A Venus figurine from the Swabian Jura rewrites prehistory

13 May 2009 Universitaet Tuebingen


The 2008 excavations at Hohle Fels Cave in the Swabian Jura of southwestern Germany recovered a female figurine carved from mammoth ivory from the basal Aurignacian deposit. This figurine, which is the earliest depiction of a human, and  one of the oldest known examples of figurative art worldwide, was made at least 35,000 years ago. This discovery radically changes our views of the context and meaning of the earliest Paleolithic art.


Between September 5 and 15, 2008 excavators at Hohle Fels near the town of Schelklingen recovered the six fragments of carved ivory that form the Venus. The importance of the discovery became apparent on September 9 when an excavator recovered the main piece of the sculpture that represents the majority of the torso. The figurine lay about 3 meters below the current surface of the cave in an area about 20 meters from the cave’s entrance. The finds come from a single quarter meter and were recovered from within 8 cm in the vertical dimension. The Venus from Hohle Fels is nearly complete with only the left arm and shoulder missing. The excellent preservation and the close stratigraphic association of the pieces of the figurine indicate that the Venus experienced little disturbance after deposition.


The figurine originates from a red-brown, clayey silt at the base of about one meter of Aurignacian deposits.The Venus lay in pieces next to a number of limestone blocks with dimension of several decimeters. The find density in the area of the Venus is moderately high with much flint knapping debris, worked bone and ivory, bones of horse, reindeer, cave bear, mammoth, ibex, as well as burnt bone.


Radiocarbon dates from this horizon span the entire range from 31,000 – 40,000 years ago. The fact that the venus is overlain by five Aurignacian horizons that contain a dozen stratigraphically intact anthropogenic features with a total thickness of 70 – 120 cm, suggests that figurine is indeed of an age corresponding to the start of the Aurignacian around 40,000 years ago.


Although much ivory working debris has been recovered from the basal Aurignacian deposits at Hohle Fels and the nearby site of Geißenklösterle, this sculpture is the first example of figurative art recovered from the basal Aurignacian in Swabia. The discovery of the Venus of Hohle Fels refutes claims that figurative representations and other symbolic artifacts first appear the later phases of the Swabian Aurignacian.


The Venus shows a range of entirely unique features as well as a number of characteristics present in later female figurines. The Venus of Hohle Fels lacks a head. Instead an off-centered, but carefully carved ring is located above the broad shoulders of the figurine. This ring, despite being weathered, preserves polish suggesting that the figurine was worn as a pendant. Beneath the shoulders, which are roughly as thick as they are wide, large breasts project forward. The figurine has two short arms with two carefully carved hands with visible fingers resting on the upper part of the stomach below the breasts.


The Venus has a short and squat form with a waist that is slightly narrower than the broad shoulders and wide hips. Multiple deeply incised horizontal lines cover the abdomen from the area below the breast to the pubic triangle. Several of these horizontal lines extend to the back of the figurine and are suggestive of clothing or a wrap of some sort. Microscopic images show that these incisions were created by repeatedly cutting along the same lines with sharp stone tools.


The legs of the Venus are short and pointy. The buttocks and genitals are depicted in more details. The split between the two halves of the buttocks is deep and continues without interruption to the front of the figurine where the vulva is visible between the open legs. There can be no doubt that the depiction of oversized breast, exentuated buttocks and genetalia result from the deliberate exaggeration of the sexual features of the figurine. In addition to the many carefully depicted anatomical features, the surface of the Venus preserves numerous lines and deliberate markings.


Many of the features, including the emphasis on sexual attributes and lack of emphasis on the head, face and arms and legs, call to mind aspects of the numerous Venus figurines well known from the European Gravettien, which typically date between 22 and 27 ka BP. The careful depiction of the hands is reminiscent of those of Venuses including that of archetypal Venus of Willendorf, which was discovered 100 years earlier in summer of 1908. Despite the far greater age of the Venus of Hohle Fels, many of its attributes occur in various forms throughout the rich tradition of Paleolithic female representations.


The new figurine from Hohle Fels radically changes our view of origins of Paleolithic art. Prior to this discovery, animals and therianthropic imagry dominated the over two dozen figurines from the Swabian Aurignacian. Female imagry was entirely unknown. With this discovery, the notion that three dimensional female imagry developed in the Gravettian can be rejected. Also the interpretations suggesting that strong, aggressive animals or shamanic depictions dominate the Aurignacian art of Swabia, or even Europe as a whole, need to be reconsidered. Although there is a long history of debate over the meaning of Paleolithic Venuses, their clear sexual attributes suggest that they are a direct or indirect expression of fertility. The Venus of Hohle Fels provides an entirely new view of the art from the early Upper Paleolithic and reinforces the arguments that have been made for innovative cultural manifestations accompanying the rise of the Swabian Aurignacian.


