Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Analysis of Neanderthal teeth grooves uncovers evidence of prehistoric dentistry


A discovery of multiple toothpick grooves on teeth and signs of other manipulations by a Neanderthal of 130,000 years ago are evidence of a kind of prehistoric dentistry, according to a new study led by a University of Kansas researcher.

"As a package, this fits together as a dental problem that the Neanderthal was having and was trying to presumably treat itself, with the toothpick grooves, the breaks and also with the scratches on the premolar," said David Frayer, professor emeritus of Anthropology. "It was an interesting connection or collection of phenomena that fit together in a way that we would expect a modern human to do. Everybody has had dental pain, and they know what it's like to have a problem with an impacted tooth."

The Bulletin of the International Association for Paleodontology recently published the study. The researchers analyzed four isolated but associated mandibular teeth on the left side of the Neanderthal's mouth. Frayer's co-authors are Joseph Gatti, a Lawrence dentist, Janet Monge, of the University of Pennsylvania; and, Davorka Radovčić, curator at the Croatian Natural History Museum.

The teeth were found at Krapina site in Croatia, and Frayer and Radovčić have made several discoveries about Neanderthal life there, including a widely recognized 2015 study published in PLOS ONE about a set of eagle talons that included cut marks and were fashioned into a piece of jewelry.

The teeth and all the Krapina Neanderthal fossils were discovered more than 100 years ago from the site, which was originally excavated between 1899-1905.

However, Frayer and Radovčić in recent years have reexamined many items collected from the site.

In this case, they analyzed the teeth with a light microscope to document occlusal wear, toothpick groove formation, dentin scratches, and ante mortem, lingual enamel fractures.

Even though the teeth were isolated, previous researchers were able to reconstruct their order and location in the male or female Neanderthal's mouth. Frayer said researchers have not recovered the mandible to look for evidence of periodontal disease, but the scratches and grooves on the teeth indicate they were likely causing irritation and discomfort for some time for this individual.

They found the premolar and M3 molar were pushed out of their normal positions. Associated with that, they found six toothpick grooves among those two teeth and the two molars further behind them.

"The scratches indicate this individual was pushing something into his or her mouth to get at that twisted premolar," Frayer said.

The features of the premolar and third molar are associated with several kinds of dental manipulations, he said. Mostly because the chips of the teeth were on the tongue side of the teeth and at different angles, the researchers ruled out that something happened to the teeth after the Neanderthal died.

Past research in the fossil record has identified toothpick grooves going back almost 2 million years, Frayer said. They did not identify what the Neanderthal would have used to produce the toothpick grooves, but it possibly could have been a bone or stem of grass.

"It's maybe not surprising that a Neanderthal did this, but as far as I know, there's no specimen that combines all of this together into a pattern that would indicate he or she was trying to presumably self-treat this eruption problem," he said.

The evidence from the toothpick marks and dental manipulations is also interesting in light of the discovery of the Krapina Neanderthals' ability to fashion eagle talons fashioned into jewelry because people often think of Neanderthals as having "subhuman" abilities.

"It fits into a pattern of a Neanderthal being able to modify its personal environment by using tools," Frayer said, "because the toothpick grooves, whether they are made by bones or grass stems or who knows what, the scratches and chips in the teeth, they show us that Neanderthals were doing something inside their mouths to treat the dental irritation. Or at least this one was.


In Turkey, carved skulls provide the first evidence of a neolithic 'skull cult'


In Turkey, Carved Skulls Provide the First Evidence of a Neolithic "Skull Cult": Three carved skull fragments uncovered at a Neolithic dig site in Turkey feature modifications not seen before among human remains of the time, researchers say. Thus, these modified skull fragments could point to a new "skull cult" -- or ritual group -- from the Neolithic period.


 This is a pillar from Building D at Göbekli Tepe seen from the southeast.
CREDIT
German Archaeological Institute (DAI)

Throughout history, people have valued skulls for different reasons, from ancestor worship to the belief that human skulls transmit protective properties. This focus on the skull has led to the establishment of the term skull cult in anthropology, and various such cults -- each with characteristic modifications to skull bones -- have been catalogued.

Recently, Julia Gresky and colleagues observed a previously unknown type of modification in three partial skulls uncovered at Göbekli Tepe. Each skull had intentional deep incisions along its sagittal axes and one of those skulls also displayed a drilled hole in the left parietal bone, as well as red ochre remnants, the authors say.

By using different microscopic techniques to analyze the fragments, Gresky et al. verified that the carvings were executed using lithic tools, thus ruling out natural causes, like animal gnawing. In addition, they were able to discount scalping as a source of the marks, due to the depth of the carvings; however, other minor cut-marks on the skulls show signs of possible defleshing, they say. More likely, the skulls were carved to venerate ancestors not long after their death, say the authors, or, to put recently "dispatched" enemies on display. These findings present the very first evidence for treatment of the dead at Göbekli Tepe.


Researchers document early, permanent human settlement in Andes


Using five different scientific approaches, a team including University of Wyoming researchers has given considerable support to the idea that humans lived year-round in the Andean highlands of South America over 7,000 years ago.

Examining human remains and other archaeological evidence from a site at nearly 12,500 feet above sea level in Peru, the scientists show that intrepid hunter-gatherers -- men, women and children -- managed to survive at high elevation before the advent of agriculture, in spite of lack of oxygen, frigid temperatures and exposure to elements.

"This gives us a very strong baseline to help understand the rates of cultural and genetic change in the Andean highlands, a region known for the domestication of alpaca, potatoes and other plants; emergence of state-level political and economic complexity; and rapid human adaptation to high-elevation life," says Randy Haas, a postdoctoral research associate in the University of Wyoming's Department of Anthropology and the team's leader.

The research appears in the July issue of Royal Society Open Science, a peer-reviewed, open-access scientific journal. Along with Haas, the second author is Ioana Stefenescu, graduate student in UW's Department of Geology and Geophysics. Also contributing to the paper were Alexander Garcia-Putnam, doctoral student in the UW Department of Anthropology; Mark Clementz, associate professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics; Melissa Murphy, associate professor in the Department of Anthropology; and researchers from the University of California-Davis, the University of California-Merced, the University of Arizona and Peruvian institutions.

Excavations led by Haas at the site in southern Peru produced the remains of 16 people, along with more than 80,000 artifacts, dating to as early as 8,000 years ago. Evidence from that site, as well as others, has led some researchers to estimate that hunter-gatherers began living in the Andes around 9,000 years ago, but debate has continued over whether that human presence was permanent or seasonal.

The research team led by Haas took five different approaches to test whether there was early permanent use of the region: studying the human bones for oxygen and carbon isotopes; the travel distances from the site to low-elevation zones; the demographic mixture of the human remains; and the types of tools and other materials found with them.

The scientists found low oxygen and high carbon isotope values in the bones, revealing the distinct signature of permanent high-elevation occupation; that travel distances to low-elevation zones were too long for seasonal human migration; that the presence of women and small children meant such migration was highly unlikely; and that almost all of the tools used by the hunter-gatherers were made with high-elevation stone material, not brought from elsewhere.

"These results constitute the strongest evidence to date that people were living year-round in the Andean highlands at least 7,000 years ago," Haas says. "Such high-elevation environments were among the last frontiers of human colonization, and this knowledge holds implications for understanding rates of genetic, physiological and cultural adaption in the human species."


3,000-year-old textiles are earliest evidence of chemical dyeing in the Levant


Tel Aviv University archaeologists have revealed that cloth samples found in the Israeli desert present the earliest evidence of plant-based textile dyeing in the region. They were found at a large-scale copper smelting site and a nearby temple in the copper ore district of Timna in Israel's Arava desert and are estimated to date from the 13th-10th centuries BCE.



CREDIT
Clara Amit, courtesy of the Israeli Antiquities Authority.
The wool and linen pieces shed light on a sophisticated textile industry and reveal details about a deeply hierarchical society dependent on long-distance trade to support its infrastructure in the unforgiving desert.

The study was published in PLOS ONE. It was led by Dr. Erez Ben-Yosef of TAU's Department of Archaeology and Near Eastern Cultures and Dr. Naama Sukenik of the Israel Antiquities Authority; and conducted in collaboration with Vanessa Workman of TAU's Department of Archaeology, Dr. Orit Shamir of the Israel Antiquities Authority and Dr. Zohar Amar, Dr. Alexander Varvak and Dr. David Iluz of Bar-Ilan University.

Textiles suggest significant social stratification

"This was clearly a formative period, with local kingdoms emerging and replacing Egyptian hegemony in Canaan," Dr. Ben-Yosef said. "These beautiful masterpieces of weaving and dyeing -- the first evidence of industrial dyeing at the time, of wash-resistant color on textile -- support the idea of a strong, hierarchical Edomite Kingdom in Timna at the time.

"It is apparent that there was a dominant elite in this society that took pains to dress according to their 'class,' and had the means to engage in long-distance trade to transport these textiles -- and other materials and resources -- to the desert."

The research suggests a sophisticated dyeing process involving cooking colorful plants in water, then adding fleece fixed with alum to create a chemical bond between fabrics and dye. The result is a wash-resistant colorful fabric.

The researchers radiocarbon-dated the textile pieces and harnessed gas chromatography to identify the cloth's organic molecules. They found "red" molecules produced from the madder plant and "blue" molecules from the woad plant.

"Both plants were known in antiquity as sources of organic dyes," said Dr. Ben-Yosef. "We know that these plants were used to create elaborate costumes during the Roman period, more than a thousand years later. Now we have evidence in the region of an Edomite society wearing textiles produced the same way, versus an earlier 'primitive' smearing of color on fabric."

"We can make many inferences according to this discovery," Dr. Ben-Yosef continued. "To force a large group of people to work in dangerous mines in the desert, you need a strong ruling party -- an elite that probably wore exquisite clothes to further distinguish themselves. The smelters, working in furnaces, were considered 'magicians' or even priests, and they probably wore fine clothing too. They represented the highest level of society, managing a sensitive and complex process to produce copper from rock."

