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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, May 14

New Thoughts on Early Human Meals

JENA, GERMANY—According to a Science Magazine report, an international team of researchers analyzed oral bacteria in dental plaque collected from ancient modern humans, Neanderthals, and other primates, including chimpanzees, gorillas, and howler monkeys. The researchers found that the oral microbiome of modern humans who lived some 10,000 years ago strongly resembled that of Neanderthals who lived as early as 100,000 years ago. Both the modern humans and the Neanderthals carried a bacteria linked to breaking down starches into sugars, and consumimg sugars left behind on the teeth. This bacteria was not found in the mouths of chimpanzees. The researchers therefore suggest that the presence of this bacteria indicates ancient modern humans and Neanderthals had adapted to eating a diet heavy in starchy plant foods. The researchers also suggest that modern humans and Neanderthals inherited these sugar-loving microbes from a common ancestor that lived more than 600,000 years ago, at about the same time their brains grew larger. It had been previously thought that this brain growth was fueled by a diet heavy in meat. “For human ancestors to efficiently grow a bigger brain, they needed energy dense foods containing glucose,” said molecular archaeologist Christina Warinner of Harvard University and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. “Meat is not a good source of glucose,” she concluded. For more on the study of the ancient human microbiome, go to "Worlds Within Us."

Indonesia’s Early Rock Art Damaged by Climate Change

QUEENSLAND, AUSTRALIA—Cosmos Magazine reports that climate change is rapidly weathering rock art at the Maros-Pangkep site in Sulawesi, Indonesia, that dates to at least 44,000 years ago. Intergenerational custodians of the artworks and local archaeologists said the images are disappearing faster now than at any other time in living memory. One of the images, of a warty pig, is the oldest known depiction of an animal. The cave also contains hunting scenes and images thought to depict mystical beings. Jillian Huntley of Griffith University and her colleagues studied the limestone rock face and found evidence of salt crystallization. The salts, she explained, weaken the rock and cause it to flake off, damaging the artworks. “These processes are accelerated by increasing temperatures, more extreme weather,” Huntley said. The extremes include prolonged droughts, standing water from storms and floods, and local food production practices. “We are in a race against time to document and learn from this rock art before it is irrevocably damaged,” she added. For more on dating Sulawesi's rock art, go to "Shock of the Old."

Researchers Test Ancient Historians’ Claims About Himera Battles

ATHENS, GEORGIA—According to a statement released by PLOS, Katherine Reinberger of the University of Georgia and her colleagues analyzed the chemical composition of the tooth enamel of 62 soldiers who fought in the Battles of Himera, in what is now Sicily. In 480 B.C., soldiers from the Greek city stopped an invading army from Carthage, but in 409 B.C., when Carthage attacked again, Himera fell. Greek historians Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus wrote that Himera’s soldiers were successful in the first battle because they were aided by Greek allies. The chemical composition of the soldiers’ teeth indicates that about one-third of those who fought in the first battle were locals, compared to three-fourths of the army in the second battle. The researchers suggest that while their results corroborate the claims made by the ancient historians, many of those foreign soldiers may have been hired mercenaries rather than allies. Read the original scholarly article about this research in PLOS ONE. To read about the search for the theater at an ancient Greek sanctuary, go to "Sicily's Lost Theater."


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Thursday, May 13

Bent Sword Found in 5th-Century Soldier’s Grave in Greece

THESSALONIKI, GREECE—Live Science reports that Errikos Maniotis of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and his colleagues have uncovered seven graves, including a 1,600-year-old soldier’s arch-shaped grave, in an early Christian basilica discovered in 2010 ahead of subway construction in northern Greece. The soldier was buried with a shield, a spear, and a spatha, a type of long straight sword used from about A.D. 250 to 450, that had been bent. “Usually, these types of swords were used by the auxiliary cavalry forces of the Roman army,” Maniotis said. Because he was buried in the basilica, Maniotis explained, the man may have been a high-ranking officer. However, folded swords are usually found in Northern Europe, and are considered to be a pagan custom. Maniotis thinks the man may have come from a Germanic tribe and blended his past with Roman and Christian ways. To read about an extraordinarily rich Bronze Age grave unearthed at the site of Pylos in Greece, go to "World of the Griffin Warrior." 

