Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Research led by the University of Southampton has found that early humans were driven by a need for nutrient-rich food to select 'special places' in northern Europe as their main habitat. Evidence of their activity at these sites comes in the form of hundreds of stone tools, including handaxes.
A study led by physical geographer at Southampton Professor Tony Brown, in collaboration with archaeologist Dr Laura Basell at Queen's University Belfast, has found that sites popular with our early human ancestors, were abundant in foods containing nutrients vital for a balanced diet. The most important sites, dating between 500,000 to 100,000 years ago were based at the lower end of river valleys, providing ideal bases for early hominins – early humans who lived before Homo sapiens (us).
Professor Brown says: "Our research suggests that floodplain zones closer to the mouth of a river provided the ideal place for hominin activity, rather than forested slopes, plateaus or estuaries. The landscape in these locations tended to be richer in the nutrients critical for maintaining population health and maximising reproductive success."
The project was funded by English Heritage and the University of Southampton's Faculty of Social and Human Sciences. It involved academics from Geography and Environment and Medicine at Southampton, together with Archaeology at Queen's.
The researchers began by identifying Palaeolithic sites in southern England and northern France where high concentrations of handaxes had been excavated –for example at Dunbridge in Hampshire, Swanscombe near Dartford and the Somme Valley in France. They found there were fewer than 25 sites where 500 handaxes or more were discovered. The high concentration of these artefacts suggests significant activity at the sites and that they were regularly used by early hominins.
Professor Brown and his colleagues then compiled a database of plants and animals known to exist in the Pleistocene epoch (a period between 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago) to establish a potential list of nutrient resources in the landscape and an estimation of the possible diet. This showed that an abundance of nutritious foods were available and suggests this was likely to have been the dominant factor driving early humans to focus on these sites in the lower reaches of river valleys, close to the upper tidal limit of rivers.
Over 50 nutrients are needed to sustain human life. In particular, it would have been essential for early humans to find sources of protein, fats, carbohydrates, folic acid and vitamin C. The researchers suggest vitamins and protein may have come from sources such as raw liver, eggs, fish and plants, including watercress (which grows year round). Fats in particular, may have come from bone marrow, beaver tails and highly nutritious eels.
The nutritional diversity of these sites allowed hominins to colonise the Atlantic fringe of north west Europe during warm periods of the Pleistocene. These sites permitted the repeated occupation of this marginal area from warmer climate zones further south
Professor Brown comments: "We can speculate that these types of locations were seen as 'healthy' or 'good' places to live which hominins revisited on a regular basis. If this is the case, the sites may have provided 'nodal points' or base camps along nutrient-rich route-ways through the Palaeolithic landscape, allowing early humans to explore northwards to more challenging environments."
Saturday, December 7, 2013
Dr. Doron Ben Ami of the the Israel Antiquities Authority shows the remains of a building dating to the Hasmonean Period which was discovered during excavations at the archaeological site of the biblical City of David, outside Jerusalem's old city walls on December 3, 2013. In recent months the remains of the impressive building from the Hasmonean period (second century BCE) are being unearthed in excavations directed by the Israel Antiquities Authority. AFP PHOTO/MENAHEM KAHANA.
In recent months remains of an impressive building from the Hasmonean period (second century BCE) are being unearthed in excavations the Israel Antiquities Authority is directing in the Giv‘ati parking lot, located in the City of David in the Walls Around Jerusalem National Park.
Photograph: Assaf Peretz, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority
The building stands c. 4 meters high and covers an area of c. 64 sq. m. The building’s broad walls (more than one meter thick) are made of roughly hewn limestone blocks that were arranged as headers and stretchers, a construction method characteristic of the Hasmonean period. Although numerous pottery vessels were discovered inside the building, it was mainly the coins that surprised the researchers. These indicated the structure was erected in the early second century BCE and continued into the Hasmonean period, during which time significant changes were made inside it.
