What Can We Learn From Ancient Insects?

Insects and humans have been living together for a long time, but what does that have to do with archaeology? In this post, you will find the YouTube video explaining what we can learn from ancient insects and a full video transcript (with relevant references and links).

YouTube Video

What Can We Learn From Ancient Insects?

YouTube Video Transcript

Here you will find the complete transcript of the video in the previous section. There are time stamps for every minute and hyperlinked references/citations.

Introduction

[00:00:00] Whether or not it gives you the heebie jeebies, insects and humans go way back.[00:00:04] For thousands of years, small multi-legged creatures have been living on us, inside of us, and with [00:00:10] us.

[00:00:10] Sometimes they were harmless, but sometimes they caused problems like destroying food or spreading disease. And since insects live in such close proximity to us humans, we have pretty much [00:00:20] carried them with us wherever we’ve gone throughout history. Insects are so numerous and have existed for such a long time that we can learn a lot about ancient life through sampling archaeological sites for insects.

[00:00:29] [00:00:30] Hi, I’m Dr. Smiti Nathan and I’m an archaeologist.

[00:00:33] In this video, we’re going to explore what exactly we can learn from ancient insects. So let’s get into it.

Definition

[00:00:38] So there’s a whole subdiscipline [00:00:40] dedicated to studying ancient insects. It’s called archaeoentomology. Now archaeoentomology is kind of a big word, but if you break it down, you get two main parts, archaeo [00:00:50] referencing archaeology and entomology referencing the study of insects.

[00:00:54] Together, you get the archaeological study of insects.

[00:00:57] Typically, archaeologists study insects by using [00:01:00] scientific techniques to extract them from the soil collected from sites.

[00:01:03] Archaeoentomologists actually use similar techniques to Paleoethnobotanists.

[00:01:07] Both these sub-disciplines are often [00:01:10] encompassed under the umbrella term environmental archaeology, but that’s a whole other topic for another video.

[00:01:14] Now, if you’re curious about what plants have to do with archaeology, I’ll link another video in the title cards above.

[00:01:20] But getting back to insects, there are literally millions of different species of insects in the world, but few are particularly useful to archaeologists. These insects are important because they tend to [00:01:30] live on or near humans.

[00:01:32] They also tend to preserve well in the dirt, unlike some other insects. For example, honeybees have been extremely important to human communities throughout [00:01:40] history, but bee remains are rare in the archaeological record because they are fragile and decompose very quickly.

Environment

[00:01:45] Now, one of the reasons archaeologists study ancient insects is because they can help us [00:01:50] reconstruct ancient environments.

[00:01:51] This relies on the idea that certain insects prefer certain environmental conditions.

[00:01:56] For example the stag beetle prefers living in damp dark [00:02:00] forested areas while the darkling beetle loves dry desert climates.

[00:02:03] If certain insect species are abundant at a site, archaeologists can extrapolate what the environment was like.

[00:02:09] For [00:02:10] example, if it was wet and rainy or hot and dry.

[00:02:12] By extension, changes in insect populations can tell us how humans impacted the insect populations around them.

[00:02:19] For [00:02:20] instance, a team of archaeologists in Greenland sampled soil from both a modern farm and an approximately 700-year-old farm. They compared the presence of insects at each site and found [00:02:30] that modern agricultural practices have significantly decreased the diversity of insect species in Greenland. On the other hand, historical farming practices actually increased [00:02:40] biodiversity.

[00:02:40] Studying insects at archaeological sites can tell us a lot about invasive species and when they were introduced.

[00:02:46] Researchers working in Jamestown, Virginia sampled soil from a well [00:02:50] that was used in the early 1600s. They found the remains of beetles that are not native to the Americas. And this suggests that early European colonists accidentally introduced insects species that [00:03:00] ended up causing infestations in their crops.

[00:03:02] Many of the species that colonists brought from England to the U.S. in the 17th century still cause some problems to this day.

Food

[00:03:09] Insect [00:03:10] remains can also reveal a trove of information to archaeologists about what people ate in the past.

[00:03:15] Sometimes archaeologists find direct evidence of people eating insects, which was a [00:03:20] super common practice across the world through have the history and in the present day as well.