Evidence of long-distance trade

The textile dye presents evidence of long-distance trade, Dr. Ben-Yosef noted. "Clearly this is not local. These plants require a lot of water and probably hail from the Mediterranean regions. The dyeing required special craftspeople, an entire industry that could not have subsisted in the desert. If Jerusalem was indeed opulent in the time of King Solomon, and the Temple covered in copper, we can assume a link to that kingdom."

The textiles are currently being stored in special facilities at the Israel Antiquities Authority and will one day be presented in museums in Israel and elsewhere.


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A wooden toe: Egyptologists study 3,000-year-old prosthesis

Toe prosthesis of a female burial from the Theban tomb TT95, early first millennium BC. Egyptian Museum Cairo, JE100016a.
CREDIT
University of Basel, LHTT. Image: Matja� Kačičnik

It is likely to be one of the oldest prosthetic devices in human history: Together with other experts, Egyptologists from the University of Basel have reexamined an artificial wooden big toe. The find is almost 3000 years old and was discovered in a female burial from the necropolis of Sheikh ´Abd el-Qurna close to Luxor. This area is currently being studied using state-of-the-art methods.

The international team investigated the one-of-a-kind prosthesis using modern microscopy, X-ray technology, and computer tomography. They were able to show that the wooden toe was refitted several times to the foot of its owner, a priest's daughter. The researchers also newly classified the used materials and identified the method with which the highly developed prosthesis was produced and utilized. Experts from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo - where the prosthetic device was brought to after it had been found - and the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich were also involved in this study.

The artificial toe from the early first millennium BC testifies to the skills of an artisan who was very familiar with the human physiognomy. The technical know-how can be seen particularly well in the mobility of the prosthetic extension and the robust structure of the belt strap. The fact that the prosthesis was made in such a laborious and meticulous manner indicates that the owner valued a natural look, aesthetics and wearing comfort and that she was able to count on highly qualified specialists to provide this.

Life histories of a burial ground

The prosthesis from the Early Iron Age was found in a plundered shaft tomb that was cut into the bedrock of an older, long time idle burial chapel at the graveyard hill of Sheikh ´Abd el-Qurna to the west of Luxor. This chapel belongs to a group of monumental rock-cut tombs from the late 15th century BC which were built for a small upper class that was close to the royal family. Since the end of 2015, the University of Basel has been studying this ancient Egyptian elite cemetery, its long history of usage, and surroundings.

For this project, funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, microanalytic, scientifically oriented methods, as well as precision technology for surveying and photography were used. The researchers are looking into the materiality of archaeological remains and are thus gaining insight into the life histories of building structures and objects. These material biographies can provide information about the manufacturing practices, usages, personal skills, habits and preferences of people who were in contact with these objects.

A necropolis in 3-D

The oldest known tombs from Sheikh ´Abd el-Qurna date back to the early second millennium BC. The cemetery saw its heyday in the 15th century BC. However, many of these rock-cut structures were reused and in parts remodeled several times for burials during the first millennium BC. Much later, they served as dwellings mostly for locals - a process that began with the early Christian hermits and only ended in the early 20th century.

Together with the experts for geodesy and geology from the ETH Zurich, the Basel team of archaeologists is scientifically assessing the natural and artificial structures of the excavation area and its surroundings. The specialists are currently developing geometric precise digital elevation, landscape, and architecture models for this area. These will then be combined to an archaeological and geological 3-D map that will illustrate the morphology of the terrain as well as the investigated subterranean structures. On that basis, the researchers want to reconstruct and simulate the development of the cemetery and its use phases.


Ancient skulls shed light on migration in the Roman empire


Skeletal evidence shows that, hundreds of years after the Roman Republic conquered most of the Mediterranean world, coastal communities in what is now south and central Italy still bore distinct physical differences to one another - though the same could not be said of the area around Rome itself.

Using state-of-the-art forensic techniques, anthropologists from North Carolina State University and California State University, Sacramento examined skulls from three imperial Roman cemeteries: 27 skulls from Isola Sacra, on the coast of central Italy; 26 from Velia, on the coast of southern Italy; and 20 from Castel Malnome, on the outskirts of the city of Rome. The remains at the cemeteries in both Isola Sacra and Velia belonged to middle-class merchants and tradesmen, while those from Castel Malnome belonged to manual laborers. All of the remains date from between the first and third centuries A.D.

The researchers took measurements of 25 specific points on each skull using a "digitizer," which is basically an electronic stylus that records the coordinates of each point. This data allowed them to perform shape analysis on the skulls, relying on "geometric morphometrics" -- a field of study that characterizes and assesses biological forms.

"We found that there were significant cranial differences between the coastal communities, even though they had comparable populations in terms of class and employment," says Ann Ross, a professor of anthropology at NC State and co-author of a paper on the work.

"We think this is likely due to the fact that the area around Velia had a large Greek population, rather than an indigenous one," says Samantha Hens, a professor of biological anthropology at Sacramento State and lead author of the paper.

In addition, the skulls from Castel Malnome had more in common with both coastal sites than the coastal sites had with each other.

"This likely highlights the heterogeneity of the population near Rome, and the influx of freed slaves and low-paid workers needed for manual labor in that area," Hens says.

"Researchers have used many techniques -- from linguistics to dental remains - to shed light on how various peoples moved through the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire," Ross says. "But this is the first study we know of in which anyone has used geometric morphometrics to evaluate imperial Roman remains.

"That's important because geometric morphometrics offers several advantages," Ross says. "It includes all geometric information in three-dimensional space rather than statistical space, it provides more biological information, and it allows for pictorial visualization rather than just lists of measurements."

"The patterns of similarities and differences that we see help us to reconstruct past population relationships," Hens says. "Additionally, these methods allow us to identify where the shape change is occurring on the skull, for example, in the face, or braincase, which gives us a view into what these people actually looked like."


Saturday, June 17, 2017

Neanderthals in the Levant


According to the study published today in the journal Scientific Reports by an international team lead by Israeli researchers, Neanderthals in the Levant constituted a resilient population that survived successfully in caves and open landscapes 60,000 years ago, when dispersing modern humans reached the region.



The study was led by Dr. Ella Been from the Ono Academic College, Prof. Erella Hovers from the Institute of archaeology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Dr. Omry Barzilai from the Israel Antiquities Authority, with the assistance of Dr. Ravid Ekshtain (the Hebrew University of Jerusalem) and Dr. Ariel Malinsky-Buller (the Museum for Human Behavioral Evolution, Monrepos, Germany).

The study focused on the skeletal remains of two human individuals from the open-air site of ‘Ein Qashish, on the banks of the Qishon stream in northern Israel. The analyses shown that these bones represent the first Neanderthal remains outside caves in the Levant, and are among the very few of such finds worldwide. The remains were dated to the late Middle Paleolithic period, between 70,000 and 60,000 years ago by Dr. Naomi Porat from the Geological Survey of Israel.

The first individual is represented by a single upper molar tooth, and was studied by Dr. Stefano Benazzi and colleagues from the University of Ravena in Italy and the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig. This tooth is attributed to a Neanderthal using advanced imaging and statistical techniques.

The other individual, studied by Dr. Ella Been in collaboration with researchers from Bar-Ilan and Tel-Aviv Universities, is represented by lower limbs of a young Neanderthal (15-22 years in age), who suffered from injuries that caused limping. This individual was found within a rich archaeological level containing flint tools, animal bones, and some unusual finds for this period, such as a marine shell, pigments and an antler of a deer.

The fate of the Neanderthals and the nature of their interactions with modern humans are among the focal questions in the research of the Middle Paleolithic period, which lasted ca. 200,000 years. The Near East is the only region known today where the two populations existed during the Middle Paleolithic. The finds from ‘Ein Qashish allow, for the first time in the history of research in this region, to tie material culture remains in an open-air site with the Neanderthals, known until now only from cave sites. The current study indicates that Neanderthals repeatedly visited the site of ‘Ein Qashish and that the settlement system of Neanderthals groups included both caves and open-air sites.

Fieldwork at the site of ‘Ein Qashish and following research on the finds were conducted by researchers and students from the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University, and the University of Haifa.

״A number of researchers have recently claimed that Neanderthals were adapted to life in rugged mountainous terrains whereas modern humans adapted better to flat and open landscapes. The finds from ‘Ein Qashish show that Neanderthals inhabited sites in diverse topographic and ecological contexts.

Another contentious topic concerns the causes for the disappearance of the Neanderthals.  One of the prominent explanations offered was that it was difficult for Neanderthals groups in the Levant to cope with the environmental outcomes of a trend of increasing drying climate that was characteristic of the time period under study. The unique find from ‘Ein Qashish indicates that Neanderthal groups repeatedly returned to the open-air sites during this time. Our study suggests that Neanderthals were a resilient population that successfully existed in the north of Israel at the time that modern humans arrived from Africa some 60,000 years ago.”

 According to this study, despite possible genetic flow between Neanderthal and early Homo sapiens populations and climatic fluctuations, the Neanderthals in the Levant were a resilient population that survived successfully in the region when modern humans reached it again some 60,000 years ago.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Jerusalem tower younger than thought


Recently uncovered remains of a massive stone tower built to guard Gihon Spring -- a vital water supply just downhill from the ancient city of Jerusalem.
CREDIT
Weizmann Institute of Science

Gihon Spring, just downhill from the ancient city of Jerusalem, was crucial to the survival of its inhabitants, and archaeologists had uncovered the remains of a massive stone tower built to guard this vital water supply. Based on pottery and other regional findings, the archaeologists had originally assigned it a date of 1,700 BCE. But new research conducted at the Weizmann Institute of Science provides conclusive evidence that the stones at the base of the tower were laid nearly 1,000 years later. Among other things, the new results highlight the contribution of advanced scientific dating methods to understanding the history of the region.

