Sunday, March 29, 2015


To the Editor:

Re “Race to Record and Shield Art Falling to ISIS” (front page, March 9):

The Islamic State has caused irreparable harm to the cultural heritage of Iraq, and, indeed, that of the world, through the destruction of the ancient Assyrian capital of Nimrud, Assyrian sculptures at Nineveh and archaeological works of art in the Mosul Museum and elsewhere. Our institutions have released a joint statement deploring these heinous acts.

Iraq is one of the birthplaces of human civilization. Damage to its cultural heritage through wanton destruction of archaeological sites and artifacts, as well as looting and trade in archaeological materials, is reprehensible and shows a blatant disregard for our shared humanity. Tolerance of these acts can only lead to further losses of a similar or even greater magnitude.

As difficult as it is in these troubled times, we join in calling on international authorities to do what they can to protect the world’s archaeological and cultural materials. We also call on museums and the global archaeological community to alert the appropriate international authorities if they believe they have information regarding objects recently stolen from Nimrud, Mosul and elsewhere in the conflict zone of northern Iraq and Syria.

We support the efforts of the legitimate antiquities authorities in the region to mitigate the damage to the archaeological and historic heritage. We pledge to augment our efforts to educate the wider public about the significance of this heritage to humankind. Only through greater understanding of the value of this legacy for modern societies can we hope to stem these terrible losses.

Archaeological Institute of America

The letter was also signed by leaders of the Society for American Archaeology, the Association of Art Museum Directors, American Schools of Oriental Research, the American Anthropological Association and the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.


Islamist militants in Iraq and Syria have stepped up their war on the region’s cultural heritage, attacking archaeological sites with bulldozers and explosives.

The so-called Islamic State (commonly known as ISIS) now controls large stretches of northern and western Iraq, and there's little to stop its militants from plundering and destroying sites in a region known as the cradle of civilization.

And last week the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities announced that members of ISIS had damaged the ruins of ancient cities dating back thousands of years, including a trio of Assyrian cities and the Roman-era metropolis of Hatra, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Meanwhile in Syria, the country's civil war has done tremendous damage, killing close to 200,000 and leaving millions more homeless. ISIS is just one of many factions fighting for control of the country, but it has encouraged looting as a moneymaking venture. Sites in Syria's eastern provinces, known to be ISIS strongholds, have been particularly hard-hit by looters.


The revolution in Libya four years ago toppled Muammar Qaddafi. It also led to hopes for a cultural revolution. But violence has increased, any cultural revolution is on hold, and Libya’s world-renowned archaeological sites—as well as its scientists—need protection. That’s the conclusion of Savino di Lernia, director of the Archaeological Mission in the Sahara at the Sapienza University of Rome. He made his points in a commentary in the journal Nature. [Savino di Lernia, Cultural heritage: Save Libyan archaeology]

Di Lernia has worked in Libya since 1990, studying, for example, 9,000-year-old wall art that depicts crocodiles and cattle. In addition to the activities of indigenous people, the country’s archaeological sites hold artifacts from ancient Greek and Phoenician cultures.

But the unrest has stopped work on these archaeological treasures. The fighting has damaged historic mosques and tombs, and relics are being trafficked out of the country, both for profit and to support radical groups.

Di Lernia argues that international groups should fund local research and continue training Libyan scientists in the hopes of a resumption of the cross-cultural exchanges and scientific training that had been going before the violence. Allowing Libyan archaeology to die would be, he says, quote, “a missed opportunity for a generation of young Libyan archaeologists — and a tragedy for the safeguarding of monuments and sites of universal and outstanding value.”


A new book, by anthropologist, Pat Shipman, “The Invaders“, argues that humans and their dogs drove Neanderthals to extinction.

She presents evidence that homo sapiens, who arrived in northern Europe 40,000 years ago, formed a partnership with wolves, which they domesticated into “wolf dogs.” The skeletal remains of these animals differ from those of both wolves, and the dogs that would come along later in history.

She says the wolf-dog helped early humans to hunt, turning them into super predators that dominated their environment. Ms. Shipman says humans thus became an “invasive species,” and drove the dog-less Neanderthals to extinction.


Neanderthals may have used the talons of white-tailed eagles to make jewelry 130,000 years ago, long before the appearance of modern humans in Europe, according to a new study published in PLOS One.

At an archaeological site in Croatia, researchers discovered the talons with notches and abrasions suggesting they had been made into necklaces or bracelets. Eagle talons may have had symbolic value to Neanderthals, the researchers said.


Archaeologists surveying the waterways of suburban Seattle (Washington, USA) have discovered an ancient tool-making site dating back more than 10,000 years. The find includes thousands of stone flakes, an array of bifaces, scrapers, and hammerstones, plus several projectile points.

The site was discovered along a creek in Redmond, Washington, under a layer of peat that was radiocarbon dated to about 10,000 years ago. And in the layer with the artifacts were burned bits of willow, poplar, and pine, which were themselves dated between 10,000 and 12,500 years ago. Together, these materials frame a period of prehistory in coastal Washington which archaeologists have not been able to explore before.

Dr. Robert Kopperl, from the firm SWCA Environmental Consultants, and his colleagues first made the find in 2008 while surveying a waterway known as Bear Creek. Initial work turned up some stone artifacts above the layer of peat, which was carbon dated between 8,000 and 10,000 years old. "when we did our 2009 test excavations, all of the artifacts we found were below that peat instead of above the peat, indicating that they pre-dated 10,000 years before the present," saud Kopperl.

