26 February 2019
Seeds of ancient extinct plant found in Ontario
Once again an archaeological assessment, required under law before any new development, has yielded some astonishing results. In this instance the site is proposed for housing and is located in Brantford, Ontario, Canada.
Archaeological Services Inc. had been commissioned by the local authority to investigate the site. What they found was so unusual that they called in the specialist services of the University of Toronto Mississauga and in particular Professor Gary Crawford of the Department of Anthropology.
A large quantity of charred seeds had been found which were subsequently identified as dating back to 900 BCE and come from a now extinct species of quinoa, known by the Latin name of berlandieri jonesianum.
Professor Crawford is quoted as saying "Finding domesticated seeds that are so old in Ontario is special". In total approximately 140,000 seeds were found, leading Professor Crawford to speculate that "We always wondered if they [Indigenous Canadians] were also exchanging perishable materials. We're taking the conservative view that these seeds were traded [...] in Kentucky, Illinois and Arkansas this was a very important foodstuff".
Edited from Eureka Alert! (14 January 2019)
Irish Neolithic cairn at high risk of irreparable damage
There is a mountain in County Sligo, Ireland, called Knocknarea. Near the summit there is a Neolithic passage tomb, dating back 5,000 years, which is an Irish National Monument. It is, allegedly, the grave of Queen Maeve (or Modb in the Gaelic language). She was the famous warrior queen of Connacht and featured in the mythological epic tale of The Cattle Raid of Cooley (Tain Bo Cuailnge).
Unfortunately the cairn (which sits right at the summit of Knocknarea) is suffering increasing damage and erosion from visitors who can walk all over it, without any form of protection. This is not surprising as even the tourist website YourIrish.com encourages people to climb to the summit to enjoy the views.
The Irish Office of Public Works has become increasingly concerned over the damage being caused and has urged Sligo County Council to take serious steps to prevent any further damage. There has been some confusion over signs erected alerting walkers of the danger of walking on the cairn, with people interpreting that as a danger to the walker rather than the cairn.
Dr Marion Dowd, a Sligo archaeologist, believes the problem is getting worse. She is quoted as saying "It is getting smaller. People have been removing stones. And then people climb to the top of the cairn to get a better view". It is hoped that the local authorities can put permanent protection measures in place without further delay.
Edited from The Irish Times (13 January 2019)
Oldest ever human remains in Central America found in Nicaragua
A rare and exciting find has been made in the Central American country of Nicaragua. The find is in the form of the skeleton of a woman, which has been dated at 3,900 BCE, making it the oldest human find, so far, in the whole of Central America. This may be due to the fact that skeletal remains in tropical climates tend to deteriorate rapidly.
This body, however, had been buried in a shell mound, otherwise known as a Kitchen Midden, which comprised mainly of the shells of edible molluscs. This had the effect of lowering the acidity of the soil around the body, thus assisting with the preservation.
Shell mounds started to appear in the late Mesolithic Era, when coastal diets changed as the larger Pleistocene animals started to disappear. This helped in confirming the antiquity of the remains. The woman was probably aged between 25 and 40 and was approximately 1.5 metres tall, which was about average for Central America at that time.
What was striking, however, was the size of her forearms. It has been conjectured that this was a product of a life spent mainly rowing, or similar, which probably means that fishing formed a major part of her diet. However, lead researcher Mirjana Roksandic (Professor of Anthropology at the University of Winnipeg in Canada) is quoted as saying "Without further study of the site it will not be possible to ascertain who they were and why the burial was placed there and what is the significance of this particular individual".
Edited from Live Science (2 January 2019)
30 January 2019
Archaic humans moved into Siberian cave 100,000 years earlier than thought
Over the course of five years, multi-disciplinary teams of scientists from the UK, Russia, Australia, Canada and Germany worked on a detailed investigation to date the archaeological site of Denisova cave. Situated in the foothills of Siberia's Altai Mountains, it is the only site in the world known to have been occupied by both archaic human groups (hominins) at various times.
Two new studies published in Nature now put a timeline on when Neanderthals and their enigmatic cousins, the Denisovans, were present at the site and the environmental conditions they faced before going extinct.
