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Archaeology News



Since the dawn of the jet and space ages, Edwards Air Force Base, north of Los Angeles, has been the principal place for testing experimental aircraft. As a result, the landscape around it is peppered with crash sites. These crash sites represent the meeting of the apogee of American technological sophistication, with the perigee of failure – the intersection of lofted ambition and terrestrial tragedy.
The eleven crashes described in this exhibit were selected from among the more than six hundred that have occurred in the western Mojave Desert, and cover the range of experimentation and advancement of aircraft over the past 70 years of jet-propelled flight. With one exception, all of these flights originated at Edwards, where they were expected to return. Instead they crashed outside, in the public realm, where they remain as accidental monuments to one of the most advanced forms of technology and human endeavor.

This CLUI exhibit was based on the work of Peter W. Merlin who, with Tony Moore, founded the X-Hunters Aerospace Archeology Team, the nation’s experts on locating crash sites of experimental aircraft. Merlin and Moore have studied and documented aerospace accidents and incidents for more than 25 years, and have located and visited more than 100 crash sites of historic aircraft from Edwards Air Force Base and Area 51.

Explore the online gallery here.

Dig it: Hawks’ online course set to start in three weeks

In just three weeks, John Hawks’ Human Evolution: Past and Future is set to begin.  For those unaware of this valuable online learning tool, I’ve conveniently copied and pasted all of the information below.  Anything not covered in my CTRL-C CTRL-V can head to his site or the course information page.

Human Evolution: Past and Future

Introduction to the science of human origins, the fossil and archaeological record, and genetic ancestry of living and ancient human populations. The course emphasizes the ways our evolution touches our lives, including health and diet, and explores how deep history may shape the future of our species.

About the Course

This course covers our evolutionary history across more than seven million years, from our origins among the apes up to the biological changes that are still unfolding today. If you enroll, you’ll encounter the evidence for the earliest members of our lineage, as they begin the long pathway to humanity. You’ll see how scientists are learning about the diets of ancient people, using microscopic evidence and chemical signatures in ancient teeth. We will explore together the exciting fossil discoveries of the last ten years, which have shaken up our notions of the origin of human culture and our own genus.Genomics has fundamentally transformed the way we understand our evolution, in many ways opening the direct evidence of our history to anyone. The course will teach you how to look inside the genomes of humans, Neandertals and other ancient people. If you have used personal genomics to get your own genotypes, the course will guide you in connecting genetics to your ancestry among ancient humans.The course brings a special focus on the rapid evolutionary changes of the last 10,000 years. You’ll learn about the consequences of our shift to agriculture, and the ways that people of industrialized nations are still changing today. At the end, we trek forward to anticipate what evolutionary changes may be in store for humanity in the future, using our knowledge of history and scientific understanding to inform our speculations.

Recommended Background

All are welcome to participate and view materials, which assume no special background. To complete some exercises, a basic knowledge of high school-level biology and algebra will be necessary.

Course Format

The materials are designed to guide students on their own distinctive paths of discovery. Short documentary videos highlight the most up-to-date science and bring students virtually into some of the most famous archaeological sites. With a series of interviews, students will hear about new ideas from many of the world’s leading experts. A series of activities give students an opportunity to see their measurements next to those provided by the worldwide group of students. Students can dig deeper by investigating ways that humanity may evolve into the future.



“Archaeology is the peeping Tom of the sciences. It is the sandbox of men who care not where they are going; they merely want to know where everyone else has been.” – Jim Bishop

Spain claims top spot for world’s oldest cave art

It’s no Mona Lisa, but a smudged red disk in northern Spain has been crowned the world’s earliest cave painting. Dated to more than 40,800 years ago, the shape was painted by some of the first modern humans to reach the Iberian Peninsula — or it may have been done by Neanderthals, residents of the Iberian peninsula for more than 200,000 years.

“There is a very good chance that this is Neanderthal,” says Alistair Pike, an archaeological scientist at the University of Bristol, UK, whose team dated dozens of paintings in 11 caves in northern Spain. But Lawrence Guy Straus, an expert on the caves who is based at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, calls that “a pretty wild speculation,” because it is based on a single date that could overlap with human occupation.

Until now, Chauvet Cave in central France, which is plastered with images of bears, lions and horses, held the title of the world’s oldest cave paintings. The oldest images there are dated to around 39,000 years old, but this is controversial as the assessment relies on radiocarbon dating of charcoal pigments, which are susceptible to contamination from other sources of carbon.

Cave art is notoriously difficult to date because, unlike bones and tools dug up from the ground that can be carbon-dated directly or by their association with nearby bones, it is “not associated with anything but itself”, says Pike.

To solve this problem, Pike’s team dated the calcite patinas that slowly form over cave art as mineral-rich water trickles over the paintings. The water contains trace levels of radioactive uranium, but not the water insoluble thorium into which the uranium steadily decays. The relative levels of uranium to thorium thus form a clock that records when the calcite layer was formed. The layers can take anywhere from several hundred to several thousand years to form, providing a minimum date for the art, Pike says.

His team collected 50 calcite scrapings from 11 caves, and came up with dates as old as 40,800 years, a minimum age for the disk in El Castillo cave1. That image, as well as other slightly younger disks from Castillo and a club-shaped image from Altamira cave, would have been painted at around the time the first modern humans, called the Aurignacian culture, reached the Iberian Peninsula. Younger paintings in the Spanish caves, including handprints and figurative drawings of animals, date to later human occupations.

Just as impressionism gave way to expressionism in nineteenth- and twentieth-century art, Pike’s team sees artistic trends that correlate with different periods. The first European painters favoured simple geometric shapes such as dots, disks and clubs, whereas their successors painted more graphically complicated handprints and figures.

“You clearly see distinct styles arriving and leaving at different periods,” Pike says, although he cautions against making any interpretations about the minds of the artists. “I don’t think one can say these are multicoloured and these are monochrome to make judgements about the art or even the cognitive abilities of Neanderthals or humans.”

Determining just who created the earliest cave paintings will factor into debates over the relative mental capacities of the two species. Cave paintings appear in Palaeolithic Europe before anywhere else in the world. But beginning around 100,000 years ago, humans in Africa began making shell beads and other ornaments that have been interpreted by archaeologists as evidence for the symbolic thinking that underlies language, art and even religion. There is a lot less evidence, such as beads and ivory pendants, for symbolic behaviour among Neanderthals in Europe, and some archaeologists have raised fresh questions over whether Neanderthals created these artefacts.

The only way to determine who created the earliest paintings is to do more dating, Pike says. If his team can find cave art that predates the arrival of modern humans in northern Spain, currently pegged at around 42,000 years ago, there can be little doubt that Neanderthals dabbled in art. “If we can really nail it, you can walk into El Castillo cave and gaze upon the hand of Neanderthals and that’s really exciting,” Pike says. His team plans to return to the caves to sample calcite on more disks and other early-looking art.

However, Tom Higham, an archaeological scientist at the University of Oxford, UK, points out that only the oldest date, 40,800 years old, butts up against that start of modern human occupation in Iberia. “I think it is far more likely that all of the art in European sites was simply being made by modern humans,” he says.

Artifacts reveal Amelia Earhart survived as castaway on remote Pacific island

For decades, pioneer aviator Amelia Earhart was said to have “disappeared” over the Pacific on her quest to circle the globe along a 29,000-mile equatorial route.

Now, new information gives a clearer picture of what happened 75 years ago to Ms. Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan, where they came down and how they likely survived – for a while, at least – as castaways on a remote island, catching rainwater and eating fish, shellfish, and turtles to survive.

The tale hints at lost opportunities to locate and rescue the pair in the first crucial days after they went down, vital information dismissed as inconsequential or a hoax, the failure to connect important dots regarding physical evidence.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), a non-profit foundation promoting aviation archaeology and historic aircraft preservation, reported new details Friday leading researchers to this conclusion: Earhart and Noonan, low on fuel and unable to find their next scheduled stopping point – Howland Island – radioed their position, then landed on a reef at uninhabited Gardner Island, a small coral atoll now known as Nikumaroro Island.

