Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Archaeological Headlines By JESSICA E. SARACENI
Friday, March 27

Medieval Woman’s Remains Unearthed in Wales

NEFYN, WALES—A cist grave containing a woman’s skeleton has been unearthed at a church in North Wales. The site is thought to have been part of a medieval monastic settlement, based upon the discovery of a wall that is missing from early maps of the area. The woman in the grave, which had been covered with a large, flat stone, had been in her 60s and suffered from some arthritis when she died sometime between A.D. 1180 and 1250. Human remains from this period are rare in Wales because of the acidity of the soil. “This type of grave is generally believed to be of an early medieval date, although due to the lack of surviving skeletal remains this hypothesis often goes untested,” Catherine Rees of CR Archaeology told Culture 24. “She would have lived through some very turbulent times in Welsh history and could have lived through the rise to power of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, or as he is more well known, Llywelyn the Great, as he consolidated north and much of Wales under his control. She may have also been alive when the famous medieval chronicler, Gerald of Wales, stayed at Nefyn in 1188 as part of a campaign to raise support for the third crusade,” she added. Studies of the isotopes in the woman’s teeth could reveal if she grew up in the area. She may have been a local resident, or she may have been a pilgrim on the route to the Christian site of Bardsey Island. To read about a similar discovery, see "Cathedral Grave May Have Belonged to a Medieval Knight."

Neolithic Bones in Italy’s Scaloria Cave Were Defleshed

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—The bones of at least 22 Neolithic people, many of them children, have been identified in Italy’s Scaloria Cave. The cave, located in southeastern Italy, is filled with stalactites and offers “the first well-documented case for early farmers in Europe of people trying to actively deflesh the dead,” John Robb of the University of Cambridge told Science Magazine. The human bones had been randomly mixed with animal bones, broken pottery, and stone tools. Robb’s new study shows that few whole human skeletons had been deposited in the cave, and the bones only had light cut marks on them. This suggests that the selected bones may have been put in the cave as much as a year after death, since only residual muscle tissue had to be removed from them. Robb and his international team of scientists think that the defleshing process could have been part of a long, multistage burial plan that ended when the cleaned, stone-like bones were put in the cave along with other discarded items. The cave’s stone-forming, dripping water and stalactites may have had special spiritual power for the Neolithic Italians. To read about an unusual and poignant Neolithic burial in Italy, see "Eternal Embrace." 

Neanderthal Ear Bones Differed From Modern Humans’

VIZCAYA, SPAIN—A new study of the remains of a two-year-old child discovered in the 1970s in France have shed new light on Neanderthal anatomy. Among the fossils were a very complete left temporal bone and a complete stapes, or middle ear bone. Virtual reconstruction techniques allowed researchers from the University of the Basque Country to “extract” the tiny ear bone—the most complete one in the Neanderthal record—and study it. The team found significant anatomical differences between the Neanderthal stapes and those found in modern humans. "We do not yet know the relation between these morphological differences and hearing in the Neanderthals. This would constitute a new challenge for the future,” paleontologist Asier Gómez-Olivencia said in a press release. For more on our extinct cousins, see "Should We Clone Neanderthals?"

Large, Comparative Study Suggests Diversity in Human Ancestors

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND—Fragmentary fossils, including tiny toes and ankle bones, have been used to estimate the height and body mass of early human ancestors living during the Pleistocene. The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Cambridge and the University of Tübingen who developed the new techniques, reveals that that early humans displayed a wide variety body sizes. “What we’re seeing is perhaps the beginning of a unique characteristic of our own species—the origins of diversity. It’s possible to interpret our findings as showing that there were either multiple species of early human, such as Homo habilis, Homo ergaster, and Homo rudolfensis, or one highly diverse species. This fits well with recent cranial evidence for tremendous diversity among early members of the genus Homo,” Jay Stock of the University of Cambridge said in a press release. For example, groups living in South African caves averaged 4.8 feet tall, while some individuals from Kenya’s Koobi Fora region were almost six feet tall. “Basically every textbook on human evolution gives the perspective that one lineage of humans evolved larger bodies before spreading beyond Africa. But the evidence for this story about our origins and the dispersal out of Africa just no longer really fits. The first clues came from the site of Dmanisi in Georgia where fossils of really small-bodied people date to 1.77 million years ago. This has been known for several years, but we now know that consistently large body size evolved in Eastern Africa after 1.7 million years ago, in the Koobi Fora region of Kenya,” he explained. For more on the evolution of early humans, see "Our Tangled Ancestery."

