Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, December 02

Paleolithic Engraving May Depict Hunter-Gatherer Campsite

BIZKAIA, SPAIN—An ancient engraving may depict a hunter-gatherer campsite, according to Marcos García-Diez of the University of the Basque Country, and Manuel Vaquero of the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES), who published their study in PLOS ONE. The image, carved onto a schist slab some 13,800 years ago, has seven semicircular motifs decorated with internal lines and arranged in two rows. Microscopic and comparative analysis of the motifs suggests that they had been engraved with a similar technique and instrument in a short amount of time. The researchers think the motifs represent huts. Vaquero explained in a press release that this “Paleolithic engraving from northeastern Spain brings us the first representation of a human social group.” To read about an engraving on a cave wall by Neanderthals, go to "Symbolic Neanderthals."

Virus DNA Recovered From Old Bone Samples

HELSINKI, FINLAND—Researchers from the University of Helsinki and the University of Edinburgh have discovered evidence of parvovirus in about half of the skeletal remains of 106 World War II casualties recovered from the battlefields of Karelia, located in what is now Russian territory. This is the first time that traces of virus have been found in old bones, which are the part of the body most likely to be preserved after death. “Human tissue is like a life-long archive that stores the fingerprint of the viruses that an individual has encountered during his or her lifetime,” professor of clinical virology Klaus Hedman said in a press release. In fact, two of the deceased carried a type of parvovirus that has not circulated in Nordic countries. When combined with other genetic information, this suggests that these were likely Russian soldiers, and not Finnish ones. “Such a combination of human and viral DNA can help us both identify the recently dead—making it a new tool for forensic identification or ancestry investigation—and determine how ancient humans migrated around the globe,” explained Antti Sajantila, professor of genetic medicine. To read about how the tuberculosis bacterium may have first arrived in the Americas, go to "Across the Atlantic by Flipper."

Signs of Disease Found in 400-Year-Old Hearts

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS—Excavation of the basement of the Convent of the Jacobins in Rennes, France, yielded several elite burial vaults from the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century, and five heart-shaped lead urns, each of which contained a preserved human heart. After embalming materials were removed from the hearts and they were rehydrated, the organs were studied by a team of researchers who also used MRI and CT technology to create images of them. One heart showed no signs of disease, and another one was too poorly preserved to be studied. “Since four of the five hearts were very well preserved, we were able to see signs of present-day heart conditions, such as plaque and atherosclerosis, [in three of the hearts],” radiologist Fatima-Zohra Mokrane of the University Hospital of Toulouse said in a press release. To read more about the heart burials in Rennes, go to "For the Love of a Noblewoman."

DNA Analysis of the “Viste Individual” Is Underway

STAVANGER, NORWAY—As part of a project to learn about prehistoric migration patterns in Scandinavia, scientists in a Swedish laboratory will attempt to extract and analyze DNA from the skull of “Viste Boy,” the 8,200-year-old remains of an adolescent discovered in southwestern Norway. They will also test 6,000-year-old human remains from Sømmevågen, which is also located in southern Norway, and other human bones that were discovered in the cave at Viste where “Viste Boy” was found. “It’s very exciting to have two Stone Age skeletons from areas that are as close to each other as Viste and Sømmevågen, but where there is approximately a 2,000-year age difference,” osteoarchaeologist Sean D. Denham from the Museum of Archaeology at the University of Stavanger said in a press release. The analysis may also reveal if Viste Boy is actually a girl. “It will be an exciting process, and the Viste Individual may require extra time as we know so little about its history since its discovery. Some preservation may be necessary, and we can actually see that one bone is not real. But we don’t know why, how, or when the copy was made,” added conservator Hege Hollund. To read about new findings regarding a well-known burial in Denmark, go to "Bronze Age Traveler."

Tuesday, December 01

Floridians Responded to Rising Sea Levels in Prehistory

GAINESVILLE, FLORIDA—Erosion of an ancient coastal burial ground near Cedar Key sent archaeologists led by Ken Sassaman of the University of Florida to excavate the graves and move the human remains before they were lost. He found, however, that the 32 graves had been moved to that location long ago from somewhere else. “They’re digging up their dead that are washing away into the Gulf of Mexico and relocating them to the place they’re going to move to. These guys, they never abandoned the coast. They were adaptive,” Sassaman told the Tampa Bay Times. He noted that shell mounds in the Lower Suwannee and Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuges show that when the sea levels were higher, people ate oysters, then switched to clams when the seas receded and more freshwater was present. Sassaman also thinks that ancient coastal dwellers used shells to build mounds and rings around their villages to protect them from rising waters. Those structures could have been used for generations. “They came back and used the places their predecessors used,” he explained. To read about an excavation in Florida that unearthed artifacts spanning a period of 10,000 years, go to "Florida History Springs Forth."

Egyptian Mummy Receives High-Tech Scan

STANFORD, CALIFORNIA—A 3,200-year-old Egyptian mummy currently housed at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco was transported to the Stanford University School of Medicine for a computed tomography (CT) scan. The mummy, known as Hatason, was brought to the United States in the late nineteenth century in a wooden coffin that depicts a woman wearing everyday clothing. “When mummies came into the collections of most museums in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they were dated and sexed based upon the coffin the mummy was found in. We now know that rampant reuse of coffins means these assumptions may be wrong,” Stanford Egyptologist Anne Austin told the Stanford Medicine News Center. The scans revealed the mummy’s brain had been left intact. The researchers also saw that the body had disintegrated within the wrappings. The size of the skull, however, suggests that this was indeed a young woman. Jonathan Elias, director of the Akhmim Mummy Studies Consortium, thinks this mummy dates to the New Kingdom period, between the sixteenth and eleventh centuries B.C. “In mummies manufactured after a certain time, there is excerebration almost 100 percent of the time. But we have no excerebration,” he explained. To read more about CT scanning and other investigations of mummies, go to "Heart Attack of the Mummies."

Doors Under the Templo Mayor May Lead to Emperors’ Cremains

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO—A passageway with two sealed chambers that may hold the cremated remains of Aztec emperors has been found in the 27-foot-long tunnel under the Templo Mayor complex. The passageway, which is about 18 inches wide and five feet tall, leads deep into the ceremonial platform known as the Cuauhxicalco, where rulers’ remains are thought to have been cremated. “What we are speculating is that behind these sealed-up entrances there could be two small chambers with the incinerated remains of some rulers of Tenochtitlan, like Moctezuma I and his successors, Axayacatl and Tízoc, given the relative dating of the surrounding constructions,” Leonardo Lopez Lujan of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History told the Associated Press. To read more, go to "Under Mexico City: Templo Mayor."

Fossilized Wild Peach Pits Discovered in China

UNIVERSITY PARK, PENNSYLVANIA—Tao Su of the Xishuangbanna Tropical Garden discovered eight well-preserved fossilized peach pits more than 2.5 million years old near his home in southwest China when road construction crews exposed a rock outcrop dating to the late Pliocene. Archaeological evidence suggests that peaches were domesticated in China some 8,000 years ago, but remains of wild peaches had not been found until now. Su took the peach pits to Penn State, where they were dated and studied while he was a visiting scholar. “Is the peach we see today something that resulted from artificial breeding under agriculture since prehistory, or did it evolve under natural selection? The answer is really both,” Peter Wilf of Penn State University said in a press release. “If you imagine the smallest commercial peach today, that’s what these would look like. It’s something that would have had a fleshy, edible fruit around it. It must have been delicious,” he added. To read about looting of ancient sites in China, go to "Letter from China: Tomb Raider Chronicles."

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."