19 April 2018
Oldest known human footprints in North America
Footprints left in wet clay around 13,000 years ago by two barefoot adults and a child were recently unearthed by anthropologists on Calvert Island in British Columbia, Canada - the oldest known human track marks in North America, and more evidence that humans were on the Pacific Coast toward the end of the last ice age. The island is about 100 kilometres north of Vancouver Island.
About 11,700 years ago the North American Cordilleran Ice Sheet ended along the Pacific coastline, leaving iceless areas where plants and animals could survive. Calvert Island was one of these, with sea levels 2 to 3 metres lower than now.
The first footprint appeared about 60 centimetres below the beach during excavations in 2014. Two pieces of wood found by the footprint were radiocarbon dated to between 13,300 and 13,000 years ago. Researchers returned to the island during the 2015 and 2016 field seasons, eventually uncovering 28 more human prints from the same period. The 29 prints have clear arch, toe, and heel marks.
The oldest documented site of prehistoric people along the west coast of North America is Manis Mastodon, on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state, in the northwest USA. There researchers found a bone point embedded in a mastodon rib dated to about 13,800 years ago. The oldest known human habitation site in Canada is younger - a group of artefacts including a stone weapon found at Charlie Lake Cave in British Columbia dates to about 12,500 years ago. Similar radiocarbon ages were found in association with a lithic assemblage at the Vermillion Lakes site in Alberta.
Edited from PlosOne, LiveScience, The New York Times (28 March 2018)
17 April 2018
Untouched Bronze Age barrow discovered in Cornwall
An Archaeologist with the Australian National University has discovered a prehistoric Bronze Age burial mound on a hill in Cornwall overlooking the English Channel. The barrow dates to around 2,000 BCE and was found by chance when Doctor Catherine Frieman, conducting geophysical surveys of a known site outside the village of Looe, was approached by a farmer about a possible site in a neighbouring field: "He told us about a 'lump' on his land and that nobody knew what it was, so he asked us to take a look at it. So we ran our equipment over a 1,600 metre square area and sure enough we found a quite obvious circular ditch about 15 metres across with a single entrance pointing southeast and a bunch of pits in the middle. We said 'oh my god - that's definitely a barrow'."
Doctor Frieman and her team have the first two weeks of April in which to excavate: "We want to examine the negative features that look like pits. They may be for holding up posts of a timber structure inside the ditch, or they could be pits that have small cremations in them - something you do find in Cornish barrows. Cremated human remains in pottery in pits can tell us all sorts of things about the people who were there."
Doctor Frieman says ancient barrows in the UK are usually burial sites, although in Cornwall they can vary: "We just don't know what we'll find until we start digging. In Cornwall, human remains are only found in about half of the barrows that have been excavated, and not very many have been excavated compared to other parts of Britain."
Stone tools such as flint knives and ground stone axes have been recovered from nearby Cornish barrows, but gold objects and ornaments of exotic material were also occasionally deposited in them: "We think these coastal waters were really important for the movement of metals in the Bronze Age. Tin is a famous Cornish resource and Cornish Tin is really important to the western European Bronze Age," Doctor Frieman adds.
Doctor Frieman's work overturns the accepted belief that Cornish barrows don't have ditches. Of the barrow surveys involving her team, she says 90 percent have ditches.
Edited from The Conversation (1 April 2018)
Island-hopping most likely route to Australia
The First Australians were among the world's earliest ocean explorers, undertaking a 2,000 kilometre migration through Indonesia at least 65,000 years ago. Research published earlier this year highlights the most likely route by mapping the region over time through changing sea levels.
Some archaeologists have argued for an initial human migration into Australia through New Guinea, because islands across northern Indonesia are relatively close together, and people could easily see to the next island. First landfall on Australia has been argued to be both more difficult and less likely than first landfall at New Guinea, as the final crossing distance from was more than 80 kilometres. It was also thought that the Australian landmass was not visible from any Indonesian island. Despite that it was proposed that now submerged islands off the Australian continental shelf were visible from Timor, but until recently ocean floor data sets were not adequate to test this.
