Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Remains of 15 found in ancient Mexican settlement

Most are children of traveling merchants during Aztec times, archaeologists say

Archaeologists in Mexico City have unearthed the skulls and other bones of 15 people, most of them the children of traveling merchants during Aztec times.

Researcher Alejandra Jasso Pena says they also found ceramic flutes, bowls, incense burners, the remains of a dog that was sacrificed to accompany a child in the afterlife and other artifacts of a pre-Columbian civilization.

Jasso Pena said Friday that construction was about to start on five buildings in a Mexico City neighborhood when the National Institute of Anthropology and History asked to carry out an excavation of the site first.

Experts suspected the site was an important ceremonial center for the Tepanec tribe between 1200 and 1300. The influential traders living there were called Pochtecas.

Archaeologists say excavation is continuing at the site.

AP. 2012. "Remains of 15 found in ancient Mexican settlement ". MSNBC News. Posted: Available online: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/48180573/ns/technology_and_science-science/#.UArzZHA35k9

Monday, July 30, 2012

Oregon's Paisley Caves as old as Clovis sites -- but not Clovis

A new study of Oregon's Paisley Caves confirms that humans used the site as early as 12,450 radiocarbon years ago, and the projectile points they left behind were of the "Western Stemmed" tradition and not Clovis – which suggests parallel technological development of early inhabitants to the Americas.

The study, published this week in the journal Science, could have a major impact on theories of how the Western Hemisphere was populated. The research was funded by multiple organizations, including the National Science Foundation.

Lead author Dennis Jenkins, from the University of Oregon, and second author Loren Davis, from Oregon State University, were part of a large multidisciplinary team that spent much of the past two years combing through deposits and collecting more than 100 high-precision radiocarbon dates from Paisley Caves, located in south-central Oregon's Summer Lake basin.

What cemented the authors' findings was a thorough examination of the stratigraphy in the caves, which confirmed that coprolites containing human DNA were definitely associated with layers of sediment ranging in age from 2,295 to 12,450 years ago – and were not contaminated by humans or animals at later dates. The researchers last year also found additional Western Stemmed projectile points.

"The Western Stemmed and Clovis traditions include different technological strategies," said Davis, an associate professor of anthropology in OSU's School of Language, Culture and Society. "The Western Stemmed artifacts from Paisley Caves are at least as old – and may predate – the oldest confirmed Clovis sites, indicating that the peopling of the Americas was at least technologically divergent, if not genetically divergent."

The projectile points were found in deposits dating back to 11,070 to 11,340 radiocarbon years ago, and thus were not quite as old as the oldest coprolites. But DNA from coprolites of that era was similar to that found in the oldest coprolites, Davis pointed out. "They were from the same genetic group," he said.

The difference in technology between Clovis and Western Stemmed projectile points revolves around how they were attached to spears, which relates to the strategy of finding and shaping pieces of rock in the first place. Clovis artifacts have a distinct notch at the base, where a piece has been removed. The tool builder starts with a large rock and reduces it considerably.

Western Stemmed points and Clovis points primarily differ in the construction of their hafting portions, Davis said. Stemmed points bear constricted bases, while the hafting element of a Clovis point is thinned through the removal of a large flake from the base. Western Stemmed points are also often made by modifying smaller flakes in a different way than Clovis peoples manufactured their spear points.

"These two approaches to making projectile points were really quite different," Davis said, "and the fact that Western Stemmed point-makers fully overlap, or even pre-date Clovis point makers likely means that Clovis peoples were not the sole founding population of the Americas."

Clovis technology has only been found in the New World, while Western Stemmed technology can be related to archaeological patterns seen in northeastern Asia.

"We seem to have two different traditions co-existing in the United States that did not blend for a period of hundreds of years," said the University of Oregon's Jenkins.

Past studies of Paisley Caves also have reported on human coprolites with ancient DNA, but questions arose about whether those samples could have been contaminated, and whether they were found in context with artifacts from the same era. So the researchers did an exhaustive examination of the stratigraphy, which is one of Davis' specialties.

Davis conducted microscopic analysis of the soil structure using a petrographic microscope to eliminate signs of liquid – such as water or urine from humans or animals – moving downward through the soil. The team also carefully analyzed the silt lens where the stem points were found and bracketed above and below those layers to see if radiocarbon dates synchronized.

"The stemmed points were in great context," Davis said. "There is no doubt that they were in primary context, associated with excellent radiocarbon dates."

The earliest models for peopling of the Americas suggest that the first inhabitants arrived from Asia via a land bridge at the end of the last Ice Age and fanned out across the continent. However, those models can't explain the presence of two separate and distinct stone tool technologies at the end of the last glacial period.

"Given these recent results from Paisley Caves, it's clear that we need to come up with some better models," Davis said.

EurekAlert. 2012. "Oregon's Paisley Caves as old as Clovis sites -- but not Clovis". EurekAlert. Posted: July 12, 2012. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-07/osu-opc070912.php

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Most Complete Pre-Human Skeleton Found

The two million year old skeleton is the "most complete early human ancestor skeleton ever discovered."

South African scientists said Thursday they had uncovered the most complete skeleton yet of an ancient relative of man, hidden in a rock excavated from an archaeological site three years ago.

The remains of a juvenile hominid skeleton, of the Australopithecus (southern ape) sediba species, constitute the "most complete early human ancestor skeleton ever discovered," according to University of Witwatersrand palaeontologist Lee Berger.

"We have discovered parts of a jaw and critical aspects of the body including what appear to be a complete femur (thigh bone), ribs, vertebrae and other important limb elements, some never before seen in such completeness in the human fossil record," said Berger, a lead professor in the finding.

The latest discovery of what is thought to be around two million years old, was made in a three-foot (one meter) wide rock that lay unnoticed for years in a laboratory until a technician noticed a tooth sticking out of the black stone last month.

The technician, Justin Mukanka, said: "I was lifting the block up, I just realized that there is a tooth."

It was then scanned to reveal significant parts of an A. sediba skeleton, dubbed Karabo, whose other other parts were first discovered in 2009. Parts of three other skeletons were discovered in 2008 in the world-famous Cradle of Humankind site north of Johannesburg.

It is not certain whether the species, which had long arms, a small brain and a thumb possibly used for precision gripping, was a direct ancestor of humans' genus, Homo, or simply a close relative.

"It appears that we now have some of the most critical and complete remains of the skeleton," said Berger.

Other team members were equally enthusiastic.

"It's like putting together the pieces of a puzzle," university laboratory manager Bonita De Klerk told AFP.

The skeleton of what has been dubbed Karabo and is thought to date back to around two million years old, would have been aged between nine and 13 years when the upright-walking tree climber died.

Remains of four A. sediba skeletons have been discovered in South Africa's Malapa cave, 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Johannesburg, since 2008. The individuals are believed to have fallen into a pit in the cave and died.

The sediba fossils are arguably the most complete remains of any hominids found and are possibly one of the most significant palaeoanthropological discoveries in recent time.

The Cradle of Humankind, now a World Heritage Site, is the oldest continuous paleontological dig in the world.

The university also announced it would open up the process of exploring and uncovering fossil remains to the public and stream it online in real time.

A special laboratory studio will be built at the Cradle of Humankind.

"The public will be able to participate fully in live science and future discoveries as they occur in real time -- an unprecedented moment in palaeoanthropology," said Berger.

The lab and the virtual infrastructure are expected to be built within a year, according to Qedani Mahlangu, a regional minister of economic development.

The university is in talks with Shanghai Science and Technology Museum in China, Britain's Natural History Museum and the Smithsonian in the United States to set up virtual outposts for the live science project.

AFP. 2012. "Most Complete Pre-Human Skeleton Found". Discovery News. Posted: July 13, 2012. Available online: http://news.discovery.com/history/skeleton-most-complete-found-ancient-ancestor-man-120713.html

Saturday, July 28, 2012

A new sub-sea survey of Scapa Flow at Orkney has mapped nearly twenty important historic wrecks, revealing previously unseen detail and contributing valuable information about the history of this important wartime naval base.

Historic Scotland commissioned Wessex Archaeology to carry out the survey over two days in partnership with Netsurvey, contractors for the Ministry of Defence. Remarkable new details have been found on scuttled merchant ships from the First and Second World Wars, a German submarine, and a trawler used to operate boom defences at the entrance to Scapa Flow.

The results, available online at: www.wessexarch.co.uk/reports/83680/scapa-flow-wreck-survey were derived from high resolution sonar surveys on the sea bed, and build on earlier work from the ScapaMap project in 2001 and 2006, and Ministry of Defence studies undertaken to record the wreck of the battleship HMS Royal Oak.

Philip Robertson, Historic Scotland’s Deputy Head of Scheduling and Marine said:

“The surveys are adding significantly to our understanding of what remains of the famous history of the wartime naval base of Scapa Flow, and the defence of the naval anchorage.

“We hope the results will be of interest to the thousands of recreational divers who visit Scapa Flow every year, and that those who don’t dive will also enjoy this insight into the heritage that survives beneath the waves.”

Paul Baggaley, Wessex Archaeology’s Head of Geophysics, said:

“We hope this survey of 18 sites has helped bring new information to light, and that it will provide a useful basis for efforts to monitor the condition of the wrecks in Scapa Flow, and conserve them for future generations to enjoy.

The survey findings will help Historic Scotland to consider the case for a Historic Marine Protected Area, to improve protection for Scapa Flow’s most important marine heritage sites under the Scottish Parliament’s new marine legislation.

Any proposals to create a Marine Protected Area for sites in Scapa Flow would be subject to discussions with stakeholders in Orkney, and formal consultation processes.

