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Monday, 30 January 2012

Archaeological news from the past year

Some archaeological news left over from the past year. My comments are scarce, but this is not because the news are not interesting, but because I wanted to make the post as short as possible.
As always, I'm particularly interested by the way the dating of things accepted as known goes further and further back in time. Reading trough the news, you can also observe how the boundary between modern humans and their ancestors gets fuzzier.

Stone Age Fertility Ritual Object Found

A Stone Age-era artifact carved with multiple zigzags and what is likely a woman with spread legs suggests that fertility rituals may have been important to early Europeans, according to new research.
The object, which will be documented in the March issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science, is made out of a large elk antler and has been radiocarbon dated to about 10,900 years ago.
Zigzags are very popular motifs on artifacts from many cultures throughout the world, with many possible meanings, but Płonka said, "I think our zigzag lines are connected with water and life symbolism."
The lines also appear to have been carved by different individuals, suggesting that some group effort was involved in the creation of the object.
Giant elks were the most imposing animals of the European Plain, perhaps symbolizing "the power of life," according to Płonka.
Co-author Krzysztof Kowalski of the National Museum in Szczecin told Discovery News that he and his colleagues are not certain what culture produced the piece, but they've narrowed it down to two probable candidates: the Federmesser or the Ahrensburg cultures.
The researchers aren't yet certain if the images on the carved antler are associated with Venus figurines, statuettes of women with exaggerated sexual features that date to as early as 35,000 years ago. source

Lucy's feet were made for walking

By Bruce Bower , March 12th, 2011;
A tiny 3.2-million-year-old fossil found in East Africa gives Lucy’s kind an unprecedented toehold on humanlike walking.
Australopithecus afarensis, an ancient hominid species best known for a partial female skeleton called Lucy, had stiff foot arches like those of people today, say anthropologist Carol Ward of the University of Missouri in Columbia and her colleagues. A bone from the fourth toe — the first such A. afarensis fossil unearthed — provides crucial evidence that bends in this species’ feet supported and cushioned a two-legged stride, the scientists report in the Feb. 11 Science.
“We now have the evidence we’ve been lacking that A. afarensis had fully developed, permanent arches in its feet,” Ward says. Survival for Lucy and her comrades must have hinged on abandoning trees for a ground-based lifestyle, she proposes.
The new fossil confirms that members of Lucy’s species could have made 3.6-million-year-old footprints previously found in hardened volcanic ash at Laetoli, Tanzania (SN Online: 3/22/10), she says. A. afarensis lived from about 4 million to 3 million years ago. source

Ancient teeth raise new questions about the origins of modern man

BINGHAMTON, NY – Eight small teeth found in a cave near Rosh Haain, central Israel, are raising big questions about the earliest existence of humans and where we may have originated, says Binghamton University anthropologist Rolf Quam. Part of a team of international researchers led by Dr. Israel Hershovitz of Tel Aviv University, Qaum and his colleagues have been examining the dental discovery and recently published their joint findings in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.
Excavated at Qesem cave, a pre-historic site that was uncovered in 2000, the size and shape of the teeth are very similar to those of modern man, Homo sapiens, which have been found at other sites is Israel, such as Oafzeh and Skhul - but they're a lot older than any previously discovered remains.
"The Qesem teeth come from a time period between 200,000 - 400,000 years ago when human remains from the Middle East are very scarce," Quam said. If the remains from Qesem can be linked directly to the Homo sapiens species, it could mean that modern man either originated in what is now Israel or may have migrated from Africa far earlier that is presently accepted. source

