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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, April 19

Neanderthal Nuclear DNA Recovered from Soil Samples

LEIPZIG, GERMANY—Neanderthal nuclear DNA has been recovered from sediments collected in one cave in northern Spain and two caves in Siberia’s Altai Mountains by a team of researchers led by Benjamin Vernot of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, according to a Cosmos Magazine report. DNA is left behind by skin flakes, hair, excrement, sweat, and blood. Previous analysis of soil samples has detected ancient hominin mitochondrial DNA, which occurs in greater volume in a cell than nuclear DNA, but it is inherited from the mother alone and is used to create energy, and therefore offers less information about an individual than nuclear DNA, which is inherited from both parents and carries information for making all of the proteins in the body. Vernot and his colleagues sorted the DNA of other animals out of the more than 150 soil samples and found chromosomes from multiple Neanderthal individuals. The study revealed that inhabitants of Russia’s Chagyrskaya Cave belonged to one population who lived there for a short period of time. Their chromosomal DNA resembled that obtained from a fossil found in the cave, explained Kseniya Kolobova of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Two separate populations, one dated to about 135,000 years ago, and the other dated to about 105,000 years ago, inhabited Spain’s Galería de las Estatuas. The later wave of Neanderthals is thought to have replaced the earlier one. To read about a 2010 study that successfully sequenced a Neanderthal genome for the first time, go to "Neanderthal Genome," one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top 10 Discoveries of the Decade.

Scientists Return to Plain of Jars in Laos

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA—According to a statement released by the University of Melbourne, a team of Lao and Australian researchers led by Thonglith Luangkhoth of the Laos Department of Heritage, and Louise Shewan and Dougald O’Reilly of the University of Melbourne, has uncovered additional human burials on the Plain of Jars in northern Laos. The Plain of Jars is known for its more than 2,000 large carved stone jars standing up to nearly ten feet tall. The researchers confirmed that quartz-rich boulders at Site 1 on the Plain of Jars, which is called Ban Hai Hin, were used as place markers for ceramic burial jars placed underground between the eighth and thirteenth centuries A.D. The skeletal remains of infants and children were recovered from these jars during further investigations at the Xieng Khouang Museum. The team also found human remains next to jars at Site 1. Analysis of samples of Site 1’s stone jars and stone at local quarries suggests they were crafted from a sandstone outcropping located about five miles away. Optically stimulated luminescence dating of sediments beneath jars at Site 2, which is located about seven miles from Site 1, indicates that earth underneath the jars was last exposed to light in the late second millennium B.C. The researchers concluded that this range in ages shows that the sites were culturally significant for thousands of years. Read the original scholarly article about this research in PLOS ONE. For more on Laotian archaeology, go to "Letter from Laos: A Singular Landscape."

Which Skills Were Valued in Early Neolithic Europe?

YORK, ENGLAND—According to a statement released by the University of York, a recent review of stone tools recovered from early Neolithic cemeteries across Europe suggests that men and women were buried with different sorts of implements, and may have therefore performed different work-related activities during their lifetimes. Archaeologist Penny Bickle said that tools found in women’s graves were used to work animal skins, while men’s tools were associated with hunting and conflict. Bickle suggests the differences in tools reflect the variety of skills needed by members of the community. The presence of the tools in the graves is evidence of the value given to all of the jobs, she added. The study also detected regional differences, in that in the east, the grave objects suggest that women moved around more than men, and all were adorned with shells and jewelry. In the west, the grave objects indicate that men were more mobile and likely to have been hunters. Read the original scholarly article about this research in PLOS ONE. For more, go to "The Neolithic Toolkit."

Friday, April 16

Bronze Mirrors Unearthed in Northwestern China

SHAANXI PROVINCE, CHINA—Xinhua reports that pottery and more than 80 delicate bronze mirrors and other bronze items have been discovered in a cemetery of more than 400 tombs in northwest China. The mirrors are thought to have been manufactured during the Warring States Period, from 475 to 221 B.C., and the Western Han Dynasty, from 206 B.C. to A.D. 9. Some of the mirrors remained glossy and reflective. Most of them were placed close to the heads of the deceased, which included men and women, or around their upper bodies. People buried in this cemetery are thought to have been nobles who lived in a nearby centralized residence area created by Liu Bang, founder of the Han Dynasty. To read about another recent funerary find in China, go to "Around the World: China."

Australia’s Boomerangs May Have Served as Multipurpose Tools

QUEENSLAND, AUSTRALIA—According to a statement released by Griffith University, microscopic analysis of the surface of more than 100 hardwood boomerangs held in Sydney’s Australian Museum revealed they may have been used to shape stone tools. Eva Martellotta, Michelle Langley, Adam Brumm, and Jayne Wilkins suggest that hardwood boomerangs served as multipurpose daily tools for Aboriginal people living across Australia. Most boomerangs were used for hunting and fighting, while the ones that return when thrown were often used as children’s toys, games, or as teaching tools, Martellotta added. To read about a thirteenth-century boomerang victim, go to "Death by Boomerang."

