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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, November 21

Genetic Studies Investigate Maize Domestication

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—Science reports that two teams of scientists examined ancient cobs from Mexico for clues to the transformation of a grass called teosinte into domesticated maize. Jean Philippe Vielle-Calzada of Mexico’s National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity and his colleagues returned to the caves in Tehuacán Valley where tiny maize cobs were found in the 1960s. They recovered several 5,000-year-old cobs, reconstructed more than 35 percent of the ancient maize genome, and identified eight genes for key traits that indicate the plant was partially domesticated. It had cobs on branches for an easier harvest, and starchier, sweeter kernels—but they were covered in a hard sheath, like teosinte. Meanwhile, a team led by Nathan Wales of the University of Copenhagen analyzed a 5,300-year-old cob from a Tehuacán Valley cave that had been in a museum collection. They were able to sequence about 20 percent of the cob’s genome. These kernels are thought to have lacked a hard seed coat, which made them simpler to eat, but they may have fallen from the cob very easily, perhaps like the kernels of a wild plant, making them difficult to harvest. “I’m really amazed to see how convergent the results are,” Vielle-Calzada said. For more, go to “How Grass Became Maize.”

Segments of Roman Road Found in Ancient Dalmatia

WARSAW, POLAND—Science & Scholarship in Poland reports that archaeologists have found previously unknown sections of Roman road in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in what was the Roman province of Dalmatia. The team of scientists, from the University of Warsaw and the University of Mostar, is conducting field surveys in heavily farmed areas, and analyzing aerial and satellite images, in order to locate and verify archaeological sites and enter them into a new database. “This is the first application of modern, non-destructive archaeological methods in the area,” said Tomasz Dziurdzik of the University of Warsaw. The researchers confirmed the position of 34 archaeological sites, including a Roman fort, a settlement, and a cemetery dating to the first and second centuries A.D. They also learned that the Roman soldiers who settled in the region when they left the army usually built their homes on the edges of river valleys and close to the network of roads. For more, go to “Slime Molds and Roman Roads.”

Rock Art Recorded in Jordan’s Black Desert

LEIDEN, NETHERLANDS—Live Science reports that researchers from the Jebel Qurma Archaeological Landscape Project are recording thousands of inscriptions and petroglyphs in the Jebel Qurma region of Jordan’s Black Desert. Peter Akkermans of Leiden University explained that the inscriptions were written in a script known as Safaitic some 2,000 years ago by the people of Jebel Qurma, who are thought to have been nomads. “I am on the lookout for the Nabataeans,” reads one inscription. (The Nabataeans inhabited Jordan’s ancient rock-cut city of Petra.) Analysis of charcoal dating to the third century A.D. suggests that it came from several types of trees that needed water year-round. The images of lions, gazelles, horses, and large birds (possibly ostriches) also suggest that the region supported a wide range of life in the past. Akkermans and his team plan to retrieve ancient pollen samples to learn more about the environment. For more, go to “Mystery Buildings at Petra.”

Early Indus Valley Farmers Grew Rice

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—It had been thought that domesticated rice was introduced to India and Pakistan from China in 2000 B.C., but The Telegraph India reports that farmers in the Indus civilization cultivated rice as much as 430 years earlier. Researchers from Banaras Hindu University and the University of Cambridge have found a progressive increase in the proportion of domestic rice, and a decrease in wild rice, between 2430 and 2140 B.C. at archaeological sites in northwest India. The study also suggests that early Indus farmers grew a diverse range of crops, such as rice, millet, and beans during the summer, and wheat, barley, and pulses during the winter, in order to take advantage of summer and winter rains. “Until now, many had argued that the Indus people had not routinely cultivated rice,” said Ravindra Nath Singh of Banaras Hindu University. “Our findings suggest that rice domestication had already occurred in South Asia before the arrival of Oryza [sativa] japonica [the Chinese variety].” For more, go to “Letter from India: Living Heritage at Risk.”

