Ancient teeth hint that right-handedness is nothing new

12:27 23 May 2009 by Ewen Callaway


Ancient bones suggest "lefties" have been coping with a right-handed world for more than half a million years. A study of Homo heidelbergensis, an ancestor of Neanderthals, seems to show that the ancient humans were predominately right-handed.


"Finding that a hominin species as old as Homo heidelbergensis is already right-handed helps to trace back the chain of modernity concerning hand laterality," says Marina Mosquera, a paleoanthropologist at Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Tarragona, Spain, who was involved in the study.


Humans are the only animal believed to show a strong preference for performing tasks with one hand or the other. Determining when right-handedness first evolved could shed light on traits linked to lateralised brains, such as language and technology, Mosquera says. Efforts to solve this mystery have looked to ancient human skulls and marks left on tools.


But these methods may not be reliable. Two-million-year-old tools carved out of animal bones contain marks that might be indicative of use by right-handers; however left-handers could have created the same patterns, she says.


Similarly ancient skulls may have been split into two hemispheres, but these changes could also reflect language processing, which occurs predominately in the left brain of both right-handed and left-handed people, Mosquera says.


In search of a less ambiguous indicator of handedness, Mosquera's team looked to teeth, of all things. Ancient humans probably used their teeth like a third hand, she says, clenching onto meat and other objects to cut them with stone tools. And in the process, ancient humans might have grazed their incisors, creating diagonal marks.


To avoid cutting their noses off, ancient humans probably moved their blade in a downward motion, causing right-handers to make tooth marks in one direction, left-handers in another. Mosquera's team confirmed this bias by asking left and right-handed assistants to simulate the process while wearing mouth guards.


Next, her team analyzed 592 cut marks on 163 teeth found at Sima de los Huesos cave in northern Spain, which has produced a trove of Homo heidelbergensis remains. The vast majority of the marks looked to be made by right-handers, Mosquera's team found.


Indeed, out of the 19 individuals to whom the teeth belonged, 15 appeared to be right-handed and none left-handed. Teeth from four individuals contained mostly vertical marks and, therefore, could not be interpreted.


Travis Pickering, a biological anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, agrees that dental marks are a good way of determining handedness in ancient humans. "Most hominins, even early hominins, are going to be bright enough not to bring a blade up to their noses," he says.


But the new study runs into the same problems as other attempts to understand ancient human behaviour by analysing marks left on teeth or tools, Pickering says.


A right-handed lab assistant may create diagonal marks across a tooth guard while using a stone tool, but cut marks on a 500,000 year-old tooth could have come from entirely different activities or even natural wear and tear.


Journal reference: Evolution and Human Behavior (DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2009.03.001)



4,000-year-old road found in city

Page last updated at 09:40 GMT, Saturday, 23 May 2009 10:40 UK


A Bronze Age road has been found below Swansea's shifting foreshore.


The short section of track was discovered by a metal detector enthusiast and archaeologists have now dated it to around 4,000 years ago.


Woven from narrow branches of oak and alder the structure was covered in a thin layer of brushwood to provide a level walking-surface.


It was found in March when it was uncovered by storms but has since disappeared back under the marine clay.


Brian Price, a member of the Swansea Metal Detecting Club, reported the discovery opposite the Brynmill area to the Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust.


A sample was sent to the Beta Analytic Radiocarbon Laboratory in Florida for dating and was found to be from the early Bronze Age - sometime between 2140 and 1930BC.


Andrew Sherman, assistant project officer, said: "During the early Bronze Age the climate was drier and warmer than today and the sea level was significantly lower.


"The trackway was therefore probably built through a wet, marshy environment.


"Because it has been eroded by the tide it is impossible to tell whether the entire trackway was composed of hurdles, or whether occasional hurdles were laid to cross particularly wet patches of ground."


The trust said there was very little evidence of Early Bronze Age settlements in the area with lots of funeral and ritual sites such as barrows, cairns and standing stones, but no habitation structures.


"The explanation for this may simply lie in the nature of a nomadic existence, which militates against the construction of substantial dwellings," added Mr Sherman.



Mystery footprints restore warring scene


Newly discovered footprints of different sizes, apparently left by men, women and children, on an ancient military route, have helped recreate a war scene that occurred at least 2,000 years ago, an archaeologist said Friday.


The footprints, the smallest of which were believed to belong to children around six years old, were found last week along vehicle tracks on China's first interprovincial road, a 700-km dirt road built under the reign of the "First Emperor", said Zhang Zaiming, a researcher with Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archeology, based in the ancient capital Xi'an.


"We also found an arrowhead close to the footprints," he said. "Judging from its location, we assumed whoever left the footprints had been its targets."


