Monday, January 28, 2008


They are the world's oldest human tracks, a set of footprints pressed into volcanic ash that have lain perfectly preserved for more than three-and-a-half million years. Made by two, possibly three early hominens, the prints represent one of the most important sites in human evolutionary studies, for they show that our ancestors had already stopped walking on four legs and had become upright members of the primate world.

But now the Laetoli steps in northern Tanzania are in danger of destruction. The footprints, although reburied 10 years ago and covered by a special protective coating, are suffering storm erosion, while trees and plants begin to grow through the historic outlines.

The Laetoli steps were discovered in 1976 by scientists led by the late Mary Leakey's team. They found a couple of prints that had been exposed by the wind and then uncovered a trail that led across an expanse of volcanic ash. The researchers could make out the arch of each foot, the big toe - even the heel. The prints had been made by creatures who had long adapted to walking on two legs. Yet tests showed the prints had been made about 3.6 million years ago.

But a study presented at an international conference last month warns that unless urgent action is taken, the Laetoli steps - 'the rarest, oldest and most important evidence' documenting humans' ability to walk on two legs - will be lost to civilization.

'The protective blanket over the prints is already breaking up,' said Dr Charles Musiba of the University of Colorado, Denver. 'Unless something is done within the next five years, the site is going to suffer serious, irreparable damage.' He added: 'The footprints are currently buried for their own protection - which means we can no longer study them, and that is crazy. We could use scanners and other modern tools to learn all sorts of things about the people who made these prints. We need to expose them but protect them as well. Building a museum over them is the perfect solution.'

Palaeontologists agree that action is needed, but claim that constructing a building over the steps in remote Laetoli is impossible and would only lead to further degradation. 'No matter how good the intentions, any attempt to preserve them in place is doomed to failure,' said one of the steps' discoverers, Tim White of the University of Berkeley, California. 'Laetoli is remote, inaccessible, and would require infrastructure currently not available or foreseeable to preserve these prints in place.' Professor Terry Harrison of New York University said: 'The local people around Laetoli, the Masai, do not appreciate having structures built on their land. They tend to smash things up. These are pastoral people who do not have a sense of property and can be destructive. You would need to guard the museum constantly and carefully.'

Harrison and White believe the whole sequence of steps, about 23 metres in length, should be cut from the local hillside, transported to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania's capital, and installed in a museum.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


Archaeologists have long thought that people in the Old World were planting, watering, weeding, and harvesting for a good 5,000 years before anyone in the New World did such things. But fresh evidence, in the form of Peruvian squash seeds, indicates that farming in the New and Old Worlds was nearly concurrent.

In a paper the journal Science published last June, Tom Dillehay, an anthropological archaeologist at Vanderbilt University, revealed that the squash seeds he found in the ruins of what may have been ancient storage bins on the lower western slopes of the Andes in northern
Peru are almost 10,000 years old. "I don't want to play the early button game," he said, "but the temporal gap between the Old and New World, in terms of a first pulse toward civilization, is beginning to close."

The seeds aren't the only things that support the argument. Dillehay also found evidence of cotton and peanut farming and what seem to be garden hoes; nearby are irrigation canals. What puzzles him is why the ancients of the Nanchoc Valley would make the switch to farming from hunting and gathering when a walk of just an hour and a half would bring them to a forest filled
with nutritious foods.

Some clues point to contact with outsiders and the exchange of foods and other products. The squash is not native to the area, and tools made from exotic cherts and jaspers from the highlands can be found in the same ruins.

Saturday, January 19, 2008


I've been to Tara in the 1990s and it was peaceful, quiet and a beautiful site. It's difficult to imagine that the Irish roadways people are so adament to build this road that, much like the problems of Stonehenge, is a landscape of archaeology.

Tomb engravings dating back 6,000 years are among the latest discoveries unearthed on the route of a controversial highway under construction in Ireland.

The historic site, at Lismullin in County Meath, was handed over to road builders last month, just weeks after the Stone Age art was found inside a medieval bunker. The engravings have been removed to allow construction of the highway to proceed.

