Monday, February 28, 2011


An archaeological dig in Alaska has uncovered the oldest human remains ever found in Arctic or Subarctic North America - the cremated skeleton of a 3-year-old.

The child's burned bone fragments were found in a fire pit in the remains of an ancient house near the Tanana River in central Alaska. Researchers date the cremation to 11,500 years ago. After the child's body was burned, researchers report in the Feb. 25 issue of the journal Science, the house and hearth were buried and abandoned.

"The fact that the child was cremated within the center of the house shows this was an important member of society," said study author Ben Potter, an archaeologist at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

The child's remains aren't the only thing about the find that excites Potter and his colleagues. The Paleoindian inhabitants of Alaska left few structures behind; usually, archaeologists discover outdoor hearths and specialized tools that suggest temporary work sites or hunting camps. The house that became a child's grave is the first house structure found from this time period in northern North America. The most similar site found is on the Kamchatka Peninsula in far eastern Russia, Potter said during a press conference.

The cremated child lived and died at the very end of the "last cold snap of the last Ice Age," Potter said. The Bering Land Bridge that once connected eastern Siberia and Alaska still may have been open, or was only recently inundated by rising sea levels. The newly discovered house sits in an area called the Upward Sun River site, which would have been well vegetated, Potter said. The inhabitants stoked their cooking fires with poplar wood.

Within the fire pit, the researchers discovered the cooked bones of small animals, including salmon, rabbits, ground squirrels and birds. The presence of salmon (and young ground squirrels), peg the site as a summer settlement, Potter said. The presence of the child, who could have been as young as 2 or as old as 4 based on the development of the adult teeth, suggests that women were present as well, said study researcher Joel Irish, a dental anthropologist at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

The researchers also found four used stone tools at the site, along with stone flakes left over from tool-sharpening.

By sifting through the layers in the fire pit, the researchers were able to reconstruct the house's inhabitants' summer. They fished and hunted small game, either cooking it in the hearth or disposing of bones and other leftovers there. When the child died, he or she - researchers can't say for sure, though they're hoping to find out - was placed on his or her back in the hearth and burned for one to three hours. The child's cremation site may have been a former cooking pit, but Potter and Irish don't suspect cannibalism. The child's body wasn't disturbed during the burn, they said, and no limbs were carted off to the dinner table. The house's foundation was filled in after the cremation, suggesting a respectful burial, Potter said.

"This child does have some affinity to native populations," Irish said. As such, the researchers worked with native groups in every step of the scientific process. When Potter found the first molar, he immediately halted the dig to consult with local native communities and the owner of the land.

The find is a "very significant discovery and contribution to North American
archaeology," said E. James Dixon, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico who was not involved in the dig. The find fits a pattern, Dixon said, in that 25 percent of remains found that are older than 10,000 years are children.

Saturday, February 26, 2011


In contrast to the previous article on Chauvet Cave, here's what is happening in North Africa...Be sure to check out the images!

Prehistoric paintings in Somaliland - a state that previously was a region of Somalia - have come under threat from the elements as well as looting. The paintings, first discovered in 2007 by Dr Sada Mire, are thought to be over 5,000 years old. They depict both animals and humans and cover the walls of a sandstone shelter at Dhamlain, near the Red Sea.

Unfortunately the main problem appears to be a political one. Somaliland is a breakaway state, formed from Somalia in 1991. As Somaliland has no international ratification it is not eligible for World Heritage status and the protection this would provide. The other problem is where to put any artifacts, once they have been rescued. The main Somali museums in Mogadishu and Hargeisa have both been caught up in the civil war and have been looted. Couple this with the fact that Somaliland itself has no museums at all.

It is very difficult to instill a sense of protection of prehistoric artifacts in a people who are so poor that they turn to looting to supplement the little income that they have. But Dr Mire is optimistic as she feels that, by understanding the sites, it should give the people of Somaliland a pride in their heritage. She is quoted as saying "That gives them a sense of dignity and that they are not totally desperate, they have something that the world thinks is very valuable".

Edited fron CNN (5 Feruary 2011)
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Werner Herzog's new film 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams' is a stunning 3D documentary about a cave in France that is home to the world's oldest known human art. The legendary German director's most recent work features in the official program of the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival and his documentary portrays the Chauvet Cave in southern France.

