Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Tuesday, December 15

Skin Mites May Help Scientists Track Human Evolution

BRUNSWICK, MAINE—The mites that live on human skin could help scientists study the history and relationships of human populations. Evolutionary biologist Michael Palopoli of Bowdoin College and his team have found that people can carry four different subgroups of Demodex folliculorum, a microscopic arthropod whose last common ancestor lived more than three million years ago. Samples were collected from people with European, Asian, African, and Latin American ancestries. Analysis of the mites’ mitochondrial DNA showed that people of African descent had a mixture of all the subgroup types, while people of European ancestry tended to have mites from only one group. “As they diverged into Asia and Europe, some individual lineages were lost,” Palopoli told Science Magazine. The research also suggests that a person’s mite population remains stable for as long as three years, even when someone moves to another part of the world. Mite populations also appear to be stable across human generations, even in new locations. Differences in the hydration, hair follicle density, and lipid production in human skin may account for the differences in the mite populations. For more, go to "Insights from Insects."

Hanging Coffins Discovered in Central China

HUBEI PROVINCE, CHINA—Hanging coffins estimated to be 1,200 years old have been found in man-made caves carved into a remote cliff in central China, according to a report in ECNS. The 131 coffins, thought to have been constructed and placed by the Bo people, were found in an area called “Cave of the Fairies” by the people who now live in the remote village of Yanglinqiao. The hanging coffins are thought to have protected the bodies from scavengers. Yu Bo, chief of the Zigui Cultural Relics Bureau, said that the cliffs will be conserved and added to the list of China’s protected cultural heritage sites. To read more about archaeology in China, go to "The Tomb Raider Chronicles."

Chit-Chat May Have Evolved to Reinforce Relationships

PRINCETON, NEW JERSEY—Scholars have speculated that human ancestors used grooming each other as a way to form social bonds until group sizes increased and it became too time consuming. Ipek Kulahci of Princeton University and her colleagues have observed that the ring-tailed lemurs living at Duke University’s Lemur Center and on St. Catherines Island, Georgia, groom each other as a means of social bonding, but use vocalizations to stay in touch with those individuals that they groomed the most frequently, independent of group size. “By exchanging vocalizations, the animals are reinforcing their social bonds even when they are away from each other,” Kulahci said in a press release. And, when the researchers played recordings of lemur calls to the group, only the lemurs that shared a close grooming relationship with the individual that made the call responded. “This social selectivity in vocalizations is almost equivalent to how we humans keep in regular touch with our close friends and families, but not with everyone we know,” she explained. To read about ancient languages, go to "The Wolf Rites of Winter."

Monday, December 14

Roman Wreck Discovered in Deep Waters Near Italy

ALASSIO, ITALY—A Roman ship dating to between the first and second century A.D. has been found off the Ligurian coast. Italy’s scuba diver-police force, the Carabinieri Subacquei, assisted with the investigation of the wreck, which rests under more than 650 feet of water. The ship is estimated to have been nearly 100 feet long and, due to the shape of most of the amphoras on board, it is thought to have been carrying a load of garum on a route between Italy, Spain, and Portugal. “After we filmed the wreck and analyzed an amphora and some fragments that a robotic craft brought back to the surface, we realized the ship was carrying a huge quantity of fish sauce when it sank,” team leader Simon Luca Trigona of the Archaeological Superintendency of Liguria told The Local. Other jars only made in the area around the Tiber River in Rome suggest the vessel carried Italian wines to the Iberian Peninsula. “It’s a nice find because it means we are almost sure about the route this ship was on,” Trugona said. To read about how maritime trade fueled the growth of the Roman Empire, go to "Rome's Imperial Port."

Historic Ham & Peanut Get High-Tech Treatment

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA—Bernard Means of Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of World Studies specializes in making 3-D scans or archaeological artifacts. He visited the Isle of Wight County Museum in Smithfield, Virginia, home of the world’s oldest ham and the world’s oldest peanut. “The ham and the peanut are clearly important to the people of Isle of Wight County, and Virginia as well, and the lab is pleased to help them tell the story,” Means said in a press release. The ham, cured in 1902, was left hanging from a rafter in a packing house, and by 1924, it had become a tourist attraction. “It did have a powerful scent that I cannot describe,” commented Means. The peanut dates to 1890, and was also used to advertise Smithfield food products. The museum staff plans to use the scans as teaching tools. “Not only will we have more documentation on the ham and peanut, but if those items change over time (by nature), we’ll know,” explained Jennifer England, director of the museum. To read more about archaeological scanning, go to "Lasers in the Jungle."

