Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Stonehenge Was Once A Complete Circle

A short hosepipe may have solved one of the many mysteries of Stonehenge, showing that the iconic monument was once a perfect, complete circle.

Dry weather in summer 2013 at the Wiltshire monument revealed marks of parched grass in an area that had not been watered.

According to a report in the journal Antiquity, the patchmarks represent the position of the missing sarsen stones which once completed the Neolithic circle.

"Despite being one of the most intensively explored prehistoric monuments in western Europe, Stonehenge continues to hold surprises," English Heritage steward Tim Daw and colleagues wrote.

Located in the county of Wiltshire, at the center of England's densest complex of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments, Stonehenge has been the subject of myth, legend and -- more recently -- scientific research for more than eight centuries.

The monument was likely built in several stages with "the unique lintelled stone circle being erected in the late Neolithic period around 2500 B.C.," according to the English Heritage.

Researchers have long investigated each part of the monument -- the massive central trilithons, the smaller bluestone settings, the sarsen circle capped by lintels, the outer bank and ditch -- debating whether the outer prehistoric stones were once completely round.

Indeed, the possibility that Stonehenge was an intentionally incomplete monument, with the sarsen circle only finished on the north-eastern side, has been suggested since the mid 18th century.

Now, a hosepipe too short to cover the outer part of the circle where no stones still stand, may have provided a definitive answer, revealing what excavations and high-resolution geophysical surveys failed to find.

Spotted by Daw, the patches on the ground -- believed to be "stone holes" -- appeared in the sarsen circle exactly where stones were expected to stand.

Such crop marks are produced when plants grow over features that have been buried in the ground for a long time, even long after they have been removed.

Buried or once-buried structures interfere with plant growth and develop at a different rate to those growing immediately adjacent. In this case, deep stone holes may have changed the earth permeability, affecting the grass growth.

"Plants that may have initially benefited from the easily available rooting and moisture in disturbed ground fail as the soil dries out, whilst the shorter-rooting surrounding plants manage to survive by extracting water directly from the porous chalk," Daw and colleagues wrote.

A survey, using Differential Global Positioning System equipment, was immediately undertaken, but unfortunately it suffered from limited time, given the elusive nature of the vanishing marks.

"Ideally the survey would have differentiated between marks caused by parching –- the majority -– and those caused by lusher growth," Daw and colleagues wrote.

"It would have also have graded the marks into 'definitive', 'probable' and 'possible' categories. This was not possible, and the result must therefore be treated with caution," they added.

English Heritage hopes to corroborate the findings with searching historic aerial photographs of the site and with future observation of the same phenomenon in similar weather conditions.

Lorenzi, Rossella. 2014. “Stonehenge Was Once A Complete Circle”. Discovery News. Posted: September 3, 2014. Available online: http://news.discovery.com/history/stonehenge-was-once-a-complete-circle-140902.htm

Monday, September 29, 2014

Researchers search for evidence of earliest inhabitants of Central Great Plains

A team led by University of Kansas Distinguished Professor Rolfe Mandel in July excavated a northeast Kansas site in Pottawatomie County seeking to find artifacts tied to the Clovis and Pre-Clovis peoples, the founding populations of the Americas.

The team is awaiting the results of dating of sediment samples tied to recovered artifacts, and if the sediments are confirmed to be more than 13,500 years old it would open the door to a discovery of the earliest evidence of people inhabiting this part of the state and the Central Great Plains.

"If we want to know about the history of the arrival of people in the Great Plains, this is the sort of work that's going to unravel that," said Mandel, who in addition to his appointment with the Department of Anthropology is also a senior scientist with the Kansas Geological Survey. "We all have inherent interest in history, so this tells us something about the early occupants of the Great Plains and this part of the Great Plains. It will tell us a lot about the history of the peopling of the Americas and in particular the peopling of the Great Plains, especially the Central Great Plains, where it's been pretty much a black hole in terms of unraveling that story."

The 20 days of excavating a bank on the north end of Tuttle Creek and the Big Blue River—known as the Coffey Site —this summer was part of KU's ODYSSEY Project, which Mandel directs, and it gives KU undergraduate and graduate students archeological field experience. ODYSSEY team members have made the only other discovery of Clovis period people inhabiting Kansas or Nebraska when they discovered a stratified Clovis-age site at Kanorado, which is near Goodland in northwest Kansas on the Colorado border.

Mandel was hopeful the recent dig at Tuttle Creek would yield evidence that Clovis people inhabited the site in northeast Kansas at least 13,500 years ago, but he said based on the depth of the artifacts in the bank, it's possible their findings could be associated with the earlier Pre-Clovis people.

"There's no question that there's something there. It's a matter of getting a handle on the age of it," Mandel said.

Items recovered in July included portions of two projectile points—that were likely tied to spear points—and a hafted drill. Although the spear points and drill found this summer are considerably younger than Clovis, a spear point and another artifact found at the Coffey site last summer represent the immediate successors of Clovis. Mandel said that below these items are artifacts that may be the material remains of Clovis or Pre-Clovis people. A key test in attempting to date the artifacts is determining when the sediments containing them were last exposed to light before being buried. Another key in trying to verify the age of artifacts is whether they are found to be resting in horizontal or vertical positions. Mandel said artifacts in vertical positions are less likely to be associated with the age of the sediments containing them because it's possible the items could have fallen down a crack in the sediments, for example.

"If you're going to have an extraordinary hypothesis that this could be tied to Pre-Clovis, you have to have extraordinary evidence, and so it has to be done extremely systematically," Mandel said. "It has to be done in a very meticulous way."

As they analyze the materials, including the tools recovered from the bank to try to tie them to Clovis or Pre-Clovis people, Mandel said the Paleoindian population was known to bring items from long distances, so it may help scholars map population movement in early America and the Central Great Plains.

"We're talking about small family units, hunters and gatherers," he said. "It's a group of five or six, maybe a little bit larger wandering across the landscape. They're following herds of animals. Of course, at that time, the assemblage of animals looked a lot different than what it does today."

In addition to hunting megafauna, that included mammoth, large extinct forms of bison, and American camel, the inhabitants in the area likely also gathered a variety of plant foods. "They were constantly on the move, taking advantage of resources," Mandel said. "Given that they were small groups, they didn't leave a lot behind. They didn't live in villages. That didn't happen until about 2,000 years ago, in more recent time."

As the analysis of the artifacts from July's dig continues, Mandel—who has spent a large part of his career looking for clues to verify the earliest inhabitants of the region—waits to find out how significant of a discovery the ODYSSEY Project participants made during their hot, long hours digging and excavating on the river bank in northeast Kansas.

"It's a small record. It's probably dispersed. It's been possibly modified by the geological process, including deep burial, and so it's very elusive," Mandel said. "It's very difficult to find."

Diepenbrock, George. 2014. “Researchers search for evidence of earliest inhabitants of Central Great Plains”. Phys Org. Posted: August 29, 2014. Available online: http://phys.org/news/2014-08-evidence-earliest-inhabitants-central-great.html

Sunday, September 28, 2014

How does it feel to be old in different societies?

People aged 70 and over who identify themselves as 'old' feel worse about their own health in societies where they perceive they have lower value than younger age groups

People aged 70 and over who identify themselves as 'old' feel worse about their own health in societies where they perceive they have lower value than younger age groups.

New research from psychologists at the University of Kent, titled 'Being old and ill' across different countries: social status, age identification and older people's subjective health, used data from the European Social Survey. Respondents, who were all aged 70 and over, were asked to self-rate their health.

The researchers found that those living in societies where older people have lower status were more likely to have a negative subjective view of their health if they identified themselves as 'old'. However, identifying as an older person was not associated with subjective health in societies where older people have higher status.

The results highlighted that in countries where old age is perceived as signifying low status, identifying strongly with old age is related to worse subjective health.

The study could have major implications for policy-makers across Europe, where the elevation of the perceived social status of older people would be likely to reduce negative connotations associated with old age, ensuring that identifying as 'old' would not impact negatively on how healthy people felt.

EurekAlert. 2014. “How does it feel to be old in different societies?”. EurekAlert. Posted: August 28, 2014. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-08/uok-hdi082814.php

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Homo sapiens ‘culturally diverse’ prior to leaving Africa

Researchers have carried out the largest comparative study of stone tools dating to between 130,000 and 75,000 years ago found in the region between sub-Saharan Africa and Eurasia. The study is crucial to understanding the structure and variation of Homo sapiens populations in Africa and then trying to interpret evidence of their subsequent dispersals into Eurasia.

As part of this work they have discovered marked differences in the way stone tools were made, reflecting the development of diversity in cultural traditions. The study has also identified at least four distinct populations, each relatively isolated from the other and with their own different cultural characteristics.

Movement and exchange

The research paper also suggests that early populations took advantage of rivers and lakes that criss-crossed the Saharan desert for movement and exchange. A climate model coupled with data about these ancient water courses was matched with the new findings on stone tools to reveal that populations connected by rivers had recognisable similarities in their cultures.

This could be the earliest evidence of different populations ‘budding’ across the Sahara, using the rivers to disperse and meet people from other populations, according to the paper published in the journal, Quaternary Science Reviews.

The researchers from the University of Oxford, Kings College London and the University of Bordeaux took a staggering 300,000 measurements of stone tools from 17 archaeological sites across North Africa, including the Sahara, and then combined the stone tool data with a model of the North African environment during that period, which showed that the Sahara was then a patchwork of savannah, grasslands and water, interspersed with desert.

Mapping out known ancient rivers and major lakes has built on earlier research by Professor Nick Drake, one of this paper’s co-authors. By modelling and mapping the environment, the researchers were then able to draw new inferences on the contexts in which the ancient populations made and used their tools. The results show, for the first time, how early populations of modern humans dispersed across the Sahara, one after the other ‘budding’ into populations along the ancient rivers and watercourses.

