What Ear Infections Going Back 15,000 Years Tell Us About Human Health

What Ear Infections Going Back 15,000 Years Tell Us About Human Health

Tel Aviv University researchers have found evidence of ear infections of the remains of people living in the Levant around 15,000 years ago in the skull.

The lead author Dr. Hila May of the Anatomy and Anthropology Department, TAU Sackler Faculty of Medicine, and Dan David Center for Human Evolution and Biohistory Studies at the Medicine Faculty, Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, says: “We seek to determine the impact of our environment on illness throughout different periods.”

“We were able to detect signs of prolonged inflammation in our middle ear using advanced technologies and special methods developed in our laboratory.”

The researchers found a decline in morbidity as a result of ear infections following the transition from hunting and gathering to farming on account of changes in living conditions. A peak in morbidity, however, was observed in a sedentary population living about 6,000 years ago (Chalcolithic period).

Dr. May says the reason for this is twofold: social and environmental: “We know from archaeological excavations of this period, similar to preceding periods, people lived in a communal area where all activities, from cooking to raising livestock, took place.

As a result, the population density in the ‘home’ was high, hygiene was poor and they suffered from indoor air pollution. Two other factors are known about this period – dietary change, the advent of dairy consumption, and climate change, a dip in temperature and a rise in rainfall, also contributed to the prevalence of ear infections.”

A story in the skulls

Until the advent of antibiotics in the 20th century, ear infections developed into chronic conditions, or, due to complications, caused permanent loss of hearing or even death.

“Ear infections are still a very common childhood ailment, with over 50 percent of young children today still suffering from an ear infection at one point or another,” explains Dr. May.

“The reason for this is that the tubes that channel fluid from the middle ear to the mouth are underdeveloped in young children, so fluids that accumulate in the ear ultimately cause inflammation.”

“A prolonged ear infection would cause permanent damage to the bony wall of the middle ear, which is remarkably preserved into adulthood, so when we sought to investigate changes in communal health over time in our region, we chose to focus on ear infections, developing a special method for doing so,” she adds.

The scientists used a video scope, a tiny camera mounted at the end of a flexible tube, which they inserted through the ear canal to the middle ear to observe its bony walls.

In addition, they scanned skull remains with a high-resolution micro-CT, and also examined the middle ear’s bony wall using a light microscope.

More room, fewer infections

As living conditions improved, morbidity as a result of ear infections dropped, according to the study.

“Houses were larger and featured several rooms, including separate areas for specific activities, i.e. the kitchen was set up in a separate room or outside, and livestock were kept in a separate area,” she says. “The change in lifestyle and climate is reflected in a decline in morbidity.”

“Our study deals with the impact of the environment and social behavior on morbidity rates, and to do so, we examined a common disease that has accompanied humanity since inception – the ear infection,” concludes Dr. May.

“Understanding how diseases appear, spread, and disappear throughout human history can help prevent and find solutions to contemporary illnesses.

The study clearly points out risk factors and shows how lifestyle changes can affect the incidence of the disease. In both ear infections and COVID-19, social distancing and adherence to hygiene reduced the spread of infection, while close quarters and unhygienic living conditions saw infections spike.”

14,000-Year-Old Ancestor of Native Americans Identified in Russia

14,000-Year-Old Ancestor of Native Americans Identified in Russia

Since the Upper Paleolithic, modern humans have lived near Baikal Lake, and left a rich archeological record behind.

Russian archaeologists in 1976 excavating the Ust’-Kyakhta-3 site on the banks of the Selenga River

The region’s ancient genomes also uncovered multiple genetic turnovers and admixture events, indicating that the transition from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age was facilitated by human mobility and complex cultural interactions. The nature and timing of these interactions, however, remains largely unknown.

The reports of 19 newly sequenced human genomes, including one of the oldest ones recorded by the area of Lake Baikal, are presently in a new study published in the journal Cell.

Led by the Department of Archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, the study illuminates the population history of the region, revealing deep connections with the First Peoples of the Americas, dating as far back as the Upper Paleolithic period, as well as connectivity across Eurasia during the Early Bronze Age.

The deepest link between peoples

“This study reveals the deepest link between Upper Paleolithic Siberians and First Americans,” says He Yu, the first author of the study. “We believe this could shed light on future studies about Native American population history.”

Past studies have indicated a connection between Siberian and American populations, but a 14,000-year-old individual analyzed in this study is the oldest to carry the mixed ancestry present in Native Americans.

Using an extremely fragmented tooth excavated in 1976 at the Ust-Kyahta-3 site, researchers generated a shotgun-sequenced genome enabled by cutting edge techniques in molecular biology.

