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Digs & Discoveries

Z Marks the Spot

By ERIC A. POWELL

Friday, April 10, 2020

Digs Kurdistan Neanderthal SkeletonjpegDigs Kurdistan Shanidar CavejpegSixty years ago, the discovery of four Neanderthal skeletons clustered together in Shanidar Cave in Iraqi Kurdistan led some scholars to conclude, controversially, that members of the extinct human species practiced burial customs. Since then, other scholars have questioned that interpretation, suggesting the quartet died together of exposure or during a rock fall. Now, a team co-led by University of Cambridge bioarchaeologist Emma Pomeroy has returned to Shanidar and unearthed the upper portion of a Neanderthal skeleton not far from where the four complete skeletons were originally excavated. Dubbed Shanidar Z, the bones were surrounded by sediment that had accumulated quickly, suggesting, says Pomeroy, that the body had been intentionally covered. Other remains of Neanderthals have been found in the cave, but they seem to date to as much as 30,000 years later than Shanidar Z and the other four burials. “All this evidence will contribute to our understanding of the complexity of Neanderthal treatment of the dead,” says Pomeroy. “It may have varied across time, perhaps indicating different cultural traditions—a very human trait.”

Viking Knights, Polish Days

By JASON URBANUS

Friday, April 10, 2020

Digs Poland Sword HiltjpegThe discovery of the burials of four medieval knights near the Polish village of Cieple has highlighted the region’s connections to Scandinavia during the reign of the first Polish kings. The warriors were found lying in richly adorned chamber tombs dating to the early eleventh century A.D., the time of Bolesław I the Brave. They had been buried with a variety of weapons, including swords, spears, and daggers, as well as full sets of equestrian equipment, such as spurs, stirrups, bits, and buckles. Isotope and DNA analysis demonstrated, though, that these individuals were not locals, but instead likely immigrated from an area around Denmark. The four warrior tombs were found at the center of a necropolis that contained at least 60 other individuals, of both local and Scandinavian ancestry.

 

Digs Poland Viking BurialjpegThe men were likely members of an elite group of riders that ruled part of eastern Pomerania—present-day northern Poland—perhaps on behalf of the Polish kings, according to archaeologist Sławomir Wadyl of the Archaeological Museum in Gdansk. “Unfortunately, we do not know the story behind these men yet, nor how they came to settle south of the Baltic Sea,” says Wadyl. “We also don’t know exactly how they achieved their success, but we guess it was originally connected to their military service.”

Arms and the Women

By ERIC A. POWELL

Friday, April 10, 2020

Digs Russia Amazon BurialjpegDigs Russia Amazon CrownjpegWhen the ancient Greeks encountered the nomadic Scythians, who dominated the Eurasian steppe in the first millennium B.C., they recorded that they were deeply impressed by the spectacle of Scythian women riding into battle. Recently, a team excavating a fourth-century B.C. burial mound in western Russia found that it held the remains of four of these real-life Amazons. Two of the women were buried with horse tack and weapons, and one of them had her legs positioned as if she were riding a horse. “We can certainly say that these two women were horse warriors,” says team leader Valerii Guliaev of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Archaeology, “and we suppose that all four women in the grave were warriors.” Guliaev also found that the burial mound held 30 iron arrowheads, and that one of the warriors wore a golden crown and took a dagger to her grave.Digs Russia Gold Platejpeg

Birds of a Feather

By ZACH ZORICH

Friday, April 10, 2020

Digs Egypt Ibis Sacrifice CompositeThe ibis, with its brilliant white feathers and narrow, curved beak, was the sacred bird of Thoth, the ancient Egyptian god of wisdom and writing. Beginning about 600 B.C., ibises were frequently mummified and given as sacrifices to the god. “Pilgrims would offer an ibis mummy to Thoth on his feast day either to ask for a wish to be granted or to thank him,” says archaeologist Sally Wasef of Griffith University. At the peak of this practice, upwards of 10,000 ibises were sacrificed every year, a number so large that some scholars have proposed that the birds must have been bred in centralized farms to meet the demand. Although more than four million ibis mummies have been found at the site of Tuna el-Gebel, which lies on the Nile River about 170 miles south of Cairo, no massive ibis breeding facility has ever been located. This has raised the question of whether such installations actually existed. An international team of researchers recently conducted a study of genomes from 14 ibis mummies dating to 2,500 years ago, and found a surprising degree of genetic diversity. The ancient birds were nearly as diverse as the modern population, which inhabits most of Africa. The researchers suggest that the ibises sacrificed by ancient Egyptians were probably imported from across the continent.

Scaredy Cats

By ZACH ZORICH

Friday, April 10, 2020

Digs Scaredy CatsjpegImagine a scene where a troop of ape-like human ancestors a little more than four feet tall, with brains roughly equal in size to those of their evolutionary cousins chimpanzees, come upon a pack of large carnivores—say, lions or hyenas—feeding on a fresh carcass. Rather than run in fear from these predators, the hominins approach them screeching, waving their arms, and trying to be as frightening as possible. The carnivores, perhaps baffled or intimidated by this display, run away, leaving the hominins to feast on the fresh meat.

 

According to research by a team of European biologists, this type of scene may have been common enough to cause the extinction of large carnivores across East Africa. These extinctions became more frequent as early hominin brain size began to increase, perhaps about three million years ago. Using previously published data, the researchers were able to rule out climate change as the cause of these extinctions. The data also shows a correlation between large carnivore extinctions and increased hominin brain size. “The surprise was actually how clear the results are,” says Søren Faurby, a biologist at the University of Gothenburg. Next, the researchers hope to document how widespread the impact of early hominin evolution was on other, perhaps less vicious, animals.

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