SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND—A new study of a 1,500-year-old skeleton from eastern England confirms that the man, who was probably in his early 20s at the time of death, suffered from leprosy. Changes consistent with the disease can been seen in the narrowing of his toe bones and in damage to his joints. “Not all cases of leprosy can be identified by changes to the skeleton. Some may leave no trace on the bones; other will affect bones in a similar way to other diseases. In these cases the only way to be sure is to use DNA fingerprinting, or other chemical markers characteristic of the leprosy bacillus,” Sonia Zakrzewski of the University of Southampton said in a press release. In this case, the bacterial DNA was in good condition, and the team of scientists, which also included researchers from the University of Leiden and the universities of Birmingham, Surrey, and Swansea, was able to identify the strain of leprosy. It has previously been found in burials from medieval Scandinavia and southern Britain, and is thought to date to the fifth or sixth century A.D. Analysis of isotopes from the man’s teeth show that he probably grew up in northern Europe, so he may have brought the Scandinavian strain of leprosy with him when he came to Britain. “We plan to carry out similar studies on skeletons from different locations to build up a more complete picture of the origins and early spread of this disease,” said team leader Sarah Inskip of the University of Leiden. To read more about the study of diseases in ancient remains, see "Heart Attack of the Mummies."
NANJING, CHINA—Live Science reports that two stone epitaphs recovered from a Ming Dynasty tomb in Nanjing have been translated. The 500-year-old epitaphs tell the story of Lady Mei, whose remains were found in a water-damaged casket, along with gem-encrusted gold bracelets, a fragrance box, and hairpins. Born in 1430, Lady Mei was one of three wives of the Duke of Qian. “Lady Mei was probably a concubine whom he married after he went to guard and rule Yunnan,” researchers led by excavation crew chief Haining Qi wrote in the Chinese journal Wenwu, which has been published in English in Chinese Cultural Relics. She gave birth to a son, who was ten months old when the duke died. The epitaphs say she “was only 21 years of age. She was unwashed and unkempt, and called herself the survivor.” The text praises her for raising the third-generation duke and keeping the household in order. After her son came to power, the well-loved Lady Mei was known as the “Dowager Duchess” until her death in 1474. “On the day of her death, the people of Yunnan, military servicemen or civilians, old and young, all mourned and grieved for her as if their own parents had passed away,” read the epitaphs. To read more about sites in China, see "The Tomb Raider Chronicles."
BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS—Genetic testing of a 40,000-year-old mandible with modern human and Neanderthal traits has revealed that the Oase man’s genome was between five and 11 percent Neanderthal, including large chunks of several chromosomes. Palaeogenomicist Qiaomei Fu of Harvard Medical School and her colleagues analyzed how lengths of DNA inherited from an ancestor shorten with each generation. They estimate that this individual’s Neanderthal ancestor was introduced in the previous four to six generations. The jawbone and one other human bone were discovered among bear remains in a Romanian cave called Peştera cu Oase. Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in St. Louis has argued that these bones point to inbreeding between humans and Neanderthals. “I guess it’s reassuring at some level that there’s correspondence between what the anatomy is telling us and what the genes are telling us,” he commented in Nature News. And radiocarbon dates suggest that modern humans and Neanderthals may have been in Europe together for up to 5,000 years in some areas. Fu presented her team’s work at the recent Biology of Genomes meeting. To read more about our extinct cousins, see "Should We Clone Neanderthals?"
SAN MARCOS, TEXAS—While looking for ships that belonged to Captain Henry Morgan, the notorious English privateer, a team of underwater archaeologists discovered a rare seventeenth-century Spanish shipwreck off the coast of Panama. The Encarnación, built in Veracruz, Mexico, was a ship in Spain’s Tierra Firme fleet, which carried precious metals from the New World to Spain and distributed European goods throughout the Spanish colonies. “These ships were the backbone of the Spanish colonies,” Fritz Hanselmann of Texas State University told National Geographic News. Sixteen such shipwrecks have been found, but the Encarnación is unusual in that it has not been looted and is well preserved. “It is the rise of capitalism, imperialism, rationalism, and the middle classes that are going to buy art and consume literature,” said nautical archaeologist Filipe Castro of Texas A&M University. To read in-depth about the project, see "Pirates of the Original Panamal Canal."
