Friday, September 30, 2016

Humans occupied South America earlier than previously thought


Ancient artifacts found at an archeological site in Argentina suggest that humans occupied South America earlier than previously thought.

Approximately 13,000 years ago, a prehistoric group of hunter-gathers known as the Clovis people lived in Northern America. Previous research suggests that the Clovis culture was one of the earliest cultures in the Americas. However, more recent research from the Pampas region of Argentina supports the hypothesis that early Homo sapiens arrived in the Americas earlier than the Clovis hunters did.

The evidence for earlier human arrival in the Americas comes from a rich archaeological site in southeastern South America called Arroyo Seco 2. A group of scientists led by Gustavo Politis from CONICET and the Universidad Nacional del Centro de la Provincia de Buenos Aires present the research in a new PLOS ONE study.

At Arroyo Seco 2, the researchers excavated ancient tools, bone remains from a variety of extinct species, and broken animal bones containing fractures caused by human tools. They used radiocarbon dating to determine the age of the mammal bones and analyzed the specimens under a microscope.

The analysis revealed the presence of limb bones from extinct mammals at the site, which may indicate human activities of transporting and depositing animal carcasses for consumption at a temporary camp. The bones of some mammal species were concentrated in a specific part of the site, which could indicate designated areas for butchering activities. Microscopic examination also revealed that some bones contained fractures most likely caused by stone tools. The remains were dated between 14,064 and 13,068 years ago, and the authors hypothesize that Arroyo Seco 2 may have been occupied by humans during that time.

This timeline, along with evidence from other South American sites, indicates that humans may have arrived in southern South America prior to the Clovis people inhabiting the Americas, but after the onset of the Last Glacial Maximum, the last glacial period, which took place 19,000 to 20,000 years ago.

While the characteristics of some of these archaeological materials could be explained without human intervention, the combination of evidence strongly suggests human involvement. Humans' arrival in southern South America 14,000 years ago may represent the last step in the expansion of Homo sapiens throughout the world and the final continental colonization.


Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A Fisherman’s House was Exposed on the Beach in Ashkelon



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Photo: Clara Amit


Young residents of Ashkelon and the vicinity who were employed by the Israel Antiquities Authority in an archaeological excavation in the city, recently uncovered buildings that were once used by local inhabitants that were engaged in fishing along the Mediterranean coast. The excavation was carried out for the Ashkelon municipality, at the initiative of the Ashkelon Economic Company, in an area where a new neighborhood is slated to be constructed in the northern part of city.

As part of a project being led by the Israel Antiquities Authority aimed at educating young people about their past, dozens of boys and girls were engaged in challenging and fascinating work, in revealing the coastal city’s past.

According to the excavation directors, Federico Kobrin and Haim Mamliya, “Two of the buildings that we uncovered are very curious, and it seems they were used as a fisherman’s house and a lookout tower, possibly a lighthouse, dating to the Ottoman period.  The tower was situated on a lofty hilltop, and it looks out over the beach and Mediterranean Sea. From the tower one could signal and direct ships that were sailing between the ancient ports in Ashkelon and Ashdod-Yam”.

Kobrin adds, “The fisherman’s house is divided into three rooms, and a wealth of artifacts was discovered in it that are indicative of its use: metal fishhooks, dozens of lead weights, a large bronze bell, and even a stone anchor. The building’s entrances were fixed in the north in order to prevent the high winds and sea storms from entering into it.  According to the archaeologists, "This is the first time that a building was exposed in Ashkelon that we can attribute with certainty to the fishing industry”.

Kobrin concluded that, “Working with youth was both a challenge and extremely satisfying. The young people participated in uncovering part of their city’s past; they labored diligently and conscientiously, showed their interest and curiosity regarding the finds, and it was a pleasure to work with them”.

The fisherman’s house with be preserved and incorporated in the development of the neighborhood and strip of beach for the benefit of the residents and to create a connection between them and those who lived and fished there in the past.




