1 July 2016
Prehistoric tombs enhanced astronomical viewing?
Astronomers are exploring what might be described as the first astronomical observing tool, potentially used by prehistoric humans 6,000 years ago. They suggest that the long, narrow entrance passages to megalithic tombs may have enhanced what early human cultures could see in the night sky. A team of researchers has presented this study at the National Astronomy Meeting, in Nottingham (England).
The team's idea is to investigate how a simple aperture, for example an opening or doorway, affects the observation of slightly fainter stars. They focus this study on passage graves, which are a type of megalithic tomb composed of a chamber of large interlocking stones and a long narrow entrance. These spaces are thought to have been sacred, and the sites may have been used for rites of passage, where the initiate would spend the night inside the tomb, with no natural light apart from that shining down the narrow entrance.
These structures could therefore have been the first astronomical tools to support the watching of the skies, millennia before telescopes were invented. Kieran Simcox, a student at Nottingham Trent University, and leading the project, comments: "It is quite a surprise that no one has thoroughly investigated how for example the colour of the night sky impacts on what can be seen with the naked eye."
The project targets how the human eye, without the aid of any telescopic device, can see stars given sky brightness and colour. The team applied these ideas to the case of passage graves, such as the 6,000 year old Seven-Stone Antas in central Portugal. Dr Fabio Silva, of the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, explains that, "the orientations of the tombs may be in alignment with Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation of Taurus. To accurately time the first appearance of this star in the season, it is vital to be able to detect stars during twilight."
The first sighting in the year of a star after its long absence from the night sky might have been used as a seasonal marker. The timing of this could have been seen as secret knowledge or foresight, only obtained after a night spent in the depths of a passage grave, since the star may not have been observable from outside. However, the team suggest it could actually have been the result of the ability of the human eye to spot stars in such twilight conditions, given the small entrance passages of the tombs.
Edited from Royal Astronomical Society, NAM2016 (30 June 2016)
No game was too big to hunt for Stone Age man
A team of researchers from Tel Aviv University (Israel) have been conducting research into the consumption and possible hunting of prehistoric elephants by Palaeolithic dwellers. They studied evidence from sites across the world, ranging from the Republic of Djibouti in Africa, Valencia in Spain, the Dead Sea Rift Valley and as far east as Russia.
To understand the scale of the logistics behind hunting and slaying an elephant we must bear in mind that the head alone, of a modern day African elephant weighs in excess of 400kg. The extinct elephant roaming the planet in the Pleistocene era was approximately twice this size.
The head of an elephant is actually exceptional nutritious, taking together its constituent parts of brain, tongue ears and trunk, providing the correct balance required of meat and fat. There is even evidence in the Bolonar Cave in Valencia of the skull and jaw bone being crushed to extract the marrowbone.
Great cooperation was needed, not only to kill the animal but also to transport the heads back to their campsites. One site, at Gesher Benot Ya'aqov in the Dead Sea Rift valley, had evidence of the remains of 154 elephants. The leaders of the team, Aviad Agam and Ran Barkai are quoted as saying "The repeated evidence of transportation of elephants' head parts to residential sites indicates it was chosen to be transported back."
Edited from BBC News (22 June 2016)
5 June 2016
Advanced techniques used to find more about Homo Naledi
As part of the discovery of the Dinaledi chamber and the Rising Star Cave in the Malmani dolomites, part of the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site in South Africa, Professor Lee Berger's team was faced with a challenge. The opening to the cave containing the 1500 Homo Naledi fossils was only 18 centimetres and lead into a 12-metre vertical chute. This led to Professor Berger to call for skinny underground astronauts to help traverse the cave.
Using aerial drone photography, high-resolution 3D as well as other techniques, the all-female team was able to map the cave entirely and make real time descisions concerning the excavations. Kruger stated that: "This is the first time ever, where multiple digital data imaging collection has been used on such a scale, during a hominin excavation," adding that "These methods provided researchers with a digital representation of the site from landscape level right down to individual bones."
Ashley Kruger, a PhD candidate in Palaeoanthropology at the Evolutionary Studies Institute at Wits, used the mapping technologies on site, stating, "These methods provided researchers with a digital representation of the site from landscape level right down to individual bones," says Kruger.
