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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, April 17

Pictish Fort Unearthed on Scottish Sea Stack

ABERDEEN, SCOTLAND—A team of six archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen climbed Dunnicaer sea stack on the northeast coast of Scotland, where they uncovered traces of a Pictish fort, including a house, a fireplace, and ramparts. “It shows that people, for at least part of the year, were living on the sea stack which is quite remarkable. There were quite a lot of forts on the coastline and in Moray, control of the sea seems to be a big part of power to the Picts,” archaeologist Gordon Noble told The Press and Journal. The team ascended the sea stack with the help of professional climber Duncan Paterson. “I don’t think any of them have much experience of this kind of terrain, so it’s been a big challenge. Beating the tide was also a challenge, and then I set up a tension rope—some would call it a zip wire—to get them across the water and then they were roped up to climb the stack,” Paterson said. “Was this a precursor to Dunnottar Castle, or one of a series of Pictish forts along this coastline?” wondered Noble. He and his team may return to the site for further excavations. For another sea stack project, see "Scots on the Rocks."

More Evidence of Cannibalism Found in Gough’s Cave

LONDON, ENGLAND—Ancient human remains from Gough’s Cave, located in southwest England, exhibit signs of a sophisticated culture of butchering and carving of human remains, according to scientists from the Natural History Museum of London, University College London, and IPHES and the Universitat Rovira I Virgili in Spain. In 2011, scientists from the museum announced that the earliest-known skull cups had been found in Gough’s Cave. “We’ve identified a far greater degree of human modification than recorded in earlier research. We’ve found undoubting evidence for defleshing, disarticulation, human chewing, crushing of spongy bone, and the cracking of bones to extract marrow,” Silvia Bello of the Natural History Museum said in a press release. Radiocarbon dates show that the bones were deposited over a short period of time, possibly during seasonal occupations, nearly 15,000 years ago. Cannibalism may have been part of a mortuary practice that combined processing and consumption of the bodies with the ritual use of skull cups. “Further analysis along the lines used to study Gough’s Cave will help to establish whether the type of ritualistic cannibalism practiced there is a regional phenomenon, or a more widespread practice found throughout the Magdalenian world,” said Simon Parfitt of University College London. For more recent evidence of the practice, see "Colonial Cannibalism."

Mushrooms Were on the Upper Palaeolithic Menu

LEIPZIG, GERMANY—Analysis of dental calculus on 18,000-year-old teeth found in Spain’s El Mirón Cave indicates that Magdalenian hunters ate a variety of plant foods and mushrooms, in addition to meat from red deer and ibex. Robert Power of the Max Planck Research Group detected a diverse assemblage of microremains in the dental calculus using optical and scanning electron microscopy with energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy. “These types of microremains show that the individuals at El Mirón consumed a variety of plants from different environments, as well as other foods, including possibly bolete mushrooms,” he said in a press release. “This finding at El Mirón Cave could be the earliest indication of human mushroom use or consumption, which until this point has been unidentified in the Palaeolithic,” Power concluded. To read about a similar discovery, see "Bone Analysis Shows Gravettian People Ate Mammoth."

Were Footprints Left by Homo Erectus Hunters?

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA—Some 100 footprints near Ileret, Kenya, are thought to have been left 1.5 million years old by a hunting party made up of Homo erectus adults. “What we can say is that we have a number of individuals, probably males, that are moving across a lake shore in a way that is consistent with how carnivores move,” palaeoanthropologist Neil Roach of the American Museum of Natural History said at the annual meeting of the Paleoanthropology Society, reported in Nature. Some researchers have speculated that Homo erectus turned from scavenging to hunting to obtain more calories for their developing brains. But “hunting is a difficult thing to prove in human evolution,” Roach said. He and his team plan to study footprints left behind by subsistence hunters today in order to get a better idea of their patterns of movement for comparison. To read in-depth about the evolution of throwing, see "No Changeups on the Savannah."

