Researchers From The Institut Català De Paleontologia Describe A New Hominid
02 June 2009 Barcelona, Universitat Autònoma de
2004 was an important year regarding the finds of fossil hominids in the area of the Abocador de Can Mata (ACM, els Hostalets de Pierola, l’Anoia, Barcelona). Besides being the year that Pierolapithecus catalaunicus (familiarly known as Pau) was published in Science magazine, this coincided with the find of the first maxillary remains of Dryopithecus fontani thus far known, as well as with the find of the extraordinary remains that we present today: the find in the site C3-Aj from ACM of a face with mandible from the same fossil great ape individual, thus far unknown for science, and which provides us an extraordinary information for clarifying the issue of the phylogenetic and geographic origin of our family, the Hominidae, which is made up by orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and humans.
The study based on this Middle Miocene genus (11.9 Ma, or million years before present) is reported on a publication by Moyà-Solà and co-authors in the next issue of the renowned scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA (PNAS). The team of researchers that have been involved in this publication, coordinated by Salvador Moyà-Solà, director of the Institut Català de Paleontologia (ICP), which has the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and the Generalitat de Catalunya as patrons, further includes: David M. Alba, collaborator of the ICP; Sergio Almécija, predoctoral researcher of the ICP; Isaac Casanovas, postdoctoral researcher of the ICP; Meike Köhler, researcher and chief of a research group of the ICP; Soledad De Esteban, postdoctoral researcher of the ICP; Josep M. Robles, collaborator of the ICP; Jordi Galindo, curator of the ICP; and Josep Fortuny, predoctoral researcher of the ICP.
The new hominid has been given the scientific name of Anoiapithecus brevirostris, in reference to the region where the town of els Hostalets is situated (l’Anoia) and also to the fact that the new taxon has a very modern facial morphology, characterized by a very reduced facial prognathism, i.e. by a very short face. Colloquially we have named it as Lluc (since it is a male individual). This name stems from the fact that Lluc in Latin means “the one who illuminates”, and certainly, the information provided by this new fossil is so important that it permits to solve some key questions on the origin of the family Hominidae, which the previous find of Pierolapithecus had left unanswered. At the same time, in a time of crisis, such as the one into we are immersed, it is very welcome that somebody illuminates the path to follow; and the find of Lluc is, perhaps, a good augury.
The new genus and species, Anoiapithecus brevirostris, has been described on the basis of a partial cranium that preserves most of the face and the associated mandible. This cranium was recovered during the works of paleontological control that are customarily carried out at ACM, due to the fossiliferous richness of the area of els Hostalets de Pierola. The process of preparation was long-lasting and complicated, due to the fragility of the remains, but once the material were available for analysis, the surprise was enormous. The specimen (IPS43000) combined a set of features that until now had never been found from the fossil record.
On the one hand, Anoiapithecus displays a very modern facial morphology, with a muzzle prognathism so reduced that, within the family Hominidae, we can only find comparable values within the genus Homo, whereas the remaining great apes are notoriously more prognathic. This extraordinary fact does not indicate that Anoiapithecus has any relationship with Homo, but it might be a case of convergence. Probably, the evolutionary meaning of this finding is a different one, but not for this reason it is less interesting.
The second surprise provided by Lluc is that it enabled to solve two key questions regarding the origin of our family: what group it is derived from, and which is the geographic area where the family Hominidae originated.
Until now, we merely suspected that a group of primitive hominoids known as kenyapithecines (recorded from the Middle Miocene of Africa and Eurasia) might be the ancestral group that hominids would have derived from. This hypothesis could never be verified, because the adequate paleontological material required to do so was unavailable.
The detailed morphological study of the cranial remains of Lluc showed that, together with the modern anatomical features that characterized the family Hominidae (among others, nasal aperture wide at the base, high zygomatic rood, deep palate), and which permit to consider it a member of this family, it displays a set of primitive features, such as thick dental enamel, teeth with globulous cusps, very robust mandible and very procumbent premaxilla, which are primitive features that characterize a group of primitive hominoids from the African Middle Miocene, known as afropithecids. However, the most interesting fact is that, together with this mixture of hominid and primitive afropithecid features, it displays other characteristics, such as a very anterior position of the zygomatic, a very strong mandibular torus and, especially, a very reduced maxillary sinus, which are derived features that it uniquely shares with the only kenyapithecines that ever dispersed outside the African continent and colonized the Mediterranean region, by about 15 million years ago, the genera Kenyapithecus and Griphopithecus. As such, even though in the past kenyapithecines had been already proposed as the likely sister group of hominids (i.e., the group most closely related to them), the fragmentary nature of the previously available material had thus far precluded testing this hypothesis. Now, we have data that support it.
