Sunday, June 26, 2011


This story is particularly interesting because I was able to gain entrance for my small group (7) into Lascaux in 1995. We did dip our shoes in acid (see below) but did not don hair nets and over-clothes. And we were only allowed in for 20 minutes with our excellent guide who spoke to us some 30 minutes before we went in.

Tucked away on a hillside in Montignac, in the Dordogne region of southwest France, the dame of Lascaux is an Ice Age treasure. Her walls are covered with remarkable pictures of horses, extinct bison and ibexes, painted when Man was still a hunter-gatherer and his survival far from certain. But the cave is also at threat from invisible invaders: microbial contaminants resulting from some awful mistakes made last century. Discovered by four teenagers in 1940, Lascaux became a massive draw after World War II, luring as many as 2,000 visitors a day. The cave was eventually closed to the public but the damage was done. Humans had brought in heat, humidity and microbes, upsetting the cave's ecosystem.

In 1960 as a young man, Jean Clottes was moved to tears by the confident strokes of black, red and ochre and their witness to the human odyssey. He later became a specialist in prehistoric wall painting -- and joined the campaign to save the precious site.

In an extremely rare visit to the cave last week, Clottes explained Lascaux had been affected in ways no-one could have predicted 60 or so years ago. "The cave was completely disturbed," said Clottes, 78. "In 1947 alone, they dug out 600 cubic metres of sediment to make an entrance and concrete path and installed lighting for the public." Six hundred cubic metres (22,000 cubic feet) is the equivalent to about eight 12-metre (40 foot) shipping containers.

The cave was closed in 1963 after green mould started to appear. This was followed in the late 1990s by the emergence of a white fungus, Fusarium solani. The bug either infiltrated the cave through a new ventilation system or during work during heavy rain to install it. The outbreak was tackled aggressively, including the use of fungicides and antibiotic compresses applied to the walls.

In 2007, black spots of a different fungus, of the Ochroconis group, sparked the UN's Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to threaten to place Lascaux on its "World Heritage in Danger" list.

Chastened, conservationists today focus on a multi-disciplinary approach, believing any single thrust has side effects in other fields. The cave is fitted with passive sensors to monitor air circulation, temperature and humidity but intervention is kept to a minimum. The fungus seems to be in retreat, for it is limited to a few grayish traces on the bare rock and on small areas of some paintings.

Under scientific guidance, the human presence is limited to a total of 800 hours per year, including maintenance and academic research. Two hundred meters (yards) from the cave is a visitors' center with a replica that receives some 300,000 tourists a year.

Visitors to the cave don sterile white coveralls, a plastic hair cap, latex gloves and two pairs of slip-on shoe covers. Previously they had to dip footwear in a germ-killing bath, but this was deemed to be another source of destabilization.
Entrance is made through two airlocks, one of which is an "air curtain" designed to keep out external humidity yet not affect the natural drafts that circulate in the cave through fissures.

The paintings themselves, viewed in the glimmer of an LED forehead lamp, are breath-taking. The strokes by unknown hands trigger a shock of how we humans today are linked to our distant forebears. After exactly 45 minutes, our visit is over. We are ushered out, the doors are sealed and the bison, horses and ibexes return once more to dark and silence.

Recently Ian Tattersall, emeritus curator at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC who leads tours for the AMNH to the painted caves of France, was asked what was his greatest experience in the caves -- he answered quickly: "Lascaux."


I am particularly interested in this story because our Prehistoric People Program takes authentic stone age tools (on loan from UCLA's Fowler Museum) out to classrooms. We pass the tools to (usually) 6th graders and they can see how early people developed very slowly until -- bang! -- modern people and their complicated tools arrive on the scene! We have reached over 67,000 students since the program began (1975) in the Connecticut/New York area.

LUND, Sweden, June 21 (UPI) -- Advanced crafting of stone spearheads and other tools contributed to the development of new ways of human thinking and behaving, Swedish archaeologists say. Researchers at Lund University say the technology for creating such tools took a long time to acquire, and required step-by-step planning and increased social interaction across generations, which led to the human brain developing new abilities.