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—An underwater vehicle searching for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane MH370 has found a shipwreck off the coast of Western Australia in the Indian Ocean. The images taken by the automated underwater vehicle reveal an anchor, a box-shaped object, and black rocks that may be coal scattered across the seabed. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau told The Sydney Morning Herald that the wreck is uncharted. “It’s a fascinating find but it’s not what we’re looking for,” spokesperson Peter Foley said. The information will be passed on to marine archaeologists for further research. To read in-depth about underwater archaeology see "History's 10 Greatest Wrecks."
ZURICH, SWITZERLAND—Frank Rühli, director of the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich, and his colleagues used body height, which is highly hereditable, to look for possible, non-invasive evidence of incest among 259 Egyptian mummies. Historical sources record the marriages of brothers and sisters, which were believed to preserve the sacred bloodlines of pharaohs descended from the gods. Pharaohs who were married to their sisters, but whose parents were not siblings, were not considered in the study. The team found that the body heights of royals varied less than the body heights of commoners. “Pharaohs varied less in height than men of the common population. This is one indicator of inbreeding,” Rühli told Discovery News. The study showed that pharaohs, overall, were taller than non-royal males from the same time period. Ramses II was the tallest of the pharaohs under investigation. There was little difference in the height of queens and non-royal women, however. The pattern could also reflect the living environment of the wealthy royals. “Average height and height variation reflect very nicely the quality of the environment. So, the very good environment of the royal men might be another reason why their height variation is reduced compared with commoners,” commented Barry Bogin of Loughborough University. He has studied height variation among children from very wealthy families and very poor families.
HEREFORD, ENGLAND—The remains of a Saxon child estimated to have been between the ages of ten and 12 at the time of death were unearthed at Hereford Cathedral as part of an excavation funded by the Heritage Lottery. At the time of the burial, a Saxon palace is thought to have stood on the site. “We are still investigating it. The child seems to have been a very poorly young person but was buried with dignity,” Andy Boucher of Headland Archaeology told BBC News. The remains of thousands of people buried from the eleventh to the nineteenth centuries were uncovered during the restoration of the church’s grounds. Seven hundred of the better-preserved burials are being studied in more detail, including the remains of a man who may have been a Norman knight. Scientists from Durham University found injuries to his legs consistent with a jousting accident. “The burials provided some fascinating information on the health and stresses of daily life in the middle ages in Hereford,” Boucher added. To read more about Anglo-Saxon archaeology, see "The Kings of Kent."
LONDON, ENGLAND—An examination of more than 300 rural and urban skeletons from Roman Britain suggests that it was healthier to live in town. “The assumption is always that if you’re living in the countryside it’s healthier. But we found that urban dwellers were more likely to reach old age that their rural counterparts,” Rebecca Redfern of the Museum of London told New Scientist. Redfern and her colleagues studied 150 skeletons from nine rural cemeteries in what is now Dorset in southern England, and found that 29.5 percent of them lived beyond the age of 35. The remainder of the individuals came from urban cemeteries in modern-day Dorchester, or Roman Durnovaria. The bones revealed that 34 percent of the city dwellers lived beyond the age of 35. “The reason they probably lived longer is that small towns like Durnovaria were far less polluted than much larger cities like Rome, and so had relatively small populations and lower housing densities compared with other urban areas in the Roman Empire,” she explained. Children living in town, however, were more likely to die before reaching age ten, and town residents were more likely to suffer from rickets, tuberculosis, and dental disorders—probably due to more wine and preserves in their diets than what was eaten in the country. Many of the country folk were probably serfs and laborers who survived on basic diets. To read more about life in Roman Britain, see "Artifact: Romano-British Brooch."
