This Week in Experimental Archaeology

Twenty German college students are spending the summer living and training as Roman gladiators:

The student warriors, who are all studying various disciplines at the university, won’t be eating pizza, hamburgers or steaks during their training. Instead they’ll have berries and white beans on their plates as the ancient Roman doctor Galen recommended in his texts.

They will also learn to fight wearing bronze helmets that weigh almost five kilogrammes at a camp that won’t allow girlfriends, showers, or washing machines.

“For me it’s a welcome change from sitting in front of the computer,” said athletic archaeology student Martin Schreiner.

He and the other gladiators are already training together four days a week. Following the summer training camp the group plans to perform at the former Roman army camp Carnuntum in Austria.

The worst part of the experience will be the food. Gladiators ate a vegetarian diet consisting largely of a barley gruel. The fat gain from the starchy carbs is believed to have acted as a shield against blows and cuts received in the arena. [via HistoryTweeter]

Next on deck: a group of economists and anthropologists believe agriculture precipitated market economies because surpluses forced people to associate with others outside their social sphere:

To arrive at this conclusion, the team set up money-swapping games played by people from small societies around the world — farmers, hunter-gatherers, seaside foragers, livestock herders, and wage laborers — and looked at how each group divvied up resources.

Participants who regularly have to deal with outsiders treated strangers more fairly, sharing a pool of money or valuables more equally, the team found.

Game players’ willingness to split up resources fairly with an unknown partner rose sharply with their “market integration,” or the extent that they lived in communities with market economies.

I’m generally dubious of these sorts of games and models since I suspect the rules often support pre-established conclusions. In this case, the people with higher “market integration” may have been fairer to strangers simply because they were more familiar with the trading process itself.

In addition, participants from the largest communities were most likely to punish players whom they regarded as offering unfair deals. That meant canceling the deal and getting nothing or paying part of one’s own pool of money to cause an even bigger loss for the unfair player.

That’s not good news for traditional economic theories that regard self-interest as the engine of commerce. If those theories are right, players should take whatever someone else gives them, because that’s better than nothing.

Wrong. One of the most common misconceptions of capitalism is that individuals are motivated by material gain alone. “Self-interest” is not the same as “greed.” If a man spends a lot of money at a bar trying to pick up a woman, he’s still working in his self-interest. Other desires — like love or sex or vengeance — may outweigh the desire for wealth within the breast of an individual. It’s a mistake made not just by journalists but by economists as well. A lot of people seem to think of markets as robotic abacuses, with beads shuttling back and forth in a logical manner, but I’m always surprised at how often pure emotion fuels the economy, particularly the stock market.

Trade led to market economies because people began to trade — I think the writer garbled the point, although maybe the researchers did too. The belief in archaeology is that agriculture led to larger, fixed populations, which led to more complex societies featuring skill specialization, which often led to market economies because specialized individuals had to trade with each other to obtain things they could no longer produce for themselves.

This Week in Dinosaurs

A zoologist believes birds didn’t evolve from dinosaurs but rather both had a shared ancestor:

Almost 20 years of research at OSU on the morphology of birds and dinosaurs, along with other studies and the newest PNAS research, Ruben said, are actually much more consistent with a different premise – that birds may have had an ancient common ancestor with dinosaurs, but they evolved separately on their own path, and after millions of years of separate evolution birds also gave rise to the raptors. Small animals such as velociraptor that have generally been thought to be dinosaurs are more likely flightless birds, he said.

Granted, that’s from the Oregon State University press release, but I’m surprised this hasn’t received more widespread attention. Via Palaeoblog.

From Romania comes evidence that island dwarfism affected dinosaurs too:

Benton, who directs the Palaeobiology and Biodiversity Research Group at the University of Bristol, and his colleagues conducted one of the most extensive studies yet on the Hateg Island dinosaur remains. They analyzed the dinosaurs’ limb proportions and bone growth patterns, comparing them with those of mainland dinos.

The analysis determined that at least four of the Hateg dinosaurs were dwarves.

The diminutive dinosaurs included the titanosaurian sauropod Magyarosaurus, which had a body length of about 16 to 19 feet. That’s impressive by human standards, but is miniature compared to a sauropod such as Argentinosaurus, which grew to be at least 82 feet long.

Finally, isotopic analysis suggests spinosaurus and its kin spent much of its time lurking and hunting in shallow water just like modern alligators and crocodiles. This allowed them to exist alongside other large Cretaceous theropods since spinosaurids weren’t in competition with terrestrial meat-eaters.

Photo of T-rex taken at the AMNH.

Blackbeard Artifacts Displayed

Reporters were given a gander at some of the artifacts raised from Blackbeard’s ship:

David Moore, nautical archaeologist with the N.C. Maritime Museum, said all of the artifacts date to the early 18th century, the correct time for the shipwreck, which was in November 1718.  Two artifacts have dates inscribed, a bell from 1705 and a cannon from 1713.  There are four anchors of the correct vintage at the site, and about a quarter million lead shot have been recovered.  He said other ships would not necessarily be so heavily armed, and that this is likely leftover armament from a pirate ship.