Lead researcher Dr Eleanor Scerri, visiting scholar at the University of Oxford, said: ‘This is the first time that scientists have identified that early modern humans at the cusp of dispersal out of Africa were grouped in separate, isolated and local populations. Stone tools are the only form of preserved material culture for most of human history. In Africa, owing to the hot climate, ancient DNA has not yet been found. These stone tools reveal how early populations of modern humans dispersed across the Sahara just before they left North Africa. While different populations were relatively isolated, we were interested to find that when connected by rivers, they share similarities in their tool-making suggesting some interaction with one another.”

Consistently culturally distinctive

The researchers used a variety of tests in order to rule out causes of variability, such as differences in raw materials. This was done to establish that tool-making traditions were consistently culturally distinctive among the different populations in the study.

Dr Scerri said: “Not much is known about the structure of early modern human populations in Africa, particularly at the time of their earliest dispersals into Eurasia. Our picture of modern human demography around 100,000 years ago is that there were a number of populations, varying in size and degree of genetic contact, distributed over a wide geographical area. This model of our population history supports other theories recently put forward that modern humans may have first successfully left Africa earlier than 60,000-50,000 years ago, which had been the common view among scholars. Our work provides important new evidence that sheds light on both the timing of early modern human dispersals out of Africa and the character of our interaction with other human species, such as Neanderthals.”

Co-author Dr Huw Groucutt, from the School of Archaeology at the University of Oxford, said: ‘The question of whether there was an early successful exit from Africa has become one of whether any of the populations discovered in this paper went in and out of Africa for some or all of this time. A crucial next step involves fieldwork in areas such as the Arabian Peninsula to understand how these populations spread into Eurasia. The ongoing fieldwork by the Oxford University based Palaeodeserts Project is seeking to do exactly that, and we are making some remarkable discoveries in the deserts of Arabia, which may also have been the region where both Neanderthal and Homo sapiens populations may have interacted.”

Past Horizons. 2014. “Homo sapiens ‘culturally diverse’ prior to leaving Africa”. Past Horizons. Posted: August 26, 2014. Available online: http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/08/2014/homo-sapiens-culturally-diverse-prior-to-leaving-africa

Friday, September 26, 2014

Complete Inuvialuit driftwood house found in Mackenzie Delta

An archeologist from the University of Toronto is celebrating the discovery this summer of the first complete example of a cruciform pit home across from Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., in the Mackenzie Delta.

The structures were built by Inuvialuit from about 500 years ago up until around 1900.

"For me, it was almost the capping of my career," says Max Friesen, who’s been working in the area off and on since 1986.

Friesen says large, cruciform houses are one of the things most spoken about in early histories, recollections of elders and the writings of early explorers in the delta.

"But even though others have excavated parts of these houses, there’s never been one that’s fully dug, so you can actually see how it all fits together."

They’re called cruciform houses because they have a central floor area and then three very large alcoves, each of which would’ve had one or two different families in them.

"If you look at it from above, it kind of looks like a cross," Friesen says.

Driftwood logs make up the house’s floor, benches and roof, which would have been covered in skin and sod for insulation.

With a main living area about seven metres wide and almost six metres long, the house is almost twice the size as those built by the Thule people, the ancestors of the Inuvialuit.

"By almost any early standard, that’s huge," Friesen says.

He says the house may have been lived in, on and off, for 20, 30 or 40 years. When it was abandoned, it collapsed into the permafrost and became completely frozen.

That makes it horrible to dig in, Friesen says, but it means the structure is wonderfully preserved.

"When you expose some of the wood, it looks like fresh wood. Like something that just drifted in this morning."

Erosion exposing, threatening dig site

Friesen spent five weeks doing the dig this summer at the Kuukpak archeological site that extends about a kilometre along the Mackenzie River.

"It’s probably the single largest Inuvialuit site that was ever occupied," Friesen says. "I would guess at least maybe 40 houses. That’s enormous."

The settlement was the site of a large, very successful beluga hunt every July.

Now, Friesen says, the area is rapidly eroding.

"We could walk on the beach and see a lot of beluga bones and artifacts currently eroding out of the edges of the site and get an amazing view of the size and complexity of what Inuvialuit society must have looked like."

That erosion is putting a time limit on the work.

Friesen says the pit house is so big that 10 people working for five weeks were unable to get to the bottom of it. He plans to head back to the area next year for an aerial survey. Then try to complete the dig in the summer of 2016.

"I’m really hoping that this will last for at least another three, four, five years and that we will manage to preserve a large amount of information that would otherwise be destroyed."

CBC News. 2014. “Complete Inuvialuit driftwood house found in Mackenzie Delta”. CBC News. Posted: August 27, 2014. Available online: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/complete-inuvialuit-driftwood-house-found-in-mackenzie-delta-1.2748364

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Ancient Arabian Stones Hint at How Humans Migrated Out of Africa

Ancient stone artifacts recently excavated from Saudi Arabia possess similarities to items of about the same age in Africa — a discovery that could provide clues to how humans dispersed out of Africa, researchers say.

Modern humans originated about 200,000 years ago in Africa. However, scientists have long debated when and how the modern human lineage spread out of Africa.

"Understanding how we originated and colonized the world remains one of the most fascinating and enduring questions, because it is our story as humans," said lead study author Eleanor Scerri, an archaeologist at the University of Bordeaux in France.

Previous research had suggested that the exodus from Africa started between 70,000 and 40,000 years ago. However, a genetic analysis reported in April hinted that modern humans might have begun their march across the globe as early as 130,000 years ago, and continued their expansion out of Africa in multiple waves.

In addition, stone artifacts recently unearthed in the Arabian Desert date to at least 100,000 years ago. This could be evidence of an early modern-human exodus out of Africa, scientists say. However, it's possible that these artifacts weren't created by modern humans; a number of now-extinct human lineages existed outside Africa before or at the same time when modern humans migrated there. For instance, the Neanderthals, the closest known extinct relatives of modern humans, lived in both Europe and Asia around that time.

To help shed light on the role the Arabian Peninsula might have played in the history of modern humans, scientists compared stone artifacts recently excavated from three sites in the Jubbah lake basin in northern Saudi Arabia with items from northeast Africa excavated in the 1960s. Both sets of artifacts were 70,000 to 125,000 years old. Back then, the areas that are now the Arabian and Sahara deserts were far more hospitable places to live than they are now, which could have made it easier for modern humans and related lineages to migrate out of Africa.

"Far from being a desert, the Arabian Peninsula between 130,000 and 75,000 years ago was a patchwork of grasslands and savanna environments, featuring extensive river networks running through the interior," Scerri said.

The northeast African stone tools the researchers analyzed were similar to ones previously found near modern-human skeletons. The scientists found that stone artifacts at two of the three Arabian sites were "extremely similar" to the northeast African stone tools, Scerri told Live Science. At the very least, Scerri said, this finding suggests that there was some level of interaction between the groups in Africa and those in the Arabian Peninsula, and might hint that these Arabian tools were made by modern humans.

Surprisingly, Scerri said, tools from the third Arabian site the researchers analyzed were "completely different." "This shows that there was a number of different tool-making traditions in northern Arabia during this time, often in very close proximity to each other," she said.

One possible explanation for these differences is that the artifacts were made by different human lineages. Future research needs to uncover skeletal remains with ancient tools unearthed from the Arabian Peninsula to help solve this mystery, Scerri noted. Unless skeletal remains are found near such artifacts, it will remain uncertain whether modern humans or a different  human lineage might have made them.

"It seems likely that there were multiple dispersals into the Arabian Peninsula from Africa, some possibly very early in the history of Homo sapiens," Scerri said. "It also seems likely that there may have been multiple dispersals into this region from other parts of Eurasia. These features are what make the Arabian Peninsula so interesting."

Ancient migrants out of Africa and from Eurasia might have encountered a number of different populations in the Arabian Peninsula, Scerri said. Some of these groups may have adapted to their environment more than others had, which raises the intriguing question: "Did the exchange of genes and knowledge between such groups contribute to our ultimate success as a species?" Scerri said.

The scientists detailed their findings online Aug. 8 in the Journal of Human Evolution.

Choi, Charles Q. 2014. “Ancient Arabian Stones Hint at How Humans Migrated Out of Africa”. Live Science. Posted: August 26, 2014. Available online: http://www.livescience.com/47555-stone-artifacts-human-migration.html

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Oldest European Human Footprints Confirmed

In 1965 archaeologists discovered about 400 ancient human footprints in Ciur-Izbuc Cave in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania. At that time, researchers interpreted the footprints to be those of a man, woman and child who entered the cave by an opening which is now blocked but which was usable in antiquity.

The original age of the footprints was given as 10–15,000 years old based partly on their association with cave bear (Ursus spelaeus) footprints and bones, and the belief that cave bears became extinct near the end of the last ice age.

In danger of destruction

However, since their discovery, the human and bear evidence and the cave itself have attracted cavers and other tourists, with the result that the ancient footprints were in danger of destruction by modern humans – leaving only 51 of the original discovery.

But radiocarbon measurements of two cave bear bones excavated just below the footprints now indicate that Homo sapiens made these tracks around 36,500 years ago, say anthropologist David Webb of Kutztown University in Pennsylvania and his colleagues.

In an effort to conserve the footprints and information about them and to re-analyse them with modern techniques, Ciur-Izbuc Cave was restudied in summer of 2012. Although, it is impossible to confirm some of the original conclusions due to the destruction of nearly 350 footprints, the number of individuals present is now estimated to be six or seven.

Two cases of bears apparently overprinting humans help establish antiquity, and C-14 dates suggest a much greater age than originally thought.

Mapping human movement

Unfortunately, insufficient footprints remain to measure movement variables such as stride length, but detailed three-dimensional mapping does allow a more precise description of human movements within the cave

Analyses of 51 footprints that remain indicate that six or seven individuals, including at least one child, entered the cave after a flood had coated its floor with sandy mud, the researchers report in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Published ages for other H. sapiens footprints in Europe and elsewhere go back no more than 33,000 years.

Other scientists have suggested that H. sapiens tracks at Tanzania’s Engare Sero site were 120,000 years old but these findings have still to be published, suggesting to Webb there may be a problem with dating or footprint authenticity.

