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Scientists Sequence Mitochondrial DNA of First Farmers

June 6, 2014


BARCELONA, SPAIN—The mitochondrial DNA of the first farmers in the Near East has been mapped by a team of scientists led by Eva Fernández-Domínguez of the University of Barcelona. They found that the 10,000-year-old genetic material, obtained from three sites in the Middle Euphrates basin and the oasis of Damascus, resembles the mitochondrial DNA of the first Catalan and German farmers. “The most significant conclusion is that the degree of genetic similarity between the populations of the Fertile Crescent and the ones of Cyprus and Crete supports the hypothesis that Neolithic spread in Europe took place through pioneer seafaring colonization, not through a land-mediated expansion through Anatolia, as it was thought until now,” she told Phys.org. Archaeological evidence, such as similarities in architecture and burials, also suggest that early farmers from the Middle Euphrates basin colonized Cyprus.

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Sweden Will Return Paracas Textiles to Peru

June 6, 2014

LIMA, PERU—Sweden will return the first four of 89 embroidered Paracas textiles to Peru later this month, according to a report in The New York Times. The 2,500-year-old textiles, which were smuggled out of Peru in the 1930s by the Swedish consul, have been displayed in the National Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg. Among the items the mayor of Gothenburg will hand over to Peru’s vice minister of cultural patrimony is a woven mummy’s cloak decorated with tiles of animals that may represent time periods or the seasons. The process of repatriation will be completed in 2021.

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Antikythera Wreck Expedition Will Use Robotic Diving Suit

June 5, 2014

WOODS HOLE, MASSACHUSETTS—A suit designed to be worn in New York City’s water treatment plants will be used to explore the Antikythera shipwreck in the deep waters of the Aegean Sea later this year. “It’s basically a wearable submarine. The pressure inside is no different from being in a submarine or in fresh air. We can go straight to the bottom, spend five hours there, and come straight back to the surface with no decompression,” diving specialist Phil Short told New Scientist. Known as the Exosuit, it has voice, video, and data links; articulated joints for free movement; an umbilical cable to supply it with power for its thrusters; and a rebreather that can provide 50 hours of life support. The Antikythera device, dubbed the world’s oldest computer, was pulled from the Roman wreck by Greek sponge divers in 1900. “All we can do is get down there, get close to the sediment, and map out the debris field with our metal detectors. Over a period of meticulous seasons, we’ll slowly close in on what we hope is another mechanism,” said Brendan Foley, co-director of field operations at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Deep Submergence Laboratory. 

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Work Colonies Investigated in Western Australia

June 5, 2014

YORK, WESTERN AUSTRALIA—Sean Winter of the University of Western Australia has investigated the Toodyay and York convict hiring depots in Western Australia, and found differences between them and the convict system in New South Wales. “It was set up 60 years after New South Wales and under a completely different penal theory,” he told Phys.org. Winter and his team used old maps, ground-penetrating radar, and a magnetometer to look for the remains of buildings erected by the convicts at the depots and to target areas for excavation. “There is no evidence of walls or any kind of restrictive structures around the outside of the depots. They weren’t locked up at night, they could come and go as they pleased, and they were even able to do things like access guns so they could go hunting. We found that there was a lot of alcohol consumption,” he added.  

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Rock Art Damaged in Southern Libya

June 5, 2014

GHAT, LIBYA—Rock art in Libya’s Tadrart Acacus, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has been vandalized by spray-painted graffiti and carved initials at an accelerated rate since the country’s civil war began in 2011. Hunters have taken over the landscape, killing off gazelles and wolves, while archaeologists and tourists stay away for safety concerns. The oldest paintings date back 14,000 years, and depict animals and plants that no longer live in the region. “The destruction is not just affecting the paintings but also the natural reserve. Hunters are to blame,” Ahmed Sarhan, a tourist ministry official in Ghat, told Reuters

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Exeter’s Medieval Plumbing System Examined

June 5, 2014

DEVON, ENGLAND—In the medieval period, fresh drinking water was carried into the city of Exeter through a network of tunnels, according to Mark Stoyle of the University of Southampton. He examined historic documents that record the plumbers’ activities and list the supplies that they needed, including lead, candles, and lanterns. “People from all social backgrounds relied on the system to provide their drinking water, so it was vital to keep it running smoothly. The city retained a plumber to carry out regular maintenance and he, in turn, hired in a team of workers to help with specific jobs,” Stoyle told Science Daily. The brick-lined tunnels were constructed to protect the lead pipes that carried the water, and to provide the plumbers with easy access to them. “Imagine if today there was no more digging up the roads to mend a water main!” he said. 