Denisova cave first came to worldwide attention in 2010, with the publication of the genome obtained from the fingerbone of a girl belonging to a group of humans not previously identified in the palaeoanthropological record; the Denisovans. Further revelations followed on the genetic history of Denisovans and Altai Neanderthals, based on analysis of the few and fragmentary hominin remains. Last year, a bone fragment yielded the genome of the daughter of Neanderthal and Denisovan parents - the first direct evidence of interbreeding between two archaic hominin groups. But reliable dates for the hominin fossils recovered from the cave have remained elusive, as have dates for the DNA, artefacts, and animal and plant remains retrieved from the sediments.
One of the teams obtained fifty radiocarbon ages from bone, tooth and charcoal fragments recovered from the upper layers of the site, as part of the ERC funded 'PalaeoChron' project. In addition to these, more than 100 optical ages were obtained for the cave sediments, most of which are too old for radiocarbon dating. A minimum age for the bone fragment of mixed Neanderthal/Denisovan ancestry was also obtained by uranium-series dating by another team.
To determine the most probable ages of the archaic hominin fossils, a novel Bayesian model was developed that combined several of these dates with information on the stratigraphy of the deposits and genetic ages for the Denisovan and Neanderthal fossils relative to each other. The improved age estimates show that the cave was occupied by Denisovans from at least 200,000 years ago, with stone tools in the deepest deposits suggesting human occupation may have begun as early as 300,000 years ago. Neanderthals visited the site between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago, with "Denny", the girl of mixed ancestry, revealing that the two groups of hominins met and interbred around 100,000 years ago.
Most of the evidence for Neanderthals at Denisova Cave falls within the last interglacial period around 120,000 years ago, when the climate was relatively warm, whereas Denisovans survived through much colder periods, too, before disappearing around 50,000 years ago. Modern humans were present in other parts of Asia by this time, but the nature of any encounters between them and Denisovans remains open to speculation in the absence of any fossil or genetic traces of modern humans at the site.
One team also identified the earliest evidence thus far in northern Eurasia for the appearance of bone points and pendants made of animal teeth that are usually associated with modern humans and signal the start of the Upper Palaeolithic. These date to between 43,000 and 49,000 years ago.
"It is an open question as to whether Denisovans or modern humans made these personal ornaments found in the cave. We hoping that in due course the application of sediment DNA analysis might enable us to identify the makers of these items, which are often associated with symbolic and more complex behaviour in the archaeological record", commented geochronologists Tom Higham of the Oxford University.
Faces of ancient Europeans re-created by forensic artist
About 5,600 years ago, a 20-year-old woman was buried with a tiny baby resting on her chest, a sad clue that she likely died in childbirth during the Neolithic. This woman and six other ancient Europeans - including a Cro-Magnon man and a Neanderthal woman - are on display at a museum in Brighton (England), now that a forensic artist has re-created their faces.
These re-creations took hundreds of hours of work and are based on every available detail scientists could glean from these people's remains, including radiocarbon dating; the collection of dental plaque; and, when possible, the analysis of ancient DNA that detailed each person's eye, skin and hair color, said Richard Le Saux, senior keeper of collections at the Royal Pavilion & Museums in England, where the exhibit opened on Jan. 26. This exhibit aims to shine a light on the past inhabitants of Brighton and mainland Europe by featuring hyper-realistic portrayals of their faces, Le Saux said.
To re-create these heads, Oscar Nilsson, a forensic artist based in Sweden, took 3D printed replicas of their skulls and got to work. After reviewing data on the individuals' heritage and ages of death, he used plasticine clay to sculpt muscles and then covered that with artificial skin, which included details such as wrinkles and pores. The first two faces are those of a Neanderthal woman from Gibraltar and a Cro-Magnon man from France.
According to DNA research, "early Cro-Magnons like this one had really dark skin," Nilsson said. The woman who likely died in childbirth, known as the Whitehawk girl (named for the place where she was found), also had dark skin. While her remains didn't have any preserved DNA, other burials from her time period did, and those people's genetic material shows "their skin color to be at least like today's people living in North Africa, or in fact, a bit darker," Nilsson said.
