Friday, September 28, 2007

Almost 8 million year old Fossils from republic of Georgia

The discovery of four fossil skeletons of early human ancestors in the republic of Georgia has given scientists a revealing glimpse of a species in transition, primitive in its skull and upper body but with more advanced spines and lower limbs for greater mobility.

The findings are considered a significant step toward understanding who were some of the first ancestors to migrate out of Africa some 1.8 million years ago. They may also yield insights into the nature of the first members of the human genus, Homo. Until now, scientists had found only the skulls of small-brain individuals at the Georgian site of Dmanisi. They said the new evidence apparently showed the anatomical capability of this extinct population for long-distance migrations.

“We still don’t know exactly what we have got here,” David Lordkipanidze, leader of the excavations, said in an interview on a visit to New York. “We’re only beginning to describe the nature of the early Dmanisi population.”

Other paleoanthropologists said the discovery could lead to breakthroughs in the critical evolutionary period in which some members of Australopithecus, the genus made famous by the Lucy skeleton, made the transition to Homo. The step may have been taken sometime before two million years ago, a period with only fragmentary fossil remains of the human past.

The international team headed by Dr. Lordkipanidze, director of the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi, found several skulls and stone tools at Dmanisi in the 1990s. They were dated to 1.77 million years ago and resembled the species Homo erectus, the immediate predecessor of Homo sapiens. The fossils were tentatively assigned to the erectus species.
But erectus had been thought of as a species with more affinities to modern humans, with large bodies and long faces, teeth smaller and brains bigger than its predecessors. A young erectus man in Africa, dating to 1.5 million years ago, had a modern body and stood almost 6 feet tall.

The Dmanisi specimens were quite different. Their skull sizes indicated that they had brains not much larger than those of a chimpanzee. Their size was closer to the brains of Homo habilis, a poorly understood earlier ancestral species. In the last few years, however, the researchers collected more extensive, well-preserved skeletal remains of an adolescent and three adult individuals. Some of the fossils resembled those of later erectus specimens in Africa. The lower limbs and arched feet, for example, reflected traits “for improved terrestrial locomotor performance,” the discovery team reported.

Over all, though, the fossils were “a surprising mosaic” of primitive and evolved features. The small body size and small craniums, the upper limbs, elbows and shoulders were more like the earliest habilis specimens. “Thus, the earliest known hominids to have lived outside of Africa in the temperate zones of Eurasia did not yet display the full set” of evolved skeletal features, the scientists concluded.

Monday, September 24, 2007


For those of you who are near Greenwich, CT, the Archaeological Associates will be having Rafe Pomerance, an expert on global warming and climate change, speak at the Bruce Museum on Thursday, October 18 at 8 pm. Free to AAG and Museum members. $10 at the door. His topic is "The Impact of Climate Change as Seen Through Archaeological Sites." The following emphasizes what Mr. Pomerance will be talking about:

More than 10,000 of the most important ancient and historical sites around Scotland's coastline are at risk of being destroyed by the storms and rising sea levels that will come with global warming. Sites in jeopardy include the neolithic settlement of Skara Brae on Orkney and the prehistoric ruins at Jarlshof on Shetland.

Others under threat range from Iron Age brochs to Mesolithic middens. New surveys for Historic Scotland reveal that the remains of communities up to 9000 years old could be lost for ever due to accelerating coastal erosion. The potential loss is incalculable and has alarmed experts. "This is a uniquely valuable and totally irreplaceable part of the nation's cultural heritage, with much still to teach us about our past," said Tom Dawson, an archaeologist at the
University of St Andrews. "The coast continues to erode. Although wildlife and the natural habitat may be able to recover, ancient sites will be destroyed forever, and the remnants of our ancestors will be lost."

Dawson manages a group called Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion (Scape), which was set up in 2001 to protect ancient shoreline sites. With the help of local Shorewatch' groups across the country, Scape has been investigating the status of the sites. So far some 30% of Scotland's coastline has been surveyed, discovering 11,500 archaeological sites of which 3500 are judged to be at risk of erosion.

Many of the archaeological sites are concentrated on Orkney, Shetland, the Western Isles and parts of the west coast, which are known to be particularly vulnerable to storms. Many sites have yet to be excavated and properly studied. Others are iconic and well-known remains defended by old and eroding seawalls, such as Skara Brae, Jarlshof, the Broch of Gurness on Orkney.

A conference on climate change is being organised by the Historic Environment Advisory Council for Scotland (HEACS), which advises ministers. It will hear evidence of the widespread dangers posed by worsening weather.

