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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, July 29

Ancient Rice DNA Sequenced

OXFORD, ENGLAND—It had been previously believed that the first rice grown in northern China, Japan, and on the Korean peninsula was only of the sticky japonica variety, which requires cultivation in dry fields. But a team led by Masahiko Kumagai of the University of Tokyo obtained DNA from carbonized rice ranging in age from 900 to 2,800 years old found at archaeological sites in Japan and Korea. The scientists then compared the genomes of the ancient rice samples to a database of more than 200 cultivated and wild rice DNA samples from around the world. They found that some of the ancient grains seemed to be more similar to the indica variety of rice, which has a long grain, grows submerged in water, and is usually associated with the tropics. This suggests that the crops were moved long distances. Michael Purugganan of New York University told The Christian Science Monitor that early farmers may have tried to grow “everything they could get their hands on,” until they developed a crop that adapted well to the environment. To read about the earliest evidence for tea drinking in China, go to "The Price of Tea in China."

American Student Finds Medieval Kite Brooch in Ireland

DUBLIN, IRELAND—An American student from New York University was taking a tour of Ireland’s Omey Island with archaeologist Michael Gibbons when she discovered a twelfth-century kite brooch in some rabbit burrows. The brooch would have been used to fasten a cloak or shawl. “I kept it with me until I caught up with Michael and he was very intrigued," Gibbons told Irish Central. "He had me take him back to the site at which I found it. I didn’t fully realize how important the find was at the time. Now, I’m amazed and surprised and I’m very happy that I was able to place it in the hands of people who would appreciate it.”  The artifact will be housed in the National Museum of Ireland. To read more about medieval archaeology in Ireland, go to "The Vikings in Ireland."

Maya Tomb Discovered in Belize

XUNANTUNICH, BELIZE—Archaeologist Jaime Awe of Northern Arizona University has excavated a tomb at the Maya site of Xunantunich. According to The Reporter Newspaperthe tomb contained skeletal remains thought to have belonged to a male ruler, based upon the size and appearance of the femurs, skull, and teeth. The remains of an animal—perhaps a deer or a jaguar—were also found in the chamber, along with ceramics and pieces of jade. “What’s amazing about the discovery of this tomb is that, we know that archaeologists have been working at Xunantunich since the 1890s," says Awe. "That’s more than a century of continuous archaeological work at the site. And, never before have we found a tomb. Well, this tomb is also remarkable in other ways, it is one of the largest burial chambers we have ever found.” To read about the discovery of another Maya ruler's burial , go to "Tomb of the Vulture Lord."

Archaeologists Study Sustainable Oyster Harvesting

EDGEWATER, MARYLAND—Ecologist Denise Breitburg of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center teamed up with biologists and archaeologists to survey the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay dating back 800,000 years. They found the oldest shells in Native American middens in the area dated to 3,200 years ago. They also measured the size of the oysters, to see if they were harvested before they reached full size. The results of the study suggest oysters were much larger hundreds of thousands of years ago than they are today, but they didn’t decrease in size between 3,200 and 400 years ago, when Native Americans were harvesting them. Torben Rick of the Smithsonian Institution told NPR he thinks Native Americans fished close to shore, and rotated fishing sites seasonally, giving oysters space to recover, grow, and reproduce. Since then, pollution, overfishing, and dredging have damaged oyster populations. “Ultimately, it’s about rethinking our oyster strategy so we can have our cake and eat it too,” he said. To read more about prehistoric life on North America's coasts, go to "The Edible Landscape." 

12,000-Year-Old Hearth, Artifacts Unearthed in Utah

SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH—A prehistoric campsite in Utah’s West Desert has yielded a 12,300-year-old hearth surrounded by more than 60 artifacts, including a large spear point, stone flakes, the bones of ducks and geese, and the earliest-known collection of tobacco seeds. “It’s a new world plant, not a plant from the other side of the world, so obviously this raises a lot of questions,” archaeologist Daron Duke of Far Western Anthropological Research Group said in a Western Digs report. “Also of significance is that these people were carrying their big-game tool kits, as evidenced by the big point found right next to the hearth,” added geoarchaeologist Craig Young. He thinks the spear point resembles those found nearby at a mammoth-hunting site of similar antiquity. At the time, the region would have been ten to 15 degrees cooler, with rivers, lakes, and marshy wetlands. “Toward the end of this period, for people who had the run of North America, things were drying up, and this could have been one of the last places they decided to make use of,” Duke said. To read about the earliest humans in the New World, go to "America, in the Beginning." 

