Sunday, May 31, 2009


This week (late May 2009)there's been a great big hoopla about the find by German paleontologists that a 42 million year old quite complete fossil, nicknamed "Ida," is the missing link to the hominin line. The following posting by Chris Beard, who is curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, refutes the hype that's been going around. He says:

"What does Ida's anatomy tell us about her place on the family tree of humans
and other primates? The fact that she retains primitive features that commonly occurred among all early primates, such as simple incisors rather than a full-fledged toothcomb, indicates that Ida belongs somewhere closer to the base of the tree than living lemurs do.

But this does not necessarily make Ida a close relative of anthropoids - the group of primates that includes monkeys, apes - and humans. In order to establish that connection, Ida would have to have anthropoid-like features that evolved after anthropoids split away from lemurs and other early primates. Here, alas, Ida fails miserably.

So, Ida is not a "missing link" - at least not between anthropoids and more
primitive primates. Further study may reveal her to be a missing link between other species of Eocene adapiforms, but this hardly solidifies her status as the "eighth wonder of the world".

Instead, Ida is a remarkably complete specimen that promises to teach us a great deal about the biology of some of the earliest and least human-like of all known primates, the Eocene adapiforms. For this, we can all celebrate her discovery as a real advance for science."

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


An incomplete Graeco-Roman statue of an athlete in Alexandria is one of the most recent discoveries in Egypt, Nevine El-Aref reports

At the Shallalat Gardens next to the fortress of Mohamed Ali in Alexandria, a Greek archaeological mission has discovered what is thought may be a statue of Alexander the Great. The statue, of white marble, features an athletic man standing in an upright position. The right leg bent and the part of the left leg below the knee is missing. The right arm exists and it has a connection notch, while the left arm is completely missing. Inside the shoulder is a metallic connection. The phallus is broken but the testes are preserved.

Kalliopi Limneou-Popakosta, director of the mission, said that the face was in very good condition except for some slight damage to the nose. The head is of the "heroic" type, with the characteristic turn of the neck and an upward glance of the eyes. The face is handled in the soft Praxitelian manner. The statue has curly hair with a ribbon, and there are sideburns on the cheeks. The body is slightly turned to the right in a "contraposto" style, and once possibly leaned on a base, traces of which can be seen under the right buttock.

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Nicholas J. Conard, an archaeologist at the University of Tübingen, in Germany, found the small carving in a cave last year, said it was at least 35,000 years old, “one of the oldest known examples of figurative art” in the world. It is about 5,000 years older than some other so-called Venus artifacts made by early populations of Homo sapiens in Europe.

The tiny statuette was uncovered in September in a cave in southwestern Germany, near Ulm and the Danube headwaters. Dr. Conard’s report on the find is being published Thursday in the journal Nature.

The discovery, Dr. Conard wrote, “radically changes our view of the origins of Paleolithic art.” Before this, he noted, female imagery was unknown, most carvings and cave drawings being of mammoths, horses and other animals.

Scholars say the figurine is roughly contemporaneous with other early expressions of artistic creativity, like drawings on cave walls in southeastern France and northern Italy. The inspiration and symbolism behind the rather sudden flowering have long been debated by art historians.

Dr. Conard reported that the discovery was made beneath three feet of red-brown sediment in the floor of the Hohle Fels Cave. Six fragments of the carved ivory, including all but the left arm and shoulder, were recovered. When he brushed dirt off the torso, he said, “the importance of the discovery became apparent.”

The short, squat torso is dominated by oversize breasts and broad buttocks. The split between the two halves of the buttocks is deep and continuous without interruption to the front of the figurine. A greatly enlarged vulva emphasizes the “deliberate exaggeration” of the figurine’s sexual characteristics, Dr. Conard said.

The Hohle Fels artifact, less than 2.5 inches long and weighing little more than an ounce, is headless. Carved at the top, instead, is a ring, evidently to allow the object to be suspended from a string or thong.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


On the grounds of Pima County's Ina Road wastewater treatment facility, Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of an ancient farming community that could potentially rewrite the history of human settlement in the Southwest.

The less than auspicious setting might not inspire today - the scent of human waste at times overwhelming the senses - but scientists say the site was ideally suited for organized agriculture when the ancients farmed the area more than 3,000 years ago.

"This was the perfect place to start irrigation agriculture, and these guys did it in spades," James Vint said. Vint heads up a team of more than 30 archaeologists and researchers with Desert Archaeology, Inc., working on the county-funded project called Las Capas. Las Capas flourished during what archaeologists call the San Pedro phase, a period dating roughly from 1200 to 800 B.C.