An Important Archaeological Discovery: A Gate-Shrine Dating to the First Temple Period was Exposed In Excavations of the Israel Antiquities Authority in the Tel Lachish National Park .




An important and unusual discovery was made in archaeological excavations that were carried out in the Tel Lachish National Park: a gate-shrine from the First Temple period (eighth century BCE) in what archaeologists perceive as compelling evidence of King Hezekiah’s efforts to abolish worship there, as described in the Bible: “He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles…” (II Kings 18:4).

The archaeological excavation was conducted in January–March by the Israel Antiquities Authority, at the initiative of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and in cooperation with the Nature and Parks Authority, in order to further the continued development of the Tel Lachish National Park. The northern part of the gate was uncovered decades ago by a British expedition and an expedition of the Tel Aviv University, and the current excavation was engaged in completely exposing the gate. The gate that was revealed in the excavation is the largest one known in the country from the First Temple period. 

According to Sa'ar Ganor, excavation director on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “The size of the gate is consistent with the historical and archaeological knowledge we possess, whereby Lachish was a major city and the most important one after Jerusalem”. According to the biblical narrative, the cities’ gates were the place where ‘everything took place’: the city elders, judges, governors, kings and officials – everyone would sit on benches in the city gate. These benches were found in our excavation”.

The Lachish city gate (24.50 × 24.50 m), which is now completely exposed and preserved to a height of 4 m, consists of six chambers, three on either side, and the city’s main street that passed between them. Artifacts discovered in its rooms indicate how they were used in the eighth century BCE: in the first chamber were benches with armrests, at the foot of which were numerous finds including jars, a large number of scoops for loading grain and stamped jar handles that bear the name of the official or a lmlk

(belonging to the king) seal impression. Two of the handles have the seal impression lmlk hbrn (belonging to the king of Hebron). The word lmlk is written on one of the handles together with a depiction of a four-winged beetle (scarab), and another impression bears the name lnhm avadi, who was probably a senior official during the reign of King Hezekiah. It seems that these jars were related to the military and administrative preparations of the Kingdom of Judah in the war against Sennacherib, king of Assyria, in the late eighth century BCE.

The continuation of the building is the gate-shrine whose walls were treated with white plaster. According to Ganor, “Steps to the gate-shrine in the form of a staircase ascended to a large room where there was a bench upon which offerings were placed. An opening was exposed in the corner of the room that led to the holy of holies; to our great excitement, we found two four-horned altars and scores of ceramic finds consisting of lamps, bowls and stands in this room. It is most interesting that the horns on the altar were intentionally truncated! That is probably evidence of the religious reform attributed to King Hezekiah, whereby religious worship was centralized in Jerusalem and the cultic high places that were built outside the capital were destroyed: “He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles…” (II Kings 18:4).

Besides cutting the horns on the altar, in order to further intensify the abolition of worship in the gate-shrine, a toilet was installed in the holy of holies as the ultimate desecration of that place. A stone fashioned in the shape of a chair with a hole in its center was found in the corner of the room. Stones of this type have been identified in archaeological research as toilets.

Evidence of abolishing cultic locations by installing a toilet in them is known in the Bible, as illustrated in the case of Jehu destroying the cult of Ba?al in Samaria: “And they demolished the pillar of Ba?al, and demolished the house of Ba?al, and made it a latrine to this day” (II Kings 10:27). This is the first time that an archaeological find confirms this phenomenon. Laboratory tests we conducted in the spot where the stone toilet was placed suggest it was never used. Hence, we can conclude that the placement of the toilet had been symbolic, after which the holy of holies was sealed until the site was destroyed.

According to the Minister of Jerusalem and Heritage and Environmental Protection, MK Ze’ev Elkin, “The fascinating new discovery at Tel Lachish is a typical example whereby excavations and further research of heritage sites show us time and time again how biblical tales that are known to us become historical and archaeological stories. This discovery, is an illuminating example of the verse that described King Hezekiah: “He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles…” (II Kings 18:4). Before our very eyes these new finds become the biblical verses themselves and speak in their voice. We in the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage will continue to lead the effort whereby as many Israelis as possible will be exposed to the enthralling experience of ancient stones that speak to us of the Bible in their own unique voice”.


