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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, March 25

Extinct Woolly Mammoth Genes Spliced Into Living Cells

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—Genes from frozen woolly mammoth remains have been copied and pasted into the genome of an Asian elephant by researchers led by George Church at Harvard University. They spliced the genes for the mammoths’ small ears, subcutaneous fat, and hair length and color into the DNA of elephant skin cells in tissue cultures. Popular Science reports that this is the first time that mammoth genes have been functional since the animals went extinct some 4,000 years ago. “Just making a DNA change isn’t that meaningful. We want to read out the phenotypes,” Church said. So will the team be able to get the mammoth genes to become specialized tissues that behave properly? Artificial wombs could eventually be developed to nurture an elephant/mammoth hybrid embryo, and then an elephant that could survive in colder climates. Perhaps one day the team could try to revive the mammoths by integrating larger amounts of mammoth DNA into the hybrids. To read in-depth about another project being conducted by George Church, see "Should We Clone Neanderthals?"

Was the Aztec Empire Really All Powerful?

RALEIGH, NORTH CAROLINA—An analysis of obsidian artifacts with X-ray fluorescence has offered clues to geopolitics in central Mexico at the time of the Aztec Empire. Tlaxcallan, an independent city founded in the mid-thirteenth century, obtained its obsidian from a source called El Paredón. “Almost no one else was using El Paredón at the time, and it fell just outside the boundaries of the Aztec Empire. So, one question it raises is why the Aztecs—who were openly hostile to Tlaxcallan—didn’t intervene,” archaeologist John Millhauser said in a North Carolina State University press release. The Aztecs obtained most of their obsidian from a source to the north known as Pachuca, while only 14 percent of the obsidian from Tlaxcallan was from Pachuca. Millhauser suggests that such widely available obsidian may not have been worth fighting over. “The fact that they got so much obsidian so close to the Aztec Empire makes me question the scope of conflict at the time. Tlaxcallan was able to access a source of household and military goods from a source that required it to go right up to the border of enemy territory,” he said. To read in-depth about the Aztec world, see "Under Mexico City."

Slave Trade Recorded in American Genes

OXFORD, ENGLAND—The genetic fingerprints of the slave trade have been detected in the modern populations of North and South America by a team made up of researchers from Oxford University, University College London, and the Universita’ del Sacro Cuore of Rome. They analyzed more than 4,000 DNA samples from 64 different populations in Europe, Africa, and the Americas, and tracked the flow of genes from ‘donor’ African and European populations to ‘recipient’ populations in the Americas. “The majority of African Americans have ancestry similar to the Yoruba people in West Africa, confirming that most African slaves came from this region. In areas of the Americas historically under Spanish rule, populations also have ancestry related to what is now Senegal and Gambia. Records show that around a third of the slaves sent to Spanish America in the seventeenth century came from this region, and we can see the genetic evidence of this in modern Americans really clearly,” Cristian Capelli of Oxford University said in a press release. The study also found evidence of a previously unknown migration in the form of a genetic contribution from the Basques in the modern-day Maya in Mexico. People of the Caribbean islands are more similar to each other and distinct from other populations, probably reflecting a different migration pattern between the Caribbean and mainland America. To read an account of one group of African slaves' harrowing experience on an island in the Indian Ocean, see "Castaways."

4,200-Year-Old Case of Breast Cancer Found in Egypt

CAIRO, EGYPT—A team of Spanish researchers has found evidence of the world’s oldest-known case of breast cancer in the skeleton of a woman found in the necropolis of Qubbet el-Hawa. “The study of her remains shows the typical destructive damage provoked by the extension of a breast cancer as a metastasis,” Egyptian Antiquities Minister Mamdouh el-Damaty said in a statement reported by Reuters. A team led by Alejandro Jiménez from the University of Jaen found the 4,200-year-old remains of the woman, who was a member of the elite in the town of Elephantine during the 6th Dynasty. Anthropologist Miguel Botella of the University of Granada and his team studied the deterioration of the skeleton and made the diagnosis. The woman would have been unable to carry out any kind of labor, and had been taken care of for a long time before her death. Last year, British researchers reported a case of metastatic cancer in a 3,000-year-old skeleton found in modern Sudan. To read about the search for the tomb of one of Egypt's greatest queens, see "Nefertiti, Great Royal Wife and Queen of Egypt."

Tuesday, March 24

First Albertans Are 300 Years Older Than Previously Thought

CALGARY, CANADA—New, more accurate radiocarbon dates have been obtained for a well-preserved hunting site discovered along the St. Mary River in southern Alberta in 1999, during a period of low water levels. The footprints of horses and camels, their butchered bones, and stone tools, are 13,300 years old. “It’s quite awe-inspiring to stand there and know that these are the first Albertans,” Brian Kooyman of the University of Calgary told CTV News. The animals probably came to drink at the kill site, where they were ambushed by hunters. “We can actually see what they were doing. They’re hunting systematically and successfully and more than one animal species. I don’t think there’s anything really like it,” Kooyman added. To read in-depth about prehistoric buffalo hunting in this area, see "The Buffalo Chasers."

Public Buildings or Maya Society—Which Came First?

