LONDON, ENGLAND—Science reports that paleogeneticist Matthias Meyer of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has sequenced nuclear DNA from fossils recovered from the Sima de los Huesos, or “Pit of Bones,” in Spain’s Atapuerca Mountains. The 300,000 to 400,000-year-old fossils had been classified as members of Homo heidelbergensis, which resemble primitive Neanderthals, by paleontologist Juan-Luis Arsuaga of the Complutense University of Madrid, but a study of their mitochondrial DNA, inherited through the maternal line, showed that it more closely matched the mitochondrial DNA of Denisovans. Now Meyer and his team have been able to generate enough base pairs from the ancient nuclear DNA to see that the Sima fossils share a close affinity with Neanderthals. “Indeed, the Sima de los Huesos specimens are early Neanderthals or related to early Neanderthals,” Meyer said at the annual meeting of the European Society for the Study of Human Evolution. The results also suggest that the lineage that gave rise to Neanderthals split from other archaic humans earlier than had been thought. The Denisovan mitochondrial DNA found in the Simos fossils may thus have been the result of interbreeding between species. To read more about discoveries at Sima de los Huesos, go to "A Place to Hide the Bodies."
CORNWALL, ENGLAND—Geophysical surveys “seem to be showing a very large mass burial pit” on the Cornish coast, archaeologist Jim Parry from the National Trust told BBC News. The pit may hold the remains of 207 sailors who died when HMS Royal Anne sank at Lizard Point in 1721. The ship had been sailing to Barbados when it was caught in a storm and crashed on the rocks. Planned excavations at the site, located in a valley at Pistil Meadow where the shore can be accessed, could reveal “the preservation of skeletal material,” Parry said. To read about maritime archaeology, go to "History's 10 Greatest Wrecks."
GAINESVILLE, FLORIDA—WUFT-FM reports that archaeologists from the University of Florida have traveled to St. Augustine, where they relocated a 1677 mission church, first discovered by a Catholic mission priest in 1951. The church is thought to have been part of the Nombre De Dios Mission, which dates to 1587. According to Gifford Waters of the Florida Museum of Natural History, the church was built of coquina stone and tabby foundations, and was one of the largest churches in colonial Spanish Florida. Inside the buildings at the mission, the research team has recovered Spanish artifacts such as nails and pottery, and Native American artifacts. “So we’re looking at the interior of these buildings to get a better idea of the daily activities and what’s going on inside the structure. There’s not much written about the daily lives of the Native Americans that were here,” Waters said in a video clip. To read about another mission in northern Florida, go to "Off the Grid: Mission San Luis."
ROME, ITALY—ANSAmed reports that a house dating to the sixth century B.C. has been unearthed on Rome’s Quirinal Hill, near a fifth-century temple that was discovered in 2013. “The position of the house near the temple hints at it being a sacred area, and that whoever lived there was watching over what happened therein. But it is even more important that we can now retro-date the urbanization of the Quirinal zone,” archaeologist and director of the excavation Mirella Serlorenzi said at a press conference. “This means that Rome at the beginning of the sixth century was much larger than what we expected and not closed in around the Forum,” she added. The rectangular house, built on a tufa stone base, likely had two rooms and an entrance with a portico. It’s wooden walls had been covered with clay, and the structure had a tile roof. It had been thought that this area was used as a necropolis at the time.
BRADFORD, ENGLAND—A Neolithic skeleton from the Scottish island of Tiree has been identified with the oldest case of rickets in the United Kingdom, according to Ian Armit of the University of Bradford. “The earliest case of rickets in Britain until now dated from the Roman period, but this discovery takes it back more than 3,000 years. There have been a few possible cases in other parts of the world that are around the same time, but none as clear as this. While we can’t say for certain that this is the earliest case in the world, it is definitely very unusual,” he said in a press release. The woman, whose deformed skeleton was found in a simple burial, may have had restricted access to sunlight as a child due to a religious role, illness, or slavery. Isotopic analysis of her teeth suggests that she suffered from malnutrition or illness between the ages of four and 14, and that she lived in the region where she had been buried. The analysis also showed that she didn’t eat sea fish. “It seems especially poignant that these communities had some cultural aversion to eating fish, and yet that simple addition to her diet may have prevented the disease,” added Janet Montgomery of Durham University. For more, go to "Diagnosis of Ancient Illness."