According to the Minister of Culture and Sport, MK Miri Regev, “The uncovering of these finds joins a long list of discoveries that enlighten us about our historic past, a past that is manifested in our country’s soil and in the writings of the Book of Books. The Bible – the founding book of the Jewish people, draws the country’s boundaries and the heritage of the Jewish people that was exiled from its country and returned to its homeland. It boldly commemorates the way of our forefathers, the prophets, the kings, and the judges, and the Israel Antiquities Authority deserves praise for this important discovery, a discovery that deepens our connection to our ancestors who walked this land”.

According to Shaul Goldstein, director-general of the Nature and Parks Authority, "Tel Lachish is one of the most quintessential places where one can get unequivocal proof of Israel’s hold on its land. The new visitor center will include the relief that was found in the private room of the King of Assyria which depicts our forefathers in their war and as they entered captivity that led to a life of exile that continues to this day. The altar from the time of King Hezekiah constitutes another sacred link to this important settlement”.

The gate at Tel Lachish was destroyed by Sennacherib, king of Assyria, in 701 BCE. The excavation revealed destruction layers in the wake of the defeat, including arrowheads and sling stones, indicative of the hand-to-hand combat that occurred in the city’s gatehouse. Evidence of Sennacherib’s military campaign in Judah is known from the archaeological record, the Bible (II Kings 18 and II Chronicles 32), and the Lachish wall reliefs from Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh, depicting the story of the city’s conquest.

At this time the gate is temporarily covered for conservation purposes and cannot be seen. The Nature and Parks Authority, in cooperation with the Israel Antiquities Authority, is currently engaged in the continued development and conservation of the site in preparation of opening it to visitors.

Ear ossicles of modern humans and Neanderthals: Different shape, similar function



A research team led by scientists of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology scanned the skulls of neanderthals and found the small middle ear ossicles, which are important for hearing, still preserved within the cavities of the ear. To their surprise, the neanderthal ossicles are morphologically distinct from the ossicles of modern humans. Despite the differences in morphology, the function of the middle ear is largely the same in the two human species. The authors relate the morphological differences in the ossicles to different evolutionary trajectories in brain size increase and suggest that these findings might be indicative of consistent aspects of vocal communication in modern humans and neanderthals. These findings are also of importance for shedding light on the emergence of human spoken language, which can only be inferred indirectly from the archaeological and fossil record.

The three bones of the middle ear (hammer, anvil, stapes) make up the ossicular chain. This bony chain, which is found in all mammals is dedicated to the transmission of sound waves from the tympanic membrane to the inner ear and helps in amplifying the energy of airborne sound in order to allow the sound wave to travel within the fluid-filled inner ear. Moreover, the ear ossicles are not only important for correct hearing but are also the smallest bones of our body. Thus, it does not surprise that the ossicles are among the most rarely found bones in the mammalian fossil record including the one of human ancestors. Given their important role in audition this lack of knowledge has ever been frustrating for researchers interested in studying hearing capacities of extinct species.

Tiny bones still present

This also applies to our closest extinct relatives -- the neanderthals whose communicative capacities including existence of human spoken language is a major scientific debate ever since the first discovery of neanderthal remains. A research team led by Alexander Stoessel from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig used high-resolution computer tomography scans of neanderthal skulls and systematically checked for ossicles that potentially became trapped within the cavity of the middle ear. And indeed, the researchers found ear ossicles in 14 neanderthal individuals coming from sites in France, Germany, Croatia and Israel, resulting in the largest sample of ear ossicles of any fossil human species. "We were really astonished how often the ear ossicles are actually present in these fossil remains, particularly when the ear became filled with sediments" says lead researcher Alexander Stoessel.

