13 December 2013
How prehistoric people selected the best places to live
Stone Age Brits were masters at choosing the perfect 'desirable residence', according to new research carried out by archaeologists at the University of Southampton, and Queen's University, Belfast. Nutritional and security considerations appear to have been the main criteria.
A survey of 25 major British and north-west French sites dating from 500,000 to 200,000 years ago has revealed that members of the long-extinct species Homo heidelbergensis predominantly chose to live on islands in the flood plains of major rivers. They avoided forests and hills, the upper and middle reaches of river systems, and their estuaries. It is the first ever detailed interdisciplinary investigation into early humanity's home location preferences.
"What has amazed us is the degree to which they appear to have deliberately and consistently sought out the same type of ideal location for establishing their major camps.", said the research project's co-director, archaeologist and geographer Professor Tony Brown of the University of Southampton.
The reasons for choosing flood plain areas and avoiding other locations were complex - but help to explain why Homo heidelbergensis was so successful for so long. Flood plains provided raw material for making tools and lighting fires, shallow running water, plentiful game, and vast quantities of water plants with nutritional edible roots. To avoid predators such as lion and hyaena, Homo heidelbergensis favoured only the islands formed by a river's intersecting channels.
During the 300,000 year period of Homo heidelbergensis' dominance in Europe, they had to retreat south on many occasions when cold periods set in. In total, they therefore probably lived in Britain and north-west France for only 10 to 15% of that period, and there were probably only a few hundred or at most a few thousand individuals at any one time. Skeletal remains of fewer than ten have ever been found there, and only these 25 major occupation sites are known in the area. Yet, despite their tiny numbers they succeeded in surviving for at least 3000 centuries and probably contributed to our modern human gene pool.
Edited from The Independent (10 December 2013)
Oldest human footprints in North America identified
There are only two prints - one left and one right - but an ancient hunter-gatherer's path through mineral-rich sediment in the Chihuahuan Desert of northeastern Mexico has been dated to around 10,500 BP.
A team led by Doctor Nicholas Felstead, a geo-archaeologist at Durham University, was able to date the tracks because they were preserved in travertine, a sedimentary rock that contains minute traces of uranium from the waters in which it formed.
The tracks were first discovered during highway construction in 1961. They were excavated and taken to Saltillo's Museo del Desierto, for study, but their precise location was lost to history.
A search for the site in 2006 came up empty, but it did turn up an additional 11 tracks in a Cuatro Ciénegas quarry - in the general area where the original prints were believed to have been found - and dated back about 7,250 years,
Although rare, fossil human footprints have been found elsewhere in North America, from Nicaragua to California. The oldest known human print in the Western Hemisphere is the tiny track of a child's foot in Chile dated to 13,000 years ago - adding to the debate about when humans first migrated to the New World.
Edited from Western Digs (9 December 2013)
Neolithic wooden tridents on display in Cumbria
Carlisle's Tullie House museum (England) has been donated two very rare Neolithic wooden tridents by Cumbria County Council, and is putting them on display for the public to give their theories on what they were used for.
Only four other similar tridents exist in the UK. Nearly identical finds were made in Cumbria and Northern Ireland around 200 years ago. All show a proficiency in woodworking suggesting they were made for a purpose. Theories including fishing, hunting or agricultural use, however they do not appear suited for digging or fishing, and no wear is evident on the tines or elsewhere.
The two recent finds have been carbon dated between 5,900 and 5,400 years ago, when people were first starting to farm in Cumbria. They measure over two metres in length, and were expertly crafted from a single plank of oak split from a tree around 300 years old.
They were associated with a multi-period prehistoric site - an island between two ancient river channels, which also yielded a large assemblage of finds dating predominantly from the very end of the Mesolithic and into the Neolithic.
