31 August 2017
Were Denisovans an isolated part of our lineage?
During the time of one of our ancient ancestors the Neanderthals there also lived a long extinct hominid known as Denisovan. Whilst very little is known about Denisovans we do know that we share some common DNA and that they might have contributed a positive factor to our immune system. They also shared a common DNA with their Neanderthal cousins.
Until recently our total knowledge of Denisovans has been based on two teeth and a finger bone, which were all found in a cave in the Altai Mountains in Siberia. There has now been a exciting fourth find, that of a baby tooth, on the same site back in November 2015. Extensive research has now been carried out on the tooth by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.
The tooth was found in a sedimentary layer which has been dated at between 128,000 and 227,000 years old, pre-dating previous Denisovan finds by between 50,000 and 100,000 years! To put this in perspective this time span would indicate that the Denisovans had occupied the site for a longer period than modern humans have occupied Europe.
Vivian Slon, from the Institute, is quoted as saying "Such a long span of time increases the chances that the Denisovans and the Neanderthals may have interacted and interbred". The main point of note is that all Denisovan finds so far have emanated from one site. Without further finds from other locations the researchers are unable to determine whether the finds so far represent the entire spectrum of Denisovan genetic diversity or are an isolated branch.
Edited from LiveScience (10 July 2017)
British experts reconstruct Neolithic man's face
There is a fascinating Department within the Liverpool John Moores University (UK) called 'Face Lab'. Scientists in the laboratory utilise a craniofacial computer system to re-create faces just using the skeletal remains and a database of anatomical structures & facial features.
In the past they have used these techniques to depict the faces of key historical figures such as Richard III, Robert the Bruce and J.S. Bach. They have now turned their attention on the remains of a 4.500 year old man, who was first excavated in the Derbyshire in the 1930s with the excavation being completed in the 1980s.
His remains were found in a well-documented burial mound known as Liff's Low bowl barrow. Using conventional research techniques his height, age and sex were determined but this has now been enhanced by the addition of the 3D facial image.
Claire Miles, collection assistant at Buxton Museum where his remains are kept, is quoted as saying "This reconstruction really allows people to see them [ancient peoples] as people rather than a set of bones and hopefully make them interested in the way that they lived". As well as bringing ancient people to life the technique has also been used to trace migration patterns in ancient peoples and also help identify modern victims of crime as well as victims of mass disasters.
Edited from LiveScience (10 July 2017)
The continuing story of Oetzi
The mummified remains of a Chalcolithic man were first found in the Olztal Alps, between Austria and Italy, in September 1991. Since then the story of Oetzi the Iceman, as he became known, has unravelled and enthralled us. Recently researchers from the University of Padua have been analysing the copper head which formed the cutting blade of the axe which had been found alongside Oetzi's body.
Before the research began it had been believed that the copper had been mined and forged in either the local Alpine area or the nearby Balkans. Using chemical analysis and isotope analysis the Paduan team, lead by Professor Gilberto Artioli, has come to the conclusion that the copper used had actually been mined in Southern Tuscany.
Their belief is founded on the fact that the lead-isotope variation in this region is unique in Europe and the Mediterranean areas. This raises new questions as to whether it was traded as copper ore or the finished article. Either was it has identified new trade routes that were previously unknown in the 4th Century BCE.
Edited from Archaeology & Arts (10 July 2017)
Archaeologists track ancient wheat in Bronze Age box
In a small wooden box, 2.650m (8.000 ft) above sea level in the Swiss Alps, archaeologists have uncovered new evidence that could help map the use and spread of ancient grains. When the box was initially uncovered by archaeologists in the area, they only expected to find milk residue or some type of porridge inside. Instead they made an amazing microscopic discovery.
In the box, the archaeologists were able to discover lipid-based biomarkers for whole wheat or rye grain, which are called alkylresorcinols. This discovery is an important one as it gives archaeologists the possibility to trace the development of early Eurasian farming. This analysis was carried out be research from Germany's Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the University of York.
Dr André Colonese, from BioArCh, Department of Archaeology, University of York, said: "We didn't find any evidence of milk, but we found these phenolic lipids, which have never been reported before in an archaeological artefact, but are abundant in the bran of wheat and rye cereals and considered biomarkers of wholegrain intake in nutritional studies."
"One of the greatest challenges of lipid analysis in archaeology has been finding biomarkers for plants, there are only a few and they do not preserve very well in ancient artefacts. You can imagine the relevance of this study as we have now a new tool for tracking early culinary use of cereal grains, it really is very exciting. The next step is to look for them in ceramic artefacts," Dr Colonese added.
