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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, October 08

First Ancient African DNA Sequenced

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—Science reports that the first prehistoric genome from Africa has been sequenced. The DNA was obtained from the inner ear bones of a 4,500-year-old skeleton discovered in Mota Cave by John and Kathryn Arthur of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and Venture College's Matthew Curtis. Located in the highlands of Ethiopia, Mota Cave’s cool temperatures helped to preserve the hunter-gatherer’s rare genetic material. Andrea Manica and Marcos Gallego Llorente of the University of Cambridge found that the man, who has been dubbed “Mota,” had brown eyes, dark skin, and three gene variants associated with living at high altitudes. Mota’s genome was compared with samples from 40 populations in Africa and 81 populations in Europe and Asia. The team found that Mota was most closely related to the Ari, a group that still lives in the Ethiopian highlands. But the DNA that the Ari and many other ethnic groups carry and that Mota lacks suggests that the descendants of Middle Eastern farmers migrated deep into Africa between 3,000 and 3,500 years ago and mixed with the local populations. (Middle Eastern grains from this time period have been found in Africa.) “It must have been lots of people coming in or maybe they had new crops that were very successful,” Manica explained. To read about an excavation in Sudan, go to "The Cult of Amun."

Did Neanderthals Bury Their Dead With Flowers?

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND—Graeme Barker of the University of Cambridge and Marta Fiacconi and Chris Hunt of Liverpool John Moores University have studied the pollen in Iraq’s Shanidar Cave. In the 1950s, French scientist Josette Leroi-Gourhan detected pollen in a 60,000-year-old Neanderthal grave in the cave and concluded that the Neanderthals had buried the flowers, known to have medicinal qualities, with the dead. The new research suggests that pollen naturally accumulates in Shanidar Cave in clumps, similar to those found by Leroi-Gourhan, through a combination of wind and insect activity. “This might seem to be the end of a lovely story, but since Leroi-Gourhan’s work researchers have learned much more about the Neanderthals. It is known that some of our ancestors interbred with Neanderthals because their DNA is present in the modern human genome. Archaeologists have discovered that some Neanderthals seem to have used personal ornaments—a sort of prehistoric ‘bling.’ We have been excavating at Shanidar with our colleagues from the Kurdistan Antiquities Service this autumn and the project will be announcing new findings once the scientific work is completed. The story is not over!” Hunt announced in For more, go to "Should We Clone Neanderthals?"

“Princely Grave” Unearthed in Czech Republic

NEZABYLICE, CZECH REPUBLIC—Archaeologists from Poland’s University of Rzeszów have uncovered the 2,000-year-old stone-lined grave of a young man in a cemetery discovered in 2010 by metal detectorists conducting an illegal search. The young man, thought to have been a member of the Marcomanni aristocracy, had been wearing a leather belt with a buckle, and buried in a wooden coffin that may have been a hollowed tree trunk. The Germanic Marcomanni eventually had political and trade relationships with Rome. “Evidence of these contacts and the formation of elites in barbarian societies are the rich tombs with objects from the areas of the Empire,” head of excavations Agnieszka Půlpánová-Reszczyńska told Science & Scholarship in Poland. Two vessels, one of clay and one of bronze, were found at the young man’s head. Similar tombs have also contained bronze vessels at the foot of the dead, but this one may have been robbed, since the foot of the tomb was empty and the stones around it were more loosely arranged. Geophysical surveys of the area suggest that the team will find additional Marcomanni tombs. To read about Rome's rise to power, go to "Rome's Imperial Port."

DNA Sequenced for New Zealand’s First Dog

DUNEDIN, NEW ZEALAND—Karen Greig of the University of Otago has sequenced the entire mitochondrial genome of the kurī, a now-extinct small dog whose remains have been recovered from Wairau Bar, one of New Zealand’s earliest and most important Polynesian sites. The samples of mitochondrial DNA were obtained from the teeth of 14 dogs that were found in an oven feature at the site used sometime between A.D. 1320 and 1350. The tests revealed that the animals came from five distinct maternal lineages. “This represents quite limited genetic diversity, which either suggests that the founding kurī population may have only been a few dogs or that the arriving dogs were closely related,” Greig said in a press release. The new information could help scientists determine where the breed originated. These dogs are genetically most similar to modern dogs from Indonesia. For more on the archaeology of dogs, go to "More Than Man's Best Friend."

Wednesday, October 07

Nineteenth-Century Chinese Warship Excavated

BEIJING, CHINA—Underwater archaeologists have returned to the Yellow Sea and the wreckage of the Zhiyuan, a Chinese warship of the Beiyang Fleet that was sunk in 1894 by the Japanese navy during the first Sino-Japanese War. The team recovered an armor-piercing shell and a porthole, in addition to the remains of seven of the more than 250 people, including the captain, Deng Shichang, thought to have died on board the ship. More than 100 other artifacts have been recovered, including a second china plate bearing the ship’s name. Other items on board the ship have helped to confirm the identification. “The machine gun’s data plate indicates its date of production, model and manufacturer. And all of this information coincides with the historical record of the Zhiyuan’s arms,” Chen Yue, a historian of the Navy History Study Society, told The People’s Daily Online. To read more about nautical archaeology, go to "History's 10 Greatest Wrecks."