During an ice age lasting from around 71,000 to 59,000 years ago, western Indonesia formed part of the Pleistocene continent of Sunda, while Australia and New Guinea were joined to form Sahul. Using surface height data, the new study ran more than 10,000 computer analyses of visibility between islands and continents in the whole of Island South East Asia. The results show that between 70,000 to 60,000 years ago - and potentially for much longer - people could see from the Indonesian islands of Timor and Rote to a now submerged island chain in the Timor Sea at the midpoint between southern Indonesia and Australia. From there it was possible to sight the Australian continental shelf, which then formed a massive fan of islands extending towards Indonesia - much of it now more than 100 metres below the surface.
The findings potentially solve another mystery: if people island-hopped from Timor and Rote they would have arrived on the now submerged northwest coastline close to all of Australia's most ancient occupation sites, such as Madjedbebe, Nauwalabila and Boodie Cave.
While we might be closer to understanding where people first reached Australia, signs of the earliest explorers to reach Indonesia have been more elusive. Another team of researchers have now begun the search on Rote and West Timor for the earliest evidence of the region's first human arrivals, the likely ancestors of the First Australians.
Edited from Australian National University (28 March 2018)
5,000-year-old shoe found in Switzerland
The Stone Age lake-dwellings on the shores of lakes near Zurich are some of the most important archaeological sites in Europe. During recent excavations in the Greifensee at Maur, divers have found an almost fully preserved Neolithic shoe - one of fewer than ten of its kind known in Europe.
Made of the deeper layers of certain types of tree bark, the shoe is said to be a "prime example of the ingenious manufacturing of Neolithic clothing". According to authorities the shoe dates back 5,000 years to the Horgen culture. The pristine appearance of the shoe is highly unusual.
Edited from Swissinfo.ch (27 March 2018)
Skilled potters travelled around the Baltic nearly 5000 years ago
Corded Ware pottery is an innovation over earlier Stone Age pottery, mixing broken pottery with the clay. Researchers at the University of Helsinki have now mapped the routes of pottery and people representing the late Neolithic Corded Ware Culture complex into the Nordic countries circa 2900-2300 BCE, examining pottery from 24 archaeological sites to determine the geochemical composition and geological origin of Corded Ware pottery.
Traditionally, Swedish archaeologists have assumed that Corded Ware pottery arrived from the south. However it now seems clear that both pottery and people belonging to this culture arrived first in Eastern Sweden from Finland and Estonia, and this was not a one-way one-time event; there were many active contacts in all directions across the Baltic Sea during the period.
The researchers found that Finland, Estonia, and Sweden had at least five different manufacturing areas for Corded Ware pottery which engaged in active trade across the Baltic Sea approximately 5000 years ago. Haeme in Southern Finland had a manufacturing hub of Corded Ware pottery which can be described as quasi-industrial in Neolithic terms, and spread its products along the Finnish coast and into Estonia.
In traditional societies women usually make the pottery. Corded Ware burials show that females were more likely to receive pottery as burial gifts, and analyses from European cemeteries show that the women were more likely to relocate during their lifetime. The study proposes that skilled female artisans arrived in Sweden particularly from Estonia and Finland, as both the geochemical origin and cultural links of the imported pottery indicates a connection to the region. The exchange network also suggests that even during the Stone Age, the Baltic Sea was less an obstacle and more a connection between communities.
Edited from EurekAlert! (22 March 2018)
13 April 2018
Proposed tunnel under Stonehenge raises new fears
In the UK, as part of the Government's planning policy, any matters which may affect the public on large scale projects has to be published as a 'Public Consultation' to allow anyone who is either affected by or interested/concerned in a project, to put forward their views, opinions or objections, to be taken into consideration as the planning process proceeds.
Now new fears have been raised over the public consultation documents which have been issued with regard to the proposed tunnel under Stonehenge, in Wiltshire. The stones and surrounding area are designated as a World Heritage site and currently a major highway, the A303 which links the South East to the South West of England, cuts across the area, passing close by the stone circle.
