MEXICO CITY, MEXICO—In the Mexican state of Jalisco, archaeologists are unearthing the remains of 23 ceremonial structures at the site of Teocaltitan. Erected during the Classic period, between 450 and 900 A.D., the buildings are similar in style to ones still standing at the famous ancient city of Teotihuacan. Archaeologist Marisol Montejano Esquivias is heading the National Institute of Anthropology and History team excavating the site. “The interesting thing about Teocaltitan, apart from having Teotihuacan influence, is that it has elements that are very characteristic of the region such as the square architecture, sunken gardens in U-shape, pyramids with closed gardens, [and] ball game courts,” said Montejano. In one ball court, her team also found copper and shell earrings next to the cranium of a decapitated person. The artifacts date to between 900 and 1200 A.D., indicating the center was used in the Post Classic Period.
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS—In November of 1912, the schooner "Rouse Simmons" set sail from Michigan's upper peninsula, bound for Chicago with a cargo of Christmas trees. The 44-year old ship was captained by Herman Schuenemann, who was known as "Captain Christmas" and was famous for giving trees away to the needy. It's possible the holiday cargo was too heavy for the vessel to safely transport. Though logs show the weather was clear, the schooner went down with all hands, perhaps hit by a rouge wave. Maritime archaeologist Tamara Thomsen has been to the site of the shipwreck, which in 1971 was discovered in 178 feet of water. “It’s just a beautiful site," said Thomsen. "And it’s very interesting that it’s completely loaded with Christmas trees even today. And if you look down below the top layer of Christmas tree—Christmas trees still have needles on them." Every year the Coast Guard delivers free trees to Chicago's needy in memory of "Rouse Simmons."
TUCSON, ARIZONA—A team of scientists has determined that the pattern displayed by human hunter-gatherers to forage for food is the very same for as for disparate organisms, like sharks and honeybees. The researchers studied the Hadza people of Tanzania, a culture that still hunts big game, tracking the hunter-gatherers' movements with GPS-fitted wristwatches. The primary discernable hunting behavior of the Hazda is called a Lévy walk, a fundamental movement pattern across species characterized by a series of short treks in a particular area followed by larger sojourn to find a new area for exploration. “We can characterize these movement patterns across different human environments, and that means we can use this movement pattern to understand past mobility,” said David Raichlen, a University of Arizona anthropologist and principal investigator on the new research.
HAIDERSHOFEN, AUSTRIA—A quartzite hammerstone found at the site of Lehberg in Austria could bear the handprint of an ancient human ancestor that lived 500,000 years ago. Lehberg has offered up Acheulean axes and a phallus-shaped item that's splattered in ochre, but the new find ties the activities of Homo erectus in Europe to the hand painting done by its descendants 450,000 years later in caves like Rouffignac. Stereoscopic light microscope imaging of the hammerstone showed an ochre outline that likely corresponds to the ball and thumb of an ancient right-handed hominin. The faint stain was likely left when the long extinct user held the stone while grinding ochre with water to make a paint.
HYDERABAD, INDIA—An arm bone retreived from the pieces of a stone sarcophogus found in the ruins of a church in Goa on the west coast of India likely belonged to Ketevan, the 17th century queen of the Kingdom of Kakheti in eastern Georgia. Literary sources say that when Kakheti was conquered by the Persians in 1613, Ketevan was taken prisoner. After refusing to join the Persian emperor's harem, she was tortured and killed 11 years later, and a portion of her body was said to have been taken to St. Augustine's Chuch in Goa and kept on a window. Since the mid-1800s, the church has fallen into ruin, but Georgian and Indian archaeologists managed to recover an arm bone from what was left of the stone box. Analysis of mitochondrial DNA from the bone suggests its much more likely to have come from a Georgian than an Indian, providing a tantalizing clue that it could be Ketevan's.
