HELSINKI, FINLAND—Researchers from the University of Helsinki and the University of Edinburgh have discovered evidence of parvovirus in about half of the skeletal remains of 106 World War II casualties recovered from the battlefields of Karelia, located in what is now Russian territory. This is the first time that traces of virus have been found in old bones, which are the part of the body most likely to be preserved after death. “Human tissue is like a life-long archive that stores the fingerprint of the viruses that an individual has encountered during his or her lifetime,” professor of clinical virology Klaus Hedman said in a press release. In fact, two of the deceased carried a type of parvovirus that has not circulated in Nordic countries. When combined with other genetic information, this suggests that these were likely Russian soldiers, and not Finnish ones. “Such a combination of human and viral DNA can help us both identify the recently dead—making it a new tool for forensic identification or ancestry investigation—and determine how ancient humans migrated around the globe,” explained Antti Sajantila, professor of genetic medicine. To read about how the tuberculosis bacterium may have first arrived in the Americas, go to "Across the Atlantic by Flipper."
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS—Excavation of the basement of the Convent of the Jacobins in Rennes, France, yielded several elite burial vaults from the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century, and five heart-shaped lead urns, each of which contained a preserved human heart. After embalming materials were removed from the hearts and they were rehydrated, the organs were studied by a team of researchers who also used MRI and CT technology to create images of them. One heart showed no signs of disease, and another one was too poorly preserved to be studied. “Since four of the five hearts were very well preserved, we were able to see signs of present-day heart conditions, such as plaque and atherosclerosis, [in three of the hearts],” radiologist Fatima-Zohra Mokrane of the University Hospital of Toulouse said in a press release. To read more about the heart burials in Rennes, go to "For the Love of a Noblewoman."
STAVANGER, NORWAY—As part of a project to learn about prehistoric migration patterns in Scandinavia, scientists in a Swedish laboratory will attempt to extract and analyze DNA from the skull of “Viste Boy,” the 8,200-year-old remains of an adolescent discovered in southwestern Norway. They will also test 6,000-year-old human remains from Sømmevågen, which is also located in southern Norway, and other human bones that were discovered in the cave at Viste where “Viste Boy” was found. “It’s very exciting to have two Stone Age skeletons from areas that are as close to each other as Viste and Sømmevågen, but where there is approximately a 2,000-year age difference,” osteoarchaeologist Sean D. Denham from the Museum of Archaeology at the University of Stavanger said in a press release. The analysis may also reveal if Viste Boy is actually a girl. “It will be an exciting process, and the Viste Individual may require extra time as we know so little about its history since its discovery. Some preservation may be necessary, and we can actually see that one bone is not real. But we don’t know why, how, or when the copy was made,” added conservator Hege Hollund. To read about new findings regarding a well-known burial in Denmark, go to "Bronze Age Traveler."
GAINESVILLE, FLORIDA—Erosion of an ancient coastal burial ground near Cedar Key sent archaeologists led by Ken Sassaman of the University of Florida to excavate the graves and move the human remains before they were lost. He found, however, that the 32 graves had been moved to that location long ago from somewhere else. “They’re digging up their dead that are washing away into the Gulf of Mexico and relocating them to the place they’re going to move to. These guys, they never abandoned the coast. They were adaptive,” Sassaman told the Tampa Bay Times. He noted that shell mounds in the Lower Suwannee and Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuges show that when the sea levels were higher, people ate oysters, then switched to clams when the seas receded and more freshwater was present. Sassaman also thinks that ancient coastal dwellers used shells to build mounds and rings around their villages to protect them from rising waters. Those structures could have been used for generations. “They came back and used the places their predecessors used,” he explained. To read about an excavation in Florida that unearthed artifacts spanning a period of 10,000 years, go to "Florida History Springs Forth."
STANFORD, CALIFORNIA—A 3,200-year-old Egyptian mummy currently housed at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco was transported to the Stanford University School of Medicine for a computed tomography (CT) scan. The mummy, known as Hatason, was brought to the United States in the late nineteenth century in a wooden coffin that depicts a woman wearing everyday clothing. “When mummies came into the collections of most museums in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they were dated and sexed based upon the coffin the mummy was found in. We now know that rampant reuse of coffins means these assumptions may be wrong,” Stanford Egyptologist Anne Austin told the Stanford Medicine News Center. The scans revealed the mummy’s brain had been left intact. The researchers also saw that the body had disintegrated within the wrappings. The size of the skull, however, suggests that this was indeed a young woman. Jonathan Elias, director of the Akhmim Mummy Studies Consortium, thinks this mummy dates to the New Kingdom period, between the sixteenth and eleventh centuries B.C. “In mummies manufactured after a certain time, there is excerebration almost 100 percent of the time. But we have no excerebration,” he explained. To read more about CT scanning and other investigations of mummies, go to "Heart Attack of the Mummies."