Thursday, March 26

Silver Coins Turn Up in Bulgarian Field

POPOVO, BULGARIA—A man plowing a field in northeastern Bulgaria discovered a pot containing about 90 silver coins dating from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. He did not realize at first that the vessel contained coins, but when he found them, he took the treasure to the police, who took the discovery to the Popovo Museum of History. According to Archaeology in Bulgaria, the Ottoman and European coins all have holes in them, suggesting that they may have been strung as a woman’s necklace. To read about a spectacular recent discovery in Bulgaria, see "Thracian Treasure Chest."

Another False Paternity Found in Richard III’s Family Tree

LEICESTER, ENGLAND—The remains of Richard III were reburied today in Leicester Cathedral. Last year, researchers from the University of Leicester discovered that the fallen king’s Y-chromosome did not match that of a group of living male relatives who descended from Henry Somerset, fifth Duke of Beaufort. That means there was at least one break in the Y-chromosome line, or a case of mistaken paternity, somewhere between Richard III’s great-great-grandfather Edward III and Henry Somerset, fifth Duke of Beaufort. Kevin Schürer and Turi King of the University of Leicester were approached by Patrice de Warren, who can trace his male line through Geoffrey, the Count of Anjou, a common ancestor of both Richard III and Henry Somerset who lived in the twelfth century. However, Patrice de Warren’s Y-chromosome does not match that of Richard III or the Somerset line, indicating another false paternity in the royal family tree. “It hasn’t helped us narrow down where the break is,” King told Live Science. For more on the initial discovery of the monarch's remains, see "The Rehabilitation of Richard III."

How to Farm in the World’s Driest Desert

ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO—Five hundred years ago, farmers abandoned their terraced fields and irrigation systems in Chile’s Atacama Desert. “These are systems that were developed about A.D. 1000 when people figured out how to divert water from springs which are recharged by snowmelt from the Andes,” Frances Hayashida of The University of New Mexico said in a press release. The population was conquered by the Incas in the 1400s. “We think they brought in workers to work in the mines. They put in an extensive road system to be able to move ore and personnel back and forth. But then they need to feed everybody, right?” Hayashida asked. An international team of scientists is mapping the fields and canals with drones. They want to know how much water the farmers had to work with, and if the farmers were able to feed the miners. They are also examining stone hoes and looking at plant remains to see if the varieties of maize, quinoa, and potatoes were different from the ones grown in the region today. Grinding stones at the site suggest that maize beer was produced, and perhaps consumed at Inca ritual feasts. “This is something you would normally do with your neighbors, if they were working for you. You provide food and drink. So they just took this practice and did it on an imperial scale.” To read in depth about how the Inca dealt with another conquered population, see "The Water Temple of Inca-Caranqui."

Gold Lock Rings Unearthed in North Wales

WREXHAM, WALES—ITV News reports that two gold lock rings dating to the late Bronze Age have been unearthed in northeast Wales. The rings may have been used as earrings or may have been worn to gather locks of hair. Similar rings have been found buried at Gaerwen, Anglesey, the Great Orme, Conwy, and Newport, Pembrokeshire. Most of these sites are on the coast, suggesting that trade occurred with other, distant communities in Wales and Ireland. “We think that these complete and prized objects of gold were carefully buried in isolated places as gifts to the gods, perhaps at the end of the lives of their owners,” said Adam Gwilt of the National Museum Wales.  To read about a similar discovery, see "Irish Gold." 

