SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH—Brian Codding and Elic Weitzel of the University of Utah employed a database of more than 3,500 radiocarbon dates obtained from charcoal, nutshells, animal bones, and other artifacts found in North America to reconstruct population histories dating back 15,000 years. Assuming that as populations grew they would leave behind more artifacts, they found that the population in eastern North America nearly doubled some 6,900 years ago, and continued to grow rapidly until 5,200 years ago. Plants are thought to have been domesticated in the region about 5,000 years ago. “These people were producing food to feed themselves and their families [by farming], they’re still hunting and foraging,” Brian Codding said in a report by The Independent. Archaeological evidence from the region suggests that those first crops included squash, sunflower, marshelder, and pitseed goosefoot, a grain related to quinoa. For more, go to "Europe's First Farmers."
BARCELONA, SPAIN—Ten volunteers used only their hands and teeth to eat raw, roasted, and boiled lamb for a study led by Antonio J. Romero of the University of the Basque Country. According to a UPI report, the scientists then analyzed the marks left on the 90 lamb bones, and found that men left more marks than women, but the marks themselves were indistinguishable. Tooth marks appeared more regularly in the bones of meat that had been roasted or boiled. Raw bones had more damage on the tips and edges, and tended to be crushed more often. The study will help archaeologists distinguish between bones gnawed on by hominins and those left behind by other carnivores who may have visited sites used by early hunter-gatherers. To read more on hunter-gatherers, go to "The First Casus Belli."
UNIVERSITY PARK, PENNSYLVANIA—Gary Perdew of Pennsylvania State University and his team examined the genomes of three Neanderthals, a Denisovan, a modern human who lived some 45,000 years ago, and living people, and found that all of the modern humans carried a mutation that helps regulate the body’s response to some of the carcinogens in wood smoke and charred meat. The other hominins did not have the mutation. As a result, they may have been more susceptible to lung infections and other toxic effects of wood smoke while eating cooked food and using fire for light, warmth, and protection from predators. “We prospered because of this mutation,” Perdew said in a report in The Guardian. “I wouldn’t say Neanderthals died out because of it, but it could have been a contributing factor.” However, some researchers caution that scientists are not able to observe the reactions of extinct hominins sitting around a fire. “The problem is it’s really difficult to test,” explained David Wright of Seoul National University and the University of York. For more, go to "Catching Fire and Keeping It."
POMPEII, ITALY—The Local, Italy, reports that cooking equipment, such as metal grills, pots, pans, and earthenware crocks, have been returned to the kitchen in the Fullonica di Stephanus, a three-story launderette where the garments of wealthy Romans were washed some 2,000 years ago. The equipment was discovered in the launderette in 1912, but had been moved to other areas of Pompeii over the years. The grills were placed over troughs where charcoal fires were lit. Meat, fish, and vegetables were then placed on the grills. Soups and stews were cooked in pots and pans on tripods placed in the coals. “We’re delighted the pieces have finally been put back on display where they were found,” said Massimo Osanna, archaeological superintendent of Pompeii. For more on Pompeii, go to "Family History."
SOUTH CAMDEN, NEW JERSEY—Ancient hearths and some 1,300 artifacts, including unglazed ceramics and pieces of soapstone, have been found at an industrial construction site along the South Camden waterfront. Archaeologists from Richard Grubb & Associates think the site was used by Native Americans for processing and cooking fish around 1400 to 1350 B.C. Native Americans “would have been fishing along the Delaware, utilizing the forests around them for shelter, watercraft … just maximizing the natural resources,” forensic archaeologist Kimberlee Sue Moran of Rutgers University-Camden, said in a report by the Courier-Post. She added that evidence for long-term settlement during this time period is unusual. For more, go to "Possible Revolutionary War Campsite Found in New Jersey."
SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS—Lead investigator Nesta Anderson announced at a “Reimagine The Alamo” press conference that more than 300 eighteenth- and nineteenth-century artifacts, including Native American ceramics from the mission era, square nails, and a bone button, have been uncovered near the west wall of the Alamo. The excavation team has also recovered a piece of glass stamped with the words “San Antonio Apothecary,” ceramics from Europe and Mexico, part of a toothbrush, and a blade that may have been part of a utility knife or scissors. “As of yet, we’re not finding a lot of battle-related things,” Anderson said in a Houston Chronicle report. Work at the south wall of the Alamo is now underway as well. For more on archaeology in Texas, go to "Off the Grid: Caddo Mounds State Historic Site."
