Humans 80,000 Years Older Than Previously Thought?

Kate Ravilious for National Geographic News

December 3, 2008


Modern humans may have evolved more than 80,000 years earlier than previously thought, according to a new study of sophisticated stone tools found in Ethiopia.


The tools were uncovered in the 1970s at the archaeological site of Gademotta, in the Ethiopian Rift Valley. But it was not until this year that new dating techniques revealed the tools to be far older than the oldest known Homo sapien bones, which are around 195,000 years old.


Using argon-argon dating—a technique that compares different isotopes of the element argon—researchers determined that the volcanic ash layers entombing the tools at Gademotta date back at least 276,000 years.


Many of the tools found are small blades, made using a technique that is thought to require complex cognitive abilities and nimble fingers, according to study co-author and Berkeley Geochronology Center director Paul Renne.


Some archaeologists believe that these tools and similar ones found elsewhere are associated with the emergence of the modern human species, Homo sapiens.


"It seems that we were technologically more advanced at an earlier time that we had previously thought," said study co-author Leah Morgan, from the University of California, Berkeley.


The findings are published in the December issue of the journal Geology.


Gademotta was an attractive place for people to settle, due to its close proximity to fresh water in Lake Ziway and access to a source of hard, black volcanic glass, known as obsidian.


"Due to its lack of crystalline structure, obsidian glass is one of the best raw materials to use for making tools," Morgan explained.


In many parts of the world, archaeologists see a leap around 300,000 years ago in Stone Age technology from the large and crude hand-axes and picks of the so-called Acheulean period to the more delicate and diverse points and blades of the Middle Stone Age.


At other sites in Ethiopia, such as Herto in the Afar region northeast of Gademotta, the transition does not occur until much later, around 160,000 years ago, according to argon dating. This variety in dates supports the idea of a gradual transition in technology.


"A modern analogy might be the transition from ox-carts to automobiles, which is virtually complete in North America and northern Europe, but is still underway in the developing world," said study co-author Renne, who received funding for the Gadmotta analysis from the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)


Morgan, of UC Berkeley, speculates that the readily available obsidian at Gademotta may explain why the technological revolution occurred so early there.


The lack of bones at Gademotta makes it difficult to determine who made these specialist tools. Some archaeologists believe it had to be Homo sapiens, while other experts think that other human species may have had the required mental capability and manual dexterity.


Regardless of who made the tools, the dates help to fill a key gap in the archaeological record, according to some experts.


"The new dates from Gademotta help us to understand the timing of an important behavioral change in human evolution," said Christian Tryon, a professor of anthropology from New York University, who wasn't involved in the study.


If anything, the story has now become more complex, added Laura Basell, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford in the U.K.


"The new date for Gademotta changes how we think about human evolution, because it shows how much more complicated the situation is than we previously thought," Basell said.


"It is not possible to simply associate specific species with particular technologies and plot them in a line from archaic to modern."



Dig unearths Stone Age sculptures

By Jason Palmer

Science and technology reporter, BBC News


The carving has a feminine form, reminiscent of "Venus" figurines found from Siberia to the Pyrenees


Rare artefacts from the late Stone Age have been uncovered in Russia.


The site at Zaraysk, 150km south-east of Moscow, has yielded figurines and carvings on mammoth tusks.


The finds also included a cone-shaped object whose function, the authors report in the journal Antiquity, "remains a puzzle".


Such artistic artefacts have been found in the nearby regions of Kostenki and Avdeevo, but this is the first such discovery at Zaraysk.


The Upper Palaeolithic is the latter part of the Old Stone Age, during which humans made the transition from functional tool-making to art and adornment.


The new artefacts, discovered by Hizri Amirkhanov and Sergey Lev of the Russian Academy of Sciences, include a mammoth rib inscribed with what appear to be three mammoths, a small bone engraved with a cross-hatch pattern, and two human figurines presumed to be female.


"The finds enrich the inventory of Upper Palaeolithic [portable] art and broaden the known distribution of specific types of art objects in the East European Upper Palaeolithic," Dr Lev told BBC News.


"In terms of the splendour and variety of its art pieces, Zaraysk is on a par with such famous sites as Kostenki and Avdeevo."


The figurines are a type of "Venus" statuette, examples of which have been found in locations ranging from the mountains of Spain as far east as Siberia. However, their cultural significance remains a point of debate among anthropologists.


