MUNICH, GERMANY—The pattern of communicating in short turns in rapid alternation during conversations may have evolved before language, according to Stephen Levinson of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. He has reviewed research on how modern humans listen and prepare a spoken response—it takes about 200 milliseconds on average to respond to one another, but it takes about 600 milliseconds to prepare a word for delivery, implying that people have to begin preparing a response while listening to the current speaker. Levinson notes that this is a pattern found across unrelated cultures and languages, and that infants begin taking turns in interactions at about six months of age, before they can speak. As language skills develop, however, infant turn-taking slows down as they struggle to master more complex language structures and speak rapidly. Levinson thinks that human ancestors may have taken turns gesturing to each other, as the great apes do, before they began communicating through the vocal channel some one million years ago.
KANNUR, INDIA—Laborers digging a trench for electricity cables for a light-and-sound show at Fort St. Angelo discovered more than 39,000 cannonballs that had been discarded in four pits. The fort, located in southern India on the coast of the Arabian Sea, was constructed by the Portuguese in 1505. “We are not sure whether such a huge stock has ever been unearthed from anywhere in the world and we have to corroborate with evidences from history to find out why such a huge quantity was dumped in the pits, thus making sure it would not be reused,” archaeologist T. Sreelakshmi of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) told The Times of India. “It is a long process to clean and chemically treat the cannonballs, which might take a few weeks, before which we would not be able to tell anything about the history,” added ASI archaeologist C. Kumaran. To read about the medieval Indian city of Hampi, go to "Living Heritage at Risk."
BURLINGTON, VERMONT—A team of scientists studied the fossil record dating back 300 million years and found that patterns in the organization of plant and animal communities were consistent until 6,000 years ago—about the time that modern humans began farming. Some pairs of species appear more often together in nature than would be expected by chance, while other pairs in the study are rarely found in the same place. The aggregated species pairs may have been dependent upon the same type of habitat, while the segregated pairs may have competed for the same food source. From 300 million years ago up until about 6,000 years ago, there was a higher frequency of aggregated species pairs. Then the pattern switched to a predominance of segregated species pairs. “This tells us that humans have been having a massive effect on the environment for a very long time,” paleobiologist S. Kathleen Lyons of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History said in a University of Vermont press release. “We think it’s something that humans do that causes barriers to dispersal for both plant and animal species,” she explained. To read about the technology of the Neolithic period, go to "The Neolithic Toolkit."
KRAKÓW, POLAND—Live Science reports that among the 250 graves excavated in Poland’s 400-year-old Drawsko cemetery, four of the dead had been buried with sickles placed at their throats, and one had been buried with a sickle placed over its hips. It had been suggested that the sickles were intended to prevent the dead from returning as vampires to harm the living. Marek Polcyn, a visiting scholar at Lakehead University, and Elzbieta Gajda of the Muzeum Ziemi Czarnkowskiej, argue instead that the dead were given Christian burials and were not otherwise marked as outsiders. In fact, the chemical signatures of their teeth indicate that they had grown up locally. The scientists think that these burials should be called “anti-demonic:” the sickles may have been put in the graves to keep the dead from rising, but they could also have been used to prevent harm to the souls of the dead. The use of forged iron tools could have even symbolized a passage from life to death. “The magical and ritual meaning of this gesture seems beyond doubt,” Polcyn and Gajda wrote in Antiquity. To read about the "vampire" interpretation of the burials, go to "Polish 'Vampire' Burials Studied."
HAIFA, ISRAEL—Falling water levels in the Sea of Galilee have revealed that the ancient harbor at the site of Kursi was much larger than previously thought. Some scholars have thought that Kursi could be the “Land of the Gederenes” mentioned in the Christian New Testament. Archaeologists Haim Cohen and Michal Artzy of the University of Haifa also discovered a large marble slab bearing an inscription written in the Aramaic language with Hebrew letters. The inscription is thought to date to A.D. 500, and was found at the entrance to an inner room in a building that might have been a synagogue. Dedications from this time period were usually embedded in mosaic floors. “The dedication comprises eight lines, so that it is very detailed or expansive. In most cases we do not find so many words in Hebrew letters engraved on stone, so the person to whom the inscription was dedicated must have had a tremendous influence on the local people. There is no parallel for such a detailed and expensive dedication in archaeological findings to date in Israel,” Artzy said in a press release. To read about another discovery in Israel, go to "The Mosaics of Huqoq."
CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—DNA studies have suggested that modern humans and Neanderthals split from a common ancestor some 400,000 years ago. But what did this ancestor look like? Researchers have created a “virtual fossil” of this last common ancestor by plotting a total of 797 “landmarks” on a modern skull and the fossilized skulls of human relatives spanning a range of two million years. These data points were used to predict a timeline for skull structure. “We wanted to try an innovative solution to deal with the imperfections of the fossil record: a combination of 3-D digital methods and statistical estimation techniques. This allowed us to predict mathematically and then recreate virtually skull fossils of the last common ancestor of modern humans and Neanderthals, using a simple and consensual ‘tree of life’ for the genus Homo,” Aurélien Mounier of Cambridge University said in a press release. Three possible ancestral skull shapes were generated for three possible times of the split. These skull shapes were then compared to the few available fossils in the range of 800,000 to 100,000 years old. The virtual skull that was the best fit for the fossils suggests that the split between Neanderthals and modern humans occurred some 700,000 years ago.
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—Darren Curnoe of the University of New South Wales and Ji Xueping of the Yunnan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology conducted a detailed study of a partial femur discovered in 1989 in tropical southwest China’s Red Deer Cave. They discovered that the 14,000-year-old thigh bone, which is very small and narrow, was similar to thigh bones of Homo habilis and early Homo erectus, species that lived 1.5 million years ago. Skull bones from the cave’s possibly unknown species do not seem to be as primitive as the thigh bone, however. “Its young age suggests the possibility that primitive-looking humans could have survived until very late in our evolution, but we need to be careful as it is just one bone,” Ji said in a press release. It had been thought that Neanderthals and Denisovans, which died out about 40,000 years ago, were the youngest pre-modern human species. "The new find hints at the possibility a pre-modern species may have overlapped in time with modern humans on mainland East Asia, but the case needs to be built up slowly with more bone discoveries,” Curnoe said.
PENSACOLA, FLORIDA—Newly recovered artifacts from a privately owned site near Pensacola Bay are from the Spanish settlement led by explorer Tristán de Luna y Arellano from 1559 to 1561, according to researchers from the University of West Florida (UWF). A hurricane struck the settlement one month after the 1,500 colonists arrived, however. Two years later, the survivors left on Spanish rescue ships from Mexico and returned to Spain. Pensacola native Tom Garner, who had attended UWF and studied with archaeology, collected artifacts from the surface of the site and took them to the UWF archaeology lab last October. “What we saw in front of us in the lab that day was an amazing assemblage of mid-sixteenth-century Spanish colonial period artifacts. These items were very specific to this time period. The University conducted field work at this site in the mid-1980s, as have other since then, but no one had ever found diagnostics of the sort that Tom found on the surface. People have looked for this site for a long time,” UWF archaeologist John Worth said in a press release. Test excavations have uncovered additional artifacts. For more on Tristán de Luna, go to "Sunken Dreams."
STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN—Peter Savolainen of the KTH Royal Institute of Technology says that new analysis of nuclear DNA confirms his claim that dogs split from grey wolves in South East Asia some 33,000 years ago. Savolainen had analyzed mitochondrial DNA in earlier research, while other researchers, who have said that dogs were first domesticated in the Middle East, Central Asia, or Europe, examined nuclear DNA. Savolainen argues that those studies did not include samples from South East Asia. “Which is why we analyzed the entire nuclear genome of a global sample collection from 46 dogs, which includes samples from southern China and South East Asia. We then found out that dogs from South East Asia stand out from all other dog populations, because they have the highest genetic diversity and are genetically closest to the wolf,” he said in a press release. The genetic information also suggests that dogs spread across the world some 18,000 years ago. For more, go to "More Than Man's Best Friend."
AMSTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS—Archaeologist Nico Roymans of the Vrije Universiteit announced in a press release the discovery of skeletal remains, swords, spearheads, and a helmet in the modern area of Kessel, at the site where Roman general Julius Caesar wiped out the Tencteri and the Usipetes, two Germanic tribes, in 55 B.C. Caesar described the battle in Book IV of his De Bello Gallico. After he rejected the tribes’ request for asylum and permission to settle in the Dutch river area, his force of eight legions and cavalry conquered the camp and pursued the survivors to the convergence of the Meuse and Rhine Rivers, where he slaughtered more than 100,000 people. The Late Iron Age skeletal remains represent men, women, and children, and show signs of spear and sword injuries. Their bodies and bent weapons had been placed in a Meuse riverbed. Isotope analysis of the teeth of three individuals show that they were not native to the Dutch river area. To read in-depth about a similar discovery, go to "Caesar's Gallic Outpost."
CHUKOVEZER, BULGARIA—Rescue excavations in western Bulgaria, along the route of the Bulgaria-Servia Gas Interconnector, have revealed a 3,000-year-old Thracian necropolis. Borislav Borislavov of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences told Archaeology in Bulgaria that at least 11 gold beads had been found in a woman’s grave, and a bronze amulet in the shape of a human head in another. This is the first time archaeologists have recovered elite grave goods in this part of Bulgaria. The project team also found buildings from the Late Roman period. In one of the buildings they discovered an earthenware jar containing 18 coins that have yet to be studied. To read more about archaeology in Bulgaria, go to "Thracian Treasure Chest."
CAIRO, EGYPT—Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh Eldamaty announced that a looted limestone wall carving has been recovered from a London auction house and returned to Egypt. The relief, brought to the government’s attention by a curator at the British Museum, depicts the 19th dynasty King Seti I before the goddess Hathor and the god Web Wawat. Hieroglyphic text on the two-foot-long wall relief lists the names of deities from what the region that is now the Assiut governorate in Upper Egypt. “It is a very important relief as it depicts a not yet discovered temple of King Seti I in Assiut,” Ali Ahmed, director of the Recuperation of Antiquities Department, told Ahram Online.
YINCHUAN, CHINA—An ancient tomb located in a cemetery along the Silk Road trade route in northwest China has yielded a sphinx carved from marble--a material rarely seen in this part of the world. The well-preserved statue stands approximately 14 inches tall and has a human face on a lion’s body. According to an epitaph, the tomb belonged to Liu Jun and his wife, who lived during the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907). “The style carvings had features from the west and are considered rare for ancient Chinese tombs during that period,” Fan Jun, head of the excavation team for the Ningxia Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute, told Xinhuanet. Archaeologists have recovered more than 150 artifacts from the 29 graves at the site, including pottery, bronze and iron wares, and carvings of warriors, horses, camels, and lions that had also been carved from marble. To read more about archaeology in China, go to "Seismic Shift."
BRUNSWICK, MAINE—The mites that live on human skin could help scientists study the history and relationships of human populations. Evolutionary biologist Michael Palopoli of Bowdoin College and his team have found that people can carry four different subgroups of Demodex folliculorum, a microscopic arthropod whose last common ancestor lived more than three million years ago. Samples were collected from people with European, Asian, African, and Latin American ancestries. Analysis of the mites’ mitochondrial DNA showed that people of African descent had a mixture of all the subgroup types, while people of European ancestry tended to have mites from only one group. “As they diverged into Asia and Europe, some individual lineages were lost,” Palopoli told Science Magazine. The research also suggests that a person’s mite population remains stable for as long as three years, even when someone moves to another part of the world. Mite populations also appear to be stable across human generations, even in new locations. Differences in the hydration, hair follicle density, and lipid production in human skin may account for the differences in the mite populations. For more, go to "Insights from Insects."
HUBEI PROVINCE, CHINA—Hanging coffins estimated to be 1,200 years old have been found in man-made caves carved into a remote cliff in central China, according to a report in ECNS. The 131 coffins, thought to have been constructed and placed by the Bo people, were found in an area called “Cave of the Fairies” by the people who now live in the remote village of Yanglinqiao. The hanging coffins are thought to have protected the bodies from scavengers. Yu Bo, chief of the Zigui Cultural Relics Bureau, said that the cliffs will be conserved and added to the list of China’s protected cultural heritage sites. To read more about archaeology in China, go to "The Tomb Raider Chronicles."