Dr Jessica Hendy, from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, said: "The evidence of cereals came from the detection of lipids, but also from preserved proteins. This analysis was able to tell us that this vessel contained not just one, but two types of cereal grains - wheat and barley or rye grains. Combining these two kinds of molecular analysis, along with microscopy, is strong evidence that cereals were being transported across this alpine pass."
From the results of the study the authors believe that the Schnidejoch pass was not just a settlement, but also used for small scale trade. Francesco Carrer, one of the study's authors said: "This evidence sheds new light on life in prehistoric alpine communities, and on their relationship with the extreme high altitudes. People traveling across the alpine passes were carrying food for their journey, like current hikers do."
Edited from PhysOrg (26 July 2017), National Geographic News (27 July 2017)
Nine Bronze Age tombs discovered in Eastern Romania
In Cârlomăneşti, in Eastern Romania's Buzău county nine tombs that date back to the Bronze Age have recently been identified. The graves were identified by specialists from the Buzău county museum, along with other objects that are to be restored and displayed. This comes after recent work in the area following a short excavation hiatus. The tombs are believed to be part of a culture who lived in the area between 2000 - 1600 BCE.
According to Mihai Constantinescu, a researcher at the Anthropology Institute of the Bucharest Academy said: "Some tombs are located closer to the surface and were not so well preserved because of the agriculture works. But those deeper in the ground have rich inventories. Each tomb usually has a minimum of three jugs. There are also bronze pieces, items used for keeping braided hair together, bracelets, bronze collars, spindles, very beautiful jugs, unique in the Bronze Age in Romania for their shape and preservation. We found a dove-shaped jug with eight bone fragments from pig feet, probably used as toys."
While another project looks to be developing at an archaeological park in Cârlomăneşti, the finds from the will join the existing Bronze Age finds at the Buzău County Museum
Edited from Romania Insider (20 July 2017)
17 August 2017
Bones suggest cannibal ritual in ancient Britain
Archaeological evidence suggests that most cannibalism in human history occurred for complex and varied reasons. Human bones found in Gough's Cave - a sizeable limestone cave in Cheddar Gorge in the southwest of England - bear unmistakable signs of cannibalism. Researchers have previously described what seem to be drinking vessels made from human skulls among the site's remains.
Cut-marked and broken human bones are a recurrent feature of Magdalenian European sites, around 17,000-12,000 years before present, and Gough's Cave has yielded one of the most extensive Magdalenian human bone assemblages ever found, deposited on the floor of the cave along with butchered large mammal remains and pieces of flint. New carbon datings show the cave was occupied by Magdalenian hunters for a very short span of time 14,700 years ago - possibly no more than two or three human generations.
In a recent paper, Doctor Silvia Bello, an anthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London and her colleagues analyse and compare zig-zag incisions on one arm bone with hundreds of butchering marks and engravings on human and animal bones from Gough's Cave and other archaeological sites.
The marks on the arm bone match patterns on engraved animal bones found in France from the same period, suggesting it was a common motif at the time. The engraving was produced by a single individual, using one tool, during only one event. What is exceptional is the choice of human bone and the cannibalistic context in which it was produced. It appears the engraving was part of the cannibalistic practice, implying a complex ritualistic funerary behaviour never before recognised for the Palaeolithic period - the intensive processing of entire corpses to extract edible tissues.
Tool manufacture and decorative designs at Gough's Cave have close parallels with those at other European Magdalenian sites. Portable art at Gough's Cave suggests the carvers were competent and experienced in working different raw materials. Artefacts there include worked and engraved fragments of animal bones, amber pebbles, minute fragments of ivory, and three "perforated batons" - common artefacts of debated use nearly always made from reindeer antlers.
Edited from PLOS One (9 August 2017), The New York Times (10 August 2017)
16 August 2017
Excavation of a round mound in the Isle of Man
Archaeologists glimpse Manx history
A team of archaeologists, students, and local volunteers have for the past twelve months been investigating prehistoric mounds in fields south of Kirk Michael, a village in the north of the Isle of Man - the island in the Irish Sea famous for its annual motorcycle race. The site overlooks the sea with good views of both Scotland and Ireland.
The Isle of Man is home to over 160 round barrows - human burial sites found throughout the British Isles and in continental Europe. First appearing around 3800-3600 BCE, different kinds of round mounds were built sporadically during the Neolithic period and in large numbers during the Early Bronze Age.
The team is led by Doctors Rachel Crellin, a native of the island who now lectures in Archaeology at Leicester University, and Chris Fowler, a lecturer at Newcastle University. Finds so far include the collar of what is believed to be a burial urn of the type commonly found upside down on top of human ashes.
