27 March 2020
25,000-year-old structure built of the bones of 60 mammoths
Mysterious circles of bones made from the remains of dozens of mammoths have helped scientists understand how humans survived the last Ice Age. The bones at one site in Russia were found to be about 25,000 years old, according to a new analysis.
A total of 51 lower jaws and 64 individual mammoth skulls were used to construct the walls of the 9 by 9m (30ft by 30ft) structure. A small number of reindeer, horse, bear, wolf, red fox and arctic fox bones were also found. Researchers said the bones were most likely sourced from animal graveyards.
Archaeologists from the University of Exeter found the remains of charred wood and other soft non-woody plant remains within the structure, which is located near the modern village of Kostenki, around 500km south of Moscow.
Mammoth-bone buildings are well-known to archaeologists. Similar structures have been found across Eastern Europe, albeit on a much smaller scale, a few meters in diameter. These sites, including others found at Kostenki during the 1950s and '60s, date back as far as 22,000 years. Researchers have generally considered them to be dwellings or 'mammoth houses' that helped their builders cope with frigid temperatures near the nadir of the last Ice Age. The new structure (first discovered at Kostenki in 2014) is 3,000 years older.
The Kostenki 11 site stands out most obviously for its scale. "The size of the structure makes it exceptional among its kind, and building it would have been time-consuming," says Marjolein Bosch, a zooarchaeologist at the University of Cambridge. "This implies that it was meant to last, perhaps as a landmark, a meeting place, a place of ceremonial importance, or a place to return to when the conditions grew so harsh that shelter was needed."
The astounding assemblage of bones from more than 60 mammoths raises the question: Where did they all come from? Scientists aren't sure if the animals were hunted, scavenged from sites of mass deaths or some combination of the two.
Dr Alexander Pryor, who led the study, said: "Kostenki 11 represents a rare example of Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers living on in this harsh environment. What might have brought ancient hunter gatherers to this site? One possibility is that the mammoths and humans could have come to the area en masse because it had a natural spring that would have provided unfrozen liquid water throughout the winter - rare in this period of extreme cold."
Most communities fled the region, likely due to a lack of prety to hunt and scarce plant resources they depeneded upon for survival, the scientists said. The bone circles, of which more than 70 are known to exist in Ukraine and the west Russian planes, were eventually abandoned as the climate grew colder and more inhospitable.
Edited from Smithsonian Magazine (16 March 2020), The Independent (17 March 2020)
New Guinea's Neolithic period confirmed
It is well known that agriculture developed independently in New Guinea 7000 years ago, but evidence of its influence on how people lived has eluded scientists, until now. An archaeological dig in Papua New Guinea has for the first time uncovered strong evidence that a Neolithic period existed on the island about 5000 years ago.
Scientists believe the cache of artifacts that were unearthed, including stone axes, pestles, figurative carvings and other tools, are the missing clues needed to make the case for a Neolithic period in New Guinea's prehistory.
A team of archaeologists and scientists reported the excavations at Waim, an area located in the northern highlands of modern Papua New Guinea. Dr. Ben Shaw of UNSW Science says until now, there was little evidence to demonstrate that New Guinea had enjoyed its own Neolithic period like other global agricultural centers had.
At Waim, the team was astounded by the sheer bulk and variety of tools that turned up in the one place. They found very finely carved pestles used for the grinding of food, stone axes and adzes, as well as carved figurines. One of them, a large fragment of carved stone depicting the brow ridge of a human or animal face dated at 5050 years old is now the earliest evidence of a carved expression of body form in Oceania.
After examining the pestles under the microscope, co-author Dr. Judith Field identified microfossils, demonstrating they had been used to process some of the wetland crops native to New Guinea. "It is probably one of the most direct links that you can draw to the influence of agriculture upon human behavior at this time," Dr. Field says.
Dr. Shaw says a grooved volcanic stone was found with ochre on it, suggesting that 5000 years ago humans were already using it to paint, stain and decorate. "When we looked at the grooves on this stone under the microscope, it looked as though they were shaped by having organic fibers pulled through them. The ochre on the stone would have stained these fibers a red color, which even today is how they sometimes stain fibers in the production of their woven string bags, or bilums. This has never been found at a site before."
Another surprise was the uncovering of a large block of stone that had been ground and polished, which Dr. Shaw reckons was laid against a hillside and subsequently buried after the village at Waim was abandoned about 4000 years ago. He says that at about half a metre long and 30cm wide, it was a very unusual piece and had the team stumped as to what its purpose was.