Homo naledi is an extinct species of hominin, assigned by the anthropologists to the genus Homo, found the Rising Star Cave by recreational cavers Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker in 2013.
Kruger's publication has already come out in the South African Journal of Science, with a number of papers planned for publishing. The research will continue on site, hoping to answer the question of how the site was formed, if anything can be gained from fossil positioning, as well as answer how the bodies came to the cave.
Edited from Past Horizons (3 June 2016)
8,000 year-old piece of wood blowing archaeologists' minds
In Europe, the oldest boat ever discovered is a 10,000 year-old dugout canoe from the Netherlands. The oldest plank-built vessels in the region are Bronze Age boats found at Dover and in Yorkshire, dated to between 3,500 and 4,000 years ago. At Bouldnor Cliff, 11 metres underwater off the northwest shore of the Isle of Wight in the south of England, Garry Momber and the Maritime Archaeology Trust have found something up to twice that age.
In 2005, at the bottom of a 7-metre high underwater cliff, Garry saw something. "Among the branches of an old tree was a collection of coloured flints, some of which had been superheated."
Two years later the team had enough money to investigate further. Their 2 by 3 metre excavation revealed charcoal, flint tools, wood chippings, well-crafted functional items, and dozens of pieces of well-preserved timbers. Most of the timbers were oak, still in position where they had fallen over 8,000 years ago. Some had been shaped and trimmed, while others had been charred to make them easier to work.
One piece, just under 1 meter long and about 8,100 years old, had been split - a technique which doesn't appear elsewhere in the British archaeological record for another 2,500 years, when it was used during the Bronze Age to build deeper log boats, by removing 1/4 of the tree and hollowing out the remaining 3/4.
When it was felled, the tree would have been a couple of metres wide and several tens of metres high.
The team also found a scalloped out end-piece, timbers that formed the end of the structure, and cord which would have united the various elements. Taken together, these would make Bouldnor Cliff the oldest known boat-building site in the world. "The trouble is we still need more evidence to be 100% certain," says Garry.
Garry and his team will return to the site in June. You can follow their progress at DigVentures on Facebook, and TheDigVenturers on Twitter.
Edited from DigVentures (2 June 2016)
2 June 2016
Indus era older than previously thought
Scientists from the India Institute of Technology in Kharagpur, and the Archaeological Survey of India, have uncovered evidence that the Indus Valley Civilisation is at least 8,000 years old, and that pre-Harappan civilisation existed for at least 1,000 years before this. They also believe climate change ended the civilisation about 3,000 years ago.
Anindya Sarkar, head of the department of geology and geophysics at IIT-Kharagpur, says: "We have recovered perhaps the oldest pottery from the civilisation. We used a technique called 'optically stimulated luminescence' to date pottery shards of the Early Mature Harappan time to nearly 6,000 years ago and the cultural levels of pre-Harappan Hakra phase as far back as 8,000 years."
The team's excavations at an unexplored site - Bhirrana - also yielded large quantities of animal remains like bones, teeth, and horn cores of cow, goat, deer and antelope.
The researchers believe that the Indus Valley Civilisation spread over a vast expanse of the sub-continent. While earlier phases were represented by pastoral and village farming communities, and mature Harappan settlements were highly urbanised with organised cities, a developed material and craft culture, and regular trade with Arabia and Mesopotamia, the Late Harappan phase is characterised by large-scale de-urbanisation, drop in population, abandonment of established settlements, lack of basic amenities, violence, and even the disappearance of the Harappan script.
The study shows that the pre-Harappan humans started inhabiting this area in a climate favourable for settlement and agriculture.
"The monsoon was much stronger between 9000 years and 7000 years ago, and probably fed these rivers making them mightier with vast floodplains," explains Arati Deshpande Mukherjee of Deccan College, which helped analyse the finds.
The researchers say that, with the declining monsoon, the Indus Valley people shifted their crop patterns from large-grained cereals like wheat and barley to drought-resistant species like rice. As the yield diminished, the organised storage system of the Mature Harappan period gave way to more individual household-based crop processing and storage systems, acting as a catalyst for the gradual decline of the civilisation rather than any abrupt collapse.
