23 August 2014
Stone tools point to diversity of traditions among early humans
The biggest ever comparative study of stone tools dating to between 130,000 and 75,000 years ago found in the region between sub-Saharan Africa and Eurasia shows marked differences in the way stone tools were made, reflecting a diversity of cultural traditions. The study identified at least four distinct populations, each relatively isolated from each other with their own different cultural characteristics.
Researchers took over 300,000 measurements of stone tools from 17 archaeological sites across North Africa, including the Sahara, and combined the stone tool data with a model of the North African environment during that period which showed that the Sahara was then a patchwork of savannah, grasslands and water, interspersed with desert. They also mapped out known ancient rivers and major lakes. They were then able to draw new inferences on the contexts in which the ancient populations made and used their tools, showing how early populations of modern humans dispersed across the Sahara along the ancient rivers and watercourses.
Lead researcher Dr Eleanor Scerri, visiting scholar at the University of Oxford, says: "This is the first time that scientists have identified that early modern humans at the cusp of dispersal out of Africa were grouped in separate, isolated and local populations. Stone tools are the only form of preserved material culture for most of human history. These stone tools reveal how early populations of modern humans dispersed across the Sahara just before they left North Africa. While different populations were relatively isolated, we were interested to find that when connected by rivers, they share similarities in their tool-making suggesting some interaction with one another."
Dr Scerri continues: "Not much is known about the structure of early modern human populations in Africa, particularly at the time of their earliest dispersals into Eurasia. Our picture of modern human demography around 100,000 years ago is that there were a number of populations, varying in size and degree of genetic contact, distributed over a wide geographical area. This model of our population history supports other theories recently put forward that modern humans may have first successfully left Africa earlier than 60,000-50,000 years ago, which had been the common view among scholars. Our work provides important new evidence that sheds light on both the timing of early modern human dispersals out of Africa and the character of our interaction with other human species, such as Neanderthals."
Co-author Dr Huw Groucutt says: "The question of whether there was an early successful exit from Africa has become one of whether any of the populations discovered in this paper went in and out of Africa for some or all of this time. A crucial next step involves fieldwork in areas such as the Arabian Peninsula to understand how these populations spread into Eurasia."
Edited from PhysOrg (18 August 2014)
Earliest human burial site uncovered in Cyprus
Archaeologists have discovered what they believe could be one of the earliest documented formal human burials found on the island of Cyprus. The burial of an adult individual, probably a male, was found in a tightly flexed position in a grave cut into a larger, somewhat earlier pit.
Similar sites in Cyprus have shown that the island was in early and consistent contact with the mainland Neolithic, and was colonised far earlier than previously believed. Human remains, however, had been elusive at all early Neolithic sites.
Previously, parts of an infant burial were recovered, and elements representing several individuals were recovered from Neolithic wells. At one site numerous human remains were recovered in a large pit, and a flexed individual adjacent to a cat burial also was documented.
The newly-discovered site was especially rich in stones, animal bones and chipped stone, compared with the fill of the larger pit. The site is in the foothills of the Troodos Mountains in the Paphos region, in the very west of the island - rather than near the coast, which is a more common Neolithic pattern.
Many unique features are present, including circular plastered platforms, a huge chipped stone assemblage, and well-preserved palaeo-economic data, including cattle, which previously had not been documented on Cyprus until the Bronze Age. Animal bones include a predominance of deer, followed by pig. The partial remains of two other structures have been revealed, making a total of six. Over 300,000 items have been recovered to date.
Edited from Cyprus Mail (14 August 2014)
22 August 2014
Remains of two bodies found in Bronze Age Scottish grave
Archaeologists have discovered the remains of at least two bodies in a Bronze Age burial cist under a pile of rocks known as Ricky's Cairn, located in a remote area of the west Highlands (Scotland). They were previously aware of one body in the ancient grave on the Ardnamurchan peninsula but they have now found more bones than could belong to another person.
A skull found during an earlier archaeological dig at Swordle in 2010 was dated as being from around 1700 BCE. The bones discovered during the Ardnamurchan Transition Project team's visit to the area this summer have now been sent away for radiocarbon dating.
