Archive for the ‘Archaeology’ Category

Cats, beetles, other mummified animals found—along with a sealed door

November 12th, 2018
Photo of cat statue.

Enlarge (credit: Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities)

Archaeologists discovered dozens of mummified cats in seven previously undisturbed tombs in a 4,500-year-old pyramid complex near Saqqara, south of Cairo. The cats were found along with a collection of mummified scarab beetles, gilded wood cat statues, painted animal sarcophagi, and other artifacts.

Sacred to Bastet

Today, dozens of intact mummies of any species are a relatively rare find for archaeologists, but mummifying cats and other animals was a common practice in Egypt for thousands of years. The Saqqara cats, like millions of others throughout Egyptian history, would have been bred and raised for eventual mass sacrifice to the protective goddess Bastet, who often appears in Egyptian art as a woman with the head of a lioness or, after about 1000 BCE, a domestic cat.

Most of those once-common mummies were lost to rampant looting across the centuries, which peaked between the 1700s and early 1900s. Europeans looted hundreds of thousands of animal mummies, including baboons, cats, crocodiles, and ibises, most of which were destroyed to make fertilizer.

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Posted in ancient egypt, Archaeology, cat domestication, Cats, egyptology, mummies, science | Comments (0)

The world’s oldest figurative drawing depicts a wounded animal

November 9th, 2018
The world’s oldest figurative drawing depicts a wounded animal

Enlarge (credit: Aubert et al. 2018)

New radiometric dating identifies the oldest known figurative drawing—not a stenciled outline of a hand or an abstract design, but an actual attempt to depict a real object in an image. As far as we know, a cave wall in Indonesian Borneo was the site for the first time a person drew something, rather than just making abstract marks. The drawing is at least 40,000 years old, based on uranium-series dating of a thin layer of rock deposited on top of the drawing since its creation.

It’s a large animal of some sort, outlined and colored in with reddish-orange pigment, but after 40,000 years, parts of the image are missing. Griffith University archaeologist Maxime Aubert and his colleagues say it appears to be a large hoofed mammal with a spear shaft sticking out of its flank.

Other figurative drawings, as old as 35,000 years, have turned up on the nearby island of Sulawesi, alongside hand stencils dating back to 40,000 years ago. And in Europe, people started representing animals in art around the same time, such as on figurines carved in mammoth ivory from Germany. That means the tradition of representing the world around us in art is ancient around the world, from an island in southeast Asia to western Eurasia.

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Posted in ancient art, ancient asia, ancient people did stuff, Archaeology, art, borneo, cave art, cave paintings, human migration, science | Comments (0)

Neanderthal teeth reveal lead exposure and difficult winters

October 31st, 2018
Neanderthal teeth reveal lead exposure and difficult winters


A new study of oxygen isotope ratios and heavy metals in the tooth enamel of Neanderthals who lived and died 250,000 years ago in southeast France suggests that they endured colder winters and more pronounced differences between seasons than the region’s modern residents. The two Neanderthals in the study also experienced lead exposure during their early years, making them the earliest known instances of this exposure.

Enduring harsh winters

Tooth enamel forms in thin layers, and those layers record the chemical traces of a person’s early life—from climate to nutrition to chemical exposures—a little like tree rings on a much smaller scale. Archaeologist Tanya Smith of Griffith University and her colleagues examined microscopic samples of tooth enamel from two Neanderthal children from the Payre site in southeastern France. The teeth were radiocarbon dated to around 250,000 years ago, and the set of samples recorded about three years of life.

One important clue to past environments is oxygen, which comes from the water a person drank or the plants they ate. The ratio of the oxygen-18 isotope to oxygen-16 depends on temperature, precipitation, and evaporation. Generally, higher ratios of oxygen-18 indicate warmer, drier conditions with more evaporation.

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Posted in Archaeology, biological archaeology, isotope analysis, Neanderthals, paleoanthropology, paleoclimate, science, teeth | Comments (0)

Archaeologists find 300,000-year-old stone tools in Saudi Arabia

October 29th, 2018
Archaeologists find 300,000-year-old stone tools in Saudi Arabia

Enlarge (credit: Roberts et al. 2018)

Stone tools unearthed in Saudi Arabia’s inhospitable Nefud Desert indicate that members of our genus Homo had ventured beyond the familiar borders of Africa and the Levant sometime between 300,000 and 500,000 years ago. And according to climate data captured in the bones of animals found at the site, the environment they moved into may not have been that different from the one they left behind in East Africa. That may help anthropologists better understand the role of environment—and the ability to adapt to challenging new landscapes—in shaping human evolution and global expansion.