Among other artefacts are a number of flint tools, one of which is a scraper with bevelled edges used to remove fat from animal hides.
The team has been running workshops for local schoolchildren and offering daily tours for the public. Heritage Open Days are scheduled for the autumn.
Doctor Crellin says a burial mound of this type has not been excavated on the island for some time, and hopes modern techniques will reveal specific new information about the site, and about prehistory on the island generally.
Edited from IOM Today (21 July 2017)
7,000-year-old figurine discovered in Poland
A 7-centimetre fragment of a 7,000-year-old baked clay human figurine has been found by archaeologist Piotr Alagierski while on holiday, walking in a cultivated field in one of the villages of Podkarpacie, near the Carpathian Mountains in extreme southeastern Poland. The torso, most of the head and face, and the upper part of one arm survive.
Alagierski says: "There is no doubt that this is a national-level monument - one of the oldest depictions of a human in our country. Similar finds from that period are very rare," adding that "The style in which the figurine was made is surprising. It resembles similar figurines from Slovakia and Romania. The details of the head are clearly modelled - the hair, the nose, the chin are visible. There is a visible indentation on the chest, probably representing a garment, probably a tunic. A necklace is visible on the neck."
Unlike the few figurines from this period previously found in Poland, it does not have prominent sexual features.
Alagierski reports also seeing a large number of ceramic pot sherds and pieces obsidian in the field. He believes the site was a settlement of the first farmers living in what is now Poland, and intends to start excavations there. Meanwhile, chemical analyses of the figurine will allow scientists to determine the origin of the clay. The style suggests that the figure may have been made or carried by people from across the mountains.
Edited from Science & Scholarship in Poland (21 June 2017)
Sound-reflecting rock shelters attracted ancient artists
Researchers say that members of early farming communities in in the central Mediterranean preferred to paint images in rock shelters where sounds bounced off walls and into the surrounding countryside. Archaeologist Margarita Diaz-Andreu of the University of Barcelona and colleagues report that in landscapes with many potential rock art sites, "the few shelters chosen to be painted were those that have special acoustic properties."
Diaz-Andreu's team studied two rock art sites generally dated to between approximately 6,500 and 5,000 years ago. In southeastern France, at the kilometer-long cliff site of Baume Brune, only eight of the forty-three naturally formed cavities in the cliff contain paintings, which include treelike figures and horned animals. On the east coast of Italy, in the Valle d'Ividoro, at an 800-metre-long section of a gorge, only three of eleven natural shelters contain painted images.
The researchers popped balloons in front of each rock-shelter, recording the sound waves from various locations and distances. Three-dimensional slow-motion depictions of echoes revealed that at both sites, shelters with rock paintings displayed better echoing properties than undecorated shelters, and that shelters with the best echoes had the highest number of paintings.
In a separate study of paintings in northern Finland dated to between around 7,200 and 3,000 years ago, music archaeologist Riitta Rainio of the University of Helsinki and her colleagues found that echoes from steep rock cliffs bordering three lakes also attracted ancient artists. She and her colleagues recorded from boats on the lakes.
Similarly, at the Grotte de Niaux in southwestern France, archaeologist Paul Pettitt of Durham University in England observes that many roughly 14,000 to 12,000 year-old animal drawings and engravings are concentrated in a cathedral-like chamber where sounds echo loudly.
Edited from Science News (26 June 2017)
Ancient warrior, weapons drawn, wears stylish earrings
The extraordinary find of a Bronze Age warrior buried between 2,700 and 2,900 years ago with dagger in one hand, a knife in the other, spiral earrings, and a bronze disc on his forehead, is intriguing archeologists in Siberia. The time was a transition from the Bronze to the Iron age.
The remains were found during restoration of an historical building in Omsk, a city on the Irtysh River in the south of the country, near the northern border of Kazahkstan.
The well-preserved skeleton lay on his back with his wrists crossed, the dagger in his right hand pointing up, the knife in his left hand pointing down. Nearby were an axe and some arrow heads.
Maxim Grachev, director of Omsk Museum of Archeology and Ethnography, says: "The ideal state of the grave was a pleasant surprise for us. We found a large number of well-preserved items: weapons, jewellery, and other items made of bronze." Five burials were found, but the others were destroyed. Grachev thinks further burial remains are likely to lie under buildings on the site, but are not accessible.
Edited from The Siberian Times (5 August 2017)
11 August 2017
Hundreds of stone tombs discovered in Jordan
Hundreds of ancient stone tombs have been discovered in Jebel Qurma, south of Damascus, in a 'black desert' stretching across northeastern Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Many are covered by stone cairns, while others are more complex 'tower tombs'.
