LEICESTER, ENGLAND—An international group of scientists known as the Anthropocene Working Group argues the Earth entered a new geological epoch characterized by the spread of novel materials in the mid-twentieth century. These materials are measurable in geological strata and are different from the signals of the Holocene Epoch of the last 11,700 years. During the Holocene, humans gradually built urban settlements and increased food production while using water, mineral, and energy resources. The proposed Anthropocene Epoch, however, is marked by increased consumption and rapid environmental change brought on by a population surge. “Humans have long affected the environment, but recently there has been a rapid global spread of novel materials including aluminum, concrete, and plastics, which are leaving their mark in sediments. Fossil-fuel combustion has dispersed fly ash particles worldwide, pretty well coincident with the peak distribution of the ‘bomb spike’ of radionuclides generated by atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons,” Colin Waters of the British Geological Survey said in a University of Leicester press release. The Anthropocene Working Group will continue to gather evidence to define and characterize this proposed new epoch. To read about the archaeology of the Nuclear Age, go to "Dawn of a Thousand Suns."
BOLZANO, ITALY—Paleopathologist Albert Zink and microbiologist Frank Maixner of the European Academy in Bozen/Bolzano have identified the presence of Helicobacter pylori in the stomach contents of Ötzi, the frozen human remains discovered in the Alps in 1991. As many as half of people today are infected with Helicobacter pylori, which can cause gastritis or stomach ulcers. Ötzi’s stomach mucosa is no longer present, so scientists did not expect to be able to recover any traces of the bacterium. “We were able to solve the problem once we hit upon the idea of extracting the entire DNA of the stomach contents. After this was successfully done, we were able to tease out the individual Helicobacter sequences and reconstruct a 5,300-year-old Helicobacter pylori genome,” Maixner explained in a press release. And Ötzi’s immune system had reacted to the potentially virulent strain of bacteria. “We showed the presence of marker proteins which we see today in patients infected with Helicobacter,” Maixner added. The genetic makeup of the bacteria has raised more questions, however, and further research is being planned. The study of bacteria living inside the human body may eventually be able to help us understand how humans developed. To read more about Ötzi, go to "Ancient Tattoos."
LEIPZIG, GERMANY—Studies have shown that one to six percent of modern Eurasian genomes were inherited from ancient humans. Now two independent studies suggest that interbreeding may have given some modern humans gene variations that increased their ability to ward off infections. “We found that interbreeding with archaic humans, the Neanderthals and Denisovans, has influenced the genetic diversity in present-day genomes at three innate immunity genes belonging to the human Toll-like-receptor family,” Janet Kelso of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology said in a press release. The archaic variants of these genes make modern human cells more reactive to invading bacteria, fungi, and parasites. But this increased sensitivity could also result in allergies. “These, and other, innate immunity genes present higher levels of Neanderthal ancestry than the remainder of the coding genome,” added Lluis Quintana-Murci of the Institut Pasteur and the CNRS in Paris. Kelso explains that Neanderthals had lived in Europe and Western Asia for some 200,000 years before interbreeding with the newly arrived modern humans, who benefited from Neanderthal adaptations to local climate, foods, and pathogens.
PANAMA CITY, PANAMA—Eight percent of the mammal remains found in a 6,000-year-old midden on Pedro González Island, located more than 30 miles from mainland Panama, came from dolphins. People living at the same time in Japan, Mexico, and Chile hunted dolphins, but this is the first time that evidence of systematic dolphin consumption has been found in Central America. “Were the island’s first known inhabitants dolphin hunters or did they merely scavenge beached animals?” asked archaeologist Richard Cooke of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. The excavation has not uncovered evidence of nets or spears, but the researchers have found a dolphin skull with a puncture wound inflicted by a blunt-pointed tool. Cooke and his colleagues argue that the residents of Pedro González Island may have waited for the seasonal arrival of dolphins into the Gulf of Panama in their canoes at the entrance to the u-shaped Don Bernardo Beach, then driven them to shore where they were harvested. “I would argue, though it’s speculative, that the retention of dolphin hunting is probably due to an early circum-Pacific maritime adaptation by humans,” Cooke said in a press release.
CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—Volcanic particles discovered in an ice core taken in 2013 from the Colle Gnifetti glacier in the Alps have been chemically matched to the 1875 Askja eruption in Iceland by Matthew Luongo, a junior at Harvard University. This information helped researchers to align the data from the ice core with written records, including information about famine conditions in Europe in the years leading up to the arrival of the Black Death in 1347. “The evidence indicates that the famine was a broader phenomenon, geographically and chronologically,” Alexander More of Harvard’s History Department told The Harvard Gazette. If the famine had lasted decades, the population would have been weak and could explain the Black Death’s high mortality rate—between one-third and one-half of the European population are thought to have died over a period of five years.
NAHARIYA, ISRAEL—A 3,400-year-old Canaanite fortress that had been destroyed at least four times by fire has been discovered at a construction site in northern Israel. The Bronze Age citadel contained ceramic figurines in human and animal forms, bronze weapons, and imported pottery. The artifacts indicate that there had been trade ties with Cyprus and the rest of the Mediterranean basin, Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists Nimrod Getzov, Yair Amitsur, and Ron Be’eri told Haaretz. The fires also preserved remains of cereals, legumes, and grape seeds. Other Canaanite sites have yielded vessels bearing wine residues, but it is not clear if these grape seeds were left behind by wine makers. The site will be incorporated into the basement of the new residential structure. To read in-depth about another excavation in northern Israel, go to "Excavating Tel Kedesh."
WASHINGTON, D.C.—A team of archaeologists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Maritime Heritage Program has found the hulls of two ships and pieces of other ships off the Arctic coast of Alaska, where in September 1871, 33 whaling ships were trapped by pack ice. The whaling captains decided to abandon their ships and transfer the more than 1,200 officers, crew, and families to shore. Seven other whaling ships in open water to the south jettisoned their cargoes and equipment in order to rescue those who had been stranded. The trapped ships were destroyed within weeks. “Earlier research by a number of scholars suggested that some of the ships that were crushed and sunk might still be on the seabed. But until now, no one had found definitive proof of any of the lost fleet beneath the water. This exploration provides an opportunity to write the last chapter of this important story of American maritime heritage and also bear witness to some of the impacts of a warming climate on the region’s environmental and cultural landscape, including diminishing sea ice and melting permafrost,” NOAA archaeologist Brad Barr said in a press release.
ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA—City archaeologists and a team from Thunderbird Archaeology have found about one-third of a 50-foot vessel at a construction site in Alexandria, Virginia. The ship is thought to have been scuttled in the late eighteenth century and used for landfill that extended the city’s thriving waterfront into the deep channel of the Potomac River. The archaeologists are using 3-D laser scanning equipment to record the well-preserved, sturdily built hull, which will be dismantled and maintained in a wet environment while researchers continue to study it. According to a press release from the city of Alexandria, this discovery may represent a type of vessel that has not yet been documented through archaeological research. To read about an eighteenth-century ship discovered in Manhattan, go to "The Hidden History of New York's Harbor."
FRANKFURT, GERMANY—Scientists from the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment in Tübingen, and the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt, analyzed stable carbon isotopes from the tooth enamel of the little-known giant ape Gigantopithecus. “Unfortunately, there are very few fossil finds of Gigantopithecus—only a few large teeth and bones from the lower mandible are known,” Hervé Bocherens of the University of Tubingen said in a press release. Those fossils are from China and Thailand, which had open savannas and wooden landscapes. The new study of carbon isotopes indicates that Gigantopithecus was a vegetarian that lived only in forests. “Relatives of the giant ape, such as the recent orangutan, have been able to survive despite their specialization on a certain habitat. However, orangutans have a slow metabolism and are able to survive on limited food. Due to its size, Gigantopithecus presumably depended on a large amount of food. When during the Pleistocene era more and more forested areas turned into savanna landscapes, there was simply an insufficient food supply for the giant ape,” Bocherens said. To read about another recent paleontological discovery, go to "Earliest Stone Tools."
SAVANNAH, GEORGIA—More than half of the 30,000 artifacts recovered with the wreckage of the ironclad CSS Georgia this summer were returned to the mud of the Savannah River in storage containers. “Anything I considered to be unique, I would say, ‘I want this, I want this.’ I picked through everything. No unique stuff went back in the river,” project manager Jim Jobling of the Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M University told the Associated Press. The ship, which had been scuttled by its crew in 1864 to keep it from Union troops, was recovered as part of a project to deepen Savannah harbor for cargo ships. In addition to the ship’s armor, several cannons, and pieces of engine, the team recovered buttons, hilts of knives and swords, an intact glass bottle, boots, and an earring. “What we reburied, we made sure it was completely covered and sunk down in the mud. Somebody would have to work pretty hard to get in there,” added Julie Morgan, Army Corps of Engineers archaeologist. For more on nautical archaeology, go to "History's 10 Greatest Shipwrecks."
