25 May 2013
Thousands of ancient cave paintings found in Mexico
Archaeologists in Mexico have found 4,926 well-preserved cave paintings in the north-eastern region of Burgos - previously thought not to have been inhabited by ancient cultures. The images in red, yellow, black and white depict humans, animals and insects, as well as sky-scapes and abstract scenes, and were found at 11 different sites. The walls of one cave are covered with 1,550 scenes.
The paintings suggest that at least three groups of hunter-gatherers lived in the San Carlos mountain range. Experts hope to chemically analyse their pigments to find out their approximate age.
Gustavo Ramirez, an archaeologist from Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History, said: "We have not found any ancient objects linked to the context, and because the paintings are on ravine walls and in the rainy season the sediments are washed away, all we have is gravel."
In one of the caves, the experts found depictions of the atlatl, a pre-Hispanic hunting weapon that had not yet been seen in other paintings in the state of Tamaulipas.
Martha Garcia Sanchez, another archaeologist involved in the study, said that very little is known about the cultures who lived in Tamaulipas. "These groups escaped the Spanish rule for 200 years because they fled to the Sierra de San Carlos where they had water, plants and animals to feed themselves," she added.
Edited from BBC News (23 May 2013)
New insights on prehistoric dog burials
Analysis of ancient dog burials finds that the typical prehistoric dog owner ate a lot of fish, had spiritual beliefs, and wore jewellery. The study is one of the first to directly test if there was a clear relationship between the practice of dog burial and human behaviours.
"Dog burials appear to be more common in areas where diets were rich in aquatic foods, because these same areas also appear to have had the densest human populations and the most cemeteries," says lead author Robert Losey, an anthropologist at the University of Alberta (Canada).
The discovery negates speculation that dogs back were just work animals brought along on hunting trips. "If the practice of burying dogs was solely related to their importance in procuring terrestrial game, we would expect to see them in the Early Holocene (around 9000 years ago), when human subsistence practices were focused on these animals," Losey continued. "Further, we would expect to see them in later periods in areas where fish were never really major components of the diet and deer were the primary focus, but they are rare or absent in these regions."
Losey and his team researched dog burials worldwide, but focused particularly on ones in Eastern Siberia. The earliest known domesticated dog found there dates to 33,000 years ago.
Dog burials in the region span a 10,000-year period. Most occurred during the Early Neolithic, 7000 to 8000 years ago. Dogs were only buried when human hunter-gatherers were also being buried. All of the hunter-gatherer dogs were similar to modern Siberian huskies. Later pastoralists did not bury dogs, though they did occasionally sacrifice them. "I think the hunter-gatherers here saw some of their dogs as being nearly the same as themselves, even at a spiritual level," Losey said. "People came to know them as unique, special individuals."
The burials reflect that association. One dog was laid to rest "much like it is sleeping." A man was buried with two dogs, one carefully placed to the left of his body, and the other to the right. A dog was buried with a round pebble, possibly a toy or meaningful symbol, placed in its mouth. Other dogs were buried with ornaments, and implements such as spoons and stone knives. One of the most interesting burials contains a dog wearing a necklace made with four pendant red-deer teeth. Such necklaces appear to have been a trend at the time, since people wore them as well.
Edited from Discovery News (22 May 2013)
Who invented clothes?
Becky Wragg Sykes, a postdoctoral researcher working on Neanderthal archaeology, reveals some of the history of clothing.
People were already making finely worked bone needles 20,000 years ago - probably as much for embroidery as for sewing animal skins. Thousands of ivory beads and fox teeth covered the bodies of a girl and a boy buried at Sunghir, Russia, around 28,000 years ago.
We've known since the 1990s that people were weaving fabric back then, as revealed by impressions in baked clay from sites in the Czech Republic. We don't know for sure that these were used for clothes, but the materials were not heavy duty, and the variety in weaving styles suggests a long tradition. At Dzudzuana Cave in Georgia, 30,000 year old spun plant fibres were found which had been dyed pink, black and turquoise blue.