More Headlines
Thursday, April 16

Sections of The Great Wall Found in Northwest China

YINCHUAN, CHINA—Nine sections of the Great Wall have been found along the border of northwest China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and Gansu Province. “Finally, we’re able to see the whole picture of the Qin Great Wall,” Zhou Xinghua, a former curator of the Museum of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region told China Daily. Six of the sections are on the southern bank of the Yellow River, and stretch between Nanchangtan Village in Ningxia and Jingyuan County in Gansu. The wall would have prevented invaders from crossing the river when it was frozen. The other three sections are in Jingyuan County. To read about a massive, ancient wall in what is now Russia, see "The Shah's Great Wall."

Imported Artifacts Unearthed at 1,000-Year-Old Alaska Site

BOULDER, COLORADO—Bronze and obsidian artifacts discovered in a dwelling at Alaska’s Rising Whale site bolster the idea that there had been a trading relationship between the New World and East Asia 1,000 years ago. One of the bronze artifacts, which may have been used as a buckle or fastener, still has a piece of leather attached to it. Preliminary radiocarbon dates indicate that it was made around A.D. 600. The second bronze artifact may have been used as a whistle. Bronze had not yet been developed in Alaska, so the items may have been obtained through trade. “We’re seeing the interactions, indirect as they are, with these so-called ‘high civilizations’ of China, Korea, or Yakutia,” Owen Mason of the University of Colorado told Live Science. The obsidian from the house originated in Russia’s Anadyr River Valley. Scholars think that the people who lived at the Rising Whale site may have been members of the “Birnirk” culture, a group of people who lived on both sides of the Bering Strait. To read more about archaeology in the region, see "Ice Age Infant Burial Discovered in Central Alaska."

WWII Aircraft Carrier Mapped With 3-D Sonar

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA—The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Navy, and private industry partners have confirmed the location and condition of the USS Independence, a light aircraft carrier that operated in the central and western Pacific from November 1943 through August 1945. The ship was later one of 90 vessels that served as a target fleet for the Bikini Atoll atomic bomb tests in 1946, when it was damaged by shock waves, heat, and radiation from two atomic blasts. Independence then returned to the United States, where it was used by the Navy to study decontamination until it was towed off the coast of California in 1951 and scuttled in 3,000 feet of water. “After 64 years on the seafloor, Independence sits on the bottom as if ready to launch its planes,” James Delgado, maritime heritage director for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, said in a press release. The survey of the ship determined that it is upright, slightly listing to starboard, and much of its flight deck is intact. There are gaping holes leading to the hangar decks that once housed the carrier’s aircraft. To read more about underwater archaeology, see "History's 10 Greatest Shipwrecks."

Crafting Stone-Age Tools Requires Complex Thought

EXETER, ENGLAND—Archaeology students at the University of Exeter learned to make stone tools in the Oldowan and Acheulean traditions over an 18-month period, in order to evaluate the cognitive control required to make them successfully. At the beginning, middle, and end of the experiment, they underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) scans of their brains while they watched videos and were asked questions about tool making. “For the first time, we’ve showed a relationship between the degree of prefrontal brain activity, the ability to make technological judgments, and success in actually making stone tools,” Dietrich Stout of Emory University said in a press release on Oldowan flakes, which date back 2.6 million years, are relatively easy to make, and the students were asked to detach five flakes from a flint core. Late Acheulean hand axes are about 500,000 years old and require the knapper to produce a tool with symmetrical edges from a lens-shaped core. The subjects were give a standardized porcelain core to work with for this task. The researchers, including Bruce Bradley of the University of Exeter, Thierry Chaminade of Aix-Marseille University, and Erin Hecht and Nada Khreisheh of Emory University, found that students who demonstrated greater skill at making tools were more accurate at predicting the correct strategy for making a hand ax while watching the instructional videos. “These data suggest that making an Acheulean hand ax is not simply a rote, auto pilot activity of the brain. It requires you to engage in some complicated thinking,” Stout said. He adds that the modern axes “weren’t up to the high standards of 500,000 years ago.” To read about one of the most significant Acheulean hand ax discoveries of recent times, see "Bon Voyage, Caveman."

