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Digs & Discoveries

Miniature Masterpieces

By ERIC A. POWELL

Friday, October 09, 2020

Digs Australia Rock ArtDigs Australia StencilsAncient artists all over the world created images featuring negative silhouettes by spraying paint against an object or stencil held against a rock face. But miniature stenciled figures, those measuring less than five inches, are exceptionally rare in ancient artwork. Recently, however, a team of researchers led by Flinders University archaeologist Liam Brady discovered a miniature stenciled human figure surrounded by four boomerangs at Yilbilinji rock shelter in northern Australia, which is owned by the Aboriginal Marra people. “When we visited other nearby sites, we began finding similar miniature and small-scale stencils,” says Brady. “That made us think that we were onto something very different here in terms of the Australian rock art record.” This previously unknown tradition includes miniature depictions of kangaroo tracks as well as geometric and linear designs. The images’ shapes suggest they were made with stencils molded out of a malleable material, most likely beeswax, which Marra children are known to have used in the past to sculpt small figurines. The team created their own beeswax stencils, which they used to produce figures identical to the ones discovered at Yilbilinji and nearby sites. They hope that consulting with additional Marra people will yield further insight into the meaning of these miniature masterpieces.

Painful Past

By ZACH ZORICH

Friday, October 09, 2020

Digs Neanderthal SkullPeople of non-African heritage living today share up to 2 percent of their DNA with Neanderthals, but scientists are still laboring to understand what those shared genes actually do. According to new research, one Neanderthal gene variant appears to make people who have inherited it more susceptible to pain. The variant in question affects the functioning of nerve fibers, which are responsible for sending signals to the brain that are perceived as pain. Hugo Zeberg of the Karolinska Institute cautions that the team’s finding does not necessarily mean that Neanderthals were more sensitive to pain than modern people. He says they were probably “more sensitive to stimuli,” but the sensation of pain is a product of how the brain interprets signals from nerves throughout a person’s body. How that worked in Neanderthal brains is an open question. Zeberg and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology are now studying other Neanderthal gene variants, including one linked to healthier pregnancies and another that makes people more susceptible to contracting the novel coronavirus. “People are interested in the meaning of their heritage,” says Zeberg. “This is, in a way, an archaeological excavation of our genome.”

Off the Grid

Preah Khan of Kompong Svay, Cambodia

By MARLEY BROWN

Friday, October 09, 2020

Digs Cambodia TempleThough it is perhaps the most heavily looted archaeological site in Cambodia, the vast settlement of Preah Khan of Kompong Svay still beguiles archaeologists and tourists with its size and beauty. Some 50 miles east of Angkor—the capital of the Khmer Empire, which spanned much of mainland Southeast Asia between the ninth and fifteenth centuries A.D.—Preah Khan is believed to have served as an important Buddhist pilgrimage center and a wealthy way station for the raw materials that fueled the empire’s expansion. First built in the eleventh century, the site consists of four concentric enclosure walls that surround several temples made of brick, laterite, and sandstone. “Preah Khan is an enigma because it is the single largest construction ever built by the Khmer,” says archaeologist Mitch Hendrickson of the University of Illinois at Chicago. “It’s even bigger than the complex of Angkor Thom inside Angkor itself.”

 

Though many artifacts and reliefs were stolen from Preah Khan in the 1970s and 1980s, the archaeological materials that do survive suggest the site may have been nearly as wealthy as Angkor. For decades, researchers have pointed to slag piles and possible furnace locations as evidence that Preah Khan was a center of iron production. However, Hendrickson and his colleagues have dated samples taken from multiple locations at the site and determined that smelting activities took place there starting only in the early fifteenth century. Hendrickson notes that Preah Khan was located roughly 20 miles from Phnom Dek, Cambodia’s largest source of iron oxide, an essential component in the smelting process. This positioned the settlement at its peak to act as a conduit between iron smelters based at Phnom Dek—who were members of an ethnic minority called the Kuay—and the metropolis at Angkor. “Part of the reason Preah Khan managed to reach the wealth that it had,” Hendrickson explains, “was that it served as a mediator for the production of iron between these two locations.”

 

Digs Cambodia map OTG KompongFINALTHE SITE 

The journey to Preah Khan takes four hours by car from the town of Siem Reap and the Angkor ruins. Four-wheel drive is advisable. Hendrickson recommends hiring a guide to help find Preah Khan’s most impressive structures, including the island temple of Preah Thkol at the center of the site’s reservoir, and Preah Chatumukh, a tower depicting a standing Buddha.

 

 

WHILE YOU'RE THERE 

Despite the grandeur of Preah Khan, the site’s remote location means you will likely be one of only a handful of visitors on any given day. Bring binoculars to catch sight of the many species of local birds or take a book and enjoy the solitude.