Historic Scotland. 2012. "New marine survey reveals Scapa Flow wrecks in unprecedented detail". Past Horizons. Posted: July 11, 2012. Available online: http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/07/2012/new-marine-survey-reveals-scapa-flow-wrecks-in-unprecedented-detail

Friday, July 27, 2012

Native American populations descend from 3 key migrations

Scientists have found that Native American populations — from Canada to the southern tip of Chile — arose from at least three migrations, with the majority descended entirely from a single group of First American migrants that crossed over through Beringia, a land bridge between Asia and America that existed during the ice ages, more than 15,000 years ago.

By studying variations in Native American DNA sequences, the international team found that while most of the Native American populations arose from the first migration, two subsequent migrations also made important genetic contributions. The paper is published in the journal Nature today.

"For years it has been contentious whether the settlement of the Americas occurred by means of a single or multiple migrations from Siberia," said Professor Andres Ruiz-Linares (UCL Genetics, Evolution and Environment), who coordinated the study. "But our research settles this debate: Native Americans do not stem from a single migration. Our study also begins to cast light on patterns of human dispersal within the Americas."

In the most comprehensive survey of genetic diversity in Native Americans so far, the team took data from 52 Native American and 17 Siberian groups, studying more than 300,000 specific DNA sequence variations called Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms to examine patterns of genetic similarities and differences between the population groups.

The second and third migrations have left an impact only in Arctic populations that speak Eskimo-Aleut languages and in the Canadian Chipewyan who speak a Na-Dene language. However, even these populations have inherited most of their genome from the First American migration. Eskimo-Aleut speakers derive more than 50% of their DNA from First Americans, and the Chipewyan around 90%. This reflects the fact that these two later streams of Asian migration mixed with the First Americans they encountered after they arrived in North America.

"There are at least three deep lineages in Native American populations," said co-author David Reich, Professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School. "The Asian lineage leading to First Americans is the most anciently diverged, whereas the Asian lineages that contributed some of the DNA to Eskimo–Aleut speakers and the Na-Dene-speaking Chipewyan from Canada are more closely related to present-day East Asian populations."

The team also found that once in the Americas, people expanded southward along a route that hugged the coast with populations splitting off along the way. After divergence, there was little gene flow among Native American groups, especially in South America.

Two striking exceptions to this simple dispersal were also discovered. First, Central American Chibchan-speakers have ancestry from both North and South America, reflecting back-migration from South America and mixture of two widely separated strands of Native ancestry. Second, the Naukan and coastal Chukchi from north-eastern Siberia carry 'First American' DNA. Thus, Eskimo-Aleut speakers migrated back to Asia, bringing Native American genes.

The team's analysis was complicated by the influx into the hemisphere of European and African immigrants since 1492 and the 500 years of genetic mixing that followed. To address this, the authors developed methods that allowed them to focus on the sections of peoples' genomes that were of entirely Native American origin.

"The study of Native American populations is technically very challenging because of the widespread occurrence of European and African mixture in Native American groups," said Professor Ruiz-Linares.

"We developed a method to peel back this mixture to learn about the relationships among Native Americans before Europeans and Africans arrived," Professor Reich said, "allowing us to study the history of many more Native American populations than we could have done otherwise."

The assembly of DNA samples from such a diverse range of populations was only possible through a collaboration of an international team of 64 researchers from the Americas (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, Russia and the USA), Europe (England, France, Spain and Switzerland) and Russia.

EurekAlert. 2012. "Native American populations descend from 3 key migrations". EurekAlert. Posted: July 11, 2012. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-07/ucl-nap070912.php

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Golden Crusade Hoard Found in Israel

The coins may be worth $500,000 and are inscribed with blessings, names of sultans and more.

Israeli archaeologists have found buried treasure: more than 100 gold dinar coins from the time of the Crusades, bearing the names and legends of local sultans, blessings and more -- and worth as much as $500,000.

The joint team from Tel Aviv University and Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority were working at Apollonia National Park, an ancient Roman settlement on the coast used by the Crusaders between 1241 and 1265, when they literally found a pot of gold.

“All in all, we found some 108 dinars and quarter dinars, which makes it one of the largest gold coin hoards discovered in a medieval site in the land of Israel,” Prof. Oren Tal, chairman of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Archaeology, told FoxNews.com.

The Christian order of the Knights Hospitaller had taken up residence in the castle in Apollonia; it was one of their most important fortresses in the area. The hoard of coins was buried on the eve of the site's downfall after a long siege by a large and well-prepared Muslim army.

Since its destruction in late April 1265 it was never resettled. As the destruction of the well-fortified castle grew near, one of the Crusader’s leaders sought to hide his stash in a potsherd, possibly to retrieve it later on.

“It was in a small juglet, and it was partly broken. The idea was to put something broken in the ground and fill it with sand, in order to hide the gold coins within,” Tal told FoxNews.com. “If by chance somebody were to find the juglet, he won’t excavate it, he won’t look inside it to find the gold coins.”

“Once we started to sift it, the gold came out.”

The hoard of coins themselves -- found on June 21, 2012, by Mati Johananoff, a student of TAU Department of Archaeology -- date to the times of the Fatimid empire, which dominated northern Africa and parts of the Middle East at the time. Tal estimates their date to the 10th or 11th century, although they were circulated in the 13th century.

“Some were minted some 250 to 300 years before they were used by the Hospitaller knights,” he explained. The coins are covered in icons and inscriptions: the names and legends of local sultans, Tal said, as well as blessings.

Some also bear a date, and even a mint mark, a code that indicates where it was minted, whether Alexandria, Tripoli, or another ancient mint.

“Fatimid coins are very difficult to study because they are so informative,” Tal told FoxNews.com. “The legends are very long, the letters are sometimes difficult to decipher.”

The coins are clearly of great value, both historically and intrinsically, though putting a price tag on them is no easy feat: Value is a flexible thing, Tal explained. Israeli newspaper Haaretz pegged the find at $100,000. Tal noted that Fatmid Dinars sell for $3,000 to $5,000 apiece, meaning the stash could be worth closer to half a million.

Once his team has finished deciphering the coins and decoding their inscriptions, they will be transferred to a museum. But with such a valuable find, there’s already a quarrel between two archaeologically oriented museums over which will host them.

Tal said the Israel Museum in Jerusalem is in the running, as is the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv.

“Both want the coins on display. It’s not for us to decide,” Tal said.

Fox News. 2012. "Golden Crusade Hoard Found in Israel". Discovery News. Posted: July 11, 2012. Available online: http://news.discovery.com/history/gold-coin-israel-found-roman-crusade-ancient-120711.html

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Individual differences in altruism explained by brain region involved in empathy

What can explain extreme differences in altruism among individuals, from Ebenezer Scrooge to Mother Teresa? It may all come down to variation in the size and activity of a brain region involved in appreciating others' perspectives, according to a study published by Cell Press in the July 12th issue of the journal Neuron. The findings also provide a neural explanation for why altruistic tendencies remain stable over time.

"This is the first study to link both brain anatomy and brain activation to human altruism," says senior study author Ernst Fehr of the University of Zurich. "The findings suggest that the development of altruism through appropriate training or social practices might occur through changes in the brain structure and the neural activations that we identified in our study."

Individuals who excel at understanding others' intents and beliefs are more altruistic than those who struggle at this task. The ability to understand others' perspectives has previously been associated with activity in a brain region known as the temporoparietal junction (TPJ). Based on these past findings, Fehr and his team reasoned that the size and activation of the TPJ would relate to individual differences in altruism.

In the new study, subjects underwent a brain imaging scan and played a game in which they had to decide how to split money between themselves and anonymous partners. Subjects who made more generous decisions had a larger TPJ in the right hemisphere of the brain compared with subjects who made stingy decisions.

Moreover, activity in the TPJ reflected each subject's specific cutoff value for the maximal cost the subject was willing to endure to increase the partner's payoff. Activity in the TPJ was higher during hard decisions—when the personal cost of an altruistic act was just below the cutoff value—than during easy decisions associated with a very low or very high cost.

"The structure of the TPJ strongly predicts an individual's setpoint for altruistic behavior, while activity in this brain region predicts an individual's acceptable cost for altruistic actions," says study author Yosuke Morishima of the University of Zurich. "We have elucidated the relationship between the hardware and software of human altruistic behavior."

EurekAlert. 2012. "Individual differences in altruism explained by brain region involved in empathy". EurekAlert. Posted: July 11, 2012. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-07/cp-idi070812.php

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Ancient domesticated remains are oldest in southern Africa

Researchers have found evidence of the earliest known instance of domesticated caprines (sheep and goats) in southern Africa, dated to the end of the first millennium BC, providing new data to the ongoing debate about the origins of domestication and herding practices in this region. The full results are published July 11 in the open access journal PLoS ONE.

The researchers, led by David Pleurdeau of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris and Eugène Marais of the National Museum of Namibia, investigated remains from Leopard Cave in Namibia. They could not determine whether the remains came from a sheep or goats, but they write that there is no doubt that the teeth came from domesticated animals. These remains have been found associated with hundreds of archaeological findings, including stone and bone tools as well as beads and few potsherds. The location and antiquity of the remains may provide further information about the domestication timeline, as well as potential movement patterns, for early herders in the region.

EurekAlert. 2012. "Ancient domesticated remains are oldest in southern Africa". EurekAlert. Posted: July 11, 2012. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-07/plos-adr071012.php

Monday, July 23, 2012

Ancient 'New York City' of Canada Discovered

oday New York City is the Big Apple of the Northeast but new research reveals that 500 years ago, at a time when Europeans were just beginning to visit the New World, a settlement on the north shore of Lake Ontario, in Canada, was the biggest, most complex, cosmopolitan place in the region.

Occupied between roughly A.D. 1500 and 1530, the so-called Mantle site was settled by the Wendat (Huron). Excavations at the site, between 2003 and 2005, have uncovered its 98 longhouses, a palisade of three rows (a fence made of heavy wooden stakes and used for defense) and about 200,000 artifacts. Dozens of examples of art have been unearthed showing haunting human faces and depictions of animals, with analysis ongoing.