Dr. Elisabetta Boaretto, Head of the Weizmann Institute of Science's D-REAMS Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory and track leader within the Max Planck-Weizmann Center for Integrative Archaeology and Anthropology, had the opportunity to date the tower as part of her ongoing cooperative research projects with the Israel Antiquity Authority (IAA). Since 2012, Dr. Joe Uziel and Nahshon Szanton of the IAA, in continuing the excavations around the tower, have discovered that the base of the tower was not built on bedrock. "The boulders in the tower's base, in and of themselves," explains Boaretto, "do not yield any information other than the fact that whoever placed them there had the ability to maneuver such heavy stones. But underneath the boulders, the soil exhibits the layers typical of archaeological strata, and these can reveal the latest date that the site was occupied before the tower was built."

The unique and methodical approach of the D-REAMS lab team begins by planning and executing the field sampling and excavation from the beginning - together with the site archaeologists. "Getting one's hands dirty is all part of building a reliable chronology," says Boaretto. During field work conducted with the archaeologists and later in her laboratory with postdoctoral fellow Dr. Johanna Regev, Boaretto identified several clearly-delineated strata. From these, they carefully collected remains of charcoal, seeds and bones - organic matter that can be definitively dated through radiocarbon dating.

The first dating was conducted on mid-to-lower levels of sediment, and these dates indeed agreed with those originally proposed. "But there was another half-meter of sediment between the material we had dated and the large cornerstone," says Boaretto. "At a glance, we thought this might represent another few hundred years before the stone was placed." The presence of separate, sequential layers, which they identified using microarchaeological tools and radiocarbon dating, enabled the researchers to attach dates to the strata just below the tower.

The radiocarbon dating method is based on counting the radioactive 14C atoms in a sample. These carbon atoms are found in all living things in a small, but stable ratio to that of regular carbon, and they begin to decay at a known rate after death. At the Weizmann Institute of Science, the count of 14C atoms in a sample is performed with an accelerator, so it can return highly accurate results on something as small as a seed.

The date revealed by this radiocarbon dating was sometime around 800-900 BCE. That is nearly 1,000 years later than thought, and it moves the building of the tower to another historical period entirely, from the Middle Bronze Age to the Iron Age.

To complete the study, Boaretto and her team asked whether any explanation could allow the tower to have been built earlier - repairs, for example - but the presence of the large boulders sitting above layers of earth containing the remains of everyday activities would appear to be fairly conclusive evidence that the later date is the correct one. Boaretto: "The conclusive, scientific dating of this massive tower, placing it in a later era than was presumed, will have repercussions for other attempts to date construction and occupation in ancient Jerusalem."

Study sheds light on Neanderthal-Homo sapiens transition


Archaeologists at The Australian National University (ANU) and the University of Sydney have provided a window into one of the most exciting periods in human history -- the transition between Neanderthals and modern humans.

An archaeological dig in a cave in the Moravian region of the Czech Republic has provided a timeline of evidence from 10 sedimentary layers spanning 28,000 to 50,000 years ago. This is the period when our modern human ancestors first arrived in Europe.

The dig, in a cave near the Czech border with Austria and around 150kms north of Vienna, has unearthed over 20,000 animal bones as well as stone tools, weapons and an engraved bone bead that is the oldest of its kind in Central Europe.

ANU archaeologist Dr Duncan Wright said the project was so important because it gives some of the earliest evidence of modern human activity in the region. This was a period when humans were moving substantial distances and bringing with them portable art objects.

"In the early layers the items we've found are locally made flakes, possibly used by small communities living and hunting in the vicinity to kill animals or prepare food, but around 40,000 years ago we start to see objects coming from long distances away," Dr Wright said.

"Dating from this same time we unearthed a bead made from mammal bone. This is the oldest portable art object of its type found anywhere in central Europe and provides evidence of social signalling, quite possibly used as a necklace to mark the identity of the wearer.

"So between these two periods, we've either seen a change in behaviour and human movement or possibly even a change in species."

Archaeologist Ladislav Nejman of the University of Sydney said one of the biggest questions is the beginnings of human exploration of this landscape by Homo sapiens who arrived in this area for the first time. "We've found that somewhere between 40-48,000 years ago people became highly mobile," Dr Nejman said.

"Instead of moving short distances near the cave where they lived, they were walking for hundreds of kilometres quite often. We know that because we found various artefacts where the raw material comes from 100-200 kilometres away.

"The artefacts were also made of different materials from different regions. Some from the North-West, some from the North, some from the East."

However in layer 10, which represents an earlier time period between 48-45,000 years ago, all the recovered stone artefacts were made using local raw material, which indicates that the high residential mobility came later.

Dr Nejman said the study also revealed valuable new information about the climate of the region.

"We haven't had such a long sequence of sedimentary layers before that we could test," he said.

"The climate changed quite often from warmer to colder, and vice versa, but at all times it was much colder than the interglacial period that we have lived in for the past 10,000 years."

Samples from the site have been sent through for analysis using a new technique, called ancient sediment DNA analysis. This is the first scientific method that can detect which species were present even without the bones of these species. It tests remnant DNA preserved in the sediment.

Dr Wright said the results will shed new light on a period of transition between two species of humans and also give clearer evidence about the activities of our modern human ancestors in a period and region where little is known.

"We can tell by the artefacts that small groups of people camped at this cave. This was during glacial periods suggesting they were well adapted to these harsh conditions" Dr Wright said.

"It's quite possible that the two different species of humans met in this area."


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Military correspondence from the First Temple period discovered


Using advanced imaging technology, Tel Aviv University researchers have discovered a hitherto invisible inscription on the back of a pottery shard that has been on display at The Israel Museum for more than 50 years.


This is the inscription found on reverse of ostraca at Arad.
CREDIT
American Friends of Tel Aviv University (AFTAU)

The ostracon (ink-inscribed pottery shard) was first found in poor condition in 1965 at the desert fortress of Arad. It dates back to ca. 600 BCE, the eve of the kingdom of Judah's destruction by Nebuchadnezzar. The inscription on its front side, opening with a blessing by Yahweh, discusses money transfers and has been studied by archaeologists and biblical scholars alike.

"While its front side has been thoroughly studied, its back was considered blank," said Arie Shaus of TAU's Department of Applied Mathematics, one of the principal investigators of the study published today in PLOS ONE. The study can be found at http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0178400.

"Using multispectral imaging to acquire a set of images, Michael Cordonsky of TAU's School of Physics noticed several marks on the ostracon's reverse side. To our surprise, three new lines of text were revealed," Shaus said.

The researchers were able to decipher 50 characters, comprising 17 words, on the back of the ostracon. "The content of the reverse side implies it is a continuation of the text on the front side," said Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin of TAU's Department of Applied Mathematics, another principal investigator of the study.

The multidisciplinary research was conducted by Faigenbaum-Golovin, Shaus, and Barak Sober, all doctoral students in TAU's Department of Applied Mathematics, and by Dr. Anat Mendel-Geberovich of TAU's Department of Archaeology. Additional collaborators include Prof. David Levin and Prof. Eli Turkel of TAU's Department of Applied Mathematics, Prof. Benjamin Sass of TAU's Department of Archaeology, as well as Michael Cordonsky and Prof. Murray Moinester of TAU's School of Physics. The research team was co-led by Prof. Eli Piasetzky of TAU's School of Physics and Prof. Israel Finkelstein of TAU's Department of Archaeology.

"Using multispectral imaging, we were also able to significantly improve the reading of the front side, adding four 'new' lines," said Sober.

A request for more wine

"Tel Arad was a military outpost -- a fortress at the southern border of the kingdom of Judah -- and was populated by 20 to 30 soldiers," said Dr. Mendel-Geberovich. "Most of the ostraca unearthed at Arad are dated to a short time span during the last stage of the fortress's history, on the eve of the kingdom's destruction in 586 BCE by Nebuchadnezzar. Many of these inscriptions are addressed to Elyashiv, the quartermaster of the fortress. They deal with the logistics of the outpost, such as the supply of flour, wine, and oil to subordinate units."

"The new inscription begins with a request for wine, as well as a guarantee for assistance if the addressee has any requests of his own," said Shaus. "It concludes with a request for the provision of a certain commodity to an unnamed person, and a note regarding a 'bath,' an ancient measurement of wine carried by a man named Ge'alyahu."

"The newly revealed inscription features an administrative text, like most of the Arad inscriptions," said Dr. Mendel-Geberovich. "Its importance lies in the fact that each new line, word, and even a single sign is a precious addition to what we know about the First Temple period."

"On a larger scale, our discovery stresses the importance of multispectral imaging to the documentation of ostraca," said Faigenbaum-Golovin. "It's daunting to think how many inscriptions, invisible to the naked eye, have been disposed of during excavations."

"This is ongoing research," concluded Sober. "We have at our disposal several additional alterations and expansions of known First Temple-period ostraca. Hence, the future may hold additional surprises."

Monday, June 12, 2017

Neolithic Revolution - dietary practices are reflected in the genes of Europeans


A recently published Cornell University study describes how shifts in the diets of Europeans after the introduction of farming 10,000 years ago led to genetic adaptations that favored the dietary trends of the time.

Before the Neolithic revolution that began around 10,000 years ago, European populations were hunter-gatherers that ate animal-based diets and some seafood. But after the advent of farming in southern Europe around 8,000 years ago, European farmers switched to primarily plant-heavy diets.

The study - the first to separate and compare adaptations that occurred before and after the Neolithic Revolution - reveals that these dietary practices are reflected in the genes of Europeans.

"The study shows what a striking role diet has played in the evolution of human populations," said Alon Keinan, associate professor of computational and population genomics and the paper's senior author. Kaixiong Ye, a postdoctoral researcher in Keinan's lab, is the paper's lead author.

