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)
Oldest Dutch artwork discovered in the North Sea
The oldest Dutch work of art is a 13,500 year-old carved bison bone dredged up from the bottom of the North Sea, according to a study published in Antiquity magazine.
Late Ice Age hunter gatherers roamed the area that became the North Sea but very little evidence of their presence has been found. However, in 2005 a Dutch fishing vessel caught a bison bone in its nets on the border of the Dutch part of the continental shelf. The bone, which had a distinctive zigzag pattern carved in it, ended up in the hands of a collector who agreed to let experts at the Leiden archaeological museum take a look at it.
Carbon isotope analysis showed the bone to be 13,500 years old and part of a culture that decorated animal bones with zigzag and herringbone motives. Only three other similarly carved objects have been discovered so far: a horse's jaw in Wales, deer antlers in Northern France and moose antlers in Poland.
Main author of the article and prehistory curator at the Leiden museum Luc Amkreutz thinks these objects were not used as tools but belong in a ritualistic context. "I wouldn't know what else you would do with a decorated horse's jaw", he said. According to Amkreutz the carving is "very precise to start with but a bit haphazard towards the end, as if the person doing the carving lost interest." What the carvings mean is unclear. Some have interpreted the zigzags as symbols of movement, rhythm, water or a need for symmetry. "But we will never really know," Amkreutz said.
The article also describes a piece of a human skull that was fished up from the North Sea in 2013 and which dates from roughly the same period. The parietal bone, which may have belonged to a woman, is 13,000 years old and one of the earliest examples of Homo Sapiens remains found on Dutch territory. The scientists have also found tiny indentations which may point to anaemia or a lack of vitamins, which would lead to scurvy or rickets. The search is now on for DNA in the skull fragment so more tests can be done.
Edited from DutchNews.nl (14 February 2018)
8,000-year-old heads on stakes found in underwater grave
The discovery of a burial containing 8,000-year-old human skulls, including two that still have pointed wooden stakes through them, has left archaeologists baffled, according to a new study from Sweden.
During the Stone Age, the grave would have sat at the bottom of a small lake, meaning that the skulls would have been placed underwater. Moreover, of the remains of at least 11 adults placed on top of the grave, only one had a jawbone, the researchers said. The burial did contain other jawbones, although none of them, except for an infant's, were human.
While excavating the site, archaeologists found various animal bones, said study co-lead researcher Fredrik Hallgren, an archaeologist at the Cultural Heritage Foundation in Västerås, Sweden. "Here, we have an example of a very complex ritual, which is very structured," Hallgren said.
It was difficult to identify the sex of some of the adults buried at the site, but at least three of the adults were female and six or seven were males, the researchers said. Seven of the adults, including two of the females, showed signs of 'blunt-force trauma' on their skulls, the researchers wrote in the study. But this trauma didn't kill them, at least not immediately, because all of the skulls showed signs of healing, Hallgren said. "This trauma is the result of violence between humans," the researchers wrote, and the men tended to have trauma on top of and on the front of their heads, while the women's injuries were located on the backs of their heads.
Even more astounding were the wooden stakes found in two of the skulls. One stake had broken, but the other was long, about 1.5 feet (47 cm) in length, and both likely served as handles or mounts for the skulls, Hallgren said. They found a piece of brain tissue inside the skull with the broken stake through it. The fact that the 8,000-year-old brain didn't decompose suggests that the individual was placed in the water soon after death, Hallgren said. However, some of the other skulls may have been placed there long after death, as it's possible the site may have served as a second burial for them, he added.
This strange burial site would have been hidden from view during the Stone Age, except for a few wooden stakes that may have poked above the water's edge, Hallgren said. Whoever made the grave began by tightly placing large stones and wooden stakes together at the lake's bottom, making a flat structure measuring about 39 feet by 46 feet (12 by 14 m). The bones were placed on top of these stones in a particular order; archaeologists found the human remains in the center of the structure, brown bear bones on the southern part and, finally, big game animals on the southeastern part of the stone packing."It's a very enigmatic structure," Hallgren said. "We really don't understand the reason why they did this and why they put it under water."
Though mysterious, the underwater burial had an upside: it preserved the remains for posterity. The bottom of the lake was a low-oxygen environment, and limestone in the region's bedrock made the soil more alkaline. Over time, the lake turned into a bog. Eventually, a forest grew over the bog, but the area is still watery.
"The people who were deposited like this in the lake, they weren't average people," Hallgren said, "but probably people who, after they died, had been selected to be included in this ritual because of who they were, because of things they experienced in life."
The discovery is "very interesting, but also very perplexing," said Mark Golitko, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. "Most of the sites you can look at and get a rough sense of what's going on, but this is one of those where it's, like, I really don't know. It's a very strange site," Golitko said.
Edited from LiveScience (13 February 2018)
18 February 2018
Iron Age underground chamber unearthed in the Outer Hebrides
A 2,000-year-old underground chamber has been uncovered during work to build a house on the Isle of Lewis (Western Isles, Scotland). The Iron Age souterrain was revealed during the digging of the foundations for the property in Ness. Local archaeologists, husband and wife team Chris and Rachel Barrowman, are recording the souterrain.
Dr Barrowman said theories on the purpose of the stone-lined, flat stone-roofed structures included storing food. "They are usually associated with what are known as Atlantic roundhouses, or wheelhouses, of the later Iron Age. If this one was associated with a roundhouse it is likely to have been cleared away by now," he said.
Dr Barrowman, who was asked to check the site by the contractor building the house, said the souterrain was well preserved. The archaeologist said he understood it to be the sixth to be recorded in the area.