While many researchers, including Nicholas Conard, assume that the Aurignacian artworks were made by early modern humans shortly after their migration into Europe, this assumption can neither be confirmed or refuted based on the available skeletal data from the Swabian caves.


The Venus of Hohle Fels forms a center piece for a major exhibit in Stuttgart entitled Ice Age Art and Culture, which will run from September 18, 2009 – January 10, 2010.


The author of the paper: A female figurine from the basal Aurignacian deposits of Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany is Nicholas J. Conard.



How Neanderthals met a grisly fate: devoured by humans

A fossil discovery bears marks of butchering similar to those made when cutting up a deer

Robin McKie, science editor

The Observer, Sunday 17 May 2009


One of science's most puzzling mysteries - the disappearance of the Neanderthals - may have been solved. Modern humans ate them, says a leading fossil expert.


The controversial suggestion follows publication of a study in the Journal of Anthropological Sciences about a Neanderthal jawbone apparently butchered by modern humans. Now the leader of the research team says he believes the flesh had been eaten by humans, while its teeth may have been used to make a necklace.


Fernando Rozzi, of Paris's Centre National de la Récherche Scientifique, said the jawbone had probably been cut into to remove flesh, including the tongue. Crucially, the butchery was similar to that used by humans to cut up deer carcass in the early Stone Age. "Neanderthals met a violent end at our hands and in some cases we ate them," Rozzi said.


The idea will provoke considerable opposition from scientists who believe Neanderthals disappeared for reasons that did not involve violence. Neanderthals were a sturdy species who evolved in Europe 300,000 years ago, made complex stone tools and survived several ice ages before they disappeared 30,000 years ago - just as modern human beings arrived in Europe from Africa.


Some researchers believe Neanderthals may have failed to compete effectively with Homo sapiens for resources, or were more susceptible to the impact of climate change. But others believe our interactions were violent and terminal for the Neanderthals. According to Rozzi, the discovery at Les Rois in south-west France provides compelling support for that argument.


Previous excavations revealed bones that were thought to be exclusively human. But Rozzi's team re-examined them and found one they concluded was Neanderthal. Importantly, it was covered in cut marks similar to those left behind when flesh is stripped from deer and other animals using stone tools.


Rozzi believes the jawbone provides crucial evidence that humans attacked Neanderthals, and sometimes killed them, bringing back their bodies to caves to eat or to use their skulls or teeth as trophies. "For years, people have tried to hide away from the evidence of cannibalism, but I think we have to accept it took place," he added.


But not every team member agrees. "One set of cut marks does not make a complete case for cannibalism," said Francesco d'Errico, of the Institute of Prehistory in Bordeaux. It was also possible that the jawbone had been found by humans and its teeth used to make a necklace, he said.


"This is a very important investigation," said Professor Chris Stringer, of the Natural History Museum, London. "We do need more evidence, but this could indicate modern humans and Neanderthals were living in the same area of Europe at the same time, that they were interacting, and that some of these interactions may have been hostile.


"This does not prove we systematically eradicated the Neanderthals or that we regularly ate their flesh. But it does add to the evidence that competition from modern humans probably contributed to Neanderthal extinction."



Evidence of Modern Smarts in Stone Age Superglue

By Brandon Keim Email Author

May 12, 2009 5:25 pm


Researchers who reverse-engineered an ancient superglue have found that Stone Age people were smarter than we thought.


Making the glue, originally used on 70,000-year-old composite tools, clearly required high-level cognitive powers. Anthropologists usually use symbolic art as the benchmark for modern cognition, but making the glue was an equally profound accomplishment.


“These artisans were exceedingly skilled; they understood the properties of their adhesive ingredients, and they were able to manipulate them knowingly,” wrote University of Witwatersrand archaeologists in a paper published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


The archaeologists took design cues from stone tools found during a decade of excavation at South Africa’s Sibudu Cave site. The stones were still covered with traces of an iron-rich red pigment and acacia gum, a natural adhesive found in the bark of acacia trees.


Acacia gum was almost certainly used to attach the stones to wooden shafts, but researchers have debated the pigment’s role. Some suggested that it was decoration. The Witersrand team suspected a more functional use.