Tomb robbers have pillaged many of the burials, but archaeologists have found clues to how human life changed in the region over the course of millennia.
Project leader Peter Akkermans, of Leiden University in the Netherlands, writes that: "While the foci of daily living and domestic activity were in secluded areas at the foot of the basaltic uplands or in the deep valleys through which wadis run, it appears that the preferential areas for the disposal of the dead were on the surrounding high plateaus and the summits of the basalt hills."
The team found evidence suggesting that between the late third millennium BCE and the early first millennium BCE, few people lived in Jebel Qurma. A cemetery that contains about 50 cairns stopped being used around 4,000 years ago, which seems to coincide with a large scale withdrawal of people from the region.
Until very recently it was believed that people did not return to Jebel Qurma until the mid or late first millennium BCE, but recent research reveals that the area was re-inhabited in the early first millennium BCE by people who did not use pottery.
Another possibility is that people were living in Jebel Qurma, but their remains have yet to be found.
In the late first millennium BCE, the inhabitants began building 'tower tombs', a type both larger and more difficult to construct than the earlier cairns. Some towers are up to 5 meters in diameter and 1.5 meters high, with straight facades made of large, flattened basalt slabs weighing 300 kilos.
Initially, Akkermans thought the tower tombs were built for elite members of the society, but recent fieldwork reveals the type is common in the both the local area and the desert region as a whole.
Edited from Jebel Qurma, LiveScience (13 July 2017)
Ancient monuments may have been used for moonlit ceremonies
A new investigation of the stone age rock art panel at Hendraburnick Quoit in Cornwall, southwest England, found nearly ten times the number of markings when viewed in moonlight or very low sunlight from the south east. The researchers also discovered that pieces of white quartz which would have reflected moonlight or firelight had been deliberately smashed up around the site.
Study leader Dr Andy Jones, of the Cornwall Archaeological Unit says: "I think the new marks show that this site was used at night and it is likely that other megalithic sites were as well. We were aware there were some cup and ring marks on the rocks but we were there on a sunny afternoon and noticed it was casting shadows on others which nobody had seen before. When we went out to do some imaging at night, when the camera flashed we suddenly saw more and more art, which suggested that it was meant to be seen at night and in the moonlight. Then when you think about the quartz smashed around, which would have caused flashes and luminescence, suddenly you see that these images would have emerged out of the dark. Stonehenge does have markings, and I think that many more would be found at sites across the country if people were to look at them in different light."
Hendraburnick Quoit is a large propped 'axe-shaped' stone that was set upon a low platform of slates on Hendraburnick Down, near Davidstow, around 11 kilometres east of the promontory site of Tintagel Castle. Dr Jones believes the stone was dragged up from the valley in the Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age, around 2,500 BCE.
Previous studies had recorded 13 cup marks, but Dr Jones and colleague Thomas Goskar found 105 engravings under low-angled light, which now makes it the most highly decorated and complex example of rock art known in southern England.
Edited from The Telegraph (7 July 2017)
Invasion may have transformed India's Bronze Age
New data confirm a long-held but controversial theory that Sanskrit, the ancient language of Northern India, emerged from an earlier language spoken by people in Central Asia, who may have moved into India around 3,500 years ago.
Study co-author Martin Richards, an archaeo-geneticist at the University of Huddersfield in England, says: "People have been debating the arrival of the Indo-European languages in India for hundreds of years."
From the earliest days of colonial rule in India, linguists noticed that Sanskrit shared many similarities with languages as disparate as French, English, Farsi (Persian), and Russian, eventually concluding that all derived from a common ancestral language, which they called Indo-European.
Scholars proposed that a group of people from outside India brought a proto-Sanskrit language to northern India; South Indian languages mostly belong to a different language family.
The controversial 'Aryan invasion' theory is the basis for the Indian caste system, and in a bastardised form was incorporated into Nazi ideology.
Earlier genetic data did not seem to corroborate a dramatic influx into India during the Bronze Age, but past analyses were based on either DNA passed from mothers to daughters, or mutations inherited from both parents but difficult to date.
Richards and colleagues analysed several types of modern genetic data, including that passed only from father to son. In this way the team was able to link patterns of migration to specific points in time. They found evidence that people began colonising India more than 50,000 years ago, and multiple migrations from the northwest over the last 20,000 years, including people from Anatolia, the Caucasus, and Iran between 9,000 and 5,000 years ago.
