Homo erectus ate crunchy food

Jennifer Viegas

Discovery News

Tuesday, 22 November 2005


Tooth marks suggest Homo erectus ate crunchy foods, like root vegetables (Image: iStockphoto)

Homo erectus munched on crunchy, brittle and tough foods, while other early humans seemed to favour softer fare, according to a new analysis of teeth.


All the individuals showed signs of eating a variety of foods.


H. erectus lived between approximately 2 million to 400,000 years ago and is the first known primate to use significant tools and walk upright.


The researchers say H. erectus is the only species they looked at that appears to have often crunched and chewed on foods, such as tough meat and crisp root vegetables.


Researchers now think this species enjoyed a broader diet than earlier proto-humans, such as H. habilis, which lived around 2.3 to 1.6 million years ago.


Like detectives, the scientists looked for telltale marks on 18 teeth belonging to these two species and other unconfirmed proto-humans.


The marks, which were created a few weeks before the individuals died, included scratches caused by eating tough leaves and pits that resulted from crunchy foods.


"If you are eating something tough, you can fracture it most efficiently by slicing it," says lead author Peter Ungar, professor of anthropology at the University of Arkansas.


"If you model teeth as scissors, the blades will scrape across the sides of the food and each other, causing abrasives to be dragged along, causing scratches," he says.


"If you try to pulverise tough or raw meat with a hammer, you get a mess, but not nice small pieces for swallowing. In contrast, a hammer would make much more sense for hard, brittle foods, such as nuts, seeds, roots and tubers. The brittle foods should leave pits as the food and teeth are pounded against one another."


Ungar and his team determined how food affects teeth by first studying the choppers of existent primate species and two early human foraging groups, the Aleut and the Arikara.


The researchers then applied this data to their analysis of the proto-human teeth, which they magnified and studied using computer software.


Findings will be published in the Journal of Human Evolution.


The study suggests H. habilis, which some researchers have nicknamed "the handy man" because this species made the first known stone tools, was more of a fruit and veg eater than the apparent omnivore H. erectus.


Teeth for the latter had greater numbers of pits, while handy habilis teeth had more striations suggestive of pulling down on fruit and leaves.


"Both of the species would probably have focused on high energy-yield, easy-to-consume foods, such as soft fruits when they could get them," says Ungar.


"The differences between H. habilis and H. erectus suggest that the latter may have focused a bit more on tough foods. They could have been meat, tough tubers or other items."


The researchers theorised that climate and food sources started to change around 2.5 million years ago. Cooling and drying appear to have spread across Africa beginning at that time, which probably converted forests to grasslands and increased overall climate variation.


H. erectus then might have had to develop a more flexible diet that involved more than plucking fruits from trees.


William Calvin, affiliate professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle says, "Homo erectus ate well."


In his recent book A Brief History of the Mind Calvin writes that H. erectus "not only attained meat-eating but transport of food and raw materials and the sharing of food ... Perhaps they had learned to delay food consumption as well as to hunt, to prepare plant foods by pounding and soaking them first", making H. erectus, perhaps, the world's first cook.



Ancient tools at High Desert site go back 135,000 years

Chuck Mueller, Staff Writer 


BARSTOW - In the multicolored hills overlooking the Mojave River Valley, the excavation of stone tools and flakes reveals human activities from the distant past.

A new system of geologic dating has confirmed that an alluvial deposit bearing the stone tools and flakes at the Calico archaeological site is about 135,000 years old.


But the site could even be older.


Calico project director Fred Budinger Jr. said a soil sample, taken at a depth of 17 1/2 feet in one of three master pits at the dig near Yermo, verifies that the deposit dates to the Middle Pleistocene Epoch - the Ice Age.


"This new date confirms earlier estimates that humans were in the Manix Basin, near the base of the Calico Mountains, as early as 125,000 to 200,000 years ago," Budinger said.


The dating system, known as thermo-luminescence, reflects the amount of time that has elapsed since a layer of sediment was exposed to sunlight.


