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New Thoughts on Africa’s Pastoral Environments

March 10, 2015

ST LOUIS, MISSOURI—It had been thought that the tsetse fly, which carries sleeping sickness and nagana and thrives in bushy woodlands, stopped the spread of herders of domesticated animals into southern Africa some 2,000 years ago. Fiona Marshall of Washington University has led a team of researchers who analyzed the isotopes in animal teeth from a 2,000-year-old settlement near Gogo Falls in southern Kenya. The people who lived there ate a varied diet that included domestic and wild food sources. The region is now made up of bushy woodlands, but the results of the study suggest that there had been abundant grassland vegetation for the animals to eat in what may have been a grass-woodland transition zone. So did the human residents consume wild food because tsetse flies damaged their livestock herds? “Our findings challenge existing models that explain the settlement’s diverse diet as a consequence of depressed livestock production related to tsetse flies. Instead of this ecological explanation, our isotopic findings support the notion that herders may simply have interacted with hunter-gatherer groups already living in these areas, adapting to their foraging styles. This suggests that social factors may have played a greater role than previously thought in subsistence diversity during the spread of pastoralism in Eastern Africa,” Marshall explained. Changes in rainfall, grazing by wild herbivores, and burning of land by the herders may have maintained the savanna for the livestock and provided a corridor through the Lake Victoria basin for the migration of pastoralists into southern Africa. To read about a fascinating archaeological discovery made in southern Africa, see "First Use of Poison." 

Categories: Blog

New Thoughts on Africa’s Pastoral Environments

March 10, 2015

ST LOUIS, MISSOURI—It had been thought that the tsetse fly, which carries sleeping sickness and nagana and thrives in bushy woodlands, stopped the spread of herders of domesticated animals into southern Africa some 2,000 years ago. Fiona Marshall of Washington University has led a team of researchers who analyzed the isotopes in animal teeth from a 2,000-year-old settlement near Gogo Falls in southern Kenya. The people who lived there ate a varied diet that included domestic and wild food sources. The region is now made up of bushy woodlands, but the results of the study suggest that there had been abundant grassland vegetation for the animals to eat in what may have been a grass-woodland transition zone. So did the human residents consume wild food because tsetse flies damaged their livestock herds? “Our findings challenge existing models that explain the settlement’s diverse diet as a consequence of depressed livestock production related to tsetse flies. Instead of this ecological explanation, our isotopic findings support the notion that herders may simply have interacted with hunter-gatherer groups already living in these areas, adapting to their foraging styles. This suggests that social factors may have played a greater role than previously thought in subsistence diversity during the spread of pastoralism in Eastern Africa,” Marshall explained. Changes in rainfall, grazing by wild herbivores, and burning of land by the herders may have maintained the savanna for the livestock and provided a corridor through the Lake Victoria basin for the migration of pastoralists into southern Africa.  

Categories: Blog

Carved Jadeite Artifact Found Underwater at Arroyo Pesquero

March 9, 2015

FULLERTON, CALIFORNIA—An unusually shaped artifact carved from jadeite has been found underwater at the site of Arroyo Pesquero, in Veracruz, Mexico. “The iconography is pretty difficult to interpret; it’s definitely not clear,” Carl Wendt of California State University, Fullerton, told Live Science. The artifact, which dates to the time of the Olmec, “seems to be an abstract representation, I believe, of a cob of corn,” he said. The sculpture may have been attached as a finial to a staff as a symbol of power and authority before it was placed in the stream, where freshwater and saltwater intersect, as an offering, sometime between 900 and 400 B.C. “While having practical importance today as a spot to collect fresh water, in Olmec times, the confluence would also have been important for symbolic and cosmological reasons, and an ideal place for a ritual hoard or votive offerings,” Wendt and his team wrote in the journal Ancient Mesoamerica. So far, no buildings dating to between 900 and 400 B.C. have been found at Arroyo Pesquero. “Freshwater, so critical to daily life, was relatively scarce in a region of stagnant swamps. It is no wonder that springs and other freshwater sources were sacred places, and sacrificing [objects] at them was an important part of Olmec ritual,” they continued. To read about evidence for Olmec writing, see "The Cascajal Block."

