Friday, July 29, 2016

Historic Find at Tel-Hazor: A Statue of an Egyptian Official



In a historic find, a large fragment of an Egyptian statue measuring 45 X 40 centimeters, made of lime-stone, was discovered In the course of the current season of excavations at Tel-Hazor, north of the Sea of Galilee in Israel. Only the lower part of the statue survived, depicting the crouching feet of a male figure, seated on a square base on which a few lines in the Egyptian hieroglyphic script are inscribed.


The archaeologists estimate that the complete statue would equal the size of a fully-grown man. At present only a preliminary reading of the inscriptions has been attempted, and the title and name of the Egyptian official who originally owned the statue, are not yet entirely clear.

The statue was originally placed either in the official's tomb or in a temple – most probably a temple of the Egyptian god Ptah – and most of the texts inscribed on the statue's base include words of praise to the official who may have served and most probably practiced his duties in the region of Memphis, the primary cult center of the god Ptah. They also include the customary Egyptian funerary formula ensuring eternal supply of offerings for the statue's owner. This statue, found this year, together with the sphinx fragment of the Egyptian king Mycerinus (who ruled Egypt in the 25th century B.C.E.) discovered at the site by the research team three years ago, are the only monumental Egyptian statues found so far in second millennium contexts in the entire Levant.

The discovery of these two statues in the same building currently being excavated by the research team, indicates the special importance of the building (probably the administrative palace of the ruler of the city), as well as that of the entire city of Hazor.

According to Prof. Amnon Ben-Tor of the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who has been conducting excavations at Tel-Hazor for over 27 years, Hazor is the most important site from the Biblical period. Shlomit Bechar, a doctoral student at the Institute of Archaeology who has been excavating at Hazor for a decade, is co-director of the Hazor excavations and director of the main excavation area.

In the course of close to 30 years of excavation, fragments of 18 different Egyptian statues, both royal and private, dedicated to Egyptian kings and officials, including two sphinxes, were discovered at Hazor. Most of these statues were found in layers dated to the Late Bronze Age (15th-13th centuries B.C.E.) – corresponding to the New Kingdom in Egypt. This is the largest number of Egyptian statues found so far in any site in the Land of Israel, although there is no indication that Hazor was one of the Egyptian strongholds in Southern Canaan nor of the presence of an Egyptian official at Hazor during the Late Bronze Age.

Interestingly, most Egyptian statues found at Hazor so far date to Egypt's "Middle Kingdom" (19th-18th centuries B.C.E), a time when Hazor did not yet exist. It thus seems that the statues were sent by an Egyptian king in the "New Kingdom" as official gifts to the king of Hazor, or as dedications to a local temple (regardless of their being already "antiques"). This is not surprising considering the special status of the king of Hazor who was the most important king in Southern Canaan at the time. The extraordinary importance of Hazor in the 15th-13th centuries B.C.E. is indicated also by the Biblical reference to Hazor as "the head of all those kingdoms" (Joshua 11:10).

All the statues at the site were found broken to pieces and scattered over a large area. Clear signs of mutilation indicate that most of them were deliberately and violently smashed, most probably in the course of the city's final conquest and destruction sometime in the 13th century B.C.E. The deliberate mutilation of statues of kings and dignitaries accompanying the conquest of towns, is a well-known practice in ancient times (I Samuel 5:1-4; Isaiah 11:9) as well as in our time.

The Hazor excavations, which began in the mid 1950 (under the direction of the late Prof. Yigael Yadin), are carried out on behalf of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The excavations were resumed in 1990 – still on behalf of the Hebrew University, and the Israel Exploration Society, and are named "The Selz Foundation Hazor Excavations in Memory of Yigael Yadin". The excavation takes place within the Hazor National Park, in full support and cooperation with the National Parks Authority.




The three volunteer excavators who found the statue, from left to right: Valentin Sama-Rojo from Spain, Bryan Kovach from the United States, and Elanji Swart from South Africa. (Photo credit: Shlomit Bechar)

Hazor is the largest biblical-era site in Israel, covering some 200 acres, and has been recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The population of Hazor in the second millennium BCE is estimated to have been about 20,000, making it the largest and most important city in the entire region. Its size and strategic location on the route connecting Egypt and Babylon made it "the head of all those kingdoms" according to the biblical book of Joshua (Joshua 11:10). Hazor's conquest by the Israelites opened the way to the conquest and settlement of the Israelites in Canaan. The city was rebuilt and fortified by King Solomon and prospered in the days of Ahab and Jeroboam II, until its final destruction by the Assyrians in 732 BCE.