After virtually reconstructing the bones, the team -- which also included scientist from the Friedrich-Schiller University in Jena and the University College in London -- compared them to ossicles of anatomically modern humans and also chimpanzees and gorillas which are our closest living relatives.

Since ossicles are not only small but also complex-shaped the researchers compared them by means of three-dimensional analysis that uses a much larger number of measuring points allowing for examination of the three-dimensional shape of a structure. "Despite the close relationship between anatomically modern humans and neanderthals to our surprise the ear ossicles are very differently shaped between the two human species" says Romain David who was involved in the study.

Based on the results of the morphological comparison the research team examined the potential reasons for these different morphologies. In order to see if these differences may affect hearing capacity of neanderthals and modern humans or reflects a tight relationship with the base of the skull they also analyzed the structures surrounding the ear ossicles. The outcome of this analysis was surprising, again since the functional parameters of the neanderthal and modern human middle ear are largely similar despite contrasting morphologies.

Similar communication skills in archaic humans

Instead, the team found the ear ossicles strongly related to the morphology of the surrounding cranial structures which also differ between the two human groups. The researchers attribute these differences to different evolutionary trajectories that neanderthals and modern humans pursued in order to increase their brain volume which also impacted the structures of the cranial base which the middle ear is a part of. "For us these results could be indicative for consistent aspects of vocal communication in anatomically modern humans and neanderthals that were already present in their common ancestor" says Jean-Jacques Hublin who is an author of this study and continues "these findings should be a basis for continuing research on the nature of the spoken language in archaic hominins."

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Body ornamentation among Neanderthals confirmed




Châtelperronian body ornaments and bone points from the Grotte du Renne in Arcy-sur-Cure.
Credit: © Marian Vanhaeren

Researchers from the University of York have helped to solve an archaeological dispute -- confirming that Neandertals were responsible for producing tools and artefacts previously argued by some to be exclusively in the realm of modern human cognitive abilities.

Using ancient protein analysis, the team took part in an international research project to confirm the disputed origins of bone fragments in Châtelperron, France.

Led by the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, researchers set out to settle the debate as to whether hominin remains in the Grotte du Renne, an archaeological site in Arcy-sur-Cure, France, date to Neandertal ancestry or whether they indicate the first evidence of modern humans in Europe.

Known as the Châtelperronian industry due to numerous artefacts and body ornaments found in this area of central France and northern Spain, the area is critical to the debate regarding the extent of Neandertal cognition, their replacement by modern humans and eventual extinction.

Despite intense research, the exact biological nature of the Châtelperronian people has previously been disputed, with no direct molecular data for a Neandertal association obtained.

However, using peptide mass fingerprinting for rapid, low-cost detection of hominin remains, the team identified 28 additional hominin specimens among previously unidentifiable bone fragments at the Grotte du Renne.

It is thought the bone fragments most likely represent the remains of a single, immature, breastfed individual, with radiocarbon dating being fully consistent with its direct association to Neandertal ancestry.

Professor Matthew Collins, Director of BioArCh at the University of York's Department of Archaeology and co-author of the paper, said: "For the first time, this research demonstrates the effectiveness of recent developments in ancient protein amino acid analysis and radiocarbon dating to discriminate between Late Pleistocene clades. To identify proteins related to specific developmental stages of bone formation highlights one of the main strengths of this new analysis, especially in a multi-disciplinary context.

"These methods open up new avenues of research throughout Late Pleistocene contexts in which hominin remains are scarce and where the biological nature of remains is unclear due to ancient DNA not being preserved. This represents a significant advance in palaeoproteomic phylogenetics and is of direct relevance to our understanding of hominin evolution."

Frido Welker, PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and lead author, said: "To differentiate between modern humans, Neandertals and Denisovans on the basis of ancient protein research provides really exciting opportunities for future research into the origins of our and their evolutionary history."

Professor Hublin, at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, adds: "The process of replacement of archaic local populations by modern humans in Eurasia is still poorly understood, as the makers of many palaeolithic tool-kits of this time period remain unknown. This type of research now allows us to extract unrecognisable human fragments out of large archaeological assemblages and to revisit the mode and the tempo of this major event in human evolution with fresh material."