Categories: Blog

Carved Jadeite Artifact Found Underwater at Arroyo Pesquero

March 9, 2015

FULLERTON, CALIFORNIA—An unusually shaped artifact carved from jadeite has been found underwater at the site of Arroyo Pesquero, in Veracruz, Mexico. “The iconography is pretty difficult to interpret; it’s definitely not clear,” Carl Wendt of California State University, Fullerton, told Live Science. The artifact, which dates to the time of the Olmec, “seems to be an abstract representation, I believe, of a cob of corn,” he said. The sculpture may have been attached as a finial to a staff as a symbol of power and authority before it was placed in the stream, where freshwater and saltwater intersect, as an offering, sometime between 900 and 400 B.C. “While having practical importance today as a spot to collect fresh water, in Olmec times, the confluence would also have been important for symbolic and cosmological reasons, and an ideal place for a ritual hoard or votive offerings,” Wendt and his team wrote in the journal Ancient Mesoamerica. So far, no buildings dating to between 900 and 400 B.C. have been found at Arroyo Pesquero. “Freshwater, so critical to daily life, was relatively scarce in a region of stagnant swamps. It is no wonder that springs and other freshwater sources were sacred places, and sacrificing [objects] at them was an important part of Olmec ritual,” they continued. 

Categories: Blog

Tsunami May Have Struck Yucatan Peninsula 1,500 Years Ago

March 9, 2015

BOULDER, COLORADO—A study conducted by the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Mexico’s Centro Ecological Akumal (CEA) suggests that the Yucatan Peninsula may have been hit by a tsunami of two or three giant waves between 1,500 and 900 years ago. A large, wedge-shaped berm at least 30 miles long and made up of large stones has been found some 15 feet above sea level. The boulders on the face and top of the berm are composed of coral and fine-grained limestone. “The force required to rip this reef material from the seafloor and deposit it that far above the shoreline had to have been tremendous. We think the tsunami wave height was at least 15 feet and potentially much higher than that,” said Larry Benson, an adjunct curator of anthropology at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History. Structures were built by the Maya between A.D. 900 and 1200 on top of the berm. Other “outlier berms” made of layers of coarse sand and small and large boulders have been found along 125 miles the Yucatan coast. “I think there is a chance this tsunami affected the entire Yucatan coast,” Benson added. He and CEA scientist Charles Shaw think that additional evidence for a tsunami could be found in sediment cores from mangrove swamps along the coast. To read about a recently excavated Maya site, see "Tomb of the Vulture Lord."

Categories: Blog

Tsunami May Have Struck Yucatan Peninsula 1,500 Years Ago

March 9, 2015

BOULDER, COLORADO—A study conducted by the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Mexico’s Centro Ecological Akumal (CEA) suggests that the Yucatan Peninsula may have been hit by a tsunami of two or three giant waves between 1,500 and 900 years ago. A large, wedge-shaped berm at least 30 miles long and made up of large stones has been found some 15 feet above sea level. The boulders on the face and top of the berm are composed of coral and fine-grained limestone. “The force required to rip this reef material from the seafloor and deposit it that far above the shoreline had to have been tremendous. We think the tsunami wave height was at least 15 feet and potentially much higher than that,” said Larry Benson, an adjunct curator of anthropology at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History. Structures were built by the Maya between A.D. 900 and 1200 on top of the berm. Other “outlier berms” made of layers of coarse sand and small and large boulders have been found along 125 miles the Yucatan coast. “I think there is a chance this tsunami affected the entire Yucatan coast,” Benson added. He and CEA scientist Charles Shaw think that additional evidence for a tsunami could be found in sediment cores from mangrove swamps along the coast. To read about a recently excavated Maya site, see "Tomb of the Vulture Lord."

