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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, February 2

Upper Paleolithic Ivory Tool May Have Made Rope

TÜBINGEN, GERMANY—Science News reports that 15 pieces of mammoth ivory recovered from southwestern Germany’s Hohle Fels Cave have been assembled into an object measuring almost eight inches long. The implement, which has been dated to between 35,000 and 40,000 years old, was equipped with four holes lined with carved spiral grooves. Microscopic wear and tear and the presence of plant residue have been detected on the tool. Archaeologists Nicholas Conard of the University of Tübingen, Veerle Rots of the University of Liège, and their colleagues think that the object was used to make rope, and tested their idea with replicas made from wood, animal bone, a warthog’s split tooth, and bronze. One person held thin, hand-twisted ropes made from animal sinews and five different types of plant fibers, and fed them through the holes of the tool, held by another person. A third person pulled and twisted the fibers as they passed through the holes in the replica tool and twisted them into a single piece of rope. The study suggests that four of five people working together could produce about 16 feet of rope in 10 minutes. The researchers also determined that cattail leaves worked particularly well in this rope-making process. Read the original scholarly article about this research in Science Advances. To read about recent research on a carved ivory figurine found in the cave nearly 25 years ago, go to "A Horse Is a Horse?"

Ancient Egyptian Woman Diagnosed With Rheumatoid Arthritis

ASWAN, EGYPT—According to an Ahram Online report, the incomplete skeletal remains of a woman, who lived between 1800 and 1500 B.C. and suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, were uncovered in Aswan during an excavation conducted by the Aswan-Kom Ombo Archaeological Project. This chronic inflammatory autoimmune condition is characterized by aches, stiffness, and swelling of the joints, and was identified by the erosive lesions with smooth edges that were found outside the surface of the woman’s joints. Rheumatoid arthritis can also damage the lining of the joints, skin, eyes, mouth, heart, and lungs. Abdel-Monem Said, General Director of Aswan Antiquities, said that joints on both sides of the woman’s body had been affected, including her hands, feet, shoulders, elbows, wrists, and ankles, and would have made it difficult for her to carry out daily activities. Because mention of rheumatoid arthritis has not been found in any ancient Egyptian medical texts, it had been previously thought that the condition did not exist in its present form at the time. To read about how people of the ancient world attended to their well-being, go to "The Pursuit of Wellness."

Fossilized Ear Bones Offer Clues to Bipedalism

YUNNAN, CHINA—According to a Discover Magazine report, Xijun Ni and Yinan Zhang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Terry Harrison of New York University, and their colleagues reconstructed the inner ears of Lufengpithecus, a six-million-year-old ancestor of modern orangutans that lived in what is now China, using 3-D CT scans of fossilized inner ear bones. They then compared these reconstructions with the inner ears of other extinct apes, modern-day apes, and modern humans from Asia, Europe, and Africa in order to look for clues to the evolution of bipedalism. In modern humans, the vestibular system in the inner ear sends information about balance and motion to the brain through loop-shaped structures called semicircular canals. “The size and shape of the semicircular canals correlate with how mammals, including apes and humans, move around their environment,” Zhang explained. The study suggests that early apes were able to swing through trees with their arms like modern gibbons. Eventually, the last common ancestors of apes and humans were able to use their limbs to hang from trees, and could stand on their feet while hanging from trees, in a similar manner to Lufengpithecus. When on the ground, this last common ancestor likely walked on all fours, Harrison said. “Later, the human lineage diverged from the great apes with the acquisition of bipedalism, as seen in Australopithecus, an early human relative from Africa,” Ni said. Cooler temperatures and the growth of glacial ice sheets some 3.2 million years ago correlate with a rapid increase in the rate of change observed in bony ear structures, Harrison added. Walking upright may therefore have offered an advantage as the environment transformed. To read more about the development of bipedalism, go to "The Human Mosaic."

