PERTH, AUSTRALIA—An international team of scientists has conducted a study of the genetic diversity of moa fossils spanning 4,000 years. Their results indicate that the large, flightless birds went extinct in the thirteenth century due to overhunting by humans, and not because a long, natural decline caused by disease and volcanic eruptions, as had been suggested. Mike Bunce from Australia’s Curtin University and Morten Allentoft of the University of Copenhagen found that the population of birds was stable until the arrival of Polynesians in New Zealand, and then they disappeared within 200 years. “You see heaps of the birds’ bones in archaeological sites. If you hunt animals at all their life stages, they will never have a chance,” Allentoft told Science Now.
WILTSHIRE, ENGLAND—The remains of an Iron Age woman and three Roman-period individuals were discovered in West Knoyle by archaeologists investigating the route of a new water main. The Iron Age woman's feet were “reburied alongside her,” and with the bones of at least two sheep or goats “on her head,” archaeologist Peter Cox told BBC News. “We’re unsure why the female skeleton has been found without her feet or why she may have been buried with sheep, but perhaps it was to protect her soul from bad spirits,” Cox added. The Roman remains belonged to a child of about ten years old, and two men who had suffered sword wounds to their hips.
CRANFIELD, ENGLAND—The nineteenth-century remains of four people have been recovered near the naval base on Burrow Island, also known as Rat Island, by a team of wounded soldiers from Operation Nightingale. The rapid-reaction team was called in for rescue excavations when a member of the public spotted the bones, which had been exposed by severe weather conditions. The four individuals are thought to have been French or American citizens held in floating prisons in the harbor. “Post-excavation work in our laboratories should contribute to shedding light on the living conditions of those individuals and the history of Rat Island,” Nicholas Márquez-Grant and Kelly Domoney of the Forensic Institute at Cranfield University told Culture 24.
CEREDIGION, WALES—Part of the medieval entrance to the tower at Cardigan Castle has been unearthed as part of the renovation project intended to reopen part of the castle to the public. The top of the archway was found when workmen removed floorboards to Castle Green House, a Georgian-era structure. “Building works revealed a possible entrance into the medieval tower which forms the back of the existing house. The entrance is formed by an opening capped by the vaulted ceiling of the basement, flanked by massive stone walls which form parts of the south wall of the medieval tower,” project manager Nigel Page explained to BBC News. The excavations at the castle have also recovered more than 9,000 artifacts, including iron arrowheads and a dolphin skull.
COLIMA, MEXICO—An intact, 1,500-year-old shaman figure has been found at the entrance to a shaft tomb in the city of Villa de Alverez. “He was found upright and is holding some kind of weapon, probably an ax. He was placed exactly at the entrance, towards the crypt. He is some kind of a guardian of the main character deposited inside the shaft tomb,” archaeologist Marco Zavaleta of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History told the Daily Mail. The vault contains the remains of one or two individuals that had been moved to the sides of the tomb to make room for a third individual at a later time. Six pots and an earthenware bowl were also found.
LA PALMA, TENERIFE—Statistical analysis of the measurements of the monuments, temples, and tombs of Petra, the ancient city carved from rock in modern-day Jordan, suggests that the Nabateans oriented their buildings so that the sun would highlight them during certain times of the year. “The facades of Petra are not only beautiful in themselves, but they also show something additional,” archaeoastronomer Juan Antonio Belmonte of the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands told National Geographic News. For example, during the winter solstice, lights and shadows are produced around a sacred podium in Ad Deir, the Monastery, by the setting sun. “These [structures] are such huge marvels of human ability created with a sense of beauty, which is related to the sky,” Belmonte said.
CORNWALL, ENGLAND—A Bronze Age cist containing a partial skeleton that may have belonged to a young woman was found in a cavity in a cliff face at Harlyn Bay. “This area is one of the most important for prehistoric burials in Cornwall. The sand protects bone from the acidic soil conditions making it one of the few places in Cornwall where unburnt bone will survive,” archaeologist Andy Jones told The Western Morning News. The bones will be radiocarbon dated. “There were no grave goods and the only find was a quartz block,” Jones added.
ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA—A new analysis of mitochondrial DNA in domestic chicken bones from Polynesian archaeological sites and modern chickens by Alan Cooper of the University of Adelaide challenges the idea that a genetic mutation in South American chickens links them to early chickens from Polynesia. “We found instead this quite distinct Pacific genetic signature—with four particular markers—that we only find in the Pacific and seems to be in all of the ancient Polynesian birds,” Cooper told Australia’s ABC Science. He and his colleagues think the genetic link between South American and Polynesian fowl found by archaeologist Alice Storey resulted from the contamination of the ancient Polynesian chicken bones with modern chicken DNA. “In chickens in particular we know that mitochondrial DNA doesn’t tell us anything about the past,” countered Storey.
ROME, ITALY—A small section of a fresco depicting the goddess Artemis has been stolen from the House of Neptune in Pompeii, according to a report in ANSAmed. In the image, Artemis had been seated and shown with her brother, Apollo. “I am very saddened by news of the loss of an ancient fresco at Pompeii. Those responsible for such thoughtless vandalism, or as is more likely, outright theft, should be ashamed of themselves,” said EU Culture Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou. Police add that the fresco was stolen by expert thieves from an area of the ancient city that is off limits to the public.
KOTZEBUE, ALASKA—Erosion caused by rising sea levels, frequent storms, flooding, and thawing permafrost has damaged archaeological sites in the Western Arctic National Parklands, including The Bering Land Bridge National Preserve and the Cape Krusenstern National Monument. “These sites are important because they tell the story of people who lived and adapted from up to 5,500 years ago to the present and continue to add to the record,” Michael Holt, chief of cultural resources for the Western Arctic National Parklands, told The Arctic Sounder. The sites at greatest risk of disappearing are being excavated in partnership with Portland State University. Food remains, sled runners, and tools, have been recovered. The joint project endeavors to record the sites before they disappear.
PARIS, FRANCE—A new geological study of the Sterkfontein caves in Gauteng, South Africa, concludes that the nearly complete Australopithecus prometheus skeleton known as Little Foot is at least three million years old. Ron Clarke, Stephen Motsumi, and Nkwane Molefe of the University of Witwatersrand spent 13 years extracting the skeleton from the rock of the cave so that they could understand how it had been encased in the hard, calcified sediment. According to a report in Science Now, the scientists found that the skeleton had been disturbed and broken, and that it would have taken at least one million years to fill in the spaces between the bones with minerals carried by water flowing through the cave. The flowstone itself has been dated to 2.2 million years old. The new, older dates suggest that Little Foot could be a Homo ancestor.
DURHAM, ENGLAND—The 3,200-year-old skeleton of a man aged between 25 and 35 at the time of death shows signs of metastatic carcinoma—a malignant tumor that originated in an unknown soft tissue and spread across the body to his collar bones, shoulder blades, upper arms, vertebrae, ribs, pelvis, and thigh bones. Michaela Binder of Durham University uncovered the wealthy man’s tomb at the site of Amara West in the Sudan last year. “This may help us to understand the almost unknown history of the disease. We have very few examples pre the first millennium A.D.,” she told The Journal.
LEUVEN, BELGIUM—At the ancient Egyptian site of Hierakonopolis, in a cemetery containing the remains of humans, baboons, leopards, and hippopotamuses, archaeologists have found the skeletons of six cats, buried together near the wall of the cemetery, that could push the date of cat domestication in Egypt back to 6,000 years ago. An examination of the cats’ teeth and bones showed that there were two young adults of about a year old, and four kittens from at least two litters, all probably of the species Felis silvestris, a small wildcat found in Africa, Europe, and central Asia. One litter of kittens was only slightly older than the other, suggesting that the natural reproductive cycle had been interrupted, perhaps with food and human care. “The last word on cat domestication (when and where) is not yet said,” bioarchaeologist Wim Van Neer of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences and Catholic University, Leuven, told Live Science. “We want to investigate whether there was only one domestication center (in the Levant), or whether Egypt should also be considered as a second, later, domestication center.
PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA—An international team of scientists led by Alessia Ranciaro and Sarah Tishkoff of the University of Pennsylvania has investigated the genetic origins of lactose tolerance in geographically diverse populations of Africans in Kenya, Tanzania, and Sudan. The scientists collected blood samples from pastoralists, agro-pastoralists, agriculturalists, and hunter-gatherers, who also took a lactose test by fasting overnight, having their blood sugar measured, drinking a sweet beverage containing a high level of lactose, and then having their blood sugar tested at set intervals. The research team found that the geographic patterns in which a genetic variant for milk digestion were present often correlated with historic human migrations and the spread of domestic cattle, camels, and sheep. “Our results are showing different mutations arising in different places that are under selection and rising to high frequencies and then reintroduced by migration to new areas and new populations,” Tishkoff told Science Daily. She suspects that there are other genetic variants for the digestion of milk that have not yet been discovered, and that commensal bacteria in the gut could also help adult humans digest milk.
VANTAGE, WASHINGTON—River guards and Native Americans are struggling to protect the archaeological sites, petroglyphs, and graves that were exposed by the drawdown of the reservoir at the cracked Wanapum Dam on the Columbia River. And, a second set of human remains has been discovered 500 yards downstream from the first skeleton, which has been identified as male and Native American. “We are not going to take pieces of the remains and carbon 14 date them at this point, or anything else,” Allyson Brooks, director of the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, told Northwest Public Radio.
FALLON, NEVADA—Vandals have struck Hidden Cave, an archaeological site that has yielded thousands of artifacts ranging in age from 5,000 to 800 years old. In addition to evidence of illegal digging, the interior and exterior walls of the cave were painted with graffiti, bullet holes were found in the informational kiosk, and the trail leading to the cave was defaced. Damage was inflicted on the interpretation signs, educational displays, and lighting fixtures in the cave. “This is the first instance of modern vandalism to the sensitive archaeological resources within Hidden Cave,” Bureau of Land Management archaeologist Jason Write told the Nevada Appeal. The site has been closed to visitors.
PARIS, FRANCE—Archaeologists have announced the discovery of a roughly 10,000-year-old staff carved with two human faces with closed eyes at Tell Qarassa in southern Syria. The wand, made of the rib of an auroch and broken at both ends, was found near a cemetery where 30 people had been buried without their heads. (The heads were found elsewhere in the settlement.) Frank Braemer of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique told Live Science that he thinks the wand may have been used in a funeral ritual by these early farmers, who grew emmer, barley, chickpeas, lentils. “The find is very unusual. It’s unique,” he added.
WASHINGTON, D.C.—Linguists Mark A. Sicoli of Georgetown University and Gary Holton of the University of Alaska have examined the shared grammatical features of Yeniseian and Na-Dene, thought to have descended from a common language some 12,000 years ago. Yeniseian is a group of mostly extinct languages spoken along the Yenisei River in central Siberia, and Na-Dene, which is spoken in Alaska, western Canada, and is also related to Navajo and Apache. Sicoli and Holton think that this lost mother tongue was spoken in Beringia before the speakers split up: one group would have moved east into North America to become the Na-Dene speakers, while the other group would have migrated back into central Asia and became Yeniseian speakers. “There may have been multiple streams of people moving out of that single source at different times,” Dennis H. O’Rourke of the University of Utah commented to The New York Times.
CAIRO, EGYPT—Reuters reports that after a meeting with Mohammed Ibrahim, Egypt’s Antiquities Minister, the U.S. has agreed to return eight artifacts smuggled out of Egypt in 2011 and seized by Homeland Security officials in New York City. The objects, including 4,000-year-old models of wooden boats, the painted lid of a sarcophagus, and a mummy encased in decorated plaster, “represent ancient Egyptian civilization,” according to Ibrahim.
VIGO, SPAIN—With the help of mathematical models, ground-penetrating radar, and a laser scanner, researchers from the Applied Geotechnology Group at the University of Vigo evaluated more than 80 Roman and medieval bridges. The technology helped them to identify unknown structural and geometric details that may be covered with stones or buried underground, cracks, engravings, and past restorations. “All this information is of historic interest, but it is also useful to civil engineers so that they can plan conservation, improvement and restoration measures in these types of infrastructures,” Mercedes Solla of the Defense Academy told Science Daily.