TUCSON, ARIZONA—Excavations at the Maya site of Ceibal in Guatemala have revealed a public plaza that dates to about 950 B.C., and ceremonial buildings surrounding the plaza that grew to monumental sizes by about 800 B.C. Yet there is little evidence of permanent residential dwellings in the area during the same time period. “Our study presents the first relatively concrete evidence that mobile and sedentary people came together to build a ceremonial center,” Takeshi Inomata of the University of Arizona said in a press release. Most people at this time were living a traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle, moving throughout the rainforest. These different groups of people may have come together at Ceibal to construct the buildings and to participate in public ceremonies over a period of several hundred years before making the transition to a fully sedentary society. “This tells us something about the importance of ritual and construction. People tend to think that you have a developed society and then building comes. I think in many cases it’s the other way around,” Inomata explained. To read more in-depth about the ancient Maya, see "Tomb of the Vulture Lord."

Argentina’s “Nazi Hideout” Revisited

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA—An article in The Guardian responds to reports that a Nazi hideout was excavated in northwestern Argentina by archaeologist Daniel Schavelzon, who claimed that the ruins of three stone buildings in the jungles of Teyú Cuaré National Park could have sheltered war criminals on the run after World War II. “There is no documentation, but we found German coins from the war period in the foundations,” Schavelzon told The Guardian. After the war, Argentina’s president Juan Perón did give refuge to Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele and Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the Holocaust, but they lived in suburban homes outside of Buenos Aires. And, many German immigrants arrived in Argentina in the early twentieth century, giving rise to some three million people of German descent who live in the country today. But are the coins proof of a secret Nazi enclave? “That was just speculation on my part. The press picked it up and magnified it,” Schavelzon said. 

Monday, March 23

Porcupine Unearths Oil Lamp in Central Israel

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—Anti-antiquities-theft inspectors spotted an oil lamp on top of a pile of dirt while on patrol at Horbat Siv, a Roman-Byzantine site in central Israel. It turned out that the lamp had been brought to the surface by a porcupine digging a burrow. Further investigation revealed that the “relentless digger” had uncovered other ancient objects as well. “It often happens that porcupines dig their burrows at the site of archaeological digs…he skillfully throws the dirt aside, and with it whatever archaeological findings are in his path,” Ira Horovitz of the Israel Antiquities Authority anti-theft unit told The Jerusalem Post. “The IAA calls on all porcupines to avoid digging burrows at archaeological sites and warns that digging at an archaeological site without a license is a criminal offense,” he joked. For more, see "Critter Diggers."

Pompeii’s Villa of the Mysteries Restored

POMPEII, ITALY—Now that a two-year restoration project has been completed, the Villa of the Mysteries has reopened to visitors. The building’s paintings, which feature life-sized figures, are thought to depict the initiation rites of the cult of Dionysus. Wax that had been applied during an earlier restoration was removed, and the darkened images were brightened. “We know well that the world looks with great attention at everything that happens at Pompeii. Today, Italy is proud to say to the world that we have turned a page,” Dario Franceschini, the Italian culture minister, said in a press conference reported in The Telegraph. For an in-depth report on this work, see "Saving the Villa of the Mysteries." 

Paleolithic Hunters May Have Poisoned Their Weapons

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—A new technique, developed by Valentina Borgia of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research and forensic chemist Michelle Carlin of Northumbria University, can identify residues of poisons on archaeological artifacts. Borgia thinks that hunters used poisons as early as 30,000 years ago, and is looking for traces of them on samples from museum collections. Initial tests of 6,000-year-old Egyptian arrows suggest that the black residue on their tips is from a poisonous plant in the project’s database. “It made good sense for people to use poisons. On their own, Paleolithic weapons with stone arrowheads may not have been deadly enough to immobilize or kill a large animal such as a red deer. Poisons plants were plentiful and the prehistoric population knew the environment where they lived, they knew the edible plants and their potential as medicines and poisons. To fabricate a poison is easy and economic, and the risk is minimal. In addition, the making of poisons is often part of the tradition and the rituality of hunting,” Borgia said in a press release. For more, see "The First Use of Poison." 

Did a Volcanic Eruption Wipe Out the Last Neanderthals?

BOULDER, COLORADO—The last of the Neanderthals died out some 40,000 years ago, about the same time as the Campanian Ignimbrite (CI) eruption in Italy. Archaeologists have wondered if the volcanic cataclysm, which injected sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, played a role the extinction. A sophisticated climate model developed by Benjamin A. Black of the University of California, Berkeley, and his colleagues simulates the environment after the eruption. “Radiocarbon dating has shown that at the time of the CI eruption, anatomically modern humans had already arrived in Europe, and the range of Neanderthals had steadily diminished. Work at five sites in the Mediterranean indicates that anatomically modern humans were established in these locations by then as well,” they wrote in an upcoming article in the journal Geology. The model shows that temperatures in Eastern Europe and Asia had the largest decreases after the eruption. The last Neanderthal populations and modern humans in Western Europe would have experienced a drop in temperature from two to four degrees Celsius. The team concludes that these changes were probably insufficient to trigger the demise of the Neanderthals. To read more about our extinct cousins, see "Should We Clone Neanderthals?"