Categories: Blog

Saving Chile's Chinchorro Mummies

March 9, 2015

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—After thousands of years, Chinchorro mummies, now housed in the collection of the University of Tarapacá’s San Miguel de Azapa Museum in Arica, Chile, were rapidly degrading, so archaeologist Marcela Sepulveda of the University of Tarapacá, who specializes in materials characterization, turned to Ralph Mitchell, Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Biology, Emeritus, at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “We wanted to answer two questions: what was causing it and what could we do to prevent further degradation?” Mitchell explained. He and his team examined the microbiome on the samples of degrading mummy skin and undamaged skin sent to Massachusetts from the museum’s collection. “With many diseases we encounter, the microbe is in our body to begin with, but when the environment changes it becomes an opportunist,” Mitchell said. They found microbes in both sets of samples that in very humid conditions, triggered black, oozing damage to the skin. Sepulveda reported that humidity levels in Arica have been on the rise. This precise information will help the museum staff preserve the mummies in the collection. But what of the large numbers of Chinchorro mummies that are still buried throughout the region? “Is there a scientific answer to protect these important historic objects from the devastating effects of climate change?” Mitchell asked. To read more about the archaeological impacts of climate change, see "Sites in Peril."

Categories: Blog

Climate Change Harms Chinchorro Mummies

March 9, 2015

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—After thousands of years, Chinchorro mummies, now housed in the collection of the University of Tarapacá’s San Miguel de Azapa Museum in Arica, Chile, were rapidly degrading, so archaeologist Marcela Sepulveda of the University of Tarapacá, who specializes in materials characterization, turned to Ralph Mitchell, Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Biology, Emeritus, at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “We wanted to answer two questions: what was causing it and what could we do to prevent further degradation?” Mitchell explained. He and his team examined the microbiome on the samples of degrading mummy skin and undamaged skin sent to Massachusetts from the museum’s collection. “With many diseases we encounter, the microbe is in our body to begin with, but when the environment changes it becomes an opportunist,” Mitchell said. They found microbes in both sets of samples that in very humid conditions, triggered black, oozing damage to the skin. Sepulveda reported that humidity levels in Arica have been on the rise. This precise information will help the museum staff preserve the mummies in the collection. But what of the large numbers of Chinchorro mummies that are still buried throughout the region? “Is there a scientific answer to protect these important historic objects from the devastating effects of climate change?” Mitchell asked. To read more about the archaeological impacts of climate change, see "Sites in Peril."

Categories: Blog

Caver Discovers 2,300-Year-Old Silver Stash in Israel

March 9, 2015

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—A member of the Israeli Caving Club discovered a cache of valuable objects while exploring a stalactite cave in northern Israel and reported his find to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). Two silver coins minted during the reign of Alexander the Great; silver signet rings, bracelets, and earrings; and eight white and black agate beads stored in a small clay oil lamp are thought to have been placed in a cloth pouch before being hidden in a niche in the cave. “The valuables might have been hidden in the cave by local residents who fled there during the period of governmental unrest stemming from the death of Alexander, a time when the Wars of the Diadochi broke out in Israel between Alexander’s heirs following his death,” according the a statement made by the IAA and reported by CNN. When archaeologists investigated the cave, they found many crevasses that could hold hidden artifacts. “At this point they believe they have found artifacts in the cave that first date to the Chalcolithic period c. 6,000 years ago; from the Early Bronze Age c. 5,000 years ago, the Biblical period 3,000 years ago and the Hellenistic period approximately 2,300 years ago,” according to the IAA statement. To read in-depth about a massive excavation project in Israel, see "Excavating Tel Kedesh."