Friday, November 18

46,000-Year-Old Bone Ornament Found in Australia

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA—New Scientist reports that a piece of bone jewelry dated to more than 46,000 years ago has been discovered in a rock shelter in the Kimberley region of Western Australia by Sue O’Connor of Australian National University. Microscopic analysis, conducted by her colleague Michelle Langley, revealed that the pointed kangaroo leg bone bears traces of red ochre on its ends and scrape marks made by stone tools. The ornament was probably worn through the nasal septum. “I’ve met Indigenous Australians who remember their granddads wearing nose bones for special occasions,” said Langley. Depending upon the group, nose bones may have been worn by everyone, or may have been limited to elders. Langley explained that before the nose bone was found, it had been thought that the oldest bone tools and ornaments in Australia were only about 20,000 years old. Some scholars had suggested that bone-tool technology had been lost on the journey from Africa some 60,000 years ago. “This shows that the first people in Australia were just as capable as those everywhere else of complex actions,” commented Ian Lilley of the University of Queensland. To read about early rock art in Australia, go to "The Rock Art of Malarrak."

New Scan Spots Dozens of Mummified Hatchling Crocodiles

LEIDEN, NETHERLANDS—A scan in the 1990s showed that a nearly ten-foot-long crocodile mummy housed at the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden since 1828 contains the remains of two juvenile crocodiles, who were preserved nose-to-tail in the wrappings. BBC News reports that a new 3-D CT scan, conducted by the Swedish company Interspectral, has revealed 47 mummified crocodile hatchlings tucked into the mummy’s exterior bindings. “You can’t see them very well on the old scans unless you know they’re there—and we never expected to find this,” said museum curator Lara Weiss. She explained that the mummy could reflect the Egyptian belief in life after death, and was probably an offering to the crocodile god Sobek. A similar crocodile mummy of a large adult with 20 young on its back is housed at the British Museum. To read in-depth about Egyptian animal mummies, go to "Messengers to the Gods."

Thursday, November 17

Kukulkan’s Inner Structure Detected at Chichén Itzá

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO—According to a report by the Associated Press, archaeologists have detected what may be the original 30-foot-tall structure within the pyramid of Kukulkan with tri-dimensional electric resistivity tomography, or ERT-3D. Previous research at the Maya site of Chichén Itzá had detected a 65-foot-tall “intermediate” pyramid beneath Kukulkan’s last construction stage, which dates to A.D. 900 and is now visible. The innermost pyramid is thought to date to between A.D. 500 and 800, before the Maya came into contact with other civilizations. The computer-generated image suggests the first pyramid is not perfectly aligned with the outer layers. Archaeologist Denisse Argote of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History explained that the pyramid may have been refurbished when new groups came to power, or as the building deteriorated. Minimal fill was used to cover the inner temple, however, perhaps out of respect for its sacred space over an underground water source. The new images could help scientists find a way into the inner temple. They may have to reinforce an unstable tunnel first opened in the early twentieth century, when the third platform was first found. For more, go to “The Maya Sense of Time.”

Denture Made of Human Teeth Found in Tuscany

PISA, ITALY—The Local, Italy, reports that a team of paleopathologists from the University of Pisa found a denture dating to between the late fourteenth and early seventeenth centuries in the tomb of more than 200 members of the Giunigi family in Lucca’s convent of San Francesco. The denture consists of five canines and incisors obtained from different people, covered in a layer of metal. A strip of gold was attached at the base for wearing over the lower gums. A layer of tartar over the surface of the device indicates that it was used for a long period of time. Team member Simona Minozzi explained that scholars know about dentures from this period through historical descriptions, but this is the first known example of them. The team has not been able to match the prosthesis with a jaw from the grave. To read in-depth about the study of microbes in dental calculus, go to “Worlds Within Us.”

Early Farmers Kept Dairy Animals 9,000 Years Ago

YORK, ENGLAND—Live Science reports that researchers from the University of York, the University of Bristol, and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique dated more than 500 Neolithic pottery vessels recovered in Spain, France, Italy, Greece, and Turkey, and analyzed their contents for traces of dairy products and fat residues. The team members also examined animal bones found at the more than 80 archaeological sites to compare the types of fats found in the pots with the kinds of animals that were kept by the farmers. They found that in the eastern and western areas of the northern Mediterranean, dairying was commonly practiced, but not in northern Greece, where meat production was more popular. Cynthianne Spiteri of the University of Tübingen explained that milk was probably an important resource for early farmers, who may have turned milk into yogurt and cheese to make it easier to digest. Genetic testing of human bones at the sites could reveal if the early farmers were able to digest lactose. The team also found that that Neolithic communities living in rugged terrain were more likely to raise sheep and goats, while open landscapes with plenty of water were better for keeping cattle herds. To read more about food in the archaeological record, go to “A Prehistoric Cocktail Party.”

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