CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—When did cooking emerge in human evolution? Felix Warneken of Harvard University and Alexandra Rosati of Yale University investigated whether or not chimpanzees have the cognitive capacities necessary for cooking as a way to approach this question. “If our closest evolutionary relative possesses these skills, it suggests that once early humans were able to use and control fire they could also use it for cooking,” Warneken said in a press release. Beyond the control of fire, cooking requires planning and the causal understanding that putting raw food on a fire changes it. Warneken and Rosati traveled to the Jane Goodall Institute’s Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Sanctuary in the Republic of Congo in order to work with wild-born chimpanzees. They found that the chimps preferred cooked food, and they have the necessary cognitive abilities to produce it. “Why would early humans be motivated to control fire? I think cooking might give you a reason. We know wild chimps will observe natural fire, and they even sometimes seek out and eat cooked food left behind by it. The evidence from our cognitive studies suggests that, even before controlling fire, early hominins understood its benefits and could reason about the outcomes of putting food on fire,” Rosati said. To read more, go to "Our Tangled Ancestry."
NEW SOUTH WALES, AUSTRALIA—A 2,000-year-old natural marine pearl was discovered at the Brremangurey Rockshelter during excavations conducted by researchers from the University of Wollongong (UOW), the University of New England, and the Wunambal-Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation. Located on the north Kimberley coast of Western Australia, the Brremangurey Rockshelter was in use for 12,000 years. The nearly round pearl was found in a shell midden among large numbers of pearl oyster shells. “Pearls have not been recovered before from ancient sites in Australia. Since the find is unique, analysis could not damage or take samples from any portion of the pearl, so researchers from UOW developed a range of non-destructive analyses to gather more information,” Kat Szabó of UOW said in a press release. The pearl was dated through radiocarbon analysis of the surrounding shell midden material, and micro-computed tomography showed that the pearl was indeed naturally formed, and not a modern cultured pearl that worked its way into the deposit. “The analysis confirmed that it was a natural pearl that had grown inside a small pearl oyster for over a decade before the animal was harvested for eating,” explained Brent Koppel of UOW. To read about historical archaeology in Australia, go to "Final Resting Place of an Outlaw."
LEIPZIG, GERMANY—An international team of scientists led by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has developed a technique for dating shells from the Ksâr ‘Akil site in Lebanon, where the fossils of two modern human individuals, nicknamed Ethelruda and Egbert, have been found, along with their Upper Palaeolithic toolkit. The people who lived at Ksâr ‘Akil gathered these newly dated molluscs and often cut off the tops of their shells to extract the flesh. “Our analyses show that Egbert lived around 43,000 years ago and Ethelruda at least 45,900 years ago, possibly earlier. Therefore, Ethelruda pre-dates all European modern humans,” Johannes van der Plicht of Groningen University said in a press release. “Toolkits similar to those associated with Ethelruda and Egbert are also found in other sites in the Levant as well as in Europe. These similar toolkits and the earlier ages in the Near East suggest population dispersals from the Near East to Europe between 55,000 and 40,000 years ago,” explained Marjolein Bosch of the Max Planck Institute. To read about a masterpiece of Paleolithic art discovered in Europe, go to "A New Life for the Lion Man."
CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA—The discovery of a slave ship that sank off the coast of Cape Town in 1794 was announced today at Iziko Museums of South Africa. Identified as the São José-Paquete de Africa, the Portuguese ship was carrying more than 400 enslaved people from Mozambique to Brazil when it struck submerged rocks some 300 feet from shore and sank between two reefs. More than half of the enslaved people were killed, and those who survived were resold into slavery. “This discovery is significant because there has never been archaeological documentation of a vessel that foundered and was lost while carrying a cargo of enslaved persons,” Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), said in a press release. NMAAHC is one of six partners in the United States and Africa working on the Slave Wrecks Project, which identified the site through the captain’s account of the wrecking of the São José and other documents. Iron ballast to compensate for the lighter human cargo, shackles, and copper fastenings and sheathing have been recovered. To read more about great underwater discoveries, go to "History's 10 Greatest Wrecks."