The things they left behind

Archaeologist Patrick Roberts of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and his colleagues recently discovered a handful of stone tools in a sandy layer of soil beneath the dry traces of a shallow Pleistocene lake at Ti’s al Ghadah, in the Nefud Desert of northern Saudi Arabia. The soil layer dated to between 300,000 and 500,000 years ago, and it also contained fossilized remains of grazing animals, water birds, and predators like hyena and jaguar. Many of the bones seem to bear the marks of butchering by tool-wielding hominins.

Archaeologists had found other fossils at the site with possible cut marks, but, without stone tools, it’s difficult to determine if a notch in a fossil rib was put there by a human hand and not another predator or natural process. The tools—six sharp brown chert flakes and a scraper—make a much clearer case. Roberts and his colleagues say they’re the oldest radiometrically dated hominin artifacts in the Arabian Peninsula, edging out the previous contender by 100,000 years.

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Posted in anthropology, arabian peninsula, Archaeology, fossil record, homo erectus, human ancestors, human migration, out of africa, paleoanthropology, paleoclimate, paleoecology, Saudi Arabia, science, Stable isotope, stone tools | Comments (0)

Chocolate has an even earlier origin than we thought, new study finds

October 29th, 2018
Mmmm, chocolate. We can indulge in delicious truffles today because of the cultivation of cacao in the Amazon basin thousands of years ago.

Enlarge / Mmmm, chocolate. We can indulge in delicious truffles today because of the cultivation of cacao in the Amazon basin thousands of years ago. (credit: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post/Getty Images)

We owe our perennial favorite sweet indulgence, chocolate, to Central American Aztec and Mayan people living nearly 4,000 years ago. At least that's what archaeologists have long assumed. But an international team of researchers has uncovered evidence that the plant from which chocolate is made was first cultivated in South America 1,500 years earlier than that.

Past and present are inextricably linked when it comes to the origins of food. "Today we all rely, on one extent or another, on foods that were created by the indigenous peoples of the Americas," says Michael Blake of the University of British Columbia, co-author of a new study published today in Nature Ecology & Evolution. "And one of the world's favorites is chocolate."

The chocolate we know and love comes from cacao beans, which grow inside large pods on cacao trees. Once the beans are harvested, they are left to ferment for several days and then dried. The dried beans are roasted and ground out. The liquid that comes out of this process becomes the cocoa butter used to make your favorite chocolate bar; any residue is turned into cocoa powder.

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Posted in anthropology, Archaeology, cacao, chocolate, forensics, science | Comments (0)

Ancient skull found among debris in burned Brazilian museum

October 25th, 2018
Ancient skull found among debris in burned Brazilian museum

Enlarge (credit: Gian Cornachini via Wikimedia Commons)

Archaeologists are celebrating the recovery of an 11,500-year-old skull from the burned rubble of the National Museum of Brazil following a devastating fire on September 2. The skull belongs to a woman, now nicknamed Luzia, who died in a cave in southeastern Brazil early in the history of the settling of the Americas. Archaeologists in the 1970s unearthed about a third of her skeleton, including her remarkably well-preserved skull, her pelvis and lower spine, part of her right femur (the large bone of the upper leg), her left tibia (the shin bone), and left radius (one of the bones of the forearm).

An early American

According to radiocarbon dating done in 2013, Luzia died sometime between 11,243 and 11,710 years ago, which places her bones among the oldest evidence we have of the early population of the Americas. When archaeologists retrieved the charred, cracked pieces of skull and femur from the remains of the museum’s first floor earlier this week, they salvaged a rare and vital source of information about how humans spread through the Americas.

Although archaeologists also found flint tools at the site, Luzia herself had been left alone in the cave with no other human remains nearby. That suggests an unexpected death, perhaps in an accident or an encounter with large Pleistocene wildlife. And at just under 1.5 m (5 ft) tall, Luzia certainly wouldn’t have been much of a match for a saber-toothed cat.

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Posted in 3d scanning, ancient DNA, Archaeology, biological archaeology, museums, paleoanthropology, paleogenomics, peopling of the americas, pleistocene, science, South America, South American archaeology | Comments (0)

This ancient Greek ship is the oldest intact shipwreck ever discovered

October 24th, 2018
This ancient Greek ship is the oldest intact shipwreck ever discovered

(credit: Black Sea MAP 2018)

An archaeological survey expedition called the Black Sea Maritime Archaeological Project discovered a shipwreck about 80km (49.7 miles) from the Bulgarian city of Burgas. A pair of remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) made a 3D map of the site and took a sample of wood for radiocarbon dating, which suggest that the ship was built around 2,400 years ago.