Traces of Ancient Epidemic Detected in DNA

TUCSON, ARIZONA—According to a Science News report, traces of a viral epidemic some 25,000 years ago have been detected in the DNA of present-day East Asians. Evolutionary geneticist David Enard of the University of Arizona and his colleagues analyzed more than 2,000 publicly available DNA samples from Chinese Dai, Vietnamese Kinh, and African Yoruba people for more than 400 proteins known to interact with coronaviruses. The researchers found that only the East Asian groups showed substantially increased production of all of the proteins. Analysis of the genes related to the production of these proteins suggests they became more common about 25,000 years ago and then leveled off about 5,000 years ago. This indicates that East Asians could have adapted to the infection, or the virus became a less potent cause of disease, Enard explained. Some of the gene variants would have also been useful for fighting other types of viruses as well, he added. Further study is needed to determine if these gene variants offer any protection against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. To read about a sixteenth-century epidemic in Mexico, go to "Conquistador Contagion."

Thursday, April 15

Unusual Roman Villa Uncovered in Northern England

NORTH YORKSHIRE, ENGLAND—BBC News reports that a large villa complex with its own bathhouse has been discovered at a construction site in northern England. Keith Emerick of Historic England said the house, which has a circular central room flanked by additional rooms, is the first of its kind to be found in Britain. The house may have been modified for religious use, he added. The plans for the new construction project have been modified to conserve the ancient structure beneath an open space. To read about how residents of a villa in Gloucestershire embraced aspects of Roman living even after the end of Roman rule of Britain, go to "After the Fall."

Pottery Offers Clues to Prehistoric Honey Hunting in West Africa

BRISTOL, ENGLAND—According to a statement released by the University of Bristol, the chemical components of beeswax were detected on about one-third of more than 450 pieces of pottery made by central Nigeria’s Nok culture some 3,500 years ago by researchers from the University of Bristol and Goethe University. Peter Breunig of Goethe University said that the team members began analyzing the residues on the pottery because very little evidence of the Nok diet survived in the region’s acidic soil. The pots may have been used to melt wax combs, or perhaps to cook and store honey. Julie Dunne of the University of Bristol noted, however, that in addition to serving as a valuable food source, honey can also be used to make wine and other beverages, and as a preservative for smoked meats. In fact, the presence of meat and beeswax was detected in some of the Nok pots. The beeswax may have been used to prepare medicines, cosmetics, or sealants, she added. To read about the possible origins of beekeeping, go to "Minding the Beeswax."

Medieval Cemetery Unearthed in Bulgaria

RADNEVO, BULGARIA—Archaeology in Bulgaria reports that nails from wooden coffins and glass, bronze, and silver jewelry have been recovered from a twelfth-century Christian necropolis in southern Bulgaria by a team of researchers led by archaeologist Plamen Karailiev of the Maritsa East Archaeological Museum. Artifacts were found in 27 of the 326 graves excavated so far. One woman was buried with glass bead necklaces, glass bracelets, bronze bracelets, and silver temple pendants. Other burials held glass bead necklaces, glass bracelets, and earrings made of copper wire. Traces of coffins have been found in 25 graves, he added. “With some small discrepancies, the individuals were buried almost one on top of the other,” Karailiev said. “There are sectors [of the cemetery] of which we can presume that they were family or clan [burial] plots.” Earlier excavations at the site uncovered fragments of a mural painted on a mud-plastered wall thought to have been part of a medieval church at the necropolis. The nearby settlement, which was part of the Byzantine Empire at the time of the burials, was occupied as early as the Neolithic period, some 7,000 years ago. Many of the graves were damaged by the construction of an irrigation canal. To read about a fragment of a Byzantine ivory icon unearthed at the fortress of Rusokastro, go to "Iconic Discovery." 

Study Confirms Age of Homo Erectus Fossils

NEW YORK, NEW YORK—According to a statement released by the American Museum of Natural History, an international team of researchers led by Ashley Hammond of the American Museum of Natural History has determined that a Homo erectus skull fragment discovered in 1974 at the East Turkana site in Kenya was accurately dated at 1.9 million years old. Some researchers had suggested that the fossil may have been washed or blown into the site from a younger fossil deposit. Geoscientist Dan Palcu of the University of São Paulo and Utrecht University said the team members reviewed the evidence and past studies, examined the region with satellite and aerial imagery, and looked for new clues on the ground in order to reconstruct the site where the fossil was found. The scientists concluded that although the fossil was likely found in an area different from the one initially reported, there was no sign of a younger fossil outcrop in the area. They also collected two additional Homo erectus fossils—a partial pelvis and a foot bone—in addition to the fossilized teeth of other mammals. Chemical analysis of the teeth indicates that Homo erectus inhabited an arid, open, and grassy land. For more on this hominin species, go to "Homo erectus Stands Alone," one of ARCHAEOLOGY's Top 10 Discoveries of 2013.