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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, January 06

New Dates May Push Back Possible Settlement of the Tibetan Plateau

INNSBRUCK, AUSTRIA—Live Science reports that a team of researchers led by geologist Michael Meyer of the University of Innsbruck obtained new dates for hand and footprints left in the mud of a hot spring at the high-altitude Chusang site in Tibet. The 19 prints were discovered in 1998, and initial studies suggested they were left some 20,000 years ago. Meyer and his colleagues used uranium-thorium dating to date the sediments, optically stimulated luminescence to date quartz crystals in the layer containing the prints, and radiocarbon dating of microscopic plant remains. The new tests suggest that the prints were made between 7,400 and 12,600 years ago—a date range that encompasses the results of genetic testing indicating that people were living on Tibet’s high central plateau at least 8,000 to 8,400 years ago. Meyer thinks that hunter-gatherers may have lived in the region year-round, since traveling to Chusang would have been a long and arduous trip. “There is a chance that there are older sites up here,” Meyer said. “I think we have to keep exploring.” For more, go to “England's Oldest Footprints.”

Thursday, January 05

Archaeologists Investigate Mounds in Burkina Faso

KRAKÓW, POLAND—Science & Scholarship in Poland reports that a team of Polish researchers has been investigating archaeological sites in northern Burkina Faso, an area inhabited by the Kurumba people for the past several hundred years. The researchers found flint tools on the surface of the ground that could range in age from 15,000 to 50,000 years old. “This is one of the oldest known traces of human presence in this country,” said Krzysztof Rak of Jagiellonian University. The team also examined the remains of a settlement known as Damfelenga Dangomde, which was abandoned in the late nineteenth century, when the Kurumba people moved to their current capital of Pobé-Mengao. The site is likely to have been inhabited before the arrival of the Kurumba. The team also identified a necropolis near the Damfelenga Dangomde tell that had been thought to be the remains of an ancient village. “The mounds of stone and earth that we have studied are approximately 1,300 years old,” Rak said. To read about another recent discovery in Burkina Faso, go to “World Roundup.”

Study Fails to Find Link in Brain and Tooth Size

WASHINGTON, D.C.—According to a report in The International Business Times, a recent study suggests that the sizes of human ancestor brains and teeth did not evolve together. Modern humans differ from other hominins in that they have large brains and small posterior teeth. It had been previously thought that as brain size increased, and hominins began making stone tools to process food, the size of their teeth decreased. Aida Gómez-Robles of George Washington University and her colleagues analyzed eight different hominin species, and found a relatively constant rate of change for tooth evolution, but different rates of brain evolution. “The fastest rate in the evolution of the brain occurred in the branch of the evolutionary tree predating the divergence of Homo erectus from the lineage leading to Neanderthals and modern humans,” she said. The study did not investigate the possible behavioral and ecological factors that may have influenced tooth and brain sizes. For more on hominin brain evolution, go to “Hungry Minds.”

Wednesday, January 04

New Thoughts on Egyptian Pot Burials

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—Science News reports that bioarchaeologist Ronika Power and Egyptologist Yann Tristant of Macquarie University reviewed studies of burials in ceramic pots at 46 archaeological sites, most of which were found near the Nile River and dated to between 3300 and 1650 B.C. It had been thought that such pot burials were a make-do effort for poor children, but the researchers found that more than half of the sites in the study contained adult remains in pot burials. And of 746 children’s burials in the study, 338 employed wooden coffins, while 329 used pots. The rest of the children were buried in baskets or limestone containers. One pot held an infant along with beads covered in gold foil. Other pots held offerings of gold, ivory, clothing, and ceramics. Power and Tristant suggest that rather than a necessity, a pot may have been chosen as a burial vessel to represent the womb, and symbolize rebirth into the afterlife. For more, go to “A Pharaoh’s Last Fleet.”

Scientists Look For New Sources of Ancient DNA

LEIPZIG, GERMANY—NPR reports that Matthias Meyer of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology led a team of scientists searching for new sources of ancient human DNA for study. Since the fossil record is limited, the researchers have begun to analyze the dirt from floors of caves to look for the dust of degraded bones. Those samples could yield tiny DNA fragments, once DNA from recent cave visitors has been excluded. These additional DNA samples could help scientists learn about the lives of Neanderthals over time, and how often they may have interbred with modern humans. “Can we understand what happened to them in the end?” asked Janet Kelso, also of the Max Planck Institute. “That may not be something you can tell from the sequence, but it would be interesting to try.” For more, go to “Early Man Cave.”

Colonial-Era Cannon Recovered in North Carolina

BRUNSWICK COUNTY, NORTH CAROLINA—According to a report in Port City Daily, a Colonial-era cannon was recovered from the Cape Fear River near the Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson State Historic Site by a dredging company. The 93-inch-long cannon has been wrapped in burlap and is under a light spray of water to keep it wet until conservation can begin at Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson. Site Manager Jim McKee said that the cannon has no visible markings, but it appears to have burst, perhaps as the result of a casting flaw. McKee added that he thinks the cannon was in use before 1756, and that it was found empty. For more on archaeology in the vicinity of North Carolina, go to “Medicine on the High Seas.”

900-Year-Old Murals Discovered in Northern China

SHANXI PROVINCE, CHINA—Xinhua News reports that a 900-year-old tomb adorned with murals has been found in northern China. The tomb was robbed, and lacks any artifacts or human remains, but archaeologists suspect that the tomb was constructed for aristocrats. The upper part of the murals, which are painted on a white background, depict acts of filial piety, according to Zhang Guanghui of the Shanxi Provincial Archaeological Research Institute. Images of people working and cooking make up the lower parts of the murals. Pictures of herdsmen and cattle were found at the gate of the tomb. Zhang added that all of the murals also have floral, animal, and cloud motifs. “We have seen several tombs with murals from the Jin Dynasty [A.D. 1115–1234], but such well-preserved ones are a rarity,” he said. For more, go to “China’s Legendary Flood.”