A Jotï child collecting Inga fruits, Kayama, Venezuela (c) Eglee Zent.
A Jotï child collecting Inga fruits, Kayama, Venezuela (c) Eglee Zent.

People Began Domesticating the Amazon Rain Forest 8000 Years Ago

A Jotï child collecting Inga fruits, Kayama, Venezuela (c) Eglee Zent.
A Jotï child collecting Inga fruits, Kayama, Venezuela (c) Eglee Zent.

Scientists have identified long-standing concentrations of cacao, acai, and brazil nut trees near archaeological sites in the Amazon rain forest—a discovery that suggests pre-Columbian peoples were cultivating useful species for a very long time, in some cases more than 8000 years ago. The researchers published their findings today, March 2, in the journal Science.

The study is the result of work by hundreds of ecologists and social scientists from around the world. The team overlaid more than 1000 forest surveys with a map of more than 3000 archaeological sites across the Amazon, focusing on 85 species that are currently or have historically been used by Amazon peoples for food and shelter.

Hatahara Site with Manacapuru phase urns and anthropogenic dark soils, ca 600 CE © Val Moraes—Central Amazon Project

Those 85 domesticated species appeared to have a real edge over their fellow trees. In particular, 20 of them were five times more likely to appear on the surveys than other species, and were both more common and more diverse than other trees in the regions surrounding ancient archaeological sites. From these trees, people took food and shelter. To these trees, they gave dominion over other species.

Forest with domesticated hyperdominant species (Bertholletia excelsa and Euterpe precatoria) on anthropogenic dark soils. Both species have a long history of human use (c) Carolina Levis.

Was human cultivation of these trees responsible for the trees’ success? Or was the trees’ success what made them attractive targets for domestication? The researchers admit that it’s sort of a “chicken-and-egg question.” Still, they write, “the first alternative is more probable, given the sum of other evidence that also supports the influence of past societies in increasing domesticated species abundance and richness in forests.”

Team leader Carolina Levis is a Ph.D. student at Brazil's National Institute for Amazonian Research (INPA) and at Wageningen University and Research Center in the Netherlands. “For many years, ecological studies ignored the influence of pre-Columbian peoples on the forests we see today,” she said in a statement. Yet domesticated species “are vital for the livelihood and economy of Amazonian peoples and indicate that the Amazonian flora is in part a surviving heritage of its former inhabitants."

The long-standing relationship between local people and domesticated trees continues to this day. Co-author Flávia Costa of INPA noted that the forest regions with the highest concentrations of domesticated trees are also the same ones losing the most ground to deforestation and development.

“Southwestern and eastern Amazonia may not be considered classical biodiversity hotspots,” she said, “but should be top conservation priorities as reservoirs of high value forests for human populations.”

Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma
Utility Workers May Have Found One of Rome’s First Churches
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

The remains of what may have been one of Rome’s earliest Christian churches were accidentally discovered along the Tiber River during construction, The Local reports. The four-room structure, which could have been built as early as the 1st century CE, was unearthed by electrical technicians who were laying cables along the Ponte Milvio.

The newly discovered structure next to the river
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

No one is sure what to make of this “archaeological enigma shrouded in mystery,” in the words of Rome’s Archaeological Superintendency. Although there’s no definitive theory as of yet, experts have a few ideas.

The use of colorful African marble for the floors and walls has led archaeologists to believe that the building probably served a prestigious—or perhaps holy—function as the villa of a noble family or as a Christian place of worship. Its proximity to an early cemetery spawned the latter theory, since it's common for churches to have mausoleums attached to them. Several tombs were found in that cemetery, including one containing the intact skeleton of a Roman man.

Marble flooring
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

A tomb
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma1

The walls are made of brick, and the red, green, and beige marble had been imported from Sparta (Greece), Egypt, and present-day Tunisia, The Telegraph reports.

As The Local points out, it’s not all that unusual in Rome for archaeological discoveries to be made by unsuspecting people going about their day. Rome’s oldest aqueduct was found by Metro workers, and an ancient bath house and tombs were found during construction on a new church.

[h/t The Local]

Alexis Pantos, University of Copenhagen
Scientists Just Found the Oldest Known Piece of Bread
Alexis Pantos, University of Copenhagen
Alexis Pantos, University of Copenhagen

An old, charred piece of long-forgotten flatbread has captured the interest of archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians around the world. Found in a stone fireplace in Jordan’s Black Desert, this proto-pita dates back 14,400 years, making it the oldest known example of bread, Reuters reports.

To put the significance of this discovery in context: the flatbread predates the advent of agriculture by 4000 years, leading researchers to theorize that the laborious process of making the bread from wild cereals may have inspired early hunter-gatherers to cultivate grain and save themselves a whole lot of trouble.

“We now have to assess whether there was a relationship between bread production and the origins of agriculture,” Amaia Arranz-Otaegui, a researcher with the University of Copenhagen, told Reuters. “It is possible that bread may have provided an incentive for people to take up plant cultivation and farming, if it became a desirable or much-sought-after food.”

A report on these findings—written by researchers from the University of Copenhagen, University College London, and University of Cambridge—was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It was once thought that bread was an invention of early farming civilizations. A 9100-year-old piece of bread from Turkey was previously regarded as the oldest of its kind. However, the Jordanian flatbread was made by a group of hunter-gatherers called the Natufians, who lived during a transitional period from nomadic to sedentary ways of life, at which time diets also started to change.

Similar to a pita, this unleavened bread was made from wild cereals akin to barley, einkorn, and oats. These were “ground, sieved, and kneaded prior to cooking,” according to a statement from the University of Copenhagen. The ancient recipe also called for tubers from an aquatic plant, which Arranz-Otaegui described as tasting “gritty and salty."

[h/t Reuters]


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