Documents discovered at Hazor and at sites in Egypt and Iraq attest that Hazor maintained cultural and trade relations with both Egypt and Babylon. Artistic artifacts, including those imported to Hazor from near and far, have been unearthed at the site. Hazor is currently one of Israel's national parks.


Evidence of earliest cancer in homonin record found on South African fossils


An international team of researchers led by scientists from the University of the Witwatersrand's Evolutionary Studies Institute and the South African Centre for Excellence in PalaeoSciences today announced in two papers, published in the South African Journal of Science, the discovery of the most ancient evidence for cancer and bony tumours yet described in the human fossil record.



Volume rendered image of the external morphology of the foot bone shows the extent of expansion of the primary bone cancer beyond the surface of the bone.
CREDIT
Patrick Randolph-Quinney (UCLAN)

The discovery of a foot bone dated to approximately 1.7 million years ago from the site of Swartkrans with definitive evidence of malignant cancer, pushes the oldest date for this disease back from recent times into deep prehistory. Although the exact species to which the foot bone belongs is unknown, it is clearly that of a hominin, or bipedal human relative.

In an accompanying paper appearing in the same journal, a collaborating team of scientists identify the oldest tumour ever found in the human fossil record, a benign neoplasm found in the vertebrae of the well-known Australopithecus sediba child, Karabo from the site of Malapa, and dated to almost two million years in age. The oldest previously demonstrated possible hominin tumour was found in the rib of a Neanderthal and dated to around 120,000 years old.

Edward Odes, a Wits doctoral candidate and lead author of the cancer paper, and co-author on the tumour paper, notes "Modern medicine tends to assume that cancers and tumours in humans are diseases caused by modern lifestyles and environments. Our studies show the origins of these diseases occurred in our ancient relatives millions of years before modern industrial societies existed".

The cancer in a foot bone, a metatarsal, was identified as an osteosarcoma, an aggressive form of cancer which usually affects younger individuals in modern humans, and, if untreated typically results in early death. "Due to its preservation, we don't know whether the single cancerous foot bone belongs to an adult or child, nor whether the cancer caused the death of this individual, but we can tell this would have affected the individuals' ability to walk or run," says Dr Bernhard Zipfel, a Wits scientist and an expert on the foot and locomotion of early human relatives. "In short, it would have been painful."

Lead author of the tumour paper and co-author of the cancer paper, Dr Patrick Randolph-Quinney of Wits University and the University of Central Lancashire in the UK, suggests "The presence of a benign tumour in Australopithecus sediba is fascinating not only because it is found in the back, an extremely rare place for such a disease to manifest in modern humans, but also because it is found in a child. This, in fact, is the first evidence of such a disease in a young individual in the whole of the fossil human record".

Prof. Lee Berger, an author on both papers and leader of the Malapa project where the fossil vertebra was found adds "not only has there been an assumption that these sorts of cancers and tumours are diseases of modernity, which these fossils clearly demonstrate they are not, but that we as modern humans exhibit them as a consequence of living longer, yet this rare tumour is found in a young child. The history of these types of tumours and cancers is clearly more complex than previously thought".

Both incidences of disease were diagnosed using state of the art imaging technologies including those at the European Synchrotron Research Facility in Grenoble, France, medical CT at the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital in Johannesburg, and the micro-CT facility at the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa at Pelindaba.

"Researchers in South Africa are at the forefront of using various X-Ray modalities to discover new and interesting facts about ancient human relatives," notes Dr Jacqueline Smilg, a radiologist based at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital, who is an author on both papers and was involved in the clinical diagnoses. "This is another good example of how the modern clinical sciences and the science of palaeoanthropology are working together in South Africa and with international collaborators to advance our understanding of diseases in both the past and the present."


Monday, July 18, 2016

Genome of 6,000-year-old barley grains retrieved from Yoram Cave in the southern cliff of Masada fortress sequenced


An international team of researchers has succeeded for the first time in sequencing the genome of Chalcolithic barley grains. This is the oldest plant genome to be reconstructed to date. The 6,000-year-old seeds were retrieved from Yoram Cave in the southern cliff of Masada fortress in the Judean Desert in Israel, close to the Dead Sea. Genetically, the prehistoric barley is very similar to present-day barley grown in the Southern Levant, supporting the existing hypothesis of barley domestication having occurred in the Upper Jordan Valley.

The analyzed grains, together with tens of thousands of other plant remains, were retrieved during a systematic archaeological excavation headed by Uri Davidovich, from the Institute of Archaeology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Nimrod Marom, from Zinman Institute of Archaeology, University of Haifa, Israel. The archaeobotanical analysis was led by Ehud Weiss, of Bar-Ilan University. The cave is very difficult to access and was used only for a short time by humans, some 6,000 years ago, probably as ephemeral refuge.