CLEVELAND, OHIO—The Cleveland Museum of Art has returned a tenth-century statue of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, to Cambodia. The 800-pound sandstone sculpture was purchased in good faith by the museum in 1982, but officials recently learned that the sculpture’s base matched a pedestal at the east gate of the Prasat Chen Temple at Cambodia’s Koh Ker archaeological site. The statue was probably looted from the temple during the Vietnam War and the Cambodian civil war. Excavations at the site uncovered the statue’s missing earring and other fragments. The Cleveland Museum of Art and the National Museum of Cambodia have now entered an agreement to facilitate joint projects. “I’m very optimistic that the conversations we have begun will result in cooperation of various kinds, and we are continuing to explore those possibilities,” William Griswold, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, told The Plain Dealer. “Our research revealed a very real likelihood that it was removed from a site enormously important to the kingdom of Cambodia during a terrible time and its return was completely consistent with the highest legal and fiduciary standards,” he said. To read in-depth about archaeology in Cambodia, see "A Storied Landscape."
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND— Estimates suggest that the ancient Egyptians made as many as 70 million animal mummies. A team from of Egyptologists and radiographers from the University of Manchester and the Manchester Museum has examined some 800 hundred animal mummies with medical imaging technology and found that as many as one-third of them are empty. It had been thought that empty animal mummies were fakes. “But I think as time has gone on it’s become clear from the sheer volume we’re looking at that perhaps there is more to it,” team leader Egyptologist Lidija McKnight told The Washington Post. Most animal mummies were made as votive offerings. “You’d get one of these mummies and you’d ask it to take a message on your behalf to the gods and then wait for the gods to do something in return. That’s kind of their place in the religious belief system of ancient Egypt, and that’s why we think there were so many of them. It was almost sort of an industry that sprang up at the time and continued for more than 1,000 years,” she said. So the “empty” mummies may have been filled with symbolic items or served another purpose. “We shouldn’t view animal mummification through our modern, subjective standpoint of fakery and everything being some kind of con. There was probably much more to it than that, and there was probably much more innocent explanation for what was going on. The materials that they were using were just as important as the animals themselves,” she said. To read in-depth about animal mummies, see "Messengers to the Gods."
FAIRBANKS, ALASKA—At the Mead Site in central Alaska, researchers from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, have unearthed small bone artifacts that could be the oldest artwork in northern North America. The first object in question from the site was found within the outline of what may have been a hide-covered structure 12,300 years ago. “We think it might be a pendant, an ornament, maybe worn near the face,” team leader Ben Potter told News Miner. A pair of pendants, both with broken holes at the tapered end, was also recovered. The site is thought to have been a cliff-side hunting camp, but no weapon fragments have been found so far. The team has found other pieces of worked bone, however, and the jawbone of a brown bear that is missing a canine tooth. Perhaps the tooth was made into jewelry. “You can imagine the association with strength and hunting skill,” Potter said. To read in-depth about the first people to reach the New World, see "America, in the Beginning."
DEVON, ENGLAND—A stone circle with a diameter of 112 feet has been found on moorland in southwestern England. The first stone circle to have been discovered on Dartmoor for more than 100 years, it is the second largest on the moor and sits more than 1,700 feet above sea level. Scientists were able to obtain radiocarbon dates from soil samples beneath two of the circle’s 30 fallen stones. “These are the first radiocarbon determinations from a Dartmoor stone circle. The dates have produced very similar results and calibrate to the end of the third millennium B.C. (4,000 years ago). This indicates the date by which the stones had fallen,” Jane Marchand, senior archaeologist at Dartmoor National Park, told The Guardian. Preliminary investigations have also revealed a wide, linear ditch running just outside the eastern side of the circle. To read in-depth about the discovery of similar stone monuments off the coast of Scotland, see "Neolithic Europe's Remote Heart."