COUNTY DOWN, NORTHERN IRELAND—Excavations on the grounds of an eighteenth-century country house known as Hillsborough Castle have uncovered a skeleton thought to have belonged to a young woman who lived 1,000 years ago. Archaeologists and volunteers had been looking for traces of a medieval church on the site when they found the remains and signs of additional burials. “We arrived hoping to find the remains of a fifteenth- or sixteenth-century church, but about two hours into our first day we uncovered a skeleton,” Jonathan Barkley of Northern Archaeology Consultancy told BBC News. The skeleton will be studied before it is reburied. No other human remains at the site will be removed. The excavation is being conducted ahead of construction to transform the castle into a tourist destination. For more, go to "Saving Northern Ireland's Noble Bog."
FOGGIA, ITALY—Italian researchers suggest that Joan of Arc’s visions may have been caused by a form of epilepsy, according to a report in Live Science. Epileptic seizures occur when electrical signals in the brain misfire, and can result in muscle movements or confusion, or cause the subject to hear voices. Guiseppe d’Orsi of the University of Foggia and Paola Tinuper of the University of Bologna examined documentation of the fifteenth-century trial in which Joan was accused of heresy and witchcraft. Joan reported hearing voices and seeing Christian saints, which d’Orsi and Tinuper say are symptoms of idiopathic partial epilepsy with auditory features. This type of epilepsy may be inherited and has been linked to certain genes. D’Orsi and Tinuper have been looking for letters written by Joan of Arc, which she reportedly sealed with red wax, a fingerprint, and a hair, which they would like to test for these particular genes. So far, they haven’t found any surviving examples. For more, go to "France’s Roman Heritage."
NOVA SCOTIA, CANADA—Large pieces of what could be a nineteenth-century ship were recovered by the Canadian Coast Guard in waters near Nova Scotia. According to a report in CBC News, the crew of the CCGS Alfred Needler was conducting a survey of fish in the region when the nets hauled in the sections of the shipwreck. Katie Cottreau-Robins, curator of archaeology for the Nova Scotia Museum, and her team examined the fragments when they were brought to shore. Some of the pieces are better preserved than others. “We have a section of the hull where there’s copper sheathing on the outside and we could see that very clearly, and all the rivets holding the copper onto the frame,” she said. A search of Nova Scotia’s shipwreck database suggests the vessel could be a Swedish ship built in 1877 that sank in bad weather in 1905. Cottreau-Robins said that her team will continue to research the shipwreck pieces and try to find the best place to conserve them. To read about another well-known shipwreck found in Canadian waters, go to "Franklin’s Last Voyage."
NORDLAND COUNTY, NORWAY—A faint 5,000-year-old carving depicting a figure on skis has been vandalized by a teenaged boy who used a sharp object to scratch over the original etching. The Local, Norway, reports that the perpetrator thought he was making the rock art easier for other visitors to see. Other images in the hunting scene, which is located on the island of Tro in northern Norway, were also defaced. “It’s a tragedy, because it’s one of the most famous Norwegian historical sites,” says Bård Anders Langø, mayor of the Alstahaug municipality. Archaeologists will study the damage to the site, but Langø says they suspect it is irreversible. For more, go to "Artifact: Norway Viking Sword."
BRITISH COLUMBIA, CANADA—Cold-weather gear may have helped early modern humans survive while Neanderthals died out, according to a new study led by Mark Collard, a visiting fellow at Simon Fraser University. He noted that figurines discovered in Siberia dating back 24,000 years are thought to depict people wearing furry, hooded outfits. Bone needles, pelt scrapers, and the bones of creatures such as rabbits, foxes, mink, and wolverine have been found at modern human campsites. Their fur may have been used to make such warm garments. Collard explained that wolverine fur makes an excellent ruff for a parka hood because it shields one from the wind, sheds hoarfrost, and is durable. Neanderthals are thought to have worn draped animal skins, since the tools associated with crafting closely fitted garments have not been found at Neanderthal sites. Inadequate clothing could have left Neanderthals vulnerable to frostbite and hypothermia, and may have limited their ability to look for food. “Keeping children warm particularly is likely to have led to many more surviving childhood which would have improved population size,” Chris Stringer of London’s Natural History Museum commented in The Telegraph. For more, go to "Decoding Neanderthal Genetics."
