MARSEILLE, FRANCE—Researchers have reconstructed the genome of the Yersinia pestis pathogen that caused the Great Plague of Marseille, which lasted from 1720 to 1722. According to a press release from Max Planck Institute (MPI) for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, the team was able to isolate the pathogen's DNA from teeth excavated from mass burials dating to the time of the plague. To their surprise, the eighteenth-century plague was a form that is no longer circulating, and seems to descend directly from the Black Death, the disease that wiped out up to 50 percent of Europe's population in the fourteenth century. At this point the team has not pinpointed the geographical source of the Marseille plague, but they suspect the disease was lurking in Europe for several hundred years. “It’s a chilling thought that plague might have once been hiding right around the corner throughout Europe, living in a host which is not known to us yet,” says Johannes Krause, director of the Department of Archaeogenetics at the MPI in Jena. “Future work might help us to identify the mysterious host species, its range and the reason for its disappearance.” To read about another plague outbreak in France, go to “A Parisian Plague.”
PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA—Negotiations between France’s Ministry of Culture and Cambodia’s Council of Ministers has resulted in the reunification of the head and body of a seventh-century Khmer statue. The head, now on permanent loan, was removed from the body of the statue at the Phnom Da temple while Cambodia was a French colony, more than 125 years ago. “This head was among the artifacts that were sent to France—with King Norodom’s authorization, to show the importance of Khmer art, and from 1889 on, it was exhibited at the Musée Guimet,” Pierre Baptiste, curator of the Southeast Asian collection at the Guimet Museum, told The Cambodia Daily. The body of the statue was discovered in pieces at the temple in the twentieth century. “It’s only recently that we were able to make a cast of the upper part of the statue in Phnom Penh and bring it to France to check whether our head actually matched that body,” he added. The completed statue of Harihara, the fusion of Vishnu and Shiva in the Hindu tradition, will be housed at Cambodia’s National Museum. To read more about Cambodian archaeology, go to "Storied Landscape."
TUCSON, ARIZONA—Preparations for road construction near Tucson, Arizona, revealed the 2,500-year-old fields and footprints of farmers, children, and dogs. The field and prints were well preserved by a nearby creek that flooded its banks and covered them with a mica-rich sediment that formed a mineralized crust. Archaeologist Dan Arnit of Innovative Excavating was able to follow the movements of specific individuals around the field. One set shows where a large adult walked diagonally across the field, stopped to work on a berm or open a weir to let in water, and then returned across the field and over a ditch on a different path. Another farmer was probably being followed by a dog, whose paw print was found inside a foot print. The field still has depressions where the farmers had placed their plants. “So we’ve excavated a number of these planting depressions and will run samples for pollen and phytoliths to get a sense of what was being grown,” Jerome Hesse, project manager for SWCA Environmental Consultants, told Western Digs. “We’re doing everything we can to document the footprints, because they are smack-dab in the middle of the road,” added Suzanne Griset of SWCA. To read more about Southwest archaeology, go to "Who Were the Anasazi?"
ASWAN, EGYPT—Ahram Online reports that the skeleton of a one-year-old child who suffered from scurvy has been unearthed at a pre-dynastic site in the area of Nag Al-Qarmila by the Aswan Kom Ombo Archaeological Project (AKAP), led by Maria Carmela Gatto of Yale University and Antonio Curci of Bologna University. The remains, which date to between 3800 and 3600 B.C., are thought to represent the oldest-known case of the disease. Bioarchaeologists Mindy Pitre of St. Lawrence University and Robert Stark of McMaster University observed the changes to the bones that mark the condition, but scientists have yet to determine the circumstances contributing to the lack of vitamin C that led to the child’s condition. To read more about recent Egyptological discoveries, go to "The Cult of Amun."
LEFKADA, GREECE—Greece’s culture minister announced that sections of an ancient theater have been discovered on the Ionian island of Lefkada. According to the Greek Reporter, the possibility of a theater at the site was first noted by German archaeologist E. Kruger in the early twentieth century, but its presence has not been mentioned in any known ancient sources. The test excavations revealed rows of seats carved from rock, parts of the orchestra, and retaining walls for the stage and other parts of the theater.
