22 March 2015
The demise of the Neanderthals wasn't triggered by a volcanic cataclysm
A new study by Benjamin A. Black and colleagues tests if the Campanian Ignimbrite (CI) eruption in Italy 40,000 years ago contributed to the final extinction of the Neanderthals. The event was one of the largest volcanic cataclysms in Europe and injected a significant amount of sulfur-dioxide (SO2) into the stratosphere.
Black and colleagues point out that the decline of Neanderthals in Europe began well before the CI eruption: "Radiocarbon dating has shown that at the time of the CI eruption, anatomically modern humans had already arrived in Europe, and the range of Neanderthals had steadily diminished. Work at five sites in the Mediterranean indicates that anatomically modern humans were established in these locations by then as well."
In their climate simulations, Black and colleagues found that the largest temperature decreases after the eruption occurred in Eastern Europe and Asia and sidestepped the areas where the final Neanderthal populations were living (Western Europe). Therefore, the authors conclude that the eruption was probably insufficient to trigger Neanderthal extinction.
However, the abrupt cold spell that followed the eruption would still have significantly impacted day-to-day life for Neanderthals and early humans in Europe. Black and colleagues point out that temperatures in Western Europe would have decreased by an average of 2 to 4 degrees Celsius during the year following the eruption. These unusual conditions, they write, may have directly influenced survival and day-to-day life for Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans alike, and emphasize the resilience of anatomically modern humans in the face of abrupt and adverse changes in the environment.
Edited from EurekAlert! (20 March 2015)
Prehistoric stone tool site discovered in suburban Seattle
Archaeologists surveying the waterways of suburban Seattle (Washington, USA) have discovered an ancient tool-making site dating back more than 10,000 years. The find includes thousands of stone flakes, an array of bifaces, scrapers, and hammerstones, plus several projectile points.
The site was discovered along a creek in Redmond, Washington, under a layer of peat that was radiocarbon dated to about 10,000 years ago. And in the layer with the artifacts were burned bits of willow, poplar, and pine, which were themselves dated between 10,000 and 12,500 years ago. Together, these materials frame a period of prehistory in coastal Washington which archaeologists have not been able to explore before.
"It's the oldest artifact assemblage from western Washington, and the excellent context in which we were able to do our excavations and sampling is now providing a picture, much clearer than ever before, of the environment these people were living in during the transition out of the Ice Age," said Dr. Robert Kopperl, lead researcher of the find.
Kopperl, from the firm SWCA Environmental Consultants, and his colleagues first made the find in 2008 while surveying a waterway known as Bear Creek. Initial work turned up some stone artifacts above the layer of peat, which was carbon dated between 8,000 and 10,000 years old. "when we did our 2009 test excavations, all of the artifacts we found were below that peat instead of above the peat, indicating that they pre-dated 10,000 years before the present," saud Kopperl.
Once they picked up traces of human habitation older than any other found in the region, the researchers hoped to encounter artifacts that had never been found there before. "We found two projectile point fragments that were concave-based - something not seen at any time in the local projectile point sequence," said Kopperl.
In all, six projectile points and base fragments were found at Bear Creek. The two points with concave bases somewhat resembled Clovis points, which have been found elsewhere in the region but without clear archaeological contexts, Kopperl said. But rather conspicuously, both newfound artifacts lacked the distinctive fluting that's typical of the Clovis style. Meanwhile, he added, a third point fragment was 'reminiscent' of a style known as the Western Stemmed Tradition, which is typically found farther inland.
As for the lifeways of the people who made and used these tools ten millennia ago, the clues are scant. Residue analysis of several fragments, for instance, turned up traces of plants like beeweed, and proteins from bear, bison, deer, sheep, and salmon. Beyond that, there's not much context to draw on in western Washington, Kopperl said, because no other artifacts have been found that date this far back in time.
"There are probably other Late Pleistocene-Holocene sites preserved in similar modern settings in the Lowlands, and we should be on the lookout for them. Also, this is confirmation that these kinds of sites do actually still survive in a rapidly developing place such as suburban Seattle," Kopperl concluded.