Team leader Ollie Harris, who is a lecturer in archaeology at the University of Leicester, said: "In the majority of Bronze Age cists, we would expect to find one person buried in a crouching position on their side, but examining the remains in this cist strongly suggests the presence of two or more people. This was an exciting find. One of our main aims this year was to find out about what we thought was a single body, so to come back and find probably two people is very interesting as it offers a different perspective on Bronze Age burials."
He added that they also found another jet bead in the grave. Three were found in 2010 and they are believed to be part of a necklace. They also unearthed a flint scraper, which they believe to have been used for removing fat from hides, and small pieces of flint debitage, which is the waste material produced in the making of early stone tools.
The team also excavated the Neolithic tomb of Cladh Andreis, a 200ft long mound of rocks leading from the tomb, which they describe as the tail of the monument, and a small Bronze Age cist cut into the side of the tail.
Mr Harris said the small Bronze Age cist had been a new find this year. He said: "This cist had been heavily robbed. There were just a few scraps of bone in it, but we are hoping we can get a radiocarbon date from them." He added that they had previously worked on Cladh Andreis, which was built around 3,700 BCE, from 2006 to 2010. "This year we found bits of teeth, human remains from various bodies and a leaf-shaped arrowhead," said the archaeologist.
Edited from The Press and Journal (14 August 2014)
Complex Neolithic site unearthed in Kent
A Neolithic ditch which became a huge funerary monument when it was enlarged with an outer ring during the Bronze Age has been found on housing development grounds in Kent (England). Archaeologists suspect a 'sacred way' could have led to a henge 6,000 years ago at Iwade Meadows, to the west of the Kent industrial town of Sittingbourne. Positioned on a north-west slope, the 30-metre diameter structure is one of several prehistoric monuments above the Ridham fleet stream running through the centre of the site.
"Its purpose is not known," said Dr Paul Wilkinson, of excavators SWAT Archaeology. "But it may be that the monument was reused as an enclosure for stock management at this time or could formally have been used as a 'sacred way' leading to the Neolithic henge. The monuments are in a location that would have formerly had extensive views to the Swale Estuary and the Island of Sheppey beyond."
"The archaeological evidence suggests that the outer ditch may have originated in the Neolithic and been later transformed in the Bronze Age into a funerary monument with the addition of the inner ring. The outer ring has an entrance facing north-east suggesting that it may have originated as a henge-type monument - a ceremonial gathering place of which Stonehenge is our most well known example," added Dr Wilkinson."The inner ring appears to be later and is an unbroken circuit. This may be associated with a Bronze Age burial, as a barrow, though no burials have yet been found. A second smaller monument lies close to the larger rings and may be a secondary barrow dating to the Bronze Age."
"While the monuments may have fallen out of use for their primary function by the middle Bronze Age they seem to have still been significant landscape features, as a track from the north-east is seen to have been extended to the causeway entrance of the outer ring. The importance of the location in the Neolithic period is reinforced by the rare findings of a series of pits close to the monuments that may indicate the area was being used before the construction of the monument or represents activity associated with it," Dr Wilkinson concluded.
Edited from Culture24 (12 August 2014)
20 August 2014
British schoolboy archaeologists make amazing discovery
It shows that you can never start a love of archaeology too early. On a site in Kirkhaugh, Northumberland (England) a local group with the lengthy title of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty Partnership's Altogether archaeology Project, had encouraged local school children to take part.
This particular group of youngsters, ranging from 7 to 10 years old, uncovered what they thought was just a plain piece of plastic. On closer examination it actually proved to be made of gold! The piece they found is known as a hair tress and was worn as an ornament in the hair. as well as being identified and dated at approx. 2,300 BCE, it is also very rare to find, with only 10 other examples in the UK.
One of the young archaeologists, Sebastian, was quite excited "We did some work on the Copper Age at school, which was really interesting. But to take part in the actual excavation, and to find things, was awesome!" Paul Frodsham, leader of the project, put the find into a bit more perspective "All archaeological sites are important in their own way, but this is exceptional. It can be regarded as marking the very start of mineral exploitation in the North Penninnes, leading in due course to Roman exploitation of lead and silver".
