18 April 2015
Britain's oldest human cremation found in Essex
Archaeologists say a section of burnt bone, discovered during preparations for a new pipeline in Essex (England) and dated to the Mesolithic period, come from the oldest human cremation in Britain.
A metre-round pit at Langford contained 118g of cremated bone, backfilled with charcoal in a burial believed to represent at least one adult from 5600 BCE. Two radiocarbon dates have been confirmed from the fragments, weighing less than a tenth of the weight expected from a complete individual. A further test was performed on ashes from the pyre.
Only around 20 examples of burials from the British Mesolithic, between 10000 BC and 4000 BC, are known, none of which had been cremated. Three cremations from the period come from Ireland, with several discovered across Europe.
"This deposit shows that people had the required understanding of fire and pyre technology to achieve the high temperature required for complete combustion of the corpse - probably greater than 600 degrees centigrade," says Nick Gilmour, who led the excavation for Oxford Archaeology. "It also hints at a belief system where the dead were sufficiently respected that they were not simply abandoned, as has been previously believed, and that time and resources were invested in funerary practices despite a mobile, hand-to-mouth existence," Gilmour added.
Three struck flints, found in the same pit, included sharp blades fitting the technology of the period. A Bronze Age barrow was also unearthed during construction work.
Edited from Culture24 (15 April 2015)
Prehistoric sites on Ireland's largest island
A little west of a Neolithic court tomb on Slievemore Mountain, Achill - the largest island off the northwest coast of County Mayo, Ireland, around 100 kilometres northwest of Galway - are two adjacent sites, described in the 1890s as a 'sepulchral complex'.
Some archaeologists regard the eastern part as a collapsed megalithic tomb, and either a secondary burial mound or a later construction, while others see either a series of collapsed early medieval huts or a post-medieval agricultural building.
In the summer of 2014, a two year project began to survey and partially excavate the sites as part of ongoing investigations into the archaeology of Slievemore, and focused on the western 'tumulus'.
What appeared to be a small circular mound turned out to be one side of a large enclosure - at least 15 by 20 metres - defined by two concentric bands of in-filled stone walling. A southern entrance is marked by two prominent standing stones, later employed as the entrance to an oval building containing a series of overlying hearths. This building was replaced by a smaller circular building defined by a simple turf bank, which gave the appearance of a circular mound with a central hollow.
A series of closely spaced pits and post holes seem to be part of the primary period of activity within the enclosure. The pattern of postholes does not suggest a structure, but their depth and diameter indicates that substantial timbers were used. The pits were among the most interesting features. One was a rectangular, and lined with stone slabs. An adjacent pit was almost perfectly circular, with vertical sides and a flat base, the bottom covered by a single flat stone slab which fitted precisely. At the eastern edge of the excavation, a much larger pit several metres across was partially investigated, and found to be filled with an assortment of large stones.
Work in 2015 will concentrate on completing investigation of the interior of the enclosure, and examining the various stone structures that make up the 'cromlech'.
The enclosure is already a very exciting discovery, possibly associated with a large number of prehistoric enclosures elsewhere in County Mayo, such as those at Ceide [KAY-ja] Fields - the famous Neolithic field systems along the north Mayo coast.
Edited from Past Horizons (9 April 2015)
New instrument dates ancient skeleton
At 3.67 million years, the skeleton named 'Little Foot' is among the oldest hominid skeletons dated. The rare, nearly complete skeleton of Australopithecus was first discovered 21 years ago in a cave at Sterkfontein, in central South Africa. The new date places Little Foot as an older relative of Lucy, the famous Australopithecus skeleton found in Ethiopia, dated at 3.2 million years old. It is thought that Australopithecus is an evolutionary ancestor to humans.
Stone tools found at a different level of the cave were dated at 2.18 million years old, making them among the oldest known stone tools in South Africa.
Ronald Clarke, a professor in the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand, who discovered the Little Foot skeleton, says: "We have only a small number of sites and we tend to base our evolutionary scenarios on the few fossils we have from those sites. This new date is a reminder that there could well have been many species of Australopithecus extending over a much wider area of Africa."