Source: Sunday Herald (23 September 2007)

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Neanderthal Fact Sheet -- the latest dates and data


When did they live?

For a 200,000-year period that ended about 30,000 years ago.

When were they discovered?

The first Neanderthal skull was found in Belgium in 1829, and another in Gibraltar in 1848. But the official "original" discovery, from which they were named, was in the Neander Valley in Germany in 1856.

Where did they live?

Across a vast area of northern and southern Europe, from the Mediterranean to the Russian steppes.

How similar were they to modern humans?

Their skulls were different. But recent findings suggest a match of 99.5 to 99.9 per cent between our DNA and theirs.

What did they look like?

They walked on two feet, had barrel chests and big bones, and lots of hair, possibly red.

What tools did they use?

Stone flakes, hand axes and spears and possibly wooden objects as well.

Could they talk?

The discovery in 1983 of a Neanderthal hyoid bone, which braces the tongue and larynx together, suggested that they had the anatomy for more complex speech.

Were they stupid?

They had a larger average brain capacity than modern man but it is thought that it was structured differently.

Are we descended from them?

Probably not. We may have had a common ancestor 500,000 years ago. But modern scientists now believe that Neanderthals were probably an evolutionary dead end that became completely extinct about 30,000 years ago.

Ever wonder about the tradition of British cooking?

The country's 10 oldest recipes have been unveiled, following extensive research into the history of Britain's eating habits.

Nettle pudding, which dates back to 6000 BC, was declared the oldest recorded recipe in the study from the Food Science department of the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff. The concoction, of crushed leaves in a dough, was not the only meal that researchers discovered dated back to the early-Neolithic period. Experts believe Neolithic man had a penchant for chomping through an offal-heavy ancestor of haggis called meat pudding and even pastry-wrapped roasted hedgehog.

The discovery that hedgehogs were used in early cooking was based on archaeological findings where cooked spines were found in areas used for compost. Ruth Fairchild, of the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, who led the research team, said: "The findings are the culmination of a huge amount of intensive research. The team have pieced together evidence taken from a wide range of sources - archaeological evidence, social history texts, medieval records, even the work of experimental archaeologist Jacqui Wood - to bring together what we see as 'the oldest recorded recipes in the UK'. The oldest was the recipe for nettle pudding."

Nettle pudding was eaten from Neolithic times and was a mixture of readily available leaves, such as nettle, mixed with coarsely ground barley flour, salt and enough water to bind to a dough. The leaves used would show some geographic variation, but combinations of sorrel, dandelion, watercress, chickweed, wild radish, vetch, nettles and even seaweed would be common.

Regional variations of this exist today, notably dock pudding in Northern England and laverbread in Wales. Smokey fish stew was also eaten since Neolithic times, and is a simple combination of bacon (very common, particularly in Wales and Scotland) and fish which has been previously smoked. Geographic differences would include the herbs added and the fish used. Inland carp, perch, trout, etc.

On the Scottish and east English coast herring was plentiful; around the south of England and Wales, bass, mackerel or dogfish were more common. Finally, Meat Pudding was a simple mix of meat - mainly offal, some fat, which would have been regarded as a real luxury, and herbs.

Sources: The Scotsman, The Independent (14 September 2007), The New
Zealand Herald (15 September 2007)

Sydney, Australia -- evidence from 30,000 years ago

A cache of charcoal, stone tools and artefacts unearthed to make way for a high-rise apartment block has been found to be 30,000 years old, more than doubling the accepted age of Aboriginal settlement in Sydney, Australia. The discovery was the result of a dig originally set up to search for signs of convict era occupation. It is the oldest evidence yet found of humans occupying what is now metropolitan Sydney.

Although other sites in Australia have been dated to 40,000 years ago, the archaeologist who led this dig, Jo McDonald, said the previous oldest evidence of human habitation around Sydney had been found in the Blue Mountains (14,700 years), at Kurnell (12,500), and near the old Tempe House on the Cooks River (10,700).

"We have always thought that humans arrived much earlier in Sydney, having made their way down the coast from northern Australia and moving inland up major rivers. But most of that earlier occupation evidence was drowned on the coastal plain when the sea level rose to its current height around 7000 years ago."

The archaeologists dug in three spots - "We found lots and lots of stone artifacts, around 20,000 of them," said Dr. McDonald. "There were lots of spear points, axes, and quite a few anvils and grinding stones."