The cave, discovered in 1994, is home to hundreds of pristine artworks. Over 30,000 years old, they are the oldest known pictures created by humans and show at least 13 different species of animals, including horses, cattle, lions and bears. In the spring of 2010, Herzog was given a unique opportunity to film inside the cave. He and his team were only allowed access for a period of a few days, and were only able to use battery-powered equipment. High levels of radon gas and carbon dioxide in the cave meant they could only stay inside for a few hours at a time.

"You have to realize that, about 20,000 years ago, there was a cataclysmic event when an entire rock face collapsed and sealed off the cave. It's a completely preserved time capsule. You've got tracks of cave bears that look like they were left yesterday, and you've got the footprint of a boy who was probably eight years old next to the footprint of a wolf. Visitors can't step on anything, so you can only move around on a two foot wide metal walkway," said Werner Herzog. "Everything is so fresh that you have the sensation that the painters have merely retreated deeper into the dark and that they are looking at you," he added.

The director opted to make the film in 3D to do justice to the cave paintings, which use the contours of the rock for dramatic effect. The result is a visually stunning documentary that transports the viewer into the cavern and captures the artwork in all its glory. "The paintings are not just on flat walls - you have these enormous niches, bulges and protrusions, as well as stalactites and stalagmites. The effect of the three-dimensionality is phenomenal. It's a real drama which the artists of the time understood, and they used it for the drama of their paintings," Herzog said.

A trailer is already available on YouTube at

Monday, February 21, 2011


An unprecedented fossil foot bone appears to confirm that Australopithecus afarensis-the early human ancestors made famous by the "Lucy" skeleton-walked like modern humans, a new study says.Until now it had been unclear just how upright-in a sense, just how human-Lucy really was.

With the newfound A. afarensis fossil, "just about everything that you would expect of a modern bipedal foot is present here," said anthropologist C. Owen Lovejoy, who was not involved in the research.

Unearthed at a known A. afarensis fossil trove in Hadar, Ethiopia, the 3.2-million-year-old fossil is a metatarsal, one of five long bones that connect the large bones in the back of the foot to those of the toes. The fossil's size and shape allowed scientists to determine that the foot it had belonged to was stiff and had a well-defined arch-two features that help modern humans spring forward and that cushion the shocks of bipedal walking.

While ape feet flex in the middle to enable better climbing, arched feet like humans'-and, it appears, like Lucy's-are stiff, allowing bipedal steps to propel us forward more efficiently, said lead study author Carol Ward, an anthropologist at the University of Missouri. Such feet also feature natural shock absorbers to cushion the stress of walking upright. Even today people with inefficient arches, or "flat feet," suffer a host of joint problems throughout their skeletons.

A. afarensis's feet now appear to have been well adapted to deal with such side effects of bipedalism, to the detriment of their tree-climbing abilities, according to the study, published in the journal Science. "It seems A. afarensis was fully committed to life on the ground long before Homo"-truly human species-"appeared about two million years ago."

"We really have an enormous amount of material from A. afarensis now," said Lovejoy, of Kent State University in Ohio. "All of these features of the foot are not surprising to me. Some were even present in the Ardipithecus ramidus"-aka Ardi-"foot 4.4 million years ago," Lovejoy said. Revealed in 2009, Ardi helped dispel the notion that a chimplike missing link occupied the base of the human family tree.
Ardi's "foot was already a pretty good bipedal foot, although that species retained an opposable great toe." The fossil could say a lot more about A. afarensis than how the species got around.

"That it was much more important to give up a grasping toe-which is a very useful thing to have-in favor of a modern foot tells us how important being effective on the ground was in terms of survival and reproduction," Ward said. Efficient bipedal walking would have allowed A. afarensis to leave forests entirely, when necessary-perhaps to search for food or to colonize other areas, she said.

Kent State's Lovejoy said, "We think Ardipithecus ramidus was restricted to
woodland."But in the transition from Ardipithecus ramidus to A. afarensis, between
4.4 and 3.8 million years ago, you're getting an animal that's beginning to spread into new environments like lake margins, savanna, and [grasslands]," Lovejoy added.

"The only way these animals could do that was with a sophisticated social culture. A relatively slow biped on the savanna is a dead biped-unless he has a lot of friends about him."

