BIRMENSDORF, SWITZERLAND—Tree-ring data collected in the Altai Mountains of Russia have helped scientists reconstruct summer temperatures in central Asia for the past 2,000 years. “The course temperatures we took in the Altai Mountains correspond remarkably well to what we found in the Alps,” Ulf Büntgen of the Swiss Federal Research Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape WSL said in a press release. His multidisciplinary research team detected a period of low temperatures in the sixth century A.D. that they call the “Late Antique Little Ice Age,” or LALIA. The low temperatures were likely the result of three volcanic eruptions in the mid-sixth century that ejected particles into the atmosphere and blocked sunlight. The resulting famine was followed by the pandemic of the Justinian plague and political turmoil that may have led to the decline of the Eastern Roman Empire. To the south, the Arabian Peninsula received more rain than usual and grew more vegetation that may have sustained larger herds of camels used by Arab armies. “The LALIA fits in well with the main transformative events that occurred in Eurasia during that time,” Büntgen explained. For more, go to "Letter from Iceland: Surviving the Little Ice Age."
QUITO, ECUADOR—Guillaume Long, Ecuador’s Minister of Culture and Heritage, announced that the governments of Spain and Argentina returned a total of more than 500 artifacts between December and January. The objects include artworks from the colonial era, maps, and archaeological artifacts. “The protection of the heritage goods is a pressing need, because they are unique and irreplaceable,” Luis García, Cultural Counselor of the Spanish Embassy in Ecuador, told The Art Newspaper. To read more about archaeology in Ecuador, go to "The Water Temple of Inca-Caranqui."
CAIRO, EGYPT—Hussein Bassir, director of the Giza Plateau, responded to world-wide concern about videos that show pieces of the Menkawre Pyramid for sale. “The blocks shown in the video are authentic, but have fallen from the pyramid complex across the span of time and have not been broken off by thieves,” Bassir told Ahram Online. “The criminals seen in the video were arrested and detained for four days on charges of vandalism, trading in antiquities, and fraud,” he added. Salah Al-Hadi, coordinator of the Archaeologists’ Syndicate, says that security should be tightened at all of the country’s archaeological sites, especially at the Giza Plateau and the Saqqara Necropolis.
ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI—An international team of scientists has used biomedical methods and engineering tools to analyze the facial skeleton of Australopithecus sediba. “Most australopiths had amazing adaptations in their jaws, teeth and faces that allowed them to process foods that were difficult to chew or crack open. Among other things, they were able to efficiently bite down on foods at very high forces,” David Strait of Washington University in St. Louis explained in a press release. But the new tests indicate that Australopithecus sediba may have been able to eat some hard foods, but it did not possess a powerful bite. “If it had bitten as hard as possible on its molar teeth using the full force of its chewing muscles, it would have dislocated its jaw,” explained Justin Ledogar of Australia’s University of New England. “Humans also have this limitation on biting forcefully and we suspect that early Homo had it as well,” added Ledogar. So while some australopiths evolved to bite powerfully, others did not. “Diet is likely to have played a key role in the origin of Homo,” Strait said. For more on Australopithecus sediba, go to "The Human Mosaic."
LUND, SWEDEN—The excavation of a settlement in southern Sweden has uncovered evidence of the large-scale preservation of fish more than 9,000 years ago. Osteologist Adam Boethius of Lund University found tens of thousands of fragile fish bones, bark, and an oblong pit surrounded by pole holes and smaller pin holes at the site, which had been located at a lake near the outlet of the Baltic Sea. The fish are thought to have been acidified with pine bark and seal fat, wrapped in seal and wild boar skins, and buried in a pit covered with muddy soil. This complex form of preservation would have worked in the region’s cold climate. “These findings indicate a different time line, with Nordic foragers settling much earlier and starting to take advantage of the lakes and sea to harvest and process fish. From a global perspective, the development in the Nordic region could correspond to that of the Middle East at the time,” Boethius said in a press release. For more about the archaeology of fishing, go to "Off With Their Heads."