The study has implications for the growing field of nutritional genomics, called nutrigenomics. Based on one's ancestry, clinicians may one day tailor each person's diet to her or his genome to improve health and prevent disease.

The study shows that vegetarian diets of European farmers led to an increased frequency of an allele that encodes cells to produce enzymes that helped farmers metabolize plants. Frequency increased as a result of natural selection, where vegetarian farmers with this allele had health advantages that allowed them to have more children, passing down this genetic variant to their offspring.

The FADS1 gene found in these vegetarian farmers produces enzymes that play a vital role in the biosynthesis of omega-3 and omega-6 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFA). These LCPUFAs are crucial for proper human brain development, controlling inflammation and immune response. While omega-3 and omega-6 LCPUFA can be obtained directly from animal-based diets, they are absent from plant-based diets. Vegetarians require FADS1 enzymes to biosynthesize LCPUFA from short-chain fatty acids found in plants (roots, vegetables and seeds).

Analysis of ancient DNA revealed that prior to humans' farming, the animal-based diets of European hunter-gatherers predominantly favored the opposite version of the same gene, which limits the activity of FADS1 enzymes and is better suited for people with meat and seafood-based diets.

Analysis of the frequencies of these alleles in Europeans showed that the prevalence of the allele for plant-based diets decreased in Europeans until the Neolithic revolution, after which it rose sharply. Concurrently, the opposite version of the same gene found in hunter-gatherers increased until the advent of farming, after which it declined sharply.

The researchers also found a gradient in the frequencies of these alleles from north to south since the Neolithic Era, including modern-day populations. All farmers relied heavily on plant-based diets, but that reliance was stronger in the south, as compared to northern Europeans - whose farmer ancestors drank more milk and included seafood in their diet.

Plant-based alleles regulate cholesterol levels and have been associated with risk of many diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease, cardiovascular disease, arthritis and bipolar disorder.

"I want to know how different individuals respond differently to the same diet," Ye said. Future studies will investigate additional links between genetic variation, diets and health, so that "in the future, we can provide dietary recommendations that are personalized to one's genetic background," he added.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Moroccan fossils show human ancestors' diet of game


New fossil finds from the Jebel Irhoud archaeological site in Morocco do more than push back the origins of our species by 100,000 years. They also reveal what was on the menu for our oldest-known Homo sapiens ancestors 300,000 years ago:

Plenty of gazelle meat, with the occasional wildebeest, zebra and other game and perhaps the seasonal ostrich egg, says Teresa Steele, a paleoanthropologist at the University of California, Davis, who analyzed animal fossils at Jebel Irhoud.

Steele, who studies how food sources and environmental change influenced human evolution and migration, was part of the international research team that began excavating at the site in 2004. She is the co-author of one of two papers featured on the cover of the June 8 issue of Nature: "Human origins: Moroccan remains push back date for the emergence of Homo sapiens."

Jebel Irhoud has been well known since the 1960s for its human fossils and for its Middle Stone Age artifacts, but the geological age of those fossils was uncertain.

The new excavation project --led by Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and Abdelouahed Ben-Ncer of the National Institute for Archaeology and Heritage (INSAP) in Rabat, Morocco -- uncovered 16 new Homo sapiens fossils along with stone tools and animal bones. The remains comprise skulls, teeth, and long bones of at least 5 individuals.

Thermoluminescence dating of heated flints yielded an age of approximately 300,000 years ago -- 100,000 years earlier than the previously oldest Homo sapiens fossils.

Analysis of the animal fossils provided additional evidence to support the date. Dating of rodent remains suggested they were 337,000 to 374,000 years old.

Gazelle Bones Common

Steele sifted through hundreds of fossil bones and shells, identifying 472 of them to species as well as recording cut marks and breaks indicating which ones had been food for humans.

Most of the animal bones came from gazelles. Among the other remains, Steele also identified hartebeests, wildebeests, zebras, buffalos, porcupines, hares, tortoises, freshwater molluscs, snakes and ostrich egg shells.

Small game was a small percentage of the remains. "It really seemed like people were fond of hunting," she said.

Cuts and breaks on long bones indicate that humans broke them open, likely to eat the marrow, she said. Leopard, hyena and other predators' fossils were among the finds, but Steele found little evidence that the nonhuman predators had gnawed on the gazelle and other prey.

Steele said the findings support the idea that Middle Stone Age began just over 300,000 years ago, and that important changes in modern human biology and behaviour were taking place across most of Africa then.

"In my view, what it does is to continue to make it more feasible that North Africa had a role to play in the evolution of modern humans."

The origins of modern humans pushed back to 300,000 years



A Griffith University geochronologist's state-of-the-art dating methods push back the origins of our species by an unprecedented 100,000 years, uncovering the oldest modern human and our deep biological history in Africa.

Professor Rainer Grün, director of the leading Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution (ARCHE), was among an international research team that dated fossils discovered at the archaeological site of Jebel Irhoud, Morocco.

The finds - reported on the front cover of Nature - are dated to about 300,000 years ago and represent the oldest securely aged fossil evidence of our own species.

Professor Grün said the fossils - which comprise skulls, teeth, and long bones of at least five individuals - revealed a complex evolutionary history of mankind that likely involved the entire African continent.

Jebel Irhoud has been well known since the 1960s for its human fossils and its Middle Stone Age artefacts but the interpretation of the Irhoud hominins has long been complicated because of persistent uncertainties surrounding their geological age.

Professor Grün used two dating methods - U-series and electron spin resonance - to accurately determine the age of Irhoud.

"The dating techniques I developed, currently being used at Griffith University, ensure minimal damage of the fossils but the process is very difficult to carry out," he said.

The crania of modern humans living today are characterised by a combination of features that distinguish us from our fossil relatives and ancestors - a small and gracile face, and globular braincase.

The fossils from Jebel Irhoud display a modern-looking face and teeth, and a large but more archaic-looking braincase.

"If we look at the history of human evolution, until the mid-80s it was thought model humans evolved in Africa and shortly after migrated to Europe at around 40,000 years," Professor Grün said.

"In the late 80s there were the first results of anatomically modern humans in Israel at about 100,000 years. In the 90s there were a few sites found in Ethiopia dated to 200,000 years and now with these results the origins of modern humans are further pushed back to 300,000 years."

Professor Grün said uncovering more about our history was hard because of the difficulty continuing to find fossilised human remains.

"When modern humans come to Europe they didn't bury the dead. So there are only two or three fossils that document the arrival of modern humans in Europe some 45,000 ago. In contrast, Neanderthals buried their dead but they ate them as well, leading to bone accumulations in caves" he said.

"The finds in Jebel Irhoud are one of the few places we've found modern skulls. That's why our understanding of human evolution is very patchy because we find so few human remains.

"We now have to rethink a number of principles within human evolution. This shows our species has a very deep history in Africa."

The work is the latest in a series of important scientific papers recently published by members of ARCHE, in which the role of dating studies were crucial. These include the fossilised bones of the Stone Age victims unearthed at Nataruk (Kenya), the discovery of prehistoric art and ornaments from the Indonesian 'Ice Age' and the origin of 'hobbits' found in Flores Island.

Professor Grün said these works highlighted the increasing role ARCHE played in understanding human origins and added to Griffith's reputation as becoming one of the world's leading institutions in Quaternary Geochronology.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Evidence of the Last Battle for Jerusalem from 2,000 Years Ago


On the occasion of Jerusalem Day and the jubilee celebrations commemorating the reunification of the city, the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Nature and Parks Authority are unveiling evidence from 2,000 year ago of the battle of Jerusalem on the eve of the destruction of the Second Temple, at the City of David in the Jerusalem Walls National Park. Arrowheads and stone ballista balls were discovered on the main street that ascended from the city’s gates and the Pool of Siloam to the Temple, which was excavated in recent years with funding provided by the City of David Society (Elad).

These finds tell the story of the last battle between the Roman forces and the Jewish rebels who had barricaded themselves in the city, a battle that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem. This battle is described by the historian Flavius Josephus: "On the following day the Romans, having routed the brigands from the town, set the whole on fire as far as Siloam" (Josephus, Wars, Book 6:363)

According to Nahshon Szanton and Moran Hagbi, the directors of the excavation on the stepped-street on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “Josephus’ descriptions of the battle in the lower city come face-to-face for the first time with evidence that was revealed in the field in a clear and chilling manner. Stone ballista balls fired by catapults used to bombard Jerusalem during the Roman siege of the city, were discovered in the excavations. Arrowheads, used by the Jewish rebels in the hard-fought battles agains the Roman legionnaires were found exactly as described by Josephus."

So far, a section of the road c. 100 m long and 7.5 m wide, paved with large stone slabs as was customary in monumental construction throughout the Roman Empire, has been exposed in the excavations. The archeological excavations on the street utilize a combination of advanced and pioneering research methods, the results of which so far strengthen the understanding that Herod the Great was not solely responsible for the large construction projects of Jerusalem at the end of the Second Temple period. Recent research indicates that the street was built after Herod’s reign, under the auspices of the Roman procurators of Jerusalem, and perhaps even during the tenure of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, who is also known for having sentenced Jesus to death by crucifixion.

According to the exacvation's directors,  Szanton and Hagbi, , "This conclusion in fact sheds new light on the history of Jerusalem in the late Second Temple Period, and reinforces recognition of the importance of the Roman procurators’ rule in shaping the character of Jerusalem".
 “Two thousand years after the destruction of Jerusalem and fifty years since its liberation”, the archaeologists added, “we are going back to the water cisterns, the market and the city square on the eve of its destruction. Naomi Shemer certainly never dreamed of re-discovering Jerusalem in the days of the Second Temple”.

