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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
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."

Tuesday, January 27

Ancient Column Capital Unearthed in Cyprus

FAMAGUSTA, CYPRUS—The Famagusta Gazette reports that the top of an ancient column has been uncovered by construction workers at Ayia Thekla church on the eastern coast of Cyprus. The capital was reburied and the antiquities department was notified. Excavations are now being planned for the area around the church, which is being restored. It has been thought that ancient quarries may have been located near the site of the church. To read more about archaeology on the island, see "Bronze Age City Unearthed in Cyprus."

Stranding Site of the SS Great Britain Discovered

BRISTOL, ENGLAND—Last year, during exceptionally low tides at Tyrella Beach in Northern Ireland, a team from the University of Bristol used advanced geophysical techniques to search for the spot where the SS Great Britain was grounded in 1846. Designed by engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the SS Great Britain had been built of iron with a screw propeller for trans-Atlantic voyages and was the longest passenger steamship in the world at the time. On the ship’s fifth voyage to New York, a navigational error resulted in the grounding in Dundrum Bay. The ship was unloaded in order to make it lighter for the salvage operation that lasted for nearly a year. “The results were far better than we could have dreamt of. We actually located a huge doughnut ring of debris that fitted exactly the shape of the ship, and faced the precise direction contemporary accounts said she lay,” said project leader Mark Horton. The team also found a linear feature that probably represents the breakwater built to protect the ship from storms. “The Dundrum Bay incident represented the birth of modern ship salvage methods. Anything that we can learn about how this was done will be immensely valuable to historians of the ship. Because they were able to rescue her in 1847, the ship survives today,” said Joanna Thomas, curator of the SS Great Britain. Some of the original parts of the ship may be found in the debris at the salvage site. To read more about nautical archaeology, see "History's 10 Greatest Wrecks."

Site Offers Clues to Life in Pre-Columbian El Salvador

SAN SALVADOR, EL SALVADOR—New excavations at the site of Nuevo Lourdes, in central El Salvador, have revealed evidence of everyday life in Mesoamerica during the late Classic period, from 650 to 950 A.D. Ceramic vessels and bowls, stone pestles for grinding corn, and two jade beads were found, in addition to a skull, teeth, and other bone fragments. “Many investigations in the Mesoamerican region have found, mostly, ceremonial sites with pyramids,” Shione Shibata, archaeological director at the Cultural Secretariat’s Cultural Heritage Directorate, told the EFE News Agency. The site was discovered by construction workers nearly two years ago, when a burial site, cooking pots, pottery fragments, and obsidian and stone artifacts dating from 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. were unearthed. 

Coffin Fragment Bearing Cervantes’ Initials Found in Madrid

MADRID, SPAIN—Wooden planks bearing the initials “M.C.” have been discovered in the chapel crypt at the convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians in Madrid’s Barrio de las Letras, or Literary Quarter, where scientists have been looking for the remains of Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes. The letters had been formed on the wooden casket, now in fragments, with metal tacks. Forensic anthropologist Francisco Etxeberria told the Associated Press that the bones of at least ten people, including some children, were recovered from the niche where the coffin was found. The Don Quixote author was 69 at the time of his death in 1616, and it is known that he only had six teeth and had suffered several battle wounds earlier in his life. To read about similar searches, see "Lost Tombs."

Monday, January 26

Pirate Healthcare On Board the Queen Anne’s Revenge

BEAUFORT, NORTH CAROLINA—Archaeologist Linda Carnes-McNaughton of the Department of Defense has been studying the practice of medicine on the pirate ship the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Edward Teach, also known as Blackbeard, captured his flagship, a French slaver, in 1717. Carnes-McNaughton’s research suggests that Blackbeard released most of the French crew at the time, but kept the ship’s three surgeons to treat the illnesses, wounds, amputations, toothaches, and burns suffered by his pirate crew. “Treating the sick and injured of a sea-bound community on shipboard was challenging in the best of times,” Carnes-McNaughton wrote in a paper that she presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Historical Archaeology. Among the artifacts recovered from the shipwreck, which was discovered off the coast of North Carolina in 1996, are a urethral syringe that was used for treating syphilis with mercury. “Eventually the mercury kills you,” she explained to Live Science. Other medical equipment from the wreck includes two pump clysters, used to pump fluid into the rectum, and a porringer, which may have been used in bloodletting treatments. A cast brass mortar and pestle, two sets of nesting weights, and pots that may have stored balms and salves were recovered. Scissors and a silver needle that may have been used during surgeries, and two pairs of brass set screws may have been part of a tourniquet for amputations, are among the possible surgical equipment. To read about the excavation of Queen Anne’s Revenge, see "Blackbeard Surfaces."