Recent improvements involving a relocated Visitor Centre have already eliminated a spur road past through the site but there have been long term plans to put the A303 into a tunnel, which it is hoped would ease congestion, pollution and improve the visual appearance of the area.
Now fears have been raised by Professor Jacques, an archaeologist at the University of Buckingham (UK), that the route shown on the consultation documents is incorrect and that it would destroy invaluable features as well as affecting the water table which may, in turn, adversely affect the geological conditions in the area.
In its defence Highways England (the Government Department in charge of the improvement scheme), via its spokesperson David Bullock, has stated that "The document in question is a land ownership boundary plan. The plan shows indicative general features and was never intended as a geographical map". The Public Consultation is open for comment and participation until 6th April 2018.
Edited from BBC News (5 February 2018)
Reconstructing an ancient lethal weapon
Research recently carried out by the University of Washington (USA) has shed remarkable insight into the hunting skills of hunter-gatherers of the post Ice Age Pleistocene Artic of 12,000 BCE.
Throughout the world archaeologists have been uncovering the working end of weapons, i.e. the sharp cutting head, made from either bone, antler, ivory or stone/flint. As the shafts attached to these weapons have not survived it has not been known hoe effective each shape was and what the flight ballistic capabilities were.
Now a team from the University of Washington, headed up by Janice Wood, an anthropology graduate, and Ben Fitzhugh, anthropology professor, has been reconstructing various weapons and experimenting with shafts, to try and understand how they worked.
They used shafts of various lengths and thicknesses, made from woods that were known to exist in the area at the time. They found that different combinations of heads and shafts had varying effects on different animals, either maiming, slowing down of direct kill. Their research may also have answers to questions surrounding the extinction of animals at different periods, in that they may have been easier to kill than others.
Their findings have now been published in an article in the Journal of Archaeological Science and Ben Fitzhugh is quoted as saying "The hunter-gatherers of 12,000 years ago were more sophisticated than we gave them credit for". He went on to add "They had a very comprehensive understanding of different tools and the best tools for different prey and shot conditions".
Edited from Popular Archaeology (1 February 2018)
23 February 2018
Footprints of prehistoric children tell a story
Perceptions of childhood vary greatly with geography, culture and time. Fossil footprints present a record of childhood very different from that of life in Western society.
Footprints preserved in the Sand Sea of Namibia from about 1,500 years ago were made by a small group of children - some as young as three years - walking across a drying mud surface after a flock of sheep or goats, in the company of slightly older children and perhaps young adolescents. Trusted to care for animals from an early age, the children's tracks also reveal playful hops, skips, and jumps.
Children possibly as young as one or two years left footprints at a site in Southern Ethiopia. They probably belonged to the extinct species Homo heidelbergensis (600,000 to 200,000 years ago), and occur next to adult prints and an abundance of animal tracks congregated around a small, muddy pool. Stone tools and the butchered remains of a hippo were also found. These were all soon covered by an ash flow from a nearby volcano dated to 700,000 years ago.
A wealth of ethnographic evidence from modern, culturally distinct human societies shows babies and children are often expected to contribute to activities that support the mother, and the wider family group, according to their abilities. In many societies, small boys tend to help with herding, while young girls are preferred as babysitters. Interestingly, adult tools - like axes, knives, machetes, even firearms - are often freely available to children as part of learning. There may be little time or space to simply be a child, in the sense that we would recognise.
The roughly 7,000-year-old Monte Hermoso Human Footprint Site in Argentina contains predominantly the small tracks of children and women, preserved in coastal sediments. It has been suggested that the children may have played an important role in gathering seafood or coastal resources. Similarly, most of the 15,000-year-old tracks in the carved and painted Tuc d'Audoubert Cave in France are those of children, who may have been present when the figures were drawn.
Edited from PhysORG (13 February 2018)
Wooden tools hint at Neanderthal fire use
Archaeologists unearthed pieces of several wooden digging sticks from a plain at the foot of a low hill in Tuscany (Italy) where 171,000 years ago the shore of a lake was surrounded by grasslands and marshes - home to large grazing mammals, including the straight-tusked elephants whose bones litter the site.
