LONDON, ENGLAND—Science reports from the meeting of the European Society for the Study of Human Evolution that new dates have been obtained for Siberia’s Denisova Cave, where a tiny finger bone representing a girl from a new human species was discovered. At the time, the dates obtained from animal bones and artifacts from the cave ranged between 30,000 and 50,000 years ago. Geochronologist Tom Higham of the University of Oxford has re-dated the sequence using 20 samples of cut-marked bones and ornaments from the cave. Oxford archaeologist Katerina Douka reported that the finger bone was likely older than 48,000 to 50,000 years, the limit of radiocarbon dating. Nuclear and mitchondrial DNA from several Denisovan molars have also been analyzed by Viviane Slon and her colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. The nuclear DNA showed that the inhabitants of the cave were not closely related. Mutations in the mitochondrial DNA were used to estimate when the individuals lived. The oldest Denisovan died in the cave at least 110,000 years ago, and the girl whose pinky finger bone was discovered lived some 65,000 years later. “You can seriously see it’s a valid species,” commented Fred Spoor of University College London. For more, go to "Denisovan DNA."
BALTIMORE, MARYLAND—Early human ancestors started foraging for food on the ground some 400,000 years earlier than previously thought, according to a new study of the teeth of human ancestors and an array of animals from the Afar region of Ethiopia. The research team, led by Naomi E. Levin of Johns Hopkins University, analyzed the morphology of the teeth and their carbon isotopes in order to determine what kinds of foods the creatures were eating. The results for both human ancestors and a now-extinct species of baboon suggest that the switch from foods from trees and shrubs to grass-based foods, including the tissues of animals that ate grasses such as birds and insects, happened about 3.8 million years ago. “The results not only show an earlier start to grass-based food consumption among hominins and baboons but also indicate that form does not always precede function. In the earliest baboons, dietary shift toward grass occurred before its teeth were specialized for grazing,” Levin explained in a press release. The change in diet would have made human ancestors more resilient to habitat change, she added. For more on human ancestors, go to "Our Tangled Ancestry."
FRANKFURT, GERMANY—In 1992, archaeologists recovered the remains of two children in a single coffin under Frankfurt Cathedral. A new report on the discovery reveals that the children were approximately four years old at the time of death, which occurred between A.D. 700 and 730. One of the children had been dressed in a tunic and shawl in the style of Merovingian nobility, with gold, silver, bronze, and precious stone jewelry, while the other had been cremated in a bearskin, according to Scandinavian customs of the time. This child had a necklace resembling a Scandinavian amulet. The grave had been placed near a small church, and was still being honored some 100 years later, when a palace chapel was constructed and aligned with it. “We don’t know exactly why they were honored, that’s the real question, Egon Wamers, director of the Frankfurt Archaeological Museum, told The Local, Germany. For more, go to "Dark Age Necropolis Unearthed."
MASZKOWICE, POLAND—Beneath the remains of a Bronze Age settlement, a team from Jagiellonian University, led by Marcin S. Przybyla, has unearthed Poland’s oldest-known stone wall. “In the whole of Central Europe there are only a dozen sites dated so early with more or less well-preserved stone fortifications. At that time, the use of stone as a building material was typical of the Mediterranean areas. In the temperate zone of Europe, until the Middle Ages, fortifications were built with wood and clay,” Przybyla explained in Science & Scholarship in Poland. A figurine from the site resembles statuettes usually found in Mycenaean Greece and the northern Balkans and offers another link to Bronze Age civilizations of the Mediterranean. The structure, which has been dated to between 1750 and 1690 B.C., was built on the top of a hill that had been flattened and expanded. The sandstone walls of the fortress, thought to have been nearly nine feet tall based upon the measurements of fallen rocks, were held together with clay. A deep, narrow trench and a narrow gate were also part of the site’s defense system. To read more about the Bronze Age, go to "The Minoans of Crete."
BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND—An international team of anthropologists and earth scientists led by Sally Reynolds of Bournemouth University has made a model of the ancient landscape of the Olorgesailie region of the Kenyan Rift. “By reconstructing the topographic setting in the area and examining the trace nutrients in soils there now and interviewing local Maasai leaders about current animal grazing activities, we were able to build up a picture of animal movements around one million years ago,” Reynolds said in a press release. She and the team of researchers found that the topography provided limited routes for large animals to travel through the grazing areas, and high ground for human ancestors to watch them. The placement of butchered remains and stone tool sites on the landscape suggest that the early humans exploited these limited pathways to practice ambush hunting. “These were fearsome, aggressive animals. From my perspective that tells us that the hominins were organized, they were able to communicate a plan to each other. These are not the sort of animals that you can hunt alone,” she said on a video clip.
PALERMO, SICILY—The skeletons of two men thought to have been buried in the seventh-century A.D. have been unearthed by a team from the University of Palermo near the Temple of Concordia in Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples. The valley is known for its seven well-preserved Greek temples. “The find is important because it shows a human presence in the city during the post-classical age,” Valentina Caminneci, an archaeologist at Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples, told The Local, Italy. Further investigations could reveal if a Christian cemetery was placed in front of the temple after it was converted into a Christian basilica by the archbishop Gregory of Agrigento.
BURGAS, BULGARIA—A bronze medallion decorated with early Christian imagery has been found in the excavation of the sixth-century A.D. Burgos Fortress, located on Cape Foros in the Black Sea city of Burgas. On the obverse, a central cross covered with white enamel is surrounded by seven more crosses surrounded by yellow glass paste. On the reverse of the medallion, archaeologists have found traces of wood, indicating that it had been attached to a wooden object. “There is enough evidence that these kinds of medallions adorned boxes or wooden covers of liturgical books. That is why, at the present stage we assume that the medallion from Foros adorned the cover of a gospel book or a box used for keeping a liturgical item such as a book or a chalice,” the archaeological team from the Burgas Regional Museum of History said at a press conference reported in Archaeology in Bulgaria. The medallion resembles an altar decoration at the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. To read about another example of early Christian imagery, go to "Artifact: Late Roman Amulet."
CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA—Occupation patterns in prehistoric Australia are closely linked to climate trends, according to a study conducted by Alan Williams of Australia National University and Peter Veth of the University of Western Australia. They used radiocarbon dates from more than 1,000 prehistoric campfire sites to track Australia’s ancient population levels. “Demographic models suggest populations may have been quite high before the last ice age,” Veth told Science Network: Western Australia. They then compared these results with the climate change profiles from a recent study of Australia’s palaeoclimate conducted by the OZ-INTIMATE (Australasian INTegration of Ice core, Marine, and TErrestrial records) Project. They found that the population remained steady or perhaps even declined from 25,000 years ago, during the Last Glacial Maximum, when temperatures were about ten degrees cooler. “Then with the restructure in population and possibly lower carrying capacity for large portions of the continent that became more arid, population levels of demography may actually have become more negative,” he explained. When the wet season returned in the north some 13,000 years ago, campfire numbers began to grow again. For more on prehistoric Australia, go to "The Rock Art of Malarrak."
COLLOONEY, IRELAND—Heavy rains and winds in County Sligo toppled a beech tree and exposed the Christian burial of a teenage boy who lived during the early medieval period, sometime between A.D. 1030 and 1200. “The upper part of the skeleton was raised into the air trapped within the root system. The lower leg bones, however, remained intact in the ground. Effectively as the tree collapsed, it snapped the skeleton in two,” archaeologist Marion Down of Sligo-Leitrim Archaeological Services said in a statement reported in Discovery News. The teen once stood more than 5’ 10” tall, making him taller than average for the time. He had mild spinal joint disease, probably from a life of physical labor. The skeleton also showed evidence of two stab wounds. “Whether he died in battle or was killed during a personal dispute, we will never know for sure,” Dowd said. No other skeletons have been found in the area. To read about a medieval mass grave found in England, go to "Vengance on the Vikings."
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."