A fragmented tooth belonging to a close cousin of today’s Native Americans

This individual from southern Siberia, along with a younger Mesolithic one from northeastern Siberia, shares the same genetic mixture of Ancient North Eurasian (ANE) and Northeast Asian (NEA) ancestry found in Native Americans and suggests that the ancestry which later gave rise to Native Americans in North- and South America was much more widely distributed than previously assumed.

Evidence suggests that this population experienced frequent genetic contacts with NEA populations, resulting in varying admixture proportions across time and space.

“The Upper Paleolithic genome will provide a legacy to study human genetic history in the future,” says Cosimo Posth, a senior author of the paper. Further genetic evidence from Upper Paleolithic Siberian groups is necessary to determine when and where the ancestral gene pool of Native Americans came together.

A web of prehistoric connections

In addition to this transcontinental connection, the study presents connectivity within Eurasia as evidenced in both human and pathogen genomes as well as stable isotope analysis.

Combining these lines of evidence, the researchers were able to produce a detailed description of the population history in the Lake Baikal region.

The presence of Eastern European steppe-related ancestry is evidence of contact between southern Siberian and western Eurasian steppe populations in the preamble to the Early Bronze Age, an era characterized by increasing social and technological complexity. The surprising presence of Yersinia pestis, the plague-causing pathogen, points to further wide-ranging contacts.

Recent view on the Selenga River close to the archeological site Ust-Kyakhta-3

Although spreading of Y. pestis was postulated to be facilitated by migrations from the steppe, the two individuals here identified with the pathogen were genetically northeastern Asian-like. Isotope analysis of one of the infected individuals revealed a non-local signal, suggesting origins outside the region of discovery.

In addition, the strains of Y. pestis the pair carried is most closely related to a contemporaneous strain identified in an individual from the Baltic region of northeastern Europe, further supporting the high mobility of those Bronze age pathogens and likely also people.

“This easternmost appearance of ancient Y. pestis strains is likely suggestive of long-range mobility during the Bronze Age,” says Maria Spyrou, one of the study’s co-authors.

“In the future, with the generation of additional data we hope to delineate the spreading patterns of plague in more detail,” concludes Johannes Krause, senior author of the study.   

Researchers Find 1,400-Year-Old Rooms Under Jerusalem’s Western Wall

Researchers Find 1,400-Year-Old Rooms Under Jerusalem’s Western Wall

Previously, archeologists discovered three ancient subterranean chambers located in the bedrock under the Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem. 

The excavation was part of a larger project to create an underground expanse showcasing various eras.

Two thousand years ago, the chambers were consisting of an open courtyard and two rooms, were carved on top of one another and connected by hewn staircases.

According to a statement from the Israel Ancientities Authority, inside the chambers, archaeologists discovered clay-cooking pots, cores of oil lamps, a stone mug, and a qalal or a large stone basin that was used to hold water for rituals.

The archeologists also found a long carving at the entrance to the chambers for shelves and depressions for door hinges and bolts, as well as round, square and triangular niches carved into the walls, some of which could have been used to place oil-lamps in.

These findings likely mean that these chambers were used daily, according to the statement. But it’s not clear what they were actually used for.

“Perhaps, it served as a pantry for an overhead structure that didn’t survive, or as a hewn space” for living underground, Mordechai Eliav, the director of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, said in the statement.

Oil candles were among the items discovered in the underground chambers.

“We’re asking ourselves what was the function of this very complex rock-cut system?” co-director of the excavation Barak Monnickendam-Givon said in an accompanying video.

People could have lived in these underground chambers or stored food or groceries there for possibly another long-gone building above it.

“Another possibility is that this system was used for hiding during the siege on Jerusalem 2000 years ago when the Roman legions conquered the city,” he said.

The subterranean chambers were hidden beneath the white mosaic floor of a public building that was created around 1,400 years ago during the Byzantine period.

The building was renovated about 1,250 years ago, during the Abbasid period, according to the statement. In the 11th century, the building was destroyed and the subterranean chambers, along with other finds, were buried and stayed hidden for centuries.

These chambers were found in the “Beit Strauss” complex, beneath the entrance lobby to the Western Wall Tunnels, which helped the builders of the wall support its massive weight. (The tunnels also contained channels that supplied water to the Second Temple, according to Atlas Obscura).

Archeologists discovered this measuring cup in the chambers.

The complex was likely used by residents of the city during the early Roman period, before Jerusalem was destroyed in A.D. 70, according to a statement from the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The Western Wall is the only remaining part of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, which the Romans destroyed along with the rest of the city, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

The ancient buried city of Akrotiri, Santorini: Greece Pompeii

The ancient buried city of Akrotiri, Santorini: Greece Pompeii

The ruins of a Bronze Age sophisticated settlement that thrived centuries before being eradicated by a major volcanic eruption are tucked away from the southern tip of Santorini.