"While we were sitting there scratching our heads, one of the elders from the village came up and told us that this is how the old people used to make the axes: they would take a big block of stone, work it into shape, and then simply saw it into the individual sizes of the axes that they wanted." The type of ax that was associated with this stone template was previously thought to have been used by people coming into the area more than 2000 years later, which Dr. Shaw says "really floored us and blew us away".
Edited from PhysORG (26 March 2020)
Archaeologists set to discover how old Cerne Abbas Giant is
He's been a looming presence overlooking a Dorset village (England) for more than 330 years but now archaeologists are hoping to discover the true age of the mysterious Cerne Abbas Giant.
The 55-metre naked chalk figure brandishing a giant club is perhaps the best-known chalk hill figure in Britain but its origin and purpose are shrouded in mystery. Theories range from an ancient spirituality symbol or likeness of Greco-Roman hero Hercules to a caricature of Oliver Cromwell, with the club a reference to repressive rule and the phallus a mockery of his puritanism.
Local folklore has long held it to be a fertility aid and the earliest recorded mention of the giant dates from 1694. The giant chalk figure was gifted to the National Trust in 1920 by the Pitt-Rivers family and now the charity, together with the University of Gloucestershire, is undertaking tests to establish the iconic figure's age.
Archaeologists have excavated small trenches to enable samples of soil to be extracted from points on the giant's elbows and feet. Over the coming weeks, Professor Phillip Toms, from the University of Gloucestershire, will attempt to date the samples using a technique called optically stimulated luminescence (OSL).
Martin Papworth, a senior archaeologist at the National Trust, said: "The OSL technique is commonly used to determine when mineral grains in the soil were last exposed to sunlight. It was used to discover the age of the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire in the 1990s, which was found to be nearly 3,000-years-old - even more ancient than we had expected. We're expecting the results of the tests in July. It is likely that the tests will give us a date range, rather than a specific age, but we hope they will help us better understand, and care for, this famous landmark."
In separate analysis, environmental archaeologist Mike Allen will analyse soil samples containing the microscopic shells of land snails to learn more about the site's past. "They should help us to discover whether the giant was created on a grazed chalk hillside, or whether people purposely cleared scrub to prepare the land for the figure," he said.
Gordon Bishop, chairman of the Cerne Historical Society, said villagers were eagerly awaiting the results. "Although there are some who would prefer the giant's age and origins to remain a mystery, I think the majority would like to know at least whether he is ancient or no more than a few hundred-years-old," he said.
Edited from Evening Standard (23 March 2020)
A 3,400-year-old Mesoamerican ball court
Millennia ago, a stone court would have hosted teams of players using their hips to knock a hard rubber ball toward goals at either end of the court. The ball game, which re-enacted a creation story recorded in the Maya religious text Popul Vuh, was a major part of political, religious, and social life for the Maya and the Aztec, and for the Olmec before them. But archaeologists don't yet know much about where people first started playing the game or how it became a cultural phenomenon that spread across the area that now includes Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador.
The ball court - a stone-floored alley about 50 meters (165 ft) long, bounded by steep stone walls and earthen mounds - once occupied a place of honor in the heart of the ancient city of Etlatongo (Mexico). But sometime between 1174 and 1102 BCE, the people of dismantled parts of the court and ritually 'terminated' its life leaving burned bits of plant, mingled with broken pottery, animal bones, shells, and a few human bones.
But beneath that 12th century BCE ball court lay another, even older one, dating to 1374 BCE. Archaeologists Jeffrey Blomster and Victor Salazar were surprised to find a ball court so old in the mountainous highlands of Mexico.
The oldest known Mesoamerican ball court, which dates to 1650 BCE and has a floor of compacted earth rather than stone, is at Paso de la Amada in Chiapas, on the Pacific coast of Mexico. Until now, it looked like people didn't start building formal stone ball courts in the Mexican highlands until almost a thousand years later.
This ball court challenges that assumption. Its presence means that by 1374 BCE, the game was already important enough to people in the highlands to occupy a prominent place in the city and justify the investment of resources it took to build a stone court. And that suggests that people in the highlands may also have played a role in developing its rules and the layout of the court. Blomster and Salazar suggest that ideas about the game may have passed among communities until it eventually coalesced into something that would have been recognized from one end of Mesoamerica to the other.
The find also suggests that the ball game was already at the center of trade and interaction between regions. The customary equipment for the game was a hard rubber ball, and Castilla elastica rubber trees grow in the lowland coastal regions, so there must have been trade in rubber - or more likely, in rubber balls. And the connections between communities weren't just commercial.
