Neanderthals speak for first time in 50,000 years

By Roger Highfield, Science Editor

Last Updated: 1:01pm BST 16/04/2008


Neanderthals have spoken out for the first time since they were wiped out or outcompeted by our ancestors tens of millennia ago.


It may only sound like one small burp, but for scientists the Neanderthal "E" sound marks a 50,000 year step back in time.


Prof Robert McCarthy, an anthropologist at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton has used Neanderthal vocal tracts reconstructed from fossils to simulate the voice with a synthesizer, reports NewScientist.com.


By one analysis, Neanderthals had a shorter vocal tract than modern humans that was shaped differently (the horizontal tube, near the bottom of the cranium, was longer than the vertical tube from the level of the palate to the vocal cords) and in theory could manage higher pitches.


But there have been years of controversy over whether these archaic humans had fully articulated speech, rather than grunts, gestures and pre-language.


Three decades ago, the team of Prof Philip Lieberman, of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, inferred that Neanderthal speech did not have the subtlety of modern human speech.


Some researchers attacked this finding, citing archaeological evidence of an oral culture and even errors in Prof Lieberman's original vocal tract reconstruction.


The linguist teamed with Prof McCarthy to simulate Neanderthal speech based on new reconstructions of the Neanderthal vocal tract, based on three 60,000-year old fossils from France.


"We are really saying that Neanderthals spoke, just a bit differently than we do," he says.


But they conclude that the ancient human's speech lacked the "quantal vowel" sounds that underlie modern speech.


Quantal vowels provide cues that help speakers with different size vocal tracts understand one another, says Prof McCarthy, who presented this work a few days ago at the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Columbus.


"They wouldn't have been able to produce these quantal vowels that form the basis of spoken language," he says.


By modelling the sounds the Neanderthal pipes would have made, Prof McCarthy's team engineered the sound of a Neanderthal saying "E", the first step to recreating more sounds.


In contrast to the modern human vowel in the word "see", the Neanderthal version lacks the quantal hallmark which helps a listener distinguish the word "beat" from "bit," for instance.


Though subtle, the linguistic difference would have limited Neanderthal speech, Prof McCarthy says. Prof Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, London, says the work is "very creative".


Neanderthals may well have had a more limited vocal repertoire than modern humans "but there are many modern languages that use only 20 per cent of the sounds that human speech could produce, so if the Neanderthal way of life required complex language, their brains could certainly have evolved to allow this.


"Personally, however, I doubt that Neanderthal societies were as complex as ours, and hence I suspect that they had not travelled as far down the road to complex language as Homo sapiens had."


And others say the conclusions are at odds with the big brains of our ancient cousin, Homo neanderthalensis.


Using methods of manufacture dating back more than a million years, he fashioned weapons, probably hunted in packs and buried his dead.


His big brain may have been an adaptation to language, says Prof Erik Trinkaus, an anthropologist at Washington University in St Louis.


"Ultimately what is important is not the anatomy of the mouth but the neuronal control of it."


Neanderthals may have also boasted the genes for language, Prof Trinkaus says.


Last year, researchers discovered that Neanderthals shared a version of a gene called FOXP2 with humans.


People missing a copy of FOXP2 suffer from language and speech disorders, and humans have a version of the gene that is different from other animals – including chimpanzees, our nearest relatives.


However, a study published this week by Dr Molly Przeworski and colleagues at the University of Chicago questions this and warns it could be the result of the bane of ancient DNA studies - modern contamination.


"We find that, depending on the assumptions, additional control experiments may be needed to rule out contamination at FOXP2."



Iron Age mystery of the 'Essex druid'

Grave near Colchester could be the first burial site of an ancient mystic ever to be discovered in Britain

By Andrew Johnson

Sunday, 20 April 2008


As sacred priests, their duties included teaching, law enforcement and possibly even burning people to death in giant wicker men. Druids dominated British culture with their mysterious magical rites in the centuries before the Roman invasion.


For such an important band of men, however – it could take 20 years to train to be a druid, according to some sources – hardly anything is known about them. That could be about to change now, though, after what is thought to be the first discovery in Britain of a druid grave.


The extraordinary find was made at the Essex village of Stanway, near Colchester. It is among a number of graves of eminent people interred around the time of the Roman invasion of Britain in AD43.


Following Queen Boudica's uprising in AD61, Emperor Claudius ordered the druids be wiped out. Their Anglesey stronghold and sacred groves were destroyed, along with their entire history.


In the grave, archaeologists uncovered a board game with the glass counters laid out, medical equipment – the earliest ever found – a tea strainer still containing some kind of herbal brew, and some mysterious metal poles.