The exhibit is now on display at The Elaine Evans Archaeology Gallery in Brighton.
Edited from LiveScience (29 January 2019)
Neolithic carved 'drums' gave Stonehenge measurements
A set of highly decorated chalk cylinders, carved in Britain more than 4,000 years ago and known as the Folkton drums, could be ancient replicas of measuring devices used for laying out prehistoric monuments like Stonehenge, archaeologists say. The researchers from the University of Manchester and University College London said that a fixed number of turns of a string around the hand-size objects gives a standard measurement of 3.22 meters: a length that was used to lay out many Neolithic stone and timber circles.
Three of the ornately carved chalk cylinders were found in 1889, near the village of Folkton, in Yorkshire (England). The smallest is 10.4 cm across, the next is 12.4 cm and the largest is 14.6 cm. They were found in the grave of a child, which is thought to date to the late Neolithic period or the early Bronze Age Beaker period in Britain.
Due to the location of the find and the cylinders' unusual shape, archaeologists call the objects the Folkton drums. They were thought to be unique until a very similar carved chalk cylinder was found more than 100 years later, in the village of Lavant near England's south coast - it is called the Lavant drum.
The researchers say the circumferences of both the Folkton and the Lavant drums are based on multiples of an ancient measure known to archaeologists as a 'long foot' of 32.2 cm. Previous research suggests this long foot was a standard length for measuring the concentric circles of standing stones and timber posts at Neolithic monuments like Stonehenge and Durrington Walls, an earth henge about 3.2 km northeast of Stonehenge.
Archaeologists have determined that a string wound 10 times around the smallest of the Folkton drums would give a measure of exactly 10 long feet - a length used to lay out several ancient henge monuments. The same length of 10 long feet can be found by winding a string seven times around the largest of the Folkton drums, and eight times around the middle-size drum, the researchers said. Wrapping a string nine times around the Lavant drum would also equal 10 long feet.
The lead author of the new study, University of Manchester archaeologist Anne Teather, said it wasn't clear why drums of different sizes were used to give the standard measure of 10 long feet. "There isn't one answer here, and probably there are several possible explanations," Teather said. "We have suggested that the different-size drums all give 10 long feet, but a different subdivision of that measure, so they may have been useful when fractions of the measure were required. Another explanation is that the drums were instructional teaching aids that would have been used to demonstrate some of the principles of mathematics and geometry," she said.
Because the Folkton drums were found in the grave of a child, the researchers think the objects could have some sort of symbolic connection to childhood. "Does this mean that standard measures were somehow associated with children, or growth, or the human life-cycle including learning and the intergenerational transmission of knowledge?" study researcher Mike Parker Pearson, an archaeologist at University College London, wrote in a statement. "These items were almost certainly prestigious, although how, or to what extent they held social power, is unknown," he said.
The archaeologists think the Folkton and Lavant drums are not the actual devices used for prehistoric monuments, but rather replicas. "Chalk is not the most suitable material for manufacturing measuring equipment, and it is thought that the drums may be replicas of original 'working' standards carved out of wood," wrote University of Manchester archaeologist Andrew Chamberlain, another author of the new paper. "However, wood is not preserved on most Neolithic archaeological sites and no wooden measuring devices have been found in prehistoric Britain," he said.
The Folkton and Lavant drums suggest that the Neolithic monument builders of Stonehenge and other ancient henges possessed specialized geometric knowledge that may have been celebrated or taught to children in their culture.
Edited from LiveScience (28 January 2019)
Ancient humans colonized diverse environments in Southeast Asia and Oceania
A new study reviews the palaeoecological information associated with hominin dispersals into Southeast Asia and Oceania throughout the Pleistocene (1.25 Millions years ago to 12,000 years ago). Our species' ability to specialize in the exploitation of diverse and 'extreme' settings in this part of the world stands in stark contrast to the ecological adaptations of other hominin taxa, and reaffirms the utility of exploring the environmental adaptations of Homo sapiens.