DURHAM, ENGLAND—Jamie Tehrani of Durham University and Sara Graça da Silva of the New University of Lisbon conducted a statistical analysis of the relationship between languages and folktales in a search for our earliest stories. They chose 76 stories from a database of more than 2,000 types of folktales as possible candidates for estimating folktale ages. These stories were based upon beings or objects with supernatural powers, which is the largest group of folktales in the database. They then studied how the tales related to the family trees of Indo-European languages throughout Asia and Europe. “What these methods allow us to do is trace back really important dimensions of human culture…much further back than the physical evidence would allow us to do,” Tehrani explained to Science News. One tale in particular is thought to date back 6,000 years, to the Proto-Indo-European language, while four others were found to have a high probability of being associated it. “’The Smith and the Devil’ is the one we feel absolutely confident as being a Proto-Indo-European tale,” Tehrani said. In this story, a blacksmith makes a deal with an evil being for the power to weld any materials together. To read more about Proto-Indo-European, go to "Wolf Rites of Winter."
EAST ANGLIA, ENGLAND—Windfarm development companies ScottishPower Renewables (SPR) and Vattenfall discovered more than 60 shipwrecks, including a World War I-era German submarine, in the North Sea while scanning the seabed. The uncharted vessel has been missing in action since January 13, 1915. “U-31 was the first of 11 Type U-31 submarines built between 1912 and 1915. The class were considered very good high sea boats with good surface steering; eight were sunk during operations while three surrendered and were scrapped after the war. Of those lost during operations, the whereabouts and fate of two, including U-31, was unknown,” marine archaeologist Mark Dunkley of Historic England said in a press release. The submarine is well preserved and will be protected from any windfarm development. To read more about the archaeology of World War I, go to "Letter From Turkey."
BASEL, SWITZERLAND—Anthropologists from the University of Basel and archaeologists from the University of Valladolid have completed their examination of a 6,000-year-old mound located near Burgos, Spain. The burial chamber, originally made of wood, was later covered with a stone mound. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the tomb, which contained the remains of at least 47 people, was used over a period of three to four generations. About half of the remains were of children and adolescents, while the other half were of adults. The adult remains showed signs of degenerative diseases of the spine and joints, healed fractures, head injuries, and dental problems. Genetic studies indicate that bodies that had been buried close to each other were closely related. Chemical analysis suggests that all but three of the individuals had grown up in the area, and that they shared a farmer’s diet of wheat, barley, sheep, goat, and pig. “This is the first study that presents a detailed picture of how Neolithic people were connected in life and death,” Kurt W. Alt of the University of Basel said in a press release. To read more, go to "Neolithic Europe's Remote Heart."
CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—The remains of a group of hunter-gatherers killed on the shores of Lake Turkana some 10,000 years ago have been uncovered by a team from the Leverhulme Center for Human Evolutionary Studies at the University of Cambridge. The partial remains of 27 people include the remains of at least eight women—one of them pregnant—and six children. All of the remains had been left where they fell. The position of the hands of four of the individuals suggest that they had been bound. Ten of the sets of remains showed clear signs of violent death, including extreme blunt-force trauma to crania and cheekbones, broken hands, knees, and ribs, and arrow lesions to the neck. Projectile tips were found embedded in the skull and thorax of two men. “The deaths at Nataruk are testimony to the antiquity of inter-group violence and war. These human remains record the intentional killing of a small band of foragers with no deliberate burial, and provide unique evidence that warfare was part of the repertoire of inter-group relations among some prehistoric hunter-gatherers,” project director Marta Mirazón Lahr said in a press release. To read about forensic evidence for a medieval massacre, go to "Vengeance on the Vikings."
CAMBRIDGESHIRE, ENGLAND—An international team of scientists obtained whole genome sequences from ten skeletons unearthed near Cambridge. The skeletons ranged from the Iron Age, early Anglo-Saxon, and Middle Anglo-Saxon periods. The scientists then compared the ancient genomes with those from modern Europeans by looking at rare mutations. “We estimate that 38 percent of the ancestors of the English were Anglo-Saxons. This is the first direct estimate of the impact of immigration into Britain from the fifth to seventh centuries A.D. and the traces left in modern England,” Stephan Schiffels of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and the Max Plank Institute said in a press release. The genetic evidence, when combined with archaeological evidence, offers more information on how Anglo-Saxons immigrants adapted to life in Britain. “Genome sequences from four individuals from a cemetery in Oakington indicated that, genetically, two were migrant Anglo-Saxons, one was a native, and one was a mixture of both. The archaeological evidence shows that these individuals were treated the same way in death, and proves they were all well integrated into the Oakington Anglo-Saxon community despite their different biological heritage,” added Duncan Sayer of the University of Central Lancashire. To read in-depth about Anglo Saxons, go to "The Kings of Kent."
COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—Skeletal remains of more than 70 people have been unearthed at the 9,000-year-old site of Shkārat Msaied, located in southern Jordan, by a team from the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies. The people who lived at Shkārat Msaied had been hunter-gatherers and were in the process of becoming farmers. “The body parts have been sorted and buried in collective graves, where we find the specific categories of bones together,” researcher Moritz Kinzel told The Copenhagen Post. This year, the team found three burial sites that contained the remains of at least ten children and two adults. The bones of goats and sheep, birds, and foxes, which may have been part of a funeral ritual, were found with the human remains. Most of the bones had been placed in trunks and buried inside homes. “It is interesting there are an unusually large number of children buried, ranging from small babies to adolescents. There seems to have been a strong tendency to bury children inside the houses,” he added. To read more, go to "Neolithic Community Centers."
PORT ARTHUR, TASMANIA—An excavation behind the nineteenth-century penitentiary building at the Port Arthur Historic Site, in an area where the washroom, toilets, and day room were located, has uncovered lead and ceramic tokens that may have been used by the inmates for gambling and trading. “The official history tells us convicts didn’t gamble—that it was heavily controlled—but accounts from convicts themselves told of this black market economy going on where services and rations are all being traded between themselves and gambling and gaming would have been part of that,” archaeologist Richard Tuffin told The Mercury. Tuffin explained that the inmates probably took the lead from the workshops that were located on the other side of the penitentiary, and shaped and inscribed it to produce tokens in different denominations. The ceramic tokens were made from willow ware plates. “Those convicts who weren’t out working in the gangs could come in and they would have had time to themselves, although heavily supervised. Artifact-wise, we’re also finding quite a lot of clay smoking pipes,” he added. For more on the archaeology of Australian prisons, go to "Alone, but Closely Watched."
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA—Arctic ice-core climate data from the past 800,000 years supports the idea that human activity has had a warming effect that “cancelled most or all of a natural cooling that should have occurred,” William Ruddiman of the University of Virginia said in UVA Today. He explains that during past interglacial periods, carbon dioxide and methane levels decreased, cooling the climate to make the next glacial period possible. But during the past 12,000 years, these gas levels have risen. Ruddiman argues that carbon dioxide levels began rising 7,000 years ago with the burning of forests to clear land for agriculture, and methane levels began rising 5,000 years ago, with the proliferation of livestock farming and early rice irrigation. “After 12 years of debate about whether the climate of the last several thousand years has been entirely natural or in considerable part the result of early agriculture, converging evidence from several scientific disciplines points to a major anthropogenic influence,” Ruddiman said. For more on climate and archaeology, go to "Surviving the Little Ice Age."
YORK, ENGLAND—Seven skeletons were selected from the more than 80 unearthed at a Roman-era cemetery in Driffield Terrace for whole genome analysis. All of the men buried in the cemetery had been under the age of 45 at the time of death, and are thought to have been gladiators, soldiers, or criminals. Many of them had been decapitated. Previous studies of the remains have shown that the men endured childhood deprivation, were taller than average for Roman Britain, suffered battle trauma, and may have grown up outside Britain. Most of the men in the new study had genomes similar to that of an Iron Age woman whose remains were unearthed in East Yorkshire. “Whichever the identity of the enigmatic headless Romans from York, our sample of the genomes of seven of them, when combined with isotopic evidence, indicate six to be of British origin and one to have origins in the Middle East. It confirms the cosmopolitan character of the Roman Empire even at its most northerly extent,” Matthew Collins of the University of York said in a press release. To read more about the empire's rise, go to "Rome's Imperial Port."
LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND—Modern humans are thought to have left southern Africa in small groups some 50,000 years ago. Bands of people then traveled on to Asia, and eventually crossed the Bering Strait to colonize the Americas. But the process of natural selection is more powerful in larger populations. Laurent Excoffier of the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics (SIB) and the University of Bern, and an international team of scientists, employed next-generation sequencing (NGS) technology to examine the genomes of individuals from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Namibia, Algeria, Pakistan, Cambodia, Siberia, and Mexico, and found that the farther away from southern Africa an individual lives, the higher the number of slightly deleterious mutations an individual is likely to have. “We find that mildly deleterious mutations have evolved as if they were neutral during the out-of-Africa expansion, which lasted probably for more than a thousand generations. Contrastingly, very harmful mutations are found at similar frequencies in all individuals of the world, as if there was a maximum threshold any individual can stand,” SIB member Stephan Peischl said in a press release. To read about the first colonizers of the New World, go to "America, in the Beginning."
