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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, January 30

Libyan Heritage at Risk

ROME, ITALY—Savino di Lernia, director of The Archaeological Mission in the Sahara, Sapienza University, has described the state of archaeology in Libya today in an article in the journal Nature. Violence, vandalism, and trafficking in antiquities have damaged and destroyed archaeological sites and prehistoric rock art since the revolution of 2011. He argues that the study of Libyan heritage should focus on materials in museums and collections; that collections should be digitized and made widely available; and that the next generation of Libyan scientists should be trained in international labs. “Among the hopes sparked by the revolution was the idea of a more modern view of the archaeological and cultural heritage—as a gateway to a shared national identity, a major revenue source and a focus for forging relationships with the rest of the world. Those hopes have been dashed,” di Lernia stated. 

Historic Skull Fractures Marked Increased Risk of Early Death

UNIVERSITY PARK, PENNSYLVANIA—An international team of researchers examined 236 skulls of men whose skeletons had been exhumed from medieval cemeteries in Denmark during construction projects. They found that 21 of the men had healed skull fractures that they probably received through violence or work-related accidents. “The vast majority only had one blow,” to the head, George Milner of Pennsylvania State University told Live Science. Two of the skulls had two injuries apiece. The study showed that the men with healed skull fractures were 6.2 times more likely to die an early death than the men without skull fractures. “Their treatment then would have been pretty much go home, lie down and hope for the best,” Milner said. Were the fractures accompanied by traumatic brain injuries that led to early death, or did the men have lifestyle traits that reduced their longevity? “What we want to do is to be able to obtain figures or statistics that are comparable to those of today to give us a long-term perspective of pathological conditions of various sorts,” Milner explained. To read about medical care in early modern Europe, see "Haunt of the Resurrection Men."

Drought Contributed to Decline of Mesoamerican City

LIVERMORE, CALIFORNIA—An analysis of pollen, stable isotopes, and elemental concentrations in lake sediments by Lawrence Livermore researcher Susan Zimmerman and her colleagues suggests that the drastic decline in population at the site of Cantona, a large, fortified city located in highland Mexico, was due at least in part to climate change. The cores taken from Aljojuca, a nearby crater lake, dated back at least 6,200 years, but the team focused on the last 3,800 years for the study. They found that the region experienced a long-term drying trend between A.D. 500 and 1150, about the time that the site was finally abandoned. “We found that Cantona’s population grew in the initial phases of the drought, but by A.D. 1050 long-term environmental stress (the drought) contributed to the city’s abandonment. Our research highlights the interplay of environmental and political factors in past human responses to climate change,” Zimmerman said. To read about archaeological sites that are being put at risk because of modern climate change, see "Sites in Peril."

Thursday, January 29

2,200-Year-Old Moat Discovered in Spain

BARCELONA, SPAIN—Students led by Jaume Noguera of the University of Barcelona and Jordi López of the Catalan Institute of Classical Archaeology were attempting to reconstruct the route traveled by Carthaginian troops through northeastern Spain when they discovered a 2,200-year-old moat with electrical resistivity tomography. The moat may have been built to defend the town of Vilar del Valls, which is thought to have been destroyed during the Second Punic War, when Roman troops defeated Carthaginian troops left in Iberia by Hannibal to protect his supply route to Italy. Carthaginian coins and lead projectiles also point to the presence of the Carthaginians in the region. The project will continue to survey the area to find the rest of the ancient town of Vilar del Valls. To read more about warfare in this period, see "Abandoned Anchors From Punic Wars."

Ancient Surgery Techniques Tested by Scientists in Siberia

NOVOSIBIRSK, SIBERIA—Neurosurgeon Aleksei Krivoshapkin and scientists from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography at the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Science examined the holes in the skulls of ancient human remains discovered in the Altai Mountains, and concluded that brain surgery was performed some 2,500 years ago with just one tool. “Honestly, I am amazed. We suspect now that in the time of Hippocrates, Altai people could do a very fine diagnosis and carry out skillful trepanations and fantastic brain surgery,” Krivoshapkin told The Siberian Times. The analysis showed that one of the patients, a man between 40 and 45 years old, had suffered a head trauma and developed a blood clot that probably resulted in headaches, nausea, and movement problems. Healing in the bone showed that the hematoma had been removed and that the man lived for years after the surgery. The second skull belonged to a man who may have suffered from a congenital skull deformity that the surgeon fixed. In both cases, the holes in the skulls were small and placed to minimize damage to the patient. “It is clearly seen that the ancient surgeons were very exact and confident in their moves, with no traces of unintentional chips, which are quite natural when cutting bone,” Krivoshapkin said. Archaeologists suspect that the surgeons used bronze knives for the surgery, which have been found in graves from this era. Krivoshapkin used a replica knife to recreate with some difficulty the ancient surgical techniques on a modern skull. “I think it is important to remember that here in the fifth century B.C. Altai was a big center for bone cutting production. People here were very skillful in making different objects from animal bone.”  To read about trepanation in prehistoric Europe, see "Bodies of the Bogs."