Edited from Times of India (29 May 2016)
Cave art found deep underground in Spain
Spanish archaeologists say they have discovered an exceptional set of Palaeolithic cave drawings that could rank among the best in a country which already boasts some of the world's most important cave art.
Chief site archaeologist Diego Garate says that an estimated 70 drawings were found on ledges 300 meters underground in the Atxurra cave in the northern Basque region, describing the site as being among the top 10 in Europe. The engravings and paintings feature horses, buffalo, goats, and deer, dating to between 12,500 and 14,500 years ago.
Garate says access to the area is so difficult and dangerous that it is unlikely to be open to the public.
The cave was discovered in 1929 and first explored in 1934-35, but it was not until 2014 that Garate and his team resumed their investigations and the drawings were found.
"No one expected a discovery of this magnitude," said Jose Yravedra, a prehistory professor at Madrid's Complutense University. "There a lot of caves with drawings but very few have this much art and this much variety and quality."
Garate says one buffalo drawing depicts what must be the most hunting lances of any in Europe. Most have four or five lances but this has almost 20.
Yravedra says that, given the cave's hidden location and the number, variety, and quality of its drawings, the site was being classified as a "sanctuary," or special Palaeolithic meeting ritual place, like those at Altamira in Spain, or Lascaux in France.
Regional officials hope to set up a 3-D display of the art so that the public can appreciate it.
Edited from Phys.org (27 May 2016)
Migration back to Africa took place during the Palaeolithic
An international team led by the Universidad del Pais Vasco has retrieved mitochondrial DNA from 35,000 year-old fossil human remains found in the Pestera Muierii cave in Romania belonging to the first Homo sapiens population in Europe.
The study confirms the Eurasian origin of the U6 lineage now existing mainly in the populations of the north of Africa, supporting the hypothesis that some populations migrated back to Africa from Eurasia at the start of the Upper Palaeolithic, about 40,000 to 45,000 years ago. The Pestera Muierii individual represents one branch of this return, of which there is no direct evidence owing to the lack of Palaeolithic fossil remains in the north of Africa.
Team leader Professor Concepcion de la Rua explains: "Right now, the research group is analysing the nuclear genome the results of which could provide us with information about its relationship with the Neanderthals and about the existence of genomic variations associated with the immune system that accounts for the evolutionary success of Homo sapiens over other human species with whom it co-existed. What is more, we will be able to see what the phenotypic features of early Homo sapiens were like, and also see how population movements in the past influence the understanding of our evolutionary history."
Edited from EurekAlert (26 May 2016); Universidad del Pais Vasco (19 May 2016)
1 June 2016
5,000-year-old paintings high in the French Alps
British and French archaeologists used lasers to scan prehistoric paintings at a site more than 2,000 metres above sea level in Southern France. The Abri Faravel Rock shelter site, about 100 kilometres southeast of Grenoble in the Parc National des Ecrins, is believed to have been used as summer pasture from the Mesolithic to Medieval period, and is still used by shepherds today. One of the paintings depicts a deer with a spear in its back, fending off a dog - a common motif in cave paintings.
Researchers say that while other regions the Alps have examples of engraved rock art, painted rock art at high altitudes is extremely rare and the Abri Faravel paintings are the highest yet found.
In addition to revealing new detail about the ancient artwork, the scans have been used to make a digital model of the site - part of a larger project which the team has been working on since 1998, focusing activities above 2,000 metres in the Alps over the last 2,000 years.
Doctor Kevin Walsh, an archaeologist at University of York and lead researcher on the project, explains that "in the past, maybe 4,000 or 5,000 years ago, people were living and working in these landscapes and that's the kind of thing that our project has demonstrated, that the origins of activity of high altitude go back a very long time."
Researchers working at the site have uncovered a number of artefacts, including flint, pottery, metalwork, and even a Roman brooch.
Edited from Mail Online (25 May 2016)
Stonehenge wasn't so hard to build after all
An experiment by researchers at University College London found that mounting huge stones on a sycamore wood sleigh and dragging it along a corrugated "road" of timbers required far less effort than expected. Their one-tonne stone moved along the silver birch track at around 3 metres every five seconds when pulled by just 10 people - about 2 kilometres per hour if pulled continually.