LIMA, PERU—The Inca used a series of knotted strings hanging from a main cord, a device known as a khipu, to keep records. Researchers have had a basic understanding of the numerical system and mathematical operations used in khipus, but have not known how to decipher other information kept in the strings. According to The New York Times, for the first time, archaeologists led by archaeologist Alejandro Chu have discovered 29 khipus in a storehouse, rather than in the graves of scribes, at Incahuasi, where they appear to have been used to keep track of peanuts, chili peppers, beans, corn, and other agricultural products. “We can look at how the chili pepper khipu differs from the peanut khipu and from the corn khipu in terms of their color and other characteristics and we can build up a kind of sign vocabulary of how they were signifying this or that thing in their world,” Gary Urton, a member of the Khipu Database Project at Harvard University’s Dumbarton Oaks. He has created a database of detailed information of some 870 khipus. “If we can find the connection between the khipu and the product that it was found with we can contribute to the deciphering of the khipus,” Chu explained. To read more about the Inca, go to "The Water Temple of Inca-Caranqui."
CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—Analysis of Neolithic stone tools from the Haua Fteah cave in northern Libya suggests that they were used to process wild plants, at a time when domesticated grains were also available. Giulio Lucarini of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at Cambridge University and his colleagues found microscopic plant residues in the pitted surfaces of several of the well-worn stones. The residues are most likely from Cenchrinae grasses, which, although prickly and hard to process, are very nutritious. This is consistent with research conducted by Jacob Morales of the University of the Basque Country, who found wild plants alone from the Neolithic period at the site. “Haua Fteah is only a kilometer away from the Mediterranean and close to well-established coastal routes, giving communities there access to commodities such as domesticated grain, or at least the possibility to cultivate them. Yet is seems that people living in the Jebel Akhdar region may well have made a strategic and deliberate choice not to adopt the new farming practices available to them, despite the promise of higher yields but, instead, to integrate them into their existing practices ,” Lucarini said in a press release. To read more about the period, go to "Neolithic Europe's Remote Heart."
ALBERTA, CANADA—A farmer in western Canada alerted authorities after he discovered a human skull in a field during last summer’s drought. Once scientists determined that the skull dated to the early nineteenth century, the site was excavated by a team from the Archaeological Survey of Alberta. The scientists uncovered the rest of the skeleton, some 3,000 beads, jewelry, European-style brass buttons from a military jacket, and a thimble. Experts from the University of Alberta determined that the bones had belonged to a 13 or 14-year-old girl. “Because she was buried in what appears to be a shallow grave away from any known sites that we believe would have been important at that time, it is possible that she died in transit between two locations. But at this point it is all very much a mystery,” Matthew Wangler, Alberta Culture’s director of historical resources, told CBC News. But the researchers think she may have been the daughter of a chief who was traveling on a trade route between a European fort and an aboriginal settlement when she died. The girl’s remains and the artifacts were reburied in a ceremony near the original site. To read in-depth about archaeology in the High Plains, go to "The Buffalo Chasers."
EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND—Archaeologists digging in Newhaven, a historic fishing village in Scotland, expected to find traces of the original harbor and signs of shipbuilding, when they unearthed poorly preserved human bones dated to the sixteenth or seventeenth century. Records show that a gibbet, used to execute witches and pirates, was located on the edge of the Newhaven dockyards, and the bones, thought to have belonged to a man in his fifties, may have belonged to a man who had been executed there for piracy or other criminal activity. Researchers speculate that his remains might have been displayed near the harbor as a deterrent before they were buried in a shallow, unmarked grave. “Edinburgh has an undeniably intriguing past and some of our archaeological discoveries have been in the strangest of places,” councilor Richard Lewis said in a press release.
ZVENIGOROD, RUSSIA—Traces of the sixteenth-century village of Ignatievskoe were unearthed by a team from the Institute of Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences during rescue excavations ahead of the construction of a new highway. Among the 60 buildings, the excavators discovered an underground, timber-lined storehouse that was probably in the basement of a boyar’s mansion. It contained spiked helmets that had been stored in leather boxes, body armor, belts, arrows, sections of military sabers, pieces of camp tents, and cooking equipment. The private arsenal may have been intended to supply a standing army, but the house had burned down and the weapons were never recovered. “We’ve never encountered such finds in the Moscow region before neither in cities and especially not in small villages,” deputy director Asya Engovatova told Phys.org. “This gives us a much better idea how a Russian noble would have prepared for setting out on a military campaign—each nobleman would have had his own arsenal in readiness,” added Alexei Alexeyev, specialist in charge of the excavations. To read about a mass grave holding troops who died in the winter of 1812 during the French retreat from Russia, go to "Digging Napoleon's Dead."
STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN—Ayca Omrak of Stockholm University obtained DNA from 8,000-year-old human remains at the site of Kumtepe, a Neolithic site in Anatolia that was excavated in 1994. The samples were heavily degraded, but she was able to show that the region was a hub for the spread of ideas and genes into Europe. “I have never worked with a more complicated material. But it was worth every hour in the laboratory. I could use the DNA from the Kumtepe material to trace the European farmers back to Anatolia,” Omrak said in a press release. Her colleague Jan Storå adds that further research in the region could shed light onto the transition from hunting and gathering to farming. To read more about the period in Europe, go to "The Neolithic Toolkit."
ASWAN, EGYPT—Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh Eldamaty announced that police in Edfu recovered a black granite colossus of King Amenhotep III from a home in the village of Al-Nakhl while they were pursuing illegal weapons and drugs. Ahram Online reports that the statue depicts the 18th Dynasty king, who is wearing a short skirt and a headdress, standing with his left leg forward. Hieroglyphic texts are engraved on the back of the statue, and its base bears the king’s titles. The statue is being restored and examined in Edfu and will eventually be transferred to Luxor Museum. To read about a recent discovery regarding Egyptian paintings, go to "Hidden Blues."
JIMENA DE LA FRONTERA, SPAIN—A major Roman settlement is being excavated in a town near Spain’s southern coast that has been continuously occupied since the eighth century B.C. Its hilltop location overlooks the surrounding arable countryside and inland routes from the Mediterranean Sea. “At first sight the impression is of visiting an Arab castle, slightly altered in the nineteenth century. But the moment you take a critical look and analyze what you are actually seeing you quickly realize that this is nothing other than the remains of a very important Roman city,” Miguel Angel Tabales of the University of Seville told BBC News. Construction during the Islamic period was more pragmatic, according to Tabales. “At a construction level, what we’ve found is little more than removing sediment and recycling Roman materials,” he explained. Then the town was moved to the other side of the hilltop, which helped to preserve the Roman remains, including the walls of the fortified town enclosure, its original entrance, and a large temple. Researchers are now working to preserve the site and protect it from looters. To read about a discovery in Spain dating back more than 18,000 years, go to "The Red Lady of El Mirón."
ROSH HA-‘AYIN, ISRAEL—A 2,700-year-old farmhouse and a 1,500-year-old church have been unearthed in excavations carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority ahead of a residential construction project in central Israel. The farmhouse had 24 rooms, and a silo in its courtyard for grain storage. Its well-preserved walls stand more than six feet tall. “It seems that carbohydrates were as popular then as now, and the growing and processing of grain were fairly widespread in the rural-agricultural region,” excavation director Amit Shadman said in a press release. The team, which included volunteer teenagers, also uncovered millstones for grinding the grain into flour and rock-hewn oil presses for the production of olive oil. The farmhouse site also yielded two silver coins dating to the fourth century B.C. that bear images of the goddess Athena and the Athenian owl. Excavators also discovered a Byzantine monastery, a church with mosaic floors, an oil press, and a stable complete with mangers and troughs. Much of the monastery was destroyed by a lime kiln installed during the Ottoman period. To read about another site known for its mosaics, go to "Zeugma After the Flood."
KURDISTAN, IRAN—Excavations in western Iran have uncovered Paleolithic stone tools, burned animal bones, and hearths. The campsites were found in caves and rock shelters along the Sirwan River. “The new finds provide researchers with valuable information about the way of life, game hunting, and tool carving culture of the primitive hunting societies and food collectors,” project leader Fereidoun Biglari told Tasnim News. The artifacts date from about 40,000 years ago to the end of the last Ice Age, some 12,000 years ago, and provide the earliest evidence of human activity in Kurdistan. “Primary examination of animal bones indicates that Mousterian hunters were more focused on wild goat herds that lived in the rugged mountains of Hawraman, high above the Sirwan River,” Biglari explained. To read more about archaeology in Iran, go to "The World in Between."