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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Thursday, March 12

Homo Erectus Tooth Rediscovered in Sweden

UPPSALA, SWEDEN—Two 500,000-year-old teeth from “Peking Man” were found in the 1920s by Otto Zdansky of Uppsala University in caves in Zhoukoudian near Beijing. The teeth, along with a third unearthed in the 1950s, were housed in the Museum of Evolution in Uppsala. Other material from the excavation that were housed in China were lost during World War II. But some of the boxes of materials sent to the university from the excavations at Zhoukoudian were never unpacked. Then in 2011, Per Ahlberg, Martin Kundrat, and Jan Ove Ebbestad started going through the boxes that were in storage at Uppsala University and found a Homo erectus tooth. They invited paleontologists Liu Wu and Tong Haowen of the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing to study it. “It is a spectacular find. We can see numerous details that tell us about this individual’s life. The crown of the tooth is relatively small, which indicates that it belonged to a woman. The tooth is quite worn, so the individual must have been quite old when she died. In addition, two large chips have been knocked out of the enamel, as if hit by something, or perhaps by biting into something really hard such as a bone or a hard nut. At least one of the chips was old when the individual died, since it is partly worn down,” Ahlberg said. “The lost materials of the Peking Man remain one of palaeontology’s greatest mysteries and most tragic losses,” he added. To read more about the lost fossils, see "Searching for Peking Man."

World’s Oldest Pretzel Found in Bavaria

REGENSBURG, GERMANY—Some eighteenth-century baked goods that were apparently thrown away because they were burnt have been discovered in eastern Bavaria. The remains of a pretzel, a roll, and a croissant, all dating to some 250 years ago, were found at a site where the remains of a wooden house thought to be 1,200 years old have also been unearthed. “This discovery is really extraordinary, because it depicts a snippet of everyday life,” Joachim Wolbergs, mayor of Regensburg, told The Local. Pretzels were first made in monasteries during the Middle Ages, and originally their form was intended to represent the crossed arms of a monk. The pretzel's simple recipe, water and flour, meant it could be eaten during Lent, when Christians were forbidden to eat dairy products or eggs. Pretzels are now often eaten in southern Germany for breakfast with white sausage and sweet mustard. For more on archaeology and the culinary arts, see "The Gladiator Diet."

Wednesday, March 11

Greek and Roman Coins Rediscovered in Buffalo

BUFFALO, NEW YORK—Classicist Philip Kiernan of The State University of New York at Buffalo heard a rumor that there were Greek and Roman coins housed in the archives at the school’s libraries. Three years later he found the 40 silver Greek coins, three gold Greek coins, and a dozen Roman gold coins—one from each era of the first 12 Roman emperors, including a rare coin of the emperor Otho, who reigned for just three months. "I must have been the first person to touch them in almost 40 years,” he said. The coin collection, which also includes coins from early America and England, had been donated to the University at Buffalo Libraries Special Collections as part of a collection of rare books in 1935. To read about a cache of similar coins discovered in a cave in Israel, see "Artifact: Roman Coins."

Neanderthals Made Jewelry with Eagle Talons

LAWRENCE, KANSAS—A set of polished eagle talons unearthed in Croatia more than 100 years ago have been reexamined and found to bear marks suggesting that Neanderthals made jewelry with them some 130,000 years ago. “The more we know about them the more sophisticated they’ve become,” said David Frayer, a professor emeritus of the University of Kansaswhose team included scientists from the Croatian Natural History Museum and the Croatian Academy of Science and Arts. The set of bones, which represents three or four white-tailed eagles, was discovered in a single level at the well-documented Krapina Neanderthal site, and dated to at least 80,000 years earlier than the presence of modern humans in Europe. “There’s just no doubt that they made it, and it was a necklace or bracelet or piece of jewelry,” he said. “It really shows a level of technical sophistication, too.” To read in-depth about our close cousins, see "Should We Clone Neanderthals?"

Human Ancestors Had Diverse Body Structures

COLUMBIA, MISSOURI—The 1.9 million-year-old pelvis and femur fossils of an early human ancestor suggest that there was greater diversity in the human family tree than had been thought. “They differed not only in their faces and jaws, but in the rest of their bodies too,” said Carol Ward of the the University of Missouri School of Medicine. “The old depiction of linear evolution from ape to human with single steps in between is proving to be inaccurate. We are finding that evolution seemed to be experimenting with different human physical traits in different species before ending up with Homo sapiens.” The new fossils, which all came from one individual unearthed in Kenya, include a hip joint like other Homo species, but the pelvis and thigh bone are thinner than those of Homo erectus, and may have come from the earlier Homo rudolfensis, or Homo habilis. “This doesn’t necessarily mean that these early human ancestors moved or lived differently, but it does suggest that they were a distinct species that could have been identified not just from looking at their faces and jaws, but by seeing their body shapes as well,” she explained. For more on the evolutionary history of early humans, see "Our Tangled Ancestory."