At Zaraysk, the two figurines were found carefully buried in storage pits. Underneath each was a round deposit of fine sand toward the south; toward the north, there was a deposit of red ochre - an iron-based pigment.


Each of the figurines had been covered with the shoulder-blade of a mammoth.


One is presumed to be finished and stands at a height of nearly 17cm (6.7in); the other is clearly unfinished and about half as big.


However, both resemble examples of such statuettes found at the Avdeevo site to the south-west, suggesting cultural links between the two.


"This collection of artefacts is spectacular in a number of ways, not only for the range of representations of both humanistic and animal but also for the range of materials that is used," says Jeffrey Brantingham, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).


"These finds are really incredibly rare, and they offer a unique picture into human Upper Palaeolithic life."


Also among the finds was an object carved from mammoth ivory, shaped like a cone with its top removed. The cone is densely ornamented and has a hole running through its centre.


The authors note that the object is unique among Palaeolithic artefacts. "The function of this decorated object remains a puzzle," they say.



From brief limelight to obscurity

It's full speed ahead for the Sudanese hydroelectric project which will flood the ancient kingdom of Meroe, says Jill Kamil


Technology and archaeology are at odds again. The Meroe High Dam, otherwise known as the Multi-Purpose Hydro Project or Hamdab Dam, is well underway -- and the archaeological remains of the ancient African kingdom of Meroe which developed along the upper reaches of the Nile is destined to oblivion.


The purpose of the dam being constructed close to the Fourth Cataract, about 200 kilometres north of Khartoum, is to generate electricity. It is the largest hydropower project currently under construction in Africa. With a length of some nine kilometres, and a crest height of up to 67 kilometres it is reminiscent of the High Dam at Aswan constructed in the 1960s. It too is designed with a concrete-faced rock-fill barrage on each river bank, the left river channel with a clay core, and the right with a live water section. Once completed, its 200-kilometre long reservoir, with a capacity to produce 1,250 megawatts of power, will displace 50,000 people and inundate countless archaeological sites including Meroe in the African kingdom of Kush, sub-Saharan Africa's earliest urban civilisation.


Meroe, which is situated at a strategic location in the region known as Butana, enjoyed stability when Kushites moved the centre of their government there from the old capital of Napata (Nuri) -- which gradually declined but nevertheless retained its sacred status. The new capital grew and flourished contemporaneously with the Persian rule of Egypt, the later Egyptian dynasties, and the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, which is to say for nine centuries. The Meroitic Kingdom controlled trade routes -- east to the Red Sea, west to Kordofan and Darfur, north to Egypt, and south to central Africa -- and its sphere of influence spread even as far north as the island of Philae within sight of Aswan. Traders found markets for their ivory, gold, ebony and live animals, and the names of its kings have been documented by historians, even down to the approximate lengths of their reigns.


The first century AD marked the peak of Meroitic ascendancy, and its flourishing economy is reflected in the advanced culture seen in the superior quality of Meroitic crafts, particularly fine work in jewellery and pottery. Then started a slow decline, precipitated first by the inroads of two desert peoples, the Blemmyes and the Noba; then in competition with the new kingdom of Axum in northern Ethiopia when it emerged as the largest commercial centre in north-east Africa; and finally, in about 350 AD, when the first Christian king of Axum led a campaign into the region and defeated Meroitic troops near the confluence of the White Nile and the Atbara. By the beginning of the fourth century Meroe was no more. It fell to ruin and became a part of legendary history.


Meroe was not included among the sites studied and protected when the High Dam at Aswan was built in the 1960s and Nubia was subjected to the largest archaeological salvage operation ever known, because it did not fall within the threatened area. Now the area is threatened by the Meroe High Dam Project which was signed in 2002 and 2003.


Despite numerous efforts to curb the construction of dams along the Upper Nile by the board of the Nubian Society (which represents a body of the international archaeological community working closely with the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums), and contact with major stakeholders in Sudan to give due consideration to potential damage to a major heritage sites, the project has moved ahead. Chinese, German and French contractors began work on river diversion and construction of the concrete dams early in 2004. The reservoir impounding started in mid-2006, and the land for the reservoir was marked out. The local population nearest the construction site were moved, without prior warning, to a new location. Flooding started in August 2007. By the end of this year large segments of the land will be underwater, and when the level in the reservoir reaches 300 metres all ten generating units will be operational. This is scheduled before the end of 2008 or the beginning of 2009. Time is running out and archaeologists are watching closely to see what they can rescue before it is too late.


