Sunday, July 20, 2014


An archeological dig has revealed artifacts of early human occupation in Australia. The discovery of the artifacts of animal bone and charcoal at the Ganga Maya Cave (meaning 'house on the hill') in the Pilbara region of Western Australia are the subject of a scientific paper not yet submitted to archaeological journals. The items analyzed through carbon-dating techniques indicate first use of the cave from more than 45,000 years ago.

The cave, close to an active iron ore mine, is of even more significance because it is believed to have been settled continuously and right through the Ice Age up until about 1700 years ago. Kate Morse, Director of Archaeology at Fremantle heritage consultancy Big Island Research remains cautious about making claims for the site's significance because so far only a one-metre square area, 139 cms deep, has been excavated.

Asked if the cave could be the site of the earliest human settlement in Australia, she said: "We have only got the one date and I would prefer to get other dates before I make those kind of claims. It is certainly a very old site. I think it is an area that people have traveled into to start exploring Australia. They have come from SE Asia across the water and arrived in northern Australia and made their way around the coast following river systems inland."

She added: "It's a very exciting find. The archaeological sequence is great because a lot of sites have been patchily occupied and ours is occupied on and off but repeatedly including during the Ice Age 18-22,000 years ago and it looks like people were visiting the site then. We have found charcoal, stone artifacts and animal bone. We have analyzed the bone to see if it is food remains or animals that have died in the cave. We think we have got some material that is burnt so it suggests it has possibly been used for food."

The discovery has, however, caused some division within the community with one elder, Eddy McPhee, saying he believes the mining company, Atlas, and Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation (YMAC) representing Njamal traditional owners were planning to destroy sacred sites and accompanying Dreaming tracks. But Big Island says it has worked closely with the traditional owners and YMAC on the project and says it has been well supported by Atlas. It says further excavation is planned in the near future.


An ancient burial containing chariots, gold artifacts and possible human sacrifices has been discovered by archaeologists in the country of Georgia, in the south Caucasus. The burial site, which would've been intended for a chief, dates back over 4,000 years - the Early Bronze Age, said Zurab Makharadze, head of the Center of Archaeology at the Georgian National Museum.

Archaeologists discovered the timber burial chamber within a 39-foot-high (12 meters) mound called a kurgan. When the archaeologists reached the chamber they found an assortment of treasures, including two chariots, each with four wooden wheels. The team discovered ornamented clay and wooden vessels, flint and obsidian arrowheads, leather and textile artifacts, a unique wooden armchair, carnelian and amber beads and 23 golden artifacts, including rare and artistic crafted jewelry, wrote Makharadze in his study recently presented at the International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East, held at the University of Basel in Switzerland.

While the human remains had been disturbed by a robbery, which probably occurred in ancient times, and were in a disordered position, the archaeologists found that seven people were buried in the chamber. "One of them was a chief and others should be the members of his family, sacrificed slaves or servants," Makharadze said. The burial dates back to a time before domesticated horses appeared in the area, Makharadze said. While no animals were found buried with the chariots, he said, oxen would have pulled them. The newly discovered armchair symbolizes the power that individuals like the chief had. "The purpose of the wooden armchair was the indication to power, and it was put in the kurgan as a symbol of power," Makharadze concluded.

Edited from Live Science (25 June 2014)
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A 4,200-year-old necklace made of alternating black and white disc-shaped beads has helped British researchers devise a new method for the identification of shell species in archaeological artifacts.

Mollusc shells appear to have been among the first durable materials used for personal ornaments and building tools, but their often degraded condition makes it hard to identify the species with traditional analysis. York University's Beatrice Demarchi, Julie Wilson, and their colleagues used statistical pattern recognition methods and amino acid analysis to distinguish shells taxonomically.

The new approach was tested on a necklace that has intrigued archaeologists ever since its discovery in 2009 at an early Bronze Age site near Suffolk in eastern England, in the grave of a young adult woman, radiocarbon-dated to around 2200 BCE. The necklace consisted of strings of tiny disc beads of shells and black jet, possibly carved out of the fossils of monkey puzzle trees from Whitby, 260 kilometers to the north.

Alison Sheridan, principal curator of Early Prehistory at National Museums in Scotland, says "The necklace had not been worn on the body, but was found near the head. Beads of jet and shell alternated in a zebra design. Interspersed with these - and I am currently trying to work out exactly how the arrangement worked - were a number of amber beads, some perforated straight through, some with cross-shaped perforations The necklace design is unique, although a lot of Early Bronze Age jet jewelery, and some amber jewelery, is known," Sheridan adds, "However, the use of sea shells for jewelery during the Early Bronze Age in Britain is incredibly rare."