Tuesday, March 10

Another Tomb Discovered at Al-Qurna

CAIRO, EGYPT—Another 18th Dynasty tomb has been discovered by archaeologists from the American Research Center in Egypt at Al-Qurna in Luxor. Paintings on the walls of this New Kingdom (1550-1070 B.C.) tomb “are records of daily life practices that prevailed in that era,” according to a statement made by Antiquities Minister Mamdouh al-Damaty. This tomb, which belonged to Satmut and his wife Ta-kh-at, was also looted in antiquity, and some of the scenes and inscriptions on its walls were erased. “The newly discovered tomb is located to the east of TT110 and they share the same courtyard. The tomb door is to the south of the first tomb and it has an oblong hall with a shaft filled with debris,” team member Ali El Henawi told the Luxor Times. To read about the recent discovery of a tomb in the area belonging to a sacred singer, see "Tomb of the Chantress."

Study Suggests Juvenile Hominins Developed at Their Own Pace

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—Tanya Smith of Harvard University says that the teeth of juvenile hominins grew in a way that was unlike those of either modern humans or apes. “We calculated the age of death of 16 fossil individuals that lived between about one and four million years ago, and were able to look at how their teeth formed relative to living humans and chimpanzees of the same chronological age,” she explained. Rather than slicing into the teeth and examining their structures with microscopes, Smith and her colleagues used high-powered x-rays generated by a synchrotron to produce super-high-resolution images of the internal structures of the teeth. Then by counting the daily growth lines, they were able to determine an exact age for each individual. The team discovered a wide variation in the speed of development across the fossil species. “These fossil species have to be seen independently, as having their own evolutionary trajectory that is not identical to any living animal,” she concluded. To read about the evolution of the ability to throw, see "No Changeups on the Savannah."

Poorly Preserved DNA Identifies Origins of Enslaved Africans

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—Scientists from the University of Copenhagen and Stanford University School of Medicine have extracted DNA from the poorly preserved tooth roots of three enslaved Africans who had been buried on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin more than 300 years ago. The technique, called whole-genome capture, revealed that one skeleton belonged to a man who had likely belonged to a Bantu-speaking group in northern Cameroon. The samples from the other two individuals shared similarities with non-Bantu-speaking groups in present-day Nigeria and Ghana. “This project has taught us that we cannot only get ancient DNA from tropical samples, but that we can reliably identify their ancestry,” said Carlos Bustamante of Stanford University. Teeth from all three of the skulls had been filed down in patterns characteristics of certain African groups, but that was not enough information to pinpoint where the individuals had lived when they were unearthed in 2010 during a construction project. And historic records from the slave trade usually refer to shipping points, not information about the origins of the captured. “There are still certain limitations—which are essentially to do with the comprehensiveness of our modern reference panels—but I don’t see why we shouldn’t be able to identify specific source populations or ethnic groups in the future,” added team leader Hannes Schroeder of the University of Copenhagen. To read about the extraordinary excavation of slave quarters on an island in the Indian Ocean, see "Castaways."

New Thoughts on Africa’s Pastoral Environments

ST LOUIS, MISSOURI—It had been thought that the tsetse fly, which carries sleeping sickness and nagana and thrives in bushy woodlands, stopped the spread of herders of domesticated animals into southern Africa some 2,000 years ago. Fiona Marshall of Washington University has led a team of researchers who analyzed the isotopes in animal teeth from a 2,000-year-old settlement near Gogo Falls in southern Kenya. The people who lived there ate a varied diet that included domestic and wild food sources. The region is now made up of bushy woodlands, but the results of the study suggest that there had been abundant grassland vegetation for the animals to eat in what may have been a grass-woodland transition zone. So did the human residents consume wild food because tsetse flies damaged their livestock herds? “Our findings challenge existing models that explain the settlement’s diverse diet as a consequence of depressed livestock production related to tsetse flies. Instead of this ecological explanation, our isotopic findings support the notion that herders may simply have interacted with hunter-gatherer groups already living in these areas, adapting to their foraging styles. This suggests that social factors may have played a greater role than previously thought in subsistence diversity during the spread of pastoralism in Eastern Africa,” Marshall explained. Changes in rainfall, grazing by wild herbivores, and burning of land by the herders may have maintained the savanna for the livestock and provided a corridor through the Lake Victoria basin for the migration of pastoralists into southern Africa. To read about a fascinating archaeological discovery made in southern Africa, see "First Use of Poison."