MEGALOPOLIS, GREECE—Researchers have uncovered the nearly complete skeleton of an elephant and a collection of stone tools at the Lower Paleolithic site known as Marathousa 1, reports PhysOrg. Some of the elephant’s bones bear distinctive cut marks that indicate the animal was butchered by the region’s inhabitants between 300,000 and 600,000 years ago. Marathousa 1 is one of the oldest archaeological sites in Greece and the discovery marks it as “the only site in the Balkans where we have evidence of an elephant being butchered in the early Paleolithic," according to Katerina Harvati of the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment (HEP) at the University of Tübingen, who participated in the excavation. To read about the use of elephants in ancient Mediterranean warfare, go to “Clash of the War Elephants.”
CAIRO, EGYPT—Egypt’s Antiquities Minister Mamdouh el-Damaty announced that the Austrian Archaeological Institute has discovered a 3,500-year-old “giant fence” in Sharqiya province, at the site of the ancient capital of Avaris. The Associated Press reports that the fence, made of sandstone, was 500 yards long and seven yards thick, and may have been part of a city wall. To read about a temple to an Egyptian god, go to "The Cult of Amun."
ROME, ITALY—Workers installing a gas pipeline in Via Alfonso Lamora in central Rome at first thought they had opened up a sinkhole, but they had really discovered a 2,000-year-old room. The room, plastered and decorated with frescoes, had been part of a home located in an area known as the Horti Lamiani, or Lamian Gardens, according to The Local, Italy. The gardens eventually became imperial property and over the years the area has yielded numerous sculptures, frescoes, and other artifacts now housed in the city’s museums. “Finding a room under the street is rare,” said archaeologist Mirella Serlorenzi. “We do get archaeological finds from between 60 and 50 percent of all roadworks though.” To read about Rome's aqueduct system, go to "How Much Water Reached Rome?"
STANFORD, CALIFORNIA—Changes in tools made by prehistoric peoples often appear in the archaeological record in incremental bursts, thought of as “cultural explosions.” A computer model created by Marcus Feldman, Oren Kolodny, and Nicole Creanza of Stanford University reproduces patterns of creativity observed in the archaeological record as the result of spontaneous innovations, responses to new technologies, and the combination of existing technologies, rather than as a response to external events. “It was insightful to realize that tools can create ‘ecological niches’ for other tools to fill. Once you invent something like a raft, it paves the way for the invention of a paddle that’ll allow you to manipulate it, tools that will help you mend it, and eventually also new technologies for offshore fishing or transport of things,” Kolodny said in a press release. When knowledge is concentrated in a specialized subset of a population, it becomes more vulnerable, and may be lost. Changes in the environment and migration to a new environment can also cause the loss of tools. “Our model demonstrates that these ‘explosions’ could also be a feature of cultural evolution itself, as long as some innovations are dependent on others,” Creanza said. To read about the oldest known stone tools, go to "The First Toolkit."
YORK, ENGLAND—A multi-disciplinary, international team of researchers, led by Sarah Fiddyment and Matthew Collins of the University of York, examined the tissue-thin vellum used to produce pocket-sized Bibles in thirteenth century France, England, Italy, and Spain. Some scholars have suggested that the skin of fetal calves had been used to produce such fine pages, since many sources use the Latin term abortivum to describe them. To find out, samples of protein were collected from the pages of 72 pocket Bibles with an electrostatic charge generated by gentle rubbing with a PVC erasers. “We found no evidence for the use of unexpected animals; however, we did identify the use of more than one mammal species in a single manuscript, consistent with the local availability of hides,” Fiddyment said in a press release. The ultra-thin pages have since been reproduced by parchment conservator Jiří Vnouček. “It is more a question of using the right parchment-making technology than using uterine skin. Skins from younger animals are of course optimal for production of thin parchment but I can imagine that every skin was collected, nothing wasted,” he said. To read about the excavation of a thirteenth-century tannery, go to "Medieval Leather, Vellum, and Fur."
REHOVOT, ISRAEL—Seeds from fava beans, lentils, peas, and chickpeas have been unearthed at Neolithic sites in the Galilee. “This is an important discovery, enabling a deeper understanding of the agricultural revolution in the southern Near East,” researchers from the Weizmann Institute and the Israel Antiquities Authority said in a press release. The large number of fava beans unearthed at the site of Ahihud, where seeds of a uniform size were found husked and placed in storage pits, suggests that they were the preferred crop as many as 10,000 years ago. These beans could have been used for food and for future crops. “Despite the importance of cereals in nutrition that continues to this day, it seems that in the region we examined (west of the Jordan River), it was the legumes, full of flavor and protein, which were actually the first species to be domesticated,” they explained. To read more, go to "New Thoughts on Neolithic Israel."