Finds of worked wood and stone within the channels indicate various phases of human activity from from around 5,500 BCE onwards. Other tools were also recovered, such as leaf-shaped points and polished stone pieces usually considered to be later in date. One possible conclusion is that the site is transitional, encompassing the Mesolithic-Neolithic continuum.
Subsequently, a Neolithic phase starting in the early part of the fourth millennium BCE comprised the construction of a wooden platform and other structures in a channel and the accidental or deliberate deposition of various wooden and stone artefacts. This included the two large wooden tridents, several polished axeheads and fragments of stones for polishing stone axeheads.
Burnt mounds, a sauna type structure, fish traps, and medieval exploitation of the river continue to show the area's importance over thousands of years.
Edited from The Westmoreland Gazette (3 December 2013), Past Horizons (6 December 2013)
12 December 2013
3,000-year-old structures unearthed in Colombia
Some 170 archaeologists and workers have spent the last year excavating a 3,000-year-old site in a rural area near the Colombian capital. Covering 7.8 hectares (19.25 acres), the dig is "unique in Colombia" in terms of offering the possibility of reconstructing ancient village life, archaeologist John Gonzalez said. "We have found an archaeological context that tells us about a probable form of village life, with some traces of family dwellings," Gonzalez added. "We also find structures of a ceremonial type of nature and funerary structures."
The site has yielded 30 intact ceramic objects as well as human bones and teeth. The materials reveal that the inhabitants were members of the so-called Herrera culture, who lived in the highlands of central Colombia from around 900 BCE to 900 CE.
Edited from Latin American Herald Tribune (10 December 2013)
Seminar and a new book about Ġgantija Temples
On Saturday 14th December, Heritage Malta will be organizing a seminar on the Ġgantija Temples which will also feature the launch of the brand new publication on the same subject.
The seminar at the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta will feature presentations by a number of experts in the field of archaeology and prehistory including archaeologist David Trump, Heritage Malta's head of curatorial affairs Godwin Vella, curators Katya Stroud and Daphne Marie Caruana as well as John Cremona and Isabelle Vella Gregory. The seminar will also be addressed by Heritage Malta chairman Dr. Joseph Buttiġieġ.
The 208 page publication which will be launched during the seminar is entitled 'Ġgantija, the oldest free-standing building in the world' features a number of articles as well as over 400 exclusive photos by photographer Daniel Cilia. The book will be on sale from the seminar at a reduced price of €40 instead of the retail price of €50. The book will also be launched on a separate occasion in Gozo at the Ġgantija Archaeological Park on Thursday 19th December at 1pm.
Edited from Maltastar (11 December 2013)
Humans occupied Cyprus earlier than previously thought
Artifacts found at an archaeological site in Cyprus support a new theory that humans occupied the tiny Mediterranean island about 1,000 years earlier than previously believed.
Excavations at Ayia Varvara-Asprokremnos (AVA) by archaeologists from the University of Toronto, Cornell University and the University of Cyprus have uncovered, among other objects, the earliest complete human figurine on the island. The site has been carbon-dated to between 8800-8600 BCE, near the beginning of the Neolithic Period, when the transition from hunting to farming economies was occurring throughout the Middle East.
"This tells us that Cyprus was very much a part of the Neolithic revolution that saw significant growth in agriculture and the domestication of animals," says Sally Stewart, a research fellow at U of T's Archaeology Centre and Department of Anthropology. "With farming came a surplus of wealth, in both food and time. People now had the time to specialize in other roles such as manufacturing, and they had the time to spend making figurative art."
The figurine - a complete female statuette - was found in a collection of igneous stone objects that also included two flat stone tools, one with extensive red ochre residue. The presence of tools provides further evidence of significant manufacturing activity associated with the production of chipped stone instruments and the processing of ochre. It likely also explains the location of the site, which is adjacent to a chalk bed and large sulphite deposits.