If you're a hunter-gatherer, the digging stick is your foraging multi-tool: about a meter long, one end rounded to offer a handle and the other tapered almost to a point; useful for digging up roots and tubers, hunting burrowing animals, or pounding and grinding herbs. Neanderthals of Middle Pleistocene Italy created and used digging sticks that would be familiar to modern hunter-foragers, like the Bindibu of Australia, Hadza of Tanzania, and San of southern Africa. In most modern hunter-gatherer cultures, digging sticks are women's tools.
The finds date to a period when Neanderthals roamed the hills of southern Italy. Archaeologists excavating the site in 2012 found 39 broken pieces of the sticks, along with an assortment of stone tools. Of the 39 fragments, only about four pointed tips and six rounded handles survived, along with 31 pieces of shafts. Four of the handles and all of the tips had been broken during the tools' lifetimes.
Researchers noticed that one of the digging sticks had a 1-millimetre-thick layer of black film on its shaft, its surface fractured in a square-like pattern reminiscent of charring. Chemical testing revealed that the wood had in fact been charred, as had 11 of the other pieces. All were charred evenly, on the same part of the stick, implying carefully controlled exposure to fire.
Archaeologists say that the Neanderthals probably used fire to char the surface of the wood to make it easier to scrape off the bark and shape the ends. Boxwood is one of the strongest European hardwoods - perfect for a digging stick - but it's also difficult to shape with stone tools. Fire would have softened an outer layer and made it easier to work. When researchers tried working some boxwood branches, they found that they couldn't shape the handles and points without first charring the wood.
Some archaeologists think that Homo heidelbergensis, an ancestor of Neanderthals, may have used a similar method to shape spears in a 300,000-year-old site in Germany, which come to much sharper points than the digging sticks from Italy, but lack evidence for the use of fire in their manufacture. That makes the digging sticks from Italy the earliest clear examples of wooden tools shaped with fire.
Edited from Popular Archaeology, Ars Technica (5 February 2018), Newsweek (6 February 2018)
Cave Art in the Basque country
The area from northern Spain to southern France has long been considered the richest spot for Palaeolithic cave art in the world. Around 150 cave art sites dating from 40,000 to 10,000 years old have been found since the discovery of Altamira in 1879, yet throughout the 20th century only about a dozen caves featuring ancient artwork were found in the Basque country.
From the time that European caves were first explored in the 19th century, the low density of cave art findings in Basque country - an important corridor between the continent and the Iberian Peninsula - has been difficult to explain.
So when Diego Garate and Iñaki Intxaurbe entered the Atxurra cave system in northwest Spain's Basque Country in late 2015, archaeologists had known about the site for over 80 years. But when the two noticed chambers near the high ceiling and started climbing, their lamps revealed the outlines of several previously unknown bison figures.
Since then, researchers using software to reveal artwork invisible to human eyes have identified 20 more cave art sites in Basque country, nearly tripling the total known for the area. In the rest of Europe, there is perhaps one new find a year; in the Pyrenees - one of the hotspots of cave art - there hasn't been a new find for decades.
The Atxurra cave system has been visited since at least 1882, and first explored by archaeologists in the 1930s. Now with the help of specially trained cavers exploring high chambers in the deepest areas of the cave, scientists have identified an 11-metre-long panel of art above a narrow platform 4 metres above the floor, with more than 100 engravings and paintings of deer, horses, bison, and goats. Other finds include sharp flints used for engraving the artwork, and the remains of hearths.
Another Basque country cave the team investigated was hidden below a residential building in the village of Lekeitio. The Armintxe cave's entrance had been covered by rubble in the 1980s, but there was a small entrance hole in a nearby communal garden. Cavers dug this out and climbed inside. In an upper gallery, where the ancient floor had nearly eroded away, they found about 50 engraved animals that had been there for 13,600 to 14,600 years, including two lions - an animal previously seen in cave art in France but never in northern Spain.
In the well known Aitzbitarte cave system, where the team had previously documented scarce cave art, speleologists found several unknown small chambers containing two bison figures and other animals engraved and then lined in clay - a technique previously documented only in France.
