World News: Saudi Arabia, North America, Peru

Footprints in the desert

The earliest-known human footprints from the Arabian Peninsula have been discovered in an ancient lake deposit in the south-west of the Nefud Desert. They were discovered as part of the Palaeodeserts Project, which is studying the effects of climate change and human evolution in the region, and the results were recently published in Science Advances.

In total, seven human footprints were uncovered at what is known as the Alathar palaeolake, with analysis suggesting that they were made by at least two, and possibly three, individuals. They were also orientated in such a pattern as to suggest that these people were not walking anywhere with purpose and instead may have been carrying out multiple activities around the lake, such as drinking and/or foraging. OSL (optically stimulated luminescence) dating of the layers both above and below the sediments containing the footprints indicated that they roughly date to between 121,000 and 112,000 years ago.

Smoking culture

A study by researchers from the University of Chicago and Washington State University has shown that indigenous smoking practices in North America may have altered after the arrival of European colonists. Examination of both a pre-contact pipe and one dating to the late 18th century showed that both contained nicotine, but in the earlier pipe appears to have been a rare species of tobacco, called Nicotiana quadrivalvis, as well as Rhus glabra, a sumac, which may have been added to the tobacco for medicinal reasons and/or to improve the taste.

image: © 2020 Brownstein, Tushingham, Damitio, Nguyen, and Gang
Image: © 2020 Brownstein, Tushingham, Damitio, Nguyen, and Gang.

This is the first archaeological pipe to provide scientific evidence for a plant other than tobacco having been smoked.

Pre-Hispanic flood-management in Peru

El Niño events are not modern phenomena: they have been affecting populations along the Pacific for millennia. New research has now shown that some of these previous generations successfully adapted to the periodic flooding that comes with the torrential rainfall associated with this weather pattern, and may even have found ways to use it to their advantage.

Since 2012, the Proyecto Arqueo-Ambiental de la Pampa de Mocan (PAAPM) has been investigating a series of linear features running across the Pampa de Mocan coastal desert plain in northern Peru. While this area is not normally considered to be arable, the researchers have discovered a complex irrigation system that may have harnessed the El Niño floodwaters and diverted them for agricultural use. It appears that this canal technology was used there over a long period time, having been first built c.1100 BC and continuing through to c.AD 1490.