The site at AVA was first discovered in the early 1990s. Similar sites were found in 1998 by Stewart and Carole McCartney of the University of Cyprus, and the preliminary analysis of objects found at them led McCartney to theorize that the items are older than previously thought. By 2005, Stewart, McCartney and Cornell University archaeologist Stuart Manning - a member of U of T's Department of Art at the time - began making plans to survey the site at AVA and eventually conduct a full excavation. "With these discoveries we really are getting a clearer picture of how much was going on Cyprus," says Stewart. "We can no longer think of it as being on the fringe of what was happening across the region at the time."
Edited from PhysOrg (9 December 2013)
Ancient skeleton found in North Yorkshire sewer trench
An ancient skeleton has been discovered in a sewer trench under Sutton Street, in the village of Norton-Upon-Derwent (North Yorkshire, England). Contractors from Yorkshire Water were installing sewers when they made the discovery.
Chris Pole, of Northern Archaeological Associates, said a Roman cemetery was located alongside the adjacent Langton Road, which follows a similar line to a Roman road leading south-east from the Roman fort at Malton and the settlement of Derventio (Norton).
Mr Pole said bodies were not buried within the limits of a town in Roman times because this was regarded as unclean. Because of the position of the skeleton there was also a chance it could be older than Roman, Mr Pole said. "It was in a crouched or foetal position, possibly mirroring birth and was located within the limits of a Roman cemetery but it has similarities with burials of prehistoric date," Mr Pole said. "No grave goods were placed with the burial," he added.
The 'remarkably intact' skeleton has been taken to archaeological offices in Barnard Castle for tests to determine its age, sex, and, if possible, a cause of death.
Edited from BBC News (5 December 2013)
Modern stone circle causes a stir
A modern stone circle on the outskirts of an English village is causing a stir among locals and visitors alike. The stone arrangement, which includes rocks ranging from two feet to seven feet tall (0,6-2,1m), has been erected six months ago by Tom and Richard Mason on their family's farm in Rothbury, Northumberland.
"Quite often we'd come back from work and there would be a walker stood there, looking at his Ordenance Survey map, scratching his head. We'd stop and have a bit of a chat and they'd ask if this was an ancient place of worship. I'd say my ancestors built it - my father put it up six months ago," Richard Mason said. "Both my father and I have a real interest in local history and my headmaster was well-known rock art expert, Stan Beckinsall. Every single lesson he would revert back to talking about stone circles, so I blame him for my interest."
Richard and Tom have received calls and emails from history societies across the country, who have been questioned by tourists over the historical nature of the stones. "To the untrained eye the stones could be mistaken for being a lot older," said Richard. "But when you look closely you can tell they've been quarried in the last few years."
Dubbed Rothbury's very own Stonehenge, Richard says his stone circle has a number of fundamental differences to the famous World Heritage Site. He said: "We've got no objections to people asking if they can sit on the stones, have a cup of tea, and eat their picnics. Richard said: "My friends who own farms nearby and have a sense of humour like myself, quite fancy a stone circle for themselves."
Edited from Chronicle Live (1 December 2013)
9 December 2013
Hominin DNA baffles experts
DNA from a 400,000-year-old leg bone from Spain - the oldest hominin sequence yet published - has revealed an unexpected link between Europe's inhabitants of the time, and the Denisovans who lived much more recently in southwestern Siberia. Most researchers believed the bones would be more closely linked to Neanderthals.
The fossil was excavated in the 1990s from a deep cave in a well-studied site in northern Spain called Sima de los Huesos ('pit of bones'). The remains of more than two dozen other hominins found at the site have previously been attributed either to early forms of Neanderthals, who lived in Europe until about 30,000 years ago, or to Homo heidelbergensis, a loosely defined population that gave rise to Neanderthals in Europe and possibly humans in Africa.
The team led by Svante Paabo, a molecular geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, sequenced most of the bone's mitochondrial genome. The result placed the DNA closer to that of Denisovans than to Neanderthals or modern humans. "This really raises more questions than it answers," Paabo says. Denisovans lived thousands of kilometres away and hundreds of thousands of years later.