The settlement dates from at least 1200 B.C., during an era of Southwestern history archaeologists call the Early Agriculture Period.

Positioned near the confluence of the Cañada del Oro, Rillito Creek and Santa Cruz River, research at the site has provided scientists with a glimpse into the transition from roaming bands of hunters and foragers to a society of skilled farmers - a snapshot of human progress in the Southwest.

What most excited researchers working at the site was evidence that the people who once inhabited the area had created a system of canals. The early engineers found they could maximize their agricultural output by diverting the water flow from the Santa Cruz to adjacent fields. "This is really the earliest evidence of such an extensive and well-designed irrigation system in the Southwest," Vint said.

Academics have long known of the Hohokam Indians' extensive canal systems
that crisscrossed areas of modern Phoenix. That civilization thrived in the
valley from about 1 to 1450 A.D. Even though the Phoenix system eclipses the recent discovery in size, sophistication and scope, researchers marvel at Las Capas because it predates the Hohokam canals by more than 1,000 years. "This has completely revised our understanding of when irrigation agriculture was introduced," Vint said.

The canals fed fields organized in asymmetrical grids. Workers could open and close earthen gates to regulate the flow as needed. The excavations Vint and his team have done show the generations of maintenance work done on the canal system. Vint said the canals likely held running water for as many as nine months out of the year.
Based on the research done to date, Vint said the farming operation easily covered 100 acres and could have supported as many as 150 people.

When it came farming, in the second millennium B.C. - and today - corn was
king. "This wasn't Iowa corn," Vint said. Maize, precursor to modern corn, first appeared in the Southwest more than 4,000 years ago. Societies in Central and South America have cultivated the plant for more than 6,000 years. Ancient farmers along the banks of the Santa Cruz grew a variety similar to today's popcorn. Researchers surmise that dried kernels were popped and then ground into meal and used for tortilla-like cakes.

Human remains found at the site further enforce theories that the people had
a varied diet. "From the skeletal analysis done - these people were really quite healthy," Vint said. The site also has revealed several circular pit houses and holes dug for cooking. Because the people who lived here hadn't developed advanced pottery methods, most of the cooking was done in shallow pits. Fires were built, then piled with rocks filled with maize and covered with soil, rocks or grass. Scores of such cooking pits dot the site.

Evidence of human settlement in the area was first discovered in 1975, when section of adjacent Interstate 10 was under construction. The highway today runs over an area that likely made up much of the village that the farming efforts at Las Capas fed. Later, in 1998, archaeologists uncovered about two acres near the current site where thousands of artifacts and the remains of permanent settlements were discovered. Researchers have found evidence of at least seven other settlements dating to the same era. Those communities stretch from A Mountain south to Martinez
Hill near Valencia Road and Interstate 19.

After untold generations of harnessing the river's bounty, a catastrophic event forever changed life for the people of Las Capas. Progress, again, was on the move. A massive flood around 800 B.C. damaged the canals and cut short the residents' more than 500-year stay. Vint said his team has unearthed evidence that people made attempts to rebuild the waterways, but ultimately abandoned the village. Where they went is unknown.

"It's only by the virtue of public-supported archaeology that this work is
being done," Vint said. Pima County will pay nearly $7 million for the excavation work at Las Capas. The county plans to donate all artifacts recovered to the Arizona State Museum, with the exception of human remains, for which the Tohono O'odham
Nation has claimed repatriation rights.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


An international team of paleoanthropologists, anatomists and archeologists have published the first scientific analysis of the foot of Homo floresiensis, the fossil found in Indonesia in 2003 and popularly referred to as the 'Hobbit.'

Lead author William L. Jungers, Ph.D., of Stony Brook University, and colleagues documented the Hobbit's unusual combination of ape-like and human-like foot features, which clearly enabled bipedal walking, despite its surprisingly primitive design. Their findings provide further evidence that the ancestor of this species was perhaps not Homo erectus but instead another more primitive and remote hominin.

The authors point out that the Hobbit foot has a relative foot length that far exceeds the upper limits for modern humans either of average or short stature. The foot is similar in relative length to pygmy chimpanzees, with long and curved toes, but also sports a short big toe in line with the other toes. While the foot has an overall structure that signals bipedal walking, it appears to have been 'flat-
footed' and poorly designed for running.

