How Many "First Australians" Were There?

New research suggests ancestors of the Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, and Melanesian peoples arrived in a planned, coordinated migration. The mathemetical models used take three sets of data into account. First, fertility, longevity, and survival data from hunter-gatherer societies around the globe. Second, "hindcasts" of past climatic conditions from general circulation models -- basically the reverse of what scientists use to forecast future climate changes. Third, the long-established principles of population ecology. Combining these three, the scientists ran a number of simulations, to estimate how many people would have needed to arrive to found a sustainable Australian population.

The results suggest that the first Australians arrived with a settler population of at least 1,300 people. Any fewer than that, and they probably would not have survived, per the mathematical models. The probability of survival was also large if people arrived in smaller, successive waves, averaging at least 130 people every 70 or so years over the course of about 700 years. Either way, the settling of Australia was no accident. It was not one storm-tossed canoe washing up on a new shore. It was a planned and coordinated effort to migrate to a new homeland.

How Were Ancient Greek Women Educated?

Historians generally believe that ancient Greek girls did not have as much access to education as ancient Greek boys. But they must have had some, sometimes. Recorded history remembers a number of educated women such as Sappho of Lesbos, a famous poet, and Diotima, a philosopher and contemporary of Socrates. The lack of documentation on women's lives in classical Greece makes it difficult to determine exactly how much education girls received, however. Were these educated women rare? Or relatively common?

In addition to famous educated women, evidence also comes from art historians. A handful of artworks depict females studying! A kylix from the 400s BCE depict a female student carrying a tablet and stylus, used to write notes during a teacher's lectures. A vase from the same century shows a woman reading from a papyrus (above), meaning she had been taught how to read. A water vessel from the 500s BCE show two young girls being taught to dance by a female teacher. Such limited and fragmentary evidence is all historians have to attempt to understand how girls and women were educated in ancient Greece.

Gender Imbalance in Neolithic Iberia

Archaeologists from the University of Seville recently completed a review of more than 500 Neolithic burials at 21 archaeological sites on the Iberian Peninsula. They found that at the 198 graves where the sex of the deceased could be determined, there were 1.5 male graves for every female grave. The researchers said that children’s graves were also underrepresented in the sample. “The quantity of males cannot be natural,” Cintas-Peña said. The study indicates that men were more likely to be buried with arrowheads and other projectiles, and more likely to have signs of injury or violent death, while women were more likely to be buried with ceramics.

However, the researchers added, the most elaborate graves in the cemeteries did not necessarily belong to men. They suggest gender differences, and male predominance in terms of violence, arose along with social inequalities as people accumulated private property. “If we can say that gender inequality began in the Neolithic, or in the Copper Age or in any period, it means that it's something cultural, it’s not something biologically determined,” Cintas-Peña explained.

Shang-era bronze wine container, with a “taotie” decor. It’s particularly notable because the container’s lid survives. Circa 1100 BCE

Courtesy of the Harvard Art Museum

Earliest Evidence of Smoked Cannabis Found in Central Asia

Central Asians were smoking cannabis by 500 BCE! Archaeologists have found traces of cannabinol, an oxidative metabolite of tetrahydrocannabinol (or THC) in incense burners recovered from the ancient Jirzankal Cemetery on the Pamir Plateau in western China. It appears that cannabis plants were placed in the incense burners, then hot stones placed on top, to create a mind-bending smoke. There is archaeological evidence that cannabis has been grown and cultivated since around 4000 BCE, but because those plants had very low THC content, they were likely being grown for their fiber and oil.

The new discovery at Pamir Plateau is the first clear evidence of cannabis being used for its psychoactive properties. Especially interesting: the charred remains had higher THC concentrations than are found in wild plants, suggesting they had deliberately been cultivated to enhance their psychoactive properties, or that the Jirzankal people sought out wild plants with especially high THC content.

Etruscan wolf's head helmet (possibly), dating to the 500s or 400s BCE. Its exact original usage is unknown. Hence the uncertainty as to whether to classify the object as a "helmet." Whatever it was originally made for, it sure looks neat!

Tracing Wine's Family Tree

An international team of archaeologists and geneticists have compared the genomes obtained from 28 grape pips, discovered at nine archaeological sites in France, the oldest pip dating to some 2,500 years ago. These genomes were then compared to a modern grape DNA database. One grape seed, unearthed at a medieval site in the center of France and dated to around 1100 CE, was found to have DNA identical to Savagnin Blanc. That's the grape used to produce a wine known in France as Vin Jaune, and in Central Europe as Traminer. The lineage of this one grape has been maintained for 900 years!

The study also found that humagne blanche, a white grape grown in the Swiss Alps, is related to grapes grown by the Romans in southern France. It confirms stories of the Romans bringing grapes and wine into Switzerland.

Fertility Problems May Have Ended the Neanderthals

A new computer model has been used to test a variety of factors that may have influenced the extinction of the Neanderthals. And the results suggest that humans probably did not kill them off, as has long been theorized. The computer results suggest that wars or epidemics brought on by contact with modern humans would have caused Neanderthals to die off more rapidly than appears to have been the case.

Based on findings from the archaeological record, Neanderthals are believed to have lived alongside modern humans in Europe for some 4,000 to 10,000 years. The researchers think a slight drop in the fertility rate among young Neanderthal women, perhaps brought on by climate change and resulting food shortages, could instead be to blame.

Earth During the Last Ice Age

Lake Chad was much larger, Indonesia was a minicontinent, and the Bering Land Bridge was walkable!

The First Name In History

The first person whose name is known in history lived about 5,000 years ago in the Mesopotamian city of Uruk. While many legendary kings go further back, oral tradition does not count as history, which must be written down. So the earliest name we have, that was written when the person was alive, was a little more mundane than a king.

A cuneiform tablet reads "29,086 measures barley 37 months Kushim." The most probable reading is ‘A total of 29,086 measures of barley were received over the course of 37 months. Signed, Kushim.’ Kushim was most probably an accountant. So the first almost-certainly-lived person whose name we know was an accountant. And therefore mostly probably a man.

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    HISTORICAL NON-FICTION

    By Lillian Audette

    This blog is a collection of the interesting, the weird, and sometimes the need-to-know about history, culled from around the internet. It has pictures, it has quotes, it occasionally has my own opinions on things. If you want to know more about anything posted, follow the link at the "source" on the bottom of each post. And if you really like my work, buy me a coffee or become a patron!

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