Oldest plant genome reconstructed to date

Most examination of archaeobotanical findings has been limited to the comparison of ancient and present-day specimens based on their morphology. Up to now, only prehistoric corn has been genetically reconstructed. In this research, the team succeeded in sequencing the complete genome of the 6,000-year-old barley grains. The results are now published in the online version of the journal Nature Genetics.

"These archaeological remains provided a unique opportunity for us to finally sequence a Chalcolithic plant genome. The genetic material has been well-preserved for several millennia due to the extreme dryness of the region," explains Ehud Weiss, of Bar-Ilan University. In order to determine the age of the ancient seeds, the researchers split the grains and subjected half of them to radiocarbon dating while the other half was used to extract the ancient DNA. "For us, ancient DNA works like a time capsule that allows us to travel back in history and look into the domestication of crop plants at distinct time points in the past," explains Johannes Krause, Director of the Department of Archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena. The genome of Chalcolithic barley grains is the oldest plant genome to be reconstructed to date.

Domestication of barley completed very early

Wheat and barley were already grown 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, a sickle-shaped region stretching from present-day Iraq and Iran through Turkey and Syria into Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. Up to this day, the wild forms of these two crops persist in the region and are among the major model species studied at the Institute of Evolution in the University of Haifa. "It was from there that grain farming originated and later spread to Europe, Asia and North Africa," explains Tzion Fahima, of the University of Haifa.

"Our analyses show that the seeds cultivated 6,000 years ago greatly differ genetically from the wild forms we find today in the region. However, they show considerable genetic overlap with present-day domesticated lines from the region," explains Nils Stein, who directed the comparison of the ancient genome with modern genomes at the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK), Gatersleben, with the support of Robbie Waugh and colleagues at the James Hutton Institute, Dundee, Scotland, and Gary Muehlbauer, University of Minnesota, USA. "This demonstrates that the domestication of barley in the Fertile Crescent was already well advanced very early."

The comparison of the ancient seeds with wild forms from the region and with so-called 'landraces' (i.e., local barley lines grown by farmers in the Near East) enabled to geographically suggest, according to Tzion Fahima and his colleagues at the University of Haifa and Israel's Tel-Hai College, "the origin of the domestication of barley within the Upper Jordan Valley - a hypothesis that is also supported by two archaeological sites in the surrounding area where the hitherto earliest remains of barley cultivation have been found.

Immigrants "trust" in extant landraces

Also the genetic overlap with present-day domesticated lines from the region is revealing to the researchers. "This similarity is an amazing finding considering to what extent the climate, but also the local flora and fauna, as well as the agricultural methods, have changed over this long period of time," says Martin Mascher, from the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research, the lead author of the study. The researchers therefore assume that conquerors and immigrants coming to the region did not bring their own crop seeds from their former homelands, but continued cultivating the locally adapted extant landraces.

New insights into the origins of our crop plants

Combining archaeology, archaeobotany, genetics and computational genomics in an interdisciplinary study has produced novel insights into the origins of our crop plants. "This is just the beginning of a new and exciting line of research," predicts Verena Schuenemann, from Tuebingen University, the second lead author of the study. "DNA-analysis of archaeological remains of prehistoric plants will provide us with novel insights into the origin, domestication and spread of crop plants."


Thursday, July 14, 2016

Genomes from Zagros mountains reveal different Neolithic ancestry of Europeans & South Asians


Sedentism, farming, and agriculture was invented some 10,000 years ago in a region between southeastern Anatolia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, an area traditionally labeled as the Fertile Crescent. Most of the technology and culture associated with farming including domestic sheep, goat, cattle, and pig originated here. The transition from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agriculture and sedentism was considered such a radical change in human ecology that the term Neolithic revolution was coined for it. Some 2,000 years later, the new Neolithic lifestyle appeared in southeastern Europe and shortly afterwards in Central and Mediterranean Europe.

This week, an international research team led by palaeogeneticists of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) published a study in the journal Science showing that the earliest farmers from the Zagros mountains in Iran, i.e., the eastern part of the Fertile Crescent, are neither the main ancestors of Europe's first farmers nor of modern-day Europeans.

"This came as a surprise," said Farnaz Broushaki, first author of the study and a member of the JGU Palaeogenetics Group. "Our team had only recently shown that early farmers from across Europe have an almost unbroken trail of ancestry leading back to northwest Anatolia. But now it seems that the chain of migration into Europe breaks somewhere in eastern Anatolia."

