Archaeology Magazine

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, December 07

New Thoughts on Neolithic Staple Crops

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—Researchers from the University of the Basque Country and the University of Copenhagen have analyzed plant remains collected from archaeological sites in southwest Asia, according to a report in the International Business Times. They found that between 11,600 and 10,700 years ago, legumes, fruits, and nuts were plentiful in the diets of people living in Turkey, Iran, and Iraq, while cereals such as wheat and barley were the preferred foods in Jordan, Syria, Palestine, and Israel. The study suggests that cereals were domesticated between 10,700 and 10,200 years ago in the southern Levant, where they were popular, but not domesticated in the eastern Fertile Crescent for another 400 to 1,000 years. “It was surprising to discover that despite being considered very important, and despite their dominant role in our agriculture, domesticated cereals might not have been so important in Neolithic times, in many regions,” said archaeobotanist Amaia Arranz Otaegui. This suggests that examining the domestication of lentils, beans, and peas could help researchers understand the growth of agriculture in Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. For more on archaeology in the area, go to “Mystery Buildings at Petra.”

Transatlantic Slave Trade Studied With DNA

RUPERT’S VALLEY, SAINT HELENA—Nature reports that Hannes Schroeder of the University of Copenhagen and his colleagues are studying the transatlantic slave trade by sequencing the genomes of people buried in slave cemeteries. One of the sites in the study is the African Graveyard on the island of Saint Helena, located in the South Atlantic Ocean. Between 1840 and the late 1860s, tens of thousands of people on board slave ships captured by the British Navy were dropped off on the island. Many of the survivors were relocated, but as many as 10,000 died on the island and were buried in the African Graveyard. Schroeder and his team collected DNA from the teeth of 63 individuals whose remains were recovered in a construction project, and then sequenced partial genomes of 20 of the samples. The results, when compared to DNA samples from modern African ethnic groups, suggest that the island’s refugees came from diverse populations in West and Central Africa. As the genomes of more living people in sub-Saharan Africa are sequenced, Schroeder and his team should find better matches. They are also analyzing the geochemistry of the teeth for information about where people spent their childhoods, and the modifications made to the teeth for clues to possible cultural ties. For more, go to “Tracing Slave Origins.”

Ancient Imperial Sacrifices Unearthed in China

SHAANXI PROVINCE, CHINA—A sacrificial site that may have been used by the emperors of the Qin (221–206 B.C.) and Western Han (206 B.C.–A.D. 24) dynasties has been excavated in Fengxiang, some nine miles southeast of the ancient capital, according to a report in China Daily. The excavation team recovered more than 2,000 artifacts, including jade objects, tiles, bronze ornaments, chariots, and the remains of horses at the site, which has been known as Yongshan Blood Pool since antiquity because of the livestock that was thought to have been slaughtered and buried there. “The excavation focused on a rammed-earth platform and sacrificial pits, two site ruins with different characters, and it is the first time we have found such imperial sacrificial sites, which are identical with ancient records,” said researcher Tian Yaqi of the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology. For more, go to “China’s Legendary Flood.”

Genetic Study Reveals High-Altitude Adaptation in Dogs

SHANGHAI, CHINA—According to a report in Science Magazine, geneticist Zhen Wang of the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences and his colleagues examined DNA samples taken from China’s highland and lowland gray wolves, Tibetan mastiffs, Chinese lowland village dogs, and a golden jackal. The study suggests that lowland dogs traveled to the Tibetan Plateau with people about 24,000 years ago, where they interbred with the Tibetan gray wolves and acquired a gene variant that regulates the production of hemoglobin in the blood. This gene is key to surviving with the limited supply of oxygen at high altitude. People are thought to have acquired a variant of this same gene from the Denisovans. “It’s surprising and provocative that this [interbreeding] strategy has been employed by both species,” commented molecular biologist Frank Lee of the University of Pennsylvania. To read in-depth about dogs and archaeology, go to “More Than Man's Best Friend.”


More Headlines
Tuesday, December 06

Human Remains Uncovered at Neolithic Site in Wales

ANGLESEY, WALES—The Daily Post reports that human remains have been found at Llanfaethlu, a Neolithic site located on an island off the northwest coast of Wales. These include several teeth, which will help scientists learn more about the area's first farmers. The researchers, from CR Archaeology, also uncovered a fourth early Neolithic house at the site, in addition to decorated pottery dating to the middle Neolithic period, flint and stone tools, and flakes of rock crystal. Much of the stone is thought to have been imported from Ireland and England’s Peak District. For more go to “Letter from Wales: Hillforts of the Iron Age.”

Iron Age Remains from Orkney Analyzed

ORKNEY, SCOTLAND—BBC News reports that researchers from the University of the Highlands and Islands have analyzed a human jaw containing two worn teeth that was discovered earlier this year in a broch, or fortified roundhouse, at a site known as The Cairns. The jaw had been placed in a whalebone vertebra that had been shaped into a vessel and placed near the antlers of a red deer. The analysis indicates that the man had been at least 50 years old at the time of his death, which occurred sometime between A.D. 120 and 240. Bone had grown over the sockets of his missing teeth. The results of isotopic studies of human remains from this period usually indicate little fish in the diet, even in coastal areas, but this man had eaten a diet rich in fish. Site director Martin Carruthers suggests that the man may have been an important person whose death led to the special burial and the abandonment of the broch. For more on archaeology in Orkney, go to “Neolithic Europe's Remote Heart.”