Experiential Archaeology Class Recreates Ancient Ceramics

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND—Johns Hopkins University has released Mysteries of the Kylix, a film that follows 13 undergraduate students who worked with a conservator and two potters to recreate the red-figure pottery drinking bowls crafted by Greek artisans between the sixth and fourth centuries B.C. The students practiced throwing pots, decorated them with images and slip, and fired the clay in a kiln that they constructed. They then examined their pottery under a portable x-ray fluorescence instrument. “The idea is to be thoughtful at every stage. To look at clay, make shapes, to choose images and paint, to go through the fire and kiln process, and to consider the final product. This leads to a deeper understanding of both the art and the object, because when you go through the process, you get a visceral sense of how things got there,” Sanchita Balachandran, curator/conservator of the Johns Hopkins University Archaeological Museum, said in a press release. To read more about experimental archaeology, go to "The Neolithic Toolkit."

New Thoughts on Human & Chimpanzee Locomotion

STONY BROOK, NEW YORK—Modern humans and chimpanzees use their upper bodies in similar ways while walking, according to a study led by researchers from Stony Brook University. It had been thought that while walking on two legs, the chimpanzee torso—the area of the ribcage, belly, and pelvis—remained rigid. Humans, on the other hand, have flexible torsos that can rotate in the opposite direction of the lower body while walking. Using high-speed cameras, the team recorded chimps and humans walking and studied those movements with 3-D kinematic analyses and computer-generated comparisons. “During walking, we actually observed as much rotation within the torsos of chimpanzees as in humans. This means that the widely accepted assumptions in the scientific community about how the chimpanzee torso works based on the skeleton alone are incorrect. Our results also point to the notion that a limitation to upright walking that we thought affected Lucy and other early human ancestors probably was not a limitation at all,” Nathan Thompson said in a press release. So Lucy, or Australopithecus afarensis, may have had a torso that functioned much like that of a modern human. To read about the evolution of the throwing motion, go to "No Changeups on the Savannah."

Tuesday, October 06

World War II Spitfire Wreckage Excavated

CAMBRIDGESHIRE, ENGLAND—A team made up of researchers from Oxford Archaeology East, the Defense Archaeology Group, Operation Nightingale, and Historic England is recovering a World War II-era aircraft that crashed into what is now the Great Fen Nature Reserve. Pilot Officer Harold Edwin Penketh was killed in 1940 when the Spitfire X4593 crashed during a training flight. According to a report in Cambridge News, witnesses said the aircraft broke formation with two other planes and went into a dive. It seemed to make a partial recovery at about 2,000 feet before reentering the dive and hitting the ground. It is thought that the oxygen system may have failed, causing Penketh to lose consciousness, since he did not attempt to use his parachute. So far, the team has found oxygen tubes, ammunition, and fragments of aluminum. Major components of the plane, including the engine, are expected to be recovered as well. To read more, go to "The Archaeology of World War II."

Neolithic Earthwork Uncovered in England

  OXFORDSHIRE, ENGLAND—A Neolithic earthwork consisting of three roughly concentric ditches enclosing an area of high ground overlooking the valley of the River Thame has been discovered by archaeologists from Oxford Archaeology and Cotswold Archaeology. Called a causewayed enclosure, such structures were made with short ditches and banks of earth separated by areas of undug ground, and are the earliest-known kinds of enclosures of open spaces. A small henge monument and a smaller ring-ditch were added later in the Neolithic period. This causewayed enclosure is thought to have been a place where people gathered periodically for rituals and other activities. To read about more newly discovered Neolithic sites, go to "Under Stonehenge." 

Homo naledi May Have Been Able to Walk, Climb, and Use Tools

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA—A study of the Homo naledi foot and hand suggests that this early human relative, discovered by the Rising Star Expedition team in a cave in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, may have been able to climb trees, walk upright, and manipulate tools. Based upon the examination of more than 100 foot bones, including a well-preserved adult right foot, William Harcourt-Smith of the University of the Witwatersrand and colleagues say that the H. naledi foot shares many characteristics with the modern human foot, making H. naledi capable of standing and walking. But its toe bones are curved, indicating that H. naledi could also climb well. In addition, Tracey Kivell and colleagues studied some 150 H. naledi hand bones, including a nearly complete adult right hand. The structure of the wrist and thumb suggest that, like Neanderthals and modern humans, H. naledi had a powerful grasp and could have manipulated stone tools. Its finger bones, however, are curved and may have also been good for climbing trees. “The tool-using features of the H. naledi hand in combination with its small brain size has interesting implications for what cognitive requirements might be needed to make and use tools, and, depending on the age of these fossils, who might have made the stone tools that we find in South Africa,” Kivell said in a press release.  For more on recent discoveries related to human evolution, go to "Our Tangled Ancestry."