According to Dr. Doron Ben Ami and Yana Tchekhanovets, the excavation directors on behalf to the Israel Antiquities Authority, “The importance of this discovery is primarily because of the conspicuous paucity of buildings from the Hasmonean city of Jerusalem in archaeological research, despite the many excavations that have been conducted to date. Apart from several remains of the city’s fortifications that were discovered in different parts of Jerusalem, as well as pottery and other small finds, none of the Hasmonean city’s buildings have been uncovered so far, and this discovery bridges a certain gap in Jerusalem’s settlement sequence. The Hasmonean city, which is well-known to us from the historical descriptions that appear in the works of Josephus, has suddenly acquired tangible expression”.
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
Scientists have found that Neanderthals organized their living spaces in ways that would be familiar to modern humans, a discovery that once again shows similarities between these two close cousins.
The findings, published in the latest edition of the Canadian Journal of Archaeology, indicate that Neanderthals butchered animals, made tools and gathered round the fire in different parts of their shelters.
"There has been this idea that Neanderthals did not have an organized use of space, something that has always been attributed to humans," said Julien Riel-Salvatore, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado Denver and lead author of the study. "But we found that Neanderthals did not just throw their stuff everywhere but in fact were organized and purposeful when it came to domestic space."
The findings are based on excavations at Riparo Bombrini, a collapsed rock shelter in northwest Italy where both Neanderthals and, later, early humans lived for thousands of years. This study focused on the Neanderthal levels while future research will examine the more recent modern human levels at the site. The goal is to compare how the two groups organized their space.
The site comprises three levels assigned to Neanderthals. Scientists found that Neanderthals divided the cave into different areas for different activities. The top level was used as a task site – likely a hunting stand - where they could kill and prepare game. The middle level was a long-term base camp and the bottom level was a shorter term residential base camp.
Riel-Salvatore and his team found a high frequency of animal remains in the rear of the top level, indicating that the area was likely used for butchering game. They also found evidence of ochre use in the back of the shelter.
"We found some ochre throughout the sequence but we are not sure what it was used for," Riel-Salvatore said. "Neanderthals could have used it for tanning hides, for gluing, as an antiseptic or even for symbolic purposes – we really can't tell at this point."
In the middle level, which has the densest traces of human occupation, artifacts were distributed differently. Animal bones were concentrated at the front rather than the rear of the cave. This was also true of the stone tools, or lithics. A hearth was in back of the cave about half a meter to a meter from the wall. It would have allowed warmth from the fire to circulate among the living area.
"When you make stone tools there is a lot of debris that you don't want in high traffic areas or you risk injuring yourself," Riel-Salvatore said. "There are clearly fewer stone artifacts in the back of the shelter near the hearth."
The bottom level, thought to represent a short-term base camp, is the least well known because it was exposed only over a very small area. More stone artifacts were found immediately inside the shelter's mouth, suggesting tool production may have occurred inside the part of the site where sunlight was available. Some shellfish fragments also suggest that Neanderthals exploited the sea for food; like ochre, these are found in all the levels.
The discoveries are the latest in continuing research by Riel-Salvatore showing that Neanderthals were far more advanced than originally thought.
In an earlier study, he found that Neanderthals were highly innovative, creating bone tools, ornaments and projectile points. He also co-authored a paper demonstrating that interbreeding between Neanderthals and humans may have led to the ultimate demise of the outnumbered hominins. Still, Neanderthal genes make up between one and four percent of today's human genome, especially among Europeans.
"This is ongoing work, but the big picture in this study is that we have one more example that Neanderthals used some kind of logic for organizing their living sites," Riel-Salvatore said. "This is still more evidence that they were more sophisticated than many have given them credit for. If we are going to identify modern human behavior on the basis of organized spatial patterns, then you have to extend it to Neanderthals as well."
Friday, November 29, 2013
Among the rare finds uncovered in the excavation: evidence of a 6,000 year old cultic temple and the first 10,000 year old building to be discovered in the Judean Shephelah
An extensive archaeological excavation of the Israel Antiquities Authority prior to widening Highway 38, which is being underwritten by the Netivei Israel Company, is producing amazing finds that provide a broad picture covering thousands of years of development of human society. Settlement remains were unearthed at the site, the earliest of which dates to the beginning of the eighth millennium BCE and latest to the end of the fourth millennium BCE.
The finds revealed at the site range from the period when man first started to domesticate plants and animals, instead of searching for them in the wild, until the period when we see the beginnings of proper urban planning.
