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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, April 24

What Gave Modern Humans the Advantage?

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL--Scientists think that epigenetic differences between modern humans and our archaic cousins may have made the difference in our survival. Epigenetics deals with how genes are turned on and off without modfying the DNA sequence. Liran Carmel, Eran Meshorer, and David Gokhman of Hebrew University, working with scientists from Germany and Spain, reconstructed the Neanderthal and Denisovan epigenomes, and compared them with the epigenome of modern humans. Science Daily reports that they found that gene activity had changed only in modern humans during our most recent evolution. Many of those changes occurred in the area of brain development, and are linked to diseases. Other changes were observed in the immune and cardiovascular systems, but the digestive system remained relatively unchanged. 

Crimea’s Looted Heritage

ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA—The Art Newspaper reports that Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, has brought the crisis of illegal excavations of Greek, Scythian, and Sarmatian archaeological sites in Crimea to the attention of the Russian parliament. “Crimea and Ukraine have long been on Interpol lists next to Iraq and Iran due to the pillage of treasures on their territories,” he has written. Looting, known as “black archaeology,” and smuggling artifacts to the West are big business, fueled by the economic chaos in the region after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Archaeologist Valentina Mordvintseva of the Institute of Archaeology of the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences says that the situation has improved since then, but “as long as the public does not value cultural heritage, this problem won’t be eradicated….As for the changes that might come from Crimea [joining] Russia, it’s hard to say. Problems aren’t always solved by legislation.”

Sunken Steamer Located in San Francisco Bay

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA—The SS City of Chester sank on a foggy August 22, 1888, in San Francisco Bay when it was struck by Oceania, a ship carrying immigrants from Asia. Now its location has been rediscovered by a team conducting a multibeam sonar survey from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. A side-scan sonar survey confirmed that City of Chester was “sitting upright, shrouded in mud, 216 feet deep at the edge of a small undersea shoal.” Many of the passengers aboard The City of Chester were rescued after the accident by the Chinese crew of Oceanic. “Discoveries like this remind us that the waters off our shores are museums that speak to powerful events, in this case not only that tragic wreck, but to a time when racism and anger were set aside by the heroism of a crew who acted in the best traditions of the sea,” James Delgado, director of the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, told the Los Angeles Times

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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. 

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.