The new find follows the discovery last spring of a prehistoric open-air temple nearby, causing construction along the 37-mile-long (60-kilometer-long) M3 highway northwest of Dublin to be temporarily suspended.

The timber ceremonial enclosure was found just 1.25 miles (2 kilometers) from the Hill of Tara, once the seat of power of ancient Celtic kings. The latest excavations at Lismullin revealed part of a large stone monument, or megalith, decorated with engravings dating to the Late Stone Age, according to archaeologists from Ireland's National Roads Authority (NRA). Discovered some 165 feet (50 meters) from the temple's enclosure, the stone features a series of zigzags, concentric circles, and arcs.

"It's classic megalithic art," said Mary Deevy, NRA's chief archaeologist. "We've only got half a boulder, but we think originally it was probably a curbstone from a passage tomb," she said.

The stone was discovered within an early medieval souterrain, an underground structure that may have been used by local inhabitants to defend themselves against Viking raiders, the excavation team reported. Dating to around the 10th century A.D., the souterrain was probably
constructed using the broken megalith as building material. "The souterrain builders robbed or quarried the stone from a Neolithic [Late Stone Age] monument," Deevy said.

The rock art will eventually go on public display, according to Deevy, who describes the Lismullin site as "100 percent excavated."

The European Commission has reportedly criticized the Irish government for failing to properly reassess the impact of the road project after the ruins of the open-air temple were uncovered last year. Under European law, the discovery should have triggered a so-called environmental impact assessment. While the Lismullin site was declared a national monument, "this has made no difference whatsoever," he added.

There are as many as 40 archaeological sites uncovered along the route of the M3 highway.
A spokesman said: Lismullin is connected to all these other 40 sites, and that they are all part and parcel of one single large national monument, which is the Hill of Tara complex.

Lismullin's timber enclosure site was recently named one of the top ten discoveries of 2007 by the magazine Archaeology, published by the Archaeological Institute of America. "Construction of the new M3 highway, meant to ease traffic congestion around Dublin, threatens not only the Hill of Tara's timeless quality, but also newly discovered archaeological sites in the surrounding valley," the magazine said.


Iraqi archaeologists have resumed excavations in southern Iraq uncovering three important ancient sites and collecting magnificent items, some of them more than 4000 years old.
The Iraq Museum has received 700 artifacts from official diggings in these sites, one of them belonging to the Sumerian civilization which flourished in southern Iraq at about 2500 BC.
Unfortunately, there is no mention of where the Sumerian sites are located and the affiliation of those who are excavating.

The news story says that 11 Iraqi excavation teams were busy digging sites in southern Iraq "and more finds are on their way to the museum." The resumption of official digging signals relative calm in these areas. Especially intresting is a Parthian site that has so far yielded "200 rare pieces".

The head of the excavation team of the Parthian site, Mohammed Abbas, said: "Most of the finds are unique. We have a silver statue of a woman, another silver piece representing a cobra, household utensils, legendary animals, incised pots and various other magnificent items."

An Islamic site yielded 119 pieces. Saleh Yousef who led the excavation there said the artifacts represented inscribed pots, glassware and beautiful beakers.

Monday, January 14, 2008


Nine years ago, an array of people rose up to save the Miami Circle, a 2,000-year-old artifact. But today, the Circle — a series of loaf-shaped holes chiseled into the limestone bedrock at the mouth of the Miami River (Florida, USA) — is interred beneath bags of sand and gravel, laid over the formation in 2003 to protect it from the elements.

And though taxpayers shelled out $27.6 million to purchase the 38-foot Circle and its surrounding two acres, visitors to the site's planned archaeological park likely will never see the actual work of some of Miami's earliest inhabitants. The reburial was supposed to be temporary, while officials settled on a plan to manage and display the Circle, which has inspired as many theories about its origin and function as it has claims about its spiritual energy and mystical powers.

