Wednesday, October 28, 2009


(Oct. 8, 2009) — Among the many surprises associated with the discovery of the oldest known, nearly complete skeleton of a hominid is the finding that this species took its first steps toward bipedalism not on the open, grassy savanna, as generations of scientists – going back to Charles Darwin – hypothesized, but in a wooded landscape.

“This species was not a savanna species like Darwin proposed,” said University of Illinois anthropology professor Stanley Ambrose, a co-author of two of 11 studies published this week in Science on the hominid, Ardipithecus ramidus. This creature, believed to be an early ancestor of the human lineage, lived in Ethiopia some 4.4 million years ago.

One of the crucial pieces of evidence to show that Darwin didn’t get it right, Ambrose said, was the analysis of carbon isotopes in the soil and in the teeth of Ardipithecus and other animals that lived at roughly the same time and in the same location.

The mass of carbon atoms in the atmosphere varies, and during photosynthesis, trees and tropical grasses absorb different proportions of carbon-12, the most common carbon isotope, and carbon-13, which is rare. These isotopes pass into the soil and into the bodies of animals that eat the plants, making it possible to accurately reconstruct the proportions of grass to trees on the landscape and in the diets of the animals that lived there.

Ambrose analyzed stable carbon isotope ratios in the soil in which the bones of 36 Ardipithecus individuals were found. He also analyzed the teeth of five Ardipithecus individuals and 172 teeth of two-dozen mammal species found in the same ancient soil layer.

The fossil-bearing layer, in the Afar Rift region of northeastern Ethiopia, spans a broad arc about 9 kilometers long. Sandwiched between two layers of volcanic ash that both date to about the same age, it provides a well-focused snapshot of an ancient African ecosystem. None of the Ardipithecus specimens were found in the grassy eastern part of the arc.

Isotopic analysis of teeth found on the site gave a more complete picture of the habitat of the animals that lived and died there, Ambrose said.

“The distribution of plant carbon isotope ratios conveniently separates out grasslands from forests,” he said. “And it also separates out grazing animals, like zebras, from browsing animals that eat the leaves off of trees, like giraffes.”

“On the west we find lots of Ardipithecus fossils and they’re associated with a lot of woodland and forest animals,” he said. “And then there’s a break; Ardipithecus and most of the monkeys that live in trees disappear, and grass-eating animals become more abundant.”

“The diet of the Ardipithecus is much more on the woodland and forest side,” he said. “It’s got a little bit more of the grassland ecosystem carbon in its diet than that of a chimpanzee but much less than its fully bipedal savanna-dwelling descendents, the australopithecines.”

This evidence, along with the anatomical studies indicating that Ardipithecus could walk upright but also grasped tree limbs with its feet, suggests that this early hominid took its first steps on two legs in the forest long before it ventured very far into the open grassland, Ambrose said.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


After three years of work in the town of Pacopampa (Peru), a team of archaeologists led by Yuji Seki have found the outlines of an ancient temple that would have formed part of a larger complex located 20 minutes from the modern town of the same name.

But far more impressive is what they've found buried inside the temple. The team discovered the tomb of a woman, whose social position quickly became evident. On the highest terrace of the San Pedro mountain in what is today Chota in Cajamarca, the birth of a girl began what was to be a new episode of the Formative Period some 3000 years ago.

Born in the archaeological complex that we now call San Pedro de Pacopampa, the
healthy baby girl would be raised to one day lead her people. This is the conclusion arrived at by Yuji Seki, lead archaeologist from the National University of Ethnology in Osaka, Japan. When his team found this tomb of an elite woman, they also found details that shine new light on this little-studied period of history.

The process to recover the remains was long and arduous. It was during this time that Seki realized there was a detail that confirmed a hypothesis he had made five year earlier when he began his investigations in this part of the northern Peruvian Andes. He discovered that the Lady of Pacopampa had a deformation in the back part of her skull, as well as other mysterious elements such as a bluish substance and cinnabar - usually found in the burials of the most important rulers of ancient
Peru. According to Kazuhiro Uzawa who studied the skull, the deformation was clearly pre-planned and deliberate. To do it, from the first days of life, planks of wood
would have been tied to her head; the deformation process ended when the girl was around 3 years old.