Using what fuel remained to turn up the engines to recharge the batteries, they continued to radio distress signals for several days until Earhart’s twin-engine Lockheed Electra aircraft was swept off the reef by rising tides and surf. Using equipment not available in 1937 – digitized information management systems, antenna modeling software, and radio wave propagation analysis programs, TIGHAR concluded that 57 of the 120 signals reported at the time are credible, triangulating Earhart’s position to have been Nikumaroro Island.

“Amelia Earhart did not simply vanish on July 2, 1937,” Richard Gillespie, executive director of TIGHAR, told Discovery News. “Radio distress calls believed to have been sent from the missing plane dominated the headlines and drove much of the US Coast Guard and Navy search.”

“When the search failed, all of the reported post-loss radio signals were categorically dismissed as bogus and have been largely ignored ever since,” Mr. Gillespie said. But the results of the study, he said, “suggest that the aircraft was on land and on its wheels for several days following the disappearance.”

In addition, several artifacts found years ago – some of it discovered by Pacific islanders who later inhabited the island – seem to confirm TIGHAR’s conclusion.

These include broken glass artifacts showing evidence of secondary use as tools for cutting or scraping; large numbers of fish and bird bones collected in, or associated with, ash and charcoal deposits; several hundred mollusk shells, as well as bones from at least one turtle; bone fragments and dried fecal matter that might be of human origin.

A photo taken three months after Earhart’s flight shows what could be the landing gear of her aircraft in the waters off the atoll.

“Analyses of the artifacts, faunals and data collected during the expedition are on-going but, at this point, everything supports the hypothesis that the remains found at the site in 1940 were those of Amelia Earhart,” according to TIGHAR.

Other artifacts (some of them reported in 1940 but then lost) include a bone-handled pocket knife of the type known to have been carried by Earhart, part of a man’s shoe, part of a woman’s shoe, a zipper of the kind manufactured in the 1930s, a woman’s compact, and broken pieces of a jar appearing to be the same size and unusual shape as one holding “Dr. Berry’s Freckle Ointment.” (Earhart was known to dislike her freckles.)

In July, TIGHAR researchers will return to the area where Earhart and Noonan are thought to have spent their last days, using submersibles to try and detect the famous aircraft they believe to have been swept off a Pacific reef in 1937.

Douglas County’s Lamb Spring archaeological dig could rewrite human history

Molly the Columbian mammoth lived, grazed, and died, about 13,000 years ago near a spring in what is now a fast-developing chunk of Douglas County. Five thousand years later, early North American humans spent time at the same spring, where they killed and butchered bison.

We don’t know if humans visited the spring at the same time as Molly, but if the Lamb Spring site produces evidence that they did — and it tantalizes with hope — the site could rewrite the scientific and cultural history of North America. And perhaps offer the Denver area a new attraction.

Lamb Spring sits in the Chatfield Basin, between South Platte Canyon Road and Chatfield Reservoir. “Stand on that site (Lamb Spring) and look around. You realize you are in the middle of one of the fastest-developing areas in Colorado,” said Jim Walker, southwest regional director for The Archaeological Conservancy, an Albuquerque nonprofit that buys archaeologically promising land and safeguards it from development. The conservancy bought the Lamb Spring site in 1995. “The fact that we were able to find that site, buy it and preserve it, at the time we did, was a miracle. I’ll bet within 10 years that area is going to be covered in houses.”

Walker believes further excavation of Lamb Spring could show human activity between 13,000 and even 25,000 years ago, in which case “there would be a lot of rewriting of the peopling of North America.”

“I would place Lamb Spring really high, in terms of its importance,” he said. “If I were ranking Lamb Spring among the other 450 preserves we have, it would be in the top 10.”

Evidence of Pleistocene megafauna like mammoths makes the Lamb Spring dig compelling in its own right, but mammoth sites pepper the West. Early-human findings, in contrast, are rare. Placing both in the same location sets Lamb Spring — the largest “mixed dig” in the country — apart.

The findings may do more than just embellish what we already know: that humans roamed North America as far back as 11,200 years ago. Some archaeologists believe Lamb Spring could provide solid evidence, instead of just speculation, that people lived in North America much earlier.

Today, the Lamb Spring dig amounts to little more than a weed-choked and trash-sprinkled depression in the ground, a cavity surrounded by 35 acres of undulating, fenced-in prairie. An informational plaque sits beside the gated dirt path that leads to the site. Once a month for half the year, people can watch a video about the site andthen follow a tour guide to the swale to observe the grass.

If it weren’t for a rancher’s desire for a stock pond 50 years ago, the bones of Molly and 30 other mammoths — the largest find in Colorado, and the third- biggest in North America — would likely remain buried. But in 1960 Charles Lamb decided to use a spring on his land to make a fishing pond, and while digging he struck some big bones. Geologists identified them as mammoths.

In 1981, Smithsonian Institute archaeologist Dennis Stanford excavated the site and found many more mammoth bones, as well as camels, horses, sloths, llamas and wolves.

Stanford also found a 30-pound rock. Marks on the stone suggested it had been used as a butcher block. Geological forces could not have brought the stone to the site. Instead, Stanford theorized, early humans must have done it, and based on its location in the sediment, that could have happened 16,000 years ago. If the theory can be proved, it will mean humans dwelled at Lamb Spring at least that long ago.

For North American archaeologists, the faintest whisper of “paleo-Indian” usually sends hearts racing. Walker said he’ll “drop everything” if he hears of a site that could be purchased. Signs of early humans in North America are scarce, largely because the population was small and nomadic. Most evidence amounts to a scrap here, a smidgen there.

But in addition to Lamb Spring’s threat to upend the history of the peopling of North America, it also shows clear signs of a 9,000-year-old “Cody complex” bison kill, a site, similar to one found in Cody, Wyo., where humans camped, slaughtered buffalo, cut the meat, and hammered at bone with rocks to withdraw marrow. That alone makes Lamb Spring beguiling to archaeologists. But Lamb Spring, too, holds hints that the site was more than a quick way station for early hunters.

“I think Lamb Spring could yield what would be a jackpot — a campsite or village,” said Walker. “That would be incredible.”

“The site tells us about the ancient environment, about the environment of the Front Range and the foothills, what they were like in the past, how it has changed, how climate has changed,” said James Dixon, a University of New Mexico anthropology professor who has been active in Lamb Spring. “And it has the archaeological story, a later chapter. It has a lot of potential.”

That potential seems to spread beyond Lamb Spring, too. Just three-quarters of a mile away, archaeologists from the Denver Museum of Nature & Scienceare unearthing mammoth bones and signs of early humans at a site they call Scott Spring.

“It’s like a mini-Lamb Spring,” said Steven Holen, curator of archaeology for the museum. “At Scott Spring we are seeing bones even older (than at Lamb Spring) that appear to have been broken by humans. That’s what we are doing there — looking for evidence of humans older than Clovis (11,200 years ago).”

The team began excavating the site in 2010, and dug a test bed where a prairie dog had burrowed down into a mammoth tusk.

“There was ivory lying all around,” Holen said. So far, they have identified a mammoth, a camel and a Pleistocene horse.

“These spring sites have great promise,” he said. “They used those springs and hunted around those springs for thousands of years.”

Denver-area’s Lamb Spring archaeological dig hints at early North American humans

This month, officials with Colorado Economic Development Division will consider a proposal to fund Lamb Spring as a Regional Tourist Project, turning one of the most promising digs in North America into a “living museum” where patrons can watch archaeologists and paleontologists wield brushes on mammoth bones in the archaeological treasure trove.

The same application — titled “Colorado Sports and Prehistoric Park” — calls for a nearby 93-acre sports complex, an assortment of fields, gyms, hotels, spas and restaurants that would draw athletic competitors from the region, and the nation, for tournaments and games. It is competing for funding with several other proposals across the state, including a riverwalk in Pueblo, an adventure park in Estes Park and an entertainment complex in Glendale.

If approved, the park will live in the midst of a massive development called Sterling Ranch, a proposed 3,400-acre, 12,000-home mixed-use development in the Chatfield Basin, with Roxborough Park to the southwest and Chatfield Reservoir to the north.