Students Investigate Ireland’s “Deserted Village”

DOOAGH, IRELAND—Irish Central reports that students from the Achill Archaeological Field School have been investigating a remote nineteenth-century village of around 40 houses located near Keem Bay, on the western tip of Achill Island. The people who lived in the village grew potatoes and perhaps oats and raised cattle. Their single-room houses were built of drystone walls more than three feet thick, and had rounded corners and a single door facing the bay. Central hearths were placed on the earthen floors. Smoke from peat fires would have traveled out the door and through the thatched roofs. The larger of the houses excavated by the team measured about 23 feet long by 10 feet wide, and may have also been a winter home for cattle, since it had a stone-lined drain near the door. The students also uncovered pieces of fine, decorated earthenware from English potteries, three glass beads that may have been part of a rosary, and lumps of amethyst from a nearby quarry that were sold to tourists drawn by the Protestant Achill Mission, which was founded in 1831. The village is thought to have been abandoned during the Great Famine of the 1840s. For more on archaeology in Ireland, go to “Samhain Revival.”

Industrial Pollution in the Ancient World

WATERLOO, CANADA—CBC News reports that a dry riverbed in the Wadi Faynan region of southern Jordan has yielded evidence of pollution caused by copper smelting some 7,000 years ago. At the time, according to Russell Adams of the University of Waterloo, people were experimenting with heating charcoal and copper ore in pottery vessels over a fire. By 2600 B.C., copper was being mined and smelted in furnaces on a large scale. Adams thinks the waste materials produced by thousands of years of smelting copper, including zinc, lead, arsenic, and thallium, were probably absorbed by plants and consumed by animals and people, to the detriment of their health. And, in fact, high levels of copper and lead have been found in human bones dating back to the Roman period. Adams and his colleagues are continuing to study the extent of the pollution as metal production expanded in the Wadi Faynan region. For more on ancient pollution, go to “The Environmental Cost of Empire.”

Evidence Suggests Paleolithic Diet Included Plenty of Plants

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—New Scientist reports that remnants of edible plants dating back 780,000 years have been found at the Gesher Benot Ya’aqov site in northern Israel. Evidence of more than 50 different kinds of plants was preserved in the waterlogged site, along with evidence of occupation, probably by Homo erectus. The plant remains suggest that, in addition to animal foods, Paleolithic human ancestors ate a wide variety of seasonal nuts, fruits, seeds, leaves, stems, roots, and tubers, which were collected from plants, trees, and shrubs. Gesher Benot Ya’aqov is also known for its early evidence of the use of fire by human ancestors. Naama Goren-Inbar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem explained that roasting the region’s plants would have made more of them edible. “The modern human diet is clearly restricted when compared to the [early] hominin diet or even to the early farmers’ diet,” said Goren-Inbar. For more, go to “Evolve and Catch Fire.”

Monday, December 05

Bronze-Age Bone Objects Discovered in Cremated Remains

DOUGLAS, ISLE OF MAN—Isle of Man News reports that Michelle Gamble of the Manx Museum discovered a collection of small bone objects while reassessing a box of cremated human remains excavated from a cist tomb in 1947. The stone-lined grave contained 4,000-year-old burned bone fragments, two flint tools, and two pots. The bones are thought to have come from four skeletons mixed together, including two adults, one of which was male, an adolescent, and an infant. Gamble explained that the bone objects were burned as well and mixed in with the cremated human remains. One of the objects was a bone pommel for a bronze knife—the first to be found on the Isle of Man. The other objects include a bone point or pin that may have been attached to clothing or a head covering. Gamble and her team are still examining what may be bone beads and worked bone strips. The bone items may have been worn by the dead, or placed on the funeral pyre by the mourners. The researchers have not been able to determine whether all four burials took place at the same time. For more, go to “Artifact: Bronze Age Dagger.”

Evidence of Malaria Parasites Found in Ancient Roman Teeth

HAMILTON, CANADA—The International Business Times reports that genetic evidence for the presence of malaria in the ancient world has been found in human teeth. Historical sources describe fevers in ancient Greece and Rome, but the specific disease that caused them has been unknown. A team of researchers led by geneticist Hendrik Poinar of McMaster University’s Ancient DNA Center examined mitochondrial DNA obtained from the teeth of 58 adults and ten children who had been buried in three different cemeteries in Italy between the first and third centuries A.D. They found genetic evidence of Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite transmitted by mosquitoes that causes malaria, in teeth from two individuals. Plasmodium falciparum is the most common species of malaria parasite that infects people in sub-Saharan Africa—and the most deadly. Scholars now want to know how widespread the parasite was in the ancient world. The new evidence also provides scientists with more information about how the disease has evolved. For more, go to “Vikings, Worms, and Emphysema.”

Island Monastery May Be Britain’s First

SOMERSET, ENGLAND—BBC News reports that radiocarbon dating of human remains unearthed earlier this year at Beckery Chapel revealed that they date to the fifth or early sixth century A.D. “It’s the earliest archaeological evidence we’ve got for monasticism,” said Richard Brunning of the South West Heritage Trust. The wattle-and daub monastery buildings stood on a small island near the future site of Glastonbury Abbey, which dates to the seventh century. In the 1960s, an excavation at Beckery Chapel unearthed 50 to 60 skeletons. Most of the burials contained the remains of adult males, but the bones of two young men, perhaps novice monks, and a woman’s skeleton, thought to have been a visitor, were also found. Further analysis of the bones could reveal whether the monks were locals, or whether they traveled to region to join the monastery. Burials at the cemetery are thought to have stopped in the early ninth century, when the Vikings attacked southwest England. For more, go to “Legends of Glastonbury Abbey.”