Another system, called uranium-thorium dating, pushed the age of sedimentary layers at the digging site to about 200,000 years ago.


But studies now under way with beryllium 10, an element used in dating exposed surfaces, could open the door into the more distant geological past.


"Beryllium 10 can date rock forms back almost to the formation of Earth itself,' said Budinger, senior archaeologist with Tetra Tech Inc., an environmental engineering and consulting firm with offices in San Bernardino.


Meanwhile, another system of dating known as optically stimulated luminescence also may be used to determine the age of artifact-bearing beds at the Calico site. This system is used to date sand dune layers.


Lewis Owen, a former geology professor at UC Riverside and now with the University of Cincinnati, is in charge of the new research.


"No other archaeological site has made use of these dating methods," Budinger said. "And until we get results (from Owen), expected this winter, we say the Calico site is 100,000 to 200,000 years old."


Humans who inhabited the Manix Basin chipped tools from chalcedony and chert, rocks that break like glass, to serve as scrapers, choppers, gravers, saws and digging tools. The Calico area was a workshop, and no direct evidence of man, such as bones or teeth, have been found at the site.


Manix Lake, a 91-square-mile freshwater lake extending from present-day Yermo to Afton Canyon, drained 18,000 years ago. A unique combination of environmental factors - erosion, faulting, and folding - exposed the alluvial deposits.


Excavations at the Calico Early Man site, often simply called the Calico Digs, began in November 1964.


Heading the project was  world-renowned archaeologist Louis Leakey, famed for discoveries with his wife, Mary, at the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania over three decades.


Among their finds was Zinjanthropus, an early man dating back 1.75 million years. Louis Leakey was project director at Calico from 1965 until his death in 1972.


San Bernardino County archaeologist Ruth DeEtte Simpson, field director under Leakey, then became project director.


Calico's current site manager, retired electronics engineer Chris Christensen, served as Leakey's chauffeur and body guard.


"The archaeological world was concerned with his safety out here," Christensen recalled.


He now oversees digging operations and guides visitors to the site.


"Volunteers from as far away as Berkeley and San Diego take part in digs the first weekend of every month from October through May," he said. "Some are professional geologists and archaeologists."


Since excavations began, more than 64,000 tools, flakes and stone chips have been collected at Calico, said Johanna Lytle, president of the nonprofit Friends of Calico. Most are housed in the San Bernardino County Museum in Redlands.


Extensive improvements have been added to the site, which includes three master digging pits and 22 test pits.


"One of Louis Leakey's favorite tools was 'the Calico Cutter,' as he called it," Christensen said, displaying a replica of the artifact in the small museum on the grounds. "It shows bifacial flaking and use-wear patterns ... evidence of human activity that could not be caused by nature."


The site, two miles off Interstate 15 at Minneola Road, attracts visitors from across the nation and around the world.


Dennis and Patricia Pollet of Redondo Beach stopped by Wednesday.


"While my wife and I are very interested in ancient man, this is our first chance to see a dig of consequence," Dennis said. "People who visit Calico have a rare opportunity to see an actual excavation site."


"You can actually get the feel of an old civilization here," said Patricia. "You get a chance to touch our human past."




By Richard Wright

A LOST valley where Neanderthals hunted mammoth and massive pre-historic rhinoceros has been uncovered by archaeologists at Pan, Newport.

Early analysis of finds during the summer investigation of the area has built up a picture of how life used to be in the Medina valley more than 40,000 years ago.

Specialist probes continue after the digs carried out at Great Pan Farm as part of the archaeological assessment prior to development of the new Pan Village.

Great Pan Farm was recognised as a nationally significant Stone Age site when gravel extraction recovered flint tools embedded in a former river terrace, the lowest of four such terraces.

Until the latest investigation, the date of the most important terrace has been the subject of hot debate with estimates ranging between 240,000 years and 40,000 years.

The investigations showed peat immediately on top of the gravel terrace containing plant remains, wood and reed fragments so well preserved they were thought to be modern.

Samples have now been sent to laboratories in Europe and the United States for detailed examination.