And that is the key of the issue: this discovery enables to identify two probable candidates to be the ancestral form to our family (Kenyapithecus and Griphopithecus); and taking into account that these two genera cannot be considered members of the family Hominidae yet, because they lack its basic diagnostic features, it is obvious that the origin of our family is a phenomenon that took place on the Mediterranean region during the time span comprised between their arrival from Africa by about 15 Ma, and about 13 Ma, when we began to find in els Hostalets the first members of our family. As such, the team of Salvador Moyà and his collaborators consider that hominids might have originally radiated in Eurasia from kenyapithecine ancestors of African origin. The several taxa represented at ACM, the dryopithecins, would testimony this initial great-ape radiation, as shown by the combination of a modern facial pattern with primitive features such as thick enamel. Later on, the ancestors of African great apes and humans would have dispersed again into Africa. This notwithstanding, the authors do not completely rule out the possibility that pongines (orangutans and related forms) and hominines (African apes and humans) separately evolved in Eurasia and Africa, respectively, from different kenyapithecine ancestors. The project at els Hostalets de Pierola goes on and, surely, more fossil remains will be found in the future (at ACM or elsewhere in the world), which will provide new key information that will enable to test the latter hypothesis.
New Hominid 12 Million Years Old Found In Spain, With 'Modern' Facial Features
ScienceDaily (June 2, 2009)
Researchers have discovered a fossilized face and jaw from a previously unknown hominoid primate genus in Spain dating to the Middle Miocene era, roughly 12 million years ago. Nicknamed "Lluc," the male bears a strikingly "modern" facial appearance with a flat face, rather than a protruding one. The finding sheds important new light on the evolutionary development of hominids, including orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and humans.
In a study appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Salvador Moyà-Solà, director of the Institut Català de Paleontologia (ICP) at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, and colleagues present evidence for the new genus and species, dubbed Anoiapithecus brevirostris. The scientific name is derived from the region where the fossil was found (l’Anoia) and also from its "modern" facial morphology, characterized by a very short face.
The research team at the ICP also includes collaborator David M. Alba, predoctoral researcher Sergio Almécija, postdoctoral researcher Isaac Casanovas, researcher Meike Köhler, postdoctoral researcher Soledad De Esteban, collaborator Josep M. Robles, curator Jordi Galindo, and predoctoral researcher Josep Fortuny.
Their findings are based on a partial cranium that preserves most of the face and the associated mandible. The cranium was unearthed in 2004 in the fossil-rich area of Abocador de Can Mata (els Hostalets de Pierola, l’Anoia, Barcelona), where remains of other fossilized hominid species have been found. Preparing the fossil for study was a complicated process, due to the fragility of the remains. But once the material was available for analysis, the results were surprising: The specimen (IPS43000) combined a set of features that, until now, had never been found in the fossil record.
Anoiapithecus displays a very modern facial morphology, with a muzzle prognathism (i.e., protrusion of the jaw) so reduced that, within the family Hominidae, scientists can only find comparable values within the genus Homo, whereas the remaining great apes are notoriously more prognathic (i.e., having jaws that project forward markedly). The extraordinary resemblance does not indicate that Anoiapithecus has any relationship with Homo, the researchers note. However, the similarity might be a case of evolutionary convergence, where two species evolving separately share common features.
Lluc's discovery may also hold an important clue to the geographical origin of the hominid family. Some scientists have suspected that a group of primitive hominoids known as kenyapithecines (recorded from the Middle Miocene of Africa and Eurasia) might have been the ancestral group that all hominids came from. The detailed morphological study of the cranial remains of Lluc showed that, together with the modern anatomical features of hominids (e.g., nasal aperture wide at the base, high zygomatic rood, deep palate), it displays a set of primitive features, such as thick dental enamel, teeth with globulous cusps, very robust mandible and very procumbent premaxilla. These features characterize a group of primitive hominoids from the African Middle Miocene, known as afropithecids.
Interestingly, in addition to having a mixture of hominid and primitive afropithecid features, Lluc displays other characteristics, such as a very anterior position of the zygomatic, a very strong mandibular torus and, especially, a very reduced maxillary sinus. These are features shared with kenyapithecines believed to have dispersed outside the African continent and colonized the Mediterranean region, by about 15 million years ago.