For many proponents of the development, the model is The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, S.D. The museum encases an ongoing mammoth dig, and visitors — more than 100,000 of them a year — observe scientists at work while learning about the area’s Ice Age history through tours and museum installments. That museum draws people from around the world, but it is remote. The town’s population? About 4,000.

Nearly 3 million people call the Denver metropolitan area home.

County officials want the project, in part, because they believe it will draw tourists and their dollars. Archaeologists pull for Lamb Spring because of its scientific importance .

“There is evidence to suggest it may be one of the oldest sites in America,” said James Dixon, an anthropology professor at the University of New Mexico. “I imagine there is a rich and long history there that has yet to be understood.”

Team closes in on Amelia Earhart

Ric Gillespie may be closer than anyone ever thought possible to solving one of the greatest mysteries of the 20th century.

But he still struggles to understand the complicated woman at the heart of it all.

Recently, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined Gillespie — head of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) — in announcing a new expedition to solve the disappearance of famed aviator Amelia Earhart.

A worldwide celebrity and American heroine, Earhart, along with her navigator Fred Noonan, vanished in 1937 as they were trying to fly around the world.

There have been countless theories, but Gillespie and his team of researchers, archaeologists and crash investigators — his own specialty — believe they are close to solving the riddle.

“I’m a horseman, so we’re on the back straight and coming to the wire,” Gillespie reasons.

Even oceanographer Robert Ballard, who discovered the remains of the Titanic in 1985, says TIGHAR’s research looks promising.

In July, Gillespie’s team will set out on a 220-foot research vessel from Honolulu, and head toward the Phoenix Islands in Kiribati.

They believe there’s compelling evidence Earhart may have landed in shallow waters near Nikumarro island, and an analysis of a photo taken in 1937 — showing what could be a piece of mangled landing gear sticking from the surf — could be the best spot to search.

During past searches, they’ve found other clues, including an eye-witness account of someone who saw wreckage as a little girl, bones that seem to be those of a woman castaway, bits of makeup and a camp site littered with the bones of countless birds, turtles and fish.

But the newly enhanced picture may lead them to the remains of the plane.

What they’re looking for is an “any idiot artifact” — the thing you hold up and any idiot will say, ‘mystery solved’.

Gillespie has been chasing Earhart for decades — at first not wanting any part of the search, because so many others had already tried.

But clue by clue, he and his team have built a case.

Around his office in Delaware, there are pictures of Earhart and Noonan that sit near a photo of Gillespie’s granddaughter.

The flyer has become a part of his life.

But he seems surer of the trail they follow than the pilot they’re searching for.

“I have struggled to understand this woman, ” he says. “I still don’t know who she was, but she’s not the Amelia Earhart of legend.

“She’s someone else.”

The adventurer was among the biggest celebrities of her day. And she used that as currency.

During times when Americans had very little, she offered the clouds – an ambitious woman, Gillespie reasons, who mass-marketed the dream of flight.

“I don’t know if I would have liked her very much,” he admits, saying that’s something he’s never come out and said before.

But he knows she did well for aviation.

And he’s found a certain connection, beyond the search.

Earhart knew headlines were the way to move forward onto the next great quest.

Standing with Clinton during the recent announcement – happy to have the attention on a project that demands a lot of money — something came to mind.

“The uncomfortable realization that I do the same thing (as Earhart),” he says. “It gives new perspective on Amelia.”

Though it doesn’t help to know what her last moments were like — some suggesting Noonan could have died during the crash.

If only she made it onto the island, with no antibiotics and in 37 C heat amid coconut crabs and isolation, experts say she could have lasted months. But drinkable water would have been limited and death certain.

Now a man who doesn’t quite understand her may be the one to finally locate her.

But like the aviator, he knows no course is certain until you actually get there.

New research suggests European Neandertals were almost extinct long before humans showed up

Western Europe has long been held to be the “cradle” of Neandertal evolution since many of the earliest discoveries were from sites in this region. But when Neandertals started disappearing around 30,000 years ago, anthropologists figured that climactic factors or competition from modern humans were the likely causes. Intriguingly, new research suggests that Western European Neandertals were on the verge of extinction long before modern humans showed up. This new perspective comes from a study of ancient DNA carried out by an international research team. Rolf Quam, a Binghamton University anthropologist, was a co-author of the study led by Anders Götherström at Uppsala University and Love Dalén at the Swedish Museum of Natural History, and published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.

“The Neandertals are our closest fossil relatives and abundant evidence of their lifeways and skeletal remains have been found at many sites across Europe and western Asia,” said Quam, assistant professor of anthropology. “Until modern humans arrived on the scene, it was widely thought that Europe had been populated by a relatively stable Neandertal population for hundreds of thousands of years. Our research suggests otherwise and in light of these new results, this long-held theory now faces scrutiny.”

Focusing on mitochondrial DNA sequences from 13 Neandertal individuals, including a new sequence from the site of Valdegoba cave in northern Spain, the research team found some surprising results. When they first started looking at the DNA, a clear pattern emerged. Neandertal individuals from western Europe that were older than 50,000 years and individuals from sites in western Asia and the Middle East showed a high degree of genetic variation, on par with what might be expected from a species that had been abundant in an area for a long period of time. In fact, the amount of genetic variation was similar to what characterizes modern humans as a species. In contrast, Neandertal individuals that come from Western Europe and are younger than 50,000 years show an extremely reduced amount of genetic variation, less even than the present-day population of remote Iceland.

These results suggest that western European Neandertals went through a demographic crisis, a population bottleneck that severely reduced their numbers, leaving Western Europe largely empty of humans for a period of time. The demographic crisis seems to coincide with a period of extreme cold in Western Europe. Subsequently, this region was repopulated by a small group of individuals from a surrounding area. The geographic origin of this source population is currently not clear, but it may be possible to pinpoint it further with more Neandertal sequences in the future.

“The fact that Neandertals in western Europe were nearly extinct, but then recovered long before they came into contact with modern humans came as a complete surprise to us,” said Dalén, associate professor at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm. “This indicates that the Neandertals may have been more sensitive to the dramatic climate changes that took place in the last Ice Age than was previously thought.”

Quam concurs and suggests that this discovery calls for a major rethink of the idea of cold adaptation in Neandertals.

“At the very least, this tells us that without the aid of material culture or technology, there is a limit to our biological adaptation,” said Quam. “It may very well have been the case that the European Neandertal populations were already demographically stressed when modern humans showed up on the scene.”

The results presented in the study are based entirely on severely degraded ancient DNA, and the analyses have therefore required both advanced laboratory and computational methods. The research team has involved experts from a number of countries, including statisticians, experts on modern DNA sequencing and paleoanthropologists from Sweden, Denmark, Spain and the United States.

“This is just the latest example of how studies of ancient DNA are providing new insights into an important and previously unknown part of Neandertal history, “said Quam. “Ancient DNA is complementary to anthropological studies focusing on the bony anatomy of the skeleton, and these kinds of results are only possible with ancient DNA studies. It’s exciting to think about what will turn up next.”

Were Some Neandertals Brown-Eyed Girls?

In museums around the world, reproductions of Neandertals sport striking blue or green eyes, pale skin, and gingery hair. Now new DNA analysis suggests that two of the most closely studied Neandertals—a pair of females from Croatia—were actually brown-eyed girls, with brunette tresses and tawny skin to match. The results could help shed new light on the evolution of the family that includes both modern humans and Neandertals, who died out some 30,000 years ago.

The study has provoked deep skepticism among several outside researchers, however, who criticize numerous aspects of its methodology. The results also run contrary to other genetic evidence and to a long-held hypothesis that Neandertals, who lived mostly in northern latitudes, must’ve had light skin to get enough vitamin D.

But even scientists who have doubts about the new research say it still provides food for thought. “Neandertals occupied a wide geographical range,” says John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who was not involved in the study and who is also studying the physical traits of ancient humans, so “it’s likely that they were variable in pigmentation. … We are really at the first step.”

The new study, to be published in the American Journal of Human Biology later this spring, looks at the genomes of three female Neandertals from Croatia. Their DNA was the basis of the first effort to compile a complete Neandertal genetic sequence, which was published in 2010.

