Monday, January 17, 2011


Croatia does not have a reputation as a hotbed of ancient agriculture. But new excavations, described January 7 in San Antonio at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America, unveil a Mediterranean Sea-hugging strip of southern Croatia as a hub for early farmers who spread their sedentary lifestyle from the Middle East into Europe.

Farming villages sprouted swiftly in this coastal region, called Dalmatia, nearly 8,000 years ago, apparently with the arrival of Middle Easterners already adept at growing crops and herding animals, says archaeologist Andrew Moore of Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. Professor Moore also reported on this to the Archaeological Associates of Greenwich recently.

Moore codirects an international research team, with archaeologist Marko Mendusic of Croatia's Ministry of Culture in Sibenik, that has uncovered evidence of intensive farming at Pokrovnik and Danilo Bitinj, two Neolithic settlements in Dalmatia. Plant cultivation and animal raising started almost 8,000 years ago at Pokrovnik and lasted for close to a millennium, according to radiocarbon dating of charred seeds and bones from a series of occupation layers. Comparable practices at Danilo Bitinj lasted from about 7,300 to 6,800 years ago.

"Farming came to Dalmatia abruptly, spread rapidly and took hold
immediately," Moore says.

Other evidence supports a fast spread of sophisticated farming methods from the Middle East into Europe, remarks Harvard University archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef. Farming villages in western Greece date to about 9,000 years ago, he notes. Middle Eastern farmers exploited a wide array of domesticated plants and animals by 10,500 years ago, setting the stage for a westward migration, Bar-Yosef says.

Other researchers began excavating Pokrovnik and Danilo Bitinj more than 40 years ago. Only Moore and his colleagues dug deep enough to uncover signs of intensive farming.

Their discoveries support the idea that agricultural newcomers to southern Europe built villages without encountering local nomadic groups, Moore asserts. Earlier excavations at Neolithic sites in Germany and France raise the possibility that hunter-gatherers clashed with incoming villagers in northern Europe, he notes.

Surprisingly, Pokrovnik and Danilo Bitinj residents grew the same plants and raised the same animals, in the same proportions, as today's Dalmatian farmers do, Moore says. Excavated seeds and plant parts show that ancient villagers grew nine different domestic plants - including emmer, oats and lentils - and gathered blackberries and other wild fruits.

Animal bones found at the two villages indicate that residents primarily herded sheep and goats, along with some cattle and a small number of pigs.

Diverse food sources provided a hedge against regional fluctuations in rainfall and growing seasons, according to Moore. "This is an astonishing demonstration of agricultural continuity from the Neolithic to present times," he says.

Aside from farming, Neolithic villagers in Dalmatia were "oriented toward the sea, and enjoyed extensive long-distance contacts," .


A University of Maine graduate student has discovered evidence of the oldest identifiable domestic dog in the Americas.

Samuel Belknap III, a graduate research assistant working under the direction of Kristin Sobolik in UMaine's Department of Anthropology and Climate Change Institute, found a 9,400-year-old skull fragment of a domestic dog during analysis of an intact human paleofecal sample.

The fact that the bone was found in human waste provides the earliest proof that humans in the New World used domesticated dogs as food sources.

"I didn't start out looking for the oldest dog in the New World," Belknap said. "I started out trying to understand human diet in southwest Texas. It so happens that this person who lived 9,400 years ago was eating dog. It just goes to show that sometimes, great scientific discoveries come not when we are looking for specific answers but when we are thorough we are in our examination of the evidence and open to what data it provides."

He discovered the bone, known as BE-20, during the 2009-2010 academic school year while examining a paleofecal sample recovered in the 1970s from Hinds Cave, a major archeological site in southwest Texas near the Mexico border.

Visually, the bones of dogs, wolves, coyotes and foxes appear to be similar, but the domestic dog has evolved to have a different genetic makeup. The origin of the domestic dog is believed to be from a species of Eurasian wolf that likely crossed the Bering land bridge into North America during the peopling of the New World.