In other words, the researchers speculate, hominids might have originally radiated in Eurasia from kenyapithecine ancestors of African origin. Later on, the ancestors of African great apes and humans would have dispersed again into Africa -- the so-called "into Africa" theory, which remains controversial. However, the authors do not completely rule out the possibility that pongines (orangutans and related forms) and hominines (African apes and humans) separately evolved in Eurasia and Africa, respectively, from different kenyapithecine ancestors.
The project at els Hostalets de Pierola is continuing and, the researchers anticipate, more fossil remains will be found in the future that will provide key information to test their hypotheses.
Salvador Moyà-Solà, David M. Alba, Sergio Almécija, Isaac Casanovas-Vilar, Meike Köhler, Soledad De Esteban-Trivigno, Josep M. Robles, Jordi Galindo, and Josep Fortuny. A unique Middle Miocene European hominoid and the origins of the great ape and human clade. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2009; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0811730106
Adapted from materials provided by Barcelona, Universitat Autònoma de.
New 'Molecular Clock' Aids Dating Of Human Migration History
ScienceDaily (June 4, 2009)
Researchers at the University of Leeds have devised a more accurate method of dating ancient human migration – even when no corroborating archaeological evidence exists.
Estimating the chronology of population migrations throughout mankind's early history has always been problematic. The most widely used genetic method works back to find the last common ancestor of any particular set of lineages using samples of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), but this method has recently been shown to be unreliable, throwing 20 years of research into doubt.
The new method refines the mtDNA calculation by taking into account the process of natural selection - which researchers realised was skewing their results - and has been tested successfully against known colonisation dates confirmed by archaeological evidence, such as in Polynesia in the Pacific (approximately 3,000 years ago), and the Canary Islands (approximately 2,500 years ago).
Says PhD student Pedro Soares who devised the new method: "Natural selection's very gradual removal of harmful gene mutations in the mtDNA produces a time-dependent effect on how many mutations you see in the family tree. What we've done is work out a formula that corrects this effect so that we now have a reliable way of dating genetic lineages.
"This means that we can put a timescale on any part of the particular family tree, right back to humanity's last common maternal ancestor, known as 'Mitochondrial Eve', who lived some 200,000 years ago. In fact we can date any migration for which we have available data," he says.
Moreover, working with a published database of more than 2,000 fully sequenced mtDNA samples, Soares' calculation, for the first time, uses data from the whole of the mtDNA molecule. This means that the results are not only more accurate, but also more precise, giving narrower date ranges.
The new method has already yielded some surprising findings. Says archaogeneticist Professor Martin Richards, who supervised Soares: "We can settle the debate regarding mankind's expansion through the Americas. Researchers have been estimating dates from mtDNA that are too old for the archaeological evidence, but our calculations confirm the date to be some 15,000 years ago, around the time of the first unequivocal archaeological remains.
"Furthermore, we can say with some confidence that the estimate of humanity's 'out of Africa' migration was around 60-70,000 years ago – some 10-20,000 years earlier than previously thought."
The team has devised a simple calculator into which researchers can feed their data and this is being made freely available on the University of Leeds website.
The paper is published in the current edition of the American Journal of Human Genetics.
Pedro Soares , Luca Ermini , Noel Thomson , Maru Mormina , Teresa Rito , Arne Röhl , Antonio Salas , Stephen Oppenheimer , Vincent Macaulay and Martin B. Richards. Correcting for Purifying Selection: An Improved Human Mitochondrial Molecular Clock. American Journal of Human Genetics, 2009; DOI: 10.1016/j.ajhg.2009.05.001
Could Human Altruism Have Evolved Because of War?
It may sound like a paradox, but a new theory suggests that one of humanity’s most noble instincts, altruism, evolved on bloody battlefields in prehistoric times. Evolutionary biologist Samuel Bowles argues that prehistoric culture may have selected for individuals who behaved altruistically towards other individuals in their social groups. The story begins with the climactic swings that occurred between approximately 10,000 to 150,000 years ago in the late Pleistocene period may have pushed once-isolated bands of hunter-gatherers into more frequent contact with one another…. “I think that’s just a recipe for high-level conflict” [New Scientist], says Bowles.
These conflicts weren’t large-scale pitched battles, Bowles explains. “We’re talking about groups of men who got out in twos or threes or fives,” he says. “They didn’t have a chain of command and it’s hard to see how they could force people to fight.” For this reason, altruistic intent on the part of each warrior is key. Each person would do better to stay home than to put their life on the line for their neighbours – yet they still went out and risked their lives, Bowles says [New Scientist].
