Monday, October 29, 2007


Evidence from ancient DNA indicates that at least some of the Neanderthals who roamed Europe until around 30,000 years ago had fair skin and red hair. It has long been thought that Neanderthals, who spent longer than their modern human cousins adapting to cold and cloudy conditions, might have lost the dark skin pigment inherited from sunny Africa. Now scientists have found proof that some Neanderthals were red heads.

Researchers analysed DNA samples extracted from the bones of of two Neanderthals from Spain and Italy. They focused on the MCIR gene, which helps skin cells to make the 'sunscreen' pigment melanin. The gene has its origins in Africa, where the sun's ultraviolet rays pose
a real risk of burning and cancer.

"We found a variant of MC1R gene in Neanderthals which is not present in modern humans, but which causes an effect on the hair similar to that seen in modern redheads," said Carles Lalueza-Fox, assistant professor in genetics at the University of Barcelona.

"In Neanderthals, there was probably the whole range of hair colour we see today in modern European populations, from dark to blond right through to red," Dr Lalueza-Fox said. It's impossible to determine the precise frequency of pallid, red-haired Neanderthals that once populated Europe. But the researchers estimate that at least 1% of the population would have carried two copies of this less-active gene, giving them roughly the same pigmentation seen in
modern red-heads.

Sources: BBC News, Nature News, Science (25 October 2007), Channel Four (26 October 2007)


Archaeologists are unlocking the secrets of Silbury Hill, Europe's tallest man-made mound and one of Britain's greatest historical mysteries. Researchers have long been mystified as to why the giant prehistoric mound in Wiltshire was built. But following one of the UK's most extensive and expensive digs, they appear to have found their answer: Silbury Hill may well have been a tomb, not for bodies, but for the souls of the dead.

The English Heritage dig, which cost £1m, tunnelled 85 metres into the 40-metre-high man-made hill, discovering that its Neolithic builders had incorporated hundreds of heavy sarsen stones into its matrix. Sarsen, the silicified sandstone still found in great
quantities in Wiltshire, was also used to build Stonehenge and Avebury. Heavier than other types of stone, archaeologists have long suspected that the material was regarded as sacred by Neolithic man.

Silbury Hill, researchers believe, could well have been built as a sort of spiritual tomb, filled with spirits rather than skeletons. "The new information we are obtaining from inside Silbury Hill is transforming our understanding of the site," said the English Heritage archaeologist Jim Leary, who led the three- year investigation. "The discovery of sarsen stones inside the final phase of the monument has also been a surprise. Given the almost certainly religious and ceremonial nature of Silbury, it is likely that these stones had some symbolic importance, potentially representing the spirits of dead ancestors."

Radio-carbon tests on the mound have also revealed the age of Silbury Hill for the first time. Archaeologists now believe construction on the primary mound started about 2400 BCE, which would mean it was built at the same time as Avebury and the first phase of Stonehenge. Also revealed for the first time is the probable original shape and size of the monument. Excavations at its summit suggest it had a rounded rather than flat top and was five to seven metres
higher than today, having almost certainly been flattened in late Saxon or Norman times to accommodate a wooden fortress.

Leary believes that Silbury, and monuments such as nearby Stonehenge and the stones at Avebury, were built in response to a period of great change in Britain, which at the time was being influenced by an influx of European cultures. It does not appear anyone lived there in the Neolithic period, perhaps because it was too sacred. Experts are also now convinced that Silbury Hill was constructed in three separate stages. Silbury One - which Mr Leary identified in the heart of the hill - was a 15ft high, cone-like stack of turf capped with clay in 2400 BCE. Silbury Two was built of piled rubble chalk on top of the original monument almost immediately
afterwards. Archaeologists believe there was a gap of a few hundred years before Silbury Three was constructed on top of Silbury Two - possibly in about 2000 BCE.