Ryan Wheeler, Florida's state archaeologist, and other experts who have studied the Circle
think the holes were dug by the Tequesta Indians to support wooden posts for a tribal center, or other important structure. Authenticated as prehistoric, it is on the National Register of Historic Places for the clues it could yield about the complex society developed by the Tequestas, a small tribe who were foraging in the Everglades and Biscayne Bay. Yet visitors to the park, that won't open for at least a year, will see only an 8-foot replica.

Through the years, officials considered putting a thatched-roof hut or a clear-plastic shell over the Circle. But as Wheeler watched its holes fill with water from the rising water table, he said he knew, that, for now, the cost of any display solution was out of reach. Still, he and other archaeologists insist that, even out of sight, the Circle will retain much of the allure that captivated the world and forced Miami to do something the city has rarely done: save
its past from the bulldozers.

The Circle certainly isn't much to look at. It consists of 24 loaf-shaped basins, each about the size of a sink, and dozens of 4- inch round holes cut into the basins and throughout the Circle
interior. Still embedded on one edge is a septic tank from a 1950s apartment complex that stood on the property for five decades. It was the demolition of those apartments that brought John Ricisak, Miami- Dade County's archaeologist at the time of the discovery, and his boss, Bob Carr, to the site on the day the Circle was unearthed in October of 1998.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Follow up on Neanderthals and their extinction due to the cold

Sometimes we wonder whether the archaeologists around the world are too busy to read what's going on in their field. In this morning's Los Angeles Times (Sat., Jan 5, 2008) there's a piece with the headline: Did a chill kill Neanderthals? Clues point to climate change. An anthropologist says a dramatic cold spell cut their food supply.

Well, only a couple of days ago, I entered on the blog, a similar story but, if you look down and see, it was about that same cold spell but reasoned because Neanderthals did not come up with a needle and warm clothes during this cold spell, they perished. That was from an Australian researcher.

This morning's story is from a Canadian. Evidence from studies of deep-sea sediments indicate that temperatures in Europe dropped by nearly 15 degrees Fahrenheit during the period when Neanderthals were flourishing. Eugene Morin of Trent University in Peterborough, Canada, studied the effects of this temperature decline by examining bones and other artifacts from a Neanderthal site at Saint-Cesaire in southwestern France. As temperatures declined, the proportion of reindeer in their diet increased to 87% from 35%. But reliance on reindeer is risky because their populations fluctuate widely. A decline in their numbers would lead to famine and population decine, according to Morin.

Can we get the two researchers together? Possibly the combination of a drop in temperature, a drop in food supply and lack of implements to make warmer clothes are persuasive reasons for the demise of the Neanderthals.


Ancient cairn complex unearthed in Ireland

A 300 million euro world class port facility, which is expected to be operational by 2012, is planned in Drogheda (co Louth, Ireland). But those plans may have to be altered after it emerged that an archaeological site, possibly on a par with Newgrange is located in
the area.

According to local historian, Paddy Boyle, the site is highly significant and could be the oldest in Fingal. "It's a national monument and a serious issue," Mr Boyle said. "They can't be
touched and are protected by EU law, so they'll have to come up with an acceptable solution. It's a complex of cairns, similar to what you might find in Loughcrew in County Meath. As far as I know, they've never been officially excavated. The largest cairn appears to have collapsed inwards, meaning it could be similar in construction to Newgrange, as it probably had an interior chamber."

Mr Boyle describe the site as "an extraodinary example of megalithic tombs, which could be of enormous value, both in terms of archaeology and tourism," Mr Boyle continued. "If they were of the mind to develop its archaeological sites in the future, it would probably be the oldest in the county and on a par with Newgrange and Loughcrew. The artist's impression of the new port doesn't show the tomb complex being retained in any way. In fact the roll-on roll-off terminal is positioned exactly where the tomb complex is located."

I've visited both Newgrange (see a previous entry about the winter solstice that thousands of folks come to) and Loughcrew and both are great experiences to see when visiting Ireland and County Meath. This is another one of those "stay tuned" stories!


