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)
Retired policeman convicted of damage to a protected site
In a rare case of prosecution in the case of criminal damage to a listed monument, a court in County Wicklow (Ireland) found a retired policeman guilty of criminal damage to a Bronze Age burial mound at Carrig, Blessington. The site in question was the recipient of a Preservation Order, under the National Monuments Act in 2005.
There were several witnesses to the alleged vandalism, and in his defence the policeman had said he had bought the land to plant and nurture trees but the witness, seeing him moving barrow loads of stones, said "He wasn't planting potatoes"!
Archaeologist Chris Corlett, was called as a witness for the prosecution as he was very familiar with the site and its layout. He stated when questioned "There is a strong likelihood that human remains have been removed and disturbed and that artefacts may have been removed. The whole understanding of the monument was compromised". The ex-policeman was remanded on bail pending sentencing.
Edited from thejournal.ie (30 January 2015)
19 February 2015
Stones discovered in Israel suggest ancient fertility cult
Prehistoric sites are generally known for the representation of female fertility symbols - male fertility objects are far more unusual.
In one area in the arid Eilat Mountains of the Negev Desert, archaeologists discovered 44 such ancient cult sites. According to their report: "Taking in[to] consideration the topography, environmental conditions and the small number of known Neolithic habitations in the general southern Negev, the density of cult sites in this region is phenomenal."
Theories of what was happening there include death and fertility rituals, and "Combinations of both are actually well-known in anthropological studies as relating to ancestral cult," according to the archaeologists.
Death is "signified by the burial of stone objects and by setting them upside down," according to one of the team. A human-shaped stone carving was found interred "with only the very top visible on the surface."
It's believed there are many more sites remaining to be investigated in the area. According to Uzi Avner, a researcher with the Arava-Dead Sea Science Center and the Arava Institute, a survey of a larger area yielded to date 349 cult sites, and "Many more may be found on the mountains of the Negev, southern Jordan and Sinai."
Archaeologists are working on theories of "a vast phenomenon, of hundreds of mountain cult sites in the desert."
Edited from International Business Times (10 February 2015)
Neanderthals disappeared from the Iberian Peninsula earlier than elsewhere
Neanderthals could have disappeared between 41,000 and 39,000 years ago, according to fossil remains found at sites located from the Black Sea in Russia to the Atlantic coastline of Spain. A new study shows that they could have disappeared closer to 45,000 years ago in the Iberian Peninsula.
"Both conclusions are complementary and not contradictory," confirms Bertila Galvan, lead author of the study, and researcher at the Training and Research Unit of Prehistory, Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of La Laguna, Tenerife.
Until now, there was no direct dating in Spain on the Neanderthal remains which produced recent dates. "The few that provided dates were before 43,000 and 45,000 years ago in all cases," Galvan explains.
The study proposes that the point of departure was 40,000 years, but recognises that the process is complex and regionalised.
The study questions the existence of the Neanderthals in the Iberian Peninsula later than 43,000 years ago, referring specifically to the final occupations in El Salt, in Valencia - "A very robust archaeological context" in terms of the reliability of the remains, says the scientist.
The new timeline for the disappearance of the Neanderthals allows for a regional reading, limited to the Iberian Peninsula, and coincides with remains found at other Spanish sites.
The ample record of lithic objects and remains of fauna, as well as the extensive stratigraphic sequence of El Salt, have allowed the disappearance of the Neanderthals to be dated at a site that covers their last 30,000 years of existence.
Together with this new dating is the discovery of six teeth that probably belonged to a young Neanderthal adult, and "could represent an individual of one of the last groups of Neanderthals which occupied the site, and possibly the region.
Cristo Hernandez, another of the study's authors, says their analysis points to "a progressive weakening of the population... which must have been drawn out over several millennia."
Anatomically modern humans had no role in this gradual disappearance, which coincided with colder and more arid conditions.