Past Horizons. 2014. “Oldest European Human Footprints Confirmed”. Past Horizons. Posted: August 26, 2014. Available online: http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/08/2014/oldest-european-human-footprints-confirmed

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Kennewick Man Finally Freed to Share His Secrets - Day 4

Day four. You can learn more about Doug Owsley at Wikipedia.

The most poignant outcome? The researchers brought Kennewick Man’s features back to life. This process is nothing like the computerized restoration seen in the television show Bones. To turn a skull into a face is a time-consuming, handcrafted procedure, a marriage of science and art. Skeletal anatomists, modelmakers, forensic and figurative sculptors, a photographic researcher and a painter toiled many months to do it.

The first stage involved plotting dozens of points on a cast of the skull and marking the depth of tissue at those points. (Forensic anatomists had collected tissue-depth data over the years, first by pushing pins into the faces of cadavers, and later by using ultrasound and CT scans.) With the points gridded out, a forensic sculptor layered clay on the skull to the proper depths.

The naked clay head was then taken to StudioEIS in Brooklyn, which specializes in reconstructions for museums. There, sculptors aged his face, adding wrinkles and a touch of weathering, and put in the scar from the forehead injury. Using historic photographs of Ainu and Polynesians as a reference, they sculpted the fine, soft-tissue details of the lips, nose and eyes, and gave him a facial expression—a resolute, purposeful gaze consistent with his osteobiography as a hunter, fisherman and long-distance traveler. They added a beard like those commonly found among the Ainu. As for skin tone, a warm brown was chosen, to account for his natural color deepened by the harsh effects of a life lived outdoors. To prevent too much artistic license from creeping into the reconstruction, every stage of the work was reviewed and critiqued by physical anthropologists.

“I look at him every day,” Owsley said to me. “I’ve spent ten years with this man trying to better understand him. He’s an ambassador from that ancient time period. And man, did he have a story.”

Today, the bones remain in storage at the Burke Museum, and the tribes continue to believe that Kennewick Man is their ancestor. They want the remains back for reburial. The corps, which still controls the skeleton, denied Owsley’s request to conduct numerous tests, including a histological examination of thin, stained sections of bone to help fix Kennewick Man’s age. Chemical analyses on a lone tooth would enable the scientists to narrow the search for his homeland by identifying what he ate and drank as a child. A tooth would also be a good source of DNA. Biomolecular science is advancing so rapidly that within five to ten years it may be possible to know what diseases Kennewick Man suffered from and what caused his death.

Today’s scientists still have questions for this skeleton, and future scientists will no doubt have new ones. Kennewick Man has more to tell.

Preston, Douglas. 2014. “The Kennewick Man Finally Freed to Share His Secrets". Smithsonian Magazine. Posted: August 26, 2014. Available online: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ist/?next=/history/kennewick-man-finally-freed-share-his-secrets-180952462/

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Kennewick Man Finally Freed to Share His Secrets - Day 3

Day Three. You can learn more about Doug Owsley at Wikipedia.

There’s a wonderful term used by anthropologists: “osteobiography,” the “biography of the bones.” Kennewick Man’s osteobiography tells a tale of an eventful life, which a newer radiocarbon analysis puts at having taken place 8,900 to 9,000 years ago. He was a stocky, muscular man about 5 feet 7 inches tall, weighing about 160 pounds. He was right-handed. His age at death was around 40.

Anthropologists can tell from looking at bones what muscles a person used most, because muscle attachments leave marks in the bones: The more stressed the muscle, the more pronounced the mark. For example, Kennewick Man’s right arm and shoulder look a lot like a baseball pitcher’s. He spent a lot of time throwing something with his right hand, elbow bent—no doubt a spear. Kennewick Man once threw so hard, Owsley says, he fractured his glenoid rim—the socket of his shoulder joint. This is the kind of injury that puts a baseball pitcher out of action, and it would have made throwing painful. His left leg was stronger than his right, also a characteristic of right-handed pitchers, who arrest their forward momentum with their left leg. His hands and forearms indicate he often pinched his fingers and thumb together while tightly gripping a small object; presumably, then, he knapped his own spearpoints.

Kennewick Man spent a lot of time holding something in front of him while forcibly raising and lowering it; the researchers theorize he was hurling a spear downward into the water, as seal hunters do. His leg bones suggest he often waded in shallow rapids, and he had bone growths consistent with “surfer’s ear,” caused by frequent immersion in cold water. His knee joints suggest he often squatted on his heels. I like to think he might have been a storyteller, enthralling his audience with tales of far-flung travels.

Many years before Kennewick Man’s death, a heavy blow to his chest broke six ribs. Because he used his right hand to throw spears, five broken ribs on his right side never knitted together. This man was one tough dude.

The scientists also found two small depression fractures on his cranium, one on his forehead and the other farther back. These dents occur on about half of all ancient American skulls; what caused them is a mystery. They may have come from fights involving rock throwing, or possibly accidents involving the whirling of a bola. This ancient weapon consisted of two or more stones connected by a cord, which were whirled above the head and thrown at birds to entangle them. If you don’t swing a bola just right, the stones can whip around and smack you. Perhaps a youthful Kennewick Man learned how to toss a bola the hard way.

The most intriguing injury is the spearpoint buried in his hip. He was lucky: The spear, apparently thrown from a distance, barely missed the abdominal cavity, which would have caused a fatal wound. It struck him at a downward arc of 29 degrees. Given the bone growth around the embedded point, the injury occurred when he was between 15 and 20 years old, and he probably would not have survived if he had been left alone; the researchers conclude that Kennewick Man must have been with people who cared about him enough to feed and nurse him back to health. The injury healed well and any limp disappeared over time, as evidenced by the symmetry of his gluteal muscle attachments. There’s undoubtedly a rich story behind that injury. It might have been a hunting accident or a teenage game of chicken gone awry. It might have happened in a fight, attack or murder attempt.

Much to the scientists’ dismay, the corps would not allow the stone to be analyzed, which might reveal where it was quarried. “If we knew where that stone came from,” said Stanford, the Smithsonian anthropologist, “we’d have a pretty good idea of where that guy was when he was a young man.” A CT scan revealed that the point was about two inches long, three-quarters of an inch wide and about a quarter-inch thick, with serrated edges. In his analysis, Stanford wrote that while he thought Kennewick Man had probably received the injury in America, “an Asian origin of the stone is possible.”

The food we eat and the water we drink leave a chemical signature locked into our bones, in the form of different atomic variations of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. By identifying them, scientists can tell what a person was eating and drinking while the bone was forming. Kennewick Man’s bones were perplexing. Even though his grave lies 300 miles inland from the sea, he ate none of the animals that abounded in the area. On the contrary, for the last 20 or so years of his life he seems to have lived almost exclusively on a diet of marine animals, such as seals, sea lions and fish. Equally baffling was the water he drank: It was cold, glacial meltwater from a high altitude. Nine thousand years ago, the closest marine coastal environment where one could find glacial meltwater of this type was Alaska. The conclusion: Kennewick Man was a traveler from the far north. Perhaps he traded fine knapping stones over hundreds of miles.

Although he came from distant lands, he was not an unwelcome visitor. He appears to have died among people who treated his remains with care and respect. While the researchers say they don’t know how he died—yet—Owsley did determine that he was deliberately buried in an extended, prone position, faceup, the head slightly higher than the feet, with the chin pressed on the chest, in a grave that was about two and a half feet deep. Owsley deduced this information partly by mapping the distribution of carbonate crust on the bones, using a magnifying lens. Such a crust is heavier on the underside of buried bones, betraying which surfaces were down and which up. The bones showed no sign of scavenging or gnawing and were deliberately buried beneath the topsoil zone. From analyzing algae deposits and water-wear marks, the team determined which bones were washed out of the embankment first and which fell out last. Kennewick Man’s body had been buried with his left side toward the river and his head upstream.

Preston, Douglas. 2014. “The Kennewick Man Finally Freed to Share His Secrets". Smithsonian Magazine. Posted: August 26, 2014. Available online: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ist/?next=/history/kennewick-man-finally-freed-share-his-secrets-180952462/

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Kennewick Man Finally Freed to Share His Secrets - Day 2

Day Two. You can learn more about Doug Owsley at Wikipedia.

To get to Owsley’s office at the National Museum of Natural History, you must negotiate a warren of narrow corridors illuminated by fluorescent strip lighting and lined with specimen cases. When his door opens, you are greeted by Kennewick Man. The reconstruction of his head is striking—rugged, handsome and weather-beaten, with long hair and a thick beard. A small scar puckers his left forehead. His determined gaze is powerful enough to stop you as you enter. This is a man with a history.

Kennewick Man is surrounded on all sides by tables laid out with human skeletons. Some are articulated on padded counters, while others rest in metal trays, the bones arranged as precisely as surgeon’s tools before an operation. These bones represent the forensic cases Owsley is currently working on.

“This is a woman,” he said, pointing to the skeleton to the left of Kennewick Man. “She’s young. She was a suicide, not found for a long time.” He gestured to the right. “And this is a homicide. I know there was physical violence. She has a fractured nose, indicating a blow to the face. The detective working the case thinks that if we can get a positive ID, the guy they have will talk. And we have a positive ID.” A third skeleton belonged to a man killed while riding an ATV, his body not found for six months. Owsley was able to assure the man’s relatives that he died instantly and didn’t suffer. “In doing this work,” he said, “I hope to speak for the person who can no longer speak.”

Owsley is a robust man, of medium height, 63 years old, graying hair, glasses; curiously, he has the same purposeful look in his eyes as Kennewick Man. He is not into chitchat. He grew up in Lusk, Wyoming, and he still radiates a frontier sense of determination; he is the kind of person who will not respond well to being told what he can’t do. He met Susan on the playground when he was 7 years old and remains happily married. He lives in the country, on a farm where he grows berries, has an orchard and raises bees. He freely admits he is “obsessive” and “will work like a dog” until he finishes a project. “I thought this was normal,” he said, “until it was pointed out to me it wasn’t.” I asked if he was stubborn, as evidenced by the lawsuit, but he countered: “I would say I’m driven—by curiosity.” He added, “Sometimes you come to a skeleton that wants to talk to you, that whispers to you, I want to tell my story. And that was Kennewick Man.”