The earliest versions of the ball game were probably played in open fields, and informal games probably kept being played wherever there was open space for millennia, which means they didn't leave archaeological evidence behind. Communities like Etlatongo and Paso de la Amada didn't start building stone courts until the ball game became a major social and political fixture.
Blomster and Salazar found another structure under the 1374 BCE ball court at Etlatongo. It was once a long, narrow structure, laid out in the same direction as the ball court, and it had been incorporated into the later ball court's east wall. The first ball court's layout and alignment is clearly based on the older structure's, Salazar said, but archaeologists didn't have enough time in the field to excavate enough of the older structure to say for sure whether it was an even earlier ball court.
12 February 2020
Oldest known tree-ring dated wood structure
Oak wood used to build a box around a water well has been dated to about 7,275 years ago, making it the oldest known tree-ring dated wooden structure. The well was discovered near the Czech Republic town of Ostrov in 2018. Ceramic fragments found inside the well dated the site to the early Neolithic, but no evidence of any settlement structures were found nearby.
Consisting of four oak poles, one at each corner of a roughly 80 by 80 centimetre square with flat planks between them, it stood 140 centimetres above ground. The preservation is exceptional, showing marks from the polished stone tools used to shape each piece with great precision.
Parts were made from trees were felled in 5255 and 5256 BCE, but two of the poles were felled earlier - one around 7,278 or 7,279 years ago and the other around nine years before that - and must have been used previously. One of the side planks also had a different age - quite a bit younger, felled between 7,261 and 7,244 years ago - likely because of repairs to the well.
There are over 40 such wells known in Europe dating to a similar period. Some are thought to be earlier, and two of those are in Hungary. One is suspected to be from between 5400 and 5200 BCE and another between 5600 and 5400 BCE, but these have not been tree-ring dated.
Edited from Science Alert (3 February 2020)
Modern Africans have some Neanderthal DNA
Africans have more Neanderthal ancestry than previously thought - though still less than most people outside of Africa. Neanderthals were our closest evolutionary relatives, inhabiting parts of Europe and Asia from possibly more than 800,000 years ago until around 40,000 years ago.
People who migrated out of Africa around 60,000 to 80,000 years ago interbred with Neanderthals, and some human groups carrying Neanderthal genes returned to Africa. Neanderthal gene variants inherited by modern Africans include those involved in bolstering the immune system and modifying sensitivity to ultraviolet radiation. On average Neanderthal DNA accounts for about 0.5 percent of individual Africans' genetic inheritance - far more than reported in earlier studies. Most present-day people outside Africa carry about three times that amount. More than 94 percent of Neanderthal DNA sequences detected in today's Africans have also been observed in non-Africans.
Other DNA evidence suggests that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals interbred in Europe and Asia at least 50,000 years ago, but Neanderthals didn't mate with ancient people in Africa. Low levels of human migration from Europe to Africa over roughly the past 20,000 years introduced Neanderthal DNA into African populations.
The new study also found comparable proportions of Neanderthal DNA in modern Europeans and East Asians - about 1.7 percent and 1.8 percent respectively. Earlier studies estimated East Asians would have substantially more Neanderthal ancestry than Europeans. Africans share 7.2 percent of their Neanderthal ancestry with Europeans, 2 percent with East Asians. That makes Europe a more likely source of back-to-Africa migrations by humans carrying Neanderthal genes.
The report best fits a scenario in which human evolution after around 300,000 years ago featured hybridization between genetically different Homo populations and back-to-Africa migrations.
Researchers also detected a human migration out of Africa roughly 100,000 to 150,000 years ago that introduced human genes into Neanderthals. Some African DNA that appeared to have been inherited from Neanderthals actually came from those ancient humans.
Edited from ScienceNews (30 January 2020)
8,000-year-old figurine at Catalhoyuk
A human-like bone figurine around 8,000 years old has been found in Catalhoyuk, a proto-city settlement that existed from roughly 7500 BCE to 5700 BCE in what is now south central Turkey. A rare example of a well-preserved Neolithic settlement, it shows evidence of the transition from life in villages to an urban agglomeration which preceded cities as we know them. Its smost famous artefacts to date have been female figures made of clay.
Just 6 centimetres high, the newly discovered figurine is made from a bone from a donkey's hoof, with cuts that look like eyes. The first bone figurine found at the site, it had been placed in a clay container in a room where food was stored. Though ancient bone figures with human features have been found in the region before, most are much later - around 4300 to 3300 BCE. The clay pot in which this one was found was made around 6500 to 6300 BCE.
