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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, November 30

Captive Bonobos Observed Making, Using Tools

HAIFA, ISRAEL—The University of Haifa announced that bonobos have been observed making and using tools and spears for the first time. Chimpanzees in nature have been seen making tools to obtain food such as tubers and termites, breaking open nuts with hammers and anvils, and making spears from branches for hunting. Itai Roffman of the university’s Institute of Evolution provided bonobos in a zoo setting and in a sanctuary setting with food that had been buried, hidden, and concealed in various locations. He also provided them with raw materials for toolmaking such as green branches and deer antlers. Both groups of bonobos were able to perform the food extraction tasks, but the sanctuary bonobos were much more successful. “The bonobos essentially showed that once they have the motivation to do so, they have analogous capabilities to those of archaic pre-humans, which is logical as chimpanzees and bonobos are our genetic sister species,” said Roffman in a press release. In addition, the dominant female in the zoo group crafted spears from the sticks, and she used the weapons to threaten Roffman. “To the zoo bonobos, I was a trespasser who was violating their privacy and stalking them,” he added. To read about the earliest known stone tools, go to "The First Toolkit."

Study Suggests Reasoning Alone Can Advance Culture

EXETER, ENGLAND—A new study by scientists from the University of Exeter suggests that while teaching is useful for transmitting cultural knowledge, people can use reasoning and reverse engineering of existing objects to learn how to make them. The research team provided groups of people with materials to make rice baskets. Some were then asked to produce a basket alone, while others were part of a “transmission chain” where they could examine a basket, imitate another person’s actions, or receive instruction in basket weaving. At first, those participants who were taught to make baskets produced the most robust examples, but after six attempts, all groups made progress in the amount of rice that their baskets could carry. “Humans do much more than learn socially, we have the ability to think independently and use reason to develop new ways of doing things. This could be the secret to our success as a species,” Alex Thornton of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation said in a press release. To read about the transmission of culture in Borneo, go to "Letter from Borneo: The Landscape of Memory."

Betrayal of Trust May Have Fueled Early Migrations

YORK, ENGLAND—Human ancestors migrated when population increases or ecological changes forced them to look for new, similar living environments. But around 100,000 years ago, people began to disperse across environmental barriers into new regions at a much faster rate. Penny Spikins of the University of York thinks that developing human emotional relationships, and the resulting moral disputes and betrayals among groups of people, may have motivated them to make such risky moves into new territories. “Active colonizations of and through hazardous terrain are difficult to explain through immediate pragmatic choices. But they become easier to explain through the rise of the strong motivations to harm others even at one’s own expense which widespread emotional commitments bring,” she said in a press release. “Moral conflicts provoke substantial mobility—the furious ex ally, mate or whole group, with a poisoned spear or projectile intent on seeking revenge or justice, are a strong motivation to get away, and to take almost any risk to do so,” she said. To read about how insects spread around the world, go to "Ant Explorers."

Kitchen Area Uncovered at Shakespeare’s New Place

STRATFORD-UPON-AVON, ENGLAND—Excavators led by Staffordshire University’s Centre of Archaeology have uncovered the kitchen at New Place, William Shakespeare’s family home for nearly 20 years. Shakespeare purchased the impressive home, which had ten fireplaces and more than 20 rooms, in 1597. The kitchen, where fragments of plates, cups, and other cookware were uncovered, had a cold storage pit and a fire hearth. The team also found a brew house where small beer was made and foods were pickled and salted. “Finding Shakespeare’s ‘kitchen’ proved to be a vital piece of evidence in our understanding of New Place. Once we had uncovered the family’s oven we were able to understand how the rest of the house fitted around it. The discovery of the cooking areas, brew house, pantry, and cold storage pit, combined with the scale of the house, all point to New Place as a working home as well as a house of high social status,” Paul Edmonson, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Head of Research and Knowledge, said in a press release. The research has led to new drawings of the house. The site will reopen for visitors with artworks, landscaping, and exhibitions in time to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016. To read about the unearthing of King Richard III's skeleton, which was a Top Discovery of 2013, go to "Richard III’s Last Act."

Wednesday, November 25

Instagram Photos May Show Illegal Excavation in Arkansas

CRAWFORD COUNTY, ARKANSAS—The U.S. Forest Service is investigating a man who may have illegally excavated prehistoric artifacts from the Ozark-St. Francis National Forest in Arkansas, according a report from 5News. The television station’s report is based on a search warrant affidavit from the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Western District of Arkansas. The investigation began in May 2015, when the Forest Service received an anonymous tip that the man’s Instagram account contained evidence of what appeared to be illegal digging in the National Forest. Based on photos from the account, officers set up cameras to monitor several areas, which captured further evidence. According to the 5News report, an Ozark National Forest archaeologist told investigators that many of the artifacts in the photos would not have been found on the ground surface. No charges have been filed pending completion of the investigation. To read about Native American rock art sites in Arkansas, go to "Off the Grid."