Fungus once again threatens Lascaux cave paintings

For the second time in a decade, fungus is threatening France's most celebrated prehistoric paintings, the mysterious animal images that line the Lascaux cave in the Dordogne region of southwest France, scientists say. No consensus has emerged among experts over whether
the invading patches of gray and black mold are the result of climate change, a defective temperature control system, the light used by researchers or the carbon dioxide exhaled by visitors. But after inspection by a team of microbiologists, the government has approved
a new treatment of the blemishes with a fungicide and ordered that the cave be sealed off for as long as four months so that its delicate environment can be stabilized.

The Lascaux paintings, with their astonishing array of animals, are thought to be 15,000 to 17,000 years old. The early Europeans who roamed this region used crushed minerals to create some 600 images in red, ochre, deep brown and black, some so powerful and vivid that
they are considered among the finest examples of Paleolithic cave art. Since the paintings were discovered in 1940, however, their preservation has been a constant headache, with government officials in Paris and the local authorities criticized for failing to ensure
their proper protection. By the late 1950s, the visitors' breath was blamed for the appearance of lichen and small crystals on the walls, prompting the government to close Lascaux to the public in 1963.

Since then, only five people per day, five days a week, have been allowed to visit the underground gallery by special permission. Fortunately, when I led a group from Greenwich, CT to France in the 1990s, 10 of our group on two different days were allowed to enter -- an incredible and memorable experience. Since there were twenty of us in the group, we had a lottery and those who did not "win" were able to visit the replica of the cave complex nearby. The replica, known as Lascaux II, opened in 1983 and now draws more than 250,000 tourists each year.

In the real cave, new problems arose in 2001, when officials in charge of Lascaux decided to modernize the system regulating the temperature and humidity. Soon after this work was completed, a white mold began spreading rapidly across the cave ceiling and walls. At
first, the blame fell on the new air-conditioning unit and the clothing of the workers who installed it. Later studies suggested that the fungus was probably already in the cave, although it might have been awakened by the movement of workers and a related rise in humidity. Some experts have pointed to climate change as a factor.

Whatever the reason for the problems at Lascaux, the white mold outbreak in 2001 led the government to close it to all nonessential visitors. It was so serious that, to stop the invasion, the floor was covered with quicklime and scientists began treating the problem chemically, said Marc Gauthier, president of the International Scientific Committee for Lascaux, which was created as a result of the crisis.

The new problem at Lascaux, however, does not appear to be linked to the fungus. Described by experts as black stains, the blemishes are in fact both gray and black and most are found in the passages where the rocks are most porous and paintings had faded the most long before modern man entered. While only a few stains have affected the paintings, they have now been found in some 70 different spots.

Last year, The International Committee for Preservation of Lascaux warned of the rapid spread of black spots, which are now appearing where the traces of the fusarium fungus had been removed by scalpels. Two weeks ago, the International Scientific Committee for
Lascaux decided to try new methods. "Every treatment we have applied had its own side-effects," said Anne Marie Sire, the curator responsible for interventions in French caves. "We cannot touch the figures with scalpels or chemicals, so now we will try to diffuse a
treatment in the air."

Since this summer, the stains have darkened and expanded, although they are still in a limited area, and this shows that Lascaux suffers from an illness that must be constantly treated. What appears clear is that the discovery of Lascaux 67 years ago disrupted an ecological balance that had helped preserve the paintings for thousands of years. And Lascaux’s continuous problems have served as warnings for other sites that bear prehistoric art in central and southern France. Some painted caves allow limited numbers of visitors, and others, on privately owned land, are open by invitation only.

Friday, January 04, 2008


Did modern humans interbreed with Neanderthals and, if so, did the mating result in a half-human, half-Neanderthal hybrid? The answer is possibly 'yes' to the interbreeding but 'no' to the hybrid, according to the authors of a new study that is already making waves among

At the centre of the study, published online in the Journal of Human Evolution, and the current debate, is a 29,000 year old Romanian skull that is one of the oldest fossils in Europe with modern human features. But those features aren't quite a perfect match with us, which has led some experts to suspect it was a cross between a Neanderthal and a modern human.

That's not so, according to study leader Dr Katerina Harvati, a senior researcher in the Department of Human Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and adjunct associate professor of anthropology at the City University of New York Graduate School.

