STONY BROOK, NEW YORK—Sergio Almecija, Jeroen Smaers, and William Jungers of Stony Brook University measured the hand proportions of modern humans, living and fossil ape species, and human ancestors, including Ardipithecus ramidus and Australopithecus sediba, in an effort to understand the evolution of the hand. They found that there has been relatively little change in the proportions of the human hand, which has a long thumb in relation to the fingers, since the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees. This had been thought to be important to human success, but it could indicate that the structure of the human hand is largely primitive in nature, rather than the result of the selective pressures of making stone tools. The fingers of chimpanzee and orangutan hands, meanwhile, have gotten longer and more suited to living in trees.
SHEFFIELD, OHIO—A team led by Brian Redmond of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History is excavating a 4,000-year-old site in northeastern Ohio. So far, they have uncovered a three-inch-thick floor made from layers of yellow clay that was carried to the site. A basin was built into the floor, along with cooking pits and storage holes that held hickory nuts. Post holes show where hickory saplings were placed and then tied together to create a framework covered with cattail mats. “A small family would be very comfortable. They were well insulated, and sheltered under the tree canopy of oaks. Unlike at other sites, they’re going to the trouble to make floors. They’re here for months at a time,” Redmond told Cleveland.com. He thinks that these hunter-gatherers migrated to the area from the southeast to spend the fall and winter for a period of some 200 to 300 years. “There’s nothing like this anywhere in Ohio. It’s very significant, a much more significant site than we previously thought. These are house structures. This was like a village site,” he added.
MADISON, WISCONSIN—A genetic study of corn conducted by Huai Wang and John Doebley of the University of Wisconsin-Madison offers insight into the domestication of this crop in Mexico some 9,000 years ago. The seeds of the wild grass teosinte, the ancestor of modern corn, are protected by a hard casing. Over a period of a few thousand years, early farmers developed varieties in which the seed case turns into the cob, exposing the seed as a “naked kernel.” A series of experiments showed that only one mutation in the gene tga1, and the protein encoded by it, TGA1, is necessary to affect the structure of the seed case. “TGA1 acts a bit like an orchestra conductor coordinating the actions of many different musicians. The same orchestra can play in different ways, depending on the conductor’s signals,” Doebley said in a press release. “Humans completely reshaped the ancestor of corn, effectively turning the cob inside out. Our results show that a small genetic change has had a big effect on this remarkable transformation,” he said. For more, go to "New Thoughts on Corn Domestication."
OSLO, NORWAY—A sword from the late Viking Age has been discovered in a burial in Langeid, a village in southern Norway. “Although the iron blade has rusted, the handle is well preserved. It is wrapped with silver thread and the hilt and pommel at the top are covered in silver with details in gold, edged with a copper alloy thread,” project leader Zanette Glørstad said in a press release. Post holes in the four corners of the large grave once held a roof, and yielded charcoal dated to the year A.D. 1030, which coincides with coins found at the bottom of the grave. One of the coins, from England, was minted during the reign of Ethelred II, between 978 and 1016. A battle ax with a shaft coated with brass was also discovered in the same grave. Similar axes have been found in the River Thames in London, suggesting that the weapons in this burial might be linked to Viking battles along the Thames in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries. “It’s quite possible that the dead man was one of King Canute’s hand-picked men for the battles with King Ethelred of England,” Glørstad added. To read more about the Viking era in England, go to "Vengeance on the Vikings."
CHIAPAS, MEXICO—News.com Australia reports that recent excavations at Tonina by archaeologists from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History have shown the Maya city to be twice as large as predicted, with clearly defined districts, including areas of palaces, temples, housing, and administration. It had been thought that the Tonina acropolis had been built on a hill, but the excavations have shown that the mound covers a pyramid more than 240 feet tall, with 208 stone steps from its base to its apex. “It’s a big surprise to see that the pyramid was done almost entirely by the architects and therefore is more artificial than natural. This is because it was believed that almost every hill was a natural mound, but recent evidence has revealed that it was almost entirely built by the ancient inhabitants,” said Emiliano Gallaga, director of the site. More than 300 hieroglyphic texts have also been found. Some of them reveal the names of city rulers. The texts could eventually help scholars understand the decline of the ancient Maya civilization. To read in-depth about another ancinet Maya discovery, go to "Tomb of the Vulture Lord."
CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA—Additional portions of the floor mosaics in the east aisle of a fifth-century synagogue in the ancient Jewish village of Huqoq have been uncovered by a team led by Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Shua Kisilevitz of the Israel Antiquities Authority. Previous excavations in the synagogue, which is located in the Lower Galilee, unearthed pictures of Samson and an image that may depict Alexander the Great and a Jewish high priest—the first non-biblical story to be found in an ancient synagogue, according to Magness. This summer’s excavations have revealed images surrounding a dedicatory inscription that include animals, male figures supporting a garland, a rooster, and male and female faces in a wreath. There are also winged putti, or cupids, holding roundels with theater masks. The team also uncovered columns inside the synagogue that had been covered in plaster and painted ivy leaf designs. “The images in these mosaics—as well as their high level of artistic quality—and the columns painted with vegetal motifs have never been found in any other ancient synagogue. These are unique discoveries,” Magness said in a press release. To read about the previously unearthed portions, go to "Mosaics of Huqoq."
DORSET, ENGLAND—A geophysical survey conducted by a team from the University of Bournemouth has located 150 roundhouses and other features in a prehistoric town named Duropolis, after the Durotriges, a local Iron Age tribe. Sixteen roundhouses in the settlement have been excavated so far. “What we’ve discovered is extremely significant for the whole of Southern Britain because in the past archaeologists have tended to look at really obvious sites, like the big hill-fort of Maiden Castle, near Dorchester. What we have here is an extensive open settlement, not a hill fort, so it wasn’t visible as a settlement from the earthwork on the landscape. What we’ve discovered is one of the earliest and largest open settlements in Britain,” archaeologist Miles Russell said in a press release. It had been thought that before the arrival of the Romans, most people in Britain lived in protected hill forts. The team also uncovered the bones of animals whose body parts had been rearranged to form hybrid beasts, grinding stones, spindle whorls, and metal working debris.
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA—A new study of 71,000-year-old stone tools from Sibudu and Blombos, two South African archaeological sites that are more than 600 miles apart, shows that these two groups of people used similar types of tools, but made them differently and from different materials. Lyn Wadley of the University of the Witwatersrand and an international team of scientists examined two types of Middle Stone Age tools—Still Bay and Howiesons Poort—from the two sites. The two sets of Howiesons Poort tools were crafted in a similar pattern that may have been socially transmitted by teaching and verbal instruction. But the team concluded that although similar, the differences between the Still Bay-type tools from Sibudu and Blombos suggest that the toolmakers from the two sites did not share the same rules and traditions. “This was not the case at 65,000 years ago when similarities in stone tool making suggest that similar cultural traditions spread across South Africa,” Wadley said in a press release. To read about the oldest stone tools yet discovered, go to "The First Toolkit."
BE’ER SHEVA, ISRAEL—The Israel Antiquities Authority reports that two sling stones were returned to the Museum of Islamic and Near Eastern Cultures in Be’er Sheva. A museum employee found the stones in a bag in the museum’s courtyard with a note that read, “These are two roman ballista balls from Gamla, from a residential quarter at the foot of the summit. I stole them in July 1995 and since then they have brought me nothing but trouble. Please, do not steal antiquities!” The museum handed over the stones, which were chiseled by Roman soldiers or their prisoners, to the Israel Antiquities Authority. “Almost 2,000 such stones were found during the archaeological excavations in the Gamla Nature Reserve, and this is the site where there is the largest number of ballista stones from the Early Roman period. The Romans shot these stones at the defenders of the city in order to keep them away from the wall, and in that way they could approach the wall and break it with a battering ram,” explained archaeologist Danny Syon, who excavated at Gamla for many years. To read more about this period, go to "Artifact: Roman Coins in Israel."
CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—Alex Smith of Harvard University led a study of the safety of meat eaten by early human ancestors. “Some would argue the archaeological record indicates that meat was scavenged before the earliest accepted dates of controlled fire-use, but our research suggests that cooking might be more ancient,” he told The Huffington Post. He and his team measured the growth of bacteria on raw boar meat and bone marrow over a 24-hour period, and then they measured how effectively roasting the meat eliminated the bacteria. As expected, they found that roasting the meat over hot coals killed most of the bacteria. Fewer bacteria grew on bone marrow, suggesting that it may have been a safer snack. “We hope this research brings the importance of cooking and its effects to discussions on early hominin carnivory,” he concluded.
