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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, January 19

Study Suggests Global Cooling Prevented by Early Farming

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA—Arctic ice-core climate data from the past 800,000 years supports the idea that human activity has had a warming effect that “cancelled most or all of a natural cooling that should have occurred,” William Ruddiman of the University of Virginia said in UVA Today. He explains that during past interglacial periods, carbon dioxide and methane levels decreased, cooling the climate to make the next glacial period possible. But during the past 12,000 years, these gas levels have risen. Ruddiman argues that carbon dioxide levels began rising 7,000 years ago with the burning of forests to clear land for agriculture, and methane levels began rising 5,000 years ago, with the proliferation of livestock farming and early rice irrigation. “After 12 years of debate about whether the climate of the last several thousand years has been entirely natural or in considerable part the result of early agriculture, converging evidence from several scientific disciplines points to a major anthropogenic influence,” Ruddiman said. For more on climate and archaeology, go to "Surviving the Little Ice Age."

Genomes of Headless Romans Studied

YORK, ENGLAND—Seven skeletons were selected from the more than 80 unearthed at a Roman-era cemetery in Driffield Terrace for whole genome analysis. All of the men buried in the cemetery had been under the age of 45 at the time of death, and are thought to have been gladiators, soldiers, or criminals. Many of them had been decapitated. Previous studies of the remains have shown that the men endured childhood deprivation, were taller than average for Roman Britain, suffered battle trauma, and may have grown up outside Britain. Most of the men in the new study had genomes similar to that of an Iron Age woman whose remains were unearthed in East Yorkshire. “Whichever the identity of the enigmatic headless Romans from York, our sample of the genomes of seven of them, when combined with isotopic evidence, indicate six to be of British origin and one to have origins in the Middle East. It confirms the cosmopolitan character of the Roman Empire even at its most northerly extent,” Matthew Collins of the University of York said in a press release. To read more about the empire's rise, go to "Rome's Imperial Port."

Mutations Accumulated During Early Migrations Out of Africa

LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND—Modern humans are thought to have left southern Africa in small groups some 100,000 years ago. Bands of people then traveled on to Asia, and eventually crossed the Bering Strait to colonize the Americas. But the process of natural selection is more powerful in larger populations. Laurent Excoffier of the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics (SIB) and the University of Bern, and an international team of scientists, employed next-generation sequencing (NGS) technology to examine the genomes of individuals from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Namibia, Algeria, Pakistan, Cambodia, Siberia, and Mexico, and found that the farther away from southern Africa an individual lives, the higher the number of slightly deleterious mutations an individual is likely to have. “We find that mildly deleterious mutations have evolved as if they were neutral during the out-of-Africa expansion, which lasted probably for more than a thousand generations. Contrastingly, very harmful mutations are found at similar frequencies in all individuals of the world, as if there was a maximum threshold any individual can stand,” SIB member Stephan Peischl said in a press release. To read about the first colonizers of the New World, go to "America, in the Beginning.

Plague Bacteria May Have Persisted in Europe for 300 Years

MUNICH, GERMANY—A team led by Lisa Seifert of Ludwig Maximillian University obtained DNA samples from 30 plague victims who died in Germany during the second plague pandemic, which occurred from the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries. The scientists found that eight of the 30 skeletons tested positive for the bacteria Yersinia pestis, whose role in the second plague pandemic has been debated. The bacteria’s genetic material was highly similar to that of plague victims from other European countries. In addition, the eight samples had an identical Y. pestis genotype. It has been thought that Y. pestis arrived from Central Asia in multiple waves during the second pandemic, but these results, reported in PLOS ONE, suggest that there may have also been a yet unknown reservoir host in Europe. To read more, go to "A Parisian Plague." 

Friday, January 15

Images in France’s Chauvet Cave May Depict Volcanic Eruptions

GIF-SUR-YVETTE, FRANCE—Spray-like paintings in Chauvet-Pont D’Arc Cave thought to be around 36,000 years old may be the oldest-known depictions of a volcanic eruption. Geoscientist Sebastien Nomade of the University of Paris-Saclay sampled rocks in three volcanic centers at the Bas-Vivarais volcanic field, which lies some 20 miles from the cave in southern France. He and his team members measured the levels of different isotopes of radioactive argon gas in the samples, and determined that the region had been lit up by a series of strombolian eruptions between 19,000 and 43,000 years ago. Strombolian eruptions, named for Italy’s Stromboli volcano, spew lava more than 200 yards into the sky. “You just have to climb the small hill on top of Chauvet, and looking north you see the volcanoes. During the night you could see them glowing and you could hear the sound of the volcanic eruption,” Nomade told Nature News. He adds that there’s no way to prove that the images depict volcanic eruptions, “but for us it’s the hypothesis which is the most probable.” For more, go to "A Chauvet Primer."

Neolithic Sleeping Mat Discovered in China

ZHEJIANG PROVINCE, CHINA—A woven mat discovered at a wet Neolithic site in east China has been dated to about 7,000 years ago, according to a report by the Xinhua News Agency. That’s more than 2,000 years older than silk textiles discovered in Zhejiang Province, and 1,000 years older than fabric unearthed in Jiangsu Province, to the north. No grain residue was detected on the flat, reed mat. “Our guess is that our ancestors used it as a cover or bedding. Its exact use is open to discussion,” said Zhang Jianping of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. To read about discoveries in China dating back 20,000 years, go to "The First Pots." 