"It differs from living people only in subtle ways, and always well within the range of modern human variation," says Harvati, who worked with the Max Planck Institute researcher Dr Philipp Gunz and Professor Dan Grigorescu, from the University of Bucharest.

"It has, for instance, slightly heavier eyebrows than the average person, and is generally somewhat more robust than average," she adds, explaining that modern humans have gradually evolved to become more slight and slender than upper Palaeolithic people were.

She and her team took detailed 3D measurements of the Romanian skull, called Cioclovina calvaria, and compared these with a similar head shape analysis of Neanderthals, modern humans and fossils of other hominids found in Europe, Africa and countries bordering the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The researchers also studied animal hybrids and developed an unprecedented list of proposed criteria for evaluating whether or not a fossil specimen is
a hybrid.

The criteria include: greater or much smaller size than the parental species, on average; evidence for developmental instability; possible occurrence of rare attributes, such as having extra teeth or bone joints; and possessing an intermediate shape.

"Cioclovina did not meet any of these criteria - a strong refutation of the hypothesis that it represents a hybrid," Harvati says.

The scientists support the 'single origin' model of human evolution. This holds that modern humans evolved between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago in a single location, mostly likely Africa, with subsequent migration displacing archaic hominid populations, including Neanderthals, around the world. The researchers, however, do not rule out that interbreeding may have taken place. "Modern humans and Neanderthals are very closely related species, so it is possible that, like living closely related species of primates today, they could have interbred to a limited degree," she says. "[If it occurred] it was probably a rare event and the result was not significant in evolutionary terms."

Dr Ian Tattersall, curator in the Division of Anthropology of the American Museum of Natural History in New York says he is "thoroughly in agreement" with the new study. "The strenuous search for a Neanderthal-modern human hybrid has yet to turn up any evidence of such a thing." Professor Eric Delson, chair of the Department of Anthropology at Lehman
College, City University New York, also supports the conclusions.


A new theory by Australian researcher Ian Gilligan (in current issue of World Archaeology) proposes that Neanderthals probably froze to death in the last ice age because rapid climate change caught them by surprise without the tools needed to make warm clothes. By the time some Neanderthals developed sewing tools it was too little too late, says Gilligan.

Neanderthals began to die out just before the last glacial maximum, 35 to 30,000 years ago and were replaced by modern humans, say archaeologists.

Previous studies have argued that one of the key reasons for this is that modern humans had better hunting tools, providing them with the extra food they needed to survive the cold. But Gilligan disagrees that the development of hunting tools was so important to modern humans' survival over the Neanderthal since Neanderthals were already successful hunters,
surviving in Europe and Eurasia for over 100,000 years.

He says most of the tools supposed to have given modern humans the edge over Neanderthals were actually more useful for making warm clothes. The important tools developed by modern humans included stone blades, bone points, and later needles, which could cut and pierce hides to sew them together into multi-layered clothes including underwear, says Gilligan.

He says modern humans were more vulnerable to the cold than Neanderthals and developed these tools as far back as 90,000 years ago to cope with cooler parts of Africa, before the peak of the ice age. "This made them pre-adapted to the glacial maximum," says Gilligan. But Neanderthals were physically more resistant to the cold, he says.

Because of this they were quite happy before the ice age to get around in similar temperatures wearing little less than single-layered loosely-draped animal hides. This gave Neanderthals no pressing need to develop complex clothing, says Gilligan.

But when the peak of the ice age came, it was a shock.

Gilligan says climatic evidence shows in the lead up to the glacial maximum there were unusually sudden and massive swings in global temperatures over short periods of time.
Over brief periods, the average temperature would plunge by more than 10ºC and then warm again before plunging once again into ultra-cold territory, says Gilligan. He says Neanderthals were unable to adapt their clothing in response to such rapid climate change.

Gilligan says while there is evidence that some Neanderthals in France started to develop sewing tools, this would not have been enough to save the species. "You cannot develop complex clothing overnight," says Gilligan.