Sunday, March 29, 2009


Iraq is suffering one of the worst droughts in decades. While this is bad news for farmers, it is good news for archaeologists in the country. The receding waters of the Euphrates River have revealed ancient archaeological sites, some of which were unknown until now.

For Ratib Ali al-Kubaisi, the director of Anbar province's Antiquities Department, the drought has opened up a whole new land of opportunity. He explains that civilization began in Anbar, next to the Euphrates River. "Everyone thought that Anbar was only desert with no historical importance. But we discovered that this area is one of the most important archaeological areas in all of Iraq. This part of Iraq was the first to be settled," he says.

In the mid-1980s, Saddam Hussein's government dammed the Euphrates in the area, flooding a 120-mile-long stretch of land near Iraq's border with Syria. What once was an enormous reservoir that stretched as far as the eye could see has shrunk an astonishing 90 percent since summer, officials say.

Ratib says that at least 75 archaeological sites had been partially excavated before the area was flooded. They ran the gamut of civilizations - from 3,000 B.C. -- the Sumerian -- to the Roman periods. Ancient Jewish settlements were also submerged in the area. But because of the receding waters, Ratib has been able to access some sites for the first time - including, for instance, a cliff with a series of pre-Christian tombs carved into its face. Though they have been heavily damaged by the water, Ratib says they still have value.

But it's not only previously discovered archaeological sites that the drought has made accessible. Ratib and a colleague are suddenly excited by something they've seen on this particular day. They kneel next to what looks like an old stone wall, shards
of pottery everywhere. Ratib says he believes it is a Roman-era irrigation ditch. It's an unexpected discovery, but on the heels of their elation comes concern.
Ratib says he is worried the area will be looted. In all of Anbar, just 10 guards protect vulnerable archaeological sites. "The area is rich with things. You can find jewelry, coins and documents - all these things are temptations for professional thieves," he says. For now, he says, the looting is confined to mostly local people who don't know the value of what they've taken.

Back on shore, Ratib says excitedly he will ask Baghdad's central government
for money to begin new excavations and to protect the sites. "I will demand that we rescan the whole area. And if they have the budget, we will start work on it immediately," he says. But he acknowledges there will probably not be enough money. If we can't excavate, he says ruefully, we can at least announce our new discoveries.

Saturday, March 28, 2009


Travelers to Egypt will soon be able to explore the inner chambers of the 4,500-year-old "bent" pyramid, known for its oddly shaped profile, and other nearby ancient tombs, Egypt's antiquities chief announced Monday.

The increased access to the pyramids south of Cairo is part of a new sustainable development campaign that Egypt hopes will attract more visitors but also to avoid some of the problems of the urban sprawl that have plagued the famed pyramids of Giza.

Egypt's chief archaeologist, Zahi Hawass, said the chambers of the 330-foot-pyramid outside the village of Dahshur, 50 miles south of Cairo, will be opened for the first time to tourists within the next "month or two."

The Sneferu bent pyramid is entered through a cramped 80 meter-long tunnel that opens into an immense vaulted chamber. From there, passageways lead to other rooms including one that has cedar wood beams believed to have been imported from ancient Lebanon.

The inner chambers of the nearby Red pyramid, also built by Sneferu, are already accessible to visitors. Hawass said several other nearby pyramids, including one with an underground labyrinth from the Middle Kingdom, would also be opened in the next year.

He hoped increasing access to the monuments would bring more visitors. But he also cautioned that the Western fast food restaurants and hundreds of hawkers selling kitschy souvenirs near the Giza pyramids would not be allowed at Dahshur, which is currently surrounded by agricultural fields on one side and open desert on the other.


Police officers in northern Scotland have been accused of vandalizing a Bronze Age site through ignorance after they removed bones and textiles from a 4,000-year-old burial chamber, apparently because they thought they were investigating a crime scene.

The Bronze Age burial chamber was accidentally uncovered on 26th January in a field at Langwell Farm (Sutherland). Farmer Jonathan Hampton immediately alerted Historic Scotland and also decided to notify police. (Evidently a big mistake!) But he claims officers completely botched up the find and is so angry that he has now decided to speak out. He says that when they were left alone at the site, the officers scooped up a number of the bones into a plastic bag, leaving part of the remains behind. And Mr Hampton alleges some important woven material he and others spotted in the grave have now gone missing.