This discovery confirmed Seki's views following the effort to study the development of political power during the period of 1000 BCE. It was a great find because it was only until recently that it was thought that during this period there existed no divisive social classes. The presence of this person is further, even conclusive proof that there indeed were. Seki is certain that the girl born 3000 years ago was destined from birth to be the leader of their society, something that did indeed happen when she reached adulthood. "We don't know if she was a queen or just a tribal leader, or if she performed as some sort of advisor or high priestess religious figure", he explained.

The excavation team discovered the tomb when a single large rock was found beneath the temple's main platform. It was just one of various rocks covering the tomb deep below. After removing them all, they could see the unmistakable shine of gold. Found were 20cm long gold earrings with feather designs along with many beads. The leader would have died aged 30 or 40 years. Based on her teeth, height and bone structure she would have had a different diet from ordinary people, measuring 1.55m while the average male of the time measured 1.5m. During months of work, the team found five other tombs around the area, but only one was of the elite class, revealing that she was unusually important.

Seki explains that the Pacopampa discoveries show that a tendency towards social inequality had begun to form at least as early as 900 BCE.

Source: En Perú Blog (19 October 2009)
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If you dig archaeology, check out the AAG
By Anne W. Semmes
Updated: 10/27/2009 12:46:32 PM EDT

Nancy Bernard is entranced by all things ancient - as befits the co-founder and director of the non-profit Archaeological Associates of Greenwich (AAG). A Greenwich resident since 1974, Bernard took a passion for Stone Age tools, her enthusiasm for archaeology and her teaching skills and used them to help educate more than 65,000 students in area schools and countless thousands of adults who've attended the AAG lectures held at the Bruce Museum.

It was at UCLA's Fowler Museum of Cultural History where Bernard became truly passionate about archaeology. There, as an intern, she became familiar with the Museum's Old World collection of stone tools and was trained to teach the "emergence of prehistoric people" program. She came away with a few tools on loan that she still has today and continues to use them to educate middle schools in Fairfield and Westchester counties. Ultimately, that passion would lead to the founding of AAG.

"When we started this organization," said Bernard. "We didn't know what we were doing. We were very naive."

"Somebody said let's do a day to see what archeologists do," Bernard said. "We had a hands-on day on Indian Field Road. I demonstrated Stone Age tools and we had three speakers." She also unearthed a pot, Late Woodlands, 1,500 AD, "about the time of Columbus," that was promptly given to the Bruce Museum.

However, a man had approached Bernard saying, "How can you be digging here - this is my site." "We had no idea," said Bernard.

But the group moved forward. "We knew we wanted lectures," she said, and the first ones were held at Brunswick School. "Bill Frick (teacher) was interested in archaeology but only three or four people came." Then the lectures moved to an inauspicious room on the top floor of the Bruce Museum - and the numbers grew from 4 to 60 people, with "better and better" speakers.

Today, that number is even larger."We now have from 80-100 people coming," said Bernard.

Bernard's co-founder was Cece Saunders of Westport who early on shared Bernard's interests. She recalled the topic of their first lecturer. "It was on the opening up of China, and archaeology in China. We'd meet every week for a lecture. Nancy trained us to be docents."

"We're very proud of this 35th birthday year of our organization," said Saunders. "Nancy has taken this love of hers to so many thousands of children, the story of evolution, the development of stone age tool making and culture, the legacy of the past."

To learn about that legacy of the past, an AAG family membership ($35) includes six lectures plus newsletters. Bernard also attracts an impressive number of speakers with her many associations. She's a former board member of the Archaeological Institute of America, and serves on Archaeology Magazine's Education Committee. Her next speaker on Nov. 19 is University of Pennsylvania Professor Brian Rose, who was sent to Iraq last spring by the State Department to investigate the status of Iraq's antiquities. Rose spoke to the AAG last year of the desecration of the Iraq historic sites.

Next May, Bernard reported, the subject of one lecture will be on Roman toilets - by a specialist known as "Queen of the Latrines."