Zhang therefore restored a chaotic scene, with men trying to fight back enemies and women running after panic-stricken children. "There was no blacktop road back then, and the footprints they left on the muddy route remained intact even today."


Near the footprints, unearthed in Huashugou Village of Fuxian County on the outskirts of Yan'an City, Zhang and his colleagues also found primitive buildings, which they believed were barracks or military service stations.


The footprints, arrowhead and buildings all dated back roughly to the Qin (221-207 BC) or Western Han (206 BC-24 AD) dynasties, he said. "A coin unearthed in the same pit was engraved with characters indicating it was the currency of the Han Dynasty."


The new findings have set Zhang and his colleagues wondering whether China's dictatorial "First Emperor", Qin Shihuang, had allowed soldiers to take their families to barracks.


Existing historical records, however, indicated armymen were not allowed to take their family to the barracks until at least 800 years later, in the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties.


Zhang and nine colleagues have just finished a two-month hike in the mountainous areas of Fuxian County to search for heritage items that carried history of the First Emperor's military route.


The route, linking Xianyang in today's Xi'an with Baotou City in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, was reportedly built between 212 and 210 BC by 300,000 people. It was originally built for Qin soldiers to march northward in combat with the Huns who lived in today's Inner Mongolia and Mongolia.


The route, which now lies buried under mountain villages and modern highways, was recorded in nearly every history book. Its formal excavation started in Fuxian County in early March. Experts have so far located about 50 meters of the dirt road.


The road was known as "Qin Emperor's direct road", though the emperor himself died on a long journey shortly before it was completed. His remains, however, were sent back to the ancient capital Chang'an along this road.


Qin Shihuang was the first emperor of a united China. His best-known legacy is an underground army of terracotta figures and horses.


(Xinhua News Agency May 22, 2009)



Cliff erosion on Golden Cap estate exposes Bronze Age settlement

9:54am Thursday 21st May 2009

By Rene Gerryts »


ARCHAEOLGOISTS working on the National Trust’s Golden Cap Estate have uncovered a rare find – a Neolithic settlement exposed by cliff erosion.


The test trenches are being dug this week by National Trust archaeologists Martin Papworth and Nancy Grace, and a team of experienced archaeological volunteers, on Dog House Hill, near Thorncombe Beacon.


Mr Papworth said everyone at the site was excited by finding such rare Bronze Age settlement in the area.


He said: “It is unusual for West Dorset. Further east to Dorchester there is quite a lot of evidence, but west of Bridport this kind of site is rare. I don’t know of a settlement that is this early that has been found in West Dorset.”


The discovery has only been made possible because of the erosion of the cliffs.


Under normal circumstances the evidence would be buried at least a metre deep, Mr Papworth said. He added: “Although 5,000 years ago the coast wasn’t here at all. It would have been several kilometres further out. So what is now at the cliff edge would have been some way in land at the time.


“We have found bits of pottery and we think we have found a hearth, which would be from 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. We’ve found work tools and lots and lots of charcoal.


“It is especially exciting to see because the coastal erosion has exposed so many layers of the settlement and in effect saved us an immense amount of digging. Effectively the erosion means we can see all the occupation levels of the time.”


Finding so much charcoal means they can use carbon dating to pinpoint exactly when our ancestors would have worked the land here – and environmental archaeologists will be able to identify what kind of wood was being burned, he said.


There will be others clues in the soil too, he added. “Because the soil is so acid the pollen will have survived so when we analyse the soil we can find all the different sorts of plants that were growing here.”


The team will be digging until the end of the week and then all the finds will be taken away and shown to specialists who deal with pottery and flint, as well as the environmental archaeologists.


“Each specialist will put together their own story and then we will piece it all together with what we have found in the ground and then we will write the report on it.


“That won’t be for several months though. There are no instant answers.”



Fields screened for ancient finds

Page last updated at 14:07 GMT, Saturday, 23 May 2009 15:07 UK


Archaeologists are studying fields in West Kent to record any historically significant finds before a water pipeline is installed in the area.


South East Water plans to lay a 2.7km (1.7m) mains pipe close to Mereworth Woods to boost supplies in the area.


It said the archaeologists would ensure any finds were not damaged by the installation work, which is expected to be carried out at the end of May.


A lost medieval landscape was exposed by workers laying pipes in October.


Artefacts unearthed at the site near Canterbury included Roman coins and steel knives, a small medieval structure, Iron Age pots, and a gilded belt strap end.


Paul Clifford, engineering manager at South East Water, said: "Archaeologists are studying the fields north of Comp Corner, and when their investigations are completed we can begin the first phase of work and hope to start laying the new water pipes at the end of May.