The dating relied on a radioisotopic technique pioneered by Granger, coupled with a powerful detector originally intended to analyse solar wind samples from NASA's Genesis mission. The result was a a relatively small margin of error of 160,000 years for Little Foot and 210,000 years for the stone tools.
The new Sterkfontein date for the Oldowan artefacts shows that this stone tool industry is consistently present in South Africa by 2 million years ago, a much earlier age for tool-bearing hominids than previously anticipated in this part of Africa.
Kathleen Kuman, a professor in earlier and middle stone age archaeology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, concludes: "It is now clear that the small number of Oldowan sites in southern Africa is due only to limited research, and not to the absence of these hominids."
Edited from PhysOrg (1 April 2015), The Telegraph (2 April 2015)
16 April 2015
Altamura Man yields oldest Neanderthal DNA sample
A team of researchers has confirmed that Altamura Man was a Neanderthal, and revealed that the bones are 128,000 to 187,000 years old.
Altamura Man was discovered in 1993 in the karst caves of Lamalunga, near Altamura, in southern Italy - one of the most extraordinary hominin specimens ever found in Europe. The remains were embedded in rock and covered in a thick layer of calcite. It was thought that excavating the remains would cause irreparable damage, and they have remained in situ. There was some debate initially about morphology and age. Subsequent study led to a consensus that the visible remains (the head, and part of a shoulder) were that of an archaic Neanderthal, of a genus believed to have been widespread in Europe 200,000 to 40,000 years ago.
The researchers with the current project began their work six years ago. A tiny part of shoulder bone was extracted. Uranium-thorium dating revealed that the calcite was formed 172,000 to 130,000 years ago, during the penultimate quaternary (Pleistocene) glaciations period - the last of five glaciations during Earth's history.
DNA has also been retrieved from the sample, and because of the age, represents the oldest ever recovered from Neanderthal remains. The researchers next plan to test the DNA sample to see if it can be sequenced. They are hopeful it might reveal new details about the evolution of hominids in general, and perhaps more about the early history of the Neanderthal.
Edited from PhysOrg (3 April 2015)
12 April 2015
Two decorated menhirs discovered in Val Venosta
Archaeologists have officially announced the discovery of a couple of stelae-statues - antropomorphic standing stones - in Val Venosta, a valley in the western part of South Tyrol, Italy. The stones date back to the Copper Age, about 3000 BCE, and they have been discovered last year, during construction works in Vezzano, a small village at the foot of Mezzodì (Sonnenberg) mountain.
Catrin Marzoli, head of the local Archaeological Heritage Office, said the statues are made of Lasa marble. This kind of marble extracted from the Jennwand near Laas (Lasa), is an exceptionally hard, durable material which wears well in adverse weather conditions and has been used for centuries in many buildings and monuments, including the monument to Queen Victoria in front of Buckingham Palace in London.
One of the ancient statues represents a woman with a shawl and a long dress, while on the other stone slab, broken in two pieces, is carved a male figure, with several knives and a wide belt. The latter stone is unusually tall for this kind of monuments, measuring 3,4m.
The statues will be put on display in the Schlandersburg castle in Silandro.
Edited from Alto Adige (11 April 2015)
Are Neanderthal bone flutes the work of Ice Age hyenas?
A study published in Royal Society Open Science says the so-called 'Neanderthal bone flutes', often said to be the oldest musical instruments, are simply the bones of cave bear cubs left by Ice Age scavengers.
Cajus G Diedrich, the paper's author, suggests the artefacts were misidentified when they were first discovered in the 1920s.
Discovered in cave systems in Eastern Europe, the cave bear bones appear to have aligned holes, which some past researchers associated with a diatonic musical scale. Other researchers doubted the human origin of the markings.
Dr Diedrich analysed bone material from a large bear den in Weisse Kuhle Cave. Puncture marks are only present on the bones of cubs, which are more likely to puncture than break under pressure, and holes on the 19 thigh bones tested were predominantly on the thinner side of the bone.