A vast amount of data was collected in the 16 days Owsley and colleagues spent with the bones. Twenty-two scientists scrutinized the almost 300 bones and fragments. Led by Kari Bruwelheide, a forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian, they first reassembled the fragile skeleton so they could see it as a whole. They built a shallow box, added a layer of fine sand, and covered that with black velvet; then Bruwelheide laid out the skeleton, bone by bone, shaping the sand underneath to cradle each piece. Now the researchers could address such questions as Kennewick Man’s age, height, weight, body build, general health and fitness, and injuries. They could also tell whether he was deliberately buried, and if so, the position of his body in the grave.

Next the skeleton was taken apart, and certain key bones studied intensively. The limb bones and ribs were CT-scanned at the University of Washington Medical Center. These scans used far more radiation than would be safe for living tissue, and as a result they produced detailed, three-dimensional images that allowed the bones to be digitally sliced up any which way. With additional CT scans, the team members built resin models of the skull and other important bones. They made a replica from a scan of the spearpoint in the hip.

As work progressed, a portrait of Kennewick Man emerged. He does not belong to any living human population. Who, then, are his closest living relatives? Judging from the shape of his skull and bones, his closest living relatives appear to be the Moriori people of the Chatham Islands, a remote archipelago 420 miles southeast of New Zealand, as well as the mysterious Ainu people of Japan.

“Just think of Polynesians,” said Owsley.

Not that Kennewick Man himself was Polynesian. This is not Kon-Tiki in reverse; humans had not reached the Pacific Islands in his time period. Rather, he was descended from the same group of people who would later spread out over the Pacific and give rise to modern-day Polynesians. These people were maritime hunter-gatherers of the north Pacific coast; among them were the ancient Jōmon, the original inhabitants of the Japanese Islands. The present-day Ainu people of Japan are thought to be descendants of the Jōmon. Nineteenth-century photographs of the Ainu show individuals with light skin, heavy beards and sometimes light-colored eyes.

Jōmon culture first arose in Japan at least 12,000 years ago and perhaps as early as 16,000 years ago, when the landmasses were still connected to the mainland. These seafarers built boats out of sewn planks of wood. Outstanding mariners and deep-water fishermen, they were among the first people to make fired pottery.

The discovery of Kennewick Man adds a major piece of evidence to an alternative view of the peopling of North America. It, along with other evidence, suggests that the Jōmon or related peoples were the original settlers of the New World. If correct, the conclusion upends the traditional view that the first Americans came through central Asia and walked across the Bering Land Bridge and down through an ice-free corridor into North America.

Sometime around 15,000 years ago, the new theory goes, coastal Asian groups began working their way along the shoreline of ancient Beringia—the sea was much lower then—from Japan and Kamchatka Peninsula to Alaska and beyond. This is not as crazy a journey as it sounds. As long as the voyagers were hugging the coast, they would have plenty of fresh water and food. Cold-climate coasts furnish a variety of animals, from seals and birds to fish and shellfish, as well as driftwood, to make fires. The thousands of islands and their inlets would have provided security and shelter. To show that such a sea journey was possible, in 1999 and 2000 an American named Jon Turk paddled a kayak from Japan to Alaska following the route of the presumed Jōmon migration. Anthropologists have nicknamed this route the “Kelp Highway.”

“I believe these Asian coastal migrations were the first,” said Owsley. “Then you’ve got a later wave of the people who give rise to Indians as we know them today.”

What became of those pioneers, Kennewick Man’s ancestors and companions? They were genetically swamped by much larger—and later—waves of travelers from Asia and disappeared as a physically distinct people, Owsley says. These later waves may have interbred with the first settlers, diluting their genetic legacy. A trace of their DNA still can be detected in some Native American groups, though the signal is too weak to label the Native Americans “descendants.”

Whether this new account of the peopling of North America will stand up as more evidence comes in is not yet known. The bones of a 13,000-year-old teenage girl recently discovered in an underwater cave in Mexico, for example, are adding to the discussion. James Chatters, the first archaeologist to study Kennewick and a participant in the full analysis, reported earlier this year, along with colleagues, that the girl’s skull appears to have features in common with that of Kennewick Man and other Paleo-Americans, but she also possesses specific DNA signatures suggesting she shares female ancestry with Native Americans.

Kennewick Man may still hold a key. The first effort to extract DNA from fragments of his bone failed, and the corps so far hasn’t allowed a better sample to be taken. A second effort to plumb the old fragments is underway at a laboratory in Denmark.

Preston, Douglas. 2014. “The Kennewick Man Finally Freed to Share His Secrets" Smithsonian Magazine. Posted: August 26, 2014. Available online: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ist/?next=/history/kennewick-man-finally-freed-share-his-secrets-180952462/

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Kennewick Man Finally Freed to Share His Secrets - Day 1

The following article is divided over the next four days. A good read. You can learn more about Doug Owsley at Wikipedia.

In the summer of 1996, two college students in Kennewick, Washington, stumbled on a human skull while wading in the shallows along the Columbia River. They called the police. The police brought in the Benton County coroner, Floyd Johnson, who was puzzled by the skull, and he in turn contacted James Chatters, a local archaeologist. Chatters and the coroner returned to the site and, in the dying light of evening, plucked almost an entire skeleton from the mud and sand. They carried the bones back to Chatters’ lab and spread them out on a table.

The skull, while clearly old, did not look Native American. At first glance, Chatters thought it might belong to an early pioneer or trapper. But the teeth were cavity-free (signaling a diet low in sugar and starch) and worn down to the roots—a combination characteristic of prehistoric teeth. Chatters then noted something embedded in the hipbone. It proved to be a stone spearpoint, which seemed to clinch that the remains were prehistoric. He sent a bone sample off for carbon dating. The results: It was more than 9,000 years old.

Thus began the saga of Kennewick Man, one of the oldest skeletons ever found in the Americas and an object of deep fascination from the moment it was discovered. It is among the most contested set of remains on the continents as well. Now, though, after two decades, the dappled, pale brown bones are at last about to come into sharp focus, thanks to a long-awaited, monumental scientific publication next month co-edited by the physical anthropologist Douglas Owsley, of the Smithsonian Institution. No fewer than 48 authors and another 17 researchers, photographers and editors contributed to the 680-page Kennewick Man: The Scientific Investigation of an Ancient American Skeleton (Texas A&M University Press), the most complete analysis of a Paleo-American skeleton ever done.

The book recounts the history of discovery, presents a complete inventory of the bones and explores every angle of what they may reveal. Three chapters are devoted to the teeth alone, and another to green stains thought to be left by algae. Together, the findings illuminate this mysterious man’s life and support an astounding new theory of the peopling of the Americas. If it weren’t for a harrowing round of panicky last-minute maneuvering worthy of a legal thriller, the remains might have been buried and lost to science forever.

The storm of controversy erupted when the Army Corps of Engineers, which managed the land where the bones had been found, learned of the radiocarbon date. The corps immediately claimed authority—officials there would make all decisions related to handling and access—and demanded that all scientific study cease. Floyd Johnson protested, saying that as county coroner he believed he had legal jurisdiction. The dispute escalated, and the bones were sealed in an evidence locker at the sheriff’s office pending a resolution.

“At that point,” Chatters recalled to me in a recent interview, “I knew trouble was coming.” It was then that he called Owsley, a curator at the National Museum of Natural History and a legend in the community of physical anthropologists. He has examined well over 10,000 sets of human remains during his long career. He had helped identify human remains for the CIA, the FBI, the State Department and various police departments, and he had worked on mass graves in Croatia and elsewhere. He helped reassemble and identify the dismembered and burned bodies from the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. Later, he did the same with the Pentagon victims of the 9/11 terrorist attack. Owsley is also a specialist in ancient American remains.

“You can count on your fingers the number of ancient, well-preserved skeletons there are” in North America, he told me, remembering his excitement at first hearing from Chatters. Owsley and Dennis Stanford, at that time chairman of the Smithsonian’s anthropology department, decided to pull together a team to study the bones. But corps attorneys showed that federal law did, in fact, give them jurisdiction over the remains. So the corps seized the bones and locked them up at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, often called Battelle for the organization that operates the lab.

At the same time, a coalition of Columbia River Basin Indian tribes and bands claimed the skeleton under a 1990 law known as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA. The tribes demanded the bones for reburial. “Scientists have dug up and studied Native Americans for decades,” a spokesman for the Umatilla tribe, Armand Minthorn, wrote in 1996. “We view this practice as desecration of the body and a violation of our most deeply-held religious beliefs.” The remains, the tribe said, were those of a direct tribal ancestor. “From our oral histories, we know that our people have been part of this land since the beginning of time. We do not believe that our people migrated here from another continent, as the scientists do.” The coalition announced that as soon as the corps turned the skeleton over to them, they would bury it in a secret location where it would never be available to science. The corps made it clear that, after a monthlong public comment period, the tribal coalition would receive the bones.

The tribes had good reason to be sensitive. The early history of museum collecting of Native American remains is replete with horror stories. In the 19th century, anthropologists and collectors looted fresh Native American graves and burial platforms, dug up corpses and even decapitated dead Indians lying on the field of battle and shipped the heads to Washington for study. Until NAGPRA, museums were filled with American Indian remains acquired without regard for the feelings and religious beliefs of native people. NAGPRA was passed to redress this history and allow tribes to reclaim their ancestors’ remains and some artifacts. The Smithsonian, under the National Museum of the American Indian Act, and other museums under NAGPRA, have returned (and continue to return) many thousands of remains to tribes. This is being done with the crucial help of anthropologists and archaeologists—including Owsley, who has been instrumental in repatriating remains from the Smithsonian’s collection. But in the case of Kennewick, Owsley argued, there was no evidence of a relationship with any existing tribes. The skeleton lacked physical features characteristic of Native Americans.