MEXICO CITY, MEXICO—A passageway with two sealed chambers that may hold the cremated remains of Aztec emperors has been found in the 27-foot-long tunnel under the Templo Mayor complex. The passageway, which is about 18 inches wide and five feet tall, leads deep into the ceremonial platform known as the Cuauhxicalco, where rulers’ remains are thought to have been cremated. “What we are speculating is that behind these sealed-up entrances there could be two small chambers with the incinerated remains of some rulers of Tenochtitlan, like Moctezuma I and his successors, Axayacatl and Tízoc, given the relative dating of the surrounding constructions,” Leonardo Lopez Lujan of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History told the Associated Press. To read more, go to "Under Mexico City: Templo Mayor."
UNIVERSITY PARK, PENNSYLVANIA—Tao Su of the Xishuangbanna Tropical Garden discovered eight well-preserved fossilized peach pits more than 2.5 million years old near his home in southwest China when road construction crews exposed a rock outcrop dating to the late Pliocene. Archaeological evidence suggests that peaches were domesticated in China some 8,000 years ago, but remains of wild peaches had not been found until now. Su took the peach pits to Penn State, where they were dated and studied while he was a visiting scholar. “Is the peach we see today something that resulted from artificial breeding under agriculture since prehistory, or did it evolve under natural selection? The answer is really both,” Peter Wilf of Penn State University said in a press release. “If you imagine the smallest commercial peach today, that’s what these would look like. It’s something that would have had a fleshy, edible fruit around it. It must have been delicious,” he added. To read about looting of ancient sites in China, go to "Letter from China: Tomb Raider Chronicles."
HAIFA, ISRAEL—The University of Haifa announced that bonobos have been observed making and using tools and spears for the first time. Chimpanzees in nature have been seen making tools to obtain food such as tubers and termites, breaking open nuts with hammers and anvils, and making spears from branches for hunting. Itai Roffman of the university’s Institute of Evolution provided bonobos in a zoo setting and in a sanctuary setting with food that had been buried, hidden, and concealed in various locations. He also provided them with raw materials for toolmaking such as green branches and deer antlers. Both groups of bonobos were able to perform the food extraction tasks, but the sanctuary bonobos were much more successful. “The bonobos essentially showed that once they have the motivation to do so, they have analogous capabilities to those of archaic pre-humans, which is logical as chimpanzees and bonobos are our genetic sister species,” said Roffman in a press release. In addition, the dominant female in the zoo group crafted spears from the sticks, and she used the weapons to threaten Roffman. “To the zoo bonobos, I was a trespasser who was violating their privacy and stalking them,” he added. To read about the earliest known stone tools, go to "The First Toolkit."
EXETER, ENGLAND—A new study by scientists from the University of Exeter suggests that while teaching is useful for transmitting cultural knowledge, people can use reasoning and reverse engineering of existing objects to learn how to make them. The research team provided groups of people with materials to make rice baskets. Some were then asked to produce a basket alone, while others were part of a “transmission chain” where they could examine a basket, imitate another person’s actions, or receive instruction in basket weaving. At first, those participants who were taught to make baskets produced the most robust examples, but after six attempts, all groups made progress in the amount of rice that their baskets could carry. “Humans do much more than learn socially, we have the ability to think independently and use reason to develop new ways of doing things. This could be the secret to our success as a species,” Alex Thornton of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation said in a press release. To read about the transmission of culture in Borneo, go to "Letter from Borneo: The Landscape of Memory."
YORK, ENGLAND—Human ancestors migrated when population increases or ecological changes forced them to look for new, similar living environments. But around 100,000 years ago, people began to disperse across environmental barriers into new regions at a much faster rate. Penny Spikins of the University of York thinks that developing human emotional relationships, and the resulting moral disputes and betrayals among groups of people, may have motivated them to make such risky moves into new territories. “Active colonizations of and through hazardous terrain are difficult to explain through immediate pragmatic choices. But they become easier to explain through the rise of the strong motivations to harm others even at one’s own expense which widespread emotional commitments bring,” she said in a press release. “Moral conflicts provoke substantial mobility—the furious ex ally, mate or whole group, with a poisoned spear or projectile intent on seeking revenge or justice, are a strong motivation to get away, and to take almost any risk to do so,” she said. To read about how insects spread around the world, go to "Ant Explorers."