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA—The human relative whose fossilized remains were discovered in Rising Star Cave in South Africa’s Humankind World Heritage Site in 2013 has been named Homo naledi. “Overall, Homo naledi looks like one of the most primitive members of our genus, but it also has some surprisingly human-like features, enough to warrant placing it in the genus Homo,” John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin-Madison said in a press release from the University of the Witwatersrand. “H. naledi had a tiny brain, about the size of an average orange, perched atop a very slender body,” he said. The average individual stood about five feet tall, and had shoulders similar to those of apes. “Surprisingly, H. naledi has extremely curved fingers, more curved than almost any other species of early hominin, which clearly demonstrates climbing capabilities,” added Tracy Kivell of the University of Kent. The unprecedented fossil hominin find, which includes the remains of infants, children, adults, and the elderly, was made in an isolated chamber accessible only through a very narrow chute. The team thinks that the bodies of the dead were intentionally deposited in the chamber, a behavior previously thought limited to humans. “We explored every alternative scenario, including mass death, an unknown carnivore, water transport from another location, or accidental death in a death trap, among others,” explained Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand. The fossils have yet to be dated. For another spectacular discovery in South Africa, go to "Human Mosaic."
SITKA, ALASKA—In January 1813, the Russian-American Company frigate Neva wrecked off Kruzof Island after a difficult journey from the Siberian port of Okhotsk. Fifteen crew members had died at sea, 32 died in the wreck, 28 made it to shore near Sitka, Alaska, and 26 survived. There are a few known accounts of the experience, but no official records of the wreck. “The items left behind by survivors provide a unique snapshot-in-time for January 1813, and might help us to understand the adaptations that allowed them to await rescue in a frigid, unfamiliar environment for almost a month,” Dave McMahan of the Sitka Historical Society said in a press release. McMahan and his team want to verify the location of the wreck and the survivor camp, in an area where they have found caches of Russian axes and other items, including gun flints, musket balls, pieces of sheet copper, iron and copper spikes, and a fishhook made of copper. The gun flints are thought to have been used to start fires. “Collectively, the artifacts reflect improvisation in a survival situation, and do not include ceramics, glass, and other materials that would be associated with a settlement,” McMahan explained. To read about shipwreck archaeology in the High Arctic, go to "Saga of the Northwest Passage."
SOFIA, BULGARIA—An excavation in Sofia’s Sveta Nedelya Square has uncovered a clay pot containing nearly 3,000 Roman coins. The silver coins appear to have made up a collection—the oldest ones bear the image of Emperor Vespasian, who reigned from A.D. 69 to 79. There are also coins minted during the reigns of each of the seven emperors of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty, which began in A.D. 96, and ended with Commodus, who ruled from 177 to 192. Coins bearing images of notable women of the dynasty, such as Faustina the Elder, Faustina the Younger, Bruttia Crispina, and Lucilla, were also found. The pot bears the name Selvius Callistus, who is thought to have been the collection’s last owner. “This is the first find of such magnitude made as part of a planned dig. I think it is not accidental either—we do not want to leave our cultural and historical heritage to chance, which is why we have invested in a lot of digs in recent years,” Yordanka Fandakova, the city’s mayor, told The Sofia Globe. To read about similar artifacts, go to "Artifact: Roman Coins in Israel."
CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—The analysis of stable isotopes and DNA of the bones of stored cod provisions from the Tudor shipwreck the Mary Rose has shown that the demand for preserved fish by the English navy and growing urban populations spurred fishing in distant waters. The research team, made up of scientists from the University of Cambridge, the University of Hull, and the University of York, compared bones recovered from different parts of the ship, which sank in the Solent during a battle in 1545, with the markers from fish heads recovered from various archaeological sites. The results suggest that three of the samples from the ship came from the northern North Sea, and seven samples came from waters off the coast of Iceland. One bone may have come all the way from Newfoundland. “At the time of the Mary Rose in 1545, Newfoundland was a small-scale seasonal fishery where mariners went to fish and then come home. Within a century the Newfoundland fishery had become a major economic concern, of greater value than the fur trade, for example,” James Barrett of the University of Cambridge said in a press release. To read about how prehistoric people in North America managed marine resources, go to "The Edible Landscape."
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA—A team of researchers led by Nathan Young of the University of California San Francisco examined the shoulder blades of early hominins, modern humans, African apes, orangutans, gibbons, and large tree-dwelling monkeys in order to learn more about what the last common ancestor of modern humans and African apes, which lived some six to seven million years ago, might have looked like. Changes in the shoulders of human ancestors over time are thought to reflect reduced tree climbing behavior and increased tool use, including the ability to throw objects with speed and accuracy. “Human shoulder blades are odd, separated from all the apes. Primitive in some ways, derived in other ways, and different from all of them,” Young said in a press release. For example, the shoulder bones of Australopithecus afarensis, which lived between 3.85 and 9.95 million years ago, suggest that the bipedal tool users still climbed trees with their ape-like shoulders. But the fossil shoulders of Australopithecus sediba, which lived some 1.9 million years ago, are closer in shape to a human’s than an ape’s. “Our study suggests that the simplest explanation, that the ancestor looked a lot like a chimp or gorilla, is the right one, at least in the shoulder,” Young concluded. To read about the evolution of the throwing motion, go to "No Changeups on the Savannah."
