Cannibalism May Have Wiped Out Neanderthals
Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News
Feb. 27, 2008
A Neanderthal-eat-Neanderthal world may have spread a mad cow-like disease that weakened and reduced populations of the large Eurasian human, thereby contributing to its extinction, according to a new theory based on cannibalism that took place in more recent history.
Aside from illustrating that consumption of one's own species isn't exactly a healthy way to eat, the new theoretical model could resolve the longstanding mystery as to what caused Neanderthals, which emerged around 250,000 years ago, to disappear off the face of the Earth about 30,000 years ago.
"The story of Neanderthal extinction is one of the most intriguing in all of human evolution," author Simon Underdown told Discovery News. "Why did a large-brained, intelligent hominid that shared so many traits with us disappear?"
To resolve that question, Underdown, a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at Oxford Brookes University, studied a well-documented tribal group, the Fore of Papua New Guinea, who practiced ritualistic cannibalism.
Gory evidence uncovered in a French cave in 1999 revealed Neanderthals likely practiced cannibalism. The 100,000-120,000 year-old bones discovered at the cave site of Moula-Guercy near the west bank of the Rhone river suggested a group of Neanderthals defleshed the bones of at least six other individuals and then broke the bones apart with a hammerstone and anvil to remove the marrow and brains.
Although it's not clear why Neanderthals may have eaten each other, research on the Fore determined that maternal kin of certain deceased Fore individuals used to dismember corpses and regarded some human flesh as a valuable food source.
Beginning in the early 1900's, anthropologists additionally began to take note of an affliction named Kuru among the Fore. By the 1960's, Kuru reached epidemic levels and killed over 1,100 people.
Subsequent investigations determined that Kuru was related to the Fore's cannibalistic activities and was a form of Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy, or TSE. This is a class of disease that includes mad cow disease. Underdown said TSE's have been in existence for possibly millions of years.
According to his new paper, published in the journal Medical Hypotheses, TSE's "cause brain tissue to take on an almost sponge-like appearance, caused by the formation of small holes during the development of the disease."
The disease's latter stages often result in severe mental impairment, loss of speech and an inability to move.
He created a model, based on the Kuru findings, to figure out how the spread of such a disease via cannibalism could reduce a population's size. For example, he calculated that within a hypothetical group of 15,000 individuals, such a disease could reduce the population to non-viable levels within 250 years.
When added to other pressures, this type of disease could therefore have wiped out the Neanderthals, Underdown believes.
"TSE's could have thinned the population, reducing numbers and contributing to their extinction in combination with other factors (such as climate change and the emergence of modern humans)," he said.
Such diseases have very long incubation periods, he further explained, so affected individuals may not show symptoms for a very long time. Similarly, people who consume TSE victims may not exhibit signs of illness immediately after eating.
"Neanderthals would have been unlikely to spot any causal relationship between cannibalism and TSE symptoms," Underdown said.
Since modern clinical tests show that medical instruments can carry infectious prions, which spread TSE's, even after such tools have been sterilized, it's also possible that sharing of stone tools could have additionally spread the disease among Neanderthals, even those that did not practice cannibalism.
Nick Barton, Director of the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Oxford, told Discovery News that he thinks the new paper presents "an extremely novel and very interesting theory."
"Most scholars now believe that the demise of the Neanderthals was not down to a single causal factor," Barton said. "However, if genetic studies eventually show that Neanderthals were susceptible to TSE, or other empirical evidence emerges for persistent cannibalism and consumption of brain tissues in late Neanderthal populations, then we may have to rethink our ideas on extinction."
Oldest hominid discovered is 7 million years old: study
Wed Feb 27, 5:58 PM ET
CHICAGO (AFP) - French fossil hunters have pinned down the age of Toumai, which they contend is the remains of the earliest human ever found, at between 6.8 and 7.2 million years old.
The fossil was discovered in the Chadian desert in 2001 and an intense debate ensued over whether the nearly complete cranium, pieces of jawbone and teeth belonged to one of our earliest ancestors.
Critics said that Toumai's cranium was too squashed to be that of a hominid -- it did not have the brain capacity that gives humans primacy -- and its small size indicated a creature of no more than 120 centimetres (four feet) in height, about the size of a walking chimp.
In short, they said, Toumai had no right to be baptised with French researcher Michel Brunet's hominid honorific of Sahelanthropus tchadensis -- he was simply a vulgar ape.
