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World Roundup

July/August 2015

  • World Roundup CanadaCANADA: The archaeological record from most of human history is largely represented by stone tools and points (with some bone and shell), so archaeologists must devise clever ways of extracting information from these artifacts. Recent work has shown that microscopic ripple marks in stone can be used to infer how fast a projectile point was initially propelled. The technique has been applied to several hundred ancient North American points, and revealed the first empirical evidence for the use of spear-throwers, or atlatls, which can drive darts faster than javelin-like throws. —Samir S. Patel

  • World Roundup BermudaBERMUDA: The last 150 years have not been kind to five sealed bottles of wine that had been hidden in the bow of Mary Celestia, a Civil War blockade-runner that sank after hitting a reef in 1864 . At a food festival in Charleston, South Carolina, wine experts opened one of the bottles—which were excavated from the site in 2011—to find a gray liquid redolent of crab water, gasoline, saltwater, and vinegar, with hints of citrus and alcohol. —Samir S. Patel

  • World Roundup BoliviaBOLIVIA: At a pre-Tiwanaku ceremonial center near Lake Titicaca called Khonkho Wankane, archaeologists have found evidence of a “defleshing” ritual. In an unlooted ceremonial room were hundreds of bits of human bone coated in white plaster, as well as blocks of calcium oxide, or quicklime, which becomes a caustic solvent when mixed with water and heated. The researchers surmise that pilgrims brought remains of their loved ones to this site to have flesh removed so they could keep the large, preserved bones as relics. —Samir S. Patel

  • World Roundup GermanyGERMANY: The future site of a Bavarian history museum has yielded a few bites of its past, including the world’s oldest known pretzels. The site was home to a bakery for many years prior to the mid-19th century, and among the finds were three small cakes, a fragment of a kipferl (a crescent-shaped local specialty), and pieces of two pretzels. The foods were preserved because they had been burnt, leading the archaeologists to joke that they may have been discarded by a frustrated baker. —Samir S. Patel

  • World Roundup AustriaAUSTRIA: In 1683, Ottoman troops laid siege to—but did not conquer—the town of Tulln. Excavations in 2006 found traces of their presence: the bones of a camel. Archaeologists and veterinarians have studied the remains and found that the animal was no beast of burden, but rather a slender riding camel. It was also a mix of a dromedary and a Bactrian camel, which may have given it “hybrid vigor.” It’s not clear how the animal came to be in the town, but it may have been involved in an exchange across the siege line. —Samir S. Patel

  • World Roundup LibyaLIBYA: The plateau atop a sandstone outcrop called Messak Settafet in the central Sahara could be the earliest example of an entire landscape created and modified by humans. Archaeologists found an average of 75 lithics per square meter—a carpet of stone tools and man-made fragments spanning hundreds of thousands of years and perhaps thousands of square miles. The finds demonstrate just how important tool technologies were for early hominins, and that the area was likely a magnet for stone-hungry populations across the region. —Samir S. Patel

  • World Roundup Kenya WhaleKENYA: Millions of years ago, the East African landscape shifted from forest to savanna. Caused by a tectonic uplift of the East African Plateau, this change is thought to have encouraged primates to descend from the trees and begin walking upright, but it is not known exactly when it occurred. The fossilized jawbone of a whale that swam up an ancient river before dying has helped scientists determine that the uplift started at least 17 million years ago. The jawbone, originally discovered in 1964, had been lost until it turned up in 2011 in the Harvard office of late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. —Samir S. Patel

  • World Roundup Ethiopia MandibleETHIOPIA: A recently discovered fossilized mandible may represent the earliest member of the genus Homo: It dates to around 2.8 million years ago, or 500,000 years earlier than the next oldest known examples. This period in human evolution—the transition from Australopithecus to Homo—is still not well understood ("The First Toolkit," page 12). The bone and teeth have traits that appear to bridge the earlier (rounded chin) and later (slimmer molars) species. It may be a key finding for understanding the origins of our genus. —Samir S. Patel

  • World Roundup Sri LankaSRI LANKA: It was thought that humans didn’t begin to live in tropical rain forests and rely on their resources until about 8,000 years ago, in part because the environment can be difficult to navigate and contains fewer accessible food sources than savanna or grasslands. But a new study of isotopic data from human remains dating back 20,000 years shows that until the dawn of agriculture on the island, people actually relied almost exclusively on food from rain forest–related environments rather than open grassland. —Samir S. Patel

  • World Roundup Micronesian TombMICRONESIA: Nan Madol, the ruined ancient canal-city, has a lesser known sister site in Leluh off the island of Kosrae. Like Nan Madol, Leluh contains walls and canals of basalt, but it also has tombs partially built with live coral. Scientists dated coral from the tombs to as early as the 1300s, 300 years older than they had been thought to be. Early establishment of the city suggests a long history as a significant political and economic force in the region and rival to Nan Madol. —Samir S. Patel



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