Big digs: The year 2016 in archaeology

Warming our world

Not without controversy, it has now been recommended that the Anthropocene should be formalised as a geological epoch, beginning at AD 1950: the “nuclear age”.

XX-10 Priscilla detonation in 1957Image copyrightUS DOE/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
Image captionThe advent of the nuclear age is a proposed starting point for the new geological epoch

However, our impact on the environment is proving to be significantly older.

This year, while scientists presented further evidence that global warming was linked to industrial activity over the past 200 years, archaeologists argued that human impact on climate goes much further back.

In particular, early agriculture, livestock farming and deforestation may have released high levels of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere from as early as 10,000 years ago.

Researchers looked at methane and carbon dioxide levels in Antarctic ice cores to establish the norms of the glacial cool periods and warmer interglacial periods of the past 800,000 years. This allowed them to ask whether the course of our current interglacial is a natural phenomenon, or the result of human changes to the environment.

They found that early farming produced changes in the atmosphere long before the industrial revolution, slowing down the Earth’s natural cooling and possibly preventing us from entering the next ice age.

An archaeology of care

On a more personal level, archaeologists in the American southwest found a burial that told a touching story of a young disabled woman and those that took care of her.

The burial was found at a large Hohokam settlement site dating to AD 700-1400, now hidden under the streets of the city of Tempe, Arizona.

Through much, if not all of her lifetime, this woman suffered from scoliosis so severe that walking would have been difficult or impossible.

Added to this, her bones bore the tell-tale signs of both tuberculosis and, unexpectedly, rickets – an unusual condition in the sunny deserts of the southwest, but one that suggests she had limited mobility and was unable to go outside.

Despite these conditions, she survived into her twenties, intensively cared for by others in her community who brought her food and attended to her day-to-day needs. After she died, she was buried with grave goods far in excess of others.

This one individual tells us a lot about the values of Hohokam culture. This young woman was clearly a respected member of the community, and was treated with special status not only during her life, but also after her death.

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