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.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK—Students under the direction of Steven Fine, a biblical archaeologist at Yeshiva University, are attempting to decipher the script on a 1,600-year-old sandstone Jewish tombstone taken from the majority Christian city of Zoar in modern-day Jordan. The artifact came to Fine's attention when he was contacted by a pastor at a northern California church and sent a photo of the headstone. He would later travel to California and collect the item for more study. So far the students have translated what they can make out of the Talmudic Aramaic inscriptions. They determined that the tombstone belonged to a woman named Sa’adah, though they don't know her age at death since, according to Jewish custom, it's not written on the artifact. The students are still studying the tombstone, which they were also able to date to the A.D. fifth century by reconciling two dating systems referred to in the Aramaic.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK—Syria's head of antiquities and museums first notified the world this past February that unlawful archaeological excavations were taking place in his war-torn country, specifically at sites such as Palmyra and Ebla. On Friday, Irina Bokova told journalists that the problem of illicit digs was getting worse. "This is our biggest concern nowadays," she said, "that we don't know what's happening there, this illicit trafficking (and) exports" of artifacts." Bokova added that her organization has informed U.N. peace-keeping officials, as well as leaders of the Arab League, that illegally excavated Syrian cultural heritage material has been found in Jordan.
ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI—Study of a farming village in the Shaanxi province of China has turned up some of the earliest known evidence of cat domestication. Eight bones from two cats were found at the site, along with remains of dogs, pigs, deer, and rodent. Radiocarbon dating indicates the material at the site dates to roughly 5,300 years ago. Isotopic analysis of the cat bones suggested that they were eating rats that had eaten millet that was grown on the farm. Interestingly, one of the two cats seemed to eat more millet than smaller animals, indicating that the ancient Chinese farmers were feeding it. "Results of this study show that the village of Quanhucun was a source of food for the cats 5,300 years ago, and the relationship between humans and cats was commensal, or advantageous for the cats," said Fiona Marshall, an archaeologist at Washington University in St. Louis. "Even if these cats were not yet domesticated, our evidence confirms that they lived in close proximity to farmers, and that the relationship had mutual benefits."
HONOLULU, HAWAII—Archaeologists consider the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, and Mesoamerica as societies that each independently developed sophisticated, multi-layered governments that scholars call primary states. Now archaeologist Robert J. Hommon argues in a new book that ancient Hawaii belongs on that same list, which also includes the Indus Valley and Andean cultures. According to Homon, Hawaiian society evolved from several independent chiefdoms to one that was governed by a few kings who collected taxes, one of the hallmarks of the state. "The point I am making is that this was an organizational revolution," said Hommon. "Once primary states developed, then the organization is already in place. It's basically the same as what we live under today, except that we live in much larger societies. And this was a Native Hawaiian accomplishment."
HANOI, VIETNAM—Archaeologists say that to truly understand Thang Long, the 11th-century Vietnamese Imperial Citadel, they will need to excavate at the site for decades. "We are touching an elephant and do not know its whole body," said Tong Trung Tin, director of Viet Nam Archaeology Institute. "The area that has been excavated is too small to explain the entire old royal capital." Thang Long was built by the Ly Dynasty in the 11th century on the site of an earlier, 8th-century citadel. The complex's central Kinh Thien Palace, built in 1428, was destroyed by the French in the late 19th century. There are proposals to rebuild the palace, but archaeologists caution that more excavations need to be done before the site can be accurately reconstructed.
TARANTO, ITALY—Archaeologists digging a rock-cut tomb in the Puglia region, the Italian peninsula's "heel," have discovered a 2,400-year old terra cotta pig that could have been a toy or served as a baby bottle. The remains of two adults were found in the tomb, which was made when the area was occupied by the Messapians, a people who migrated to the region from the Balkans some 3,000 years ago. Led by the archaeologist Arcangelo Alessio of the Archaeological Superintendency of Puglia, the team discovered 30 funerary objects in the tomb, including female statuettes and ointment vessels. Known as a guttus, the pig vessel had rattles in its belly, possibly to soothe a baby to sleep. The archaeologists suggest that the tomb could have once held the remains of a third individual, a baby, which have since decomposed.
ROME, ITALY—The church of Santa Maria Antiqua in the Roman Forum, one of the earliest Christian monuments in the city still standing, will reopen to the public for the first time since 1980. The fifth-century A.D. church has been closed while conservators restored the monument, known as the "Medieval Sistine Chapel," because of the vivid frescoes from numerous periods that cover its walls. The church was buried during an earthquake in 847 and was rediscovered by Italian archaeologist Giacomo Boni in 1900.
HONOLULU, HAWAII—According to some scholars, the people of Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, committed “environmental suicide” by deforesting their island, an event that led to the society's demographic collapse. But now some archaeologists, including the Bishop Museum's Mara Mulrooney, believe that intepretation of the island's history is wrong. Mulrooney studied 300 radiocarbon dates from Rapa Nui and found that people continued to use the interior of the island to cultivate crops such as sweet potatoes up until European contact. Previously it had been believed that these areas had been abandoned when the island chiefdom supposedly collapsed. "The new picture that emerges from these results is really one of sustainability and continuity rather than collapse, which sheds new light on what we can really learn from Rapa Nui,” said Mulrooney. “Based on these new findings, perhaps Rapa Nui should be the poster-child of how human ingenuity can result in success, rather than failure.” Mulrooney believes that it wasn't until after European contact and the introduction of new diseases that the society underwent demographic collapse.