STRATFORD-UPON-AVON, ENGLAND—Excavators led by Staffordshire University’s Centre of Archaeology have uncovered the kitchen at New Place, William Shakespeare’s family home for nearly 20 years. Shakespeare purchased the impressive home, which had ten fireplaces and more than 20 rooms, in 1597. The kitchen, where fragments of plates, cups, and other cookware were uncovered, had a cold storage pit and a fire hearth. The team also found a brew house where small beer was made and foods were pickled and salted. “Finding Shakespeare’s ‘kitchen’ proved to be a vital piece of evidence in our understanding of New Place. Once we had uncovered the family’s oven we were able to understand how the rest of the house fitted around it. The discovery of the cooking areas, brew house, pantry, and cold storage pit, combined with the scale of the house, all point to New Place as a working home as well as a house of high social status,” Paul Edmonson, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Head of Research and Knowledge, said in a press release. The research has led to new drawings of the house. The site will reopen for visitors with artworks, landscaping, and exhibitions in time to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016. To read about the unearthing of King Richard III's skeleton, which was a Top Discovery of 2013, go to "Richard III’s Last Act."
CRAWFORD COUNTY, ARKANSAS—The U.S. Forest Service is investigating a man who may have illegally excavated prehistoric artifacts from the Ozark-St. Francis National Forest in Arkansas, according a report from 5News. The television station’s report is based on a search warrant affidavit from the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Western District of Arkansas. The investigation began in May 2015, when the Forest Service received an anonymous tip that the man’s Instagram account contained evidence of what appeared to be illegal digging in the National Forest. Based on photos from the account, officers set up cameras to monitor several areas, which captured further evidence. According to the 5News report, an Ozark National Forest archaeologist told investigators that many of the artifacts in the photos would not have been found on the ground surface. No charges have been filed pending completion of the investigation. To read about Native American rock art sites in Arkansas, go to "Off the Grid."
TANGLEY, ENGLAND—A gold ring containing a stone engraved with an image of Cupid, the Roman god of erotic love, has been found by an amateur metal detectorist near the English village of Tangley. Live Science reports that researchers who have examined the ring have determined that, based on its design, it dates to around the fourth century A.D., when England was part of the Roman Empire. In the engraving, made in a type of onyx called nicolo, a naked adolescent male stands completely naked, resting one arm on a column and holding a torch in the other. A small pair of wings emerging from his shoulders identifies him as Cupid, the researchers note. The ring has been acquired by the Hampshire Museums Service and will be put on display at the Andover Museum in Andover. To read about an ancient Roman burial in England, go to "What's in a Name?"
MEGALOPOLIS, GREECE—Researchers have uncovered the nearly complete skeleton of an elephant and a collection of stone tools at the Lower Paleolithic site known as Marathousa 1, reports PhysOrg. Some of the elephant’s bones bear distinctive cut marks that indicate the animal was butchered by the region’s inhabitants between 300,000 and 600,000 years ago. Marathousa 1 is one of the oldest archaeological sites in Greece and the discovery marks it as “the only site in the Balkans where we have evidence of an elephant being butchered in the early Paleolithic," according to Katerina Harvati of the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment (HEP) at the University of Tübingen, who participated in the excavation. To read about the use of elephants in ancient Mediterranean warfare, go to “Clash of the War Elephants.”
CAIRO, EGYPT—Egypt’s Antiquities Minister Mamdouh el-Damaty announced that the Austrian Archaeological Institute has discovered a 3,500-year-old “giant fence” in Sharqiya province, at the site of the ancient capital of Avaris. The Associated Press reports that the fence, made of sandstone, was 500 yards long and seven yards thick, and may have been part of a city wall. To read about a temple to an Egyptian god, go to "The Cult of Amun."