"I just couldn't believe it when I discovered what they had done. I was in the depths of despair," he said. Police declined to respond to Mr Hampton's
allegations. Historic Scotland defended the police actions, and said the force had 'an obligation to investigate an unexplained death', adding that the site was not a scheduled monument, and so was not subject to the heritage organization's protection.

Though the bones have subsequently been handed over to Historic Scotland, the farmer remains adamamant that some of the textiles, and basket-like materials have been lost. Many archaeologists were aghast at the force's behaviour.

Jim Crow, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh said that a find of textiles in a Bronze Age grave was unique in Scotland and extremely rare anywhere in Britain. "If they were dealing with a real crime, they shouldn't
disturb the scene in any case. But in any circumstances, people take human remains very seriously and there are a whole range of concerns, not just among archaeologists but among society at large. There are very strict procedures, whether the remains are ancient or modern," Professor Crow said.

A few weeks after the discovery, Historic Scotland called in Glasgow University Archaeological Research Division (GUARD) to excavate the grave. Dr Olivia Lelong arrived at Langwell on 6th February and worked on the site until 12th February. She said it was an exciting find. Tests are also to be carried out in the hope of determining the gender and height of the person. Dr Lelong said there could be other cists in the same area.

Sources: The Northern Times (12 March 2009), The Times (17 March 2009)


More than 10,000 cave paintings - dating back to more than 6,000 years - were discovered by Peruvian archaeologist Quirino Olivera in the Andean country's jungle department of Amazonas. Hidden by the region's lush vegetation for centuries, the paintings were discovered in caves located near the village of Tambolic, in the district of Jamalca, province of Utcubamba.

The Toquepala caves are located in the western Andes, at an altitude of 2,700 meters above sea level. They are noted for cave paintings depicting scenes of hunters corralling and killing a group of guanacos, a camelid animal native to South America. Known as 'chaco' in the Peruvian Andes, this hunting technique consists of
forming human circles, to corral the animals and either capture or kill them.

Source: Andean Air Mail & Peruvian Times (16 March 2009)

Monday, March 16, 2009


Because I go into classrooms teaching "Prehistoric Peoples" this news is exciting for me and my volunteer teachers.

Peking man, the group of early humans whose fossils were discovered in the 1920s, lived hundreds of thousands of years earlier than previously believed, a new study says. Obtained by measuring the decay of isotopes in buried quartz grains, the data suggests Peking man lived at Zhoukoudian about 750,000 years ago, 200,000 years earlier than prior estimates, according to the study, led by Guanjun Shen of China's Nanjing Normal University.

Some researchers believe the discovery hints at two separate migrations of Homo erectus (of which Peking man is a subspecies) out of Africa: one into northeastern China and another into Southeast Asia.(Remember "Java Man" discovered in the late 19th century) The new dates would also place Peking man in a more hospitable, cooler time period in China's Zhoukoudian region, which today is the world's foremost source of Homo erectus fossils.

The findings could redraw the map of Homo erectus' journey out of Africa, suggests anthropologist Russell Ciochon, of the University of Iowa, who published an accompanying analysis of the study (both papers appear in March 15 2009 issue of the journal Nature).

Ciochon hypothesizes that a prolonged mass migration of Homo erectus from Africa, which began about two million years ago, eventually came to something like a fork in the road. Reaching southern China, the early humans would have come upon a subtropical forest, which would have proved uninviting to Homo erectus, who were accustomed to savanna and open woodlands, Ciochon suggests.

One group probably turned southeast and settled in Southeast Asia, he said. A second group likely turned northeast and moved into what is now China. Part of the group settled the Zhoukoudian region and eventually evolved into the Peking man subspecies, Homo erectus pekinensis.

The Peking man subspecies is believed to have walked fully upright, used sophisticated stone tools, and sported a brain three-fourths the size of a modern human's.

In northeastern China during the newly suggested time period, Homo erectus
would have likely found a food-rich region similar to the landscapes the
species had been accustomed to. Before Homo erectus' arrival in the Zhoukoudian region, "we think the climate got cooler and drier and maybe moved more toward grasslands, which would attract more game and, in turn, human hunters," Ciochon said.