In the weeks after the Army engineers announced they would return Kennewick Man to the tribes, Owsley went to work. “I called and others called the corps. They would never return a phone call. I kept expressing an interest in the skeleton to study it—at our expense. All we needed was an afternoon.” Others contacted the corps, including members of Congress, saying the remains should be studied, if only briefly, before reburial. This was what NAGPRA in fact required: The remains had to be studied to determine affiliation. If the bones showed no affiliation with a present-day tribe, NAGPRA didn’t apply.

But the corps indicated it had made up its mind. Owsley began telephoning his colleagues. “I think they’re going to rebury this,” he said, “and if that happens, there’s no going back. It’s gone."

So Owsley and several of his colleagues found an attorney, Alan Schneider. Schneider contacted the corps and was also rebuffed. Owsley suggested they file a lawsuit and get an injunction. Schneider warned him: “If you’re going to sue the government, you better be in it for the long haul.”

Owsley assembled a group of eight plaintiffs, prominent physical anthropologists and archaeologists connected to leading universities and museums. But no institution wanted anything to do with the lawsuit, which promised to attract negative attention and be hugely expensive. They would have to litigate as private citizens. “These were people,” Schneider said to me later, “who had to be strong enough to stand the heat, knowing that efforts might be made to destroy their careers. And efforts were made.”

When Owsley told his wife, Susan, that he was going to sue the government of the United States, her first response was: “Are we going to lose our home?” He said he didn’t know. “I just felt,” Owsley told me in a recent interview, “this was one of those extremely rare and important discoveries that come once in a lifetime. If we lost it”—he paused. “Unthinkable.”

Working like mad, Schneider and litigating partner Paula Barran filed a lawsuit. With literally hours to go, a judge ordered the corps to hold the bones until the case was resolved.

When word got out that the eight scientists had sued the government, criticism poured in, even from colleagues. The head of the Society for American Archaeology tried to get them to drop the lawsuit. Some felt it would interfere with the relationships they had built with Native American tribes. But the biggest threat came from the Justice Department itself. Its lawyers contacted the Smithsonian Institution warning that Owsley and Stanford might be violating “criminal conflict of interest statutes which prohibit employees of the United States” from making claims against the government.

“I operate on a philosophy,” Owsley told me, “that if they don’t like it, I’m sorry: I’m going to do what I believe in.” He had wrestled in high school and, even though he often lost, he earned the nickname “Scrapper” because he never quit. Stanford, a husky man with a full beard and suspenders, had roped in rodeos in New Mexico and put himself through graduate school by farming alfalfa. They were no pushovers. “The Justice Department squeezed us really, really hard,” Owsley recalled. But both anthropologists refused to withdraw, and the director of the National Museum of Natural History at the time, Robert W. Fri, strongly supported them even over the objections of the Smithsonian’s general counsel. The Justice Department backed off.

Owsley and his group were eventually forced to litigate not just against the corps, but also the Department of the Army, the Department of the Interior and a number of individual government officials. As scientists on modest salaries, they could not begin to afford the astronomical legal bills. Schneider and Barran agreed to work for free, with the faint hope that they might, someday, recover their fees. In order to do that they would have to win the case and prove the government had acted in “bad faith”—a nearly impossible hurdle. The lawsuit dragged on for years. “We never expected them to fight so hard,” Owsley says. Schneider says he once counted 93 government attorneys directly involved in the case or cc’ed on documents.

Meanwhile, the skeleton, which was being held in trust by the corps, first at Battelle and later at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington in Seattle, was badly mishandled and stored in “substandard, unsafe conditions,” according to the scientists. In the storage area where the bones were (and are) being kept at the Burke Museum, records show there have been wide swings in temperature and humidity that, the scientists say, have damaged the specimen. When Smithsonian asked about the scientists’ concerns, the corps disputed that the environment is unstable, pointing out that expert conservators and museum personnel say that “gradual changes are to be expected through the seasons and do not adversely affect the collection.”

Somewhere in the move to Battelle, large portions of both femurs disappeared. The FBI launched an investigation, focusing on James Chatters and Floyd Johnson. It even went so far as to give Johnson a lie detector test; after several hours of accusatory questioning, Johnson, disgusted, pulled off the wires and walked out. Years later, the femur bones were found in the county coroner’s office. The mystery of how they got there has never been solved.

The scientists asked the corps for permission to examine the stratigraphy of the site where the skeleton had been found and to look for grave goods. Even as Congress was readying a bill to require the corps to preserve the site, the corps dumped a million pounds of rock and fill over the area for erosion control, ending any chance of research.

I asked Schneider why the corps so adamantly resisted the scientists. He speculated that the corps was involved in tense negotiations with the tribes over a number of thorny issues, including salmon fishing rights along the Columbia River, the tribes’ demand that the corps remove dams and the ongoing, hundred-billion-dollar cleanup of the vastly polluted Hanford nuclear site. Schneider says that a corps archaeologist told him “they weren’t going to let a bag of old bones get in the way of resolving other issues with the tribes.”

Asked about its actions in the Kennewick Man case, the corps told Smithsonian: “The United States acted in accordance with its interpretation of NAGPRA and its concerns about the safety and security of the fragile, ancient human remains.”

Ultimately, the scientists won the lawsuit. The court ruled in 2002 that the bones were not related to any living tribe: thus NAGPRA did not apply. The judge ordered the corps to make the specimen available to the plaintiffs for study. The government appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which in 2004 again ruled resoundingly in favor of the scientists, writing:

because Kennewick Man’s remains are so old and the information about his era is so limited, the record does not permit the Secretary [of the Interior] to conclude reasonably that Kennewick Man shares special and significant genetic or cultural features with presently existing indigenous tribes, people, or cultures.
During the trial, the presiding magistrate judge, John Jelderks, had noted for the record that the corps on multiple occasions misled or deceived the court. He found that the government had indeed acted in “bad faith” and awarded attorney’s fees of $2,379,000 to Schneider and his team.

“At the bare minimum,” Schneider told me, “this lawsuit cost the taxpayers $5 million.”

Owsley and the collaborating scientists presented a plan of study to the corps, which was approved after several years. And so, almost ten years after the skeleton was found, the scientists were given 16 days to examine it. They did so in July of 2005 and February of 2006.

From these studies, presented in superabundant detail in the new book, we now have an idea who Kennewick Man was, how he lived, what he did and where he traveled. We know how he was buried and then came to light. Kennewick Man, Owsley believes, belongs to an ancient population of seafarers who were America’s original settlers. They did not look like Native Americans. The few remains we have of these early people show they had longer, narrower skulls with smaller faces. These mysterious people have long since disappeared.

Preston, Douglas. 2014. “The Kennewick Man Finally Freed to Share His Secrets" Smithsonian Magazine. Posted: August 26, 2014. Available online: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ist/?next=/history/kennewick-man-finally-freed-share-his-secrets-180952462/

Friday, September 19, 2014

Half The World's Languages May Be Endangered

What happens when the last person to speak a language dies?

Sometime in the 1970s, a linguist named James Rementer, moved into the house of an elderly woman in Oklahoma. That woman, Nora Thompson Dean, was one of the last persons to speak Unami, a dialect of the Delaware (Lenni Lenape) language. When she died in 1984, the language spoken by the Native Americans who left their place names all over New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, and signed the famous peace treaty with William Penn in 1683, went silent.

Thousands of languages have gone extinct in the last few centuries, and an economist at Case Western Reserve University thinks the language of any people whose total population is fewer than 35,000, is possibly endangered.

That does not mean they will disappear, said David Clingingsmith.

“I think that’s what the data says on average.”

There are approximately 7,000 languages in the world, and 95 percent of the world’s population speak 300 of them. Half the world speaks the largest 16. According to the Endangered Languages Project, some 40 percent of the world's languages are threatened.

It depends on circumstances. For instance, scientists still encounter tribes in places like the Amazon that have been totally isolated from the rest of the world with their own languages. Despite having populations numbering in the hundreds, their languages only are in danger if they have too much contact with the outside world, Clingingsmith said. Without that contact, there is not much pressure to change.

There still are places in Europe, where a relatively small population speaks minority languages descended from Vulgar Latin that are mutually unintelligible from each other.  Examples include Picard and Walloon, both spoken in parts of France and Belgium. Even in Great Britain, there is a small population that still speaks Cornish, and Welsh never disappeared, he said.

But, when a language does disappear, a unique view of the world goes with it.

Once one is gone it is almost impossible to resurrect — Hebrew being a rare exception.

Possibly 4,000 years old, it stopped being a spoken language sometime during the Roman Empire and existed only as a language of prayer — written, not spoken since that time. (Jesus probably spoke Aramaic at home.) But with the rise of the Zionist movement at the end of the 19th century, some thought a Jewish nation could only succeed if it had its own language and Hebrew was the logical choice. So, one man, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, invented modern Hebrew.

When his son, Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda, was born in 1882, Ben-Yehuda and his wife spoke to him only in Hebrew and protected him from hearing other languages for years, making up words and syntax as they went along. Ben-Zion became the first person to have Hebrew as a native tongue in 1,800 years. Other families followed. Ben-Yehuda also helped create a Hebrew dictionary and form an Academy of the Hebrew Language, inventing words that did not exist in classical liturgical Hebrew.

Sometimes it worked: The Hebrew word for "computer," the academy decided, was maschev. Sometimes it didn’t: The Hebrew word for "television" is televiztia.

Today, 9 million people speak Hebrew, almost 8 million in Israel as a first language, and Hebrew has a thriving literature, including a Nobel laureate, Shmuel Yosef Agnon.

Other attempts weren't so successful, including the attempt to recreate Gaelic as the spoken language of Ireland. Some speak it, but mostly as a second language. While all government business in Israel is in Hebrew, the government of the Irish Republic still communicates in English and almost all of Ireland’s great literature is in English.

Sometimes governments act to protect a minority language against the majority. The efforts of the government in Quebec to protect French are a good example. Clingingsmith didn’t think that intervention necessary. As long as generations pass the language on it is not threatened. Dutch speakers, for example, do not feel threatened even though most people in the Netherlands also speak English.