Project consultant Katie-Sue Wilson said: "Initial results from the analysis have been startling.

"The peat turned out not to be modern at all. Instead, it dates from a period more than 40,000 years ago and appears to represent a marshy pool or in-filled river channel in the very landscape occupied by some of the last Neanderthal populations in Britain.

"The identified presence of pollen, along with the larger plant remains, will allow us to re-create the environment of the Medina valley during this remote period and place the museum's large collection of Neanderthal tools in their correct environmental context.

"The Island is already an internationally recognised region for its rich and diverse palaeontological fauna, from cretaceous dinosaurs to tertiary fossil beds.

"The recent identification of an extensive suite of beds dating to the Ice Age adds a no less exciting dimension to this unique natural resource. We are recovering preserved elements of a lost valley landscape.

"As this work is carried forward over the next few years, results from this important site will help to cement the reputation of the Island as one of the key locales in northern Europe for understanding our ancient past."

24 November 2005




Sounding a return for ancient warrior horn

FOR the first time in more than two millennia, the sound of an ancient giant Celtic war-horn sounded across the hills of Peeblesshire at the weekend, writes Mark Entwistle.


The replica horn, properly known as a 'carnyx' was created by copying the reconstructed remains of an original carnyx discovered in a bog in Morayshire in the early 19th century.

On a dry and bright Sunday, atop Windy Knowe, a hill overlooking Innerleithen, composer and musician John Kenny sounded the arcane instrument.

Afterwards he gave a concert using the carnyx to an 80-strong audience in the local parish church.

John is a professional orchestral trombonist and composer, and Sunday's performances came about through his sister, Mary Kenny, the artist who carved the celtic-inspired sculptures which now adorn Windy Knowe hill.

On one of these sculptures is an etching of a Celtic warrior blowing a carnyx.

Experts regard the carnyx as the most sophisticated wind instrument made and played during the European Iron Age.

Fragments have been uncovered throughout Europe, but the most complete example was found at Deskford on the shores of the Moray Firth in 1816.

In 1994, Dr John Purser commissioned silversmith John Creed to reconstruct the carnyx, working in collaboration with the National Museums of Scotland and the Glenfiddich Living Scotland scheme.

In 1995, Kenny became the first modern exponent of the carnyx.

Organiser of Sunday's event was local Innerleithen author Howard Purdie.

"John's sister Mary was the link for this. I just thought local musicians and historians might like to hear what a carnyx sounded like," he told TheSouthern this week.

The project to recreate a carnyx from the remains of the Morayshire instrument was carried out by both archaeologists and musicologists and the result was a long metal tube, at the top of which sits a carved bronze boar's head, complete with vivid red lolling tongue.

Held upright when blown, the 12ft-high carnyx sounds like a cross between a trumpet and an Australian didgeridoo and was played by celtic warriors prior to going into battle.

Howard explained: "Although they had found the head of a carnyx and so knew what it looked like, they had no idea what else was used to make it a playable instrument or how it was played.

"But then someone discovered a Roman drawing which depicted a Celtic warrior blowing a carnyx. It showed that the bronze boar's head was connected to a long tube and it was blown while being held in the vertical position.

"When the tongue vibrates it makes a sound, kind of like a didgeridoo crossed with a trombone!

"It was marvellous to hear it sounding out across the hills on Sunday. When John blew it, the sound came back off the surrounding hills as an echo almost immediately and people heard it quite clearly in the High Street in Innerleithen down below."

Afterwards, the special concert was held at Innerleithen Parish Church, where John also gave a talk on the carnyx, relating it to other wind instruments.

Supporting him was St Ronan's Future Band, the youth section of the town's silver band, which gave a recital.

"There was a tricky moment when it was realised that the carnyx was a pagan instrument and it was about to be played in a Christian church," added Howard.

"But it was then pointed out that as well as being blown to frighten enemies during war, the carnyx was also a religious instrument, so everything was deemed OK."