BURGAS, BULGARIA—A marble slab bearing a first-century A.D. Greek inscription from the Odrysian Kingdom, the most powerful of the ancient Thracian states, has been unearthed at the site of Aquae Calidae, an ancient spa resort. “This is a historical monument of international importance,” archaeologist Miroslave Klasnakov told Archaeology in Bulgaria. The inscription, which belonged to Apollonius, son of Eptaikentus, a military governor, had been built into an altar and mentions the names of the last Thracian kings of the Odrysian Kingdom and their children. Aquae Calidae may have been an administrative center in addition to being a resort destination. The Romans eventually deposed the Odrysian kings and Thrace became a Roman province. The inscription also lists a shrine dedicated to Demetra that had been built by the military governor. The altar where the inscription was found may have been dedicated to her.
BETIO ISLAND, TARAWA ATOLL—The remains of 36 American Marines have been recovered on Tarawa, an atoll in the Pacific Ocean where more than 1,600 U.S. troops and more than 4,500 Japanese troops died in the three-day Battle of Tarawa in 1943. The search was coordinated by History Flight, a Florida charity dedicated to returning the remains of fallen soldiers to their families. Among the Americans was First Lieutenant Alexander “Sandy” Bonnyman, Jr., a Medal of Honor recipient who died on the second day of the battle, but it wasn’t known where he had been buried. Bonnyman’s grandson joined the archaeological expedition to the Republic of Kiribati to look for his grandfather’s remains. “I’ve been to Tarawa five times, I’ve dug holes in the sand, I’ve sifted sand, I’ve washed bones in the lab, I’ve called families asking for DNA samples and honestly we agreed that this is a needle in a haystack. So I was well and truly floored when I got a call saying they felt they had discovered cemetery 27 because if it was 27 then there was every indication we would find my grandfather,” Clay Bonnyman Evans told Radio New Zealand. Dental records were used to make the final identification of 1st Lt. Bonnyman.
ARLES, FRANCE—A mural resembling those at Pompeii has been discovered in the bedroom of a Roman villa in southern France. The fresco, which dates between 20 and 70 B.C., is one of only a few full murals to be found outside Italy. Among the 11 images in the painting, now in more than 12,000 fragments, is a depiction of a young woman playing a harp that had been painted in expensive Egyptian blue and red vermilion pigments. “There will be gaps, gaps in these reborn frescoes,” Marie-Pierre Roth of the National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) told RFI. It could take ten years to reassemble the full fresco. To read more about Roman murals, go to "Saving the Villa of the Mysteries."
REYKJAVIK, ICELAND—Traces of a Viking longhouse dating between A.D. 870 and 930, the first years of settlement in Iceland, were discovered in central Reykjavik while archaeologists were looking for a house built in the late eighteenth-century. “We have no records of any building on this spot other than the cottage built in 1799. The cottage was built on a meadow with no remnants of anything else,” Lisabet Guðmundsdóttir of the Icelandic Institute of Archaeology told The Iceland Monitor. The building was at least 60 feet long, and its “long fire,” a hearth that stretched down the middle of the structure, was more than 15 feet long. The excavation team has also uncovered weaving implements within the building and a silver ring and a pearl near it. “The find came as a great surprise for everybody. This rewrites the history of Reykjavik,” said preservationist Þorsteinn Bergsson of Minjavernd.
ABERDEENSHIRE, SCOTLAND—Stone artifacts have been found in Scotland’s Mar Lodge Estate, suggesting that people were in the Cairngorm Mountains as early as 8,000 years ago, or thousands of years earlier than had been previously thought. At this time after the last ice age, there were permanent snow fields in the region and glaciers may have even been reforming. “It is incredible to think that what we have discovered at this one spot in a vast landscape may represent a small group of people stopping for only a night or two, repairing their hunting equipment and then moving on,” Shannon Fraser of the National Trust for Scotland said in a press release. “Glen Geldie is a very chilly place today, even with all our modern outdoor clothing—it is hard to imagine what it must have been like in the much harsher climate 8,000 years ago,” he added.
