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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, May 22

Computer Model Simulates Neanderthal Extinction Scenarios

BUSAN, SOUTH KOREA—According to a statement released by the Institute for Basic Science (IBS), a team of researchers led by Axel Timmermann of the IBS Center for Climate Physics created a supercomputer model to simulate possible scenarios for the collapse of Neanderthal populations between 38,000 and 43,000 years ago. The migration of Neanderthals and modern humans, their interactions and interbreeding, and the rapidly fluctuating climate of the period were all taken into account, Timmermann said. The results produced by the computer model were then compared with anthropological, genetic, and archaeological data. The scientists concluded that competition with modern humans alone was responsible for the extinction of the Neanderthals. Possible reasons for the modern human advantage may have been better hunting techniques, stronger immune systems, or higher birth rates, Timmermann added, while pointing out that Neanderthals survived in Eurasia for 300,000 years only to go extinct around the same time that modern humans arrived on the scene. To read about possible Neanderthal burial practices, go to "Z Marks the Spot."

300,000-Year-Old Scavenged Elephant Found in Germany

SCHÖNINGEN, GERMANY—Live Science reports that a nearly complete 300,000-year-old elephant skeleton (Palaeoloxodon antiquus) has been unearthed near the site of a large lake in northwestern Germany. Researchers led by Jordi Serangeli of the University of Tübingen have also recovered 30 small flint flakes and two bone tools at the site, which suggest that a human relative such as Homo heidelbergensis scavenged the carcass. The bone tools may have been used to sharpen stone tools, since micro flakes were found embedded in them, explained team archaeologist Bárbara Rodríguez Álvarez. Archaeozoologist Ivo Verheijen said that the animal was a female with worn teeth. Old and sick elephants often remain near water, he added. The remains included straight tusks measuring about seven and one-half feet long, a complete lower jaw, vertebrae and ribs, and the large bones from three of its four legs. Verheijen said the elephant probably stood about ten and one-half feet tall at the shoulder, which is larger than today’s female elephants. Previous research has shown that as many as 20 different kinds of large animals once lived at the lake, making it an attractive hunting spot. Ten wooden spears dated to about 300,000 years ago have also been found nearby. To read more about these spears, go to "Weapons of the Ancient World: Hunting Equipment."

Thursday, May 21

Neolithic House Mouse Found in Europe

YORK, ENGLAND—According to a statement released by the University of York, archaeologist David Orton and his colleagues sieved soil samples collected from the floors of burned houses in a late Neolithic village in Serbia and recovered tiny mouse bones. Orton explained that it had been previously thought that Neolithic sites outside of the Mediterranean were not heavily populated enough to support the rodents. The bones, from Mus musculus domesticus, or the eastern subspecies of house mouse, are 6,500 years old, thousands of years older than the remains of the western subspecies of mouse uncovered at Bronze Age sites in Greece. Orton said it is not yet clear how the mice reached the region. To read about mouse remains discovered during a CT scan of a mummified bird, go to "A Kestrel's Last Meal."

Scientists Track 15,000 Years’ Worth of Ear Infections

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL—Haaretz reports that a study of human remains buried in the Levant between 15,000 and 100 years ago suggests that the onset of agriculture—and the corresponding decrease of variety and increase of grains in the diet—may not have harmed people’s health as previously thought. Hila May of Tel Aviv University and her colleagues examined the internal wall of the middle ears of the remains to look for evidence of chronic ear infections, which are usually brought on by cold or flu. The researchers found that almost 70 percent of the hunter-gatherers, who are likely to have lived in crowded caves or huts, suffered from ear infections. The rate of infection dropped to 55 percent during the early Neolithic period, between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago, but spiked to 80 percent some 6,000 years ago. May suggests this rise in illness could have been caused by the onset of a cooler, wetter climate, and the introduction of dairy products to the diet. By the Roman period, as people built bigger homes and animals were moved outside, she added, the rate of ear infection dropped to about 50 percent, where it remains today. To read about how the adoption of agriculture precipitated biological changes in Neolithic populations, go to "You Say What You Eat."

