6 October 2016
Neanderthals had more cognitive abilities than first thought
In the central region of France, at Arcy-sur-Cure, lies a cave which has been at the centre of a controversy over Neanderthal intelligence for decades. During digs made over the period 1949 to 1963 a layer of the cave, known as the Grotte du Rennes, was uncovered and which contained not only Neanderthal bone fragments but also a selection of small ornaments made from animal teeth, shells and ivory, which had been fashioned with holes and grooves and would have formed part of a primitive form of necklace.
Scientists argued that, as they were found in the same layer as the Neanderthal fossils then they must have been fashioned by them, whilst others claimed that Neanderthals did not have the cognitive ability to make such symbolic artefacts and that they must have been made by modern humans and were mixed up during the excavations.
Analytical sciences are far more advanced than they were 60 years ago and a team from the University of York (UK) has been developing studies (in the science of paleoproteomics) in the field of ancient proteins.
As there were insufficient traces of DNA to be extracted from the bone fragments they found that they had to turn to an analysis of proteins instead. Taking samples of collagen from the bone fragments they compared these with samples taken from modern man. The main difference is that the predominant amino acid in modern man is aspartic acid, whilst that of archaic man is asparagine.
The tests confirmed that the bone fragments belonged to Neanderthals. The team's findings have been published online and paleoanthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin, from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig, Germany) is quoted as saying "You can invent all sorts of stories, but the simplest explanation is that this assemblage was made at least in part by Neanderthals".
Edited from Science Magazine (16 Sept 2016), PhysOrg (19 Sept 2016), ScienceDaily (20 Sept 2016)
Intact Neolithic figurine discovered in Turkey
The large bellied, large breasted female figurines of the Neolithic era, which have been discovered in the past have mainly been believed to have been symbols of fertility, due to their shape and the locations where they were found. Now the discovery of such a figurine, intact, under the floor of a Neolithic dwelling in Anatolia (Turkey) has shed doubt on those assumptions.
Objects of worship at the time, and symbolic artefacts such as bull horns or animal bones or painted representations of animals have all been found in prominent locations of dwelling, embedded or hung on walls, whereas this figurine had been carefully placed below the floor, surrounded and protected by a layer of clean sand, and not placed on display.
It was common practice at that time to bury dead family members under the floor, in exactly the same way, and with great reverence. So, rather than being a symbol of fertility, which is a modern day assumption rather than a fact based on evidence, the figurine was treated with reverence and respect, possibly a symbol of a well-respected family elder.
Stanford University (USA)archaeologist, Ian Hodder, leader of the excavations, is quoted as saying "It was not found in refuse but had been carefully placed beneath a platform, together with a piece of obsidian. This is undoubtedly some form of ritual deposition".
Edited from Ars Technica (16 Sept 2016)
Dyed material found in Peru predates Egypt
Indigo is a blue pigment extracted from a plant with the Latin name 'Indigofera tinctoria' and is distinctive enough to be one of the seven named colours of the rainbow.
For centuries the oldest example of a piece of fabric dyed with indigo was a piece found in Egypt which has been dated at 2,400 BCE, although there is written evidence of its use in the Middle East nearly 500 years earlier. Now a team of archaeologists from the George Washington University (USA) have found fragments of material whilst excavating the floor of the Huaca Prieta Temple, which is part of a prehistoric settlement near the Pacific Ocean in the Chicama Valley in Peru.
At first no attention was paid to the fragment as the material that it had been embedded in was masking its true colour. It was not until a sample had been sent to University College London (UK) that he indigo dye was discovered, using high-performance liquid chromatography. The sample was also dated at 4,200 BCE, predating the Egyptian fragment by 1,800 years.
Jeffrey Splitstoser, from the George Washington University, is quoted as saying "The people of the Americas were making scientific and technological contributions as early as, and in this case, even earlier than people were in other parts of the world. We always leave them out. I think this finding just shows that that's a mistake".
Edited from LiveScience (14 Sept 2016)
5 October 2016
Pressed flower among Bronze Age finds
Late Bronze Age ritual offerings unearthed at a site in northwest England include weapons, jewellery and ornaments - among them a 3,000-year-old complete pressed flower from a thistle, a plant which has become emblematic of nearby Scotland. The flower appears to have been placed inside the hollow end of an axe handle and buried with other items. Other axe handles in the assemblage had been filled with hazelnuts.
Additional items found include spearheads, axes, bracelets, arm rings, a chisel, and a pair of ornaments thought to have been part of a horse harness. All the artefacts were ritually submerged in wetlands by the people of a farming community.