The Preseli bluestones at Stonehenge are approximately double that weight, but could have been brought by just 20 people. The community living in the area during the Neolithic would have numbered several thousand.
Doctoral student Barney Harris, who conducted the trial, said he was surprised so few people would be required to move the block: "It's true that we did the experiment on flat ground, and there would have been steep slopes to navigate when going through the Preseli Mountains, but actually this kind of system works well on rough terrain. We know that pre-industrialised societies like the Maram Naga in India still use this kind of sledge to construct huge stone monuments. And similar y-shaped sleighs have been found dating back to 2000 BCE in Japan which we know were used to move megaliths. The Chinese also used sleighs to build the Forbidden City and some of those blocks are 123 tonnes. So in comparison, these are blocks are quite small."
Stonehenge was built during the Neolithic period, between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago. The largest standing stones - which weigh between 30 and 40 tonnes - are of local sandstone, but the smaller bluestones are from Wales, 225 kilometres away.
Archaeologists at University College London and the University of Leicester recently found the actual stone quarries. The spotted dolerite bluestones came from Carn Goedog, and the rhyolite bluestones from Craig Rhos-y-felin. The rock outcrops form natural pillars, allowing prehistoric workers to detach each stone with minimum effort.
Stonehenge expert Professor Mike Parker-Pearson of University College London believes the stones were part of a monument that once stood in Wales, which was dismantled and moved to Wiltshire, but even he was amazed how quickly the stones could be dragged.
Edited from The Telegraph (24 May 2016)
Bones under pub change what we know about the Irish
Ten years ago a pub owner in Northern Ireland uncovered an unusually large flat stone beneath which were the remains of three humans - an ancient burial that, after a recent DNA analysis, challenges the centuries-old account of Irish origins.
"The DNA evidence based on those bones completely upends the traditional view," said Barry Cunliffe, an emeritus professor of archaeology at Oxford University.
Since the 16th century CE, historians have taught that the Irish descend from Celts, an Iron Age people originating in the middle of Europe, invading Ireland sometime between 1000 BCE and 500 BCE, however the three skeletons are ancestors of the modern Irish, and predate the Celts and their purported arrival by 1,000 years or more. The most striking feature of the bones is how much their DNA resembles that of contemporary Irish, Welsh and Scots. Older bones found in Ireland were more like Mediterranean people.
Radiocarbon dating shows that the bones go back to about 2000 BCE - hundreds of years older than the oldest artefacts from continental Europe generally considered to be Celtic.
The Irish, Welsh, and Scottish Gaelic languages share words and grammar, are indisputably related, and part of a group that linguists have labeled Celtic. They seem to have emerged after a similar evolution from Indo-European. What is unclear is whether the term "Celtic" is appropriate for them. Over the last decade, a growing number of scholars have argued that the first Celtic languages were spoken not by Celts in the middle of Europe, but by ancient people on Europe's westernmost extremities - the British Isles or the Iberian Peninsula. Inscriptions on artefacts from southern Portugal strongly resemble the languages known as Celtic, yet date as far back as 700 BCE.
Celts sacked Rome around 390 BCE, and attacked Delphi in 279 BCE. It seemed plausible that they had invaded Ireland as well, however for decades scholars have noted just how flimsy the evidence is for that standard account, and that the flow of Celtic culture was actually from the western edge of Europe into the rest of the continent.
Edited from Washington Post (17 March 2016)
2 May 2016
5,000-year-old rock shrine discovered in Bulgaria
Orlovi Skali - Eagles' Rocks - a beautiful rock formation located near the town of Sarnitsa, in Southern Bulgaria, has been identified as a prehistoric rock shrine from the 4th millennium BCE, after the accidental discovery by a young photographer of huge human faces hewn into the rocks on the northern slopes of the Rhodope Mountains.
His discovery has been examined and verified by Professor Ana Raduncheva, and Associate Professor Stefanka Ivanova - two archaeologists from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences specialising in the study of the numerous prehistoric rock shrines in Bulgaria's mountains. They are certain that the natural rock formation was fashioned into a major rock shrine by humans during the Copper Age, between 3500 BCE and 3000 BCE.