FLORENCE, ITALY—Tests conducted by a team led by Marta Mariotti Lippi of the University of Florence reveal that a stone pestle recovered from Grotta Paglicci in Apulia in the 1950s had been used to grind dried oats some 32,000 years ago. Hunter-gatherers of the Gravettian culture heated the carefully gathered grains first, a process that would help preserve them in the cool, damp climate, and make them easier to grind. The resulting powder may have been used for making porridge or bread, and it would have made the oats easier to carry. Other grinding stones have been found to have been used to process roots and cattails. “If we were to look more systematically for ground stone technology we would find this is a more widespread phenomenon,” Matt Pope of University College London told The Herald Scotland. For more on the era, go to "New Life for Lion Man."
ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO—Two types of caffeinated drinks were widely consumed by people living in the Southwestern United States and Northwestern Mexico over a period of at least 700 years, according to Patricia Crown of the University of New Mexico. She found traces of caffeine in 40 of 177 sherds from jars, bowls, and pitchers recovered from pre-Hispanic archaeological sites throughout the Southwest. But the drinks, a cacao-based chocolate drink and black drink, made from a particular species of holly, were made from plants that do not grow in the Southwest. “I think the primary significance is that it shows that there was movement of two plants that have caffeine in North America—that they were either exchanged or acquired and consumed widely in the Southwest,” she said in a press release. Cacao and scarlet macaws, which are also found at Southwestern sites, were probably obtained through trade with Mexico. The holly may have come from Mexico or from the Southern United States. To read about archaeology in the region, go to "On the Trail of the Mimbres."
UPPSALA, SWEDEN—Today’s Basque populations are closely related to the earliest Iberian farmers, according to a genetic study conducted by an international team of researchers led by scientists from Uppsala University. The DNA samples were obtained from eight early Iberian farmers who lived between 3,500 and 5,500 years ago and whose remains were discovered in Spain’s El Portalón cave in Atapuerca. Like populations in central and northern Europe, the Iberian farmers had traveled from the south and mixed with local hunter-gatherer groups. “The genetic variation observed in modern-day Basques is significantly closer to the newly sequenced early farmers than to older Iberian hunter-gatherer samples,” Torsten Günther of Uppsala University told Red Orbit. “Parts of that early farmer population probably remained relatively isolated since then (which we can still see in the distinct culture and language of Basques) while other modern Iberians show signals of later historic events which makes them different from Basques,” he added. To read about the technology used by people of this period, go to "Neolithic Toolkit."
WILTSHIRE, ENGLAND—An international team of scientists working with the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project have detected a row of up to 100 standing stones beneath Durrington Walls, a large 4,500-year-old earthwork enclosure located two miles to the northeast of Stonehenge. Using non-invasive geophysical prospection and remote sensing technologies, the team found the row of massive stones set in a C-shape around a chalk cut scarp and a natural depression near the River Avon. The stones may have come from local sources and resemble “The Cuckoo Stone,” which stands in an adjacent field. The row of standing stones was later pushed over, and a bank was placed over them. “The discovery of a major new stone monument, which has been preserved to a remarkable extent, has significant implications for our understanding of Stonehenge and its landscape setting. Not only does this new evidence demonstrate a completely unexpected phase of monumental architecture at one of the greatest ceremonial sites in prehistoric Europe, the new stone row could well be contemporary with the famous Stonehenge sarsen circle or even earlier,” Vincent Gaffney of the University of Bradford said in a press release. For more on recent discoveries around the site, go to "Under Stonehenge."
KRUSHARI, BULGARIA—A fifth-century Christian crypt has been unearthed at a basilica located near Zaldapa, an ancient fortified town in northeastern Bulgaria. The large crypt, which may have held the remains of at least one martyr, was entered sometime in the tenth century. (Basilicas were often built on top of martyrs’ burial places.) “We still do not know exactly what is in it, because we have not finished the excavation,” Kostadin Kostadinov, director of the Regional Historical Museum, said in an interview on Bulgarian National Television that was reported in The Sofia Globe. Archaeologists are looking for an inscription that could tell them about who was buried there.