It looks surprisingly good for its age; its hull is still intact, its cargo is still piled in the hold, and the rowing benches on its deck look like they’re ready for the crew to pick up an oar and get to work. Truly ancient wrecks like this one usually leave behind only a scattering of amphorae, ballast stones, or broken pottery on the seafloor to tell the tale. But the depths of the Black Sea have turned out to be like a time capsule for ancient shipwrecks.

In the Black

The Black Sea’s depth averages 1,253m (4,111ft), but the deepest places on the seafloor lie 2,212m (7,257ft) beneath the waves. There are plenty of much deeper places in the world’s oceans, but the Black Sea is unique because its deeper layers, which flow in from the bottom of the Mediterranean, don’t mix with the oxygenated waters of the surface, which pour in from rivers. Most of the deep sea floor in the Black Sea is completely anoxic, making it a bad environment for most of the microbial species that would normally break down the wood of a shipwreck. So not much has happened to the ancient Greek trading ship as it has rested on its side in the anoxic darkness 2,000m (1.2 miles) below the surface, even as two-and-a-half millennia of history passed in the world above.

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Posted in ancient europe, ancient greece, ancient people did stuff, Archaeology, science, shipwreck, underwater archaeology | Comments (0)

Collapse of ancient city’s water system may have led to its demise

October 20th, 2018
The Cambodian city of Angkor was once the largest in the world until vast swathes of the population decamped in the 15th century. Its famous temple, Angkor Wat (above), survived.

Enlarge / The Cambodian city of Angkor was once the largest in the world until vast swathes of the population decamped in the 15th century. Its famous temple, Angkor Wat (above), survived. (credit: Stefan Irvine/LightRocket/Getty Images)

The Cambodian city of Angkor was once the largest in the world... then the vast majority of its inhabitants suddenly decamped in the 15th century to a region near the modern city of Phnom Penh. Historians have put forth several theories about why this mass exodus occurred. A new paper in Science Advances argues that one major contributing factor was an overloaded water distribution system, exacerbated by extreme swings in the climate.

Angkor dates back to around 802 CE. Its vast network of canals, moats, embankments, and reservoirs developed over the next 600 years, helping distribute vital water resources for such uses as irrigation and to help control occasional flooding. By the end of the 11th century, the system bore all the features of a complex network, with thousands of interconnected individual components heavily dependent on each other.

Such a configuration, hovering at or near the so-called critical point, is ideal for the effective flow of resources, whether we're talking about water, electricity (power grids), traffic, the spread of disease, or information (the stock market and the Internet). The tradeoff is that it can become much more sensitive to even tiny perturbations—so much so that a small outage in one part of the network can trigger a sudden network-wide cascading failure.

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Posted in ancient infrastructure, angkor wat, Archaeology, climate change, complex networks, Greater Angkor Project, phase transitions, Physics, science, tipping points | Comments (0)

Ars Technica Live #1: The archaeology of meat and butchery, with guest Krish Seetah

April 28th, 2016

Ars Technica Live, episode 1: Meat. (video link)

Welcome to the first episode of Ars Technica Live, a monthly series of in-depth interviews with people working at the intersections of technology, science, and culture. In this episode, your Ars hosts Annalee Newitz and Cyrus Farivar interviewed Stanford anthropologist Krish Seetah about his research on the deep history of butchery before a live audience at Longitude, a tiki bar in Oakland, California. Seetah gave us a fascinating look at how the technologies and morality of butchery have shaped humanity for millions of years—and our discussion inspired an intense debate with some of the attendees.

Butchery evolved before humans

Seetah’s first job when he was growing up in the neighborhood of Brixton in London was as a butcher’s assistant. He told us about how his many years as a butcher shaped his understanding of meat and ultimately became a major part of his interests as a scholar. He’s worked on studies that look at early humans’ relationships with animals, as well as the technologies we’ve developed from animal products like wool, and he is now working on a book-length project about the early history of butchery. He pointed out immediately that there is evidence that the ancestors of Homo sapiens were butchering animals with stone tools nearly 2.5 million years ago. That’s long before our ancestors invented fire and, indeed, long before Homo sapiens evolved some 200,000 years ago.

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Posted in anthropology, Archaeology, ars technica live, Ars Technica Videos, krish seetah | Comments (0)