The researchers focused their attention on 40 well-studied stretches of genetic material that help determine pigmentation in living people. A particular form of the gene known as TPCN2, for example, bestows brown hair in modern humans; any other form means hair that’s another color.

One complication is that traits such as hair color are controlled by multiple genes. To determine the cumulative impact of multiple genes on one trait, the authors assumed they could simply add together the impact of individual genes. The female Neandertal known as Vi33.26, for example, had seven genes for brown eyes, one for “not-brown” eyes, three for blue eyes, and four for “not-blue eyes.” By the researchers’ reckoning, that means a six-gene balance in favor of brown and a negative balance for blue, so Vi33.26′s eyes were probably brown. According to this method, all three Neandertals had a dark complexion and brown eyes, and although one was red-haired, two sported brown locks.

Study author Tábita Hünemeier of Brazil’s Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul says she’s not surprised by the results. “There was a large population of Neandertals in Europe,” she says. “It’s impossible that an entire population has red hair or blue eyes.”

She and her colleagues validated their technique, in part by applying to it the genomes of 11 modern humans whose photos and DNA are publicly available. Nearly 60% of the formula’s predictions matched the subjects’ actual physical appearance, the authors say. The team considers that accuracy rate satisfactory, given the complexity of the genetics behind skin color and other physical traits.

But experts caution against giving those museum exhibits a makeover just yet. The problem with the additive technique is that different genes have different levels of impact, says Carles Lalueza-Fox of Spain’s Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona. In 2007, he authored a paper showing that two Neandertals, one from Italy and one from Spain, carried a genetic variation likely to bestow pale skin and red hair. He argues that some pigmentation genes have such a powerful effect that they override the combined contributions of many weaker genes—a phenomenon that would render the new study’s simple gene addition inaccurate. The lighter skin color seen in Europeans, for instance, is due almost entirely to a single gene, he says. “We know that there are some genes that have a very strong effect” on physical appearance, he says.

Another problem, Hawks says, is that the study focuses on the effects of genetic variations found in modern humans. But Neandertals’ hair and skin tones were almost certainly influenced by genetic variations unique to Neandertals, who were a species different from modern humans. So the study doesn’t, and can’t, consider many of the factors that would’ve influenced how Neandertals looked.

Hünemeier responds that her team looked for new genetic variations unique to Neandertals and other ancient humans and came up empty-handed. She also says that other recent work confirms that it’s possible to compute the impact of large numbers of genes using simple arithmetic.

Although Hünemeier and her critics differ on the methods her team used, they agree that the stereotypical view of Neandertals is too narrow. Lalueza-Fox says Neandertals probably had brown eyes and a variety of hair colors, and Hawks thinks Neandertals living in places such as Israel may have had darker skin than their European counterparts.

The uncertainty may not last much longer. Hünemeier and her critics alike think the growing trove of information about the DNA of ancient humans will soon reveal Neandertals’ true colors. New genetic information is being generated on “hundreds of individual paleopopulations,” Hünemeier says. “In 5 years we will have an ocean of information to study.”

Report from Former U.S. Marine Hints at Whereabouts of Long-Lost Peking Man Fossils

In the 1930s archaeologists working at the site of Zhoukoudian near Beijing recovered an incredible trove of partial skulls and other bones representing some 40 individuals that would eventually be assigned to the early human species Homo erectus. The bones, which recent estimates put at around 770,000 years old, constitute the largest collection of H. erectus fossils ever found. They were China’s paleoanthropological pride and joy. And then they vanished.

According to historical accounts, in 1941 the most important fossils in the collection were packed in large wooden footlockers or crates to be turned over to the U.S. military for transport to the American Museum of Natural History in New York for safekeeping during World War II. But the fossils never made it to the U.S. Today, all scientists have are copies of the bones. The disappearance of the originals stands as one of the biggest mysteries in paleoanthropology.

Researchers have found a new lead, however. In a paper published today in the South African Journal of Science, Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and Wu Liu and Xiujie Wu of the Institute for Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing detail their investigation into a recent report concerning the location of the missing bones. Former U.S. Marine Richard M. Bowen, now in his 80s, claimed that in 1947, when he was stationed at Camp Holcomb in the port city of Qinhaungdao during China’s Nationalist-Communist Civil War, he came across a box full of bones while digging foxholes one night. Spooked, he reburied the box. Soon thereafter his company evacuated Qinhaungdao.

Because the most credible accounts of what happened to the fossils have them reaching Camp Holcomb, the researchers thought Bowen’s report worthy of further investigation. Perhaps the officer in charge of the fossils in 1941, seeing that the fossils were not going to make it on board the ship amid the wartime chaos, had chosen to bury them for later retrieval—only to never make it back.

Working with information from Bowen and a local expert on the harbor, the team formulated three best guesses as to the location of the stone barracks where Bowen said he dug up the box of bones. All three sit within an area of about 200 meters by 200 meters. “One possible location sits underneath a large warehouse, but the remaining locations all fall under a large parking area and roadway” the researchers note.

According to the authors, the odds are high that the box Bowen claims to have found would have been destroyed during development of the area. But if it wasn’t, science may yet recover the missing Peking Man fossils. The team concludes:

“We established that the area in question is due to undergo development in the near future and that ‘large buildings’ are to be erected on the site. This development of course offers the opportunity that the roads and warehouses will be excavated and that if the footlocker noted by Richard Bowen has somehow miraculously survived, it or its contents might be uncovered during the course of excavation. Local authorities of the Cultural Heritage Office have committed to monitor any excavations in the area for remnants of the footlockers or fossils, and it is on this slim chance that the recovery of the bones Richard Bowen observed in 1947 rests.”

Human fossils hint at new species

The remains of what may be a previously unknown human species have been identified in southern China.

The bones, which represent at least five individuals, have been dated to between 11,500 and 14,500 years ago.

But scientists are calling them simply the Red Deer Cave people, after one of the sites where they were unearthed.

The team has told the PLoS One journal that far more detailed analysis of the fossils is required before they can be ascribed to a new human lineage.

“We’re trying to be very careful at this stage about definitely classifying them,” said study co-leader Darren Curnoe from the University of New South Wales, Australia.

“One of the reasons for that is that in the science of human evolution or palaeoanthropology, we presently don’t have a generally agreed, biological definition for our own species (Homo sapiens), believe it or not. And so this is a highly contentious area,” he told BBC News.

Much of the material has been in Chinese collections for some time but has only recently been subjected to intense investigation.

The remains of some of the individuals come from Maludong (or Red Deer Cave), near the city of Mengzi in Yunnan Province. A further skeleton was discovered at Longlin, in neighbouring Guangxi Province.

The skulls and teeth from the two locations are very similar to each other, suggesting they are from the same population.

But their features are quite distinct from what you might call a fully modern human, says the team. Instead, the Red Deer Cave people have a mix of archaic and modern characteristics.

In general, the individuals had rounded brain cases with prominent brow ridges. Their skull bones were quite thick. Their faces were quite short and flat and tucked under the brain, and they had broad noses.

Their jaws jutted forward but they lacked a modern-human-like chin. Computed Tomography (X-ray) scans of their brain cavities indicate they had modern-looking frontal lobes but quite archaic-looking anterior, or parietal, lobes. They also had large molar teeth.

Dr Curnoe and colleagues put forward two possible scenarios in their PLoS One paper for the origin of the Red Deer Cave population.

One posits that they represent a very early migration of a primitive-looking Homo sapiens that lived separately from other forms in Asia before dying out.

Another possibility contends that they were indeed a distinct Homo species that evolved in Asia and lived alongside our own kind until remarkably recently.

A third scenario being suggested by scientists not connected with the research is that the Red Deer Cave people could be hybrids.

“It’s possible these were modern humans who inter-mixed or bred with archaic humans that were around at the time,” explained Dr Isabelle De Groote, a palaeoanthropologist from London’s Natural History Museum.

“The other option is that they evolved these more primitive features independently because of genetic drift or isolation, or in a response to an environmental pressure such as climate.”

