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Scientists Examine Corn’s High-Altitude History

August 8, 2017

TÜBINGEN, GERMANY—Early farmers in Mexico are thought to have domesticated the maize plant some 4,000 years ago. According to a report in Nature News, the practice of growing maize then spread north into the southwest United States, but the evidence suggests the plant wasn’t grown in high-altitude regions for another 2,000 years. Researchers led by Kelly Swarts of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology examined genomes obtained from 2,000-year-old maize cobs unearthed in a high-altitude cave in Utah, and compared them to the genomes and physical traits of modern corn plants. The study indicates it may have taken 2,000 years for early farmers to hit upon the right combination of natural variations occurring in the plants for successful crop growth in the uplands, such as a shorter, bushier shape with more branches than modern plants. The ancient, high-altitude plants are also thought to have had a shorter growing season than plants grown at lower elevations. “It’s really promising for maize’s future that it has so much standing variation—assuming we can conserve that diversity,” Swarts said. “If we needed to do this, it wouldn’t take 2,000 years. We could do it a lot faster now.” For more, go to “How Grass Became Maize.”

Categories: Blog

Warships Mapped Off the Coast of Scotland

August 5, 2017

ORKNEY ISLANDS, SCOTLAND—Live Science reports that marine archaeologists led by Sandra Henry of the Orkney Research Center for Archaeology used a multi-beam echo sounder and underwater robots to map ten naval shipwrecks at the bottom of Scapa Flow, a body of water sheltered by five of the Orkney Islands. The project is intended to help researchers track the condition of the wreck sites. “It's quite important for us to understand their current condition and how they’re deteriorating over time,” Henry explained. The entire German fleet was scuttled in Scapa Flow at the end of World War I by a German commander who wanted to prevent the ships from being seized under the Treaty of Versailles. Most of the 52 wrecks were salvaged—only seven of the vessels, and some parts of others, remain underwater. The British ships in the study include the HMS Vanguard and HMS Hampshire, which sank during World War I, and HMS Royal Oak, which sank during World War II. All three are protected war graves. To read in-depth about underwater archaeology at Pearl Harbor, go to “December 7, 1941.”

Categories: Blog

Woman’s Preserved Head Discovered in Arctic Cemetery

August 5, 2017

SALEKHARD, RUSSIA—The Siberian Times reports that the mummified remains of a woman have been found for the first time in the Zeleny Yar necropolis on the edge of the Arctic. All of the other burials unearthed at the site to date have belonged to men and children. A team of scientists from the Institute of the Problems of Northern Development SB RAS estimate the woman stood five feet, one inch tall, although her body was poorly preserved, and that she was about 35 years old at the time of her death, some 800 years ago. The woman’s head, including her hair and eyelashes, was well preserved in the permafrost, with the help of a piece of copper that had been placed over her face. She was buried with bronze temple rings, which were found close to her skull, which was wrapped in animal skin and birch bark. “This radically changes our concept about this graveyard,” said Alexander Gusev of Russia’s Arctic Research Center. For more on archaeology in the area, go to “Squeezing History from a Turnip.”

Categories: Blog

Bronze Stylus Unearthed at Assos

August 5, 2017

ÇANAKKALE PROVINCE, TURKEY—An 1,800-year-old stylus has been unearthed in the ancient city of Assos in northwestern Turkey, according to a report in Daily Sabah. Nurettin Arslan of Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University said the bronze writing implement is pointed on one end and has a flat edge on the other. “The flat part at the back side of the stylus was used to make corrections,” Arslan explained. Merchants and the wealthy would have kept their records on wax tablets, while students who were less well-off may have practiced writing on sand or ceramic floors. Writing tools were also made of bone during this period, Arslan said. For more on archaeology in Turkey, go to “Let a Turtle Be Your Psychopomp.”