The oldest artifacts that were exposed at the site are ascribed to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period (10,000 YBP). According to Dr. Amir Golani, Dr. Ya‘akov Vardi, Benyamin Storchan and Dr. Ron Be’eri, excavation directors on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “This is the first time that such an ancient structure has been discovered in the Judean Shephelah. The building, almost all of which was found, underwent a number of construction and repair phases that allude to its importance. It should be emphasized that whoever built the house did something that was totally innovative because up until this period man migrated from place to place in search of food. Here we have evidence of man’s transition to permanent dwellings and that in fact is the beginning of the domestication of animals and plants; instead of searching out wild sheep, ancient man started raising them near the house”.
A cluster of nine flint and limestone axes that were discovered lying side by side was found near this prehistoric building. “It is apparent that the axes, some of which were used as tools and some as cultic objects, were highly valued by their owners. Just as today we are unable to get along without a cellular telephone and a computer, they too attributed great importance to their tools. Based on how it was arranged at the time of its discovery it seems that the cluster of axes was abandoned by its owner for some unknown reason”.
In the archaeological excavation conducted at Eshta’ol an important and rare find from the end of the Chalcolithic period (second half of the fifth millennium BCE) was discovered in the adjacent area. During the course of the excavation six thousand year old buildings were exposed and a stone column (called a standing stone or mazzevā) was discovered alongside one of them. The standing stone is 1.30 meters high and weighs several hundred kilos. According to the excavation directors, “The standing stone was smoothed and worked on all six of its sides, and was erected with one of its sides facing east. This unique find alludes to the presence of a cultic temple at the site”. The archaeologists said, “In the past numerous manifestations have been found of the cultic practice that existed in the Chalcolithic period; however, from the research we know of only a few temples at ‘En Gedi and at Teleilat Ghassul in Transjordan”.
“We uncovered a multitude of unique finds during the excavation”, says Dr. Amir Golani, one of the excavation directors on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority. “The large excavation affords us a broad picture of the progression and development of the society in the settlement throughout the ages. Thus we can clearly see that in the Early Bronze Age, 5,000 years ago, the rural society made the transition to an urban society. We can see distinctly a settlement that gradually became planned, which included alleys and buildings that were extremely impressive from the standpoint of their size and the manner of their construction. We can clearly trace the urban planning and see the guiding hand of the settlement’s leadership that chose to regulate the construction in the crowded regions in the center of the settlement and allowed less planning along its periphery. It is fascinating to see how in such an ancient period a planned settlement was established in which there is orderly construction, and trace the development of the society which became increasingly hierarchical”.
A typical jar of the Early Bronze Age was discovered buried beneath the floor of a building. Photograph: Dr. Ron Be’eri, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
Evidence found at world's earliest Buddhist shrine in Nepal
Archaeologists Robin Coningham (left) and Kosh Prasad Acharya direct excavations within the Maya Devi Temple, uncovering a series of ancient temples contemporary with the Buddha. Thai monks meditate.Credit: Ira Block/National Geographic
Archaeologists working in Nepal have uncovered evidence of a structure at the birthplace of the Buddha dating to the sixth century B.C. This is the first archaeological material linking the life of the Buddha — and thus the first flowering of Buddhism — to a specific century.
Pioneering excavations within the sacred Maya Devi Temple at Lumbini, Nepal, a UNESCO World Heritage site long identified as the birthplace of the Buddha, uncovered the remains of a previously unknown sixth-century B.C. timber structure under a series of brick temples. Laid out on the same design as those above it, the timber structure contains an open space in the center that links to the nativity story of the Buddha himself.
Until now, the earliest archaeological evidence of Buddhist structures at Lumbini dated no earlier than the third century B.C., the time of the patronage of the Emperor Asoka, who promoted the spread of Buddhism from present-day Afghanistan to Bangladesh.
"Very little is known about the life of the Buddha, except through textual sources and oral tradition," said archaeologist Professor Robin Coningham of Durham University, U.K., who co-led the investigation. Some scholars, he said, have maintained that the Buddha was born in the third century B.C. "We thought 'why not go back to archaeology to try to answer some of the questions about his birth?' Now, for the first time, we have an archaeological sequence at Lumbini that shows a building there as early as the sixth century B.C."
