GRANADA, SPAIN—Researchers from the University of Granada have shown that the shrinking of the teeth of primates from the genus Homo is linked to their increase in brain size, even though a growing brain would require more food. “We have established that they are two opposing evolutionary trends that have been linked for 2.5 million years, when our first ancestors within the Homo genus first appeared on the evolutionary stage,” Juan Manuel Jiménez Arenas told Science Daily. Arenas credits higher amounts of animal food in the diet for the increase in brain size, which in turn fostered social and cultural development.
SHANGHAI, CHINA—Neanderthals and modern humans are thought to have interbred at least once—probably in the Middle East—after modern humans left Africa. As a result, today’s Europeans and Asians carry a small amount of Neanderthal DNA. A new analysis of some of those Neanderthal gene variants, and an examination of brain tissues, suggests that today’s Europeans have three times as many Neanderthal genes involved in the breakdown of fats than Asians have. “This is the first time we have seen differences in lipid concentrations between populations. How our brains are built differently of lipids might be due to Neanderthal DNA,” evolutionary biologist Philipp Khaitovich of the CAS-MPG Partner Institute and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology told Science Now. Khaitovich thinks the fatty acid genes may have helped Neanderthals and Europeans adapt to living in the Northern Europe’s colder climates.
KHARTOUM, SUDAN—Three statues dating to 450 B.C. have been stolen from a remote museum near the World Heritage site of Jebel Barkal in northern Sudan. “They are small statues, about 10 to 15 centimeters high but it’s very significant because the Napatan kingdom is one of the important periods in Sudanese history,” Abdurrahman Ali, head of Sudan’s museums, told News 24.
ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI—Archaeologists from the Missouri Department of Transportation have recovered the first physical evidence of a French colonial home in St. Louis beneath layers of concrete and bricks. It had been thought that all traces of the city’s early, fur-trading days had been wiped out by nineteenth-century construction. The home had been built with vertical wood posts, rather than the horizontal logs used by Anglo-Americans, according to principal investigator Michael Meyer. And, French documents confirm that the house was built in 1769 by Joseph Bouchard, then later owned by Philip Riviére, a member of a prominent local family. Another house nearby contained a piece of tin-enameled Spanish majolica. “They’ve actually found remnants of this exciting period of time that lasted for 40 years in the early history of St. Louis before the Louisiana Purchase,” National Park Service historian Bob Moore commented to St. Louis Public Radio.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK—BBC News reports that two artifacts thought to have been smuggled out of Italy have been withdrawn from auctions in London. A Greek glass jug dating to the second or first century B.C., and a third century B.C. pottery vessel, were identified by Christos Tsirogiannis of the University of Cambridge as items that had been traded by art dealers convicted of trafficking in antiquities. And, according to India West, the National Gallery of Australia has agreed to return a 900-year-old bronze Shiva Nataraja, or Dancing Shiva, believed to have been stolen from a temple in India’s state of Tamil Nadu. The museum had purchased the statue in 2008 from a New York art dealer currently on trial in Chennai for allegedly organizing the theft of 28 objects from two temples in India.
HURA, ISRAEL—A Byzantine monastery with intact mosaics on the floors of the prayer hall and dining room was discovered during salvage excavations in the Negev Desert. The mosaics, made up of blue, red, yellow, and green tiles, depict leaves, flowers, baskets, jars, birds, and geometric patterns. The names of four of the monastery’s abbots, and the sixth-century dates that the floors were laid, are recorded in tiles. “It seems that this monastery, located near the Byzantine settlement of Horbat Hur, is one monastery in a series of monasteries situated alongside a road that linked Transjordan with the Be’er Sheva Valley,” Daniel Varga of the Israel Antiquities Authority told Live Science. Four other rooms had been paved with white mosaic tiles, and ceramic jars, cooking pots, kraters, bowls, glass vessels, and coins were found. The monastery and mosaics will be moved away from the road construction and preserved.
POZNAŃ, POLAND—Little is known about the education of royal children in ancient Egypt, so Filip Taterka of Adam Mickiewicz University examined Egyptian texts for clues to the literacy of the pharaohs. He found references to medical documents, letters, and wisdom literature written by the kings, and adds that the writing implements found in the tomb of Tutankhamun suggests that the boy king had been educated. “For administrative documents and literary texts, ancient Egyptians used mainly hieratic, which was a simplified form of writing used since the Old Kingdom, the time of the builders of the pyramids in the third millennium B.C. In the middle of the first millennium B.C., even more simplified demotic appeared,” Taterka explained to Science & Scholarship in Poland. Taterka thinks that Egyptian royal children were probably taught hieratic, and that classical hieroglyphs were probably reserved for children who would enter the priesthood. Pharaohs would also need to know how to read hieroglyphs so that they could recite sacred texts.