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Humans First Modified Tropical Forests 45,000 Years Ago

August 5, 2017

MUNICH, GERMANY—A new study suggests humans have been encroaching on tropical forests for 45,000 years, according to a report in The International Business Times. Researchers including Patrick Roberts of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, and Chris Hunt of Liverpool John Moores University, found that hunter-gatherers in Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Guinea practiced controlled burns of tropical forest, perhaps in order to create additional “forest-edge” environments where their favored plant and animal food sources lived. These burns may have even contributed to the extinction of megafauna, which would further impact the life cycle of ancient forests. Later subsistence farmers, who domesticated and grew native plants such as yam, banana, black pepper, and taro some 10,000 years ago, did not trigger lasting changes to tropical forests. But when agriculturalists introduced pearl millet and cattle to tropical forests in western and central Africa some 2,400 years ago, significant forest burning and soil erosion resulted. Rice, millet, and palm farming in Southeast Asia brought on similar forest destruction. The study also found that the Maya practice of growing crops around native plants, rather than cutting them down, conserves the forest. For more, go to “The Environmental Cost of Empire.”

Categories: Blog

Ainu Skeletal Remains Repatriated to Japan

August 4, 2017

BERLIN, GERMANY—The Asahi Shimbun reports that an Ainu skull removed from a cemetery by a private academic society in Berlin in the late nineteenth century has been handed over to authorities at the Japanese Embassy in Berlin, at the request of the Japanese government. The skull has since been placed in a charnel house for displaced Ainu remains at Hokkaido University, where more than 1,000 sets of bones are housed. “We will look after the remains with great care, while maintaining dignity, until Ainu people decide its final resting place,” Hokkaido University President Toyoharu Nawa said of the skull. Hokkaido University archaeologist Hirofumi Kato added that at least 16 additional sets of Ainu remains are still in Germany. Ainu skeletons are also known to be housed in Australia, Britain, and the United States, among other places around world. For more, go to “Japan’s Early Anglers.”

Categories: Blog

Underwater Archaeologists Explore Inca Lakes

August 4, 2017

WARSAW, POLAND—Science & Scholarship in Poland reports that scientists from the Center for Precolumbian Studies at the University of Warsaw explored lakes within the Peruvian National Park of Machu Picchu. The remote, high-altitude lakes sit at the foot of the Salkantay Glacier, and are very deep, making it difficult to transport equipment to the sites and to explore them safely. Two of the lakes, Soctacocha and Yanacocha, are located near the Camino Inca, a trail that connected Machu Picchu with other settlements and temples. The researchers found ceremonial stone platforms at both of the lakes. “Sacrificial offerings were probably made from these platforms during rituals,” said archaeologist and diver Maciej Sobczyk. The team members, including underwater archaeologists Mateusz Popek and Przemyslaw Trześniowski, collected samples of the lake sediments and used sonar equipment to create bathymetric maps. Future expeditions will look for possible Inca offerings left in the water and under the ceremonial platforms. For more, go to “Letter From Peru: Connecting Two Realms.”

Categories: Blog

DNA Study Traces Greek Ancestry

August 3, 2017

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON—Science Magazine reports that researchers led by Iosif Lazaridis of Harvard University and George Stamatoyannopoulos of the University of Washington studied the genomes of ancient Greeks; Mycenaeans, who lived in mainland Greece between 1600 and 1200 B.C.; and Minoans, who lived on the island of Crete between 2600 and 1400 B.C., in order to study the origins of modern Greeks. DNA was extracted from the teeth of ten Minoans, four Mycenaeans, and five people from early farming or Bronze Age sites in Greece and Turkey. The samples were then compared to the genomes of more than 300 ancient people from around the world and 30 modern Greeks. The study suggests that the ancient Minoans and Myceaneans, who were closely related to each other, received most of their DNA from early farmers who lived in Greece and southwestern Anatolia, and some DNA from people from the eastern Caucasus. Mycenaeans also possessed DNA from a second wave of migrants from Eastern Europe or Siberia. But little DNA has been introduced to the Greek population from later migrations, the study concludes. This is “particularly striking given that the Aegean has been a crossroads of civilization for thousands of years,” Stamatoyannopoulos said. For more, go to “A Surprise City in Thessaly.”

