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World Roundup

May/June 2016

  • World Roundup ArizonaARIZONA: On a day more than two millennia ago, a group of farmers—at least three adults, with a child and dog—tended fields and irrigation ditches north of Tucson. They left tracks in the mud, and subsequent flooding from a nearby creek covered the footprints in a layer of fine silt. Roadwork has revealed dozens of these preserved prints from that day across 11 separate planting plots. Researchers think they might be the oldest yet found in the Southwest. —Samir S. Patel

  • World Roundup MassachusettsMASSACHUSETTS: Who can forget the Salem witch trials, when 19 were hanged in an episode of mass hysteria in 1692? Documentation of the trials is voluminous, but there are few records of the executions, and the location of the hangings had been forgotten. Experts have now confirmed an earlier theory and pinpointed the site—an outcrop called Proctor’s Ledge—by studying eyewitness accounts, using mapping technology, and analyzing sightlines. Tests show that no remains were buried on the site. —Samir S. Patel

  • World Roundup PanamaPANAMA: Dolphin appears to have been on the menu of the residents of Pedro González Island some 6,000 years ago. In a midden, archaeologists found a relatively high percentage of dolphin bones—common and bottlenose—more than probably would have been available from scavenging beached animals. It is difficult to hunt dolphins from a dugout canoe, so the hunters may have waited until a pod entered a shallow bay, and then used boats to drive their quarry onto the beach. —Samir S. Patel

  • World Roundup ScotlandSCOTLAND: A skeleton found beneath the playground of Victoria Primary School in Newhaven, Edinburgh, is a reminder that the area once wasn’t so child-friendly. The skeleton was dated to the 16th century, when the site was part of the harbor complex. The bones were quite degraded, and the local graveyards were located elsewhere, so excavators believe that the man may have been a pirate, executed and then displayed—gibbeted, the postmortem punishment is called—to discourage would-be buccaneers. —Samir S. Patel

  • World Roundup SwedenSWEDEN: Osteologists studying a 9,000-year-old lakeside site believe they have found the earliest known example of an important method of food preservation. Below an area thick with fish bones they found a 10-foot-long pit surrounded by postholes. Evidence led them to conclude that these early Mesolithic people were fermenting fish 1,500 years before fermentation was used anywhere else in the world—to make wine. This suggests people may have formed settlements here 3,000 years earlier than previously thought. Surströmming, anyone? —Samir S. Patel

  • World Roundup South AfricaSOUTH AFRICA: Australopithecus sediba, the two-million-year-old hominin, differed from other australopiths in its poor ability to bite down on hard foods. Biomechanical tests using a digital model of an A. sediba skull, found in 2008, determined that if A. sediba bit down with all the force of its chewing muscles, it would dislocate its jaw—just like humans, but unlike other australopiths. While this is not proof that A. sediba evolved into modern humans, it does suggest that diet may have played a strong role in human evolution. —Samir S. Patel

  • World Roundup RussiaRUSSIA: Modern humans developed the skills to survive just about anywhere on Earth far earlier than was once thought. That is the conclusion after radiocarbon dating the well-preserved remains of a mammoth found by an 11-year-old boy in 2012. The skeleton is studded with signs of a prolonged battle with a group of humans, and dates to about 45,000 years ago, placing humans in the Arctic more than 10,000 years earlier than previous evidence suggested. In fact, the researchers believe that innovations in mammoth hunting made this northern occupation possible. —Samir S. Patel

  • World Roundup CambodiaCAMBODIA: Sometimes the archaeology and ancient history of Cambodia seem to begin and end with Angkor Wat, and it was widely assumed that the period between the decline of Angkor and the modern era was a kind of “dark age.” Excavations at Longvek, the capital after Angkor, are dispelling this notion with evidence of extensive trade links, including maritime trade with China and Japan. The Khmer Empire that built Angkor had not taken advantage of this potential source of wealth, which may have contributed to its decline. —Samir S. Patel

  • World Roundup IndonesiaINDONESIA: Archaic humans arrived on Sulawesi at least 118,000 years ago, according to a recently discovered deposit of stone tools and extinct animal bones. It is known that various hominin species made it to the islands of Flores, Java, and Papua by this time, and it was assumed that Sulawesi was part of their dispersal. This new find, accumulated over what appears to have been tens of thousands of years, suggests there was, in fact, a well-established population. There are no human fossils, so it is unknown what ancient human species it was. —Samir S. Patel

  • World Roundup AustraliaAUSTRALIA: Genyornis newtoni was a seriously large bird: 7 feet tall and 500 pounds. But size doesn’t matter when humans develop a taste for your eggs. Analysis of G. newtoni eggshell fragments from 200 sites across the country describes telltale burn marks produced by a localized heat source rather than the all-encompassing heat of a wildfire—an indication that the eggs had been harvested and cooked. More than 8 in 10 species weighing over 100 pounds, including G. newtoni, became extinct shortly after humans arrived down under around 50,000 years ago. —Samir S. Patel