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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, April 30

Poland's Neolithic Light Sources Studied

WARSAW, POLAND—Archaeologist Krzysztof Tunia of Poland’s Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology suggests new light sources developed along with agriculture, according to a report in Science in Poland. Bonfires and wood torches were the primary source of light up until about 7,000 years ago, Tunia said, until simple pottery lamps came into use alongside the development of pottery for storage and cooking. Early lamps consisted of a wick made of plant material submerged in a flammable substance held in a shallow vessel. Many such vessels dating to the late Mesolithic and early Neolithic periods have been found in northern Poland, near the Baltic Sea, where the fat of marine animals could have been used as fuel. This could explain why similar lamps are not found in southern Poland, Tunia explained. There, charcoal found at a Neolithic flint mine is thought to have been left behind from torches used for light. Charcoal lines on the walls of the mine may have been made by rubbing the tip of the torch on the wall to create a larger flame. Lights would also have been needed to light the inside of dwellings, Tunia said, because doors and windows were limited in order to provide shelter and keep in warmth. For more go to “Off The Grid: Krakow, Poland.”

Unfinished Canoe Discovered in New Zealand

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND—Radio New Zealand reports that a road crew working on the North Island of New Zealand uncovered a Maori waka, or canoe, near the Okahu Inlet. The unfinished wooden vessel measures about 30 feet long. “This is a significant discovery that will grow our understanding of where and how waka were made,” said Kelvin Davis, Crown/Maori Relations Minister. The waka is said to still be connected to the trunk of a kauri tree. The waka will be secured, conserved, and dated. For more, go to “World Roundup: New Zealand.”

Remains of Sacrificed Children and Young Llamas Found in Peru

TRUJILLO, PERU—Live Science reports that the 550-year-old remains of around 140 children and 200 llamas have been discovered at the Chimú site of Huanchaquito-Las Llamas in northern Peru. John Verano of Tulane University said the children’s bones bear cut marks and some of them had damaged ribs. The injuries suggest that the healthy and well-nourished children had been sacrificed and that some of their hearts had been removed, although scientists do not know whether the children were alive when they were cut open. Bright red pigment made from cinnabar had been placed on the children’s faces, perhaps as part of the ritual. Some of the llamas had ropes around their necks, and footprints at the site indicate they may have tried to flee. There were no signs of struggle from the children, however. They were buried facing the sea, while the llamas were buried facing the Andes Mountains, but Verano and his colleagues are not sure why. “One possibility is that llamas originally came from the highlands,” he said, “and the Chimú had deities and art that focused on marine themes, like fish and sea birds, so they had the children face the sea.” All of the bodies were placed in a layer of mud that was perhaps produced by a catastrophic weather event such as El Niño. To read about a recent discovery in nearby Huanchaco, Peru, go to “Unknown Elites.”

Prehistoric Pottery Workshop Unearthed in Bulgaria

POMORIE, BULGARIA—Archaeology in Bulgaria reports that Kozareva Mogila Mound, located in southeastern Bulgaria near the Black Sea, covers traces of a pottery workshop that was part of a much larger settlement and necropolis. Archaeologists led by Petya Georgieva of Sofia University said the site, made up of homes that had been destroyed, is about 7,000 years old. Excavation of the pottery workshop revealed a large kiln and chimney and more than 60 ceramic vessels, as well as tools and anthropomorphic figurines. Many of the pots had been decorated with designs applied with white and red paint. Georgieva thinks the vessels were made for trade, since there were so many of them, and the workshop was situated at a crossroads near settlements built on deposits of copper ore, rock salt, and gold. To read more about archaeology in Bulgaria, go to “Iconic Discovery.”

Friday, April 27

New Technique Virtually Reconstructs Neanderthal Brains

TOKYO, JAPAN—Seeker reports that Naomichi Ogihara of Keio University, Takanori Kochiyama of the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International, and Hiroki C. Tanabe of Nagoya University and their colleagues constructed 3-D models of Neanderthal and early Homo sapiens brains using a technique called computational neuroanatomy. The team members based the models on virtual casts of Neanderthal fossil skulls from Israel, France, and Gibraltar and early Homo sapiens from Israel and the Czech Republic; the skull of an early modern human who lived some 30,000 years ago; information collected from MRIs of more than 1,000 living humans; and non-human primate brains. The resulting models indicate that Neanderthal brains were larger than those of modern humans, but they had smaller cerebellums. This region of the brain is associated with language comprehension and production, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. “We are not saying that Neanderthals were incapable of processing languages,” Ogihara said. “We think they could communicate verbally, but their social ability using languages was probably limited because of the brain structural differences.” The scientists also suggest Neanderthals had a larger occipital lobe than early modern humans, perhaps to compensate for low light levels in Europe. For more on brain evolution, go to “Hungry Minds.”

