Archaeology Magazine

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, March 13

Study of Foot Bones May Offer Evolutionary Insights

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA—An international team of scientists has combined skills in visualization techniques, engineering principles, and statistical analysis to study the structure of long bones and human bipedalism. The project begins with documenting the differences between the feet of living humans and other apes, in particular the shaft of the foot bone that is connected to the big toe, known as the hallucal metatarsal in modern humans, gorillas, and chimpanzees. In humans, the big toe propels walking and running. In other apes, the big toe is more thumb-like and used for grasping and climbing. “In our first study, we have documented exciting structural differences between humans, chimpanzees, and gorillas, some of which were predictable based on their gait differences. The unexpected structural differences we observed are equally intriguing. We are eager now to begin examining how far back in evolutionary time these differences can be traced,” said Kristian Carlson of the University of Witwatersrand. To read about the evolution of a very different motion, throwing, see "No Changeups on the Savannah." 

Paintings Discovered in Spain’s Aurea Cave

CANTABRIA, SPAIN—Cavers in northern Cantabria discovered Paleolithic paintings in Aurea Cave, near the River Deva, according to a statement made by culture minister Miguel Angel Serna and reported in The Local. The reoccurring images, found in different parts of the cave, are made up of red, vertical lines and dots. Some of the paintings appear to have been made with a fingertip, while others may have been produced by blowing paint onto the wall. “A finding of these characteristics is not found every day, and represents a significant contribution to our heritage, making Cantabria the European capital of rock art,” Serna said. To read an interview with the director Werner Herzog about Paleolithic art, see "The Birth of Art."

Humans Survived in the Rainforest Earlier Than Thought

OXFORD, ENGLAND—The teeth of 26 individuals who lived as far back as 20,000 years ago were analyzed by a team of scientists from Sri Lanka, Oxford University, and the University of Bradford. All of the samples came from three archaeological sites in Sri Lanka that are today surrounded by either dense rainforest or more open terrain. It had been thought that humans did not inhabit tropical rainforests for any length of time until 8,000 years ago, but the teeth indicate that all of the people in the sample ate a diet sourced from slightly open ‘intermediate rainforest’ environments. Two of the teeth, both around 3,000 years old, showed a recognizable signature of a diet from open grassland. This was at the beginning of the Iron Age, when agriculture developed in the region. “This is the first study to directly test how much early human forest foragers depended on the rainforest for their diet. The results are significant in showing that early humans in Sri Lanka were able to live almost entirely on food found in the rainforest without the need to move into other environments. Our earliest human ancestors were clearly able to successfully adapt to different extreme environments,” Patrick Roberts of Oxford’s Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art said in a University of Oxford press release. To read more about the archaeology of rainforests, see "Amazonian Harvest."

Medieval Log Buildings Unearthed in Kyiv

KYIV, UKRAINE—Medieval Kyiv was larger than had been thought. Last month, a construction project in one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city uncovered a street and remains of log buildings in wet ground near the Dnipro River. “Podil is very well studied, which is why everyone was very surprised when we first saw the fragments of the twelfth-century wooden fence and house,” archaeologist Ivan Zotsenko told the Kyiv Post. Continued excavation of the area, thought to have been a densely populated street, has unearthed several wooden fences, coins, beads, pots, and an amphora. “The main value of the archaeological finding is that the medieval Kyiv borders have become more clear,” Zotsenko said. The construction project has been halted and plans for a museum on the site are being considered. To read about another recent significant discovery in Ukraine, see "Massive 6,000-Year-Old Temple Unearthed."