"For a long time there were several dog bones from Jaguar Cave in Idaho that were believed to be over 11,000 years old, but once they were directly dated they were found to be only 1,000 to 3000 years old," he said. "So it's a cautionary tale of the need to directly date things. It's important to do it."

Although 9,400 years is considered ancient in the Americas, the remains of
domesticated dogs in Europe have been identified to be well in excess of 10,000 years old.

Belknap said based on the size of the bone, which was about a centimeter-and-a-half long and one centimeter across, the dog might have been 25-30 pounds.

Belknap's find also provides the earliest direct evidence for dog as a source of food for human consumption. According to ethnographic studies, dogs were consumed either in times of desperation or times of celebration. Dogs were butchered in a specific way and may have been cooked in a stew, which could explain how bones from a skull and wrist or ankle ended up in the same paleofecal sample.

Although it is known that dogs were also treated with the same kind of reverence with which we associate them today - domestic dogs have been found buried whole at sites from around the same era, which indicates they were held in some sort of regard - it is unknown whether this particular dog was viewed as a sort of pet, used as a form of security, or raised for food.
Provided by University of Maine

Friday, January 14, 2011


A team of scientists has discovered in a cave in Armenia, what is reputedly the earliest evidence of wine production. The scientific team is lead by UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) in collaboration with Armenian and Irish archaeologists.

The discovery of an ancient grape seed was first made in 2007 and this inspired the recent excavations. A shallow basin (approximately 100 cm x 120 cm) made of pressed clay was found. It had a thick rim and was located adjacent to a large vat. The speculation was that the basin was used to crush grapes (grape seeds and pressed grape remains having been found near the basin) and the resultant liquid poured into the vat. There was no evidence of any means of pressing the grapes so it is believed that they must have been crushed by being stomped on with feet, in much the same way as can still be seen all around the Mediterranean.

The absence of the remains of seeds of any other fruit or berry lends further evidence to the theory of wine making, couples with the fact that, without the aid of refrigeration, the only way to preserve the resultant grape juice would have been to ferment it. Radiocarbon analysis of the seeds and other artifacts has placed the find at 4,100 BCE.

But this is not the only evidence which points towards wine making. The presence of tartaric acid, tree resins and malvidin also confirm the first assumptions. Whilst there are other uses for tree resin and tartaric acid (not related to wine making), malvidin has fewer options, the main one being that this plant pigment gives the rich red color to wine and is notably responsible for its staining properties.

UCLA's Hans Barnard believes that the find is significant. "Deliberate fermentation of carbohydrates into alcohol has been suggested as a possible factor that prompted the domestication of wild plants and the development of ceramic technology." This particular cave (Areni - 1) is also notable as the site of the discovery of the oldest known leather sandal (approximately 3,500 BCE) which was reported in June of last year.

Edited from UCLA Newsroom, National Georgraphic News (10 January 2011), Deutsche Welle (11 January 2011)
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Monday, January 10, 2011


On the hillside during one of his many visits to the ruins, Jeff Allen, a conservationist working with the World Monuments Fund, said: “All this is unexcavated. There is great potential at this site. You could excavate the street plan of the entire city.”

That is certainly years away given the realities of today’s Iraq. But for the first time since the American invasion in 2003, after years of neglect and violence, archaeologists and preservationists have once again begun working to protect and even restore parts of Babylon and other ancient ruins of Mesopotamia. And there are new sites being excavated for the first time, mostly in secret to avoid attracting the attention of looters, who remain a scourge here.

The World Monuments Fund, working with Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, has drafted a conservation plan to combat any further deterioration of Babylon’s mud-brick ruins and reverse some of the effects of time and Mr. Hussein’s propagandistic and archaeologically specious re-creations.

In November, the State Department announced a new $2 million grant to begin work to preserve the site’s most impressive surviving ruins. They include the foundation of the Ishtar Gate, built in the sixth century B.C. by Nebuchadnezzar’s father, Nabopolassar, and adorned with brick reliefs of the Babylonian gods Marduk and Adad. (The famous blue-glazed gate that Nebuchadnezzar commissioned was excavated in the early 20th century and rebuilt in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.)

