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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, April 07

Scientists Examine Neanderthal Y-Chromosome

STANFORD, CALIFORNIA—A team of researchers, including Fernando L. Mendez, G. David Poznik, and Carlos D. Bustamante of Stanford University, and Sergi Castellano of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, have examined DNA on the Y-chromosome of a Neanderthal male for the first time. According to a report in Science, DNA from this Neanderthal Y-chromosome, obtained from an individual who lived some 49,000 years ago at El Sidrón, Spain, was not passed on to modern humans when the two species interbred. (Modern Asians and Europeans have inherited one to three percent of their DNA from Neanderthals, but not on their Y-chromosomes.) The researchers found that the El Sidrón male had mutations in three immune genes that may have made it difficult for Neanderthal males to produce healthy male offspring with modern human females. To read more about what scientists are learning from Neanderthal DNA, go to "Neanderthal Genome Decoded."

Medieval Chess Piece Unearthed in England

WALLINGFORD, ENGLAND—A tiny chess piece that may have been part of a traveling set has been unearthed in the backyard at Wallingford Museum, located in southeast England. “It is one of only about 50 medieval chess pieces found in England and, at only 21.7 mm [about .8 of an inch] high, it is unique in being the smallest medieval Arabic chess piece known in the country,” museum curator Judy Dewey told The Oxford Times. The gaming piece, a bishop, is thought to have been carved from the tip of an antler in the twelfth or thirteenth century and is decorated with traditional roundels. The piece was found near Wallingford Priory, so the set may have been lost by a wealthy traveler who had been lodging there. “Wallingford had an important Royal Castle close by and occasionally visitors were housed in the Priory—even the monks may have played chess,” Dewey said. To read more about chess and chess pieces in medieval Britian, go to "Artifact."

Study Suggests Resources Limit Human Population Growth

STANFORD, CALIFORNIA—A new study of the populating of South America, led by biologist Elizabeth Hadly of Stanford University, likens hunter-gathers to an “invasive species.” Hadley and her team compiled radiocarbon dates from 1,147 sites in South America to track the spread of people throughout the continent, and identified two phases of colonization. The first took place between 14,000 and 5,500 years ago, when she says the population reached about 300,000. During this period, human populations experienced “boom-and-bust cycles” as megafauna and other plant and animal species went extinct. “If we use up our resources, we will decline,” Hadly told Reuters. The population reached about a million people between 5,500 and 2,000 years ago. According to Hadly, this exponential growth in population can be attributed to the establishment of large societies that allowed people to “conquer” the environment. “Most lived in modern Peru, Ecuador, and northern Chile, as well as a smaller but substantial population of hunter-gatherers in Patagonia,” she said. To read more about the peopling of the Americas, go to "America, in the Beginning."

Divers Visit Underwater Site Near Mamallapuram

CHENNAI, INDIA—Divers, geologists, and archaeologists from India’s National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) say they have found a wall, a flight of stairs, and stone blocks off the coast of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Mamallapuram, according to an article in The Times of India. The team was following up on eyewitness accounts from tourists at the ancient seaport, who reported seeing a row of granite boulders some 875 yards out when the shoreline receded during the 2004 tsunami. “Some of them are badly damaged due to strong underwater currents and swells. However, we could make out that they were part of a building complex,” said Rajiv Nigam, head of the NIO’s marine archaeology unit. The buildings may have been inundated during a tsunami in the tenth century A.D. To see a slideshow of remarkable images of India's extraordinary stepwells, go to "The Islamic Stepwells of Gujarat, India."

Wednesday, April 06

Skeleton Unearthed in Japan May Be 18th C. Italian Missionary

TOKYO, JAPAN—Akio Tanigawa of Waseda University has uncovered the remains of three people at the site of Krishitan Yashiki, or the Christian Mansion, a prison for Christian missionaries during the isolationist Edo Period (1603-1868). DNA analysis suggests that one set of remains may belong to Italian Jesuit priest Giovanni Battista Sidotti, who entered Japan illegally in 1708. Disguised as a samurai, he was captured and imprisoned until he died in 1714. “It is the first time we’ve found a near match of the bones of a foreign missionary,” Tanigawa told The Japan Times. For more on archaeology in Japan, go to "Khubilai Khan Fleet."

3-D Digital Model Made of Battle of Culloden Skull

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND—A digital 3-D model has been made of a skull thought to be the remains of a soldier killed at the Battle of Culloden in 1745. The skull has been part of a museum collection since the early nineteenth century, and is said to have been recovered from an area of the battlefield where the Highlanders wrapped their plaids around their left arms and stooped low to attack Loyalist forces. The top of the skull bears an entry wound from a musket shot; there is an exit wound at the back of the skull. “We cannot say whether the skull fragment belongs to a Jacobite or one of the Government troops but the injury to the top of the head could be interpreted in a number of different ways," said Head of Archaeological Services Derek Alexander of the National Trust for Scotland in a press release. "It could be from someone, head down, looking at the ground as they charge forward, or an individual who has already been wounded and is on their hands and knees." To read more about archaeology in the region, go to "Letter From Scotland: Living on the Edge."