MUNICH, GERMANY—A team led by Lisa Seifert of Ludwig Maximillian University obtained DNA samples from 30 plague victims who died in Germany during the second plague pandemic, which occurred from the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries. The scientists found that eight of the 30 skeletons tested positive for the bacteria Yersinia pestis, whose role in the second plague pandemic has been debated. The bacteria’s genetic material was highly similar to that of plague victims from other European countries. In addition, the eight samples had an identical Y. pestis genotype. It has been thought that Y. pestis arrived from Central Asia in multiple waves during the second pandemic, but these results, reported in PLOS ONE, suggest that there may have also been a yet unknown reservoir host in Europe. To read more, go to "A Parisian Plague."
GIF-SUR-YVETTE, FRANCE—Spray-like paintings in Chauvet-Pont D’Arc Cave thought to be around 36,000 years old may be the oldest-known depictions of a volcanic eruption. Geoscientist Sebastien Nomade of the University of Paris-Saclay sampled rocks in three volcanic centers at the Bas-Vivarais volcanic field, which lies some 20 miles from the cave in southern France. He and his team members measured the levels of different isotopes of radioactive argon gas in the samples, and determined that the region had been lit up by a series of strombolian eruptions between 19,000 and 43,000 years ago. Strombolian eruptions, named for Italy’s Stromboli volcano, spew lava more than 200 yards into the sky. “You just have to climb the small hill on top of Chauvet, and looking north you see the volcanoes. During the night you could see them glowing and you could hear the sound of the volcanic eruption,” Nomade told Nature News. He adds that there’s no way to prove that the images depict volcanic eruptions, “but for us it’s the hypothesis which is the most probable.” For more, go to "A Chauvet Primer."
ZHEJIANG PROVINCE, CHINA—A woven mat discovered at a wet Neolithic site in east China has been dated to about 7,000 years ago, according to a report by the Xinhua News Agency. That’s more than 2,000 years older than silk textiles discovered in Zhejiang Province, and 1,000 years older than fabric unearthed in Jiangsu Province, to the north. No grain residue was detected on the flat, reed mat. “Our guess is that our ancestors used it as a cover or bedding. Its exact use is open to discussion,” said Zhang Jianping of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. To read about discoveries in China dating back 20,000 years, go to "The First Pots."
CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—Archaeologists from seven different institutions have used 3-D technology to record the rock art of the Valcamonica Valley, located over an area of three square miles in the Italian Alps. Most of the 150,000 images, known as Pitoti, or little puppets, date to the Iron Age, but they span a period of 4,000 years reaching back to the Neolithic period. The images, which included depictions of people, sheep, deer, horses, and dogs, were carved on sandstone rocks that were smoothed when glaciers crossed the landscape. “When I first saw the Pitoti, my immediate thought was that these are frames for a film. Initially I envisaged an animated film but over time I’ve come to realize that the quality of color, the play of light and shadow, and the texture of the rocks, make the Pitoti much more sophisticated than 2-D animated graphics. That’s why we need to work in 3-D,” Frederick Baker of the University of Cambridge said in a press release. To read more about 3-D imaging in archaeology, go to "The Past in High-Def."
ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA—The partial frozen carcass of a mammoth was discovered near the eastern shore of Yenisei Bay in the central Siberian Arctic in 2012 by an 11-year-old boy. Scientists, led by Alexei Tikhonov of the Russian Academy of Sciences, excavated the mammoth remains, and found injuries made by sharp weapon tips to the ribs and right mandible, and signs of chopping to the outside of the right tusk. “This is a rare case for unequivocal evidence for clear human involvement,” Vladimir Pitulko of the Russian Academy of Science told Science. Radiocarbon dating of collagen from the tibia, bone, hair, and muscle tissue indicate that the animal died some 45,000 years ago, or 10,000 years earlier than it had been thought modern humans lived in the Eurasian Arctic. The find also indicates that people had made the necessary adaptations in cooperation, hunting, tool making, shelter building, and clothing production in order to live in such a harsh environment. To read about mammoth remains discovered on a Michigan farm, go to "Leftover Mammoth."