Small groups of people wandering across Africa 200,000 years ago resembled contemporary humans anatomically but did not think the way we do today, the researchers said in a Lund release Tuesday.

But in a period of transformation about 80,000 years ago early modern humans who existed in what is now South Africa used advanced technology for the production of spearheads and the complicated crafting process developed the working memory and social life of humans.

"When the technology was passed from one generation to the next, from adults to children, it became part of a cultural learning process which created a socially more advanced society than before," Lund researcher Anders Hogberg said. "This affected the development of the human brain and cognitive ability."

This social learning contributed to the subsequent development of early modern humans' cognitive ability to express symbolism and abstract thoughts through their material culture, the researchers said.

Read more:

Thursday, June 23, 2011


Retired lecturer from the US allegedly sold antiquities to tourists for $20,000, tried to leave country with ancient coins. He was held for questioning after allegedly selling and trying to smuggle abroad hundreds of valuable archeological artifacts.

The suspect, a former history lecturer specializing in Ancient Egypt, is alleged to have sold ancient coins and other historical relics to some 20 tourists he was guiding in Israel, and to have tried to leave the country with cash and checks totaling over $20,000. Customs authorities in conjunction with Antiquities Authority officials detained the suspect at Ben-Gurion Airport as he prepared to board a flight to the US. After admitting to the alleged offenses and filing a hefty deposit to ensure his return for trial, he was allowed to leave the country.

The arrest came after a week-long surveillance operation by undercover Antiquities Authority agents. On Monday officials saw the suspect selling antiquities to tourists in a hotel. Once the sale was completed, they searched the suspect’s room and belongings, discovering hundreds of ancient artifacts they believe were stolen by antiquities robbers from sites around the country.

Earlier on Monday, officials stopped the tourists he had been guiding at the Taba border crossing with Egypt. Eilat customs officials discovered 20 members of the group had illegally obtained archeological artifacts in their possession, and apparently intended to take them out of the country without permits.

The tourists said most of the items were purchased from the guide during their visit to Israel. The items included bronze and silver coins dating to the Second Temple period, clay oil lamps from the Roman and Byzantine eras, and ancient glass and ceramic vessels.

“The sale of antiquities without a permit and the export of antiquities from Israel without permission are criminal offenses for which the penalty prescribed by law is up to three years imprisonment,” said Amir Ganor, director of the Antiquities Authority’s Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery.

“Those buying antiquities from unauthorized dealers place themselves and their money at risk, purchase antiquities at exorbitant prices and are actually encouraging antiquities robbery and the plundering of the country’s history,” he said.


Connecticut State Archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni says about 80 percent of the state's estimated 6,000 identified archaeological sites have been destroyed over time by subdivisions, strip malls and roads. Bellantoni says Connecticut still has unique and diverse archaeological resources. Some date back more than 9,000 years, including fossilized mastodon remains and makeshift tools from early nomadic Paleo-Indian hunting groups.


Work has started to excavate three Bronze Age burial mounds on Golden Cap in Dorset.

The 4,000-year-old mounds are at risk from coastal erosion and are being excavated by the National Trust before they are lost to the sea. There are five burial mounds visible on the summit of Golden Cap, the highest point of the coast path through Dorset at 191m (626ft) above sea level. Each mound measures about 15m (49ft) in diameter.

It is not known exactly how high each one is because they have been covered by sand blown in from the cliff edge. Each one currently stands at about 1m (3ft) high. Preliminary excavation work was carried out on the mounds in May 2009. It is hoped the current excavation will uncover more about the people who originally built them.