In his paper at the Eleventh Conference for Nubian Studies in Warsaw, Derek Welsby of the British Museum, president of the International Association of Nubian Studies, said that in the past the assumption that this section of the Upper Nile was an inhospitable region led archaeologists to consider it a marginal zone avoided by the major cultures which flourished in the Nile Valley to the north and south. "The current work," he said, "is causing a radical rethinking of this position. Vast numbers of archaeological sites are now known". He outlined the work of the many archaeological missions active in the Fourth Cataract region, and summarised their achievements in casting light on the Paleolithic occupation, through the Neolithic, Kerma and Kushite periods, to the post-Meroitic, Mediaeval and post-Medieval remains. "The region may be rocky and inhospitable, but archaeologists now know that it was not a marginal zone avoided by the major cultures," he said.


In fact the Fourth Cataract region is rich in archaeology, and it is unfortunate that, unlike the UNESCO project of the 1960s when the High Dam was built at Aswan, Sudanese Nubia has no monuments of the calibre of Abu Simbel to attract world attention to what is being done. The half-dozen Sudanese and foreign missions working in the threatened area have already pin-pointed hundreds of settlements and cemeteries spanning four millennia, and lithic artefacts, rock art, pottery, and even a granite pyramid -- the only one so far known in Sudan -- have been found, not to mention mediaeval Christian remains and Islamic cemeteries.


The idea of a Nile dam at the Fourth Cataract is not new. During the first half of the 20th century, the authorities of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan proposed it several times with a view to creating conditions for cotton-growing and providing flood protection for the lower Nile Valley. After Sudan gained independence in 1956, the idea of a dam in Sudan was abandoned in favour of the High Dam at Aswan. In 1979, under the government of President Nimeiri, the plan was revived with a view to producing hydro-electricity to meet Sudan's rising demand. Feasibility studies were carried out, but the project stalled for insufficient funding and lack of investor interest. The situation changed when the country started exporting oil in commercial quantities in the years 1999/2000, when improved credit-worthiness brought an influx of foreign investment and contracts for the construction of the Meroe Dam Project.


While the inevitable loss of sites beneath the Meroe Dam lake is to be regreted, the project has provided the stimulus for archaeological research and that is a good thing. Thanks to the wealth of data resulting from various surveys, particularly for the Meroitic and later periods, attention has been drawn to what was hitherto a neglected area and field of investigation. Unexpectedly, evidence has come to light of formally and legally stratified society in Meroitic Nubia, with royalty at the top of the scale and slaves at the bottom. The high status of women within the royal families is now well attested both for Kush and for Christian Nubia. And as for slaves in Islamic times, while a number were exported, most of them appear to have lived in the households of the owners and, because of their attachment to families, were given humane consideration at the time of death and buried with the same ritual considerations as free men.


Meroe is already attracting tourists. Indeed, it is somewhat reminiscent of the last days of Egyptian Nubia before the completion of the High Dam at Aswan. The area is within easy reach of Khartoum, only a couple of hours away by car, and visitors are coming to see contractors at work on the reservoir and visit those sites that lie above the expected high waterline of the lake. In fact, even as this article goes to press, I hear that tourist infrastructure is being provided in some areas, that a pipeline is bringing fresh water to the site, and that a small visitor's centre is being built to provide the necessary facilities.



Archaeologists rush to save Bronze Age sites in northwestern Iran


TEHRAN, Dec. 2 (Mehr News Agency)


Five archaeological teams have been sent to East Azarbaijan to carry out rescue excavations at the reservoir of the Khoda-Afarin Dam.


Many Bronze Age sites will be submerged by the dam after it becomes operational, Archaeological Research Center of Iran (ARCI) Director Mohammad-Hassan Fazeli Nashli told the Persian service of CHN on Tuesday.


The rescue operation needs more teams due to the large expanse of the sites, he added.


The teams are being led by Alireza Hojabri-Nobari, Ali Zarlaqi, Bahram Ajorlu, Mohammad Feiz-Khah, Bairam Aqalari.


"Carbon-14 dating experiments will be carried out on the artifacts being unearthed in the sites and the results will be considered as a primary database of the Bronze Age in northwestern Iran," Fazeli Nashli said.