Early Buddhism revealed
The international team of archaeologists, led by Coningham and Kosh Prasad Acharya of the Pashupati Area Development Trust in Nepal, say the discovery contributes to a greater understanding of the early development of Buddhism as well as the spiritual importance of Lumbini. Their peer-reviewed findings are reported in the December 2013 issue of the international journal Antiquity. The research is partly supported by the National Geographic Society.
To determine the dates of the timber shrine and a previously unknown early brick structure above it, fragments of charcoal and grains of sand were tested using a combination of radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence techniques. Geoarchaeological research also confirmed the presence of ancient tree roots within the temple's central void.
"UNESCO is very proud to be associated with this important discovery at one of the most holy places for one of the world's oldest religions," said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, who urged "more archaeological research, intensified conservation work and strengthened site management" to ensure Lumbini's protection.
"These discoveries are very important to better understand the birthplace of the Buddha," said Ram Kumar Shrestha, Nepal's minister of culture, tourism and civil aviation. "The government of Nepal will spare no effort to preserve this significant site."
Buddhist tradition records that Queen Maya Devi, the mother of the Buddha, gave birth to him while holding on to the branch of a tree within the Lumbini Garden, midway between the kingdoms of her husband and parents. Coningham and his colleagues postulate that the open space in the center of the most ancient, timber shrine may have accommodated a tree. Brick temples built later above the timber shrine also were arranged around the central space, which was unroofed.
Four main Buddhist sites
Lumbini is one of the key sites associated with the life of the Buddha; others are Bodh Gaya, where he became a Buddha or enlightened one; Sarnath, where he first preached; and Kusinagara, where he passed away. At his passing at the age of 80, the Buddha is recorded as having recommended that all Buddhists visit "Lumbini." The shrine was still popular in the middle of the first millennium A.D. and was recorded by Chinese pilgrims as having a shrine beside a tree.
The Maya Devi Temple at Lumbini remains a living shrine; the archaeologists worked alongside meditating monks, nuns and pilgrims.
In the scientific paper in Antiquity, the authors write: "The sequence (of archaeological remains) at Lumbini is a microcosm for the development of Buddhism from a localized cult to a global religion."
Lost and overgrown in the jungles of Nepal in the medieval period, ancient Lumbini was rediscovered in 1896 and identified as the birthplace of the Buddha on account of the presence of a third-century B.C. sandstone pillar. The pillar, which still stands, bears an inscription documenting a visit by Emperor Asoka to the site of the Buddha's birth as well as the site's name — Lumbini.
Despite the rediscovery of the key Buddhist sites, their earliest levels were buried deep or destroyed by later construction, leaving evidence of the very earliest stages of Buddhism inaccessible to archaeological investigation, until now.
Half a billion people around the world are Buddhists, and many hundreds of thousands make a pilgrimage to Lumbini each year. T
Friday, November 22, 2013
These 3,700-year-old jars were discovered in an ancient palatial wine cellar unearthed by researchers at Tel Kabri in July 2013. The team worked in day and night shifts to excavate a total of 40 intact vessels during its six-week dig.
Credit: Eric H. Cline, George Washington University.
A team of American and Israeli researchers has unearthed what could be the largest and oldest wine cellar in the Near East.
The group made the discovery at the 75-acre Tel Kabri site in Israel, the ruins of a northern Canaanite city that dates back to approximately 1700 B.C. The excavations at the vast palace of the rulers of the city are co-directed by Eric H. Cline of the George Washington University (GW), and Assaf Yasur-Landau of the University of Haifa, with Andrew Koh of Brandeis University as associate director. As researchers excavated at the site, they uncovered a three-foot-long jug, later christened "Bessie."
"We dug and dug, and all of a sudden, Bessie's friends started appearing—five, 10, 15, ultimately 40 jars packed in a 15-by-25-foot storage room," said Dr. Cline, chair of GW's Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations within the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. "This is a hugely significant discovery—it's a wine cellar that, to our knowledge, is largely unmatched in its age and size."