LIMA, PERU—Andina, Peru’s news agency, reports that more than 4,000 artifacts recovered in Argentina were returned to Peru last week, when the two countries signed an Agreement for the Protection, Conservation, Recovery and Return of Stolen or Illegally Exported or Transferred Cultural, Archaeological, Artistic and Historical Property. Most of the objects were seized by the government of Argentina from art collectors and traffickers in 2000. The artifacts cover a range of historic periods and include items made from metal, textiles, wood, pottery, organic fibers, and human remains. This is the largest group of artifacts repatriated to Peru to date. To read more about archaeology in Peru, go to "A Wari Matriarchy?"
LONDON, ENGLAND—Archaeologists have used LiDAR images produced by Britain’s Environment Agency for flood modeling and monitoring coastlines to look for roads that the Romans built in the first century during the conquest of northern England. David Ratledge has been looking for Roman roads in Lancashire for the past 45 years. Using LiDAR data, he’s found a road that stretches from Ribchester to Lancaster, a distance of more than ten miles. “Previously in Lancashire we only had aerial photographs from the 1940s and 1960s to go on, but with photographs features only show up after a drought and we don’t get many of those! With LiDAR, once you know what to look for, it’s blindingly obvious—you just know you’ve found a road,” he said in a press release. Four more Roman roads have been found by Hugh Toller and Bryn Gethin, including a missing part of the “Maiden Way” in Cumbria that connects the fort at Low Borrowbridge to a cavalry camp at Kirkby Thore, before it continues on to Whitely Castle and Carvoran Roman Fort, near Hadrian’s Wall in Northumbria. “These were the county’s most important Roman sites so good communications between them must have been essential,” said Ratledge.
FAYETTEVILLE, ARKANSAS—Rachel Opitz of the University of Arkansas’ Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies (CAST) is working with Rome’s Capitoline Museum and the University of Missouri to study ancient ceramics of unknown provenance. The objects, which range in age from 2,000 to 2,400 years old, have been stored at the museum for more than a century. Neutron activation analysis at the Missouri University Research Reactor will help scholars identify the clay in the ceramic vessels and perhaps pinpoint where they originated. Opitz was called in by the team to scan the vessels with high-resolution structured-light technology. The 3-D images can show traces of wear that are invisible to the naked eye and distinguish between marks made from regular usage in the past and more recent scratches. “The production of a bowl or plate is interesting, but how it is used day to day, how it is lifted, washed, cooked in, chipped, and eventually thrown out is just as important,” Opitz said in a press release. To read more about Roman archaeology, go to "Rome's Imperial Port."
TAURANGA, NEW ZEALAND—A road-widening project has uncovered more than 20 food storage pits and a pataka, or food storage building, on the Otumoetai peninsula of New Zealand’s North Island. Their size suggest that there was a large Maori settlement in the area between 200 and 400 years ago. “Kumara pits similar to those found on Maxwells Road are apparently found quite frequently in the Bay of Plenty, however we understand none have been found in the area of Tauranga to date,” Marcel Currin, Tauranga City Council communications adviser, told the Bay of Plenty Times. “Artifacts including obsidian (volcanic glass) and fragments of stone adzes have been found in the area,” he added. To read more about prehistoric archaeology in the Pacific, go to "Letter From Hawaii: Inside Kauai's Past."
NEVŞEHIR, TURKEY—Excavation of an ancient underground city in Turkey’s Cappadocia region has revealed a Christian church that could date to the fifth century A.D. “This place is even bigger than the other historical churches in Cappadocia. It was built underground and has original frescoes that have survived to this day,” the mayor of Nevşehir, Hasan Ünver, told Hürriyet Daily News. Archaeologists say that the church walls collapsed, but they will be slowly dried out and restored. “We have stopped work in order to protect the wall paintings and the church. When the weather gets warmer in the spring, we will wait for humidity to evaporate and then we will start removing the earth,” said archaeologist Ali Aydin. Some of the paintings uncovered so far are said to be unique. “There are exciting depictions like fish falling from the hand of Jesus Christ, him rising up into the sky, and the bad souls being killed. When the church is completely revealed, Cappadocia could become an even bigger pilgrimage center of Orthodoxy,” the mayor added. To read about Roman-era mosaics in Turkey, go to "Zeugma After the Flood."
LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND—An inherited deficiency in alpha-1-antitrypsin (A1AT) can contribute to the onset of the debilitating illnesses of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and emphysema. A1AT protects the lungs and liver from enzymes produced by the immune system, but those enzymes, called proteases, are also produced by parasitic worms. Richard Pleass of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and a team of scientists say that deviant forms of A1AT evolved in Viking populations more than 2,000 years ago to combat worm infestations. “Vikings would have eaten contaminated food and parasites would have migrated to various organs, including lungs and liver, where the proteases they released would cause disease,” he said in a press release. “Thus these deviant forms of A1AT would have protected Viking populations, who neither smoked tobacco nor lived long lives, from worms. It is only in the last century that modern medicine has allowed human populations to be treated for disease-causing worms. Consequently these deviant forms of A1AT, that once protected people from parasites, are now at liberty to cause emphysema and COPD,” he explained.
TÜBINGEN, GERMANY—A new genetic study suggests that some 50,000 years ago, all non-Africans dispersed rapidly from a single population, and that around 14,500 years ago, there was a major turnover of the population in Europe. Researchers reconstructed the mitochondrial genomes of 35 hunter-gatherers who lived in Italy, Germany, Belgium, France, the Czech Republic, and Romania between 35,000 and 7,000 years ago. The mitochondrial DNA of three of these individuals, who lived in what is now Belgium and France more than 25,000 years ago, belonged to haplogroup M. Haplogroup M is now very common in Asian, Australasian, and Native American populations, but had not been found in Europe, leading to the argument for multiple migrations. “When the Last Glacial Maximum began around 25,000 years ago, hunter-gatherer populations retreated south to a number of putative refugia, and the consequent genetic bottleneck probably resulted in the loss of this haplogroup,” Cosimo Posth of the University of Tübingen said in a press release. The DNA study also indicates that those who survived the cold of the Last Glacial Maximum were replaced by a population from another source. To read about the art made by the first modern humans in Europe, go to "A New Life for Lion Man."
NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK—The rate at which mutations occur helps evolutionary geneticists estimate when events such as the split between the ancestors of humans and chimpanzees occurred. New estimates of the mutation rate, however, put the split between humans and chimpanzees at odds with the fossil record. Scientists at Columbia University have produced a new model, described in a press release, that takes life history traits, such as puberty and reproduction, into account for the number of mutations that are passed on to offspring. Since these life history traits evolve, the mutation rate should evolve as well. Based upon this model, the rate of mutation has slowed down, and the split between humans and other apes may have occurred as recently as 6.6 million years ago. To read more about human evolution, go to "Ardipithecus: Ape or Ancestor?"
STANFORD, CALIFORNIA—Phys.org reports that William Gilpin and Marcus Feldman of Stanford University and Kenichi Aoki of Meiji University adapted a computer model that was developed to mimic interspecies competition to investigate the interaction between modern humans and Neanderthals in Europe some 45,000 years ago. The model took cultural and technical abilities into consideration, and, as the researchers wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the results suggest that a group that was culturally more advanced may have been able to displace a group that was culturally less advanced, even if that group was initially much larger. In theory, modern humans would have been able to use their cultural and technological advantages to outcompete Neanderthals for natural resources. The researchers add that it is not clear why Neanderthals did not copy the successful culture and technology. To read more about our extinct cousins, go to "Should We Clone Neanderthals?"