Edited from Sapiens.org (16 January 2018)
21 February 2018
Giant handaxes and prehistoric Europeans
An exceptionally high density of 'giant' handaxes has been uncovered at the Porto Maior site, in the Miño River basin of northwest Spain - the first such discovery outside Africa. The excavation of river sediments revealed about 3700 stone artefacts, 290 of which were used in the assemblage studied by the researchers, primarily composed of Large Cutting Tools (LCTs) - 'giant' handaxes about 18 centimetres long.
Characteristic of so-called Acheulean technology due to their distinctive shape, the handaxes were not made on-site, but brought from elsewhere. Results indicate that the lithic tool-bearing deposits date to between 293,000 and 205,000 years ago, raising questions about the origin and mobility of prehistoric populations in Europe during the Middle Pleistocene, between 773,000 and 125,000 years ago.
The high density of tools found reflects trends at Acheulean sites in Africa and the Near East, reinforcing the possibility of an African origin for the Acheulean tradition of southwest Europe.
While the age of the Porto Maior site is consistent with previous findings on the Iberian Peninsula with respect to the expansion of the Acheulean tradition, there is also evidence of completely different tool assemblages being used there during the same era. The researchers say that the technological overlap suggests the co-existence of culturally distinct human populations of different geographical origins: "The African affinities of the LCT assemblage at Porto Maior may be consistent with a technology brought in by an 'intrusive' population, which differed from the core and flake industries of established human groups in southwest Europe."
The findings have important implications for understanding the human occupation of the continent.
Edited from Scimex (15 February 2018)
Ancient society buried disabled children like kings
About 34,000 years ago, a group of hunters and gatherers buried the dead bodies of two boys, roughly 10- and 12-years-old, head to head in a long slender grave filled with riches, including more than 10,000 mammoth ivory beads, more than 20 armbands, about 300 pierced fox teeth, 16 ivory mammoth spears, carved artwork, deer antlers, and two human lower leg bones laid across the boys' chests.
In contrast, the remains of a roughly 40-year-old man had far fewer treasures: about 3,000 mammoth ivory beads, 12 pierced fox canines, 25 mammoth ivory arm bands, and a stone pendant.
The burials, about 200 kilometres east of Moscow, were excavated from 1957 to 1977 and date to the Mid Upper Palaeolithic. In total, there are 10 men and women buried at Sunghir, but the two boys have by far the most spectacular riches; they also have physical conditions that likely limited the individuals during their short lives.
According to an analysis of their dental enamel, both boys experienced repeated periods of extreme stress. The 10-year-old boy's thighbones are described as 'exceptionally bowed and short', but the younger boy was physically active. The 12-year-old boy's teeth surprisingly had almost no wear. Analyses of his skeleton indicate that he was bedridden. It is possible the group was feeding the 12-year-old boy soft foods, such as porridge.
Individuals with marked developmental or degenerative abnormalities account for a third of sufficiently well-preserved burials from the Mid Upper Paleolithic, however it was slightly less common for youngsters to receive such a burial during this period.
What really caught the researchers' attention was the diversity of the burial artefacts. Some people had only a few fox canines and mammoth ivory beads, others had nothing. This indicates social complexity, because it shows that individuals were treated differently in death, and probably in life.
Edited from LiveScience (13 February 2018)
Australia chemical plants threaten 40,000-year-old rock art
On a peninsula halfway up the coast of Western Australia are heaps of cubic boulders decorated with more than one million rock carvings, some thought to be 40,000 years old. The petroglyphs are Australia's largest and oldest collection of rock art, providing a continuous record of the Yaburarra people who lived there until the 1860s, when they were wiped out in a massacre. Local archaeologist Ken Mulvaney says the older rock art shows land animals such as kangaroos, but as the sea rose, the images shifted to marine life such as turtles and fish.
But a kilometre away are some of Australia's largest and dirtiest chemical plants. The air is often fouled with a yellow haze from ammonium nitrate and fertiliser plants, a liquid natural gas processing plant, and the emissions from ships burning sulphur-rich fuel, resulting in increased atmospheric acidity. A Senate committee report will spotlight the problem, but it remains to be seen whether politicians will support measures to protect the art.
