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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Wednesday, September 24

The Search for the First Canadians

VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA—With the help of a robotic underwater vehicle, Quentin Mackie of the University of Victoria and his team have collected information from the sea floor off the coast of British Columbia that could represent evidence of the earliest human habitation in Canada. “We’re not quite ready to say for sure that we found something. We have really interesting-looking targets on the sea floor that, as an archaeologist, they look like they could be cultural,” he told The Calgary Herald. One of the scans resembles a wall of large stones placed in a line at a right angle to the stream bed to form a fish weir. “That’s pretty much the exact archetype of what we were looking for,” he said. To read about how some much later inhabitants of Canada lived, see ARCHAEOLOGY'S "Complete Cruciform Pit House Excavated in Canda."   

Genetic Study Offers Evidence of Polygyny in Human History

LEIPZIG, GERMANY—A new, more precise method of analyzing genetic variation within the Y chromosome has been employed by Mark Stoneking of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. He and his team tested DNA samples obtained from more than 600 men from 51 populations around the world, and compared the Y chromosomes, which are passed from father to son, with mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited from mothers. “We found that genetic differences between populations are indeed bigger for the [male] NRY than for [female] mtDNA, but not as big as some studies previously found, so the methods used do have an impact on the results,” Stoneking told Live Science. Overall, more women reproduced than men, and they often traveled to join their husbands’ families. “This often happens in human societies, because not all men are able to afford wives, or sometimes a few men will have many wives,” he said. Thus, the traveling mothers reduced the variability in mitochondrial DNA between the populations. The men, who stayed put, developed distinct genes in each population. To read more about the story of human evolution, see ARCHAEOLOGY'S "Our Tangled Ancestry."   

Lapita Gardens Were Necessary for Survival

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA—Isotopic analysis of skeletal remains from a cemetery on the tiny island of Uripiv off Vanuatu’s Malakula Island is providing information about the changes in the diet of the Lapita people who lived there over a period of 3,000 years. “We’ve been able to find burials there almost all the way through the sequence,” Stuart Bedford of Australian National University told ABC Science. The earliest Lapita settlers survived on wild resources such as fish, shellfish, marine turtles, wild birds, and fruit bats. Later inhabitants transitioned to growing plants such as yam, taro, and banana as the tortoises and birds became extinct. “There’s a combination of gardens being established and wild resources being impoverished,” Bedford said. Microfossil remains of yam, taro, and banana have been found in the soil and in the plaque on the teeth of the Lapita people. “There’s no yam or taro or banana naturally in Vanuatu so people had to bring them with them to establish gardens,” he added. To read about how the Lapita people practiced body modification, see ARCHAEOLOGY'S "Ancient Tattoos."   

Tuesday, September 23

Emperor Augustus’ Frescoes Restored in Rome

ROME, ITALY—A limited number of visitors to the Palatine Hill will now be able to view the restored frescoes in the homes of the Roman Emperor Augustus and his wife Livia. The 2.5 million euro project refreshed the well-preserved frescoes, which depict garlands of flowers on Pompeian red backgrounds, temples, and landscapes. “We had to tackle a host of problems which were all connected, from underground grottos to sewers—and I’m talking about a sewer system stretching over 35 hectares (86 acres),” Mariarosaria Barbera, Rome’s archaeological superintendent, told the AFP. By limiting the number of visitors, conservators will be able to control the amount of dust and humidity at the site. “Looking at the houses, the buildings he had built, we understand he was a man of power, of great strength, who knew what went into making a political man at the head of such a big empire,” said Cinzia Conti, head restorer. To read about the restoration of the frescoes of the famous Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii, see ARCHAEOLOGY's "Saving the Villa of the Mysteries."

Scientists Examine Kazakhstan’s Geoglyphs

  ISTANBUL, TURKEY—Irina Shevnina and Andrew Logvin of Kostanay University and colleagues from Vilnius University presented the initial results of their research into the more than 50 geoglyphs that cross northern Kazakhstan at the annual meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists. They have conducted archaeological investigations and ground-penetrating radar surveys, and they have taken aerial photographs of the geometric structures, which were initially spotted with satellite images. The earthen squares, rings, and crosses may have been used to mark ownership of land. One of the structures is the ancient swastika design fashioned from timber. Hearths and structures at the geoglyphs suggest that they could have been used in ritual activity. “As of today, we can say only one thing—the geoglyphs were built by ancient people. By whom and for what purpose, remains a mystery,” Shevnina and Logvin told Live Science. To read about Peru's famous geoglyphs, see ARCHAEOLOGY'S "Rituals of the Nasca Lines."  

43,500-Year-Old Aurignacian Tools Found at Willendorf

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—Stone tools recovered from the site where the 30,000-year-old Venus of Willendorf was discovered in 1908 have been dated to 43,500 years ago, making them the oldest-known artifacts made by modern humans in Europe. Soil analysis at Willendorf indicates that these early inhabitants lived in a cool, steppe-like environment with conifer trees distributed along river valleys. “The remarkably early date of the finds shows that modern humans and Neanderthals overlapped for much longer than we thought and that modern humans coped well with a variety of climates,” announced Philip Nigst of the University of Cambridge. He adds that the changes in the material culture of the last surviving Neanderthals took place at the same time that modern humans were present at Willendorf. “The timing of these events cannot be a coincidence,” he said. To read more about the Aurignacian period, see ARCHAEOLOGY'S "Interview: Werner Herzog on the Birth of Art."  