Now, a scholarly book detailing the discoveries is being prepared and a documentary about the site called "Curse of the Axe" aired this week on the History Channel in Canada.

"This is an Indiana Jones moment, this is huge," said Ron Williamson, an archaeologist who led dig efforts at the site, in the documentary shown in a premiere at the Royal Ontario Museum. "It just seems to be a game-changer in every way."

Williamson is the founder of Archaeological Services Inc., a Canadian cultural resource management firm that excavated the site.

"It's the largest, most complex, cosmopolitan village of its time," said Williamson, also of the University of Toronto, in an interview with LiveScience. "All of the archaeologists, basically, when they see Mantle, they're just utterly stunned."

The Mantle people

Scientists estimate between 1,500 and 1,800 individuals inhabited the site, whose fields encompassed a Manhattan-size area. To clothe themselves they would have needed 7,000 deer hides annually, something that would have required hunting about 26 miles (40 km) in every direction from the site, Williamson said.

"When you think about a site like Mantle, 2,000 people, massive stockade around a community, a better analogy is that of a medieval town," Jennifer Birch, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Georgia, said in the documentary. "While the cultures are very different, the societal form really isn't."

Despite its massive size, the site remained hidden for hundreds of years, likely escaping detection because its longhouses were primarily made of wood, which doesn't preserve well.

Not all of the 98 longhouses were in use at the same time, with more recent ones having been built on top of the older longhouses, as buildings are today. At one point 55 longhouses were in use at once.

Charred wood found in one of the post moulds suggested that when one of the longhouses burnt down the rest of the settlement was saved. Williamson said that this is remarkable considering the longhouses were made of wood, which was very flammable, and close together. "Somehow their 'fire department' did that."

Enemies become friends

Another curious discovery at Mantle is its apparently cosmopolitan nature. The art and pottery at the site show influences from all five nations of the Iroquois to the south in New York State, suggesting extensive contacts and trade. For instance, among Mantle's discoveries are the earliest European goods ever found in the Great Lakes region of North America, predating the arrival of the first known European explorers by a century. They consist of two European copper beads and a wrought iron object, believed to be part of an ax, which was carefully buried near the center of the settlement.

A maker's mark on the wrought iron object was traced to northern Spain, and the fact that it was made of wrought iron suggests a 16th-century origin. In fact, in the early 16th century Basque fisherman and whalers sailed to the waters off Newfoundland and Labrador. It's believed that it would have been acquired by the aboriginal people there and exchanged up the St. Lawrence River until eventually reaching Mantle.

The people of Mantle, it seems, were on trading relations with the Iroquois of the St. Lawrence.

"Historically, we know that the Huron and the Iroquois were not only at odds, they were mortal enemies," Williamson said in the documentary.

In the period before Mantle there is evidence of widespread warfare throughout southern Ontario and New York as well as parts of Michigan and Quebec, a period known as "the dark times." Human remains from that period show evidence of scalping and torture.

Mantle, with its large size and palisade defense, may have discouraged this type of warfare, making an attack risky. Other settlements in southwest Ontario were getting larger and sites in New York were clustering together, suggesting that they too were becoming harder to attack.

Birch compares the situation at Mantle and other sites to what happened after World War II, with the formation of the United Nations and NATO, institutions that discouraged warfare, allowing for trade and cultural interaction.

Williamson noted that, sadly, with the arrival of Europeans, this peace did not last, with warfare intensifying in the 17th century. "When Europeans arrive the whole thing is re-fired over economic reasons related to the fur trade," he said in the interview.

Mantle today

Today, seven years after excavations wrapped up, only a small portion of the site remains as houses were built on top of it after the dig was complete. "We did not have the planning legislation in place to preserve these sites like we do today," Williamson told LiveScience. "If the site were found today there would be far more exploration of options to preserve it."

However, while the site is mostly built over, the modern-day town where Mantle was discovered — Whitchurch-Stouffville — is commemorating the Wendat's history in the community. The town recently opened Wendat Village Public School and the mayor will display the Huron Wendat flag in his office.

Jarus, Owen. 2012. "Ancient 'New York City' of Canada Discovered". Discovery News. Posted: July 10, 2012. Available online: http://news.discovery.com/history/mantle-new-york-canada-120710.html

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Archaeology of the French Foreign Legion

The remote desert outpost, manned by rugged and desperate legionnaires, surrounded by hordes of camel mounted tribesmen has become something of an iconic image ever since P C Wren first published Beau Geste in 1925.

In his stirring tale of the French Foreign Legion much of the action takes place at Fort Zinderneuf, an isolated desert fort which forms the backdrop to the story. The original story resulted in several Hollywood films and a whole range of books and films of a similar genre.

In reality the French Foreign Legion was used in campaigns across North Africa. They did build and garrison isolated forts and such forts did become the focus of military actions. Outposts being defended to the last man were not plots in popular novels but frequent occurrences during the early part of the 20th century.

Using a combination of numerous literary sources, diaries, French military mapping and satellite imagery a number of possible fort locations were investigated before a decision was taken regarding the most suitable for more detailed study.

The largest building selected so far for research is a desert fort in Southern Morocco. Built by the French Foreign Legion in 1921 it is situated on a high plateau at the Southern end of the Oued Guir river valley.

Thanks to the dry climate and remote location the structure of the fort is in a relatively complete condition. The outer walls and tower remain standing whilst remains of inner buildings are clearly visible with only the roofs missing. This location presents a rare opportunity to study a structure that played an important part in the creation of modern Morocco and French colonial history.

Why were the forts built built?

The problems facing the French during their occupation of Morocco were immense. Militarily it was not a simple operation. Climate, terrain and a fiercely independent population were all against them. The terrain, in particular, provided a major obstacle to conquest. High mountains (heavily wooded in the North) were difficult to penetrate other than through mountain passes that were narrow and steep sided. Such routes provided easy locations for ambush and became death traps for many French columns moving through them. Water, a vital requirement, was available in certain areas and the oases where it was found were much disputed. Domination of ground and control of the passes and supply routes would be essential if the French were to succeed in their mission.

How were the forts used?

Without effective artillery and methods of forcing entry into the forts it is likely that the garrisons would have felt relatively secure from attack. With modern weapons and behind “hard cover” the greatest threat perceived by most would have been that of a protracted siege and the gradual diminishing of water supplies. However, there is literary evidence to indicate that direct attacks on, and infiltration into, the forts was a very real threat.

Although isolated, the forts did have effective communications with the outside world using a variety of methods ranging from telephone and radio to more primitive heliograph, carrier pigeon and bugle calls which could be used to summon assistance. In addition, after the First World War, regular over flights by aircraft of the French Air Force would provide additional cover.

The uprising in the Rif Mountains led by Abd-el-Krim in the 1920’s saw some of the most dramatic assaults on isolated forts. Inspired by his success against the Spanish in Northern Morocco, he was prepared by 1925, to have a go at the French.

Numerous forts were completely surrounded and cut off from all supplies and French forces, with the Foreign Legion in the forefront, were dispatched on desperate rescue missions not all of which were a success. The Legion suffered a number of defeats at the hands of Abd-el-Krim’s tribesmen and at least one fort, having held out for almost eight weeks was blown up by its commanding officer.

Fieldwork in the desert

On sites field walking and building surveys are the order of the day. They produce a large number of finds including clear evidence of garrison life in the form of ration tins, tunic buttons and belt clasps. Evidence of military activity comes in the form of spent cartridge cases, spent bullets and grenade fragments.

The blockhouse at Boudenib, whilst visible from some miles away, proved to be very difficult to reach and it was only after several motorcycle recce operations over a two day period that a route suitable for a vehicle was found through the ruins of the old Kasbah and oasis tracks.

Holding a key position covering the Southern approaches to Boudenib the blockhouse had been subjected to a major attack in 1909. The forty defenders held off some four hundred attackers for almost two days before finally directing artillery fire onto the position to clear the attackers. A Legion equivalent to Rorkes Drift it had been a very close thing.

Very little now remains of the blockhouse and, surprisingly given the historical accounts of the attack, very little archaeological evidence could be located to indicate the severity of the battle.

More Information

Full details of the Legion Project can be found on the website www.trailquestarchaeology.com and applications are welcome from anyone with a genuine interest in archaeology (or related subjects). The fieldwork opportunities are particularly useful to students seeking to expand their practical experience. The work takes place in difficult terrain often at some altitude so a level of physical fitness is essential as well as a true “spirit of adventure”. Costs involved can vary but cover flights, transport, accommodation, tuition and insurance.

For those who want to be involved but do not wish to undertake field work there are sometimes openings for pre and post expedition work based at Trailquest in the UK

Jeynes, Richard. 2012. "Archaeology of the French Foreign Legion". Past Horizons. Posted: July , 2012. Available online: http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/07/2012/archaeology-of-the-french-foreign-legion

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Tombs in Timbuktu's Djingareyber mosque 'destroyed'

Islamist fighters in Timbuktu have destroyed two tombs at the northern Malian city's famous Djingareyber mosque, residents have said.

Eyewitnesses said the militants shot in the air to warn people away as they began smashing the shrines.

Timbuktu is a World Heritage site, with centuries-old shrines to Islamic saints, revered by Sufi Muslims.

The al-Qaeda-linked Ansar Dine group that seized the city in April says they are idolatrous and wants them removed.

The UN Security Council condemned the destruction last week of some shrines, warning it could constitute a war crime.

This means that a case could be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, whose prosecutor has already condemned the recent destruction of Muslim tombs.

'Roads blocked'

About a dozen militants drove up to the 14th-Century Djingareyber mosque in an armoured four-wheeled truck, armed with guns, pickaxes and hoes, one Timbuktu resident who witnessed the scene told Reuters news agency.