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA—While examining the changes in building materials over time at the monastery Enkleistra of St. Neophytos in Cyprus, investigators discovered white asbestos beneath some areas of the twelfth-century wall paintings. The fibrous material, added to the finish coating of plaster, produced a smooth finish. The monks “probably wanted to give more shine and different properties to this layer. It definitely wasn’t a casual decision—they must have understood the properties of the material,” archaeological scientist Ioanna Kakoulli of UCLA told Live Science. The main deposits of asbestos in Cyprus are located some 38 miles away from the monastery, suggesting that the monks may have traded for it.
COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA—Rescue excavations continue at the site of “Camp Asylum,” a Civil War prisoner of war camp for 1,250 Union officers located in what was an exercise yard for patients at the state’s mental health asylum. Archaeologist Chester DePratter of the University of South Carolina has brought in machinery to look for shebangs—the holes that the officers dug in the ground for shelter during the winter of 1864. “We didn’t want to leave important features in the ground if we could get them using machinery judiciously,” he told WFAE. Combs, buttons, and lead seals from bales of cotton have also been found. The site will be handed over to developers at the end of April.
ROME, ITALY—Restoration of the mausoleum of Augustus, built in 28 B.C., is scheduled to begin. The cylindrical monument once stood 120 feet high, and was topped with a bronze statue of Augustus, the first emperor of Rome. The structure held his ashes, as well as the ashes of his successors, Tiberius and Claudius. “It’s incredible the mausoleum is still standing despite what it has been through,” archaeologist Elisabetta Carnabuci told The Guardian. The tomb was pillaged by the Visigoths, converted to a castle in the twelfth century, fired on with cannons, turned into a garden, and used for bullfights, fireworks, and concerts. The mausoleum is expected to reopen to the public in 2016.
PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA—A 3,300-year-old tomb that had a 23-foot-tall pyramid at its entrance has been excavated at an ancient cemetery in Abydos. The underground burial chambers of the elaborate tomb, which was looted as least twice in antiquity, still held a red-painted sandstone sarcophagus for a scribe named Horemheb in one chamber, and Shabti figurines for a man named Ramesu in another. The disarticulated skeletal remains of three to four men, 10 to 12 women, and at least two children were also recovered. Radiocarbon dates of the bones should help Kevin Cahail of the University of Pennsylvania determine if the women had been wives of the men, or if the tomb had been used over multiple generations by the same family. It is even possible that the tomb was reused without permission at a later date. Cahail and his team also discovered a broken heart amulet carved from red and green jasper. “It’s a beautiful object and possibly one of the best carved examples of these very rare type of amulets. It was probably on the chest of one of the deceased individuals and there probably would have been some sort of necklaces and gold and things like that,” he told Live Science.
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—Eleven ossuaries containing bone fragments and pottery were recovered last week in a joint operation between officials from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and the Shefet police, who interrupted a clandestine transaction and arrested several suspects. Some of the 2,000-year-old bone boxes are elaborately carved with Jewish symbols and text in Hebrew and Greek, and two were inscribed with names. The ossuaries are thought to have been recently looted from a burial cave in Jerusalem that may have been uncovered during a construction project. “We can learn from each ossuary about a different aspect of language, art and burial practice,” Eitan Klein, deputy director of the IAA, told Haaretz.
LONDON, ENGLAND—The Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century was not spread by fleas on rats, according to a new study of plague DNA extracted from 25 skeletons unearthed in London last year. Tim Brooks of Public Health England thinks that the Yersinia pestis bacterium must have been transmitted through coughs and sneezes in order for it to have spread through the population so quickly. Archaeologist Don Walker and Jelena Bekvalacs of the Museum of London add that the skeletons show that the people were in poor health when the plague struck—they suffered from rickets, anemia, malnutrition, and bad teeth. A study of the wills registered at the Court of Hustings by archaeologist Barney Sloane estimates that as many as 60 percent of Londoners succumbed to the Black Death. “As an explanation [rat fleas] for the Black Death in its own right, it simply isn’t good enough. It cannot spread fast enough from one household to the next to cause the huge number of cases that we saw during the Black Death epidemics,” Brooks told The Guardian.