24 November 2005



Ancient Mountain City Discovered in Liaoning 


Archaeologists have discovered a 800-year-old city in Benxi City, northeastern Liaoning province, approximately 660 meters above sea level and covering about 520,000 square meters, local government said on Thursday.


The city was built into a flat area in Pingding Mountain, said Liang Zhilong, deputy director of the city museum. He told Xinhua News Agency that archaeologists discovered the ruins during a recent research expedition.


Not much of the city remains, apart from some stone walls and a house, Liang said, adding that although they can confirm that the city was built some time between the Jin (1115-1234) and Yuan dynasties (1279-1368), they cannot confirm who actually built the city or who lived there.


"The city designers were so ingenious that they used the cliffs as a natural defense and filled the cliff cracks with stone," Liang said.


The 657-meter-high Pingding Mountain, which has a flat top, is located in the southern part of Benxi's urban areas.


According to history records, the mountain was used as a military base in the Yuan and Ming dynasties (1368-1644).


(Xinhua News Agency November 25, 2005)




Villa buried by Pompeii eruption is unearthed

By Hilary Clarke in Rome

(Filed: 22/11/2005)


An archaeological dig on the Amalfi coast has revealed the first luxury villa to be built in the idyllic fishing village of Positano, a popular haunt of today's rich and famous.


A frescoe on a wall of the villa found in Positano


Two storeys of a first century millionaire's abode have been found under a church which was hidden for 2,000 years by the same volcanic eruption that devastated Pompeii in 79AD.


During renovation work on the church's crypt last summer, roof beams were found poking up just a few inches down.


They revealed an enormous building that certainly would have belonged to an important person in Imperial Rome.


A subsequent initial dig by archaeologists unearthed, about 6ft below the ground, two storeys of remarkably brightly-coloured wall frescoes and marble mosaics of mythical characters. They had been perfectly preserved.


The villa, which looked directly out on to the Mediterranean, is believed to have several terraces although more digs will be needed to see exactly how far it stretches.


Franco Zeffirelli, the Italian film-maker, is the most famous latter-day Positano villa-owner.


Past residents include Rudolph Nureyev, the ballet dancer, and Napoleon's marshall and later king of Naples, Joachim Murat. The American writers John Steinbeck and Tennessee Williams were frequent visitors to Positano.



Big new Roman find in city

A CITY'S history books may have to be rewritten after a major archaeological find.

Experts believe they have unearthed a Roman road in the heart of Chichester and now have hopes of discovering a 1st-century fort.

They have hailed the find an 'archaeological jackpot' for the city.

The road was found during an excavation before work on a major new housing and shopping development began at the former Shippams factory site off East Street.

Developer Kier ordered the work and employed Gifford Archaeology and Pre-Construct Archaeology Ltd to take charge of the studies.

Their teams found a road, running parallel to East Street, complete with camber and a ditch alongside it.

Experts believe buildings that would have run alongside this road were likely to have been a combination of homes, shops and workshops.

Smaller Roman finds, including coins and a pair of tweezers, have also been turned up already.

But archaeologists believe they will unearth even more gems, including the possibility of a Roman fort, when excavation work begins for a new underground car park on the site.

24 November 2005

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Bus stop an execution site, 1500 years ago

Email Print Normal font Large font By Richard Macey

November 26, 2005


Allen Madden and Dr Denise Donion of the University of Sydney with Octavia Man.

Photo: Edwina Pickles



AdvertisementHIS crime will probably never be known. But "he sure trod on someone's toes", said Allen Madden, cultural and heritage officer for the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council.


In January, when EnergyAustralia workers laying cables in Ocean Street, Narrabeen, found human bones beneath a bus stop, they called police.


The remains have since been identified as those of an Aborigine who died up to 1500 years ago. Next week the annual conference of the Australian Archaeological Association in Fremantle will hear vivid details of his life and gruesome death.


Octavia Man, so named because he was found near the corner of Ocean and Octavia streets, was executed - repeatedly speared and then axed - said Jo McDonald, a Canberra archaeologist who, with Sydney University researchers, has pieced together his last moments.