The new dating has been proven in a sedimentary hiatus also found in other sites on the Iberian Peninsula.
Edited from PhysOrg (5 February 2015)
17 February 2015
Earliest example of death during childbirth
A prehistoric cemetery in Irkutsk, near the southern tip of Lake Baikal in eastern Russia, is partially covered by city development and has not been fully excavated. All 101 of the bodies found so far were members of a hunter-gatherer community that roamed the area between 8,000 and 7,000 years ago. It is rare to find transient hunter-gatherer communities who buried their dead in formal cemeteries, yet archaeologists have documented this practice at several other sites in northeastern Asia.
An archaeologist at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, Angela Lieverse studies these ancient communities. In 2012, Lieverse was revisiting some of the bones which were in storage at Irkutsk State University. These had been interpreted as a mother, 20 to 25 years old, and a single child, but Lieverse realised there were duplicates of four or five of the fragile bones.
The finding may be the oldest confirmed evidence of twins, and one of the earliest examples of death during childbirth.
Lieverse says that one of the twins might have been positioned with its feet down and was partially delivered, possibly trapped or locked with its sibling, leading to a fatal obstructed birth.
Cases of death during childbirth and instances of twins tend to be invisible in the archaeological record. There have been some cases of babies of a similar age buried in the same grave, but it would be difficult to tell how they were related.
Maternal death would have been common in prehistory, yet it's hard to find archaeological evidence of a woman dying during childbirth. Fetal bones are also quite fragile and less likely to survive than adult bones.
The young mother was buried lying on her back with several marmot teeth adorning her corpse - quite typical of the graves at the site.
Edited from LiveScience (4 February 2015), CTV News (9 February 2015)
16 February 2015
New algorithm could reveal oldest spoken words
A team of scientists has developed a mathematical technique that can work out how and when changes occurred to words in different languages, giving researchers the potential to turn the clock of human speech back thousands of years.
A leading evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading (UK) working with colleagues from the Santa Fe Institute (USA), professor Mark Pagel has detected these 'concerted sound changes', where a specific sound changes to another sound simultaneously in many different words.
His team use statistical estimates of rates of lexical replacement for a range of vocabulary items in the Indo-European languages. The variation in replacement rates makes the most common vocabulary items promising candidates for estimating the divergence between pairs of languages.
The model was tested on the evolution of Turkic, a family of at least 35 languages spoken by peoples from southeastern Europe and the Mediterranean to Siberia and Western China, identifying more than 70 regular sound changes that occurred throughout the 2000 year history of the language group.
Pagel says: "Intriguingly, this concerted linguistic change has a parallel in genetics where the same changes can happen to several different genes simultaneously."
Pagel's research offers a fascinating picture of how our 7,000 living idioms have evolved, documenting shared patterns in the way we use language, and exploring the reasons why some words succeed and others become obsolete. His results suggest that forms of some common words used by Ice Age people living in Europe 15,000 years ago could still be recognised today.
Edited from PhysOrg (10 February 2015)
Canadian dam will flood 12,000 years of human history
More than 30 years ago archaeologist Jonathan Driver was part of the team that uncovered one of the rarest finds in Canadian history - evidence of human occupation in northern British Columbia dating to the end of the last ice age.
Charlie Lake cave contained some of the oldest human remains in western Canada, as well as specialised weapons used to hunt large mammals, and animal skeletons suggesting ceremonial practices. The cave itself is not threatened by the planned construction of a dam and 83 kilometre long reservoir on the Peace River, starting in the summer of 2015, however hundreds of other sites will be flooded.
Dr Driver, a professor of archaeology at Simon Fraser University, says: "The Peace River was a well-travelled route between the lowlands and the front ranges of the Rocky Mountains. It goes down deep, so you can follow the history of people in the Peace River just as the ice age is ending and the first animals and plants and then people are moving into a brand new land, and at this site you can follow that for 12,000 years."