However, New York University paleoanthropologist Susan Antón said she doesn't believe the new data provide evidence for two migrations into Asia. "It's certainly possible that there were two migrations-or six or nine," said Antón, who was not involved in the new study. "But in order to talk about that, you would really need to have some
evidence along the routes of those pathways and also some sort of anchor point in Africa" that ties both migrations to a single origination region, she said.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


El Mirador, a 'jewel' of Mayan archaeological treasures has been uncovered in Guatemala. The discovery, considered the oldest Mayan frescoes in Guatemala, was uncovered by a group of archaeologists, led by Richard Hansen. They announced the discovery of a frieze built about 300 years before Christ by emphasizing that the heyday of the ancient Maya is much older than what the experts previously believed.

France will host exhibition of Mirador in 2011 at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris.

Major discoveries about the Maya at Mirador dating from 200 to 150 BC include the
famous La Danta pyramid, considered to be one of the largest structures of the
ancient world in terms of volume.

Vice-President Dr. Rafael Espada of Guatemala expressed his support for the project and the need to establish the legal framework to protect El Mirador.

"We have to protect this cultural heritage which preserves important elements of
Mayan culture. This jungle which has existed for thousands of years also needs our protection. The research and conservation program being conducted in the Mirador area is supported by the Global Heritage Fund of Palo Alto, Calif., and a group of the most prominent Guatemalan companies and industries in a foundation known as PACUNAM to support the investigation and conservation of the Mirador area.

The area of the proposed new conservation plan of Cuatro Balam is a major
new effort by the Guatemalan government to curb the rampant deforestation,
logging, narcotics trafficking, poaching, looting and seemingly endless poverty by
including the communities in a truly sustainable model based on conservation and tourism.

Monday, March 09, 2009


I teach "Prehistoric People" to young people so this story is particularly exciting to tell 6th graders when I go into the classroom and we're talking about Homo erectus.

About 1.5 million years ago, human ancestors walked upright with a spring in their steps just as modern humans do today, suggests an analysis of ancient footprints found in northern Kenya.

The prints are the oldest known to show modern foot anatomy.

The discovery also helps round out the picture of a cooling and drying episode in Africa that compelled tree-dwelling human ancestors to venture into the open landscape for food, said John Harris, a paleoanthropologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

The ancient footprints indicate a rounded heel, pronounced arch, and a big toe parallel to the other toes just as modern humans have, Harris noted. The big toes of chimpanzees, by contrast, splay outward, which is useful for grasping branches.

"We've lost that, but what we've created is a platform from which we can step up on and balance ourselves on and push off on in bipedal locomotion," said Harris, who is a co-author of a paper describing the footprints in a new issue of the journal Science.

The rare prints were found embedded in what was once muddy soil among tracks of ancient birds, lions, antelopes, and other critters. Harris said the print makers were likely walking to or from a watering hole.

The size and spacing of the footprints indicate they were made by people with bodies similar to modern humans. Given their age, the prints were most likely made by Homo erectus, the first human ancestor to sport long legs and short arms, Harris said.

At the time H. erectus emerged, about 1.5 to 1.7 million years ago, global climate was cooling and the African landscape was changing from tropical forest to open savanna. Food sources-nuts, fruits, vegetables, and animals-were becoming more dispersed. "There was selection for creatures, including ourselves, that could walk
over longer distances on the landscape between the patches of more productive food," Harris said.

Daniel Lieberman is an anthropologist at Harvard University in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, and an expert on the evolution of human locomotion. In an email exchange, he said the "prints unambiguously indicate that by 1.5 million years ago H. erectus had a human-like foot."

Other human ancestors such as the australopithecines may have also been efficient walkers, he said. But a more modern foot anatomy with spring-like arches and short toes is important for running, which may have contributed to the success of H. erectus.


ALMODOVAR, Portugal: When archaeologists on a dig in southern Portugal last year flipped over a heavy chunk of slate and saw writing not used for more than 2,500 years, they were elated.

The enigmatic pattern of inscribed symbols curled symmetrically around the upper part of the rough-edged, yellowish stone tablet and coiled into the middle in a decorative style typical of an extinct Iberian language called Southwest Script.

"We didn't break into applause, but almost," says Amilcar Guerra, a University of Lisbon lecturer overseeing the excavation. "It's an extraordinary thing."

For more than two centuries, scientists have tried to decipher Southwest Script, believed to be the peninsula's oldest written tongue and, along with Etruscan from modern-day Italy, one of Europe's first. The stone tablet features 86 characters and provides the longest-running text of the Iron Age language ever found.

About 90 slate tablets bearing the ancient inscriptions have been recovered,most of them incomplete. Almost all were scattered across southern Portugal, though a handful turned up in the neighboring Spanish region of Andalucia.