Toumai's supporters used 3D computer reconstructions to show that the structure of the cranium had clear differences from those of gorillas and chimps and indicates that Toumai was able to walk upright on two feet, something our primate cousins cannot do with ease.
If Toumai is truly an early human, that means that the evolutionary split between apes and humans occurred far earlier than previously thought.
And pinning down his age is key to redrawing the evolutionary map.
"The radiochronological data concerning Sahelanthropus tchadensis ... is an important cornerstone both for establishing the earliest stages of hominid evolution and for new calibrations of the molecular clock," Brunet wrote in a study which will appear in the March 4 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"Thus, Sahelanthropus tchadensis testifies that the last divergence between chimps and humans is certainly not much more recent than 8 Ma (million years ago.)"
Toumai also probably lived "very close in time to this divergence contrary to the unlikely 'provocative explanation,' which recently suggested a 'possible hybridization in the human-chimp lineage before finally separating less than 6.3 (million years ago)," the authors concluded.
If Toumai -- the name means "hope of life" in the local Goran language -- is accepted as a human, the implications are profound.
The fossil was found some 2,500 kilometers (1,500 miles) west of the Great Rift Valley. If that is still seen as humankind's ancestral home, it implies the early hominids ranged far wider from East Africa, and far earlier, than previously thought.
The discovery also implies hominids evolved quickly from apes after they split from a common primate ancestry.
Hominids are considered the forerunners of anatomically modern humans, who appeared on the scene about 200,000 years ago.
Still unclear, though, is the exact line of genealogy from these small, rather ape-like creatures to the rise of the powerfully-brained Homo sapiens.
ARCHAEOLOGISTS TO DRILL IN BEXLEY FOR EVIDENCE OF ANCIENT OCCUPATION
By 24 Hour Museum Staff 29/02/2008
Archaeologists from Durham University will be returning to a London borough site where a 19th century historian once found flint tools and animal bones.
This time, however, the latest sonic drilling equipment will be used to take samples from the earth, for the ongoing Ancient Human Occupation of Britain II project (AHOB).
Initial drillings were carried out at Holmscroft Open Space in September 2007 by the archaeologists, who are looking at human occupation of the country right from the first people who lived here about 700,000 years ago, up to the end of the last Ice Age, roughly 8,800 years ago.
AHOBII, Ancient Britain in its European Context, entails the re-analysis of old artefacts held in museum collections as well as fieldwork to refine dates and provide more accurate reconstructions of past environments.
The Durham University team is interested in Holmscroft because of 19th century finds by amateur archaeologist and geologist FCJ Spurrell. Spurrell collected bones of extinct animals and flint tools from the Crayford and Erith area. The Natural History Museum now holds some of these finds.
“This is an intriguing project,” said Cllr Gareth Bacon, Cabinet Member for the Environment at Bexley Borough Council. “I am delighted that the first stage of the archaeological investigations last September turned up such promising results and that the team will be returning to make more in-depth studies.”
“This is an excellent opportunity for us to learn more about the borough’s past and the information will provide and excellent historical resource both locally and nationally.”
Spurrell turned up his flint tools in old brickearth quarries to the north and south of the area now known as Holmscroft Open Space, but little is known about their specific context. Early Victorian archaeologists didn’t use the thorough recording techniques of present day professionals.
Three boreholes drilled last year confirmed there are still useful deposits at the site such as mammal bones, molluscs and pollen, which can be dated and analysed.
The team will return on March 6 and 7 2008 to make a more in-depth study, drilling down 12 to 15 metres. It will be the first time the sonic drilling equipment has been used in the UK to dig to such a depth.
“Members of the public are welcome to ask archaeological team members about their work, but only when they are outside the fenced off area and away from machinery,” said Dr Beccy Scott, who is leading the team.
The results will be published by the London Borough of Bexley’s Local Studies Unit, and on the AHOBII project website.
The project is a collaborative effort that involves archaeologists, palaeontologists, and geologists at a number of different British Institutes, including the Natural History Museum and the British Museum, working together with leading universities to build a calendar of human colonisation in Britain during the Pleistocene period (1.8 million to 12,000 years ago).
Archaeological treasures found in Roscrea
Friday February 22 2008
By Peter Gleeson
A 'beautiful' Bronze Age axe and a number of ancient burial grounds have been unearthed near Roscrea during the construction of the new Dublin-Limerick motorway in the area.