There is physical evidence that Neanderthals were tanning animal skins more than 100,000 years ago. Although they lacked fine needles of the sort found much later, their abilities to make stone and wood tools were easily enough to produce a sharp piercing object for lacing.
Further back in time things get really interesting. Body lice are adapted to living in clothes, so must have evolved after humans started to wear them, and DNA evidence suggests this happened at least 170,000 years ago.
The earliest examples of jewellery keep getting pushed back in time: they currently stand at about 75,000 years ago, and maybe as much as 100,000 years ago. At one site in South Africa, we even have the first evidence of style as we know it, with a shift in the way shell beads were strung together over time. Beads aren't clothing in the strict sense, but they are a kind of fashion. Although we can't be sure exactly who wore the first clothes or when, the history of human adornment goes back a very long time.
Edited from The Guardian (20 May 2013)
24 May 2013
Remains of ancient oak boat found in Ireland
On the River Boyne, in the republic of Ireland, near Drogheda, a team from the Boyne Fishermen's Rescue and Recovery Service came across an interesting discovery when they were out on one of their regular trips to remove shopping trolleys and other debris from the river. Sticking out of the mud was what appeared to be the remains of a log boat, believed to be thousands of years old.
Expertise was called in to investigate, in the shape of specialist underwater archaeologist Karl Brady, from the Department of arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. He noticed that there were oval shapes on the top edge of the exposed section. "Such features are very rare", he said, "I have seen them on some boats found in Northern Ireland and Britain but not Ireland. They could have been used for holding oars."
The wood has been kept in a good state of preservation in the mud and there are no early plans to remove it. An attempt to date the find will be left until some time towards the end of the year.
Edited from Irish Examiner (13 May 2013)
Stone Age hunter-scavengers
Evidence has been brought to light that our Stone Age ancestors developed techniques in hunter-scavenging, to fuel their evolution. The research study was carried out by a team from Baylor University (USA) and their conclusions prove quite interesting. The theory proposed by the team is that increases noted in brain size and body dimensions required more energy to fuel their increased activity. This led to wider ranging activities to gather the food required.
The study centered around a two million year old site in Kenya, known as Kanjera South. The inhabitants at that time are commonly known as Oldowan hominin. The team measured the gradual growth in brain and frame size and noted some interesting facts about the fossil evidence found at the site. The first sets of fossils were of a type of small antelope. Not remarkable in itself but, when you take into account the fact that all the bones were found, from the top of the head to the hoof, the conclusion being drawn that the animals were hunted and brought back to be butchered and eaten.
So how did they conclude that they also scavenged? Well other remains belonged to a much larger wildebeest sized animal, but only the head. Normally, after a kill in the wild by carnivorous animals, the entire carcass would be devoured, including the bones. But no animal could penetrate the thick skull. A tool-wielding hominin could and the heads were scavenged to enable them to extract the highly nutritious brain.
The study is deemed to be so important that Joseph Ferraro, assistant professor of anthropology at Baylor University is quoted as saying "Considered in total, this study provides important early archaeological evidence for meat eating, hunting and scavenging behaviours - cornerstone adaptations that likely facilitated brain expansion in human evolution, movement of hominins out of Africa and into Eurasia, as well as important shifts in our social behavior, anatomy and physiology".
Edited from ScienceDaily (10 May 2013)
Neolithic hut re-construction in Wiltshire
Old Sarum has been chosen as the site for the re-construction of three Neolithic huts, in an attempt to understand what they looked like and how they worked. Different construction techniques have been tried for the wall daub and roof thatching. Traditional daub, or 'cob' made by mixing clay based subsoil with sand, straw and water and then trampling it with oxen. The problem the project team faced was to adopt a different mindset from modern techniques, including the way the thatch was knotted and woven, rather than being tied down, as we would today.
