we found, collected from the late 19th century to the present day, showed that this species is found on every continent except Europe and Antarctica.

But in Australia, we couldn’t find a single verifiable instance of the parasite living on dingoes. The only cases were from agile wallabies and domestic dogs.

That meant the prevailing wisdom had been wrong, and we had to look elsewhere for the origins of H. spiniger.

Don’t blame the dingoes.
Blanka Berankova/Shutterstock

Where did it really come from?

Although marsupials are best known from Australia, they are also found in other parts of the surrounding region. The agile wallaby is also native to the island of New Guinea, which was once joined with Australia.

Dogs have also been in New Guinea for at least as long as the dingo has been in Australia. Traditionally, dogs were kept in Papuan villages, and were used to hunt game, including wallabies.

It came as little surprise, then, that we found H. spiniger on both agile wallabies and native dogs in New Guinea – and only a few decades after the first ever identification of the species.

So here was a more likely place in which the first transfer from wallaby to dog took place. But who took them out of New Guinea and into the wider world?

Austronesian voyagers

New Guinea was first colonised by humans around the same time as Australia. But since that time, compared with Australia it has had notably stronger connections with the outside world, reaching back millennia before European colonisation of Australia in 1788.

Around 4,000 years ago, agriculturalists known as Austronesians sailed out of Taiwan to settle several archipelagos in Oceania. With them they brought domestic species of plants and animals, including dogs.

By 3,000 years ago, at the latest, they reached New Guinea. We suggest this was the crucial moment when dogs first picked up H. spiniger.

In the ensuing centuries, Austronesians went on to settle much of Indonesia, the Philippines, Melanesia and Polynesia, and coastal sections of mainland Southeast Asia.

They even settled as far as Madagascar, suggesting their voyages probably took them around the rim of the Indian Ocean, along the margins of India and the Middle East.

Dogs accompanying the migrants probably helped spread the louse, which is found almost everywhere they went.

This spans an enormous distance – from Hawaii to Madagascar – a testament to the ancient Austronesians’ supreme seafaring skills.

New directions

Our research suggests how the parasite first got around the world, but not precisely when. Its journey probably progressed at different times in different places.

The Austronesian diaspora established trade routes between the places they settled, some of which spanned impressive distances across several island groups.




Read more:
How to get to Australia … more than 50,000 years ago


Later, foreign traders connected these communities with greater Asia and Africa. And in modern times, dogs continue to be transported as desirable goods themselves.

Trade and contact has probably led to further, possibly ongoing, dispersal of H. spiniger.

Unfortunately there are no archaeological examples that could demonstrate the louse’s early presence outside New Guinea, because this species prefers hot, humid environments.

A genetic approach is a better way forward. A start would be testing specimens from different parts of the world, to see when different regional populations – if they exist – branched off from one another.

This is particularly important in tracking its spread to the Americas, which likely occurred in recent centuries alongside European colonisation.

This research will help us further understand how migration, contact and trade unfolded in the prehistoric Asia-Pacific region, and how it affected the animal species – including the humblest of parasites – we see there today.


This paper would not have been possible without the contributions of Peter Contos, the work of volunteers on the Natural History Museum’s Boopidae of Australasia digitisation project, and the contributions of the public to Wikipedia Creative Commons, for which we are grateful.The Conversation

Loukas Koungoulos, PhD Candidate, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Ancient Helike


The link below is to an article that takes a look at the ancient Greek city of Helike and how it disappeared in an earthquake.

For more visit:
https://archaeologynewsnetwork.blogspot.com/2019/06/what-happened-to-ancient-helike.html


Trees, the ancient Macedonians, and the world’s first environmental disaster


Anthony Dosseto, University of Wollongong and Alex Francke, University of Wollongong

It’s a simple enough equation: good soil is the key to good food. And good soil starts with trees.

Alexander the Great conquered a vast empire that extended from Greece all the way to India. However, his ancestors’ fortune was a mixed bag. A new series of studies show the ancient Macedonians may have been struck by one of the earliest environmental disasters linked to human activity.

Ancient sediment records sealed in lakes for thousands of years reveals how logging may have affected erosion, which ultimately destroyed the capacity of the ancient Macedonians to grow food.