Hunter-Gatherer’s Atlatl Discovered in Cave in Mexico

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO—An atlatl and two wooden darts have been recovered from a remote room in central Mexico’s Cueva del Tesoro, or Treasure Cave, according to a Newsweek report. Some modified logs found in the room may have also been used as tools. The hunting weapons, radiocarbon dated to 1,900 years ago, were discovered by members of a cavers’ association who notified officials at Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History. Archaeologist Carlos Viramontes said that hunter-gatherers lived in the area as early as 9,000 years ago, and survived for about 200 years after the arrival of Europeans. No other artifacts of this age have been recovered from the cave. Further investigations may provide additional clues, however, Viramontes explained. For more on atlatls and ancient spear-throwing weapons that predate them, go to "Weapons of the Ancient World: Hunting Equipment."

Thursday, February 1

Iron Age Blacksmith Shop Found in England

OXFORDSHIRE, ENGLAND—The Oxford Mail reports that a 2,700-year-old blacksmith shop has been discovered in an Iron Age settlement site complete with roundhouses, an Iron Age pantry, ceremonial animal burials, and traces of a Roman villa in southeastern England. The smithy was identified through traces of a hearth; hammerscale, the byproduct of forging iron; an iron bar; and a tuyere, a tool used to blow air into a hearth. “It’s exceptionally rare to find a complete tuyere, especially one that’s as old as this,” said archaeometallurgical specialist Gerry McDonnell. He explained that the tool dates to the first few centuries of ironworking in Britain, and noted that the size of the tuyere suggests that the hearth was much larger than one found in an average village blacksmith shop. This shop may have been run by a master blacksmith, he surmised. “The only reason a blacksmith would need a bigger hearth would be if they were forging something long like swords or trade bars, or big like cart wheels,” McDonnell concluded. To read about copper production on Bronze Age Cyprus, go to "In the Time of the Copper Kings."

Mission Sites of French Polynesia Explored

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—According to a statement released by the University of Sydney, excavations in the Mangareva Islands have uncovered nineteenth-century artifacts related to the period of French colonization. James Flexner of the University of Sydney, working with the cultural association Te Ana Pouga Magareva, uncovered more than 1,500 artifacts at six sites on the islands of Aukena and Akamaru, including the homes of Roman Catholic priests and a missionary school for boys. In the priests’ house at the Church of Notre Dame de la Païx at Akamaru, the researchers found fragments of gin, champagne, and wine bottles; and perfume and medicine bottles imported from France, Britain, and the Netherlands. Fragments of pearl shells were also uncovered at the sites. Before the arrival of the colonists, such shells were used to make fishing lures, tattooing needles, pendants, and figurines. By the 1840s, however, thousands of tons of the shells were harvested for export to make buttons and decorative inlays. Flexner said that the team also uncovered a small bronze crucifix at the site of the boys’ school at Aukena. He thinks it was likely an ornament that was worn daily. In addition, three complete pearl shells were discovered at the boys’ school, underneath an iron ax head. Excavation of the mission sites will continue, Flexner concluded. To read about the arrival of French Polynesian settlers in Hawaii, go to "Off the Grid: The Hawaiian Fishing Village of Lapakahi."

Jade Mask Discovered in Maya Tomb in Guatemala

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA—According to a statement released by Tulane University, a mosaic jade mask, 16 spondylus shells, and carved human femurs have been discovered in a 1,700-year-old tomb at Guatemala’s Maya site of Chochkitam by archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli. He and his colleagues spotted looters’ tunnels in the ancient city while conducting a survey of the site using lidar, a process employing an airplane or drone carrying lasers that can detect features on the ground hidden by dense jungle foliage. The intact tomb was situated just six feet from where the looters had stopped digging. Estrada-Belli said that the carvings on one of the bones depicts a man thought to be a king holding a jade mask like the one found in the tomb. Hieroglyphs accompanying these images may identify the king’s father and grandfather, and link the ruler to Tikal and Teotihuacan. The spiny oyster shells, he added, were used by royalty as jewelry, currency, and in sacrificial offerings. Future work will include DNA testing of the bones. For more on Maya rulers, go to "Jungle Realm of the Snake Queens."