Thursday, July 28

New Thoughts on Neanderthal Brain Development

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND—Previous studies of Neanderthal brain development have suggested that Neanderthal and modern human brains looked similar at birth, but then developed differently. Chirstoph Zollikofer of the University of Zurich and his team generated 3-D casts of the brain cases of 15 Neanderthal skulls ranging in age from newborn to adult. The scientists then compared the images of the Neanderthal brains with patterns of brain development in modern human children. New Scientist reports that at birth, Zollikofer found the Neanderthal brains to be longer, wider, and flatter than modern human brains. He claimed that similar to patterns of modern human development, the cerebellum and other regions of the Neanderthal brains grew quickly during childhood. He also argued that this pattern of development suggests that Neanderthals may have had similar cognitive abilities as well. But some are skeptical of Zollikofer’s results, in part because the bones in newborn skulls are fragile and not fully fused, making it hard to produce accurate measurements. “I think [researchers] should not put cognition on the table every time they find a morphological difference between specimens,” commented Emiliano Bruner of the National Research Center on Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain. To read more about our extinct cousins, go to "Should We Clone Neanderthals?"

Fossils Suggest Human Ancestors Suffered From Cancer, Too

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA—Osteosarcoma, or bone cancer, has been identified in the toe bone of a human ancestor who lived some 1.7 million years ago. A team of British and South African researchers noticed that the bone, unearthed in Swartkrans Cave in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, was not hollow, as it should have been. “So we compared it with modern biopsies of cancer patients and realized it was a malignant tumor,” biological and forensic anthropologist Patrick Randolph-Quinney of the University of Central Lancashire told The Telegraph. He explained that the painful tumor would have affected the individual’s mobility, and thus the ability to survive. A collaborating team of scientists also identified a benign tumor in the vertebrae of Karabo, the two-million-year-old remains of an Australopithecus sediba child discovered at the site of Malapa. “Modern medicine tends to assume that cancers and tumors in humans are diseases caused by modern lifestyles and environments, but our studies show the origins of these diseases occurred in our ancient relatives millions of years before modern industrial societies existed,” explained Edward Odes of the University of the Witswatersrand. To read more about Australopithecus sediba go to "The Human Mosaic."

“Stinky Cheese” Recovered From 17th-C. Swedish Shipwreck

KALMAR, SWEDEN—Divers led by Lars Einarsson of the Kalmar County Museum have recovered a diamond ring, gold coins, and a black tin pot containing a thick, gooey substance that may be cheese from the Kronan, the seventeenth-century flagship of the Swedish navy. “It looks a bit like some kind of granular Roquefort cheese. It’s been in the mud, so it’s reasonably well preserved, but at the same time it has been at the bottom of the sea for 340 years,” Einarsson told The Local, Sweden. Scientists will analyze the contents of the pot to try to determine exactly what they are. The Kronan capsized and sank in bad weather during the Battle of Öland in 1676, and was discovered in the Baltic Sea in 1980. Remains of some of the 800 crew members who died in the vessel have been recovered to date, along with more than 20,000 artifacts. To read about the sinking of another great seventeenth-century Swedish ship, go to "History's 10 Greatest Wrecks."

Wednesday, July 27

Rare Rock-Cut Kiln Unearthed in Northern Israel

GALILEE, ISRAEL—The Israel Antiquities Authority announced that a Roman-era workshop has been discovered the town of Shlomi, located in northern Israel. Ceramic vessels for wine and oil are thought to have been made at the factory, which featured a kiln with two chambers cut out of the chalky bedrock. One chamber would have held the pots being fired, while the other served as a firebox. Excavation director Joppe Gosker said that fragments of vessels made for transport over land and sea were found around the kiln. Live Science reports that most kilns at the time were constructed of stone, earth, and mud, rather than hewn from bedrock. To read in-depth about Roman-era ceramics, go to "Trash Talk."

Campfires May Have Made Humans More Susceptible to Disease

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—Mark Tanaka of the University of New South Wales thinks that the use of fire by early humans may have triggered the development of tuberculosis as a deadly disease. Tanaka and a team of researchers used a mathematical model to investigate ways that Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which is benign when it lives in soil and water, might have developed into a pathogen transmissible between people. Tanaka’s team found that adding fire to the equation increases the risk of just such a mutation. Campfires enjoyed by early humans could have caused smoke damage to lungs, making them more vulnerable to infection. Campfires may have also brought people together for longer periods of time, increasing the chance of disease transmission. “You get multiple sporadic cases, and most of them fail in the sense that they fail to evolve and so there are multiple failed chains of transmission, but eventually the right mutations come along and the whole thing is triggered,” Tanaka explained in an ABC News Australia report. To read about another study exploring ancient health, go to "Heart Attack of the Mummies."

Human Ancestors May Have Had Voice Control

DURHAM, ENGLAND—A study led by Adriano Lameira, now of Durham University, suggests that ancestral great apes may have had control of their voices. It had been thought that great apes could only make sounds driven by arousal, but an adolescent orangutan named Rocky, who is housed at the Indianapolis Zoo, has produced more than 500 vowel-like calls in imitation of researchers. While working at the University of Amsterdam, Lameira and his team compared Rocky’s new calls with a database of recorded orangutan calls to make sure that they were learned sounds. “This opens up the potential for us to learn more about the vocal capacities of early hominids that lived before the split between the orangutan and the human lineages to see how the vocal system evolved towards full-blown speech in humans,” Lameira said in a UPI report. To read in-depth about a possible human ancestor, go to "Ardipithecus: Ape or Ancestor?"