It appears that Bronze Age craftspeople used local shells like dog whelk and tusk shells to make the necklace. Conical, curved and open at both ends, tusk shells resemble miniature elephant tusks, hence the name. Dog whelks are predatory, carnivorous sea snails often found on rocky shores. While dog whelks are abundant around the Suffolk coast today, tusk shells are less widespread, but present along the southern coast.

Edited from Discovery News (19 June 2014)
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This summer, archaeologists are welcoming tourists to explore an ancient British hillfort full of prehistoric artifacts, as the researchers wrap up an excavation at the site. The fort, called Burrough Hill, was carved into the side of a 690-foot (210 meters) mound in the modern-day English county of Leicestershire during the Iron Age, around 500 BCE, and was used until the third or fourth century CE of the Roman period.

A five-year excavation of the site yielded bones, jewelry, pottery and even game pieces. Archaeologists opened the hillfort to visitors on June 29, hosting guided tours that allow people to touch some of the artifacts, and offering Iron Age combat lessons before the dig comes to a close at the end of the summer. Last year, the team discovered a collection of stone tools and pottery that dates back to 2800 BCE. In the final stage of the excavation, archaeologists will investigate what they believe could be a second entrance into the fort.

The whole fort system discovered at Borough Hill spans 523,000 square feet (48,600 square meters) and includes several ramparts that stand 10 feet (3 m) tall. After the Iron Age, the fort was abandoned as a defense post and then used as a farmstead. Later, it hosted a large medieval festival. The team of archaeologists hopes the discovery of artifacts, such as pottery and quern stones used for grinding corn, will shed light on the lives of humans living in the Iron Age and help historians better understand the transition from the Iron Age into the Roman period.

Edited from Live Science (24 June 2014)
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Thursday, July 10, 2014


Beauty-of a sort-beat out brains among Neanderthals, report researchers analyzing a 430,000-year-old cache of skulls collected from the "Pit of Bones" cave site in Spain. The Neanderthals were a prehistoric species of early humans, famously stumpy looking, thick boned, and big nosed, who lived in Europe and western Asia before disappearing from the fossil record by about 28,000 years ago.

The 17 skulls discovered in Spain's Sima de los Huesos (Pit of Bones) cave and reported in the journal Science show that early Neanderthals sported their telltale "beetle brows" and heavy jaws about 430,000 years ago, long before they evolved Neanderthal features in their crania, including larger brains.

"These are the earliest Neanderthals," says study leader Juan Luis Arsuaga at the Centro Mixto UCM-ISCIII de EvoluciĆ³n y Comportamiento Humanos in Madrid. "They can tell us a great deal about the evolution of Neanderthals, and by comparison, about modern humans."

The new study adds to evidence that the Neanderthals developed their characteristic looks slowly, and patchily, over hundreds of thousands of years, Arsuaga says. The ancient world likely was filled with a potpourri of archaic humans that included these early Neanderthals, he suggests, their numbers waxing and waning between ancient ice ages that arrived every hundred thousand years or so.

At the end of a 1,640-foot-long (500 meter) cave in northern Spain, the Sima de los Huesos pit is a deep depression, more than 46 feet (14 meters) below a shaft from the surface. Underneath a layer of dirt filled with cave bear bones, the pit holds an "astonishing, and even beautiful, collection of human fossils," says paleontologist Chris Stringer of London's Natural History Museum by email.

Some 6,500 human bones belonging to at least 28 individuals-the world's largest collection in any one place of ancient human fossils-have turned up in excavations there since 1976. "There are tons of bones," Arsuaga says. The skulls in the study, seven of them newly described, bear about two dozen facial features, among them the enlarged flat molars, heavy jaws, protruding snout, thick cheekbones, and heavy brows that typify more recent Neanderthals, ones less than 200,000 years old.

While Stringer views the Sima de los Huesos skulls as belonging to early Neanderthals, paleontologist Ian Tattersall of the American Museum of Natural History in New York views them as a separate group of early humans. "The Sima hominids [members of the human family] have a number of Neanderthal features, mainly in the face, but are clearly not full-blown Neanderthals," Tattersall says. (The study itself leaves this open as a possibility, suggesting the Sima skulls may belong to a subspecies of Neanderthals or to a related earlier species.)

The evolution of Neanderthal's doughty looks has been tied to surmounting Arctic conditions during the ice ages. However, the cave site 430,000 years ago was only a little cooler and drier than today, Arsuaga says, arguing
against this explanation.

But if the Sima's ancestors had become isolated from other early humans, their distinctive Neanderthal facial features could have evolved randomly through "genetic drift" and become fixed in the population, suggests paleontologist Jean-Jacques Hublin of Germany's Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in a commentary accompanying the study.

Arsuaga instead suggests that strong Neanderthal jaws may have evolved to maximize bite force in their front teeth, pointing to some change in diet or habits among them more than 400,000 years ago. Only one stone tool, a hand ax, has been found among the fossils at the site, however, so there is nothing to suggest new hunting techniques flourished among the Sima humans.