Bronze Age settlement found at NE Hungary construction site

2011-02-17 07:29 Remains of a Bronze Age settlement and a former Sarmatian burial ground have been found at a construction site in the city of Nyiregyhaza in northeast Hungary, daily Magyar Nemzet said on Wednesday.
Several thousand metal objects, Roman bronze, silver and golden coins, and jewellery were excavated by archaeologists in the Oros district of the city, said the head of the excavation. One old pot contained as many as 34 bracelets, project leader archaeologist Eszter Istvanovits told the newspaper. Some sixty dwellings have been excavated in the 56-hectare area and among the curiosities found has been a bone flute, she said. Not far from the Bronze Age site, archaeologists also found some 100 graves from the period of the settlement of Magyars in Hungary. Many of the graves included bracelets and belt buckles. A circular Sarmatian burial ground was also identified in the area but most of these graves have been robbed so archeologists could recover very few items from these.  source My comment: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico at the de Young
Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico at the de Young
Just look at those huge statues! It's amazing what the Ancient people built. Or why they did it at all!

The oldest salt mine known to date located in Azerbaijan

November 29, 2010
French archeologists have recently provided proof that the Duzdagi salt deposits, situated in the Araxes Valley in Azerbaijan, were already being exploited from the second half of the 5th millennium BC. It is therefore the most ancient exploitation of rock salt attested to date. And, to the researchers' surprise, intensive salt production was carried out in this mine at least as early as 3500 BC.  source

Stone cutting tools link early humans to prehistoric India

March 25, 2011  Dating of recently discovered artifacts in South India indicates that early humans lived in the region more than a million years ago, and that they used distinct 'Acheulian' stone cutting tools, a new study reports in journal Science.
Acheulian tools originated in Africa around 1.5 million years ago and are thought to have spread throughout Eurasia.
The artifacts were discovered in one of the richest Paleolithic sites in Tamil Nadu, India, called Attirampakkam. Nestled in the Kortallayar , the site was discovered in 1863 by British geologist Robert Bruce Foote, and has been excavated (off and on) since then.
Shanti Pappu and colleagues determined the ages of these tools, which suggest that Acheulian tool-making humans were present in South Asia around a million years ago or earlier, existing at the same time as other populations in southwest Asia and Africa.
The team discovered more than 3,500 quartzite stone artifacts, including more than 70 Acheulian hand axes, cleavers and flakes (small chipped stones).
By taking paelomagnetic measurements, the researchers were able to directly date the sediments that covered the Acheulian tools. All paleomagnetic measurements from around the site showed a reversed polarity, meaning that the predates the period after the last reversal of Earth’s magnetic field.
The discovery of reverse polarity establishes the fact that the sediments are more than a million years old. source

