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History News of The Week – Ancient Amazonians, Rapa Nui and Medieval Jewellery

The biggest history news stories of the last seven days, including a study claiming Amazonians domesticated wild rice 4,000 years ago, new insights into the history of the Rapa Nui, and an explanation of a Medieval jewellery manufacturing process.


Amazonians Domesticated Wild Rice 4,000 Years Ago

Amazonian farmers were manipulating wild rice to boost food production more than 4,000 years ago, long before Europeans arrived in South America, according to new research.

A team of scientists from the UK and Brazil have discovered the first evidence that ancient South American farmers had domesticated wild rice to grow bigger crops with larger grains. The researchers speculate that this knowledge may have been lost with the arrival of Europeans and the decimation of the indigenous population in 1492.

Different species of rice were first grown around 11,000 years ago near the Yangtze River in China, and around 2,000 years ago in West Africa. Led by the University of Exeter, the latest study has unearthed evidence of successful rice farming on the vast wetlands of Guaporé River in Rondônia state, Brazil

The study highlights the importance of the huge wetlands of lowland South America in providing food for the ancient settlers of the continent. Ancient inhabitants also managed to domesticate cassava, peanut and chilli pepper crops for food.

By analysing 16 samples of microscopic plant remains from ten different time periods, which were excavated by a team from the University of São Paulo in South West Amazonia, it was determined that more phytoliths – hard, microscopic pieces of silica made by plant cells, were found at higher ground level. This suggests that rice began to play a bigger role in the diet of the people who lived in the area over time, leading to increasing amounts being farmed.

It was also revealed that the Amazon residents likely became more efficient farmers over time. Changes in the ratio of husk, stem and leaves at different ground levels suggest they brought more grain and fewer leaves to the site.

Professor Jose Iriarte, from the University of Exeter, who led the research, said: “This is the first study to identify when wild rice first began to be grown for food in South America. We have found people were growing crops with larger and larger seeds. Even though they were also eating wild and domesticated plants including maize, palm fruits, soursop and squash, wild rice was an important food, and people began to grow it at lake or river edges.”

The results of the study have been published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.


New Light Shed on the Mysteries of Rapa Nui

The history of Rapa Nui, popularly known as Easter Island, has long been shrouded in mystery. As well as the obvious fascination with the monolithic stone heads that dominate the island, the history of the Rapa Nui people prior to the arrival of Europeans is far from clear.

New palaeogenomic research carried out by a team of scientists led by University College Santa Cruz has shed some new light on Rapa Nui’s ancient history. The study has ruled out any intermixing between the inhabitants of the incredibly remote island and other South Americans prior to the arrival of Europeans in 1772.

The international team of scientists, led by Lars Fehren-Schmitz, associate professor of anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, analysed bone fragments from the remains of five individuals excavated in the 1980s. Three of the individuals lived on the island prior to contact with Europeans, and two after.

“We found no evidence of gene flow between the inhabitants of Easter Island and South America,” said Fehren-Schmitz. “We were really surprised we didn’t find anything. There’s a lot of evidence that seems plausible, so we were convinced we would find direct evidence of pre-European contact with South America, but it wasn’t there.”

Previous research found genetic traces of early inhabitants of the Americas in present-day indigenous residents of Easter Island. It was suggested that this was likely the result of intermixing that occurred sometime between 1280 and 1425. Fehren-Schmitz is the first to use paleaogenomic analysis to test that hypothesis, and the results suggest that the contact must have happened after 1722.

“The most likely scenario is that there wasn’t a single episode,” said Fehren-Schmitz. Acknowledging that his results answer one question but leave many others unanswered, he said, “The story is simply more complicated than we expected.”

The findings don’t solve one of the most enduring mysteries of Rapa Nui, which is how a landmass 1,300 miles from the nearest inhabited island and 2,200 miles from central Chile on the nearest continent of South America came to be populated. Some archaeologists have suggested that sea travel between Polynesia and the Americas was plausible, leading to the intermingling of those populations and perhaps even the peopling of the Americas. Fehren-Schmitz pointed out in a statement that plausibility isn’t proof.

“We want to do more work to determine more precisely when this gene flow between Native Americans and the people of Rapa Nui occurred, and where in the Americas it originated,” he said. “The population dynamics of these regions are fascinating. We need to study the ancient populations of other islands–if remains exist.”

New technological advances mean such insights could eventually be gained, yielding new clues from materials long kept in museum collections.

“Our methodologies have evolved so much in the last five years that we might need to re-study samples we gave up on in the past to see if we can get DNA out of them,” Fehren-Schmitz concluded.


Secrets of Medieval Jewellery Manufacture Revealed

Scientists have gained startling insights into the techniques used to make gold jewellery in the Medieval period.

The techniques used by artisans to manufacture the gold-coated silver threads found in textiles from the Middle Ages have long perplexed historians, despite the wealth of examples in the form of artefacts available to study. Four decades of intensive research have yielded limited insights, comprehensive investigation of the materials restricted by their small size. A single metal thread is sometimes no thicker than a human hair, while its gold coating is only a hundredth of that.

Scientists from the American Chemical Society set out to fill in the knowledge gap. Tamás G. Weiszburg, Katalin Gherdán and colleagues examined medieval gilded silver threads, and silver and gold strips produced during and after the Middle Ages, from a variety of European cultures.

Using high-resolution scanning electron microscopy, electron back-scattered diffraction with energy-dispersive electron probe microanalysis and other analytical methods, the scientists were able to gather remarkable new insights. Their results suggest that the threads were gilded exclusively by using an ancient method that survived for a millennium. The goldsmiths simply heated and hammered the silver sheets and the gold foil together, and then cut them into strips.

The results show that this process was used in the thirteenth century, and was still widely practiced well into the seventeenth century.

These new insights, which are revealed in a study published in the journal Analytical Chemistry, could help scientists restore, preserve and date medieval artefacts.

Featured image courtesy of University of Exeter