Categories: Blog

Caver Discovers 2,300-Year-Old Silver Stash in Israel

March 9, 2015

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—A member of the Israeli Caving Club discovered a cache of valuable objects while exploring a stalactite cave in northern Israel and reported his find to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). Two silver coins minted during the reign of Alexander the Great; silver signet rings, bracelets, and earrings; and eight white and black agate beads stored in a small clay oil lamp are thought to have been placed in a cloth pouch before being hidden in a niche in the cave. “The valuables might have been hidden in the cave by local residents who fled there during the period of governmental unrest stemming from the death of Alexander, a time when the Wars of the Diadochi broke out in Israel between Alexander’s heirs following his death,” according the a statement made by the IAA and reported by CNN. When archaeologists investigated the cave, they found many crevasses that could hold hidden artifacts. “At this point they believe they have found artifacts in the cave that first date to the Chalcolithic period c. 6,000 years ago; from the Early Bronze Age c. 5,000 years ago, the Biblical period 3,000 years ago and the Hellenistic period approximately 2,300 years ago,” according to the IAA statement. To read in-depth about a massive excavation project in Israel, see "Excavating Tel Kedesh."

Categories: Blog

Researchers Analyze Beer From 1840s

March 6, 2015

ESPOO, FINLAND—Bottles of beer recovered from a nineteenth-century shipwreck in the Baltic Sea have been sampled by researchers from the VTT Technical Research Centre in Finland and the University of Munich. “These bacteria were still alive,” said Brian Gibson of the VTT Technical Research Centre. “We have a reasonably good idea about what kind of hops were used, different ones than today. These hops would have been harsher, these days they are quite mild. The one surprising thing is the beers were quite mild. The original alcohol level was 4.5 percent, nothing extreme,” he told Discovery News. Seawater had seeped through the bottle’s cork, however, replacing about thirty percent of the bottle’s original contents. Chemical analysis suggests that the beer, which was brewed in the 1840s, was similar to a modern amber or lambic ale. “We looked at esters, which give beer a fruity or flowery taste. Most of the compounds that we would expect were there,” Gibson said. To read about vodka preserved in a bottle from another Baltic shipwreck, see "A 200-Year-Old Bottle's Suprising Contents."

Categories: Blog

Researchers Analyze Beer From 1840s

March 6, 2015

ESPOO, FINLAND—Bottles of beer recovered from a nineteenth-century shipwreck in the Baltic Sea have been sampled by researchers from the VTT Technical Research Centre in Finland and the University of Munich. “These bacteria were still alive,” said Brian Gibson of the VTT Technical Research Centre. “We have a reasonably good idea about what kind of hops were used, different ones than today. These hops would have been harsher, these days they are quite mild. The one surprising thing is the beers were quite mild. The original alcohol level was 4.5 percent, nothing extreme,” he told Discovery News. Seawater had seeped through the bottle’s cork, however, replacing about thirty percent of the bottle’s original contents. Chemical analysis suggests that the beer, which was brewed in the 1840s, was similar to a modern amber or lambic ale. “We looked at esters, which give beer a fruity or flowery taste. Most of the compounds that we would expect were there,” Gibson said. To read about vodka preserved in a bottle from another Baltic shipwreck, see "A 200-Year-Old Bottle's Suprising Contents."

Categories: Blog

25th Dynasty Artifacts Found at the Karnak Temple Complex

March 6, 2015

PARIS, FRANCE—A pit, or favissa, near the temple of the god Ptah at Karnak has yielded 38 religious artifacts that had been placed around a seated statue of the god Ptah. The items date from the eighth to seventh centuries B.C. and include 14 statues and figurines of Osiris; three statuettes of baboons; two statuettes of the goddess Mut; one head and fragments of a statue of Bastet, the cat goddess; two unidentified statuette bases; a small plaque and part of a small stele marked with the name of the god Ptah; and several inlays—an iris, cornea, beards, and headdresses. A sphinx statue and a small statue head, possibly of the god Imhotep, were found in the upper part of the pit. The removal of the objects from the pit was recorded by a topographer specialized in archaeology, who complied hundreds of photographs taken during the fieldwork to make a virtual 3-D reconstruction of each step of the excavation. This allowed the scientists from the Centre franco-égyptien d’étude des temples de Karnak (CNRS/Egyptian Ministry of State for Antiquities) to excavate the site quickly, in order to protect the valuable artifacts, and preserve all the data. To read more about the excavation of a tomb belonging to a priestess at Karnak, see "Tomb of the Chantress."

