Friday, November 30, 2012

Native Americans and Northern Europeans more closely related than previously thought

Using genetic analyses, scientists have discovered that Northern European populations—including British, Scandinavians, French, and some Eastern Europeans—descend from a mixture of two very different ancestral populations, and one of these populations is related to Native Americans. This discovery helps fill gaps in scientific understanding of both Native American and Northern European ancestry, while providing an explanation for some genetic similarities among what would otherwise seem to be very divergent groups. This research was published in the November 2012 issue of the Genetics Society of America's journal GENETICS (

According to Nick Patterson, first author of the report, "There is a genetic link between the paleolithic population of Europe and modern Native Americans. The evidence is that the population that crossed the Bering Strait from Siberia into the Americas more than 15,000 years ago was likely related to the ancient population of Europe."

To make this discovery, Patterson worked with Harvard Medical School Professor of Genetics David Reich and other colleagues to study DNA diversity, and found that one of these ancestral populations was the first farming population of Europe, whose DNA lives on today in relatively unmixed form in Sardinians and the people of the Basque Country, and in at least the Druze population in the Middle East. The other ancestral population is likely to have been the initial hunter-gathering population of Europe. These two populations were very different when they met. Today the hunter-gathering ancestral population of Europe appears to have its closest affinity to people in far Northeastern Siberia and Native Americans.

The statistical tools for analyzing population mixture were developed by Patterson and presented in a systematic way in the report. These tools are the same ones used in previous discoveries showing that Indian populations are admixed between two highly diverged ancestral populations and showing that Neanderthals contributed one to four percent of the ancestry of present-day Europeans. In addition, the paper releases a major new dataset that characterizes genetic diversity in 934 samples from 53 diverse worldwide populations.

"The human genome holds numerous secrets. Not only does it unlock important clues to cure human disease, it also reveal clues to our prehistoric past," said Mark Johnston, Editor-in-Chief of the journal GENETICS. "This relationship between humans separated by the Atlantic Ocean reveals surprising features of the migration patterns of our ancestors, and reinforces the truth that all humans are closely related."

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Archaeologists discover shipwrecks, ancient harbor on coast of Israel

A team of archaeologists from the University of Rhode Island, the Israel Antiquities Authority, and the University of Louisville have discovered the remains of a fleet of early-19th century ships and ancient harbor structures from the Hellenistic period (third to first century B.C.) at the city of Akko, one of the major ancient ports of the eastern Mediterranean. The findings shed light on a period of history that is little known and point to how and where additional remains may be found.

The discoveries were presented on November 15 and 17 in Chicago at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research by URI assistant professors Bridget Buxton and William Krieger on behalf of the Israel Coast Exploration project.

According to Buxton, three of the four well-preserved shipwrecks found off the coast south of Akko were first detected using a sub-bottom profiler in 2011. Later, storms stripped off several meters of inshore sediments and temporarily revealed the wrecks, as well as an additional large vessel. The wrecks are now reburied.

During the brief time the shipwrecks were exposed, the Israel Antiquities Authority investigated one of them: a 32 meter vessel which still preserved its brass gudgeon (rudder socket) and many small artifacts, such as plates, a candlestick, and even a cooking pot with bones in it. Laboratory analyses completed this summer by the IAA revealed that the ship's wood came from Turkey. The team believes these ships may have belonged to the Egyptian navy under Admiral Osman Nurredin Bey, whose ships were severely damaged in his attempt to capture Akko in the Egyptian-Ottoman War of 1831. The town eventually fell to Egyptian land forces under Ibrahim Pasha in 1832.

"These ships have occasionally been exposed and buried again by storms since we found them," Buxton said. "We're in a race against time to find other ships in the area and learn from them before storms totally dislodge or destroy them."

Although shipwrecks from the 1800s are not the highest priorities in a region where civilization goes back thousands of years, Buxton is excited by the discovery for what it tells her about where much older ships may be found.