Martin Papworth, a National Trust archaeologist, said: "These Bronze Age round barrows are important features of the landscape of Dorset and have a valuable story to tell, but the archaeological information contained in these burial mounds can only be preserved through excavation and record." All five burial mounds are expected to be lost through cliff collapses in the next 50 years. Mr Papworth added: "The barrows are scheduled monuments and English Heritage has granted permission for the National Trust to excavate the most vulnerable parts of the barrow group." It is thought the mounds would have been about two miles inland at the time they were built.

In June 1992 a trench was excavated across the south-west barrow, which dates to about 2000 BC. It was found that 30% of this mound had already been lost through coastal erosion. In 1800 half of it was dug into to create a signal station to warn against attack by Napoleonic forces during the French invasion.


Monday, June 20, 2011


Piraeus, the main port of Athens, was an island from 4800 - 3400 BC, some 4500 years before the Parthenon was built on the Acropolis. This discovery was made by a French-Greek team led by Jean-Philippe Goiran, who studied and dated sediments collected in the Piraeus area.

The research was carried out in collaboration with colleagues from the Universities of Athens, Paris 1 and Paris Ouest, and is published in the June 2011 issue of the journal Geology.

Looking at Piraeus today, it is hard to believe that this urban area was once an island separated from the mainland by a stretch of water. And yet, in the first century AD, the Greek geographer Strabo hypothesized that Piraeus had once been an island. Located approximately seven kilometers southwest of Athens, this vast rocky hill was home to the three ancient ports of the Greek capital, Zea, Mounichia and Cantharos. During the fifth century BC, this strategic place was connected to Athens by a road protected by high walls, known as the 'Long Walls', that guaranteed safe travel.

Until recently, no archaeological research had ever been carried out to verify Strabo's hypothesis. To put his intuition to the test, researchers from France and Greece took around ten geological core samples from boreholes over 20 meters deep in what is today the Cephissus (Kifisos) plain located between Piraeus and Athens. They compared the sedimentary records contained in the core samples with written records. Each sedimentary bed was dated using the carbon-14 method. This stratigraphic study enabled the researchers to discover four main stages in the evolution of coastal landscapes in the Piraeus region.

During the first stage, 6 700 - 5 500 BC, sea levels in the Mediterranean were considerably lower than today. The hill of Piraeus was not an island and was geographically connected to the mainland. Then from 4 800 - 3 400 BC, sea levels rose, and Piraeus became an island. During the third stage, from 2 800 BC on, sea levels started to rise more slowly, while at the same time massive amounts of sediment were carried down by rivers in the region. This dual phenomenon caused sediments to build up on the Cephissus plain, which led to the establishment of a lagoon environment. Finally, in the fifth century BC, at the time the Parthenon was being built on the Acropolis, the lagoons were still present. To build the Long Walls, the engineers of the time were therefore forced to fill in these wetlands.


In June 1963 Colin Renfrew stepped onto the scrub-covered Aegean Island of Keros on the basis of a tip-off. In search of material for his studies, the young Cambridge graduate had been intrigued by rumors of recent looting on the almost uninhabited island - told to him by a Greek archaeologist.

Evidence of looting abounded and he reported back to the Greek Archaeological Service that smashed marble statues and bowls as well as broken pottery lay scattered over the hillside. Despite the destruction, it was clear that the fragments were Early Cycladic, an interesting find in itself, but as he was to realize later, he had actually stumbled upon the first evidence of an astonishing Bronze Age ritual.

A year later, the Greek Archaeological Service carried out a major recovery project, finding fragments of a type of sculpture found previously mainly in Cycladic Bronze Age graves. The simplicity of these beautiful serene figurines, with their folded arms, sloping feet and featureless faces, are said to have inspired modern artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henry Moore.

On Keros, apart from a single intact figurine, all of the recovered items were broken. There were 'body parts' in their hundreds - an elongated foot, a single breast, a folded arm, a pair of thighs, a face - all jumbled together.

However, when the 'Keros Hoard', which was widely believed to be part of looted material from the island, appeared on the antiquities market in the 1970s - and these were also broken fragments - so the mystery deepened. The question was raised whether Keros was actually an ancient burial ground that had been destroyed by looters, breaking every single figurine in their haste, or the site of something else entirely?

