Archaeology Magazine

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, April 27

New Thoughts on Evolution and Lower Back Pain

BURNABY, CANADA—Biological anthropologist Kimberly Plomp of Simon Fraser University has investigated the relationship between vertebral shape, upright locomotion, and human spinal health using two-dimensional shape analyses of chimpanzee, orangutan, and archaeological human vertebrae. “We found that some characteristics of human vertebrae differ in shape between those individuals who have a lesion called a Schmorl’s node—a small hernia that can occur in the cartilaginous disc between the vertebrae,” she said in a press release. It turns out that the vertebrae of people with Schmorl’s nodes resemble the vertebrae of chimpanzees. Humans and chimpanzees split from a common ancestor between eight and nine million years ago, and still have 98 percent of DNA in common. Humans evolved to be bipedal, while chimps evolved to be knuckle-walkers. “However evolution is not perfect and some vertebral characteristics, such as the ones we identified as being similar to chimpanzees, may have remained within the human ‘blueprint’ and result in some people having vertebrae that are less able to withstand the pressures of bipedal walking,” she explained. She and her colleague Mark Collard will continue to investigate this “ancestral shape hypothesis” with three-dimensional shape studies. To read more about recent research into human evolution, see "Our Tangled Ancestry."

Moai Headgear May Have Been Rolled Into Place

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA—Sean Hixon, a student at the University of Oregon, presented a paper at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology on possible ways that the pukao, or headgear worn by Easter Island’s moai, might have been put in place by the Rapa Nui. Hixon and his team modeled the force and torque needed to move the sculpted volcanic rock, which could weigh 12 tons, into place with different techniques, including rolling the stones up a ramp to the top of the statues, building a tower and using a pulley system, or erecting the pukao and moai simultaneously. “It seems like a relatively small number of people could have done it, either by levering or rolling,” Hixon told Live Science. The oblong shape of the carving would have prevented it from rolling down the ramp by accident, and a small lip at the base of the pukao could have kept it from tipping over during placement. “The base indentation isn’t really necessary for the hat once it’s on the statue. The hats are pretty massive. It’s not like they’re going to fall off without the base indentation,” he said. Other indentations and marks on the red volcanic rock may have provided traction for rolling the pukao up a ramp, but erosion and damage make it difficult to determine if the marks were place deliberately. To read more about experimental archaeology, see "The Neolithic Toolkit."

Liquid Mercury Discovered Beneath Teotihuacan Pyramid

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO—“Large quantities” of liquid mercury have been discovered in a chamber at the end of a tunnel located beneath the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent in Teotihuacan. “It’s something that completely surprised us,” archaeologist Sergio Gómez of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History told Reuters. Last year he annouced that three chambers had been found at the end of the tunnel, which had been sealed for 1,800 years. Jade statues, jaguar remains, a box filled with carved shells and rubber balls, metallic spheres dubbed “disco balls,” and pyrite mirrors have also been uncovered. The mercury could indicate that Gómez and his team are closing in on the first royal tomb to be found in Teotihuacan. He thinks that the mercury could have symbolized an underworld river or lake. If there is a tomb, it could help scholars determine how the city was ruled. To read more about Teotihuacan and other ancient cities in the Valley of Mexico, see "Big Data, Big Cities."

Friday, April 24

Impact of Industrialization to be Studied With High-Tech Tools

LONDON, ENGLAND—Culture 24 reports that Jelena Bekvalac of the Museum of London’s Centre for Human Bioarchaeology will examine skeletons in the museum’s collection to study the impact of industrialization on the human body. “The most tangible evidence we have for the long-term consequences of the industrialization process upon us is, quite simply, written in our bones. Using the very latest digital technology, we will examine the skeletal remains of over 1,000 adult men and women from industrial-era London in addition to a further 500 skeletons from the medieval metropolis,” Bekvalac said. The research, funded by a City of London Archaeological Trust grant from a bequest made by the late Rosemary Green, could provide clues to the conditions of obesity and cancer, often thought of as “man-made,” modern conditions. The project will also produce an extensive interactive digital resource that will be published online. For more on the study of remains from this period, see "Haunt of the Resurrection Men." 

Reindeer Antlers Suggest Viking Age Began With Trade

AARHUS, DENMARK—Antlers from Norwegian reindeer have been unearthed in Ribe, the oldest commercial center in Denmark. The antlers have been dated to A.D. 725, some 70 years before the Viking raid on the Lindisfarne monastery in northern England. “The Viking Age becomes a phenomenon in Western Europe because the Vikings learned to use maritime mobility to their advantage. They learned to master sailing to such an extent that they get to the coast of England where the locals don’t expect anything. They come quickly, plunder the unprepared victims, and leave again—a sort of hit and run,” Søren Sindbæk of Aarhus University told Science Nordic. The Norwegian reindeer antlers suggest that Norway’s earliest so-called Vikings developed their maritime skills through trade. “Now we can prove that shipping between Norway and the market town of Ribe was established prior to the Viking era, and trade networks helped to create the incentives and the knowledge of the sea, which made the Viking raids possible. It is the first time that we can clearly link two very important phenomena, the lock and key if you like, of the Viking Age,” he said. For more, see "The First Vikings."