Other residents described how the fighters blocked the two main roads leading to the mosque and shot in the air to scare people off.

"The two tombs are adjacent to the western wall of the great mosque and the Islamists have hoes [and] chisels - they are hitting the mausoleums which are made out of packed earth," another witness told the AFP news agency.

The UN cultural agency Unesco and Mali's government have already called on Ansar Dine to halt its campaign.

The group has destroyed several of 16 listed mausoleums in the city, and has vowed to smash them all.

Its fighters have also broken down the sacred door of the 15th-Century Sidi Yahia mosque.

Unesco has also expressed concern that valuable artefacts and manuscripts may be smuggled out of the region and has urged neighbouring countries to prevent this.

Timbuktu owes its international fame to its role as a centre of Islamic learning, based in its three large mosques, in the 15th and 16th Centuries. It is also known as the "city of 333 saints", which originate in the Sufi tradition of Islam.

Ansar Dine's Salafist beliefs condemn the veneration of saints.

The group seized control of Timbuktu in April, after a coup left Mali's army in disarray.

Initially, it was working with secular ethnic Tuareg rebels demanding independence for northern Mali's desert territories but the groups have recently clashed and Islamist forces are in control of northern Mali's three main centres - Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal.

2012. "Tombs in Timbuktu's Djingareyber mosque 'destroyed'". BBC News. Posted: Available online: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-18785895

Friday, July 20, 2012

What is Culture? Definition of Culture

Culture is the characteristics of a particular group of people, defined by everything from language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and arts. Today, in the United States as in other countries populated largely by immigrants, the culture is influenced by the many groups of people that now make up the country.

Western culture

The term Western culture has come to define the culture of European countries as well as those such as the United States that have been heavily influenced by European immigration. Western culture has its roots in the Classical Period of the Greco-Roman era and the rise of Christianity in the fourteenth century.

Other drivers of the Western culture include Latin, Celtic, Germanic and Hellenic ethnic and linguistic groups. Today, the influences of Western culture can be seen in almost every country in the world.

Eastern culture

Eastern culture generally refers to the societal norms of countries in Far East Asia (including China, Japan, Vietnam, North Korea and South Korea) and the Indian subcontinent. Like the West, Eastern culture was heavily influenced by religion during its early development. In general, in Eastern culture there is less of a distinction between secular society and religious philosophy than there is in the West.

Latin culture

Many of the Spanish-speaking nations are considered part of the Latin culture, while the geographic region is widespread. Latin America is typically defined as those parts of the Central America, South America and Mexico where Spanish or Portuguese are the dominant languages. While Spain and Portugal are on the European continent, they are considered the key influencers of what is known as Latin culture, which denotes people using languages derived from Latin, also known as Romance languages.

Middle Eastern culture

The countries of the Middle East have some but not all things in common, including a strong belief in Islam and religion is a very strong pillar of this society. The Arabic language is also common throughout the region; however, the wide variety of dialect can sometimes make communication difficult.

African culture

The continent of Africa is essential two cultures—North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. The continent is comprised of a number of tribes, ethnic and social groups. One of the key features of this culture is the large number of ethnic groups—some countries can have 20 or more—and the diversity of their beliefs

Northwest Africa in particular has strong ties to European and Southwestern Asia. The area also has a heavy Islamic influence and is a major player in the Arab world.

The harsh environment has been a large factor in the development of Sub-Saharan Africa culture, as there are a number of languages, cuisines, art and musical styles that have sprung up among the far-flung populations.

Zimmermann, Kim. 2012. "What is Culture? Definition of Culture". Live Science. Posted: July 9, 2012. Available online: http://www.livescience.com/21478-what-is-culture-definition-of-culture.html

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Climate in Northern Europe Reconstructed for the Past 2,000 Years: Cooling Trend Calculated Precisely for the First Time

An international team that includes scientists from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) has published a reconstruction of the climate in northern Europe over the last 2,000 years based on the information provided by tree-rings. Professor Dr. Jan Esper's group at the Institute of Geography at JGU used tree-ring density measurements from sub-fossil pine trees originating from Finnish Lapland to produce a reconstruction reaching back to 138 BC. In so doing, the researchers have been able for the first time to precisely demonstrate that the long-term trend over the past two millennia has been towards climatic cooling. "We found that previous estimates of historical temperatures during the Roman era and the Middle Ages were too low," says Esper. "Such findings are also significant with regard to climate policy, as they will influence the way today's climate changes are seen in context of historical warm periods." The new study has been published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Was the climate during Roman and Medieval times warmer than today? And why are these earlier warm periods important when assessing the global climate changes we are experiencing today? The discipline of paleoclimatology attempts to answer such questions. Scientists analyze indirect evidence of climate variability, such as ice cores and ocean sediments, and so reconstruct the climate of the past. The annual growth rings in trees are the most important witnesses over the past 1,000 to 2,000 years as they indicate how warm and cool past climate conditions were.

Researchers from Germany, Finland, Scotland, and Switzerland examined tree-ring density profiles in trees from Finnish Lapland. In this cold environment, trees often collapse into one of the numerous lakes, where they remain well preserved for thousands of years.

The international research team used these density measurements from sub-fossil pine trees in northern Scandinavia to create a sequence reaching back to 138 BC. The density measurements correlate closely with the summer temperatures in this area on the edge of the Nordic taiga; the researchers were thus able to create a temperature reconstruction of unprecedented quality. The reconstruction provides a high-resolution representation of temperature patterns in the Roman and Medieval Warm periods, but also shows the cold phases that occurred during the Migration Period and the later Little Ice Age.

In addition to the cold and warm phases, the new climate curve also exhibits a phenomenon that was not expected in this form. For the first time, researchers have now been able to use the data derived from tree-rings to precisely calculate a much longer-term cooling trend that has been playing out over the past 2,000 years. Their findings demonstrate that this trend involves a cooling of -0.3°C per millennium due to gradual changes to the position of the sun and an increase in the distance between the Earth and the sun.

"This figure we calculated may not seem particularly significant," says Esper, "however, it is also not negligible when compared to global warming, which up to now has been less than 1°C. Our results suggest that the large-scale climate reconstruction shown by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) likely underestimate this long-term cooling trend over the past few millennia."

2012. "Climate in Northern Europe Reconstructed for the Past 2,000 Years: Cooling Trend Calculated Precisely for the First Time". Science Daily. Posted: July 9, 2012. Available online: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/07/120709092606.htm

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Endangered language takes Aberdeen academic to deepest Siberia

An Aberdeen anthropologist will be braving sub-zero conditions in north-east Siberia as he embarks on a 10-month expedition to document an endangered language in the region.

Dr Alexander King and his family will relocate from Aberdeen to the remote town of Palana, on the west coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula, where they will be based. He will also undertake an eight-week expedition to the more northerly reaches of Kamchatskiy Krai with two Koryak colleagues where electricity in the villages is rationed and the main mode of transport is small plane or helicopter. Dr King’s research will focus on two dialects of the Koryak language – one spoken by reindeer herders who are Chukchi people and the other by maritime people living along the coast of Penzhina Bay.

Documenting endangered languages

The project to document these languages has been funded by the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme (ELDP) and it will be the first time anyone has investigated these dialects since they were first noted by linguists in 1901.

Dr King explained: “What little we know about these dialects is that they are markedly different from others in the Koryak language, which is spoken by around 2,500 people in the easternmost extremity of Siberia.

“While there has been considerable linguistic work on the dialect of Koryak used in publications and broadcast, these are two dialects that have been mostly ignored.”

“There are now only a handful of younger speakers so as a result the languages are very much endangered.”

A record must be made

Dr King maintains that it is vital that such languages are properly recorded before they die out and are lost forever.

“Indigenous peoples around the world are shifting from speaking their heritage languages to using socially dominant languages in everyday life, such as English, Spanish and Russian,” he added.

“But it is only by having careful documentation of the full span and variety of human language that we can really know what is possible and impossible in human speech and thought.”

“We have sophisticated theories about English and a handful of other European languages but we really do not know the full potential variation of the human capacity for speech.”

Dr King and his colleagues will record, transcribe and translate over 150 hours of Koryak speech across several genres using the latest methods and digital technologies.

The project will produce a database, a DVD of storytellers, and a bilingual book of narratives. It will also provide the skills and equipment for local linguists and folklorists to continue documentation work long after the project is finished and contribute to Koryak teaching and revitalisation efforts.

“The positive social effects are just as important as the science. This kind of work has been linked to successful community revitalisation programmes in other parts of the world. Pride in your heritage language means pride in yourself, and too often that is in short supply among indigenous Siberian youth.”

Language teachers

Documenting a language is a complex process that involves finding speakers who can serve as language teachers. This starts by recording words and expressions, transcribing them phonetically and then analysing the data to uncover the structure and functions of the language.

The result of this kind of documentation is often a dictionary and a grammar of the language but projects often aim to collect stories, narratives, personal histories, poetry and songs. In these cases, the performance of the material is recorded using sound or video recorders, but this too is transcribed, analysed and translated.