The first find at the site was made in 1996. But now, after 12 years of painstaking digging and research, the final report into the unearthing suggests that the grave could be the only one of a druid ever found. The clues are not just in the objects buried with an obviously important man, but also in the way they are laid out. The metal rods, possibly used for divining, are in a specific order and near the surgical equipment – scalpel, surgical saw, hooks and forceps. There is also a jet bead, believed to have been seen as magical.


Writing in this month's British Archaeology magazine, the team of excavators from Colchester Archaeological Trust say: "It is hard to avoid the conclusion that he belonged to the stratum of late Iron Age society that comprised druids, diviners and healers. It is conceivable that this grave was the final resting place of a British druid."


Philip Crummy, director of the trust, remained cautious, adding that there may be other explanations. "In the report we draw the possibility that this man or woman was a druid," he said.


"The so-called druid could have been a doctor. The tea strainer contains artemisia pollen, which is commonly associated with herbal remedies. Healing is an attribute given to druids. We don't know what the metal rods are for, but we think they could have been used for divining. The question is whether all that stacks up to him being a druid. It could be – it was certainly somebody special."



Ancient Roman staircase found


(ANSA) - Rome, April 17 - An Ancient Roman staircase which appears to have led into a previously unknown major building has been found during excavations for a new subway station.


Archaeologists immediately dubbed the white-marble staircase, the latest in a trove of finds at the site, ''the imperial steps''.


Only a part of the staircase - five steps measuring some ten metres - has so far been uncovered.


It is inset into pink granite and the Romans' favourite monumental building stone, travertine.


''This is an extremely important find and completely unexpected because the staircase was not known,'' said Rome Archaeological Superintendent Angelo Bottini.


''It must have been an entrance into an important place but we have to find something in ancient sources if we are to make any circumstantiated hypothesis,'' he said.


''At the moment we can't even make a precise dating''.


Bottini said there was no trace of the monument ''even in the Forma Urbis,'' a massive marble map of ancient Rome created under the emperor Septimius Severus between 203 and 211.


The map was destroyed in the Middle Ages but much of its content is known from ancient writings. Archaeologists have managed to assemble shards of some 10% while Stanford University experts are using computer algorithms to try to recover more of it digitally.


The remains of brickwork pillars, which archaeologists say may have collapsed in an earthquake ''in ancient times'', were found alongside the stairs. The staircase was discovered just around the corner from the Ancient Forum in the middle of Piazza Venezia, the central Roman square where Benito Mussolini gave his speeches.


One of the 30 stations on Rome's new C metro line, the third in the capital, is being built in the square.


All the Roman, medieval and Renaissance artefacts and monuments which digs have thrown up will be showcased in the future station.


Roman taverns, a sixth-century copper factory, medieval kitchens still stocked with pots and pans and remains of Renaissance palaces are among the finds that have turned up over the last ten months Bits of the ancient Via Lata, one of the main roads out of the city, have also been found.


The Via Lata was what Via Flaminia - the most important highway to northern Italy - became once it entered the city.


Today's Via del Corso follows its course from Piazza Venezia to Piazza Del Popolo.



Discovery of 3000-Years old Board-Games and a Compass-Rose in Persian Gulf’s Kharg Island

19 April 2008


LONDON, (CAIS) -- An ancient four-pointed compass-rose showing directions of ‘four cardinal points’ and a number of board-games carved on rocks discovered in the Iranian island of Kharg in the Persian Gulf, reported Persian service of CHN on Saturday.


The discovery was made by Shahram Eslami, a local and a member of Kharg’s Friends of Cultural Heritage. The relics were studied and their ancient origins identified by Dr Reza Moradi Ghiasabadi.


"The engravings are between 2000 and 3000 years old. The first discovered carving is located beside an ancient road which is a four-pointed compass-rose showing directions of four cardinal points within a square-shape with rounded angles setting, 50x50cm in diameters. Some sections of the compass-rose have been damaged, apparently as the result of a cracks in the rock," said Ghiasabadi.


He added, "the compass-rose's lines have been placed in a position to determine the cardinal points, which have only two degrees of error based on the Global Positioning System (GPS)".


 “This is a unique discovery and a great deal of efforts and resources should be made available to safeguard the relic. Also we must not remove it from its original place," emphasised Ghiasabadi


The remaining carvings which are board-games were discovered in the northwest of the island. The board-games are in a mixture of circular and oblong shape settings, in various diameters, some 4cm and some in 10cm in circumference. All these carvings engraved over the rocky-ground’s flat surfaces. These are located on the hinterland at the top of the cliff overlooking the waters of the Persian Gulf.


These game-boards have been carved on the rocks in various settings, which Ghiasabadi have managed to identify seven of them. Some of them could be a proto-type for backgammon.