REHOBOTH BEACH, DELAWARE—Residues of pottery sherds from ancient Scandinavian settlements dating as far back as 1200 B.C. are the inspiration for Delaware-based brewey Dogfish Head's latest ancient ale, Kvasir. Patrick McGovern, a bioarchaeolgist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum and frequent collaborator with Dogfish Head on these brews calls the drink a Nordic grog. The recipe for Kvasir, which is available in limited quantities now, involves yarrow, lingonberries, cranberries, bog myrtle, and birch syrup. Prior to Kvasir, Dogfish Head brewed Midas Touch, influenced by residues taken from 2,700-year-old pottery found in Turkey, and Chateau Jiahu, an ale that traces its history back to Neolithic China.
TITUSVILLE, FLORIDA—A pond in eastern Florida that held prehistoric burials dating to more than 8,000 years ago has been bought by the Archaeological Conservancy for $90,000—effectively saving it from being destroyed to make way for a new housing development. In 1982 construction near Windover Pond inadvertantly led to the discovery of more than 150 early Archaic burials, including 91 skulls with brain tissue still intact in them. Excavations in the mid-1980s also uncovered ancient textiles and a 15-year-old boy who apparently died of spina bifida. "Windover is an extremely significant and important site. It's unique," said Jessica Crawford, the Archaeological Conservancy's Southeast regional director. "We'll do what we need to do to keep it protected and keep it intact."
WARSAW, POLAND—A Polish team excavating at the site of Old Dongola in northern Sudan have uncovered a 900-year-old medieval crypt. Dating to a period when Old Dongola was the capital of the Christian kingdom of Makuria, the crypt held the naturally mummified remains of seven individuals. According to an epitaph in the tomb, one of them was the powerful Archbishop Georgios, who died in A.D. 1113. Inscriptions covering the crypt's walls include quotations from the gospels of Luke, John, Mark and Matthew, as well as prayers to the Virgin Mary. The researchers believe the inscriptions were meant to protect those buried in the tomb during the time between their moment of death and their appearance before God.
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND—New dating of timbers from a shipwreck in the North Island's Kaipara Harbor shows it was built around 1705. Made of wood native to Southeast Asia, it would probably not have lasted more than 50 years as a sea-worthy ship, meaning it would have reached New Zealand between 1642, when Dutch explorer Abel Tasman first explored the islands, and 1769, when Captain Cook made landfall. According to Cook's accounts, local Maori spoke of earlier shipwrecks. University of Auckland tree ring specialist Jonathan Palmer, who dated the wood, is urging archaeologists to consider a full excavation of the site. The vessel is now buried in over 30 feet of sand.
CAIRO, EGYPT—Ancient Egyptians were renowned for their depictions of animals, but spiders have always been conspicuously absent in their artwork. Now a team led by American University in Cairo Egyptologist Salima Ikram has found a rock panel in the Kharga Oasis in Egypt's Western Desert that could change that. It may hold the first images of spiders in not only ancient Egyptian rock art but in Old World rock art in general. Dating to around 4000 B.C., the panel has several figures that could depict spiders, as well as carvings of what might be webs with insects trapped in them. After consulting with an arachnologist, Ikram learned that a spider species native to the Egyptian desert, Argiope lobata, might have attracted the attention of prehistoric Egyptians because it is known to stay in its web even under the noonday sun. That could have had some special totemic significance to the people who left the artwork behind.
SANTA BARBARA, CALIFORNIA—While excavating burial caves in the Peruvian province of Andahuaylas, University of California Santa Barbara bioarchaeologist Danielle Kurin and her team have found the remains of 32 individuals who lived from A.D 1000 to 1250, a chaotic period that followed the collapse of the Wari Empire in the region. Among those individuals, Kurin has found evidence of at least 45 separate examples of trepanation, or cranial surgery. While trepanation was practiced during the prosperous rule of the Wari, it was not done at the scale evident in the more tumultuous period that followed the empire's collapse, when increasing violence meant head wounds were more frequent. "It is precisely during times of collapse that we see people's resilience and moxie coming to the fore," says Kurin. "In the same way that new types of bullet wounds from the Civil War resulted in the development of better glass eyes, the same way IED's are propelling research in prosthetics in the military today, so, too, did these people in Peru employ trepanation to cope with new challenges like violence, disease, and depravation 1,000 years ago." Based on cuts on some of the skulls, Kurin thinks they belonged to already dead individuals who served as cadavers for prehistoric surgeons honing their craft.