Wednesday, April 15

Malnutrition Seen in Baby Teeth From Irish Famine Victims

BRADFORD, ENGLAND—Julia Beaumont of the University of Bradford and a team of scientists have analyzed the carbon and nitrogen isotopes in the teeth of children and adults who died during the 1845-52 Irish famine. Teeth, which begin to grow before birth, are formed in layers. Each layer of a tooth takes about four months to grow and can be linked to a specific period in a baby’s life. Higher nitrogen levels in bones and teeth are usually associated with good health and a high-protein diet, but the study showed that the babies who had higher nitrogen isotope levels at birth didn’t survive. In fact, older subjects had lower and more stable nitrogen isotope levels throughout early childhood. “At the period we studied, it’s likely that most babies were breastfed, but only some showed the spike in nitrogen isotope levels normally associated with it. Where pregnant and breastfeeding mothers are malnourished however, they can recycle their own tissues in order for the baby to grow and then to produce milk to feed it. We believe this produces higher nitrogen isotope levels and is what we’re seeing in the samples from the nineteenth-century cemeteries. Babies born to and breastfed by malnourished mothers do not receive all the nutrients they need, and this is possibly why these babies didn’t survive,” Beaumont said in a press release. To read about early Norse settlement of the island, see "The Vikings in Ireland."

Skeletons Could Shed Light on Indus Valley Civilization

HARYANA, INDIA—Four 5,000-year-old skeletons from the Harappan civilization have been recovered from an ancient cemetery near Rakhigarhi village in northern India. The well-preserved skeletons were discovered in sandy soil, and the joint team of scientists from Deccan College, the Haryana Archaeology Department, and Seoul National University in South Korea will attempt to collect DNA samples from the bones. “The skeletons of two adult males, a female, and a child have been found. With the help of forensic experts, we will try to reconstruct their DNA,” Nilesh Jadhav, co-director of the project, told The Tribune of India. The results could shed light on the identity of the Harappan people. To read about a related civilization in what is now Iran, see "The World In Between."

Oldest Stone Tools Unearthed in Kenya

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA—At the annual meeting of the Paleoanthropology Society, Sonia Harmand of Stony Brook University announced the discovery of 3.3 million-year-old tools at the site of Lomekwi 3. In 2011, her team was traveling west of Kenya’s Lake Turkana, near the area where a controversial human relative called Kenyanthropus platyops had been discovered, when they saw stone tools on the surface of the ground. Excavation uncovered nearly 20 anvils, cores, and flakes, including a flake that fits into its original core. “The artifacts were clearly knapped and not the result of accidental fracture of rocks,” Harmand said at the meeting, reported in Science. All of the artifacts, which have their own distinct style, were sealed in sediments that were dated using paleomagnetic techniques. Until now, 2.6-million-year-old Oldowan tools from the site of Gona in Ethiopia were the oldest tools on record. The tools from Lomekwi 3 are too old to have been made by modern humans, and may have been created by australopithecines or by Kenyanthropus. To read about stonetools used by our extinct cousins, see "Neanderthal Tool Time." 

Study Suggests Chins Evolved as Faces Shrank

IOWA CITY, IOWA—Scientists have debated for more than a century why modern humans are the only primates to sport chins. Young modern human children have nearly imperceptible chins, similar to Neanderthals, but they grow chins as they mature. Nathan Holton and colleagues at the University of Iowa measured the faces and crania of nearly 40 people, ranging in age from toddler to adult, and found that mechanical forces such as chewing do not produce enough resistance for new bone to be created in the lower jaw. “In short, we do not find any evidence that chins are tied to mechanical function and in some cases we find that chins are worse at resisting mechanical forces as we grow,” Holton said. Team member Robert Franciscus, an anthropologist, suggests that as modern humans formed increasingly cooperative groups, and were less likely to fight over territory and belongings, reduced levels of hormones such as testosterone resulted in noticeable changes in the male craniofacial region—as the face became smaller, the chin became a bony prominence as a matter of geometry. “What we’re arguing is that modern humans had an advantage at some point to have a well-connected social network, they can exchange information, and mates, more readily, there’s innovation, and for that to happen, males have to tolerate each other. There had to be more curiosity and inquisitiveness than aggression, and the evidence of that lies in facial architecture,” Franciscus explained. For more on the evolution of the face, see "Your Face: Punching Bag or Spandrel?"