Paabo notes that previously published full nuclear genomes of Neanderthals and Denisovans suggest the two had a common ancestor that lived up to 700,000 years ago. He says the Sima de los Huesos hominins could represent a founder population that once lived all over Eurasia and gave rise to the two groups.
The situation will become clearer if Paabo's team can extract nuclear DNA from the bones from the Sima de los Huesos hominins, which his team hopes to achieve within a year or so.
Edited from Nature (4 December 2013)
6 December 2013
Neolithic fortifications discovered in China
Fortifications of the largest Neolithic Chinese city ever discovered were excavated in northwest China's Shaanxi Province. The ruins of two square towers, once part of the city wall of the 4,000-year-old Shimao site in Shenmu County, have been uncovered, according to Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology.
One of the towers is 18 meters long, 16 meters wide and four meters tall, while the other is 11.7 meters long, about 10 meters wide and three meters tall, said Su Zhouyong, deputy head of the institute. Sun said the discovery is a breakthrough and contributes greatly to archaeological research on ancient Chinese fortifications.
The Shimao site was first found in 1976 in the form of a small town, and archaeological authorities only identified the ruins as part of a much larger city - the largest of its kind from Neolithic time - last year after measuring the exact size of the ancient city.
The city was found to have a central area, and inner and outer structures. The walls surrounding the outer city extended over an area of 4.25 square kilometers. Archaeologists said it was built about 4,300 years ago and was abandoned roughly 300 years later during the Xia Dynasty, the first dynasty in China to be described in ancient historical chronicles.
Edited from English People (29 November 2013)
Obsidian cache intrigues archaeologists
A beautiful and expertly-flaked obsidian tool which formed part of a cache, rescued from a development site, offers a greater insight into the lives of ancient people that inhabited the island of New Britain, Papua New Guinea (PNG).
In October 2010 Dr Robin Torrence a Senior Principal Research Scientist at the Australian Museum Reseach Institute was contacted by Barema oil palm plantation company, that in the process of bulldozing the side of a hill had uncovered a group of finely worked obsidian (volcanic glass) tools.
The shape belongs to a group known as 'stemmed tools' because the handles resemble the stem of a leaf. The tools are very rare artefacts that date to between about 10,000 and 3,000 years ago, a period for which there is very little archaeological information from the island regions of PNG.
Dr Torrence explained: "What was even more amazing is that this particular stone was flaked into a shape whose profile is unmistakeably meant to be a penis." Workmen had recovered a number of broken parts of other tools identical to the complete artefact - all in all there were two definite and two possible tools with the same phallic shape. These brought into perspective a stemmed tool collected in the 1980's from the Apugi Island offshore from the south coast of New Britain and another Dr Torrence had only recently discovered in the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin.
Using a portable X-ray fluorescence instrument Dr Torrence measured the chemical composition of the tool. The results showed that all the tools collected at Barema had come from the Kuatu-Bao obsidian source located some 100 km away by sea, where they were probably made and then reached Barema through trading networks.
Dr Torrence thinks that the tools could have been used to signify male potency or within initiation ceremonies for either sex. "The finding of a cache may indicate a high status burial (bones do not preserve in these acidic volcanic soils) or perhaps a place where powerful objects were stored, such as a men's house. From the shape it seems that the male sexuality was among the traits that played a significant role in the ceremonial and spiritual life of the ancient people at Barema," Dr Torrence concludes.
The researcher explained that archaeological work in PNG is still in its early stages and in New Britian there have been no villages excavated from this time period. The cache of tools is now housed at the National Museum of PNG in Port Moresby.
Edited from Past Horizons (26 November 2013)
10,000-year-old house and temple uncovered near Jerusalem
A remarkable archaeological find in the Judean lowlands southwest of Jerusalem includes a six-millennia-old cultic temple and a 10,000-year-old house. The ancient sites were located in routine archaeological digs conducted ahead of a planned expansion of Route 38, the main access road to Beit Shemesh. The oldest artifacts discovered are ascribed to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period (10,000 BP).
