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)
Iron Age hill fort threatened by luxury homes
Old Oswestry is one of Europe's best preserved Iron Age hill forts, seen for miles around the west of England for over 3,000 years. Legends say it was the birthplace of King Arthur's wife, Guinevere. Now, government proposals to build almost 200 luxury homes next to the ancient site have angering local residents and heritage groups, and some 6,000 people have signed a petition opposing the development.
One of 25 hill forts in Shropshire, Old Oswestry has a series of perimeter ditches, formed between ramparts, that were designed to slow down attackers. An archaeological survey in 2010 found man-made structures in fields to the north-east of the fort, and two years ago an iron age road was discovered.
"If houses go up, access to important archaeology and further understanding of iron age culture will be lost," said Neil Phillips of Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort (Hoooh), adding: "The sprawling infrastructure will severely erode a large part of the green farmstead setting which is an integral part of Old Oswestry's appeal."
English Heritage describes Old Oswestry as "a site of great national importance", and has joined Oswestry town council in opposing the scheme. They claim the 188 homes planned for up to three sites around the fort will be expensive developments "for affluent commuters, rich retirees, country retreat investors and holiday cottage landlords". The proposal will be studied closely by the likes of the National Trust, which has warned that the government's new "pro-development" planning framework will result in a glut of upmarket homes being built on greenfield sites because these offer the best returns for construction firms.
A spokesperson for local MP, environment secretary Owen Paterson, says he always defers to the local council in planning matters. A council spokesman said it was awaiting a response from local groups before commenting further.
Edited from The Guardian (24 November 2013)
25 November 2013
Bluestones of Stonehenge: located the true source
The celebrated geologist Herbert Henry Thomas first proposed in 1923 that the rocks which form the giant inner ring of the Stonehenge monument - so-called bluestones - were specifically quarried in the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales by Neolithic man, and pinpointed the tor on Carn Meini as the likely source.
The bluestones at Stonehenge were placed there during the third phase of its construction around 2300 BCE, and it is assumed that there were about 80 of them originally, but only 43 remain. Each bluestone weigh between 2 and 4 tons.
National Museum of Wales keeper of natural sciences Doctor Richard Bevins and his colleagues have now compared samples of rock and debris from Stonehenge with data from the Preseli site and categorically concluded the spotted dolerites in fact came from Carn Goedog, almost a mile away from the previously known source.
As the name suggests, the spotted dolerites have highly distinctive markings created by the elements contained within, cooling at different rates in the minutes after they were spewed out of an underwater volcano 450 million years ago.
In 2011, Doctor Bevins's team located the source of another of Stonehenge's Pembrokeshire Bluestones - the rhyolites - 3 kilometres away from the spotted dolerites at Craig Rhos y Felin. "We've located two of the sources, and there's another five or possibly six to go." Bevins hopes their findings will influence the question of how the bluestones were transported 300 kilometres to Salisbury Plain, and believes a definitive answer will come eventually.
Edited from BBC News (19 November 2013), The Guardian (20 November 2013)
Ancient human history encoded in music
An international team led by McMaster University psychologist Steven Brown has established that the history of human populations is embedded in music, where complex combinations of rhythm, pitch and arrangement form a code that scientists can read. "Music is an untapped migrational marker that can be used to help people understand the history of human populations," says Brown.
Brown's team used a comparison between the mitochondrial DNA and the folk music of nine indigenous populations of Taiwan to show that each tells a similar story about the ways those populations have changed and converged over the last 6,000 years. Mitochondrial DNA changes at a predictable rate, acting as an evolutionary clock ideal for such comparisons.
"Languages and genes change slowly over time, but music can change much more quickly," Brown says. "I think people thought that music was too transient to carry evidence of what happened thousands of years ago. Our results support the idea that music actually has elements in it that are ancient. In addition to being able to evolve quickly, it can also retain traces of ancient population movements."
Edited from ScienceDaily (19 November 2013)
Ancient mounds and a paddle discovered in Northumberland
Archaeologists working on the Bradford Kaims Wetland Heritage Project in Northumberland (Northeast England) have unearthed a series of hugely significant monuments forming a complex prehistoric landscape, with at least 12 burnt mounds and four small artificial islands. The site pre-dates any previous known burnt mound by over a thousand years, and doubles the known examples of burnt mounds in the region.