Neanderthals were nifty at controlling fire: study

March 14, 2011 
A new study involving the University of Colorado Boulder shows clear evidence of the continuous control of fire by Neanderthals in Europe dating back roughly 400,000 years, yet another indication that they weren't dimwitted brutes as often portrayed.
The conclusion comes from the study of scores of ancient sites in Europe that show convincing evidence of long-term control by , said Paola Villa, a curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History.
A paper on the subject was published in the March 14 issue of the .
The second major finding in the PNAS study -- perhaps even more surprising than the first -- was that Neanderthal predecessors pushed into Europe's colder northern latitudes more than 800,000 years ago without the habitual control of fire, said Roebroecks.
Recent evidence from an 800,000-year-old site in England known as Happisburgh indicates hominids -- likely Homo heidelbergenis, the forerunner of Neanderthals -- adapted to chilly environments in the region without fire, Roebroeks said.
The simplest explanation is that there was no habitual use of fire by early humans prior to roughly 400,000 years ago, indicating that fire was not an essential component of the behavior of the first occupants of Europe's northern latitudes, said Roebroeks.
According to Villa, one of the most spectacular uses of fire by Neanderthals was in the production of a sticky liquid called pitch from the bark of birch trees that was used by Neanderthals to haft, or fit wooden shafts on, . Since the only way to create pitch from the trees is to burn bark peels in the absence of air, archaeologists surmise Neanderthals dug holes in the ground, inserted birch bark peels, lit them and covered the hole tightly with stones to block incoming air.
Some anthropologists have proposed that Neanderthals became extinct because their cognitive abilities were inferior, including a lack of long-term planning, said Villa. But the archaeological record shows Neanderthals drove herds of big game animals into dead-end ravines and ambushed them, as evidenced by repeatedly used kill sites -- a sign of long-term planning and coordination among hunters, she said.
Recent findings have even indicated Neanderthals were cooking, as evidenced by tiny bits of cooked plant material recovered from their teeth. source
My comment: I like how the deeper scientists go, the less pronounced becomes the difference between Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens. As you'll see in the next news, obviously the two groups coexisted even longer in Europe. It was also proved that we have parts of Neanderthals genome. For me, this all means that the Neanderthals weren't that different from us and that we still have absolutely no clue why the one group survived and the other - no. Because clearly, they weren't less intelligent than us or less adapted to the environment than us.
More on this: Research team finds evidence of red ochre use by Neanderthals 200,000 years ago -  Archeologists digging in the Netherlands have unearthed flint and bone fragments from 200,000 years ago that have remnants of red ochre on them, indicating that Neanderthals were using the material much earlier than was previously thought. The research team has published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Homo sapiens arrived in Europe earlier than previously believed -Members of our species (Homo sapiens) arrived in Europe several millennia earlier than previously thought. At this conclusion a team of researchers, led by the Department of Anthropology, University of Vienna, arrived after re-analyses of two ancient deciduous teeth. These teeth were discovered 1964 in the "Grotta del Cavallo", a prehistoric cave in southern Italy. Since their discovery they have been attributed to Neanderthals, but this new study suggests they belong to anatomically modern humans. Chronometric analysis, carried out by the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit at the University of Oxford, shows that the layers within which the teeth were found date to ~43,000-45,000 cal BP. This means that the human remains are older than any other known European modern humans. The research work was published in the renowned science journal Nature.
Paleo-Indians settled North America earlier than thought: study - New discoveries at a Central Texas archaeological site by a Texas A&M University-led research team prove that people lived in the region far earlier – as much as 2,500 years earlier – than previously believed, rewriting what anthropologists know about when the first inhabitants arrived in North America. That pushes the arrival date back to about 15,500 years ago. -  

Anthropologists clarify link between Asians and early Native-Americans

January 26, 2012

A tiny mountainous region in southern Siberia may have been the genetic source of the earliest Native Americans, according to new research by a University of Pennsylvania-led team of anthropologists.
Lying at the intersection of what is today Russia, Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan, the region known as the Altai "is a key area because it's a place that people have been coming and going for thousands and thousands of years," said Theodore Schurr, an associate professor in Penn's Department of Anthropology.
The team's study, published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, analyzed the genetics of individuals living in Russia's Altai Republic to identify markers that might link them to Native Americans.
Schurr and colleagues assessed the Altai samples for markers in mitochondrial DNA, which is maternally inherited, and in Y chromosome DNA, which is passed from fathers to sons. They also compared the samples to ones previously collected from individuals in southern Siberia, Central Asia, Mongolia, East Asia and a variety of American indigenous groups. Because of the large number of gene markers examined, the findings have a high degree of precision.
Looking at the Y chromosome DNA, the researchers found a unique mutation shared by Native Americans and southern Altaians in the lineage known as Q.
"This is also true from the mitochondrial side," Schurr said. "We find forms of haplogroups C and D in southern Altaians and D in northern Altaians that look like some of the founder types that arose in North America, although the northern Altaians appeared more distantly related to Native Americans."
Calculating how long the mutations they noted took to arise, Schurr's team estimated that the southern Altaian lineage diverged genetically from the Native American lineage 13,000 to 14,000 years ago, a timing scenario that aligns with the idea of people moving into the Americas from Siberia between 15,000 and 20,000 years ago.
My comment: This news is actually quite interesting since just yesterday, I read in a book on Latin American shamans that some of their rituals and practices can be followed to the Altai region. And I think this book is very old actually, so obviously, there was a suspicion of this link. But the genetic proof is much better!