Comhairle nan Eilean Siar's regional archaeologist is expected to liaise with the islander building the house on what happens next. Dr Barrowman said it was likely that, following a full examination and recording of the site, the souterrain would be filled in and covered over to preserve the archaeology and then the construction of the new home would continue as planned.
Edited from BBC News (8 February 2018)
Decapitated skull is likely evidence of Iron Age ritual sacrifice
The head of a middle-aged woman who likely died more than 2,200 years ago during the Iron Age - and may have been decapitated as part of a prehistoric ritual - has been found in England.
A man named Roger Evans found the skull while walking his dog by the Sowy River in Somerset in March. After the skull was discovered, the government worked to get the water levels down to see if there was anything else hiding out, and they didn't find any other human remains. But there were wooden posts; samples are currently been analyzed.
The water levels have been raised again "to provide a measure of protection to the timber posts and any other archaeological remains still in the channel," according to a press release from the U.K. Environment Agency.
The life of thar ancient woman, who archaeologists believe was older than 45 when she died, appeared to have been difficult by modern standards. She had severe gum disease and had lost a few teeth and wore down the rest. She also had serious arthritis in her jaw. "The woman's head appears to have been deliberately removed at, or shortly after death," the press release stated.
Severed heads "are not an unusual discovery for the Iron Age, but the placement of the skull in a wetland beside a wooden structure is very rare, possibly reflecting a practice of making ritual offerings in watery environments," according to Richard Brunning, an archaeologist with the South West Heritage Trust. Indeed, another Iron Age skull found in York nearly 10 years ago was also thought to have been a ritual sacrifice; that skull came with some brain tissue still intact.
Edited from Newsweek (23 January 2018)
11 February 2018
Earliest tomb of a Scythian prince found in Siberia
Swiss archaeologist Gino Caspari of Bern University discovered a circular structure on high-resolution satellite images of the Uyuk River valley in Siberia, and a test excavation has confirmed the structure is a kurgan, a Scythian princely tomb.
Working with a Swiss-Russian team, Caspari has shown the burial mound is similar in construction to a kurgan located 10 kilometres to the northeast, which had long been regarded as the earliest Scythian princely tomb in the region, known as the "Siberian Valley of Kings". Consisting of a stone packing with a circular arrangement of chambers, the earliest princely tombs have walls made of larch logs. Scythian burial objects typically include weapons, horse harnesses, and objects decorated in the 'animal style'.
Wooden beams found during the test dig date to the 9th century BCE, predating the previously known nearby tomb, excavated in the 1970s and dating from the turn of the 9th to the 8th centuries BCE.
"We have a great opportunity here," says Caspari, "Archaeological methods have become considerably more sophisticated since the 1970s. Today we have completely different ways of examining material to find out more about the transition from the Late Bronze Age to the Iron Age."
The newly discovered mound's location amid swampy terrain makes it difficult for grave robbers to reach. Possibly undisturbed, it may contain treasures similar to another of its neighbours. Between 2001 and 2004, a German team discovered an undisturbed 7th century BCE Iron Age burial chamber containing the richest collection of burial artefacts ever found in the Eurasian steppe. Over a thousand gold objects had been placed with the two corpses in the tomb's main chamber, including a solid gold necklace weighing 2 kilos, along with magnificently adorned weapons, pots, and horses with exquisite harness.
Climatic conditions add to the researchers' hopes; permafrost in the valley mostly begins just a few metres below the surface. Beneath the thick stone packing of the kurgans, sunlight is unable to thaw the earth. "Very rarely ice lenses form directly beneath the kurgans," Caspari explains; the ice prevents the decay of organic matter and preserves sensitive material. Caspari expects further discoveries: "If we're lucky, we might even find some well-preserved wood carvings or carpets under the stones, or perhaps an ice mummy."
Edited from ScienceDaily (11 January 2018)
Scottish Iron Age broch is full of mysteries
In the remote Highland Region of Scotland, hidden inside a dense forest, lies the remains of an ancient broch, believed to be over 2,400 years old.
Although it was first identified approximately 80 years ago, it was not until the Forestry Commission were clearing this section of the forest that the dun-house was rediscovered. It lay hidden in an area known as Comar Wood, near Inverness, and a team of archaeologists from AOC Archaeology carried out a two week investigation. What they found left them slightly puzzled.
The site had obviously been burnt to the ground twice and rebuilt, after which it appeared to have been abandoned. Very few artefacts were uncovered in the ruins, leading to the assumption that it had only been used spasmodically, as a place of refuge in times of trouble or it may simply have been stripped of anything useful when it had been eventually abandoned. What little had been found in the shape of metal working and grinding stones yielded very little further information.
A member of the investigating team, archaeologist Mary Peteranna, is quoted as saying "Where the Dun-house was built suggests it was maybe the house of a chief and it would have been visible from quite a way off as it sits above the valley. We don't know why it was used in the way it appears to have been, and more excavation would be needed to further investigate the site".
Edited from The Herald (12 January 2018)
Paleolithic finds in Arabian Gulf lead to massive investigation
As is common in a lot of countries, archaeological investigations are carried out on major construction sites prior to any construction groundworks commencing, to see if there is anything of interest which may need to be protected, removed or recorded. Such is the case for the proposed route of a new highway in Iran, referred to locally as the Kerman-Bandar Abbas Freeway, in the Hormuzgan Province.
Some Palaeolithic sites have been identified and the Iranian Research Institute of Archaeology has proposed that the full length of the proposed road (130 kilometres) should be surveyed, with a site width of 2 kilometres. That equates to a staggering 260 square kilometres archaeological dig! The purpose of the investigations is to identify, study and protect anything that may be found within this area but no timescale was given to carry this out.
Edited from Islamic Republic News Agency (10 January 2018)