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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, February 23

Spanish Conquest of Panama Reflected in Men’s Genes

PANAMÁ CITY, PANAMÁ—According to a press release from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, a new genetic study of 408 Panamanian men reveals that overall, only 22 percent of them carry Y-chromosomes of native origin. Sixty percent of the men’s Y-chromosomes, which are inherited from fathers, originated in West Eurasia and North Africa. Six percent of the Y-chromosomes came from sub-Saharan Africa, and two percent came from South Asia. In contrast, most of the men’s mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited through the maternal line, was of indigenous origin. Very few of the men had European mitochondrial DNA. The team of geneticists, including Antonio Torroni of the University of Pavia, also found that the percentage of Panamanian men with Eurasian Y-chromosomes varied regionally. In the early sixteenth century, most of the Spaniards who came to Panama settled on the Pacific coast, driving the indigenous groups that survived the invasion to the mountains and the Caribbean coast. Today, as many as 70 percent of Panamanian men living on the Pacific coast have Eurasian Y-chromosomes. Yet on the Caribbean side, as many as 88 percent of men carry indigenous Y-chromosomes. And as many as 44 percent of the men living in a region inhabited by escaped slaves now carry sub-Saharan Y-chromosomes. To read in-depth about archaeology in Panama, go to "Pirates of the Original Panama Canal."

Human Remains Unearthed at Dorchester Prison

DORSET, ENGLAND—Human remains have been unearthed at the site of Dorchester Prison, where the writer Thomas Hardy, who was 16 years old at the time, witnessed the hanging of Martha Brown in August 1856. Brown had been convicted of killing her violent husband, and some think that her story inspired Hardy’s novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles, which was published in 1891. Hardy enthusiasts reportedly think that the newly discovered remains may be Brown. “At this stage, it is not possible to determine whether the remains are male or female, as the remains have not been removed for recording or analysis,” a spokesperson for Cotswold Archaeology told The Guardian. To read more about historical archaeology in Britain, go to "Haunt of the Resurrection Man."

Middle Kingdom Tomb Discovered in Egypt’s El-Lisht

CAIRO, EGYPT—A team of American archaeologists led by Sarah Parcak of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, working with Egyptian archaeologists, discovered the 12th Dynasty tomb of King Senusret I’s stamp bearer to the south of his pyramid. “The mission has been working on documenting and preserving the result of illicit digs which took place after the 25th of January 2011 turmoil,” Ministry of Antiquities Mamdouh El-Damaty told the Luxor Times. Mohamed Youssef, director of the Dahshur necropolis, told Ahram Online that the tomb had been carved into the bedrock and has a mud brick ramp. Engravings on the tomb walls depict the stamp bearer hunting, at work, and with his family. Parcak is also training Egyptian archaeologists in the use of satellites to protect archaeological sites. To read in-depth about recent Egyptological discoveries, go to "The Cult of Amun."

New Digital Tools Developed for the Dead Sea Scrolls

JERUSALEM—The Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library of the Israel Antiquities Authority will be linked to the Qumran Lexicon Project of the Göttingen Academy of Sciences and Humanities in a project that will create a virtual workspace for scholars to work together to study the Dead Sea Scrolls. The scrolls, discovered between 1946 and 1956 in the Qumran Caves, consist of religious literature, including texts of the modern Hebrew Bible, that date from the third century B.C. to the first century A.D. Researchers will be able to access the original texts of the scrolls, translations, high-resolution images, dictionary entries, and parallel texts. Advanced digital tools will also be developed to help scholars find joins in the thousands of manuscript fragments. To read about a major dig in Israel, go to "Excavating Tel Kedesh."

Monday, February 22

Alaska’s Ancient Hunter-Gatherer Ecology Studied

SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO—A study of the food web on Sanak Island, Alaska, has been conducted by a team of ecologists and archaeologists led by Jennifer Dunne of the Santa Fe Institute. “It’s the first highly detailed ecological network data to include humans,” Dunne said in a press release. The team studied ecological data, bones and shells from ancient middens on the island, and collected oral histories from Aleut elders. The researchers found that over a period of 7,000 years, the Sanak Aleuts used about one quarter of the species, which is far more species than other predators in the food web. And when a favored prey decreased in population due to hunting or environmental conditions, the Aleuts switched to an alternative food source, allowing the prey populations to bounce back. “It’s a very stabilizing behavior in the system,” Dunne explained. Ancient technologies such as fish hooks, spears, and kayaks did not put the kind of pressure on food webs that modern fisheries do, however. Intensive fishing now drives the value of prey up, leading to increased harvesting. For more about archaeology in Alaska, go to "Cultural Revival."

New Dates Obtained for Great Ape Fossils From Ethiopia

LOS ALAMOS, NEW MEXICO—New dates have been obtained for fossils discovered in Ethiopia’s Chorora Formation. Argon dating and paleomagnetic methods, combined with fieldwork, volcanic ash chemistry, and geochronology, suggest that the nine gorilla-like teeth of Chororapithecus abyssinicus, a common ancestor of apes and humans, are younger than previously thought. “Our analysis of C. abyssinicus fossils reveals the ape to be only eight million years old, younger than previously thought. This is the time period when human and African ape lines were thought to have split, but no fossils from this period had been found until now,” geologist Giday WoldeGabriel of the Los Alamos National Laboratory said in a press release. For more, go to "Cultured Cousins?"