Categories: Blog

25th Dynasty Artifacts Found at the Karnak Temple Complex

March 6, 2015

PARIS, FRANCE—A pit, or favissa, near the temple of the god Ptah at Karnak has yielded 38 religious artifacts that had been placed around a seated statue of the god Ptah. The items date from the eighth to seventh centuries B.C. and include 14 statues and figurines of Osiris; three statuettes of baboons; two statuettes of the goddess Mut; one head and fragments of a statue of Bastet, the cat goddess; two unidentified statuette bases; a small plaque and part of a small stele marked with the name of the god Ptah; and several inlays—an iris, cornea, beards, and headdresses. A sphinx statue and a small statue head, possibly of the god Imhotep, were found in the upper part of the pit. The removal of the objects from the pit was recorded by a topographer specialized in archaeology, who complied hundreds of photographs taken during the fieldwork to make a virtual 3-D reconstruction of each step of the excavation. This allowed the scientists from the Centre franco-égyptien d’étude des temples de Karnak (CNRS/Egyptian Ministry of State for Antiquities) to excavate the site quickly, in order to protect the valuable artifacts, and preserve all the data. To read more about excavations at Karnak, see "Tomb of the Chantress."

Categories: Blog

Oregon’s “Tantalizing” Evidence of Human Occupation

March 6, 2015

PORTLAND, OREGON—Near the Rimrock Draw Rockshelter, beneath a layer of ash from an eruption of Mt. St. Helens some 15,800 years ago, archaeologists have found a tool made of orange agate thought to have been used for scraping animal hides, butchering, and possibly even carving wood. “The discovery of this tool below a layer of undisturbed ash that dates to 15,800 years old means that this tool is likely more than 15,800 years old, which would suggest the oldest human occupation west of the Rockies,” said Scott Thomas, Bureau of Land Management Burns District archaeologist. A blood residue analysis of the tool revealed animal proteins consistent with the ancestor of the modern buffalo. The director of the excavation, Patrick O’Grady of the University of Oregon, adds that the excavation will be expanded to look for more artifacts underneath the ash layer. “We want to assemble indisputable evidence because these claims will be scrutinized by researchers. That said, the early discoveries are tantalizing,” commented Stan McDonald, BLM Oregon/Washington lead archaeologist. To read more about the earliest people to live in the New World, see "America, in the Beginning."

Categories: Blog

Oregon’s “Tantalizing” Evidence of Human Occupation

March 6, 2015

PORTLAND, OREGON—Near the Rimrock Draw Rockshelter, beneath a layer of ash from an eruption of Mt. St. Helens some 15,800 years ago, archaeologists have found a tool made of orange agate thought to have been used for scraping animal hides, butchering, and possibly even carving wood. “The discovery of this tool below a layer of undisturbed ash that dates to 15,800 years old means that this tool is likely more than 15,800 years old, which would suggest the oldest human occupation west of the Rockies,” said Scott Thomas, Bureau of Land Management Burns District archaeologist. A blood residue analysis of the tool revealed animal proteins consistent with the ancestor of the modern buffalo. The director of the excavation, Patrick O’Grady of the University of Oregon, adds that the excavation will be expanded to look for more artifacts underneath the ash layer. “We want to assemble indisputable evidence because these claims will be scrutinized by researchers. That said, the early discoveries are tantalizing,” commented Stan McDonald, BLM Oregon/Washington lead archaeologist. To read more about the earliest people to live in the New World, see "America, in the Beginning."