The article goes on to speculate that Queen Anne’s Revenge could be to North Carolina tourism what the HL Hunley is to South Carolina tourism. But judging from this year’s field report, that may be some time coming since funding for major recovery is not apparent:

Nearly two feet of sand has been deposited in most places since the lowest point recorded in 2005 and is at levels not seen since the shipwreck’s discovery in 1996. With no funding to continue full recovery operations, this is a good development. When sand covers artifacts it is generally conducive to artifact preservation because it puts them in an anaerobic environment and buffers impacts from currents and critters.

Lights Go Out on Killer Comet Theory

Remember that comet that struck Canada 12,900 years ago and killed the woolly mammoths? Yeah, the thing is, about that:

The proponents of the theory said that they had found evidence of a comet impact, including magnetic microspherules, in the earth overlying 10 Clovis-age archaeological sites across North America.

University of Wyoming archaeologist Ted Surovell and several colleagues attempted to repeat the study and came up with startlingly different results.

Using the same methods, Surovell and his co-researchers were “unable to find high concentrations of magnetic particles and spherules” – even at the two sites previously studied by the original researchers

As noted previously, the comet hypothesis, while generating hubbub on the Googletubes, never explained how the strike caused megafauna extinctions. We’re left where we’ve always been: at the end of the Pleistocene, when some large animals died off, others lived on, and we have little explanation why any of it happened.

Photo courtesy of Noel Munford of the Palmerston North Astronomical Society, New Zealand (via NASA).

Cost World

An international expedition has discovered giant monitor lizards and 40 unidentified species of rats, bats, frogs, and fish tucked inside the crater of an extinct volcano in Papua New Guinea. Photo essay of some of the critters here.

Just as interesting is the story of the expedition’s logistics. With the volcano situated deep in the rainforest 15 miles from the closest village, the explorers first had to drop some Adam Smith on the residents:

They also had to explain to local hunter-gatherers the concept of paying them to help establish a base camp near the village. Elders, trackers and boatmen were among 25 local people employed by the international team of 25 scientists and filmmakers, who also required a cook, a medic and a climbing expert to help them scale trees.

Concerned not to eat the village out of food, the scientists employed local people to plant sweet potatoes and a spinach-like crop in preparation for their expedition in January, reducing the amount of corned beef and rice flown in via helicopters, the only means of transport to the village.

I once heard an archaeologist say the reason more work wasn’t done at Meroë — the land of the Black Pharaohs — was racism. The real answer is cost and logistics. One of my frustrations with the portrayal of Egyptian archaeology on television is that camera crews only show the pyramids at Giza or the Valley of the Kings, never venturing into the oases or past the First Cataract of the Nile. To do so would involve leaving behind the convenience of Cairo and Luxor, which is another way of saying they’d have to spend more money. Now imagine scraping together the funds to delve into the deep deserts of Sudan without the profit motive of prime time behind you.

It’s telling that BBC camerafolks accompanied the Papua New Guinea expedition. Not that I begrudge them; if anything, universities should do away with their grant-writing seminars and instead school their field scientists in how to pitch TV execs. Maybe then we’d see more Meroë in the news.

Froggy photo by Ulla Lohmann for the BBC.

More Death From Above

A new study says a comet did to the mammoth what an asteroid did to the T-rex:

Space rocks that slammed into the glaciers of eastern Canada some 12,900 years ago likely helped wipe out mega-animals like woolly mammoths and possibly the continent’s first human inhabitants called the Clovis people, according to a new study that adds to evidence that a trio of factors were involved.

The new evidence comes from recently discovered nano-sized diamonds, which researchers say are the strongest clues to date for an argument that could explain the region’s die-off during the late Pleistocene epoch.

This still isn’t a silver bullet. Like the overkill hypothesis, it doesn’t explain why some American megafauna went extinct while others — bison, moose, bighorn sheep — live on to this day.

I interviewed John Harris, the chief curator at the Page Museum in Los Angeles, a few years ago for a story. He told me that Pleistocene juniper twigs pulled from the brea showed distinct evidence of carbon starvation. This suggested that plant resources were diminished, which in turn affected herbivores and their predators. “When you review the herbivores that survived you’ll note they comprise ruminants (bison, deer) and omnivores (peccaries). Horses, ground sloths and proboscideans are hind-gut fermenters that failed to survive,” Harris said. If you’ve ever walked behind a horse, you know it leaves a lot of undigested plant matter in its path. Cud-chewers digest plants more efficiently; omnivores have a greater variety of food on which they can live.

Did the atmospheric results of the comet cause carbon starvation? So far so good, but it still doesn’t explain megafauna extinctions in other parts of the world. What I really want to know is why horses went extinct in North America but survived in Eurasia. Was the comet felt here more than there?