Woolly Mammoth Genome Sequenced

ONTARIO, CANADA—The nearly complete genome of two Siberian woolly mammoths has been sequenced by an international team of researchers. One of the mammoths lived in northeastern Siberia some 45,000 years ago. The other is thought to have been from one of the last mammoth populations, which lived on Russia’s Wrangel Island, and is only 4,300 years old. “With a complete genome and this kind of data, we can now begin to understand what made a mammoth a mammoth—when compared to an elephant—and some of the underlying causes of their extinction which is an exceptionally difficult and complex puzzle to solve,” Hendrik Poinar of McMaster University said in a press release. It has long been thought that human hunters contributed to the demise of the woolly mammoth, but the study suggests that multiple factors were at play over their long evolutionary history. The analysis showed that the animal populations suffered and recovered from a severe decline some 250,000 to 300,000 years ago. The final severe decline occurred in the last days of the Ice Age. “We found that the genome from one of the world’s last mammoths displayed low genetic variation and a signature consistent with inbreeding, likely due to the small number of mammoths that managed to survive on Wrangel Island during the last 5,000 years of the species’ existence,” said Love Dalén of the Swedish Museum of Natural History. To read about the discovery of a largely intact mammoth, see "Lyuba the Baby Mammoth."

Figurine Resembling an African Elephant Found in India

CHHATTISGARH, INDIA—A figurine resembling an African elephant has been unearthed at the Tarighat site in central India. “The elephant has large ears and spine bones visible on its back, identical to elephants found in Africa. Elephants of that physique can’t be found in Asia,” JR Bhagat, director of the excavation for the state archaeology department, told The Times of India. The 2,500-year-old site is known as an international trading center where Scythian and Greek coins have been found. Earlier excavations have also uncovered figurines of a giraffe-like animal. Ashok Tiwari, a former curator at the Museum of Man, Bhopal, thinks that the figurine could have been sculpted by a trader who had traveled to Africa. Archaeologist CL Raikwar added that similar pieces of “country art” are the result of artists’ imaginations. “Chhattisgarh might have had an affluent and glorious past but I am yet to find clearer links of Tarighat to the international market,” Bhagat concluded. For more about the archaeology of the region, see "Letter From Bangladesh."

Thursday, April 23

Baby Teeth Show Modern Humans Made Innovative Tools

LEIPZIG, GERMANY—Analysis of two baby teeth from northern Italy—one found at the Riparo Bombrini rock shelter, and other at the Grotta di Fumane—has shown that the innovative stone tools and ornaments of the Protoaurignacian culture were made by modern humans, and not Neanderthals. Stefano Benazzi of the University of Bologna measured the thickness of the enamel on the tooth from Riparo Bombrini and found it to be thick, as in modern humans. Neanderthals had relatively thin enamel. Radiocarbon dates of bone and charcoal from the site suggest that the child lived some 40,000 years ago. Mitochondrial DNA was extracted from the other tooth, which is also some 40,000 years old. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology found that the mitochondrial DNA belonged to a known modern human lineage. These sophisticated tools may have given modern humans a competitive edge over the Neanderthals. “The association of modern remains with the earliest Aurignacian-related archaeological context now provides physical evidence that the arrival of our species on the continent triggered the demise of Neanderthals, who disappeared a couple of millennia later,” paleoanthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute said in a press release. To read about a masterpiece of Paleolithic art, see "New Life for Lion Man."

Divers Return to Franklin’s HMS Erebus

NUNAVUT, CANADA—Bad weather has cut the latest expedition to HMS Erebus, the flagship of the lost Franklin Expedition to find the Northwest Passage, from ten days to five. Divers from Parks Canada and the Royal Canadian Navy descended through triangular-shaped holes in the ice to the wreck, which was abandoned by Franklin’s crew in 1848. So far the team has seen at least one sailor’s boot and a cannon lying next to the vessel. Flora Davidson, a Parks Canada conservator, watched the video feed from cameras on the divers’ masks and made plans for the cannon in case it can be lifted. “I was trying to see how it was sitting, identify all the features at the breech end," she told The Star"We’re still not quite sure if it’s a knob or if it’s got a handle where the rope would go into the threshold. And I’m checking the silt, if it were to be lifted, how it would be done. I’m concerned about the surface in that area, but the cannon seems to be upside down. If there are any markings, they’re going to be on the top side, which is inverted and it’ll be in the silt. So I expect it to be better conserved. I’m happy about that.” The Parks Canada team is also making plans with British officials for the event that they come across human remains at the wreck site. “If we see human remains, we take some photo documentation to help us down the line, but we stay away from that area until further notice after discussions with them,” explained Marc-Andre Bernier, chief of underwater archaeology at Parks Canada. To read about the initial discovery of the wreck, see "Canada Finds Erebus."

CCC Camp Uncovered in Connecticut

MADISON, CONNECTICUT—From 1933 to 1942, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) provided housing, food, and employment building roads, foot trails, and planting trees for 3.5 million young people during the Great Depression. The Madison Land Conservation Trust has spent the last year excavating Camp Hadley, one of 23 Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps in Connecticut. The team of trust members, volunteers, and students from Daniel Hand High School (DHHS) has unearthed pottery, rusty cans, bottles, hardware, and foundations of a recreation hall/classroom, mess hall, cistern, infirmary, commissary, three probably barracks, the Chief Forester’s Cabin, an incinerator, and the latrine/washroom. “The student involvement has been inspiring and it is exciting to see young people out appreciating and improving a site that was originally built for young people not much older than they are,” Jason Englehardt, trust member and DHHS teacher told The Shoreline Times. To read about the archaeology of an American labor conflict that just predated the Depression, see "Mountaintop Rescue."