According to the site's excavation directors, "This is the first time that such an ancient structure has been discovered in the Judean foothills. The building is almost entire, and there are a number of construction phases that indicate its importance. Whoever built the house did something that was totally innovative as up to this period man migrated from place to place in search of food."
A collection of nine flint and limestone axes placed side by side was discovered near the building. "It is apparent that the axes, some of which were used as tools and some as cultic objects, were highly valued by their owners. Based on how the cluster was arranged at the time of its discovery, it seems that it was abandoned by its owner for some unknown reason".
A significant find from the end of the Chalcolithic period (second half of the 5th millennium BCE) was discovered in the adjacent area in Eshat'ol. Six thousand year old buildings were exposed as well as a standing stone or mazzevā. This standing stone is 1.30 meters high and weighs several hundred kilos. It was smoothed and worked on all six of its sides, according to the excavation directors, with one of its sides facing east, which could allude to the presence of a cultic temple at the site.
"We can clearly see that in the Early Bronze Age, 5,000 years ago, the rural society made the transition to an urban society. This is a settlement that gradually became planned and included alleys and buildings that were extremely impressive from the standpoint of their size and the manner of their construction," said Dr. Amir Golani, one of the excavation directors.
Edited from The Jerusalem Post, The Tims of Israel (25 November 2013)
29 November 2013
Ancient Siberian genome reveals origins of Native Americans
In the late 1920s, the skeletal remains of a young boy, believed to be 24,000 years old, were discovered near the village of Mal'ta near Lake Baikal in south-central Siberia. Near the boy's remains were flint tools, a beaded necklace and what appears to be pendant-like items, all apparently placed in the burial as grave goods.
According to results from a DNA study, between 14 and 38% of the ancestry of modern Native Americans came from this boy, with the remainder of the being derived from East Asians. Interestingly, the boy shows little to no genetic affinity to modern populations from the same region.
Kelly Graf, assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at Texas A&M University, helped extract his DNA. "It shows he had close genetic ties to today's Native Americans and some western Eurasians, specifically some groups living in central Asia, South Asia, and Europe. Also, he shared close genetic ties with other Ice-Age western Eurasians living in European Russia, Czech Republic and even Germany."
The genome indicates that prehistoric populations related to modern western Eurasians occupied a wider geographical range into northeast Eurasia than they do today. The study concludes that two distinct Old World populations led to the formation of the First American gene pool: one related to modern-day East Asians, and the other a Siberian Upper Palaeolithic population related to modern-day western Eurasians.
In a nutshell, the researchers' findings "reveal that western Eurasian genetic signatures in modern-day Native Americans derive not only from post-Columbian admixture, as commonly thought, but also from a mixed ancestry of the First Americans."
"At some point in the past, a branch of east Asians and a branch of western Eurasians met each other and had sex a lot," says Doctor Willerslev, who led the sequencing of the boy's genome, adding that this mixing of genes created people that later populated both North and South America.
Doctor Willerslev says, "The thing that was really mind-blowing was that there were signatures you only see in today's Native Americans," and that are consistent among peoples from across the Americas, implying that it could not have come from European settlers who arrived after Columbus and must reflect ancient ancestry. The discovery also raises new questions about the timing of human entry in Alaska and ultimately North America.
Doctor Pontus Skoglund from Uppsala University, Sweden, one of the lead authors of the study, explains, "Most scientists have believed that Native American lineages go back about 14,000 years, when the first people crossed Beringia into the New World. Our results provide direct evidence that some of the ancestry that characterises Native Americans is at least 10,000 years older than that, and was already present in Siberia before the last Ice Age."
