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Top 10

Caveman Genetics

Eurasia

By DANIEL WEISS

Monday, December 11, 2017

Top Ten Russia Denisova Cave Sampling

 

Remains of early humans such as Neanderthals and Denisovans have been discovered at just a limited number of sites in Europe and Asia. This has long frustrated archaeologists, who are confident that many more locations were occupied throughout these regions. This year, however, researchers announced a new way of detecting the hominins’ presence—through genetic traces in cave sediments. A team led by Viviane Slon of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology analyzed sediments from seven sites in France, Belgium, Spain, Croatia, and Russia, and found Neanderthal DNA at three sites dating to up to 60,000 years ago, and Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA in Russia’s Denisova Cave dating to around 100,000 years ago. In a number of cases, the genetic evidence was located at stratigraphic levels where no hominin remains have been found. “It was really exciting,” says Slon, “to see that even without the bones, we can still find the DNA of these people.”

 

The technique worked even with sediments that had been collected a number of years ago and stored in labs, Slon notes, “so we’re not only restricted to active excavations.” The researchers hypothesize that the DNA in the sediments comes from body fluids left behind by hominins as well as decomposition of their remains. So far, they have focused on mitochondrial DNA, but hope to be able to find nuclear DNA as well, which would provide additional genetic information about the hominins.

Iron Age Britain’s Oldest Gold

Staffordshire, England

By MARLEY BROWN

Monday, December 11, 2017

Top Ten England Iron Age Torcs Black

 

Four torcs uncovered in Leekfrith are the earliest Iron Age gold items ever found in Britain. They can be dated to between 400 and 250 B.C. based on their stylistic qualities, says Julia Farley of the British Museum, who notes they were most likely worn by women. The torcs’ age is remarkable because, for several hundred years starting around 800 B.C., people in Britain appear to have largely abandoned wearing and manufacturing gold jewelry. One explanation is that the trade networks that brought gold to England had broken down. Tin and copper, used to make bronze, which had been key imports, were no longer needed once locally produced iron became available. Societies became focused on community survival rather than individual status. “Communal identity might have been more important than things which emphasize an individual’s power, like wearing loads of bling,” Farley explains. She believes the torcs were likely made on the continent and show that personal adornment was coming back into vogue as Europe grew cosmopolitan again. “The simplest explanation,” Farley says, “is that they came across the channel as gifts or trade goods, or perhaps the women even came over wearing them.”

The Square Inside Avebury’s Circles

Wiltshire, England

By MARLEY BROWN

Monday, December 11, 2017

Top Ten England Avebury Digital Rendering

 

Avebury, the Neolithic monument just north of Stonehenge, may be best known for its outer stone circle, the largest of its kind in Europe, which encompasses the entire site. Archaeologists have now discovered that within one of its inner circles, there was an earlier, square formation. Using radar technology, they have identified evidence of an arrangement of stones that they believe commemorated the footprint of a Neolithic house, a structure built as early as 3500 B.C. While past theories have postulated that Avebury was constructed from the outside in, these findings suggest the site instead sprang from a single building. “One interpretation is to see it like ripples on a pond,” says Mark Gillings of the University of Leicester. “The house decays, its position is marked with a huge standing stone, and its orientation and shape are marked by the square. It may have been 300 years after the house was built that they decided to memorialize it,” he explains. “By that stage it might have even been an ancestral place that had slipped into myth and legend.”

Rome’s Oldest Aqueduct

Rome, Italy

By ROSSELLA LORENZI

Monday, December 11, 2017

Top Ten Rome Aqueduct Section

 

Construction workers on Rome’s new “C” metro line uncovered what is believed to have been part of the Aqua Appia, Rome’s oldest-known aqueduct, which dates back to 312 B.C. The remains were found near the Colosseum, at around 55 to 60 feet below Piazza Celimontana, a depth usually unreachable by archaeological excavation, says Simona Morretta of the Archaeological Superintendency of Rome. The section of aqueduct measures 6.5 feet tall and is made up of large gray, granular tufa blocks arranged in five rows. “The total absence of any traces of limestone inside the duct suggests that its use over time has been limited,” says Morretta, “or that the structure was abandoned just after a maintenance intervention.” It stretches for more than 100 feet and continues beyond the investigation area bounded by concrete bulkheads.

Homo sapiens, Earlier Still

Jebel Irhoud, Morocco

By ZACH ZORICH

Monday, December 11, 2017

Top Ten Morocco Jawbone

 

Excavations at Jebel Irhoud, near Morocco’s west coast, have uncovered the 300,000-year-old bones of some of the earliest members of the Homo sapiens lineage. Human bones were first discovered at the site in 1961, and their strange combination of archaic and modern features intrigued scientists, who guessed they belonged to Neanderthals and dated to about 40,000 years ago. In 2006, a team led by Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology reopened excavations at Jebel Irhoud. This year, they revealed their results, providing a glimpse of the earliest members of the ancestral line that led to modern humans.

 

The Jebel Irhoud hominins apparently lived 350,000 years after Neanderthals and Homo sapiens last shared a common ancestor, long enough for the two lineages to develop some obvious differences. The people of Jebel Irhoud had flat and short faces like modern humans, but their brains were more elongated and their teeth much larger. Their brow ridges were also more prominent than those of humans living today, but not as heavy as those of Neanderthals.

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