"The dam has been completed one year ago and its filling was postponed following an ARCI's appeal for rescue excavations, which are being financed by the dam's officials," he added.


"Some artifacts, which been have unearthed so far, are intact and they can be displayed in a site-specific museum if the dam's officials are willing to finance its construction," Fazeli Nashli noted.



Ancient Roman Oil Lamp 'Factory Town' Found

Rossella Lorenzi, Discovery News

Dec. 5, 2008


Italian researchers have discovered the pottery center where the oil lamps that lighted the ancient Roman empire were made.


Evidence of the pottery workshops emerged in Modena, in central-northern Italy, during construction work to build a residential complex near the ancient walls of the city.


"We found a large ancient Roman dumping filled with pottery scraps. There were vases, bottles, bricks, but most of all, hundreds of oil lamps, each bearing their maker's name," Donato Labate, the archaeologist in charge of the dig, told Discovery News.


Firmalampen, or "factory lamps," were one of the first mass-produced goods in Roman times and they carried brand names clearly stamped on their clay bottoms.


The ancient dumping in Modena contained lamps by the most famous brands of the time: Strobili, Communis, Phoetaspi, Eucarpi and Fortis.


All these manufacturers had their products sold on the markets of three continents. Fortis was the trendiest of all pottery brands and its products were used up to the end of the second century A.D.


"It was indeed a commercial success. Fortis gained such a name for its lamps that its stamp was copied and reproduced throughout the empire. It was one of the earliest examples of pirated brands," Labate said.


Scholars have long thought that the fashionable Fortis originated from Modena -- then called Mutina -- but until now no evidence had been found for that claim.


"We know now for sure that Fortis came from Mutina. The city was a major pottery center, a cluster of pottery workshops, as the variety of brand names on the newly discovered items testifies," Labate said.


Labate added that kilns were located outside the city walls to prevent fires from breaking out in the city.


The ancient dumping contained other important objects, such as a fine terracotta statuette depicting Hercules as he captures the Erymanthian Boar, and 14 lead bullets which were probably used in the Battle of Mutina in 43 B.C. During that battle, Decimus Brutus, one of Julius Caesar's assassins, defeated the besieging Mark Antony with the help of Octavian, the future Roman Emperor Augustus.


"This is an extraordinary discovery, since it provides unique archaeological evidence which confirms historical accounts," Luigi Malnati, superintendent of archaeological heritage in Emilia Romagna, told Discovery News.


The oil lamps and the other newly discovered objects will be displayed in a permanent show at the Archaeological and Ethnological Museum in Modena at the end of the month.



DNA Secrets: Cave's latrines yield new evidence about prehistoric North America

By Jeff Barnard


Published: December 4, 2008


PAISLEY, Ore. -- For some 85 years, homesteaders, pot hunters and archaeologists have been digging at Paisley Caves, a string of shallow depressions washed out of an ancient lava flow by the waves of a lake that comes and goes with the changing climate.


Until now, they have found nothing conclusive -- arrowheads, baskets, animal bones and sandals made by people who lived thousands of years ago on the shores of what was then a 40-mile-long lake, but is now a sagebrush desert on the northern edge of the Great Basin.


But a few years ago, Dennis Jenkins, a University of Oregon archaeologist, and his students started digging where no one had dug before. What the team discovered in an alcove used as a latrine and trash dump has elevated the caves to the site of the oldest radiocarbon-dated human remains in North America.


Coprolites -- ancient feces -- were found to contain human DNA linked directly to modern-day Native Americans with Asian roots and radiocarbon dated to 14,300 years ago. That's 1,000 years before the oldest stone points of the Clovis culture, which for much of the 20th century was believed to represent the first people in North America.


The idea that coprolites contain valuable information is not new, but extracting DNA from them is. When the findings were published this year in the journal Science, they plopped Jenkins and his colleagues in the middle of one of the hottest debates in North American archaeology. Just when did people first come here, and how did they get here?


For many years the prevailing view was that the Clovis people walked from Siberia to Alaska across a land bridge exposed by the Ice Age and spread south through an ice-free corridor down the center of the continent exposed 10,000 years ago by warming temperatures.


The Paisley coprolites indicate that people had found another way, perhaps crossing the land bridge but then walking down the coast, or even crossing the ocean by boat, the way people went from New Guinea to Australia thousands of years earlier. The findings kill the suggestion that some of the earliest Americans came from Europe. And they almost didn't get to tell their story.