SOMERSET, ENGLAND—Researchers from the University of Reading reassessed and reinterpreted the history of Glastonbury Abbey, a site that has been called the burial place of the legendary King Arthur and the earliest Christian church in Britain. The team conducted chemical and compositional analysis of glass, metal, and pottery artifacts held in the Glastonbury Abbey Museum, and they conducted a new geophysical survey of the Abbey grounds. Lead researcher Roberta Gilchrist noted that a devastating fire in 1184 required the monks to keep the Glastonbury legends alive. “The monks also deliberately designed the rebuilt church to look older in order to demonstrate its ancient heritage and pre-eminent place in monastic history, using archaic architecture style and reused materials to emphasize the Abbey’s mythical feel. This swelled pilgrim numbers—and the Abbey’s coffers,” Gilchrist said in a press release. “It was a strategy that paid off: Glastonbury Abbey became the second richest monastery in England by the end of the Middle Ages. Re-examination of the archaeological records revealed the exceptional scale of the abbot’s lodging, a luxurious palatial complex to the southwest of the cloister.” To read about medieval graffiti in England, go to "Writing on the Church Wall."
CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—An international team of scientists has identified genes that changed during and after the transition from hunting and gathering to farming in Europe some 8,500 years ago. The DNA, obtained from 230 ancient individuals from Europe, Siberia, and Turkey, supports the idea that Europe’s first farmers migrated from Anatolia and adapted to the European environment with changes associated with height, the ability to digest lactose in adulthood, fatty acid metabolism, vitamin D levels, light skin pigmentation, and blue eye color. Other variants are linked to the risk of celiac disease, which may have been important in adapting to an agricultural diet, and genes associated with the immune system. “The Neolithic period involved an increase in population density, with people living close to one another and to domesticated animals,’” Wolfgang Haak of the University of Adelaide explained in a press release. “It will be interesting to study selection in domesticated animals and to see if there is coevolution between them and the people who were domesticating them,” added Iain Mathieson of Harvard University Medical School. To read more about Europe's first farmers, go to "The Neolithic Toolkit."
UNIVERSITY PARK, PENNSYLVANIA—Some 12,000 years ago, mastodons, mammoths, giant sloths, and other megafauna ate wild species of pumpkin and squash and distributed the seeds in their dung. At this time, such wild members of the cucurbita family were bitter and toxic to humans and smaller animals. When the megafauna went extinct, the cucurbita plants lost their distribution system and their preferred landscape, which was created by the large animals. “We performed an ancient DNA study of cucurbita including modern wild plants, domesticated plants, and archaeological samples from multiple locations. The results suggest, or confirm, that some lineages domesticated by humans are now extinct in the wild,” George Perry of Penn State said in a press release. The team found that that the widely diverse plants may have been domesticated at least six different times in six different places, but were probably not used for food at first. “Rather, they might have been useful for a variety of other purposes like the bottle gourd, as containers, tools, fishnet floats, etc. At some point, as a symbiotic relationship developed, palatability evolved, but the details of that process aren’t known at the present,” explained Logan Kistler, NERC Independent Research Fellow, University of Warwick, and a recent Penn State postdoctoral fellow. For more on megafauna remains, go to "Butchered Mammoth Bones Unearthed in Michigan."
HEFEI, CHINA—An “uncommonly well-preserved” Homo erectus skull estimated to be between 150,000 and 412,000 years old has been unearthed in east China at the Hualongdong archaeological site by a team from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP). Named “Dongzhi Man,” after the county in Anhui Province where it was found, the skull was found among stone tools, teeth and other bone fragments, and more than 6,000 bones from animals, including stegodon, giant tapir, and giant pandas. “All of this indicates the site is exactly where the Dongzhi men lived as we found the bones of the animals were broken in quite an unnatural way. To put it more precisely, they were cut or chopped with tools into small pieces, meaning the animals were eaten or used as sacrifices,” researcher Liu Wu told Xinhua News. Further tests will help pinpoint the age of the fossilized skull.