"Like many underwater archaeologists I'm very interested in finding a well-preserved example of an ancient multi-decked warship from the Hellenistic age," said Buxton. "These ships were incredible pieces of technology, but we don't know much about their design because no hulls have been found. However, a combination of unusual environmental and historical factors leads us to believe we have a chance of finding the remains of one of these ships off the northern coast of Israel."

Buxton believes that the ships they are looking for are likely buried in the coastal sediment, which has built up over the centuries through natural processes. However, time is not on their side. "That protective silt is now being stripped away," she said. "And it's being stripped away a lot faster than it was originally dumped, by a combination of development, environmental changes, and the effects of the Aswan Dam." The Nile River has historically deposited large quantities of silt in the area, but the dam has significantly reduced the flow of silt.

The archaeologists found the ships and another early modern vessel within Akko's modern harbor while testing their equipment in preparation for an ongoing survey out in deeper water. The sub-bottom profiler detects anomalies below the sea floor. "It's the gift that keeps on giving," Buxton said. "We found so many targets to explore that we didn't have time to check all of them, but even just having information about where things are helps Koby (Jacob Sharvit, director of the IAA Maritime Antiquities Unit) know where to look after any big storms."

One line of buried targets detected off the southern seawall of old Akko is particularly suggestive. Continuing excavations in this area over the summer revealed an alignment between these targets and a newly-discovered slipway and shipshed structure, which continued out under the sea floor 25 meters from the Ottoman city wall. The feature resembles other naval shipsheds found in places such as Athens where they were used to haul up ancient warships. The excavation project was initially undertaken to strengthen the eroding sea wall, but it also revealed Hellenistic masonry, pottery vessels, an ancient mooring stone, and a stone quay 1.3 meters below the modern sea level. The possibility that much more of the Hellenistic port lies well-preserved under the sea floor is exciting for the archaeologists, because it means that shipwrecks from earlier centuries that have so far not been found at Akko may simply be buried deeper down in the sediment.

"We've got fragmentary historic records for this area in the Hellenistic period, and now we've found a very important feature from the ancient harbor. Ancient shipwrecks are another piece of the puzzle that will help us to rewrite the story of this region at a critical time in Mediterranean history," she said.

Located on the northern coast of Israel, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Akko is one of the few cities in the Mediterranean with more than 5,000 years of maritime history. Also known as Acre, Ake and Ptolemais, its port was an important waypoint for the Phoenicians, Romans, Crusaders, Ottomans and other ancient maritime empires. In the Hellenistic period, it was bitterly fought over by the rival empires of Egypt and Syria.

"Understanding the history and archaeology of Akko's port is crucial to understanding the broader issues of maritime connectivity and the great power struggles that defined the history of the Eastern Mediterranean during the Hellenistic Age," Buxton said.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Archaeologists Date Stone-tipped Weapons: 500,000 Years Old

This is a ~500,000-year-old point from Kathu Pan 1. Multiple lines of evidence indicate that points from Kathu Pan 1 were used as hafted spear tips. Scale bar = 1 cm.

A collaborative study involving researchers at Arizona State University, the University of Toronto, and the University of Cape Town found that human ancestors were making stone-tipped weapons 500,000 years ago at the South African archaeological site of Kathu Pan 1 – 200,000 years earlier than previously thought. This study, "Evidence for Early Hafted Hunting Technology," is published in the November 16 issue of the journal Science.

Attaching stone points to spears (known as "hafting") was an important advance in hunting weaponry for early humans. Hafted tools require more effort and foreplanning to manufacture, but a sharp stone point on the end of a spear can increase its killing power.

"There is a reason that modern bow-hunters tip their arrows with razor-sharp edges. These cutting tips are extremely lethal when compared to the effects from a sharpened stick. Early humans learned this fact earlier than previously thought," said Benjamin Schoville, a coauthor of this study affiliated with the Institute of Human Origins, a research center of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University

Hafted spear tips are common in Stone Age archaeological sites after 300,000 years ago. This study shows that hafted spear tips were also used in the early Middle Pleistocene, a period associated with Homo heidelbergensis, the last common ancestor of Neandertals and modern humans.