A new opportunity to investigate came in 1987, when Renfrew, by then a Professor in the Department of Archaeology, and two Greek archaeologists were permitted to excavate and survey the looted area - which they called Special Deposit North. "We recovered great quantities of broken material and yet as we excavated more we found no indications of tombs," said Professor Renfrew.

The fragments were not grave goods and the first of several astonishing features came to light, as Professor Renfrew explained: "As I studied the marble materials for publication, I realized that nearly all of the breakages seemed to be ancient and not the result of the looting. They had been deliberately broken before burial."

It was another two decades before Professor Renfrew was able to return, this time for three seasons of excavation - ending in 2008 - and with an international team of almost 30 experts. The post-excavation analysis of the finds is now nearing conclusion.

In the first year, the Cambridge-Keros project team excavated at the southern site and confirmed the presence of another Special Deposit, but this time completely undisturbed by looters. Most of the material was bundled together in small pits up to two meters in diameter. The breakages were old and deliberate and with an absence of marble chips - expected in the case of breakages at the location of the deposition - it was proof that the fragments had been broken elsewhere. Later radiocarbon dating confirmed they had been deposited over a 500-year period from between 2800 BC to 2300 BC.

"But the strangest finding of all was that hardly any of the fragments of the 500-odd figurines and 2,500 marble vessels joined together," said Professor Renfrew. "This was a very interesting discovery. The only conclusion we could come to was that these special materials were broken on other islands and single pieces of each figurine, bowl or pot were brought by generations of Cycladic islanders to Keros."

Meanwhile, across the short stretch of water to Dhaskalio, a very different picture was emerging. From the outset, the islet showed evidence of having been a major Bronze Age stronghold with structures built on carefully prepared terraces circling a summit, on which a large hall was erected. The settlement dates from around the time of the Special Deposits, before being abandoned around 2200 BC.

Examination of its geology showed that the beautifully regular walling of the settlement was imported marble rather than the flaky local limestone found on Keros. Remarkably, in the same era as the pyramids were being built and Stonehenge erected, Cycladic islanders were shipping large quantities of building materials, probably by raft, over considerable distances to build Dhaskalio.

Here, too, there were puzzling finds: a stash of about 500 egg-shaped pebbles at the summit and stone discs found everywhere across the settlement. And, although there was evidence that the olive and vine were well-known to the inhabitants of Dhaskalio, the terrain there and on Keros could never have supported the large population the scale of the site implies, suggesting that food also was imported.

One answer is to hypothesize a largely transient population. Several strands make this plausible, as Dr Michael Boyd, who is collating the results of the post-excavation analysis, explained: "Archaeobotanical evidence implies that the site was not intensively occupied year-round, and the imported pottery and materials suggests the possibility of groups coming seasonally from elsewhere."

As the team members conclude their analysis of the finds, all indications point towards Keros having been a major ritual center of the Cycladic civilization. "We believe that the breaking of the statues and other goods was a ritual ..a chosen sanctuary to preserve the effects," said Professor Renfrew.

This wouldn't be the first time a sanctuary has been identified on the Greek islands - Delphi, Olympia and Delos for instance - but it would be the earliest by about 2,000 years and certainly the most mysterious.


Last year, while a Penn team of archaeologists, led by Harold Dibble, was working in Morocco,members uncovered a treasure beyond anything they'd imagined - a skeleton of a child from 108,000 years ago.

They don't know what killed him at about age 8, but his remains are believed to be one of the most complete ever found of this period.

The skeleton promises to open a window into a pivotal time in human evolution when Neanderthals still ruled Europe, and Africans were inventing art and symbolic thought.

One of Dibble's students was the first to notice a piece of bone the size of a quarter, said Dibble, who is a curator at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. To everyone's surprise, the bone was part of a remarkably complete skull and upper body of a child that died 108,000 years ago, as shown by various dating techniques.