 According to Dr. Yuval Baruch, the Jerusalem region archaeologist for the Israel Antiquities Authority, "We intend to uncover the entire length and width of the street within five years, and thereby complete the excavation of this unique site which had already drawn the attention of archaeologists from around the world about one hundred years ago. In fact, one can consider the current excavations in the City of David a natural continuation of the previous archaeological excavations of the site, which were begun in the past by European and American scholars. About four years ago archeological excavations were renewed along the street, this time in order to expose its full length and width”. Baruch added, “When the excavations are completed, the remains of the street will be conserved and developed and made ready to receive the tens of thousands of visitors who will walk along it”.

In recognizing the importance of the site and the finds, IAA researchers chose to utilize advanced cutting-edge research methods from the fields of natural science, biology and geology in their excavations. A combination of these advanced techniques makes the excavation of the stepped-street in the City of David exceptional in its scientific quality and importance in the development of archaeological research in Jerusalem and Israel in general, and they enable researchers to address questions that have not yet been studied.

The current excavations also focus on exposing the area adjacent to the street, and the shops that were alongside it. Finds revealed in the excavations will allow researchers to answer such intriguing questions as: What did the main street that led to the Temple look like? What was the urban nature of the Lower City that extended on either side of the magnificent road? What did they eat in Jerusalem during the difficult siege, etc.? In order to answer these questions, a multidisciplinary study is being conducted, as well as careful wet sifting at the sifting site in the Zurim Valley National Park, where even the smallest finds are collected.

 It seems that it will not be long before it will be possible for the first time to walk along one of the main streets of ancient Jerusalem, to see how it looked, and receive answers to fascinating historical questions that have been asked for 100 years relating to the history of Jerusalem from the time of the Second Temple, at the height of its splendor, and from the moments of its destruction.

Animal representations dating back to 3300 B.C


Noah’s Beasts: Sculpted Animals from Ancient Mesopotamia, a new exhibition on view at the Morgan Library & Museum, offers museum-goers the opportunity to experience the beauty and power of animal representations dating back to 3300 B.C. Bringing together for the first time sixteen works from the Morgan and a host of institutions across the country, the exhibition is a testament to the skill with which early sculptors evoked the animal kingdom in honor of their gods. The exhibition will run through August 27.

“The art, literature, and music represented in the vast collections of the Morgan Library & Museum take root in the culture of ancient civilization,” said Colin B. Bailey, director of the museum. “Noah’s Beasts brings to life one of the best known epics of that time. The sculptures in the show display both an attention to naturalistic detail and individualized stylization that are simply extraordinary.”

Tablet Inscribed with a Fragment of the Babylonian Flood Story Epic of Atrahasis in Akkadian, Mesopotamia, First Dynasty of Babylon, reign of King Ammi-saduqa (ca. 1646–1626 B.C.), Clay, 4 1/2 × 3 9/16 in. (11.4 × 9 cm). The Morgan Library & Museum.


In 1872, George Smith, an assistant at the British Museum, astonished the world by translating a tablet from the seventh-century B.C., inscribed with a story of a long ago flood similar to that found in the Book of Genesis. Another much older tablet describing a great flood was discovered in 1898, and Pierpont Morgan, the founder of the Morgan Library & Museum, purchased it shortly thereafter. It dates to the reign of Babylonian King Ammisaduqa (ca. 1646-1626 B.C.) and forms the centerpiece of the exhibition.

Surrounding the Morgan tablet are sculptures made from stone and metal, which were rare in Mesopotamia. Several incorporate silver, gold, and beautiful inlays of shell and lapis lazuli. All of the pieces had Sumerian cultic functions and were created as a form of worship to the gods. Also included in the exhibition are six ancient cylinder seals with visual connections to the sculptures.

Archaeological evidence for devastating floods has been found at several sites in the flat alluvial plain of southern Mesopotamia, most notably at Ur, located in present-day Iraq. The flood narratives may have arisen as cautionary tales for humanity. The Epic of Atrahasis. an ancient narrative of unknown origin about man’s creation by the gods, is probably the source for the flood in the Gilgamesh Epic known from first millennium B.C. copies. Either directly or indirectly, the source for the Biblical flood story (Gen. 5:28–9:17) was likely the Gilgamesh Epic. The flood story is found in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, occurring in the Koran (Sura 11:25–48).




Notable among the works on view is Head of a Lion (ca. 2550-2400 B.C.), one of a pair of attachments found in the dromos, or passageway, of Queen Puabi’s tomb at the Royal Cemetery at Ur. The locks of hair indicate the beast’s mane. The face is composed of bold, simple sculptural forms, round for the ears and face, triangular for the nose and muzzle. Incised striations for whiskers augment the fleshiness of the upper lip. The slightly open mouth suggests an incipient snarl, while the deeply inset, slanted eyes arrest a viewer’s attention. The entire piece is a masterful interpretation of the lion’s mesmerizing power.



“Ram Caught in a Thicket”), Mesopotamia, Sumerian, Ur, PG 1237, Great Death Pit, U.12357, Early Dynastic IIIa, ca. 2550–2400 b.c., gold, ...

Another splendidly preserved sculpture on view is among the most famous objects from the Ur excavations, called by the excavator “Ram Caught in a Thicket” (ca. 2550–2400 B.C.), alluding to an evocative passage in Genesis 22:13. The animal is actually a goat on its hind legs, resting its hooves on the branches of a plant. The gilded cylinder projecting from the goat’s neck originally supported a small tray indicating that the sculpture was an example of ritual temple furniture. The bud in the center will blossom, representing Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love, wisdom and fertility. The male life force, represented by the goat, is eternally linked to the female life force, represented by the rosettes of the goddess. The composition embodies the interdependence of plant and animal fecundity essential for the survival of Sumerian agricultural society.



Ewe and Ram Flanking Plant with a Gatepost, Mesopotamia, Sumerian, Late Uruk-Jamdat Nasr, ca. 3300–2900 b.c., cylinder seal 

The group of accompanying cylinder seals shows animals in many forms. On one piece from the Morgan’s collection, Ewe and Ram Flanking Plant with a Gatepost (ca. 3300–2900 B.C.), the creatures are depicted in a kind of garden, nourished by a plant laden with fruit. With its entry bracketed by bundles of marsh reeds, the seal references a space sacred to the goddess Inanna, the queen of heaven, and foreshadows the idea of the Biblical Eden.


Head of a Bull, Mesopotamia, Sumerian, Ur, PG 800, Queen Puabi's Tomb Chamber, U.10916, Early Dynastic IIIa, ca. 2550– 2400 b.c., silver, lapis lazuli,

In addition to works from the Morgan’s collection, Noah’s Beasts also includes pieces from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Yale University Babylonian Collection, the Kimbell Art Museum, and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Ancient DNA evidence shows hunter-gatherers and farmers were intimately linked


In human history, the transition from hunting and gathering to farming is a significant one. As such, hunter-gatherers and farmers are usually thought about as two entirely different sets of people. But researchers reporting new ancient DNA evidence in Current Biology on May 25 show that in the area we now recognize as Romania, at least, hunter-gatherers and farmers were living side by side, intermixing with each other, and having children.

"We expected some level of mixing between farmers and hunter-gatherers, given the archaeological evidence for contact among these communities," says Michael Hofreiter of University of Potsdam in Germany. "However, we were fascinated by the high levels of integration between the two communities as reconstructed from our ancient DNA data."

The findings add evidence to a longstanding debate about how the Neolithic transition, when people gave up hunting and gathering for farming, actually occurred, the researchers say. In those debates, the question has often been about whether the movement of people or the movement of ideas drove the transition.

Earlier evidence suggested that the Neolithic transition in Western Europe occurred mostly through the movement of people, whereas cultural diffusion played a larger role to the east, in Latvia and Ukraine. The researchers in the new study were interested in Romania because it lies between these two areas, presenting some of the most compelling archaeological evidence for contact between incoming farmers and local hunter-gatherers.

Indeed, the new findings show that the relationship between hunter-gatherers and farmers in the Danube basin can be more nuanced and complex. The movement of people and the spread of culture aren't mutually exclusive ideas, the researchers say, "but merely the ends of a continuum."

The researchers came to this conclusion after recovering four ancient human genomes from Romania spanning a time transect between 8.8 thousand and 5.4 thousand years ago. The researchers also analyzed two Mesolithic (hunter-gatherer) genomes from Spain to provide further context.

The DNA revealed that the Romanian genomes from thousands of years ago had significant ancestry from Western hunter-gatherers. However, they also had a lesser but still sizeable contribution from Anatolian farmers, suggesting multiple admixture events between hunter-gatherers and farmers. An analysis of the bones also showed they ate a varied diet, with a combination of terrestrial and aquatic sources.

"Our study shows that such contacts between hunter-gatherers and farmers went beyond the exchange of food and artefacts," Hofreiter says. "As data from different regions accumulate, we see a gradient across Europe, with increasing mixing of hunter-gatherers and farmers as we go east and north. Whilst we still do not know the drivers of this gradient, we can speculate that, as farmers encountered more challenging climatic conditions, they started interacting more with local hunter-gatherers. These increased contacts, which are also evident in the archaeological record, led to genetic mixing, implying a high level of integration between very different people."

The findings are a reminder that the relationships within and among people in different places and at different times aren't simple. It's often said that farmers moved in and outcompeted hunter-gatherers with little interaction between the two. But the truth is surely much richer and more varied than that. In some places, as the new evidence shows, incoming farmers and local hunter-gatherers interacted and mixed to a great extent. They lived together, despite large cultural differences.

Understanding the reasons for why the interactions between these different people led to such varied outcomes, Hofreiter says, is the next big step. The researchers say they now hope to use ancient DNA evidence to add more chapters to the story as they explore the Neolithic transition as it occurred in other parts of the world, outside of Europe.


Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Ochre use by Middle Stone Age humans in Porc-Epic cave persisted over thousands of years



Middle Stone Age humans in the Porc-Epic cave likely used ochre over at least 4,500 years, according to a study published May 24, 2017 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Daniela Rosso from the University of Barcelona, Spain, and the University of Bordeaux, France, and colleagues.

Images of ochre, the iron-rich rock characterized by a red or yellow color, that was found at many Middle Stone Age sites.

CREDIT
Rosso et al (2017)

Ochre, an iron-rich rock characterized by a red or yellow color, is found at many Middle Stone Age sites. The largest known East African collection of Middle Stone Age ochre, found at Porc-Epic Cave in Ethiopia, weighs around 40kg and is thought to date to ca. 40,000 years ago. The authors of the present study conducted a detailed analysis of 3792 pieces of ochre, using microscopy and experimental reproduction of grinding techniques to assess how the ochre was processed and used over a 4,500-year timespan.

The researchers found that the cave inhabitants appeared to have persistently acquired, processed, and used the same types of ochre during this period.

Overall the inhabitants of the cave seem to have processed almost half of the ochre pieces, although the proportion of ochre which had been modified decreased progressively over the period. Whilst flaking and scraping of ochre pieces appeared to have become more common over time, the authors noted a reduction in the proportion of pieces which underwent grinding. The gradual nature of shifts in preferred processing techniques may indicate that they resulted from cultural drift within this practice.

Intensively modified ochre pieces show ground facets likely produced with different types of grindstones, at different times. According to the authors, these pieces were probably curated and processed for the production of small amounts of ochre powder. This is consistent with use in symbolic activities, such as the production of patterns or body painting, although a use for utilitarian activities cannot be discarded.

Whilst the increase of ochre use in certain layers could be explained by refining the dating of the sequence and acquiring environmental data, these authors state that their analysis of ochre treatment seems to reflect a "cohesive behavioral system shared by all community members and consistently transmitted through time."

Groundbreaking discovery of early human life in ancient Peru


A-tisket, A-tasket. You can tell a lot from a basket. Especially if it comes from the ruins of an ancient civilization inhabited by humans nearly 15,000 years ago during the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene ages.


Basket remnants retrieved from the site were made from diverse materials including a local reed that is still used today by modern basket makers. More elaborate baskets included segments made from domesticated cotton and were colored using some of the oldest dyes known in the New World. 
CREDIT
Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute

An archeologist from Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute is among a team of scientists who made a groundbreaking discovery in Huaca Prieta in coastal Peru - home to one of the earliest and largest pyramids in South America. Hundreds of thousands of artifacts, including intricate and elaborate hand-woven baskets excavated between 2007 and 2013 in Huaca Prieta, reveal that early humans in that region were a lot more advanced than originally thought and had very complex social networks.

For decades, archeologists exploring Peru have argued about the origins and emergence of complex society in Peru. Did it first happen in the highlands with groups who were dependent on agriculture or did it happen along the coast with groups who were dependent on seafood? Evidence from the site indicates a more rapid development of cultural complexity along the Pacific coast than previously thought as published in Science Advances.

"The mounds of artifacts retrieved from Huaca Prieta include food remains, stone tools and other cultural features such as ornate baskets and textiles, which really raise questions about the pace of the development of early humans in that region and their level of knowledge and the technology they used to exploit resources from both the land and the sea," said James M. Adovasio, Ph.D., D.Sc., co-author of the study and a world acclaimed archaeologist at FAU's Harbor Branch, who is the foremost authority on ancient textiles and materials such as those used in basketry.

Among the artifacts excavated are tools used to capture deep-sea fish-like herring. The variety of hooks they used indicate the diversity of fishing that took place at that time and almost certainly the use of boats that could withstand rough waters. These ancient peoples managed to develop a very efficient means of extracting seaside resources and devised complex techniques to collect those resources. They also combined their exploitation of maritime economy with growing crops like chili pepper, squash, avocado and some form of a medicinal plant on land in a way that produced a large economic surplus.

"These strings of events that we have uncovered demonstrate that these people had a remarkable capacity to utilize different types of food resources, which led to a larger society size and everything that goes along with it such as the emergence of bureaucracy and highly organized religion," said Adovasio.

Advosasio's focus of the excavation was on the extensive collection of basket remnants retrieved from the site, which were made from diverse materials including a local reed that is still used today by modern basket makers. More elaborate baskets included segments made from domesticated cotton and were colored using some of the oldest dyes known in the New World.

"To make these complicated textiles and baskets indicates that there was a standardized or organized manufacturing process in place and that all of these artifacts were much fancier than they needed to be for that time period," said Adovasio. "Like so many of the materials that were excavated, even the baskets reflect a level of complexity that signals a more sophisticated society as well as the desire for and a means for showing social stature. All of these things together tell us that these early humans were engaged in very complicated social relationships with each other and that these fancy objects all bespeak that kind of social messaging."

The late archeologist Junius B. Bird was the first to excavate Huaca Prieta in the late 1940s after World War II and his original collection is housed in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. This latest excavation is only the second one to take place at this site, but this time using state-of-the-art archeological technology. This recent excavation took approximately six years to complete and included a total of 32 excavation units and trenches, 32 test pits, and 80 geological cores that were placed on, around and between the Huaca Prieta and Paredones mounds as well as other sites. These artifacts are now housed in a museum in Lima, Peru.

Shared genetic heritage from Sicily to Cyprus



A new genomic study on southern Mediterranean reveals a genetic continuity across geographic and national borders. The map shows the sampling locations included in the study, with presence of Albanian, Greek or Italian languages.
Credit: Sarno et al. DOI 10.1038/s41598-017-01802-4
 
The study -- coordinated by the Human Biodiversity and Population Genomics group at the Department of Biological, Geological and Environmental Sciences (BiGeA) of the University of Bologna and funded by the National Geographic Society -- describes the genetic fingerprints of the Mediterranean people with high-density genomic markers and a wide sample of modern populations from Sicily and Southern Italy. Their genetic profiles were analyzed to reconstruct the combination of ancestry components and the demographic history of the region.

As one would expect, populations inhabiting the southeastern shores of Europe are the result of a complex, multi-layered history. One of these layers corresponds to a shared genetic background, extending from Sicily to Cyprus and involving Crete, the Aegean islands and Anatolia. "This shared Mediterranean ancestry possibly traces back to prehistoric times, as the result of multiple migration waves, with peaks during the Neolithic and the Bronze Age," says Stefania Sarno, researcher from the University of Bologna and lead author of the study. Apparently, the ancient Greek expansions (during the Magna Graecia foundation) were only one of the last events in a long history of East-West movements, where the Mediterranean Sea served as a preferential crossroads for the circulation of genes and cultures.

A new perspective for the diffusion of Indo-European languages

One of the most intriguing layers hidden in the Mediterranean genetic landscape involves an important Bronze Age contribution from a Caucasus (or Caucasus-like) source, accompanied by the virtual absence of the typical "Pontic-Caspian" genetic component from the Asian steppe. The latter is a very characteristic genetic signal well represented in North-Central and Eastern Europe, which previous studies associated with the introduction of Indo-European languages to the continent. "These new genomic results from the Mediterranean open a new chapter for the study of the prehistoric movements behind the diffusion of the most represented language family in Europe. The spread of these languages in the Southern regions, where Indo-European languages like Italian, Greek and Albanian are spoken nowadays, cannot be explained with the major contribution from the steppe alone," adds Chiara Barbieri from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena.

Linguistic and cultural isolates

The current genetic study also focuses on more recent historical layers that contributed to the present-day genetic makeup of the populations sampled, in particular in the cases of long-standing, non-Italian-speaking communities in Italy. For example, mainland Greece and Albania seem to have acquired additional genetic contributions during historic times, most likely related to the Slavic migrations in the Balkans. This recent Balkan genetic ancestry is still evident in some ethno-linguistic minorities of Sicily and Southern Italy, such as the Albanian-speaking Arbereshe. The Arbreshe migrated from Albania to Italy at the end of the Middle Ages and experienced geographic and cultural isolation, which played a part in their distinctive genetic composition.

A different case study is that of Greek-speaking communities from Southern Italy. The genetic features of these groups are compatible with the antiquity of their settlement and with a high cultural permeability with neighboring populations, combined with drift and effects of geographic isolation, as in the case of Calabrian Greeks. "The study of linguistic and cultural isolates in Italy proved to be important to understand our history and our demography," says Alessio Boattini, geneticist and anthropologist from the University of Bologna. "The cases of the Albanian- and Greek-speaking communities of Southern Italy help to shed light into the formation of these cultural and linguistic identities."

"Overall, the study illustrates how both genetic and cultural viewpoints can inform our knowledge of the complex dynamics behind the formation of our Mediterranean heritage, especially in contexts of extensive -- both geographically and temporally -- admixture," says Davide Pettener, professor of Anthropology from the University of Bologna. "These results," adds Prof. Donata Luiselli, who co-led the project, "will be further developed in future studies integrating data from other disciplines, in particular linguistics, archeology and palaeogenomics, with the study of ancient DNA from archaeological remains."



Viking army camp uncovered by archaeologists in England



A huge camp which was home to thousands of Vikings as they prepared to conquer England in the late ninth century has been uncovered by archaeologists.

Established in Torksey, on the banks of the River Trent in Lincolnshire, the camp was used as the Vikings' defensive and strategic position during the winter months.

The research, conducted by archaeologists at the Universities of Sheffield and York, has revealed how the camp was used by thousands of Viking warriors, women and children who lived there temporarily in tented accommodation.

They also used the site as a base to repair ships, melt down stolen loot, manufacture, trade and play games.

Professor Dawn Hadley, who led the research from the University of Sheffield's Department of Archaeology said: "The Vikings' camp at Torksey was much more than just a handful of hardy warriors -- this was a huge base, larger than most contemporary towns, complete with traders, families, feasting, and entertainment.

"From what has been found at the site, we know they were repairing their boats there and melting down looted gold and silver to make ingots -- or bars of metal they used to trade.