Ancient seal found in Jerusalem linked to ritual

December 29, 2011
A rare clay seal found under Jerusalem's Old City appears to be linked to religious rituals practiced at the Jewish Temple 2,000 years ago, Israeli archaeologists said Sunday.
Archaeologist Ronny Reich of Haifa University said it dates from between the 1st century B.C. to 70 A.D. — the year Roman forces put down a Jewish revolt and destroyed the second of the two biblical temples in Jerusalem.
The find marks the first discovery of a written seal from that period of Jerusalem's history, and appeared to be a unique physical artifact from ritual practice in the Temple, said Reich, co-director of the excavation. source

My comment: Ok, is it just me, or on this seal, there is a horse and its rider? If this is true, then I very much doubt the Jewish origin of this seal, since the heroic rider is quite known as part of the Thracian pantheon and can be seen all the way from Bulgaria to Afghanistan.  And it has nothing to do with Jewish beliefs and religious practices. 

Anthropologists discover earliest cemetery in Middle East -
Anthropologists at the University of Toronto and the University of Cambridge have discovered the oldest cemetery in the Middle East at a site in northern Jordan. The cemetery includes graves containing human remains buried alongside those of a red fox, suggesting that the animal was possibly kept as a pet by humans long before dogs ever were.

Rice's origins point to China, genome researchers conclude

( -- Rice originated in China, a team of genome researchers has concluded in a study tracing back thousands of years of evolutionary history through large-scale gene re-sequencing. Their findings, which appear in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), indicate that domesticated rice may have first appeared as far back as approximately 9,000 years ago in the Yangtze Valley of China. Previous research suggested domesticated rice may have two points of origin -- India as well as China.
In their PNAS study, the investigators also used a "molecular clock" of rice genes to see when rice evolved. Depending on how the researchers calibrated their clock, they pinpointed the origin of rice at possibly 8,200 years ago, while japonica and indica split apart from each other about 3,900 years ago. The study's authors pointed out that these molecular dates were consistent with archaeological studies. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence in the last decade for rice domestication in the Yangtze Valley beginning approximately 8,000 to 9,000 years ago while domestication of rice in the India's Ganges region was around about 4,000 years ago. source

Neolithic humans lived a communal life: study

May 3, 2011 by Deborah Braconnier
( -- A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  finds evidence that the previous assumption that stone and mud-brick buildings built nearly 12,000 years ago were the homes and settlements of the first farmers may not have been homes at all, but community centers.
These three buildings were found within a cluster of other small buildings, though none of these buildings appear to be individual family homes. The researchers suggest that in this time period there may have been little distinction between ritual and household activities and that people lived and worked as a community. source

No nuts for 'Nutcracker Man': Early human relative apparently chewed grass instead

May 2, 2011
( -- For decades, a 2.3 million- to 1.2 million-year-old human relative named Paranthropus boisei has been nicknamed Nutcracker Man because of his big, flat molar teeth and thick, powerful jaw. But a definitive new University of Utah study shows that Nutcracker Man didn’t eat nuts, but instead chewed grasses and possibly sedges – a discovery that upsets conventional wisdom about early humanity’s diet.
The new study of Nutcracker Man may provoke a major change in how we view the diets of other early humans and human relatives.
My comment: OK, you must admit it doesn't sounds good when you hear that your ancestor ate grass. But then, if it is true, then we have to accept it. I wonder how nutritious grass actually is. I mean, we can still chop grass and eat it, even if we don't have the teeth for this. But can our stomachs process it? That's the question. And by the way, this question is not answered for the Nutcracker man either!