DA NANG, VIETNAM—A team of archaeologists from the Vietnam Archaeology Institute uncovered five stone axes near the Ngu Hanh Son Mountains. The axes are believed to date to the Sa Huynh Culture. “The excavation…provides more details on the appearance of the Sa Huynh Culture and the early Cham in the area,” Ho Tan Tuan, director of Da Nang’s Heritage Management Center, told Vietnam News. Earlier excavations at the site have revealed coins, ceramics, and stone fragments from the Sa Huynh Culture and the Cham. Coins dating to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries suggest that Chinese traders eventually did business in the region. To read more about archaeology in Southeast Asia, go to "Letter From Borneo: The Landscape of Memory."
YORKSHIRE, ENGLAND—A 2,000-year-old figurine of the Roman god Mercury was discovered in a field in north Yorkshire by a metal-detecting enthusiast. “Mercury was the god of commerce and so merchants would sprinkle their heads and merchandise with water from Mercury’s well, near the Porta Capena [in Rome], to appeal to the god for luck in their endeavors,” Rebecca Griffiths, the Finds Liaison Officer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme at the York Museums Trust, told Culture 24. The worn copper alloy figurine has lost the wings to its cap. To read about a spectacular piece of Roman-era sculpture found in England, go to "Artifact: Sculpture of an Eagle Carrying a Snake."
OXFORD, ENGLAND—A cemetery at Littlemore Priory in Oxford has been excavated ahead of the construction of a new hotel. “Burials within the church are likely to represent wealthy or eminent individuals, nuns, and prioresses. Those buried outside most likely represent the laity and a general desire to be buried as close to the religious heart of the church as possible,” Paul Murray of John Moore Heritage Services told Discovery News. Among the dead was a woman who had been buried face down. “This was perhaps a penitential act to atone for her sins,” Murray said. She may have been one of the nuns Cardinal Wolsey accused of immoral behavior when he closed the convent in 1525. Other burials included a stillborn baby, two children who had developmental dysplasia of the hip, someone who may have had leprosy, and another individual who had suffered blunt-force trauma to the skull. These individuals may have been cared for by the nuns of the priory. To read more about archaeology in England, see "The Kings of Kent."
SUSAM, BULGARIA—A Thracian krater, or vessel made for mixing water and wine, was recovered by Bulgarian police officers from the car of a 33-year-old man accused of treasure hunting. The rare krater dates to the fifth century B.C. “Over the centuries, the baked clay has been severely cracked, and a botched attempt at restoration [of the vessel] appears to have been made,” archaeological consultants to the Bulgarian police told Archaeology in Bulgaria. The vessel is thought to have been taken from the burial of a Thracian aristocrat. To read more about archaeology in Bulgaria, go to "Thracian Treasure Chest."
MOGOU, CHINA—An article in Chinese Cultural Relics describes a 4,000-year-old cemetery made up of hundreds of tombs that has been excavated by a team from the Gansu Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology and the Northwest University Silk Road Heritage Preservation and Archaeology Research Center near the village of Mogou in northwestern China. Live Science reports that the remains of sacrificed humans were found in some of the tombs, and some held the remains of entire families. There were also small chambers where finely made pottery, decorated with incised designs, had been placed near the tombs’ occupants. Jewelry and weapons such as bronze sabers, stone mace heads, axes, daggers, and knives were also recovered. Artifacts known as bone divination lots suggest that the people, most of whom belonged to the Qijia culture, attempted to predict the future. Some of the tombs had been covered with mounds of sediment, perhaps to mark them. To read more about archaeology in China, go to "The Tomb Raider Chronicles."
XANADU, MONGOLIA—A recent article published in English in Chinese Cultural Relics describes three “life-like and dramatic” dragon heads discovered at the palace constructed by the grandsons of Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century. The dragon heads, which had been fashioned from fine red clay that had been glazed in yellow, blue, white, and black, would have decorated the ends of beams. Other colorful artifacts from the palace, known as Shangdu in China, include a fish glazed with “bright and life-like scales” of yellow and green, and dripstones shaped like dragons and birds that deflected water from the palace roof. The Chinese team of archaeologists from Inner Mongolia Normal University, the Inner Mongolian Institute of Cultural Relics, and the Archaeology and Inner Mongolian Institute for Cultural Relics Conservation also uncovered a type of ramp called a mandao that was used by horses and vehicles to enter the palace. The ramps “would have been strongly connected to the pastoral way of life of the Mongols,” Live Science reports. To read about spectacular medieval ruins in Siberia, see "Fortress of Solitude."
CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—Luca Pagani of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and the University of Cambridge led a team of scientists who produced whole-genome sequences from 225 Egyptians and Ethiopians. They found that regions of the Egyptian samples were more similar to non-African samples, and were present in higher frequencies outside of Africa, than regions of the Ethiopian genome. This suggests that when early humans left Africa some 60,000 years ago, they traveled through Egypt to the rest of the world. The results also indicate that people outside Africa split from the Egyptian genomes about 10,000 years more recently than from the Ethiopian genomes. “While our results do not address controversies about the timing and possible complexities of the expansion out of Africa, they paint a clear picture in which the main migration out of Africa followed a Northern, rather than a Southern route,” Toomas Kivisild of the University of Cambridge said in a press release on Phys.org.
AUSTIN, TEXAS—Chemical modifications, known as epigenetic marks, can be added to or removed from a person’s DNA in response to environmental factors such as diet, disease, and climate. These changes can influence which genes are turned on or off during a person’s life, shaping physical traits and health, and can even be passed on to offspring if the changes occur in sperm and egg DNA. Anthropologists from The University of Texas at Austin have shown that epigenetic marks on DNA can be detected in ancient human remains using techniques that are normally used to measure changes in modern DNA. They looked for an epigenetic mark known as cytosine methylation on the remains of 30 individuals who lived in five different places in North America between 230 to more than 4,500 years ago. They were able to identify methylation in 29 of the samples. “By studying methylation in ancient DNA from archaeological populations, not just isolated samples, we may gain insights into how past environments affected ancient societies. Future research in ancient epigenetics should open a new window into the lives and experiences of people who lived long ago,” anthropologist Deborah Bolnick explained in a press release. To read about the first people to reach the New World, see "America, in the Beginning."
SILISTRA, BULGARIA—Archaeology in Bulgaria reports that rescue excavations in the ancient city of Durostorum, the headquarters of the elite Roman 11th Legion, have revealed a fortress wall thought to have been built in the beginning of the fourth century A.D. According to archaeologist Georgi Atanasov of the Silistra Regional Museum of History, the well-preserved wall was held together with very strong red mortar. It encircled the city, strategically located on the Danube River, and had rectangular towers. Ioan Piso of Babes Bolyai University thinks that the wall could indicate that the city was the capital of the Roman province of Moesia Inferior, instead of Tomis, which is located in Romania. In fact, earlier excavations at Durostorum have uncovered Roman inscriptions bearing the names of the governors of the province of Moesia Inferior. The team has also found a second-century building that had been decorated with murals painted with the color Pompeian red, deep blue, green, and yellow. To read about how the construction of a port fueled the Roman Empire's rise, go to "Rome's Imperial Port."
CIRENCESTER, ENGLAND—It had been thought that a finely carved tombstone unearthed in western England was the first in Roman Britain to have remained with its intended grave, but researchers have found that even though the dedication on the tombstone named Boudicca, a woman, the skeleton in the grave was male. In addition, the gravestone dates to the second century A.D., while the skeleton dates to the fourth century A.D. The five-foot-long stone, which has a roughly carved back, may have originally hung on a mausoleum wall. “We believe the tombstone to have been reused as a grave cover perhaps as long as two centuries after it was first erected,” Ed McSloy of Cotswold Archaeology told Discovery News. Even so, the gravestone is notable because it is the first time that the name Boudicca has been found. And the limestone pediment is decorated with a unique image that depicts the Roman god Oceanus, which according to McSloy “is also hitherto unknown in funerary sculpture.” To read about the search for the great leader Boudicca's tomb, see "In Search of History's Greatest Rulers."
BEIJING, CHINA—China’s Ministry of Public Security announced that 175 people were arrested for looting tombs in Niuheliang, a Neolithic site in northeastern Liaoning province. According to the South China Morning Post, the pillagers had been divided into ten gangs that specialized in tasks such as digging, retrieval, and keeping watch. Four archaeologists are suspected of assisting the well-organized, well-equipped gang and trafficking the stolen antiquities. More than 1,000 police officers participated in the operation, and they reportedly recovered 1,168 artifacts, including a coiled jade dragon thought to be one of the earliest of its kind. For more on looting in China, go to "The Tomb Raider Chronicles."
