Public release date: 25-Nov-2008

Contact: Jennifer Beal




Climate change wiped out cave bears 13 millennia earlier than thought


Enormous cave bears, Ursus spelaeus, that once inhabited a large swathe of Europe, from Spain to the Urals, died out 27,800 years ago, around 13 millennia earlier than was previously believed, scientists have reported.


The new date coincides with a period of significant climate change, known as the Last Glacial Maximum, when a marked cooling in temperature resulted in the reduction or loss of vegetation forming the main component of the cave bears' diet.


In a study published in Boreas, researchers suggest it was this deterioration in food supply that led to the extinction of the cave bear, one of a group of 'megafauna' – including woolly mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, giant deer and cave lion – to disappear during the last Ice Age.


They found no convincing evidence of human involvement in the disappearance of these bears. The team used both new data and existing records of radiocarbon dating on cave bear remains to construct their chronology for cave bear extinction.


"Our work shows that the cave bear, among the megafauna that became extinct during the Last Glacial period in Europe, was one of the earliest to disappear," said Dr Martina Pacher of the Department of Palaeontology at the University of Vienna. "Other, later extinctions happened at different times within the last 15,000 years."


Dr Pacher carried out the research alongside Professor Anthony J. Stuart of the Natural History Museum, London, and the University of Durham.


Many scientists previously claimed that cave bears survived until at least 15,000 years ago, but Dr Pacher and Professor Stuart claim that the methodology of these earlier studies included many errors in dating as well as confusion between cave bear and brown bear remains.


The pair also concluded, from evidence on skull anatomy, bone collagen and teeth, that these extinct mammals were predominantly vegetarian, eating a specialised diet of high-quality plants. Compared with other megafaunal species that would also become extinct, the cave bear had a relatively restricted geographical range, being confined to Europe, which may offer an explanation as to why it died out so much earlier than the rest.


"Its highly specialised mode of life, especially a diet of high-quality plants, and its restricted distribution left it vulnerable to extinction as the climate cooled and its food source diminished," said Dr Pacher.


The brown bear, with which Ursus spelaeus shares a common ancestor, was spread throughout Europe and much of northern Asia and has survived to the present day.


"A fundamental question to be answered by future research is: why did the brown bear survive to the present day, while the cave bear did not?" said Professor Stuart. Answers to this question may involve different dietary preferences, hibernation strategies, geographical ranges, habitat preferences and perhaps predation by humans.


Cave bears were heavily built animals, with males growing up to around 1000kg. The maximum recorded weight of both Kodiak bears and polar bears – the largest bears living today – is 800kg, with averages of around 500kg.


Scientists have recovered a large quantity of cave bear remains from many cave sites, where they are believed to have died during winter hibernation. Caves provide an ideal environment for the preservation of these remains.


Despite over 200 years of scientific study – beginning in 1794 when a young anatomist, J. Rosenmüller, first described bones from the Zoolithenhöhle in Bavaria as belonging to a new extinct species, which he called cave bear – the timing and cause of its extinction remain controversial.


By far the best source of information on the appearance of cave bears in the flesh is to be found in red pigment cave paintings in the Grotte Chauvet in the Ardèche region of southern France. These are the only depictions in Palaeolithic art that can be attributed unambiguously to the cave bear.



Fishermen find ancient boat in Black Sea


SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) — A well-preserved ancient wooden dugout canoe has been discovered at the bottom of the Black Sea, scientists said Saturday.


The vessel was discovered by fishermen trailing nets along the sea bottom some 15 miles off the coast, said Dimitar Nedkov, head of the Archaeological Museum in the port city of Sozopol.


"The dugout is 2.6 meters (8.5 feet) long and 70 centimeters (27.5 inches) wide, and it is made most probably of oak," Nedkov told The Associated Press.


Bulgarian explorers have found four ancient vessels in remarkably good condition in the Black Sea, whose oxygen-depleted deep water preserves wrecks without the worm damage and deterioration that normally affects wooden vessels.


"Nowhere else can you find similar dugouts, as well as any kind of wooden vessels over 300 years old, because water rots the wood away," said Bozhidar Dimitrov, head of the National Museum of History. "In the Black Sea, however, there is dissolved hydrogen sulfide below a certain depth which preserves all organic materials."



Őtzi's last supper

Study identifies 6 different mosses from the Tyrolean Iceman's alimentary tract

Contact: Joan Robinson





What we eat can say a lot about us –where we live, how we live and eventually even when we lived. From the analysis of the intestinal contents of the 5,200-year-old Iceman from the Eastern Alps, Professor James Dickson from the University of Glasgow in the UK and his team have shed some light on the mummy's lifestyle and some of the events leading up to his death. By identifying six different mosses in his alimentary tract, they suggest that the Iceman may have travelled, injured himself and dressed his wounds. Their findings (1) are published in the December issue of Springer's journal Vegetation History and Archaeobotany, which is specially dedicated to Oetzi the Iceman.


