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From the Trenches

The Human Mosaic

By ZACH ZORICH

Monday, June 10, 2013

AsedibaThe most recent analysis of the 1.98-million-year old bones of Australopithecus sediba is showing that the hominins living in Africa at that time were a more diverse bunch than anyone expected. The study focused on two almost complete skeletons and one isolated tibia that were discovered in 2008 at the site of Malapa in South Africa.

 

A research team led by Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand describes the A. sediba fossils as being a mosaic of human- and apelike traits. Their arms are relatively long and their hands had curved fingers—both traits that suggest A. sediba spent a substantial amount of time in the trees. In addition, they had small brains, much closer in size to those of earlier species of Australopithecus than to those of the earliest members of the genus Homo. At the same time, A. sediba’s pelvis, teeth, and lower jaw appear to be humanlike.

 

Analysis of A. sediba’s lower limbs revealed that they walked upright, though differently from other hominins. Each A. sediba footfall landed on the outside of the heel and rolled toward the arch and big toe, causing the legs to rotate slightly inward. This gait may have evolved as a compromise that allowed A. sediba to walk on the ground and still climb trees effectively. The finding shows that at least two different forms of bipedalism had evolved in parallel about 2 million years ago, when the earliest members of the human genus Homo came along. “If you look at the three transitional species between the australopiths and Homo erectusH. habilis, H. rudolfensis, and A. sediba—they all have primitive characteristics, and they all have Homo-like derived characteristics, but each has a different mix,” says team member Steven Churchill of Duke University. Churchill believes it is possible that these three species interbred and their offspring were the ancestors of modern humans. “Maybe all of the humanlike features coalesce in H. erectus,” he says. 

Whale-Barnacle Barbecue

By SAMIR PATEL

Monday, June 10, 2013

WhaleBarnacleRemains of small crustaceans in the residue of a 14,000-year-old campfire suggest that the Upper Paleolithic people of Malaga, Spain, had much larger animals on the menu. Researchers from the University of Valencia identified the remains of two species of barnacles that live only on whale skin. The finds suggest that people of the Magdalenian culture consumed whale meat, though there’s no evidence they hunted this one—the marine mammal may have beached or been stranded by a low tide. Both species of barnacles are associated with whales that now live in the Southern (but not Northern) Atlantic, suggesting that lower sea temperatures during the last Ice Age altered the cetaceans’ range. 

Portals to the Underworld

By ERIC A. POWELL

Monday, June 10, 2013

AlepotrypaFor the ancient Mesopotamians, hell was a distant place, across an ocean of death, located at the end of the world. But for the ancient Greeks and their Neolithic ancestors, the gates to the underworld were not that far away at all. 

 

Earlier this year, University of Salento archaeologists announced the discovery of one such portal at the Greco-Roman city of Hierapolis in southwestern Turkey. The team located a cave at the site that emits poisonous gases and was thought in antiquity to be an entrance to Hades. Known as “Pluto’s Gates,” for the god of the underworld, the cave is near a temple where the archaeologists found a column bearing a dedication to the god and his wife Persephone. 

 

Not far away, excavations at a cave at Alepotrypa in southern Greece (above) suggest that the Greek concept of the underworld, on display at Hierapolis, may have originated in the Neolithic period. The entrance to this cave collapsed 5,000 years ago, preserving evidence that Neolithic people lived there, and that others made pilgrimages there from afar to bury their dead. Millsaps College archaeologist Michael Galaty, who works at the site with a team led by Greek archaeologist Giorgos Papathanassopoulos, says his colleagues believe the site took on mythological significance. “Giorgos thinks that when the cave collapsed and everyone left, they took this cultural memory with them of an underground realm where they buried the dead,” says Galatay. “This could be the source of the Greek fascination with the underworld.”

Roman London Underground

By SAMIR S. PATEL

Monday, June 10, 2013

RomanLondonIn the heart of modern London, at the site of what is soon to be Bloomberg’s European headquarters, archaeologists from Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) have revealed one of the city’s most impressive Roman sites. The excavation, next to where the Temple of Mithras was discovered in the 1950s, took six months to complete. Among the remains of timber buildings, fences, wells, and a complex drainage system, archaeologists uncovered some artifacts, dating from A.D. 47 to the fifth century. The remarkable preservation—particularly of organic materials such as wood, leather, and basketry—is due to the site’s location in the valley of Walbrook River, one of London’s lost watercourses. The finds “will transform our understanding of the people of Roman London,” says MOLA’s Sophie Jackson. 

 

LondonUnderground

In Style in the Stone Age

By ERIC A. POWELL

Monday, June 10, 2013

BeadsEven Paleolithic people knew that while fashions fade, style is eternal. A team led by University of Bordeaux archaeologist Marian Vanhaeren found that beaded necklace patterns changed in a relatively short time around 75,000 years ago, possibly within a few generations.

 

Vanhaeren and her colleagues analyzed shell beads from Blombos Cave, South Africa. Beads from two separate layers displayed patterns of wear distinct from one another, which suggested that they had been strung and worn differently at different times. The archaeologists made some beads of their own and strung them in a variety of styles. They then subjected them to use, and exposed them to a water-and-vinegar solution meant to mimic human sweat and accentuate the marks that came from everyday wear. “Voilà,” says Vanhaeren, “we had the wear patterns.” From the experiment, she concluded that in the older layers, shells hung freely on a string (above), while in the upper layers the shells were knotted together in a more complex pattern (top). Vanhaeren notes that the beads in both layers probably came from numerous necklaces. “All the people respected the rules and wore the beads in these specific patterns,” she says. In other words, the Blombos Cave people were slaves to fashion.

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