ROME, ITALY—Workers installing a gas pipeline in Via Alfonso Lamora in central Rome at first thought they had opened up a sinkhole, but they had really discovered a 2,000-year-old room. The room, plastered and decorated with frescoes, had been part of a home located in an area known as the Horti Lamiani, or Lamian Gardens, according to The Local, Italy. The gardens eventually became imperial property and over the years the area has yielded numerous sculptures, frescoes, and other artifacts now housed in the city’s museums. “Finding a room under the street is rare,” said archaeologist Mirella Serlorenzi. “We do get archaeological finds from between 60 and 50 percent of all roadworks though.” To read about Rome's aqueduct system, go to "How Much Water Reached Rome?"
STANFORD, CALIFORNIA—Changes in tools made by prehistoric peoples often appear in the archaeological record in incremental bursts, thought of as “cultural explosions.” A computer model created by Marcus Feldman, Oren Kolodny, and Nicole Creanza of Stanford University reproduces patterns of creativity observed in the archaeological record as the result of spontaneous innovations, responses to new technologies, and the combination of existing technologies, rather than as a response to external events. “It was insightful to realize that tools can create ‘ecological niches’ for other tools to fill. Once you invent something like a raft, it paves the way for the invention of a paddle that’ll allow you to manipulate it, tools that will help you mend it, and eventually also new technologies for offshore fishing or transport of things,” Kolodny said in a press release. When knowledge is concentrated in a specialized subset of a population, it becomes more vulnerable, and may be lost. Changes in the environment and migration to a new environment can also cause the loss of tools. “Our model demonstrates that these ‘explosions’ could also be a feature of cultural evolution itself, as long as some innovations are dependent on others,” Creanza said. To read about the oldest known stone tools, go to "The First Toolkit."
YORK, ENGLAND—A multi-disciplinary, international team of researchers, led by Sarah Fiddyment and Matthew Collins of the University of York, examined the tissue-thin vellum used to produce pocket-sized Bibles in thirteenth century France, England, Italy, and Spain. Some scholars have suggested that the skin of fetal calves had been used to produce such fine pages, since many sources use the Latin term abortivum to describe them. To find out, samples of protein were collected from the pages of 72 pocket Bibles with an electrostatic charge generated by gentle rubbing with a PVC erasers. “We found no evidence for the use of unexpected animals; however, we did identify the use of more than one mammal species in a single manuscript, consistent with the local availability of hides,” Fiddyment said in a press release. The ultra-thin pages have since been reproduced by parchment conservator Jiří Vnouček. “It is more a question of using the right parchment-making technology than using uterine skin. Skins from younger animals are of course optimal for production of thin parchment but I can imagine that every skin was collected, nothing wasted,” he said. To read about the excavation of a thirteenth-century tannery, go to "Medieval Leather, Vellum, and Fur."
REHOVOT, ISRAEL—Seeds from fava beans, lentils, peas, and chickpeas have been unearthed at Neolithic sites in the Galilee. “This is an important discovery, enabling a deeper understanding of the agricultural revolution in the southern Near East,” researchers from the Weizmann Institute and the Israel Antiquities Authority said in a press release. The large number of fava beans unearthed at the site of Ahihud, where seeds of a uniform size were found husked and placed in storage pits, suggests that they were the preferred crop as many as 10,000 years ago. These beans could have been used for food and for future crops. “Despite the importance of cereals in nutrition that continues to this day, it seems that in the region we examined (west of the Jordan River), it was the legumes, full of flavor and protein, which were actually the first species to be domesticated,” they explained. To read more, go to "New Thoughts on Neolithic Israel."
SOMERSET, ENGLAND—Researchers from the University of Reading reassessed and reinterpreted the history of Glastonbury Abbey, a site that has been called the burial place of the legendary King Arthur and the earliest Christian church in Britain. The team conducted chemical and compositional analysis of glass, metal, and pottery artifacts held in the Glastonbury Abbey Museum, and they conducted a new geophysical survey of the Abbey grounds. Lead researcher Roberta Gilchrist noted that a devastating fire in 1184 required the monks to keep the Glastonbury legends alive. “The monks also deliberately designed the rebuilt church to look older in order to demonstrate its ancient heritage and pre-eminent place in monastic history, using archaic architecture style and reused materials to emphasize the Abbey’s mythical feel. This swelled pilgrim numbers—and the Abbey’s coffers,” Gilchrist said in a press release. “It was a strategy that paid off: Glastonbury Abbey became the second richest monastery in England by the end of the Middle Ages. Re-examination of the archaeological records revealed the exceptional scale of the abbot’s lodging, a luxurious palatial complex to the southwest of the cloister.” To read about medieval graffiti in England, go to "Writing on the Church Wall."