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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, February 29

Colon-Cancer Gene Discovered in 18th-Century Mummy

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL—An eighteenth-century Hungarian mummy has been found to have a genetic predisposition to colorectal cancer by a team led by Rina Rosin-Arbesfeld and Ella H. Sklan of Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine. The mummy was one of more than 265 found in the cool, dry crypts in use between 1731 and 1838 at a church in Vác, Hungary. The well-preserved soft tissues, paired with abundant archival information about the deceased, provide medical researchers with valuable samples. “Colorectal cancer is among the most common health hazards of modern times. And it has a proven genetic background. We wanted to discover whether it was the same mutation known to us today,” Rosin-Arbesfeld said in a press release. Colon cancer is also known to be caused by the modern problems of obesity, physical inactivity, and processed food. “Our data reveal that one of the mummies may have had a cancer mutation. This means that a genetic predisposition to cancer may have already existed in the pre-modern era,” Sklan said. “But we’ve found this mutation in only one individual so far. Additional studies with a larger sample size should be conducted in order to draw more meaningful conclusions,” she added. To read more about the study of cancer, go to "Ancient Oncology." 

Aboriginal Australian Y-Chromosomes Dated Back 50,000 Years

CAMBRIDGESHIRE, ENGLAND—A team of scientists made up of researchers from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and La Trobe University sequenced the Y-chromosomes of 13 Aboriginal Australian men, and found that their genetic history dates back some 50,000 years, to the time of the arrival of the first humans on the continent. It had been suggested by a previous genetic study that another wave of people arrived in Australia from India between four and five thousand years ago, at a time when changes in stone tool use have been noted in the archaeological record. Dingos are also thought to have arrived in Australia some 5,000 years ago. “The data show that Aboriginal Australian Y-chromosomes are very distinct from Indian ones. These results refute the previous Y-chromosome study, thus excluding this part of the puzzle as providing evidence for a prehistoric migration from India. Instead, the results are in agreement with the archaeological record about when people arrived in this part of the world,” Anders Bergstrom of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute said in a press release. To see examples of prehistoric Aboriginal art, go to "The Rock Art of Malarrak."

Fresco Fragments in Transylvania May Be a Copy of a Lost Work

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY—Historian Szilard Papp of the Istvan Moller Foundation thinks that fragments of a fresco in a late fourteenth-century church ruin in Transylvania may be a medieval copy of The Navicella, an early fourteenth-century mosaic by Giotto di Bondone. The original artwork was installed above the entrance arcade of Old Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The original was destroyed when the basilica was rebuilt in the seventeenth century, although three copies of the image, which depicts the Christian Christ walking on water before his apostles in a boat, are known to exist in France and Italy. Papp says a sketch of the mosaic must have made its way to Transylvania. “This is definitely the fourth,” he told the AFP. “It is astonishing that such a major work was reproduced in a small village church on the periphery of western Christianity at that time, so far from Rome,” he added. To read about an isolated medieval Christian settlement in the Middle East, go to "Hidden Christian Community."

Friday, February 26

Shark Image Found on 2,200-Year-Old Sword in Japan

TOTTORI, JAPAN—A small image of shark has been discovered engraved on the blade of a bronze sword that was donated to the Tottori Prefectural Museum more than 25 years ago. The weapon’s blade dates to the second century B.C., but researchers do not know where it was found. Similar images of sharks have been found on pottery and wooden objects from the Yayoi Pottery Culture (300 B.C.-A.D. 300) in the region, but this is the first time that a shark has been spotted on a bronze artifact from the period. “Sharks repeatedly shed and replace their teeth. Shark meat also is rich in ammonia, which makes it difficult to go rotten. Perhaps sharks were a symbol of regeneration or longevity,” Isao Yumura of the Tottori Prefectural Archives told The Asahi Shimbun. To read about a Viking sword from Norway, go to "Artifact."

Intermediate Gut Microbiome Found in Traditional Agriculturalists

LA JOLLA, CALIFORNIA—Hunter-gatherers are known to have a more diverse gut microbiome than those who live in western-style industrialized societies. Microbial ecologist Andres Gomez of the J. Craig Venter Institute was studying the gut microbiomes of wild gorillas with the help of BaAka gorilla trackers, who live without western influences, when he and his colleagues decided to also collect samples from the BaAka, and from the Bantu community of the Central African Republic. The Bantu community is a traditional agriculturalist group that has incorporated some westernized lifestyle practices, such as the use of some flour-like products, domestic goat meat, antibiotics, and other therapeutic drugs. The researchers found that the Bantu gut microbiome is in an intermediate state between the microbiomes of the BaAka hunter-gatherers and western industrialized societies. “The BaAka microbiome is more similar to that of wild primates than it is to western humans,” Gomez said in a press release. The differences in the bacteria are involved in processing carbohydrates and foreign substances. “The study supports the idea that diet is the most important driver of microbiome composition in humans,” he explained. To read about hunter-gatherers in South America, go to "The Desert and the Dead."