Bill Cannon calls himself a "used archaeological site salesman," but is really the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Lakeview District archaeologist. Cannon knew that Luther Cressman, a University of Oregon archaeologist, had dug here in the 1930s, as did numerous looters.


Cannon can show you the rusty nail Cressman drove into the wall of Cave No. 2 as his data point, from which the locations of artifacts are measured, as well as recent illicit excavations.


Cressman found evidence -- a dart point, basketry, sandals and animal bones -- that people were here before Clovis and that they hunted large animals. But he could make no strong conclusions, and he saved no coprolites.


Cannon could see that there was a lot that hadn't been dug, and figured that Jenkins was the guy to do it.


Jenkins is a senior research associate at the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History and the head of its Northern Great Basin Archaeological Field School. His office in a Quonset hut on the campus in Eugene is decorated with the antlers of mule deer he shot in the high desert east of the Cascade Range. His arm carries a tattoo from a motorcycle club in Las Vegas, where he grew up and went to college.


Jenkins has never found one of the distinctively shaped, fluted, stone spear points that mark the Clovis culture, named for a site near Clovis, N.M., uncovered in 1929. But in three digs at Paisley -- 2002, 2003 and 2007 -- Jenkins has gathered 700 coprolites, perhaps a third of them human.


The coprolites contain pollen, seeds, chipmunk bones, sage grouse feathers, trout scales, things that ancient people would have been eating, but Jenkins couldn't be sure that they weren't coyote. He had estimated their age at 1,000 years before Clovis from dating bone and obsidian flakes found nearby.


Unlike bone, obsidian cannot be radiocarbon dated. But the time since a flake was broken off can be estimated from how far moisture has penetrated, leaving a visible band. The distance depends on temperature, so to refine the measurements, archaeological consultant Tom Origer and his team from Santa Rosa, Calif., tracked the underground temperatures for a year.


At $600 a shot, Jenkins still didn't want to get any of the coprolites radiocarbon dated until he knew they were human.


Then in the fall of 2003, he received an unexpected e-mail from Alan Cooper of Oxford University, who was looking for sites to test with techniques he was developing to extract ancient DNA from soils.


Cooper and Jenkins arranged for Eske Willerslev, then a Danish postdoctoral fellow working for Cooper at Oxford, to deliver a paper on his work with ancient DNA before the Northwest Anthropological Conference. They also wanted Willerslev to pick up some samples from Paisley Caves.


In 2003, Willerslev extracted from Siberian permafrost DNA of mammoths, bison and mosses that proved to be 300,000 to 400,000 years old. More recently, he teased out DNA from silt-crusted ice cores from Greenland that showed forests, beetles and butterflies had lived 800,000 years ago where a glacier stands today.


Willerslev took home 14 coprolites, though he was not very interested.


"To identify if humans were using caves as a toilet, I didn't see that as important," he said.


For years, they sat in a freezer at Oxford. Willerslev took them with him when he took a professorship in biology at the University of Copenhagen, and in 2006 turned them over to a graduate student who needed a project. She found DNA from two of the five Native American genetic groups. Both have links to Asia.


Radiocarbon dating -- at two different labs -- showed three were more than 14,000 years old.


"It is the oldest evidence of human presence" in North America, said Willerslev, now director of the Center for Ancient Genetics at the Copenhagen school.


Vance Haynes, a professor emeritus of geoarchaeology at the University of Arizona, has spent his career studying the Clovis people.


While there is a growing body of evidence and acceptance of the idea that people were in North America before Clovis, the evidence remains skimpy and confusing, with no coherent thread like a common way of flaking obsidian into spear points, he said.


He would like to see dates further confirmed by another radiocarbon dating because if it is accurate, the find offers important evidence that early people traveled down the coast as they spread through the continent, and then moved east, and did not need the ice-free corridor.


Jenkins figures that the caves have much more to tell. An obsidian flake and a duck bone have been dated to 16,000 years ago. And he can't wait to dig beneath some boulders that apparently fell from the roofs of the caves between 7,000 and 9,000 years ago, guarding whatever lies below from looters and other archaeologists.


When Jenkins returns, probably next spring, the diggers will be dressed like technicians in a silicon-chip plant with face masks, latex gloves and bunny suits to reduce the chances of contamination, making it possible to analyze the DNA with greater resolution. The coprolites could reveal how many individuals lived in the caves at any one time, how many were men and how many women, how closely they were related, and even what time of year they were there.