PRINCETON, NEW JERSEY—Scholars have speculated that human ancestors used grooming each other as a way to form social bonds until group sizes increased and it became too time consuming. Ipek Kulahci of Princeton University and her colleagues have observed that the ring-tailed lemurs living at Duke University’s Lemur Center and on St. Catherines Island, Georgia, groom each other as a means of social bonding, but use vocalizations to stay in touch with those individuals that they groomed the most frequently, independent of group size. “By exchanging vocalizations, the animals are reinforcing their social bonds even when they are away from each other,” Kulahci said in a press release. And, when the researchers played recordings of lemur calls to the group, only the lemurs that shared a close grooming relationship with the individual that made the call responded. “This social selectivity in vocalizations is almost equivalent to how we humans keep in regular touch with our close friends and families, but not with everyone we know,” she explained. To read about ancient languages, go to "The Wolf Rites of Winter."
ALASSIO, ITALY—A Roman ship dating to between the first and second century A.D. has been found off the Ligurian coast. Italy’s scuba diver-police force, the Carabinieri Subacquei, assisted with the investigation of the wreck, which rests under more than 650 feet of water. The ship is estimated to have been nearly 100 feet long and, due to the shape of most of the amphoras on board, it is thought to have been carrying a load of garum on a route between Italy, Spain, and Portugal. “After we filmed the wreck and analyzed an amphora and some fragments that a robotic craft brought back to the surface, we realized the ship was carrying a huge quantity of fish sauce when it sank,” team leader Simon Luca Trigona of the Archaeological Superintendency of Liguria told The Local. Other jars only made in the area around the Tiber River in Rome suggest the vessel carried Italian wines to the Iberian Peninsula. “It’s a nice find because it means we are almost sure about the route this ship was on,” Trugona said. To read about how maritime trade fueled the growth of the Roman Empire, go to "Rome's Imperial Port."
RICHMOND, VIRGINIA—Bernard Means of Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of World Studies specializes in making 3-D scans or archaeological artifacts. He visited the Isle of Wight County Museum in Smithfield, Virginia, home of the world’s oldest ham and the world’s oldest peanut. “The ham and the peanut are clearly important to the people of Isle of Wight County, and Virginia as well, and the lab is pleased to help them tell the story,” Means said in a press release. The ham, cured in 1902, was left hanging from a rafter in a packing house, and by 1924, it had become a tourist attraction. “It did have a powerful scent that I cannot describe,” commented Means. The peanut dates to 1890, and was also used to advertise Smithfield food products. The museum staff plans to use the scans as teaching tools. “Not only will we have more documentation on the ham and peanut, but if those items change over time (by nature), we’ll know,” explained Jennifer England, director of the museum. To read more about archaeological scanning, go to "Lasers in the Jungle."
DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA—Humans evolved to have efficient sleep patterns, according to a study of data on the sleep habits of hundreds of mammals, including 21 species of primates, complied by researchers from Duke University. Modern humans sleep an average of seven hours a night, with up to 25 percent of that time in deeper stages of sleep such as REM, or rapid eye movement sleep. Other primate species need as many as 14 to 17 hours, and in some, such as mouse lemurs, mongoose lemurs, and African green monkeys, only five percent of sleep time is spent in REM sleep. “Humans are unique in having shorter, higher quality sleep,” anthropologist David Samson said in a press release. He and colleague Charlie Nunn suggest that human ancestors started getting the most out of their rest when they started sleeping on the ground, near warm fires and in protective groups. The researchers add that a good night’s sleep may have helped human ancestors cement the skills they learned during those extra hours they were awake. To read more recent evolutionary research, go to "Our Tangled Ancestery."
CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—An international team of researchers examined the DNA of modern millet varieties, and carried out radiocarbon dating and isotope analysis on charred millet grains, a crop that was first domesticated some 10,000 years ago in North China, from archaeological sites across China and Inner Mongolia, and concluded that early nomadic early shepherds carried the seeds with them across Eurasia and into Europe. The early farmers also mixed millet seeds with other crops, which gave rise to crop diversity and the use of extended growing seasons. This practice provided food security, but it also required settled populations and elaborate social contracts to regulate the use of water and land. “These findings have transformed our understanding of early agriculture and society. It has previously been assumed that early agriculture was focused in river valleys where there is plentiful access to water. However, millet remains show that the first agriculture was instead centered higher up on the foothills—allowing this first pathway for ‘exotic’ eastern grains to be carried west,” Martin Jones of the University of Cambridge said in a press release. For more, go to "Analyzing the Neolithic Revolution."