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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, March 17

New Dates for Little Foot

PARIS, FRANCE—A new geological study of the Sterkfontein caves in Gauteng, South Africa, concludes that the nearly complete Australopithecus prometheus skeleton known as Little Foot is at least three million years old. Ron Clarke, Stephen Motsumi, and Nkwane Molefe of the University of Witwatersrand spent 13 years extracting the skeleton from the rock of the cave so that they could understand how it had been encased in the hard, calcified sediment. According to a report in Science Now, the scientists found that the skeleton had been disturbed and broken, and that it would have taken at least one million years to fill in the spaces between the bones with minerals carried by water flowing through the cave. The flowstone itself has been dated to 2.2 million years old. The new, older dates suggest that Little Foot could be a Homo ancestor.

Coastal Erosion Threatens Alaska’s Archaeology

KOTZEBUE, ALASKA—Erosion caused by rising sea levels, frequent storms, flooding, and thawing permafrost has damaged archaeological sites in the Western Arctic National Parklands, including The Bering Land Bridge National Preserve and the Cape Krusenstern National Monument. “These sites are important because they tell the story of people who lived and adapted from up to 5,500 years ago to the present and continue to add to the record,” Michael Holt, chief of cultural resources for the Western Arctic National Parklands, told The Arctic Sounder. The sites at greatest risk of disappearing are being excavated in partnership with Portland State University. Food remains, sled runners, and tools, have been recovered. The joint project endeavors to record the sites before they disappear. 

Ancient Skeleton Marked With Cancer Lesions Found

DURHAM, ENGLAND—The 3,200-year-old skeleton of a man aged between 25 and 35 at the time of death shows signs of metastatic carcinoma—a malignant tumor that originated in an unknown soft tissue and spread across the body to his collar bones, shoulder blades, upper arms, vertebrae, ribs, pelvis, and thigh bones. Michaela Binder of Durham University uncovered the wealthy man’s tomb at the site of Amara West in the Sudan last year. “This may help us to understand the almost unknown history of the disease. We have very few examples pre the first millennium A.D.,” she told The Journal.   

Egyptians May Have Domesticated Cats Earlier Than Thought

LEUVEN, BELGIUM—At the ancient Egyptian site of Hierakonopolis, in a cemetery containing the remains of humans, baboons, leopards, and hippopotamuses, archaeologists have found the skeletons of six cats, buried together near the wall of the cemetery, that could push the date of cat domestication in Egypt back to 6,000 years ago. An examination of the cats’ teeth and bones showed that there were two young adults of about a year old, and four kittens from at least two litters, all probably of the species Felis silvestris, a small wildcat found in Africa, Europe, and central Asia. One litter of kittens was only slightly older than the other, suggesting that the natural reproductive cycle had been interrupted, perhaps with food and human care. “The last word on cat domestication (when and where) is not yet said,” bioarchaeologist Wim Van Neer of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences and Catholic University, Leuven, told Live Science. “We want to investigate whether there was only one domestication center (in the Levant), or whether Egypt should also be considered as a second, later, domestication center.

Friday, March 14

Genetic Data Suggests Convergent Evolution for Milk Digestion

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA—An international team of scientists led by Alessia Ranciaro and Sarah Tishkoff of the University of Pennsylvania has investigated the genetic origins of lactose tolerance in geographically diverse populations of Africans in Kenya, Tanzania, and Sudan. The scientists collected blood samples from pastoralists, agro-pastoralists, agriculturalists, and hunter-gatherers, who also took a lactose test by fasting overnight, having their blood sugar measured, drinking a sweet beverage containing a high level of lactose, and then having their blood sugar tested at set intervals. The research team found that the geographic patterns in which a genetic variant for milk digestion were present often correlated with historic human migrations and the spread of domestic cattle, camels, and sheep. “Our results are showing different mutations arising in different places that are under selection and rising to high frequencies and then reintroduced by migration to new areas and new populations,” Tishkoff told Science Daily. She suspects that there are other genetic variants for the digestion of milk that have not yet been discovered, and that commensal bacteria in the gut could also help adult humans digest milk.

Second Skeleton Emerges at Wanapum Dam

VANTAGE, WASHINGTON—River guards and Native Americans are struggling to protect the archaeological sites, petroglyphs, and graves that were exposed by the drawdown of the reservoir at the cracked Wanapum Dam on the Columbia River. And, a second set of human remains has been discovered 500 yards downstream from the first skeleton, which has been identified as male and Native American. “We are not going to take pieces of the remains and carbon 14 date them at this point, or anything else,” Allyson Brooks, director of the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, told Northwest Public Radio.

Vandals Dig, Deface Nevada’s Hidden Cave

FALLON, NEVADA—Vandals have struck Hidden Cave, an archaeological site that has yielded thousands of artifacts ranging in age from 5,000 to 800 years old. In addition to evidence of illegal digging, the interior and exterior walls of the cave were painted with graffiti, bullet holes were found in the informational kiosk, and the trail leading to the cave was defaced. Damage was inflicted on the interpretation signs, educational displays, and lighting fixtures in the cave. “This is the first instance of modern vandalism to the sensitive archaeological resources within Hidden Cave,” Bureau of Land Management archaeologist Jason Write told the Nevada Appeal. The site has been closed to visitors.

Thursday, March 13

10,000-Year-Old Carved Faces Unearthed in Syria

PARIS, FRANCE—Archaeologists have announced the discovery of a roughly 10,000-year-old staff carved with two human faces with closed eyes at Tell Qarassa in southern Syria. The wand, made of the rib of an auroch and broken at both ends, was found near a cemetery where 30 people had been buried without their heads. (The heads were found elsewhere in the settlement.) Frank Braemer of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique told Live Science that he thinks the wand may have been used in a funeral ritual by these early farmers, who grew emmer, barley, chickpeas, lentils. “The find is very unusual. It’s unique,” he added.

Language Study Supports Back-Migration from Beringia to Asia

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Linguists Mark A. Sicoli of Georgetown University and Gary Holton of the University of Alaska have examined the shared grammatical features of Yeniseian and Na-Dene, thought to have descended from a common language some 12,000 years ago. Yeniseian is a group of mostly extinct languages spoken along the Yenisei River in central Siberia, and Na-Dene, which is spoken in Alaska, western Canada, and is also related to Navajo and Apache. Sicoli and Holton think that this lost mother tongue was spoken in Beringia before the speakers split up: one group would have moved east into North America to become the Na-Dene speakers, while the other group would have migrated back into central Asia and became Yeniseian speakers. “There may have been multiple streams of people moving out of that single source at different times,” Dennis H. O’Rourke of the University of Utah commented to The New York Times.

Smuggled Artifacts Will Return to Egypt

CAIRO, EGYPT—Reuters reports that after a meeting with Mohammed Ibrahim, Egypt’s Antiquities Minister, the U.S. has agreed to return eight artifacts smuggled out of Egypt in 2011 and seized by Homeland Security officials in New York City. The objects, including 4,000-year-old models of wooden boats, the painted lid of a sarcophagus, and a mummy encased in decorated plaster, “represent ancient Egyptian civilization,” according to Ibrahim.