Finds include worked flint and pottery, as well as an extremely early Carinated Bowl, characterised by its rounded base, concave neck, and flaring rim. The most spectacular find is a timber paddle that could date to the very beginning of the Neolithic period some 6,000 years ago; "the first such find of this date identified in Europe", according to Project Director Paul Gething.
Well known across the majority of Britain and Ireland, prehistoric burnt mounds are large piles of burnt stones with a wide variety of possible uses that range from simple cooking to early brewing, sweat lodges, canoe building or early metal extraction.
Edited from Past Horizons (15 November 2013)
23 November 2013
Bronze Age pottery unearthed near Ipswich
An archaeological dig on the site of a former World War Two airfield in Suffolk (England) has revealed evidence of Bronze Age burial chambers. The site, on the outskirts of Ipswich, is being excavated in readiness for a new care home due to open in 2015.
Fragments of pottery and urns indicated the site was "very close to a burial mound", archaeologists said. The finds will be recorded and stored at Suffolk County Council's archaeology department.
Mark Hinman from Pre-Construct Archaeology said: "We've found fragments of beaker pottery, which is quite decorated with zigzag designs and collared urn vessels. These were usually used in the burial of human remains in the Bronze Age period, so these items give us a sense we're very close to a burial mound." He also added: "It's still early days but we're digging various ditches. Nearby excavations have shown this area was a popular settlement for farming and the burial mounds indicate a high population in the period. They also show a claim of ownership on the land and how we were moving from a mobile hunter/gathering society into the settled farmers we became as a nation."
Edited from BBC News (23 November 2013)
Cattle farming in China 10,000 years ago
Research led by Professor Michi Hofreiter from the Department of Biology at the University of York and Professor Hucai Zhang of Yunnan Normal University established clear fossil evidence that cattle farming began in China around 10,000 years ago.
The lower jaw of an ancient cattle specimen was discovered during an excavation in northeast China; the specimen was carbon dated to be 10,660 years old. The molar wear pattern on the teeth of the ancient specimen indicates that humans were involved in feeding the animal. DNA testing indicates that this is a species of cow that is not related to any line of cattle that were domesticated in the Near East and South Asia.
Previously, paleontologists thought that humans began raising domesticated hump less (taurine) cattle in the Near East about 10,000 years ago and peoples in Asia began herding domesticated humped cattle (zebu) in Southern Asia 2,000 years later.
The fossil find indicates that the first management of domesticated cattle by humans occurred during the same time frame in Asia and the Near East. There is no evidence that the two cultures communicated in any way at that time although both cultures had a very ancient lineage in Africa.
Edited from Examiner.com (9 november 2013)
20 November 2013
New app to explore the archaeology of Wales
In what is believed to be a first anywhere in the world, the combined Welsh Archaeological Trusts have teamed up with the University of South Wales to launch the Archwilio app, available on android smartphones via the Google Play store.
The App is very easy to navigate and is available in both Welsh and English. The information covers over 100,000 archaeological sites and gives access to the Historic Environment Records of Wales, from prehistory right up to the 20th Century. The information has been available via the website for some time but the App brings it into the 21st Century.
Louise Austin, who is head of heritage management at Dyfed Archaeological trust, is excited by the development "This is a world-first for Wales and enables archaeological records for the whole of the country to be available on one app. However, the archaeology of Wales is a truly moveable feast and that is the beauty of the new Archwilio tool. The technology enables us to update records as soon as new evidence for existing archaeological features is found or as new sites are uncovered in Wales. We look forward to interacting with users and being able to update and add new records as a result of their discoveries".
Edited from Wales Online (7 November 2013)
Chavin oracle discovered in Peru
A civilisation known as the Chavin culture was prevalent in the South American country of Peru from approximately 900-200 BCE, pre-dating the Inca civilisation. It flourished in the northern Andean highlands and its influence spread along the western seaboard of South America. The Chavin people were quite advanced and evidence has been found of large drainage systems, acoustic engineering in building design and an extensive knowledge of metallurgy.
Now it is believed that a religious centre for the culture has been discovered in the northern Peruvian region of Lambayeque. A specialist archaeological team had been working in the area for a month before the discovery was made (named as the Oracle of Congona).
Walter Alva, who heads up the team from the Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum, is quoted as saying "We're thinking that it's an oracle from the Chavin epoch, with subterranean structures, enclosures and spaces reserved for the Chavin priests. The central part of the temple is where two monoliths were found that bear images typical of the Chavin culture".
Edited from Global Post (31 October 2013)