Sunday, February 20, 2011


Ben Ali and his family fled Tunisia on 14 January after street demonstrations against his 23-year autocratic rule ripped through the country. They have subsequently sought refuge in Saudi Arabia. Just prior to their departure, Ben Ali's wife, Leila, is reported to have taken one and a half tons of gold, valued at $56m. Representatives of the country's central bank have denied its removal.

Many of the artifacts and antiquities confiscated by the Ben Alis originally came from the Bardo Museum, which has the world's largest collection of Roman mosaics. According to Samir Aounallah, the Tunisian museums committee president, Leila Ben Ali used museum artifacts, including mosaics and frescoes, to decorate the family's villas.

Archaeological sites have also been affected. “I have accredited sources that have said sites in Cap Bon had objects taken from them by the Ben Ali clan,” said Aounallah. Although the director was not sure whether these pieces had been returned to their rightful owners, he did point out that a significant amount of “objects found in the villas of the Ben Ali clan have now been put back in their rightful collections.”

According to Julien Anfruns, the director general of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), several international archaeologists and curators are currently in Tunisia surveying potential damage to objects as well as drawing up revised inventories for the country's museums. Despite the violence, which according to a United Nations mission saw 219 people killed and 510 injured, museums have for the most part remained well protected. “People there are very understanding of the importance of the preservation of these museums,” said Anfruns.

Evidence of pillaging by the Ben Alis has been well documented on several news channels, including one segment that aired on the Middle East-based Al Arabiya in January. The clip shows the home of Ben Ali's daughter, Sakhr El Matri, revealing antiquities and ancient statues perched in the foyer and next to the swimming pool of her oceanfront villa. In the aftermath of the uprising, crowds reportedly descended upon several of the Ben Ali houses to tour the premises. A handful of the sprawling properties' walls were tagged with graffiti including one that read: "This property is now a national museum for the Tunisian people."

While the protests raged, nearly all contemporary art galleries in the capital were closed. They have since reopened, said Lilia Ben Salah, the owner of the Tunisian Galerie El Marsa. While normal life is returning to Tunisia, Ben Salah said she hopes “the art community will seize on this new era in order to make real change.” Adding: “We have to act fast to be able to preserve what we just acquired. We do not want to lose this.”

Saturday, February 05, 2011


An exhibition of more than 500 objects, most of them never before seen outside Greece, is set to rewrite knowledge of the Macedonian civilisation that brought forth Alexander the Great – the man who conquered most of the known world, from Greece to Egypt, Afghanistan and India, in the 4th century BC.

A magnificent array of objects, from intricate golden crowns to finely sculpted heads, will travel to the Ashmolean in Oxford this spring, for the first major archaeological exhibition to be held in the museum's newly expanded galleries.

The exhibition, Heracles to Alexander the Great, will show the fruits of recent excavations in Aegae, the ancient capital of Macedon. Artifacts in the exhibition will include objects from the burial tomb of the powerful King Philip II, Alexander's father, and his son, Alexander IV – and splendid jewelery and ornaments from the tombs of various Macedonian queens.

Some of the most revelatory objects in the exhibition are portrait heads. Unlike the idealized faces of classical Athens, they show furrowed brows, wrinkles and laughter lines and may transform understanding of the history of portraiture. "The Macedon of Philip II is the birthplace and birth-time of realistic portraiture," said Dr Angeliki Kottaridi, the lead curator of the exhibition and the director of excavations at Aegae.

Among these sculpted heads will be a portrait of Philip II, with a remarkably lived-in face and crinkly eyes. And even more intriguingly, there will be a set of life size and lifelike terracotta heads that are, according to Kottaridi, "absolutely unique". Twenty-six were found, by Kottaridi herself, in the grave of a Macedonian queen dating from about 500BC.

Dr Susan Walker, keeper of antiquities at the Ashmolean, speculated that these remarkable objects could seen as forebears of the kind of elaborate Hellenistic portraiture created in Alexandria centuries later, which in turn influenced Roman "true" portraiture.

From the tomb of Philip II comes not only his royal crown but items belonging to a woman, thought by Kottaridi to be the Thracian princess Meda of Odessa, one of his wives.

Kottaridi believes she may have committed suicide, according to Thracian practice, so as to serve her husband in death as well as life. Her beautiful, highly wrought golden crown from the tomb is, said Kottaridi, "one of the masterpieces of the exhibition".