Oldest evidence of writing found in Europe

April 4, 2011 by Deborah Braconnier
( -- In a study to be published this month in the Proceedings of the Athens Archaeological Society, archaeologist Michael Cosmopoulos of the University of Missouri-St. Louis shares his discovery of a clay tablet showing the earliest known writing in Europe.
Located in the southwestern corner of Greece, the town where this discovery took place is Iklaina. This town dates back to the Mycenaean period of 1500 BC to 100 BC, and around 1400 BC was conquered by King Nestor.
Cosmopoulos has been actively excavating this site for 11 years and has found evidence of a Mycenaean palace, including colorful murals, Cyclopean walls, and an elaborate drainage system made from clay pipes. However, this tablet has been his most unexpected find.
The estimated 3,500 year-old tablet only measures around one inch by one and a half inches, but shows various symbols of Linear B, an ancient Greek writing consisting of 87 signs, each signifying one syllable. It appears that the Mycenaean’s used this tablet to record economic matters of interest to those in the ruling party.
From what the researchers can distinguish, the front of the tablet shows markings appearing to for a verb relating to manufacturing. The back of this small tablet shows a list with numbers and names.
While this is not the oldest writing ever found, it is the earliest example of writing found in Europe. found in China, Egypt, and Mesopotamia is believed to date back to 3,000 BC. source
My comment: I get utterly mad when I read about those Greek kingdoms and ancient Greek alphabet! There is nothing Greek about this alphabet, because back then, there was no Greece and not Greek people. In fact, the very civilization has little to do with the Hellenistic cities. And so they can shove their Greek egos wherever they see fit. I so hate how everybody on the Balkans loves to distort history and takes whatever they like for themselves. 
Archaeologists Explore Site for Answers About First European Farmers - A team of archaeologists and students will begin renewed excavations at a site in Bulgaria that holds promise for shedding more light on some of the first farmers of Europe. Thanks to the results of a 20-year Bulgarian-French excavation project in Kovachevo there are many evidences showing that the first inhabitants of that settlement were people of Anatolian origin, culture Hacilar VI-I. - I kind of don't understand the idea of "Anatolian origin", but anyway. The important part is that they talk about Bulgarian Neolithic settlements. 

Was drug-smoking prevalent in the Indus Valley Civilization? -
Cannabis is native to South Asia and is mentioned in the Vedas. Its use was reasonably widespread in the ancient world. Herodotus records that the Scythians has special tents in which people inhaled the fumes from cannabis heated on a tripod. Discoveries in the steppe nomad burials at Pazyryk bear this out. Recently a burial of a man with a sack of cannabis leaves, presumed to be a shaman, was found in Xinjiang province of China. Braziers from the 5th millennium Balkans and from various periods elsewhere in Europe may have been used for heating cannabis or poppy heads.
Poppies, the source of opium, were used in Europe from the Neolithic period onward, and opium was in use in Mesopotamia by the late 3rd millennium BC and by at least the mid 2nd millennium in Egypt; thus the Harappans could also have been introduced to its use. Areca nut and betel leaf, chewed together with lime as paan, are native to South Asia. There is a claim that these were used by the Harappans but I have been unable to track down the evidence on which this claim is based. - Interesting, I didn't know that opium was so used so early (and so widely) on the Balkans. They don't mention, however, how it came here.  
Ancient Greek City Uncovered in Russia - What is considered to be a unique discovery has been made in Taman, South Russia, at the Black Sea. The ruins of an ancient Greek city, dated around the 6th century BC, came to light.  Archeologists are stunned both by the number of the findings and the condition they were found in.
The excavations are proceeding with extreme caution, in order to avoid damaging the city’s ancient fortress. According to historians, it is assumed that the ruins are the temple of Dimitra, the ancient goddess of fertility and agriculture, while they  were able to determine the very spot of the altar. But, the number of the findings induce them to believe that a whole city has been found.
Bulgarian Archaeologists Uncover Sanctuary of Greek Goddess Demeter -
A temple of Ancient Greek goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone has been discovered by a team of Bulgarian archaeologists near the town of Sozopol on the Black Sea.
The archaeological team of Prof. Krastina Panayotova found the Ancient Greek temple Tuesday during excavations on the Skamniy Cape where the archaeologists are exploring a fortress wall and a church that were part of a Byzantine imperial monastery.
Panayotova explained that the figurines and ceramics found in a concentrated spot are clear evidence of the cult for Demeter and Persephone.