The bronze axe was found in Camblin, south of Roscrea. Archaeologists say the find dates to the later Bronze Age and appears to have been hidden in a shallow pit and never recovered by the person who concealed it.
On a second site in Camblin a medieval iron 'bearded' axe was discovered while two Bronze Age enclosed settlements with two ancient houses were found near the N62 Templemore Road.
Three ringforts were also found at Camblin. One of them included a small cemetery dating to the 6th to 7th Century. Archaeologists say the cemetery would have been in use before the Bishops of Roscrea had formalised human burial into consecrated churchyards.
'Burials were all in the Christian manner, although some of the bodies seem to have been more casually interred, such as one where the legs were bent to fit into a small grave The burials included people of all ages and it is likely the site was used for several hundred years,' according to the archaeological report on the motorway route commissioned by the National Roads Authority.
The report said the concentration of ancient sites discovered near the present N62 Templemore Road at Camblin reflected the location of the ancient Roscrea to Cashel routeway.
A total of 23 ancient burnt mounds have been unearthed during the excavation works, the largest at Camblin. These burnt mounds, which were used for cooking food, typically date to the Bronze Age. Hot stones were dropped into water-filled roughs to heat water to boil meat.
The find at the Camblin burnt mound included an ancient wooden crane used for lifting water out of a local well. The crane, known as a Shaduff, is often linked to Ancient Egypt and North African and the Camlin Shaduff has been described as 'an exceptional discovery' and 'the first evidence for such a machine being used in Bronze Age Ireland'.
Another discovery in the area included 'a wonderful example of a spring or well being used by the people of Camlin for over 2,000 years'.
A large rectangular enclosure dating from 1000AD to 1350AD was found in Busherstown, Moneygall. The newly discovered site 'forms a type of moated manor, surrounded by a large defensive ditch.' An annex containing numerous corn-drying kilns was found at the site, suggesting the existence of a mill on a nearby stream.
Also unearthed at Busherstown were several wooden buildings and 'a couple of human burials hastily placed in ditches.'
The archaeological report says that burying people in ditches was not an unusual practice during this period 'when sudden death was often treated with great suspicion'.
Similar ditch-burial was found on the recently excavated rectangular enclosure site at Ballintotty on the N7 Nenagh bypass road widening scheme.
A 'lovely' 13th century coin of Edward 1 was found in one of the Busherstown ditches.
At the Nenagh end of the scheme a group of Bronze Age cremations were found at Derrybane. One burial pit contained an upturned pottery urn.
ANCIENT TOMBS ADD TO ROAD TOLL
BY GARY MITCHELL
12:39 - 27 February 2008
Archaeologists have unearthed an ancient burial ground at the site of a major new road.
Evidence of two Bronze Age tombs dating back some 4,000 years were found during work on the Earl Shilton bypass.
They were spotted after an archaeological survey of the site uncovered what would have been mounds of earth, or barrows, on the route between Thurlaston Lane and Mill Lane outside the town.
Experts said the discovery was "significant" and may help to improve understanding of the county's early inhabitants.
However, the work on the find has added about £150,000 to the cost of the bypass, which was originally supposed to cost £15 million and due to finish by the end of this year.
Richard Clark, senior planning archaeologist for the county council, said the discovery of the tombs had not delayed work on the bypass.
Mr Clark said the tombs would have been created for people of "significant status".
He said: "The land above the site had been ploughed flat over the years and so there was no visible evidence of the barrows before our survey of the site.
"They would have been an obvious feature of the landscape in the subsequent 1,000 years after they were built.
"Land boundaries from that time are focused on the site so this would have been a focal point for people for a long time.
"It's a significant find and it's of great local and regional significance."
The £150,000 has paid for the archaeological investigation of the tombs required under planning guidelines, which included a team of experts carefully excavating the site last autumn.
The findings, which also included evidence of human bones and pottery making, are still being studied by University of Leicester experts.
The costs of the road - commissioned by Leicestershire County Council - have been rising and have already faced criticism.
Evidence of as few as one great-crested newt has been found on land next to the road and the council told the Leicester Mercury last week this could delay the project by three months - and add £1.7 million to the bill.
Today, they said that figure had been revised and was now closer to £1.2 million.
However, the finding of the tombs and other unexpected costs of £350,000, along with the delay from the newts, could still add up to an extra £1.7 million in costs.