Stone tools reveal Neanderthal travels
Similarities between Neanderthal tools in Siberia and eastern Europe suggest Neanderthals crossed the Eurasian continent about 60,000 years ago - 40,000 years after an earlier migration.
Unlike the more famous Denisova Cave which was occupied at various times over about 250,000 years by Neanderthals, anatomically modern humans, and Denisovans, the Chagyrskaya Cave 100 kilometres to the west in the foothills of the Altai Mountains seems to have been occupied only by Neanderthals. There archaeologists have found 74 Neanderthal bones - the most of any cave in the region - as well as around 90,000 artefacts including stone and bone tools.
More than 3,000 stone blades from the cave resemble flaked stone tools from Central and eastern Europe known as Micoquian blades, suggesting the Neanderthals who occupied the Chagyrskaya Cave descended from groups more than 3,000 kilometres to the west who may have been following migrating herds of bison or horse through central Asia.
Some geneticists have previously suggested that Neanderthals migrated to Siberia twice, because late Neanderthal occupants of the Denisova Cave are more closely related to their European relatives than to the cave's earlier occupants.
Peruvian monument revealed after 2,000 years
In a high jungle in what is now northern Peru researchers have made a detailed 3D scan of a 2,000 yeae old stone monolith decorated with swirls, circular patterns, and fangs belonging to a deity archaeologists call a "feline feathered figure".
In danger of being lost to erosion, the abstract and ornate images and patterns are difficult to describe. Archaeologists wanting to record the carvings hiked and rode horses from 1,800 metres to a remote village 4,000 metres above sea level.
The monolith is made of a sedimentary stone that is not found locally. Around one ton in weight, the rock is about 3 metres wide, 75 centimetres high, and 150 centimetres long.
The engraving of the feline feathered figure indicates the carvings were created during what archaeologists call the 'formative period' between 200 BCE and 200 CE. There was no writing in Peru during this period, but studies of other archaeological sites show the feline feathered figure was popular at the time.
The Inca who flourished in the area during the 15th century CE built two baths not far from the monolith.
Edited from LiveScience (24 January 2020)
Prehistoric sheep-hunting camp in the Levant
Anthropologists have confirmed the existence of a more than 10,000-year-old hunting camp in what is now northeastern Lebanon, straddling the period marking the transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural settlements at the onset of the last stone age.
Analysis of data from Nachcharini Cave, high in mountains forming the border between Lebanon and Syria, shows that sheep were the primary game at a short-term special purpose camp which served as a temporary outpost to developing and more substantial villages elsewhere in the region.
Radiocarbon dating of animal bones place the main deposits at the cave securely in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA), a period from about 10,000 to 8,000 BCE during which the cultivation of crops, the construction of mud-brick dwellings, and other practices of domestication began to emerge. The stone tools found at the sites are mostly tiny arrowheads used for hunting.
It was already known that sheep hunting was practised in this region throughout periods that preceded the PPNA, and the evidence from Nachcharini Cave reinforces that understanding.
Edited from University of Toronto News (23 January 2020)
7 February 2020
Bronze Age cannibalism revealed in a Cheddar cave
There is a cave in Cheddar, Somerset (UK), known as Gough's Cave, which is believed to have had human occupation for over 9,000 years.
Now a team of scientists, comprising researchers from the London Natural History Museum, the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology & Social Evolution and Virgili University of Tarragona (Spain) have been examining the marks found on human skull remains uncovered in the cave. So far the marks point towards a form of cannibalism, possibly for ritualistic purposes.
One of the leaders of the research team, Francesc Marginedas, from the Virgili University, is quoted as saying "This practice [use of human skulls] could be related to decapitations for obtaining war trophies, to the production of masks as decorative elements, even with engravings, or to what is known as skull cups. In fact, some ancient societies considered that human skulls possessed powers or life force, justifying sometimes its collection as evidence of superiority and authority during violent confrontations".
Evidence of this type of cannibalism has been found on other sites, dating back over 15,000 years
Edited from Fox News (20 January 2020)
Indian Copper Age site seriously damaged by roadworks
The Chalcolithic, or Copper Age, flourished in India during the period 5,000-800 BCE. The most important sites at this time were centered around the Indus Valley, although sites have been found in other parts of the sub-continent, with variations occurring in the Central, Eastern and Southern Regions. One site in particular, in the State of Maharashtra, has recently suffered some catastrophic damage.
The site was first discovered in a village called Hatnur, famed for its earthfill dam) in 2015, when examples of Chalcolithic pottery were found. Archaeological excavations were due to start in February 2020.