The rise of English as a lingua franca – or a world-wide common language – does not pose a major threat to other languages, said Salikoko Mufwene, a linguist at the University of Chicago. In many places only the elites speak it and in some, China for example, you are more likely to find someone speaking English at a tourist market than in the government. Adoption of English is not uniform, and a large portion of the population has no reason to change, he said.

But dead languages often leave whispers. Delaware, for example, is carved into American geography. Manhattan, Passaic, Shenandoah, Ohio, all are Delaware names.

After Nora Thompson Dean died, all that remained of her language was Rementer’s recordings and a 12,000-word dictionary. The only other person she could speak to was her brother, Edward. And even if other Delawares indicated they would like to learn the language, that would not bring it back. They would have to use it regularly and make it part of their lives.

The difference between economists like Clingingsmith and linguists like himself, Mufwene said, is that economists look at census numbers; linguists look at the “vitality” of a language, whether it is alive, spoken by one generation to another.

When Dean died, Delaware died. Dean’s brother, Edward, who died in 2002, had no one to talk to. He was the end. Wekwihéle.*

*The Delaware word for gone. 

Shurkin, Joel N. 2014. “Half The World's Languages May Be Endangered”. Inside Science. Posted: August 20, 2014. Available online: http://www.insidescience.org/content/half-worlds-languages-may-be-endangered/1931

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Hand gestures improve learning in both signers and speakers

Spontaneous gesture can help children learn, whether they use a spoken language or sign language, according to a new report.

Previous research by Susan Goldin-Meadow, the Beardsley Ruml Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Psychology, has found that gesture helps children develop their language, learning and cognitive skills. As one of the nation's leading authorities on language learning and gesture, she has also studied how using gesture helps older children improve their mathematical skills.

Goldin-Meadow's new study examines how gesturing contributes to language learning in hearing and in deaf children. She concludes that gesture is a flexible way of communicating, one that can work with language to communicate or, if necessary, can itself become language. The article is published online by Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B and will appear in the Sept. 19 print issue of the journal, which is a theme issue on "Language as a Multimodal Phenomenon."

"Children who can hear use gesture along with speech to communicate as they acquire spoken language, "Goldin-Meadow said. "Those gesture-plus-word combinations precede and predict the acquisition of word combinations that convey the same notions. The findings make it clear that children have an understanding of these notions before they are able to express them in speech."

In addition to children who learned spoken languages, Goldin-Meadow studied children who learned sign language from their parents. She found that they too use gestures as they use American Sign Language. These gestures predict learning, just like the gestures that accompany speech.

Finally, Goldin-Meadow looked at deaf children whose hearing losses prevented them from learning spoken language, and whose hearing parents had not presented them with conventional sign language. These children use homemade gesture systems, called homesign, to communicate. Homesign shares properties in common with natural languages but is not a full-blown language, perhaps because the children lack "a community of communication partners," Goldin-Meadow writes. Nevertheless, homesign can be the "first step toward an established sign language." In Nicaragua, individual gesture systems blossomed into a more complex, shared system when homesigners were brought together for the first time.

These findings provide insight into gesture's contribution to learning. Gesture plays a role in learning for signers even though it is in the same modality as sign. As a result, gesture cannot aid learners simply by providing a second modality. Rather, gesture adds imagery to the categorical distinctions that form the core of both spoken and sign languages.

Goldin-Meadow concludes that gesture can be the basis for a self-made language, assuming linguistic forms and functions when other vehicles are not available. But when a conventional spoken or sign language is present, gesture works along with language, helping to promote learning.

EurekAlert. 2014. “Hand gestures improve learning in both signers and speakers”. EurekAlert. Posted: August 18, 2014. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-08/uoc-hgi081814.php

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Ancient Maya Cities Found in Jungle

A monster mouth doorway, ruined pyramid temples and palace remains emerged from the Mexican jungle as archaeologists unearthed two ancient Mayan cities.

Found in the southeastern part of the Mexican state of Campeche, in the heart of the Yucatan peninsula, the cities were hidden in thick vegetation and hardly accessible.

"Aerial photographs helped us in locating the sites," expedition leader Ivan Sprajc, of the Research Center of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts (ZRC SAZU), said.

Sprajc and his team found the massive remains as they further explored the area around Chactun, a large Maya city discovered by the Slovenian archaeologist in 2013.

No other site has so far been located in this area, which extends over some 1800 square miles, between the so-called Rio Bec and Chenes regions, both known for their characteristic architectural styles fashioned during the Late and Terminal Classic periods, around 600 - 1000 A.D.

One of the cities featured an extraordinary facade with an entrance representing the open jaws of an earth monster.

The site was actually visited in the 1970s by the American archaeologist Eric Von Euw, who documented the facade and other stone monuments with yet unpublished drawings.

However, the exact location of the city, referred to as Lagunita by Von Euw, remained lost. All the attempts at relocating it failed.

"The information about Lagunita were vague and totally useless," Sprajc told Discovery News.

"In the jungle you can be as little as 600 feet from a large site and do not even suspect it might be there; small mounds are all over the place, but they give you no idea about where an urban center might be," he added.

Laguinita was identified only after the archaeologists compared the newly found facade and monuments with Von Euw's drawings.

The monster-mouth facade turned to be one of the best preserved examples of this type of doorways, which are common in the Late-Terminal Classic Rio Bec architectural style, in the nearby region to the south.

"It represents a Maya earth deity related with fertility. These doorways symbolize the entrance to a cave and, in general, to the watery underworld, place of mythological origin of maize and abode of ancestors," Sprajc said.

He also found remains of a number of massive palace-like buildings arranged around four major plazas. A ball court and a temple pyramid almost 65 ft high also stood in the city, while 10 stelae (tall sculpted stone shafts) and three altars (low circular stones) featured well-preserved reliefs and hieroglyphic inscriptions.

According to preliminary reading by epigrapher Octavio Esparza Olguin from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, one of the stelae was engraved on November 29, A.D. 711 by a "lord of 4 k'atuns (20-year periods)."

Unfortunately, the remaining text, which included the name of the ruler and possibly of his wife, is heavily eroded.

"To judge by both architectural volumes and monuments with inscriptions, Lagunita must have been the seat of a relatively powerful polity, though the nature of its relationship with the larger Chactun, lying some 10 km to the north, remains unclear," Esparza Olguin said.

Similar imposing was the other city unearthed by Sprajc. Previously unknown, the city was named Tamchen, which means "deep well" in Yucatec Maya.

Indeed, more than 30 chultuns were found at the site. These are bottle-shaped underground chambers, largely intended for collecting rainwater.

"Several chultuns were unusually deep, going down as far as 13 meters," Sprajc said.

Like in Laguinita, plazas were surrounded by large buildings. These include the remains of an acropolis supporting a courtyard with three temples on its sides. A pyramid temple with a rather well preserved sanctuary on top and a stela and an altar at its base was also unearthed.

Tamchen appears to have been contemporaneous with Lagunita, although there is evidence for its settlement history going back to the Late Preclassic, between300 B.C. and 250 A.D.

"Both cities open new questions about the diversity of Maya culture, the role of that largely unexplored area in the lowland Maya history, and its relations with other polities," Sprajc said.

The work is a follow-up to the study of Archaeological Reconnaissance in Southeastern Campeche, Mexico. Directed by Sprajc since 1996, the 2014 campaign was supported by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), Mexico. Lead funding was provided by Ken and Julie Jones from their KJJ Charitable Foundation (USA); additional financial support was granted by private companies Villas (Austria), Hotel Río Bec Dreams (Mexico) and Ars longa and Adria Kombi (Slovenia), as well as by Martin Hobel and Aleš Obreza.

In June 2014, the southern part of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, where Sprajc discovered most of the currently known archaeological sites, was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list as a mixed natural and cultural property.

Loreni, Rossella. 2014. “Ancient Maya Cities Found in Jungle”. Discovery News. Posted: August 15, 2014. Available online: http://news.discovery.com/history/archaeology/three-ancient-maya-cities-found-in-jungle-140815.htm

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

How arbitrary is language? English words structured to help kids learn

Words in the English language are structured to help children learn according to research led by Lancaster University

Words like "woof" accurately represent the sound of a dog while sounds with similar meanings may have a similar structure, such as the "sl" sound at the beginning of a word often has negative properties as in "slime, slur, slum, slug."

An international team led by Professor Padraic Monaghan from the Department of Psychology at Lancaster University provides for the first time a comprehensive analysis of sound meaning structure using statistical techniques from biology and genetics.

The research, published in the Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B, shows that the structure of the vocabulary in English helps both children and adults.

He said: "Sounds relate to meaning for the words that children first encounter, addressing a critical question about how language is structured to aid learning.

"However, the later adult vocabulary is arbitrary, consistent with computational models of efficient language production and accurate language comprehension."

The debate about whether the sound of words contains information about meaning has continued for over 2,300 years.

This issue lies at the foundation of modern linguistics and psychology of language, which has been brought into stark relief by recent studies of sound symbolism where words actually sound like their meaning.

Sound symbolism has been suggested to be prevalent in language and necessary for language acquisition by children.

Science Daily. 2014. “How arbitrary is language? English words structured to help kids learn”. Science Daily. Posted: August 13, 2014. Available online: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140813103503.htm

Monday, September 15, 2014

Who Are the Yazidis, the Ancient, Persecuted Religious Minority Struggling to Survive in Iraq?

The U.S. contemplates sending military aircraft and possible ground troops to rescue the Yazidis, as more American military advisers arrive in Iraq to help plan an evacuation of the displaced people.

For their beliefs, they have been the target of hatred for centuries. Considered heretical devil worshippers by many Muslims—including the advancing militants overrunning Iraq—the Yazidis have faced the possibility of genocide many times over. Now, with the capture of Sinjar and northward thrust of extremists calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS), Iraq's estimated 500,000 Yazidis fear the end of their people and their religion. In less than two weeks, nearly all the Yazidis of Sinjar have fled north, seeking refuge in Kurdish territory, while thousands remained trapped in the rugged Sinjar mountains, awaiting rescue. "Sinjar is (hopefully not was) home to the oldest, biggest, and most compact Yazidi community," says Khanna Omarkhali, a Yazidi scholar at the University of Göttingen.