Earl Shilton councillor Denis Bown, who has previously criticised the high cost of protecting newts at the site, said the cost of the excavation could not be justified.
He said: "It's all out of perspective.
"These newts have been a laughing stock and now this will be as well.
"If the bypass hadn't been going ahead, these tombs wouldn't have been found in the first place. It wouldn't have been a great loss.
"It's a mystery how all these obstacles, expensive obstacles, keep cropping up. The money involved is incredible."
A progress report on the bypass has revealed rising land costs may add £350,000 to the bill, because land purchase negotiations are still ongoing.
Members of the council's Environment Overview and Scrutiny Committee are due to discuss the report at a meeting tomorrow.
Archaeologists appeal for funds to reveal island’s Roman secrets
Dalya Alberge, Arts Correspondent
An excavation is about to start at one of the most important Roman villas in Western Europe. Its spectacular mosaics were saved by readers of The Times five years ago after being placed on the World Monuments Fund’s list of the most endangered sites.
One of Britain’s leading archaeologists is to explore the 1.6hectare (4acre) site around Brading Roman Villa on the Isle of Wight. Barely 15 per cent of it has been excavated and the dig is expected to last five years.
Sir Barry Cunliffe, Emeritus Professor of European Archaeology at Oxford University, said that the north side appeared to suggest a large assembly hall with side aisles.
The finds could include mosaics, although it is unlikely that they would match the quality of those within the villa itself with their depictions of peacocks signifying eternal life, Orpheus charming the beasts of the forest and Tritons, or sea deities, carrying reclining nymphs on their backs.
In 2003 readers of The Times responded to warnings that the mosaics would have to be reburied and removed from public view unless money could be raised to rehouse them. Their protective corrugated-iron structure had been condemned after flood waters in a heavy storm inflicted serious damage a decade earlier. Readers contributed more than £100,000 to the cause, enabling the construction of a £3.1 million single-storey grass-roofed building, which was opened in 2005 and has won international awards. Kenneth Hicks, a trustee of the charitable trust that owns the villa, said: “ The Times was the catalyst that meant the project was a success.”
The Romano-British settlement on the island flourished through an active stone-quarrying industry and maritime trade. The villa’s remains disappeared from sight until 1879, when a local farmer stumbled across them.
Sir Barry said that the excavation could give an insight into the identity of the owner of the villa. Its luxury suggests that it was owned by the wealthiest of Roman Britons. The sophistication of the mosaics – which are replete with allegory, politics and double entendre – suggest someone highly cultured. One theory is that the villa belonged to Allectus, who ruled Britain in AD293296 after murdering his predecessor Carausius, an army commander who had proclaimed himself emperor of Britain.
The excavation, which is due to start in August, will include up to 20 graduate archaeologists and also involve local people, particularly the young. The trust needs £50,000 a year to make that possible and has launched an urgent appeal for help.
Special Report: Has James Cameron Found Jesus's Tomb or Is It Just a Statistical Error?
Should You Accept the 600-to-One Odds That the Talpiot Tomb Belonged to Jesus?
By Christopher Mims
When Associated Producers, the production company behind the new documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus, contacted Andrey Feuerverger, he was, to put it mildly, surprised. "This is not in the usual run of things one gets to do," says the University of Toronto statistician, alluding to Associated Producers' somewhat unusual request that he calculate the odds that a particular tomb in Israel is the last resting place of Jesus Christ.
Despite his previous lack of interest in biblical archaeology, Feuerverger spent two years crunching numbers for what turned out to be a labor of love. At the end of all of his figuring, he told the documentarians, including director James Cameron of Titanic fame and award-winning investigative journalist Simcha Jacobovici, that there was a one in 600 chance that the names—Jesus, Matthew, two versions of Mary, and Joseph—scribbled on five of the 10 ossuaries (or caskets for bones) found in the Talpiot tomb could have belonged to a different family than the one described in the New Testament.
When Cameron and Simcha announced Feuerverger's calculations along with a package of other evidence (including forensics, DNA and archaeology) earlier this week, it sparked a media firestorm.
Some news outlets reported that Feuerverger's odds had really been as high as one in a million, which the statistician denies. That "is not a number I would want to ever think originates with me," he says.
Meanwhile biblical historian James Tabor of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, the primary historical advisor on the production team, reported on his blog that he calculated the odds were one in 250,000 that another family of that period would have the same names as those scrawled on the bone boxes.
