OTAGO, NEW ZEALAND—A new study of three groups of skeletons discovered in a cemetery at Wairau Bar suggests that the first group may have come from Polynesia to colonize New Zealand some 700 years ago. The ratio of isotopes in their bones are similar to those found in the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia. The later groups of individuals probably grew up while covering a large area of New Zealand. “This is consistent with other archaeological evidence that the first settlers in New Zealand were highly mobile. That members of Groups 2 and 3 were still buried back at Wairau suggests that this village may have fulfilled both a ceremonial and home base function,” said Hallie Buckley of the University of Otago. Traditionally, Maori are buried in their ancestral lands.
BEIJING, CHINA—An analysis of 5,000-year-old grinding stones suggests that agriculture may have begun in southern China before the arrival of domesticated rice. Huw Barton of the University of Leicester and Xiaoyan Yang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences found that the preserved starch granules represented freshwater chestnuts, lotus root, fern root, and palms. “The presence of at least two, possibly three species of starch producing palms, bananas, and various roots, raises the intriguing possibility that these plants may have been planted nearby the settlement,” said Barton. The presence of palm could explain the slow transition to rice as a staple food in the region.
ORLANDO, FLORIDA—The number of births for the Kellis community living at Egypt’s Dakhleh Oasis 1,800 years ago probably peaked in March and April, indicating that most conceptions took place in July and August, during the annual flooding of the Nile River. “Even though this was a Christian community, we know that they were still practicing, or having these social beliefs of, fertility being at its highest in the months of July and August,” said Lana Williams of the University of Central Florida. Her team examined the well-preserved remains found in 765 graves, including remains of individuals who died between 18 and 45 weeks after conception. This information was combined with the month of death, determined from the position of the graves, which were oriented toward the rising sun. They found that the death rate of women of childbearing age and infants was greatest in March and April.
OSLO, NORWAY—Outlines of a left foot and a right foot have been found in the floorboards of the Gokstad Ship, which was discovered in 1880 and is housed at the Viking Ship Museum. The ship had been buried in a grave, but its floorboards were not in place, so researchers don’t know if the carvings had been near one another while the ship was at sea. “My guess is that some time or another a person was bored and simply traced his foot with his knife. It’s a kind of an ‘I was here’ message,” said museum staffer Hanne Lovise Aannestad.
BARCELONA, SPAIN—Archaeologists are working on obtaining new dates for the prehistoric paintings in Spain’s El Castillo Cave by measuring the rate of decay of uranium atoms in the calcite covering the artwork. The oldest of the paintings is thought to be at least 40,800 years old, about the same time that the first modern humans are thought to have entered Western Europe. The new dates could show that that paintings are even older, indicating that they were created by Neanderthals, who occupied the region for some 200,000 years before the arrival of Homo sapiens. Meanwhile, scholars continue to debate the complexity of Neanderthal cultural behavior, and whether or not it was copied from their Homo sapiens cousins. João Zilhão of the University of Barcelona thinks that Neanderthals and modern humans were “cognitive equals.” His goal is “to date pigments in these paintings to an age that is clearly and to everyone’s satisfaction beyond the range of modern humans in Europe,” he explained.
WALLINGFORD, ENGLAND—Construction workers uncovered a medieval skeleton at a home in southern England. The bones have helped archaeologists pinpoint the location of St. Lucian’s, a Saxon church and one of the oldest in the town. “St. Lucian’s Church pre-dates the Norman Conquest, so this is an exciting discovery,” said Judy Dewey, curator of the Wallingford Museum. The bones have been reburied in the home’s garden.
GASPEREAU LAKE, NOVA SCOTIA—Archaeological research and local tradition suggest that an ancestral Mi’kmaq burial ground rests in an area slated for an upgrade to a dam on Gaspereau Lake. The Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs has asked Nova Scotia Power for an independent engineering assessment of the proposed work because they would like the work to be carried out further downstream, away from the possible burials. “The proposed work is a requirement under the national dam-safety standards to ensure public safety. At the same time, we are doing all we can to ensure archaeologically significant sites are protected,” responded Dave McGregor of Nova Scotia Power.
EVANSVILLE, WYOMING—Archaeologists and volunteers have until Sunday evening to conduct salvage excavations at the site of Camp Payne, which guarded Reshaw’s Bridge, an Oregon Trail river crossing, during the 1850s and 1860s. “This is the first military post in this area,” said Carolyn Buff of the Wyoming Archaeological Society. The land has been sold by the town and will be turned into a housing development. “We’re going to do absolutely everything we can until Sunday evening, and we have to call it good,” added Wyoming State Archaeologist Mark Miller.
BAGAN, MYANMAR—There are some 3,000 temples, monasteries, and pagodas ranging from the ninth to thirteenth centuries in the ancient Buddhist city of Bagan. In 1975, while the country was ruled by a dictatorship, an earthquake leveled some of those buildings. They were restored and even new structures were erected with methods and materials that will make it difficult for Bagan to qualify as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Some scholars think the designation could bring much-needed attention to an area of the world that has been long-isolated and little-studied. “But it should not … expect the international community to endorse restorations which have so gravely violated basic archaeological principles,” adds author Donald Stadtner.
LOUISBOURG, NOVA SCOTIA—Underwater archaeologists are investigating as many as ten wrecks of eighteenth-century French warships in the waters off the coast of Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site. The ships sank during the second siege of Louisbourg in 1758. Most of what has survived are lower hulls, embedded in the sea floor. “A common thing we are seeing is cannons that were on the warships when they went down: cannonballs, cannon shot, bar shot—all of the kinds of ordnance that was on the vessels when they sank,” said Jonathan Moore of Parks Canada.