The exhibition will show how an introverted, small tribal kingdom – mythologically founded by the descendants of Heracles – was, said Walker, gradually "drawn into the wider world, developing relationships on the eastern side of the Aegean and forming a key relationship with Athens, which it eventually pushed out of the region".

"For the first time we will be able to see where they were coming from; put the archaeology against the history, look at how they dressed and how they died," said Walker. "We are so focused on the history of Athens that we completely underestimate the Macedonians."


Google's Art Project is a wonderful way to visit museums all over the world:

From the National Gallery and the Tate in London to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam to the Met Museum and MOMA in New York City.

For art historians and just everyone -- this is amazing!


History is set to be rewritten after an archaeology team led by the University of Birmingham and the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology in Austria discovered a major ceremonial monument less than one kilometer away from the iconic Stonehenge.

The incredible find has been hailed by Professor Vince Gaffney, from the University’s IBM Visual and Spatial Technology Center, as one of the most significant yet for those researching the UK’s most important prehistoric structure.

Professor Gaffney says: “This finding is remarkable. It will completely change the way we think about the landscape around Stonehenge. “People have tended to think that as Stonehenge reached its peak it was the paramount monument, existing in splendid isolation. This discovery is completely new and extremely important in how we understand Stonehenge and its landscape.”

The new “henge-like” Late Neolithic monument is believed to be contemporaneous to Stonehenge and appears to be on the same orientation as the World Heritage Site monument. It comprises a segmented ditch with opposed north-east/south-west entrances that are associated with internal pits that are up to one meter in diameter and could have held a free-standing, timber structure.

The project, which is supported by the landowner, the National Trust, and facilitated by English Heritage, has brought together the most sophisticated geophysics team ever to be engaged in a single archaeological project in Britain.



David Kennedy, a professor of classics and ancient history at the University of Western Australia, used Google Earth satellite maps to pinpoint 1,977 potential archaeological sites, including 1,082 teardrop shaped stone tombs.

"I've never been to Saudi Arabia," Dr Kennedy said. "It's not the easiest country to break into."

Dr Kennedy told New Scientist that he had verified the images showed actual archaeological sites by asking a friend working in the Kingdom to photograph the locations.

Few archaeologists have been given access to Saudi Arabia, which has long been hostile to the discipline. Hardline clerics in the kingdom fear that it might focus attention on the civilizations which flourished there before the rise of Islam – and thus, in the long term, undermine the state religion. In 1994, a council of Saudi clerics was reported to have issued an edict asserting that preserving historical sites "could lead to polytheism and idolatry" – both punishable, under the Kingdom's laws, by death.

Saudi Arabia's rulers have, in recent years, allowed archaeologists to excavate some sites, including the spectacular but little-known ruins of Maidan Saleh, a 2,000 old city which marked the southern limits of the powerful Nabataean civilisation.

For the most part, though, access to ancient sites has been severely restricted.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011


Early humans may have preferred the fox to the dog as an animal companion, new archaeological findings suggest. Researchers analyzing remains at a prehistoric burial ground in Jordan have uncovered a grave in which a fox was buried with a human, before part of it was then transferred to an adjacent grave.

The University of Cambridge-led team believes that the unprecedented case points to some sort of emotional attachment between human and fox. Their paper suggests that the fox may have been kept as a pet and was being buried to accompany its master, or mistress, to the afterlife. If so, it marks the first known burial of its kind and suggests that long before we began to hunt foxes using dogs, our ancestors were keeping them as pets - and doing so earlier than their canine relatives.

The cemetery, at Uyun-al-Hammam, in northern Jordan, is about 16,500 years old,which makes the grave 4,000 years older than the earliest known human-dog burial and 7,000 years earlier than anything similar in Europe involving a fox. The researchers also suggest that this early example of human-animal burial may be part of a bigger picture of growing cultural sophistication that has typically been associated with the farming societies of the Neolithic era, thousands of years later. However, the relationship between man and that particular beast was probably short-lived: it is unlikely that foxes were ever domesticated in full and that, despite their early head start, their recruitment as a friendly household pet fell by the wayside in later millennium as their human masters took to the more companionable dog instead.