Wednesday, March 25

Extinct Woolly Mammoth Genes Spliced Into Living Cells

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—Genes from frozen woolly mammoth remains have been copied and pasted into the genome of an Asian elephant by researchers led by George Church at Harvard University. They spliced the genes for the mammoths’ small ears, subcutaneous fat, and hair length and color into the DNA of elephant skin cells in tissue cultures. Popular Science reports that this is the first time that mammoth genes have been functional since the animals went extinct some 4,000 years ago. “Just making a DNA change isn’t that meaningful. We want to read out the phenotypes,” Church said. So will the team be able to get the mammoth genes to become specialized tissues that behave properly? Artificial wombs could eventually be developed to nurture an elephant/mammoth hybrid embryo, and then an elephant that could survive in colder climates. Perhaps one day the team could try to revive the mammoths by integrating larger amounts of mammoth DNA into the hybrids. To read in-depth about another project being conducted by George Church, see "Should We Clone Neanderthals?"

Was the Aztec Empire Really All Powerful?

RALEIGH, NORTH CAROLINA—An analysis of obsidian artifacts with X-ray fluorescence has offered clues to geopolitics in central Mexico at the time of the Aztec Empire. Tlaxcallan, an independent city founded in the mid-thirteenth century, obtained its obsidian from a source called El Paredón. “Almost no one else was using El Paredón at the time, and it fell just outside the boundaries of the Aztec Empire. So, one question it raises is why the Aztecs—who were openly hostile to Tlaxcallan—didn’t intervene,” archaeologist John Millhauser said in a North Carolina State University press release. The Aztecs obtained most of their obsidian from a source to the north known as Pachuca, while only 14 percent of the obsidian from Tlaxcallan was from Pachuca. Millhauser suggests that such widely available obsidian may not have been worth fighting over. “The fact that they got so much obsidian so close to the Aztec Empire makes me question the scope of conflict at the time. Tlaxcallan was able to access a source of household and military goods from a source that required it to go right up to the border of enemy territory,” he said. To read in-depth about the Aztec world, see "Under Mexico City."

Slave Trade Recorded in American Genes

OXFORD, ENGLAND—The genetic fingerprints of the slave trade have been detected in the modern populations of North and South America by a team made up of researchers from Oxford University, University College London, and the Universita’ del Sacro Cuore of Rome. They analyzed more than 4,000 DNA samples from 64 different populations in Europe, Africa, and the Americas, and tracked the flow of genes from ‘donor’ African and European populations to ‘recipient’ populations in the Americas. “The majority of African Americans have ancestry similar to the Yoruba people in West Africa, confirming that most African slaves came from this region. In areas of the Americas historically under Spanish rule, populations also have ancestry related to what is now Senegal and Gambia. Records show that around a third of the slaves sent to Spanish America in the seventeenth century came from this region, and we can see the genetic evidence of this in modern Americans really clearly,” Cristian Capelli of Oxford University said in a press release. The study also found evidence of a previously unknown migration in the form of a genetic contribution from the Basques in the modern-day Maya in Mexico. People of the Caribbean islands are more similar to each other and distinct from other populations, probably reflecting a different migration pattern between the Caribbean and mainland America. To read an account of one group of African slaves' harrowing experience on an island in the Indian Ocean, see "Castaways."

4,200-Year-Old Case of Breast Cancer Found in Egypt

CAIRO, EGYPT—A team of Spanish researchers has found evidence of the world’s oldest-known case of breast cancer in the skeleton of a woman found in the necropolis of Qubbet el-Hawa. “The study of her remains shows the typical destructive damage provoked by the extension of a breast cancer as a metastasis,” Egyptian Antiquities Minister Mamdouh el-Damaty said in a statement reported by Reuters. A team led by Alejandro Jiménez from the University of Jaen found the 4,200-year-old remains of the woman, who was a member of the elite in the town of Elephantine during the 6th Dynasty. Anthropologist Miguel Botella of the University of Granada and his team studied the deterioration of the skeleton and made the diagnosis. The woman would have been unable to carry out any kind of labor, and had been taken care of for a long time before her death. Last year, British researchers reported a case of metastatic cancer in a 3,000-year-old skeleton found in modern Sudan. To read about the search for the tomb of one of Egypt's greatest queens, see "Nefertiti, Great Royal Wife and Queen of Egypt."