"Rather than being invented twice, or by one group learning from the other, stone-tipped spear technology was in place much earlier," said Schoville. "Although both Neandertals and humans used stone-tipped spears, this is the first evidence that this technology originated prior to or near the divergence of these two species."

"It now looks like some of the traits that we associate with modern humans and our nearest relatives can be traced further back in our lineage," said Jayne Wilkins, lead author from the University of Toronto. "This changes the way we think about early human adaptations and capacities before the origin of our own species."

Point function was determined by comparing wear on the ancient points to damage inflicted on modern experimental points used to spear a springbok carcass target with a calibrated crossbow. This method has been used effectively to study weaponry from more recent contexts in the Middle East and southern Africa.

"When points are used as spear tips, there is a lot of damage that forms at the tip of the point, and large distinctive fractures form. The damage on these ancient stone spear points is remarkably similar to those produced with our calibrated crossbow experiment, and we demonstrate they are not easily created from other processes," said coauthor Kyle Brown, a skilled stone tool replicator from the University of Cape Town.

The points were recovered during 1979 excavations by Peter Beaumont of the McGregor Museum, Kimberly, South Africa.

In 2010, a team directed by coauthor Michael Chazan from the University of Toronto reported that the point-bearing deposits at KP1 dated to around 500,000 years ago using optically stimulated luminescence and U-series/electron spin resonance methods. The dating analyses were carried out by Naomi Porat, Geological Survey of Israel, and Rainer Grün, Australian National University.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Desecrated Ancient Temple Sheds Light on Early Power Struggles at Tel Beth-Shemesh

TAU archaeologists unearth unique 11th-century BCE sacred compound with a turbulent history Credit: Image courtesy of American Friends of Tel Aviv University)

Floor level of the temple at Beth Shemesh. Photo: Dale Manor.

Tel Aviv University researchers have uncovered a unique 11th-century BCE sacred compound at the site of Tel Beth-Shemesh, an ancient village that resisted the aggressive expansion of neighboring Philistines. The newly discovered sacred complex is comprised of an elevated, massive circular stone structure and an intricately constructed building characterized by a row of three flat, large round stones. Co-directors of the dig Prof. Shlomo Bunimovitz and Dr. Zvi Lederman of TAU's Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology say that this temple complex is unparalleled, possibly connected to an early Israelite cult — and provides remarkable new evidence of the deliberate desecration of a sacred site.

The village of Beth-Shemesh frequently changed hands between the ambitious Philistines and the Canaanite and Israelite populations that resisted them. The temple and its history reflect the power struggles that defined the region in the 12th-11th century BCE, say Prof. Bunimovitz and Dr. Lederman. Their findings will be presented this month at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research in Chicago.

In the archaeological record, there are no parallels to this Canaanite or Israelite sacred compound of the period, note the researchers. Research has revealed that the temple has a rich history steeped in conflict. Excavators determined that the temple was not only destroyed, but also desecrated. More intensive scientific analysis of the site, conducted by geoarchaeolgist Dr. Shawn Bubel of the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, has shown that the temple ruins were used as animal pens, maybe by the invading Philistines.

Power clash in Tel Beth-Shemesh

Bird's-eye view over the sacred complex, with round stone structure at right and temple at left. Photo: SkyView.

After ruling out the use of the site as a domestic structure, the researchers knew that they had found something unique. Excavations revealed almost only shards of painted chalices and goblets found spread on the floor but no traces of domestic use. One of the three flat stones was surrounded by animal bone remnants, and the two other stones were seemingly designed to direct liquids. These clues convinced Prof. Bunimovitz and Dr. Lederman that they had uncovered a likely place of sacred worship.