Non-Destructive Testing Determines Diet From Teeth

CANTERBURY, ENGLAND—A team from the University of Kent, led by biological anthropologist Patrick Mahoney, used 3-D microscopic imaging to examine the teeth of children between the ages of one and eight years who lived near Canterbury Cathedral during the medieval period. Dental micro-wear texture analysis allowed the researchers to measure microscopic changes in the surface topography of the teeth without damaging them, and offered clues to how hard the food was that the children had been eating. The team found that weaning had begun for the youngest children, and that their diets became tougher at the age of four. By the age of six, the children were eating even harder foods. It had been thought that wealthier children had different diets than poorer children, but the variation in micro-wear texture surfaces suggests that diet did not vary with socio-economic status. For more on what can be learned from teeth, go to "Tracing Slave Origins."

Mesolithic Pendant Discovered in Britain

YORK, ENGLAND—An 11,000-year-old pendant has been discovered in lake-edge deposits at the Early Mesolithic site at Star Carr in North Yorkshire. It is triangular in shape, was carved from a single piece of shale, has a hole in one corner, and is engraved with a series of lines that scholars think could represent a tree, a map, a leaf, or tally marks. At first, the artifact was thought to be a natural stone, since the perforation was blocked by sediment. “It is unlike anything we have found in Britain from this period. We can only imagine who owned it, how they wore it, and what the engravings actually meant to them,” Nicky Milner of the University of York said in a press release. Shale beads, a piece of perforated amber, and two perforated animal teeth have also been recovered from the site. “The designs on our pendant are similar to those found in southern Scandinavia and other areas bordering the North Sea, showing a close cultural connection between northern European groups at this time,” added Chantal Conneller of the University of Manchester. To read about another find from the same area, go to "The Precious."

Thursday, February 25

Iron-Age Woman & Child Were Buried With Turtles

BISMIL, TURKEY—A burial at Kavu┼čan Höyük, a mound near the Tigris River, contained the 2,500-year-old remains of a woman aged between 45 and 55 years, and a six- or seven-year-old child. “A broken iron fibula grave good that was placed next to the skull may indicate that the child was a girl,” Rémi Berthon of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, and Güriz Kozbe of Batman University in Turkey, wrote in the journal Antiquity. At this time, researchers don’t know if the child and the woman were related, and there’s no evidence of trauma on the bones. “We know that the child and the woman were buried in a short time range because the woman’s skeleton, found just below the child, had not been disturbed when the child’s body was placed into the grave,” Berthon told Discovery News. The grave was surrounded with the remains of butchered turtles, including a spur-thighed tortoise, Euphrates softshell turtles, and Middle Eastern terrapins. “Although the Middle Eastern terrapin is very common in eastern Turkey, this is the first evidence of its use as a grave good. Finding Euphrates soft-shelled turtles in a burial is unprecedented as well,” he added. For more on archaeology in Turkey, go to "In Search of a Philosopher’s Stone."

Skeletons in France May Represent 8th-Century Arab Expansion

BORDEAUX, FRANCE—Three graves unearthed in southern France may reflect an Arab-Islamic presence north of the Pyrenees during the early Middle Ages. Yves Gleize of the French National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research and the University of Bordeaux, and Fanny Mendisco of the University of Bordeaux, examined three medieval graves in Nimes, France. The position of the bodies and the orientation of the heads towards Mecca appear to follow Islamic rites, and genetic testing of the remains suggests North African ancestry in the paternal line. Radiocarbon testing dates the skeletons to between the seventh and ninth centuries. “The joint archaeological, anthropological, and genetic analysis of three early medieval graves at Nimes provides evidence of burials linked with Muslim occupation during the eighth century in the south of France,” Gleize explained in a press release. For more on French archaeology, go to "Tomb of a Highborn Celt," one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top 10 Discoveries of 2015.

Hiker Discovers Canaanite Figurine at Tel Rehov

JERUSALEM—The Israel Antiquities Authority announced that a seven-year-old boy discovered a 3,400-year-old female figurine while hiking at Tel Rehov, located in northeastern Israel, with friends. “Ori returned home with the impressive figurine and the excitement was great. We explained to him this is an ancient artifact and that archaeological finds belong to the state,” his mother said in a press release. Amihai Mazar, director of the excavations at Tel Rehov and professor emeritus at Hebrew University, examined the artifact, which had been made by pressing clay into a mold. “It is typical of the Canaanite culture of the fifteenth to thirteenth centuries B.C. Some researchers think the figure depicted here is that of a real flesh and blood woman, and others view her as the fertility goddess Astarte, known from Canaanite sources and from the Bible,” he said. For more, go to "Egyptian Style in Ancient Canaan."

Great Ape Genetic Study Offers Clues to Human Past

LEICESTER, ENGLAND—Researchers led by Mark Jobling of the University of Leicester studied the Y-chromosomes, inherited from fathers, and mitochondrial DNA, inherited from mothers, of chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans. They then constructed genealogical trees for each species, and found that the ancestor of the chimpanzee Y-chromosome family tree lived more than one million years ago. In contrast, the so-called “Y-chromosomal Adam” for gorillas lived only 100,000 years ago. The shapes of the family trees are also very different. “The Y-chromosome tree for gorillas is very shallow, which fits with the idea that very few male gorillas (alpha males) father the offspring within groups. By contrast, the trees in chimpanzees and bonobos are very deep, which fits with the idea that males and females mate with each other more indiscriminately,” team member Pille Hallast of the University of Leicester said in a press release. The human family tree, which stretches back about 200,000 years, is shaped more like the gorilla tree than the chimpanzee, suggesting that over the course of evolution, humans practiced a polygynous system. For more, go to "Decoding Neanderthal Genetics."