Once they picked up traces of human habitation older than any other found in the region, the researchers hoped to encounter artifacts that had never been found there before. "We found two projectile point fragments that were concave-based - something not seen at any time in the local projectile point sequence," said Kopperl.

As for the lifeways of the people who made and used these tools ten millennia ago, the clues are scant. Residue analysis of several fragments, for instance, turned up traces of plants like beeweed, and proteins from bear, bison, deer, sheep, and salmon. Beyond that, there's not much context to draw on in western Washington, Kopperl said, because no other artifacts have been found that date this far back in time.

Edited from Western Digs (18 March 2015)
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A new study by Benjamin A. Black and colleagues tests if the Campanian Ignimbrite (CI) eruption in Italy 40,000 years ago contributed to the final extinction of the Neanderthals. The event was one of the largest volcanic cataclysms in Europe and injected a significant amount of sulfur-dioxide (SO2) into the stratosphere.

Black and colleagues point out that the decline of Neanderthals in Europe began well before the CI eruption: Radiocarbon dating has shown that at the time of the CI eruption, anatomically modern humans had already arrived in Europe, and the range of Neanderthals had steadily diminished. Work at five sites in the Mediterranean indicates that anatomically modern humans were established in these locations by then as well."

However, the abrupt cold spell that followed the eruption would still have significantly impacted day-to-day life for Neanderthals and early humans in Europe. Black and colleagues point out that temperatures in Western Europe would have decreased by an average of 2 to 4 degrees Celsius during the year following the eruption. These unusual conditions, they write, may have directly influenced survival and day-to-day life for Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans alike, and emphasize the resilience of anatomically modern humans in the face of abrupt and adverse changes in the environment.

Edited from EurekAlert! (20 March 2015)
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Saturday, March 07, 2015


On the morning of Jan. 29, 2013, Chalachew Seyoum was climbing a remote hill in the Afar region of his native Ethiopia, his head bent, eyes focused on the loose sediment. The site, known as Ledi-Geraru, was rich in fossils. Soon enough, he spotted a telltale shape on the surface — a premolar, as it turned out. It was attached to a piece of a mandible, or lower jawbone. He collected other pieces of a left mandible, and five teeth in all. Mr. Seyoum, a graduate student in paleoanthropology at Arizona State University, had made a discovery that vaulted evolutionary science over a barren stretch of fossil record between two million and three million years ago. This was a time when the human genus, Homo, was getting underway. The 2.8-million-year-old jawbone of a Homo habilis predates by at least 400,000 years any previously known Homo fossils. William H. Kimbel, director of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State, said the Ledi-Geraru jaw “helps narrow the evolutionary gap between Australopithecus and early Homo,” adding that it was an excellent “transitional fossil in a critical time period in human evolution.”

Dr. Spoor said in an email that he agreed with the hypothesis that the new Ledi-Geraru mandible “derives from Australopithecus afarensis, and at 2.8 million years shows morphology that is ancestral to all early Homo.” Dr.
Spoor’s predictions were drawn from a digital reconstruction of the disturbed remains of the jaws of the original 1.8-million-year-old Homo habilis specimen found 50 years ago by the legendary fossil hunters Louis and Mary Leakey at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania.

The reconstruction, suggesting a plausible evolutionary link between A. afarensis and H. habilis, yielded a remarkably primitive picture of a deep-rooted diversity of a species that emerged much earlier than the 2.3 million years ago suggested by some specimens. The teeth and jaws appeared to be more similar to A. afarensis than to subsequent Homo erectus or Homo sapiens, modern humans that emerged about 200,000 years ago.

Dr. Spoor’s analysis also seemed to put a new face on H. habilis. He said that individual species of early Homo were more easily recognizable by jaw structure and facial features than by differences in brain size, which tend to be highly variable. Dr. Villmoare and colleagues made similar observations in their article. Both the predictions and the mandible findings called attention to smaller teeth with the emergence of H. habilis and evidence suggesting that the species probably split in different evolutionary lines, only one of which might have been ancestral to later H. erectus and H. sapiens.

In an email, Dr. Spoor explained that the split occurred sometime before 2.3 million years ago. The lineage leading to H. habilis must have kept the primitive jaw morphology. The Ledi-Geraru specimen kept the primitive, sloping chin that links it to a Lucy-like ancestor. Other lineages must account for the fact that H. erectus and H. habilis existed together for a period more than a million years ago.

In a second report for the journal Science, Erin N. DiMaggio of Penn State and other geologists examined soil, vegetation and fossils at Ledi-Geraru. They determined that when the H. habilis left its jaw there, the habitat was dominated by mammals that lived in a more open landscape — grasslands and low shrubs — than the more wooded land often favored by A. afarensis.

But after about 2.8 million years ago, increased African aridity has been cited as a possible result of widespread climate change affecting species changes and extinctions. Kaye E. Reed, co-leader of the Arizona State team, noted that the “aridity signal” had been observed at the Ethiopian fossil site. However, she said, “it’s still too soon to say this means climate change is responsible for the origin of Homo.”

For that, Dr. Reed said, “we need a larger sample of hominin fossils, and that’s why we continued to come to the Ledi-Geraru area to search.” That, and to learn more about the evolution of our genus, Homo.