ONEONTA, NEW YORK—The chopped-up bones of 51 dogs and seven wolves have been unearthed at the Bronze Age site of Krasnosamarkskoe in eastern Russia. Dorcas Brown and David Anthony of Hartwick College noticed that the dogs, which ranged in age from 7 to 12, had been butchered in a very precise, but unusual, way. Marks on their teeth indicated that the dogs had all died during the winter months. Research into Eurasia’s early literature revealed that dogs were often associated with death and the underworld, and that dogs are also linked to a secret initiation rite for boys who trained to become marauding warriors. At the end of their training, during a midwinter ceremony, the 16-year-old boys ritually “died” and journeyed to the underworld. Then they painted their bodies black and wore dog-skin cloaks. Brown and Anthony think that the boys of Krasnosamarkskoe may have also had to kill their own dogs as the final step in becoming a trained killer.
SEATTLE, WASHINGTON—Analysis of mitochondrial DNA taken from 4,000-year-old Minoan skeletal remains suggests that Minoan civilization was created by the descendants of the first population to reach Crete some 9,000 years ago, when migrating farmers left Anatolia and spread into Europe. “[The Minoans] were very similar to Neolithic Europeans and to present day-Cretans,” said geneticist George Stamatoyannopoulos of the University of Washington. One hundred years ago, British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans suggested that Minoan civilization was Egyptian in origin because of the similarities in the art of the two cultures, but those similarities may have been the result of cultural exchange.
BINGHAMTON, NEW YORK—Early human ancestors had an ear bone similar to that of modern humans, according to palaeoanthropologist Rolf Quam of Binghamton University. Quam and his team recovered a complete set of the tiny bones from a 1.8-million-year-old Paranthropus robustus, and an incomplete set of ear bones from a 3.3 to 2.1-million-year-old Australopithecus africanus. The malleus from both hominids was smaller than those found in apes, implying a human-like, smaller eardrum, and sensitivity to the middle-range frequencies required for spoken language. “This could be like bipedalism: a defining characteristic of hominins,” said Quam. Further study is required to determine how the size of the ear bones and other ear structures affect hearing, however.
BELIZE CITY, BELIZE—A 2,300-year-old Maya pyramid at the Noh Mul complex in northern Belize has been destroyed by a construction company that used its stones for a road-building project. Heavy equipment was used to dig away at the sides of the pyramid, exposing a narrow chamber at the pyramid’s core. Although it sat in the middle of a privately owned sugar-cane field, all pre-Hispanic sites receive government protection. “These guys knew that this was an ancient structure. It’s just bloody laziness,” said Jaime Awe, head of the Belize Institute of Archaeology. Belizean police are conducting an investigation and may press criminal charges. The nearby Maya site of San Estevan was destroyed in a similar fashion in 2005.
EVANSVILLE, WYOMING—Camp Payne, an historic U.S. Army post, marks the spot where pioneers crossed the North Platte River while traveling the Oregon Trail. The post sits in what is currently a vacant lot, but developers have bought the land from the town and plan to extend a housing project into the site. “This site represents a unique opportunity to study both the early history of Wyoming and the relationship between Europeans and Indians. The site deserves to be preserved for this study,” reads a report by the Wyoming Archaeological Society, the Natrona County Historical Society, and the Office of the Wyoming State Archaeologist.
AKHMIM, EGYPT—Six years ago, a colossal sculpture of the head of Ramses II was unearthed in the cemetery of the town of Akhmim. Further investigation revealed that the area could be the site of a temple dedicated to Ramses II, which was described by the Greek historian Herodotus as being larger than the Karnak temple complex. The residents of Akhmim were ordered to stop burying their dead in the cemetery in order to protect the archaeological site, and some of the modern tombs were relocated, but since the revolution of 2011, the cemetery has become a garbage dump. Now, the Ministry of State of Antiquities has moved the sculpture and additional artifacts into storage for protection. Guards are also said to be patrolling the site.
DROGHEDA, IRELAND—Members of the Boyne Fishermen’s Rescue and Recovery Service found an ancient log boat in the Boyne River while removing shopping carts from the water. Archaeologist Karl Brady says that the boat is unusual because it has a pair of oval-shaped blisters on its upper edge that may have been used for holding oars. “I have seen them on some boats found in Northern Ireland and Britain but not in Ireland,” he explained. This particular boat may be between 500 to 5,000 years old, but log boats were used in Ireland until the eighteenth century.
B’NEI SHIMON, ISRAEL—A mosaic dating to the Byzantine era has been uncovered in Israel, along the route of an ancient road where a new highway is being constructed. The large, colorful mosaic, made up of geometric designs and images of decorated amphoras, would have served as the floor of a public building. Pools, water channels, and pipes were uncovered in front of the structure. “The find of this mosaic is extraordinary; the size of it and the [condition] goes beyond what is usually found. This is an unusual find,” said Davida Eisenberg Degen of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
CUMBRIA, ENGLAND—The Roman fort known as Glannaventa was dismantled during the medieval period, its stones incorporated into village structures and a castle, leaving behind an earthwork platform. Archaeologists will examine the only standing Roman building at the site, the remains of a bathhouse thought to have been reused during the medieval period as a house. They also want to learn more about the settlement that surrounded the fort during the Roman period. “People have wanted to find out about the area for a long time and discover its wider context and involvement with Hadrian’s Wall,” said Holly Beavitt-Pike of English Heritage.
COLIMA, MEXICO—Many bones and at least eight skulls have been found in a shaft tomb in western Mexico. The tomb is estimated to be between 1,500 and 2,500 years old. “At first they identified the burials because of the odd rock groupings that were used to cover them, they also found evidence of ceramic material which drove us deeper into the investigation,” said Marco Zavaleta Lucido of the National Institute of Anthropology and History. Among the pottery offerings were pots, plates, censers, and two dog-shaped bowls.