The work was funded by National Geographic, whose cable channel will present a special program based on the finding, titled The World's Oldest Child.

From analyzing the teeth, Dibble's team estimated he or she was 6 to 8 years old. Dibble bestowed the name Bouchra, meaning good news in Arabic. It's a feminine name, but he has since decided it's more likely to have been a boy.

In that earlier time, 108,000 years ago, modern Homo sapiens - people who looked like us - had emerged in Africa and begun to spread to the Middle East. Neanderthals populated parts of Eurasia. Africa was thought to be a patchwork of so-called modern Homo sapiens and somewhat different-looking "archaic humans."

The Moroccan site, called Smuggler's Cave, was home to a group of people who ate rabbits, gazelles, and seafood, and made some of the world's earliest art in the form of shell beads, Dibble said.

The only earlier evidence for art is the use of ochre pigments in southern Africa, he said. Neanderthal people by that period had begun to bury their dead, but left no evidence for any form of symbolic communication or art.

The child had bigger teeth than a person would have today - a trait that's also seen in some of the first modern humans to venture out of Africa. "They looked like us but not exactly like us," Dibble said. Archaic people had somewhat different features - including a brow ridge or lack of a chin. But they may have been ancestral to us since these populations were capable of interbreeding.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


Too long to give you a brief! Be sure and go to the interactive site at the end of the story. It's wonderfully done and quite accurate as to present day dating and information.


Pakistan is going to lose one of the most precious rock art carvings in the world due to construction of the Diamer-Basha Dam. The proposed site of the dam hosts at least 30,000 ancient art carvings and inscriptions which may vanish forever due to the construction of this reservoir.

The northern area of Pakistan is a mountainous region which lies between the western Himalayas, the Korakoram in the east and the Hindukush in the west. Here, the junction of the ancient routes made the upper Indus a cradle and crossroads of different civilizations.

Travelers, invaders, merchants, pilgrims and artisans from different ages and cultures used the legendary silk route and its branches to enter in the region. Many of them left their cultural and religious signs on the rocks, boulders and cliffs.

The sun-tanned smooth rocks attracted more visitors and settlers to carve their own signs, symbols, inscriptions and artworks on the same locations. And hence, gradually a rock art archive accumulated in the area and eventually became a wonderland of some 50,000 rock carvings and 5,000 inscriptions from different civilizations ranging from the eighth millennium BC to the coming of Islam (since the 16th century AD) in the region.

The diversity of the rock carvings in the region has turned the area into one of the most important rendezvous of petroglyphs in the world.

In 1884, a Hungarian traveler, Karl Eugen discovered a Buddhist carving in present Baltistan. In 1907, a veteran explorer, Ghulam Muhammad unveiled another Buddhist petroglyph from the Diamer district.

When the 750 km long, Karakorum Highway (the modern Silk Road) inaugurated in 1978, thousands of more engravings came to view which inspires a German scholar, Karl Jettmar to further explore the rock art wealth.

In 1980, Karl Jettmar and Pakistan’s father of archaeology, Ahmed Hassan Dani launched a Pak-German study group to systematically investigate the ancient rock art in the region. See below for full story and the amazing images!
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Two of the oldest known skeletons in the Americas - uncovered in 1976 on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean during construction at the home of a University of California, San Diego (USA) chancellor, and dated between 9,000 and 9,600 years old - may be among the most valuable for genetic analysis in the continental United States.

Under federal law, bones are returned to a tribe that can prove 'cultural affiliation' through artifacts or other analyzes. But last year, federal officials issued new rules that make it easier to return bones and funerary objects that are not culturally affiliated to tribes. Scientists and museums have been considering a legal challenge to the new rule, fearing the loss of many valuable specimens. The La Jolla skeletons could end up as the case by which that rule is challenged. At nearly 10,000 years old, the skeletons in question are so ancient that they are not culturally linked to any tribe.