The design and size of huts has been based on remains found at the Durrington walls site, approximately 2 miles Northeast of Stonehenge, which are similar to others found at Skara Brae in Orkney. Luke Winter, the project leader, is quoted as saying "What makes the buildings interesting is that they were dated to about the same time as the large sarsen stones were being erected at Stonehenge. One of the theories is that they may have housed the people that were helping with construction of the monument".
Edited from BBC News (6 May 2013)
22 May 2013
Neolithic site revealed in China
New archaeological discoveries in Yuyao city, in eastern China's Zhejiang province, provide a clearer picture of life in China's Neolithic age.
Archaeologists are completing a 10-year dig in Tianluo Mountain - one of the cradles of Chinese civilisation. Sun Guoping, captain of the exploration team, said: "It is so far the best preserved site of the Hemudu culture. We can see a clear wooden structure of the living and working areas of a tribe. There were walls, food stores, paddy fields and even piles of rice husks."
The Hemudu site records activities from 7000 to 5000 BCE - one of China's earliest Neolithic sites - and covers more than 3 hectares, with 6 layers. Some 1800 square metres has been explored during the past 10 years of exploration, and more than 7,000 relics recovered.
Yao Xiaoqiang, deputy curator of the Hemudu Cultural Site Museum, said that the Tianluo Mountain site had well-preserved paddy fields from the early and late Hemudu period. "You can see the complete layout of primitive paddy fields, which is of great research value," Yao said, adding that many of the discoveries were the first of their kind in 40 years of exploration of Hemudu culture. These include ancient ladders made from a single piece of wood, big houses for ritual activities, wood-carved ritual wares with birds, and wooden swords.
The Tianluo Mountain site was accidentally discovered in 2001 by locals who were trying to drill a well.
Edited from China Daily (18 May 2013)
Star Carr finds exhibited together for the first time
Deer skull head-dresses, a wooden paddle, bone harpoons, and amber and shale jewellery - some of the most remarkable and complete finds from Britain's Stone Age - will be assembled for the first time in a special exhibition at the Yorkshire Museum, in York (England), starting in May 2013.
On loan from museums all over the country, the objects all come from Star Carr - the type-site for understanding hunter-gatherer communities of the Mesolithic period in Europe, where a number of settlements once stood on the shores of prehistoric Lake Flixton.
The exhibition coincides with the publication of "Star Carr: Life in Britain After the Ice Age" by the Council for British Archaeology, telling the story of excavations at the site, which was buried in a deep layer of peat.
Professor Nicky Milner, of the University of York, co-director of excavations at Star Carr since 2004, said: "This site is incredibly important and it is fantastic that people will get a chance to see the amazing finds which tell the story of how people lived 11,000 years ago."
'After the Ice' is the first in a series of displays forming part of a three-year 'Prehistory in Yorkshire' research and exhibition project. This first year focuses on the Mesolithic period and the site of Star Carr, the second will look at Yorkshire's Bronze Age, and the third at its Iron Age.
Edited from Scarborough News (18 May 2013)
Minoans originated in Europe, not Egypt
The Minoan culture - famous for the myth of the half-man, half-bull, Minotaur in the labyrinth - emerged on the Mediterranean island of Crete, and flourished for more than a thousand years from about 2700 BCE to 1420 BCE, building Europe's first advanced civilisation. By comparing DNA from 4,000-year-old Minoan skeletons found in a sealed cave on Crete's Lassithi Plateau with that of people from modern Crete, and throughout Europe and Africa, a long-held theory that the ancient Minoans came from Egypt has been disproved.
Study co-author George Stamatoyannopoulos - a human geneticist at the University of Washington, USA - says: "We now know that the founders of the first advanced European civilisation were European. They were very similar to Neolithic Europeans and very similar to present-day Cretans".
It is likely, says Stamatoyannopoulos, that the Minoans descended from Neolithic populations that migrated to Europe from the Middle East and Turkey. Archaeological excavations suggest that early farmers were living in Crete by around 9,000 years ago, so these could be the ancestors of the Minoans. Similarities between Minoan and Egyptian artefacts were probably the result of cultural exchanges across the navigable Mediterranean Sea, rather than wholesale migrations.