VIENNA, AUSTRIA—Researchers from the Department of Forensic Medicine and the Center for Anatomy and Cell Biology at the Medical University of Vienna identified congenital syphilis, which is passed from mother to child, in human skeletal remains from among the 9,000 burials in the cathedral square of St. Pölten, Austria. The burial dates to as early as A.D. 1320. “We found so-called Hutchinson’s teeth with central notches and converging edges and mulberry molars, which are characteristic signs of syphilis,” Karl Großschmidt and Fabian Kanz said in a press release. The diagnosis, made by examining thin sections of bones and teeth with a special light microscopy technique, will be confirmed with biochemical methods. It had been thought that syphilis spread through Europe in the late fifteenth century, after explorers made contact with the New World. To read about evidence of eighteenth-century treatments for diseases including syphilis, go to "Medicine on the High Seas."
TOKYO, JAPAN—Phys.org reports that an analysis of 40 teeth from the nine known specimens of Homo floresiensis has been conducted by scientists from the National Museum of Nature and Science in Japan, the University of Wollongong in Australia, and the National Research and Development Center for Archaeology in Indonesia. Homo floresiensis lived some 18,000 years ago on the Indonesian island of Flores and stood about three feet tall. The team compared the “hobbit” teeth with the teeth from 490 modern humans and the teeth of extinct human cousins. Although the hobbits’ teeth were similar in size to modern human teeth from individuals of about the same stature, they had traits similar to early hominins and even more advanced hominins. The scientists concluded in the journal PLOS ONE that the hobbits were a species separate from modern humans, and probably descended from Homo erectus living on the island with limited resources. To read about ancient dental work, go to "Paleo-Dentistry."
TLAXCALA, MEXICO—Excavations at the Zultépec-Tecoaque archaeological site, home to the Acolhua between A.D. 1200 and 1521, have uncovered human remains in a cistern, a throne made from volcanic rock, and a cylindrical stone carved with the image of the Aztec god Ometochtli. “To date we’ve dug 13 cisterns, but this is the first time we have found such an important figure buried in one of them. This particular character was identified with the Ometochtli glyph, associated with the pulque and drunkenness deity, represented by a rabbit,” Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History archaeologist Enrique Martínez Vargas told Mexico News Daily. Pulque, an alcoholic beverage made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant, was produced in large quantities at Zultépec-Tecoaque. The cistern also contained pulque carafes, and the cooked vertebrae and ribs of at least three different infants. “The remains could have been brought from some other place. We’ll be able to determine this after analyzing the bones,” added archaeologist Bertha Flores. To read about excavations in Mexico City, go to "Under Mexico City."
UEKEN, SWITZERLAND—A farmer in northern Switzerland discovered a cache of 1,700-year-old Roman coins in his cherry orchard and alerted the regional archaeological service. “The orchard where the coins were found was never built on. It is land that has always been farmed,” archaeologist Georg Matter told The Guardian. Numbering more than 4,000, the bronze coins may have been worth a year or two of wages and are in excellent condition. They were probably hidden in small leather pouches shortly after they were minted, around A.D. 294. A Roman town was discovered nearby a few months ago. To read about a similar discovery in England, go to "Seaton Down Hoard."
SAN CALOCERO, ITALY—The remains of a severely malnourished young girl have been found in a pit covered with heavy stone slabs by a team led by Philippe Pergola of the Pontifical Institute of Archaeology. The burial suggests that the girl, between the ages of 15 and 17 when she died sometime between the ninth and fifteenth centuries, was perceived to be dangerous. She had been burned, taken by her elbows, and thrown into the pit so that her chin almost touched her breastbone. “We can’t say whether she was alive or not when she was burnt. Fire attacked her body when soft tissues were she still present, so it could have occurred before death or soon after,” anthropologist Elena Dellù told Discovery News. The remains were unearthed near the spot where the remains of another malnourished individual, dubbed a “witch girl,” was found two years ago. It is unlikely that the two were related, but if radiocarbon dating shows that they are from the same time period, scientists will try to compare their DNA.
COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—In the eighteenth century, Qatar’s historic city of Al Zubarah had a successful pearl fishery and was a center of commerce thought to have been founded by people from the Utub tribe in Kuwait. “The pearls from Al Zubarah were sent by sea to India. From there, they were sent on to the rest of the world. In Al Zubarah, we also found porcelain from China and Japan and coins from Germany, so it was a thriving global trading network, 250 years ago,” Moritz Kinzel of the Institute of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies at the University of Copenhagen told Science Nordic. Kinzel and his team have so far excavated a residential neighborhood, a market area, and a palace, and found pottery, decorated building fragments, wooden boxes, and stone weights used by pearl divers. “Al Zubarah was neither under the influence of the Ottoman Empire or the British. People could trade freely and build their own businesses. But it didn’t last,” Kinzel said. The city was destroyed by the Sultan of Oman in 1811. But as Al Zubarah was forgotten and reclaimed by sand, it was also protected from modern development. To read more about archaeology in the Persian Gulf, go to "Archaeology Island."
NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE—Tom Dillehay of Vanderbilt University has worked at Monte Verde in southern Chile since 1977. It had been thought that the Clovis people were the first to arrive in the Americas some 13,000 years ago, but Dillehay’s work at Monte Verde helped scientists to push back that date. Now he has led an international team of archaeologists, geologists, and botanists in an archaeological and geological survey of Monte Verde that found cooking pits with burned and unburned bone and scatters of simple stone tools. “One of the curious things about it is that unlike what we found before, a significant percentage, about 34 percent, were from non-local materials. Most of them probably come from the coast but some of them probably come from the Andes and maybe even the other side of the Andes,” Dillehay said in a press release. Some of the bones came from very large animals that were probably killed and butchered elsewhere between 14,000 and 19,000 years ago. Dillehay thinks people may have traveled through Monte Verde while traveling from the coast to the Andes during the summer months because it may have been more walkable than the surrounding bogs and wetlands, and the site had stone for making tools. To read more about the New World's earliest settlers, go to "America, in the Beginning."
GAINESVILLE, FLORIDA—Scholars from the University of Florida say that the first Thanksgiving took place in St. Augustine, Florida, 50 years before the Pilgrims arrived in the New World on the Mayflower. Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés arrived in 1565 with 800 soldiers, sailors, and settlers, after losing half of his eight ships to hurricanes and other hardships over the 68-day journey. “A Mass and feast of Thanksgiving was the first thing Menendez did, and he invited all of the local native people who were so curious about them,” Kathleen Deagan, distinguished research curator emerita of historical archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, said in a press release. The meal is thought to have taken place near the mouth of Hospital Creek on the Matanzas River, the site of Menéndez’s original encampment and first colony. Salted pork, red wine, garbanzo beans, olives, sea biscuits, and foods acquired during a stop in the Caribbean were probably on the menu. Timucuan guests may have contributed corn, fish, berries, and beans to the meal. To read more about Spanish Florida, go to "Off the Grid: Mission San Luis."
TEMPE, ARIZONA—Arizona State University archaeologist Christopher Morehart has partnered with researchers in the U.S. and Mexico to survey, map, and excavate archaeological sites over a large area to study how changes in climate and political structure affect how people interact with the environment. “Understanding what affects people more, shifts in the natural or in the political environment, is critical to understanding how we adapt and respond to change. To study these questions requires a long-term perspective and a large study area. We are working in the lands of four municipalities in the Basin of Mexico, making this project the largest regional survey and excavation project in this area in decades,” Morehart said in a press release. “This is a pressing concern today since the stability of political and institutional relationships directly impacts the sustainability of social and ecological relationships and human livelihoods,” he explained. To read in-depth about archaeology in the region, go to "Under Mexico City."
MUNCIE, INDIANA—Operation Hidden Idols, carried out by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), has recovered a Festival Bronze of Shiva and Parvati that dates to the Chola Period (A.D. 860-1279) that had been purchased by the David Owsley Museum of Art at Ball State University from a New York City gallery. Special agents from HSI’s cultural property unit traced the trail of false provenances that had been provided by the gallery for the sculpture back to when it had been looted from a temple in southern India in 2004. “HSI’s long-term goal is to reduce the incentive for this kind of criminal activity. Our partnerships with institutions like Ball State University are instrumental to this effort. We hope that other collectors, institutions, and museums will see this surrender as a successful example of a way to move forward when dealing with artifacts that might be of concern,” Glenn Sorge, acting special agent in charge for HSI New York, said in a press release. The bronze will serve as potential evidence in the case against the art dealer. It is anticipated that it will then be repatriated with at least six other Chola bronzes recovered by HSI to India. To read more about archaeology in that country, go to "India's Village of the Dead."