LEIPZIG, GERMANY—Scientists have extracted and analyzed DNA from the 50,000-year-old toe bone of a Neanderthal woman found in Siberia's Denisova Cave in 2010 and put together a high-quality draft of the genome of modern human's closest extinct relative. The sequence allows for comparison between modern humans and other hominins, like Denisovans, another extinct hominin. For example, about two percent of the DNA of modern humans living in outside of Africa is from Neanderthals. The research also showed that Neanderthals and Denisovans interbred but not to the extent that there was a lot of genetic crossover—the Denisovan genome gets less than one percent of its genes from Neanderthals. Further, an unidentified human ancestor may have contributed up to six percent of the genes in the Denisovan genome. “This ancient population of hominins lived prior to the separation of Neanderthals, Denisovans and modern humans,” says Kay Prüfer, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig. “It is possible that this unknown hominin was what is known from the fossil record as Homo erectus.”
BLOOMINGTON, INDIANA—Two monuments found off the Via Flaminia, once the major road leading from Rome to the Apennine Mountains, were believed to be strategically built to celebrate the birthday of Emperor Augustus on September 23. Using GPS coordinates and the exact measurements of all the buildings and the surrounding area, a team of researchers at Indiana University (IU) put this legend to the test. Supposedly, on the founder of the Roman Empire's birthday, the 71-foot-tall Obelisk of Montecitorio would act as the pointer of a giant sundial on the plaza below and its shadow would neatly bisect the Ara Pacis, or Altar of Peace, built in 9 B.C. The team used NASA's Horizon System to figure out what the position of the sun would have been more than 2000 years ago and determined that it would have peered directly over the obelisk on October 9. That date corresponds with the annual festival of the Temple Palatine Apollo. "Inscriptions on the obelisk show that Augustus explicitly dedicated the obelisk to his favorite deity, Apollo, the Sun god,” said Bernie Frischer, an archaeo-informaticist at IU. “And the most lavish new temple Augustus built, the Temple of Palatine Apollo, was dedicated to his patron god and built right next to Augustus’ own home."
WEST TURKANA, KENYA—An ancient hand bone belonging to a long extinct ancestor of modern humans is pushing back when scientists believe hominins took a critical evolutionary step that allowed for the making and use of tools. The bone was found at the Kaito site in Kenya. It is a 1.42 million-year-old metacarpal that connects the middle finger to the wrist. The bone looks like that of modern humans, even including a feature called a styloid process, which allows for a strong grip. The styloid process is absent in all fossils that date to before 1.8 million years, and scientists previously believed it appeared only 800,000 years ago. The new bone suggests that the feature developed with modern human's ancient ancestor Homo erectussensu lato. "Our specialised, dexterous hands have been with us for most of the evolutionary history of our genus, Homo," said Carol Ward, an anatomical scientist at the University of Missouri, Columbia. "They are—and have been for almost 1.5 million years—fundamental to our survival."
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND—Roman lead, once used for making currency, weaponry, and construction materials, is at the center of a spat between archaeologists and physicists. Ingots made of the older lead, which has already decayed is pure, heavier, and less radioactive than its modern equivalent, are typically found in Roman shipwrecks. It is melted into bricks that often ends up in the hands of physicists who find it to be ideal material for experiments involving dark matter. The lead is a perfect shield for detectors that look for dark matter and other rare particles because of its lower radiation levels—on the order of 1,000 less noise than modern lead. The material is currently employed in the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search (CDMS) experiment taking place in Minnesota and in an Italian effort, the Cryogenic Underground Observatory for Rare Events. "Are these experiments important enough to destroy parts of our past, to discover something about our future?" says archaeology graduate student Elena Perez-Alvaro of England's University of Birmingham.