Categories: Blog

Luxury Roman Homes Found in Southern France

August 3, 2017

VIENNE, FRANCE—Agence France-Presse reports that an entire first-century A.D. Roman neighborhood of luxury homes and public buildings has been found on the banks of the Rhone River in southeastern France. The neighborhood is thought to have been occupied for about 300 years and then abandoned after a series of fires. Fire damaged the first floor, roof, and balcony of one structure, called the Bacchanalian House for its mosaic floor depicting a procession of maenads and satyrs. But other parts of the house, such as balustrades, tiles, gardens, and the water supply system survived. “We will be able to restore this house from the floor to the ceiling,” said archaeologist Benjamin Clement. Another house contained a mosaic depicting the kidnapping of Thalia, patron of comedy, by Pan, the god of the satyrs. A public building, perhaps a school, with a fountain featuring a statue of Hercules, was found in the market area. The 75,000-square-foot site is located near the ancient Roman city of Vienne, which was on the route connecting northern Gaul and the Roman province of Gallia Narbonensis to the south. For more, go to “France’s Roman Heritage.”

Categories: Blog

Construction Project Reveals Antwerp’s 16th-Century City Walls

August 3, 2017

ANTWERP, BELGIUM—A sixteenth-century fortification wall measuring 20 feet tall and the pillars of a city gate were uncovered during a construction project in Antwerp, according to a Reuters report. Archaeologist Femke Martens explained that the wall also served as a channel for water into the city’s breweries. Parts of the monumental wall will be integrated into the design for the new tramway and plaza that will be built on the site. The rest will be recovered and preserved before a new road is built. For more on archaeology in Belgium, go to “The Blood of the King.”

Categories: Blog

Medieval Artwork Uncovered in Coptic Monastery

August 2, 2017

CAIRO, EGYPT—Ahram Online reports that frescoes and architectural elements of a medieval church have been uncovered at the Monastery of St. Bishoy by restorers who removed a modern layer of mortar from its walls. Coptic inscriptions were found below the paintings of saints and angels, which date to between the ninth and thirteenth centuries. One painting on the western wall of the church depicts a woman named Refka and her five sons, who were martyred. The team also uncovered the church’s ambon, a structure from which Christian scriptures were read. It was made of mud-brick covered with a layer of mortar and decorated with a red cross. Mohamed Abdellatif, deputy antiquities minister for Egypt’s archaeological sites, said a review of historic documents revealed the church had been remodeled in A.D. 840, during the Abbasid era, and again in 1069, during the Fatimid caliphate. For more, go to “Afterlife on the Nile.”

Categories: Blog

Archaeological Sites Found Near Saudi Arabia’s Ancient Lakes

August 2, 2017

LONDON, ENGLAND—According to a report in Live Science, a team led by landscape archaeologist Paul Breeze of King’s College London used high-resolution satellite imagery, aerial imagery, and geological maps to identify 46 archaeological sites beside ancient lakes in Saudi Arabia’s western Nefud Desert. Their research suggests that hominins migrating out of Africa may have traveled further into Arabia than had been previously thought. Breeze and his team traveled to some of the sites, where they took sediment samples of the lake beds, many of which are thought to have been situated in basins between sand dunes. They also found tools dating to the Lower Paleolithic period, between 1.8 million and 250,000 years ago. At that time, the region experienced repeated phases of wetter climate, and therefore supported more vegetation and wildlife than it does today. “Based on the geological record, we would expect some level of greening of Arabia to happen once more in the future,” said Breeze, “although likely not in the near future, and it is unclear how human influence on the climate might affect this.” For more, go to “Fact-Checking Lawrence of Arabia.”