Edited from Western Digs (18 March 2015)
Neanderthals crafted earliest jewellery from eagle talons
Neanderthals may have manipulated white-tailed eagle talons to make jewellery 130,000 years ago, before the appearance of modern human in Europe, according to a study published by David Frayer from University of Kansas and Davorka Radovcic, Ankica Oros Srsen and Jakov Radovcic from Croatia.
Researchers describe eight mostly complete white-tailed eagle talons from the Krapina Neanderthal site in present-day Croatia, dating to approximately 130,000 years ago. These white-tailed eagle bones, discovered more than 100 years ago, all derive from a single time period at Krapina. Four talons bear multiple edge-smoothed cut marks, and eight show polishing facets or abrasion. Three of the largest talons have small notches at roughly the same place along the plantar surface.
The authors suggest these features may be part of a jewelry assemblage, like mounting the talons in a necklace or bracelet. Some have argued that Neandertals lacked symbolic ability or copied this behavior from modern humans, but the presence of the talons indicates that the Krapina Neandertals may have acquired eagle talons for some kind of symbolic purpose. They also demonstrate that the Krapina Neandertals may have made jewelry 80,000 years before the appearance of modern humans in Europe.
The Krapina site, some 50 kilometres (31 miles) north of Zagreb, has yielded the world's richest collection of Neanderthal fossils. The site containing the remains of some 80 individuals, and including the talons, was discovered in 1899 by Croatian palaeontologist Dragutin Gorjanovic-Kramberger. But it took 115 years to establish that the talons and phalanx at the Zagreb museum were jewellery, and therefore used for a symbolic purpose.
Up until now early jewellery was linked to anatomically modern humans - estimated to be up to 110,000 years old - and consisting of shell beads found at prehistoric sites in Israel. The researchers also say the Krapina jewellery indicates that contrary to long-held beliefs, Neanderthals possessed the capacity for complex cognitive thinking.
"This is an example of abstract thinking. It proves that Neanderthals possessed a symbolic culture some 80,000 years before the appearance of more modern human forms in Europe," Radovcic emphasised.
Edited from EurekAlert! (11 March 2015), PhysOrg (21 March 2015)
11,000-year-old shaman's mysteries are unravelled
Some fascinating findings are coming out of a study by the Smithsonian Institution (USA) into the mysteries surrounding the practices and rituals of an 11,000 year old shaman. Shaman is general term for a person who acts as a link between the natural and supernatural worlds. In Native American culture the tribal shaman was more of a priest, or healer.
The site in question located in Central Texas (USA), at a place known as the Horn Shelter site, adjacent to the Brazos River. The site has been investigated by archaeologists since the late 1960s, with evidence of both Clovis and Folsom cultures having been found.
This latest discovery (actually discovered in 1970 but only just revealed) is the remains of a 40 year old man and an 11 year old young girl. It is not known if the two were related, or she was just a companion, until full DNA testing has been carried out. What is of more interest is the wealth of artefacts found with the remains.
Study of the adult male bones shows higher than normal development of hands and forearms, which can be equated to that of a modern day drummer. More interesting though was the contents of a bundle containing the shaman's tools of his trade, including hawk talons, badgers claws (representing day & night), shells and pigments. His head was also resting on, and covered by, turtle shells, with the grave also being turtle shell shaped. In Native American cultures the turtle is often associated with the earth.
Pegi Jodry, a researcher from the Smithsonian, is quoted as saying "What I found was beautiful in working with the medicine bundle is how vividly it expressed how immersed people were within the natural world" She went on to add "There's a tendency sometimes to look back down the road 11,000 years ago and think people were less sophisticated in their behaviour and cosmology. It takes quite a while to walk all those ideas back. Those stereotypes are deeply rooted".
Edited from WacoTrib.com (22 February 2015)
13 March 2015
Ancient stone tool uncovered in Oregon
Archaeologists have uncovered a stone tool at an ancient rock shelter in the desert of Oregon (USA) that could turn out to be older than any known site of human occupation in western North America.