The Iceman is the first glacier mummy to have fragments of mosses in his intestine. This is surprising as mosses are neither palatable nor nutritious and there are few reports of mosses used for internal medical treatments. Rather, mosses recovered from archaeological sites tend to have been used for stuffing, wiping and wrapping.


Dickson and colleagues studied the moss remains from the intestines of the Iceman on microscope slides, to find out more about his lifestyle and events during the last few days of his life. Their paper describes in detail the six different mosses identified and seeks to provide answers to two key questions in each case. Firstly, where did the Iceman come in contact with each species; secondly, how did each come to enter his alimentary tract.


In particular, the authors suggest that one type of moss is likely to have been used to wrap food, another is likely to have been swallowed when the Iceman drank water during the last few days of his life, and yet another would have been used as a wound dressing. One type of moss in the Iceman's gut is not known in the region where the mummy was found, implying that the Iceman must have travelled.



1. Dickson JH et al (2008). Six mosses from the Tyrolean Iceman's alimentary tract and their significance for his ethnobotany and the events of his last days. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany. DOI 10.1007/s00334-007-0141-7



Rare Bronze Age necklace is found


A rare amber necklace believed to be about 4,000 years old has been uncovered in Greater Manchester.


Archaeologists made the find while excavating a cist - a type of stone-lined grave - in Mellor, Stockport.


It is the first time a necklace of this kind from the early Bronze Age has been found in north-west England.


Experts from the University of Manchester Archaeological Unit said a bronze necklace was one of the ultimate status symbols of the period.


The necklace consists of dozens of pierced amber beads of various sizes, linked together on a length of fibre.


It was discovered in the cist by experts from the university and local Mellor Archaeological Trust, who said the mystery was know how the material got to the north west.


"Amber is very significant," said Vicky Nash, of the Mellor Archaeological Trust, who found the ancient item.


"It's associated with burials in the prehistoric period but it's not readily available, the nearest source is in the Baltic [region].


"So to find that [necklace] in conjunction with a cist, it shows it was a burial of somebody particularly important at that time."



A temple discovered below Romuliana

Author: S. B. | 27.11.2008 - 09:21


ZAJECAR – German experts from the Archeological Institute of Frankfurt in collaboration with our experts have come to an incredible discovery- they have found monumental buildings below Romuliana covering 300 square meters. A temple and 25 objects have been hidden under the surface.


“It was generally believed that Romuliana, the place where Roman emperor Caius Valerius Galerius Maximianus (297-311) was born, was a village. This discovery casts a completely new light on historical data about Romuliana, proving that it was a Roman settlement with all characteristics of Roman cities of the time,” says Bora Dimitrijevic, the director from the museum in Zajecar.


According to him, a building made of solid material, most probably a temple, has been discovered under the ground.


“Next year we will probably know more when we continue our excavations. The 25 buildings that we have found so far on 35 hectometers are very interesting,” Dimitrijevic says.


These unusual discoveries will most probably change an overall picture of Romuliana built in the 4th century which has recently become protected by the UESCO.


On the western side of the archeological site three buildings have also been found, which are reminiscent of churches, but there are still no evidence that they are Christian temples.

“Until the end of December, we will sign a five-year contract with our colleagues from Germany about further exploration of Romuliana. Next year we expect to carry on with it on the location between the Palace and sacred Magur,” Dimitrijevic says.



Photos reveal Hadrian's history


Archaeologists have uncovered 2,700 previously unrecorded historic features along the length of Hadrian's Wall by studying thousands of aerial pictures.


The English Heritage experts found ancient burial mounds, medieval sheep farms and 19th Century lead mines.


They were working from more than 30,500 pictures taken during the past 60 years as part of a push to map and interpret archaeological sites across England.


Hadrian's Wall, in northern England, is a World Heritage Site.


The English Heritage project to map the Roman frontier began in 2002 and covered a wide area on either side of the 73 mile (117km) length of the wall, from the Solway Plain in Cumbria to Newcastle in the east.


Features catalogued include an Iron Age hillfort near the village of Fourstones, Northumberland, the deserted medieval village of East Matfen, Tyne and Wear, and a World War II anti-aircraft gun battery near Cleadon, Tyneside.


David MacLeod, of English Heritage's Aerial Survey and Investigation team, said: "We need to remember that Hadrian's Wall is not an isolated monument set within a landscape devoid of any other history.


"This region saw a tremendous amount of activity before the Romans arrived and after they left, traces and memories of which remain today."


He added: "It will help us to understand and manage the rich heritage of human activity that has shaped this landscape, whether it is the remains of a Bronze Age farm or a 20th Century gun battery."



Researchers find oldest-ever stash of marijuana


Researchers say they have located the world's oldest stash of marijuana, in a tomb in a remote part of China.


The cache of cannabis is about 2,700 years old and was clearly "cultivated for psychoactive purposes," rather than as fibre for clothing or as food, says a research paper in the Journal of Experimental Botany.


The 789 grams of dried cannabis was buried alongside a light-haired, blue-eyed Caucasian man, likely a shaman of the Gushi culture, near Turpan in northwestern China.