Dr Curnoe agreed all this was “certainly possible”.

Attempts are being made to extract DNA from the remains. This could yield information about interbreeding, just as genetic studies have on the closely related human species – the Neanderthals and an enigmatic group of people from Siberia known as the Denisovans.

Whatever their true place in the Homo family tree, the Red Deer People are an important find simply because of the dearth of well dated, well described specimens from this part of the world.

And their unearthing all adds to the fascinating and increasingly complex story of human migration and development.

“The Red Deer People were living at what was a really interesting time in China, during what we call the epipalaeolithic or the end of the Stone Age,” says Dr Curnoe.

“Not far from Longlin, there are quite well known archaeological sites where some of the very earliest evidence for the epipalaeolithic in East Asia has been found.

“These were occupied by very modern looking people who are already starting to make ceramics – pottery – to store food. And they’re already harvesting from the landscape wild rice. There was an economic transition going on from full-blown foraging and gathering towards agriculture.”

Quite how the Red Deer People fit into this picture is unclear. The research team is promising to report further investigations into some of the stone tools and cultural artefacts discovered at the dig sites.

The co-leader on the project is Professor Ji Xueping of the Yunnan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology.

Thanks to open access you can read the paper for yourself here.

Bristol archaeologists unearth slave burial ground on St Helena

Archaeologists from the University of Bristol have unearthed a unique slave burial ground on the remote South Atlantic island of St Helena. The excavation, which took place in advance of construction of a new airport on the island, has revealed dramatic insights into the victims of the Atlantic slave trade during the notorious Middle Passage.

The tiny island of St Helena, 1,000 miles off the coast of south-west Africa, acted as the landing place for many of the slaves, captured by the Royal Navy during the suppression of the slave trade between 1840 and 1872.  During this period a total of around 26,000 freed slaves were brought to the island, most of whom were landed at a depot in Rupert’s Bay.  The appalling conditions aboard the slave ships meant that many did not survive their journey, whilst Rupert’s Valley – arid, shadeless, and always windy – was poorly suited to act as a hospital and refugee camp for such large numbers.  At least 5,000 people are likely to have been buried there.

Part of the cemetery was investigated between 2006 and 2008 in advance of a new road that had to pass through Rupert’s Valley to provide access to the proposed airport project.  Some 325 bodies in a combination of individual, multiple and mass graves were discovered.  Only five individuals were buried in coffins: one adolescent and four still- or newborn babies.  The remainder had been placed (or thrown) directly into shallow graves, before being hastily covered.  In some cases mothers were buried with their presumed children, or sometimes the bodies were so close that there might have been a familial relationship.

Now archaeologists, led by Dr Andrew Pearson of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Bristol, are publishing for the first time the results of their discoveries and the subsequent scientific investigations of the human remains and associated grave goods buried with them.

Osteological analysis shows that 83 per cent of the bodies were those of children, teenagers or young adults – prime material for the slave traders who sought victims with a long potential working life.  In most cases the actual cause of death is not clear, but this is unsurprising because the main killers aboard a slave ship (such as dehydration, dysentery and smallpox) leave no pathological trace.  Nevertheless, scurvy was widespread on the skeletons; several showed indications of violence and two older children appear to have been shot.

Despite its horrific nature, the archaeology showed those buried within the graveyard as more than simply victims.  These were people from a rich culture, with a strong sense of ethnic and personal identity.  This is best evidenced by numerous examples of dental modifications, achieved by chipping or carving of the front teeth.  A few had also managed to retain items of jewellery (beads and bracelets), despite the physical ‘stripping process’ that would have taken place after their capture, prior to embarkation on the slave ships.

In addition to the large number of beads, burial conditions allowed for the survival of textiles, including ribbons. A number of metal tags were also found on the bodies that would have identified the slaves by name or number.

Dr Andrew Pearson, director of the project, commented: “Studies of slavery usually deal with unimaginable numbers, work on an impersonal level, and, in so doing, overlook the individual victims.  In Rupert’s Valley, however, the archaeology brings us (quite literally) face-to-face with the human consequences of the slave trade.”

Professor Mark Horton said: “Here we have the victims of the Middle Passage – one of the greatest crimes against humanity – not just as numbers, but as human beings.  These remains are certainly some of the most moving that I have ever seen in my archaeological career.”

The artefacts from the excavations are currently at the University of Bristol and will be transferred to Liverpool for an exhibition at the International Slavery Museum in 2013 before returning to St Helena. The human remains will shortly be re-interred on St Helena.

DNA reveals Neanderthal extinction clues

Neanderthals were already on the verge of extinction in Europe by the time modern humans arrived on the scene, a study suggests.

DNA analysis suggests most Neanderthals in western Europe died out as early as 50,000 years ago – thousands of years before our own species appeared.

A small group of Neanderthals then recolonised parts of Europe, surviving for 10,000 years before vanishing.

The work is published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.

An international team of researchers studied the variation, or diversity, in mitochondrial DNA extracted from the bones of 13 Neanderthals.

This type of genetic information is passed down on the maternal line; because cells contain multiple copies of the mitochondrial genome, this DNA is easier to extract from ancient remains than the DNA found in the nuclei of cells.

The fossil specimens came from Europe and Asia and span a time period ranging from 100,000 years ago to about 35,000 years ago.

The scientists found that west European fossils with ages older than 48,000 years, along with Neanderthal specimens from Asia, showed considerable genetic variation.

But specimens from western Europe younger than 48,000 years showed much less genetic diversity (variation in the older remains and the Asian Neanderthals was six-fold greater than in the western examples).

In their scientific paper, the scientists propose that some event – possibly changes in the climate – caused Neanderthal populations in the West to crash around 50,000 years ago. But populations may have survived in warmer southern refuges, allowing the later re-expansion.

Low genetic variation can make a species less resilient to changes in its environment, and place it at increased risk of extinction.

“The fact that Neanderthals in Europe were nearly extinct, but then recovered, and that all this took place long before they came into contact with modern humans, came as a complete surprise,” said lead author Love Dalen, from the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm.

“This indicates that the Neanderthals may have been more sensitive to the dramatic climate changes that took place in the last Ice Age than was previously thought.”

Neanderthals were close evolutionary cousins of modern humans, and once inhabited Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia. The reasons behind their demise remain the subject of debate.

The appearance of modern humans in Europe around the time of the Neanderthal extinction offers circumstantial evidence that Homo sapiens played a role. But changes in the climate and other factors may have been important contributors.

“The amount of genetic variation in geologically older Neanderthals as well as in Asian Neandertals was just as great as in modern humans as a species,” said co-author Anders Gotherstrom, from Uppsala University.

“The variation among later European Neanderthals was not even as high as that of modern humans in Iceland.”

The researchers note that the loss of genetic diversity in west European Neanderthals coincided with a climatic episode known as Marine Isotope Stage Three, which was characterised by several brief periods of freezing temperatures.

These cold periods are thought to have been caused by a disturbance of oceanic currents in the North Atlantic, and it is possible that they had a particularly strong impact on the environment in western Europe, note the researchers.

Over the last few decades, research has shown that Neanderthals were undeserving of their brutish reputation.

Researchers recently announced that paintings of seals found in caves at Nerja, southern Spain, might date to 42,000 years – potentially making them the only known art created by Neanderthals. However, this interpretation remains controversial.


Munsell Coffee Color Chart

Coffee Munsell

A Statement by Professor Mick Aston

The following was posted on the Time Team Facebook page tonight.  Seeing as I hate leaving things unsorted, or loose ends blowing in the wind, I figured I’d post Prof. Mick’s words.  If you’ve been following any of this, it is important you read:

A Statement by Professor Mick Aston. (13 Feb 2012)

As a result of my interview in British Archaeology there have been many comments and articles which misinterpret completely the points I was trying to make, which were about aspects of the television production side.

There is nothing that I have said in the interview with Mike Pitts that is in anyway to do with the archaeological side of Time Team.

Nobody should draw any conclusion from what I have been quoted as saying that I am at all unhappy with the standard of archaeological work that has been carried out over the last few series including last year.

I think the archaeology that was done this year, including the sites I was not on, was really, really good and this has been the case for several years now. 