Rock Art in Italian Alps Recorded in 3-D

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—Archaeologists from seven different institutions have used 3-D technology to record the rock art of the Valcamonica Valley, located over an area of three square miles in the Italian Alps. Most of the 150,000 images, known as Pitoti, or little puppets, date to the Iron Age, but they span a period of 4,000 years reaching back to the Neolithic period. The images, which included depictions of people, sheep, deer, horses, and dogs, were carved on sandstone rocks that were smoothed when glaciers crossed the landscape. “When I first saw the Pitoti, my immediate thought was that these are frames for a film. Initially I envisaged an animated film but over time I’ve come to realize that the quality of color, the play of light and shadow, and the texture of the rocks, make the Pitoti much more sophisticated than 2-D animated graphics. That’s why we need to work in 3-D,” Frederick Baker of the University of Cambridge said in a press release. To read more about 3-D imaging in archaeology, go to "The Past in High-Def."

New Evidence Suggests People Lived in the Arctic 45,000 Years Ago

ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA—The partial frozen carcass of a mammoth was discovered near the eastern shore of Yenisei Bay in the central Siberian Arctic in 2012 by an 11-year-old boy. Scientists, led by Alexei Tikhonov of the Russian Academy of Sciences, excavated the mammoth remains, and found injuries made by sharp weapon tips to the ribs and right mandible, and signs of chopping to the outside of the right tusk. “This is a rare case for unequivocal evidence for clear human involvement,” Vladimir Pitulko of the Russian Academy of Science told Science. Radiocarbon dating of collagen from the tibia, bone, hair, and muscle tissue indicate that the animal died some 45,000 years ago, or 10,000 years earlier than it had been thought modern humans lived in the Eurasian Arctic. The find also indicates that people had made the necessary adaptations in cooperation, hunting, tool making, shelter building, and clothing production in order to live in such a harsh environment. To read about mammoth remains discovered on a Michigan farm, go to "Leftover Mammoth."

Thursday, January 14

Intact Horse Skeleton Unearthed Near Athens

ATHENS, GREECE—A well-preserved skeleton of a horse has been unearthed in a necropolis in southern Greece. “In the Faliro necropolis we have found four complete horse burials, as well as parts of other skeletons, therefore it is not something rare for the area. What is rare and surprised us was the degree of preservation of the specific skeleton, which even has its hooves,” Stella Chrysoulaki, head of Greece’s West Attica, Piraeus, and the Islands Ephorate, told The Athens News Agency. “For zoo-archaeologists or a university, this find could be an excellent opportunity for a study. Having such a large number of skeletons—four is quite a number—such a study could reach a number of conclusions on the breeds and the evolution of the species,” she added. More than 100 burials have been found in the cemetery, which dates back to the eighth century B.C. To read more about the role of horses in the Greco-Roman world, go to "Sport and Spectacle."

Nineteenth-Century Shipwreck Discovered in Indian Ocean

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA—A shipwreck thought to date to the nineteenth century has been discovered in the Indian Ocean by the team searching for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. The plane disappeared on March 8, 2014, while traveling from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The search for the plane, over an area of 46,000 square miles, is being directed by Australia’s Joint Agency Coordination Center (JACC). This is the second historic shipwreck found by the search teams, who used an autonomous underwater vehicle with high-resolution sonar to collect additional information on the target. “The Shipwreck Galleries of the Western Australian Museum have conducted a preliminary review of some sonar imagery and advised that the vessel is likely to be a steel/iron vessel dating from the turn of the nineteenth century,” according to a statement by the JACC and reported by NPR. To read more about shipwrecks, go to "History's 10 Greatest Wrecks..."

Ötzi the Iceman’s Maternal Line May Be Extinct

BOLZANO, ITALY—A recent study of a DNA sample from the 5,300-year-old frozen mummy known as Ötzi the Iceman showed that his paternal genetic line, named G2a, is still present in modern populations. But a new study, conducted by researchers from the European Academy of Bolzano (EURAC), indicates that his genetic maternal line is now extinct. The researchers compared Ötzi’s ancient maternal line, named K1f, with 1,077 modern samples from the K1 lineage, including samples collected in the eastern Alps, which would presumably still be connected to the Iceman. An earlier study of Ötzi’s mitochondrial DNA compared it to only 85 modern samples, none of which came from the eastern Alps. The new study concluded that the Iceman’s lineage and any that might have been close to it have died out. Comparison of Ötzi’s genetic material with other European Neolithic samples suggests that his paternal lineage arrived from the Near East some 8,000 years ago, and was very common in Europe, while his maternal lineage probably originated in, and only existed in, the Alps. To read more about Ötzi the Iceman, go to "Heart Attack of the Mummies."

Forensic Experts Offer Guidance on Identifying Past Child Abuse

RALEIGH, NORTH CAROLINA—Forensic scientists at North Carolina State University say that their analysis of the injuries of modern child abuse victims can be used to shed light on how children were treated in the past. “Unfortunately, we have a lot of experience in studying the skeletal remains of children in criminal investigations to determine how they were treated and how they died. We can use what we’ve learned in modern populations to provide insight into the behavior of historic and prehistoric populations—particularly in regard to child labor, child abuse, and child murder,” anthropologist Ann Ross said in NC State News. The research suggests that scientists can differentiate between children’s accidental and intentional injuries. “For example, some combinations of injuries are highly indicative of abuse, such as multiple rib fractures at different stages of healing. That’s a red flag,” Ross explained. And skeletal abnormalities in children, caused by conditions such as rickets and scurvy, can be caused by neglect. “Our goal here is to give biological anthropologists clinical methods to help them interpret skeletal remains based on the best scientific data,” she said. To read more about children in the archaeological record, go to "Child Burials - Carthage, Tunisia."