ROCKHAMPTON, AUSTRALIA—Head injuries on Maya skulls are consistent with the use of spiked clubs, as depicted in Maya artwork, according to a study led by bioarchaeologist Stan Serafin of Central Queensland University. He examined 116 skulls from different periods of Maya history in 13 different sites from Mexico’s Northwest Yucatan. The team concluded that warfare could have decreased during the Classic period, but increased slightly in the Postclassic period, “which is to be expected since hard times tend to breed violence,” Serafin told CQUniNews. He thinks the wounds are more consistent with open combat between military units. “While some of these injuries may have been from arrows, a wooden club with protruding points would better account for their concentration in the left frontal and horizontal orientation in four out of five examples,” he added.
COLUMBIA, MISSOURI—It had been thought that native cattle were domesticated in Africa some 10,000 years ago, but a genetic study of 134 cattle breeds led by Jared Decker of the University of Missouri suggests that Africa’s domesticated cattle originated in the Fertile Crescent, or the area of Iraq, Jordan, Syria, and Israel. When early farmers from the Fertile Crescent migrated south, their cattle interbred with Africa’s wild cattle, or aurochs. “By better understanding the history of the animals we domesticate, we can better understand ourselves,” Decker told Red Orbit.
AREQUIPA, PERU—Peru’s Ministry of Culture has confirmed to Peru this Week that a pre-Inca tomb from the Churajón culture has been discovered by workers in the building where the Nobel Prize winning author Mario Vargas Llosa was born. The building is being converted into a museum that was expected to be completed in April. Four pots helped archaeologists identify the tomb. Officials have yet to decide if the tomb will be opened to the public as part of the museum.
MAKEMIE PARK, VIRGINIA—Students and volunteers assisted with the excavation of the seventeenth-century home site of the Rev. Francis Makemie, known as the Father of American Presbyterianism. He died in 1708 and was buried on his property, now Makemie Memorial Park—a Virginia Historic Landmark that is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Among the recovered artifacts are buttons, nails, cow bones and teeth, colonial-era glass, clay pipe fragments, ceramics, and green and yellow tiles that may have decorated a fireplace. The team has also uncovered the brick foundation to one of two home sites, and they may find outbuildings and slave quarters. “There’s a lot here. This is the whole basis of the history of this area,” David Wright of Eastern Shore Community College told Delmarva Now.
EASTBOURNE, ENGLAND—While reviewing the collection of 300 sets of human remains from the excavation of two Saxon cemeteries, Heritage Officer Jo Seaman and her team found the well-preserved skeleton of a young woman from sub-Saharan Africa who was missing her wisdom teeth. Radiocarbon dating revealed that she had lived during the Roman period, around 200 or 250 A.D., and isotope analysis indicated that she had lived in southeast England. Without access to her grave, Seaman told Culture 24 that it is hard to know much about her social status. “We think we know roughly where the cemetery is and hopefully later this year we’re going to go and try to find it, just because we may be able to find other individuals there,” she said.
SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH—A father and a 14-year-old digging a trout pond in their backyard unearthed human remains just a foot below that surface that may date to the Fremont Culture, which inhabited the region from 700 to 1300 A.D. Archaeologists are coming to the site to sift through the dirt pile for the rest of the skeleton and any artifacts the teen may have missed. KUTV reports that the boy had found so many animal bones and hooves from large animals that he didn’t think skull and other bones could be human.
CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—Teams of scientists have been analyzing skeletal material of people who lived in the Sahara Desert and other parts of Africa as long as 8,000 years ago. Ronika Power and Marta Mirazon Lahr of the Leverhulme Center for Human Evolutionary Studies at Cambridge University, and Tamsin O’Connell from the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research are focusing on individuals who lived in pre-Dynastic Egypt. David Mattingly of the University of Leicester is studying skeletons from the farmers and traders of the Garamantes civilization, who lived in the Sahara from 1000 B.C. to 1500 A.D. Isotope levels from tooth enamel indicate where an individual grew up, and isotopes from bones reveal where a person had been living in the last ten years before death. “Discontinuities between what the teeth tell us and what the bones tell us may provide evidence that the individual migrated. This in turn opens up questions about the interconnectedness of peoples—the movement of individuals, ideas, knowledge, and material culture at very early stages of civilization,” Power told Phys.org. “Did they adopt the customs of their hosts or did they maintain their immigrant identity?” she asked.