Ancestor of Cultivated Peanuts Identified in Bolivia

ATHENS, GEORGIA—Today’s cultivated peanut plants are a hybrid of two very similar wild plants, Arachis duranensis and Arachis ipaensis. So, researchers led by David Bertioli of the Universidade de Brasília and the University of Georgia, working with the International Peanut Genome Initiative, used the genomes of the wild plants as a first step in mapping the two separate sub-genomes carried by the modern peanut. The study showed that one of the sub-genomes of cultivated peanuts is nearly identical to A. ipaensis. “It’s almost as if we had traveled back in time and sampled the same plant that gave rise to cultivated peanuts from the gardens of these ancient people,” Bertioli said in a press release. When the A. ipaensis sample was collected by botanists in 1971, it was growing in a small population in an isolated area of Bolivia. The scientists think that hunter gatherers planted A. ipaensis at the site some 10,000 years ago, and that a bee may have carried out the hybridization. “It’s the only place where A and B genome species have ever been found growing close together,” he said. To learn about how the Incas kept track of crops including peanuts, go to "Reading an Inca Archive."

Chinese Cockroaches Made an Early Impression in Japan

KUMAMOTO, JAPAN—Researchers led by Hiroki Obata of Kumamoto University made silicon casts of 4,000-year-old pottery unearthed from the late Jomon Period site of Motonabaru, located in southern Japan. They then used a scanning electron microscope to examine the surfaces of the resulting replicas, and found that the impressions were made by egg cases left by the smoky brown cockroach, or Periplaneta fuliginosa. Native to southern China, the smoky brown cockroach was first identified in Japanese artworks and literature from the eighteenth century. Earlier depictions of roaches were thought to represent domestic varieties. Obata and his colleagues have also found impressions left by the maize weevil in pottery from the site. “The maize weevil is a type of harmful insect that eats stored starch food materials such as acorns or chestnuts, which are known to be typical stored food for that period in Japan. The existence of many maize weevils and cockroaches shows that these ancient humans lived settled lifestyles,” he explained. For more on the history of insects, go to "Ant Explorers."

Friday, February 19

Humans Burned Madagascar’s Forests 1,000 Years Ago

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS—New research is showing that widespread loss of forests in Madagascar around 1,000 years ago was not caused by climate change, but was the result of deliberate fires set by human settlers. Scientists from MIT and the University of Massachusetts Amherst made the discovery after studying two stalagmites from a cave in northern Madagascar. Stalagmites absorb water that percolates from the surface into caves, and change in their chemical composition reflects a region's environmental history. The team found that around 1,000 years ago, when cattle were first introduced to the island, carbon isotope ratios in the stalagmites suddenly went from levels consistent with forests to those typical of grasslands. Oxygen isotopes remained unchanged, meaning rainfall and the general climate remained the same. The dramatic shift could only be explained by humans setting fire to the forests to clear land for pasture. "We went in expecting to just tell a climate change story, and were surprised to see a huge carbon isotope change in both stalagmites,” said paleoclimatologist David McGee in an MIT press release. “Both the speed at which this shift occurred and the fact that there’s no real climate signal suggest human involvement.” To read in-depth about archaeology being done on the east coast of Africa, go to "Stone Towns of the Swahili Coast." 

Radiocarbon Dating Confirms World’s Oldest Dress

LONDON, ENGLAND—Radiocarbon dating of a minute sample of the Tarkhan Dress, an ancient Egyptian linen shirt, has confirmed that it is the oldest known woven garment, having been made between 3484 and 3102 B.C. Originally excavated in 1913 from a First Dynasty tomb at the Tarkhan necropolis south of Cairo, the dress’s dimensions indicate it was made for a teenager or slim woman. Wear on the garment indicates that it was likely used before it was buried. “The survival of highly perishable textiles in the archaeological record is exceptional, the survival of complete, or almost complete, articles of clothing like the Tarkhan Dress is even more remarkable,” said Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology curator Alice Stevenson in a University College London press release. “We’ve always suspected that the dress dated from the First Dynasty but haven’t been able to confirm this as the sample previously needed for testing would have caused too much damage to the dress.” To read more about ancient garments, go to "World's Oldest Pants."

Mysterious Ancient Wall Documented in Jordan

AMMAN, JORDAN—Specialists from the Aerial Archaeology in Jordan Project have completed photographing the remains of an ancient wall that together with spurs and sections of a parallel wall runs 93 miles, reports LiveScience. The wall, now largely in ruins, once stood a little over three feet tall, and has some 100 towers built alongside it standing six to twelve feet tall. Given the wall's height, it is unlikely the towers had a defensive purpose. University of Western Australia archaeologist David Kennedy speculates they might have been watch posts or temporary shelters, or even hunters' blinds. The wall itself, dubbed “Khatt Shebib” (or Shebib’s Wall, after a pre-Islamic prince who was traditionally believed to have constructed the site) might have served as a boundary between land used by farming and nomadic peoples. Scholars believe it was probably built sometime between the Nabatean period (312 B.C.-A.D. 106) and the Umayyad period (A.D. 661-750), but more fieldwork is needed to determine its precise function. To read about a massive wall built in the Caucasus, go to "The Shah's Great Wall."   

Bronze Age Wheel Discovered in England

PETERBOROUGH, ENGLAND—Archaeologists excavating the Bronze Age site of Must Farm in Cambridgeshire have unearthed a wooden wheel dating from 1100 to 800 B.C. The oldest complete example ever found in Britain, the wheel was discovered amid the remains of houses that had been built on stilts above a wetland, or fen. At some point, the houses were burned and then collapsed into a river, where silt preserved the dwellings' timbers and a number of artifacts. The remains of a horse have also been discovered at the site, and it is possible the wheel belonged to a horse-drawn cart. "The existence of this wheel expands our understanding of Late Bronze Age technology, and the level of sophistication of the lives of people living on the edge of the Fens 3,000 years ago," Historic England's Duncan Wilson told the BBC. To read more about prehistoric archaeology in the British Isles, go to "Letter From Wales: Hillforts of the Iron Age."