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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, September 18

Human Populations Adapted to Different Diets

BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA—An international team of scientists has identified a set of genetic mutations involved in fat metabolism in nearly 100 percent of the Inuit, whose traditional diet is high in marine animal fat. The mutations are thought to be at least 20,000 years old, and may have helped people adapt to high-meat, high-fat diets. “We think it is a quite old selection that may have helped humans adapt to the environment during the last Ice Age, but the selection is far stronger in the Inuit than anywhere else. It’s fascinating that Greenlanders have a unique genetic makeup that lets them better use their traditional food sources,” Matteo Fumagalli of University College London said in a press release from the University of California, Berkeley. Only two percent of Europeans and 15 percent of Han Chinese carry these mutations. For more about the archaeology of the High Arctic, go to "Cultural Revival."

More on Maryland’s 18th-Century Ship

VIENNA, MARYLAND—Julie Schablitsky, chief archaeologist for the Maryland State Highway Administration, notes that the late eighteenth-century merchant ship raised from the Nanticoke River last month may have been built by enslaved workers or indentured servants. “The workmanship isn’t that of professional builders,” she told The Dorchester Banner. “At least three curious or strange carvings have been found. We don’t know what they mean. Usually when you see carvings on a ship, they were put there during the construction process, usually Roman numbers, but these were different. There are two geometric patterns (carvings) that no one in our team of underwater archaeologists and maritime historians had ever seen before,” she said. The small ship may have been used to move tobacco, farm goods, or even livestock from larger ships to plantations and merchants. For more on nautical archaeology, go to "History's 10 Greatest Wrecks." 

Graves of Napoleonic Troops Uncovered in Germany

FRANKFURT, GERMANY—The Guardian reports that a construction project in Frankfurt has found the remains of 200 French soldiers thought to have died in 1813 after returning from Russia with Napoléon Bonaparte’s Grande Armée. The men may have been killed in battle or may have died in a typhus epidemic. According to Andrea Hampel, director of heritage and historic monuments in Frankfurt, their bodies had been placed in coffins and buried hastily without funeral articles. As many as 15,000 people are thought to have died in battles in the Frankfurt area in October 1813. To read about archaeology at the Waterloo battlefield, go to "A Soldier's Story."

Aboriginal Stories Transmit Knowledge of Australia’s Landscape

SIPPY DOWNS, AUSTRALIA—Geographer Patrick Nunn of the University of the Sunshine Coast and linguist Nick Reid of the University of New England studied Aboriginal stories from 21 different places around the coastline of Australia. The stories described a time when sea levels were significantly lower than they are today, some 7,000 years ago. “These stories talk about a time when the sea started to come in and cover the land, and the changes this brought about to the way people lived—the changes in landscape, the ecosystem, and the disruption this caused to their society,” Nunn said in a press release. “It is important to note that it’s not just one story that describes this process. There are many stories, all consistent in their narrative, across 21 diverse sites around Australia’s coastline.” Nunn thinks that the information survived for so long because it was vital. “I believe these stories endured that long partly due to the harshness of Australia’s natural environment, which meant that each generation had to pass on knowledge to the next in a systematic way to ensure its survival,” he concluded. For more, go to "The Rock Art of Malarrak."

Thursday, September 17

Fourth-Century Burials Found in the Polish Jura

KOSTKOWICE, POLAND—Science & Scholarship in Poland reports that fragments from at least six skeletons dating to the fourth century A.D. have been found in Hanged Man Cave in the Kraków-Częstochowa Upland of south-central Poland, also known as the Polish Jura. Pottery, pendants made of silver, gold, and amber, Roman coins, clasps, and silver and amber beads resembling artifacts from the northern coast of the Black Sea were also found in the cave. Three crematory burials from the same time period were found near the cave. These remains and artifacts, including a bronze clasp, metal belt, bronze comb, and pottery, had been placed directly in shallow holes in the ground. The researchers, led by Marcin Rudnicki of Institute of Archaeology at the University of Warsaw, speculate that the differences in the burials may reflect the social positions of the deceased. “It is quite a surprising discovery because ties between the Germanic population in the late fourth century to the areas west of the Upper Vistula River have not been considered until now. The nature of these contacts remains a mystery,” added Aleksander Bursche, coordinator of the project for Poland’s National Center for Science. To read more, go to "Pagan Warrior's Tomb Unearthed in Poland."