7000 years old prototype of European towns found in Bulgaria

4 June 2011 | Bulgarian archaeologists discovered what they believe to be the oldest town in Europe, local media reported. Dubbed a 'proto-town', the site is situated near the town of Pazardzhic, in the center of the country.

In 2008 the team of archaeologist Yasen Boyadzhiev found in the area a large ancient graveyard, which became known under the current name of the area, Yunatsite (The Heroes). Later the excavations were extended and yesterday the researchers announced they have found a surprisingly large settlement, which during 4700-4600 BC spread over 100 000 sq m.

The site possessed all the features of an urban center, Yasen Boyadzhiev was quoted to say. His team discovered vast fortified walls – one wall five meters wide and at least five meters tall, a ditch and then another defence wall, all running along each other.

The citadel was surrounding only the highest part of the settlement, and beyond its walls the buildings continued. Within the walls the archaeologist discovered not only houses, but also what was apparently workshops center. Some of the found artefacts speak of advanced production skills.
So far constructions of this scale and planning were found only in settlements of much later periods, such as classical antiquity.  source

A civilisation as old as Indus valley?

Friday, May 27, 2011, 1:28 IST , By DNA Correspondent | Place: Mumbai
In what could turn out to be a major discovery,researchers have found a wall-like structure, which is 24km long, 2.7m in height, and around 2.5m in width. The structure shows uniformity in construction. “The structure is not continuous from Shrivardhan to Raigad, but it is uniform. It has been found 3m below the present sea level. Considering the uniformity of the structure, it is obvious that the structure is man-made,” said Dr Ashok Marathe, department of archaeology, Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute, Pune.
However, the age of the structure was decided on the basis of sea level mapping. “There have been exhaustive studies about the sea water coming inside the land. Based on the calculations, experts from the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) pegged the age of the wall at around 6,000 BC,” Marathe informed.
The discovery has raised a number of questions, such as how these huge stones were brought to the shore? What was the purpose behind building this wall? If the date of the wall is accurate, then is it the same age as the Indus civilisation? source
My comment: A 24km long wall built 8000 years ago? That's quite fascinating! I also wonder why did they build it. To protect the coast from tsunamis, maybe? The question, them, is who built it and how! More news:
No cheese for Neolithic humans in France  - An excavation of a southern French burial site from about 3,000 B.C. shows that the modern humans who expanded into the area from the Mediterranean lived in patrilocal communities and did not have the genetic mutation that allowed later Europeans to digest fresh milk.
Site hints at Asian roots for human genus -
Most paleoanthropologists have favored an African origin for the potential human ancestor Homo erectus. But new evidence shows the species occupied a West Asian site called Dmanisi from 1.85 million to 1.77 million years ago, at the same time or slightly before the earliest evidence of this humanlike species in Africa, say geologist Reid Ferring of the University of North Texas in Denton and his colleagues.
The new Dmanisi discoveries point to an Asian homeland for H. erectus, the scientists propose online June 6 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Ancient footprints show human-like walking began nearly four million years ago - Scientists at the University of Liverpool have found that ancient footprints in Laetoli, Tanzania, show that human-like features of the feet and gait existed almost two million years earlier than previously thought.
Saudi find shows horses used 9,000 years ago - Saudi Arabia has found traces of a civilisation that was domesticating horses about 9,000 years ago, 4,000 years earlier than previously thought, the kingdom said.
Sex with Neanderthals and Denisovans gave healthy boost to human genome: study - Sex with Neanderthals and another close relative — the recently discovered Denisovans — has endowed some human gene pools with beneficial versions of immune system genes, report researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine. The useful gift was the introduction of new variants of immune system genes called the HLA class I genes, which are critical for our body's ability to recognize and destroy pathogens. HLA genes are some of the most variable and adaptable genes in our genome, in part because the rapid evolution of viruses demands flexibility on the part of our immune system. - Quite surprising discovery and quite cool as well. Because our immune system is what actually keep us alive. That's quite a gift!

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