"A foot like this one has never been seen before in the human fossil record," says Dr. Jungers, Distinguished Teaching Professor and Chair of the Department of
Anatomical Sciences at Stony Brook. "Our analysis offers the most complete glimpse to date of how a primitive bipedal foot was designed and differed from that of later hominins and modern humans."

In 'The foot of Homo floresiensis,' the authors also suggest that despite these feet being dated to the Late Pleistocene age 17,000 years ago), their features together with many other parts of the Homo floresiensis skeleton, might represent the primitive condition for our own genus Homo. This could imply a dispersal event out of Africa earlier than what paleoanthropologists have long thought.

Source: NewsWise (6 May 2009)


A team of archaeologists has uncovered some of the world's earliest shell ornaments in a limestone cave in Eastern Morocco. The researchers have found 47 examples of Nassarius marine shells, most of them perforated and including examples covered in red ochre, at the Grotte des Pigeons at Taforalt. Taforalt is also the largest necropolis of the Late Stone Age period in North Africa presently under excavation.

The fingernail-size shells, already known from 82,000-year-old Aterian deposits in the cave, have now been found in even earlier layers. While the team is still awaiting exact dates for these layers, they believe this discovery makes them
arguably the earliest shell ornaments in prehistory.

The shells are currently at the center of a debate concerning the origins of modern behavior in early humans. Many archaeologists regard the shell bead ornaments as proof that anatomically modern humans had developed a sophisticated symbolic material culture.

The newest evidence shows that the Aterian in Morocco dates back to at least 110,000 years ago. Research team leader, Professor Nick Barton, from the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Oxford, said: "These new finds are exciting because they show that bead manufacturing probably arose independently in different cultures and confirms a long suspected pattern that humans with modern symbolic behavior were present from a very early stage at both ends of the continent, probably as early as
110,000 years ago."

Also leading the research team Dr Abdeljalil Bouzouggar, from the Institut National des Sciences de l'Archaeologie et du Patrimoine in Morocco, said: "The archaeological and chronological contexts of the Taforalt discoveries suggest a much
longer tradition of bead-making than previously suspected, making them perhaps the earliest such ornaments in the world."

Source: ScienceDaily (7 May 2009)


An ancient script that's defied generations of archaeologists has yielded some of its secrets to artificially intelligent computers.

Computational analysis of symbols used 4,000 years ago by a long-lost Indus Valley civilization (on the present-day border between Pakistan and India) suggests they represent a spoken language. Some linguists thought the symbols were merely pretty pictures. "The underlying grammatical structure seems similar to what's found in many languages," said University of Washington computer scientist Rajesh Rao.

The Indus script, used between 2,600 and 1,900 BCE in what is now eastern Pakistan and northwest India, belonged to a civilization as sophisticated as its Mesopotamian and Egyptian contemporaries. However, it left fewer linguistic remains. Archaeologists have uncovered about 1,500 unique inscriptions from fragments of pottery, tablets and seals. The longest inscription is just 27 signs long.

Rao, a machine learning specialist who read about the Indus script in high school and decided to apply his expertise to the script while on sabbatical in Inda, may have solved the language-versus-symbol question, if not the script itself. "One of the main questions in machine learning is how to generalize rules from a limited amount of data," said Rao. "Even though we can't read it, we can look at the
patterns and get the underlying grammatical structure."

Rao's team used pattern-analyzing software running what's known as a Markov model, a computational tool used to map system dynamics. When they seeded the program with fragments of Indus script, it returned with grammatical rules based on patterns of symbol arrangement. These proved to be moderately ordered, just like spoken languages. As for the meaning of the script, the program remained silent.

But according to Rao, this early analysis provides a foundation for a more
comprehensive understanding of Indus script grammar, and ultimately its meaning. "The next step is to create a grammar from the data that we have," he said. "Then we can ask, is this grammar similar to those of the Sanskrit or Indo-European or Dravidian languages? This will give us a language to compare it to."

Monday, May 04, 2009


The Great Wall of China is even greater than previously thought, according to the first detailed survey to establish the length of the ancient barricade. The wall, the world's largest man-made structure, was built to protect the northern border of the Chinese Empire. Known to the Chinese as the "long Wall of 10,000 Li", the Great Wall is in fact a series of walls and earthen works begun in the 5th Century BC and first linked up under Qin Shi Huang in about 220BC.

A two-year government mapping study found that the wall spans 8,850km (5,500 miles) - until now, the length was commonly put at about 5,000km. Previous estimates of its length were mainly based on historical records. Infra-red and GPS technologies helped locate some areas concealed over time by sandstorms, state media said.