University of Oregon archaeologist Patrick O'Grady, who supervises the dig, says the Rimrock Draw Rockshelter outside Riley has not been fully excavated. But the tool, a hand-held scraper chipped from a piece of orange agate not normally found in eastern Oregon, was found about 8 inches (20 cm) below a layer of volcanic ash from an eruption of Mount St. Helens that has been dated to 15,800 years ago.
Bureau of Land Management archaeologist Scott Thomas said that if the age of the site holds up to scrutiny, it would be the oldest west of the Rockies, and another site predating the so-called Clovis culture, once generally believed to be the first people to migrate from Asia into North America. The earliest Clovis artifacts, known for distinctive and elegant stone points, are dated to about 13,000 years ago.
O'Grady called the find 'tantalizing,' but he added that they want to continue digging this summer to see whether the volcanic ash covers the entire area.
Donald Grayson, professor of archaeology at the University of Washington, said the scientific community would be skeptical. "No one is going to believe this until it is shown there was no break in that ash layer, that the artifact could not have worked its way down from higher up, and until it is published in a convincing way," he said. "Until then, extreme skepticism is all they are going to get."
Edited from NBC News (6 March 2015)
Bronze Age burial discovered in Kenilworth
Kenilworth is a small Warwickshire (UK) town famed in the 16th Century for its connections with Queen Elizabeth I and her frequent visits to Kenilworth Castle to see her favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. It would appear though, that its history goes back much further than that.
Whilst foundation trenches were being dug for a new housing development in Clinton Lane, on the fringes of the town, Bryn Gethin, project officer with Archaeology Warwickshire, was surprised with what was uncovered. Mr Gethin is quoted as saying "I was looking for evidence of medieval settlement and was surprised to see what looked like cremated bone fragments in the side of a trench. Further investigation revealed the bones were underneath a type of prehistoric pot known as a collared urn".
The pot fragments have been dated at between 2,5000 BCE and 1800 BCE, putting them squarely in the Early Bronze Age. They will shortly be displayed in the town museum, within the walls of the castle.
Stuart Palmer, also from Archaeology Warwickshire, said "Although a few flint tools that are potentially older than this have previously been discovered in Kenilworth, this is certainly the earliest known human inhabitant of the area. It is possible the burial was originally covered by a mound that would have been prominent on the skyline but which has long since disappeared"
Edited from BBC News (26 February 2015)
9 March 2015
Prehistoric burial mound excavated in Poland
Researchers analysing the results of laser scanning from aircraft are able to virtually remove trees and other obstacles, and obtain terrain elevation data. This makes it possible to discover old man-made structures, including mounds.
"It turned out that the recorded object was in fact an ancient burial mound," explains Professor Piotr Wlodarczak. "Importantly, the mound is the first known structure of this type in the Lublin Upland, as well as throughout Malopolska, probably dating back to the turn of the third and second millennium BC[E]".
The barrow measures around 13 metres in diameter. Inside, archaeologists discovered four skeletal graves belonging to a community whose material remains are referred to as the 'Strzyzow culture', and who were engaged in agriculture and animal husbandry.
All burials were similarly equipped. Archaeologists discovered hundreds of beads made from clam shells, along with copper jewellery, animal fang pendants, and flint tools.
On the basis of three Carbon-14 tests for bones from three of the burials, the structure was raised between 2100 BCE and 1900 BCE, in the beginning latter stages of the early Bronze Age.
According to the researcher, mound burial was reserved for a selected, privileged group. The rest of the dead were interred in flat cemeteries. The appearance of barrow graves about four thousand years ago coincided with contacts between the communities inhabiting upland areas with those from the steppes on the border of Europe and Asia.
The archaeologists will continue the study this year, and then reconstruct the mound.
Edited from Science & SCholarship in Poland (20 February 2015)
Ancient skull reveals human diversity
A partial human skull found at a site in Kenya suggests early humans living in Africa were incredibly diverse. The 22,000-year-old skull is that of an anatomically modern human, but is markedly different from similar finds from Africa and Europe from the same time.
"It looks like nothing else, and so it shows that original diversity that we've since lost," says study co-author Christian Tryon, a Palaeolithic archaeologist at Harvard University's Peabody Museum.