Heavy rains in 2000 led to the collapse of a top-to-bottom excavation shaft commissioned by the Duke of Northumberland in 1776. As a temporary fix, EH plugged the hole in 2001 with polystyrene to stave off further sinkage. Later this year they will begin removing all steel work from inside the mound before in-filling all the crumbling internal cavities with chalk - 1,000 tonnes lie crushed and ready to be pumped in when the time comes. The aim is to seal it up
by Christmas forever so no further damage is done. In the meanwhile, archaeologists have a limited time to scour the inside of the mound.

Sources: Daily Mail, Guardian Unlimited, Western Daily Press (25
October 2007), The Independent (28 October 2007)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Ancient human migrations in the Pacific Region

Ancient human migrations in the Pacific Region or how modern humans arrived in Hawaii and other seemingly remote islands.

A new study by Kevin Pope of Geo Eco Arc Research and John Terrell of The Field Museum adds insight into the migration of anatomically modern humans out of Africa and into Asia less than 100,000 years before present (BP). The expansion of modern human populations into the circum-Pacific region occurred in at least four pulses, in part controlled by climate and sea level changes in the Late Pleistocene and Holocene epochs.

The initial 'out of Africa' migration was thwarted by dramatic changes in both sea level and climate and extreme drought in the coastal zone. A period of stable climate and sea level 45,000-40,000 years BP gave rise to the first major pulse of migration, when modern
humans spread from India, throughout much of coastal southeast Asia, Australia, and Melanesia, extending northward to eastern Russia and Japan by 37,000 years BP.

The northward push of modern humans along the eastern coast of Asia stalled north of 43° N latitude, probably due to the inability of the populations to adjust to cold waters and tundra/steppe vegetation. The ensuing cold and dry Last Glacial period, ~33,000-16,000 year BP, once again brought dramatic changes in sea level and climate, which caused abandonment of many coastal sites.

After 16,000 years BP, climates began to warm, but sea level was still 100 m below modern levels, creating conditions amenable for a second pulse of human migration into North America across an ice-free coastal plain now covered by the Bering Sea.

The stabilization of climate and sea level in the early Holocene (8,000-6,000 years BP) supported the expansion of coastal wetlands, lagoons, and coral reefs, which in turn gave rise to a third pulse of coastal settlement, filling in most of the circum-Pacific region. A slight drop in sea level in the western Pacific in the mid-Holocene (~6,000-4,000 year BP), caused a reduction in productive coastal habitats, leading to a brief disruption in human subsistence along the then densely settled coast. This disruption may have helped initiate the last major pulse of human migration in the circum-Pacific region, that of the migration to Oceania, which began
about 3,500 years BP and culminated in the settlement of Hawaii and Easter Island by 2000-1000 years BP.

Source: EurekAlert! (10 October 2007)

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

New Information on the Dead Sea Scrolls

An international conference in Vancouver on the Dead Sea Scrolls marks the 60th anniversary since the treasured manuscripts were discovered by a goat herder near the shores of the Dead Sea in 1947.By 1956, a total of about 900 scrolls were discovered in 11 caves, becoming one of the world's most important archeological finds.

Carbon dating and handwriting revealed the scrolls - written on animals skins, papyrus and copper - to be dated from about 250 B.C. to 68 A.D. New findings were announced at the three-day conference.

Some pieces of the puzzle that have confounded researchers are being cracked to shed light into biblical texts that originated 2,000 years ago and confirm the reliability of the Bible people read today. They include a missing verse in Psalm 145, in which each line begins with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Verse 14 of the psalm, culled from the Dead Sea Scrolls, reads: "God is faithful and glorious in all His deeds."

Since 2003, when fragments of a few of the scrolls began being exhibited for the first time in North America, starting in Grand Rapids, Mich., audience attendance has shattered all records, he said.The scrolls, which have also been exhibited inNew York, Montreal and Ottawa, are currently being shown in San Diego, where about 400,000 people are expected, followed by an exhibit in Seoul starting in December.

Emanuel Tov, who attended the conference and is a top scrolls scholar from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said exhibits of the manuscripts are such a hit because people somehow feel connected to the ancient world. "People are in awe," said Tov, head of the international team that publishes writings of the Dead Sea Scrolls."There's an aura of mysticism around them because they were found in difficult times, in times of war in '47, in areas of war, in caves, and they date to the time of Jesus and before."