Categories: Blog

18th-Century London Burial Thwarted Grave Robbers

August 2, 2017

LONDON, ENGLAND—Newsweek reports that an excavation team from the Museum of London Archaeology found a sand-filled coffin covered with heavy stones among the 25,000 graves in the New Churchyard, also known as the Bedlam Burial Ground, in the center of London. Archaeologist Robert Hartle explained that the sand and stones may have been intended to thwart body snatchers. The unusual sand-filled coffin dates to between 1720 and 1739—a time when bodies were sold illicitly to anatomy students for dissection. Hartle added that archaeological evidence of body snatching is extremely rare. To read in-depth about the illicit trade in dead bodies, go to “Haunt of the Resurrection Men.”

Categories: Blog

Statue Discovered at Angkor Thom

August 2, 2017

SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA—According to a report in The Cambodia Daily, archaeologists from the Apsara Authority discovered a sandstone statue of a guard near the northern entrance of the walled city of Angkor Thom. The statue is now missing its feet and parts of its legs, but is thought to have stood more than six feet tall on the grounds of a hospital built by King Jayavarman VII during the twelfth century. “The hospital consisted of wooden buildings and a chapel erected in stones,” said Tan Boun Suy, deputy director-general of the Apsara Authority. “What is left is the chapel…as wooden structures have long disappeared.” The team has also recovered a piece of another statue as well as roof tiles and ceramics. Rethy Chhem of the Cambodia Development Resource Institute added that Jayavarman VII placed hospitals at each of the four cardinal points of Angkor Thom. Each of those hospitals was equipped with two Buddhist shrines. For more, go to “Angkor Urban Sprawl.”

Categories: Blog

Sealskin Processing Site Investigated in Newfoundland

August 1, 2017

PORT AU CHOIX, NEWFOUNDLAND—Patricia Wells of the Port au Choix Archaeology Project and her team are exploring a now-waterlogged campsite occupied by the Groswater people sometime between 2,800 and 2,000 years ago, according to a report in the Northern Pen. So far they have uncovered stone tools thought to have been used for processing sealskins, and they have taken a sediment core from nearby Bass Pond. “We hope to assess whether the Groswater had any impact on the pond ecology, and look into the long ecological history of the region as a whole,” Wells said. Wells explains that the Groswater people probably did not use the site as a base camp for hunting, however, because there’s no view of the ocean and no place to land game on the shore. For more on archaeology in Canada, go to “Standing Still in Beringia?

Categories: Blog

2,500-Year-Old Sarcophagus Found in Turkey

August 1, 2017

BALIKESIR PROVINCE, TURKEY—A sarcophagus containing the skeletal remains of two people has been found at the ancient Greek city of Antandrus, which is located in northwestern Turkey, according to a report in the Daily Sabah. Gürcan Polat of Ege University said the sarcophagus dates to the fifth century. “The bones probably belonged to people from the same family,” Polat added. The excavation also uncovered an imported bowl, two amphoras, and two strigils, tools used to scrape sweat and dirt from the skin. To read about another recent discovery in Turkey, go to “Figure of Distinction.”

Categories: Blog

16th-Century Crypt Discovered in New World’s First Cathedral

July 31, 2017

SANTO DOMINGO, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC—According to a report in El País, a brick vault that could hold the remains of Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo has been found at the Basilica Cathedral of Santa María la Menor, the first cathedral built in the Americas. Oviedo wrote Summary of the Natural History of the Indies, the first account of the New World, and served as governor of the fortress of Santo Domingo from 1532 until his death in 1557. “We know that up to middle of the sixteenth century there was an altar dedicated to Santa Lucía built on Oviedo’s instructions, and that right underneath he ordered a vault to be constructed, where he was buried,” said Esteban Prieto Vicioso, head of the conservation project at the cathedral. Christopher Columbus had also been buried at the cathedral for a time, but his body was later moved. Prieto Vicioso explained that there is no documentary evidence that Oviedo’s body was ever exhumed, however. The restoration team plans to open the crypt, which, in addition to Oviedo’s remains, might hold an iron key to the fortress of Santo Domingo. A head injury received during a knife fight could help Prieto Vicioso’s team identify Oviedo’s remains. For more on archaeology in the Caribbean, go to “Finding Lost African Homelands.”

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