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From The Trenches

Fate of the Vanquished


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Danish-Murder-Bog-PelvisesNew analysis of human bones unearthed in a Danish bog shows that they belonged to Iron Age warriors whose army was routed in a major battle 2,000 years ago, during an era when the growth of the Roman Empire was putting pressure on Germanic tribes in the area. A team led by Aarhus University archaeologist Mads Kähler Holst found that all the remains date to a single event and, further, that the bones bear traces of cutting and scraping that suggest they were desecrated before being ritually deposited in the bog by the winning side. Among the gruesome finds is a wooden stick with four male pelvic bones threaded onto it.


Danish-Murder-Bog-SkullHolst notes that while archaeologists have found large caches of defeated warriors’ weapons in bogs before, this is the first time human remains have been discovered in this context. “Roman writers such as Tacitus wrote about the ritual practices of Germanic people in relation to war, ” says Holst. “But this is the first discovery of actual traces of them.” The remains also suggest that large-scale internal warfare was roiling Germanic societies in the early first century A.D.

Ice Age Lion Made Whole Again


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Ice-Age-Lion-RestoredOne of the most famous works of Ice Age art has been given a new face. A lion sculpted from mammoth ivory about 40,000 years ago was found in the 1930s in Vogelherd Cave, one of the four caves in Germany’s Swabian Jura Mountains that has produced evidence of the world’s earliest art and music. The lion has long been thought to be a relief, unique in Paleolithic art, says archaeologist Nick Conard of the University of Tübingen. For the last decade, Conard has been reexamining both the cave and spoil heaps left by earlier archaeological efforts. Among that material, his team found a carved lion’s face they soon realized was the missing half of the famous figurine’s head. It’s now clear that the lion was not a relief but rather, like the caves’ other Ice Age figurines (“New Life for the Lion Man,” March/April 2012), a fully three-dimensional work.

Heart Attack of the Mummies


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Demetrious-Roman-MummyÖtzi the Iceman hardly seems the type to have been prone to heart disease. He died violently around 3300 B.C., aged approximately 40 or 50, and his mummified body was found high in the Italian Alps in 1991. He led a vigorous life, ate a balanced diet, and had no access to tobacco. But when researchers put his remains in a CT scanner, they found calcium deposits in a number of his arteries, indicating the beginnings of atherosclerosis, which commonly leads to heart disease. “By the time Ötzi was 80, he would have had a very good chance of having a heart attack or a stroke,” says Gregory Thomas, a cardiologist at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center in California.


Recently, a multidisciplinary team of researchers, co-led by Thomas, examined CT scans of mummies from all over the world—from ancient Egyptians to pre-Columbian Peruvians to nineteenth-century Aleutian Islanders—and found widespread incidence of calcified arteries. They published their results in a series of papers in the journal Global Heart. One study, comparing scans of 76 ancient Egyptian mummies and 178 present-day Egyptians, found similar rates and severity of calcification after adjusting for age. These results are forcing experts to reconsider the long-held assumption that atherosclerosis is caused by uniquely modern habits: lack of physical activity, an unhealthy diet, and smoking. “We don’t know as much about the risk factors for atherosclerosis as we used to think we did,” says Randall Thompson, a cardiologist at Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, who worked on several of the studies. “There may be other risk factors that have a bigger role than we appreciate.”


Mummies-Heart-Disease-OtziÖtzi was saddled with a number of genetic factors that predisposed him to heart disease. According to a recent analysis of his genome, two anomalies in chromosomal region 9p21 nearly doubled his risk for coronary heart disease. “We didn’t expect that these genetic modifications would already have been present more than 5,000 years ago,” says Albert Zink, head of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Italy, adding that further studies will investigate whether mummies from other cultures had similar predispositions.


In addition to genetic factors, the researchers are now considering aspects of premodern living that might have contributed to the findings. For example, Aleutian Islanders, hunter-gatherers who consumed a heart-healthy marine-based diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, lived in subterranean homes filled with smoke from indoor fires. Three of five mummies scanned had atherosclerosis, and one woman who died around age 50 had coronary artery calcification as severe as that seen in coronary bypass patients, says Thompson. Chronic exposure to cooking-fire smoke may have been a factor.


Mummy-Arterial-Calcification-AhmoseChronic infection and inflammation, which were far more common before modern antibiotics and standards of hygiene, probably played a role as well. Inflammation is known to contribute to plaque buildup in arteries, says Thomas, and people with chronic inflammatory conditions such as lupus commonly develop atherosclerosis early in life. Because infection was a leading killer of humans until very recently, people with strong immune systems—and therefore a strong inflammatory response—likely had a better chance at survival. But that same robust response, as it continues into adulthood, can contribute to clogged arteries.


The finding of atherosclerosis in mummies from such a wide range of cultures and time periods makes it clear that the disease is not just a modern plague, but a hallmark of humanity. “No matter how much exercise we do, what food we eat, whether we take our medications,” says Thomas, “we are still at risk for atherosclerosis.”

Off the Grid


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Costa-Rica-Stone-BallsSome archaeological sites are so unusual that they still present mysteries decades after they were found. Take the Diquis Delta in southeastern Costa Rica, where there are hundreds of almost perfectly spherical stone balls dating to more than 1,000 years ago. Ranging in size from just a few inches to more than six feet in diameter—and up to 16 tons—“Las Bolas,” as the locals affectionately call them, were first discovered during the agricultural boom of the 1930s. The United Fruit Company cleared the jungle for banana plantations using bulldozers, which damaged and moved many of the ancient spheres. Of 300 found so far, just a dozen remain in their original context. Many of the rest decorate public buildings and plazas. Doris Stone, daughter of a United Fruit Company executive, published the first scientific study of the balls in 1943. Decades later, archaeologists know that the monolithic sculptures were made by human hands, but are still working to determine their significance to the ancient people of Costa Rica. Archaeologist Francisco Corrales of the National Museum of Costa Rica says that the site known as Finca 6 contains the only known surviving group of spheres in their original alignment.



Costa-Rica-Stone-Balls-SpheresThe site


In and around Finca 6 there are nearly 30 spheres, of which seven remain in their original context, with five oriented in roughly east-west lines. The spheres could have been used to record celestial phenomena, such as the rise of the sun at certain times of year. Corrales says there are other theories, including that the alignments are related to constellations and, in turn, myths and legends. “[No theory] has been proven so far,” he says. They were probably made by the Chiriqui culture (A.D. 800–1500), the last of three major pre-Columbian cultures in Costa Rica, during a period when villages began to form, with cobblestone house foundations, pavements, walls, and mounds. Two of these mounds are adjacent to the clearing with the sphere alignments at Finca 6. A new museum at the site includes a panorama of the occupations of the region, with an emphasis on stone sphere sites.



While you’re there


Finca 6, a five-hour drive from the capital of San José, is near Batambal, another visitor-friendly stone-sphere site, this one with a view all the way to the ocean. The area has other attractions, such as Caño Island (for snorkeling and scuba diving), Corcovado National Park, and Ballena National Marine Park, where it is possible to see humpback whales during the summer.