"The burial site provides intriguing evidence of a relationship between humans and foxes which pre-dates any comparable example of animal domestication," Dr Lisa Maher, from the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies, University of Cambridge, said. "What we appear to have found is a case where a fox was killed and buried with its owner. Later, the grave was reopened for some reason and the human's body was moved. But because the link between the fox and human had been significant, the fox was moved as well, so that the person, or people, would still be accompanied by it in the afterlife."

The movement of the body parts is believed to be highly significant. If the human body is the same in both cases, then none of the other grave goods except the fox were considered worth moving, strongly suggesting that the fox had some sort of special relationship to the human. Other such cases are very rare. Many of the next earliest involve dogs, including one site in Israel where a woman was buried with her hand resting on a puppy, but even they are about 4,000 years younger than Uyun-al-Hammam.

Edited from PhysOrg (27 January 2011), Past Horizons (28 January 2011)
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Stone Age people apparently took a surprisingly fast track out of Africa via an unexpected route - Arabia. Modern humans reached Arabia's eastern edge as early as 125,000 years ago, according to a report in Science magazine. That's a good 65,000 years earlier than the generally accepted date for the first substantial human migrations beyond Africa.

A cache of stone tools unearthed at an Arabian Peninsula rock shelter called Jebel Faya resemble sharpened points and cutting implements from East African sites of about the same age, says a scientific team led by physical geographer Simon Armitage of the University of London and archaeologist Hans-Peter Uerpmann of the University of Tübingen in Germany. Jebel Faya is located in what's now the United Arab Emirates. "New dates at Jebel Faya reveal that modern humans migrated out of Africa much earlier than previously thought, helped by global fluctuations in sea-level and climate change in the Arabian Peninsula," Armitage says.

The timing and dispersal of modern humans out of Africa has been the source of long-standing debate, though most evidence has pointed to an exodus along the Mediterranean Sea or along the Arabian coast approximately 60,000 years ago. Many advocates of this later African departure suspect that a massive eruption of Indonesia's Mount Toba around 74,000 years ago created a global 'volcanic winter' that decimated modern human populations in Africa and rendered the Indian subcontinent uninhabitable for thousands of years.

Finds at Jebel Faya call that scenario into question, Armitage says. "These 'anatomically modern' humans - like you and me - had evolved in Africa about 200,000 years ago and subsequently populated the rest of the world," said Armitage. "Our findings should stimulate a re-evaluation of the means by which we modern humans became a global species." By about 130,000 years ago, decreased sea levels narrowed the Bab al-Mandab Strait separating East Africa from southwest Arabia to about 4 kilometers, allowing safe passage, the researchers estimate. Travelers could have then moved through a network of Arabian lakes and rivers created by warm, wet conditions at that time.

Initial finds at Jebel Faya came from settlements dating to between about 3,000 and 10,000 years ago. Stone tools from roughly 38,000 years ago then turned up. In March 2006, investigators began to unearth tools from the ancient rock shelter, which was occupied between 100,000 and 125,000 years ago. Finds at Jebel Faya consist of stone points, a few hand axes and a variety of other sharpened rocks. The researchers analyzed these Palaeolithic stone tools using a technique called luminescence dating and discovered that they were technologically similar to tools produced by early modern humans in east Africa, but very different from those produced to the north, in the Levant and the mountains of Iran. Dr Armitage calculated the stone tools at Jebel Faya are 125,000 years old, and they were made immediately after the period in which the Bab al-Mandab seaway and Nejd Plateau were passable. This suggests that early modern humans migrated into Arabia directly from Africa and not via the Nile Valley and the Near East.

"This is a huge milestone, but unfortunately it raises more questions than it answers," said Jeffrey Rose, an archaeologist at the University of Birmingham in England. Richard Klein, a paleoanthropologist at Stanford University, said that the Uerpmann team's case for an earlier out-of-Africa expansion was "provocative, but in the absence of human remains, it's not compelling." Christopher Stringer, a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London, said that Arabia had long been a black hole in terms of early human migrations and that the new discovery was an impressive first start. He, like Dr. Klein, said it was hard to say who made the tools without having any fossil bones from the same site. But the tools are 'suggestive' of having been made by people who came out of Africa, Dr. Stringer said.

Edited from EurekAlert!, ScienceNews, The New York Times (27 January 2011), Past Horizons (30 January 2011)
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