"It raises the hair on the back of my neck to think what they destroyed and had no clue," Jenkins said of those who dug before him. "In the process of digging this to get artifacts, they throw out coprolites that had so much information in them."



Lost city of 'cloud people' found in Peru

Archaeologists have discovered a lost city carved into the Andes Mountains by the mysterious Chachapoya tribe.

By Jeremy McDermott, Latin America Correspondent


The settlement covers some 12 acres and is perched on a mountainside in the remote Jamalca district of Utcubamba province in the northern jungles of Peru's Amazon.


The buildings found on the Pachallama peak are in remarkably good condition, estimated to be over 1,000 years old and comprised of the traditional round stone houses built by the Chachapoya, the 'Cloud Forest People'.


The area is completely overgrown with the jungle now covering much of the settlement but explorers found the walls of the buildings and rock paintings on a cliff face.


The remote nature of the site appears to have protected the site from looters as archaeologists found ceramics and undisturbed burial sites.


Archaeologist Benedicto Pérez Goicochea said: "The citadel is perched on the edge of an abyss.


"We suspect that the ancient inhabitants used this as a lookout point from where they could spot potential enemies."


The ruins were initially discovered by local people hacking through the jungle. They were drawn to the place due to the sound of a waterfall.


The local people "armed with machetes opened a path that arrived at the place where they saw a beautiful panorama, full of flowers and fauna, as well as a waterfall, some 500 metres high," said the mayor of Jamalca, Ricardo Cabrera Bravo.


Initial studies have found similarities between the new discovery and the Cloud Peoples' super fortress of Kulep, also in Utcubamba province, which is older and more extensive that the Inca Citadel of Machu Picchu, but has not been fully explored or restored.


Little is known about the Chachapoya, except that they had been beaten into submission by the mighty Incas in 1475.


When in 1535 the Spanish Conquistadores arrived in Peru, they found willing allies in the Cloud People for their fight against the Incas.


Spanish texts from the era describe the Cloud People as ferocious fighters who mummified their dead.


They were eventually wiped out by small pox and other diseases brought by the Europeans.


The women of the Chachapoya were much prized by the Incas as they were tall and fair skinned. The Chronicler Pedro Cieza de León offers wrote of the Chachapoyas.


"They are the whitest and most handsome of all the people that I have seen in Indies, and their wives were so beautiful that because of their gentleness, many of them deserved to be the Incas' wives and to also be taken to the Sun Temple."



Evidence from dirty teeth: Ancient Peruvians ate well

Public release date: 1-Dec-2008

Contact: Beth King


703-487-3770 x8216

Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute


Starch grains preserved on human teeth reveal that ancient Peruvians ate a variety of cultivated crops including squash, beans, peanuts and the fruit of cultivated pacay trees. This finding by Dolores Piperno, staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the National Museum of Natural History, and Tom Dillehay, professor of archaeology at Vanderbilt University, sets the date of the earliest human consumption of beans and pacay back by more than 2,000 years and indicates that New World people were committed farmers earlier than previously thought.


In northern Peru’s Ñanchoc Valley, Dillehay and colleagues recovered human teeth from hearths and floors of permanent, roundhouse structures. Human bone, plant remains and charcoal closely associated with the teeth are approximately 6,000 to 8,000 years old according to carbon- dating techniques.


Piperno examined 39 human teeth, probably from six to eight individuals. “Some teeth were dirtier than others. We found starch grains on most of the teeth. About a third of the teeth contained large numbers of starch grains,” Piperno said.


To identify the starch grains, Piperno compared the particles in tooth scrapings with her modern reference collection of starch grains from more than 500 economically important plants. “We found starch from a variety of cultivated plants: squash, Phaseolus beans—either limas or common beans, possibly, but not certainly the former, pacay and peanuts,” said Piperno. “Parts of plants that often are not evident in archeological remains, such as the flesh of squash fruits and the nuts of peanuts, do produce identifiable starch grains.”


Starch from squash found on the teeth affirms that early people were eating the plants and not simply using them for nonfood purposes, such as for making containers or net floats. Whether or not some of the earliest cultivated plants, such as squashes, were grown as dietary items has been a long-debated question among students of early agriculture.