The paper, published by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History focuses on hominin movements across the supposed 'Movius Line' a boundary previously argued to separate populations with different cultural and cognitive capacities. While such divisions and assumptions are now clearly outdated, the authors argue that focus on this part of the world may, instead, be used to study the different patterns of colonization of diverse tropical and maritime habitats by different members of our ancestral line.
Southeast Asia offers a particularly exciting region in this regard as such records can be linked to a variety of hominins throughout the Pleistocene, including Homo erectus, Homo floresiensis (or 'the Hobbit'), and Homo sapiens. As Patrick Roberts, lead author of the study states the accumulated evidence shows, "While earlier members of our genus appear to have followed riverine and lacustrine corridors, Homo sapiens specialized in adaptations to tropical rainforests, faunally depauperate island settings, montane environments, and deep-water marine habitats."
The authors hope that, in future, the growth of new methods and records for determining past hominin ecologies will enable similar comparisons to be undertaken in different parts of the world, further testing the unique capacities of our species during its global expansion.
Edited from (28 January 2019)
People from Africa may have crossed the Strait of Gibraltar 4000 years ago
Ancient people from sub-Saharan Africa may have crossed the Strait of Gibraltar into current-day Spain 1300 years earlier than we thought. A genetic analysis of human samples is the first evidence of such a migration in prehistoric times.
"We are finding that the Strait of Gibraltar was not a barrier for human contact, migration or gene flow between Africa and Spain," says Gloria Maria Gonzalez Fortes at the University of Ferrara in Italy.
Previous research suggested that African genes flowed to Spain and Portugal during the Islamic occupation of Spain, which started in the 8th century and lasted about 800 years. "We found that it may be from a time much earlier than that," says Gonzalez Fortes.
She and her team analysed the DNA from 17 ancient people found on the Iberian Peninsula, from the south of Spain to the north of Portugal, carbon dated to 3000 to 4500 years old. They compared their mitochondrial DNA to archaeological samples from South Africa. They found similarities between the samples from Iberia and Africa, with more African genetic markers in the Spanish samples. This fits with the archaeological record, which shows similarities in tools and pottery decoration made by North African people and those who populated Andalusia in southern Spain.
"4000 years ago, people were already building ships and sailing, so why wouldn't they cross the Strait of Gibraltar? You can see the coast of Africa from the coast of Spain. The sea there is very dangerous, so people were sceptical about this, but it's likely this was the path they took," says Gonzalez Fortes. She says their data show that this migration happened at least 4000 years ago, but it may have happened even earlier.
Edited from New Scientist (23 January 2019)
Iron Age warrior grave discovered in Northern Iran
Iranian officials say the body of a forty-year-old man and his weapons dating back to 3,000 years ago have been discovered in Rostamabad near Rasht in northern Gilan province (Iran).
Shahram Ramin, who is a member of discovery team, says in the excavations of this site, several graves were discovered with burial gifts. According to Ramin, this site was at risk of destruction due to the implementation of a construction project; therefore, a team of archaeologists began the emergency exploration of the site.
"The skeleton belongs to a forty-year-old man with a height between 160 and 167 cm. Considering the importance of it, the team plans to record the grave and the findings by laser. In addition to the Iron Age graves, a number of tools have been discovered at lower depths, which according to preliminary studies by the experts of the National Museum of Iran, are probably related to the Epipaleolithic period."
This ancient site was excavated for the first time by Japanese archaeologists between 1973 to 1978 followed by excavations by Mohammad Reza Khalatbari from 1986 to 1988.
Edited from IFP News(19 January 2019)
28 January 2019
Early dogs helped humans hunt
A study of animal bones from an 11,500 year old settlement in northeast Jordan suggests that humans and dogs hunted animals together. Dogs were domesticated by humans as early as 14,000 years ago in the Near East.
Zooarchaeologist and lead author Lisa Yeomans and her colleagues show that the site was occupied year round: "The dogs were not kept at the fringes of the settlement, but must have been closely integrated into all aspects of day-to-day life and allowed to freely roam around the settlement, feeding on discarded bones and defecating in and around the site."
