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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, April 23

Model Suggests Waves of Migration Out of Africa

TÜBINGEN, GERMANY—The first wave of modern human migration out of Africa took place some 130,000 years ago, according to a new study conducted by an international team of scientists led by Katerina Harvati of the University of Tübingen and the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment. They examined the geography of potential migration routes, genetic data, and cranial comparisons from modern humans from different parts of the world. The first wave of people probably traveled along the rim of the Indian Ocean to Australia and the west Pacific region. According to the model, a second dispersal to northern Eurasia occurred some 50,000 years ago. “Both lines of evidence—anatomical cranial comparisons as well as genetic data—support a multiple dispersal model,” Harvati told Science Daily

Little Genetic Variation Found Among Neanderthals

LEIPZIG, GERMANY—Analysis of mutations in three Neanderthal genomes by Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology suggests that these human relatives lived in smaller, more isolated groups, and were less genetically diverse, than modern humans. Pääbo and his team also note that skeleton genes within the Neanderthal lineage changed more than they would have expected. “For example, genes that affect the curvature of the spine have changed in Neanderthals. This fits with how their skeletons have changed quite drastically during their evolution,” he explained to Live Science. The modern human lineage has more changes in the genes involved with pigmentation and behavior, although it is not fully understood how the mutations affect behavior.  

New Technique Dates Rock Art in Australia’s Western Desert

CRAWLEY, AUSTRALIA—Rock art in Australia’s Western Desert has been dated for the first time with a new technique known as plasma oxidation, which prepares the samples for carbon dating. Jo McDonald and her team documented rock art sites in the eastern Pilbara at the request of traditional owners. When possible, they collected tiny samples of paint for testing. “We have discovered that this technique is a useful way of dating black paintings with charcoal in them,” McDonald told Phys.org. The paintings are between 2,000 and 3,000 years old. 

Backyard Bones May Be Remains of French Soldiers

HAMPSHIRE, ENGLAND—Workers digging a foundation for an addition on a home uncovered human bones that may be the remains of at least two French soldiers captured during the Napoleonic War. BBC News reports that the home is near Portchester Castle, where thousands of French prisoners of war were held in the early nineteenth century. Men were also held on prison ships in Portsmouth harbor, and there was a hospital in the town. 

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Tuesday, April 22

Chili Peppers First Cultivated in Central Mexico

DAVIS, CALIFORNIA—Chili peppers were first domesticated in central-east Mexico, according to plant scientist Paul Gepts of the University of California, Davis, who led a study of genetic, archaeological, linguistic, and archaeological evidence. Traces of the easily-transported chili pepper, or Capiscum annum, has been found in Romero Cave in eastern Mexico, and from Coxcatlán Cave, located further south. These two samples are between 7,000 and 9,000 years old. “By tracing back the ancestry of any domesticated plant, we can better understand the genetic evolution of that species and the origin of agriculture—a major step in human evolution in different regions of the world,” Gepts told Live Science.

Sediment Cores Reveal Lead Levels in Rome’s Water

LYON, FRANCE—Sediment cores taken from ancient Rome’s harbor basin at Portus and a canal that connected the port to the Tiber River suggest that lead levels in the city’s water supply varied over time from 14 to 105 times higher than the levels found in natural spring water. The different isotopes of lead in the sediments showed that some of it had occurred naturally in the river water, and some of it had come from lead that was imported and used in the city’s system of piping. Yet Francis Albarède of Claude Bernard University thinks that the amount of contamination was insufficient to cause problems in Roman society. “It’s marginal. You would start being worried about drinking that water all your life. Even though they probably did not get degenerate, as some people say, or even get more violent, lead pollution might have been something to be concerned about,” he told The Guardian

Robotic Vehicle Revisits Wrecks in Gulf of Mexico

GALVESTON, TEXAS—A robotic vehicle is transmitting images of three early nineteenth-century shipwrecks in the Gulf of Mexico to scientists at Texas A&M University. The largest of the three ships was armed with cannon and may have been a privateer that had taken control of the other two vessels. The presence of a chronometer on one of the wrecks suggests that no one escaped the sinking vessel alive, since sailors leaving the ship would have taken the valuable piece of equipment with them. The researchers have also spotted a telescope. “Right here, with the glass lenses broken out of it, probably because of pressure when the ship sank,” Steve Gittings of National Marine Sanctuaries explained to KHOU. “It’s hard to say what happened. All three ships are certainly within visual sight of one another. It’s entirely likely that they all could’ve gone down in the same storm,” added marine archaeologist Kim Faulk. To read more about the project, see ARCHAEOLOGY's feature article "All Hands on Deck."

Two Ancient Egyptian Tombs Found at Oxyrhynchus

MINYA, EGYPT—Ahram Online reports that two tombs dating to the 26th Dynasty have been unearthed in the ancient city of Oxyrhynchus by a Spanish-Egyptian team of archaeologists. The first tomb, which contained a bronze inkwell and two small bamboo pens, belonged to a scribe whose mummy is well preserved. Coins and mummified fish were also recovered. Oxyrhynchus, Greek for “sharp-nosed fish,” is known for the papyrus texts dating from about 250 B.C. to A.D. 700 that were first discovered there in the late nineteenth century.

Monday, April 21

New Thoughts on Animal Domestication

ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI—Herders dating back to the Neolithic period did not isolate their domesticated charges from wild animals, according to Fiona Marshall of Washington University in St. Louis, Keith Dobney of the University of Aberdeen, Tim Denham of the Australian National University, and José Capriles of the Universidad de Tarapacá. They reviewed recent research on the domestication of large herbivores in different places and at different times. “Our findings show little control of breeding, particularly of domestic females, and indicate long-term gene flow, or interbreeding, between managed and wild animal populations,” Marshall told Science Daily. Such contact with wild animals may have been accidental or intentional, in order to produce stronger, faster animals better suited to the environment. “The boundaries between wild and domesticated animals were much more blurred for much longer than we had realized,” she added. 

Colonial Road Construction Investigated in Williamsburg

WILLIAMSBURG, VIRGINIA—When the capital of colonial Virginia was moved from Jamestown to Williamsburg in 1699, Duke of Gloucester Street, the main thoroughfare through the town, was designed to reflect the power and order of the British crown. The plan required, however, the long, straight street be constructed over ravines and gullies that had to be filled in and drained. “The most heroic work was probably done early in the century. But this was a very long campaign that started off with public projects and ended with private efforts,” Edward Chappell, director of Colonial Williamsburg’s department of architectural and archaeological research, told The Daily Press

War of 1812 Site Excavated in Baltimore

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND—The Baltimore Sun reports that an excavation in Patterson Park by the nonprofit group Baltimore Heritage has uncovered a wall that may have been part of Jacob Laudenslager’s butcher shop during the War of 1812. The butcher shop was located close to the site of the Patterson Park Pagoda, built on a strategic hill with a view of the city. Thousands of Maryland militiamen camped on the property, and built earthworks that helped repel the British in the Battle of Baltimore. Volunteers have helped the recovery of bricks, mortar, glass, nails, pottery, and a gunflint. 

England’s Wark Castle Was Larger Than Thought

NORTHUMBERLAND, ENGLAND—Excavations have shown that Wark Castle, captured by the Scottish King James IV in 1513, one month before the Battle of Flodden, was twice as large as had been thought. “This helps us to understand why the castle was considered to be so important,” Chris Burgess, Flodden 1513 archaeology manager, told The Journal. After his victory at Flodden, the English King Henry VIII turned the castle, which is located on England’s side of the boundary between the two countries, into an artillery fortification and used it to prevent the Scots from crossing the River Tweed.