While they have Neanderthal faces, the skulls in the cave lack the cranial development of later Neanderthals, Hublin notes. (Some had bigger brains than those of modern people, but most didn't.) Later Neanderthals evolved even larger brains than the Sima ones.

Arsuaga suggests the combination of Neanderthal facial features alongside smaller crania in the Sima de los Huesos skulls argues for a branching, bumpy pattern in early human evolution across prehistoric Europe-what he calls the accretion model-rather than a smooth development of the species. There's no guarantee that the Sima Neanderthals were even ancestors of later Neanderthals, he says. They might have belonged to a branch that eventually died out.

Evidence for that sort of bumpy early human evolution came in December, when a team led by Matthias Meyer, also of the Max Planck Institute, reported that maternally inherited "mitochondrial" DNA found in a fossil thighbone at the Spanish cave matched that of a different early human group from Neanderthals. Instead, the mitochondrial genes matched those seen in a group called the Denisovans, known only from a Siberian cave. That raised the question of what Russian early human DNA was doing in Spanish fossils.

The Sima team now argues that those genes likely were an inherited leftover from a more ancient human species that lingered in the Spanish Neanderthals, something that Meyer agrees is "very plausible." More recent studies also
point to Neanderthals and Denisovans both sharing DNA with more ancient human species.

Modern people of European and Asian descent also share some Neanderthal and Denisovan genes, about 2 percent for the former. That points to interbreeding among modern humans and early human species within the last 60,000 years, when our ancestors left Africa to spread worldwide.

What is really fascinating, Meyer says, is that the Sima de los Huesos site, which has the most complete record of early human fossils from prehistory, is also the only known site with DNA preserved from that earlier period of
human evolution.

So how did the pit of bones end up full of so many early human fossils? That, says Arsuaga, "is the biggest mystery in paleontology." Some observers have suggested the cave was a death trap, where foolhardy Neanderthals fell to their deaths. But Arsuaga says the simplest answer is that their fellows deposited them there. "There are still a lot of bones. We may find 50 skulls before we are done."


Greg Hare, a veteran archeologist with the Yukon government, has been instrumental in assembling one of the finest collections anywhere of superbly preserved ancient hunting tools. Expounding on the trove of more than 200 artifacts stored in his Whitehorse lab, Hare might seem, with his scholarly manner and standard-issue khakis, all no-nonsense scientist. But ask him how hunters actually wielded these weapons, and he turns boyishly animated in his eagerness to demonstrate.

Pointing out an almost 5,000-year-old throwing dart that rests under glass in several painstakingly collected pieces, he reaches for an exact replica on a nearby shelf. He fixes one end of the slender, roughly two-metre-long willow dart into a notch in a wooden board that he grips in one hand. "It gives you an extension on your arm," he explains, "allowing you to hurl this dart with great force and distance." Hare heaves back, slow-motioning a throw, complete with a phwew sound effect at the point of release.

A short section of a dart shaft was the very first artifact found to launch the remarkable, ongoing saga of Yukon ice patch archeology. Back in 1997, a local husband and wife were hunting Dall sheep up in the southern Yukon mountains, when they smelled something barnyardy, and found that the odor was coming from a mound of melting caribou dung. The strange thing was that caribou hadn't been seen in the area for many years. That led to a sequence of investigations, including radiocarbon dating of the dung and then that first fragment of a dart, and finally to a grasp on what was happening: Climate change was eating away at the edges of mountain ice patches, revealing droppings left by caribou herds thousands of years ago-and tools lost by the hunters who had once pursued them.

According to Hare, climate conditions on about two dozen Yukon mountains have proven to be almost uniquely suited to preserving organic material. Unlike glaciers that move, slowly grinding down any artifacts trapped in them, the Yukon ice patches tend to remain stable. Or at least they did, until gradual warming over the past several decades began to shrink them and reveal treasures.

Among the finds: wooden darts as old as nearly 9,000 years, some complete with stone points, sinew bindings, bits of feather and traces of ocher decoration; a finely carved, barbed antler projectile point from about 1,200 years ago; and a size-four moccasin, 1,400 years old, amazingly intact, and believed to be a boy's. "Some of it is very
beautiful," Hare says.

In the first years after those sheep hunters caught a whiff of something, the ice patch archeology project was soon organized around annual helicopter trips into the mountains. The window of opportunity is limited: Sometimes there is only one week every August, when the short Yukon summer has melted away the previous winter's snow cover and perhaps exposed newly mushy portions of the old ice beneath.

First Nations were partners from the outset, and Aboriginal field assistants often made key finds. But last summer's search was cancelled entirely, when Yukon Native groups went to court to block a routine archeological permit. Rather than engage in a legal battle, the Yukon government withdrew the application. Neither the archeologists nor the First Nations leaders involved would explain the clash to Maclean's, with both sides saying they're close to finalizing a new memorandum of understanding.