When Yeomans and her co-authors sifted through the data, they noted an increase in the number of hares at the time that dogs appeared. Hares were hunted for their meat, but the inhabitants also used the hare bones to make beads. The team think it likely that the appearance of dogs and the increase in hares are related: "The use of dogs for hunting smaller, fast prey such as hares and foxes, perhaps driving them into enclosures, could provide an explanation that is in line with the evidence we have gathered. The shift may also be associated with a change in hunting technique from a method, such as netting, that saw an unselective portion of the hare population captured, to a selective method of hunting in which individual animals were targeted. This could have been achieved by dogs."
The site is on the northern edge of the Qa' Shubayqa, around 130 kilometres northeast of Amman. It is the first substantial early Neolithic settlement identified in the Black Desert, and has been under investigation since 2012. This and previous studies demonstrate that settlement in this semi-arid to arid zone was more intensive than previously thought and that the area could sustain large populations of animals and humans.
Edited from EurekAlert! (15 January 2019)
Neolithic diets in southeastern Europe
When farming became established across Europe in the Neolithic, most people preferred to eat meat and dairy products from domesticated animals rather than the aquatic resources more typical of the earlier Mesolithic period, however food residues from 8,000 year old pottery reveal that people living in the Iron Gates region of the Danube continued regular fish-processing.
The Iron Gates is a unique landscape on the border between modern-day Romania and Serbia where the Danube cuts through the junction of the Balkan and Carpathian mountain chains. It provided a rich wild aquatic resource base for prehistoric hunter-fisher-foragers during the Late Glacial and early Holocene. The region is archaeologically very important because the sites document Late Mesolithic forager settlements and the first appearance of Neolithic culture spreading up through Europe, as evidenced by the first appearances of pottery, domesticated plants and animals, and different burial styles. In this region, wild resources may have continued to be important well into the early Neolithic.
Project leader Doctor Lucy Cramp from the University of Bristol says: "The findings revealed that the majority of Neolithic pots analysed here were being used for processing fish or other aquatic resources. This is a significant contrast with an earlier study showing the same type of pottery in the surrounding region was being used for cattle, sheep or goat meat and dairy products. It is also completely different to nearly all other assemblages of Neolithic farmer-type pottery previously analysed from across Europe which also show predominantly terrestrial-based resources being prepared in cooking pots, even from locations near major rivers or the coast."
It may also be that Late Mesolithic dietary practices are continuing here using new Neolithic pottery as a result of early interactions between Mesolithic and Neolithic communities.
Bronze Age Mongolia
Assuming that early nomadic pastoralists would have been healthier than sedentary people, archaeologists analysed the skeletal remains of 25 individuals excavated from burial mounds in northern Mongolia dating mostly to the late Bronze Age, about 3500 to 2700 years ago.
Little is known about the people who inhabited the Mongolian steppe around 4450 to 2650 years ago during the Bronze Age. Some modern Mongolians remain nomadic, but researchers didn't know when the tradition started.
The bones show very little evidence of inflammatory lesions indicative of infectious disease, or signs of rickets, scurvy, or other diseases resulting from malnutrition. Lack of evidence for both infectious and non-communicable diseases, along with the patterns of dental pathology indicate a group of people who experienced few health problems and little stress.
Types of trauma and evidence of degenerative joint disease are suggestive of horseback riding and interpersonal violence: broken noses, ribs, and legs - common injuries in assaults or when falling from horses.
The findings are consistent with a traditional pastoral existence where people live in small groups, rely on a protein-rich diet, and use animals for transportation.
Megalithic park planned for central India
An archaeological park has been proposed on a five hectare site near Nagpur in central India, where excavations of 3 out of around 50 megalithic stone circles began in November 2018.
Assistant professor and project leader Kantikumar Pawar says that 3 human skeletons have been found at one burial site, which is rare. Of these, 2 were a couple buried together, and the third who may be a male was buried around 3 metres away. There is some speculation that the burial of the couple might suggest an ancient version of the historic practice of Sati, where the widow chooses to follow her husband in death.
These skeletons were found intact with solid, compact bones, making it possible to extract and test their DNA, which will be compared with modern tribal groups in the area.
Pawar notes that: "The DNA of megalithic people has not been studied. Many Central Indian primitive groups like Gond, Korku, Kolam have cultural affinities with megalithics like burying their dead and erecting small stones around these sites."