Stamatoyannopoulos notes that his team's findings are limited, because mitochondrial DNA represents only a single maternal lineage for each individual - a mother's mother, and so on. With Johannes Krause, a palaeo-geneticist at the University of Tubingen in Germany, the team now plans to sequence the nuclear genomes of Minoans and other ancients to learn more about their history.
Wolfgang Haak, a molecular archaeologist at the University of Adelaide in Australia, thinks that Crete's early history is probably more complicated, with multiple Neolithic populations arriving at different times.
Some believe a massive volcanic eruption on the island of Santorini doomed the Bronze Age civilisation, while others argue that invading Mycenaeans toppled the once-great power.
Edited from Discovery.com (14 May 20134), Scientific American (15 May 2013)
20 May 2013
Ancient burials uncovered in Amesbury
Archaeologists have discovered previously unknown round barrows dating back 4000 years to the Bronze Age, just a few miles from Stonehenge. The finds, which also include six Pagan Saxon skeletons dating back over 1000 years, were unearthed at a development site in Amesbury - famous for the so-called "Amesbury Archer", a early Bronze Age man found buried among arrowheads.
The remains are thought to be those of adolescent to mature males and females. Five skeletons were arrayed around a small circular ditch, with the grave of a sixth skeleton in the centre. Two lots of beads, a shale bracelet and other grave goods were also found, which suggest the findings are Pagan.
The site is now being excavated by Wessex Archaeology, led by Phil Harding - known for his work on Channel 4's "Time Team" programme. Phil said: "Given that the Stonehenge area is a well-known prehistoric burial site, it was always very likely some interesting discoveries would be made here. The fact that these round barrows were previously unknown makes this particularly exciting. Finding the skeletons also helps us to get a clearer picture of the history of this area. To my knowledge these are the first Pagan Saxon burials to be excavated scientifically in Amesbury."
The archaeologists are expected to be on site for six weeks in total. Video from the dig may be included in a production for ITV's History Channel, to be aired in January 2014.
Edited from 24 dash.com (17 May 2013), Salisbury Journal (18 May 2013)
Agriculture may predate rice in subtropical China
Using a new method of analysis on ancient grinding stones, archaeologists in southern subtropical China have discovered evidence that people living in Xincun 5000 years ago may have practised agriculture before the arrival of domesticated rice in the region.
Current archaeological thinking is that the advent of rice cultivation along the Lower Yangtze River marked the beginning of agriculture in southern China. Poor organic preservation in the study region means that traditional archaeo-botany techniques are not possible.
The research was the result of a two-year collaboration between Doctor Huw Barton, from the School of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Leicester (UK), and Doctor Xiaoyan Yang, of the Institute of Geographical Sciences and Natural Resources Research, at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.
Doctor Barton, Senior Lecturer in Bio-archaeology, describes the find: "We have used a relatively new method known as ancient starch analysis to analyse ancient human diet. At Xincun we really hit the jackpot. Starch was well-preserved and there was plenty of it. While some of the starch granules we found were species we might expect to find on grinding and pounding stones - some seeds and tuberous plants such as freshwater chestnuts, lotus root and the fern root - the addition of starch from palms was totally unexpected and very exciting."
Several types of tropical palms store prodigious quantities of starch. This starch can be literally bashed and washed out, dried as flour, and eaten. It is not particularly tasty, but it is reliable and can be processed all year round. Many communities in the tropics today - particularly in Borneo and Indonesia, but also in eastern India - still rely on flour derived from palms.
Doctor Barton said: "The presence of at least two, possibly three species of starch-producing palms, bananas, and various roots, raises the intriguing possibility that these plants may have been planted nearby the settlement. If they were planted at Xincun, this implies that agriculture did not arrive here with the arrival of domesticated rice, as archaeologists currently think, but that an indigenous system of plant cultivation may have been in place by the mid-Holocene."