Past Horizons. 2012. "Endangered language takes Aberdeen academic to deepest Siberia". Past Horizons. Posted: June 27, 2012. Available online: http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/06/2012/endangered-language-takes-aberdeen-academic-to-deepest-siberia

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Diet of early human relative Australopithecus shows surprises, says Texas A&M researcher

Australopithecus sediba, believed to be an early relative of modern-day humans, enjoyed a diet of leaves, fruits, nuts, and bark, which meant they probably lived in a more wooded environment than is generally thought, a surprising find published in the current issue of Nature magazine by an international team of researchers that includes a Texas A&M University anthropologist. Darryl de Ruiter, associate professor in the Department of Anthropology, says the new findings are in contrast to previously documented diets of other hominin species and suggests that Australopithecus sediba had a different living environment than other hominins in the region. Previous research had shown that the australopiths of South Africa lived in the vicinity of grassy and open savannah-like areas, though it was unclear whether they actually occupied a savannah habitat, or if they lived in forested margins near the grasslands. The team examined teeth from skeletal remains of a group of newly discovered hominins found several years ago in a South African cave about 30 miles northwest of Johannesburg and dated to about 1.98 million years old. The team, comprised of researchers from the United States, Africa, Europe and Australia, named the new speciesAustralopithecus sediba and demonstrated that it displayed a mosaic of both human-like and ape-like characteristics shared both with other forms of Australopithecus and with modern-day humans. "By examining material recovered from their teeth using diverse tools ranging from dental picks and laser ablation devices, we were able to determine precisely what they were eating," de Ruiter explains. "This gives us a very clear picture of their diet, and it was surprising. It shows that they ate more fruits and leaves than any other hominin fossil ever examined, more like what a chimp might eat. There was no evidence of them eating native grasses of the area at that time, which is what we see in other australopiths in the region." Australopithecus is a genus of hominins that is now extinct. Ape-like in structure, yet walking bipedally similar to modern humans, they are considered to have played a significant role in human evolution, and it is generally held among anthropologists that a form of Australopithecus eventually evolved into modern humans. The Texas A&M anthropologist says the analysis of phytoliths – structures found in plants that often get trapped in plaque on teeth – alongside examination of the chemical makeup of the hominin teeth, suggests that they had a varied diet, and diet of early Australopithecus is a key component central to the study of human origins. "It shows they had a diet more similar to that of a chimp than anything else," he notes, "though we cannot yet say how much overlap existed between the diets of hominins and chimps. "They ate fruits, tree bark, nuts, leaves, and sedges, plants such as papyrus or cypress. They might also have consumed some type of animal protein, perhaps in the form of insects or meat, but a lot more research will be required before we can say for sure one way or the other. "Our findings clearly show they had access to more food sources than we had previously established," he notes.

EurekAlert. 2012. "Diet of early human relative Australopithecus shows surprises, says Texas A&M researcher". EurekAlert. Posted: June 27, 2012. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-06/tau-doe062712.php

Monday, July 16, 2012

Ancient text gives clue to mysterious radiation spike

Eighth-century jump in carbon-14 levels in trees could be explained by "red crucifix" supernova.

Historical texts like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle often refer to astronomical events.

Source:Mary Evans Picture Library

An eerie "red crucifix" seen in Britain's evening sky in ad 774 may be a previously unrecognized supernova explosion — and could explain a mysterious spike in carbon-14 levels in that year's growth rings in Japanese cedar trees. The link is suggested today in a Nature Correspondence by a US undergraduate student with a broad interdisciplinary background and a curious mind1.

A few weeks ago, Jonathon Allen, a biochemistry major at the University of California, Santa Cruz, was listening to the Nature podcast when he heard about a team of researchers in Japan who had found an odd spike in carbon-14 levels in tree rings. The spike probably came from a burst of high-energy radiation striking the upper atmosphere, increasing the rate at which carbon-14 is formed.

But there was a problem: the only known causes of such radiation are supernova explosions or gigantic solar flares, and the researchers knew of no such events in ad 774 or 775, the dates indicated by the tree rings.

Intrigued, Allen hit the Internet. "I just did a quick Google search," he says.

His long-standing interest in history was helpful, he notes. "I knew that going that far back, there's very limited written history," he says. "The only things I'd ever seen or heard of were religious texts and 'chronicles' that listed kings and queens, wars and things of that nature."

His search found the eighth-century entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle at the Avalon Project, an online library of historical and legal documents hosted by Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Scrolling down to the year ad 774, Allen found a reference to a "red crucifix" that appeared in the heavens "after sunset".

Hidden in the heavens

"It made me think it's some sort of stellar event," Allen says. Furthermore, he notes, the redness might indicate that the source was hidden behind a dust cloud dense enough to scatter all but a small amount of red light. Such a cloud might also prevent any remnants of the proposed supernova being seen by modern astronomers.

Scientists in the field are impressed. Geza Gyuk, an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium in Illinois, who has used the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to investigate past astronomical events, says that Allen might be on to something. "The wording suggests that the object was seen in the western skies shortly after sunset," he says. "That would mean that it would have moved behind the Sun [where it could not be seen] as Earth orbited the Sun. That, along with the dimness of the 'new star' due to dust would go a long way to explaining why no one else would have seen or recorded the event."

Nevertheless, says Donald Olson, a physicist with an interest in historical astronomy at Texas State University in San Marcos, "Early chronicles can be difficult to interpret in an unambiguous way."

As far back as 1870, he says, John Jeremiah published an article in Nature that referred to the same wording from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Jeremiah proposed then that it might have been an early description of the Northern Lights2.

"Another possible explanation could be an ice-crystal display," adds Olson, noting that the red "crucifix" could have been formed by sunset light illuminating high-altitude ice particles in both vertical and horizontal bands of light.

But, it could also have been a previously unrecognized supernova. Plenty of supernovae now known to astronomers "are simply missing" in the historical record, says Gyuk. "The sky is a large place and the historical record is not very good."

Lovett, Richard A. 2012. "Ancient text gives clue to mysterious radiation spike". Nature. Posted: June 27, 2012. Available online: http://www.nature.com/news/ancient-text-gives-clue-to-mysterious-radiation-spike-1.10898

Article References:

1. Allen, J. Nature 486, 473 (2012).
2. Jeremiah, J. Nature 3, 174–175 (1870).

Sunday, July 15, 2012

World's Oldest Purse Found—Studded With a Hundred Dog Te

The world's oldest purse may have been found in Germany—and its owner apparently had a sharp sense of Stone Age style.

Excavators at a site near Leipzig (map) uncovered more than a hundred dog teeth arranged close together in a grave dated to between 2,500 and 2,200 B.C.

According to archaeologist Susanne Friederich, the teeth were likely decorations for the outer flap of a handbag.

"Over the years the leather or fabric disappeared, and all that's left is the teeth. They're all pointing in the same direction, so it looks a lot like a modern handbag flap," said Friederich, of the Sachsen-Anhalt State Archaeology and Preservation Office.

The dog teeth were found during excavations of the 250-acre (100-hectare) Profen site, which is slated to become an open-pit coal mine in 2015.

So far the project has uncovered evidence of Stone and Bronze Age settlements, including more than 300 graves, hundreds of stone tools, spear points, ceramic vessels, bone buttons, and an amber necklace.

Thousands of finds from later periods—including the grave of a woman buried with a pound (half a kilogram) of gold jewelry around 50 B.C.—have also turned up.

Even among such a rich haul, the purse is something special, according to Friederich, who managed the excavation project. "It's the first time we can show direct evidence of a bag like this."

Fierce Fashion

As rare as the dog-tooth handbag may be, canine teeth are actually fairly common in Stone Age northern and central European burials, Friederich said.

In fact, the sheer numbers of teeth in graves around the region suggest dogs were as much livestock as pets—the purse flap alone required the teeth of dozens of animals.

In other area Stone Age burials, dog and wolf teeth, as well as mussel shells, have been uncovered in patterns that suggest that corpses were covered with studded blankets, which have long since disintegrated, Friederich said.

More commonly, though, dog teeth are found in hair ornaments and in necklaces, for both women and men.

"It seems to have been very fashionable at the time," said Harald Staueble, senior archaeologist at Germany's Saxon State Archaeology Office.

"Not everyone was buried with such nice things—just the really special graves."

Curry, Andrew. 2012. "World's Oldest Purse Found—Studded With a Hundred Dog Te". National Geographic News. Posted: June 27, 2012. Available online: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/06/120627-worlds-oldest-purse-dog-teeth-science-handbag-friederich/

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Mystical marks in virgin forest explained

The mysterious scars on ancient pine trees in northern Norway have been explained. The pines were once used as a food supplement.

During a recent mapping of the rare virgin forest in and around the Øvre Dividalen National Park in Troms, Norway, scientists noticed some scars reappearing on the trees. Many trees had some of their bark cut away on one side, leaving marks that were hard to explain.

Arve Elvebakk of the University of Tromsø (UiT) headed the study. He worked together with Andreas Kirchhefer, an expert in dating old trees by tree-ring analysis. He had already used ancient pines to chart weather and climate conditions.

Could the cuts in the bark have been left by settlers who started farms in the Dividalen valley in 1850? These dalesmen logged the pine forest, but the scars appeared to be from long before this.

Some suggested the cuts in bark could have been made by indigenous Sami herders as markers of reindeer migration routes and indicators of territorial grazing rights – or simply as signs marking footpaths.

A third proposal was that the cuts were made by Finnish immigrants who used the trees for bark bread. In hard times with failed crops and famine at home they could cross over to Norway in search of food and game.

“How wrong we were,” says Elvebakk.

The mystery was solved when the scars in the bark were dated back to the 17th and 18th centuries. This was over a century before the dalesmen arrived. There were also too many of the scars for the footpaths or reindeer routes theory to be plausible.

“It turned out that this came from the ancient Sami practice of harvesting pine bark for food," explains Elvebakk. "In a laborious process the bark was converted into flour that could be used in cooking.”

This was a tradition that had been lost in Norway. But in Sweden research on the theme has been conducted for the last couple of decades, and the solution to the Norwegian bark mystery was given by studies in the neighbouring country.

Careful cultivation

Pine bark has been used in times of famine by all the peoples of the High North. Norwegian farmers would chop down the trees and then scrape off all the bark, or simply scrape the bark off trees in continuous rings.

The pines with the strange scars in Dividalen haven’t been so brutally handled. The cuts in the bark are on just one side of the trees, which enables them to survive the injury.

The local Sami, who did not have tools for chopping down large trees, were more careful when they reaped bark.

“The harvesting was done in the spring. We think it was a job for women and children,” says Elvebakk.