Similar genomic signatures from a 17,000 year-old south-central Siberian reveal human occupation of the region after the Last Glacial Maximum (about 26,000 to 19,000 BP), indicating continuity throughout this period - a significant consideration for the peopling of Beringia, and eventually the Americas some 15,000 years ago.
Edited from EurekAlert!, Nature, Tamu Times (20 November 2013), BioNews Texas (22 November 2013)
28 November 2013
Development threatens stone circle in Malta
Two brand new two-storey terraced houses are being proposed in the buffer zone of the Xaghra Stone Circle, which forms part of the Ggantija complex, a UNESCO World Heritage site on the island of Malta.
Heritage Malta contends that any development in this buffer zone would not only endanger the world heritage status of the Ggantija temples, but of all six Megalithic sites in Malta and Gozo.
The Superintendence for Cultural Heritage (SHC) had repeatedly objected to the project but in January 2013 it deemed the project acceptable after a number of changes, but said the site remains one with the most considerable archaeological potential, being so close to a major archaeological monument.
The Heritage Advisory Committee of Malta's Environmental Protection Agency, MEPA, is calling for the prohibition of any development in the buffer zone, while MEPA's Heritage Planning Unit argues that the only development that can be considered is the rehabilitation of a pre-existing rural structure, for residential purposes.
The Xaghra hearing comes in the wake of the controversial approval by MEPA of a 96 square-metre dwelling only 10 metres from the Ta' Hagrat temples.
The board will also be considering an application to sanction illegalities on a pig farm which lies within the archaeological buffer zone around the Ggantija temples, include three garages, two blocks of pigsties and a hay store. The Superintendence for Cultural Heritage had previously objected to sanctioning the illegalities and called MEPA to rehabilitate the site.
Edited from Malta Today (25 November 2013)
Scientists disagree on age of Serpent Mound
Serpent Mound - a 411 m-long prehistoric effigy mound located on a plateau in Ohio (USA) - was excavated by Frederic Ward Putnam in the late 1800s. Putnam didn't find any artefacts in the serpent, but two nearby mounds yielded finds belonging to the Adena culture, dating to between 800 BCE and 100 CE. Putnam also found traces of an Adena village near the mound, which is why it was widely believed that Serpent Mound was an Adena effigy mound. However, Putnam also found traces of a large village of the Fort Ancient culture overlying the earlier village, and another nearby mound contained Fort Ancient artefacts.
In the early 1990s, Brad Lepper was part of a team which reopened one of Putnam's original trenches and recovered charcoal that seemed to indicate the Great Serpent was built by the Fort Ancient culture around 1120 CE. This date roughly corresponds to the age of the vast majority of other effigy mounds in eastern North America, including Ohio's other effigy mound, the Alligator. Unfortunately, the charcoal did not come from a discrete feature such as a fire pit, but consisted of small flecks mixed into the body of the mound.
Lepper says that Serpent Mound makes more sense as a Fort Ancient culture effigy mound. The art of this period throughout eastern North America is rich in serpent symbolism.
William Romain has argued for years that the Serpent was built by the Hopewell culture. Last year, Romain and a team of scientists recovered numerous flecks of charcoal in soil cores from across the mound, including several which yielded dates between 400 BCE and 80 BCE. These appear to confirm that the Adena culture built the mound as originally thought, but have the same provenance issues as those recovered two decades earlier.
Lepper counters that serpent imagery is virtually absent in Adena art. There are serpents in Hopewell art, but they appear to have been regarded by the Hopewell as just one among many potential spirit guardians. In contrast, serpents are a hugely important component of Mississippian symbolism. Fort Ancient is not strictly a Mississippian culture, but the people did live in a Mississippian world and according to Lepper would have shared much of its cosmology. For him the mound fits within a broad, regional tradition of effigy mound building that includes Alligator Mound and the Kern stone serpent effigies of the Little Miami Valley.
Edited from The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio Historical Society Archaeology Blog (17 November 2013)