"Extermination, emigration, and settlement of this community will bring tragic transformations to the Yazidi religion," she adds.

The Yazidis have inhabited the mountains of northwestern Iraq for centuries, and the region is home to their holy places, shrines, and ancestral villages.  Outside of Sinjar, the Yazidis are concentrated in areas north of Mosul, and in the Kurdish-controlled province of Dohuk. For Yazidis, the land holds deep religious significance; adherents from all over the world—remnant communities exist in Turkey, Germany, and elsewhere—make pilgrimages to the holy Iraqi city of Lalesh. The city is now less than 40 miles from the Islamic State front lines.

As the Islamic State continues to swallow up more Yazidi territory, the Yazidis are being forced to convert, face execution, or flee. "Our entire religion is being wiped off the face of the earth," warned Yazidi leader Vian Dakhil.

While the advance of the militants constitutes a grave threat to Yazidis, persecution has been a painful historical constant for the small religious community almost since its formation.  "This dilemma to convert or die is not new," says Christine Allison, an expert on Yazidism at Exeter University.

A Misunderstood Religion

The Yazidi religion is often misunderstood, as it does not fit neatly into Iraq's sectarian mosaic. Most Yazidis are Kurdish speakers, and while the majority consider themselves ethnically Kurdish, Yazidis are religiously distinct from Iraq's predominantly Sunni Kurdish population. Yazidism is an ancient faith, with a rich oral tradition that integrates some Islamic beliefs with elements of Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion, and Mithraism, a mystery religion originating in the Eastern Mediterranean.

This combining of various belief systems, known religiously as syncretism, was what part of what branded them as heretics among Muslims. While some Yazidi practices resemble those of Islam—refraining from eating pork, for example—many Yazidi practices appear to be unique in the region. Yazidi society is organized into a rigid religious caste system, and many Yazidis believe that the soul is reincarnated after death. While its exact origins are a matter of dispute, some scholars believe that Yazidism was formed when the Sufi leader Adi ibn Musafir settled in Kurdistan in the 12th century and founded a community that mixed elements of Islam with local pre-Islamic beliefs.

Yazidis began to face accusations of devil worship from Muslims beginning in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. While the Yazidis believe in one god, a central figure in their faith is Tawusî Melek, an angel who defies God and serves as an intermediary between man and the divine. To Muslims, the Yazidi account of Tawusî Melek often sounds like the Quranic rendering of Shaytan—the devil—even though Tawusî Melek is a force for good in the Yazidi religion.

"To this day, many Muslims consider them to be  devil worshipers," says Thomas Schmidinger, an expert on Kurdish politics the University of Vienna. "So in the face of religious persecution, Yazidis have concentrated in strongholds located in remote mountain regions," he adds.

The Yazidis are not the only religious minority threatened by the Islamic State. Thousands of Christians have fled Mosul since the extremists captured the city in early June. For now, religious minorities are finding refuge in Kurdish territory in the north. But the Islamic State is capturing villages just a few miles from the Kurdish capital of Erbil. With the security of Kurdish territory in doubt, the U.S. launched air strikes on Islamic State positions late last week.

Organized anti-Yazidi violence dates back to the Ottoman Empire. In the second half of the 19th century, Yazidis were targeted by both Ottoman and local Kurdish leaders, and subjected to brutal campaigns of religious violence. "Yazidis often say they have been the victim of 72 previous genocides, or attempts at annihilation," says Matthew Barber, a scholar of Yazidi history at the University of Chicago who is in Dohuk interviewing Yazidi refugees.  "Memory of persecution is a core component of their identity," he says.

Isolated geographically, and accustomed to discrimination, the Yazidis forged an insular culture. Iraq's Yazidis rarely intermarry with other Kurds, and they do not accept religious converts. "They became a closed community," explains Khanna Omarkhali, of the University of  Göettingen.

Victims of Hussein's Regime

Yet, as Kurdish speakers, Yazidis often share the same political fate as Iraq's other Kurds. In the late 1970s, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein launched brutal Arabization campaigns against the Kurds in the north. He razed traditional Yazidi villages, and forced the Yazidis to settle in urban centers, disrupting their rural way of life. Hussein constructed the town of Sinjar, and forced the Yazidis to abandon their mountain villages and relocate in the city.

After the United States toppled Hussein in 2003, Iraqi Kurds were given an autonomous region in northern Iraq known as the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). But Sinjar, along with many border regions at the edge of the KRG, remains an area of dispute between the Kurds and the government in Baghdad. The KRG claims Sinjar as Kurdish, while Baghdad still considers the area under its control.

As ISIL sweeps through the Yazidi homeland, Kurds throughout the region are rallying to defend the embattled religious minority. This week, Kurdish fighters from Syria and Turkey crossed into Iraq and joined with the KRG to push back ISIL and secure a safe passage for the Yazidis out of Sinjar. Some Yazidis are even fleeing into war-torn Syria, seeking the protection of Syrian Kurds in the north.

For now, these Kurdish fighters are the only thing standing between the Yazidis and the Islamic State. As he has continued his work with Yazadi refugees, Matthew Barber says that a general panic has set in as hundreds of thousands of new arrivals from western Iraq flood Yazidi villages outside Dohuk, seeking shelter behind Iraqi Kurdish lines. "The Yazidis are terrorized," he says. Refugees are now calling the mass exodus from Sinjar the 73rd attempt at genocide.

With the help of U.S. air support, the Kurds vowed to retake Sinjar in the coming days. For the Yazidis the stakes are especially high. "It's difficult to see how Yazidism could exist if they all left northern Iraq," says Allison. "The struggle is truly existential."

Asher-Schapiro, Avi. 2014. “Who Are the Yazidis, the Ancient, Persecuted Religious Minority Struggling to Survive in Iraq?”. National Geographic News. Posted: August 9, 2014. Available online: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/08/140809-iraq-yazidis-minority-isil-religion-history/

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Skulls Tell Story of Social Growth, Scientists Say

How did our early ancestors discover the wonders of art and music and culture so long ago? They found it, according to new research, because they had finally learned to be nicer to each other.

One critical change in the course of human evolution, according to the study, was a gradual reduction in the potency of testosterone, the bad boy among hormones responsible for aggressiveness and anti-social behavior.

A team of anthropologists at Duke University studied more than 1,400 skulls from the dawn of human history to the present and found evidence that the things we love so much -- art, tools, even jewelry -- resulted from the need to form clans and work together.

Robert Cieri, then a graduate student in biology, began the study three years ago at Duke, by examining 13 human skulls more than 80,000 years old and 41 skulls between 10,000 and 38,000 years old.

He and his colleagues also analyzed 1,367 20th century skulls from 30 ethnic populations in museums around the world. Cieri, now a doctoral candidate at the University of Utah, is the lead author of a paper published in the journal Current Anthropology.

The scientists found physiological changes in the skulls that most likely resulted from hormonal changes over many generations as humans slowly moved away from isolation and into social structures that required more cooperation. The need to work together gradually reduced the influence of testosterone, which in turn changed the physical structure of the skulls, the study contends.

The human skull became more feminine, with a gentler appearance.

Testosterone, like many hormones, plays a role in the physical development, even in the embryonic stage, both in humans and other mammals.

In humans, it partly determines the lengths of the second to fourth digits. Its effect on the cranium is dramatic, as documented in a famous experiment with Siberian silver foxes. The animals were bred only for tameness, yet the structure of their skulls changed, along with other body traits, over many generations as the foxes learned to trust humans as friends.

The human skulls examined by the Duke scientists also changed over generations as the brow lost its high ridge and the skull became rounder, and more feminine.

Those changes -- not just in appearance but in the influence of testosterone -- also made it possible for humans to build ever more complex societies that were more densely populated, eventually resulting in megacities.

The sequence is this: First the need to work together, less aggression, then cranial changes, then even less aggression as humans moved from individualistic hunter gatherers to farmers and finally to urban dwellers.

All of this is based on the study of skulls, but critics -- including some who are intimately familiar with the research -- point out that much more needs to be done before this idea is accepted in a scientific discipline noted for its wide range of varying opinion.

Indeed, how we became what we are today is one of the most hotly debated topics in science, largely because the evidence itself is problematic. Ancient skulls are dated primarily on the basis of known geological ages of the soils in which they were found, which is also open to different interpretations.

But the underlying theory that the development of social structures required humans to learn to get along is widely accepted. It is the most common explanation for a human characteristic that troubled Charles Darwin: altruism. If we are driven exclusively by a selfish drive to survive and pass our genes on to future generations, why would we help anyone else? Perhaps, because we need them.

No matter how we got here, the evidence is clear that art and music and tools go a long ways back in human history. They probably began around 50,000 years ago, according to anthropologists. Recent discoveries indicate they really exploded at least 30,000 years ago.

One spectacular example is the incredibly beautiful paintings found in a cave in southern France in 1994.

Some of the paintings, numbered in the hundreds, are up to 32,000 years old, and they are exquisite. Even then, the need to communicate and preserve what was deemed valuable must have been intense.

"If prehistoric people began living closer together and passing down new technologies, they'd have to be tolerant of each other," Cieri said in releasing the study. "The key to our success is the ability to cooperate and get along and learn from one another."

The cave paintings in France indicate we learned that very early. But the situation in the world today doesn't argue that we left the savage in us behind.

Last century was the bloodiest in human history. With two world wars and uncountable battles and skirmishes, more people died from violence during that era than in any other.

But at least we have tools and jewelry. And music. And those wonderful old paintings in France.

Dye, Lee. 2014. “Skulls Tell Story of Social Growth, Scientists Say”. ABC News. Posted: August 10, 2014. Available online: http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/skulls-story-social-growth-scientists/story?id=24920557

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Fuertes vientos dejan a la vista nuevos geoglifos en Nasca

This is a Peruvian story about the Nazca geoglyphs, posted yesterday.

