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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, April 10

Hyenas Credited With Creating “Bone Flutes”

ZDICE, CZECH REPUBLIC—Private researcher Cajus G. Diedrick has examined what had been thought of as bone flutes made and played by Neanderthals in southeastern Europe, and concluded that they are actually remains of cave bear cubs that have been scavenged by hyenas. Phys.org reports that he examined bones taken from 15 cave locations, including a large cave bear den in Germany’s Weisse Kuhle Cave, and found that puncture marks are only present in the bones of cubs, which would have been more elastic than adult bones, and would have been less likely to break under the pressure of a hyena’s jaws. The position of the holes on the 19 cub femurs tested were on the thinner side of the bone, and those holes often match up with damage on the opposite side of the bone, as if they had been crushed by scavengers’ upper and lower teeth. In addition, the holes are shaped like a hyena premolar. Diedrick found no sign of drill marks or stone tools marks on the margins of the holes, and he was not able to recreate them. To read about a masterpiece of Paleolithic art, see "New Life for Lion Man."

Did Neanderthals Share Space With Carnivores?

TARRAGONA, SPAIN—A research team lead by scientists from the Institut de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social (IPHES) and the Universitat Rovira I Virgili (URV) has been excavating the Cova de les Llenes, a cave where Neanderthals camped some 200,000 years ago. The project will help scientists understand the relationship between Neanderthals and large carnivores. The camps are found mainly at the entrance to the cave, along with evidence that they hunted wild sheep, deer, aurochs, rhinos, and megaloceros, an extinct giant deer. The excavation has also uncovered Neanderthal tools crafted from stones collected on the banks of the Flamisell River. The evidence suggests that carnivores such as hyenas, leopards, wolves, foxes, and badgers also used the cave, in addition to the cave bears that hibernated there. Large numbers of cave bear remains have been found at the bottom of the cave, along with scratches on the walls and hibernation nests. To read more about our extinct cousins, see "Should We Clone Neanderthals."

Rock Shelter in Utah’s Nine Mile Canyon Vandalized

PRICE, UTAH—A rock shelter in Utah’s Nine Mile Canyon has been vandalized. Members of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance discovered the damage last month and reported it to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). “It’s one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen,” Jerry D. Spangler, director of the nonprofit archaeology organization, told Deseret News. Two wire cables had been buried in the floor of the shelter, and archaeological material within the shelter had been moved to build new walls, according to Ahmed Mohsen, manager of the BLM’s Price field office. Spangler thinks the damage to the site was fairly recent, and that it has damaged the context of the artifacts. “It’s sad that someone would chose to make this their own little playground,” he said. To read about a mystery dealing with ancient figurines from the region, see "Investigating a Decades-Old Disappearance." 

Mummy-Filled Tombs Discovered in Peru

TORONTO, CANADA—Live Science reports that seven tombs containing at least 171 mummies have been excavated at Tenahaha, located in Peru’s Cotahuasi Valley. Dozens of tombs filled with as many as 40 mummies each are tucked into the small hills that surround the 1,200-year-old ceremonial site. “The dead, likely numbering in the low thousands, towered over the living,” archaeologist Justin Jennings wrote in a chapter of the new book, Tenahaha and the Wari State. Soon after death, the knees of the bodies had been pulled up to shoulder level, and the arms folded along the chest. The remains were then bound with rope and wrapped in layers of textiles, and the bodies of the youngest were placed in jars. Some of the mummies were later intentionally broken up and scattered among the tombs. “In the Andes, death is a process, it’s not as if you bury someone and you’re done,” Jennings said. He thinks that Tenahaha may have been “neutral ground,” where people met, feasted, and buried their dead. “It’s a period of great change and one of the ways which humans around the world deal with that is through violence. What we are suggesting is that Tenahaha was placed in part to deal with those changes, to find a way outside of violence, to deal with periods of radical cultural change,” he explained. Jennings is a curator at the Royal Ontario Museum, and is a member of the international team of scientists that conducted the investigations. To read about another ancient Andean culture, see "A Wari Matriarchy?"

