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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Monday, October 19

Blood From Maya Weapons Analyzed

CARBONDALE, ILLINOIS—Live Science reports that human blood was found on two out of the 108 obsidian arrowheads from five Maya sites in the central Petén region of Guatemala studied by Prudence Rice and Nathan Meissner of the Center for Archaeological Investigations at Southern Illinois University. All of the arrowheads date to between A.D. 1400 and 1700. One of the arrowheads with human blood on it came from a temple at the site of Zacpetén, and may have involved the cutting of earlobes, tongues, or genitals. “The general consensus [among scholars] is that bloodletting was ‘feeding’ the gods with the human essential life force,” Rice explained. The second arrowhead with human blood on it came from a house near a fortification wall at Zacpetén. It may have wounded someone before it was removed and discarded. Blood from rodents, birds, rabbits, and large cats was found on more than 20 other arrowheads in the study. To read about the discovery of a Maya king's tomb, go to "Tomb of the Vulture Lord."

Tusk Analysis Supports Mammoth Extinction by Hunting

ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN—Daniel Fisher, director of the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology, and his graduate students have shown in the past that “life history” information, such as growth rates, age of sexual maturation, and spacing of pregnancies is preserved in fossil mammoth tusks. Now graduate student Michael Cherney has analyzed the isotopic composition of 40,000-year-old to 10,000-year-old tusks from 15 mammoths ranging in age from three to 12 at the time of death in order to determine how old they were when they were weaned from mother's milk. The numbers suggest that the years that a calf nursed decreased by about three years over a span of 30,000 years. In modern elephants, climate change is associated with delayed weaning; pressure from hunting results in earlier weaning age. “This shift to earlier weaning age in the time leading up to woolly mammoth extinction provides compelling evidence of hunting pressure and adds to a growing body of life-history data that are inconsistent with the idea that climate changes drove the extinctions of many large ice-age mammals,” Cherney said in a press release. To read about a recent discovery, go to "Butchered Mammoth Bones Unearthed in Michigan."

Libya’s Pierced Snail Shells are 150,000 Years Old

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND—Holes in thousands of shells from Haua Fteah Cave in North Africa suggest that early humans used stone drills or thorns to extract snail meat beginning at least 150,000 years ago. “As part of the analysis of archaeological material from the excavation of the Haua Fteah Cave in Libya, tens of thousands of mollusk shells were studied for both palaeoclimate reconstruction and high resolution radiocarbon dating,” Evan Hill, who worked on the project while studying at Queen’s University Belfast, told The Daily Mail. Piercing the shell broke the suction and made it possible to suck the snail from its shell. “Snails seem to have been a very democratic thing for early people to eat, because anyone could gather them,” added Chris Hunt of Liverpool John Moores University. To read about Paleolithic decoration discovered in Africa, go to "In Style in the Stone Age."

Friday, October 16

Ice Age Tools Excavated in England

LEICESTER, ENGLAND—Excavators from the University of Leicester Archaeological Services are working on a Late Upper Paleolithic camp site in Bradgate Park that is threatened by erosion. The intact site appears to have been divided up into activity zones, and to contain thousands of flint artifacts, including projectile points, scrapers, knives, and piercers. “The people who left behind these clues were members of a small group of pioneer mobile hunter gatherers who repopulated northwest Europe towards the end of the last Ice Age with the rapid onset of a warmer climate and the development of open grassland vegetation,” principal investigator Lynden Cooper said in a press release. They would have hunted wild horse, red deer, mammoth, elk, wild cattle, wolf, arctic fox, arctic hare, and brown bear. The 14,700-year-old site rests on land that was designated a deer park during the medieval period, which has protected it from plowing. To read about how ancient Icelanders adapted to Ice-Age life, go to "Letter from Iceland: Surviving the Little Ice Age."

Polished Skull Caps Unearthed at Marsh Creek Site

DAVIS, CALIFORNIA—Extra skulls were found buried in eight of the graves at the 3,000-year-old Marsh Creek site in central California, along with seven graves of skeletons missing heads. The skulls may have been moved as a way of honoring ancestors, or reuniting family members after death, according to Jelmer Eerkens of the University of California, Davis. Analysis of the strontium isotopes in all of the bones showed that those people whose heads had been removed grew up in the Marsh Creek area, as had the rest of the burial population. Two of the extra skulls had been transformed into calottes, or smooth bowl shapes made from skull crowns. One of them had even been daubed with red ochre. “The Marsh Creek pattern is inconsistent with warfare as an explanation for the presence of extra skulls and headless burials,” Eerkens told Western Digs. “The data are much more in line with ancestor worship, where sometimes mementos of people were kept and turned into artifacts—bowls, in this case, but we have examples of flutes and whistles [made from human bone] in other cases,” he added. To read about ancestor worship in ancient Scotland, go to "Cladh Hallan."