Intact Pacopampa Tomb Discovered in Northern Peru

LIMA, PERU—An intact tomb containing the remains of two high priests has been discovered in the Cajamarca region of Peru by a team of Peruvian and Japanese researchers led by archaeologist Yuji Seki. Daniel Morales, co-director of the project, said that the 2,700-year-old tomb of the Pacopampa culture is being called the Tomb of the Serpent-Jaguar Priests because of a ceramic vessel in the shape of a serpent with a jaguar’s head that was found near one of the bodies. The other individual had been buried with a necklace of 13 oval-shaped gold beads engraved with figure eights. The tomb sits near a large square surrounded by stone walls accessed with two staircases. “Finding these remains in the same place where rituals and feasts were held, we assume they could have been priests in charge of ceremonies during this culture’s peak, between 800 and 500 B.C.,” Morales explained to The Latin American Herald Tribune. To read more, go to "The Water Temple of Inca-Caranqui."

Roman Village Unearthed in Germany

  FRANKFURT, GERMANY—A team from Goethe University is excavating a village built on the foundations of a Roman fort near Gernsheim in the Hessian Ried. The cohort of soldiers dismantled the fort, filled in its defensive ditches, and left the site around A.D. 120, when they were transferred from the Rhine to the frontier. “A temporary downturn probably resulted when the troops left—this is something we know from sites which have been studied more thoroughly,” team leader Thomas Maurer said in a press release. The researchers uncovered the foundation of a stone building, fire pits, two wells, and cellars. “We’ve also found real treasures such as rare garment clasps, several pearls, parts of a board game (dice, playing pieces) and a hairpin made from bone and crowned with a female bust,” said Maurer. The town’s residents were probably mostly of Gallic-Germanic origins, but some Roman citizens from other parts of the empire may have lived there as well, since pieces of traditional dress, and coins that were not in circulation in Germania Superior, have been found. One of the coins came from Bithynia, located in northwestern Anatolia, and may have been a souvenir. To read about the rise of Roman power, go to "Rome's Imperial Port."

Wednesday, September 16

Sixteen Pyramids Unearthed at Kushite Cemetery

  LONDON, ENGLAND—Sixteen pyramids sitting atop tombs have been unearthed since 1998 in a large cemetery near the ancient town of Gematon in Sudan. The largest was about 35 feet long on each side and would have stood some 43 feet tall. “So far, we’ve excavated six made out of stone and 10 made out of mud brick,” Derek Welsby of the British Museum told Live Science. Other tombs in the 2,000-year-old cemetery were topped with rectangular structures known as mastabas, or piles of rocks called tumuli. Most of the tombs at the site have been looted, but one yielded a royal tin-bronze offering table bearing a scene showing a prince or priest offering incense and libations to the god Osiris, ruler of the underworld. Osiris and the goddess Isis, who is also shown in the image, originated in Egypt, but they were also venerated in Kush. Gematon was eventually abandoned as trade routes changed and the economy of the Roman Empire deteriorated. To read more about Kushite pyramids, go to "Miniature Pyramids of Sudan."

Generations of Denisovans Visited Siberian Cave

LONDON, ENGLAND—Science reports from the meeting of the European Society for the Study of Human Evolution that new dates have been obtained for Siberia’s Denisova Cave, where a tiny finger bone representing a girl from a new human species was discovered. At the time, the dates obtained from animal bones and artifacts from the cave ranged between 30,000 and 50,000 years ago. Geochronologist Tom Higham of the University of Oxford has re-dated the sequence using 20 samples of cut-marked bones and ornaments from the cave. Oxford archaeologist Katerina Douka reported that the finger bone was likely older than 48,000 to 50,000 years, the limit of radiocarbon dating. Nuclear and mitchondrial DNA from several Denisovan molars have also been analyzed by Viviane Slon and her colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. The nuclear DNA showed that the inhabitants of the cave were not closely related. Mutations in the mitochondrial DNA were used to estimate when the individuals lived. The oldest Denisovan died in the cave at least 110,000 years ago, and the girl whose pinky finger bone was discovered lived some 65,000 years later. “You can seriously see it’s a valid species,” commented Fred Spoor of University College London. For more, go to "Denisovan DNA."

Human Ancestors Ate Food on the Ground Earlier Than Thought

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND—Early human ancestors started foraging for food on the ground some 400,000 years earlier than previously thought, according to a new study of the teeth of human ancestors and an array of animals from the Afar region of Ethiopia. The research team, led by Naomi E. Levin of Johns Hopkins University, analyzed the morphology of the teeth and their carbon isotopes in order to determine what kinds of foods the creatures were eating. The results for both human ancestors and a now-extinct species of baboon suggest that the switch from foods from trees and shrubs to grass-based foods, including the tissues of animals that ate grasses such as birds and insects, happened about 3.8 million years ago. “The results not only show an earlier start to grass-based food consumption among hominins and baboons but also indicate that form does not always precede function. In the earliest baboons, dietary shift toward grass occurred before its teeth were specialized for grazing,” Levin explained in a press release. The change in diet would have made human ancestors more resilient to habitat change, she added. For more on human ancestors, go to "Our Tangled Ancestry."