Diane Strand, the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations' heritage director and a key negotiator in the dispute, says she looks forward to bringing elders and young people from her community to work again with the archeologists this summer. "Going out on a patch, doing the work together, and then coming together around a campfire, that's going to feel good," Strand says. Hare has similar hopes. "In the early days, every time you found something it was a 'Holy crow!' moment," he says. "But it's been 15 years. My objective now is more than anything else to get young First
Nations students up there experiencing being on the ice and having the opportunity of finding something."


Unique Paleolithic prize for scientists, a jaw of an early human who 'feasted on woolly mammoth' - but may have been cannibalized. Embedded in a hillside where it has lain for around 14,000 years, the adult jaw from Afontova mountain on the outskirts of Krasnoyarsk was found alongside the bones of animals and ancient tools.

Detailed DNA analysis, probably in Germany, will indicate to experts the age, gender, race (Caucasian or Mongoloid or a mix), and even possible diseases from ancient times. Scientists will examine the jaw, which includes teeth, for evidence of ancient cannibalism, an initial suspicion which they cannot immediately confirm, but also for the possibility that mammoth meat was part of his diet.

These human remains did not lie in a grave but alongside the remnants of animals that were butchered, said research fellow Ivan Stasyuk. 'Why cannibalism? Because this jaw lies alongside weapons and chipped of bones of large ungulates,' he said, surmising that this human was slaughtered, and eaten, too.

'I would not jump to the conclusion of cannibalism,' countered his colleague Leonid Galuhin, also a research fellow at the company 'Krasnoyarsk Geoarheologiya', the deputy leader of excavation. 'For now the jaw has been taken to a Novosibirsk laboratory for all analyses, including trasological analysis, which will allow us to say for sure if there act of cannibalism or not.' The jaw is likely to be sent to the world famous Max Plank laboratory in Germany for a full scale DNA analysis.

'Findings of the bones of Paleolithic man are very rare,' said Galuhin. 'There are not many such findings in the world. To us, these are extremely rare discoveries. This jaw is really unique because it is perfectly preserved. We can glean a lot of data: age, gender, race, even some diseases.

This site, an ancient camp, has been researched since the late 19th century and has given us a lot of material, not just debris, but thousands of complete stone and bone tools. During our current excavations we hope to find probably not the same amount, but very close to this. Apart from stone and bone tools, we found a set of stone beads and some pieces of art including a triangular plate made of mammoth tusk with plotted points. It was probably a pendant.' The site is, in fact, a complex of ancient camps. Afontova gora (mountain) 2 has two parts. One is an area where butchered animal carcasses have been found, along with tools for dissecting meat.

Mammoth meat was part of the diet of these Siberians, he is certain. 'The climate was quite severe here, akin to modern Taymyr, for example.'The current excavation covering 10,000 meters is being conducted because of the construction of a new bridge - the fourth - across the Yenisei River in Kransoyarsk.

This 'rescue excavation' - expected to bring a wealth of new finds - may lead to the the creation of a special museum dedicated to this site, a long-held dream of archeologists. The site is on the right bank of the river and over many years bone and antler tools as well as items of personal adornment have been recovered. Fauna remains include mammoth, reindeer, sheep, horse, aurochs/bison, ibex, saiga antelope, red deer, hares, arctic foxes and wolves.


A team of archaeologists, who were working alongside the A1, the longest road in Britain, were shocked to discover evidence of a Mesolithic settlement which suggests the route may have been in use for 10,000 years,according to a report in The Express. This means the route predates previous estimates that claimed an ancient route in the same location was originally built by the Romans.

The A1 was built nearly a century ago and stretches 410 miles from London to Edinburgh. The earliest documented northern routes are the roads created by the Romans during the period from 43 to 410 AD, which consisted of several
roads recorded in the Antonine Itinerary. A combination of these were used by the Anglo-Saxons as the route from London to York, and together became known as Ermine Street, later known as Old North Road.

Archaeologists were carrying out excavations of a known Roman settlement along the road, ahead of plans to upgrade the junctions from 51 to 56 to motorway status, when they discovered a number of flint tools that date back to between 6,000 and 8,000 BC. They also found a small Mesolithic structure that resembled a type of shelter where they were making the flint tools. The site, near Catterick in North Yorkshire, is believed to have been used by people traveling north and south as an overnight shelter, similar to today's motorway service stations.

"It was fascinating to find one of those was a Mesolithic site, a further 8,000 years into the past beyond the Romans," said archaeologist Steve Sherlock. "This was a place that people knew of - a place they could return to on many occasions to stay overnight during their travels. There is evidence of people using the route and moving through the area over periods of time. It is also adding to our knowledge of the early Mesolithic period, a time we don't know very much about."

By April Holloway