Though the flower is a unique find, comparable discoveries have been made in Ireland and Scotland. Such hoards generally contain one or two different types of objects, but this one has several.
Doctor Ben Roberts, a lecturer at Durham University and the British Museum's former curator of European Bronze Age collections, explains: "We always think that votive offerings are all about metal. What this highlights is that there would have been other things placed with the metal. It could have been food, clothing ... all sorts of things made of wood that wouldn't have survived. So what we're talking about is certainly a hoard that reflects the interconnections both across the Irish Sea and well into Scotland."
Earlier this year a significant early Bronze Age burial site had been discovered near Morecambe Bay, 400 kilometres northwest of London. Brendon Wilkins, archaeologist and project director, said that while excavating that site in July, his team was alerted to the new discovery about 11 kilometres away.
The Morecambe Bay excavation was partly financed through DigVentures, a crowdfunding enterprise founded by Wilkins and two other archaeologists to address severe cuts to research funding.
A team of archaeologists from DigVentures, Durham University, and the Portable Antiquities Scheme described the votive hoard as "spectacular and significant".
Edited from The Guardian (30 September 2016)
3 October 2016
Indigenous Australian storytelling records sea level rises 7,000 years ago
Sunshine Coast University marine geographer Patrick Nunn and University of New England linguist Nicholas Reid believe that 21 Indigenous stories from across the Australian continent faithfully record events between 18,000 and 7000 years ago, when ocean levels rose 120 metres.
Reid says a key feature of Indigenous storytelling culture - a distinctive "cross-generational cross-checking" process - might explain the remarkable consistency in accounts passed down by preliterate people which researchers previously believed could not persist for more than 800 years.
Scholars have previously been sceptical of how accurately oral traditions reflect real events, however Nunn and Reid's paper argues the stories provide empirical corroboration of a postglacial sea level rise documented by marine geographers.
Some of the stories are straight factual accounts, such as those which tell of the loss of kangaroo hunting grounds. Others, especially older stories, are allegorical: an ancestral being angered by the misbehaviour of a clan punishes them by taking their country, gouging a groove with a magical kangaroo bone for the sea to swallow up the land.
"Our sense originally is that the sea level must have been creeping up very slowly and not been noticeable in an individual's lifetime," Reid explains. "There must have been constant inland movement, reestablishing relationships with country, negotiating with inland neighbours about encroaching onto their territory. There would have been massive ramifications of this."
Fortunes were mixed. People on Rottnest and Kangaroo Islands departed as much as 7000 years ago. Others, such as those at Flinders Island in Bass Strait, stayed on and died out as the land grew arid and fresh water became scarce.
Reid says that while it was impossible to prove that Indigenous oral traditions continued unbroken over time, its contemporary features provide clues.
"Say I'm a man from central Australia, my father teaches me stories about my country," Reid says. "My sister's children, my nephews and nieces, are explicitly tasked with the kin-based responsibility for ensuring I know those stories properly. They take those responsibilities seriously. At any given point in time my father is telling the stories to me and his grandkids are checking. Three generations are hearing the story at once - that's a kind of scaffolding that can keep stories true. When you have three generations constantly in the know, and tasked with checking as a cultural responsibility, that creates the kind of mechanism that could explain why [Indigenous Australians] seem to have done something that hasn't been achieved elsewhere in the world: telling stories for 10,000 years."
Edited from The Guardian (16 September 2016)
Scientists reconstruct 5,000 year old tomb in Ukraine
Scientists have reconstructed the monumental 5,000 year old tomb of an elite member of a community of nomadic shepherds, discovered in a barrow cemetery on the border between Ukraine and Moldova - "the most complex tomb that we have discovered during the excavations carried out since 2010", according to Doctor Danuta Zurkiewicz of the Institute of Prehistory at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan.
Members of the community living in this area 5,000 years ago moved over long distances with carts, and built no permanent settlements. But there are cemeteries.
"They erected monumental burial mounds, which played an important role in the life of the community. They were clearly visible in the landscape - now they are destroyed and poorly outlined," says Doctor Zurkiewicz.
Archaeologists have excavated several mounds, finding burials of high status adult males.
Particular attention was drawn to one burial, which was made with great care. The rectangular pit had been covered top and bottom with a woven mat, roofed with ash wood, and covered with four well-matched limestone slabs. Inside rested a nearly 1.9 metre tall man.
Doctor Zurkiewicz notes that: "This is not a typical height for the contemporary community. The man had to stand out with his stature."
The analysis of the skeleton showed that the man suffered from rheumatic changes in the upper extremities and degeneration of the spine - pathologies indicating substantial physical activity and associated mechanical stresses, perhaps from frequent horse riding. He is estimated to have been between 35 and 50 years of age.