The objective is to prepare the site and other ruins — from Ur in the south to Nimrud in the north — for what officials hope will someday be a flood of scientists, scholars and tourists that could contribute to Iraq’s economic revival almost as much as oil.

“This is one of the great projects we have, and it is the first,” Qais Hussein Rashid, the director of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, said in an interview in Baghdad. “We want to have it as a model for all the other sites.”

The task at hand is daunting, though, and the threats to the site abundant. In the case of some of the Hussein-era reconstructions, they are irreversible. The American invasion and the carnage that followed brought archaeological and preservation work to a halt across the country, leaving ruins to wither or, in the case of looting, much worse.

The American military turned Babylon into a base. It was later occupied by Polish troops and, though it was returned to the control of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage in 2004, the detritus of a military presence still scars the site.

The World Monuments Fund has been carrying out what amounts to archaeological triage since it began its conservation plan in 2009. It has created computer scans to provide precise records of the damage to the ruins and identified the most pernicious threats, starting with erosion caused by salty groundwater. “What we’ve got to do is create a stable environment,” Mr. Allen said at the site in November. “Right now it’s on the fast road to falling apart.”

The wicking of groundwater into mud bricks, compounded by a modern concrete walkway and the excavations conducted by the German archaeologist Robert Koldewey more than a century ago, have already eaten away some of the 2,500-year-old brick reliefs at the Ishtar Gate’s base.

“They took care of Ishtar Gate only from the inside, because you had visiting leaders and dignitaries who would come,” said Mahmoud Bendakir, an architect who is working with the fund, referring to the site’s caretakers during the Hussein era. “The outside is a disaster.”

The grant from the United States will pay for repairs to channel the water away from the gate’s foundation, which stands several yards beneath the surrounding area. Similar repairs are planned for two of Babylon’s temples, Ninmakh and Nabu-sha-Khare, the most complete sets of ruins, though they too suffer from erosion and harmful restorations with modern bricks.

The American reconstruction team has refurbished a modern museum on the site, as well as a model of the Ishtar Gate that for decades served as a visitors’ entrance. Inside the museum is one of the site’s most valuable relics: a glazed brick relief of a lion, one of 120 that once lined the processional way into the city.

The museum, with three galleries, is scheduled to open this month, receiving its first visitors since 2003. And with new security installed, talks are under way to return ancient Babylonian artifacts from the National Museum in Baghdad.

The fate of Babylon is already being disputed by Iraqi leaders, with antiquities officials clashing with local authorities over when to open it to visitors and how to exploit the site for tourism that, for the most part, remains a goal more than a reality. Even now they are clashing over whether the admission fee should go to the antiquities board or the provincial government.

Another of the more dire threats to the site has been unchecked development inside the boundaries of the old city walls, enclosing nearly three square miles. The fund’s project has plotted the old walls on a map, causing trepidation among Iraqis who live along them now.

They fear the preservation of Babylon’s ruins will force them from their homes and farmlands, as when Mr. Hussein expelled residents of a local village to build his palace. “They took them from their lands,” said Minshed al-Mamuri, who runs a civic organization for widows and orphans here. “It’s psychological for them.”

Mr. Allen, who oversees the fund’s work, said the preservation of Babylon would require collaboration among competing constituencies that is extremely rare amid Iraq’s political instability.

“We’re looking at not just archaeology,” he said of the project. “We’re looking at the economic opportunities and viability for local people. They need to see something out of this site. That’s possible, and possible at the same time to preserve the integrity of the site.”

Saturday, January 08, 2011


The government of the Australian state of Tasmania is moving ahead with plans to build a bridge - straight through an Aboriginal meeting site where archaeologists estimate there are more than three million artifacts dating back 40,000 years.

The tools, stones, and spear tips found there represent the oldest evidence of human habitation in the Southern Hemisphere. But the Tasmanian government is pressing ahead with plans to build a bridge - part of a new four-lane highway - over the river. The government claims the construction will not threaten the riverbank's hidden riches. But an Aboriginal leader, Michael Mansell, has labeled the project 'cultural vandalism.'

