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From the Trenches

Seeds of Europe's Family Tree


Friday, June 07, 2013

EuropeGenesFor 20 years, scientists have been attempting to connect modern Europeans’ genetic lineage to either Paleolithic hunter-gatherers who arrived before the last Ice Age, 22,000 years ago, or to the continent’s first farmers, who appeared 7,500 years ago, in the early Neolithic. Australian scientists now say that today’s Europeans may be related to an even later wave of settlers. Scientists retrieved mitochondrial DNA, which passes from mother to child, from the remains of 39 people recovered from archaeological digs in central Europe, covering a 3,500-year span throughout the Neolithic. They identified a particular complex of genes shared by 40 percent of the modern population. These genes display a level of diversity that did not exist among the early hunter-gatherers and was not prominent among the first farmers. It is in later periods of the Neolithic, from about 6,000 to 4,000 years ago, that today’s variants start to pop up regularly.


According to Wolfgang Haak, a molecular archaeologist at the University of Adelaide, this tells us that early Neolithic farmers failed to cement their genetic legacy in central Europe, but that new settlers, possibly bringing related industries such as wool and dairy production, did. “It is not unlikely to assume a constant genetic influx from surrounding areas as settlement density increased towards the end the Neolithic,” Haak explains, “or that further technological advances arrived later.”

Origins of the Maya


Monday, June 10, 2013

Maya2A team of archaeologists led by Takeshi Inomata of the University of Arizona has excavated evidence of the origins of Maya culture at the ancient city of Ceibal in Guatemala. Over seven years, Inomata’s team has uncovered parts of the earliest buildings in the city’s ceremonial center. Radiocarbon dates show that the site was first occupied around 1000 b.c., making it the earliest known Maya site with a ceremonial center. The team found that the earliest architecture there conforms to a pattern that is also found at a contemporary non-Maya site in Chiapas, Mexico, and in the Olmec city of La Venta, which was built 200 years later. The team interprets this to mean that Maya culture grew out of a complex web of influences from across the region. Inomata says, “We are looking at the crystallization of the hallmarks of Mesoamerican civilizations, including pyramids, formal ceremonial complexes, and public rituals in the plaza.”

Off the Grid


Monday, June 10, 2013

Rockhouse-Cave recording-rock-artMany people probably associate rock art in the United States with the arid vistas of the Southwest, but it can be found elsewhere, such as on a forested mountain in central Arkansas. At Petit Jean Mountain, in a state park of the same name, there are dozens of beautiful old Native American rock art sites. Most of these sites are little known to visitors—anonymity helps protect against graffiti and vandalism—but one site is particularly accessible: Rock House Cave. According to Ann Marie Early, the state archaeologist, and George Sabo III of the Arkansas Archeological Survey, visitors to Rock House Cave can see more than a hundred pictographs, both abstract and figurative, that date to the first half of the seventeenth century.


The site

Rock House Cave can be found alongside the Cedar Falls Trail, which begins at the parking area of Petit Jean State Park. It is not a cave per se, but one of the largest sandstone bluff shelters in the state: 85 feet long and 100 feet deep, with a 16-foot ceiling. Most of the pictographs on its walls are red, probably pigmented with red ochre, and painted with either fingers or frayed twigs. The art is composed of geometric shapes and meandering lines, as well as remarkably realistic animal depictions. One of these is a life-size painting of a paddlefish, or spoonbill catfish, 36 inches long. Beneath it is a depiction of an open-weave basket thought to be a fish trap. Sabo says that the size of Rock House Cave suggests that it might have been a gathering place—though it’s not clear what community used it. Excavations at Carden Bottoms, at the foot of Petit Jean Mountain, have uncovered seventeenth-century pottery decorated with motifs similar to those painted in the cave. Some believe that Carden Bottoms hosted a multiethnic community that included ancestors of the Osage, Caddo, Quapaw, and others.


While you’re there

The trail that passes by Rock House Cave (one of 10 official trails in the park) winds from scenic Cedar Creek Falls to the rustic, renovated Mather Lodge, where visitors can rent cabins or have dinner overlooking the canyon. Just west of Petit Jean Mountain is Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge, which attracts large flocks of migrating birds, including 100,000 ducks and geese, as well as songbirds, wading birds, and, in winter, bald eagles. Little Rock, 70 miles southeast, is home to the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and numerous museums. And 15 miles more will bring you to Toltec Mounds State Park, a prehistoric Woodland complex with a museum—one of the largest prehistoric sites in the lower Mississippi River Valley.

Chilling Discovery at Jamestown

By ERIC A. Powell

Monday, June 10, 2013

JamesFortSkullIn the fall of 1609, Powhatan Indians laid siege to Jamestown, Virginia, trapping 300 settlers inside the settlement’s fort. Cut off from food supplies, only 60 would survive the winter ahead, known to history as the “Starving Time.” According to survivors’ accounts, they consumed vermin and boot leather, and, as the winter grew harsher, some ate the dead. But firsthand reports can be unreliable and there has never been direct evidence for cannibalism at Jamestown. “I never believed those accounts,” says William Kelso, chief archaeologist for the Jamestown Rediscovery Project. “I thought they were trying to make the Virginia Company [the colony’s sponsor] feel bad so they would send more supplies.”



Jamestown ReconstructionNow the discovery of a partial human skull and tibia in a kitchen cellar inside the fort has substantiated the survivors’ claims. Kelso’s team found the remains, which belonged to a 14-year-old girl, in a trash pile with the bones of butchered horses, dogs, rats, and mice. Someone trying to separate flesh from the bones with a knife left marks on the skull, jawbone, and tibia. The marks appear to have been made inexpertly, or by someone who was hesitating to butcher the bones. “There’s no question that this is evidence for survival cannibalism,” says Kelso. “It’s grim and it’s a tough story to handle. But it points out just how close Jamestown came to failing.”

Not Quite Ancient


Monday, June 10, 2013

When University of Georgia archaeologist Mark Abbe first saw the fragment of sculpture at the University of Mississippi Museum, the light was low and he didn’t get a very good look. Yet Abbe was intrigued by the faint traces of color he saw on its white marble surface. At the time, he couldn’t have imagined why the relief struck him as different from the thousands of other ancient sculptures he had seen. Wanting to know more, museum Director Robert Saarnio allowed Abbe to bring the relief to the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens. “As soon as I got it back here under good light, I thought, ‘Wait a second, this isn’t like anything I have seen before,’” says Abbe.




While only the section depicting the god Hermes exists, the fragment is actually part of a celebrated ancient composition known as the “Orpheus Relief.” This scene shows Hermes leading the nymph Eurydice back to the underworld after her final parting from her beloved Orpheus. Back in Athens, Abbe and Jeff Speakman of the Center for Applied Isotope Studies used hyperspectral imaging techniques to collect data beyond what the human eye can see. When combined with chemist Tina Salguero’s study of minute traces of pigment, the results were a complete surprise—what had always been thought to be a first-century Roman copy of a late fifth-century B.C. Greek original, had, in fact, been made between 1880 and 1920. “As soon as we saw pigments without ancient parallels, such as titanium white and phthalocyanine blue, we knew the paint wasn’t ancient,” explains Abbe. As he continued to examine the sculpture, he began to realize that it wasn’t just the pigments that weren’t right—the piece could still have been ancient, with the paint added for the marketplace thousands of years later. “At first it just looked like an over-scrubbed ancient artifact, but the more we looked at the surfaces, we realized they weren’t akin to Roman practice,” Abbe says.