"Metal detectorists have also found more than 300 lead game pieces, suggesting the Vikings, including, women and children, were spending a lot of time playing games to pass the time, waiting for spring and the start of their next offensive."

The findings have now been used to create a virtual reality experience giving users an opportunity to experience what life was like in a Viking army camp.

The virtual reality experience has been developed by researchers at the University of York and is part of an exhibition at the Yorkshire Museum that opens on Friday (19 May 2017).

All the scenes featured in the virtual reality experience are based on real objects found by archaeologists and metal detectorists at Torksey.

Professor Julian Richards, from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, said: "These extraordinary images offer a fascinating snap shot of life at a time of great upheaval in Britain.

"The Vikings had previously often raided exposed coastal monasteries and returned to Scandinavia in winter, but in the later ninth century they came in larger numbers, and decided to stay. This sent a very clear message that they now planned not only to loot and raid -- but to control and conquer."

Dr Gareth Beale from York's Digital Creativity Labs added: "The new research by the Universities of Sheffield and York has been used to create the most realistic images of the camp to date, based on real findings. These images are also believed to be the most realistic Virtual Reality ever created anywhere of the Viking world."

The exact location and scale of the camp in Lincolnshire has been debated for many years, but now the research by Sheffield and York is beginning to reveal the true extent of the camp. It is now thought to be at least 55 hectares in size, bigger than many towns and cities of the time, including York.

There have also been more than a thousand finds by metal detectorists and archaeologists, including over 300 coins. They include more than 100 Arabic silver coins which would have come to the area through established Viking trade routes.

More than 50 pieces of chopped up silver, including brooch fragments and ingots have been found along with rare hackgold. Evidence has been found that these items were being processed at the camp -- chopped up to be melted down. Other finds include the 300 gaming pieces, iron tools, spindle whorls, needles and fishing weights.

Using landscape analysis, the research has been able to reveal the topography of the camp. With the River Trent to the west and surrounding land prone to flooding to this day, its strength as a defensive position becomes clear.


The beginnings of agriculture



The beginnings of agriculture changed human history and has fascinated scientists for centuries.
Researchers from the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield have shed light on how hunter-gatherers first began farming and how crops were domesticated to depend on humans.

Domesticated crops have been transformed almost beyond recognition in comparison with their wild relatives -- a change that happened during the early stages of farming in the Stone Age.

For grain crops like cereals, the hallmark of domestication is the loss of natural seed dispersal -- seeds no longer fall off plants but have become dependent on humans or machines to spread them.

Professor Colin Osborne, from the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield, said: "We know very little about how agriculture began, because it happened 10,000 years ago -- that's why a number of mysteries are unresolved. For example why hunter-gatherers first began farming, and how were crops domesticated to depend on people.

"One controversy in this area is about the extent to which ancient peoples knew they were domesticating crops. Did they know they were breeding domestication characteristics into crops, or did these characteristics just evolve as the first farmers sowed wild plants into cultivated soil, and tended and harvested them?"

The new research, published in the journal Evolution Letters, shows the impact of domestication on vegetable seed size.

Any selective breeding of vegetables by early farmers would have acted on the leaves, stems or roots that were eaten as food, but should not have directly affected seed size.

Instead, any changes in vegetable seed size must have arisen from natural selection acting on these crops in cultivated fields, or from genetic links to changes in another characteristic like plant or organ size. In the last instance, people might have bred crops to become bigger, and larger seeds would have come along unintentionally.

The University of Sheffield researchers gathered seed size data from a range of crops and found strong evidence for a general enlargement of seeds due to domestication.

They discovered domesticated maize seeds are 15 times bigger than the wild form, soybean seeds are seven times bigger. Wheat, barley and other grain crops had more modest increases in size (60 per cent for barley and 15 per cent for emmer wheat) but these changes are important if they translate into yield.

"We found strong evidence for a general enlargement of seeds due to domestication across seven vegetable species," said Professor Osborne.

"This is especially stunning in a crop like a sweet potato, where people don't even plant seeds, let alone harvest them. The size of this domestication effect falls completely within the range seen in cereals and pulse grains like lentils and beans, raising the possibility that at least part of the seed enlargement in these crops also evolved during domestication without deliberate foresight from early farmers."

Professor Osborne added: "Our findings have important implications for understanding how crops evolved, because they mean that major changes in our staple crops could have arisen without deliberate foresight by early farmers.

"This means that unconscious selection was probably more important in the genesis of our food plants than previously realised. Early increases in the yields of crops might well have evolved in farmers' fields rather than being bred artificially.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

India: Scientists have identified migrating humans from Africa, Iran and Central Asia over a period of 50,000 years


In addition to its vast patchwork of languages, cultures and religions, the Indian Subcontinent also harbours huge genetic diversity. Where did its peoples originate? This is an area of huge controversy among scholars and scientists. A University of Huddersfield PhD student is lead author of an article that tries to answer the question using genetic evidence.

A problem confronting archaeogenetic research into the origins of Indian populations is that there is a dearth of sources, such as preserved skeletal remains that can provide ancient DNA samples. Marina Silva and her co-authors have instead focused on people alive in the Subcontinent today.

They show that some genetic lineages in South Asia are very ancient. The earliest populations were hunter-gatherers who arrived from Africa, where modern humans arose, more than 50,000 years ago. But further waves of settlement came from the direction of Iran, after the last Ice Age ended 10-20,000 years ago, and with the spread of early farming.

These ancient signatures are most clearly seen in the mitochondrial DNA, which tracks the female line of descent. But Y-chromosome variation, which tracks the male line, is very different. Here the major signatures are much more recent. Most controversially, there is a strong signal of immigration from Central Asia, less than 5,000 years ago.

This looks like a sign of the arrival of the first Indo-European speakers, who arose amongst the Bronze Age peoples of the grasslands north of the Caucasus, between the Black and Caspian Seas. They were male-dominated, mobile pastoralists who had domesticated the horse -- and spoke what ultimately became Sanskrit, the language of classical Hinduism -- which more than 200 years ago linguists showed is ultimately related to classical Greek and Latin.

Migrations from the same source also shaped the settlement of Europe and its languages, and this has been the subject of most recent research, said Marina Silva. She has tried to tip the balance back towards India, and her findings are discussed in the article titled A genetic chronology for the Indian Subcontinent points to heavily sex-biased dispersals. It appears in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology.

 
 
 

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

'Humanlike' ways of thinking evolved 1.8 million years ago, suggests new study


By using highly advanced brain imaging technology to observe modern humans crafting ancient tools, an Indiana University neuroarchaeologist has found evidence that human-like ways of thinking may have emerged as early as 1.8 million years ago.

The results, reported May 8 in the journal Nature Human Behavior, place the appearance of human-like cognition at the emergence of Homo erectus, an early apelike species of human first found in Africa whose evolution predates Neanderthals by nearly 600,000 years.

"This is a significant result because it's commonly thought our most modern forms of cognition only appeared very recently in terms of human evolutionary history," said Shelby S. Putt, a postdoctoral researcher with The Stone Age Institute at Indiana University, who is first author on the study. "But these results suggest the transition from apelike to humanlike ways of thinking and behaving arose surprisingly early."

The study's conclusions are based upon brain activity in modern individuals taught to create two types of ancient tools: simple Oldowan-era "flake tools" -- little more than broken rocks with a jagged edge -- and more complicated Acheulian-era hand axes, which resemble a large arrowhead. Both are formed by smashing rocks together using a process known as "flintknapping."

Oldowan tools, which first appeared about 2.6 million years ago, are among the earliest used by humanity's ancestors. Acheulian-era tool use dates from 1.8 million to 100,000 years ago.

Putt said that neuroarchaeologists look to modern humans to understand how pre-human species evolved cognition since the act of thinking -- unlike fossilized bones or ancient artifacts -- leave no physical trace in the archaeological record.

The methods used to conduct studies on modern humans crafting ancient tools was limited until recently by brain imaging technology. Previous studies depended on placing people within the confines of a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine -- essentially a narrow mental tube -- to observe their brain activity while watching videos of people crafting tools.

Putt's study, by contrast, employed more advanced functional near-infrared spectroscopy -- a device that resembles a lightweight cap with numerous wires used to shine highly sensitive lasers onto the scalp -- to observe brain activity in people as they learned to craft both types of tools with their hands.

In the study, 15 volunteers were taught to craft both types of tools through verbal instruction via videotape. An additional 16 volunteers were shown the same videos without sound to learn toolmaking through nonverbal observation. These experiments were conducted in the lab of John P. Spencer at the University of Iowa, where Putt earned her Ph.D. before joining IU. Spencer is now a faculty member at the University of East Anglia.

The resulting brain scans revealed that visual attention and motor control were required to create the simpler Oldowan tools. A much larger portion of the brain was engaged in the creation of the more complex Acheulian tools, including regions of the brain associated with the integration of visual, auditory and sensorimotor information; the guidance of visual working memory; and higher-order action planning.

"The fact that these more advanced forms of cognition were required to create Acheulean hand axes -- but not simpler Oldowan tools -- means the date for this more humanlike type of cognition can be pushed back to at least 1.8 million years ago, the earliest these tools are found in the archaeological record," Putt said. "Strikingly, these parts of the brain are the same areas engaged in modern activities like playing the piano."

Homo naledi's surprisingly young age opens up more questions on where we come from


Scientists today announced that the Rising Star Cave system has revealed yet more important discoveries, only a year and a half after it was announced that the richest fossil hominin site in Africa had been discovered, and that it contained a new hominin species named Homo naledi by the scientists who described it.

The age of the original Homo naledi remains from the Dinaledi Chamber has been revealed to be startlingly young in age. Homo naledi, which was first announced in September 2015, was alive sometime between 335 and 236 thousand years ago. This places this population of primitive small-brained hominins at a time and place that it is likely they lived alongside Homo sapiens. This is the first time that it has been demonstrated that another species of hominin survived alongside the first humans in Africa.