In the tomb, archaeologists found a lump of ochre. Stone slabs covering the burial chamber were also partly covered with ochre.
The excavations are part of a wider research project to study the area of Podole as a zone of cultural contacts from the end of the fourth to the second millennium BCE.
Edited from Science & Scholarship in Poland (14 September 2016)
Ancient artefacts found on Plymouth building site
Archaeological investigations have been taking place since late last year across Sherford, a new town on the eastern edge of Plymouth, 300 kilometres southwest of London on the south coast of England.
A team from Wessex Archaeology discovered features such as roundhouses, which functioned as homes for large family groups in prehistoric farming communities. Artefacts found include a rare decorated bone weaving comb. The excavation also revealed two Early Bronze Age burial mounds dating to between 2400 and 1600 BCE - one of which contained the cremated remains of an individual, likely of high importance, in a decorated pottery vessel.
Notable recent finds includes flint work dating to 8500-4000 BCE, indicating that Neolithic hunters and gatherers thrived in the area long before the first communities arrived.
Archaeologist Andy Mayes calls the site: "one of the most fascinating large-scale archaeological projects we have worked on to date," adding that, "The prehistoric landscape of Devon is poorly understood, and our findings at Sherford have national significance, expanding our historic understanding of the local area."
Bill Horner, Devon County Archaeologist, says: "Developments of this size are very rare in Devon and it gives us a unique opportunity to look at archaeology on a landscape scale."
Edited from The Herald (13 September 2016)
'World's earliest rock art' in Western Australia
A three year project documenting, analysing, and dating more than 200 rock art sites in the northwest Kimberley region of Western Australia has identified what may be the longest, most impressive rock art sequence anywhere in the world, challenging Western Europe as the location for the production of the world's earliest rock art.
Lead author and University of New England archaeologist Doctor June Ross says the new timeline for the beginning of rock art in Sulawesi in Indonesia around 39,000 years ago, together with evidence from excavations in Kimberley show that humans with sophisticated artistic skills settled along the northern coastline as early as 36,000 years ago.
Doctor Ross says that: "Our results demonstrate that at least some phases of Kimberley art are of great antiquity - and may date to a time when sea levels were lower, the continent was much larger and environmental conditions were more challenging - perhaps the oldest art is now submerged off the Kimberley coastline."
Using optically-stimulated luminescence applied to sand grains found within mud wasp nests, researchers were able to date when the artwork was created. Geochronologist Kira Westaway from Macquarie University says mud wasps stuck their nests onto many of the art motifs, and these became fossilised over time: "They build nests on top of the art using grains of sand that can be used for dating without damaging the art itself."
Cathy Goonack, Chair of the Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation, said the rock art brings visitors from all around the world to the Mitchell Plateau. "They want to look at our art and hear our stories; now we've got a good science story that we can tell people as well. We'll also use this information to help us look after our art," she said.
Edited from Perth Now (31 August 2016)
28 September 2016
What Oetzi the Iceman sounded like
We know what Oetzi was wearing when he died more than 5,000 years ago. We know how many tattoos he had. Now scientists have recreated the "best possible approximation" of his voice.
Lead researcher Rolando Fuestoes explains: "We can't say we have reconstructed Oetzi's original voice, because we miss some crucial information from the mummy. But with two measurements, the length of both the vocal tract and the vocal cords, we have been able to recreate a fairly reliable approximation of the mummy's voice."
Oetzi was found by two German hikers in 1991, frozen and mummified in the Oetzal Alps in South Tyrol, and is Europe's oldest known natural mummy, providing researchers with an unprecedented glimpse into what life was like around 3,300 BCE, during the Copper Age.
Oetzi was murdered - he most likely died from an arrow wound to his shoulder. He was dressed in a mix of sheep, goat, and cow skins, and carried a deerskin quiver and a bearskin cap. His 61 tattoos have been studied in detail. By reconstructing his voice, researchers hope to gain more insight into what humans might have sounded like.
Francesco Avanzini, one of the researchers, says: "Of course, we don't know what language he spoke 5,000 years ago. But we should be able to recreate the timbre of his vowel sounds and, I hope, even create simulation of consonants."
They've now succeeded with the vowel reconstruction. CT scans were used to map Oetzi's internal structure, since MRI scans could have damaged the mummy. One difficulty is that Oetzi's arm is covering his throat, and the hyoid - or tongue-bone - is party absorbed and dislocated. The tension and density of the vocal cords and the thickness and composition of the throat tissue were simulated using mathematical models.