KARNEI HATTIN, ISRAEL—A hiker discovered a 3,500-year-old Egyptian seal in the Lower Galilee on the Horns of Hattin, so-called for the twin peaks of an extinct volcano where a fortified citadel stood in the late Bronze Age. Recent rainstorms may have brought the artifact to the surface. The man handed the seal, carved in the shape of a beetle, over to the Israel Antiquities Authority. “The scarab represents Pharaoh Thutmose III (1481-1425 B.C.) sitting on his throne, and before him is a cartouche—an oval shape that contains symbols representing his name in hieroglyphics,” curator of Egyptian archaeology at the Israel museum Daphna Ben-Tor told Haaretz. “Thutmose ruled for many years during the fifteenth century B.C., and during his reign Egypt set up an administrative system of governance in Canaan. There, he waged many campaigns of conquest, of which the most famous was the battle of Megiddo in the Jezreel Valley—a victory documented in giant tablets on the walls of the Karnak Temple in [Luxor}, Egypt,” she explained. For more about Egyptian influence in the Levant, go to "Egyptian Style in Ancient Canaan."
BUA, FIJI—According to a report in Fijivillage.com, Sepeti Matararaba of the Fiji Museum and Patrick Nunn of Australia’s University of the Sunshine Coast discovered a Lapita site dating to between 2,700 and 3,000 years ago on the northern island of Vanua Levu. The oldest-known Lapita site in Fiji was occupied approximately 3,100 years ago on the island of Viti Levu, to the south. To read about the link between tattoos and Lapita pottery, go to "Ancient Tattoos: Lapita Fragment and Engraving."
LAWRENCE, KANSAS—A team of researchers has combined historical and anthropological literature with fieldwork in Namibia to gain a better understanding of how traditional San hunters use beetle arrow poisons. “Arrow-hunting appears in ancient rock-paintings of the San, but it is unclear when poisons might have been adopted. We suspect poisons were adopted very early,” entomologist Caroline Chaboo of the University of Kansas said in a press release. “In general, the beetle larvae are harvested by digging up soil around the host, sifting out the cocoons to take home. Later the cocoons are cracked open and the beetle larvae extracted. Some San hunters squeeze the beetle body fluids out onto the arrowhead, or they make a concoction with other plant juices. The arrow preparer is very careful in handling all the materials and in storing the poisoned arrows and remaining cocoons away from the community,” she explained. The poison slowly paralyzes the prey while the hunter tracks the animal until it falls over. Then the hunter makes the kill. To read more, go to "First Use of Poison."
BERGEN, NORWAY—Researchers from the University of Bergen and University of the Witwatersrand have examined artifacts from Blombos Cave and other sites in in South Africa to try and determine if different groups of people shared technology and engaged in cultural interaction during the Middle Stone Age, as early as 100,000 years ago. “The pattern we are seeing is that when demographics change, people interact more. For example, we have found similar patterns engraved on ostrich eggshells in different sites. This shows that people were probably sharing symbolic material culture, at certain times but not at others,” Karen van Niekerk of the University of Bergen said in a press release. She and Christopher Henshilwood concluded that the more contact the groups had, the stronger their technology and cultures became. “Contact across groups, and population dynamics, makes it possible to adopt and adapt new technologies and culture and is what describes Homo sapiens,” he said. To read more about archaeology in the caves of South Africa, go to "First Use of Poison."
LONDON, ENGLAND—A complete collapsed wall painting dating to the first century A.D. was discovered face-down during an excavation at 21 Lime Street, London, by a team from the Museum of London Archaeology. The image is likely to have adorned a reception room in the home of a wealthy citizen. It depicts deer nibbling trees, birds, fruit, and a vine woven around a candelabrum. One area of the painting’s red panels had been painted with cinnabar thought to have been imported from Spain. The design has not been seen before in Roman Britain, but resembles a painting in a Roman villa in Cologne, Germany. The home in which it had been painted was probably demolished ahead of the construction of the second Forum Basilica. To read more about Roman frescos, go to "Saving the Villa of the Mysteries."
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND—Last month, the Swiss government returned 45 boxes of Etruscan artifacts to Italy, including two earthenware sarcophaguses. According to a press release from the city government of Geneva, the antiquities had been stored in a local warehouse, registered to an offshore company, for more than 15 years. Italian experts believe that the vases, frescoes, sculptures, and reliefs were illegally excavated from sites in Umbria and Lazio and imported through the Geneva Free Ports by a disgraced British art dealer. To read about excavations at at Etruscan site, go to "The Tomb of the Silver Hands."