Categories: Blog

“Significant Variation” Found in Skulls From Pre-Contact Peru

March 5, 2015

RALEIGH, NORTH CAROLINA—It had long been thought that there was very little skeletal variation among the pre-Columbian peoples in the New World, based upon a sample of individuals from the Yauyos people of the central Peruvian highlands. But anthropologists from North Carolina State University, the University of Oregon, and Tulane University evaluated the facial features of 507 skulls from seven pre-Columbian peoples from Peru, and found significant differences between all of them. “And our work shows that the Yauyos had facial features that were very different even from other peoples in the same region. This raises questions about any hypothesis that rests in part on the use of the Yauyos sample as being representative of all South America,” Ann Ross of North Carolina State University told Eureka Alert. The scientists found that the farther apart the groups lived from each other, the less they looked alike. “Next we want to compare variation across Latin America, to see if we can identify patterns that suggest biological relationships, which could be indicative of migration patterns,” Ross said. To read about more skeletons found in the region, see "Unusual Sacrifices Unearthed in Peru."

Categories: Blog

“Significant Variation” Found in Skulls From Pre-Contact Peru

March 5, 2015

RALEIGH, NORTH CAROLINA—It had long been thought that there was very little skeletal variation among the pre-Columbian peoples in the New World, based upon a sample of individuals from the Yauyos people of the central Peruvian highlands. But anthropologists from North Carolina State University, the University of Oregon, and Tulane University evaluated the facial features of 507 skulls from seven pre-Columbian peoples from Peru, and found significant differences between all of them. “And our work shows that the Yauyos had facial features that were very different even from other peoples in the same region. This raises questions about any hypothesis that rests in part on the use of the Yauyos sample as being representative of all South America,” Ann Ross of North Carolina State University told Eureka Alert. The scientists found that the farther apart the groups lived from each other, the less they looked alike. “Next we want to compare variation across Latin America, to see if we can identify patterns that suggest biological relationships, which could be indicative of migration patterns,” Ross said. 

Categories: Blog

Neolithic Town Unearthed at Greece’s Alepotrypa Cave

March 5, 2015

CHIGAGO, ILLINOIS—The Diros Project has uncovered the remains of Ksagounaki, an ancient town and burial complex, located outside the entrance to Alepotrypa Cave in southern Greece. The large underground cave may have been seen as the entrance to the mythic Greek underworld, and the ancient town is thought to have been an important ritual and settlement complex during the Neolithic period and the Bronze Age. (The recently discovered grave of a man and woman who had been buried together in an embracing position some 6,000 years ago was found at Diros.) However, William Parkinson of The Field Museum said that some 2,000 years after the settlement at Ksagounaki was abandoned, the Mycenaeans built a structure there and filled it with the bones of dozens of individuals, Late Bronze Age pottery, stone beads, ivory, and a bronze Mycenaean dagger. Perhaps the Neolithic buildings had drawn the attention of the Mycenaeans to this natural wonder. For more about Alepotrypa Cave, see "Portals to the Underworld."

Categories: Blog

Neolithic Town Unearthed at Greece’s Alepotrypa Cave

March 5, 2015

CHIGAGO, ILLINOIS—The Diros Project has uncovered the remains of Ksagounaki, an ancient town and burial complex, located outside the entrance to Alepotrypa Cave in southern Greece. The large underground cave may have been seen as the entrance to the mythic Greek underworld, and the ancient town is thought to have been an important ritual and settlement complex during the Neolithic period and the Bronze Age. (The recently discovered grave of a man and woman who had been buried together in an embracing position some 6,000 years ago was found at Diros.) However, William Parkinson of The Field Museum said that some 2,000 years after the settlement at Ksagounaki was abandoned, the Mycenaeans built a structure there and filled it with the bones of dozens of individuals, Late Bronze Age pottery, stone beads, ivory, and a bronze Mycenaean dagger. Perhaps the Neolithic buildings had drawn the attention of the Mycenaeans to this natural wonder.

Categories: Blog

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