Researchers have found five different tools made of bone that were used to harvest bark. The inner bark was the prize they were after.

Buried and toasted

After the pine bark was scraped away from the trees it was packed in birch bark and buried.

“A bonfire was lit on the ground above the buried bark and allowed to burn for up to four days,” says Elvebakk.

The heat slowly toasted strips of the bark and removed the bitter taste.

“The bark flour was mild and tasty. It was considered a delicacy when mixed with other food, such as porridge or a stew with animal fat.”

Respect for the tree

Researchers also think the fine bark flour was healthy.

“Comparisons made with the incidences of scurvy in the Sami and the Norwegian populations show that the disease was much more common among the Norwegians,” he says. “This can indicate that the bark had medicinal effects.”

The bark also protected against tapeworms.

The trees did not suffer from such harvesting. The oldest scrapings are all on the north side of the trees, in reverence of the sun god’s effect on the south side. But Elvebakk says this practice vanished when Christianity was spread to the Samis.

Not really virgin forest

The Sami and mainstream Norwegian farmers and foresters were often at odds with one another, not just in Dividalen, but also elsewhere in northern Norway.

The farmers who logged the forest regarded the scrapings as harmful for their lumber, says Elvebakk. Therefore, the Sami were pressured to stop scraping the trees. This is evident in contemporary articles on forestry.

Around 1860 more flour and sugar became available, and the need for home-made bark flour disappeared.

The tradition was forgotten, and as time passed nobody could explain the scars on the trees.

That is, not until Swedish researchers solved the mystery and the tradition was rediscovered in Norway as well.

“Now that we know what the marks mean and the history they represent, this is an enrichment for tourists and hikers in Dividalen. It also changes our outlook regarding this as a virgin forest area,” he says.

The definition of a virgin forest is that it is untouched by humans. No trees have been logged, and trees that fall down are left to rot.

“But this forest wasn’t untouched after all; what we regarded as a virgin forest was actually part of an ancient Sami cultural landscape.”

The tree marks can be found in many areas of northern Norway. If you are out in these woods this summer and see any of these old scars, Arve Elvebakk would be happy to receive your photos at his e-mail address: arve.elvebakk at uit dot no

Kristiansen, Nina. 2012. "Mystical marks in virgin forest explained". Science Nordic. Posted: June 27, 2012. Available online: http://sciencenordic.com/mystical-marks-virgin-forest-explained

Friday, July 13, 2012

What does the way you count on your fingers say about your brain?

The finger-counting technique you learned as a child may influence how good your grey matter is at crunching numbers

Put down your coffee for a moment. Now, without thinking about it too much, use your hands to count to 10.

How did you do it? Did you start with the left hand, or the right? Did you begin counting on a thumb, or with a pinkie? Maybe you started on an index finger? And did you begin with a closed fist, or an open hand?

If you're European, there's a good chance you started with closed fists, and began counting on the thumb of the left hand. If you're from the Middle East, you probably also started with a closed fist, but began counting with the little finger of the right hand.

Most Chinese people, and many North Americans, also use the closed-fist system, but begin counting on an index finger, rather than the thumb. The Japanese typically start from an open-hand position, counting by closing first the little finger, and then the remaining digits.

In India, it's common to make use of finger segments to get as many as 20 counts from each hand. It's even been reported that the Amazonian Pirah people don't use their fingers to count at all.

Finger counting feels as natural as breathing – but it's not innate, or even, apparently, universal. There are actually many different techniques, and they are culturally transmitted.

In the latest issue of Cognition, German researchers Andrea Bender and Sieghard Beller argue that the extent of cultural diversity in finger-counting has been hugely underestimated. They also say that by studying finger counting techniques, we could better understand how culture influences cognitive processes – particularly mental arithmetic.

There is a mental link between hands and numbers, but that link doesn't come from humans learning to use their hands as a counting aid. It goes back much further in our evolution. Marcie Penner-Wilger and Michael L. Anderson propose that the part of our brain that originally evolved to represent our fingers has been recruited to represent our concept of number, and that these days it performs both functions.

fMRI scans show that brain regions associated with finger sense are activated when we perform numerical tasks, even if we don't use our fingers to help us complete those tasks. And studies show that young children with good finger awareness are better at performing quantitative tasks than those with less finger sense.

Even as adults, the way we mentally picture numbers in space – the SNARC effect – is related to the hand on which we begin finger counting.

We also know, from studies of German sign language, that the type of finger counting system that we use affects how we mentally represent and process numbers. That may be because finger counting has one unique property that sets it apart from written or verbal counting systems: it is a sensory-motor experience, with a direct link between bodily movement and brain activity.

So, knowing that there is a link between hands and numbers, and that how we process numbers mentally is influenced by how we finger-count, what are the implications of the vast cultural diversity in techniques? Does it mean that we think about numbers differently, depending on our cultural background?

It's possible. Take the Eurasian systems. They're quite literal: one finger equals one count, and the brain immediately perceives this concept. But Chinese finger counting uses symbolic gestures to represent any number higher than five, and people from Papua New Guinea utilise much of the upper body to represent number. Such symbolic gestures need to be learned, and then retrieved as needed from our working memory. That requires more cognitive effort, but symbolic systems do allow for more sophisticated arithmetic.

These questions of diversity lead us into the peculiar world of embodied cognition – the somewhat controversial theory that body parts other than the brain can play a role in cognition. Proponents of embodied cognition argue that we reduce the cognitive load on the brain by outsourcing tasks to other parts of our body, and in the related case of distributed cognition, even to external objects.

The cultural diversity of finger counting may lead to new insights into embodied cognition. Does the neurological feedback from these different types of body-based counting influence how we think about numbers? This is fascinating, but those of us who are not naturally good at maths might reasonably ask a more simple question.

Could it be that some people are always going to be better at maths than others, just because of where they grew up?

That's unlikely, says Dr Bender, who points out that some aspects of finger counting are widespread across the world, while others vary even within a given culture. She does, though, believe that by practising different techniques of finger counting we could all improve our mental arithmetic. That hasn't been empirically tested yet, but it might be worth a try.

Burns, Corrinne. 2012. "What does the way you count on your fingers say about your brain?". The Guardian. Posted: June 26, 2012. Available online: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2012/jun/26/count-fingers-brain

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Mysterious Structures Found in Syrian Desert

An ancient landscape of stone circles, alignments and possible tombs lies out in the Syrian Desert, according to a Royal Ontario Museum archaeologist who has dubbed the mysterious structures "Syria's Stonehenge."

"These enigmatic arrangements are not especially imposing, they are not megaliths or anything like that, but they are very intriguing and clearly deliberately aligned," Robert Mason of Canada's Royal Ontario Museum told Discovery News.

Uncovered in 2009 near the monastery of Deir Mar Musa (Saint Moses the Abyssinian) some 50 miles north of Damascus, the strange features are likely to remain a desert mystery since the conflict tearing apart the Middle Eastern nation is preventing archaeologists from investigating the site.

Analysis of fragments of stone tools scattered in the area may date the formations to the Neolithic Period or early Bronze Age-- 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. According to Mason, the stones are arranged to stand out from the empty landscape.

"There is nothing that seems to exhibit evidence of occupation - no houses or occupation at all. This is unusual for the Neolithic in that typically people lived where they buried their dead and worshipped," Mason said.

"As such it may reflect the development of the concept of a 'land of the dead' distinct from a 'land of the living' which has been hypothesised for Neolithic ritual sites in Europe. However it may also reflect a seasonal population that left very limited occupation evidence," he added.

The only building in the area is the monastery, which was built in the late 4th or early 5th century and decorated with 11th and 12th century frescoes depicting Christian scenes and Judgment Day.

According to Mason, the monastery was originally a Roman watchtower that was partially destroyed by an earthquake and then rebuilt.

The archaeologist was looking for lost Roman watchtowers when he stumbled across the strange features.

"The centre of the complex that I found is a natural rock formation that had been the site of quarrying for chert," Mason said.

Built against the quarry face were corbelled constructions about 7 feet across that would have been originally closed over in beehive-like structures.

"These have every appearance of being tombs. Radiating out from this rock were alignments of stones -- nothing big, but deliberately aligned and typically ending in one or more corbelled structure," Mason said.

He noticed that those distal tombs were associated with small circles of stones, about 20 feet across.

"Desert kites" -- walls used to corral and trap migrating gazelle - were also present in the area.

"It looked like one of the corbelled structures had been robbed of stone for construction of the kite. This would possibly suggest three phases on the site: quarry, tombs and alignments, and kite," Mason said.

Similar structures have been found near Palmyra and Northern Syria in the desert, but researchers could not find any associated dating evidence.

"The highlands of Western Syria also feature structures like this. However, they were later joined by tombs of the Bronze and Iron Ages, and of the Roman, and so later material obscures any dating evidence for the early structures," Mason said.

According to the archaeologist, more research is required to understand the mysterious stone arrangements.

"I really never had a chance to investigate them fully, and now I am not sure when I ever will," he said.

Lorenzi, Rossella. 2012. "Mysterious Structures Found in Syrian Desert". Discovery News. Posted: June 26, 2012. Available online: http://news.discovery.com/history/syrian-desert-structures-120626.html

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Mohenjo Daro: Could this ancient city be lost forever?

Pakistani officials say they are doing their best to save one of the most important archaeological sites in south Asia, Mohenjo Daro. But some experts fear the Bronze Age site could be lost unless radical steps are taken.

It is awe-inspiring to walk through a home built 4,500 years ago.

Especially one still very much recognisable as a house today, with front and back entrances, interconnecting rooms, neat fired brick walls - even a basic toilet and sewage outlet.

Astonishingly, given its age, the home in question was also built on two storeys.

But it is even more impressive to walk outside into a real Bronze Age street, and see all of the other homes lining it.