Las enigmáticas figuras fueron descubiertas en el valle de El Ingenio, durante el vuelo de inspección de un investigador

Los fuertes vientos y las tormentas de arena que se registraron la semana pasada en la región Ica develaron un conjunto de geoglifos en las pampas de Nasca. Por el diseño y trazo que presentan estas figuras, corresponderían al período de transición Paracas-Nasca, destacaron ayer estudiosos consultados por El Comercio.

Las figuras fueron descubiertas por el piloto e investigador Eduardo Herrán Gómez de la Torre, durante un vuelo de inspección que realizó esta semana sobre el desierto de Nasca.

Los geoglifos están en las laderas de dos colinas ubicadas en las márgenes izquierda y derecha del valle de El Ingenio, cerca de las pampas de San José y Jumana, donde se concentran las mundialmente conocidas Líneas de Nasca.

“Son dibujos enigmáticos que tendrían más de 2.000 años de antigüedad”, comentó el investigador.

Detalló que se trata de una serpiente de unos 60 metros de largo por 4 metros de ancho, ubicada en las inmediaciones del conocido dibujo del colibrí. “Podría tratarse de un geoglifo Paracas, aunque esto lo determinarán los arqueólogos”, precisó Herrán.

Las otras figuras se ubican en el sector de Changuillo, hacia la margen derecha del valle de El Ingenio. Se trata de una línea en zigzag al lado de una familia de camélidos en alto relieve, que alcanza una dimensión de 60 metros de largo por casi 35 metros de ancho. Junto a esto se aprecia un ave y otras líneas.

El investigador Eduardo Herrán Gómez de la Torre indicó que los nuevos geoglifos ya están georreferenciados, procedimiento necesario para que puedan ser inscritos en el Registro Nacional de Bienes Culturales. Esto es importante para evitar su destrucción.

El director del Área de Patrimonio Arqueológico-Inmueble de la Dirección Desconcentrada de Cultura de Ica, Rubén García Soto, calificó el descubrimiento de los geoglifos como “un valioso aporte a los conocimientos sobre los antiguos nascas”.

Sobre la figura de la serpiente, dijo que se trataría de un geoglifo de la época de transición Paracas-Nasca.

El director del proyecto arqueológico Nasca y responsable de la puesta en valor del centro ceremonial de Cahuachi, Giuseppe Orefici Pecci, señaló que este nuevo hallazgo confirma la estrecha vinculación de los antiguos nascas con el agua.

“Al observar la figura del ave, con las alas abiertas y la cola muy corta, se confirma la relación de los antiguos pobladores que ocuparon este árido desierto con la lluvia y su estrecho culto al agua. En la parte alta de la colina se nota claramente una figura en zigzag de un período más tardío, junto a otra ave de la que solo se pueden notar las garras y la parte baja del cuerpo”, opinó.

Orefici confirmó que la otra figura es efectivamente una serpiente con la cabeza en la parte alta y doblada hacia la derecha.

Los fuertes vientos que se presentaron entre el miércoles y sábado de la semana pasada en la región Ica fueron catalogados como los más intensos de los últimos 25 años. Alcanzaron velocidades de hasta 60 kilómetros por hora.

Vargas, José Rosales. 2014. “Fuertes vientos dejan a la vista nuevos geoglifos en Nasca”. El Comercio. Posted: August 2, 2014. Available online: http://elcomercio.pe/peru/ica/fuertes-vientos-dejan-vista-nuevos-geoglifos-nasca-noticia-1747100

Friday, September 12, 2014

New Nazca Lines Found in Peruvian Desert

In the Southwest Peruvian desert, new Nazca lines -- enormous geometric figures of animals such as snakes and birds -- have been exposed after a sandstorm.

The rock lines are thought to have been used by the Nazca civilization, who lived in south coastal Peru, in ancient rituals related to water or religion.

One of the newly discovered geoglyphs is the shape of a snake -- about 200 feet long -- and is located near the well-known hummingbird drawing (pictured above.) Other new finds include a bird, what looks like a llama and zig-zag lines, reports Phys.org.

A pilot and researcher, Eduardo Herrán Gómez, found the new rock lines last week during a flyover.

Archaeologists are researching whether the lines match those created by the Nazca, who lived from the first century B.C. and the fifth century A.D. The Nazca disappeared as the Inca Empire came to power.

Heltzel, Paul. 2014. “New Nazca Lines Found in Peruvian Desert”. Discovery News. Posted: August 7, 2014. Available online: http://news.discovery.com/history/archaeology/new-nazca-lines-found-in-peruvian-desert-140807.htm

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Excavation of ancient well yields insight into Etruscan, Roman and medieval times

During a four-year excavation of an Etruscan well at the ancient Italian settlement of Cetamura del Chianti, a team led by a Florida State University archaeologist and art historian unearthed artifacts spanning more than 15 centuries of Etruscan, Roman and medieval civilization in Tuscany.

"The total haul from the well is a bonanza," said Nancy de Grummond, the M. Lynette Thompson Professor of Classics at Florida State. De Grummond, who has performed work at the site since 1983, is one of the nation's leading scholars of Etruscan studies. "This rich assemblage of materials in bronze, silver, lead and iron, along with the abundant ceramics and remarkable evidence of organic remains, create an unparalleled opportunity for the study of culture, religion and daily life in Chianti and the surrounding region," she said of the well excavation that began in 2011, which is part of a larger dig encompassing the entire Cetamura settlement.

A July 4 news conference at Italy's National Archaeological Museum in Siena drew a standing-room-only crowd as de Grummond and her team reported on their findings from the well excavation over the past four years. Among the most notable finds: 14 Roman and Etruscan bronze vessels, nearly 500 waterlogged grape seeds and an enormous amount of rare waterlogged wood from both Roman and Etruscan times. The bronze vessels, of different shapes and sizes and with varying decorations, were used to extract water from the well, which has been excavated to a depth of more than 105 feet.

"One of the Etruscan vessels, actually a wine bucket, is finely tooled and decorated with figurines of the marine monster Skylla," de Grummond said. "Another was adorned with a bronze finial of the head of a feline with the mane of a lion and the spots of a leopard and, for handle attachments, had African heads, probably sphinxes."

The grape seeds, found in at least three different levels of the well -- including the Etruscan and Roman levels -- are of tremendous scientific interest, according to de Grummond.

"They can provide a key to the history of wine in ancient Tuscany over a period from the third century B.C.E. to the first century C.E.," she said. "Their excellent preservation will allow for DNA testing as well as Carbon 14 dating."

Many of the seeds excavated in 2012 and 2013 have been analyzed by Chiara Comegna in the laboratory of Gaetano di Pasquale at the University of Naples Federico II, using a morphometric program originally devised for tomato seeds. The seeds are measured in millimeters and can be sorted into types. Thus far, three distinctive types have been identified, and very likely more will emerge from analysis of seeds found in Etruscan levels in 2014. The payoff could come with matching these specimens with modern grapes of known varieties.

Though the grape seeds are of a primary importance, they are put into context by the many objects associated with the drinking of wine -- a wine bucket, a strainer, an amphora -- and numerous ceramic vessels related to the storage, serving and drinking of wine.

The grape seeds often were found inside the bronze vessels, a curious detail that de Grummond says could be indicative of ritual activity. The remarkable amounts of well-preserved wood found at the bottom of the well also were most likely ritual offerings. "Many of the pieces of wood were worked, and already several objects have been identified, such as parts of buckets, a spatula or spoon, a spool and a rounded object that might be a knob or child's top," she said. "The sheer amount of Etruscan waterlogged wood -- with some recognizable artifacts -- could transform views about such perishable items."

These and other finds -- from the bones of various animals and birds to numerous worked and unworked deer antlers -- suggest that the Cetamura well, like other water sources in antiquity, was regarded as sacred. In the Etruscan religion, throwing items into a well filled with water was an act of religious sacrifice.

"Offerings to the gods were found inside in the form of hundreds of miniature votive cups, some 70 bronze and silver coins, and numerous pieces used in games of fortune, such as astragali, which are akin to jacks," she said.

Besides being thrown into the well as part of a sacred ritual, some artifacts and items found their way in by intentional dumping or accidental dropping.

The well, dug out of the sandstone bedrock of Cetamura, has three major levels: medieval; Roman, dating to the late first century B.C.E. and the first century C.E.; and Etruscan, dating to the third and second centuries B.C.E. Not fed by a spring or other water source, the well would accumulate rainwater that filtered through the sandstone and poured into the shaft from the sides.

De Grummond's team included Florida State University alumna Cheryl Sowder of Jacksonville University, who served as the registrar in charge of keeping an inventory of the objects and organic remains as they came out of the well; Florida State alumnus Jordan Samuels, who served as foreman for the handling of the finds; Lora Holland of the University of North Carolina-Asheville, director of the Cetamura laboratory at Badia a Coltibuono, who processed the items for transport and storage; and Laura Banducci of the University of Toronto and Carleton College, who is organizing the ceramics for study, with particular attention to the pottery made in the region of Cetamura.

The actual excavation of the well, a spectacular engineering feat according to de Grummond, was carried out by the Italian archaeological firm Ichnos, directed by Francesco Cini of Montelupo Fiorentino. The bronze vessels and numerous other items are under restoration at Studio Art Centers International (SACI) in Florence, under the supervision of Nora Marosi.

Over the years, de Grummond's excavations at Cetamura have not only produced archaeological finds but myriad opportunities for student research at Florida State. "Thus far, two doctoral dissertations, 18 master's theses and four honors theses have resulted from study of Cetamura subjects, and students have assisted with two exhibitions in Italy and the writing of the catalogs," she said.

De Grummond now is planning an exhibition of the new discoveries from the well and, once again, Florida State students will provide valuable collaboration.

Science Daily. 2014. “Excavation of ancient well yields insight into Etruscan, Roman and medieval times”. Science Daily. Posted: August 7, 2014. Available online: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140807103648.htm