But the temple didn't remain sacred. Samples of earth taken from layers above the destroyed temple and analyzed at the Weizmann Institute of Science revealed astonishing results. Directly above the temple was a packed-in layer containing phytoliths (remains of weeds that are commonly eaten by livestock) and spherulites (microscopic remnants of manure produced by grass-eating animals), indicating the presence of animal pens directly on top of the sacred site, explains Prof. Bunimovitz. Intermittent burning in order to clean the pens likely resulted in the concentrated state of the layer.

This desecration was no accident or coincidence, the researchers believe. Instead, it represents the see-saw of political might between the Philistines and the local population. Presumably the Philistines gained temporary control of Beth-Shemesh, and brought in livestock to live on what they knew had been a sacred site to their enemies.

Preserving tradition

According to Prof. Bunimovitz and Dr. Lederman, this discovery also serves to illuminate the recent discovery of a number of round clay ovens, called "tabuns," in the layer excavated above the temple. Typically, such ovens were located in a domestic building for food preparation, explains Prof. Bunimovitz. But these particular ovens were not part of a neighborhood or living quarter.

When the temple was discovered directly underneath, a plausible explanation for the mysterious ovens emerged. "We believe that ancestors of those who had built the original complex came back to rebuild the site," says Dr. Lederman, who suspects that the ovens were used to cook celebration feasts held in veneration of the old temple. Thus, despite the desecration of the temple by the Philistines, the memory of the sacred site survived. Once the Philistines withdrew from the area, the descendents of the original worshippers returned to commemorate this sacred place.

The researchers are now looking for additional funding to help further the excavation and analysis of this unique and surprising sacred site, which has only been partially unearthed.

Ancient Measuring System Uncovered

The shapes and sizes of pottery used for commerce depended on an ancient measuring system
The size and shape of spherical vessels reflected a non-metric measurement system used in Ancient Egypt.

A team of archeologists and mathematicians from Tel Aviv University has discovered a unique, ancient system of calculating volume that differs significantly from the metric system we use today. The method appears to have been used by Egyptians and Phoenicians from the 14th to the 10th century BCE. It allowed merchants (and their clients) to accurate estimate the amount of oil, wine and other products stored in spherical containers and was entirely based on the sphere rather than the cube as a way to measure length and volume.

The Hekat and the Royal Cubit

Until this discovery archeologists believed merchants in antiquity had no accurate, standardized way of measuring the volume of fluids transported in ceramic vessels. However, digital analysis of hundreds of pots and jars found at Tel Megiddo and other sites across the Middle East revealed a strong correlation between the size and volume of these containers. The discovery was made by Professor Itzhak Benenson, head of the Department of Geography and the Human Environment at Tel Aviv University, researcher Elena Zapassky and Professor Israel Finkelstein and Dr. Yuval Gadot from the Department of Archeology.

Ancient Egyptians used a measuring unit called the "royal cubit", equivalent to approximately 52 centimeters, to measure length, and a "hekat", equivalent of approximately 5 liters, to measure volume. When TAU researchers began to measure ceramic vessels in cubits and hekats rather than meters and liters they came across an astounding discovery. Vessels with a circumference of one royal cubit could hold approximately half a hekat's worth of liquid. The correlation, repeated across hundreds of containers, is very unlikely to be accidental and indicates Ancient Egyptians had a method of accurately measuring liquid in a spherical container.

Standardization in the Ancient World

This Egyptian measuring system was adopted by Phoenicians and was still used in the area long after the fall of Egypt's New Kingdom in the late 12th century BCE. Researchers believe this is yet another indication of Egypt's immense political and cultural influence over the region, as it wasn't until the Assyrian conquest – in the 8th century BCE – that new measuring systems were introduced. Interestingly, as the royal cubit and the hekat were slowly phased out, the shapes and sizes of vessels used for transport and trade changed in accordance with new, Assyrian, measurement systems.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Neandertals might have produced sophisticated tools, body ornaments

A population of Neandertals produced sophisticated bone tools and body ornaments more than 40,000 years ago, a study finds. Jean-Jacques Hublin and colleagues analyzed bone samples from two sites in France: Grotte du Renne and Saint Césaire, where Neandertal remains are associated with artifacts from a period called the Châtelperronian.

