NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE—Researchers from Vanderbilt University used a database of 28,000 anonymous individuals, whose DNA samples were linked to their electronic health records, to look for Neanderthal DNA variants and see if they could be connected to modern health problems. “Our main finding is that Neanderthal DNA does influence clinical traits in modern humans: We discovered associations between Neanderthal DNA and a wide range of traits, including immunological, dermatological, neurological, psychiatric, and reproductive diseases,” evolutionary geneticist John Capra said in a press release. But 40,000 years ago, Neanderthal DNA might have provided modern humans with adaptive advantages as they came into contact with different pathogens and levels of sun exposure in new environments. For example, a Neanderthal variant that increases blood coagulation may have sealed wounds more quickly and prevented infections. Today, people who carry this variant are at an increased risk of stroke, pulmonary embolism, and pregnancy complications. Neanderthal DNA can also increase the risk of nicotine addiction, and influence the risk for depression. “The brain is incredibly complex, so it’s reasonable to expect that introducing changes from a different evolutionary path might have negative consequences,” added graduate student Corinne Simonti. For more, go to "Decoding Neanderthal Genetics."
LARAMIE, WYOMING—Statistical analysis shows that more fossils, such as the remains of mammoths, mastodons, camels, horses, and ground sloths, have been lost in the continental United States and South America than in Alaska and areas near the Bering Strait. Todd Surovell and Spencer Pelton of the University of Wyoming compiled radiocarbon dates of bones from animals that died during the Pleistocene era and the rates at which sedimentary deposits were lost over time. “While bone preservation in Arctic regions is aided by cold temperatures and the presence of permafrost, considerably more bone has been lost over time in regions farther south—in fact, at a faster rate than the sediments in which they were deposited have eroded,” Surovell said in a press release. “That means that researchers must adjust for those differences as they estimate the numbers of these animals, many of which are now extinct, across the Americas,” he said. Estimates of populations of large mammals can be used to determine if their extinctions were caused by human hunters.
SUSSEX, ENGLAND—Domesticated horses are able to distinguish between angry and happy human facial expressions, according to a study conducted by Amy Smith and Karen McComb of the University of Sussex. When shown angry human faces, the horses looked more with the left eye, which allows the right brain hemisphere to process threatening stimuli. (Dogs have also been shown to have a tendency to use the left eye when viewing negative human facial expressions.) The horses’ heart rates also increased more quickly, and they exhibited more stress-related behaviors, when shown the angry human expressions. “In this context, recognizing angry faces may act as a warning system, allowing horses to anticipate negative human behavior such as rough handling,” Smith said in a press release. “There are several possible explanations for our findings,” added McComb. “Horses may have adapted an ancestral ability for reading emotional cues in other horses to respond appropriately to human facial expressions during their co-evolution. Alternatively, individual horses may have learned to interpret human expressions during their own lifetime,” she explained. For more, go to "The Story of the Horse."
PENSACOLA, FLORIDA—According to a press release, Kristina Killgrove of the University of West Florida and Janet Montgomery of Durham University analyzed isotope ratios in the teeth of 105 skeletons in an effort to determine what these individuals ate over the course of their lifetimes and where they had been born. The skeletons came from two Roman cemeteries dating to the first through third centuries A.D., and their burials suggest that they may have been poor or enslaved. The results of the study, published in PLOS ONE, indicate that as many as eight of these individuals, mostly men and children, may have come from North Africa and the Alps. They probably adapted to the local Roman diet of wheat, legumes, meat, and fish. Further isotope analysis and DNA studies could provide more information. For more, see "The Gladiator Diet."
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA—A chamber in South Africa’s Sterkfontein Caves has yielded four early hominin fossils that can be associated with stone tools dating to more than two million years ago. Two of these fossils, a finger bone and a tooth, are new to scientists. The finger bone is large and curved, but lacks the strong muscle attachments expected for a hominin living in trees. “The finger is similar in shape to the partial specimen from Olduvai Gorge that has been called Homo habilis, but is much larger. Overall, this specimen in unique in the South African plio-pleistocene fossil hominin record and deserves more studies,” Dominic Stratford of the University of the Witwatersrand said in a press release. The tooth is a relatively small, adult first molar resembling the teeth of Homo habilis and perhaps Homo naledi, discovered in 2013 in Rising Star Cave. “The specimens are exciting not only because they are associated with early stone tools, but also because they possess a mixture of intriguing features that raise many more questions than they give answers,” Stratford said.