Raduncheva and Ivanova have found prehistoric ceramics at the site dating to the second half of the 4th millennium BCE. During their three-day exploration, the archaeologists and the photographer made further discoveries: two more half face human profiles - one which appears to be female, another one which appears to be male but is not as well preserved. Each measures about 7 to 10 metres in height, and stands 30 to 40 metres above the ground.
It is possible that the shrine had an entire gallery of faces, not all of which have been preserved.
Opposite the female profile, the photographer and the archaeologists found what appears to have been an altar or astronomical observatory hewn into the rocks, which resembles nearby altars at well-known ancient shrines.
Raduncheva, who has been studying the prehistoric rock shrines in Bulgaria for several decades - including as part of international teams - says the culture's pantheon was based on the constellations, and that all shrines were used as astronomical observatories.
Raduncheva and Ivanova emphasise the Eagles' Rocks formation was part of an entire system of a holy prehistoric territory far along the northern ridges of the Rhodope Mountains.
"The [holy territory] starts somewhere near Mount Kupena, and goes along the entire ridge of the mountain. There are similar rock structures that were hewn there, and which appear connected to the shrine at Eagles' Rocks. Similar shrines can also be found in [other mountains in Bulgaria] such as the Sredna Gora Mountain and the Balkan Mountains," Raduncheva says.
Edited from Archaeology in Bulgaria (27 March 2016)
Fossils from Spain earliest genetic evidence of Neanderthals
Previous analyses of the hominins from Sima de los Huesos, a cave site in the Sierra Atapuerca in the north of Spain, showed that their mitochondrial DNA was distantly related to Denisovans, extinct relatives of Neanderthals in Asia. This was unexpected since their skeletal remains carry Neanderthal-derived features. Researchers have since worked on sequencing nuclear DNA from fossils from the cave. The results show that the Sima de los Huesos hominins were indeed early Neanderthals.
Until now it has been unclear how the 28 individuals found at Sima de los Huesos were related to Neanderthals and Denisovans.
"Sima de los Huesos is currently the only non-permafrost site that allow us to study DNA sequences from the Middle Pleistocene, the time period preceding 125,000 years ago", says Matthias Meyer of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.
Juan-Luis Arsuaga of the Complutense University in Madrid, Spain, who has led the excavations at Sima de los Huesos for three decades, says: "We have hoped for many years that advances in molecular analysis techniques would one day aid our investigation of this unique assembly of fossils."
The nuclear DNA sequences recovered from two specimens show that they belong to the Neanderthal evolutionary lineage and are more closely related to Neanderthals than to Denisovans. This finding indicates that the population divergence between Denisovans and Neanderthals had already occurred when the Sima de los Huesos hominins lived.
According to Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology "these results provide important anchor points in the timeline of human evolution. They are consistent with a rather early divergence of 550,000 to 750,000 years ago of the modern human lineage from archaic humans".
Consistent with the previous study, the mitochondrial DNA of the Sima de los Huesos hominins is more closely related to Denisovans than Neanderthals. Mitochondrial DNA seen in Late Pleistocene Neanderthals may thus have been acquired by them later in their history, perhaps as a result of gene flow from Africa.
Edited from Max-Planck-Gesellschaft (14 March 2016)
11,000-year-old pendant is earliest known Mesolithic art in Britain
An 11,000 year old engraved shale pendant discovered by archaeologists during excavations at the Early Mesolithic site at Star Carr in North Yorkshire is unique in the UK, according to new research.
The artwork on the tiny fragile pendant is the earliest known Mesolithic art in Britain. Crafted from a single piece of shale, 3-millimetre thick and 31 by 35 millimetres. Engraved motifs on Mesolithic pendants are extremely rare and no other engraved pendants made of shale are known in Europe.
When archaeologists uncovered the pendant last year, the lines on the surface were barely visible. Researchers used a range of digital microscopy techniques to generate high resolution images to help determine the style and order of engraving. They also carried out scientific analysis to try to establish if the pendant had been strung or worn, and whether pigments had been used to make the lines more prominent.