The author says the oval-shaped holes match the marks a crushing premolar hyena tooth would leave. No signs of drill marks or stone tool marks were found on the margins of the holes, and reconstruction of a drilling process failed to replicate the ancient marks.
Diedrich attributes the bones to the Late Stone Age, after the Neanderthal had died out.
Edited from Phys.org (9 April 2015)
How Europeans evolved white skin
A new study shows that pale skin, as well as other traits such as tallness and the ability to digest milk as adults, arrived relatively recently in much of Europe.
Comparing the DNA of 83 ancient individuals throughout Europe, the report says Europeans today are a blend of at least three ancient populations of hunter-gatherers and farmers who moved into Europe in separate migrations over the past 8000 years, and that a massive migration from the steppes north of the Black Sea may have brought Indo-European languages about 4500 years ago.
Curiously, neither the farmers who came from the Near East about 7800 years ago nor the pastoralists who came from the steppes 4800 years ago had the version of the gene that allows adults to digest sugars in milk. It wasn't until about 4300 years ago that lactose tolerance spread through Europe.
About 8500 years ago, early hunter-gatherers in Spain, Luxembourg, and Hungary had darker skin. In the far north, seven people from a 7700-year-old site in southern Sweden had both light skin gene variants, as well as a third gene which causes blue eyes and may contribute to light skin and blond hair.
The first farmers from the Near East carried both genes for light skin. One of their light-skin genes spread through Europe, so that central and southern Europeans also began to have lighter skin, while the other gene remained at low levels until about 5800 years ago.
Complex traits such as height are the result of the interaction of many genes. Selection strongly favoured several variants for tallness in northern and central Europeans starting 8000 years ago, with a boost from the later migration 4800 years ago. In contrast, selection favored shorter people in Italy and Spain starting 8000 years ago. Spaniards in particular shrank in stature 6000 years ago.
Surprisingly, the team found no immune genes under intense selection, which is counter to hypotheses that diseases would have increased after the development of agriculture.
People in northern latitudes often don't get enough UV to synthesize vitamin D, so natural selection has favoured two genetic solutions to that problem - pale skin that absorbs UV more efficiently, and lactose tolerance to digest the sugars and vitamin D naturally found in milk.
Edited from AAAS (2 April 2015)
11 April 2015
Iron Age finds in Buckinghamshire
Archaeologists evaluating a field in Cheddington (Buckinghamshire, England) have unearthed over 60 shards of Iron Age pottery.
Planning permission has already been granted for the site at Great Seabrook Farm to be turned into a solar farm. In December, Cotswold Archaeology carried out an assessment of the land. Iron Age pottery was found in three ditches and one of the pits dug by the team.
In their submitted report to the council, archaeologists state this may hint at a previously unknown Iron Age settlement in the area. The report stated: "Fieldwalking at Grove Farm, 350 metres east of the site, recorded an extensive scatter of Iron Age pottery, which might indicate the presence of an otherwise unknown Iron Age settlement."
In all, 63 remnants of pottery - lacking the decoration of later periods - were found, as well as a number of work flints suggesting earlier Bronze Age activity. Bone fragments from cattle and dogs were found, along with the molar tooth of a sheep. The finds are now at CA's site in Milton Keynes, due to be moved to Bucks County Museum.
Edited from Leighton Buzzard Observer (10 April 2015)
Megalithic cist burial unearthed in India
A megalithic cist burial was found in Khammam (India) in front of SR&BGNR Government Degree and P G College by workers while they were digging a pit as part of the ongoing road widening works.
The sprawling college campus has over 20 megaliths scattered randomly across the complex. Various historical objects including pottery, iron implements and skeletal remains were earlier discovered from the megalithic site during an archaeological excavation conducted on the premises of the campus in 2012.
Meanwhile, some faculty members of the History Department of the college informed the officials of the Department of Archaeology and Museums and other allied departments about the discovery of a megalithic cist burial in front of the college. They sought the intervention of the district authorities to ensure retrieval and preservation of the archaeological remains.