[00:03:23] However, it can be hard to find direct archaeological evidence of the consumption of insects.

[00:03:28] Instead, [00:03:30] archaeologists can use insects by proxy to determine what type of plants people grew and stored.

[00:03:35] . By that I mean, there are many species of insects that like to eat specific plants, which [00:03:40] tend to be plants, humans also like to eat.

[00:03:42] For example, let’s say you have an archaeological site that happens to be a house and you find the presence of a rice weevil. That means that rice was [00:03:50] likely stored in that house. Even if we don’t find the remains of the rice itself.

[00:03:54] For example at an approximately 800 year old site and Gran Canaria Spain archaeologists found the remains of [00:04:00] insect pests and granaries, which are places where people store grains. The presence of certain species of insects including the granary weevil is known to destroy stores of grain and this [00:04:10] study suggests that the people in Gran Canaria had to deal with this problem regularly

Health

[00:04:13] Archaeologists can also use insects to learn about infectious diseases in the past.

[00:04:18] Many of the most [00:04:20] notorious illnesses known to humankind or vector-borne, which means they are transmitted by the bites of insects and other arthropods when they feed on our blood. Think yellow fever caused by mosquitoes, [00:04:30] plague caused by fleas, or sleeping sickness caused by tsetse flies.

[00:04:33] Scientists sometimes refer to insects like lice or fleas as ectoparasites.

[00:04:38] This means that they live [00:04:40] outside of our body, like on our skin, as opposed to parasites that live within our body, like tapeworms.

[00:04:45] Ectoparasites were extremely common in the past, and were present in almost [00:04:50] every human community.

[00:04:51] For example, archaeologists working at a site in Boston found evidence of lice and other insects, including bed bugs and historic outhouses dating to the mid [00:05:00] 1800s. In 19th-century cities, nearly everyone had fleas and or lice.

[00:05:04] As a result, typhus, the bacteria infection spread by fleas lice and a few other [00:05:10] ectoparasites, was rampant across New England, alongside a host of other infectious diseases like smallpox, tuberculosis, and syphilis.

Ritual

[00:05:17] In addition to the environment, food, and health, [00:05:20] insects can tell us a lot about past traditions, especially rituals like funerary traditions.

[00:05:25] Just a heads up, I will talk about human remains in this section, but I won’t show any [00:05:30] images of them.

[00:05:30] As deceased animals and humans decompose, insects are vital to the breakdown of flesh and bone.

[00:05:36] Forensic scientists are expert in identifying decomposition [00:05:40] stages in part by using the presence of insects like flies.

[00:05:43] Archaeologists often borrow from forensic techniques, especially when we’re looking into burials and the circumstances surrounding them.

[00:05:49] For example, [00:05:50] the recovery of certain insects can indicate whether a body was buried, left out in the open, wrapped in a shroud, or some combination.

[00:05:58] For example, archaeologists working [00:06:00] in Northern Mexico, sampled the remains of an 11th century individual found in a cave wrapped in many layers of cloth. They fell in low levels of the pioneer fly, which is usually the [00:06:10] first fly species attracted to decomposed remains. They interpreted this as evidence that the corpse was almost immediately bundled in fabric prior to burial however [00:06:20] the presence of other flies species suggest that the individual was moved later after being buried the archaeologists believed that this may be related to funeral traditions and religious beliefs of the hunter [00:06:30] gatherers who lived in this region about a thousand years ago.

Outro

[00:06:32] I hope that no matter how you feel about insects, I hope you walk away from this video with a nugget of appreciation for their scientific [00:06:40] value. Now if you’re more into plants than insects, we have a whole video on that for you too. So thanks for joining us and we’ll catch you in the next one. Bye.

Credits

Anya Gruber: Co-Producer, Researcher, Scriptwriter

Noor Hanania: Lead Video Editor

Smiti Nathan: Director, Co-Producer, Support Video Editor

Erika Castillo lent her entomological expertise to fact-check a previous version of this script.


If you enjoyed this post, check out my channel and other videos.

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Smiti Nathan

I’m an archaeologist that travels around the world for both work and pleasure. I have a penchant for exploring ancient and modern places and the people, plants, and foods entangled in them. I write about archaeology, travel, and productivity.

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