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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, April 28

Genomes of Scythian Horses Mapped

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—The New York Times reports that Ludovic Orlando of the University of Copenhagen and an international team of scientists analyzed DNA extracted from the bones of 11 male horses buried in a mound some 2,300 years ago by the Scythians in what is now Kazakhstan; two male horses buried in a royal Scythian tomb some 2,700 years ago in southern Siberia; and the 4,100-year-old remains of a Sintashta mare found in Russia, near the border of Europe and Asia. The researchers were able to identify several characteristics selected by the Scythian breeders, including robust forelimbs, increased milk production, and bay, black, chestnut, cream, and spotted coat colors. Some of the Scythian horses carried a gene variant associated with short-distance sprinting. And only two of the horses were related, which supports Herodotus’ description of sacrificed horses in funerary rituals as gifts from tribes across the steppes. The study also noted that none of the horses were inbred. Orlando suggests this indicates that the Scythians maintained natural herd structures, rather than limit the number of stallions, as is often the case in modern breeding programs. For more, go to “Rites of the Scythians.”

Hominin DNA Recovered From Cave Sediments

LEIPZIG, GERMANY—According to a report in Seeker, an international team of scientists has recovered hominin genetic material from cave sediments ranging in age from 14,000 to 550,000 years ago. Nine samples, taken from four archaeological sites, produced enough mitochondrial DNA for analysis. Neanderthal DNA was found in eight of the samples, most of which came from archaeological layers where no Neanderthal remains had been recovered. The ninth sample, from a site in Russia, yielded Denisovan DNA. “We were surprised by how well this worked,” said geneticist Viviane Slon of the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology. The team also looked for DNA of other mammals, and found it in layers dating to times when the animals were alive, but not in later layers dating to periods after the animals had gone extinct. The researchers note, however, that they need more data to learn how DNA moves through the environment. For more, go to “Decoding Neanderthal Genetics.”

Medieval Castle Found in Poland

WROCLAW, POLAND—Science & Scholarship in Poland reports that remnants of a fourteenth-century castle belonging to Bolko II the Small have been discovered on an island in the Czerna Wielka River. The castle is located in the Lower Silesian Wilderness of southwestern Poland and was mentioned in medieval documents, but archaeologists had not been able to look for it because the area was used a a military training ground until the 1990s. Pawel Konczewski of Wroclaw University said the castle’s foundation was made of bog iron, while its single, rectangular tower was constructed of bricks marked with craftsmen’s fingerprints. The Piast dynasty prince built the fortress as part of a plan to expand his territory. “Bolko II set a new route—to save time and take the lead in trade,” Konczewski said. “On his route was a castle around which a settlement was built. Its inhabitants’ trade was the ironworks, due to rich deposits of iron in the area.” The research team has also found traces of the ironworking village, including mining areas and slag heaps, but they have not yet found any furnaces. For more, go to “Off the Grid: Krakow, Poland.”

Thursday, April 27

Scans Provide a Glimpse of the Homo naledi Brain

BLOOMINGTON, INDIANA—According to a report in Science News, Shawn Hurst of Indiana University and Ralph Holloway of Columbia University laser scanned the inside surfaces of severaln partial Homo naledi skulls, and created virtual casts to look for any surviving details of the brain surfaces. They found two grooves and imprints of folds of tissue on a partial Homo naledi skull in an area corresponding to Broca’s area in modern humans, which is linked to language as well as social emotions such as empathy, pride, and shame. Hurst claimed that Homo naledi’s small brain may have had similar capabilities. “We can’t say for sure whether that included language,” Hurst said. Surface features from the back of the Homo naledi brain were preserved on other partial skulls. Holloway said that some of those features are more pronounced on the left side, which in modern humans, is associated with right-handedness. The fossils, recently reoprted to have been dated to between 200,000 and 300,000 years old, were discovered from a deep chamber in South Africa’s Rising Star Cave. For more on Homo naledi, go to “A New Human Relative.”

Maya Sculpture Uncovered in Southern Mexico

SUCHIAPA, MEXICO—The International Business Times reports that a piece of a Maya sculpture was discovered under a house on private land in the southern state of Chiapas. The carving is thought to represent the god of maize and abundance, and to date to the late Classic period, between A.D. 600 and 900. The carving has been housed at the Regional Museum of Chiapas. For more, go to “Rituals of Maya Kingship.”