Indeed, when they used Stone Age toolmaking techniques to attach stones to wooden shafts with nothing but acacia gum, the tools soon fell apart. When they added the pigment, the tools stuck together. But making the glue required much more than simple mixing. It demanded careful and sustained attention.


Keeping the fire at the right temperature required certain types of wood, with a certain degree of moisture content. If glues were mixed too close to the fire, they contained air bubbles. If too dry, they weren’t cohesive; if too wet, they were weak. The Sibudu Cave’s Stone Age inhabitants, wrote the researchers, were “competent chemists, alchemists and pyrotechnologists.”


The Sibudu tools were about as old as the first possible evidence of symbolic art, also found in South Africa. But some archaeologists say that art, consisting of cross-hatched engravings on stone, may represent absent-minded doodles rather than a cognitive leap. The glues are a more convincing indication of modern intelligence.


“The glue maker needs to pay careful attention to the condition of ingredients before and during the procedure and must be able to switch attention between aspects of the methodology,” wrote the Witwatersrand team. “To hold many courses of action in the mind involves multitasking. This is one trait of modern human minds, notwithstanding that even today, some people find multilevel operations difficult.”


Citation: “Hafting tools with compound adhesives in the Middle Stone Age, South Africa: Implications for complex cognition.” By Lyn Wadley, Tamaryn Hodgskiss, and Michael Grant. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 106, No. 19, May 11, 2009.



Bronze Age man inhabited water-logged north

by Robert Chesal*



Skeletal remains of a young man, dogs' skulls and pottery. Archaeologists have found 3,000-year-old remains near Enkhuizen, a long-established city to the north of Amsterdam, in a dig that has been going on since January. Until now, experts thought no one could have lived in the area during the Bronze Age because it was too water-logged. They have now been proved wrong.


Water management

Around 1,000 BC, water-logged land was a major problem for human settlements in this region in the north of the Netherlands. However, even at this early date, people were taking measures to deal with the water. Dark traces in the sand around each of the five housing plots that have been discovered show they were surrounded by drainage ditches. These channelled the water away from the buildings, making them habitable.


"It was thought that this area was uninhabited but, in fact, it was a kind of urban centre in the north," says Wouter Roessingh, who is leading the archaeological dig. The local population were cattle and grain farmers and were also involved in fishing. The archaeologists have discovered water holes and a burial mound as well as the settlement remains.


New development

When initial research indicated the presence of important archaeological finds, work on a new housing development had to be suspended. The archaeologists started their work in January and the excavation phase is due to be completed this month. The research project is costing one million euros, half of which is being paid for through government subsidy. The other 50 percent is being met by the construction company and Enkhuizen City Council.



In the 1970s, large-scale land consolidation in the north of the Netherlands led to even small hillocks being levelled. Many archaeological remains were probably lost in the process. The present six-hectare site happened to be left intact.



The site is also exceptional in that the finds are just 40 centimetres below the surface, despite the passage of thousands of years. Archaeological discoveries elsewhere in the Netherlands are often are much deeper underground because floods have deposited sand on the sites for centuries. There have been fewer floods at the Enkhuizen site and the construction of the first dyke in the 14th century made flooding a thing of the past. This is the reason why the present archaeological discoveries are so close to the surface.



Race to preserve the world's oldest submerged town

May 11th, 2009


The ancient town of Pavlopetri lies in three to four metres of water just off the coast of southern Laconia in Greece. The ruins date from at least 2800 BC through to intact buildings, courtyards, streets, chamber tombs and some thirty-seven cist graves which are thought to belong to the Mycenaean period (c.1680-1180 BC). This Bronze Age phase of Greece provides the historical setting for much Ancient Greek literature and myth, including Homer's Age of Heroes.


Underwater archaeologist Dr Jon Henderson, from The University of Nottingham, will be the first archaeologist to have official access to the site in 40 years. Despite its potential international importance no work has been carried out at the site since it was first mapped in 1968 and Dr Henderson has had to get special permission from the Greek government to examine the submerged town.


Although Mycenaean power was largely based on their control of the sea, little is known about the workings of the harbour towns of the period as archaeology to date has focused on the better known inland palaces and citadels. Pavlopetri was presumably once a thriving harbour town where the inhabitants conducted local and long distance trade throughout the Mediterranean — its sandy and well-protected bay would have been ideal for beaching Bronze Age ships. As such the site offers major new insights into the workings of Mycenaean society.


The aim of Dr Henderson's project is to discover the history and development of Pavlopetri, find out when it was occupied, what it was used for and through a systematic study of the geomorphology of the area establish why the town disappeared under the sea.