Novel Bacterial DNA Detected in Ancient Coprolites

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—According to a Science Magazine report, a team of researchers led by microbiologist Aleksandar Kostic of Harvard University analyzed eight coprolites recovered from three rock shelters in Mexico and the southwestern United States to look for traces of the ancient human microbiome. The feces ranged in age from 2,000 to 1,000 years old. First, tiny samples were rehydrated and strands of DNA were recovered by archaeologist Meradeth Snow of the University of Montana, Missoula. Marsha Wibowo of Harvard University then separated out the human intestinal DNA from that of bacteria in the surrounding soil by looking for DNA damaged by time and DNA sequences associated with mammalian guts in previous research. She also found unfamiliar DNA thought to have come from extinct bacteria. “In just these eight samples from a relatively confined geography and time period, we found 38 percent novel species,” Kostic explained. Much of the DNA came from bacteria that are also found in modern people who live in nonindustrial societies and eat a high-fiber diet. The ancient microbiomes, however, lacked markers for antibiotic resistance. Read the original scholarly article about this research in Nature.

Early Bronze Age Burials Uncovered in Istanbul

ISTANBUL, TURKEY—Hurriyet Daily News reports that archaeological investigation in Istanbul ahead of the construction of a subway station near the European shore of the Bosphorus uncovered burials dated to between 3500 and 3000 B.C. Archaeologist Mehmet Ali Polat said some 80 burials were recovered among a series of kurgans and rows of stones. “A total of 75 of these 82 tombs belong to cremation, that is, bodies buried by burning,” he added. “Seven of them were direct burials.” Two terracotta figurines were recovered from one of the burials. Polat explained that symbols on the figurines have been identified as runic alphabet symbols from Romania’s Vinca culture, suggesting early Bronze Age migration and trade between Anatolia and the Balkans. To read about a Bronze Age settlement in southeastern Turkey that was suddenly destroyed more than 3,500 years ago, go to "The Wrath of the Hittites."

Wednesday, May 12

18th-Century Monkey Bones Unearthed at Castle Site in England

NOTTINGHAM, ENGLAND—BBC News reports that the bones of three guenon monkeys, a species from central and western Africa, were unearthed at Nottingham Castle during an investigation carried out ahead of a construction project. The bones have been dated to the late eighteenth century, according to Gareth Davies of the York Archaeological Trust. “At that time, the ducal palace had been converted to apartments and these bones were just found in a levelling layer of rubbish,” he explained. The monkeys may have been the pets of Jane Kirkby, who lived at the castle from 1791 to 1825. Castle volunteer Yvonne Armitage said that she found a historical reference to a “large ape” that was Kirkby’s “constant companion.” Wear on the monkeys’ teeth indicates they had lived for a long time. Davies suggests they may have been buried in a grave that was later disturbed. To read about another excavation at an English castle, go to "Letter from England: Stronghold of the Kings in the North."

Rock-Cut Tombs Discovered in Upper Egypt

SOHAG, EGYPT—Ahram Online reports that a recent survey revealed a series tombs carved into a mountainside at the Al-Hamidiya necropolis, which is located in southern Egypt near the west bank of the Nile River. People buried here are thought to have been elites in the nearby administrative center of Akhmim. Mostafa Waziri of the Supreme Council of Antiquities said the tombs span a period of about 2,300 years, from the Old Kingdom Period to the end of the Ptolemaic period, and were built in a variety of styles, including single shaft tombs, tombs with several shafts, and sloping corridors leading to burial shafts. One Old Kingdom tomb consists of a sloping shaft that leads to a false door inscribed with hieroglyphs, a scene depicting the owner of the tomb performing sacrifices, and others making offerings to the deceased. An entrance leads to a gallery with a burial shaft to one side. The tomb was later reused, Waziri added. Miniature pots used for funerary offerings were recovered from the tombs, in addition to small spherical vessels, small alabaster vessels, pieces of a round metal mirror, and human and animal bones. To read about recent finds from Egypt's Saqqara necropolis, go to "The Mummies Return."