The same site also contained deposits more than twice as old as the skull, including 46,000-year-old ostrich eggshells that were used to make beads. The finds could reveal shifts in human culture that took place starting when the ancestors of present-day humans left Africa, around 50,000 years ago.
Humans began farming about 12,000 years ago, living in denser settlements and burying their dead, but relatively little is known about the people who came before them. Tryon and his colleagues took a second look at specimens unearthed in the 1970s at rock shelters at Lukenya Hill, in Kenya.
Among the finds was the top of an ancient skull. The team compared it with skulls from Neanderthals, human skulls from the same and other time periods, as well as those of modern-day humans. Its dimensions were markedly different from those of European and African skulls from the same time. Carbon dating places the skull about 22,000 years old - the height of the last ice age.
Modern-day Africans have greater genetic diversity than other populations, but the new findings suggest that during this early period of human history, Africa may have supported even greater human diversity.
The rediscovery of fragments from Lukenya Hill are important because evidence of human culture from this critical juncture is incredibly rare.
Edited from LiveScience (19 February 2015)
7 March 2015
Bronze Age treasure hoard on display in Wales
A gold penannular ring and three fragments of copper ingot dating from the Late Bronze Age of around 1000 BCE to 800 BCE, uncovered on Anglesey in North Wales in 2013, have been given the rare definition of 'treasure' by Her Majesty's Coroner's Office. Buried together, the pieces were discovered a few metres apart and had likely become separated through farming activity.
The gold ring has striped decoration, formed by applying a silver strip in spiral fashion around the curved gold bar. It has flat-ended terminals, with a gap between them, and has been identified as an example of small Bronze Age adornment known as a hair-ring. One side is heavily worn through use. The copper ingots were a form of early currency. No estimated value has been put on the treasure, but similar individual pieces have sold for tens of thousands of pounds.
Adam Gwilt, principal curator for prehistory at National Museum Wales, said: "This gold hair-ring is finely made and was once worn by a man or woman of some standing within their community. It could have been made of gold from Wales or Ireland. The copper ingot fragments are an important association with the ring. It would be interesting to know whether they were transported and exchanged over a long distance by sea, or perhaps smelted from local ores mined at Parys Mountain or The Great Orme."
Ian Jones, Curatorial Officer at Oriel Ynys Mon, Llangefni, said: "These exciting locally found treasures will enrich our existing collections, and offer our visitors an opportunity to see a rare example of a fine decorative item that was last worn during the Bronze Age. The finds also highlight the value of metals such as gold, copper and bronze as trading and usable commodities.
The hoard has been acquired by Oriel Ynys Mon and will be put on public display.
In North Wales, similar examples have been found at Trearddur, Anglesey and Graianog, Gwynedd.
Edited from Daily Post, Wales Online (26 February 2015)
4 March 2015
Traces of a new stone avenue found at Avebury
The traces of a new stone avenue has been located by photographic evidence at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Avebury in Wiltshire (England). Previously, two other stone avenues known as the 'West Kennet Avenue' and the 'Beckhampton Avenue' are known to archaeologists as they still have some of the massive stones that line these avenues.
Robert John Langdon, an author and cartographer had been mapping the area over the last six years and has published a series of books and maps, based on his hypothesis that most of Britain was flooded directly after the last ice age and consequently, these ancient sites were built on the shorelines of the 'wetlands'.
"The maps I have produced," says Langdon, "indicated that Avebury was a trading place for our ancestors. My assumption is that the nearby monument of Silbury Hill would have been used as a harbour, once the waters had eventually receded from the main site of Avebury. Therefore, a direct pathway would have been used from Silbury Hill to Avebury for goods, which according to archaeologists doesn't exist."
Silbury Hill is the largest man-made monument of prehistoric Europe and has always been a mystery to archaeologists throughout history as it doesn't seem to have a real purpose. Langdon insists that this ancient civilisation did not spend millions of man hours building a monument without a very good practical reason.
"We now know through recent excavations that this mound was built in stages," says Langdon. "You only change the height of this monument if it serves as a beacon to attract ships and boats to the trading place of Avebury, for the higher you build, the greater the visible range," he adds.