Climate Variability and the Rise and Fall of City States

COLLEGE PARK, PENNSYLVANIA—Climate volatility influenced the rise and fall of agrarian states in Mexico and Peru, according to a new study led by environmental archaeologist Douglas Kennett of Penn State University. He and climatologist and statistician Norbert Marwan of Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research gathered information on the climate over a period of 2,000 years in central Mexico from a stalagmite from Juxtlahuaca Cave. The Quelccaya ice cap in the Peruvian Andes also provided information on annual changes in rainfall and temperatures for 1,800 years. They then compared the climate information with archaeological records on the rise and fall of Teotihuacán, the Toltec Empire, and the Aztec Empire. They found that the states grew during periods of stable rainfall, and declined during volatile climate conditions. “While there is some support for the hypothesis that stable climatic conditions favored political centralization and that unstable climatic conditions contributed to sociopolitical instability and decentralization, additional chronological work is needed,” Kennett said in a press release. To read about the impact of climate change on ancient mummies, go to "Saving Chile's Chinchorro Mummies."

Hunter-Gatherers Stay Up Late, Too

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA—A study of the sleeping habits of present-day hunter-gatherers suggests that human ancestors had similar sleep patterns to people living in today’s industrialized world. Jerome Siegel of the University of California Los Angeles sent watch-sized devices that measure sleeping and waking times, as well as light exposure, into the field with anthropologists who study the Hadza, who live near Serengeti National Park; the Tsimane, who live in the Andean foothills; and the San, who live in the Kalahari Desert. The scientists also gathered information about the sleepers’ body temperatures and the temperature of their sleeping environments. They found that hunter-gathers stay up more than three hours after dark, sleeping less than seven hours each night. And, the people in the study awoke when temperatures hit the lowest point in the 24-hour period, resulting in roughly the same wake-up time each morning. “The fact that we all stay up hours after sunset is absolutely normal and does not appear to be a new development, although electric lights may have further extended this natural waking period,” Siegel said in a press release. To read about the first evidence for hunter-gatherers using poison for hunting, go to "First Use of Poison."

Thursday, October 15

Gilt Bronze Buddha Statue Recovered in South Korea

GANGWON PROVINCE, SOUTH KOREA—The Korea Herald reports that a well-preserved ninth-century Buddha statue has been uncovered in the northeast region of the country. The gilt bronze statue, which stands approximately 20 inches tall, was found at a temple site that has also yielded a stone pagoda and other Buddhist artifacts. “According to experts who were called upon to check the new discovery at the excavation site this afternoon, the relic seems to be the largest of such kind from the Unified Silla period (668-935) and hold high value both artistically and historically,” an official from Korea’s Cultural Heritage Administration told the Yonhap News Agency. To read more, go to "North Korea's Full Moon Tower."

Glass Spearhead Found on Australia’s Rottnest Island

PERTH, AUSTRALIA—A team from the University of Western Australia’s School of Indigenous Studies found a rare nineteenth-century glass spearhead while visiting Rottnest Island, also known as Wadjemup. Such spearheads are thought to have been made from scraps of glass by Indigenous men and boys who were imprisoned on the island between 1838 and 1931. They were then able to use the weapons to supplement the prison diet of barley, cabbage, and porridge with fish, snake, and quokka—a nocturnal marsupial about the size of a cat. “As I was digging around in the sand with my foot, something shiny glinted in the light and I recognized the object to be a glass spearhead,” Professor Len Collard said in a press release. The team photographed the spearhead and reburied it at the site out of respect for Aboriginal traditions. To see more images of aboriginal glass spearpoints, go to "What's the Point?"

Bronze Age Weapons Unearthed in Scotland

ISLE OF COLL, SCOTLAND—An excavation on a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) nature reserve has uncovered 3,000-year-old swords and spearheads made of bronze. The twelve pieces are thought to have come from at least seven weapons. “The items were recovered from what had once been a freshwater loch. It seems that they had been purposely broken and cast into the waters as part of a ceremony, most likely as offerings or gifts to the gods or goddesses of the time,” Jill Harden, RSPB Scotland Reserves archaeologist, said in a press release. Further study could reveal if there were environmental stresses that prompted the offering. The artifacts have been moved to Kilmartin Museum in Argyll for conservation. To read about prehistoric archaeology in Scotland, go to "Neolithic Europe's Remote Heart."

Original Chemistry Lab Discovered at the University of Virginia

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA—Renovation of the University of Virginia’s Rotunda has uncovered a chemical hearth built as a semi-circular niche in an early basement classroom where John Emmet, the school’s first professor of natural history, taught chemistry. The hearth, thought to have been constructed for Emmet’s use, was heated with one wood-burning firebox and a coal-burning one. Underground brick tunnels provided fresh air to the fireboxes and flues carried away fumes and smoke. Five workstations had been cut into stone countertops—these were probably used by students with portable hearths. The chemical hearth is thought to have been closed up in the wall in the mid-1840s, after Emmet’s death, and the chemistry lab was eventually moved to an annex on the north side of the Rotunda that was destroyed by a fire in 1895. “The hearth is significant as something of the University’s early academic years. The original arch above the opening will have to be reconstructed, but we hope to present the remainder of the hearth as essentially unrestored, preserving its evidence of use,” architectural conservator Mark Kutney said in a press release. To read more about historical archaeology in Virginia, go to "Free Before Empancipation."