Barton continues: "The adoption of domesticated rice was slow and gradual in this region; it was not a rapid transformation as in other places. Our findings may indicate why this was the case. Future work will focus on grinding stones from nearby sites to see if this pattern is repeated along the coast."
Edited from EurekAlert!, ScienceDaily (17 May 2013), ScienceBlog (May 2013)
Scottish island hints at undiscovered burial sites
Evidence of previously undiscovered historic burial sites may have been found on the Scottish island of Iona. A geophysical survey revealed signs of burial to the south of the village, and at Martyr's Bay. Both will be excavated at a later date.
The National Trust for Scotland (NTS) survey was the first to focus away from the island's Columban monastic enclosure and the Benedictine Abbey.
The study was carried out by Doctor Sue Ovenden and Alastair Wilson, and examined two areas - one close to the current village hall and south of the Nunnery, and the other at Martyr's Bay. The area close to the village hall appears to show features of recent or natural origin which will be excavated later this year. The more interesting result came from Martyr's Bay, where skeletal remains were excavated in the 1960s from a mound by the roadside.
Of the Martyr's Bay site, the trust's head of archaeology, Derek Alexander, said: "The geophysical survey shows that on the landward side, this mound may have been revetted (walled) by stones and surrounded by a shallow ditch. This could be a sign of burials. It's possible that this mound has some connection to another graveyard that's marked on an old map, known as Clad Nan Druineach. It has always been suggested that there are numerous burial sites on Iona, and there have been various finds over the years - the most famous of which is in the graveyard at Relig Odhrain to the south of the Abbey."
Edited from BBC News, Scotsman.com (17 May 2013)
18 May 2013
Dismembered dogs point to ancient initiation rite
Did Bronze Age initiation rites for boys 'destined' to become warriors involve animal sacrifice? At first, archaeologists Dorcas Brown and David Anthony were deeply puzzled. While excavating the Bronze Age site of Krasnosamarkskoe in Russia's Volga region, they unearthed the bones of at least 51 dogs and 7 wolves. All the animals had died during the winter months, judging from the telltale banding pattern on their teeth, and all were subsequently skinned, dismembered, burned, and chopped with an ax. Moreover, the butcher had worked in a precise, standardized way, chopping the dogs' snouts into three pieces and their skulls into geometrically shaped fragments just an inch or so in size. "It was very strange," says Anthony.
To him and Brown, both of whom teach at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York, the skilled and standardized method of butchering the dogs pointed to some sort of ritual. Pam Crabtree, an archaeozoologist at New York University, who was not a member of the team, agrees. She notes that the butchery pattern was entirely different from those used in prehistoric Europe and other parts of the world for slicing off dog meat to eat. "The bone was chopped into small bits, and it was not the way you would do it if you were looking at getting the major muscle groups," Crabtree says.
In search of clues, Anthony and Brown combed the mythology, songs, and scriptures in Eurasia's early and closely related Indo-European languages. Many ancient Indo-European speakers associated dogs with death and the underworld. Reading through prayers composed by tribes in India possibly as early as 1400 BCE, the researchers found a description of secret initiation rites for boys destined to become roving warriors.
At the age of eight, the boys were sent to ritualists, who bathed them, shaved their heads, and gave them animal skins to wear. Eight years later, the initiates underwent a midwinter ceremony in which they ritually died and journeyed to the underworld. After this, the boys left their homes and families, painted their bodies black, donned a dog-skin cloak, and joined a band of warriors.
Brown and Anthony think that similar rites may have taken place at Krasnosamarskoe at the onset of the raiding season, which ran from the winter solstice to the summer solstice. And they speculate that part of the ceremony required the boys to kill their own dogs. The dead canines ranged in age from 7 to 12 years, suggesting that they were longtime companions - possibly even hounds raised with the boys from birth.
