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Around 10,000 years ago, as the Pleistocene gave way to our current geological epoch, a group of hunter-gathers near China’s Yangtze River began changing their way of life. They started to grow rice.Remarkably, archaeologists have now unearthed bits of this rice at a site called Shangshan. The grains, of course, were eaten long ago and the plant stalks have long been rotten, but one tiny part of rice remains even thousands of years later: phytoliths, or hard, microscopic pieces of silica made by plant cells for self-defense.
Rice leaves have fan-shaped phytoliths that don’t burn, digest, or decompose. It’s specific patterns on these phytoliths that suggest people in Shangshan were not just gathering rice, but actually cultivating it 10,000 years ago—a transition that would profoundly shift the human diet to the point where half of the world relies on the staple crop today.Chinese archaeologists began excavating Shangshan in the early 2000s.
They quickly found evidence of a rice-dependent diet: rice husks buried in pottery shards and stone tools that looked like they were used for milling. But far more abundant than artifacts are phytoliths, which are ubiquitous, if microscopic, in soil. Less than a tenth of an ounce of soil might yield thousands of phytoliths, says Dolores Piperno, a phytolith expert at the Smithsonian who was not involved in the study.
Three men are sitting on the aft deck of RV Storm, a 50-foot research vessel bobbing gently on Lake Huron on a clear, warm July morning. They’ve more or less disappeared under shrouds of black neoprene, masses of corrugated and smooth tubes, and constellations of metal tanks, clips, and fasteners. Dive safety officer Jason Nunn calls out a checklist that sounds arcane even to an experienced scuba diver: “Press the ADV to ensure proper operation.” “Confirm computers are set for CCR mode and that you’re on the appropriate mix.” “Set your PO2 to 0.5.”
The divers—Russ Green, Joe Hoyt, and Tane Casserley—are underwater archaeologists with the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). They are wearing rebreather systems that scrub the carbon dioxide from their breath and recycle the air, allowing them to dive deeper and stay down longer than divers with traditional open-circuit scuba gear. In a few minutes, they will drop 165 feet through the clear, cold water to the wreck of Pewabic, a 200-foot-long freighter that sank in 1865 after a mysterious collision.
Pewabic is one of hundreds of wrecks and suspected wrecks in the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary off the northeast coast of Michigan. Together, these historic ships embody the entire history of modern transportation in the Great Lakes—the story of the opening of the American continent to settlement and industry.
In November of 1632, the townspeople of Lützen, Germany, were stuck with a grim task: They had to bury some 9,000 soldiers who were left dead on a battlefield after a bloody fight during the Thirty Years’ War.Archaeologists recently undid some of that work.A few years ago, researchers uncovered a mass grave at the site of the Battle of Lützen.By analyzing the bones, they have now learned more about the violent lives and deaths of soldiers from this era.
The Thirty Years’ War was one of the bloodiest events in European history — deadlier than the Black Death and World War II, in terms of the proportion of the population lost. Fought between 1618 and 1648, the conflict started out as a struggle between Catholics and Protestants within the Holy Roman Empire. The brutal clashes touched much of central Europe, but most of the battles were fought in what is Germany today.Outside of the killing on the battlefields, famine and disease outbreaks devastated populations. Both sides in the conflict heavily relied on wealth-seeking foreign mercenaries (whose loyalties might change based on who was paying more), and occupying armies terrorized civilians in cities and villages.
One turning point in the war came when Sweden intervened in 1630, lending support to Protestant forces. Swedish King Gustav II Adolf led a series of victorious battles, until he was killed in a fight against General Albrecht von Wallenstein, commander of the Holy Roman Empire’s imperial troops, during the Battle of Lützen, just southwest of Leipzig, on Nov. 16, 1632.