But the most extraordinary discovery was charcoal, possibly from ancient campfires, found about a metre beneath the surface, and very close to some artifacts. Radiocarbon dating showed that the tiny fragments were 30,735 years old, give or take 400 years. Four other
charcoal samples, recovered from shallower depths, gave increasingly younger ages, with the uppermost dated at 3270 years, plus or minus 35 years. The age pattern suggested Aborigines had been routinely camping on the site for at least 300 centuries. "It's proof of the perseverance of Aboriginal culture."

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald (15 September 2007)

Monday, September 10, 2007

Asterix fans -- there's news!

Several years ago I led a small group of archaeological buffs to Northern England and Scotland and members of my group read the Asterix books as we drove in our van from ancient Roman place to place.

Those stories told how Asterix's little village was encircled by Julius Cæsar's expanding empire unequalled in the art of warfare and determined to civilize a backward people who worshipped Druids and believed in magic potions. Or so it was thought until now.

But a discovery in central France has led to a significant reassessment of Asterix representing
the Gauls, who were, it transpires, much more advanced than previously thought.

Rather than the random gatherings of rudimentary thatched huts illustrated in the Asterix books, first published in 1961, archaeologists now believe the Gauls lived in elegant buildings with tiled roofs, laid out in towns with public squares or forums. They also crafted metalwork just as complex as anything produced by the Romans, even before the Roman invasion in 52 BC.

The findings have been made at a dig in Corent, near Lyon, where archaeologists have uncovered what they believe is the palace of Vercingetorix, the last military leader of all Gaul.

After the Romans arrived, Vercingetorix, a prince who also appears in the Asterix volumes, was taken prisoner, held in a prison in Rome and garroted several years later.

"What we have found here proves that the Gauls were much more civilized than we thought," Matthieu Poux, the archaeology professor who is heading the dig, told The Sunday Telegraph.
" We have discovered that they had not only complex military structures, but civilian and trading structures too... we have discovered large buildings and public spaces which prove there were Gauls of considerable social standing... Very high magistrates or nobles lived here, possibly even Vercingetorix. We think we are working on the site where he was given leadership over all of Gaul in order to fight the Roman invasion."

Mr Poux's team has uncovered previously unknown building techniques, elaborate foundations and tiled roofing which together suggest that the architecture in Gaul was just as advanced as that in Rome around 80 to 70BC.

Evidence of a Roman-style forum for public gatherings and a gallery housing boutiques and workshops has also been discovered, together with ironmongers' tools, coins and scales. The dig, which has until now concentrated on small, localised sites, will now be expanded by several miles in the hope of unearthing an entire city.

"I have read about the new discoveries, but to be honest I don't think we will be reworking the Asterix stories," said Florence Richaud, a spokesman for Albert René, publishers of the Asterix series. "The illustrator Albert Uderzo did try to make it authentic, but rather than educational material these are stories designed basically to make children laugh." Mr Uderzo, 80, who has illustrated all of the Asterix adventures, is working on his memoirs and has no plans to give new life to his ferocious, moustached creation.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007


Oetzi may have died from head trauma, not an arrow

Researchers studying Oetzi, the 5,000-year-old mummy found frozen in the Italian Alps, have come up with a new theory for how he died, saying he died from head trauma, not by bleeding to death from an arrow.

Just two months ago, researchers in Switzerland published an article in the Journal of Archaeological Science saying the mummy had died after the arrow tore a hole in an artery beneath his left collarbone, leading to massive loss of blood, shock and heart attack.

But radiologists, pathologists and other researchers, using new forensic information and CAT scans, said they believed that the blood loss from the arrow wound only made Oetzi lose consciousness. They believe he died either by hitting his head on a rock when he passed
out or because his aggressor attacked him again with a blow to the head.

The researchers presented their findings at the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman at the European Academy in Bolzano, a research institution. In a statement, the academy said the findings reopened the debate over Oetzi's cause of death, particularly since they took
into account the rather unnatural way in which his body was found: face down, with his left arm across his chest. The researchers believe the Iceman fell over backward, but was then turned over onto his stomach by his aggressor who then pulled out the arrow shaft while leaving the arrowhead imbedded in Oetzi's shoulder.

In a paper published in the archaeological magazine Germania, the researchers said they had determined that Oetzi assumed his final position before rigor mortis set in. They also said that based on his good health and equipment found with him, that he belonged to a social class not accustomed to manual labor.

Source: International Herald Tribune (28 August 2007)