Field work to create a heritage inventory in 2010 found 26 Class 1 palaeontology finds - rare or especially well-preserved and diverse fossils - as well as almost 300 archaeological sites, plus heritage sites of the earliest European settlers. Sites and artefacts which cannot be saved will be studied.
The prehistory of the area is still being pieced together. Recently, a local farmer donated boxes of artefacts including 8,000-year-old pieces of obsidian from faraway quarries, indicating a vast trading network.
The province has approved construction knowing that what it terms 'heritage resources' will disappear. With construction set to begin in June, there is little time left to preserve this part of British Columbia's history.
Edited from The Globe and Mail (1 February 2015)
13 February 2015
Embracing corpses from 3,800 BCE found in a Greek Cave
A rare Neolithic-era find of the skeletons of a couple embracing was found in excavations by the northern entrance of the Alepotrypa ('Foxhole') cave in southern Greece, on the Peloponnese peninsula.
The Greek Culture Ministry now informs that DNA analyses show that the remains belong to a young couple, a man and a woman, both aged between 20 and 25, dating back almost 6,000 years and discovered next to numerous arrow heads.
The find is significant due to the corpses' antiquity and the fact that the man and woman were found entwined in an interlocking embrace, a very unusual position in archeological remains from this era. The researchers do not know how the couple died, but the fact they were buried together in this way suggests they died either at the same time, or during a similar time frame.
Both burials are part of a Neolithic cemetery in the greater area of the Neolithic Diros Cave, in western Mani, where excavations have yielded burials of children, embryos and adults dated from 4200 to 3800 BCE. According to most recent data and analyses, the cave appears to have been in use from Early to Final Neolithic (6000-3200 BCE) and served throughout as settlement and cemetery. At the end of the Final Neolithic (3200 BCE), a severe earthquake sealed the entrance of the cave and the remains of its inhabitants inside. The site has previously been linked with sparking myths about the Greek underworld god Hades.
Excavations began after an accidental discovery by speleologists Yiannis and Anna Petrocheilos in 1958. Excavations in the area were continued in 2014 under the honorary ephor of antiquities George Papathanassopoulos heading a committee of the Paleoanthropology Ephorate of Antiquities and the Speleological Society of Northern Greece
Commenting on the finds, Dr. Papathanassopoulos said: "The type of burial in the foetal position is common in the Neolithic era, but the specific double burial in embrace is one of the earliest known examples. At some point, they will be exhibited in the museum."
Edited from Latin American Herald Tribune, EuroNews, Mail Online, Greece Reporter (13 February 2015)
12 February 2015
Ancient child remains unearthed in Orkney
Last 3 February, Carrie Brown of See Orkney tours was walking along the coast in the north end of the Sanday island (Orkney, Scotland) when she spotted part of a rib-cage exposed in the sandy part of the banks. She and her partner Ali Thorne looked a little more closely, and suspected that they might have found human bones. Having first protected and marked the area, they then notified resident Sanday archaeologists who took a closer look in the afternoon.
Further careful investigation the same afternoon revealed the back of the skull. Very quickly Historic Scotland was alerted to the human remains, and they arranged for two experts to come to Sanday. During the weekend they exposed more of the site by working downwards from the top of the section, revealing what may be the burial site of a child of perhaps 10-12 years of age.
The grave - which it is believed could be up to 4,000 years old - was surely exposed by winter storms and high tides. The skeleton will be analysed by an osteoarchaeology team in more suitable climatic conditions.
Edited from Sanday Ranger, BBC News (9 February 2015)
Bronze Age body found near Loch Ness
Following the discovery of an early Bronze Age burial cist in Drumnadrochit, on the west shore of Loch Ness (Highland, Scotland), archaeologists have found shards of pottery and a wrist guard on the same site. The earliest-known resident, who lived around 4500 years ago, wore a stone guard on his wrist when using a bow and arrow and favoured geometric designs on his kitchenware.