Thursday, March 12

Homo Erectus Tooth Rediscovered in Sweden

UPPSALA, SWEDEN—Two 500,000-year-old teeth from “Peking Man” were found in the 1920s by Otto Zdansky of Uppsala University in caves in Zhoukoudian near Beijing. The teeth, along with a third unearthed in the 1950s, were housed in the Museum of Evolution in Uppsala. Other material from the excavation that were housed in China were lost during World War II. But some of the boxes of materials sent to the university from the excavations at Zhoukoudian were never unpacked. Then in 2011, Per Ahlberg, Martin Kundrat, and Jan Ove Ebbestad started going through the boxes that were in storage at Uppsala University and found a Homo erectus tooth. They invited paleontologists Liu Wu and Tong Haowen of the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing to study it. “It is a spectacular find. We can see numerous details that tell us about this individual’s life. The crown of the tooth is relatively small, which indicates that it belonged to a woman. The tooth is quite worn, so the individual must have been quite old when she died. In addition, two large chips have been knocked out of the enamel, as if hit by something, or perhaps by biting into something really hard such as a bone or a hard nut. At least one of the chips was old when the individual died, since it is partly worn down,” Ahlberg said. “The lost materials of the Peking Man remain one of palaeontology’s greatest mysteries and most tragic losses,” he added. To read more about the lost fossils, see "Searching for Peking Man."

World’s Oldest Pretzel Found in Bavaria

REGENSBURG, GERMANY—Some eighteenth-century baked goods that were apparently thrown away because they were burnt have been discovered in eastern Bavaria. The remains of a pretzel, a roll, and a croissant, all dating to some 250 years ago, were found at a site where the remains of a wooden house thought to be 1,200 years old have also been unearthed. “This discovery is really extraordinary, because it depicts a snippet of everyday life,” Joachim Wolbergs, mayor of Regensburg, told The Local. Pretzels were first made in monasteries during the Middle Ages, and originally their form was intended to represent the crossed arms of a monk. The pretzel's simple recipe, water and flour, meant it could be eaten during Lent, when Christians were forbidden to eat dairy products or eggs. Pretzels are now often eaten in southern Germany for breakfast with white sausage and sweet mustard. For more on archaeology and the culinary arts, see "The Gladiator Diet."

Wednesday, March 11

Greek and Roman Coins Rediscovered in Buffalo

BUFFALO, NEW YORK—Classicist Philip Kiernan of The State University of New York at Buffalo heard a rumor that there were Greek and Roman coins housed in the archives at the school’s libraries. Three years later he found the 40 silver Greek coins, three gold Greek coins, and a dozen Roman gold coins—one from each era of the first 12 Roman emperors, including a rare coin of the emperor Otho, who reigned for just three months. "I must have been the first person to touch them in almost 40 years,” he said. The coin collection, which also includes coins from early America and England, had been donated to the University at Buffalo Libraries Special Collections as part of a collection of rare books in 1935. To read about a cache of similar coins discovered in a cave in Israel, see "Artifact: Roman Coins."

Neanderthals Made Jewelry with Eagle Talons

LAWRENCE, KANSAS—A set of polished eagle talons unearthed in Croatia more than 100 years ago have been reexamined and found to bear marks suggesting that Neanderthals made jewelry with them some 130,000 years ago. “The more we know about them the more sophisticated they’ve become,” said David Frayer, a professor emeritus of the University of Kansaswhose team included scientists from the Croatian Natural History Museum and the Croatian Academy of Science and Arts. The set of bones, which represents three or four white-tailed eagles, was discovered in a single level at the well-documented Krapina Neanderthal site, and dated to at least 80,000 years earlier than the presence of modern humans in Europe. “There’s just no doubt that they made it, and it was a necklace or bracelet or piece of jewelry,” he said. “It really shows a level of technical sophistication, too.” To read in-depth about our close cousins, see "Should We Clone Neanderthals?"

Human Ancestors Had Diverse Body Structures

COLUMBIA, MISSOURI—The 1.9 million-year-old pelvis and femur fossils of an early human ancestor suggest that there was greater diversity in the human family tree than had been thought. “They differed not only in their faces and jaws, but in the rest of their bodies too,” said Carol Ward of the the University of Missouri School of Medicine. “The old depiction of linear evolution from ape to human with single steps in between is proving to be inaccurate. We are finding that evolution seemed to be experimenting with different human physical traits in different species before ending up with Homo sapiens.” The new fossils, which all came from one individual unearthed in Kenya, include a hip joint like other Homo species, but the pelvis and thigh bone are thinner than those of Homo erectus, and may have come from the earlier Homo rudolfensis, or Homo habilis. “This doesn’t necessarily mean that these early human ancestors moved or lived differently, but it does suggest that they were a distinct species that could have been identified not just from looking at their faces and jaws, but by seeing their body shapes as well,” she explained. For more on the evolutionary history of early humans, see "Our Tangled Ancestory."