I have complete confidence in colleagues like Francis, John, Jacqui, and the digging team.  People like Jim in development and Tim Taylor, as well as the post excavation work done by Wessex Archaeology, and these people will make sure that the archaeology is done properly, whatever happens on the TV production side.

I don’t think there has ever been a doubt that the archaeological work (the science and proceedure) performed on this series is anything less than exemplary.  Again, I think a lot of people have been up in arms about the way the program has been structured as of late and the very forboading words that network wants to “cut down the informative stuff about the archaeology.”  While I certainly think that Prof. Mick’s words offer a degree of clarification and take him out of the fray, I feel an aura of uncertainity still hangs about the show.

So if that’s settled, then the ball is in the series court now.  If quality televisions continues to flow from Channel 4, this will be nothing more than a footnote in the legacy of a legendary series.  But if the viewership continues to vent qualms about the current and future incarnation, this could be apex of a mighty terrible bell curve.

Time will tell.



This is not DNA


This is not DNA.  This was not painted by technologically advanced Neanderthals, ancient aliens, Lumerians, or the ghost of Whitney Houston (too soon?).

I’m explaining this because a vast majority of the individuals who see this photo may be inclined to draw connections between it and the double helix of deoxyribonucleic acid.

What scientists believe this to be is the oldest cave paintings yet found.  On top of that, it was most likely created by Neanderthals.  Scientists believe the above image (seen in full here) depicts local seals that the Neanderthal’s in that area likely hunted.  This beautiful painting has been radiocarbon dated to between 43,500 and 42,300 years old.

So if you see this image popping up on conspiracy theory websites (not that you’d ever check those), please keep a logical mind about you.

German soldiers preserved in World War I shelter discovered after nearly 100 years

Twenty-one German soldiers entombed in a perfectly preserved World War One shelter have been discovered 94 years after they were killed.

The men were part of a larger group of 34 who were buried alive when an Allied shell exploded above the tunnel in 1918 causing it to cave in.

Thirteen bodies were recovered from the underground shelter but the remaining men had to be left under a mountain of mud as it was too dangerous to retrieve them.

Nearly a century later French archaeologists stumbled upon the mass grave on the former Western Front during excavation work for a road building project.

Many of the skeletal remains were found in the same positions the men had been in at the time of the collapse, prompting experts to liken the scene to Pompeii.

A number of the soldiers were discovered sitting upright on a bench, one was lying in his bed and another was in the foetal position having been thrown down a flight of stairs.

As well as the bodies, poignant personal effects such as boots, helmets, weapons, wine bottles, spectacles, wallets, pipes, cigarette cases and pocket books were also found.

Even the skeleton of a goat was found, assumed to be a source of fresh milk for the soldiers.

Archaeologists believe the items were so well preserved because hardly any air, water or lights had penetrated the trench.

The 300ft long tunnel was located 18ft beneath the surface near the small town of Carspach in the Alsace region in France.

Michael Landolt, the archaeologist leading the dig, said: “It’s a bit like Pompeii.

“Everything collapsed in seconds and is just the way it was at the time.

“Here, as in Pompeii, we found the bodies as they were at the moment of their death.

“Some of the men were found in sitting positions on a bench, others lying down. One was projected down a flight of wooden stairs and was found in a foetal position.

“The collapsed shelter was filled with soil. The items were very well preserved because of the absence of air and light and water.

“Metal objects were rusty, wood was in good condition and we found some pages of newspapers that were still readable.

“Leather was in good condition as well, still supple.

“The items will be taken to a laboratory, cleaned and examined.”

Archaeologists also uncovered the wooden sides, floors and stairways of the shelter that

The dead soldiers were part of the 6th Company, 94th Reserve Infantry Regiment.

Their names are all known. They include Musketeer Martin Heidrich, 20, Private Harry Bierkamp, 22, and Lieutenant August Hutten, 37.

Their names are inscribed on a memorial in the nearby German war cemetery of Illfurth.

The bodies have been handed over to the German War Graves Commission but unless relatives can be found and they request the remains to be repatriated, it is planned that the men will be buried at Illfurth.

The underground tunnel was big enough to shelter 500 men and had 16 exits.

It would have been equipped with heating, telephone connections, electricity, beds and a pipe to pump out water.

The French attacked the shelter on March 18, 1918 with aerial mines that penetrated the ground and blasted in the side wall of the shelter in two points.

It is estimated that over 165,000 Commonwealth soldiers are still unaccounted for on the Western Front.

Celebrating Year of the Maya with tour of Latin America’s ruins

The year 2012 is a significant one in the Maya calendar.

The ancient long count calendar of the Maya, a Mesoamerican civilization that flourished across Mexico and Central America from 2000 BC to the time of the Spanish Conquistadores, states that on the 12th December, 2012, the sun will be aligned with the center of the Milky Way for the first time in approximately 26,000 years.

And 21 December, 2012, is said to mark the end of the 13th Maya Calendar, a 144,000-day cycle or “b’ak’tun” since the mythical Maya day of creation 5,200 years ago.

Though popularly interpreted as signifying the “end of the world as we know it,” scholars stress that the end of the “b’ak’tun” does not mean apocalypse.

While few Maya people still follow the long count calendar, the Global Heritage Fund is celebrating the event by naming 2012 “The Year of the Maya,” with members of the Fund greeting the winter solstice on top of La Danta pyramid at the El Mirador site in Guatemala.

“Experiencing the Winter Solstice on the summit of La Danta is thought to be one of the greatest opportunities to experience the end of the 13th Maya calendar and dawn of a new age,” said Jeff Morgan, Executive Director of the Global Heritage Fund.

But their celebrations have a serious side: the Global Heritage Fund is highlighting the dangers to Mayan sites such as El Mirador, which are threatened by looting and deforestation, and hoping to secure the investment to turn these neglected spots into thriving and sustainable tourist destinations.

“Tikal National Park (in Guatemala) has proven that major Maya archaeological sites are economically sustainable through visitation and with appropriate investment, can generate hundreds of millions of dollars for conservation and maintenance of both the cultural and natural heritage,” said Morgan.

CNN’s World’s Treasures asked Morgan to compile a list of key Maya sites across LatinAmerica for Maya-enthusiasts keen to ring in the dawn of a new era sitting on the monumental steps of a temple or at the summit of an ancient pyramid.

Chichen Itza

The site of Chichen Itza is a key sacred spot in Mexico’s southern Yucatan peninsula — the settlement is believed to date back to the 5th century AD.

Its architecture is a blend of Maya and Toltec styles. It was the Toltec — warrior peoples from the Mexican plateau — who imposed the practice of ritual sacrifice at the site.

Covering a huge surface area, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is rich in monuments, chief of which is the stepped pyramid temple of Kukulkan, as well as a Great Ball Court, where visitors can picture deadly ball games taking place.


Though not extensive, this clifftop site in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula is certainly picturesque, overlooking the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea.

A photo-friendly beauty spot, Tulum is a relaxed pit-stop on the itinerary. A dip in the sea should revive any temple-weary travelers.


Also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Palenque, in Chiapas, Mexico, is nestled deep in the jungle, the tops of its many temples often wreathed in mist.

The site boasts stepped pyramids, including the impressive Temple of Inscriptions, carved stone walls and even the burial site of Pakal the Great, Palenque’s 7th-century ruler.


Tikal is set in an ecological reserve in Guatemala — its ruins are believed to date from as far back as 600 BC, and at one point the city was thought to be inhabited by 90, 000 people.

Temples, palaces, and public squares abound: If you want to go off the main tourist beat, you can explore the many ruins lying seemingly half-forgotten in the surrounding jungle.

Not just a historical treasure, the land on which Tikal rests is a natural beauty spot, home to numerous protected species of flora and fauna.


The Maya civilization spanned much of Central America and this site in Honduras is thought to have been inhabited as far back as 2000 BC.

Abandoned for centuries, it was rediscovered in 1570 by a Spanish explorer named Diego Garcia de Palacio.