The researchers extracted collagen from the samples and performed radiocarbon dating using an accelerator mass spectrometer. At Grotte du Renne, the Châtelperronian artifacts were dated to between 44,500 and 41,000 years ago, and a Neandertal tibia bone from Saint Césaire was found to date close to 41,950 years ago. These ages are significant because modern humans replaced the last known European Neandertals starting around 50,000 years ago. Given the dating results, the authors conclude that Neandertals must have made the bone tools and body ornaments found at the sites.

The findings contradict prior research that concluded that modern humans made the Châtelperronian items. However, because Neandertals produced body ornaments only after modern humans arrived in neighboring regions, cultural exchange likely took place between modern humans and Neandertals, according to the authors.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Extreme weather preceded collapse of Maya civilization

Decades of extreme weather crippled, and ultimately decimated, first the political culture and later the human population of the ancient Maya, according to a new study by an interdisciplinary team of researchers that includes two University of California, Davis, scientists.

The collapse of the Maya is one of the world's most enduring mysteries. Now, for the first time, researchers have combined a precise climatic record of the Maya environment with a precise record of Maya political history to provide a better understanding of the role weather had in the civilization's downfall.

Their findings are published in the Nov. 9, 2012 issue of the journal Science.

"Here you had an amazing state-level society that had created calendars, magnificent architecture, works of art, and was engaged in trade throughout Central America," said UC Davis anthropology professor and co-author Bruce Winterhalder. "They were incredible craftspersons, proficient in agriculture, statesmanship and warfare—and within about 80 years, it fell completely apart."

To determine what was happening in the sociopolitical realm during each of those years, the study tapped the extensive Maya Hieroglyphic Database Project, run by UC Davis Native American Language Center director and linguist Martha Macri, a specialist in Mayan hieroglyphs who has been tracking the culture's stone monuments for nearly 30 years.

"Every one of these Maya monuments is political history," said Macri.

Inscribed on each monument is the date it was erected and dates of significant events, such as a ruler's birthday or accession to power, as well as dates of some deaths, burials and major battles. The researchers noted that the number of monuments carved decreased in the years leading to the collapse.

But the monuments made no mention of ecological events, such as storms, drought or references to crop successes or failures.

For that information, the research team collected a stalagmite from a cave in Belize, less than 1 mile from the Maya site of Uxbenka and about 18 miles from three other important centers. Using oxygen isotope dating in 0.1 millimeter increments along the length of the stalagmite, the scientists uncovered a physical record of rainfall over the past 2,000 years.

Combined, the stalagmite and hieroglyphs allowed the researchers to link precipitation to politics. Periods of high and increasing rainfall coincided with a rise in population and political centers between 300 and 660 AD. A climate reversal and drying trend between 660 and 1000 AD triggered political competition, increased warfare, overall sociopolitical instability, and finally, political collapse. This was followed by an extended drought between 1020 and 1100 AD that likely corresponded with crop failures, death, famine, migration and, ultimately, the collapse of the Maya population.

"It has long been suspected that weather events can cause a lot of political unrest and subject societies to disease and invasion," Macri said. "But now it's clear. There is physical evidence that correlates right along with it. We are dependent on climatological events that are beyond our control."

Said Winterhalder: "It's a cautionary tale about how fragile our political structure might be. Are we in danger the same way the Classic Maya were in danger? I don't know. But I suspect that just before their rapid descent and disappearance, Maya political elites were quite confident about their achievements."

A Neolithic well uncovered in the Jezreel Valley

A rare well dating to the Neolithic period was uncovered in recent excavations the Israel Antiquities Authority carried out at ‘Enot Nisanit’, along the western fringes of the Jezreel Valley prior to enlarging Ha-Yogev Junction (Highway 66) by the National Roads Company. Archaeologists estimate the well was built approximately 8,500 years ago.