"We think he was between 30 and 40, a big muscular man," about 1.8 metres tall," she said. "He had perfect teeth."


Arthritis in his elbow probably resulted from years of hunting with spears. One of 14 stone barbs found with his bones was a tool, for piercing or slicing skin, that he carried in his hair.


But the 13 others had a darker purpose, once tipping the heads of multi-barbed "death spears".


Dr McDonald, who runs a consultancy, Jo McDonald Cultural Heritage Management, realised something was amiss when the rest of the skeleton was found intact, from the waist up, under 1.5 metres of sand. " He had not been respectfully buried. His left arm was flung across his neck and his head was 40 centimetres off to the side."


Four barbs were embedded in Octavia Man's spine. Another was found with bone residue near his skull, which was missing "a triangular chunk".


"This person was ritually speared. One spear went into the stomach from the left side, just above the blade of the hip bone. It probably passed through the large intestine and the bottom of the left kidney."


The second spear, from behind, lodged in his spinal column. The third punctured his skull. A stone axe "finished him off" with a blow to his head. His body was then partially burnt.


While spearing was a punishment in Aboriginal culture, Dr McDonald said, "first offenders" were usually just wounded.


Two healed depressed fractures in the man's skull hinted it was not the first time he had been physically punished. The three attacks suggested the man was "a repeat offender".


She believed it was the first direct evidence of execution by spearing in pre-European Aboriginal culture found. "It's incredibly important."


Mr Madden, whose land council requested the dig to recover all the man's remains, agreed he was put to death. "Speared three times, bashed and burnt - he must have been disliked. It sounds like payback."


Dr McDonald said the discovery showed Sydney's pre-European history was still just below the surface, waiting to be found. "People should be aware these things can survive, and that archaeology can reveal remarkable stories."



DNA search for 'father' Christmas 

By Paul Rincon

BBC News science reporter 


Henry Christmas has spent 50 years researching his surname

A team of scientists in Oxford is trying to prove whether families with the rare surname of "Christmas" all descend from a single male ancestor.


They want to compare the DNA of men from different Christmas clans to see if they are linked by a common genetic heritage as well as by their surnames.


This will be done by looking at similarities and differences in the male, or Y, chromosomes of volunteers.


The work is part of wider research on the links between surnames and DNA.


DNA analysis company Oxford Ancestors is currently appealing for volunteers to participate in the study and is being assisted in the effort by Henry Christmas, a former telecommunications engineer who has spent 50 years researching the origins and history of his own family name.


Professor Bryan Sykes, who is leading the study at Oxford Ancestors, told the BBC News website: "There are several interesting questions such as was there one original 'father' Christmas or were there several different ones?"


A bit of cheek


His team will be taking cheek swabs from those volunteers selected by Mr Christmas in order to extract their DNA.


Every male possesses a Y chromosome which can be inherited only from his father, so this package of genetic material represents a unique record of paternal inheritance.


"If it's a single family with one original founder, then most of them will have the same Y chromosome fingerprint. If there's more than one, we'll identify that," said Bryan Sykes.


"But generally this is the kind of name that, from experience, has one or very few founders."


The work forms a small part of a wider project being conducted by Professor Sykes on the genetic history of Britain.


Surnames can be remarkably informative in reconstructing the genetic family tree of the British Isles, especially those of moderate frequency that can be tied closely to genealogical records.


"Generally speaking, the rarer the name, the more likely it is to have one founder. Most surnames are moderate frequency," he explained.


"Many, even now, are clustered around the historical origin of the name.


"This gives you a way of measuring how much spreading and mixing and movement there has been over the last 800 years - because many English surnames started then."


'Norman origin'


Professor Sykes found about 70% of the men he studied with his own surname had near-identical Y chromosomes. The 70% were all descended from one man who lived in Yorkshire in the 13th Century.


The Christmas family name is established widely through the home counties, but there are two significant geographical clusters; one in Essex and one in Sussex.


"We will select volunteers from those two branches," said Professor Sykes.


"If you didn't have that genealogical information, you wouldn't have the first idea about those two branches or where they come from."