The two people (a man and a woman) had consumed seafood year-round rather than seasonally, and were buried together. The bones are in such good condition that it is likely scientists could extract DNA from them. Archaeologist Daniel Sandweiss is reported as suggesting that DNA analysis of Paleo-indian skeletal remains along the west coast of the U.S.A. will help us learn more about how people first spread throughout the American continents.

Edited from Wired Science, and "Powered By Osteons" (20 May 2011)
[4 images]
[1 image]


A complex and colorful mural 45 meters wide and 4 meters high painted on canyon walls some 4,000 years ago, is being scanned with lasers to produce a high-resolution 3-D image, in efforts to gauge the mural's deterioration, detect images long ago weathered away, and protect it from the unintended consequences of a nearby reservoir.

Panther Cave - so-named from the 4 meter long figure of a leaping red panther guarding its entrance - overlooks the Rio Grande about 80 kilometers west of Del Rio, and is among the best known of several hundred prehistoric pictograph sites that dot the steep, rugged canyons along the USA-Mexico border.

"They are ancient texts, not just drawing on walls," says Carolyn Boyd, head of the Shumla School, an archeological research center working with state and federal agencies on the project.

A camera about the size of a microwave oven passes over a 15 to 25 centimeter square on each scan, collecting images accurate to 1mm. Color photographs are then overlaid on the images to give researchers a clear picture of how the site has changed over the centuries. Other images taken with color-sensitive photo equipment reveal parts of the paintings no longer visible to the naked eye. Check out the images -- they are amazing!

Edited from Associated Press, Beaumont Enterprise (29 May 2011)
[4 images]


Pressure is mounting on the parts of Libya that remain under the control of Moammar Gadhafi. Between rebel attacks from the east and west, relentless NATO air strikes and growing gas and food shortages, it seems inevitable that the Libyan government will fall. But Libyan officials insist they aren't going anywhere. They claim they remain firmly in charge of their territory. To prove it, the government minders, who strictly control foreign journalists' movements there, Wednesday arranged for simultaneous trips east, west and south of Tripoli.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reported on her arranged tour of Leptis Magna. The site is enormous (I visited it several years ago) and the officials briefly showed them the site where, of course, they said, no weapons were hidden. However, Professor Susan Kane of Oberlin (see next paragraph) also reported to NPR that Libyan colleagues are sure that weapons have been stored in the area.

After a hiatus of 23 years, in 2006, an international mission (under the direction of Professor Susan Kane, Oberlin College) resumed archaeological work in Cyrene, Libya. Cyrene, a designated UNESCO World Heritage site in eastern modern Libya, was the leading city of the Libyan Pentapolis. Settled by Greek colonists toward the end of the 7th century B.C., it remained an active Graeco-Roman city of distinctively Hellenic character until the time of the Islamic conquest (A.D. 643).

Saturday, June 11, 2011


Scholars at the University of Chicago have completed -- after 90 years -- the 21 volume dictionary of the language of ancient Mesopotamia and its Babylonian and Assyrian dialects, unspoken for 2,000 years but preserved on clay tablets and in stone inscriptions deciphered over the last two centuries.

This was the language that Sargon the Great, King of Akkad in the 24th century B.C. spoke to command what is reputed to be the world's first empire and that Hammurabi used around 1700 B.C. to proclaim the first known code of laws. It was the vocabulary of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Nebuchadnezzar II called on these words to sooth his wife, homesick for her native land, with the promise of cultivating the wondrous Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

At a recent conference, historians, archaeologist and specialists in ancient Semitic languages assessed the significance of the comprehensive dictionary, which Gil Stein, director of the University's Oriental Institute, said "is an indispensable research tool for any scholar anywhere who seeks to explore the written record of the Mesopotamian civilization."

One scholar, Jerold Cooper, Professor emeritus in Semictic languages at Johns Hopkins University said the dictionary's importance "can't possibly be overestimated." It opens up for study "the richest span of cuneiform writing," he said, referring to the script invented in the fourth millennium B.C. by the ealier Sumerians in mesopotamia.