Ancient Male Lineages Recognized in Modern Asian Populations

LEICESTER, ENGLAND—Nature News reports that geneticists Mark Jobling of the University of Leicester and Patricia Balaresque of Paul Sabatier University have found evidence for ten powerful men, in addition to Genghis Khan, who founded y-chromosome lineages in Asia. Jobling’s team analyzed the Y chromosomes of more than 5,000 modern men from 127 populations and identified 11 y-chromosome sequences that were each shared by more than 20 of them. By examining the mutations in the shared sequences, they were able to determine approximately when the founder of each lineage lived. (It was assumed that these founders lived in the regions where their genotypes were the most prevalent and diverse.) Genghis Khan’s lineage, first identified more than ten years ago by Chris Tyler-Smith, now of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, is shared by eight percent of men in 16 populations across Asia. The previously identified line that began in China with the ruler Giocangga, who died in 1582, also stood out in the new study. A third lineage has been dated to around 850 A.D., and further research could identify its founder. These three lineages expanded westward, possibly carried by sons of the founders who traveled along the Silk Road. The other lineages are estimated to date sometime between 2100 B.C. and 700 A.D., when hierarchical, authoritarian societies emerged in Asia. “Lots of men have lots of sons, by chance. But what normally doesn’t happen is the sons have a high probability of having lots of sons themselves. You have to have a reinforcing effect,” Jobling explained. To read about the search for the Mongol Emperor's tomb, see "Genghis Khan, Founder of the Mongol Empire."

The Search for the Remains of Miguel de Cervantes

MADRID, SPAIN—Archaeologists and forensic scientists are looking for the exact location of the remains of the great Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes, who was buried in the chapel at the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians in 1616. The documents that would have recorded Cervantes’ burial place are thought to have been lost when the church was enlarged. The team has found three unidentified and unrecorded graves beneath the floor of the chapel’s crypt while using radar technology, and the scientists explored a wall niche with an endoscope camera. There are four additional areas of the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians that could be searched for the lost grave, if necessary. “Were we to find remains that fulfill the characteristics we are looking for, we could possibly pass to a next stage. That would be to compare DNA similarities with his sister, but that is a very complex step,” Francisco Etxeberria of the University of the Basque Country told the Associated Press. Luisa de Cervantes, the Don Quixote author’s sister, is known to have been buried in a convent in Alcala de Henares in 1623. 

PTSD in the Ancient World

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—Soldiers have been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder for at least 3,000 years, according to a paper written by Jamie Hacker Hughes, director of Anglia Ruskin University’s Veterans and Family Institute, and psychiatrist Walid Abdul-Hamid of North Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust. Historians often cite Herodotus’ account of Epizelus, an Athenian spear carrier who experienced psychological problems after the Marathon Wars in 490 B.C., as the first recorded case of PTSD. But texts from Mesopotamia’s Assyrian Dynasty (1300-609 B.C.) record traumas suffered by soldiers who were called upon to fight every third year during their military service. The symptoms were thought to have been caused by the spirits of the enemies whom the patient had killed in battle. “Ancient soldiers facing the risk of injury and death must have been just as terrified of hardened and sharpened swords, showers of sling-stones or iron-hardened tips of arrows and fire arrows. The risk of death and the witnessing of the death of fellow soldiers appears to have been a major source of psychological trauma,” the paper reads. “Moreover, the chance of death from injuries, which can nowadays be surgically treated, must have been much greater in those days. All these factors contributed to post-traumatic or other psychiatric stress disorders resulting from the experience on the ancient battlefield.”  To read about the dramatic consequences of a battle in the Iron Age, see "The Price of Plunder."