The project found that there were wall sections of 6,259km, 359km of trenches, and 2,232km of natural defensive barriers such as hills and rivers.

Experts said the newly-discovered sections of the wall were built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and stretch from Hu Mountain in northern Liaoning province to Jiayu Pass in western Gansu province.

The project will continue for another 18 months in order to map sections of the wall built during the Qin (221-206BC) and Han (206BC-9AD) Dynasties, the report said.

It was listed as a Unesco world heritage site in 1987.

Sunday, May 03, 2009


I'm not sure if we have been able to see "Time Team" in Britain. But now Time Team America begins on PBS stations in July. But if you want a preview, a video is available about Fort Raleigh, North Carolina on Roanoke Island... in search of the first English settlement of North American. That's the colony that disappeared.
Enjoy it at

Amazing what can be done in 3 days with the proper tools and archaeologists, including Ivor Noel Hume, famous for his work in the Southeast.


Scientists who reviewed hobbit research at a symposium at Stony Brook, N.Y. last week said that a consensus had emerged among experts in support of the initial
interpretation that H. floresiensis is a distinct hominid species much more
primitive than H. sapiens. On display for the first time at the meeting was a cast of the skull and bones of a H. floresiensis, probably an adult female.

Six years after their discovery, the extinct little people nicknamed hobbits who once occupied the Indonesian island of Flores remain mystifying anomalies in human evolution, out of place in time and geography, their ancestry unknown. Recent research has only widened their challenge to conventional thinking about the origins, transformations and migrations of the early human family. Indeed, the more scientists study the specimens and their implications, the more they are drawn to heretical speculation.

Were these primitive survivors of even earlier hominid migrations out of Africa, before Homo erectus migrated about 1.8 million years ago? Could some of the earliest African toolmakers, around 2.5 million years ago, have made their way across Asia?
Did some of these migrants evolve into new species in Asia, which moved back to Africa? Two-way traffic is not unheard of in other mammals. Or could the hobbits be an example of reverse evolution? That would seem even more bizarre; there are no known cases in primate evolution of a wholesale reversion to some ancestor in its lineage.

The possibilities get curiouser and curiouser, said William L. Jungers of Stony Brook University, making hobbits “the black swan of paleontology — totally unpredicted and inexplicable.”

Everything about them seems incredible. They were very small, not much more than three feet tall, yet do not resemble any modern pygmies. They walked upright on short legs, but might have had a peculiar gait obviating long-distance running. The single skull that has been found is no bigger than a grapefruit, suggesting a brain less than one-third the size of a human’s, yet they made stone tools similar to those produced by other hominids with larger brains. They appeared to live isolated on an island as recently as 17,000 years ago, well after humans had made it to Australia.

Although the immediate ancestor of modern humans, Homo erectus, lived in Asia and the islands for hundreds of thousands of years, the hobbits were not simply scaled-down erectus. In fact, erectus and Homo sapiens appear to be more closely related to each other than either is to the hobbit, scientists have determined.

It is no wonder, then, that the announcement describing the skull and the several skeletons as remains of a previously unknown hominid species, Homo floresiensis, prompted heated debate. Critics contended that these were merely modern human dwarfs afflicted with genetic or pathological disorders.

Some prominent paleoanthropologists are reserving judgment, among them Richard Leakey, the noted hominid fossil hunter who is chairman of the Turkana Basin Institute at Stony Brook University. Like other undecided scientists, he cited the need to find more skeletons at other sites, especially a few more skulls. Mr. Leakey conceded, however, that the recent research “greatly strengthened the possibility” that the Flores specimens represented a new species.

At the symposium, Michael J. Morwood, an archaeologist at the University of
Wollongong in Australia who was one of the discoverers, said that further
investigations of stone tools had determined that hominids arrived at Flores as early as 880,000 years ago and “it is reasonable to assume that those were ancestors of the hobbits.” But none of their bones have been uncovered, so they remain unidentified, and no modern human remains have been found there earlier than 11,000 years ago.

Excavations are continuing at Liang Bua, a wide-mouth cave in a hillside where the hobbit bones were found in deep sediments, but no more skulls or skeletons have turned up. Dr. Morwood said the search would be extended to other Flores sites and nearby islands.

In an analysis of the hobbit’s wrist bones, Matthew W. Tocheri of the Smithsonian Institution found that certain bones were wedge-shaped, similar to those in apes, and not squared-off, as in humans and Neanderthals. This suggested that its species diverged from the human lineage at least one million to two million years ago.