This was probably the first writing system anywhere, and the city-states that arose in the Tigris and Euphrates River Valleys (present day Iraq, Syria --the earliest urban and literate civilizations). The dictionary with 28,000 words now defined in their various shades of meaning, covers a period from 2500 B.C. to A.D. 100.

The dictionary is more of an encyclopedia than simply a concise glossary of words and definitions. many words with multiple meanings and extensive associations with history are followed by page after page of discourse ranging through literature, law, religion, commerce and everyday life. For example, there are 17 pages devoted to the word "umu" meaning "day." And the word "ardu" for slave, introduces extensive material available on slavery in the culture.

"Every term, every word becomes a window into the culture," said Martha T. Roth, Dean of Humanities at Chicago who has worked on the project since 1979 and has been its editor in charge since 1996.

A full set sells for $1,995, and individual volumes range from $45 to $150. But they are also available, free of charge, online.


A new study of the teeth of 19 australopithecines from two famous cave sites in South Africa suggests that, when it came time for members of the human family to find a mate in South Africa about 2 million years ago, females moved away from their birthplaces far more often than males.

Lead author Sandi Copeland, a paleo-anthropologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder (USA), along with colleagues, analyzed tooth enamel from two species closely related to the australopithecines. The pattern held for both species.

Copeland says, "This is the first direct evidence that exists for dispersal patterns among early hominins." The findings suggest that such patrilocal organisation of social groups is ancient in human ancestors, perhaps dating back to the common ancestor we shared with chimpanzees, as some researchers have proposed. This is similar to the dispersal pattern found in chimpanzees, bonobos, and many human groups, but dissimilar to that of most gorillas and other primates.

Copeland isn't sure why males would move less than females in a region where there were no natural barriers. She plans to see if the pattern holds in australopithecines in other parts of Africa - to see if this was the usual way australopithecines organized their clans. It is still not clear where the roaming female australopithecines identified in the study spent their formative years, she added.


Because I winter in Southern California, I'm well aware of the tar that comes up on the beach. I always thought it was from the tankers off shore but this article says these clumps of a sticky black substance with a texture halfway between molasses and rubber have been there since prehistoric times. Could these tar balls - collected by humans for thousands of years - provide evidence that our long-standing relationship with hydrocarbons was toxic from the outset?

Long before we started asphalting roads, prehistoric people around the world used bitumen, which seeps from the ground naturally in places. Archaeological finds suggest that California's prehistoric locals, the Chumash people, eagerly collected the tar balls. They used them to caulk the seams of ocean-going craft and waterproof woven baskets to make drinking vessels, as well as for making casts for broken bones and poultices for sore joints. Some Chumash even chewed bitumen like gum.

We now know that bitumen can be a source of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) - pollutants that have been linked to a number of health problems. To find out whether California's tar balls had the potential to damage the Chumash's health, Sebastian Wärmländer of Stockholm University in Sweden and colleagues analyzed samples taken from Californian beaches and from the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles. They found the tar contained 44 PAHs, including many known carcinogens.

Wärmländer's team then turned to the Chumash's bones to see whether the tar balls had had an effect on their health. Most symptoms of health problems caused by PAHs reveal themselves in the flesh, but studies have suggested that mothers who are exposed to PAHs during pregnancy give birth to smaller than average babies, who become shorter than average adults.

Wärmländer and his colleagues measured 269 adult skulls from burials made between 6500 BC and AD 1780 on Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa islands off California's coast. They found that, over the generations, the skulls of men decreased from 3370 cubic centimeters to 3180 cm3. The women's skulls decreased from 3180 cm3 to 2980 cm3. Previous studies have shown femur length declined over this period too.

The decreasing stature of the Chumash suggests declining health, says Wärmländer's team. This has been suggested before, but this is the first time bitumen has been considered as a contributor to this decline.