FUKUOKA PREFECTURE, JAPAN—A fragment of a mold used to cast bronze mirrors in 200 B.C. has been unearthed at the Sugu Takauta ruins in northern Kyushu. It had been thought that such tachukyo, or mirrors with knobs, had been imported from the Korean Peninsula at this time. The mold shows indentations to create knobs on the back of the mirror, which was circular in shape, and markings known as “rough patterns.” This mold may have been an early attempt to make mirrors with markings known as “detailed patterns” in Japan. Twelve mirrors with detailed patterns dating between the fourth and second centuries B.C. have been found in the tombs of powerful people in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Kyushu, and the Kinki region of the island of Honshu. “This has added a new chapter in uncovering the situation of early bronze tool production in Japan,” Junichi Takesue of Fukuoka University told The Asahi Shimbun. To read about Roman glass discovered in Japan, go to "Imported Glass in Japanese Tomb Identified."
CLEVELAND, OHIO—Fossils of the upper and lower jaw of a new early human ancestor were discovered in the Woranso-Mille area of the Afar region of Ethiopia by an international team of scientists led by Yohannes Haile-Selassie of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. The Australopithecus deyiremeda fossils are 3.3 to 3.5 million years old, overlapping with Australopithecus afarensis, who lived from 2.9 to 3.8 million years ago. Australopithecus deyiremeda differs from the famous “Lucy” fossils in the size and shape of its thick-enameled teeth and its robust lower jaws, suggesting that the two closely related species had different diets. “Current fossil evidence from the Woranso-Mille study area clearly shows that there were at least two, if not three, early human species living at the same time and in close geographic proximity,” Haile-Salassie said in a press release. The name of the new species, deyiremeda, (day-ihreme-dah) means “close relative” in the language spoken by the Afar people. To read about more recent evolutionary history, go to "Our Tangled Ancestry."
MADRID, SPAIN—Discovery News reports that a new analysis of Cranium 17 from Spain’s Sima de los Huesos suggests that the individual had been killed some 430,000 years ago by two blows to the head with the same object. The Sima de los Huesos, or Pit of Bones, is located at the bottom of a deep shaft in an underground cave system in northern Spain. It contains the remains of at least 28 individuals who are thought to be proto-Neanderthals and Neanderthals, but how the remains arrived in the pit has been a mystery until now. “Given that either of the two traumatic events was likely lethal, the presence of multiple blows implies an intention to kill,” wrote Nohemi Sala, a researcher at Centro Mixto UCM-ISCIII de Evolución y Comportamiento Humanos and lead author of the study published in PLOS One. Sala suggests that the blows to the skull indicate that the bodies of the dead must have been placed there. The Pit of Bones could thus “represent the earliest funerary behavior in the human fossil record.”
ROME, ITALY—The United States has returned 25 historic artifacts, including Etruscan vases, first-century frescoes, a third-century B.C. terracotta head, the cover of a second-century Roman sarcophagus, and a second-century bronze figurine to Rome. Some of the looted objects had been handed over to U.S. authorities by American museums, universities, and private collections when it became clear that the items had been stolen. Other artifacts were seized by police and customs officers. “Italy is blessed with a rich cultural legacy and therefore cursed to suffer the pillaging of important cultural artifacts,” U.S. Ambassador John Phillips said at a press conference reported by the Associated Press. He also said that the United States has returned more than 7,500 cultural artifacts to more than 30 countries since 2007. Interpol estimates that each year, antiquities trafficking produces $9 billion in profits. To read about earlier repatriations, see "A Tangled Journey Home."
NUNAVUT, CANADA—Last month, underwater archaeologists from Parks Canada with the support of Royal Canadian Navy divers descended to the wreck site of HMS Erebus, lost nearly 170 years ago during Sir John Franklin’s expedition to find the Northwest Passage. The ship, discovered late last summer in remote Arctic waters, was covered with kelp. Over the course of the five-day project, the team removed the kelp from the well-preserved ship’s port side. “It’s tedious, but all of a sudden you have a shipwreck that looks like a wreck site,” senior underwater archaeologist Ryan Harris told CBC News. “We haven’t identified what caused it to sink. Maybe on the starboard side we’ll see some evidence of trauma,” he added. The divers found Franklin’s cabin, and they recovered a cannon, ceramic plates, and two brass buttons from the uniform of a non-commissioned officer of the Royal Marines. “Those are the artifacts that are probably the most personal,” Harris said. To read more, see "Saga of the Northwest Passage."