Edited from The Hindu (10 April 2015)
Northern Europeans slow to adopt farming in the Neolithic
According to a team of researchers, northern Europeans in the Neolithic period initially rejected the practice of farming, which was otherwise spreading throughout the continent. "This discovery goes beyond farming," explains Solange Rigaud, the study's lead author and a researcher at the Center for International Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences (CIRHUS) in New York City. "It also reveals two different cultural trajectories that took place in Europe thousands of years ago, with southern and central regions advancing in many ways and northern regions maintaining their traditions."
The researchers - that include Francesco d'Errico, a professor at France's National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and Norway's University of Bergen, and Marian Vanhaeren, a professor at CNRS - focused on the adoption or rejection of certain types of beads or bracelets worn by different populations to understand the spread of specific practices. Previous scholarship has shown a link between the embrace of survival methods and the adoption of particular ornaments. However, the new study marks the first time researchers have used ornaments to trace the adoption of farming in this part of the world during the Early Neolithic period (8,000-5,000 BCE).
It has been long established that the first farmers came to Europe 8,000 years ago, however, the pathways of the spread of farming over the next 3,000 years are less clear.
To explore this process, the researchers examined more than 200 bead-types found at more than 400 European sites over a 3,000-year period.
Their results show the spread throughout Central and Southern Europe of ornaments linked to farmers: human-shaped beads and bracelets composed of perforated shells. By contrast, the researchers did not find these types of ornaments in the Baltic region of northern Europe. Rather, this area held on to decorative wear typically used by hunting and foraging populations - perforated shells rather than beads or bracelets found in farming communities.
"It's clear hunters and foragers in the Baltic area resisted the adoption of ornaments worn by farmers during this period," explains Rigaud. "We've therefore concluded that this cultural boundary reflected a block in the advancement of farming - at least during the Neolithic period."
Edited from Popular Archaeology (8 April 2015)
Ancient stone tools found in Utah desert
Researchers exploring the desert flats west of Salt Lake City (northern Utah - USA) have uncovered more than a thousand ancient tools, such as spear points, a type of rectangular implement that hasn't been reported before, and objects that an archaeologist describes as "giant scrapers coming out of the ground... fresh as daisies."
The tools were found in 2012 on the grounds of the U.S. Air Force Utah Test and Training Range, where Dr. Daron Duke, lead researcher of the team that made the finds, was hired to conduct a survey. Based on ecological evidence and radiocarbon dates of organic matter in the area, laid down when this desert was a wetland, the oldest of the artifacts date to between 12,000 and 13,000 years ago, Duke said.
The most striking of the tools are 55 long, slender spear points and fragments, fashioned in a style known as Haskett - a tradition that's associated with the Great Basin region, but rarely found. One of the complete spear heads is the largest Haskett point yet found, measuring 22.6 centimeters (about 9 inches). And another was found to contain a residue of elephant proteins, making it the first likely evidence of mammoth-hunting in the Great Basin.
Together, these finds help clarify a picture that has remained hazy for archaeologists: the life and times of the Great Basin's earliest inhabitants, who may have been contemporaries of the ancient and widespread Clovis culture. "Haskett is very rare, anywhere," said Duke. "They were probably moving around with a sort of condensed tool kit, and I guess you could say they were low visibility. There weren't many people around, and they didn't leave much of a record. But we just got lucky here."
Haskett points are thought to be part of the larger Western Stemmed tradition of tool-making, whose artifacts are found throughout the Great Basin. And mounting evidence, including the new findings from Utah, suggests that the people who fashioned Western Stemmed tools were contemporaneous with the Clovis culture. "There's no doubt that the people who made fluted [Clovis] points are not those people who made Haskett points," Duke said. "Even though they accomplish the same thing, they're just completely different in their design."
In addition to these many revelations, the patch of barren Air Force land has also turned up other compelling finds, such as a type of tool that doesn't seem to have been recognized previously by archaeologists. There's a class of artifacts that's pretty much defined [by this locality] that I've never even heard of before," Duke said.
