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Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
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.    

Monday, June 30

Meteorite Fragment Found in Mesolithic Dwelling

  SZCZECIN, POLAND—A meteorite fragment has been discovered in the remains of a 9,000-year-old dwelling in the peat near Lake Świdwie in northwestern Poland. The pyrite meteorite fragment is cylindrical in shape, porous, and surprisingly heavy for its size. “The meteorite was brought to the shelter as a special object, which must have been obvious to the contemporary men, knowledgeable of stone raw materials,” Tadeusz Galiński of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology, Polish Academy of Sciences, told Science & Scholarship in Poland. Tools made of flint, wood, bone, and antler, and objects associated with spiritual culture, such as an amulet, an engraved bone spear tip, and a stick made of antler and decorated with geometric motifs, were also discovered. A second dwelling contained traces of hearths.  

Evidence Suggests Torture at Sacred Ridge Massacre Site

  LAS VEGAS, NEVADA—New research indicates that the 33 men and women, whose processed and mutilated bones were discovered in two pit houses near Durango, Colorado, were tortured before their deaths some 1,200 years ago. Anna Osterholtz of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, found evidence of that the victims’ ankles had been broken by blunt-force trauma, well as signs that the soles of the feet had been beaten. “Tool marks and fractures to the rest of the body’s elements had other explanations, including processing or perimortem trauma, but the tool marks and peeling on the foot elements would serve no such purpose, and would only have been useful in causing pain,” she explained to Western Digs. Earlier analysis of elements in the victims’ teeth by James Potter and Jason Chuipka suggests that they had grown up in the area of Sacred Ridge. Osterholtz speculates that the torture may have been used by an invading population to control the residents of Sacred Ridge before and during the massacre. The site was abandoned soon after it occurred.    

Scientists Will Investigate Ancient Inuit Hunting Camp

WINNIPEG, CANADA—A hunting camp, estimated to be 1,000 years old, will be mapped and examined next week by a research team led by archaeologist Virginia Petch of Northern Lights Heritage Services. The site’s 22 large tent rings, food caches, kayak rests, and burials are located just south of the Manitoba-Nunavut border, on the western coast of Hudson Bay. “It was very safe. You could see the beluga coming in. You could see the seals. If you looked inland, you could see caribou and you could watch out for bears. There would be fish in the river. It was a very productive area for people to be,” she told The Hamilton Spectator. The site is thought to have been used by the Thule, the ancestors of today’s Inuit. The team will leave the burials intact.

Gang Members Arrested for Looting in Egypt

CAIRO, EGYPT—Ahram Online reports that the leader of a gang specializing in looting archaeological sites was arrested in his home in Giza’s Abu Sir village, where Islamic coins, a dozen ushabti figurines, and a replica statue were recovered by police. The artifacts are thought to have been plundered from the area of Abu Sir and will be authenticated by members of the Ministry of Antiquities.