Dr Henderson, from the Underwater Archaeology Research Centre (UARC) in the Department of Archaeology, said: “This site is of rare international archaeological importance. It is imperative that the fragile remains of this town are accurately recorded and preserved before they are lost forever. A fundamental aim of the project is to raise awareness of the importance of the site and ensure that it is ethically managed and presented to the public in a way which is sustainable and of benefit to both the development of tourism and the local community.”


The submerged buildings, courtyards, streets, tombs and graves, lie just off a sandy stretch of beach close to an area popular with holiday makers and campers. Under threat from tourism and industry the remains are being damaged by boats dragging their anchors, inquisitive snorkelers on the hunt for souvenirs and the growth of marine organisms which are also taking their toll degrading the fragile 3,500 year old walls.


The survey, in collaboration with Mr Elias Spondylis of the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture, will be carried out using equipment originally developed for the military and offshore oilfield market but looks set to transform underwater archaeological survey and recording.


Dr Henderson and his team will carry out a detailed millimeter accurate digital underwater survey of the site using an acoustic scanner developed by a major North American offshore engineering company. The equipment can produce photo-realistic, three dimensional digital surveys of seabed features and underwater structures to sub-millimetre accuracy in a matter of minutes.


Dr Henderson said: “The ability to survey submerged structures, from shipwrecks to sunken cities, quickly, accurately and more importantly, cost effectively, is a major obstacle to the future development of underwater archaeology. I believe we now have a technique which effectively solves this problem.”


Joining the team will be Dr Nicholas Flemming who discovered the site in 1967. The following year he led a team from the University of Cambridge who surveyed the area with hand tapes. The archaeological material — pottery, figurines, obsidian and small finds — they collected belong to the Early Helladic, Middle Helladic and Late Helladic period (c. 2800-1180 BC). A systematic assessment of the finds recovered at the time is currently being undertaken by Dr Chrysanthi Gallou at The University of Nottingham.


The project has received funding from the Institute of Aegean Prehistory (INSTAP), The University of Nottingham and the British School of Archaeology at Athens but it is still £10,000 short of the amount needed to carry out the main archaeological survey.


Four annual fieldwork seasons are planned. This May and June the team will carry out a full underwater survey. Between 2010 and 2012 there will be three seasons of underwater excavations. After a study season in 2013 the findings of Dr Henderson's research will be published in 2014.


Provided by University of Nottingham (news : web)



World’s biggest puzzle made in consul’s house at Ephesus


One of the biggest ancient cities of the Mediterranean, Efes (Ephesus), is now undergoing important restoration. The marble hall of the palace-like house in which the city’s Roman consul lived in A.D. 275 has begun to be restored, putting back together 350-square-meter walls that are now broken into 120,000 pieces.


The deputy supervisor of the ongoing excavations in Efes, Sabine Ladstatter, said this method was used in Italy once before, but with such a large-scale assembly will be the first in history. Excavations have been ongoing in this city for 138 years. The hillside houses where the richest people lived are seen as the most exciting sites for excavation and restoration.


Considered to be the most important of the hillside houses, the palatial house of Gaius Flavius Furius Aptus, the city consul, is drawing attention as a focus of excavation and restoration projects. Its magnificent 178-square-meter salon, whose walls were clothed with marble, is witnessing a major restoration. The plan is to begin with the restoration of the salon’s walls.


The walls had sunk deep into the soil over time due to numerous earthquakes. The pieces of the walls have been found through the extensive excavations, which have been going on for years. Presently the there are about 120,000 pieces that are going to be used for the restoration, funded by Borusan Holding. Ladstatter said they believe those pieces constitute 90 percent of the walls. She added that they are going to use laser screening to find the proper piece to put into the proper place in the wall. “What we are going to do here now is an effort to complete a puzzle composed of 120,000 pieces,” Ladstatter summarized. The restoration is expected to cost $300,000.



Hidden treasure discovered in southern Sweden

Published: 12 May 09 07:44 CET

Online: http://www.thelocal.se/19394/20090512/


A unique collection of silver coins and an unidentified skeleton have been found in Skänninge in southern Sweden.


The collection of around 100 silver coins, thought to date from the 12th century, were found in a grave dating from the early 14th century.


"It is fantastic that we have found silver coins in a grave," said the archaeologist Hanna Menander to local newspaper Motala & Vadstena Tidning.


"Graves from that time are so often empty. That bags of money are buried together with the body is totally unique."


Menander and her colleagues, Annika Konsmar and Magnus Stibéus, concluded that the coins must have been in circulation over a very long time.