The site is another maze of temples, plazas, altar complexes and ball courts, and of particular note is the Hieroglyphic Stairway Plaza, a monumental 100-meter-wide stairway bearing a long Mayan inscription composed of numerous glyphs.

Anthropologists clarify link between Asians and early Native-Americans

A tiny mountainous region in southern Siberia may have been the genetic source of the earliest Native Americans, according to new research by a University of Pennsylvania-led team of anthropologists.

Lying at the intersection of what is today Russia, Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan, the region known as the Altai “is a key area because it’s a place that people have been coming and going for thousands and thousands of years,” said Theodore Schurr, an associate professor in Penn’s Department of Anthropology. Schurr, together with doctoral student Matthew Dulik and a team of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, collaborated on the work with Ludmila Osipova of the Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Novosibirsk, Russia.

Among the people who may have emerged from the Altai region are the predecessors of the first Native Americans. Roughly 20-25,000 years ago, these prehistoric humans carried their Asian genetic lineages up into the far reaches of Siberia and eventually across the then-exposed Bering land mass into the Americas.

“Our goal in working in this area was to better define what those founding lineages or sister lineages are to Native American populations,” Schurr said.

The team’s study, published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, analyzed the genetics of individuals living in Russia’s Altai Republic to identify markers that might link them to Native Americans. Prior ethnographic studies had found distinctions between tribes in the northern and southern Altai, with the northern tribes apparently linked linguistically and culturally to ethnic groups farther to the north, such as the Uralic or Samoyedic populations, and the southern groups showing a stronger connection to Mongols, Uighurs and Buryats.

Schurr and colleagues assessed the Altai samples for markers in mitochondrial DNA, which is maternally inherited, and in Y chromosome DNA, which is passed from fathers to sons. They also compared the samples to ones previously collected from individuals in southern Siberia, Central Asia, Mongolia, East Asia and a variety of American indigenous groups. Because of the large number of gene markers examined, the findings have a high degree of precision.

“At this level of resolution we can see the connections more clearly,” Schurr said.

Looking at the Y chromosome DNA, the researchers found a unique mutation shared by Native Americans and southern Altaians in the lineage known as Q.

“This is also true from the mitochondrial side,” Schurr said. “We find forms of haplogroups C and D in southern Altaians and D in northern Altaians that look like some of the founder types that arose in North America, although the northern Altaians appeared more distantly related to Native Americans.”

Calculating how long the mutations they noted took to arise, Schurr’s team estimated that the southern Altaian lineage diverged genetically from the Native American lineage 13,000 to 14,000 years ago, a timing scenario that aligns with the idea of people moving into the Americas from Siberia between 15,000 and 20,000 years ago.

Though it’s possible, even likely, that more than one wave of people crossed the land bridge, Schurr said that other researchers have not yet been able to identify a similar geographic focal point from which Native Americans can trace their heritage.

“It may change with more data from other groups, but, so far, even with intensive work in Mongolia, they’re not seeing the same things that we are,” he said.

In addition to elucidating the Asia-America connection, the study confirms that the modern cultural divide between southern and northern Altaians has ancient genetic roots. Southern Altaians appeared to have had greater genetic contact with Mongolians than they did with northern Altaians, who were more genetically similar to groups farther to the north.

However, when looking at the Altaians’ mitochondrial DNA in isolation, the researchers did observe greater connections between northern and southern Altaians, suggesting that perhaps females were more likely to bridge the genetic divide between the two populations.

“Subtle differences here both reflect the Altaians themselves — the differentiation among those groups — and allow us to try to point to an area where some of these precursors of American Indian lineages may have arisen,” Schurr said.

Moving forward, Schurr and his team hope to continue to use molecular genetic techniques to trace the movement of peoples within Asia and into and through the Americas. They may also attempt to identify links between genetic variations and adaptive physiological responses, links that could inform biomedical research.

For example, Schurr noted that both Siberian and Native American populations “seem to be susceptible to Westernization of diet and moving away from traditional diets, but their responses in terms of blood pressure and fat metabolism and so forth actually differ.”

Using genomic approaches along with traditional physical anthropology may lend insight into the factors that govern these differences.

Bees ‘could deter vandals’ at Greenfield heritage park

Heritage park bosses could use bees to act as a deterrent to stop vandal attacks on historic buildings.

They are looking for sustainable ways to protect old mill buildings at Greenfield Valley Heritage Park, near Holywell, Flintshire.

One idea already tabled is using bees to deter people from going into the protected buildings.

A planning application is due to be submitted to Flintshire council to erect fencing around some of the sites.

An area around Greenfield Mill had to close last summer due to concerns it was in a dangerous condition, with surrounding footpaths also shut to walkers.

Park manager Chris Wright said the deterioration was partly due to age as well as vandal attacks.

He said it would be difficult to deter people determined to get into buildings on the free access public site, making the idea to use bees “seem sensible”.

He hopes a beekeeping group could use the land to produce honey, with the bees themselves helping to pollinate wildflower meadows which could also be created in the area.

“They could be a deterrent,” said Barbara Chick, publicity officer for the Welsh Beekeepers’ Association.

“I haven’t heard of them being used as security bees.”

However, she pointed out there may be health and safety issues if someone was stung and said she would not agree to their use as a security measure.

Planning permission to erect fencing around Greenfield Mill is to be sought to allow paths to reopen while discussions continue about how to stop the further decline of buildings, while managing and encouraging wildlife around them.

Mr Wright said the main issue had always been striking a balance between the environment and wildlife on one hand and historical and industrial concerns on the other.

 He said aerial photos recently uncovered from the 1930s show little flora and fauna, whereas today the whole site was covered in trees and vegetation.

 And there has been proof of otters using the water course and ponds which served the old mills in the valley close to St Winefride’s holy well, as well as sightings of a goshawk and other birds of prey.

 The 70-acre (28 hectares) heritage park, which includes a museum and farm, is owned by Flintshire council and managed by trustees from The Greenfield Valley Trust.

The fermented cereal beverage of the Sumerians may not have been beer

Archaeological finds from cuneiform tablets and remnants of different vessels from over 4,000 years ago show that even around the dawn of civilisation, fermented cereal juice was highly enjoyed by Mesopotamia’s inhabitants. However, besides the two basic ingredients, barley and emmer (a species of wheat) the brew produced in the clay jars of the Sumerians is shrouded in mystery. Despite an abundance of finds and scribal traditions which point to an early love of fermented cereal beverages, reconstructing ancient brewing methods is very difficult, according to the historian of science and cuneiform writing scholar Peter Damerow of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. A scholarly paper by Damerow, who passed away at the end of November 2011 in Berlin, carefully examines the beer brewing technologies of the Sumerians. However, the author also expresses great doubts as to whether the popular brew in ancient times was even beer.

Although many of the more than 4,000 years old cuneiform texts contain records of deliveries of emmer, barley and malt to breweries, as well as documentation of the activities, there is hardly any information on the details of the production processes, and no recipes to follow. According to Damerow, the administrative texts were most likely written for an audience that was already familiar with the details of brewing. They were not intended for informing the modern-day reader about the processes.

Moreover, the methods used for recording this information differ between locations and time periods. Also, the records and calculations are not based on any consistent number system. Instead, the Sumerian bureaucrats used different number systems depending on the nature of the objects to be counted or measured to count or measure.

This has cast doubt on the popular theory that Mesopotamian brewers used to crumble flat bread made from barley or emmer into their mash. The so-called “bappir” (Sumerian for “beer bread”) is never counted as bread in the administrative texts, but in measuring units, like coarsely ground barley. Damerow also points out that the high degree of standardisation, which meant that the quantities of raw materials allocated to the brewers by the central administration remained exactly the same over long periods, sometimes even decades, makes it difficult to base any recipes on them.

According to Damerow, even the “Hymn of Ninkasi”, one of the most significant sources on the ancient art of brewing, does not provide any reliable information about the constituents and steps of the brewing process. This lyric text from the Old Babylonian period around 1800 B.C. is a mythological poem or song that glorifies the brewing of beer. Despite the elaborate versification, Damerow states that the procedure of brewing is not conclusively described. It merely offers an incomplete record of the individual steps. For instance, there is no clue as to how the germination of the grain was interrupted at the right time. It can only be speculated that the barley was layered and that the germination was stopped by heating and drying the grain as soon as the root embryo had the right size.