The cist and artefacts were uncovered during works preparing the site of the NHS Highland's replacement Drumnadrochit Health Centre. Heather Cameron, senior project manager with the health board, said: "We are particularly excited to have uncovered the pottery and wrist guard in what appeared to be a second grave next to the first, and I think we will be looking to mount a display on the finds somewhere in the new building when it opens at the end of the year."
Mary Peteranna, of AOC Archaeology Group, said: "The shards are of around two-thirds of a beaker pot which will probably have been around 20-30cm high. What makes them particularly interesting is that there is some organic material adhering to the base of the pot, so we may find out something about its contents. The shards have a distinctive decoration which may have been made on the clay before firing in a stabbing movement with something like a feather quill. The wrist guard is also particularly exciting. It has holes so that it could be tied to the wrist with a leather strap, and may have been ornamental or functional."
The skeletal remains, which may be of an adult or near adult, comprise of most of a person's long bones along with part of the skull and a number of teeth. It is hoped to be able to determine scientifically the sex of the person, and perhaps even the cause of death.
Archaeologists have investigated a 4m x 4m area on the site, which lies just off the A82. It is not planned at this stage to carry out further archaeological work there. However, with more construction work planned on the other side of the main road, where houses and retail units are to be built, further finds have not been ruled out.
Edited from The Inverness Courier (3 February 2015)
Prehistoric caves discovered in Papua
The Archaeology Office of Jayapura has found caves used to be inhabited by prehistoric people in the Karst hilly areas of Lake Sentani, Jayapura, Papua. "The caves discovered are the Rukhabulu Awabu, Ifeli-feli and Ceruk Reugable caves," researcher Hari Suroto of the Jayapura Archaeology Office, said.
Suroto added that their physical conditions and surroundings near a water source, where artifacts such as pottery, lake mollusc shells, marine mollusc shells and animal bones, indicated that the caves were used as human dwellings during the Neolithic age. "The findings of the marine mollusc shells in the Reugable site and Cave Rukhabulu Awabhu, illustrate that in the past the inhabitants of the two sites have been consuming marine mollusks," he said. "This indicates that the prehistoric men have already had communications with each other as proven by the findings of the sea mollusc shells in the caves," the researcher said.
After all, the type of soil in the three caves are not suitable for producing potteries. Thus, it is concluded that the potteries found in the caves came from other places outside the cave areas. "The black color found outside the potteries indicated that they were also used to cook," Suroto concluded.
Edited from Antara News (1 February 2015)
10 February 2015
55,000-year-old skull may link us with Neanderthals
A 55,000-year-old incomplete skull discovered deep in Manot Cave in northern Israel fills a major gap in the fossil record of Homo sapiens' journey from Africa to Europe.
Study leader Israel Hershkovitz, a physical anthropologist at Tel Aviv University, says: "Here we actually hold a skull of a human being that was living next to the Neanderthals."
Genetic studies of Neanderthals and of both ancient and contemporary humans suggest that the two species interbred somewhere in the Middle East between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago, however no remains of anatomically modern humans have been discovered in the Middle East from the period after Homo sapiens left Africa and before it colonised Europe and Asia.
In 2008, a bulldozer clearing land near the Sea of Galilee revealed an opening to a limestone cave that had been sealed for more than 15,000 years. Amateur explorers later spotted the top portion of a skull resting on a ledge inside the cave. The Israel Antiquities Authority then launched a complete survey, finding buried stone tools at several sites that are still being excavated.
Hershkovitz says the skull is similar in shape to those of earlier African and later European humans, adding that "the Manot people are probably the forefathers of the early Palaeolithic populations of Europe".
The cave is not far from two other sites that held Neanderthal remains of a similar age, and Hershkovitz says: "The southern Levant is the only place where anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals were living side by side for thousands and thousands of years". This makes the Manot people leading candidates to have bred with Neanderthals.