For information on the Archaeological Associates of Greenwich visit their Web site is

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Céide Fields: an extensive Neolithic site in Ireland

Schoolteacher Patrick Caulfield was digging peat in a bog near this western Ireland hamlet in the 1930s when his spade struck rocks two meters down. He cleared the immediate area and discovered that the rocks formed part of a wall. "He had the feeling that it was a significant find and he wrote telling about it to the
National Museum in Dublin," says Gretta Byrne. "He received an encouraging letter back, but explaining that they [the museum] couldn't investigate because they didn't have the resources." Ireland, especially the western counties, was facing hard economic times between the world wars.

What had that peat spade struck? The riddle fascinated Patrick's son Seamas. He grew up and became an archeologist, and as Ireland came out of the economic doldrums he led an archeological expedition to the peat bog on what's called the Céide Fields.

What they unearthed has been called one of the most extensive Neolithic sits in the world, a farming community dating back to before 3,000 BCE. Now a state-of-the-art visitor center has been built on the site to showcase the Céide Fields dig. Gretta Byrne, the manager, takes a visitor on a walk over part of the site, on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, pointing out stone-walled fields, livestock enclosures, dwellings and tombs used by people at the dawn of recorded history.

Archeologists think the Stone Age community covers 10 square kilometers. Because the bog it sits under is 90 per cent water, they've been able to push iron rods through the peat and locate dozens of kilometers of stone field walls. But only a fraction of what's believed to be there has been excavated, so the curious get a much better 'feel' of the ancient settlement from the galleries in the visitor center.

These explain that the people who lived here were farmers and fishermen. They were peaceful people, it appears, for the community is well spread out, "not huddled together as they would be if they were fearful of attack," archeologist Caulfield says in an introductory video.

"We believe they lived here for about 500 years," says Byrne. Why they left is a mystery (global cooling is one theory). But after they went, forests and other vegetation grew, then died and decayed, creating, through the eons, the two- to four-meter [six- to 12-foot] deep blanket of peat bog. "Radiocarbon dating indicates the date of about 4,200 years ago," says Byrne. "It was blown over and preserved by the bog."

The visitor centre, an award-winning steel-and-glass pyramid, welcomes 35,000 to 40,000 visitors a year. Visit

Monday, October 12, 2009


The Gault Site is about 70 acres in a valley between Florence and Salado, about an hour from Waco (Texas, USA). It remains unknown to many Central Texans, though it's now open for tours. But it's renowned among archaeologists worldwide as the continent's biggest trove of knowledge about the Clovis people, nomadic hunters who
overran the Americas some 13,500 years ago. "It's such a well-kept secret," said Linda Pelon, an anthropology instructor. "This is an internationally significant site that may help rewrite the story of the peopling of the Americas."

The Gault Site is an ancient rock quarry that yielded a flintlike chert of such high quality that it's found in Paleolithic tools and weapons throughout the Midwest. It was inhabited off and on for thousands of years, even into Spanish colonial times, archaeologists say. It was plundered by fossil hunters through most of the 20th

In the past two decades, the Gault Site has yielded some 600,000 Clovis-era artifacts, including etched rock plates that represent the only Paleolithic artwork yet discovered in the New World. [I'm a little skeptical about this statement.] There's also what appears to be a square stone foundation, which might be the earliest house ruins ever found in the Americas. And there is a range of tools used for tasks such as knapping chert, butchering animals or cutting grass. These finds are interesting in themselves, but combined with other finds at Gault, they undermine old assumptions that Clovis people were specialized mammoth hunters who swept across the New World and never stopped moving, Gault School archaeologist Michael Collins said. "When you find a site like Gault - it's Clovis, and the site is enormous, and the thickness of layers suggests they were there 400 years or so - you see they're not just rapidly moving across the landscape," Collins said. They're staying there for days or weeks."

This picture of settlement conflicts with the old textbook accounts. For more than half a century after Clovis remains were first identified and named in New Mexico in the 1930s, the accepted view was that Clovis people were the first American immigrants. According to the 'Clovis First' theory, hardy tribes of Asian hunters followed big game into the Americas about 13,500 years ago, when Ice Age glaciers
supposedly began to melt enough to create an ice-free corridor. The hunters then spread like wildfire across the Americas. Using spears with leaf-shaped 'Clovis points,' they hunted mammoths and dozens of other large animals into extinction within a few hundred years.