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New Study Blames Hunters for Megafauna Extinctions

June 4, 2014

AARHUS, DENMARK—A new study concludes that the extinctions of large mammals such as woolly mammoths, giant sloths, mastodons, and cave lions around the world over the past 130,000 years correlates more closely with the arrival of humans than with changes in climate. “The evidence really strongly suggests that people were the defining factor,” Chris Sandom, who was a researcher at Aarhus University at the time of the study, told Live Science. In sub-Saharan Africa, where large animals evolved alongside humans as they learned to make and use tools, there was the least extinction. When humans moved to Asia and Europe, they encountered animals unaccustomed to human hunters, and extinction rates rose. Climate may have interacted with human arrival in Eurasia, with temperatures determining where people migrated. Sandom found that extinctions were most extreme in Australia and the Americas, where humans arrived comparatively late. The new predators may have disrupted the animals’ ability to adapt to new habitats. “You’ve got this very advanced hunter arriving in the system,” he explained. 

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3,000-Year-Old Remains of an Infant Found in Ireland

June 4, 2014

COUNTY MEATH, IRELAND—A baby’s intact skeleton has been discovered at Tlachtga, on the Hill of Ward in Athboy. The child is thought to have been between seven and ten months old at the time of death. “We may never know what caused the death of the child. The skeleton probably dates back 3,000 years and was found on the bedrock at the base of a 1.5 meter ditch,” Stephen Davis of University College Dublin told The Meath Chronicle. The site is thought to have been a key ritual site where Samhain was first celebrated with the lighting of the winter fires. Davis doesn’t think the baby’s death was sacrificial, however. 

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Bronze Age Settlement Excavated in Scotland

June 4, 2014

ABERDEEN, SCOTLAND—A site that was in use from the early Bronze Age (2300 B.C.) through the 1800s is being excavated ahead of the construction of a new park and ride facility. Archaeologists have found 4,000-year-old pottery, small pits and post-holes from roundhouses, and partial quern stones, used for grinding grains. Residues from working metal have also been uncovered. “The site appears to have been significant over a 2,000 year period with Iron Age occupation and evidence of smithing and domestic life,” archaeologist Steve Thomson told Culture 24.  

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Unusual Foundation Unearthed at Montpelier

June 4, 2014

ORANGE, VIRGINIA—Archaeological work at Montpelier, James Madison’s home, has uncovered an unusually shaped foundation near the main house. The eighteenth-century brick building is thought to have been taken down in 1808, when Madison added two wings to the mansion. “It’s totally different than anything else. It’s not square, and we have no idea what it is. It’s going to be cool, that’s all we know,” Matt Reeves, director of Montpelier’s archaeology department, told C-Ville. The house had eight owners after the former president and his wife Dolley died, and it was only in 2008 that the house was restored to what it would have looked like when the couple had lived there. Now the focus is on finding and returning their possessions to the house, and rebuilding the quarters where some 300 enslaved people lived. 

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Arab Dhow Unearthed in Thailand

June 3, 2014

SAMUT SAKHON, THAILAND—An Arab dhow dating to the eighth or ninth centuries has been discovered in the mud beneath a shrimp farm that may have once been a canal or a shoreline in a mangrove forest. The parts of the wooden ship had been stitched together with rope. It had been carrying earthenware and stoneware from China and Europe, coconuts, toddy palms, betel nuts, rice, a horn, fish, animals, and seeds when it sank. “Some of the earthenware is extraordinary and had never been found anywhere in Thailand. They are oval-shaped containers with a pointed bottom. Comparison studies found they are similar to amphoras usually found in Europe, the Middle East, and India,” Preeyanuch Chumphrom, an archaeologist for the Regional Office of the Fine Arts Department in Ratchaburi, told The Bangkok Post. The team is researching the best way to preserve the vessel. 