The extremely dry conditions and alkaline soil acted as preservatives, allowing a team of scientists to carefully analyze the stash, which still looked green though it had lost its distinctive odour.


"To our knowledge, these investigations provide the oldest documentation of cannabis as a pharmacologically active agent," says the newly published paper, whose lead author was American neurologist Dr. Ethan B. Russo.


Remnants of cannabis have been found in ancient Egypt and other sites, and the substance has been referred to by authors such as the Greek historian Herodotus. But the tomb stash is the oldest so far that could be thoroughly tested for its properties.


The 18 researchers, most of them based in China, subjected the cannabis to a battery of tests, including carbon dating and genetic analysis. Scientists also tried to germinate 100 of the seeds found in the cache, without success.


The marijuana was found to have a relatively high content of THC, the main active ingredient in cannabis, but the sample was too old to determine a precise percentage.


Researchers also could not determine whether the cannabis was smoked or ingested, as there were no pipes or other clues in the tomb of the shaman, who was about 45 years old.


The large cache was contained in a leather basket and in a wooden bowl, and was likely meant to be used by the shaman in the afterlife.


"This materially is unequivocally cannabis, and no material has previously had this degree of analysis possible," Russo said in an interview from Missoula, Mont.


"It was common practice in burials to provide materials needed for the afterlife. No hemp or seeds were provided for fabric or food. Rather, cannabis as medicine or for visionary purposes was supplied."


The tomb also contained bridles, archery equipment and a harp, confirming the man's high social standing.


Russo is a full-time consultant with GW Pharmaceuticals, which makes Sativex, a cannabis-based medicine approved in Canada for pain linked to multiple sclerosis and cancer.


The company operates a cannabis-testing laboratory at a secret location in southern England to monitor crop quality for producing Sativex, and allowed Russo use of the facility for tests on 11 grams of the tomb cannabis.


Researchers needed about 10 months to cut red tape barring the transfer of the cannabis to England from China, Russo said.


The inter-disciplinary study was published this week by the British-based botany journal, which uses independent reviewers to ensure the accuracy and objectivity of all submitted papers.


The substance has been found in two of the 500 Gushi tombs excavated so far in northwestern China, indicating that cannabis was either restricted for use by a few individuals or was administered as a medicine to others through shamans, Russo said.


"It certainly does indicate that cannabis has been used by man for a variety of purposes for thousands of years."


Russo, who had a neurology practice for 20 years, has previously published studies examining the history of cannabis.


"I hope we can avoid some of the political liabilities of the issue," he said, referring to his latest paper.


The region of China where the tomb is located, Xinjiang, is considered an original source of many cannabis strains worldwide.



Remains of the slave ship Trouvadore found

The ship hit a reef off the Turks and Caicos Islands in 1841, freeing the 193 Africans aboard, researchers say.

By Thomas H. Maugh II

November 29, 2008


Texas researchers have discovered the wreck of the slave ship Trouvadore, which slammed into a reef off the coast of the Turks and Caicos Islands in 1841, freeing the 193 Africans who were being brought to the U.S. South for a life of servitude.


It is the only known wreck of a ship involved in the illegal slave trade, said marine archaeologist Don Keith, president of the underwater archaeology institute Ships of Discovery in Corpus Christi, Texas.


One of the female Africans on board was shot by the crew, but the rest escaped and were rescued by local authorities. Their descendants may now make up a significant proportion of the 30,000 residents of the island country. The Spanish crew members were captured and sent to Cuba for trial. Their fate is unknown.


The team also found the wreck of the U.S. brig Chippewa, a War of 1812 naval vessel that had been pressed into service to patrol the Caribbean and stop the African slave trade. It was sunk in 1816 after striking the same reef and was identified by its unique carronades, a type of cannon.


"We have the two halves of a cat-and-mouse game of illegal slave ship trade," Keith said Tuesday at a news conference organized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which partly funded the search.


The Trouvadore had been largely forgotten by the country's natives, Keith added.


But in 1993, Keith and the late Grethe Seim, founder of the Turks and Caicos National Museum, stumbled on an 1878 letter -- now stored at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington -- describing the sale of two glass-eyed, wooden African dolls. The dolls were said to have come from the wreck of a slaver, and the letter gave details about its location and the ship's passengers.


The letter said the ship sank near a local landmark called Black Rock on the coast of East Caicos. Eventually, the team found the remains of the ship in 9 feet of water about two miles west of Black Rock, where the vessel had apparently been pushed by wind and current.


The wreck had been stripped for salvage, but careful measurement of the hull remains provided the link. "We have compelling evidence that this is the Trouvadore," Keith said at the conference.


Many of the ship's survivors were forced to work in the country's salt ponds for a year to pay for their rescue, but they were then freed.


At the time of the wreck, authorities in Caicos asked for a list of the English names given to the slaves. The list, which could help identify their descendants today, has not been discovered.


The African idols that led to the discovery of the wreck are on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. They turned out to be kava kava dolls, which are produced only on Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean. Why they were on the ship is still a mystery.


Maugh is a Times staff writer.