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."
TORONTO, CANADA—Analysis of two molars from Siberia’s Denisova Cave by an international team of scientists confirms that they belonged to two adult male Denisovans who lived some 60,000 years apart. The earlier individual lived up to 130,000 years ago, while the more recent one lived between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago. The teeth are larger than those of Neanderthals and modern humans. “In its size, it’s comparable to hominins that lived two or three million years ago…but the age of it shows that it’s very recent,” Bence Viola of the University of Toronto told CBC Canada. “The whole group probably had very large and weird teeth.” Denisovans probably had large jaws to accommodate these teeth. And genetic evidence indicates that a large, diverse population of Denisovans lived over much of Asia for tens of thousands of years. There may even been fossils in China that have not been recognized as Denisovan yet. “I’m really convinced. The genetic data shows that these guys were spread over large parts of Asia, so we must have them,” Viola said. To read more, go to "Denisovan DNA."
NANCHANG, CHINA—The Xinhua News Agency reports that 75 large gold coins and 25 hoof-shaped ingots have been discovered in a tomb in a Western Han Dynasty royal cemetery in Jiangxi Province. The 2,000-year-old tomb is thought to belong to Liu He, who served as emperor of only 27 days before he was deposed. The gold had been placed in three boxes under a bed in the tomb’s main chamber and may have been a gift from the emperor. The tomb has also yielded a portrait thought to represent Confucius; documents recorded on some 3,000 wooden tablets and bamboo slips; and artifacts made from bronze, gold, and jade. To read more about archaeology in China, go to "The Tomb Raider Chronicles."
VIENNA, AUSTRIA—The Local, Austria, reports that an ancient ushabti figurine confiscated from two men who tried to sell it for more than two million euros has been returned to Egypt by Sabine Haag, director of Vienna’s Art History Museum. The two men, who were acquitted of receiving the allegedly stolen artifact, claimed to have bought it at a flea market. Museum officials authenticated the figurine and handed it over to the Egyptian ambassador Khaled Abdelrahman Abdellatif Shamaa. Ushabti figurines are grave goods that were intended to serve the deceased in the afterlife. To read in-depth about ancient Egypt, go to "The Cult of Amun."
NETIVOT, ISRAEL—Archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority, assisted by volunteers and students, unearthed a press that was used for the mass-production of wine some 1,500 years ago in a village in the Negev. “First, the grapes were pressed. Then the juice was funneled through canals to a pit where the sediment settled. From there, the wine was piped into vats lined with stone and marble, where it would ferment until it was stored in clay bottles,” supervisor Ilan Peretz said in a press release. A cross had been etched into seashells that decorated one of the vats of the wine press. The excavators also found a workshop and a public building that had been decorated with marble latticework in the form of a cross and flowers. The team also recovered tools, seals, cups, and oil lamps. For more on ancient wine, go to "A Prehistoric Cocktail Party."
DUBIN, IRELAND—The genomes of two hunter-gatherers whose 13,300 and 9,700-year-old remains were found in caves in the Caucasus have been mapped by an international team of researchers led by scientists from Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin, and Cambridge University. The study revealed that these two individuals belonged to a previously unknown fourth strand of ancient European ancestry. “This new lineage diverged from western European hunter-gatherers around the time of the first migrations of early modern humans into Europe about 45,000 years ago and from the ancestors of early farmers around the time of the glacial maximum, 25,000 years ago,” Andrea Manica of Cambridge University said in a press release. After the thaw, the Caucasus hunter-gatherers mixed with other groups, probably from the east. “The question of where the Yamnaya come from has been something of a mystery up to now. We can now answer that as we’ve found that their genetic make-up is a mix of Eastern European hunter-gatherers and a population from this pocket of Caucasus hunter-gatherers who weathered much of the last Ice Age in apparent isolation,” she added. “
WARSAW, POLAND—Archaeologists from the University of Warsaw and the National Ukrainian Academy of Sciences confirmed the location of a 2,000-year-old fortified Greek settlement along the Dnieper River, located near the Greek colony of Olbia, with aerial photographs taken with a kite and geophysical surveys. “Over a dozen similar settlements have been identified so far in the lower Dnieper. If we manage to raise adequate funds, we are planning to conduct research on a wider scale. In the first place we would like to do documentary work and geophysical surveys of each of the settlements because they are subject to systematic robbery excavations. Besides, they have never been comprehensively surveyed,” Marcin Matera of the University of Warsaw told Science & Scholarship in Poland. The settlement is thought to have been a trade center that linked the Dnieper steppes to the rest of the ancient world.
QINGZHOU CITY, CHINA—Live Science reports that a heavily looted tomb located near the coast of the Gulf of Tonkin in southern China has yielded pieces from a board game, including a 14-face die made of animal tooth, 21 game pieces with numbers painted on them, and a broken tile that was part of the game board. The pieces are thought to belong to a game called “bo,” also known as “liubo.” Researchers are not sure how the game was played, in part because it has not been played for some 1,500 years. Five pits for grave goods had been placed beside the 2,300-year-old tomb, which dates to the Warring States Period and is thought to belong to aristocrats from the state of Qi. Looters had dug 26 shafts into the tomb’s burial mound. “The coffin chamber was almost completely dug out and robbed, suffering severe damage in the process,” the archaeologists wrote in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics. To read in-depth about Chinese archaeology, go to "The Tomb Raider Chronicles."