Edited from Express, Daily Mail (4 August 2014)
Illegal landscaping threatens Bronze Age burial site
In Plymstock, a suburb of Plymouth (Devon, England), lies an ancient woodland, which is subject to a Protection Order, to prevent unauthorised felling of trees.
Added to this, evidence has been previously uncovered to show that the area has also been a Bronze Age burial ground and was the location for an unexplored long barrow. Reason enough to protect our heritage you may think. But none of this seems important to the new land owner, RPB Vehicle Solutions, who have already cut down a large number of protected trees.
Local residents alerted Plymouth City Council's planning department to the dangers any they have told the owner, in no uncettain terms, to stop removing trees without the Council's permission.
This area has already proved to be quite productive in terms of artefacts , one of which, known as the Elburton Urn, dates to between 2,050 and 1,500 BCE and has prided of place at the city museum.
Win Scutt, a former lecturer at Plymouth College, is very concerned about the burial site and also the barrow, the location of which has been kept secret t prevent looting. He is quoted as saying "In my view the site is at risk of what the owner is doing, but until it's scheduled as an ancient monument there is no way to protect it. It's not about artefacts, it's about what information it can reveal to us. I stringly feel it could be the most important early Bronze Age site in Plymouth, if not the South west".
Edited from The Herald (2 August 2014)
Finland's love of milk dates back to the Stone Age
Evidence has been found to prove that animal domestication occurred in one of the earth's harshest environments much earlier than previously thought. A combined team from the Universities of Bristol (England) and Helsinki (Finland) have been examining examples of Corded Ware pottery found in the northern parts of Finland.
The pieces examined were cooking pots dated at 3,900 to 3,300 BCE and also approx. 2,500 BCE. Astonishingly the pots from 2,500 BCE contained traces of milk fats. This proved that the inhabitants at that time, despite a climate where it can snow for up to four months of the year, had domesticated animals.
This evidence is in line with research in other, milder, climates to mark the transition from hunter/fisher culture. The Team Leader, Dr Lucy Cramp, from the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at Bristol University, is quoted as saying "This is remarkable evidence which proves that four and a half thousand years ago Stone age people must have been foddering and sheltering domesticated animals over harsh winters, in conditions that even nowadays we would find challenging".
Her colleague, Dr Volker Heel, went on to add "Our results show a clear link between an incoming pre-historic population, milk drinking and the ability to digest milk in adulthood, still visible in the genetic distribution of modern Finland, which remains one ogf the highest consumers of dairy products in the world".
Edited from ScienceDaily (29 July 2014)
11 August 2014
Citizen archaeologists help rediscover British Bronze Age
The British Museum's Bronze Age Index - an illustrated card catalogue containing over 30,000 records of Bronze Age tools and weapons - complements the current Portable Antiquities Scheme Database of metal object finds. Begun in the early 20th century, it was the first catalogue of its kind, and probably the first British archaeology initiative to call on public help with documenting British prehistory.
Following in the footsteps of creators of the Index, the museum is once again calling on the public to help research this extremely important resource. Since late 2013, the digitisation of the entire Index has been undertaken by the MicroPasts project, employing help from 'citizen archaeologists' to assist in transcribing the information contained on these cards. By undertaking these transcriptions, it will be possible to incorporate the Index's 30,000 records rapidly into the PAS database, which on its own includes nearly one million objects collected by the public, usually by metal-detectorists. Additionally, people are helping create 3D models of objects, many of which are recorded by the Index.
The result will be the largest national database of prehistoric metal finds anywhere in the world, and a near-comprehensive view of what we currently know about such finds in the UK. Metal finds are not only crucial forms of evidence for dating Britain's prehistoric past, but also tell us a great deal about prehistoric society and economy. The creation of this database will allow for the rethinking of almost everything we currently know about the use of metal in Bronze Age Britain, giving us a more comprehensive view of our prehistoric past.
