The earliest large cities emerged in northern Mesopotamia during the Late Chalcolithic (c. 4200 – 2900 BCE). It was a time of transformation from local village-based social structures to big cities with hierarchical societies, more sophisticated division of labour and development of central authorities towards early states. The process of urbanization is well indicated by the rapid increase in settlement size, which at Tell Brak reached more than 120 hectares in mid-4th millennium BCE. It was however not clear whether this process was due to local population growth or migration and absorption of people from different areas. A recent bioarchaeological study published in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology offered a new line of evidence, suggesting that the Late Chalcolithic urban growth was supported by migration. Much like today, people migrated into the city and settled in neighborhoods based around their shared migratory origins. These neighborhoods remained distinct communities that did not begin to integrate for multiple generations.
When bioarchaeologists excavate human remains, they are sometimes faced with burials that can be somewhat complicated. A ‘perfect’ burial for bioarchaeological analyses would contain a complete set of bones that are well preserved. Some archaeological sites, however, are of such great significance that we even work with poorly preserved and incomplete burials, using unconventional methods that allow us to overcome these preservation limitations. This was proven by our research team whilst studying the Bronze Age cemetery of Deh Dumen, located in the Zagros Mountains in Iran.
In the spring of last year, the media around the world circulated sensational information about the discovery of a fetus in a female mummy held at the National Museum in Warsaw. The authors of this discovery, from the Warsaw Mummy Project team, found that the woman died in the 26th–30th gestational week, i.e. at the beginning of the third trimester, and the fetus was not pulled out during embalming – contrary to the treatment of the viscera of the female, which were removed through an incision in the lower part of the abdomen. They also observed that the mummified fetus had broken bones (not shown on the published radiograph) and was found in two parts, which was interpreted as the result of the postmortem fracture of the female pelvis.
The length of the period of breastfeeding depends on many factors, both individual and cultural or environmental ones. In human societies that have no access to easily digested food alternatives (this refers to foragers in particular) this period is usually longer, while in farming communities, where infants are fed with porridge or yoghurt, it can be shortened. This implies demographic consequences: a mother who breastfeeds her child for a shorter time can have more children, therefore, the breastfeeding period influences the birth rate.
Sumerians are known as the founders of the urban civilization that dominated in southern Mesopotamia in the 4th and 3rd millennia BC. They developed a network of irrigation channels that made it possible to cultivate cereals in desert areas of the Lower Euphrates, introduced an ideographic script, initially pictographic and then simplified to the form of cuneiform characters impressed in wet clay, built the biggest cities in the world at that time, with monumental temples and enormous palaces.
The latest issue of Antiquity published a paper presenting results of biochemical analyses of human bones from a few sites situated in north-eastern Syria, and showing on this basis that in the 22nd century BC, when the Akkadian Empire was declining, there was no change in the local economy which could be a response to a long-term drought, and even if there was a temporary climate change, the local human societies survived it in a good condition.
Kings of Mari controlled an important trade route in the valley of the Euphrates River in the 3rd and early 2nd millennium BCE. Although their country was situated in an area with unfavourable conditions for agriculture, the economy of the kingdom of Mari could support a big population. The key to understanding this paradox is animal dung.
The kingdom of Mari was the most powerful country of north Mesopotamia in the 3rd and early 2nd millennium BC. Its power is reflected both by the size of its capital (modern archaeological site of Tell Hariri), which occupied an area of more than 60 hectares – more than Cracow in the 13th century – and by the fact that six of its rulers were included in the Sumerian King List, that is a record of the dynasties that were regarded as those holding superior power in Sumer. The dynasty from Mari was the only dynasty from north Mesopotamia on this list.
The cruel commander Malek Ashraf attacked the town of Bavanat in 1342, during the civil war in Iran. The inhabitants of the town had hidden in a cave located nearby. Since their shelter was difficult to access the soldiers made a great fire at the entrance to the cave. The refugees could try to jump over the fire, straight into the hands of the attacking forces, but most were suffocated with the smoke. Modern archaeologists reveal tragic mysteries of the massacre by analysing burned bones found in the Kan-Gohar Cave.