The Persian Gulf's Iranian island of Kharg is situated at about 30 km northwest of Bandar-e Rig and 52 km northwest of Bushehr. It is the larger and more southerly of two islands (the other being Khargu). Kharg (also Khark) is about 8 km long and, at its widest point, 4 km across. The interior is hilly, terminating in cliffs at the northern and southern ends of the island.


Archaeologists have always believed the oldest settlement on the island dates back to Parthian dynastic era (248 BCE-224 CE), but as the result of a discovery in November 2007 history of the island was re-written, as the archaeologists have discovered an inscription (LINK) executed in Old-Persian cuneiform, dated to the Achaemenid dynasty (550-330 BCE). Since its discovery, the rock-inscription has been left unprotected in its original place at the mercy of looters, vandals, and harsh weather.



China's Terracotta Army Covered in Egg

Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News


April 18, 2008 -- China's terracotta army, a collection of 7,000 soldier and horse figures in the mausoleum of the country's first emperor, was entirely covered with beaten egg when it was constructed, according to German and Italian chemists who have analyzed samples from several of the figurines.


According to the research team, the egg served as a binder for colorful paints, which went over a layer of lacquer.


Co-author Catharina Blaensdorf, a scientist at the Technical University of Munich in Germay, explained to Discovery News that "egg paint is normally very stable, and not soluble in water...This makes [it] less sensitive to humidity and moisture."


Egg proteins would have also ensured the adhesion of the paint to the lacquer, while also giving the paint thickness and texture, added Blaensdorf's colleague Ilaria Bonaduce, of the University of Pisa in Italy.


For the study, which has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Cultural Heritage, the researchers took samples from warrior figurine faces, kneeling archers, swans and paint fragments found on the ground inside the 210 B.C. mausoleum. They chemically separated the flakes to isolate the ingredients, and then inserted them into a machine that determined their composition.


The researchers thought animal glue might have served as a binder, but all of the data pointed to egg instead. The pigments, they found, were bone white, lead white, cerussite (which sparkles), quartz, cinnabar, malachite, charcoal black, copper salts, Chinese purple and azurite.


Bright hues were important "because color was precious and a colorful army was the best, and an emperor could demand the best," said Blaensdorf.


The sturdy terracotta and thick, eggy paint add to the conclusion that the army was also built to last.


The mausoleum was even booby-trapped, "Home Alone"-style, with rigged crossbows to stop would-be thieves.


Eighty master potters left their signatures on the terracotta figures. These names show some individuals came from the imperial court, while other artists appear to have been respected local craftsmen. Some official names overlap with those found on sewage pipes and floor tiles found in other locations, "so it seems there was an office for making pottery (within) the imperial court," said Blaensdorf.


Erika Ribechini, a scientist in the Department of Chemistry and Industrial Chemistry at the University of Pisa, who did not work on the project, said the new findings "are very well presented."


"Even though the terracotta army is very famous," she said, not much is known about it. Ribechini also said the egg discovery "is particularly fascinating in terms of its historical significance, because roughly in the same period, in the Roman Empire and in ancient Greece, the artists used to utilize egg as a binder in creating mural and stone paintings."


The research is likely to help art restorers to repair and preserve the terracotta army.



Wedding licence for ancient caves


A Devon tourist attraction has been granted a marriage licence to hold weddings in its caves, which date back more than 500,000 years.


Kents Cavern in Torquay, Devon, is now allowed to carry out subterranean ceremonies.


The caves are one of Britain's oldest scheduled ancient monuments, with English Heritage designation dating back to 1957.


A piece of jawbone from Neanderthal man has been found in one of the caves.


The first humans are believed to have lived in the area alongside sabre-toothed cats, bears, hyenas and woolly mammoth.


The hillside, woodlands and the internal landscape of the caves are designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest under the statutory regulations of English Nature.


Christine Howle, deputy superintendent registrar at Torbay Council, said the caves were a "unique and stunning venue".


Couples will be able to choose one of four caves to make their vows, with the largest chamber able to accommodate 80 guests.


Local couple Gilly Woodland and Alan Duckworth have already booked the venue for their wedding on 4 October.


"Essentially it was because we wanted to do something that was a little different," the bride-to-be told BBC News


"The choice in Torbay wasn't too great, so originally we'd planned to get married at the registry office in Oldway Mansion, then have the reception at Kents Caverns."


The couple have chosen to exchange vows in the great chamber, which can hold up to 80 guests.


Ms Woodland said the invitations could turn out to be more like information booklets.


"The caves are kept at a constant temperature, but it's a constant of 14C, so we'll need to tell people about that.


"There will also be a warning on the invitations six-inch stilettos are banned - we don't want any broken ankles."