MITCHELL, SOUTH DAKOTA—Charred corncobs, kernels of corn, and sunflowers have been unearthed by students from Augustana College and England’s University of Exeter at a 1,000-year-old site along Lake Mitchell in southern South Dakota. “This village isn’t the origin of prehistoric agriculture, but it is one of the key sites in understanding what was done here,” professor Adrien Hannus of Augustana College told The Mitchell Republic. The corn cobs are about the size of an adult finger and were probably roasted or boiled whole. “You can see that the corn kernels are about the same size, but the cobs were a lot smaller and there were a lot fewer kernels on the cobs,” added Alan Outram from the University of Exeter. The storage pits, where the cobs and seeds were found, were eventually used for trash and capped with clay and ash.
HAMILTON, ONTARIO—Spencer Pope of McMaster University, Peter Schultz of Concordia College, and David Scahill of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens think that the city-state of ancient Athens may have stored reserves of coins in the Parthenon’s attic. Writers in antiquity noted that the Athenian reserves sometimes reached 10,000 talents—a staggering sum of silver coins that could have potentially weighed 260 metric tons. However, the ancient records do not mention exactly where on the Acropolis the coins were stored. Very little of the Parthenon’s attic still exists, but estimates suggest that it was 62 feet wide by 164 long, with a floor made of thick beams of wood from cypress trees. There are also remnants of a utilitarian staircase that could have been used to move money to and from the attic, where coins could have been spread across the floor space to distribute their weight. “The attic of the Parthenon is the only suitable space large enough to hold all of the coins in the Treasury. While we cannot rule out the possibility that coins were distributed across numerous buildings, we should recall that the attic is the most secure space,” Pope told Live Science. To read more about money from this period, go to "Mysterious Greek Coins Studied."
DAQAHLIYAH, EGYPT—Polish archaeologists digging at Tel Al-Farkha have unearthed four Pre-Dynastic tombs, according to a report in Ahram Online. Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh Eldamaty announced that three of the tombs are in poor condition, but that the fourth, a small mastaba with two chambers, is well preserved. It contained pottery such as beer jars and bowls, stone vessels of different shapes and sizes, and carnelian beads, in addition to human remains. Marek Chlodnicki, head of the Polish team, added that two buildings were also found near the tomb. One of them is rectangular in shape, had thick walls, and was located along a courtyard. The second building was built during the second half of the First Dynasty, and had double mud-brick walls. A brewery with the remnants of two vats was also unearthed at the site. To read more about the Pre-Dynastic period, go to "Mummification Before the Pharaohs."
RENO, NEVADA—An international team of scientists has analyzed more than 20 ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica and reconstructed the climate timeline for the first millennium. “Ice-core timescales had been misdated previously by five to ten years during the first millennium leading to inconsistencies in the proposed timing of volcanic eruptions relative to written documentary and tree-ring evidence recording the climatic responses to the same eruptions,” Francis Ludlow of the Yale Climate & Energy Institute explained in The Telegraph. The new study of ice cores, combined with historic records from around the world, suggests that two huge volcanic eruptions in North America could have caused the sixth-century dust clouds that led to widespread famine and disease in Europe, and even the fall of the Roman Empire. “Our new dating allowed us to clarify long-standing debates concerning the origin and consequences of the severe and global climate anomalies which began with the mystery cloud in A.D. 536 observed in the Mediterranean basin,” said Michael Sigl of the Desert Research Institute and the Paul Scherrer Institute.
YAMAGATA, JAPAN—A team from Yamagata University has found an additional 24 images etched into the dust in urban areas of Nazca, Peru, using a 3-D scanner. The geoglyphs, many of which are heavily eroded, date from 400 to 200 B.C., and are thought to be older than other Nazca Line images such as the hummingbird. Most of the newly found drawings depict llamas. “There are no other areas concentrated with this many examples. Yet with both urban areas and farmland encroaching on the drawings, they are under the threat of being destroyed without being recognized as geoglyphs,” Masato Sakai of Yamagata University told The Asahi Shimbun.