It is the first perforated artefact with engraved design discovered at Star Carr, though shale beads, a piece of perforated amber, and two perforated animal teeth have been recovered previously.
Star Carr is one of a number of archaeological sites around what was a huge lake in the Mesolithic era, and the pendant was discovered in lake edge deposits.
Dr Chantal Conneller, from The University of Manchester and co-director of the excavations, said: "This was a time when sea-level was much lower than today. Groups roamed across Doggerland and into Britain. The designs on our pendant are similar to those found in southern Scandinavia and other areas bordering the North Sea, showing a close cultural connection between northern European groups at this time."
Edited from EurekAlert! (25 February 2016)
23 April 2016
3,000-year-old bison hunting site found in Arizona
Researchers have made a surprise discovery at the well-known Cave Creek Midden site in the desert upland of southeast Arizona, close to the border with Mexico - a 3,000-year-old bison kill site featuring hundreds of bones and bone fragments, along with dozens of cobblestones and flaked and ground stone tools.
First investigated in 1936, the site revealed stone tools and other artefacts typifying a critical phase in Southwestern history, from about 4000 BCE to 500 BCE, when humans first started to re-settle the desert Southwest and develop farming methods for maize. Very little has been found and little is known from this phase of Southwestern history, which is thought to be ancestral to the Mogollon culture.
Study co-leaders Dr Jesse Ballenger and Dr Jonathan Mabry and their colleagues began investigating Cave Creek Midden in the fall of 2014, uncovering what previous excavations had either missed or dismissed - a deep layer of dark soil about 45 centimetres thick, rich with cobbles, bison bones, and a few stone artefacts. The dark soil marked the boundaries of what had been a spring-fed wetland, and has been radiocarbon dated to about 1,300 BCE.
Shaped hand tools were also present in large numbers. What seems to be absent are the butchering and cooking tools usually associated with bison kill sites - the projectile points, choppers, knives, and pounders.
Out of the 83 bison-bones that contained marrow, only two were found to have been broken open. It could be that at least some of the bison simply got stuck in the muck. Nonetheless, the fact that bison have been found here at all is surprising.
Edited from Western Digs (21 March 2016)
Uncovering the mystery of very early humans in New Mexico
Between 9,000 and 13,000 years ago, bison were attracted to extensive wetlands to the west of what is now the city of Socorro, in central New Mexico USA.
In the year 2000, archeologist Robert Dello-Russo and his team discovered a major archaeological site while surveying part of a 36 square kilometre field laboratory belonging to an explosives research company which has hosted several episodes of the Myth Busters television series.
Since then, Dello-Russo and his colleagues have returned to the Water Canyon site repeatedly. Finds include spear and/or atlatl points from the Clovis people, who hunted here more than 13,000 years ago, from the Folsom people who hunted here more than 12,000 years ago, from the Cody Complex hunters who butchered bison and left the bones around 10,800 years ago, and from the late Paleo-Indian people around 9,200 years ago. Dello-Russo and his collaborators have also found gypsum points from the Middle to Late Archaic people.
Blackwater Draw, the Clovis Site in eastern New Mexico, is the first in the state where it could be documented that generations of Paleo-Indian hunters killed their prey and returned to the place again and again. Water Canyon appears to be the second.
The site may offer the opportunity to understand how bison evolved. "There is this evolutionary trajectory from the late Pleistocene where bison go from being Bison antiques, which is a species that was 10 to 20 percent larger than modern day bison, to the Holocene when they became the smaller, modern bison or Bison bison," says Dello-Russo.
Dello-Russo also found something at the Water Canyon site called a "black mat" - a buried layer of sediment with a high degree of organic matter that represents the remains of the prehistoric wetland.
"Today this land is what's called a juniper savannah. A very dry grassland. It gets about 8 inches [20 centimetres] of rain a year, maybe," Dello-Russo said. "Back then they probably got triple that amount of moisture. There was probably standing water in some places, flowing in other places. The vegetation included things that we don't have there today, such as versions of maple trees and birch, cherry. We used to think it was like a forest of actual trees, but we are beginning to think it was a more shrub-like environment."
Edited from PhysOrg (18 March 2016)