And to walk the length of it, seeing the precise lanes running off it before reaching a grand, ancient marketplace.

This is the marvel of Mohenjo Daro, one of the earliest cities in the world.

In its day, about 2600 BC, its complex planning, incredible architecture, and complex water and sewage systems made it one of the most advanced urban settings anywhere. It was a city thought to have housed up to 35,000 inhabitants of the great Indus civilisation.

While I was overwhelmed by the scale and wonderment of it all, my eminent guide to the site was almost in tears of despair.

"Every time I come here, I feel worse than the previous time," says Dr Asma Ibrahim, one of Pakistan's most accomplished archaeologists.

"I haven't been back for two or three years," she says. "The losses since then are so immense and it breaks my heart."

Dr Ibrahim starts to point out signs of major decay.

In the lower town of Mohenjo Daro, where the middle and working classes once lived, the walls are crumbling from the base upwards. This is new damage.

The salt content of the ground water is eating away at the bricks that, before excavation, had survived thousands of years.

As we move to the upper town where the elite of the Indus civilization would have lived, and where some of the signature sites like the large public bath lie, it appears even worse.

Some walls have collapsed completely, others seem to be close to doing so.

"It is definitely a complicated site to protect, given the problems of salinity, humidity and rainfall," says Dr Ibrahim. "But most of the attempts at conservation by the authorities have been so bad and so amateur they have only accelerated the damage."

One method used has been to cover all the brickwork across the vast site with mud slurry, in the hope the mud will absorb the salt and moisture.

But where the mud has dried and crumbled, it has taken with it fragments of ancient brick, and the decay goes on underneath.

There are even parts of the site where millennia-old bricks have been replaced with brand new ones.

"In a way, it is testament to Mohenjo Daro that it is still standing, given everything that has been thrown at it in the last few decades in the name of conservation," says Dr Ibrahim.

Even the Mohenjo Daro museum has been looted, with many of its famous seals (thought to have been used by traders) among the artefacts that were stolen. They have not been recovered.

A guide at the site says he too has seen the dramatic changes in its condition and upkeep.

And while Pakistani visitors do still come on public holidays, he says very few foreign tourists visit Mohenjo Daro now. He suggests that might be because of Pakistan's security problems.

Given the damage being done to this World Heritage Site, a poor tourism strategy has become the least of its troubles.

It was the government of Pakistan that was in charge of Mohenjo Daro for decades, but recently responsibility was handed over to the provincial authorities in Sindh. They have now set up a technical committee to rescue the site.

"We need urgently to listen to experts from all fields to save Mohenjo Daro," says Dr Ibrahim.

"Yes, there is salinity, but local farmers have worked out how to overcome that problem so why can't we? But we have to do something soon, because if things carry on like this, in my assessment, the site will not last more than 20 years."

One saving grace may be that some of the city remains unexcavated and so remains protected.

Some experts have gone so far as to suggest the entire site should be buried again to halt its decline.

It is a sign of the desperation of those who love Mohenjo Daro, and who are pained to see a city that once rivalled sites of its contemporary civilisations in Egypt, Mesopotamia and China, losing its glory in this undignified way.

Maqbool, Aleem. 2012. "Mohenjo Daro: Could this ancient city be lost forever?". BBC News. Posted: June , 2012. Available online: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-18491900

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Complex Thinking Behind the Bow and Arrow

University of Tübingen and South African researchers have revealed sophisticated design and technology developed by early humans.

The bow and arrow have long been regarded as a possible indicator of culture in prehistoric times. Bows and arrows appear to have been in use for some 64,000 years, given evidence from South Africa. Until recently, their significance in human cognitive ability was unclear. Now two researchers have been able to decode the conceptual foundations of the bow and arrow. The results of the study, by Miriam Haidle of the Heidelberg Academy's ROCEEH project (sponsored by the Senckenberg Research Institute) and the University of Tübingen and Marlize Lombard of the University of Johannesburg, appear in the latest edition of the Cambridge Archaeological Journal.

Using archaeological finds and ethnological parallels, the two researchers reconstructed the steps needed to make a bow and arrows. These are complimentary tools -- separate, but developed interdependently. The bow is the controlling element, while the arrows can be used more flexibly and are interchangeable. About 2.5 million years ago, humans first used tools to make other tools then to make tools assembled from different parts to make a unit with particular qualities, such as wooden spears with stone spearheads (ca. 200,000-300,000 years ago.) The bow and arrow and other complementary tool sets made it possible for prehistoric humans to greatly increase the flexibility of their reactions.

There are many basic complementary tool sets: needle and thread, fishing rod and line, hammer and chisel. The bow and arrow are a particularly complex example. The reconstruction of the technique shows that no less than ten different tools are needed to manufacture a simple bow and arrows with foreshafts. It takes 22 raw materials and three semi-finished goods (binding materials, multi-component glue) and five production phases to make a bow, and further steps to make the arrows to go with it. The study was able to show a high level of complexity in the use of tools at an early stage in the history of homo sapiens.

The Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities project "The Role of Culture in Early Expansions of Humans" (ROCEEH) incorporates archaeologists, paleoanthropologists, palaeobiologists and geographers, working together to find out where the first humans arose, where they moved to in Africa and Eurasia, and why. The project covers the time between three million years ago and the last glacial maximum 20,000 years ago. The focus is on when, where, and in what form a changing climate, evolution and cultural development of early humans enabled them to expand the behavioral niche of a large primate within Africa and to find new roles outside of Africa. The University of Tübingen and the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt have been cooperating on this 20-year Heidelberg Academy project since 2008.

Science Daily. 2012. "Complex Thinking Behind the Bow and Arrow". Science Daily. Posted: June 25, 2012. Available online: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/06/120625064620.htm

Monday, July 9, 2012

Creative individuals traveled to the south Swedish inland 9,000 years ago

Despite its good ecologic status, there were no permanent settlements in the south Swedish inland 9,000 years ago. Yet the area was visited by people who wanted to express their individuality and creativity and thereby gain status. This is found in a new doctoral thesis from the University of Gothenburg.

Carl Persson's doctoral thesis in Archaeology is based on archaeological material discovered in connection with the construction of the E4 highway by Markaryd, Sweden. The finds consisted of a few very small pieces of flint that had been left behind in connection with visits to what used to be a small island in the outlet of a long-gone lake. The wear marks on the flint fragments reveal that they were used to carve meat, bone, wood and horn. The wear marks combined with computer-aided analyses of the phosphate levels in the ground and the distribution of the finds has yielded a detailed account of people's visits to the site some 9,000 years ago.

'It is generally believed that conclusions about Stone Age life require large amounts of archaeological finds, but the results in my thesis contradict that notion,' says Persson.

To put the site in a larger context, Persson reconstructed the Mesolithic landscape through computer-aided analyses. It turns out that the landscape has changed dramatically – 9,000 years ago the now brown lakes were clear and full of nutrients and had a high pH level. The average temperature was much higher than today and the dense forests were full of lush broad-leaved trees.

'Yet despite the good ecologic conditions, the area didn't attract many people in the first millennia after the Ice Age. Analyses show that the inland probably wasn't permanently inhabited during the Mesolithic period (10,000-4,000 BC), but that people did come to visit,' says Persson.

Traces from the inland visits are almost always found near waterways and lakes, and analyses of the finds indicate that different groups have travelled to the inland with different ambitions. The visits are probably due to the fact that people moved across very large areas 9,000 years ago. The extensive travel had to do with the extremely low population density – in order to meet other people you had to travel far and have broad social networks.

'In a society characterised by a quest for equality, knowledge about foreign locations and other people was a way for people to distinguish themselves and gain status. Against this background, the trips to the inland 9,000 years ago can be seen as a natural consequence of people's creativity and desire to express a sense of individuality,' says Persson.

EurekAlert. 2012. "Creative individuals traveled to the south Swedish inland 9,000 years ago". EurekAlert. Posted: June 25, 2012. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-06/uog-cit062512.php

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Roman beads found in Japan?

Glass beads in a fifth century Japanese tomb near Nagaoka have surprised archaeologists because it is not clear how these objects ended up in ancient Japan. The mystery is that the three beads are suspected to be Roman in origin.

Using Roman techniques

The three glass beads from the tomb have been examined by the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties. This study showed that the light yellow beads were made with natron (a naturally occurring mixture of sodium carbonate decahydrate and about 17% sodium bicarbonate).

Natron was collected as a salt from dry lake beds in ancient Egypt and used by the ancient Egyptians during the mummification process. Roman craftsmen are known to have used it to melt glass in order to manufacture beads – created by multilayering glass and often sandwiching gold leaf in-between.

The three beads are five millimetres (0.2 inches) in diameter, with tiny fragments of gilt attached and were discovered in the 5th Century ‘Utsukushi’ burial mound in Nagaoka, near Kyoto, and were probably made some time between the 1st and the 4th century CE.

Further research is needed

One of the researchers of the institute, Tomomi Tamura, has already said that further research is needed to establish how the beads could have ended up in fifth century Japan.

“They are one of the oldest multi layered glass products found in Japan, and very rare accessories that were believed to be made in the Roman Empire and sent to Japan,” said Tamura.

The Roman Empire was concentrated around the Mediterranean Sea and stretched northwards to occupy present-day United Kingdom. The find in Japan, some 10,000 kilometres (6,000 miles) from Italy, may shed some light on how far east its influence reached.

Past Horizons. 2012. "Roman beads found in Japan?". Past Horizons. Posted: June 24, 2012. Available online: http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/06/2012/roman-beads-found-in-japan

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Research finds Stonehenge was monument marking unification of Britain

After 10 years of archaeological investigations, researchers have concluded that Stonehenge was built as a monument to unify the peoples of Britain, after a long period of conflict and regional difference between eastern and western Britain.

Its stones are thought to have symbolized the ancestors of different groups of earliest farming communities in Britain, with some stones coming from southern England and others from west Wales.