The research, published today in three papers in the journal eLife, presents the long-awaited age of the naledi fossils from the Dinaledi Chamber and announces the new discovery of a second chamber in the Rising Star cave system, containing additional specimens of Homo naledi. These include a child and a partial skeleton of an adult male with a remarkably well-preserved skull.

The new discovery and research was done by a large team of researchers from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), James Cook University, Australia, the University of Wisconsin, Madison, United States, and more than 30 additional international institutions have today announced two major discoveries related to the fossil hominin species Homo naledi.

The team was led by Professor Lee Berger of The University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, and a National Geographic Explorer in Residence. The discovery of the second chamber with abundant Homo naledi fossils includes one of the most complete skeletons of a hominin ever discovered, as well as the remains of at least one child and another adult. The discovery of a second chamber has led the team to argue that there is more support for the controversial hypothesis that Homo naledi deliberately disposed of its dead in these remote, hard to reach caverns. 1The dating of Homo naledi is the conclusion of the multi-authored paper entitled: The age of Homo naledi and associated sediments in the Rising Star Cave, South Africa, led by Professor Paul Dirks of James Cook University and the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).

The naledi date is surprisingly recent. The fossil remains have primitive features that are shared with some of the earliest known fossil members of our genus, such as Homo rudolfensis and Homo habilis, species that lived nearly two million years ago. On the other hand, however, it also shares some features with modern humans. After the description of the new species in 2015, experts had predicted that the fossils should be around the age of these other primitive species. Instead, the fossils from the Dinaledi Chamber are barely more than one-tenth that age.

"The dating of naledi was extremely challenging," noted Dirks, who worked with 19 other scientists from laboratories and institutions around the world, including labs in South Africa and Australia, to establish the age of the fossils. "Eventually, six independent dating methods allowed us to constrain the age of this population of Homo naledi to a period known as the late Middle Pleistocene."

The age for this population of hominins shows that Homo naledi may have survived for as long as two million years alongside other species of hominins in Africa. At such a young age, in a period known as the late Middle Pleistocene, it was previously thought that only Homo sapiens (modern humans) existed in Africa. More critically, it is at precisely this time that we see the rise of what has been called "modern human behaviour" in southern Africa - behaviour attributed, until now, to the rise of modern humans and thought to represent the origins of complex modern human activities such as burial of the dead, self-adornment and complex tools.

The dating game

The team used a combination of optically stimulated luminescence dating of sediments with Uranium-Thorium dating and palaeomagnetic analyses of flowstones to establish how the sediments relate to the geological timescale in the Dinaledi Chamber.

Direct dating of the teeth of Homo naledi, using Uranium series dating (U-series) and electron spin resonance dating (ESR), provided the final age range. "We used double blinds wherever possible," says Professor Jan Kramers of the University of Johannesburg, a uranium dating specialist. Dr. Hannah Hilbert-Wolf, a geologist from James Cook University who also worked on the Dinaledi Chamber, noted that it was crucial to figure out how the sediments within the Dinaledi Chamber are layered, in order to build a framework for understanding all of the dates obtained.

"Of course we were surprised at the young age, but as we realised that all the geological formations in the chamber were young, the U-series and ESR results were perhaps less of a surprise in the end," added Professor Eric Roberts, from James Cook University and Wits, who is one of the few geologists to have ever entered the Dinaledi Chamber, due to the tight 18cm-wide constraints of the entrance chute.

Dr. Marina Elliott, Exploration Scientist at Wits and one of the original "underground astronauts" on the 2013 Rising Star Expedition, says she had always felt that the naledi fossils were 'young'. "I've excavated hundreds of the bones of Homo naledi, and from the first one I touched, I realised that there was something different about the preservation, that they appeared hardly fossilised."

Homo naledi's significant impact

In an accompanying paper, led by Berger, entitled Homo naledi and Pleistocene hominin evolution in subequatorial Africa, the team discuss the importance of finding such a primitive species at such a time and place. They noted that the discovery will have a significant impact on our interpretation of archaeological assemblages and understanding which species made them.

"We can no longer assume that we know which species made which tools, or even assume that it was modern humans that were the innovators of some of these critical technological and behavioural breakthroughs in the archaeological record of Africa," says Berger. "If there is one other species out there that shared the world with 'modern humans' in Africa, it is very likely there are others. We just need to find them."

John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Wits University, an author on all three papers, says: "I think some scientists assumed they knew how human evolution happened, but these new fossil discoveries, plus what we know from genetics, tell us that the southern half of Africa was home to a diversity that we've never seen anywhere else".

"Recently, the fossil hominin record has been full of surprises, and the age of Homo naledi is not going to be the last surprise that comes out of these caves I suspect," adds Berger.

A new chamber and skeleton

In a third paper published at the same time in eLife, entitled New fossil remains of Homo naledi from the Lesedi Chamber, South Africa, the team announces the discovery of a second chamber, within the Rising Star cave system, which contains more remains of Homo naledi.

"The chamber, which we have named the Lesedi Chamber, is more than a hundred meters from the Dinaledi Chamber. It is almost as difficult to access, and also contains spectacular fossils of naledi, including a partial skeleton with a wonderfully complete skull," says Hawks, lead author on the paper describing the new discovery. Fossil remains were first recognised in the chamber by Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker in 2013, as fieldwork was underway in the Dinaledi Chamber.

The name "Lesedi" means "light" in the Setswana language. Excavations in the Lesedi Chamber began later, and would take nearly three years.

No easy access

"To access the Lesedi Chamber is only slightly easier than the Dinaledi Chamber," says Elliott, who was lead excavator of the fossils from the new locality. "After passing through a squeeze of about 25cm, you have to descend along vertical shafts before reaching the chamber. While slightly easier to get to, the Lesedi Chamber is, if anything, more difficult to work in due to the tight spaces involved."

Hawks points out that while the Lesedi Chamber is "easier" to get into than the Dinaledi Chamber, the term is relative. "I have never been inside either of the chambers, and never will be. In fact, I watched Lee Berger being stuck for almost an hour, trying to get out of the narrow underground squeeze of the Lesedi Chamber." Berger eventually had to be extracted using ropes tied to his wrists.

The presence of a second chamber, distant from the first, containing multiple individuals of Homo naledi and almost as difficult to reach as the Dinaledi Chamber, gives an idea of the extraordinary effort it took for Homo naledi to reach these hard-to-get-to places, says Hilbert-Wolf.

"This likely adds weight to the hypothesis that Homo naledi was using dark, remote places to cache its dead," says Hawks. "What are the odds of a second, almost identical occurrence happening by chance?"

So far, the scientists have uncovered more than 130 hominin specimens from the Lesedi Chamber. The bones belong to at least three individuals, but Elliot believes that there are more fossils yet to be discovered. Among the individuals are the skeletal remains of two adults and at least one child. The child is represented by bones of the head and body and would likely have been under five years of age. Of the two adults, one is represented by only a jaw and leg elements, but the other is represented by a partial skeleton, including a mostly complete skull.

Meeting naledi

The team describes the skull of the skeleton as "spectacularly complete". "We finally get a look at the face of Homo naledi," says Peter Schmid of Wits and the University of Zurich, who spent hundreds of hours painstakingly reconstructing the fragile bones to complete the reconstruction.

The skeleton was nicknamed "Neo" by the team, chosen for the Sesotho word meaning "a gift". "The skeleton of Neo is one the most complete ever discovered, and technically even more complete than the famous Lucy fossil, given the preservation of the skull and mandible," says Berger.

The specimens from the Lesedi Chamber are nearly identical in every way to those from the Dinaledi Chamber, a remarkable finding in and of itself. "There is no doubt that they belong to the same species," says Hawks. The Lesedi Chamber fossils have not been dated yet, as dating would require destruction of some of the hominin material. "Once described, we will look at the way forward for establishing the age of these particular fossils," says Dirks. Elliot adds, however, that as the preservation and condition of the finds are practically identical to that of the naledi specimens from the Dinaledi Chamber the team hypothesizes that their age will fall roughly within the same time period.

Berger believes that with thousands of fossils likely remaining in both the Lesedi and Dinaledi Chambers, there are decades of research potential. "We are going to treat ongoing extraction of material from both of these chambers with extreme care and thoughtfulness and with the full knowledge that we need to conserve material for future generations of scientists, and future technological innovations," he says.

52 scientists from 35 departments and Institutions were involved in the research.

Wits Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Professor Adam Habib said: "The search for human origins on the continent of Africa began at Wits and it is wonderful to see this legacy continue with such important discoveries"

"The National Geographic Society has a long history of investing in bold people and transformative ideas," said Gary E. Knell, president and CEO of the National Geographic Society, a funder of the expeditions that recovered the fossils and established their age. "The continued discoveries from Lee Berger and his colleagues showcase why it is critical to support the study of our human origins and other pressing scientific questions."

Public display

The original fossils of these new discoveries, as well as those from the original Rising Star Expedition will be put on public display at the Maropeng, the Official Visitors Centre for the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site from May 25th. This exhibit of the largest display of original fossil hominin material in history forms part of an exhibition called "Almost Human".

The exhibition will be housed in 'The Gallery'. This state-of-the-art exhibition space was built as part of the Gauteng Infrastructure Upgrade Project. This is the second completed construction, the first being the upgrade to the Hominin House facilities at Maropeng.

Maropeng is getting ready to receive thousands of visitors wanting to the see the exhibition and the new fossils. In 2015, when Homo naledi was first put on display, some 3 500 visitors per day made their way to Maropeng. "It was an extraordinary thing to experience," says Michael Worsnip, Managing Director of Maropeng. "It was something like a pilgrimage - a wonderful celebration of our heritage as a country, a continent and a planet."