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Neolithic Homes Recreated at Stonehenge

June 3, 2014

WILTSHIRE, ENGLAND—Volunteers have built five structures at Stonehenge, based upon the 4,500-year-old archaeological remains of Neolithic homes unearthed at nearby Durrington Walls, with 20 tons of chalk, 5,000 rods of hazel and three tons of wheat straw. The one-room dwellings contain replica axes, pottery, and other items to reflect what is known about living conditions at about the same time as the placement of the large sarsen stones at the site. “We know for example, that each house contained a hearth and that puddled chalk was used to make the floor. And far from being dark and primitive, the homes were incredibly bright and airy spaces with white chalk walls and floors designed to reflect sunlight and capture heat from the fire,” a spokesperson from English Heritage told BBC News

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Mesolithic Site in Ireland Destroyed by Construction

June 3, 2014

DUNDONALD, NORTHERN IRELAND—A rare archaeological site at Ballymaglaff that had yielded more than 2,000 pieces of struck flint from the Mesolithic period has been badly damaged by the construction of a road into a new housing development. The site was discovered in 1984 by local historian Peter Carr, and had been listed on the Department of the Environment’s Sites and Monuments record. “Over 20 of the period’s rare and highly distinctive microliths have been discovered here. Very few sites can claim over ten,” Carr told The Belfast Telegraph. Much of the archaeological layer was left in spoil heaps near the new road, but they have since been redistributed. Excavation of the site could have produced evidence of dwellings and fireplaces. “If the department gets its act together, material could still be salvaged from what remains of the heaps,” Carr said.

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World’s Oldest Pants Unearthed in China

June 2, 2014

BERLIN, GERMANY—Science News reports that the remains of two men wearing trousers have been recovered from the Yanghai graveyard in China’s Tarim Basin by Ulrike Beck and Mayke Wagner of the German Archaeological Institute. They say that the trousers are the oldest known examples of their kind. Dated to between 3,300 and 3,000 years ago, the pants have straight-fitting legs and a wide crotch. They were sewn together from three pieces of wool cloth that had been woven on a loom to the correct size, and fashioned with side slits, strings at the waist for fastening, and designs on the legs. One of the men had been buried with a decorated leather bridle and a wooden bit, a battle ax, and a leather bracer for arm protection. The other man was accompanied by a whip, a decorated horse tail, a bow sheath, and a bow. “This new paper [in Quaternary International] definitely supports the idea that trousers were invented for horse riding by mobile pastoralists, and that trousers were brought to the Tarim Basin by horse-riding peoples,” commented Victor Mair of the University of Pennsylvania. 

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Prehistoric Pottery Examined in Southern Florida

June 2, 2014

WESTERN BOYNTON BEACH, FLORIDA—Graduate student Rebecca Stitt of Florida Atlantic University is investigating the pottery of the Belle Glade culture from a trash mound in Boynton Beach. “Work needed to be done at the Boynton mounds because nothing has been done there for a while. I wanted to look at ceramics specifically, to see which ceramics came from which times,” she told CBS 12 News. The people living in the Belle Glade community at Boynton Beach built their homes above the saw grass and swamps of Lake Okeechobee so that they could see others approaching. They also built canals for transportation and trade. “They were an interior culture and had no direct contact with Europeans in the early years,” added Debi Murray of the Palm Beach Historical Society.  