Langdon's findings will need to be confirmed by excavation, although in 2011 at the top of this newly discovered stone avenue, dowsers found a series of stone holes in the same location as the new photographic evidence.
Edited from SourceWire (2 March 2015)
The oldest Norwegian skeleton
The Stone Age skeleton found in Norway last summer could be as much as 8000 years old, archeologists now believe, making it by far the oldest ever discovered in the country. 'Brunstad man', whose remains were found in Stokke, south of Oslo, is now believed to be from the Mesolithic period, which spans from 10,000 BCE-4000 BCE.
"The discovery is sensational in Norwegian, and indeed even in a north European context," said Almut Schülke, an archaeologist working for the Museum of Cultural History at the University of Oslo.
Archaeologists hope to learn the age of the man, his diet and the extent to which the people who found their way so far north had contact with other settlements around the Skagerrak and the Baltic Sea. The skeleton was found lying in the fetal position, a typical stone-age burial position, in a pit which had been bricked in on the inside.
Schülke said she hoped to find further evidence of human activity at the same site. "We do not know if Brunstad was a fixed settlement or whether it was a place people went to pick up special resources, such as different types of stone. We do not know of other major tombs nearby, but it was not uncommon to add a single grave so close to a settlement, as they have done here."
Edited from The Local (16 February 2015)
3 March 2015
Hunting with wolves helped humans outsmart Neanderthals
According to a leading anthropologist, early dogs played a critical role in the modern human's takeover of Europe 40,000 years ago.
"At that time, modern humans, Neanderthals and wolves were all top predators and competed to kill mammoths and other huge herbivores," says Professor Pat Shipman, of Pennsylvania State University. "But then we formed an alliance with the wolf and that would have been the end for the Neanderthal." If Shipman is right, she will have solved one of evolution's most intriguing mysteries.
Modern humans are known to have evolved in Africa. They began to emigrate around 70,000 years ago, reaching Europe 25,000 years later. The continent was then dominated by our evolutionary cousins, the Neanderthals, who had lived there for more than 200,000 years. Within a few thousand years of our arrival, however, they disappeared.
Most argue that modern humans were responsible. Shipman believes we had an accomplice.
"Early wolf-dogs would have tracked and harassed animals like elk and bison and would have hounded them until they tired," says Shipman. "Then humans would have killed them with spears or bows and arrows. "This meant the dogs did not need to approach these large cornered animals to finish them off - often the most dangerous part of a hunt - while humans didn't have to expend energy in tracking and wearing down prey."
At the time, the European landscape was dominated by large herbivores. Both Neanderthals and modern humans hunted them.
"Even if you brought down a bison, within minutes other carnivores would have been lining up to attack you and steal your prey," says Shipman. Once humans and wolves joined forces, they dominated the food chain in prehistoric Europe.
The idea is controversial because it pushes back the origins of dog domestication. Most scientists had previously argued the domestication of dogs began with the rise of agriculture 10,000 years ago. Shipman places it before the last Ice Age, pointing to recent discoveries of 33,000-year-old fossil remains of dogs in Siberia and Belgium, which show clear signs of domestication: shorter snouts, wider jaws, and more crowded teeth.
By contrast, there is no evidence of any kind that Neanderthals had any relationship with dogs.
Edited from The Guardian (1 March 2015)
Ancient wheat points to Stone Age trade
Britons may have discovered a taste for bread thousands of years earlier than previously thought, conclude scientists who discovered that samples from a now-submerged prehistoric camp in southern England contained traces of ancient wheat DNA.
The findings suggest that Stone Age hunter-gatherers co-existed with early agriculturalists for lengthy periods of time. Other archaeological assumptions based on bones or fossil study could be called into question by a thorough analysis of previously overlooked genetic material.
It is known that the practice of planting and harvesting cereals arose about 12,000 years ago in the region where Europe meets Asia, and slowly spread across Europe. Britons didn't adopt agriculture until 6,000 years ago, though - something many archaeologists have put down to the rising sea levels that filled what is now the English Channel. This natural barrier was believed to have explained the delayed the start of the Neolithic, when farmers replaced hunter-gatherers in Britain.