Jean-Jacques Hublin, a palaeo-anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, hopes that further excavations will find human remains that have remained cool enough to still contain DNA, and also connect the skull to artefacts. The artefacts uncovered so far are thought to be much younger than the skull.
Edited from Nature, EurekAlert! (28 January 2015)
New tattoos discovered on Oetzi mummy
Oetzi the Iceman, who was attacked one late spring or early summer around 3500 BCE and whose belongings and naturally mummified 5,300 year old body were found in a glacier in the Alps in 1991, was tattooed. His are amongst the oldest documented tattoos in the world, and the earliest direct evidence that tattooing was practiced in Europe by at least the Chalcolithic period. His skin naturally darkened from prolonged exposure to sub-zero temperatures, and some of his tattoos became faint or invisible to the naked eye. Previous studies have identified between 47 and 60 markings.
Marco Samadelli, a scientist at the EURAC-Institute for Mummies and the Iceman, has developed a process to take multi-spectral photographs from different angles in wavelengths from infrared to ultraviolet, allowing tattoos which are no longer recognisable to the human eye to be seen with great precision. Researchers there have now revealed all of Oetzi's tattoos, including previously unknown marks on his lower right ribcage, bringing the total number to 61.
The markings consist of 19 groups of lines from 1 to 3 millimetres in width and 7 to 40 millimetres in length, mostly arranged in groups of two, three or four parallel lines, plus two crosses. With the exception of the perpendicular crosses on the right knee and left ankle, and parallel lines around the left wrist, the lines all run parallel to one another and to the longitudinal axis of the body. The greatest concentration is on his legs, which together bear 12 groups of lines.
The newly discovered marks consist of four parallel lines between 20 and 25 millimetres long, are the first detected on the front of his torso, and have reopened a debate about the role of tattoos in prehistoric times. They are striking because other markings are mostly on his lower back and legs, between the knee and the foot.
In his 2012 book 'Spiritual Skin: Magical Tattoos and Scarification', anthropologist Dr Lars Krutak documents an experiment which determined that tattoos applied to acupuncture points using a bone needle "could produce a sustained therapeutic effect". While the lines may have held symbolic meaning, 80 percent correspond to classic Chinese acupuncture points used to treat rheumatism, while others are located along meridians used to treat other ailments from which Oetzi also suffered.
Edited from Discovery News (27 January 2015), PhysOrg (28 January 2015)
8 February 2015
Fossilized bone may belong to new human species
The first known prehistoric human from Taiwan has been identified, and may represent an entirely new species that lived as recently as 10,000 years ago.
The newly identified human, 'Penghu 1', is represented by a jawbone with big teeth still in it, and strengthens the growing body of evidence that Homo sapiens was not the only species from our genus living in Europe and Asia between 200,000 and 10,000 years ago.
Study co-author Dr Yousuke Kaifu, an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at The University of Tokyo, says: "The available evidence at least does not exclude the possibility that they survived until the appearance of Homo sapiens in the region, and it is tempting to speculate about their possible contact."
A geologist with the National Museum of Natural History in Taiwan, lead author Chun-Hsiang Chang recognised the importance of the jawbone, which he and his team theorise could represent a new human species, or a regional group of Homo erectus living on what was then mainland Asia. Dr Kaifu says that the presence of large-bodied mammals such as elephants, horses, and bear, suggests the area was then a relatively open, wet woodland.
Chris Stringer, also of the Natural History Museum, says that in some ways the fossil is more primitive looking than the well-known 'Peking Man', yet also has certain features in common with the archaic human Homo heidelbergensis, as well as Homo erectus and even Denisovans.
"This enigmatic fossil is difficult to classify," says Stringer, "but it highlights the growing and not unexpected evidence of human diversity in the Far East, with the apparent coexistence of different lineages in the region prior to, and perhaps even contemporary with, the arrival of modern humans some 55,000 years ago."
ABC Science (28 January 2015)