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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
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?"

Tuesday, July 26

Spanish Colonial Bricks Unearthed at the Alamo

SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS—The Texas General Land Office announced that Spanish colonial adobe bricks have been unearthed in Alamo Plaza just 23 inches below the modern surface. The poorly preserved bricks may have been part of the original, eighteenth-century western wall at the mission, or they may have been part of a structure that stood near the original mission. “Because we’ve got something from the Spanish colonial period, we know we are digging in the right place,” archaeologist Nesta Anderson said in a press conference reported in The Texas Tribune. “All we know right now is that we’ve got a wall,” she added. To read more about the Spainish colonial period in the Southwest, go to "Searching for the Comanche Empire."

India’s Ancient Temples Offer Clues to Earthquake Risks

HIMACHAL PRADESH, INDIA—Temples built by the rulers of the Chamba Kingdom between the seventh and eleventh centuries A.D. were analyzed by Mayank Joshi and V.C. Thakur of the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology in an effort to assess the risk of future earthquakes in the region. Recent catastrophic earthquakes in nearby areas have killed tens of thousands of people, but the town of Chamba was unharmed. Chamba’s ancient buildings, however, do exhibit signs of earthquake damage, including tilted pillars on the Lakshmi Narayan temples and shifted rooftops on the Bharmour temple. “In case of the ground settling, there would not be a preferred orientation. It will be randomly oriented,” Joshi told Live Science. Joshi and Thakur suggest that the damage to the Chamba temples occurred in the 1555 Kashmir earthquake, whose epicenter is thought to be in the Srinagar Valley, some 125 miles away from Chamba. In fact, a temple built in 1762 showed no signs of earthquake damage. “This shows that the area has enough potential to produce great earthquakes similar to [the] 2005 Kashmir earthquake,” Joshi said. To read more about archaeology in India, go to "Oceans of Dharma."

Water Tunnel Discovered at Mexico’s Temple of Inscriptions

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO—Underground anomalies detected in front of the steps at the Temple of Inscriptions at the Maya site of Palenque have led to the discovery of a water tunnel with a fitted stone cover. Archaeologist Arnoldo Gonzalez told the Associated Press that the same type of stone covering has been found inside the temple, in the floor of the tomb of K’inich Janaab Pakal, ruler of Palenque between A.D. 615 and 683. Researchers used a robot fitted with a camera to examine the small shaft, but no link to the tomb has been found so far. Researchers think the tomb and pyramid may have been built over a spring whose water, channeled through the tunnels, may have been intended to offer a path to the underworld for Pakal’s spirit. This idea is based upon an inscription found on a pair of stone ear plugs from in the grave. A similar water tunnel has been found at Teotihuacán. In both cases there was a water current present. There is this allegorical meaning for water…where the cycle of life begins and ends,” said Pedro Sanchez Nava, director of archaeology for the National Institute of Anthropology and History. To read in-depth about a Maya king, go to "Tomb of the Vulture Lord."  

Outlines of 16th-Century Fort San Marcos Found

COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA—Chester DePratter of the University of South Carolina and Victor Thompson of the University of Georgia used ground-penetrating radar and magnetometers to look for the outlines of Fort San Marcos, constructed in 1577 by Pedro Menedez Marquez, the governor of La Florida. He built the fort on Parris Island at the site of the town of Santa Elena, which had been abandoned a year earlier due to an attack by Native Americans, with wood posts and planking carried to the island with warships. This first fort at the site was eventually replaced when the wood rotted, but the Spanish abandoned the site for Fort Augustine in 1587 due to threats from the English. “This work will allow us to tell the story of the land that would eventually become the United States. Santa Elena is an important part of this history that lends insight into how colonial powers in Europe vied for control over this corner of the New World,” Thompson told The Post and Courier. To read more about the Spanish colonial period in the Southeast, go to "Off the Grid: Mission San Luis."

Belgian King’s Blood Found on Leafy Souvenirs

LEUVEN, BELGIUM—Live Science reports that leaves collected at the death site of Belgium’s King Albert I more than 80 years ago are stained with his blood. The 58-year-old king reportedly died on February 17, 1934, while mountain climbing alone near the village of Marche-les-Dames. His body was found at the foot of a cliff that was soon visited by thousands of mourners, some of whom collected souvenirs. Conspiracy theorists claimed that the king had been murdered, and his body placed at the foot of the cliff after he was killed by a blow to the head. Scientists from the University of Leuven analyzed the blood on leaves supposedly collected at the site at the time, and compared the DNA with two of the king’s living relatives. “We found that the blood is indeed that of Albert I,” said forensic geneticist Maarten Larmuseau. The scientists say the results support the account that Albert I died in a fall. “The story that the dead body of the king has never been in March-les-Dames or was only placed there at night has now become very improbable,” he said. To read about a similar study, go to "French Revolution Forgeries."