Other objects found indicate the burial was that of a special person like the chieftain. A copper and earthen pot had been kept above the head and beside the waist of the female skeleton. The other skeleton, believed to be a male, had weapons like axes and chisels near the skull and waist. One theory is that those megalithic people, who used horses and iron and copper weapons, migrated from South India.
Edited from DNA India (January 2019)
21 January 2019
What the 'Nebra Sky Disk' tells us about ancient Germans
Twenty years ago, a stunning Bronze Age artifact was discovered in an eastern German forest. The subject of a new book, it reveals how people once saw the world - and the night sky above it.
Buried in the woods near Nebra, in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt, the artifact, along with jewellery and swords lay for over 3,000 years, until it was unearthed one day in 1999. The Disk, considered just another ornamental adornment, was taken by the discoverers, treasure hunters Henry Westphal and Mario Renner, and found its way into the lucrative black market for archaeological artifacts, stretching across Europe. There, the Disk changed hands for two years until too many people became aware of it. Then, in a police sting worthy of Tatort, the treasures from Nebra were recovered and sent back to Saxony-Anhalt, to the care of Harald Meller, the state archaeologist.
At first glance, the Disk - 30 cm in diameter and made of bronze, appeared to show the night sky, the moon and sun both present in gold. Two gold bands were also present - it appeared one had slipped from its original position. Subsequent tests, however, that dated the deposition of the disk to around 1600 BCE and a manufacture date of 200 years before, revealed that the Bronze Age artifact was quite possibly much more than simple adornment. When aligned properly and held flat, the gold bands aligned with the spread of sunrise and sunsets over the course of a year. The cluster of stars towards the top right appear to be the Pleiades constellation, possibly an aid in aligning the disk.
The Disk was also the subject of a recent bestseller, co-authored by Kai Michel and the archaeologist who examined it, Harald Meller. The book is called 'The Nebra Sky Disc: The Key to a Lost Culture in the Heart of Europe'; it is only available in German at present, but an English edition is planned.
While the Unetice people, to whom it belonged, left no written records, the existence of the Disk does go a long way to supporting the idea that they had a complex understanding of the cycles of the night sky, and a developing understanding of navigation. It is hypothesised that the Nebra Sky Disk was a ritual item, used by a priestly class at certain times of the year to remind and reaffirm the movements of the heavens, the path of sun and moon. This idea is supported by the provenance of the metals, that originate from all across Europe - this was no everyday item, and took a great deal of work to put together.
The Nebra Sky Disk is usually kept in the Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte in Halle, but it sometimes lent out for exhibitions. For those who want to understand more about the world of the people who created the Nebra Sky Disk up close and personal, the 'Nebra Ark', a wonderfully-designed visitor centre, does a lot to interpret the world of the Bronze Age.
Edited from thelocal.de (21 January 2019)
'Ancient' Scottish stone circle found to be replica
A stone circle in Aberdeenshire (Scotland) initially thought to be thousands of years old has been identified as a modern replica. An investigation into the site at the parish of Leochel-Cushnie found the stones to be about 20 years old.
It was originally thought to be the site of a recumbent stone circle - until the man who built it came forward. The findings sparked excitement among experts and were widely reported, including our article here. They were initially celebrated as an authentic recumbent stone circle by Adam Welfare of Historic Environment Scotland and Aberdeenshire Council's Archaeology Service. Further archaeological analysis of the stones was being conducted when a former owner of the farm contacted Mr Welfare to say he had built the stone circle in the 1990s.
Neil Ackerman, historic environment record assistant at Aberdeenshire Council, said the development was 'disappointing', but hoped the site would still be appreciated. He said: "I hope the stones continue to be used and enjoyed - while not ancient it is still in a fantastic location and makes for a great feature in the landscape." Mr Ackerman added: "These types of monument are notoriously difficult to date. For this reason we include any modern replicas of ancient monuments in our records in case they are later misidentified. We always welcome reports of any new, modern reconstructions of ancient monuments, especially those built with the skill of this stone circle and that reference existing monument types."