To find out out more about MicroPasts, or help with the research, visit the project's web site at micropasts.org
Edited from The British Museum (4 August 2014)
Technology boom 50,000 years ago correlated with less testosterone
Modern humans appear in the fossil record about 200,000 years ago, but it was only about 50,000 years ago that we find widespread evidence of bone and antler tools, heat-treated and flaked flint, projectile weapons, grindstones, fishing and birding equipment and a command of fire.
Scientists have shown that, at around the same time that culture was blossoming, human skulls changed in ways that indicate a lowering of testosterone levels. The study is based on measurements of more than 1,400 ancient and modern skulls.
"The modern human behaviours of technological innovation, making art and rapid cultural exchange probably came at the same time that we developed a more cooperative temperament," said lead study author Robert Cieri, a biology graduate student at the University of Utah USA.
Heavy brows were out, rounder heads were in, and those changes can be traced directly to testosterone levels acting on the skeleton, according to Duke anthropologist Steven Churchill, who supervised Cieri's early work on the subject. What they can't tell from the bones is whether these humans had less testosterone in circulation, or fewer receptors for the hormone.
The research team included animal cognition researchers Brian Hare and Jingzhi Tan, who say this argument is in line with what has been established in non-human species. In a classic study of Siberian foxes, animals that were less wary and less aggressive toward humans took on a different, more juvenile appearance and behaviour after several generations of selective breeding.
"If we're seeing a process that leads to these changes in other animals, it might help explain who we are and how we got to be this way," says Hare, who also studies differences between aggressive chimpanzees - our closest ape relatives - and mellow, free-loving bonobos. Their social interactions are profoundly different and, relevant to this finding, their faces are different, too.
"If prehistoric people began living closer together and passing down new technologies, they'd have to be tolerant of each other," Cieri says. "The key to our success is the ability to cooperate and get along and learn from one another."
Edited from ScienceDaily (1 August 2014)
Ancient fragment of ivory is missing piece of animal figurine
Archaeologists from the University of Tübingen have found a fragment of mammoth ivory belonging to a 40,000 year old animal figurine. The figurine depicting a lion was discovered during excavations in 1931. The new fragment makes up one side of the figurine's head. Both were found in the Vogelherd Cave in southwestern Germany, which has yielded a number of remarkable works of art dating to the Ice Age.
"It is one of the most famous Ice Age works of art," says Professor Nicholas Conard of Tübingen University's Institute of Prehistory and Medieval Archaeology, and the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeo-environment Tübingen. "and until now, we thought it was a relief. The reconstructed figurine clearly is a three dimensional sculpture."
"We have been carrying out renewed excavations and analysis at Vogelherd Cave for nearly ten years," says Conard. "The site has yielded a wealth of objects that illuminate the development of early symbolic artefacts dating to the period when modern humans arrived in Europe and displaced the indigenous Neanderthals."
Vogelherd Cave has provided evidence of the world's earliest art and music, and is a key element in the push to make the caves of the Swabian Jura a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Vogelherd is one of four caves in the region where the world's earliest figurines have been found. Several dozen figurines and fragments have been found in the Vogelherd alone, and researchers are piecing together thousands of mammoth ivory fragments.
<em>Edited from Universitat Tubingen, ScienceDaily (30 July 2014)</em>
6 August 2014
Schoolboy finds evidence of ancient conflict in Wales
Evidence of an ancient conflict has been discovered at Caerau hill fort, on the outskirts of the present day city of Cardiff, in southeast Wales. Volunteers from the CAER Heritage Project began digging at the site in early July, expecting to recover only Roman and Iron Age finds. A six-year-old schoolboy was the first to spot what turned out to be a Neolithic arrow head, dating to 3,600 BCE.
As the excavation of prehistoric ditches proceeded, volunteers unearthed a plethora of early Neolithic finds, including flint tools and weapons, arrowheads, awls and scrapers, as well as fragments of polished stone axes and pottery.
A dig last year revealed that the fort had been the site of a powerful Iron Age community pre-dating the arrival of the Romans. The latest discovery pushes its history back a further 4,000 years.