Some of the letters look like squiggles. Others are like crossed sticks. One resembles the number four and another recalls a bow-tie. They were carefully scored into the slate. The text is always a running script, with unseparated words which usually read from right to left.

Almodovar, a rural town of some 3,500 people amid a gentle landscape of meadows punctuated by whitewashed towns, sits at the heart of the Southwest Script region. It created a museum two years ago where 20 of the engraved tablets are on show.

Though the evidence is gradually building as new tablets are found, researchers are handicapped because they are peering deep into a period of history about which they know little, says professor Pierre Swiggers, a Southwest Script specialist at the University of Leuven, Belgium. Scientists have few original documents and hardly any parallel texts from the same time and place in readable languages.

It is generally agreed the texts date from between 2,500 and 2,800 years ago. Most experts have concluded they were authored by a people called Tartessians, a tribe of Mediterranean traders who mined for metal in these parts - one of Europe's largest copper mines is nearby - but disappeared after a few centuries. Some scientists have proposed that the composers were other pre-Roman tribes, such as the Conii or Cynetes, or maybe even Celts who roamed this far south.

Another translation difficulty is that the writing is not standardized. It seems certain that it was adapted from the Phoenician and Greek alphabets because it copied some of their written conventions. However, it also tweaked some of those rules and invented new ones.

Experts have identified characters that represent 15 syllables, seven consonants and five vowels. But eight characters, including a kind of vertical three-pronged fork, have confounded attempts at comprehension. There's also the problem of figuring out what messages the slate tablets are intended to convey. Even when they can read portions of text, scientists don't really understand what it is saying - like a child mouthing the words of a Shakespeare play.

The symmetrical, twisting text gives the impression of a decorative flourish. Some stones also feature crudely rendered figures, such as a warrior carrying what appear to be spears. The lower part of the rectangular stones is left blank as if intended to be stuck in the ground.

That has led experts to a supposition: The tablets were gravestones for elite members of local Iron Age society. Repeated sequences of words perhaps mean "Here lies..." or "Son of...," Guerra explains. Since most people probably couldn't read, the ornamental elements lent distinction.

These are educated guesses, says Guerra, as he surveys the hilltop dig by a small river where the big stone was found last year. His team here has excavated through centuries of occupation: Islamic (Almodovar is a corruption of the Arabic word al-mudura, meaning encirclement or enclosure), Roman and pre-Roman. Nowadays, it is within view of a wind farm's turbines.

Last year's find has helped, but it wasn't the breakthrough scientists had hoped for, Guerra says. If all the Southwest Script found so far were transcribed onto paper, it would still barely fill a single sheet. Without an equivalent of the Rosetta stone, which helped unlock the secrets of hieroglyphic writing, efforts to reconstruct the ancient language are doomed to slow progress.


People on the steppes of what is now Kazakhstan were the first to achieve both riding and milking horses-new evidence suggests. This culture had domesticated horses at least 5,500 years ago.

"They were not only eating horses, but were also exploiting them for milk," said archaeologist and lead study author Alan Outram of the University of Exeter in the U.K. This puts horse domestication a thousand years earlier than previously
thought, he said.

Earlier research had found circumstantial evidence-including leatherwork tools that could have been used to make harnesses-for horse domestication among the Botai people, who lived in northern Kazakhstan about 3,600 to 3,100 years ago. In the new research, scientists examined bones and pottery excavated from a village at the Botai site over the past several years.

Now "we've got three very strong, totally independent lines of evidence" for
domestication of horses at Botai, said Outram, whose research is published in today's issue of the journal Science.

Several of the horses show wear on their teeth that could only have come from having bits in their mouths. The team dated one worn tooth to around 3500 B.C. The ancient skeletons also had slender leg bones, like all later domesticated horses, as compared to their wild cousins.

Finally, the team scoured bits of broken pottery for pieces from near the rims of jars and found fat from both horses and their milk, Outram said. "It is really important to be able to identify the fats in the clay pots as not just from horse tissue, but precisely from horse milk," archaeologist David Anthony of Hartwick University in New York, who was not involved in the study, said in an e-mail.

"If you're milking horses, they are not wild!" The evidence suggests that soon after horses were domesticated, people hit on the idea of milking them-a tradition that continues to this day in Kazakhstan. It's not clear how the idea of milking horses originated, however.