Evidence for one migration points to a group of people who inhabited the grassland between the Caspian and Black seas from about 5,000 to 2,300 years ago - known broadly as the Yamnaya - who typically drove wheeled horse chariots, herded livestock, buried their dead in pit graves, and spoke an early precursor Indo-European language. Another recent study suggests people from this culture almost completely transformed the genetic landscape of Europe about 5,000 years ago, where up to 90 percent of European men from some countries carry a version of the tell-tale genetic subgroup, compared to the 17.5 percent of men on the Indian sub-continent found in this latest study.
Richards explains that it's very easy for Y-chromosome composition to change quickly, because individual men can father many children. One view is that a group of horse-riding warriors moved across India, murdering men and impregnating local women, but other explanations are available. It's possible that whole family units from the Yamnaya migrated to India, and their men either were seen as or attained higher reproductive status than locals.
Edited from LiveScience (6 July 2017)
Avebury stone circle contains hidden square
A square formation has been discovered within the Neolithic stone circle at Avebury, a village 130 kilometres west of London. Archaeologists believe the hidden stones, discovered using ground-penetrating radar, were one of the earliest structures at the site, and may have commemorated a Neolithic building dating to around 3500 BCE.
Previously archaeologists had speculated that the 330 metre diameter outer stone circle - the largest in Europe - preceded its enclosed features. The latest work suggests that a wooden building seeded the monument, a series of stone structures place around it over hundreds of years.
According to Mark Gillings, an archaeologist at the University of Leicester: "Our working interpretation is that the house is the first thing. It falls into ruin but they're still remembering and respecting it. They put a square around it about 3000 BC and then the circles."
Clues to the existence of a square structure, each side of which was around 30 metres in length, were first discovered by Alexander Keiller, who excavated in 1939, revealing a number of small standing stones in a line close to the former location of a 6-metre upright stone known as the Obelisk. Keiller's excavation also uncovered postholes and grooves, indicating that a building had once been there, which he supposed was medieval.
When the newly discovered square was compared with Keiller's notes it was found that the stones were centred on and aligned with the building, suggesting Neolithic origin. Similar Neolithic buildings have been discovered recently at other sites.
Avebury is a massive monument, largely created during the 3rd millennium BCE. Its perimeter is a 420 metre diameter earthwork, within which is the world's largest known stone circle - a ring of around 100 standing stones which itself encloses two inner stone circles, each constructed around one of two huge megalithic structures known as the Cove and the Obelisk. The Obelisk was recorded in the 18th century as the largest stone at Avebury, but was later destroyed.
Re-evaluation of records from the 1930s fieldwork revealed a concentration of early and middle Neolithic pottery and worked flint around the Obelisk. Significant was the realisation that the square setting of trenches and postholes are traces of an early Neolithic house in the very centre of the southern inner circle, with the previously known linear arrangement of stones parallel to it proving to be one side of the newly discovered square.
Radiating from an unusually small standing stone discovered in 1939 south of the Obelisk, are two lines of megaliths extending beyond the investigated area. One cuts through the centre of another circular feature 23.5 metres in diameter, between the southern inner circle and square setting.
Edited from The Guardian (29 June 2017), Arts & Humanities Research Council
5 August 2017
Ancient funeral practices at Carrowkeel
New insights into death rites of the ancient people of Ireland are being provided through studies led by a researcher at the Department of Anatomy at New Zealand's University of Otago. The findings, which have been published in the journal Bioarchaeology International, are part of a project applying modern techniques to human remains that were originally excavated more than 100 years ago.
The new paper, whose lead author is Dr Jonny Geber, focuses on the 5000 years-old passage tomb complex at Carrowkeel in County Sligo in the north-west of Ireland. This site is one of the most impressive Neolithic ritual landscapes in Europe, but despite that, is relatively unknown.
The research team analysed bones from up to seven passage tombs that included both unburnt and cremated human remains from around 40 individuals. Dr Geber says he and his colleagues determined that the unburnt bone displayed evidence of dismemberment. "We found indications of cut marks caused by stone tools at the site of tendon and ligament attachments around the major joints, such as the shoulder, elbow, hip and ankle," he says.
Dr Geber says the new evidence suggest that a complex burial rite was undertaken at Carrowkeel, that involved a funerary rite that placed a particular focus on the 'deconstruction' of the body. "This appears to entail the bodies of the dead being 'processed' by their kin and community in various ways, including cremation and dismemberment. It was probably done with the goal to help the souls of the dead to reach the next stages of their existence", Dr Geber concluded.
This study has been able to show that the Carrowkeel complex was most likely a highly significant place in Neolithic society in Ireland, and one which allowed for interaction and a spiritual connection with the ancestors. According to the researchers, the people of those times may have shared similar beliefs and ideologies concerning the treatment of the dead with communities beyond the Irish Sea.
Edited from PhysOrg (3 August 2017)