"Nobody predicted this," said dig co-director Dr Dave Wyatt, from Cardiff University. "Our previous excavation yielded pottery and a mass of finds including five large roundhouses showing Iron Age occupation, and there's evidence of Roman and medieval activity, but no one realised the site had been occupied as far back as the Neolithic - predating the construction of the Iron Age hill fort by several thousand years."
Oliver Davis, co-director of the CAER project, explained: "The ditches appear to date to the early Neolithic, when communities first began to settle and farm the landscape. The location and number of Neolithic finds indicate that we have discovered a causewayed enclosure; a special place where small communities gathered together at certain important times of the year to celebrate, feast, exchange things and possibly find partners. Such sites are very rare in Wales, with only five other known examples, mostly situated in the south."
"What's fascinating is that a number of the flint arrowheads we have found have been broken as a result of impact - this suggests some form of conflict occurred at this meeting place over 5,000 years ago."
Edited from Wales Online (3 August 2014)
Spain tests limited visits to Altamira cave
The cave of Altamira in northern Spain contains some of the world's finest examples of Palaeolithic art - bisons, horses and mysterious signs painted and carved into the limestone as much as 22,000 years ago.
In 2002, when algae-like mould started to appear on some paintings, the cave was closed to the public, but this year Altamira has been partially reopened. Since late February, five random visitors per week, clad in protective suits, have been allowed inside the cave. However, some scientists who studied Altamira and supported its closure have been upset by this experiment and the possibility of the cave's reopening, regarding both as politically motivated.
Altamira was first discovered in 1879 by an amateur botanist and archaeologist, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, during an exploratory visit with his daughter. For decades, his find was mostly dismissed as fake. But in 1902 a French study confirmed that its striking black-and-red paintings were prehistoric, turning the cave into a major tourism destination. By the 1970s, Altamira was attracting more than 150,000 people per year.
The site was closed in 1979, and later reopened to just 8,500 visitors per year. In 2002, the cave was completely closed, and visitors sent to a nearby museum containing an exact replica of part of the cave, including its main chamber. In 2013, the replica cave welcomed 250,000 visitors.
The scientists who oppose any kind of reopening argue that the presence of people alters temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide levels, helping spread microbial colonisation on the walls and ceiling, while the added air currents erode wall and sediment surfaces.
Lascaux, in southwestern France, was long ago closed to the public after suffering serious fungal damage. Muriel Mauriac, the curator of Lascaux, said she was following developments at Altamira. "I trust the Spanish authorities will ultimately take the right decision," she said.
Both Altamira and Lascaux are on Unesco's list of World Heritage sites.
Edited from The New York Times (30 July 2014)
3 August 2014
Earlier Stone Age artefacts found in South Africa
Excavations at Kathu in the Northern Cape province of South Africa have produced tens of thousands of Earlier Stone Age artefacts, including hand axes and other tools estimated to be between 700,000 and one million years old - a massive deposit of Acheulean artefacts. The site is around 56 km west of Wonderwerk Cave, where a sequence of Earlier Stone Age occupation has produced early evidence of fire.
Kathu Townlands shows high-intensity stone tool production, interspersed with exposures of bedrock, calcium carbonate concretions, and sand. Calcium carbonate concretions - calcretes - are a common feature in the area, and figure significantly in the deposits in the vicinity of the site. The bedrock outcroppings are dominated by chert - ideal for stone tool manufacture - and the availability of high quality raw material is likely a major reason for repeated exploitation of the resource, and the high density of stone tool and knapping debris.
The site is one of a grouping of prehistoric sites known as the Kathu Complex. Other sites include Kathu Pan 1, which has produced fossils of animals such as elephants and hippos, and - from a level dated to half a million years ago - the earliest known evidence of tools used as spears.
The Townlands site was brought to the attention of archaeologists in 1980 by the manager of the property, who had observed workmen using gravel composed primarily of artefacts to repair roads. Excavations were first conducted in 1982. In August 2013 excavations were undertaken to mitigate the destruction caused by building work on a portion of the known deposit.