The skull that was exposed during the excavation. Photographic credit: Clara Amit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

During the excavations the skeletal remains of a woman approximately 19 years of age and a man older than her were uncovered deep inside the well. How did these come to be in the well? Was this an accident or perhaps murder? As of now the answer to this question remains a mystery.

According to Yotam Tepper, excavation director on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “What is clear is that after these unknown individuals fell into the well it was no longer used for the simple reason that the well water was contaminated and was no longer potable”.

Tepper adds, “The impressive well that was revealed was connected to an ancient farming settlement and it seems the inhabitants used it for their subsistence and living. The upper part of the well was built of stones and its lower part was hewn in the bedrock. Two capstones, which narrowed the opening, were set in place at the top of the well. It is c. 8 meters deep and its upper part measures about 1.3 meters in diameter”.

The flint implements that were exposed during the excavation. Photographic credit: Clara Amit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

Tepper says, “Numerous artifacts indicating the identity of the people who quarried it – the first farmers of the Jezreel Valley – were recovered from inside the well. The finds include, among other things, deeply denticulated sickle blades knapped from flint which were used for harvesting, as well as arrow heads and stone implements. The excavation of the accumulations in the well shaft yielded animal bones, organic finds and charcoal which will enable future studies about the domestication of plants and animals, and also allow researchers to determine the exact age of the well by means of advanced methods of absolute dating”.

“The well that was exposed in the Jezreel Valley reflects the impressive quarrying ability of the site’s ancient inhabitants and the extensive knowledge they possessed regarding the local hydrology and geology which enabled them to quarry the limestone bedrock down to the level of the water table. No doubt the quarrying of the well was a community effort that lasted a long time”, said Tepper.

According to Dr. Omri Barzilai, head of the Prehistory Branch of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “Wells from this period are unique finds in the archaeology of Israel, and probably also in the prehistoric world in general. The two oldest wells in the world were previously exposed in Cyprus and they indicated the beginning of the domestication phenomenon: it seems that ancient man tried to devise ways of protecting his drinking water from potential contamination by the animals he raised, and therefore he enclosed the water in places that were not accessible to them. The wells had another important advantage: quarrying them provided access to an available source of water that was not dependent upon springs or streams. Another well, which is about 1,000 years later than those in Cyprus, was previously exposed at the Atlit Yam site in Israel, and another well from this period has now been exposed at the ‘Enot Nisanit’ site. The exposure of these wells makes an important contribution to the study of man’s culture and economy in a period when pottery vessels and metallic objects had still not yet been invented”.

Same Scribe's Works Found Among Dead Sea Scrolls At Qumran and At Masada


Recently Ada Yardeni, the foremost paleographer working in Israel today, made a startling claim: More than 50 Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts were copied by the same scribe.1 The 54 manuscripts came from six different caves: Qumran Caves 1, 2, 3, 4, 6 and 11. Even more surprising, Yardeni identified the same scribal hand in a manuscript of the Joshua Apocryphon found 30 miles south of Qumran at the famous desert fortress of Masada, the last holdout in the Jewish revolt against Rome.

Complete article

“It seems likely that some manuscripts from Qumran were carried south by refugees fleeing the Roman destruction of Qumran in 68 C.E. [Masada is south of Qumran]. But that’s only a best guess.”

Source of this quote.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Rare find, only artifact of its kind, that of Bes, ever found in Jerusalem.

Excavations in in the Ophel area, located between the southern wall of the Old City of Jerusalem and the City of David to its south. have been conducted by Dr. Eilat Mazar of the Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology. The excavations are at a level dating from the period of King Solomon.

An exciting find at that level was
only about one inch in length, was a small white necklace pendant made from faience (see video below). Originally green, the pendant was a figurine depicting the ancient Egyptian god Bes, a deity worshipped as a fertility god and protector of families and households, and in particular, of mothers, children and childbirth. The find is rare in that it is the first and only artifact of its kind, that of Bes, ever found in Jerusalem.

More info here.