Sunday, March 01, 2009


Pakistani authorities appear to be very slow in preventing the theft of precious artIfacts from the Mohenjodaro site, according to an official document. Mohenjodaro (Mound of the Dead) was one of the largest city-settlements of the Indus Valley Civilization of south Asia situated in the province of Sind, Pakistan. Built around 2600 BCE and abandoned around 1900 BCE, the city was one of the early urban
settlements in the world.

A revised master plan for conservation and promotion of cultural tourism at Mohenjodaro awaits the federal government's nod. But the ancient site, falling under the federal government's jurisdiction, is regrettably facing a double whammy: non-
stop pillage of antiques and severe seepage and damage, reveals the recent document.

Major features of the revised master plan are archaeological conservation, acquisition of land, further excavation and conservation, landscaping and environment development, a tourism monument plan and an interpretation system. The ministry of culture had rejected the original plan requiring funds worth Rs6,500 million
in five years for the development of the site, with instructions to officials at the site to bring it down to one-third.

The Antiquity Act of 1975, which provides for protection of and legal cover to archaeological and historical sites, is not being implemented, as far as
Mohenjodaro is concerned, the officials explained. "While the law states that no trespassing can be done within 200 meters around a monument, in practice there is trespassing in the surroundings of most of the monuments," reads the revised master plan, prepared by Mohenjodaro officials working at the site and provincial authorities at Sindh.

Source: The News International (24 February 2009)


Landscapers were digging a hole for a fish pond in the front yard of a Boulder (Colorado, USA) home last May when they unearthed some 13,000-year-old lost tools. They had stumbled onto a cache of more than 83 ancient tools buried by the Clovis people - ice age hunter-gatherers. The home's owner, Patrick Mahaffy, thought they were only a century or two old before contacting researchers at the University of Colorado-Boulder.

"My jaw just dropped," said CU anthropologist Douglas Bamforth, who is leading a
study of the find. "Boulder is a densely populated area. And in the midst of all that find this cache." The cache is one of only a handful of Clovis-age artifacts uncovered in North America, said Bamforth.

The Mahaffy Cache consists of 83 stone implements ranging from salad plate-sized, elegantly crafted bifacial knives and a unique tool resembling a double-bitted axe to small blades and flint scraps. All 83 artifacts were shipped to the anthropology Professor Robert Yohe of the Laboratory of Archaeological Science at California
State, Bakersfield for protein residue tests that were funded by Mahaffy.

Biochemical analysis of blood and other protein residue revealed the tools were used to butcher camels, horses, sheep and bears. "I was somewhat surprised to find mammal protein residues on these tools, in part because we initially suspected that the Mahaffy Cache might be ritualistic rather than a utilitarian," said Yohe. "There are so few Clovis-age tool caches that have been discovered that we really don't know very much about them." That proves that the Clovis people ate more than just woolly
mammoth meat for dinner, something scientists were unable to confirm before. The study is the first to identify protein residue from extinct camels on North American stone tools and only the second to identify horse protein residue on a Clovis-age tool, said Bamforth.

The cache was buried 18 inches deep in a coarse, sandy sediment overlain by dark, clay-like soil and appear to have been cached on the edge of an ancient stream, and was packed into a hole the size of a large shoe box. The tools were most likely wrapped in a skin that deteriorated over time, Mahaffy said.

Mahaffy wants to donate most of the tools to a museum but plans to rebury a few of them in his yard. "These tools have been associated with these people and this land for 13,000 years," he said. "I would like some of these tools to stay where they belong."

Sources: EurekAlert! (25 February 2009), Associated Press, Yahoo! News
(26 February 2009), National Geographic News (27 February 2009)


Geologists, biologists and other scientists convened in Paris to discuss how to stop the spread of fungus stains - aggravated by global warming - that threaten France's prehistoric Lascaux cave drawings. Black stains have spread across the cave's prehistoric murals of bulls, felines and other images, and scientists have been hard-pressed to halt the fungal creep.

For the moment, the cave is completely sealed in hopes that "it will heal itself." experts said. Two possible solutions to be examined at the conference include the installation of a system to regulate the cave's temperature and the use of biocides, which kill the bacteria and have been used in the cave before, with mixed results.

In 1963, Lascaux, a top tourist destination, was closed to the public after the appearance of green algae and other damage scientists linked to the visitors. A replica of the main Lascaux cavern was built nearby and has become a big tourist draw. Carbon-dating suggests the murals were created between 15,000 and 17,500 years ago. Discovered in 1940, the cavern is a UNESCO World Heritage site.