SPRINGFIELD, MASSACHUSETTS—While selecting objects from the Springfield Science Museum's collection for a display on Northwest Coast cultures, anthropology curator and archaeologist Ellen Savulis came across a large, ornate object described in the catalogue only as an “Aleutian hat.” But the piece, carved from a large piece of wood and accepted into the collection sometime after 1899, looked nothing like Aleutian hats, which were made from thin pieces of driftwood. Suspecting the artifact was instead a helmet of some kind, Savulis contacted Steve Henrikson, Curator of Collections at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau, for help. After seeing photographs of the piece, Henrikson had no doubt that it was a war helmet made by the Tlingit people of southeast Alaska. Only 95 of these war helmets, which are decorated with clan emblems, are known to exist today. Its carving style dates the artifact to before the mid-19th century, when the appearance of firearms among the Tlingit relegated helmets to ritual use.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK—The study of ancient mental illness can at best be characterized as an "inexact science," but it is a passion of Columbia University historian William V. Harris, who studies such conditions in ancient Greece and Rome. Take for instance, the event we now know as the marathon. The inspiration comes from the courier Pheidippides's vision of Pan, the god of nature, during his run from Athens to Sparta to enlist the Spartans' help in defeating the Persians at Marathon. Harris characterizes Pheidippides seeing Pan as a possible hallucination.
In 2010, Harris started two conferences on mental illness in the ancient world. Now the findings of those events are being published, including a sort of glossary of descriptions in the classical world. One example is the word "phrenitis," which in ancient texts seems to correspond to bouts of delerium, fever, and death. To contemporary doctors, they would probably chracterize such a condition as encephalitis. According to Harris, "The names of mental disorders that the very best ancient thinkers have used don’t often correspond to anything that exists in the modern world in a neat and tidy way."
ERIE, PENNSYLVANIA—A team led by Mercyhurst University archaeologist James Adavasio will excavate a site in Vero Beach, Florida, that is one of North America's most controversial. In 1915, workers dredging a canal in Vero Beach unearthed a trove of bones belonging to extinct Ice Age animals such as saber tooth cats, ground sloths, and mammoths. Among those remains were a human skull, and dozens of other human bones that could have belonged to a man who lived 13,000 years ago. Dubbed "Vero Man," the remains became a flashpoint in the debate over the antiquity of humans in the New World. “From the beginning, Vero was one of the more infamous archaeological sites in North America because it was seen as such a threat to the then perceived wisdom that no humans had lived here during the last Ice Age,” said Adovasio. He and his team will apply modern, scientific techniques to the Vero Beach site, which has excellent preservation of Ice Age plant and animal remains.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK—Skeptics have long argued that Neanderthals in Europe did not bury their dead, an activity that implies sophisticated symbolic thought. While Neanderthal burials have been unearthed in the Near East, many believed it was a tradition borrowed from anatomically modern Humans, with whom Neanderthals could have been in contact during the period when the graves were originally dug. Now a team led by New York University anthropologist William Rendu has carried out excavations at caves in La Chapelle-aux-Saints in southwestern France, where a purported Neanderthal burial was discovered in 1908. In re-excavating the site, the anthropologists discovered unambiguous evidence that two Neanderthal children and one adult were buried in a pit at La Chapelle-aux-Saints long before modern humans reached Europe. "It is novel evidence that Neanderthals were able to develop, by themselves, some complex symbolic thought," said Rendu. "The behavioral distance between Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans seems to become even thinner."
WILTSHIRE, ENGLAND—A Neolithic man who was buried in a nearly 300-foot-long long barrow, or mausoleum, 1.5 miles west of Stonehenge, 5,500 years ago has been poked, prodded, and reconstructed by scientists and placed in a spot of prominence to welcome tourists to a new Stonehenge visitors center opening tomorrow. The enamel on the man's teeth allowed scientists to determine the composition of his drinking water and to learn that he moved back and forth between modern Wales and the area surrounding Stonehenge until well into his teens. From nitrogen isotopes, also found in his teeth, researchers determined that he was an upper class individual who ate meat from early on in life, an indication that he inherited this status. Further, his travel to Wales and back suggests he may have been involved in the construction of the early monument of Stonehenge, which geologists believe was made of bluestones from the west, as opposed to the heavier sarsens seen today.