The teams, from the universities of Sheffield, Manchester, Southampton, Bournemouth and University College London, all working on the Stonehenge Riverside Project (SRP), explored not just Stonehenge and its landscape but also the wider social and economic context of the monument's main stages of construction around 3,000 BC and 2,500 BC.

"When Stonehenge was built", said Professor Mike Parker Pearson of the University of Sheffield, "there was a growing island-wide culture – the same styles of houses, pottery and other material forms were used from Orkney to the south coast. This was very different to the regionalism of previous centuries. Stonehenge itself was a massive undertaking, requiring the labour of thousands to move stones from as far away as west Wales, shaping them and erecting them. Just the work itself, requiring everyone literally to pull together, would have been an act of unification."

Stonehenge may have been built in a place that already had special significance for prehistoric Britons. The SRP team have found that its solstice-aligned Avenue sits upon a series of natural landforms that, by chance, form an axis between the directions of midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset.

Professor Parker Pearson continued: "When we stumbled across this extraordinary natural arrangement of the sun's path being marked in the land, we realized that prehistoric people selected this place to build Stonehenge because of its pre-ordained significance. This might explain why there are eight monuments in the Stonehenge area with solstitial alignments, a number unmatched anywhere else. Perhaps they saw this place as the centre of the world".

Although many people flocked to Stonehenge yesterday for the summer solstice, it seems that the winter solstice was the more significant time of the year when Stonehenge was built 5,000-4,500 years ago.

Professor Parker Pearson said: "We can tell from ageing of the pig teeth that higher quantities of pork were eaten during midwinter at the nearby settlement of Durrington Walls, and most of the monuments in the Stonehenge area are aligned on sunrise and sunset at midwinter rather than midsummer. At Stonehenge itself, the principal axis appears to be in the opposite direction to midsummer sunrise, towards midsummer sunset, framed by the monument's largest stone setting, the great trilithon."

Parker Pearson and the SRP team firmly reject ideas that Stonehenge was inspired by ancient Egyptians or extra-terrestrials. He said: "All the architectural influences for Stonehenge can be found in previous monuments and buildings within Britain, with origins in Wales and Scotland. In fact, Britain's Neolithic people were isolated from the rest of Europe for centuries. Britain may have become unified but there was no interest in interacting with people across the Channel. Stonehenge appears to have been the last gasp of this Stone Age culture, which was isolated from Europe and from the new technologies of metal tools and the wheel."

Previous theories have suggested the great stone circle was used as a prehistoric observatory, a sun temple, a place of healing, and a temple of the ancient druids. The Stonehenge Riverside Project's researchers have rejected all these possibilities after the largest programme of archaeological research ever mounted on this iconic monument. As well as finding houses and a large village near Stonehenge at Durrington Walls, they have also discovered the site of a former stone circle – Bluestonehenge – and revised the dating of Stonehenge itself. All these discoveries are now presented in Parker Pearson's new book Stonehenge: exploring the greatest Stone Age mystery published by Simon & Schuster. The research was supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, National Geographic and many other funding bodies.

EurekAlert. 2012. "Research finds Stonehenge was monument marking unification of Britain". EurekAlert. Posted: June 22, 2012. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-06/uos-rfs062212.php

Friday, July 6, 2012

Mysterious Structure May Have Led to Ancient Artificial Island

Archaeologists have unearthed the foundation of what appears to have been a massive, ancient structure, possibly a bridge leading to an artificial island, in what is now southeast Wales. The strange ruin, its discoverers say, is unlike anything found before in the United Kingdom and possibly all of Europe.

"It's a real mystery," said Steve Clarke, chairman and founding member of the Monmouth Archaeological Society, who discovered the structural remains earlier this month in Monmouth, Wales — a town known for its rich archaeological features. "Whatever it is, there's nothing else like it. It may well be unique."

Clarke and his team discovered the remnants of three giant timber beams placed alongside one another on a floodplainat the edge of an ancient lake that has long since filled with silt. After being set into the ground, the pieces of timber decayed, leaving anaerobic (oxygen-free) clay, which formed after silt filled in the timbers' empty slots, Clarke told LiveScience.

The team initially thought the timber structures were once sleeper beams, or shafts of timber placed in the ground to form the foundations of a house. However, the pieces appear to be too large for that purpose. While a typical sleeper beam would span about 1 foot (30 centimeters) across, these timber beams were over 3 feet wide and at least 50 feet long (or about 1 meter by 15 meters). The archaeologists are still digging and don't yet know how much longer the timbers are. Clarke says the structure's builders appear to have placed whole trees, cut in half lengthwise, into the ground.

"One other thing that is striking, that might be relevant, is that the timbers seem to be lined up with the middle of the lake," Clarke noted, suggesting that the structures may have been part of a causeway to a crannog, or artificial island, constructed in the middle of the lake. "Even so, if it is a path to a crannog, it's huge."

The archaeologists also aren't sure when it was built or even if it came before or after the lake formed, but they say the structure, at its oldest, could date to the Bronze Age around 4,000 years ago. Beneath the beams the researchers found a burnt mound of rock and charcoal fragments, alongside of which they discovered a hearth and trough — scientists believe people in the Bronze Age heated stones in a fire and threw them into a filled trough to boil water.

"The discovery of this unusual site on a housing development near Monmouth is very interesting," a spokesperson for CADW, the Welsh government’s historic environment service, told LiveScience. "We have been monitoring the situation closely. At this point the date and function of the structure represented by these three long trenches is not known, despite a great deal of speculation. Only further excavation can clarify exactly what they represent."

Clarke believes its more likely the structure was built a little later, possibly during the Iron Age, but he says determining a reliable age for the structure will be tricky. Dating the burnt mound, which predates the timber that was placed on top of it, will only give a maximum age for the structure. Dating the clay, on the other hand, will yield an age that is too young because the clay deposited after the timber rotted away.

The archaeologists have already sent off charcoal samples from the burnt mound for chemical analyses and expect results later this month.

"And we now have some charcoal from the bottom of the slots (not from the burnt-mound area)," Clarke said. "Hopefully that will give us a closer date."

The research has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, with work at the site currently in progress.

Castro, Joseph. 2012. "Mysterious Structure May Have Led to Ancient Artificial Island". Live Science. Posted: June 22, 2012. Available online: http://www.livescience.com/21136-mysterious-ancient-structure-wales.html

Thursday, July 5, 2012

New deglaciation data opens door for earlier First Americans migration

A new study of lake sediment cores from Sanak Island in the western Gulf of Alaska suggests that deglaciation there from the last Ice Age took place as much as1,500 to 2,000 years earlier than previously thought, opening the door for earlier coastal migration models for the Americas.

The Sanak Island Biocomplexity Project, funded by the National Science Foundation, also concluded that the maximum thickness of the ice sheet in the Sanak Island region during the last glacial maximum was 70 meters – or about half that previously projected – suggesting that deglaciation could have happened more rapidly than earlier models predicted.

Results of the study were just published in the professional journal, Quaternary Science Reviews.

The study, led by Nicole Misarti of Oregon State University, is important because it suggests that the possible coastal migration of people from Asia into North America and South America – popularly known as "First Americans" studies – could have begun as much as two millennia earlier than the generally accepted date of ice retreat in this area, which was 15,000 years before present.

Well-established archaeology sites at Monte Verde, Chile, and Huaca Prieta, Peru, date back 14,000 to 14,200 years ago, giving little time for expansion if humans had not come to the Americas until 15,000 years before present – as many models suggest.

The massive ice sheets that covered this part of the Earth during the last Ice Age would have prevented widespread migration into the Americas, most archaeologists believe.

"It is important to note that we did not find any archaeological evidence documenting earlier entrance into the continent," said Misarti, a post-doctoral researcher in Oregon State's College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. "But we did collect cores from widespread places on the island and determined the lake's age of origin based on 22 radiocarbon dates that clearly document that the retreat of the Alaska Peninsula Glacier Complex was earlier than previously thought."

"Glaciers would have retreated sufficiently so as to not hinder the movement of humans along the southern edge of the Bering land bridge as early as almost 17,000 years ago," added Misarti, who recently accepted a faculty position at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.

Interestingly, the study began as a way to examine the abundance of ancient salmon runs in the region. As the researchers began examining core samples from Sanak Island lakes looking for evidence of salmon remains, however, they began getting radiocarbon dates much earlier than they had expected. These dates were based on the organic material in the sediments, which was from terrestrial plant macrofossils indicating the region was ice-free earlier than believed.

The researchers were surprised to find the lakes ranged in age from 16,500 to 17,000 years ago.

A third factor influencing the find came from pollen, Misarti said.

"We found a full contingent of pollen that indicated dry tundra vegetation by 16,300 years ago," she said. "That would have been a viable landscape for people to survive on, or move through. It wasn't just bare ice and rock."

The Sanak Island site is remote, about 700 miles from Anchorage, Alaska, and about 40 miles from the coast of the western Alaska Peninsula, where the ice sheets may have been thicker and longer lasting, Misarti pointed out. "The region wasn't one big glacial complex," she said. "The ice was thinner and the glaciers retreated earlier."

Other studies have shown that warmer sea surface temperatures may have preceded the early retreat of the Alaska Peninsula Glacier Complex (APGC), which may have supported productive coastal ecosystems.

Wrote the researchers in their article: "While not proving that first Americans migrated along this corridor, these latest data from Sanak Island show that human migration across this portion of the coastal landscape was unimpeded by the APGC after 17 (thousand years before present), with a viable terrestrial landscape in place by 16.3 (thousand years before present), well before the earliest accepted sites in the Americas were inhabited."

EurekAlert. 2012. "New deglaciation data opens door for earlier First Americans migration". EurekAlert. Posted: June 21, 2012. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-06/osu-ndd061912.php