The 40 jars have a capacity of roughly 2,000 liters, meaning the cellar could have held the equivalent of nearly 3,000 bottles of reds and whites.
"The wine cellar was located near a hall where banquets took place, a place where the Kabri elite and possibly foreign guests consumed goat meat and wine," said Dr. Yasur-Landau, chair of the Department of Maritime Civilizations at the University of Haifa. "The wine cellar and the banquet hall were destroyed during the same violent event, perhaps an earthquake, which covered them with thick debris of mud bricks and plaster."
It wasn't immediately clear it was wine the jugs once held. To make that determination, Dr. Koh, an assistant professor of classical studies at Brandeis University and associate director of the excavation, analyzed the jar fragments using organic residue analysis. He found traces of tartaric and syringic acids, both key components in wine, as well as compounds suggesting the presence of ingredients popular in ancient wine-making, including honey, mint, cinnamon bark, juniper berries and resins. The recipe is similar to medicinal wines used for 2,000 years in ancient Egypt.
"This wasn't moonshine that someone was brewing in their basement, eyeballing the measurements," Dr. Koh said. "This wine's recipe was strictly followed in each and every jar."
Researchers now want to continue analyzing the composition of each solution, possibly discovering enough information to recreate the flavor.
Luckily, they'll have more evidence in a couple of years. A few days before the team members wrapped up work this summer, they discovered two doors leading out of the wine cellar—one to the south, and one to the west.
Both probably lead to additional storage rooms. They'll have to wait until their next dig in 2015 to find out for sure.
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
Results from a DNA study of a young boy’s skeletal remains believed to be 24,000 years old could turn the archaeological world upside down – it’s been proven that nearly 30 percent of modern Native American’s ancestry came from this youngster’s gene pool, suggesting First Americans came directly from Siberia, according to a research team that includes a Texas A&M University professor.
Kelly Graf, assistant professor in the Center for the Study of First Americans and Department of Anthropology at Texas A&M, is part of an international team spearheaded by Eske Willerslev and Maanasa Raghaven from the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark and additional researchers from Sweden, Russia, United Kingdom, University of Chicago and University of California-Berkeley. Their work, funded by the Danish National Science Foundation, Lundbeck Foundation, and the National Science Foundation, is published in the current issue of Nature magazine.
Graf and Willerslev conceived the project and traveled to the Hermitage State Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, where the remains are now housed to collect samples for ancient DNA. The skeleton was first discovered in the late 1920s near the village of Mal’ta in south-central Siberia, and since then it has been referred to as “the Mal’ta child” because until this DNA study the biological sex of the skeleton was unknown.
“Now we can say with confidence that this individual was a male” says Graf.
Graf helped extract DNA material from the boy’s upper arm and “the results surprised all of us quite a bit,” she explains.
“It shows he had close genetic ties to today’s Native Americans and some western Eurasians, specifically some groups living in central Asia, South Asia, and Europe. Also, he shared close genetic ties with other Ice-Age western Eurasians living in European Russia, Czech Republic and even Germany. We think these Ice-Age people were quite mobile and capable of maintaining a far-reaching gene pool that extended from central Siberia all the way west to central Europe.”
Another significant result of the study is that the Mal’ta boy’s people were also ancestors of Native Americans, explaining why some early Native American skeletons such as Kennewick Man were interpreted to have some European traits.
“Our study proves that Native Americans ancestors migrated to the Americas from Siberia and not directly from Europe as some have recently suggested,” Graf explains.
The DNA work performed on the boy is the oldest complete genome of a human sequenced so far, the study shows. Also found near the boy’s remains were flint tools, a beaded necklace and what appears to be pendant-like items, all apparently placed in the burial as grave goods.
The discovery raises new questions about the timing of human entry in Alaska and ultimately North America, a topic hotly debated in First Americans studies.
“Though our results cannot speak directly to this debate, they do indicate Native American ancestors could have been in Beringia—extreme northeastern Russia and Alaska—any time after 24,000 years ago and therefore could have colonized Alaska and the Americas much earlier than 14,500 years ago, the age suggested by the archaeological record.”
“What we need to do is continue searching for earlier sites and additional clues to piece together this very big puzzle.”