Well-Preserved Chariot Horse Found in Sudan

SANTA BARBARA, CALIFORNIA—According to a report in Live Science, the 3,000-year-old grave of a Nubian chariot horse has been uncovered at the site of Tombos in what is now Sudan. The horse had been wrapped in a shroud and buried in a shaft under a tomb complex chapel, near four chambers containing high-status human burials. A carved scarab beetle and a piece of iron that may have been part of a bridle were also found in the horse’s grave. The metal is said to be the oldest piece of worked iron yet found in Africa. Bioarchaeologist Michelle Buzon of Purdue University said that examination of the animal’s bones, some of which still bore bits of chestnut fur with white markings, revealed it was a mare who died between the ages of 12 and 15. Stress on her ribs and spine indicate she wore a chariot harness during her active life. To read in-depth about archaeological evidence of the relationship between horses and humans, go to “The Story of the Horse.”

Experiment Tests South Africa’s Earliest Arrowhead

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA—Haaretz reports that a team led by Lucinda Backwell of the University of the Witwatersrand created bone projectiles modeled after one unearthed in Sibudu Cave, a rock shelter in South Africa, in order to test its possible use as an arrowhead. The 61,700-year-old bone point was found in a hearth, and shows some heat damage, in addition to marks from being shaped with stone tools. The replica points were made from the fresh bones of elands, and were secured to reed shafts with animal sinew. All of the marks on the bone points were scanned and recorded before testing began. The arrows were then shot from bows made of wood and kudu tendon into a goat carcass. One of the new points was also heated and dried in order to compare it with the damage seen on the ancient artifact. Analysis of the micro-cracks on the new bone arrowheads suggests the point found at Sibudu Cave was likely to have been shot with a bow by a hunter before it was lost or disposed of in a hearth—some 10,000 years earlier than bows are known to have been used in Eurasia. To read about the discovery of a much more recent arrow point in Canada, go to “Time’s Arrow.”

Thursday, April 26

Trackway May Record Prehistoric Hunters in Action

POOLE, ENGLAND—Science Magazine reports that human and giant ground sloth footprints estimated to be between 10,000 and 15,000 years old have been found in New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument. Sedimentologist Matthew Bennett of Bournemouth University said sloth trackways are usually straight or slightly curved, but when human prints are also found nearby, a sloth’s path sometimes turns sharply or indicates the animal reared up on its hind legs in order to use its front limbs and sharp claws for defense. Bennett and his colleagues suggest this trackway records a human pursuit of a sloth that weighed up to 2,000 pounds. In this scenario, the hunters extended their strides in order to step into the sloth’s footprints, until it reared up on its hind legs. This trackway also has “flailing circles,” which are left behind when an animal swivels around while attempting to protect itself from something in the environment. But critics question whether the humans who left these prints were actually hunting the sloth, suggesting that they may have instead found the fresh prints and decided to walk in them after the sloth had moved on. For more on Bennett's study of ancient footprints, go to “Proof in the Prints.”

Scientists Analyze Excrement From Northern Europe

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—Veterinary scientist Martin Søe of the University of Copenhagen led a team of researchers who examined excrement for evidence of diet and health in northern Europe between the early eleventh and eighteenth centuries, according to an NPR report. This new study offers a more detailed analysis than previous investigations of feces and parasites, and has created data that could fuel further research into pathogens and diseases. Most of the samples came from Denmark, the Netherlands, and Lithuania. The scientists filtered them through fine meshes to collect parasite eggs, and washed them to collect plant and animal DNA. The DNA sequences were then compared with known databases to identify what the people had eaten. Certain parasites, such as fish tapeworms, also offer clues to human diets. For example, in addition to fish tapeworms, Søe detected tapeworms associated with eating raw or undercooked pork in samples from seventeenth-century Denmark. Viking-era samples yielded fin whale DNA. Waste and parasites from cats, horses, rats, and mice were also detected in the samples. Søe thinks their waste may have been cleaned up from other locations and deposited in the toilets. For more, go to “Vikings, Worms, and Emphysema.”

Strength of New Guinea’s Bone Daggers Evaluated

HANOVER, NEW HAMPSHIRE—According to a Live Science report, Nathaniel Dominy of Dartmouth College and R. Dana Carpenter of the University of Colorado, Denver, led a study that compared the strength of daggers carved from human and cassowary thigh bones. Such weapons are thought to have been used by warriors in New Guinea to kill enemies or finish them off after they had been wounded with arrows or spears, based upon accounts written by missionaries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The researchers collected information on the density of the bones by performing computed tomography scans of five of each type of weapon. They also a purchased a newly made cassowary dagger and subjected it to a bending test. The test results suggest the human bone daggers were about twice as strong as the daggers made from bird bone, but mainly because of the way they had been shaped. Dominy and Carpenter think the warriors may have been more careful when fashioning the human femur daggers, since they were harder to replace. “Human bone daggers have to be sourced from a really important person,” Dominy said. “It has to be your father or someone who was respected in the community.” To read about a dagger discovered in Denmark, go to “Artifact: Bronze Age Dagger.”