Read more:
Soil is the key to our planet’s history (and future)


More trees, on the other hand, appears to have made soil erosion less susceptible to climate change. The lessons for modern people – and our future prosperity – are clear.

Soil is a kingmaker

Something wonderful happens when rocks, formed in the guts of the Earth, come into contact with air and water: they break down into clays (and other things) to form soils. Because of their ability to store water and nutrients, soils are the food basket of land plants and all the animals that feed on them, including us.

Preserving soil has been the key for success to all past civilisations. Those who lost it would rapidly be precipitated into oblivion. This happened everywhere: the Middle East, Greece, Rome and Mesamerica.

Preserving our soil should therefore be at the centre of our concerns (although it rarely gets a look-in on the nightly news).

Erosion isn’t just a problem because the land loses soil. This soil enters waterways, increasing the sediment load of rivers. This high sediment load harms freshwater and coastal ecosystems, including fish population and, ultimately, us. We therefore need to better understand how climate change and humans shape soil erosion.

Macedonian timber and the first environmental disaster

The chemistry of sediments deposited on lake’s bottom records how the environment changed over hundreds and thousands of years. Recently, we have studied sediments from Lake Dojran, straddling the border between Northern Macedonia and Greece. We looked at the past 12,000 years of sediment archive and found about 3,500 years ago, a massive erosion event happened.




Read more:
500 years of drought and flood: trees and corals reveal Australia’s climate history


Pollen trapped in the lake’s sediment suggests this is linked to deforestation and the introduction of agriculture in the region. Macedonian timber was highly praised for ship building at the time, which could explain the extent of deforestation.

A massive erosion event would have catastrophic consequences for agriculture and pasture. Interestingly, this event is followed by the onset of the so-called Greek “Dark Ages” (3,100 to 2,850 years ago) and the demise of the highly sophisticated Bronze Age Mycenaean civilisation.

Further to the west, at the crossroads between Albania and Norther Macedonia, Lake Ohrid holds a much longer storyline: an international scientific drilling program is uncovering the past million year of climate and environmental stories locked in Lake Ohrid sediments.

We recently looked at Lake Ohrid on a more modest time scale, similar to the Lake Dojran project: the past 16,000 years.

At Lake Ohrid, there are also signs of increased soil erosion around 4,000 years ago. These results are consistent with previous suggestions of a human role on soil erosion at other lakes in Greece.

Overall, there are clear signs that deforestation and the development of agriculture precedes the Greek “Dark Ages”. While the causal link cannot be established with certainty, this timeline could represent the first negative feedback loop where humans depleted environmental resources, which in turn harmed communities.

Trees can make soil less sensitive to climate change

Lake Ohrid tells us another interesting story: until 8,000 years ago, soil erosion was closely following climate change. During dry and cold periods, erosion was shallow, probably as a consequence of dry conditions; while during warmer periods, higher levels of erosion delivered more sediment to the lake.

Around 8,000 years ago, something interesting happens: trees become the dominant type of vegetation cover. While trees were already abundant in previous warm periods (and less during cold periods), from 8,000 years ago onwards, they overwhelm the type of pollen that fell into the lake and became trapped in the sediment.




Read more:
Forest soil needs decades or centuries to recover from fires and logging


This tree dominance has an important consequence for soil erosion: after 8,000 years ago, soil erosion became shallow and remained so, even while the climate continued to oscillate. We can see soil erosion became less sensitive to climatic fluctuations.

We already knew that trees, thanks to their deep roots, help stabilise soil and prevent its loss; what we learn here is that over a certain threshold of tree cover, they also make soil erosion much less sensitive to climate change.

Lake Ohrid provides us with an important lesson, especially as we are increasingly concerned with how our soil and water resources will be affected by global warming. If we want to preserve our soils and rivers (and feed our communities) we need to ensure that enough of our landscape is covered with trees.

Planting trees and forest management should not be a concern for nature enthusiasts only, but for all us – regardless of political inclination – who enjoy eating. Understanding the past is not simply about learning from our ancestors’ mistakes so we do not repeat them, but freeing ourselves from their grip so new paths unfold ahead of us.The Conversation

Anthony Dosseto, Associate Professor, University of Wollongong and Alex Francke, Research Fellow, University of Wollongong

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Life in Ancient Rome



The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt



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