OXFORD, ENGLAND—It had been previously believed that the first rice grown in northern China, Japan, and on the Korean peninsula was only of the sticky japonica variety, which requires cultivation in dry fields. But a team led by Masahiko Kumagai of the University of Tokyo obtained DNA from carbonized rice ranging in age from 900 to 2,800 years old found at archaeological sites in Japan and Korea. The scientists then compared the genomes of the ancient rice samples to a database of more than 200 cultivated and wild rice DNA samples from around the world. They found that some of the ancient grains seemed to be more similar to the indica variety of rice, which has a long grain, grows submerged in water, and is usually associated with the tropics. This suggests that the crops were moved long distances. Michael Purugganan of New York University told The Christian Science Monitor that early farmers may have tried to grow “everything they could get their hands on,” until they developed a crop that adapted well to the environment. To read about the earliest evidence for tea drinking in China, go to "The Price of Tea in China."
DUBLIN, IRELAND—An American student from New York University was taking a tour of Ireland’s Omey Island with archaeologist Michael Gibbons when she discovered a twelfth-century kite brooch in some rabbit burrows. The brooch would have been used to fasten a cloak or shawl. “I kept it with me until I caught up with Michael and he was very intrigued," Gibbons told Irish Central. "He had me take him back to the site at which I found it. I didn’t fully realize how important the find was at the time. Now, I’m amazed and surprised and I’m very happy that I was able to place it in the hands of people who would appreciate it.” The artifact will be housed in the National Museum of Ireland. To read more about medieval archaeology in Ireland, go to "The Vikings in Ireland."
XUNANTUNICH, BELIZE—Archaeologist Jaime Awe of Northern Arizona University has excavated a tomb at the Maya site of Xunantunich. According to The Reporter Newspaper, the tomb contained skeletal remains thought to have belonged to a male ruler, based upon the size and appearance of the femurs, skull, and teeth. The remains of an animal—perhaps a deer or a jaguar—were also found in the chamber, along with ceramics and pieces of jade. “What’s amazing about the discovery of this tomb is that, we know that archaeologists have been working at Xunantunich since the 1890s," says Awe. "That’s more than a century of continuous archaeological work at the site. And, never before have we found a tomb. Well, this tomb is also remarkable in other ways, it is one of the largest burial chambers we have ever found.” To read about the discovery of another Maya ruler's burial , go to "Tomb of the Vulture Lord."
EDGEWATER, MARYLAND—Ecologist Denise Breitburg of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center teamed up with biologists and archaeologists to survey the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay dating back 800,000 years. They found the oldest shells in Native American middens in the area dated to 3,200 years ago. They also measured the size of the oysters, to see if they were harvested before they reached full size. The results of the study suggest oysters were much larger hundreds of thousands of years ago than they are today, but they didn’t decrease in size between 3,200 and 400 years ago, when Native Americans were harvesting them. Torben Rick of the Smithsonian Institution told NPR he thinks Native Americans fished close to shore, and rotated fishing sites seasonally, giving oysters space to recover, grow, and reproduce. Since then, pollution, overfishing, and dredging have damaged oyster populations. “Ultimately, it’s about rethinking our oyster strategy so we can have our cake and eat it too,” he said. To read more about prehistoric life on North America's coasts, go to "The Edible Landscape."
SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH—A prehistoric campsite in Utah’s West Desert has yielded a 12,300-year-old hearth surrounded by more than 60 artifacts, including a large spear point, stone flakes, the bones of ducks and geese, and the earliest-known collection of tobacco seeds. “It’s a new world plant, not a plant from the other side of the world, so obviously this raises a lot of questions,” archaeologist Daron Duke of Far Western Anthropological Research Group said in a Western Digs report. “Also of significance is that these people were carrying their big-game tool kits, as evidenced by the big point found right next to the hearth,” added geoarchaeologist Craig Young. He thinks the spear point resembles those found nearby at a mammoth-hunting site of similar antiquity. At the time, the region would have been ten to 15 degrees cooler, with rivers, lakes, and marshy wetlands. “Toward the end of this period, for people who had the run of North America, things were drying up, and this could have been one of the last places they decided to make use of,” Duke said. To read about the earliest humans in the New World, go to "America, in the Beginning."
ZURICH, SWITZERLAND—Previous studies of Neanderthal brain development have suggested that Neanderthal and modern human brains looked similar at birth, but then developed differently. Chirstoph Zollikofer of the University of Zurich and his team generated 3-D casts of the brain cases of 15 Neanderthal skulls ranging in age from newborn to adult. The scientists then compared the images of the Neanderthal brains with patterns of brain development in modern human children. New Scientist reports that at birth, Zollikofer found the Neanderthal brains to be longer, wider, and flatter than modern human brains. He claimed that similar to patterns of modern human development, the cerebellum and other regions of the Neanderthal brains grew quickly during childhood. He also argued that this pattern of development suggests that Neanderthals may have had similar cognitive abilities as well. But some are skeptical of Zollikofer’s results, in part because the bones in newborn skulls are fragile and not fully fused, making it hard to produce accurate measurements. “I think [researchers] should not put cognition on the table every time they find a morphological difference between specimens,” commented Emiliano Bruner of the National Research Center on Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain.
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA—Osteosarcoma, or bone cancer, has been identified in the toe bone of a human ancestor who lived some 1.7 million years ago. A team of British and South African researchers noticed that the bone, unearthed in Swartkrans Cave in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, was not hollow, as it should have been. “So we compared it with modern biopsies of cancer patients and realized it was a malignant tumor,” biological and forensic anthropologist Patrick Randolph-Quinney of the University of Central Lancashire told The Telegraph. He explained that the painful tumor would have affected the individual’s mobility, and thus the ability to survive. A collaborating team of scientists also identified a benign tumor in the vertebrae of Karabo, the two-million-year-old remains of an Australopithecus sediba child discovered at the site of Malapa. “Modern medicine tends to assume that cancers and tumors in humans are diseases caused by modern lifestyles and environments, but our studies show the origins of these diseases occurred in our ancient relatives millions of years before modern industrial societies existed,” explained Edward Odes of the University of the Witswatersrand. To read more about Australopithecus sediba go to "The Human Mosaic."
KALMAR, SWEDEN—Divers led by Lars Einarsson of the Kalmar County Museum have recovered a diamond ring, gold coins, and a black tin pot containing a thick, gooey substance that may be cheese from the Kronan, the seventeenth-century flagship of the Swedish navy. “It looks a bit like some kind of granular Roquefort cheese. It’s been in the mud, so it’s reasonably well preserved, but at the same time it has been at the bottom of the sea for 340 years,” Einarsson told The Local, Sweden. Scientists will analyze the contents of the pot to try to determine exactly what they are. The Kronan capsized and sank in bad weather during the Battle of Öland in 1676, and was discovered in the Baltic Sea in 1980. Remains of some of the 800 crew members who died in the vessel have been recovered to date, along with more than 20,000 artifacts. To read about the sinking of another great seventeenth-century Swedish ship, go to "History's 10 Greatest Wrecks."
GALILEE, ISRAEL—The Israel Antiquities Authority announced that a Roman-era workshop has been discovered the town of Shlomi, located in northern Israel. Ceramic vessels for wine and oil are thought to have been made at the factory, which featured a kiln with two chambers cut out of the chalky bedrock. One chamber would have held the pots being fired, while the other served as a firebox. Excavation director Joppe Gosker said that fragments of vessels made for transport over land and sea were found around the kiln. Live Science reports that most kilns at the time were constructed of stone, earth, and mud, rather than hewn from bedrock. To read in-depth about Roman-era ceramics, go to "Trash Talk."