These dense and broadly distributed archaeological deposits pose methodological and management challenges. The town is rapidly expanding, and development is directly threatening deposits beyond the declared National Heritage site area.
Together with the other parts of the complex, this site presents a challenge to reconstructions of hominin adaptations during the Early-Middle Pleistocene. Michael Chazan, Director of the Archaeology Center at the university, emphasises the scientific challenge posed by the density of the traces of early human activity in this area: "We need to imagine a landscape around Kathu that supported large populations of human ancestors, as well as large animals like hippos. All indications suggest that Kathu was much wetter, maybe more like the Okavango than the Kalahari. There is no question that the Kathu Complex presents unique opportunities to investigate the evolution of human ancestors in Southern Africa."
The occurrence of a low density Acheulean occupation at Wonderwerk Cave suggests significant differences in the intensity of hominin activity between the two flanks of the Kuruman Hills. The density of archaeological remains within the Kathu Complex is likely related to local availability of water. It is intriguing to consider the possibility that the hominin occupation of Wonderwerk Cave during the Acheulean may be the result of seasonal mobility of small groups of hominins dispersing from the core occupation area on the western flanks of the Kuruman Hills.
Edited from PlosOne, Science Daily (24 July 2014), Popular Archaeology (25 July 2014)
Romanian cave holds some of oldest human footprints
Human footprints found in Romania's Ciur-Izbuc Cave represent the oldest such impressions in Europe, and perhaps the world, researchers say.
About 400 footprints were first discovered in the cave in 1965. Estimates of their age was based partly on their association with cave bear footprints and bones, and the belief that cave bears became extinct near the end of the last ice age. Scientists initially attributed the impressions to a man, woman, and child who lived 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, but recent radiocarbon measurements of two cave bear bones excavated just below the footprints indicate that Homo sapiens made these tracks around 36,500 years ago.
Analyses of 51 footprints that remain indicate that six or seven individuals, including at least one child, entered the cave after a flood had coated its floor with sandy mud. In some cases the heel, arch and even toes could be identified. Two cases of bears apparently overprinting humans help establish antiquity, and Carbon-14 dates suggest a much greater age than originally thought.
Unfortunately, insufficient footprints remain to measure movement variables such as stride length. However, detailed three-dimensional mapping of the footprints does allow a more precise description of human movements within the cave.
Published ages for other Homo sapiens footprints in Europe and elsewhere go back no more than 33,000 years. Scientists believe the footprints are evidence of the earliest known humans in northern Europe, previously only revealed through the discovery of animal bones and stone tools.
The Romanian footprints are one of the oldest to be described in a peer-reviewed journal, but a number of researchers believe they have found footprints that are much older.
Edited from ScienceNews (17 July 2014), The Blaze (18 July 2014), The Daily Mail UK (22 July 2014)
2 August 2014
Ancient astronomy in northern Peru
Archaeologists in Peru found what they believe is a stone altar containing petroglyphs dating to 3,500 to 4,000 years ago. Researchers say the engravings record star patterns and rain forecasts.
The discovery was made at the archaeological complex of Licurnique, in Peru's northern region of Lambayeque - known for its archaeological finds, and rich Moche and Chimú historical past. The name Lambayeque is a Spanish derivation of the god Yampellec, said to have been worshipped by the first Lambayeque king, Naymlap.
Researchers explain that the Licurnique archaeological site is unique because it combines prehistoric, Hispanic, and Andean influences.
According to legend, a great float of balsa rafts arrived at the beaches of the San José cove. Formed by a brilliant cortège of nine foreign warriors, this float was led by a man of great talent and courage called Naymlap, the mythical founder of the first northwest civilisation. Among the descendants of Naymlap were the Moche, the Wari', and the Chimú peoples.
The Lambayeque region has become an archeological gold mine. Just last year, a religious centre from pre-Incan Chavin culture was discovered in the area. The find was made while trying to test a hypothesis that each valley in the region has a temple dedicated to the water and fertility cult.
Edited from Andient Origins (27 July 2014), Peru This Week (23 July 2014), Latin Times (28 July 2014)