The peninsula was opened for industrial development in the 1960s and 1970s by the state government before people were aware of the significance of the petroglyphs. Some rock art was almost certainly destroyed during development, but in 2007 the federal government placed the remaining carvings on the national heritage register, and part of the peninsula was declared a national park. Despite this, further expansion of industrial activity has been approved by both federal and state governments.
Retired scientist John Black says the original studies failed to recognise the fragility of the desert patina that gives the rocks their distinctive red colour: "We know the acidity in the atmosphere has increased 1,000-fold due to industry. We know the rock art is being destroyed, we just don't know how fast." Black has analysed colour changes, concluding there has been significant damage.
Johan Kuylenstierna, a Swedish scientist whose work on acidity and European monuments was used by the government, gave evidence to the Senate inquiry that the use of his study was inappropriate.
While corporations have made significant financial contributions to the documentation and preservation petroglyphs, they deny any environmental impact. Meanwhile, the state government has made noises about seeking world heritage status for the area.
Edited from The Guardian (6 February 2018)
Stonehenge architects' camp maybe found
On army land at Larkhill close to Stonehenge, a team of archaeologists believe they may have discovered a site where some of the architects of Stonehenge gathered and camped. A team investigating a causewayed enclosure - thought to be ancient meeting places or centres of trade - found an alignment of posts that matches the orientation of the circle at Stonehenge, leading to the theory that Larkhill could have been some sort of blueprint for the temple.
Si Cleggett, of Wessex Archaeology, concedes it is possible to suggest that any evidence of prehistoric settlement could be connected to the creation of Stonehenge, but argues that the close proximity of Larkhill and the coincidence of the alignment of the nine posts gives weight to the idea that the people who created and visited the enclosure could have had a hand in the conceptualisation of Stonehenge.
The first version of Stonehenge was built in around 3,000 BCE as a simple circular ditch and bank with upright timber posts. The stones began to arrive around 500 years later. Cleggett's team believes the causewayed enclosure was built between 3,750 and 3,650 BCE.
Cleggett says: "The causewayed enclosure at Larkhill was constructed during the late Stone Age, a period of transition when our ancestors gradually moved away from a mobile hunter-gatherer lifestyle and embraced a farming existence. My contention is there is a fair chance the people who met at the causewayed enclosure could have been the architects of the Stonehenge landscape as we understand it. That nine post alignment could be an early blueprint for the laying out of the stones at Stonehenge."
Edited from The Guardian (2 February 2018)
20 February 2018
Chilean whale hunts depicted in ancient rock art
Using makeshift harpoons and rafts, a hunter spears a large whale. It would have been a welcome kill for hunter-gatherers living in one of the world's driest regions, Chile's Atacama Desert, 1,500-years ago.
The moment was frozen in time by ancient artists nearly 1,500 years ago. In bright red rock art, painted in iron-oxide, the ancient hunting tradition can still be seen. Whales, swordfish, sea lions, and sharks are among the depictions, say archaeologists
Rock art was first found in this part of Chile by anthropologists in the early 20th century in a valley called El Médano, where the first rock art in this region was catalogued.For over a thousand years the rock art's existence was known only to local Paposo people who live in the region.
The new study focuses on cave art found several miles north of El Médino, in the Izcuña ravine, where 328 different paintings were found on 24 different blocks of rock. Many have been degraded by moisture brought by camanchacas, or cloud banks that form over the Chilean coast and move inland. But enough of the art has been preserved to date it to the other El Médino art.
The most common type of art shows the silhouettes of large fish. Other images show hunting scenes with rafts and weapons. The study's author, Benjamín Ballester, notes that the fish or whales are always drawn oversized to the hunters and their rafts, making the prey a daunting antagonist. "Overall, hunting is represented as a specialized, solitary, individual practice, led by a selected few people," the study notes.
During previous excavations, archaeologists have found makeshift harpoons constructed from 10-foot wooden shafts, with detachable arrowheads dating as far back as 7,000 years ago.
Edited from National Geographic (15 February 2018)