"That makes a lot of sense," concludes Brown. To take on the mantle of a warrior, an innocent boy had to become a killer. Recent research conducted by military psychologists, moreover, suggests that the transition from civilian to soldier can be very difficult. In other words, "you have to train people to kill," says Brown. For the Bronze Age boys at Krasnosamarskoe, this training may have included killing one of their childhood companions - their faithful dog.
Edited from National Geographic Daily News (14 May 2012)
The mysterious mounds of Nicaragua
National Geographic explorer and archaeologist Alex Geurds is currently in the field investigating a prehistoric, ceremonial center of stone circles in Central Nicaragua.
Researchers will be working for the next few weeks at the site of Aguas Buenas, located to north of the city of Juigalpa. In that area, stone and earthen mounds are visible at regular intervals. The Central Nicaragua Archaeological Project is an ongoing archaeological investigation to shed light on the prehistory of Nicaragua, in particular its extraordinary indigenous tradition of monumental stone sculptures and its poorly understood ceremonial complexes.
As part of this, the Aguas Buenas archaeological site holds special interest. Recent explorations of the site have revealed its unequalled architectural characteristics and extraordinary number of mounds, spread out over the hilly Chontales landscape by means of wide concentric semi-circles. Current knowledge of prehistoric monumental architecture in Central America cannot tell us anything specific about why this site looks like it does. Nor is there a significant amount of previous archaeological research in the region to help us out in understanding Aguas Buenas.
The 2013 field season features students from Leiden University, the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua and the University of Calgary, geared towards completing a GPS mapping of the site and excavating several of the more than 500 mounds. What are these mounds actually? When were they built and how? Do they serve a purpose as individual mounds or rather playing a role in the larger complex of the site itself? These are just some of the questions fuelling the effort to withstand scorching heat, prickly shrubs and the occasional snake and scorpion.
Standing among the mound, one would never guess the 600-meter diameter semi-circular patterns these mounds clearly follow from an airborne perspective. Researchers determined the mound to be excavated by working on creating an understanding of when distinct sectors of the site may have been built and how comparable the contents of mounds really are.
The excavation progress can be followed online.
Edited from National Geographic News Watch (13 May 2013)
Evolutionary answers from prehistoric ear bones
According to a recent study, the bones of the middle ear could provide huge clues about our evolution and the development of modern-day humans. Darryl de Ruiter, a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Texas A&M, and colleagues from Binghamton University (the State University of New York) and researchers from Spain and Italy have published their work in the current issue of PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Science).
The team examined the skull of a hominin believed to be about 1.9 million years old and found in a cave called Swartkrans, in South Africa. Of particular interest to the team were bones found in the middle ear, especially one called the malleus. It and the other ear bones - the incus and the stapes - together show a mixture of ape-like and human-like features, and represent the first time all three bones have been found together in one skull.
The malleus appears to be very human-like, the findings show, while the incus and stapes resemble those of a more chimpanzee-like, or ape-like creature. Since both modern humans and our early ancestors share this human-like malleus, the changes in this bone must have occurred very early in our evolutionary history.
"The discovery is important for two reasons," de Ruiter explains. "First, ear ossicles are fully formed and adult-sized at birth, and they do not undergo any type of anatomical change in an individual lifetime. Thus, they are a very close representation of genetic expression. Second, these bones show that their hearing ability was different from that of humans - not necessarily better or worse, but certainly different."
"Bipedalism (walking on two feet) and a reduction in the size of the canine teeth have long been held to be 'hallmarks of humanity' since they seem to be present in the earliest human fossils recovered to date. Our study suggests that the list may need to be updated to include changes in the malleus as well," de Ruiters concludes.
de Ruiter recently authored a series of papers in Science magazine that demonstrate the intermediate nature of the closely related species, Australopithecus sediba, and provide strong support that this species lies rather close to the ancestry of Homo sapiens. The current study could yield additional new clues to human development and answer key questions of the evolution of the human lineage.
Edited from PhysOrg (13 May 2013)