Even the Discovery Channel, which is set to air the controversial documentary on Sunday, March 4, seemed confused by Feuerverger's calculations, declaring on its Web site that that the odds are "600 to one in favor of this being the JESUS FAMILY TOMB."
Feuerverger says he was neither asked nor did he attempt to calculate the odds that the Talpiot tomb was the final resting place of Christ, the Messiah. As Aleks Jakulin, a statistician at Columbia University, points out, "I doubt Professor Feuerverger really estimated 'the odds that these ossuaries were not Jesus's family's final resting place.' Instead & one should say that one in 600 families (on the conservative side) would have that particular combination of names purely by chance, based on the distribution of individual names in the population."
Such a calculation assumes all kinds of things, and is highly dependent on one's starting assumptions. For instance, "A Christian would use [the probability that Jesus is in a coffin] equals zero, because of ascension, so the discussion stops right there," Jakulin says. "Someone else would instead assume that there was a single Jesus, one out of five million."
"I have to tell you that a statistician working with a subject matter expert, in this case biblical historical scholars, essentially is obliged to rely on assumptions that come from them," explains Feuerverger. "It's not a secret that the assumptions are contestable. I tried to stay with things that vaguely seemed reasonable to me, but I'm not a biblical scholar. At the end of the day, I went with specific assumptions and I try to make clear what those assumptions were."
Among the assumptions that Feuerverger made to yield his odds: that the scholarly text he used as a source of names (to determine the frequency and distribution of Jewish monikers in the era of Jesus) was a representative sample of the five million Jews who lived during that era. He assumed this even though the text, called the Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity was published in 2002 and only includes 2,509 names.
Scan The Lexicon of Jewish Names, which includes names from ossuaries, ancient texts and every other source available, and you will learn that the names unearthed in the so-called Jesus Family Tomb were among the most common of that era. One in every three women listed in the Lexicon was named Mary, for instance, and, at that time, one in every 20 Jewish men was called Yeshua, or Jesus.
Tal Ilan, who compiled the Lexicon of Jewish Names and who vehemently disagrees with the assertion that this could be Jeus's tomb, says that the names found in the tomb "are in every tomb in Jerusalem. You can get all kinds of clever people who know statistics who will tell you that the combination is the unique thing about [these names], and probably they're right - if you want just exactly this combination it's more difficult to find. But my research proves exactly the opposite - these are the most common names that you could expect to find anywhere."
It was only when Feuerverger assumed that some of the names were exceptional, and fit with scholars' beliefs about the historical family of Jesus, that his calculation became worthy of advertising. According to Feuerverger, the most important assumption by far was the one that dealt with the inscription that appears on the ossuary that the documentarians assert belonged to Mary Magdalene.
"The extraordinariness of the Mariemene e Mara inscription gets factored into the calculation as a very rare name," says Feuerverger. By the logic of the historians and archaeologists enlisted by the production team, this inscription is so rare that Feuerverger could safely assume that this was the only woman who possessed this name out of all of those listed in the Lexicon. This changed the odds that this tomb belonged to just any Mary Magdalene from roughly one in three to one in 80.
Other scholars think the assertion that the inscription Mariemene e Mara, written in Greek, refers specifically to Mary Magdalene is ridiculous. Jodi Magness, an archaeologist with an interest in early Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, argues that any Jews buried in Jerusalem who were not natives would have had their home towns appended to their names when they were inscribed on ossuaries. (Despite scholars' beliefs that Jesus's entire family hailed from outside Jerusalem, none of the inscriptions on the ossuaries in the contested burial cave include other birthplaces.) Magness also believes that if Jesus's family were wealthy enough to own a burial cave, it would have been in his home town of Nazareth and not in Jerusalem.
U.N.C. Charlotte historian Tabor, a consultant on the documentary, pooh-poohs the naysayers. "Mariemene e Mara means 'of Mariemenu, the Master,'" he says. "This is a title. It means 'This is the ossuary of Mariemene, known as the Mara.'" His opinion—which is consistent with Feuerverger's assumptions but clashes with those of many of his peers—is that this is a completely unique name, supporting his hypothesis that this is the grave of the Mary Magdalene.