According to the team's previous study, Neolithic settlers from northern Greece and the Marmara Sea region of western Turkey reached central Europe via a Balkan route and the Iberian Peninsula via a Mediterranean route. These colonists brought sedentary life, agriculture, and domestic animals and plants to Europe. New research shows that some of the world's earliest farmers from Iran were a genetically distinct group and only very distantly related to the first farmers of western Anatolia and Europe.

"It is interesting that people who are genetically so different, who almost certainly looked different and spoke different languages adopted the agricultural lifestyle almost simultaneously in different parts of Anatolia and the Near East," said Professor Joachim Burger, senior author of the study. "The group of prehistoric inhabitants of the Zagros region separated more than 50,000 years ago from other people of Eurasia and were among the first who invented farming."

Professor Joachim Burger, his Mainz palaeogeneticist team, and international collaborators have pioneered palaeogenetic research of the Neolithization process in Europe over the last decade. In 2005, they presented the first ancient DNA study on prehistoric European farmers, and in 2009 and 2013 they analyzed their complex interactions with hunter-gatherers. Now they demonstrate that the idea of "ex oriente lux" is true in cultural but not in genetic terms.

Marjan Mashkour, an Iranian archaeozoologist who works at the CNRS in Paris and initiated the study with Burger and Fereidoun Biglari, a prehistoric archaeologist at the National Museum of Iran, added: "The Neolithic way of life originates in the Fertile Crescent, maybe also some Neolithic pioneers started moving from there. But the majority of ancient Iranians did not move west as some would have thought."

However, they did move east, as the study shows. The research team found that the Iranian genomes represent the main ancestors of modern-day South Asians. Whilst sharing many segments of their genome with Afghani and Pakistani populations, the almost 10,000 year old genomes from the Iranian Zagros mountains were found to be most similar to modern-day Zoroastrians from Iran. "This religious group probably mixed less with later waves of people than others in the region and therefore preserved more of that ancient ancestry," said Broushaki.

In sum, it seems like at least two highly divergent groups became the world's first famers: the Zagros people of the Neolithic eastern Fertile Crescent that are ancestral to most modern South Asians and the Aegeans that colonized Europe some 8,000 years ago. "The origin of farming was genetically more complex than we thought and instead of speaking of a single Neolithic center, we should start adopting the idea of a Federal Neolithic Core Zone", emphasized Burger.


Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Archaeologists Uncover Second Temple-era Priestly Quarter of Jerusalem


Archaeologists excavating in the heart of ancient Jerusalem have begun to uncover the neighborhood that housed the elite 2,000 years ago – most probably the priestly ruling class.

One of the houses had its own cistern, a mikveh (a Jewish ritual bathing pool), a barrel-vaulted ceiling and a chamber with three bread ovens.

Inside a room found with its ceiling intact was a bathtub – an extremely rare luxury that commoners of the time could not afford.

Bathtubs, as opposed to ritual dipping pools, have so far only been found at King Herod's palaces in Masada and Jericho, and in the so-called "Priestly Mansion" in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.

“It's clear from the finds that the people living here were wealthy, aristocrats or perhaps even priests,” Prof. Shimon Gibson, co-director of the excavations, told Haaretz.

A ritual stone cup with a priestly inscription, used for purification rituals, also found there supports the archaeologist's theory that this area was the Priestly Quarter of ancient Jerusalem...


Must read article with great pictures: http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/archaeology/.premium-1.730486




Monday, July 11, 2016

New mosaics discovered in synagogue excavations in Galilee

Excavations this summer in the Late Roman (fifth century) synagogue at Huqoq, an ancient Jewish village in Israel’s Lower Galilee, have revealed stunning new mosaics that decorated the floor. The excavations are directed by Jodi Magness, a professor in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill College of Arts and Sciences, along with Assistant Director Shua Kisilevitz of the Israel Antiquities Authority.



Fish swallowing soldier, Parting of the Red Sea mosaic, Huqoq. Copyright Jim Haberman. All rights reserved. 
The mosaic panels decorating the floor of the synagogue’s nave (center of the hall) portray two biblical stories: Noah’s Ark and the parting of the Red Sea. The panel with Noah’s Ark depicts an ark and pairs of animals, including elephants, leopards, donkeys, snakes, bears, lions, ostriches, camels, sheep and goats. The scene of the parting of the Red Sea shows Pharaoh’s soldiers being swallowed by large fish, surrounded by overturned chariots with horses and chariot drivers.

“These scenes are very rare in ancient synagogues,” said Magness, Kenan Distinguished Professor. “The only other examples that have been found are at Gerasa/Jerash in Jordan and Mopsuestia/Misis in Turkey (Noah’s Ark), and at Khirbet Wadi Hamam in Israel and Dura Europos in Syria (the parting of the Red Sea).”