Wednesday, January 31

Europe’s Prehistoric Jewelry Reflects Nine Possible Cultures

BORDEAUX, FRANCE—Jack Baker of the University of Bordeaux and his colleagues compared beads recovered from 112 Gravettian archaeological sites, sorted them into 134 different types based upon their raw materials and design, and determined that there were at least nine distinct cultures clustered geographically across Europe, according to a Science Magazine report. It had been previously thought that people living in Europe between about 34,000 and 24,000 years ago were all members of a monolithic Gravettian culture, based upon similarities in their figurines and spearpoints. Recent studies have found some differences between groups, however. For example, DNA analysis has identified two genetic lineages in Gravettian culture—one group centered around the Pyrenees Mountains along the border of France and Spain, and a second group based in central and eastern Europe. Baker found that the jewelry analysis is in line with genetic data, but with some additional subdivisions. The jewelry study also suggests there were separate culture groups in Moldova and southern Spain, which are areas where ancient DNA has not been recovered. Meanwhile, some groups in Italy who shared ancestors did not wear similar jewelry, and people in France and Belgium who wore similar ornaments were not related to each other. Patterns of bead differences that turned up in a jewelry tradition may be the result of cultural and genetic exchange with neighboring groups, Baker added. Read the original scholarly article about this research in Nature Human Behaviour. To read about a Gravettian Venus figurine, go to "Artifact."

Study Links Roman Empire Pandemics to Cooler, Drier Periods

NORMAN, OKLAHOMA—According to a Science News report, a new study conducted by Kyle Harper of the University of Oklahoma and his colleagues found that three pandemics that struck the Roman Empire coincided with periods of colder, drier climate. The climate of southern Italy between 200 B.C. and A.D. 600 was reconstructed by marine palynologist Karin Zonneveld of the University of Bremen and her colleagues through the analysis of single-celled algae recovered from a sediment core taken from southern Italy’s Gulf of Taranto. The model suggests that between 200 B.C. and A.D. 100, temperatures were warm and stable, and regular rainfall occurred. Then the climate became increasingly cooler and drier during the Antonine Plague in the mid-second century A.D.; the Plague of Cyprian in the mid-third century A.D.; and the Justinianic Plague, brought about by the Black Death bacterium Yersinia pestis, which reached Italy by A.D. 543. It is not understood how these shifts in temperature and rainfall might have influenced the spread of infectious diseases, however. Although some bacteria thrive in cooler conditions, the microbial causes of the Antonine Plague and the Plague of Cyprian are unknown. Read the original scholarly article about this research in Science Advances. For more, go to "Bronze Age Plague," one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top 10 Discoveries of 2018.

Britain Repatriates Asante Artifacts to Ghana

KUMASI, GHANA—CNN reports that artifacts held in the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum will be repatriated to Ghana. Many of the gold and silver objects, which were crafted by Asante royal goldsmiths, were looted in the nineteenth century during the Anglo-Asante wars. Additional items were taken by the British as an indemnity payment extracted from the Asantehene, or Asante king, who controlled Ghana’s gold deposits. The objects will go on display at the Manhyia Palace Museum in Kumasi, and include a small gold ornament shaped like a sankuo, or lute-harp, and an eagle-shaped ornament. To read about a Dutch settlement that was a hub of the transatlantic slave trade on the West African coast, go to "Letter from Ghana: Life Outside the Castle."  

Discarded Neolithic Meal Identified in Germany

OLDENBURG, GERMANY—According to a Live Science report, evidence for a batch of burned and discarded porridge has been found on a fragment of a Neolithic cooking pot recovered from a trash heap in northwestern Germany. Analysis of the crusts on the plain, thick-walled pot detected traces of emmer wheat, barley, and white goosefoot, a plant with starchy seeds. “It looked like someone had mixed cereal grains with the protein-rich seeds and cooked it with water,” explained archaeobotanist Lucy Kubiak-Martens. The grains had sprouted, she added, which suggests that the porridge had been made in late summer. “[This cooking incident] not only shows us the last step in someone’s daily routine of preparing meals but also the last cooking event using this pot,” Kubiak-Martens said. Traces of animal-fat residue, most likely from milk, was found on another piece of pottery, she added. Read the original scholarly article about this research in PLOS ONE. To read about the oldest known pottery in the world, go to "The First Pots," one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top 10 Discoveries of 2012.