Tabor also disagrees with critics who dismiss the fundamental premise of his and Feuerverger's calculations—that the family of Jesus would have been buried in caves typical of wealthier Jews and not in the shallow dirt graves that were common in that era. To some extent, this is a debate over the nature of evidence. Many biblical scholars and archaeologists, including Magness, accept that the gospels of the New Testament have some historicity to them, because they are the only direct historical accounts of the death of Jesus. But Tabor, on his blog, quotes scholars who argue that there is no reason these texts should be given more weight than any other piece of evidence.
Tabor responds to the charges that it is improbable that Jesus and his family had a burial cave in Jerusalem by noting that "if you know anything about messianic movements, the followers provide for their leader—they don't just throw him in a ditch when he dies. & Think of any Jewish sect—they take care of their rabbi. There's no evidence this family ever went back to Galilee. James [Jesus's brother] dies in Jerusalem, Mary and his brothers are there—there's no indication that anybody went back to Nazareth."
In other words, Tabor argues that it is not only likely that the family of the Jesus could have afforded a burial cave, but that it most likely would have opted for one in Jerusalem.
Both sides of this debate are extraordinarily difficult to prove given the paucity of historical evidence, something this controversy has in common with nearly all archaeological and historical disputes. "As archaeologists we are always reconstructing a picture based on incomplete evidence," notes Magness.
As a result, the calculations made by Feuerverger and others rest on premises that must be decided by historians and archaeologists, who are still far from agreement on even the basics of the Talpiot tomb. "I did permit the number one in 600 to be used in the film—I'm prepared to stand behind that but on the understanding that these numbers were calculated based on assumptions that I was asked to use," says Feuerverger. "These assumptions don't seem unreasonable to me, but I have to remember that I'm not a biblical scholar."
Medieval wall painting discovered
28 February 2008 07:15
Fragments of an ancient wall painting dating back to medieval times have been discovered during restoration work at 13th century Stuston church.
Last year villagers rallied to the cause when it emerged that £185,000 was needed for urgent repairs to make the nave, porch and vestry roofs watertight.
English Heritage and other funding bodies promised £165,000 towards the project - on condition that the small community of 140 souls met a December 2007 deadline to prove their commitment to making up the shortfall.
Had they failed to do so, there was the risk the church would have been declared redundant because it had fallen into disrepair - but residents rose to the challenge, organising fund-raising events including the first village fete for 25 years.
The main restoration to the church building is due to start on Monday and includes repairs to the tower and improving the underground drainage system. Work, costing about £18,000, is also taking place to restore a 1727 marble wall monument to local worthy Sir John Castleton and his family, who lived at Stuston Hall. When the memorial was dismantled, it was found to conceal a centuries old mural which may be of significant archaeological and historic value. The painted border is believed to date from the late 1500s to early 1600s and there are traces of earlier medieval painting, especially on the lower left hand side.
Roger Lay, project manager, said: "It is just like a frieze or a border to the Lord's Prayer, which has since disappeared, and it was covered by this memorial which is really distinctive."
A specialist wall painting conservator from Cambridge University will be visiting the church to examine and make a record of the mural, and stabilise the surface. It is planned to rebuild the monument in the same place, leaving a gap between the marble and painted plaster.
Stuston church will be closed during the repairs which should be completed by July 18. Regular Sunday services will be held at nearby Thrandeston, and special services may be held at other churches in the benefice.
Mummified nuns found
February 27 2008 at 05:46PM
The mummified remains of two nuns, the head of one lying on the shoulder of the other, have been found in the walls of a Sao Paulo convent in Brazil, media reported on Wednesday.
The bodies were discovered in one of six burial niches bricked over in the 234-year-old Mosteiro da Luz, that continues to be the home of the reclusive Order of the Conceptionist Sisters as well as a museum of sacred art.
An official at the University of Sao Paulo's archeology department, Sergio Monteiro da Silva, said it appeared the nuns had been put in the niche sometime between 1774 and 1822, when the room they were in was used as a cemetery.
Although they were found together, "the second nun probably died years after (the first)", he told the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper.
The bodies were found around three weeks ago, when work was done to combat an invasion of insects.
The discovery was kept secret until Tuesday while excavation was carried out and the remains cleaned of debris.
The nuns' remains have been taken to a national heritage and history institute in Sao Paulo, where they are to be analysed by archeologists and anthropologists.
The Monasterio de la Luz was founded in 1774 by the Franciscan monk Antonio de Sant'Anna Galvao, who was canonized last year by Pope Benedict XVI.
Its convent today counts around a dozen nuns.