COLCHESTER, ENGLAND—Archaeologists have known about the arcade that had been built at the Temple of Claudius in Colchester for some 60 years, but the demolition of a modern office block has uncovered evidence that the covered walkway was the largest in Roman Britain. The arcade was built in the first or second century A.D., following the destruction of Colchester during Boudicca’s rebellion. “Its closest rival in terms of size stands in what was Gaul, in northern France, and shares some of the architecture we can see in Colchester today,” Philip Crummy, director of the Colchester Archaeological Trust, told The Telegraph. “The original arcade and its grand columns are similar to those you see in Bath, at the Roman Baths. It really is an extraordinary find and confirms the grandeur and richness of its Roman culture,” he said. For more on the Roman period in England, go to "What’s in a Name?"
FOULUM, DENMARK—Three members of the Central Jutland Detector Society discovered a cache of 700-year-old coins in a field near the excavation of an Iron Age building. The poor quality and low silver content of the coins are thought to reflect the civil war in Denmark at the time. “The treasure comes from an unstable period, and it is conceivable that the owner wanted to hide them away until better and more stable times. For some unknown reason, he never returned to collect his coins,” Viborg Museum curator Mikkel Kjeldsen told The Local, Denmark. The coins will be cleaned and displayed at Viborg Museum. For more on archaeology in Jutland, go to "Bronze Age Bride."
MADRID, SPAIN—Mónica Alvarez de Buergo of Madrid’s Geosciences Institute and scientists from the University of Calabria collected 50 samples of white marble from the now-submerged luxury villas in the Underwater Archaeological Park of Baia, located near Naples. The Roman emperors Augustus and Nero owned villas in the city, which thrived between the first century B.C. and the third century A.D. “First, thin layers of the collected marble were observed using a petrographic microscope. Then, the mineral composition of the marble was studied using X-ray diffraction and the manganese content was determined with Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry. Scanning Electron Microscopy was then carried out and various isotopes were analyzed,” Alvarez de Buergo said in a press release. The team compared the test results with the chemical signatures of eight of the best marble quarries of the ancient world, and found matches for all but five of the samples. “The variety and quality of the marble identified highlight the importance held by this area in the past seeing as it yielded the best ornamental marble of that time period, and this helps to determine the trade routes that were used at that point in time during the Roman Empire,” she said.
GHENT, BELGIUM—A team of mining archaeologists has investigated a 5,000-year-old silver mine in Thorikos, Greece. The cramped mines were likely to have been worked by slaves, who endured the lack of light, fresh air, and temperatures that hovered around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. “The progress of the underground survey required a constant vigilance in this stuffy space where the rate of oxygen must be permanently watched,” Denis Morin of the University of Lorraine said in a press release. The team members have found tool marks on the walls of the subterranean galleries, graffiti, pottery, oil lamps, stone hammers, and crushing areas. By the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., silver was extracted on a large scale with a sophisticated system from shafts cut through the rock. For more on ancient silver mining, go to "The Environmental Cost of Empire."
SOFIA, BULGARIA—Pieces of a bronze statue of Emperor Trajan, discovered in the 1980s, could be restored by conservators at Bulgaria’s National Museum of History. Archaeology in Bulgaria reports that the second-century statue, decorated with images of gods and heroes from ancient mythology, has been stored in the conservation laboratory at the museum, but has never been shown to the public. It was unearthed at the site of Candidiana, a Roman road station and fortress located on the Danube River. The fort was eventually destroyed during the invasions of the Byzantine period. The museum’s conservators just need funding to restore the statue and space to display it when they are finished. For more on Emperor Trajan, go to "Rome's Lost Aqueduct."
WILTSHIRE, ENGLAND—A Bronze Age burial was discovered near Stonehenge after a badger dug up a cremation urn and other pieces of pottery and left them on the surface of the ground. Senior archaeologist Richard Osgood of the Ministry of Defense told BBC News that the burial, which included a bronze saw, an archer’s wrist guard, a copper chisel, shaft straighteners, and cremated human remains, may have belonged to an archer or a person who made archery equipment. The badger’s claw marks can be seen on some of the pottery fragments. “There are badger setts in quite a few scheduled monuments—the actions of burrowing animals is one of the biggest risks to archaeology in Britain—but to bring out items of this quality from one hole is unusual,” he said. For more on animals as excavators, go to "Critter Diggers."
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."