Thursday, April 09

Possible Human Sacrifice Found in Silla Dynasty Tomb

GYEONGJU, SOUTH KOREA—Archaeologists from The Foundation of Silla Cultural Heritage Research think that a young man may have been sacrificed and buried in a young woman’s tomb found in Gyeogju, the capital of Korea’s Silla Dynasty (57 B.C. – A.D. 935). The tomb dates to the late fifth or early sixth century and is thought to have been built for the woman, who was wearing a gold earring. The man’s remains were lying next to the woman’s, with their heads adjacent to each other. Kim Kwon-il of the Foundation told Korea JoongAng Daily that this was unusual because human sacrifices found in the main chamber of similar tombs are usually placed next to the feet of the dead. Another room in the tomb held a sword, harness, and pottery, all thought to have belonged to the noblewoman. “This is not the first case where a male sacrifice is buried in a female’s tomb. However, male sacrifices were often buried in the room where the artifacts were, as guards, so to speak, for the dead,” Kim added. One interpretation of the site suggests that the man’s remains may have been placed on a wooden frame above the woman’s body. Over time, the frame collapsed and the wood decayed. Other researchers have suggested that the burial presents the two as lovers. For another dramatic tomb discovery in South Korea, see "Korean Love Affair."

Jewelry Styles Suggest Northern Europeans Resisted Farming

NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK—Previous scholarship has shown a link between foraging and farming lifestyles and the adoption of particular ornaments. Now, for the first time, a team of researchers from the Center for International Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences (CIRHUS), a collaborative arrangement between France’s National Center for Scientific Research and New York University, has studied the beads and bracelets worn by Europeans during the early Neolithic period to trace the spread of farming on the continent. They examined more than 200 bead types from more than 400 European archaeological sites spanning a 3,000 year period. Ornaments linked to farming populations, such as human-shaped beads and bracelets composed of perforated shells, spread from eastern Greece and the shores of the Black Sea to France’s Brittany region, and from the Mediterranean Sea northward to Spain. Farmers’ jewelry was not found in the Baltic region of northern Europe, however. “It’s clear hunters and foragers in the Baltic area resisted the adoption of ornaments worn by farmers during this period. We’ve therefore concluded that this cultural boundary reflected a block in the advancement of farming—at least during the Neolithic period,” CIRHUS researcher Solange Rigaud said in a press release.  To read in-depth about how archaeologists are gaining insight into the lives of Neolithic people in Europe, see "The Neolithic Toolkit."  

Small Bronze Harpy Unearthed in England

BRIGHTLINGSEA, ENGLAND—A small, bronze figurine was discovered along with fragments of Roman pottery and roof tiles at an excavation at Moverons Quarry in southeastern England by archaeologist Ben Holloway of The Colchester Archaeological Trust. The four-inch-tall statue, which has not been cleaned or conserved yet, depicts an upright bird with feathers, talons, and a woman’s head with braided hair. Its small wings are open, and it has a serpent’s tail that functions as a support. The figure is thought to represent a harpy, a creature from Greek and Roman mythology. The three harpies were the daughters of Thaumas and Electra, and were named Aello, Ocypete, and Celaeno. Although originally thought of as beautiful winged women, they became spirits of the winds who were employed by the gods to punish wrong-doers or to carry them to the Underworld. For another dramatic discovery recently made in Colchester, see "Hoard of Roman Jewlery Unearthed."

Wednesday, April 08

Scythian Treasure Site Discovered in Poland

WARSAW, POLAND—A newly published book reveals that archaeologists from the Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, the Polish Academy of Sciences, and the Archaeology Affairs Office of Saxony found the secret site where a golden Scythian hoard was discovered 130 years ago. The “Witaszkowo Treasure,” which dates to the sixth century B.C., includes a shield-shaped ornament, a pendant, a fish-shaped bow and arrow case or gorytos, a Scythian short sword, a dagger, and scabbard fittings. It had been thought that the items belonged to a Scythian leader who had been killed while fighting in what is now western Poland, but the research team speculates that the items, which had never been used, may have been a gift from the Scythians to local chiefs. The site features a ceremonial spring walled with stones that contained hundreds of bowls similar to Greek libation vessels and glass beads that may have come from the Black Sea region. The ritual area around the spring had been paved with stones, and there are remains of a wooden bridge that connected the spring to a vast hearth. “The discovery allowed us to reject the previously prevailing belief that the Witaszkowo Treasure was the spoils of war captured by the local population during battle with Scythian invaders, or a Scythian chieftain’s grave,” team leader Zbigniew Kobyliński told Science & Scholarship in Poland. For a similar discovery made in Bulgaria, see "Thracian Treasure Chest."