A Day by the Rhone

By JARRETT A. LOBELL

Friday, October 09, 2020

Rhone blockDigs France Gladiator Vessel2To walk along the Rhone River in southeastern France 2,000 years ago was surely as lovely a way to pass the time as it is today. In the ancient Roman city of Vienna—modern Vienne—one of the most pleasant places to stroll would have been a wealthy neighborhood of houses, shops, and baths now called Saint-Romain-en-Gal. During recent excavations in advance of construction there, archaeologists from the French firm Archeodunum have unearthed artifacts that speak to the privileged lives of its ancient residents. Among the objects they have uncovered are colorful fresco fragments, pottery decorated with a scene of gladiatorial combat, and two six-inch-tall terracotta figurines, one depicting the popular image of Venus emerging from her bath and the other a bearded man whose identity is not yet known. Archeodunum archaeologist Jérôme Grasso believes the statuettes were found right where they had been left, perhaps in a private act of devotion. “It’s moving to imagine that someone carefully placed them there for an unknown reason almost 2,000 years ago, and that they weren’t moved until we rediscovered them,” Grasso says. A stone bench the team found also brings to mind a day spent relaxing riverside. Says Grasso, “I can easily imagine people sitting on the bench we discovered looking at the passing boats on the river below.”

Our Coastal Origins

By MATTHEW BRUNWASSER

Friday, October 09, 2020

Digs South Africa SteenbokfonteinAs much as 100,000 years ago, modern humans in southern Africa began to settle down. Just how and why this momentous shift in our distant ancestors’ way of life occurred is difficult for scholars to say. Prehistoric hunter-gatherers from this era are among the most challenging humans to study. They did not leave behind any permanent structures as evidence of their presence, and their stone tools are rarely found along with contextual information such as the remains of plants or bones. Other artifacts, including beads or ochre paint, are very rare, and materials such as leather and wood do not survive. But one available resource is evidence of the food they ate. Changes in their diet may have had profound consequences in the transition from living in highly mobile bands of hunter-gatherers to more sedentary communities.

 

Among the numerous locations and environments in Africa where archaeologists are currently studying hunter-gatherers, coastal South Africa has some of the earliest evidence of organized social behaviors. At many sites there, the remains of ancient meals, and especially of marine mollusks and shellfish, are abundant. Archaeologist Emma Loftus of the University of Cambridge is using isotope analysis to analyze prehistoric shell deposits—the remains of shellfish harvested by ancient humans—that have been discovered in South African rock shelters. Loftus explains that seashells are particularly informative because they grow in regular seasonal and annual increments, like trees, and survive well in the archaeological record. By measuring a shell’s oxygen isotope ratios, researchers can obtain a record of every growth period in its history, as well as rainfall levels and air and sea-surface temperatures. As long as there is no recrystallization or dissolution where the carbonate structure of the shell partially dissolves, causing irreversibe damage, Loftus thinks that researchers could probably recover this information dating back as much as millions of years ago. Studying a shell’s growth periods also allows archaeologists to determine the season in which it was harvested. “We can track where humans were on the landscape at different times throughout the year,” Loftus says, “and this can shed light on the degree of group mobility, an important component of how ancient societies organized themselves.”

 

Digs South Africa Limpet ShellsArchaeologist Curtis Marean of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University believes that placing the role of coastal living in the big picture of human evolution and identifying the shift to “dense and predictable” food resources such as shellfish are crucial to understanding early modern humans’ social evolution. Marean also studies sites on the coast of South Africa and has found that their bountiful food resources encouraged territoriality and that social organization was needed to defend the newly established territory. This, he says, led to intergroup conflict and, in turn, to the development of technology such as projectile weapons. The high nutritional value of shellfish may also have helped boost Homo sapiens’ cognitive capacity. “When hunter-gatherers expanded their diet to include coastal resources, they ended up having characteristics unique among hunter-gatherers,” says Marean. “They didn’t move around the landscape much, and their population increased, as did the complexity of their tool kit.” Such social development is not known to have happened this early anywhere else.

 

Marean further hypothesizes that this sort of social development led to Homo sapiens’ perhaps most significant, and most unusual, quality—cooperation. “Cooperation is an extremely bizarre trait,” says Marean. “The high levels of cooperation with non-kin that modern humans express is completely unique in the animal kingdom.” Eventually, cooperation fostered group migration and led to Homo sapiens’ domination of the planet. It also may have saved the species from extinction. Marean and others working on the South African coast have identified shards of volcanic glass from the cataclysmic eruption of Mt. Toba on Sumatra 74,000 years ago, which some scholars think may have come close to wiping out humanity. Marean believes that shared coastal food resources in South Africa helped several hundred Homo sapiens escape annihilation, and that these fortunate survivors may have become the common ancestors of today’s 7.8 billion modern humans.

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