"As the first phase is mainly within fields it should cause minimum disruption to local people, and only a temporary road closure in Comp Lane itself, to the west of Seven Mile Lane, is needed when the pipeline crosses the road."


Mr Clifford added: "The second phase of this new water main needs to be laid in the highway itself to ensure we reduce the risk of potentially damaging Mereworth Woods, which is classified as ancient woodland and so has environmental protection.


"However, this part of the scheme has been delayed until September to ensure we don't disrupt local farmers during the summer fruit growing season."



Fishing 'risk to Channel wrecks'

Page last updated at 12:21 GMT, Wednesday, 20 May 2009 13:21 UK


Many shipwrecks in the English Channel are in danger of being lost forever, partly due to damage done by fishing trawlers and dredges, experts say.


Wreck Watch has analysed a new sea bed survey and said historically important wrecks are being destroyed and should be raised.


Some 267 shipwrecks have been found, 115 of which showed permanent damage, said its leading marine archaeologist.


The wrecks include Royal Navy warship HMS Victory, lost in 1744.


The ship went down with Admiral Sir John Balchin, 1,100 sailors and 110 bronze cannon.


Wreck Watch has identified ten key sites that they believe warrant further study, mapping, excavation and selective artefact recovery.


It said the process would also benefit fishermen, identifying wrecks of non-archaeological value which could be safely fished.


The loss of expensive fishing equipment would also be minimised, said their report.


But trawler crews have disputed the claims they are to blame and questions have also been raised by some sceptics because the research was carried out by a US salvage company, which makes money selling sunken treasure.


Christopher Vinnicombe, of the Cornish Fish Producers' Organisation, said they tried to avoid the "thousands" of wrecks in the Channel because it often damaged their equipment.


Greg Stemm, head of Odyssey Marine Exploration - which carried out the survey - told BBC's Newsnight he saw no problem with expecting a return on money invested in discovering shipwrecks, as would happen in other fields of research.


The major pressures on shipwrecks were damage from trawlers, scallop dredges and natural causes, its research found.


The survey explored the western English Channel and the Western Approaches, a rectangular area of the Atlantic ocean lying on the UK's west coast.


Marine archaeologist Dr Sean Kingsley, director of Wreck Watch International, said it was vital that some of the more historically important wrecks received greater protection.


"The English Channel is the British Museum of the deep," he said.


"Everything is down there, jewellery, musical instruments; the artefacts contained in the wrecks helps us to build a picture of what society looked like."


He told the BBC, Unesco's preferred option of preserving wrecks in situ on the sea bed was a "fair enough ideology" but there were certain important wrecks that needed to be taken "out of harm's way".


"Trawlers and scallop dredges are bulldozers of the deep, as they go along the sea bed they literally plough it."


He said they had teeth and chains designed to extract scallops and to drive flatfish into nets, which were "grinding away the archaeology" and exposing remains.


He said while conservationists and biologists had known about the damage to marine environments caused by these techniques for some years, but nobody had considered the effects on old shipwrecks.


"The damage is so severe to a number of the wrecks we saw that they may not be there in five to 10 years' time."


Wreck Watch said it believed HMS Victory was at extremely high risk, with rich archaeological artefacts, delicate hull timbers and even human bones vulnerable to total destruction.


Each year, global trawling by the fishing industry covers an area of seabed as large as Brazil, the Congo and India combined, with the upper 2.4in-7.9in (6cm-20cm) of the seabed ploughed to extract scallops and drive flatfish into nets often weighing up to eight tonnes.


Shipwrecks are also environmentally important, because they offer rich habitats providing shelter, feeding and nesting for fish.


Destruction is caused when fishing boats cut furrows into shipwrecks, loosen archaeological deposits, drag artefacts from sites, expose wrecks to oxygen, and break up wooden structures allowing objects to be washed away by currents.


Other wrecks identified in the survey include a 30-metre long merchant vessel lost around the middle of the 17th century with a cargo of elephant tusks, a consignment of iron cannon and copper 'manilla' bracelet money.


Discovered at the site was possibly the oldest carpenter rule in existence featuring a logarithmic scale.


Also there is the wreck of the 22-gun Marquise de Tournay, a French ship captured and sunk by the British in 1757, believed to be on its way back from North America and the Caribbean.


It is the only wreck of a merchant vessel of this period trading with the Americas found in European waters.


The wrecks of HMS Victory and the Marquise de Tournay lie within the most heavily fished section of the survey region, said Wreck Watch.


Seven WWI and WWII submarines are also in the area.