Genetic Study Reveals Deep History of Dogs

BETHESDA, MARYLAND—According to a report in Nature, biologists Heidi Parker and Elaine Ostrander of the National Institutes of Health, and their colleagues, examined the genomes of more than 1,300 dogs to develop a family tree for more than 160 breeds. The study suggests that dogs bred to perform similar functions, such as working or herding breeds, emerged at different times and places. “In retrospect, that makes sense,” Ostrander said. “What qualities you’d want in a dog that herds bison are different from mountain goats, which are different from sheep, and so on,” she explained. Hunter-gatherers are thought to have domesticated canines thousands of years ago and bred them for their skills, while more recent breeders are believed to have selected for physical traits. The study also revealed that most of the breeds in the study originated in Europe and Asia. These types of dogs are thought to have replaced the New World domesticated dogs that crossed the Bering land bridge with the first Americans. The Peruvian hairless dog, and the xoloitzcuintli, however, are clustered together on the family tree. Parker thinks these canines may retain genes from New World ancestors. For more, go to “Denmark’s Bog Dogs.”

Wednesday, April 26

Middle Stone Age Hunting Technology Found in South Africa

LIÈGE, BELGIUM—Live Science reports that 25 stone points discovered in South Africa’s Sibudu Cave indicate that people had mastered using a pointed bone tool to manufacture stone weapons some 77,000 years ago. Known as “pressure flaking,” the technique removes small flakes from a sharpened stone in a controlled manner. Veerle Rots of the University of Liège said that some of the stone weapons in the study had been worked on both sides, and more than half of them bore evidence that they had been used for hunting, including impact-related damage, animal blood and bone, and traces of resin to attach them to wooden shafts for throwing. For more, go to “Earliest Stone Tools.”

Ancient Inscription May Link Cave to Shaolin Kung Fu

SHIJIAZUHANG, CHINA—Xinhua reports that a 1,400-year-old inscription has been found carved on the wall of a cave in northern China’s Hebei Province. The inscription identifies the cave as a place of seclusion for Master Sengchou, who may have been in the military before he became a Buddhist monk in the sixth century A.D. Master Sengchou is remembered as a martial arts expert and is credited with promoting Zen Buddhism and the tradition of Shaolin monks practicing martial arts. “The discovery offers precious materials to study the history of local Buddhism and the Northern Qi Dynasty,” said Liu Xinchang of Handan City’s history association. For more, go to “Buddhism, in the Beginning.”

Mother-of-Pearl Ornament Found at Caesarea Maritima

CAESAREA, ISRAEL—The Times of Israel reports that Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists discovered a 1,500-year-old mother-of-pearl tablet inscribed with a six-branched menorah near a first-century B.C. temple dedicated to Augustus Caesar. The ornament is thought to have adorned a box that contained a Torah scroll, and to date to the fourth to fifth centuries A.D., pointing to a Jewish presence in Caesarea during the Byzantine period. The excavation team, led by archaeologist Peter Gendelman, also uncovered the Augusteum’s altar and a fragment of a Greek inscription. For more, go to “Byzantine Riches.”

New Dates Suggested for Homo naledi

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA—According to a report in BBC News, Lee Berger of Wits University says the fossilized remains of Homo naledi, discovered in a remote chamber in South Africa’s Rising Star cave system, may be between 200,000 and 300,000 years old. When the specimens were discovered in 2015, Berger thought they could be up to three million years old. The new dates suggest that Homo naledi, which exhibits some traits similar to the genus Australopithecus, and some traits found in the genus Homo, could have overlapped with modern humans. “These look like a primitive form of our own genus—Homo,” said Berger’s colleague, John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin. “It looks like it might be connected to early Homo erectus, or Homo habilis, Homo rudolfensis,” he said. Berger thinks the Homo naledi remains could have been placed in the hard-to-reach chamber deliberately, which would suggest that the small-brained hominins were capable of ritual behavior. To read more about Homo naledi, go to “A New Human Relative.”