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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, July 03

Small Jade Casket Discovered in North China

  HEBEI, CHINA—A small jade casket said to contain human relics of a prominent Hinayana Buddhist was discovered by a farmer plowing a field in the political, economic, and cultural center of Yecheng, a 2,500-year-old capital city. Hinayana Buddhism prevailed in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand. The jade casket indicates that it had also been introduced to the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River. “Such as casket containing relics of a prominent Buddhist is often enshrined in an underground palace of a Buddhist temple,” archaeologist He Liqun of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences told The Standard.  

Skeletons Found at a Late-Roman Villa in England

  BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND—Five skeletons that could represent three generations have been unearthed at a Roman villa in southern England. The skeletons, which date to the mid-fourth century, are the first to have been found at a villa in Roman Britain. “This could provide us with significant information, never retrieved before, about the state of health of the villa owners, their ancestry, and where they came from,” Miles Russell of Bournemouth University told The Bournemouth Echo. The team wants to know if the villa was owned by Britons who became Romans, or if people from another part of the Empire moved to the rural area. “These remains will shed light on the final stages of the golden age of Roman Britain,” said co-director Paul Cheetham.  

Interbreeding Helped Modern Humans Adapt to New Environment

  BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA—A gene variant that helps Sherpas and other Tibetans breathe at high altitudes was inherited from the Denisovans, according to a new study conducted by an international team of scientists. Tibetans have less hemoglobin in their blood, and are able to use smaller amounts of oxygen efficiently. The scientists sequenced a gene called EPAS1, which regulates the production of hemoglobin in the body, in 40 Tibetans and 40 Han Chinese. (Their ancestors split into two groups sometime between 2,750 and 5,500 years ago.) Population geneticist Rasmus Nielsen and Emilia Huerta-Sanchez of the University of California, Berkeley, analyzed the DNA and found that the Tibetans and two of the Han Chinese had a segment of the gene in which five letters of the code were identical. That particular code, however, was not found in anyone else from around the world who had participated in the 1000 Genomes Project. When compared to the genomes of archaic humans, the sequences of the Denisovan and Tibetan segments were a close match. The team thinks that the gene segment survived in Tibetans through natural selection because it helped them adapt to high-altitude life on the Tibetan plateau. “Modern humans didn’t wait for new mutations to adapt to a new environment. They could pick up adaptive traits by interbreeding,” Nielsen told Science Now.   

Seahenge and 2nd Circle Were Built at the Same Time

  HOLME BEACH, ENGLAND—A second Bronze Age timber circle preserved in salty silt on a beach in eastern England has been dated with dendrochronology to the same summer as its neighbor, Seahenge, whose 55 posts surrounded the upended stump of an oak tree. Known as Holme II, the second ring consisted of two oak logs laid flat, surrounded by an oval of oak posts with smaller branches woven between them, then an outer ark of split oak timbers, and then a fence of closely set split oak timbers, according to The Guardian. The two circles were built from trees cut down in the spring or summer of 2049 B.C. Coastal erosion exposed the circles, which had been built in boggy freshwater 4,000 years ago. “As the timbers used in both timber circles were felled at the same time, the construction of the two monuments must have been directly linked. Seahenge is thought to have been a free-standing timber circle, possibly to mark the death of an individual, acting as a cenotaph symbolizing death rather than a location for burial. If part of a burial mound, the second circle would have been the actual burial place,” said David Robertson, historic environment officer at Norfolk County Council.   

Wednesday, July 02

Changes in Human Skin Studied

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA—It had been thought that Northern Europeans developed light skin in order to absorb more UV light to process more vitamin D, necessary for healthy bones and immune function. But a new study conducted by a team led by professor of dermatology Peter Elias from the University of California, San Francisco, shows that the changes in skin’s function as a barrier to water loss is more likely. The skin-barrier protein filaggrin is broken down into a molecule called urocanic acid, which Elias says is the most potent absorber of UVB light in the skin. “It’s certainly more important than melanin in lightly-pigmented skin,” he explained. Elias and his team found that up to ten percent of normal Northern Europeans carry mutations in the filaggrin gene, compared to much lower mutation rates in southern European, Asian, and African populations. “Higher filaggrin mutation rates result in a loss of urocanic acid, correlated with higher vitamin D levels in the blood. Latitude-dependent variations in melanin genes are not similarly associated with vitamin D levels. This evidence suggests that changes in the skin barrier played a role in Northern Europeans’ evolutionary adaptation to Northern latitudes,” the study concluded. Pigmented skin would have offered ancestral humans living in sub-Saharan Africa protection against dehydration and infections. “Once human populations migrated northward, away from the tropical onslaught of UVB, pigment was gradually lost in service of metabolic conservation. The body will not waste precious energy and proteins to make proteins that in no longer needs.”