Did Fireside Tales Aid Social and Cultural Evolution?

SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH—Polly Wiessner of the University of Utah used notes and recordings of conversations collected in the 1970s to examine the content of daytime and nighttime conversations among the !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in northeast Namibia and northwest Botswana. She found that the daytime conversations focused mainly on complaints and criticisms about social relationships, economic concerns, jokes, and included a small percentage of stories. Evening conversations around campfires, however, centered on storytelling. “At night, people really let go, mellow out and seek entertainment. If there have been conflicts in the day, they overcome those and bond. Night conversation has more to do with stories, talking about the characteristics of people who are not present and who are in your broader networks, and thoughts about the spirit world and how it influences the human world. You have singing and dancing, too, which bonds groups,” she told Science Daily. Wiessner suggests that imaginative firelight activities spurred the cultural and social evolution of human ancestors. “We can’t tell about the past from the Bushmen. But these people live from hunting and gathering. For 99 percent of our evolution, this is how our ancestors lived. What transpires during the fire-lit night hours by hunter-gatherers? It helps answer the question of what fire-lit space contributes to human life.” To read about the challenges scientists face studying hunter-gatherer populations, see ARCHAEOLOGY'S "Tracking Hunter-Gatherers."  

Monday, September 22

Caryatids Fully Revealed in Amphipolis

AMPHIPOLIS, GREECE—The Greek Ministry of Culture announced that the caryatids flanking the second doorway at the Kasta Hill tomb site have been completely uncovered. Standing more than seven feet tall, their well-preserved feet wear kothornoi, or thick-soled shoes, that bear traces of red and yellow paint. According to a report in Live Science, parts of the statues’ broken hands and arms were recovered from the surrounding soil. The tomb is estimated to be 2,300 years old, and is thought to have been designed by Dinocrates, chief architect to Alexander the Great. It may contain the remains of someone from his inner circle. 

Teutonic Axes Discovered in Northern Poland

WARMIA AND MAZURY, POLAND—Engineers searching the Forest District Wipsowo with metal detectors for World War II artillery shells discovered three Teutonic battle axes dating to the late Middle Ages. The iron ax heads were found together among some tree roots. “It can be assumed that this is a deposit that someone left for better times. Perhaps the person hid the weapons, fled, and never returned to this place,” archaeologist Agata Trzop-Szczypiorska told Science & Scholarship in Poland. The engineers also recovered thousands of unexploded shells. “Probably when the Germans retreated before the Red Army in 1945, they blew up their ammunition storage. The force of the explosion threw the shells around,” head engineer Maciej Gorczyca explained. For more on World War II, see ARCHAEOLOGY'S "Archaeology of World War Two."  

Study Suggests Today’s Iberian Pig Resembles Its Ancestors

BARCELONA, SPAIN—A genetic sample obtained from early sixteenth-century pig remains suggests that today’s Iberian pig is closely related to Spain’s ancient pigs. “Although it is a very fragmented sample, the gene sequence offers very interesting information,” Miguel Perez-Enciso of Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona told Science Daily. He and his team of researchers from Pompeu Fabra University and the National Center for Genome Analysis found that the ancient pig was not a white pig, but it did carry a series of markers typical of domesticated pigs, so it may have resembled the black or reddish pigs depicted in artwork from the sixteenth century. This coincides with historic records of pig breeding kept at the Montsoriu Castle in Girona, where the bones were unearthed. There is also genetic evidence suggesting occasional crossbreeding between wild boars and ancient pigs. “This close relation between the Iberian pig, the European boar, and the ancient pig confirms, as stated in previous studies, that crossbreeding between the Asian pig and modern Iberian pigs did not exist or was insignificant,” Perez-Enciso concluded. To read about other ancient pig tales, see ARCHAEOLOGY'S "Israel's Wild Boars Are Descended From European Pigs."   

London’s Paddington Station in the Victorian Era

LONDON, ENGLAND—Excavations ahead of the construction of a new underground station, garage, and cement factory near Paddington Station have uncovered Victorian railway foundations laid by civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Brunel is remembered for his Great Western Railway, which ran its first steam trains in 1838 on broad-gauge train tracks. In 1846, Parliament regulated the size of railroad tracks, requiring a switch to the narrower standard gauge tracks throughout the Great Western Railway. This change is reflected in a wrought iron turning circle found within the brick foundations of the site. Dating to 1881-82, it could accommodate both broad and standard gauge engines so that they could enter the 1850s engine shed, whose foundations were also found. “Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Great Western Railway is the most complete early mainline railway in the world. Whenever we expose parts of the original infrastructure it is vital to record these for posterity and the history of rail in this country. Using the latest 3-D scan technology provides a permanent and accurate model of Brunel’s distinctive architectural legacy,” Jay Carver, lead archaeologist for Crossrail, told The Telegraph. To read more about the history of trains in Victorian England, see ARCHAEOLOGY'S "Trains in the Round."