Some genealogy books state that the origin of the surname derives from "one born at Christmas". But Henry Christmas believes this is "too easy".


"The original spelling was 'Chrystmasse', which perhaps indicates Norman origin. There were also Huguenots who came over [from France] with that name," he told the BBC News website.


Professor Sykes said the study should also be able to show how people with the Christmas surname were linked by their genes to other lineages.


And it should connect the common male founder - if indeed there was one - with one of the major population groups that have settled in the British Isles over the ages.


But the technique can also reveal signs of female infidelity, turning up errant Y chromosomes that do not fit in the overall genetic tree for a particular lineage.



Scientists Trying to ID Frozen Airman

By AUDREY McAVOY, Associated Press Writer

Sat Nov 19,12:04 PM ET


HICKAM AIR FORCE BASE, Hawaii - The airman's possessions, laid out on a table in a military lab, offer a glimpse of America circa 1942: a fountain pen, a black plastic comb, three badly damaged address books, and 51 cents in dimes, nickels and pennies, dated 1920 to 1942.


A neatly handwritten note tucked into one of the address books reveals the words "all the girls know," but the rest is deteriorated and illegible.


Forensic scientists at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command are using these and other clues to help them identify a World War II airman whose remarkably well-preserved body was chipped out of a California glacier last month after two mountain climbers discovered his head and arm jutting out of the ice.


The airman is believed to have been one of four men aboard a navigational training flight that crashed after takeoff from a Sacramento airfield on Nov. 18, 1942.


The experts have spent the past few weeks examining his bones, taking DNA samples and studying his teeth to establish who he was and precisely how he died.


"We want to be able to understand what happened to him fully," said Robert Mann, deputy scientific director of the lab identifying the remains. "And we also want to be able to answer whatever questions the family may have about `exactly what happened to my son, my brother.'"


The POW/MIA Accounting Command has recovered and examined the remains of U.S. servicemen all around the world, but skeletons are usually all that is left. In this case, the deep cold preserved the airman's flesh and hair, as well as his clothing.


The military, of course, knows the names of the four men killed in the crash. And there is a partially visible name on a heavily corroded metal badge attached to the airman's brown U.S. Army Air Forces uniform. But the forensic experts do not want to jump conclusions, and want to identify him with scientific certainty. (They will not disclose what the badge says.)


So far they have determined the airman was in his early 20s and stood between 5-foot-9 and 6-2. He had light brown or sandy blond hair. X-rays showed many of his bones were broken. He wore an unopened parachute, a thermal undershirt under his uniform, and a sweater.


The discovery of the airman's body Oct. 16 in the Sierra Nevada created a sensation. Families of the men who perished on the flight called the Fresno County Coroner's office to see if he was their lost loved one.


Jeanne Pyle, 85, of St. Clairsville, Ohio, said she believes the airman may be her brother, Cadet Ernest Munn, whom she remembers as a handsome, 6-foot-4 man with blond hair and blue eyes. If the experts confirm her suspicion, it will solve a painful mystery that has lasted for 63 years.


"It would be exciting, in a sad way," said Pyle, who last saw her brother at a party on his 21st birthday, days before he enlisted. "We've been living with an empty feeling for so long."


The AT-7 plane was piloted by 2nd Lt. William A. Gamber, 23, of Fayette, Ohio. It also had three aviation cadets aboard: Munn, 23, of St. Clairsville; John Mortenson, 25, of Moscow, Idaho; and Leo M. Mustonen, 22, of Brainerd, Minn. After the plane vanished, its fate was a mystery until 1947, when wreckage and some scant human remains were discovered in the mountains.


The lab received Army personnel files for the four airman last week, but those included no useful dental records. Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command spokesman 1st Lt. Jim Ivie said the lab will have to rely on DNA to make an identification. That typically involves obtaining DNA samples from a sibling or a maternal relative.


"We're just lucky that somebody walked by there when there was a thaw and his body was exposed," Mann said. "If not, he could have stayed there for hundreds of thousands of years."