Evidence that foods had been cooked was also visible on some of the starch grains. “We boiled beans in the lab to see what cooked starch grains looked like—and recognized these gelatinized or heat-damaged grains in the samples from the teeth,” said Piperno. Starch from raw and roasted peanuts looks similar, probably because it is protected within the hull.


Starch grains from four of the crops were found consistently through time indicating that beans, peanuts, squash and pacay were important food sources then, as they are today. “Starch analysis of teeth, which, unlike other archaeobotanical techniques, provides direct evidence of plant consumption, should greatly improve our ability to address other important questions in human dietary change relating to even earlier time periods,” said Piperno.


The results of this study appear online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the week of Dec. 1-5, 2008.



Divers search for Armada treasure off Mull

Paul Kelbie, Scotland Editor

The Observer, Sunday December 7 2008


More than 400 years after a Spanish galleon loaded with gold and silver slid beneath the waves in the waters surrounding the Isle of Mull, a new mission has been launched to try to recover its hoard of treasure.


Divers will begin to sift through the silt at the bottom of Tobermory Bay in an attempt to recover the valuable cargo, reputed to have been intended to bankroll the ill-fated Spanish invasion of England in 1588. It is the second time that Sir Torquhil Ian Campbell, the 13th Duke of Argyll, has launched such a mission.


The mystery of where the battle-scarred ship lies has puzzled treasure hunters for centuries. According to local folklore, the vessel - laden with gold, jewels and priceless historical artefacts - is at the bottom of Tobermory Bay. Following the armada's defeat at the hands of Sir Francis Drake, many Spanish ships fled north to escape the English fleet, but became caught up in violent storms. Exactly how the Almirante di Florencia or the San Juan de Sicilia - the vessel's exact identity has never been established - foundered is unknown.


Legend claims that it succumbed to the weather and its own battle damage, or was blown up by a clan chief when the crew tried to leave without paying a substantial levy.


Over the years there have been almost 20 attempts by members of the Campbell family to find the treasure, which, apart from a handful of gold and silver coins, weapons, medals and a few human bones, has eluded searchers. The current Duke, however, refuses to give up and another team of 10 expert divers has begun searching the seabed for the treasure, which is rumoured to be worth more than £30m. The aristocrat's ancestors were granted rights to search for the wreck in 1641 by royal charter granted by Charles I, despite protests from the MacLeans of Mull, who built a fort overlooking the site and threatened to shoot any Campbell who tried.


'Nothing has been found yet, but the investigation is in its very early stages,' said Alison Brockway, a spokeswoman for the Duke of Argyll, whose ancestral home is Inveraray Castle. 'The window of opportunity to do the work is very small because when Tobermory Bay gets busy just after Easter, the divers can't go about their business. It's a painstakingly slow process, but we hope it will be worth it in the end.'


A spokeswoman for Visit Scotland said that Mull had become a 'mecca for divers' in recent years because of the numerous wrecks in the vicinity of the island.



Archaeologists dig into Greenham peace camp

Martin Wainwright

The Guardian, Monday December 8 2008


They may not rank with the Pyramids or Sutton Hoo, but the traces of one Britain's best-known protest camps are being sifted by a team of archaeologists.


More than 600 artefacts have been catalogued at the skeletal remnants of Turquoise Gate camp, Greenham Common, as part of a project to tell the "full story" about the women's anti-nuclear campaign 25 years ago.


Scouring woodland and scrub near the old cruise missile bunkers, which themselves have been given scheduled historic monument status, a team from Southampton University and English Heritage has already rewritten minor parts of history. One of the major finds at Turquoise, set up as a vegan offshoot from the large camp at nearby Blue Gate, has been a "significant number" of milk bottles. John Schofield, of English Heritage, who reports the survey results in the latest issue of British Archaeology magazine, says: "Were the women really all vegan, were they re-using old bottles, or were there children on site who needed milk?"


Such issues are now being raised with veterans of the camp, some of whom acted as advisers on the dig and helped to rediscover a forgotten outpost of the protest. This was the previously unrecorded Emerald Gate camp, where a few women directly monitored Gama - the Ground-launched missiles Alert and Maintenance Area - the other side of the base's famous fence.


The carefully hidden nook, with fragments of "bender" shelters and a fire pit, are compared in the survey to a long tradition of spying points in communities studied by archaeologists. Schofield says: "It reminded me of Lewis Binford's work on the Mask Site (in Arctic Alaska) where Nunamiut hunters watched and waited."