So if several lines of evidence now encourage agreement that H. floresiensis was a distinct and primitive hominid, the hobbit riddle can be compressed into a single question of far-reaching importance: where did these little people come from? Scientists said in reports and interviews that they had only recently begun contemplating possible ancestries.

Susan G. Larson, an anatomist at the Stony Brook School of Medicine who
analyzed the non-human properties of the hobbit shoulders, said in an
interview that the investigations had entered “a period of wait and see.”

“Someday,” Dr. Larson said, “people may be saying, why was everyone so puzzled back then — it’s plain to see where the little people of Flores came from.”


Archaeologists have unearthed a Roman glass bowl, thought to be a unique find in the Western Roman Empire, at an ancient cemetery beyond the walls of the old city of London.

The "millefiori" dish (a thousand flowers), believed to date from around the
2nd to 3rd century A.D., is a mosaic of hundreds of indented blue petals
with white bordering. "For it to have survived intact is amazing. In fact, it is unprecedented in the western Roman world," said Jenny Hall, curator of the Roman collection at the Museum of London.

"We are still checking out whether there are similar examples surviving in
the eastern part of the empire, in ancient Alexandria for example, but it's
the only one in the West," she told reporters.

Archaeologists said the dish was colored bright red when it was first pulled from the earth, as the intricate design was imbedded in opaque red glass. The bright vermilion color has slowly disappeared since excavation as the water-saturated glass dried out. The moisture had preserved the original coloring, but some of the pigment is still distinguishable around the rim.

The artifact was found 2.5 to 3 meters (yards) down at a sprawling ancient cemetery in Aldgate, east London, just beyond the old city walls. Romans were required by law to bury their dead outside the city gates. It formed part of a cache of grave goods found close to a wooden container holding the ashes of a probably wealthy Roman citizen from the ancient imperial outpost of Londinium, now mostly hidden beneath modern-day London.

Guy Hunt, director of commercial archaeology services firm L-P: Archaeology who was in charge of the six-month dig at the site, said the cemetery covers a massive area. "No-one knows how big the cemetery really is. Some think it could be up to 16 hectares (40 acres), disappearing under roads and buildings," he said. Hunt said the section of the cemetery that was excavated originally sat under Victorian houses flattened during World War Two.

Subsequently turned into a car park and now about to be redeveloped, the site offered an opportunity for proper exploration. The rubble from the shattered buildings helped to inter the finds, Hunt said. "It is a miracle of preservation."

The dish goes on show at the Museum of London Docklands in the southeast of
the British capital from the end of April.;_ylt=Ars8AAKQjDR78LWaDghCGdMPLBIF


A small bundle found at the feet of an ancient Egyptian mummy whose tomb was
inscribed with the phrase "Hapi-Men" contained the remains of a young dog,according to University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology staff who have named the canine "Hapi-Puppy."

The approximately 2,300-year-old puppy, revealed during a recent CT scan, is thought to be one of the world's rarest mummified animals. Early Egyptians often preserved cats, birds and even crocodiles, but not often dogs.

Jennifer Wegner, a senior research scientist in the museum's Egyptian section, explained to Discovery News that unlike some of the other more commonly mummified animals, the ancient Egyptians "had no dog gods, per se, although certain gods, like Anubis, could take the form of a jackal."

"In this case, we think Hapi-Men simply wanted to be buried with his beloved pet," she said, explaining that "Hapi-Men" translates roughly to, "The Apis bull endures," referring to the bull god Apis.

Janet Monge, acting curator of the museum's Physical Anthropology section, was delighted when the puppy images came through. "You could see its Jack Russell terrier-type legs, long head and individual toes," she said.

Wegner added that early Egyptians commonly depicted two general types of dogs: a greyhound-looking canine and one that looked more like a corgi.Another researcher, Samantha Cox, and other scientists plan to study Hapi-Puppy to more precisely identify it.

"The ancient Egyptians showed dogs being held on a leash, sitting under the chairs of owners, and they even sometimes listed their names, such as Brave One, Reliable, North Wind and even Useless," said Wegner. "Obviously people enjoyed close relationships with their dogs, and Hapi-Men must have been no exception."

The cause of Hapi-Puppy's demise remains unknown, but the dog's age suggests it was killed upon his master's death. "We see this as a senseless slaughter today, but in ancient Egypt it would've been viewed very differently," Monge explained. "People then felt life on Earth was very short. Hapi-Men wanted to spend all of eternity with his dog."
© 2009 Discovery Channel