The hidden treasure was found when the area was being excavated to prepare for new train tracks to link Mjölby and Motala. Excavations were conducted at the site five years ago, but were then ended only centimetres from were the coins have now been found.



Ancient Elite Island With Pyramid Found in Mexico

Alexis Okeowo in México City

for National Geographic News

May 13, 2009


An island for ancient elites has been found in central Mexico, archaeologists say. Among the ruins are a treasury and a small pyramid that may have been used for rituals.


The island, called Apupato, belonged to the powerful Tarascan Empire, which dominated much of western Mexico from A.D. 1400 to 1520, before the European conquest of the region.


"Because Apupato was an island and relatively unsettled, it is a neat window into how the [Lake Pátzcuaro] basin looked like years ago," said Christopher Fisher, lead investigator and archaeologist at Colorado State University.


"If you would paddle up to the island [during the time], you would see a number of buildings, some temples with smoke coming out of them from rituals, and a small village of specialized people—priests, elites," Fisher said.


The Purépecha people—named Tarascan by the Spanish—were formidable enemies with their neighbors, the Aztec. From their powerful capital city and religious center Tzintzuntzan, the Tarascans successfully thwarted every attack by the Aztec.


Tarascan people valued such products as honey, cotton, feathers, and salt, and they often expanded into neighboring lands in search of these goods.


Fisher and colleagues found a square structure with a formal entrance that is believed to have been an imperial treasury.


Adjacent to the treasury is a small pyramid, which has large, open rooms that would have been suitable for ritual activity. Pipe fragments were also found near the treasury.


The pipe discoveries may bear out ritual descriptions on a previously found ancient Spanish scroll.


The scroll shows people smoking pipes and drinking pulque—a drink made of agave, a crucial crop used for alcoholic drinks, such as tequila, and syrup, Fisher said.


The scroll also describes ritual treasury caches dedicated to specific gods.


"These caches were also used to finance activities like warfare," said Fisher, who has submitted a report describing his as yet unpublished research to Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History.


Toward the end of the island's Tarascan occupation, the area was a "ritual center" where people of elite status lived and worked, he added.


The team identified a colonial-era chapel from the early 1500s, built in the first 20 years of the Spanish conquest.


Evidence of crop cultivation also suggests that humans continuously occupied the site for 2,000 years, Fisher said.


The entire island was covered in agricultural terraces, possibly to grow agave.


People created the terraces by digging sections of land about 6.6 feet (2 meters) wide, with earthen walls and a ditch on either side.


"The discovery fills in gaps in the Lake Pátzcuaro basin's chronology," said Helen Perlstein Pollard, professor of anthropology at Michigan State University who has worked with Fisher in Mexico's Tarascan region.


"He discovered the basic sequence of occupation, the repeated use of this island over time, and the way the use of the island has shifted over time," Perlstein Pollard said.


Now, archaeologists can begin to examine the relationship between settlement patterns and the economic and political structures on the islands.


"We can now begin to ask the interesting questions," she said.




Thursday, May 14th, 2009 AT 1:05 PM


Seven new Buddhist caves have been found at Dhondse and Bahirampada villages in Pali taluka of Raigad district, by the archaeology department of Deccan College here, according to a lecturer in history of ancient India and Sanskrit, Shrikant Ganveer.


The caves were found during exploration around and study of the 60 caves at Thanale and Nenawali in Raigad district.


The caves were built approximately between second century BC and second century AD, according to experts.


Ganveer said, “Two caves at Dhondse are located in a dense forest, and so they have been spared the effects of the destructive ways of human beings and the nature. One of them is a ‘vihar’ type of cave used as a place of worship as well as residence. The other is an incomplete ‘chaitya-griha,’ which is a big prayer hall with a ‘stoopa’ within or close to it.”


The caves show an uncanny resemblance to the group of caves at Junnar.


The newly-found caves find no mention in the work of British archaeologists James Burgess and Henry Cazins, nor have they been recorded in the annual survey reports (from 1947 to 2008) of the Archaeological Survey of India.


The new caves do not have any type of ornamental effects. Nor do they have any inscriptions.


The chaitya griha-type cave shows that the work had just begun to carve out a ‘stoopa.’ It also has a section for Buddhist monks.


The ‘vihar’ type cave has seats carved on both sides.


On the way to Thanale caves, ten steps have been carved into the rock. These were probably used by pilgrims, traders and monks 2,000 years ago.


There are two water tanks near the steps, which would prove vital to travellers.

The exploration was carried out under the guidance of the joint director of the Deccan College Dr Vasant Shinde.