A senior official from the State Department of Culture is quoted as saying, in September 2018, when talking about the planned excavations "This will enhance our understanding of Maharashtra's prehistory and evolution. For instance, the history of Aurangabad, which is believed to have begun with the Saravahana dynasty, will go back from about 200 BCE to around 2,000 BCE".
This makes it a very unfortunate misunderstanding when the local highways department started their own excavations first, using soil scooped from the site to form the base for a new road. Now a blame game has started between the State Archaeological Department and the Revenue Department, with both sides blaming each other for the misunderstanding.
Edited from The Tribune - India (8 January 2020)
1 February 2020
'Alien' graffiti defaces Neolithic Quoit in West Cornwall
On the West Penwith moors, in the far west of Cornwall (Great Britain) can be found several Neolithic Quoits. Prominent amongst those is Mulfra Quoit, the remains of a collapsed single chamber megalithic tomb. The Quoit is one of several Neolithic monuments ranging from quoits to stone circles to standing stones and holy wells which are care for by CASPN, the Cornish Ancient Sites Protection Network.
The graffiti takes the form of the outline of what appears to be two alien figures and was first spotted by Cheryl Straffon of CASPN. Cheryl is quoted as saying, on the CASPN Facebook page, "The new year has started with the first graffiti on an ancient site. These figures have been painted on one of the uprights of Mulfra Quoit. Fortunately it is grey paint that can be removed, but one wonders at the mentality of people who will disrespect an ancient site in this way".
Further speculation on the nature of the graffiti points towards images of Cloud and Rain spirits from Australian aboriginal folklore. After discussions between Historic England, Penwith Landscape Partnership and CASPN it appears the images were drawn using charcoal and so will need specialist treatment to be removed.
Edited from Cornwall Live (8 January 2020)
New evidence found for timing of human migration from Asia to America
During the Pleistocene Epoch (2,600,000 BCE to 9,700 BCE) there were various times when there was a land bridge between the continents of Asia and North America. These were commonly known as the Beringia Land Bridge. This link is believed to have been at its largest (i.e. sea levels at their lowest) in approximately 18,000 BCE, during the last Pleistocene Glacial Stage.
There has been speculation that this land link allowed for large scale human migration into North America. Weight has been added to this argument by recent studies carried out by Yakut scientists (Russian Federation), led by Doctor Albert Protopopov.
On the island of Kotelney, located in the East Siberian Sea, the remains of a woolly mammoth had been found, which is now housed in the Mammoth museum in Yakutsk. The mammoth has been radiocarbon dated to approximately 19,000 BCE by the Jikei University School of Medicine in Tokyo (Japan).
Whilst the mammoth find in itself may not be all that remarkable, the method of its death proved to be more interesting. Extensive evidence was found to suggest that the mammoth had been systematically and comprehensively butchered by humans who, Dr Protopopov believes, were part of the great migration across the continents and he is quoted as saying "Recent DNA research suggests that the split in the populations [Asia and America] happened from around 25,000 years ago". He went on to add "This is one of the most interesting things in the discovery of this mammoth, as it will add more information to our knowledge of how people gradually moved towards America".
Edited from The Siberian Times (3 January 2020)
30 January 2020
Mounds in the USA could be older than previously thought
Earlier research concluded that earthen mounds on what is now the Louisiana State University campus in Baton Rouge were built 5,500 to 6,000 years ago, but LSU geology professor Brooks Ellwood claims bone fragments scarred in a super-heated fire suggest the mounds could be 11,300 years old.
Researchers found what appeared to be tiny remnants of mammal bones surrounded by high concentrations of reed and cane material. Because reed and cane burn too hot for cooking, the material may have been used for incineration.
Native American mounds have increasingly attracted the interest of researchers, but it wasn't until the past 30 or 40 years that archaeologists realised how old they were. Many are scattered along or near the Mississippi River, with several in Louisiana, including those at the Poverty Point World Heritage Site in the northeastern part of the state. Baton Rouge is on the Mississippi River about 120 kilometres west-northwest of New Orleans.
Little is known about the people who built the mounds. Ellwood speculates they were descendants of Clovis people, the Paleo-American culture known from their distinctive stone points. What researchers find remarkable about sites like the LSU campus mounds and Poverty Point is that people at the time didn't have agriculture, livestock, or metal tools. If Ellwood's calculations are correct, the age of the mounds could provide important clues about humans throughout the Americas.
Researchers at LSU have long tried to preserve the mounds from further deterioration, and the university is exploring options to further protect them. The latest findings may lead to more support for a plan.
Edited from The Advocate (19 January 2020)