Building Big Brains With Bugs

  ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI—A five-year study of capuchin monkeys in Costa Rica led by Amanda D. Melin of Washington University in St. Louis suggests that figuring out how to find food during seasonal changes in the food supply may have spurred the development of bigger brains, higher-level cognitive functions, and increased manual dexterity in human ancestors and other primates. “We find that capuchin monkeys eat embedded insects year-round but intensify their feeding seasonally, during the time that their preferred food—ripe fruit—is less abundant. These results suggest embedded insects are an important fallback food,” she told Science Daily. Such fallback foods are thought to help shape the evolution of body forms that aid in digestion, and the evolution of the brain in primates that live in areas with wide seasonal variations and changes in the food supply. This is evident in capuchin lineages—gracile capuchins live in tropical rainforests and can bang snails and fruits against branches to obtain their food. But robust capuchins, which spread from the Atlantic rainforest into drier, more seasonal habitats millions of years ago, are known for their innovative use and modification of sophisticated tools.  

11th-Dynasty Chapel Discovered in Egypt

  ABYDOS, EGYPT—An 11th Dynasty chapel belonging to King Mentuhotep II was discovered on the west bank of the Nile in the city of Sohag, according to Ahram Online. Located near the large temple of King Seti I, Mentuhotep II built the chapel of limestone to honor the god Osiris after his unification with the local god of Sohag, Khenti-Amenty. Some of the engravings on the chapel’s walls have been damaged by subterranean water. “It is a very important discovery that will reveal more of the history of King Mentuhotep II,” said Minister of Antiquities and Heritage Mamdouh El-Damaty.    

Summer Palace Unearthed at India’s Taj Mahal

  AGRA, INDIA—Remains of a summer palace have been uncovered in the area opposite the Taj Mahal. The building is thought to have been a baradari, a pavilion designed to allow the free flow of air, set in the Mughal-era garden Mehtab Bagh, reportedly Shah Jahan’s favorite spot for its view of the Taj at night. “The present work is going in the south direction of the garden in the straight alignment of the Taj Mahal which makes the discovery an interesting one,” an official from the Archaeological Survey of India told The Times of India. The summer palace may have been inundated by flooding of the Yamuna River.  

Tuesday, July 01

Blood Residue From Ancient Tools Tested

  COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA—Ancient tools collected by Christopher Moore and his colleagues at the Savannah River Archaeological Research Program at the University of South Carolina are being tested for traces of animal blood at the University of Calgary. “It appears that when hunter-gatherers made a tool by flaking, it produced numerous microfractures in the rock. Those microfractures apparently absorb blood protein or blood residue during any kind of butchery or cutting or scraping activity. The cracks in the rocks are like tiny caves that protect the residue from the elements, and it is preserved,” Moore told The Aiken Standard. The samples can then be analyzed using antisera, but the exact species of animal can’t be identified. Tools from the Paleo-Indian period revealed traces of deer, rabbit, cat, and bison, but not mammoths or mastodons. “It would have been really cool to have seen that, so I was a little disappointed. But it’s also interesting that it wasn’t there,” Moore said. Tools from the Early Archaic period yielded similar results, with the addition of doglike mammals. DNA analysis and the study of more tools could produce additional information.   

Chariot Tomb Discovered in Northern France

PARIS, FRANCE—Art Daily reports that a Gallic tomb containing a chariot is being excavated ahead of road construction in northern France by a team of archaeologists from the Ardennes departmental archaeology unit and Inrap. Iron wheel bands whose interiors are covered with gold leaf, and bronze hub decorations set with glass have been uncovered in the wood-lined tomb. Bronze decorations from the chariot, its wooden shaft, and the remains of two small horses have also been found. Burials of this type emerged in the seventh century B.C., but further research is needed to determine the age of this tomb. 

The Colosseum in the Middle Ages

  ROME, ITALY—Excavations beneath the arched entrances to the Colosseum by archaeologists and students from Roma Tre University and the American University of Rome revealed late medieval dwellings, including terracotta sewage pipes, pottery, and foundations of a twelfth-century wall. A tiny monkey figurine carved from ivy was also found—it may have served as a chess piece. “This excavation has allowed us to identify an entire housing lot from the late medieval period,” Rossella Rea, director of the Colosseum, told Discovery News. At that time, the monument was controlled by friars who rented space for housing, stables, and workshops, turning the arena into a huge courtyard. The residents moved out when the Colosseum was seriously damaged by an earthquake in 1349.  

Baby Boom & Population Collapse in the Ancient Southwest

  PULLMAN, WASHINGTON—Tim Kohler and Kelsey Reese of Washington State University analyzed thousands of skeletal remains from hundreds of archaeological sites across Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. By determining how many of the remains, which date from 900 B.C. to the early 1500s, belonged to children between the ages of 5 and 19, they were able to estimate that the birthrate slowly increased until about 400 A.D., and then rose more quickly and then leveled off around 1100. On average, each woman gave birth to more than six children during this period of “baby boom.” The population explosion coincided with the shift from nomadic hunting and gathering to maize farming, and may have provided women with the calories needed to produce and care for larger families. “We begin to see much more substantial dwellings, indicating that people are spending a much longer period of time in specific places,” Kohler told Live Science. A steep decline in the birthrate after 1300 may reflect a severe drought in the 1100s; the effects of harmful protozoa, bacteria, and viruses carried by irrigation; and violence.