Deer on Scottish Islands May Have Come From Distant Lands

CARDIFF, WALES—Evolutionary biologist David Stanton of Cardiff University and his colleagues analyzed mitochondrial DNA obtained from 74 red deer bones from archaeological sites on the Scottish mainland, Orkney, and the Inner and Outer Hebrides. It had been thought that the deer had been transported by humans from the Scottish mainland to the islands because even 22,000 years ago, when sea levels were at their lowest, the islands would have been too far away for the deer to reach them by swimming. Science reports that the genetic tests revealed 14 sets of variations, or haplotypes, in the Scottish deer, and ten of those haplotypes were new and found only on the outer Scottish islands. And, none of the deer from the Outer Hebrides carry the haplotypes of deer from the mainland or the islands of the Inner Hebrides. Stanton suggests that the deer from the Outer Hebrides and from Orkney may have been brought to Scotland by Neolithic people from an as-yet-unknown location. They may have even come from western continental Europe, where red deer have an overall similar genetic profile. To read more about the prehistory of Orkney, go to "Neolithic Europe's Remote Heart."

Tuesday, April 05

2,400-Year-Old Greek Curse Tablets Translated

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND—Live Science reports that five lead curse tablets, discovered in a grave in Athens, Greece, in 2003, have been studied by Jessica Lamont of John Hopkins University. The tablets, held at the Piraeus Museum, may have been placed in the young woman’s grave in order to deliver them to the gods of the underworld. Four of the tablets were engraved with well-written curses targeting different tavern keepers in Athens and the names of the chthonic gods. “It’s very rare that you get something so explicit and lengthy and beautifully written, of course in a very terrible way,” Lamont said. The fifth tablet was blank—the words of the curse were probably spoken over it. All of the tablets had been pierced with a nail and folded. Lamont explained that the tablets may have had nothing to do with the woman whose remains were also found in the grave. Her burial “would have been accessible, a good access point for someone to deposit these tablets underground and bury them,” she said. For more on archaeology in Greece, go to "Greece's Biggest Tomb," which was one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top 10 Discoveries of 2014.

Study Says Human Sacrifice Supported Social Hierarchy

AUKLAND, NEW ZEALAND—A team of researchers from the University of Aukland’s School of Psychology, the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, and Victoria University used computational evolutionary methods to analyze historical data from 93 Austronesian cultures organized into three main groups of high, moderate, and low levels of social stratification. Forty of the 93 cultures in the study practiced some form of ritualistic killing of humans—justified as a supernatural punishment—including burning, drowning, strangulation, bludgeoning, burial, cutting to pieces, crushing beneath a canoe, or rolling off the roof of a house followed by decapitation. The study found that cultures with the highest level of social stratification were most likely to practice human sacrifice, while more egalitarian societies were less likely to practice human sacrifice. “By using human sacrifice to punish taboo violations, demoralize the underclass, and instill fear of social elites, power elites were able to maintain and build social control,” Joseph Watts said in a press release. “What we found was that sacrifice was the driving force, making societies more likely to adopt high social status and less likely to revert to egalitarian social structure,” added team member Quentin Atkinson. To read about the tomb of a likely human sacrifice victim in Korea, go to "Mysterious Golden Sacrifice."

Bronze Incense Shovel Unearthed Near Sea of Galilee

MIGDAL, ISRAEL—A bronze incense shovel and a bronze jug were unearthed next to each other in a storehouse near a dock at the site of Magdala, a Jewish settlement located on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. The site is known for its ritual baths and a first-century synagogue decorated with mosaic floors. Carvings on the Magdala Stone, found in the synagogue’s main hall, depict the Second Temple of Jerusalem and a seven-branched menorah. The shovel also dates to the Second Temple period, and may have been used to rake or gather embers from incense burned in rituals or as a tool for daily tasks. “A similar incense shovel and a jug as those found here in Migdal were discovered by Yigael Yadin in a cache dating to the time of the Bar Kokhba uprising which was revealed in the Cave of the Letters in the Judean Desert. Incense shovels have also been found in the Galilee at Bethsaida, Taiyaba and in Wadi Hammam, and across the country, but all-in-all this is a very rare find,” archaeologist Arfan Najar said in a press release from the Israel Antiquities Authority. For more on archaeology in Israel, go to "Autumn of the Master Builder."