His team found 19 extremely sharp, double-sided tools that they call rectangular bifaces, fashioned from broken Haskett stems, he said. "They appear to be used for some sort of intensive gouging of hard material, like bone or wood," Duke added. "These are artifacts that are not recognized in any of the other Paleoindian assemblages."
These preliminary findings from the Utah Test and Training Range have shown enough potential that Duke has already secured permission and funding to excavate the site.
Edited from Western Digs (2 April 2015)
3 April 2015
Ancient tomb unearthed in Tuscany
Archaeologists investigating a potential building site near Volterra (Tuscany, Italy) discovered a tomb dating from pre-Etruscan times. Volterra Mayor Marco Buselli said "It is a remarkable discovery that opens new scenarios regarding pre-Etruscan Volterra".
The tomb, consisting of a large jar which is an estimated one meter in height and more than 80 cm in diameter, was found during survey archaeological investigations for the building of a nursery school. The jar was found in good condition, in a ditch with a stone covering that one city official said "From the fragments it is reasonable to assume that it is as a pre-Etruscan burial".
The tomb is now being studied at the Tuscany archaeological superintendency's conservation laboratory.
Edited from ANSA (2 April 2015)
New carvings show up on Mauxi's rock in India
Two more engravings of wild bulls on basalt rock have come to light in the Zarme tributary of River Mhadei at Mauxi, Sattari (Konkan, West India). On March 28, members of the Keri-based group Vivekanad Puratatva Abhyas Mandal spotted these engravings below the 'bullfight' that was part of the rich rock art heritage discovered in the area on August 10, 1999. The new findings are due to unauthorized sand excavations made to the lower part of the rock.
Rupesh Patkar, a physician who was present at the site during the recent spotting, said, "Below the bullfight scene are the separate engravings of two more bulls on the same rock boulder. Only half of the second bull can be seen as the rock appears to have been broken, probably in the past."
The engravings on basalt rock boulders spotted earlier include a bull with straight and vertical horns, with a rounded hump; it shows the use of the bruising technique (chipping off the weathered rock surface to create a two-dimensional picture by changing the rock surface). On another rock is a deer with linear, elongated body and legs shown separately in lines, with a raised head and short raised tail. In front of it is found a deeply engraved trishul, a type of traditional trident.
Well-known archaeologist M Nambirajan, in his book 'Coastal Archaeology of Western India' notes, "Engravings and bruises in Mauxi of animals and a trishul may be of the Megalithic phase, probably datable to C 1000 BCE."
"The Petroglyphs discovered in Mauxi are our greatest surviving art treasures, yet no effort is being made to protect this heritage for posterity. They simply lie in the open and can be destroyed by anybody," said Arvind Redkar, principal, BEd college, Mumbai, who visited the site.
Edited from The Times of India (31 March 2015)
Skeletons and jewellery found in Iron Age square barrows
Archaeologists say dozens of square barrows found in East Yorkshire (England) contained the skeletons and goods of people from the Arras Culture, living in the region in the Middle Iron Age between the 1st century BCE and the Roman invasion. A set of excavations at Burnby Lane, in Pocklington, have investigated 16 barrows and revealed a further ten during construction works to create housing.
"Some of the square barrows have contained finds including bangles and brooches typical of the Middle to Late Iron Age in Eastern Yorkshire. The finds are now being conserved and stabilised for display purposes in the future and it is this information in particular that will provide a detailed insight into the lives and environment of the Arras Culture in the area of Pocklington," says Paula Ware, of MAP Archaeology Practice.
The site has so far yielded 38 square barrows and 82 burials of a whole range of types, some very rare and most intact and well preserved. Most had a main central grave but many had had secondary burials, possibly from the same family, inserted into the barrows in succeeding years. The current estimate is that the cemetery was created over some 200 to 300 years, but it is possible that as the finds are analysed that is extended to cover the whole of the Iron Age period of 880 BCE to 43 CE.
The Burnby Lane site only contained burials, no domestic occupation, though there is evidence of the Parisi tribe living and working elsewhere at Pocklington across a wide area around the town. The cemetery predominately contains burials of local people, and it would have certainly stood out in the landscape, particularly to anyone travelling down from the Wolds.