The archaeologist who led the dig, Rob Paton, wrote of the site: "It has the potential to give us a glimpse into an unknown part of world history and the spread of Homo sapiens across the earth." The Tasmanian government says it has examined eight alternative routes, but none are viable.


The oldest wooden structure ever found on Thames river, timbers over 6,500 years old, have been discovered buried in the silt below the windows of British security services' headquarters at Vauxhall, south London.

The archaeologists who uncovered the six hefty timber piles had to explain to the security services what they were up to when armed police turned up after they were spotted pottering about in the mud, armed only with tripods, cameras and measuring equipment - not, as one spectator had apparently reported, shoulder-mounted rocket launchers. "They accepted there wasn't much damage we could do with a tripod," said Gustave Milne, the archaeologist who leads the Thames Discovery program that has been surveying the entire prehistoric foreshore.

The timbers, partly scoured bare by erosion of the river bed, the largest up to a third of a meter in diameter, were discovered in work during exceptionally low tides last February, but carbon dating work has only recently been completed, proving that the trees were felled between 4790 and 4490 BCE, during the Mesolithic period. Although the site is now exposed only at the lowest tides, the ancient Thames was narrower and deeper, and Milne believes that 7,000 years ago the timbers may have been built on dry land, possibly at the highest point of a small island. Structures of Mesolithic date are very rare anywhere in Britain.

"The find is very interesting, because in the mesolithic period the people were nomadic hunter-gatherers, living in temporary camps - not at all given to building substantial structures like this," Milne said. "At the moment we don't have enough timbers to give any kind of alignment, they're not in a straight or a circle - but they could have supported a substantial platform with some form of domestic structure or dwelling."

Kept secret until it could be fully recorded and investigated, the site is located at the confluence of the Rivers Effra and Thames. Near the timbers, late Mesolithic stone tools, including a fine tranchet adze (a woodworking tool), were also discovered, as well as slightly later Neolithic pottery of two distinct types. The area, may have been a significant, named place continuing through centuries or even millennia. It is only 600m downstream from the Bronze Age timber-built bridge or jetty (c1500 BCE) which hit the headlines in the 1990s. "There may have been a ford, it may have had some religious significance, or it may just have been very rich hunting grounds - but it was clearly what my colleague at the Museum of London calls 'a memorable place'," Milne said.

The site is affected by the scour created by the twice-daily tides and the growing river traffic. The remains are also threatened by planned riverside developments, including the much needed combined sewer overflow which will pass meters from the timbers. A major research project is under way.

Monday, January 03, 2011


DNA taken from a pinkie bone at least 30,000 years old is hinting at the existence of a previously unknown population of ancient humans. The pinkie bone in question was unearthed in 2008 from what's called the Denisova Cave, in southern Siberia, and is the bone of a 6- to 7-year-old girl. David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, and colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig were able to extract DNA from the bone and sequence 70% of the nuclear genome. The researchers then compared this sequence with the genomes of Neanderthals and modern humans and confirmed that the girl was neither human nor Neanderthal.

This long-lost group of people, which researchers are calling 'Denisovans' after the Denisova cave in which the bone was found, lived at roughly the same time modern humans and Neanderthals were in the region, and it appears to be more closely related to Neanderthals than us. Although these Denisovans went extinct, they were widespread enough in Asia to interbreed with modern humans before they disappeared, leaving behind a ghostly legacy in the genomes of Melanesians.

Reich says there were several remarkable things about the group of people this girl is from. "On the one hand it's a sister group to Neanderthals, which means that it's more closely related to Neanderthals on average than it is to modern humans," he says. A Denisovan tooth found in the same cave shows a morphology that is distinct from Neanderthals and modern humans and resembles much older hominin forms.