Gold Ring Depicting Cupid Discovered in England

TANGLEY, ENGLAND—A gold ring containing a stone engraved with an image of Cupid, the Roman god of erotic love, has been found by an amateur metal detectorist near the English village of Tangley. Live Science reports that researchers who have examined the ring have determined that, based on its design, it dates to around the fourth century A.D., when England was part of the Roman Empire. In the engraving, made in a type of onyx called nicolo, an adolescent male stands completely naked, resting one arm on a column and holding a torch in the other. A small pair of wings emerging from his shoulders identifies him as Cupid, the researchers note. The ring has been acquired by the Hampshire Museums Service and will be put on display at the Andover Museum in Andover. To read about an ancient Roman burial in England, go to "What's in a Name?"

Elephant Butchering Site Found in Greece

MEGALOPOLIS, GREECE—Researchers have uncovered the nearly complete skeleton of an elephant and a collection of stone tools at the Lower Paleolithic site known as Marathousa 1, reports PhysOrg. Some of the elephant’s bones bear distinctive cut marks that indicate the animal was butchered by the region’s inhabitants between 300,000 and 600,000 years ago. Marathousa 1 is one of the oldest archaeological sites in Greece and the discovery marks it as “the only site in the Balkans where we have evidence of an elephant being butchered in the early Paleolithic," according to Katerina Harvati of the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment (HEP) at the University of Tübingen, who participated in the excavation. To read about the use of elephants in ancient Mediterranean warfare, go to “Clash of the War Elephants.”

Tuesday, November 24

Middle Kingdom Giant Fence Unearthed in Egypt

CAIRO, EGYPT—Egypt’s Antiquities Minister Mamdouh el-Damaty announced that the Austrian Archaeological Institute has discovered a 3,500-year-old “giant fence” in Sharqiya province, at the site of the ancient capital of Avaris. The Associated Press reports that the fence, made of sandstone, was 500 yards long and seven yards thick, and may have been part of a city wall. To read about a temple to an Egyptian god, go to "The Cult of Amun."

2,000-Year-Old Room Discovered in Central Rome

ROME, ITALY—Workers installing a gas pipeline in Via Alfonso Lamora in central Rome at first thought they had opened up a sinkhole, but they had really discovered a 2,000-year-old room. The room, plastered and decorated with frescoes, had been part of a home located in an area known as the Horti Lamiani, or Lamian Gardens, according to The Local, Italy. The gardens eventually became imperial property and over the years the area has yielded numerous sculptures, frescoes, and other artifacts now housed in the city’s museums. “Finding a room under the street is rare,” said archaeologist Mirella Serlorenzi. “We do get archaeological finds from between 60 and 50 percent of all roadworks though.” To read about Rome's aqueduct system, go to "How Much Water Reached Rome?"

Computer Model Reproduces “Cultural Explosions”

STANFORD, CALIFORNIA—Changes in tools made by prehistoric peoples often appear in the archaeological record in incremental bursts, thought of as “cultural explosions.” A computer model created by Marcus Feldman, Oren Kolodny, and Nicole Creanza of Stanford University reproduces patterns of creativity observed in the archaeological record as the result of spontaneous innovations, responses to new technologies, and the combination of existing technologies, rather than as a response to external events. “It was insightful to realize that tools can create ‘ecological niches’ for other tools to fill. Once you invent something like a raft, it paves the way for the invention of a paddle that’ll allow you to manipulate it, tools that will help you mend it, and eventually also new technologies for offshore fishing or transport of things,” Kolodny said in a press release. When knowledge is concentrated in a specialized subset of a population, it becomes more vulnerable, and may be lost. Changes in the environment and migration to a new environment can also cause the loss of tools. “Our model demonstrates that these ‘explosions’ could also be a feature of cultural evolution itself, as long as some innovations are dependent on others,” Creanza said. To read about the oldest known stone tools, go to "The First Toolkit."

Medieval Bibles Made From Many Skin Sources

YORK, ENGLAND—A multi-disciplinary, international team of researchers, led by Sarah Fiddyment and Matthew Collins of the University of York, examined the tissue-thin vellum used to produce pocket-sized Bibles in thirteenth century France, England, Italy, and Spain. Some scholars have suggested that the skin of fetal calves had been used to produce such fine pages, since many sources use the Latin term abortivum to describe them. To find out, samples of protein were collected from the pages of 72 pocket Bibles with an electrostatic charge generated by gentle rubbing with a PVC erasers. “We found no evidence for the use of unexpected animals; however, we did identify the use of more than one mammal species in a single manuscript, consistent with the local availability of hides,” Fiddyment said in a press release. The ultra-thin pages have since been reproduced by parchment conservator Jiří Vnouček. “It is more a question of using the right parchment-making technology than using uterine skin. Skins from younger animals are of course optimal for production of thin parchment but I can imagine that every skin was collected, nothing wasted,” he said. To read about the excavation of a thirteenth-century tannery, go to "Medieval Leather, Vellum, and Fur."