Monday, September 19, 2016

Researchers identify oldest textile dyed indigo, reflecting scientific knowledge from 6,200 years ago



Credit: Lauren Urana
 
A George Washington University researcher has identified a 6,200-year-old indigo-blue fabric from Huaca, Peru, making it one of the oldest-known cotton textiles in the world and the oldest known textile decorated with indigo blue.

The discovery marks the earliest use of indigo as a dye, a technically challenging color to produce. According to Jeffrey Splitstoser, lead author of a paper on the discovery and assistant research professor of anthropology at the George Washington University, the finding speaks to the sophisticated textile technology ancient Andean people developed 6,200 years ago.

"Some of the world's most significant technological achievements were developed first in the New World," said Dr. Splitstoser. "Many people, however, remain mostly unaware of the important technological contributions made by Native Americans, perhaps because so many of these technologies were replaced by European systems during the conquest. However, the fine fibers and sophisticated dyeing, spinning and weaving practices developed by ancient South Americans were quickly co-opted by Europeans."

The textile was discovered during a 2009 excavation at Huaca Prieta, a desert area that offers nearly pristine archaeological preservation on the north coast of Peru. Experts believe the site was likely a temple where a variety of textiles and other offerings were placed, possibly as part of a ritual. The well-preserved artifacts give a glimpse into ancient civilization and lifestyle and offer an unexpected connection to the 21st century.

The development of indigo dye was critical for future trends in fashion, fabrics and textile arts, Splitstoser said.

"The cotton used in Huaca Prieta fabrics, Gossypium barbadense, is the same species grown today known as Egyptian cotton," Dr. Splitstoser said. "And that's not the only cotton connection we made in this excavation -- we may well not have had blue jeans if it weren't for the ancient South Americans."

The textile is now in the Cao Museum collection in Peru. The paper, "Early Pre-Hispanic Use of Indigo Blue in Peru," published in Science Advances on Sept. 14.


Thursday, September 15, 2016

A 1,500 Year Old Livestock Stable was Exposed in the 'Avdat’ National Park



A structure that was apparently used as a livestock stable in the Byzantine period was recently revealed in an excavation the Israel Antiquities Authority carried out in the ?Avdat National Park. The excavation, with the participation of students from the Har Ha-Negev Field School, was directed by Professor Scott Bucking of DePaul University (USA) and Dr. Tali Erickson-Gini of the Israel Antiquities Authority, with funding provided by a Fulbright scholar grant.

The stable, which was constructed in one of the rock-hewn caves on the mountainside, was used as a service structure by the local residents who were apparently monks. It was divided into a number of stone-built rooms, whose walls were adorned with painted decorations of crosses. Stone basins were also discovered that were probably used for storing food and water for the animals.

According to Professor Scott Bucking of DePaul University in the United States and Dr. Tali Erickson-Gini of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “The identification as a stable was corroborated by an almost 1 m thick layer of organic matter (donkey, sheep and goat manure) on the floor of the building. It seems that the place was destroyed by an earthquake that decimated the city of ?Avdat in the early seventh century CE”.

Students from the Har Ha-Negev Field School participated in the excavation. They sifted the many hundreds of buckets of organic matter that were excavated in the stable under the guidance of Daniel Fuks, an archaeo-botanist on behalf of the Bar Ilan University. They collected seeds and various small organic remains that in the future can shed further light on the use of the building, and other questions, such as what food the local inhabitants consumed and what was the environment in antiquity.

The researchers hope that the grape seeds they found, which were well-preserved because of the dry conditions that prevail in the region, will allow them to extract the DNA of the ancient plant and identify the different species that were grown in the area.  According to Dr. Erickson-Gini, “The young people did an excellent job. They were explained how an archaeologist works, were given a guided tour of the site and they displayed great interest in the research and the project. We enjoyed working with them, and I know that they also enjoyed themselves”.