The remains of the Minoan town of Akrotiri are remarkably well preserved, like the Roman ruins of Pompei. In the middle of the second millennium BC, the settlement erupted, when Thera sat on a volcano, and its people fled.

The volcanic matter enveloped the entire island of Santorini and the town itself, preserving the buildings and their contents, and visitors can still identify houses and pots. 

The archaeological site of Akrotiri.

The settlement of Akrotiri is one such site. Unlike Pompeii, however, no literary evidence for the destruction of Akrotiri is available to us. As a matter of fact, the city was only discovered by an archaeological excavation conducted in 1967.

Akrotiri was a Bronze Age settlement located on the south west of the island of Santorini (Thera) in the Greek Cyclades. This settlement is believed to be associated with the Minoan civilization, located on the nearby island of Crete, due to the discovery of the inscriptions in Linear A script, as well as similarities in artifacts and fresco styles.

The earliest evidence for human habitation of Akrotiri can be traced back as early as the 5 th millennium B.C., when it was a small fishing and farming village. By the end of the 3 rd millennia, this community developed and expanded significantly.

One factor for Akrotiri’s growth may be the trade relations it established with other cultures in the Aegean, as evidenced in fragments of foreign pottery at the site. Akrotiri’s strategic position between Cyprus and Minoan Crete also meant that it was situated on the copper trade route, thus allowing them to become an important center for processing copper, as proven by the discovery of molds and crucibles there.    

Remarkably preserved artifacts are revealed from the ruins of ancient Akrotiri, Greece.

Akrotiri’s prosperity continued for about another 500 years. Paved streets, an extensive drainage system, the production of high-quality pottery, and further craft specialization all point to the level of sophistication achieved by the settlement. This all came to an end, however, by the middle of the 2 nd century B.C. with the volcanic eruption of Thera. Although the powerful eruption destroyed Akrotiri, it also managed to preserve the city, very much like that done by Vesuvius to Pompeii.

The volcanic ash has preserved much of Akrotiri’s frescoes, which can be found in the interior walls of almost all the houses that have been excavated in Akrotiri. This may be an indication that it was not only the elites who had these works of art.

The frescoes contain a wide range of subjects, including religious processions, flowers, everyday life in Akrotiri, and exotic animals. In addition, the volcanic dust also preserved negatives of disintegrated wooden objects, such as offering tables, beds, and chairs.

This allowed archaeologists to produce plaster casts of these objects by pouring liquid Plaster of Paris into the hollows left behind by the objects. One striking difference between Akrotiri and Pompeii is that there were no uninterred bodies from in the former. In other words, the inhabitants of Akrotiri were perhaps more fortunate than those of Pompeii and were evacuated before the volcanic dust reached the site.

Plaster castings of the corpses of a group of human victims of the 79 AD eruption of the Vesuvius, found in the so-called “Garden of the fugitives” in Pompeii. No such remains exist at Akrotiri, indicating the people had time to evacuate.
‘Spring flowers and swallows’ detailed in a delicate Akrotiri fresco

In 2016, Russian cybersecurity expert Eugene Kaspersky gave archaeologists interested in excavating Akrotiri a huge economic boost by funding three major projects at the ancient site. This is how he explained his reason for financial support:

“What I find magical about Akrotiri and the decades-long, ongoing archaeological research is the sense of an unpredictable past. The fact that following a volcano eruption 3,500 years ago, we modern people are trying to comprehend how these people lived back then. And I believe that we have plenty to discover. Do you think that 3,500 years from now anyone will be interested in finding out how we lived?”

The eruption of Thera also had an impact on other civilizations. The nearby Minoan civilization, for instance, faced a crisis due to the volcanic eruption. This is debatable, however, as some have speculated that the crisis was caused by natural disasters occurring prior to the eruption of Thera.

The short term climate change caused by volcanic eruption is also believed to have disrupted the ancient Egyptian civilization. The lack of Egyptian records regarding the eruption may be attributed to the general disorder in Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period.

Nevertheless, the available records speak of heavy rainstorms occurring in the land, which is an unusual phenomenon. These storms may also be interpreted metaphorically as representing the elements of chaos that needed to be subdued by the Pharaoh.

Some researchers have even claimed that the effects of the volcanic eruption were felt as far away as China. This is based on records detailing the collapse of the Xia Dynasty at the end of the 17 th century B.C., and the accompanying meteorological phenomena. Finally, the Greek myth of the Titanomachy in Hesiod’s Theogony may have been inspired by this volcanic eruption, whilst it has also been speculated that Akrotiri was the basis of Plato’s myth of Atlantis.

Thus, Akrotiri and the eruption of Thera serve to show that even in ancient times, a catastrophe in one part of the world can have repercussions on a global scale, something that we are more used to in the better-connected world of today.

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