Fossils From Laos Reveal Early Human Diversity

  CHAMPAIGN, ILLINOIS—A jawbone with both modern and archaic human traits has been found in a cave in the Annamite Mountains of northern Laos, where a skull—the oldest modern human fossil in Southeast Asia—was unearthed in 2009. Found in a cave known as Tam Pa Ling, the skull pushed back the date of modern human migration to the region to sometime between 46,000 and 63,000 years ago. The jaw, discovered in late 2010, is roughly the same age as the skull. “In addition to being incredibly small in overall size, this jaw has a mixture of traits that combine typical modern human anatomy, such as the presence of a protruding chin, with traits that are more common of our archaic ancestors like Neanderthals—for example, very thick bone to hold the molars in place,” Laura Shackelford of the University of Illinois said in a press release. She and Fabrice Demeter of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris led the new study of the fossils. “Tam Pa Ling is an exceptional site because it shows that very early modern humans migrating and settling in eastern Asia demonstrated a wide range of anatomy,” she explained. “This find supports an ‘Out-of-Africa’ theory of modern human origins rather than a multi-regionalism model,” Shackelford continued. “Given its age, fossils in this vicinity could be direct ancestors of the first migrants to Australia. But it is also likely that mainland Southeast Asia was a crossroads leading to multiple migratory paths.” For more on evolutionary suprises in the archaeological record, see "Our Tangled Ancestry."

Vikings Survived Greenland’s Harsh Weather for Centuries

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—Vikings in Greenland survived the Little Ice Age for much longer than previously thought, according to comprehensive studies of the landscape conducted by archaeologist Christian Koch Madsen of the National Museum of Denmark. “The stories we have heard so far about the climate getting worse and the Norsemen disappearing simply don’t hold water,” he told Science Nordic. He says that there were no more than 2,500 people living in Greenland in the middle of the thirteenth century. Earlier estimates have placed the population as high as 6,000. “When the harsh climatic changes began to set in, we can see that the outermost farms were gradually abandoned. This indicates a centralization of both power and resources, which are clear countermeasures against climate deteriorations—even though they were highly involuntary,” he explained. As the land became more barren, the population began to shrink, and the Norsemen gathered in larger settlements and centralized the economy. They eventually relied upon seafood and trapping for up to 80 percent of their diet. “They actually survived for a long time and were far better at adapting than we previously thought,” Madsen concluded. To read about another discovery upending conventional wisdom about the Norsemen, see "The Vikings in Ireland."

Multiple Strains of TB Found in 18th-C. Hungarian Mummies

WARWICK, ENGLAND—Fourteen tuberculosis genomes were detected in eight naturally mummified bodies from a 200-year-old Hungarian crypt. “Microbiological analyses of samples from contemporary TB patients usually report a single strain of tuberculosis per patient. By contrast, five of the eight bodies in our study yielded more than one type of tuberculosis—remarkably from one individual we obtained evidence of three distinct strains,” Mark Pallen of Warwick Medical School said in a press release. The team, made up of additional scientists from the University of Birmingham, University College London, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and the Hungarian Natural History Museum in Budapest, used a technique called “metagenomics” to identify the strains of TB DNA. They also dated the origin of the lineage of TB strains commonly found in Europe and America to the late Roman period. “By showing that historical strains can be accurately mapped to contemporary lineages, we have ruled out, for early modern Europe, the kind of scenario recently proposed for the Americas—that is wholesale replacement of one major lineage by another—and have confirmed the genotypic continuity of an infection that has ravaged the heart of Europe since prehistoric times,” he added. To read about how seals and sea lions spread TB to the New World, see "Across the Atlantic by Flipper."