14,000-Year-Old Ancestor of Native Americans Identified in Russia

JENA, GERMANY—He Yu of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and her colleagues analyzed DNA extracted from a 14,000-year-old tooth fragment unearthed by archaeologists in south-central Russia in the 1970s, and found that its mixture of ancient North Eurasian and Northeast Asian ancestry matches that of today’s Native Americans, according to a Science Magazine report. Ust-Kyakhta, the Siberian site where the tooth was found, is situated between Lake Baikal and the Mongolian border, or about 2,800 miles from Beringia, a land bridge that connected eastern Siberia to the Americas until it was submerged by glacial melt some 11,000 years ago. Some 2,000 miles away from Ust-Kyakhta, in northeastern Siberia, researchers have found the remains of a Mesolithic woman whose genome shares about two-thirds of its DNA with living Native Americans. When combined, the information suggests that Native American ancestors came from a wider region than previously thought. Yu said the study reveals the deepest known link between Upper Paleolithic Siberians and the First Americans. For more, go to "First American Family Tree."

Wednesday, May 20

Civil Complaint Requests Artifact’s Return to Iraq

NEW YORK, NEW YORK—NPR reports that U.S. federal prosecutors have filed a civil complaint in the Eastern District of New York seeking the repatriation of a 3,500-year-old cuneiform tablet fragment to Iraq. The so-called Gilgamesh Dream Tablet measures about five inches by six inches. In the text on the fragment, the hero of the Gilgamesh epic describes his dreams to his mother, who interprets them for him. The government of Iraq is now trying to determine if the tablet fragment was among the thousands of artifacts stolen from regional museums during war and unrest in 1991. According to the civil complaint, the tablet surfaced in London around 2001, and was eventually sold to an American collector in a private sale in 2014. The artifact was later seized by the federal government and is now housed in a Department of Homeland Security warehouse. For more on fragments of the Gilgamesh epic, go to "The World's Oldest Writing: Religion."

Early Roman-Era Chambers Discovered in Jerusalem

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—According to an AFP report, students led by archaeologist Barak Monnickendam-Givon of the Israel Antiquities Authority discovered three small, 2,000-year-old chambers carved out of the bedrock underneath Jerusalem’s Western Wall Plaza. The site, now some 20 feet below modern street level, is located about 120 feet away from the base of the Western Wall, which runs alongside the area known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. The underground chambers featured niches and elaborate carvings, and were connected with staircases. Fragments of clay oil lamps that may have been placed in the niches, cooking vessels, storage jars, and limestone cups helped the researchers to date the chambers. Monnickendam-Givon said the tiny rooms may have served as food storage for a building that has not been preserved, or as a place to prepare food for priests or pilgrims at the nearby temple. A large structure with a white mosaic floor was built on top of the chambers in the Byzantine period. To read about a Roman theater building uncovered at the Western Wall, go to "Front Row Seats."

Study Suggests A. sediba Could Climb and Grasp

CANTERBURY, ENGLAND—According to a statement released by the University of Kent, Christopher Dunmore, Matthew Skinner, and Tracy Kivell suggest that Australopithecus sediba could use its hands to climb trees as well as to manipulate objects in a modern human–like manner. Australopithecus sediba lived about two million years ago, and was a late-surviving member of the ape-like Australopithecus genus, which is thought to have gone extinct about 1.9 million years ago. The researchers examined the internal structure of the knuckles and thumb joints of Australopithecus sediba, Australopithecus africanus, Australopithecus afarensis, Neanderthals, and modern humans. The fossils ranged in age from three million to 12 thousand years old. The study suggests that Australopithecus sediba, unlike other members of the Australopithecus genus, had knuckles associated with being able to grasp branches, and thumb joints consistent with the modern human–like manipulation of objects. For more on Australopithecus sediba, go to "The Human Mosaic." 

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