The other remarkable finding was that Denisovans' genome was more closely related to humans currently living in New Guinea than it was to genomes of people in Europe or Asia. The researchers compared different parts of the Denisovan genome with the same segments of DNA in 53 populations of present-day humans. The data revealed that the Denisovans shared certain mutations with Melanesians from Papua New Guinea and Bougainville Island, mutations that are not found in Neanderthals or other modern populations. Melanesians appear to have inherited between 4% and 6% of their DNA from these extinct Denisovans, the team reports.

"What it means is that there was gene exchange between relatives of this Denisovan and the ancestors of New Guineans," says Reich. In other words, as they left Africa, modern humans must have passed through the realm of the Denisovans on their way to Melanesia. And if you look at a map, the route from Africa to New Guinea does not go through Siberia, suggesting that the Denisovans may have lived over a quite a large swath of the globe. According to Svante P채채bo of the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, "In combination with the Neanderthal genome sequence, the Denisovan genome suggests a complex picture of genetic interactions between our ancestors and different ancient hominin groups."

The best scenario to fit this data is that after Neanderthals and Denisovans split, the Neanderthals interbred with modern humans just after they left Africa but before they spread into Europe and Asia in the past 80,000 years. Later, Denisovans living in eastern Asia encountered a group of modern humans heading east from Africa toward Melanesia and interbred with them. As a result, Melanesians now carry DNA from both encounters with Neandertals and Denisovans.

Along with the discovery in 2004 of the diminutive Homo floresiensis - a.k.a. the hobbit - that lived on the island of Flores as recently as 13,000 years ago, there are now at least three other types of humans who were alive at the same time as modern humans were taking over the world. Clearly, this means "the story [of the origins of modern humans] has undoubtedly got a lot more complicated," says paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, London.

Edited from Science, Nature News, Past Horizons (22 december 2010), NPR (23 December 2010)
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Sunday, January 02, 2011


Thousands of artifacts dating back to prehistoric age and the Sa Huynh Culture (a culture in central and southern Vietnam that flourished between 1,000 BCE and 200 CE) excavated from Con Rang and Con Dai archaeological sites are stored in a dilapidated warehouse belonging to the Thua ThienHue Museum of History and Revolution. "Local researchers just focus on the Nguyen Dynasty, forgetting and ignoring other periods, including the prehistoric age," researcher Ho Tan Phan said.

According to a report by the Hue Ancient Capital Relics Preservation Center, since 1990, the center has received VND25-50 billion (US$1.3- 2.6 million) every year to protect and maintain the Nguyen emperors' Complex of Monuments, which was acknowledged as a World Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 1993.

However, only a relatively small sum is available (about $150,000) to maintain 870 other relics in Hue every year. This is just enough to temporarily prevent them from degradation, according to director Phan Tien Dung of the province's Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism. "This imbalanced policy has led many relics to suffer and pushed them to serious degradation at present," Dung said.

The museum has no space to display these artifacts, according to its director Cao Huy Hung, who said he feels ashamed to open its doors to visitors. "In rainy days, we have to cover the objects with raincoats or waterproof cloths," Hung said, "and thousands of valuable and rare artifacts have had to 'migrate' to the Temple of Literature inside the Complex of Monuments for more than 30 years."

According to researchers Tran Duc Anh Son and Nguyen Phuoc Hai Trung, director of the Hue Royal Fine Arts Museum, "A proper, well-constructed museum building alone cannot change the situation, for most museums in Vietnam are considered administrative units, and do not have enough archaeologists and expert care, especially in Hue, where most museum staff are transferred from other sectors."

According to researcher, Dr. Tran Duc Anh Son, the cultural heritage created during Nguyen Dynasty in Hue is so great and massive that it seemingly obscures what existed before and after its time. All the culture experts and researchers agree that in order to deal with the situation, Hue should have a comprehensive policy on research, conservation and promotion of the values of all historical periods in the province.

Edited from Thanh Nien (24 december 2010)
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Eight human teeth dating back as far as 400,000 years ago and found at the prehistoric Qesem Cave near Rosh Ha'ayin (Central Israel) could be 'the world's earliest evidence' of modern man (Homo sapiens). Until now, remains of humans from only 200,000 years ago have been found in Africa, and the accepted approach has been that modern man originated on that continent.