Task Force Searches for Charleston’s 18th-C. Sea Wall

CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA—Bermuda stone and bricks that may be part of a sea wall dating to 1769 have been seen in test pits in Charleston’s White Point Garden. The first signs of the half-mile-long wall consisted of a dozen Bermuda stones in the first hole. “We don’t see that Bermuda stone elsewhere in the city, even along the waterfront,” archaeologist Martha Zierden, who is part of the Walled City Task Force, told The Post and Courier. The second hole revealed a stone wall that may date to the nineteenth century. The third hole exposed a section of brick wall standing five feet tall, but it does not have imported Bermuda stones at its base, as described in Journal B of the Commissioners of Fortifications, a record of work in the city from 1755 to 1770. The journal states that the wall was built by slaves to protect the city’s southern defenses and reclaim beachfront property. The wall was later expanded, but there are no records to indicate that the original wall was ever dismantled. To read in-depth about historical archaeology in the American South, see "Letter From Virginia: American Refugees."

Human Language Adapted to Climate

CORAL GABLES, FLORIDA—A group of researchers from the University of Miami, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics have found a relationship between the environment and vocal sounds that they say is consistent throughout the world and present in different languages. Linguist Caleb Everett of the University of Miami and his colleagues examined more than 3,700 languages. They say that 629 of the languages use complex tones, where tone or pitch are used to give meaning to words, and that these languages are more likely to occur in regions of the world that are more humid, such as Africa, Southeast Asia, Amazonia, New Guinea, and humid regions of North America. Languages with simple tones occur more frequently in colder areas or deserts, perhaps because inhaling dry air may decrease the elasticity of vocal folds. “It does not imply that languages are completely determined by climate, but that climate can, over the long haul, be one of the factors that helps shape languages,” he said. To read about how linguists reconstruct ancient languages, see "Telling Tales in Proto-Indo-European."

Wednesday, January 28

Skull Is Possible Link For Neanderthals & Modern Humans

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL—A 55,000-year-old partial modern human skull has been discovered in Israel’s Manot Cave, making it the first fossil evidence that Homo sapiens were in the region and available to mate with Neanderthals, as recent genetic studies suggest. Neanderthal fossils have been found in caves in Israel and other parts of the Middle East as late as 49,000 years ago, but modern human remains had only been found to date between 120,000 and 80,000 years ago. The new skull was found covered with a thin layer of calcite on a ledge in the cave, so the research team, led by Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University, was able to date it with the uranium-thorium method. “Manot is the first and only human securely dated to 50,000 to 60,000 years ago outside the African continent,” Hershkovitz told Science. The team will try to extract DNA from the skull, although the region’s hot climate makes its preservation unlikely. DNA information could reveal if the Manot skull represents an ancestor of the modern humans who went on to colonize Europe and Asia. To read more about our close relatives, see "Should We Clone Neanderthals."

Evidence Shows Paleo-Indians Used Spear Throwers

KAMLOOPS, BRITISH COLUMBIA—Karl Hutchings of Thompson Rivers University measured the fractures in hundreds of spear points crafted by the peoples of the Clovis and Folsom cultures and found that some of these weapon tips, made by the earliest-known North Americans, had been subjected to high-velocity, mechanically propelled impacts. This suggests that Paleo-Indians used atlatls, or spear-throwers, for hunting mammoths and other big game. When the point hit the target, the energy of the impact caused the tip to break. “When it breaks, it sends a shock wave through the stone that produces fractures, which are related to the amount and kind of force involved,” Hutchings explained to Live Science. Until now, there had not been any empirical evidence that Paleo-Indians hunted with spear throwers. “We can now be assured that those assumptions were right,” Hutchings said. His research will be published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. To read more about Paleo-Indians, see "America, in the Beginning." 

Maya Water Temple Discovered in Belize

CHAMPAIGN, ILLINOIS—A water temple complex where archaeologists think a “drought cult” offered sacrifices has been discovered at the Cara Blanca site in Belize. A lodge and two smaller structures had been built near a deep cenote, where the Maya placed pots, jars, and bowls and may have prayed for rain. The water temple had been built from the cenote’s tufa stone, and its floors had been covered with broken water jars, teeth, and claws dredged from the sacred pool. “The pilgrims came there to purify themselves and to make offerings,” Lisa Lucero of the University of Illinois told National Geographic News. She and Andrew Kinkella of California’s Moorpark College explored the cenote and found that more offerings to Chaak, the Maya rain god, were placed in the shrine after a widespread drought hit the Maya region. Their report on the temple will be published in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal. For more on these types of ritual sites, see "Cenotes in the Maya World."

Archaic Jawbone Could Represent New Hominin Species

TOKYO, JAPAN—A robust jawbone pulled from a fisherman’s net in the Penghu Channel, off the coast of Taiwan, has been dated to between 10,000 and 190,000 years old by a team of scientists from Taiwan, Japan, and Australia, who published their findings in the journal Nature Communications. They compared the levels of fluorine and sodium in the fossil and other animal bones recovered from the same region, which was once a part of the Asian mainland when water levels were lower, to date the jawbone. The four-inch-long fossil still has four teeth attached, including two large molars, which look primitive for their age. The Penghu fossil does resemble a 400,000-year-old fossil from southern China, however. “We need other skeletal parts to evaluate the degree of its uniqueness. The question of species can be effectively discussed after those steps,” study co-author Yousuke Kaifu of Japan’s National Museum of Nature and Science told Live Science. To read about the recent discovery of a Paleolithic tool in the region, see "China's Oldest Bone Hand Ax."