The Clovis First theory has been undermined in the past few decades by artifacts dated more than 1,000 years before the supposed Clovis migration, found as far flung as Chile, Virginia and Pennsylvania. The latest evidence to debunk this theory may come from the Gault site.

In the dig site now covered by the big white tent, archaeologists took a core sample in 2007 and found something startling: what appear to be man made stone artifacts that differ from Clovis technology. That could mean Gault was inhabited some 14,500
years ago, Gault School officials said. "That would be the nail in the coffin of Clovis First," said Archaeologist Michael Collins who has devoted the last 11 years to excavating the Gault Site.

Source: Waco Tribune-Herald (10 October 2009)


A 33-foot-wide (10-meter-wide)'Bluestonehenge' has recently been discovered just over a mile (1.6 km) from the original Stonehenge near Salisbury (England). The 5,000-year-old ceremonial site is thought to have been a key stop along an ancient
route between a land of the living, several miles away, and a domain of the dead-Stonehenge. At least one archaeologist thinks Bluestonehenge may have been a sort of crematorium.

Bluestonehenge was found in August along the banks of the River Avon during excavations led by Mike Parker Pearson of the University of Sheffield in the U.K. The circle of an estimated 25 bluestones was surrounded by a henge-an earthwork with a ditch and bank. The henge has been tentatively dated to 2400 BCE. But flint arrowheads found at the stone-circle site are of a type that suggests the rocks were
erected as early as 3000 BCE. More precise dates will have to wait until prehistoric deer antlers-used as pickaxes at Bluestonehenge-have been radiocarbon dated, the team said.

Unlike Stonehenge, which aligns with the sun at the summer and Winter solstices, Bluestonehenge shows no sign of a particular orientation, or even an entrance, the team reported. Nor is there any evidence that people lived at the site. There's no pottery, animal bones, ornaments, or relics such as those unearthed at the nearby
Stone Age village of Durrington Walls, found near Stonehenge in 2007.

However Bluestonehenge's empty stone holes were filled with charcoal, indicating that large amounts of wood were burned there-signifying, perhaps, a prehistoric crematorium. Perhaps not coincidentally, ashes have been found in holes at Stonehenge. "Maybe the bluestone circle is where people were cremated before their ashes were buried at Stonehenge itself," Parker Pearson said in a statement.

Parker Pearson proposes that Stonehenge represented a "domain of the dead" to ancestor-worshiping ancient Britons. "It could be that Bluestonehenge was where the dead began their final journey to Stonehenge," he added. "Not many people know that Stonehenge was Britain's largest burial ground at that time." Stonehenge expert Mike
Pitts, editor of British Archaeology magazine, said, "Up to now we've really thought of Stonehenge as this [one] stone circle. ... Maybe we need to actually start thinking about Stonehenge as a series of stone structures that are not necessarily all contained within that circular ditch [at Stonehenge proper]," added Pitts, who was not involved in the project.

The excavation team now believes Stonehenge incorporates the 25 bluestones that originally stood at Bluestonehenge. Only a few bluestone pieces were found at the new site, and "that is telling you that the stones are being taken out whole," said dig co-director Julian Thomas of the University of Manchester. Bluestonehenge's stones were dragged along the avenue to Stonehenge during a major rebuilding phase around 2500 BCE, the archaeologists speculated. "I think it's very likely that the new stone circle is contemporary with the very earliest stages of Stonehenge," the archaeologist added.

Previous excavations have drawn a picture of seasonal festivities at Durrington Walls, which some see as part of the "domain of the living" in the spiritual geography of the people of Stonehenge. The dead would be celebrated at Durrington, then carried along a short avenue to the River Avon, archaeologists speculate. The procession would continue down the river, then 'dock' at the foot of the avenue
leading to Stonehenge - stopping, it's now thought, at Bluestonehenge, perhaps for cremation, before continuing to Stonehenge for burial.

Given the Bluestonehenge discovery, British Archaeology's Pitts said, "I'm sure there are very significant discoveries still to be made in this landscape."

Sources: National Geographic News (5 October 2009), Discovery News (7
October 2009)