"They help us understand Jewish history from the third century before Christ until the first and second centuries after Christ."

Most of the scrolls are displayed at a special museum in Jerusalem but are so fragile that scholars are allowed to only look at them, not handle them since about 15 years ago, Tov said.He said the scrolls are so significant because they allow scholars to know what the original Hebrew Bible - except for the books of Esther and Nehemiah - looked like, how three languages developed and how the Jews near the Dead Sea viewed religious ideas.

Thursday, October 11, 2007


French archaeologists have discovered an 11,000-year-old wall painting underground in northern Syria which they believe is the oldest in the world.

The 2 square-meter painting, in red, black and white, was found at the Neolithic settlement of Djade al-Mughara on the Euphrates, northeast of the city of Aleppo, team leader Eric Coqueugniot told Reuters. Through carbon dating we established it is from around 9,000 B.C.," Coqueugniot said. Rectangles dominate the ancient painting, which formed part of an adobe circular wall of a large house with a wooden roof. The site has been excavated since the early 1990s.

The painting will be moved to Aleppo's museum next year, Coqueugniot said. Its red came from burnt hematite rock, crushed limestone formed the white and charcoal provided the black.

A large number of flints and weapons have been found at the site as well as human skeletons buried under houses.

"This site is one of several Neolithic villages in modern day Syria and southern Turkey. They seem to have communicated with each other and had peaceful exchanges," Coqueugniot said.France is an important contributor to excavation efforts in Syria, where 120 teams are at work. Syria was at the crossroads of the ancient world and has thousands of mostly unexcavated archaeological sites.


Sunday, October 07, 2007

Touring Italy? Visit 385,000 year old footsteps!

Starting in October, tourists can follow the footpaths believed to have been left up to 385,000 years ago by our ancient ancestors. The fossilized footprints are among the oldest found anywhere and extend along six trails at the edge of the Roccamonfina volcano south of the town of Cassino in Southern Italy.

Known locally as the "Devils Trails," they have been kept off-limits to the public until the opening of the trail on October 9, 2007. The footprints probably belong to an early branch of homo sapiens sometimes known as archaic homo sapiens.


Israeli archeologists say they've discovered quarry used for Herod's Temple

Israeli archeologists have discovered a quarry that provided King Herod with the stones he used to renovate the biblical Second Temple compound - offering rare insight into construction of the holiest site in Judaism. The source of the huge stones used nearly 2,000 years ago to reconstruct the compound in Jerusalem's Old City was discovered on the site of a proposed school in a Jerusalem suburb.

"This is the first time stones which were used to build the Temple Mount walls were found," said Yuval Baruch, an archaeologist with the Israeli Antiquities Authority involved in the dig. Quarries mined for the massive stones, each weighing more than 20 tonnes, eluded researchers until now, he said.

Baruch said coins and pottery found in the quarry confirm the stone was used during the period of Herod's expansion of the Temple Mount in 19 BC.

But researchers said the strongest piece of evidence was found wedged into one of the massive cuts in the white limestone - an iron stake used to split the stone. The tool was apparently improperly used, accidentally lodged in the stone and forgotten.
"It stayed here for 2,000 years for us to find because a worker didn't know what to do with it," said archAeologist Ehud Nesher, also of the Antiquities Authority.

Nesher said the large outlines of the stone cuts indicated the site was a massive public project worked by hundreds of slaves. "Nothing private could have done this," Nesher said. "This is Herod's, this is a sign of him."

Herod was the Jewish proxy ruler of the Holy Land under imperial Roman occupation from 37 BC. Herod's most famous construction project was the renovation of the Second Temple, replacing a smaller structure that itself replaced the First Temple, destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC.

In addition to the quarry site, archeologists recently discovered a road a short distance from the quarry that was possibly used to transport the stones, Baruch said. How the enormous stones were moved to the construction site remains a mystery, he added.