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Settler’s Cabin Revealed by Arizona Wildfire

June 2, 2014

SEDONA, ARIZONA—The ruins of a log cabin estimated to be at least 100 years old were discovered near Barney Spring, on land cleared by the 21,000-acre Slide fire in Arizona. “The finding itself was very subtle. It’s a collapsed, degraded cabin related to the earliest Euro-American settlement of this rugged, remote piece of Arizona,” Jeremy Haines, a U.S. Forest Service archaeologist, told The Los Angeles Times. The cabin, which was probably destroyed by a wildfire many years ago, may have been built by Jim Barney, who kept cattle near Oak Creek, or it may have belonged to bear hunter Bear Howard, who is known to have had a cabin in front of Oak Creek Canyon. He may have also had this one at the back end. “Imagine you’re on horseback in a remote area 100-plus years ago; with very limited tools, you’re constructing your own living space,” Haines explained.

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Satellite Imagery Helps Egypt Battle Looting Problem

June 2, 2014

CAIRO, EGYPT—Sarah Parcak of the University of Alabama at Birmingham uses satellite imagery to identify what she calls “hot spots” of organized looting activity in Egypt. “It was really hard before this technology to get a full sense of site damage from looting all over the world. It was one thing to see the pits, but it was really hard to systematically count them. The satellite imagery allows us to track extent of damage at site—not only get a sense of numbers, but also track change to a site over time,” she told The Guardian. That information could help Egyptian officials stop the sale of illegal antiquities before they leave the country. And, in March, Egypt’s minister of state for antiquities, Mohamed Ibrahim Ali, met with officials from the Obama administration to ask for emergency restrictions on the import of antiquities. “The agreement would make us capable of controlling the situation. Many objects are being sold here in the United States,” he said.  

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3-D Model Made of Richard III’s Spinal Column

May 30, 2014

LEICESTER, ENGLAND—A 3-D model of the spine identified as belonging to Richard III shows strong evidence that the king suffered from scoliosis. His spine curved to the right and twisted to form a somewhat spiral shape, according to a report published in The Lancet by a team from the University of Cambridge, Loughborough University, and the University Hospitals of Leicester. This new analysis suggests that Richard III’s right shoulder would have been higher than his left, and his torso would have been relatively short compared to his arms and legs. His head and neck, however, would have been straight, and he probably did not have a limp. “His leg bones were normal and symmetric,” osteoarchaeologist Jo Appleby of the University of Leicester told Red Orbit. “The arthritis in the spine meant it could only be reconstructed in a specific way, meaning that we can get a very accurate idea of the shape of the curve,” she added. The scientists think that well-designed clothes and armor would have been able to mask the curvature. 

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Stone Age Camp Uncovered in London

May 30, 2014

LONDON, ENGLAND—A flint tool, campfires, animal bones, and a possible fish trap made of two rows of wooden stakes have been found on the construction site of the new U.S. Embassy in London. Kasia Olchowska of the Museum of London Archaeology thinks that the land would have been too wet to have been a permanent settlement, but it would have made a fine hunting or fishing camp. The flint, which was discovered among water-smoothed gravel, was probably swept out of its original context by a river channel. Experts think that it was probably crafted between 100,000 and 12,000 years ago. Other stone tools include scrapers and a plunging blade. Carbon dating suggests that the rest of the site is up to 11,750 years old. “We think that [the fires] are potentially marking a spot that people were coming back to seasonally,” Olchowska told Live Science.   

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Dogs May Have Helped Early Mammoth Hunters

May 30, 2014

UNIVERSITY PARK, PENNSYLVANIA—Were early human hunters responsible for the tens of thousands of bones collected at some 30 spots known as mammoth cemeteries? Evidence of huts made of mammoth bones have been found at some of the locations, and some of the bones bear cut and burn marks. Pat Shipman of Pennsylvania State University, University Park, thinks that people may have ambushed the large animals at these sites, perhaps with the help of dogs. The dogs could have corralled the mammoths and they may have also protected the meat after the kill. “All of that mammoth meat would have brought predators from miles around. In return, the humans may have provided these canines with food and protection. And slowly, a closer relationship may have begun to form,” she told Science Now. Skulls with both wolf- and doglike features have been found among the mammoth bones at several of these cemetery sites, and some of the bones have healed fractures, a possible sign of human care, but more evidence is needed to support Shipman’s hypothesis. 

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