Furthermore, the content of the hymn does not quite fit the results of the Tall Bazi Experiment. This was a brewing experiment carried out by archaeologists from the Ludwig Maximilian Universität in Munich together with brewing experts from the Center of Life and Food Sciences Weihenstephan at the Technische Universität München, with the intention of reconstructing the ancient brewing processes. Using cold mashing, the archaeologists managed to produce a brew of barley and emmer and adjust the alcohol level by changing the percentage of water; however, in Damerow’s opinion, this result must also be treated with scepticism.

Nothing suggests that a production process that worked under the special conditions of Tall Bazi must have worked in the same way at other places in Mesopotamia, since the local conditions varied greatly. In fact, the experiment only demonstrates how modern methods can be used to produce a beer under the same conditions that were prevalent in Tall Bazi.

These uncertainties lead to a question, which the author considers “much more fundamental”: to which extent is it at all possible to compare ancient products with modern ones? “Given our limited knowledge about the Sumerian brewing processes, we cannot say for sure whether their end product even contained alcohol”, writes Damerow. There is no way of ascertaining whether the brew was not more similar to the bread drink kvass from Eastern Europe than to German Pilsner, Altbier or wheat beer.

Nevertheless, Damerow considers the approach of the scientists in the Tall Bazi Experiment to be a good way of finding the answers to questions about the early history of the art of brewing. “Such interdisciplinary research efforts might well lead to better interpretations of the ‘Hymn of Ninkasi’ than those currently accepted among specialists working on cuneiform literature”, writes Damerow.

China’s tomb raiders laying waste to thousands of years of history

China’s extraordinary historical treasures are under threat from increasingly aggressive and sophisticated tomb raiders, who destroy precious archaeological evidence as they swipe irreplaceable relics.

The thieves use dynamite and even bulldozers to break into the deepest chambers – and night vision goggles and oxygen canisters to search them. The artefacts they take are often sold on within days to international dealers.

Police have already stepped up their campaign against the criminals and the government is devoting extra resources to protecting sites and tracing offenders. This year it set up a national information centre to tackle such crimes.

Tomb theft is a global problem that has gone on for centuries. But the sheer scope of China’s heritage – with thousands of sites, many of them in remote locations – poses a particular challenge.

“Before, China had a large number of valuable ancient tombs and although it was really depressing to see a tomb raided, it was still possible to run into a similar one in the future,” said Professor Wei Zheng, an archaeologist at Peking University. “Nowadays too many have been destroyed. Once one is raided, it is really difficult to find a similar one.”

His colleague, Professor Lei Xingshan, said: “We used to say nine out of 10 tombs were empty because of tomb-raiding, but now it has become 9.5 out of 10.”

Their team found more than 900 tombs in one part of Shanxi they researched and almost every one had been raided.

They spent two years excavating two high grade tombs from the Western Zhou and Eastern Zhou periods (jointly spanning 1100BC to 221BC) and found both had been completely emptied by thieves. “It really is devastating to see it happening,” Zheng said. “Archaeologists are now simply chasing after tomb raiders.”

Experts say the problem became worse as China’s economy opened up, with domestic and international collectors creating a huge market for thieves.

Zheng said a phrase emerged in the 1980s: “If you want to be rich, dig up old tombs and become a millionaire overnight.”

But he added that a crackdown by authorities was helping to contain the problem to an extent. According to the ministry of public security, police investigated 451 tomb-raiding cases in 2010 and another 387 involving the theft of relics. In the first six months of that year, they smashed 71 gangs, detained 787 suspects and recovered 2,366 artefacts.

Those caught face fines and jail terms of three to 10 years, or life in the most serious cases.

Officials say tomb thefts have become increasingly professionalised. Gangs from the provinces worst hit – Shanxi, Shaanxi and Henan, which all have a particularly rich archaeological heritage – have begun exporting their expertise to other regions. One researcher estimated that 100,000 people were involved in the trade nationally.

Wei Yongshun, a senior investigator, told China Daily in 2011 that crime bosses often hired experienced teams of tomb thieves and sold the plunder on to middlemen as quickly as they could.

Other officers told how thieves paid farmers to show them the tombs and help them hide from police.

Local officials have insufficient resources to prevent the crimes and often do not see the thefts as a priority. Others turn a blind eye after being bribed by gangs.

Often, raiders return to a site repeatedly over months. In some cases, thieves have reportedly built small “factories” next to tombs – allowing them to break in without being noticed.

But international collectors bear as much responsibility for the crimes as the actual thieves: the high prices they offer create the incentive for criminals.

Wei said: “Stolen cultural artefacts are usually first smuggled out through Hong Kong and Macao and then taken to Taiwan, Canada, America or European countries to be traded.”

The sheer size as well as value of the relics demonstrates the audacity of the raiders – last year, the Chinese authorities recovered a 27-tonne sarcophagus that had been stolen from Xi’an and shipped to the US.

It took four years of searching before China identified the collector who had bought the piece – from the tomb of Tang dynasty concubine Wu Huifei – for an estimated $1m (£650,000), and secured its return.

Luo Xizhe of the Shaanxi provincial cultural relics bureau told China Daily: “If we don’t take immediate and effective steps to protect these artefacts, there will be none of these things left to protect in 10 years.”

He said provincial and national authorities planned to spend more than 100m yuan (£10m) on surveillance equipment for tombs in Shaanxi over the next five years. But video surveillance and infrared imaging devices for night-time monitoring cost 5m yuan for even a small grave, he added.

Spending on protecting cultural relics as a whole soared from 765m yuan in 2006 to 9.7bn in 2011.

Wei, the archaeologist, said precious evidence such as how and when the tomb was built was often destroyed in raids, even if relics could be recovered. “Quite apart from the valuable objects lost, the site is also damaged and its academic value is diminished,” he said.

In a particularly alarming case last year, raiders simply bulldozed their way through 10 newly discovered tombs in eastern Jiangxi province.

The Global Times newspaper reported that pieces of coffins and pottery and iron items were scattered across the ravaged site, which was thought to date back 2,000 years. Archaeologists said further excavation was impossible because the destruction was so bad.

Neanderthal home made of mammoth bones discovered in Ukraine

Up till recently, most researchers studying Neanderthals had assumed they were simple wanderers, hiding out in caves when the weather got bad. Now however, the discovery of the underpinnings of a house built by a group of Neanderthals, some 44,000 years ago, turns that thinking on its head. Discovered by a team of French archaeologists from the Muséum National d’Histories Naturelle, in an area that had been under study since 1984, the home, as it were, was apparently based on mammoth bones. The team’s findings are to be published in the science journal Quaternary International.

Over the past decade, new information regarding Neanderthals, a human ancestor that died out approximately 30,000 years ago, has come to light that tends to reverse decades of thinking. Instead of a clumsy, dim-witted people, it appears Neanderthals were more advanced than most had thought. Evidence of cooking, burying their dead, making jewelry and perhaps even speaking to one another has come to light indicating that first assumptions were a little harsh. Now, with the discovery of a home built by Neanderthals, it’s clear they were far more sophisticated than anyone had imagined.

The home was apparently built in two parts. The lower part, or base, was made by assembling large mammoth bones to support the whole structure, which was 26 feet across at its widest. The bones themselves were likely obtained both through collecting those found on the ground and by killing the large beasts directly themselves. The Neanderthals who built the structure also obviously lived in it for quite some time as 25 different hearths were found inside. The researchers suggest that the house was once topped by wood or other material the builders were able to find.

The house was found in eastern Ukraine, believed to be the oldest known built of bones, near the town of Molodova, a place that doesn’t have much in the way of trees, thus the Neanderthals who built the house were demonstrating an ability to live in a rather barren place, living in homes they’d constructed while cooking and eating mammoth to survive. It also suggests that Neanderthals were capable of working and living together in groups in established communities.

Perhaps even more interesting was the fact that some of the bones used to build the house had decorative carvings and added pigments, clearly showing that those that built the house, were in fact, building a home.


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