Day Donaldson via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY 2.0
Day Donaldson via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY 2.0

Archaeologists Find Evidence That Prehistoric Peoples Ate (and Possibly Hunted) Whales

Day Donaldson via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY 2.0
Day Donaldson via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY 2.0

Early humans may have been more sophisticated and even gutsier than we realized. Researchers examining 4000-year-old trash heaps have identified the genetic remains of several species of whales. The team published their findings in the journal Nature Communications.

The first Greenlanders were the Saqqaq people, who arrived on the frozen continent around 2500 BCE. These were tempestuous times for our planet’s climate and, consequently, for its inhabitants, especially those in extreme habitats. The Saqqaq had to be super-adaptable if they wanted to survive.

Much of what we know about these early Greenlanders has come as a result of picking through their trash. Over the last century, archaeologists have excavated numerous middens (garbage dumps) dating back to the very first Saqqaq settlements. Unsurprisingly, they’ve found a lot of chunks of bone. Bone fragments are super-interesting, but they’re also quite limited in what they can tell us about a given civilization. For one thing, it’s hard to differentiate closely related species by looking at chips of their bones. For another, not every animal skeleton would end up on a trash heap. If the Saqqaq were hunting large animals, it’s unlikely that they would have dragged whole carcasses all the way home.

Fortunately, the middens contained a lot more than just bones.

Researchers collected 34 different sediment samples from settlement sites dating from around 2500 BCE to around 1800 CE. They processed the sediment through a sieve, which left them with piles of midden soil and smaller piles of the parasite eggs that had been living in it. Then they put both dirt and eggs through a battery of DNA tests to identify their origins.

This approach has a number of perks. Genetic testing can pull information from all kinds of organic material, including fat, skin, meat, and claws. And recruiting parasites to the research adds a whole new level of detail, since many parasites are picky and will only feed on certain species. Finding those parasites means there’s a pretty good chance those species were once there, too.

The middens were delightfully diverse in their contents. The researchers found genetic traces of 42 different types of vertebrate animals, including dogs and wolves (which may have been companion animals tethered near the dump), hares, caribou, and seals, and—in the oldest sites—walruses, seals, narwhals, and bowhead whales.

Exactly how the Saqqaq had snagged these massive animals remains to be seen. Whale scavenging was not unheard of in prehistoric times, the authors note, and an unpredictable climate could have caused a surge in whale strandings. But it’s also possible that these prehistoric settlers were out bagging whales. Hunters in other Greenland cultures are known for using poison-tipped spears to immobilize enormous prey; the Saqqaq people may have done something similar.

The discovery that early Greenlanders ate whales is one that “requires re-evaluating maritime history,” the authors write. “Western history has always considered European whaling as the originator and pinnacle of marine exploitation,” yet this study “pushes back the first evidence of whale product usage in the Arctic and can be seen as a logical development of the powers of indigenous observation and ingenuity in the efficient use of a plentiful northern marine energy resource.”

The study is “quite interesting,” says historical ecologist Josh Drew of Columbia University. Drew, who was unaffiliated with the study, recently co-authored a paper on the 19th-century whaling boom’s effect on other species.

The new paper "recognizes the technological acumen of indigenous people,” Drew tells mental_floss, "and shows that they were capable of highly sophisticated hunting techniques (and apparently using biological warfare) to capture whales.”

On top of that, these findings shake up our ideas of a “pristine” baseline for marine ecosystems. “It turns out those populations weren't so pristine,” he says, “and that our species has a long, tangled, history with Arctic marine mammals.”

Why Tiny 'Hedgehog Highways' Are Popping Up Around London

Hedgehogs as pets have gained popularity in recent years, but in many parts of the world, they're still wild animals. That includes London, where close to a million of the creatures roam streets, parks, and gardens, seeking out wood and vegetation to take refuge in. Now, Atlas Obscura reports that animal activists are transforming the city into a more hospitable environment for hedgehogs.

Barnes Hedgehogs, a group founded by Michel Birkenwald in the London neighborhood of Barnes four years ago, is responsible for drilling tiny "hedgehog highways" through walls around London. The passages are just wide enough for the animals to climb through, making it easier for them to travel from one green space to the next.

London's wild hedgehog population has seen a sharp decline in recent decades. Though it's hard to pin down accurate numbers for the elusive animals, surveys have shown that the British population has dwindled by tens of millions since the 1950s. This is due to factors like human development and habitat destruction by farmers who aren't fond of the unattractive shrubs, hedges, and dead wood that hedgehogs use as their homes.

When such environments are left to grow, they can still be hard for hedgehogs to access. Carving hedgehog highways through the stone partitions and wooden fences bordering parks and gardens is one way Barnes Hedgehogs is making life in the big city a little easier for its most prickly residents.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.


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