Qesem Cave was used from about 400,000 to about 200,000 years ago and was uncovered in 2000 by Prof. Avi Gopher and Dr. Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University's Institute of Archeology. Later, Prof. Israel Hershkowitz of the Department of Anatomy and Anthropology at TAU's Sackler School of Medicine and an international team of scientists performed a morphological analysis on the teeth found in the cave. The examination included CT scans and X-rays indicating the size and shape of the teeth are very similar to those of modern man. The teeth found in the cave are also very similar to evidence of modern man dated to around 100,000 years ago that had previously been discovered in the Skhul Cave on Mount Carmel and the Qafzeh Cave in the Lower Galilee near Nazareth.

Gopher and Barkai noted that the findings that characterize the culture of those who dwelled in the Qesem Cave - the systematic production of flint blades, the habitual use of fire, evidence of hunting, cutting and sharing of animal meat, mining raw materials to produce flint tools from subsurface sources and much more - reinforce the hypothesis that this was, in fact, innovative and pioneering behavior that corresponds with the appearance of modern man.

The specimens date back to the Middle Pleistocene era and include permanent and deciduous teeth. They were thus placed chronologically earlier than the bulk of fossil hominin specimens previously known from southwest Asia. Although none of the Qesem teeth resemble those of pre-Homo sapiens Neanderthals, a few traits may suggest some affinities with members of the Neanderthal evolutionary lineage, but the balance of the evidence suggests a closer similarity with the Skhul-Qafzeh dental material, said Gopher and Barkai.

According to the researchers, the discoveries made in the Qesem Cave may change the perception that has been widely accepted to date in which modern man originated on the continent of Africa. In recent years, archeological evidence and human skeletons have been discovered in Spain and China that are liable to undermine this perception, but the findings now uncovered at Qesem are significant and invaluable, and their early age is undoubtedly an extraordinary archeological discovery, said Gopher and Barkai.

Researchers Gopher, Ran Barkai and Israel Hershkowitz published their study in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. Archaeologist Avi Gopher says further research is needed to solidify his claim. If it does, he says, "this changes the whole picture of evolution."

Edited from The Jerusalem Post (26 December 2010), NPR (27 December 2010), AFP (28 December 2010), Irish Examiner (29 December 2010), EurekAlert! (30 December 2010)
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Before bringing you this latest news, a Happy New Year to all my readers -- from India to the U.S. Let me hear from you in 2011!

Researchers from George Washington University and the Smithsonian Institution have discovered evidence to debunk the theory that Neanderthals' disappearance was caused in part by a deficient diet - one that lacked variety and was overly reliant on meat. The new study, published in the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, analyzed the dental calculus - the layer of hardened plaque - in seven fossilized teeth of Neanderthal individuals. They found grains from plants, including a type of wild grass and traces of roots and tubers, trapped in plaque build-up.

These latest findings, on 44,000- to 36,000-year-old Neanderthals from Iraq and Belgium, indicate Neanderthals were also eating dates, barley, legumes and possibly water lilies. Anthropologist Amanda Henry from the Center for Advanced Study of Hominid Paleobiology led the study.

She and colleagues Alison Brooks and Dolores Piperno further determined that the barley had been cooked. It was either boiled or baked. Quite a few papers lately have described improved methods in making such determinations, based on the microstructure of the individual grains. "Neanderthals and early humans did not visit the dentist," said Dr. Brooks. "Therefore, the calculus or tartar remained on their teeth, preserving tiny clues to the previously unknown plant portion of their diets."

Some guesses can be made about what else Neanderthals ate, however, based on plant finds near their living areas - in this case at Shanidar Cave in Iraq and Spy Cave in Belgium. At these sites the scientists found evidence for walnuts, chestnuts, relatives of chicory and lettuce, and relatives of modern culinary herbs. Prior research discovered that they also had access to acorns, cattails and pistachios.

Edited from AFP, Discovery News (27 December 2010), Past Horizons, The Australian (29 December 2010)
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