Modern Humans Enjoy Efficient Sleep Patterns

DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA—Humans evolved to have efficient sleep patterns, according to a study of data on the sleep habits of hundreds of mammals, including 21 species of primates, complied by researchers from Duke University. Modern humans sleep an average of seven hours a night, with up to 25 percent of that time in deeper stages of sleep such as REM, or rapid eye movement sleep. Other primate species need as many as 14 to 17 hours, and in some, such as mouse lemurs, mongoose lemurs, and African green monkeys, only five percent of sleep time is spent in REM sleep. “Humans are unique in having shorter, higher quality sleep,” anthropologist David Samson said in a press release. He and colleague Charlie Nunn suggest that human ancestors started getting the most out of their rest when they started sleeping on the ground, near warm fires and in protective groups. The researchers add that a good night’s sleep may have helped human ancestors cement the skills they learned during those extra hours they were awake. To read more recent evolutionary research, go to "Our Tangled Ancestery."

First Farmers Carried Millet Seeds Across Eurasia

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—An international team of researchers examined the DNA of modern millet varieties, and carried out radiocarbon dating and isotope analysis on charred millet grains, a crop that was first domesticated some 10,000 years ago in North China, from archaeological sites across China and Inner Mongolia, and concluded that early nomadic early shepherds carried the seeds with them across Eurasia and into Europe. The early farmers also mixed millet seeds with other crops, which gave rise to crop diversity and the use of extended growing seasons. This practice provided food security, but it also required settled populations and elaborate social contracts to regulate the use of water and land. “These findings have transformed our understanding of early agriculture and society. It has previously been assumed that early agriculture was focused in river valleys where there is plentiful access to water. However, millet remains show that the first agriculture was instead centered higher up on the foothills—allowing this first pathway for ‘exotic’ eastern grains to be carried west,” Martin Jones of the University of Cambridge said in a press release. For more, go to "Analyzing the Neolithic Revolution."

Friday, December 11

Neolithic Pit in Eastern France Yields Victims of Violence

HABSHEIM, FRANCE—Science News reports that Fanny Chenal of Antea Archéologie and her colleagues have excavated a Neolithic pit in Bergheim, France, that held the remains of two men, one woman, and four children that had been killed some 6,000 years ago. Their remains had been placed over seven severed human left arms and scattered hand bones, and topped with a section of an infant’s skull. Only one man is missing a left arm, but Chenal and her team have not been able to determine if it was among the limbs in the circular pit. All of the well-preserved remains are thought to have been placed in the pit at the same time. That layer also contained a piece of jewelry made from a mussel valve, a stone point, a pig jaw fragment, and two hare skeletons. Other pits at the site contained human remains, but none showed signs of violent death or limb loss. According to Bruno Boulestin of the University of Bordeaux, this is the first time that the bodies of people likely to have been killed or mutilated in battle have been found in a Neolithic circular pit. To read about technology dating to this era, go to "The Neolithic Toolkit."

Roman and Medieval Leicester Unearthed

LEICESTER, ENGLAND—Construction work at the former site of a bus depot has given archaeologists the rare opportunity to examine the area at the corner of Southgates and Peacock Lane in central Leicester. Between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, this area is thought to have been crowded with houses and shops. The team from University of Leicester Archaeological Services has uncovered stone-lined pits that may have been cisterns or used for storage, garbage pits, latrines, wells, boundary walls, and a cellar that may date to the late fifteenth or sixteenth century. Under the medieval street surface, the researchers found the remains of two Roman streets with stone and timber buildings, floor surfaces and wall fragments, and coins, tableware, game pieces, bone hair pins, and jewelry that date from the second through the fourth centuries. “One of the Roman streets found on the site has never been seen before in Leicester and isn’t on any of our plans of the Roman city. This is a significant find and raises exciting new questions about the layout of the early Roman town and how it evolved through the Roman period,” archaeologist Mathew Morris said in a press release. To read more about Roman Britain, go to "Artifact: Roman Eagle Sculpture."

U.S. Returns Artifacts, Fossil to China

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement handed over 22 archaeological artifacts and a microraptor fossil to Gu Yucai, China’s Deputy Director General of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage. The artifacts, including jade disks and bronze trays, were seized in Miami, Cleveland, and New York City, and had been accompanied by false documentation. “The repatriation of these items is a great success for the United States and for the Chinese government and its people. Cultural heritage endures as a reminder of the contributions and historical experiences of humanity, and we must continue to work together on many fronts to safeguard it,” Assistant Secretary Evan Ryan said in a press release. To read in-depth about looting in China, go to "Tomb Raider Chronicles."

2,000-Year-Old Tomb Contained “Golden” Horse

BEIJING, CHINA—Samples of DNA obtained from the bones of five horses discovered in a 2,000-year-old tomb in northwestern China have been analyzed by scientists from the Chinese Academy of Social Science. The tomb, which had been excavated by a team made up of archaeologists from the Xinjiang Cultural Relics Department and Northwestern University, contained the remains of three nomads, and the horses are thought to have been buried with them as sacrifices. Two of the horses were chestnut colored and had been buried with a camel in an animal vault. But one of the horses had been buried in the same vault as its supposed owner. “The color of the horse’s body was golden, or palomino, while its mane and tail were nearly white,” lead researcher Zhao Xin told Xinhua. “Obviously, its conspicuous and unique appearance made it precious,” she said. To read more about ancient horses, go to "The Story of the Horse."