What has made the excavation especially exciting to archaeologists are how many different types of burials have been discovered. Many of the skeletons were crouched, but some were flexed, and there were men, women and children, with the men an average of 5 foot 7 inches in height and the women 5 foot 4 inches. Some had been buried in coffins or boxes, some in pits or laid on 'mats' of organic material, one thought to have been buried in a basket, and there were indications that some were just left on the surface to decompose. Some of the barrows were surrounded by enclosure ditches and some were without.
Several people were interred without any accompaniment, but several had a variety of grave goods, including brooches, bangles, pendants, glass beads, pots and weapons. The skeletons, grave goods and organic material have all been sent off for laboratory investigation, including isotope, DNA and protein analysis, and for cleaning and conservation.
One woman had died in childbirth, while a child was buried with a bangle on each of its four limbs, but perhaps the most exciting and unusual was a 'speared burial' of a young man laid to rest with his sword at his side, but before his grave was covered he had half a dozen spears pressed ritualistically into him. Paula Ware described how this would have produced a mound with the spear shafts protruding 'like the spikes of a hedgehog'.
Edited from Pocklington Post (27 March 2015), Culture24 (31 March 2015)
2 April 2015
Neolithic Italian farmers defleshed their dead
About 7000 years ago in Italy, early farmers practiced a burial ritual known as defleshing. When people died, villagers stripped their bones bare, pulled them apart, and mingled them with animal remains in a nearby cave. The practice was meant to separate the dead from the living, researchers say.
"[Defleshing] is something which occurs in burial rites around the world but hasn't been known for prehistoric Europe yet," says John Robb, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge (England) and leader of the research project. Robb and his team examined the scattered bones of at least 22 Neolithic humans who died between 7200 and 7500 years ago. Their remains were buried in Scaloria Cave, a stalactite-filled grotto near Manfredonia (Apulia, Italy), where Robb says that they provide the "first well-documented case for early farmers in Europe of people trying to actively deflesh the dead."
Neolithic communities typically buried their dead beneath or beside their homes or on the outskirts of settlements. But in this case, farmers from villages as far as 15 to 20 kilometers away scattered the defleshed bones of their dead in the upper chamber of Scaloria Cave. The cave - sealed off until its discovery in 1931 - was uniquely able to preserve the human remains, which were mixed randomly with animal bones, broken pottery, and stone tools.
Robb's team performed detailed analyses of the skeletal remains, first excavated in 1978 and now at the University of Cambridge on loan from the Archeological National Museum in Manfredonia, and their context. The results showed that few whole skeletons were present in the cave - only select bones had been interred. Some of the bones had light cut marks, suggesting that only residual muscle tissue needed to be removed by the time of defleshing. That meant the remains were likely deposited as much as a year after death.
Robb and his team theorize that the defleshing process was part of a long, multistage burial. It isn't known what happened to the bodies in the early stages of these rites, though the lack of animal damage on the bones suggests that they weren't exposed to the elements, meaning that they were either sealed away or buried deep in the ground. What is clear is that the rites ended up to a year later, when select bones were cleaned of their remaining flesh and placed in the cave. This likely marked the end of the mourning process; relatives were then free to place the remains among other discarded items, animal bones, and broken vessels, perhaps as a symbolic gesture, showing that the transition from life to death was now complete.
But what was the significance of the cave? Robb and his team further hypothesize that due to the similarity in appearance, bones might have been regarded as equivalent to stalactites. Indeed, noticing the connection between water dripping from the cave ceiling and stalactite formation, the Neolithic Italians had placed vessels beneath the falling liquid to collect it; as the substance that created 'stone bones,' it likely had a spiritual power. It's thus possible, the team says, that the cleaning process and deposition in the cave was a way for the living to return the bones to their stonelike origins, both in appearance and location, completing a cycle of incarnation.
The team's comparison between long bones and stalactites is "extremely suggestive," says Mark Pearce, an archaeologist at the University of Nottingham (England), who was not involved in the study.
Edited from Science Magazine (27 March 2015)