The team predicts that Oetzi's voice had a frequency between 100 and 150 Hz, which is similar to average males today.
Edited from Science Alert (22 September 2016)
Burnt cheese casts light on 3,000 year-old family drama
A clay pot has been unearthed during an archaeological excavation in central Jutland, Denmark. Museum Silkeborg curator and archaeologist Kaj Rasmussen says: "We found the clay pot in what was once a pit. Quite unusually, it was in near mint condition and this is itself is an exciting find."
When they cleaned the pot, they discovered a layer of something burnt onto the inside. "Normally, you find black, charred deposits in the remains of pots that are typically from corn or seeds. But here we found a white-yellow crust that we hadn't seen before," says Rasmussen. "We then sent samples to the Danish National Museum to see if we could get closer."
Chemist and senior consultant Mads Christensen, who conducted the analysis, says: "We took a microscopic sample of the remains and studied them using mass spectrometry. After we had consulted the literature in this field we cautiously came to the suggestion that is was bovine fat."
Rasmussen's preliminary guess is that it could be the failed result of cheese making.
"The fat could be a part of the last traces of curds used during the original production of traditional hard cheese. The whey is boiled down, and it contains a lot of sugars, which in this way can be preserved and stored for the winter," says Rasmussen. "It is the same method used to make brown, Norwegian whey cheese, where you boil down the whey, and what's left is a caramel-like mass that is turned into the brown cheese that we know today from the supermarket chiller cabinet," he adds.
"I cannot help but wonder if someone had a guilty conscience. It's well and truly burnt and must have smelt terrible," says Rasmussen. "You can almost imagine how quickly he must have acted to get rid of that pot!"
Edited from Science Nordic (14 September 2015)
27 September 2016
New broch site unearthed in Scotland
The remains of what could be an Iron Age broch have been identified in a loch near Whiteness (Shetland, Scotland) by a researcher from the University of Aberdeen.
Michael Stratigos found the site on one of the three Holms of Hogaland islets in the Loch of Strom. He said the majority of the islet, which is the smallest of the three, is covered by a large mound around 3m high and 16x14m across. It is unclear at the moment whether the find is the remains of a broch or of a roundhouse. A small circular depression in the centre is believed to be the 'internal space' of the structure. There are also the potential remains of orthostats, or piers, while coursed stonework was noted.
Stratigos - who was assisted on the trip by Shetland-based underwater archaeologist Sally Evans - is currently studying archaeology and is focusing on crannogs, prehistoric dwellings built on offshore islets. He said he discovered the remains after being told that there may have been a small causeway which led to the islet.
"It is difficult to say how well preserved the site is without taking back some or all of the vegetation, something that would undoubtedly speed up the decay of the site," Stratigos said. "What was clear though is that the south-west side of the island appears to be eroding, as there may be some stonework that relate to internal divisions of space that are now opening up to nothing, the loch having claimed most of whatever structure they related to," he said. "The archaeology team at Shetland Amenity Trust, the group Archaeology Shetland and a national research programme at St. Andrews, SCAPE, are keenly aware and focused on this kind of work on brochs and all other kinds of heritage at risk of coastal erosion," Stratigot added.
Shetland Amenity Trust archaeologist Val Turner said the discovery was quite unusual due to its location in the loch. "The dimensions of this one are roughly comparable with the Mousa Broch, which is always said to be the smallest broch," Turner added.
Edited from Shetland News (23 September 2016)
World's oldest snowshoe found on an Italian glacier
Scientists in Italy's Dolomite mountains have unveiled what they believe to be the world's oldest snowshoe. Carbon-dating has shown that the rudimentary snow shoe, made of birch wood and twine, was made in the late Neolithic age, between 3,800 and 3,700 BCE. It was discovered by chance at an altitude of 3,134 metres (10,280ft) on the Gurgler Eisjoch glacier, close to Italy's border with Austria. The ice and freezing temperatures of the glacier had provided "ideal conditions for the preservation of organic material," the researchers said.
The shoe, which consists of an oval-shaped frame with strands of twine tied across it, was found by Simone Bartolini, a cartographer from Italy's Military Geographical Institute, who was mapping the border with Austria. He came across it in 2003 but for the next 12 years kept it in his office in Florence as a curiosity. "At first I thought it was maybe 100 years old and was a snow shoe that belonged to a farmer who lost it while driving cattle. I kept it in my office as a keepsake," Dr Bartolini said. It was only last year that it dawned on him that it could be much older and more significant. He gave it to archaeologists to study.