Researchers analysing sediment samples from the Bouldnor Cliff underwater site off the Isle of Wight found wheat to have been present there 8,000 years ago - two millennia before any cereals were planted in Britain, concluding that: "sophisticated social networks linked the Neolithic front in southern Europe to the Mesolithic peoples of northern Europe."
"There was a real cultural link between the ancient Britons and Europe," says study leader Robin G Allaby of the University of Warwick, England. "So Mesolithic people were not simply and quickly replaced by Neolithic peoples. Instead there was a long period - thousands of years - of interaction between the two." Allaby said that since no grains were found in the sediment, it's likely the wheat DNA came from flour.
Greger Larson, an expert in ancient DNA at the University of Oxford who wasn't involved in the study, said the findings provided the first strong evidence for trading between hunter-gatherers and farmers.
Simone Riehl, an archaeologist at Tuebingen University in Germany who also wasn't involved in the study, said extracting DNA from sediment had the potential to revolutionise scientists' understanding of ancient flora and fauna, adding that: "The interpretation of ancient DNA signatures from such sediments however will probably remain debatable for a long time."
Edited from Phys.org (26 February 2015)
24 February 2015
Neolithic skeleton returned to its home in Wales
In 1891 a civil engineer from Bacup, Lancashire (England) was excavating in the Little Orme: one of two promontories which flank the town beach at Llandudno, on the coast of North Wales. What he discovered was a Neolithic female skeleton, dated at approximately 3,500 BCE.
For whatever reason, the skeleton returned with the engineer to Bacup and it has remained there ever since. Affectionately titled 'Blodwen', paying respect to her native Wales, research of her bones suggests she died between the age of 54 and 63 - which was remarkable for its time - was about 5ft (1.52m), of robust build, and probably from a farming community. She had arthritis in both her spine and knees and at the time of her death she was also suffering from secondary cancer.
For several years a Welsh historian, Frank Dibble, campaigned for the return of the ancient remains but sadly he passed away before he could achieve his ambition. Now the Stone Age skeleton is returning home after spending 120 years in England.
Although the return is a permanent donation from the Bacup Natural History Society, there is still quite a cost involved in housing the exhibition. Fortunately the funds needed have been raised from a variety of sources and it is expected that a permanent exhibition will be opened to the public in April 2015, and will depict Llandudno in Neolithic times, with the skeleton as a centrepiece.
The Chair of the Trust, which runs the Llandudno Museum, the home of the exhibition, is quoted as saying "We are delighted with the response that we have received for the Blodwen appeal. It demonstrates just how much our community values Blodwen and the story she can tell about our local heritage. Frank Dibble worked tirelessly to bring Blodwen home and his family have been most supportivde of the appeal. We hope that the exhibition will be a fitting tribute and legacy to Mr Dibble's hard work".
Edited from Daily Post (16 February 2015)
20 February 2015
Security threats delay research into Nok Culture
The on-going research into the Nigerian Nok Culture has recently received some good news but also suffered bad news also.
The 12 year old project, headed up by the Institute for Archaeological Sciences in Frankfurt (Germany), has been on-going since 2005. The project recently enjoyed a 1.6 million Euro cash injection from the German Research Foundation, which is sufficient to allow continuance of the project for a further 3 years.
However, the current unrest in Nigeria, including attacks by the terrorist group Boko Haram, has halted all research and efforts have been focused on finds already in the team's possession.
One of the main features of the Nok Culture was the production of large terracotta figures, some of which have been dated at over 2000 years old. The abandonment of the current 79 sites is further bad news, as these are now vulnerable to looters.
Professor Peter Breuing, a member of the research team, is quoted as saying "The sculptures are very highly sought after on the international art market. In their search for these treasures the looters systematically destroy one site after another".
Other areas of research undertaken by the team include investigations into the Culture's economy and environment, including analysis of crops grown and the change from small isolated groups to larger, more cohesive communities, as evidenced by the widespread finds of terracotta figures. It is hoped, when the security situation improves, that the research can continue into the history of iron smelting by the Culture, centred on a major settlement area.
Edited from Past Horizons (8 February 2015)