MADRID, SPAIN—For the first time, scientists from the Institute of Evolutionary Biology, the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, and the Center for GeoGenetics in Denmark have sequenced the genome of a Neolithic farmer whose remains were recovered from a cave near Barcelona. Some 8,000 years ago, the first farmers to enter Europe came from the Near East—some traveled into Central Europe on the Danube River, and their DNA has been recovered. Others followed the Mediterranean coast and reached the Iberian Peninsula, but climatic conditions in Southern Europe have made the recovery of ancient genetic material from this region difficult. “The sequencing of this genome has been possible thanks to new advances in both techniques of ancient DNA extraction, building of and construction techniques of genomic libraries and massive sequencing; from an experimental point of view, it has been quite challenging,” team member Iñigo Olalde said in a press release. This DNA, extracted from the tooth of a woman who lived some 7,400 years ago, shows that she had light skin and dark eyes and hair. She was also descended from an ancestral population common to the group who traveled along the Danube.
AUSTIN, TEXAS—Geographers Tim Beach and Sheryl Luzzader-Beach of the University of Texas at Austin used old and new data to study the impact of Maya civilization on the lowlands of Central America. “Most popular sources talk about the Anthropocene and human impacts on climate since the industrial revolution, but we are looking at a deeper history. Though it has no doubt accelerated in the last century, humans’ impact on the environment has been going on a lot longer,” Beach said in a press release. The researchers identified six markers of large-scale change, including “Maya clay” rocks, unique soil sequences, carbon isotope rations, widespread chemical enrichment, building remains and landscape modifications, and signs of Maya-induced climate change. “Historically, it’s common for people to talk about the bad that happened with past environmental changes, such as erosion and climate change from deforestation. But we can learn a lot from how Maya altered their environment to create vast field systems to grow more crops and respond to rising sea levels,” Beach said. To read more about how archaeologists are using cutting-edge technology to analyze ancient Maya cities, go to "Lasers in the Jungle."
STANFORD, CALIFORNIA—Handwriting analysis has led to new thoughts about how government documents were produced and distributed in medieval England. Literary scholar Elaine Treharne of Stanford University noticed that the handwriting that produced the Register of St. Osmund, a document produced at Salisbury Cathedral and held in its archive, resembled one of the four surviving original copies of the Magna Carta, which was issued by King John in 1215. She examined the letters, punctuation, abbreviations, the angle of the pen, and the number of strokes taken to produce each character in the two documents. She concluded that the cathedral scribe that wrote the Register of St. Osmund also produced the Salisbury Magna Carta. “It makes us look again at the role of the church in relationship to the king. They become much more partners, really, in the production of texts,” Treharne said in a press release. She thinks that versions of the Magna Carta “were written in the regions and then taken to the court for sealing by the king’s Great Seal.” It had been thought that copies of the Magna Carta had been produced in the central court and then distributed to satellite locations. To read more about medieval England, go to "Vengeance on the Vikings."
CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA—A piece of red, glossy pottery found in the rugged highlands of Papua New Guinea has been shown to be the oldest-known pottery in New Guinea. t of Australian National University, working with researchers from Otago University, obtained precise dates for the pottery as part of a study to learn more about how the technology spread throughout the Pacific. People who lived on the coast of Papua New Guinea would have had contact with seafaring, pottery-making cultures such as the Lapita people. “It’s an example of how technology spread among cultures. Some pottery must have soon found its way into the highlands, which inspired the highlanders to try making it themselves,” Denham said in a press release. “And it shows human history is not always a smooth progression—later on pottery making was abandoned across most of the highlands of New Guinea. No one knows when or why,” he said. To read about smoked mummies in Papua New Guinea, go to the current issue's "World Roundup."
ASHKELON, ISRAEL—Construction workers in southern Israel have damaged a rare Roman sarcophagus, according to a statement made by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). IAA inspectors found the sarcophagus beneath a stack of sheet metal and boards. They also saw that concrete had been poured over the site where the artifact was unearthed in an attempt to conceal it. The eight-foot-long sarcophagus has a life-sized image of a person carved on the lid. “He is wearing a short-sleeved shirt decorated with embroidery on the front. A tunic is wrapped around his waist. The figure’s eyes were apparently inlaid with precious stones that have disappeared and the hair is arranged in curls, in a typical Roman hairstyle,” archaeologist Gaby Mazor told Discovery News. The sarcophagus also bears carvings of wreaths, bulls’ heads, cupids, and an image of Medusa. “In this case, the building contractors chose to hide the rare artifact and their action has caused painful damage to history. Legal proceedings will now be taken against those involved, thereby leading to a delay in construction and related expenditures,” Amir Ganor, head of the Inspection Department at the IAA, said in a statement. To read more about the period, go to "Artifact: Roman Coins in Israel."