The discovery was made close to where the frozen, mummified remains of a Neolithic hunter - later nicknamed Oetzi - were found by two German hikers 25 years ago. "The shoe is evidence that people in the Neolithic period were living in the Alps area and had equipped themselves accordingly," said Dr Catrin Marzoli, the director of the province's cultural heritage department.
It was unclear why people were travelling through such an inhospitable region, she said. They may have been hunting animals, fleeing enemies from a rival tribe, or visiting sites of worship. The shoe will be put on display at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano. Global warming and the gradual retreat of glaciers has helped unearth new finds, said Valentino Pagani, the museum's director of archaeology.
Edited from The Telegraph (12 September 2016)
Neolithic tomb in Orkney to close over safety fears
One of Orkney's most popular ancient landmarks is to be closed to the public due to concerns over safety. Historic Environment Scotland (HES) has announced that Maes Howe, the biggest and most impressive of Orkney's Neolithic chambered cairns, will be shut down by the end of September.
The site attracts around 25,000 visitors annually and the temporary closure has been ordered because of dangers in accessing the site, with visitors using its car park having to cross one of the Orkney mainland's busiest roads. HES has been monitoring safety issues relating to vehicle movements around the 5,000-year-old tomb, and concluded there are significant risks to staff and visitors that cannot currently be overcome. It has been decided that the site will close from 26 September, with staff being redeployed to other roles. Maes Howe will not reopen until the issues have been addressed.
Dr David Mitchell, acting chief executive and director of conservation at HES, said: "This is not a decision we take lightly, but our primary focus must be the safety of our staff and visitor. The HES board recently considered a development proposal which looked at the site infrastructure. They wish to discuss the project further with Orkney Islands Council. This was a catalyst for us to reassess the risks associated with the site, and in consequence we have decided to effect a temporary site closure until the identified risk can be mitigated to a satisfactory level." He added: "In the longer term, we are absolutely committed to finding a long-term solution for this site and working with our partners to conserve and share the wonderful heritage assets in Orkney."
Edited from The Scotsman (8 September 2016)
Amazing rock art panel studied and then reburied in Scotland
A prehistoric stone panel said to be the 'most important in Europe' had been unearthed for the first time in more than 50 years in Clydebank (West Dunbartonshire, Scotland). The Cochno Stone dates to 3000 BCE and is described as one of the best examples of Neolithic or Bronze Age cup and ring markings in Europe. Located next to a housing estate, the stone
Excavation work lasted three weeks and allowed archaeologists to use 3D-imaging technology to make a detailed digital record of the site.
Dr Kenny Brophy, from Glasgow University, who is leading the dig next to Cochno farm, said: "This is the biggest and, I would argue, one of the most important Neolithic art panels in Europe. The cup and ring marks are extensive but the site just happens to be in the middle of an urban housing scheme in Clydebank. It was last fully open to the elements and the public up until 1965. Sadly, as it was neglected it was also being damaged through vandalism and people just traipsing all over it." A trial excavation last year indicated modern graffiti is "probably extensive" over the stone's surface.
The joint project between the University of Glasgow archaeology department and the Factum Foundation for Digital Technology in Conservation aims to produce also a lifesize copy of the 8m by 13m stone using the recorded digital data and historical sources, including the graffiti as well as the prehistoric surface.
The rock art panel has been reburied to protect the national treasure. "Perhaps in the future this site could be turned into a major tourist attraction in Scotland, with a visitor centre, who knows," Brophy said.
Edited from BBC News (7 September 2016), PhysOrg (23 September 2016)
26 September 2016
New research throws light on ancient stone artifacts
A mixed team of archaeologists and scientists at the Indiana University (USA) have been throwing some very sophisticated analytical study at a group of stones, collectively dating from 1.8 million to 70,000 years old, which were found at an archaeological site in South Africa, known as the Cave of Hearths.
Originally it was conjectured that these stones, roughly the size of a tennis ball, were used to shape or grind other objects. Now, the new theory revolves around them being used as a thrown weapon. Using computational tools and theoretical modelling the team has concluded that, based on what is known about the physical strength of humans at that time, the optimal distance at which these stones could be accurately thrown, to hit a specific target with enough power to cause damage, ranged between 20 and 30 metres, well within biomechanical and visual properties (to gauge distance).
Whilst this research is conjecture, albeit based on strong models, Professor Geoffrey Bingham, of the Indiana University Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Psychological and Brain Science, is very upbeat about their findings, "Our study suggests that the throwing of stones played a key role in the evolution of hunting. We don't think that throwing is the sole, or even primary function of these spheroids, but these results show that this function is an option that warrants reconsidering as a potential use for this long-lived, multipurpose tool".
Edited from EurekAlert, PhysOrg (18 August 2016)