Mosaics were first discovered at the site in 2012, and excavations have since continued each summer. In 2012, a mosaic depicting Samson and the foxes (as related in the Bible’s Judges 15:4) was found in the synagogue’s east aisle. The next summer, an adjacent mosaic was uncovered that shows Samson carrying the gate of Gaza on his shoulders (Judges 16:3). Another mosaic discovered and excavated in the synagogue’s east aisle in 2013 and 2014 depicts the first non-biblical story ever found decorating an ancient synagogue — perhaps the legendary meeting between Alexander the Great and the Jewish high priest. A mosaic panel uncovered in 2015 next to this scene contains a Hebrew inscription surrounded by human figures, animals and mythological creatures including putti (cupids).

“This is by far the most extensive series of biblical stories ever found decorating the mosaic floor of an ancient synagogue,” said Magness. “The arrangement of the mosaics in panels on the floor brings to mind the synagogue at Dura Europos in Syria, where an array of biblical stories is painted in panels on the walls.”

The mosaics have been removed from the site for conservation, and the excavated areas have been backfilled. Excavations are scheduled to continue in summer 2017.

UNC-Chapel Hill, Baylor University, Brigham Young University and the University of Toronto are project sponsors. Students and staff from Carolina and the consortium schools participated in the dig. Financial support for the 2016 season was also provided by the National Geographic Society, the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture and the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

The first evidence of Neanderthal cannibalism in northern Europe is discovered


The Neanderthals displayed great variability in their behaviour and one of the aspects in which this becomes clear is their relationship with the dead. There is evidence on different sites (e.g. Chapelle-aux-Saints in France, and Sima de las Palomas on the Iberian Peninsula) that the Neanderthals buried the dead. Yet other sites show that the Neanderthals ate the meat and broke the bones of their fellow Neanderthals for food. Evidence of this cannibal behaviour has been discovered at various sites in France (e.g., Moula-Guercy, Les Pradelles) and on the Iberian Peninsula (Zafarraya, El Sidrón).





The highly fragmented Neanderthal collection of the third cave at Goyet represents at least five individuals. Dating indicates that the ones marked with an asterisk go back to between 40,500 and 45,500 years ago. Scale=3cm

CREDIT
Asier Gómez-Olivencia et al.


However, there are very few sites with Neanderthal remains north of latitude 50º, as only two of these sites have provided information on possible funerary treatment. Partial skeletons have been found in Feldhofer (Germany) and in Spy (Belgium), and the study of them as well as that of their context allows one to deduce that they were interred. In fact, the excavation notes on the Spy II individual indicate that it was a complete skeleton found in a contracted position.

A new study, led by Dr Hélène Rougier, and which the Ikerbasque researcher at the UPV/EHU Asier Gómez-Olivencia has participated in, has discovered the largest number of Neanderthal human remains in northern Europe, not only in terms of the number of remains but also in terms of the number of individuals represented, a total of five: 4 adolescents or adults and one child. The site is the "Troisième caverne" in Goyet (Belgium).

A third of the Neanderthal remains on this site display cut marks, and many remains bear percussion marks caused when the bones were crushed to extract the marrow. The comparison of the Neanderthal remains with other remains of fauna recovered on the site (horses and reindeer) suggests that the three species were consumed in a similar way. This discovery enables the range of known Neanderthal behaviour in northern Europe with respect to the dead to the expanded.

What is more, five human Neanderthal remains display signs of having been used as soft percussors to shape stone. The Neanderthals used boulders to shape stone tools and also used bone in some cases to sharpen the cutting edges (one example closer to home can be found in the bone retouchers, mainly belonging to deer, recovered on the Azlor site in Dima, Bizkaia). So far, there have been three sites in which the Neanderthals are known to have used the bones of a fellow Neanderthal to shape stone tools: a femur fragment in the case of Krapina in Croatia and Les Pradelles, and a skull fragment at La Quina in France. Goyet has provided 5 sets of human remains used as retouchers, which almost doubles the record known so far on a single site.

It has also been possible to date this collection of Neanderthal remains. It has been revealed that these Neanderthals lived between 40,500 and 45,500 years ago. The exceptional preservation of the collection has also enabled the mitochondrial DNA of these remains to be recovered, which when compared with that of other Neanderthals, reveals that genetically the Neanderthals at Goyet resembled those of Feldhofer (Germany), Vindija (Croatia) and El Sidrón (Asturias, Spain). This great genetic uniformity, notwithstanding the geographical distances, indicates that the Neanderthal population that inhabited Europe was small.