In the study, published in Science, Bowles set out to determine what would have happened to a group of altruistic individuals who had to fight other, more selfish tribes. According to his analysis of archaeological evidence from Stone Age sites and and ethnographic studies of remaining tribes, combat between groups accounted for about 14 percent of all deaths in hunter-gatherer societies…. After estimating the rate that altruism would reduce an individual’s chances of reproducing, Bowles plugged the numbers into a model of intergroup competition where an individual’s altruism would also improve a group’s chances of combat triumph. Groups with selfless individuals eventually predominated, and altruism predominated within those groups [Wired.com].
Bowles stresses that his study is just a theory, and other experts stress that it’s a controversial one. Altruism is assumed to have some genetic root, but Bowles’ theory hinges on the idea of genetic group selection — selection for traits that are passed on because they benefit the group, even at a cost to individuals. Many biologists think this is, in practice, an unworkable process in human groups because they are not genetically distant or differentiated enough from each other for selection of group traits to occur [Nature News].
Plough uncovers suspected chambered tomb
Story dated: Thursday, JUNE 4, 2009
What appears to be a Neolithic chambered tomb has been unearthed on the outskirts of Kirkwall.
The underground structure was discovered by John Hourie, Heathfield, St Ola, while ploughing. He reported it to his neighbour, archaeologist Caroline Wickham Jones, who contacted the county archaeologist Julie Gibson.
Julie explained: “The structure is located in a field on the crest of the hill overlooking Kirkwall and Scapa. Soils are thin, are rarely ploughed - this year’s ploughing work was the first time in decades. Bedrock is apparent in places.
“The structure itself is neat drystone construction, the wall curves round tightly and is beehived in by corbelling at the top.
“On the opposite side to the wall is a space topped by lintels, and indeed it was breaking one lintel that caused the site to be found.
“It’s early days yet, but it may be a Neolithic chambered cairn, some five or six thousand years old.”
The Orkney College geophysics unit looked at the site as part of their research programme.
Geophysicist Mary Saunders said: “An area of approximately 0.3ha was investigated, on Wideford Hill, using earth resistance and gradiometer survey.
“The survey area was centered around the area of collapse over the suspected monument, in order to give a wider context to the feature.
“The magnetic data was extremely ‘quiet’ and due to the lack of the types of response usually associated with domestic activities, it is suggested that this was not an area of settlement.
“The earth resistance survey was used to try and identify discrete stone built structures but the results of this strongly suggest the presence of a large area of near surface bedrock.
“It would appear that the monument has been constructed into the hillside, thus giving no obvious geophysical response against a background of very similar material.”
Julie Gibson added: “There is no doubt that Orkney’s archaeology is second to none. We don’t know what this is yet, but if this is indeed another underground tomb, like Crantit, it might well have material in it that has lain undisturbed for 5,000 years.
“I am very thankful that the landowner John Hourie is continuing a longstanding Orkney tradition of respect for the past by not putting any heavy machinery, or animals, on that piece of field for the moment, until something can be done with the monument.”
Nick Card, from the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA), in Orkney College, is engaged in discussions with Historic Scotland about a graduated response.
“Basically, we are wanting to feel our way in very gently here until we know precisely what we are dealing with,” he said.
Bulgarian Archaeological Association
Help us preserve the biggest archaeological site in North Bulgaria - COLONIA ULPIA TRAIANA RATIARA.
The capital of the Roam province Dacia Ripensis are completely destroyed by out-of-control treasure-hunter's digging. For the last 20 years the Bulgarian government and the municipal directions in the region haven't allocated any funds for this very precious for the Archaeological science site. The last finds from this place shows how every day we lose inestimable information which is important not only for Bulgaria but for all over the Europe and the Roman Archaeology.
The Bulgarian Archaeological Association would appreciate any support you are able to offer. Please remember that any amount helps!
Written sources and epigraphical data represent Ratiaria as one of the most important Roman and Early Byzantine centres in the lower Danube area. It was established in the 1st century A.D. as a military encampment and a civilian settlement which grew around it. After 106 Trajan withdrew the legions and raised its status to a colony called COLONIA ULPIA TRAIANA RATIARIA. In the 2nd and 3rd century Ratiaria flourished with a romanized polulation. Towards the end of the 3rd century Ratiatria was already the main town of the new province Dacia Mediterranea and once again had a considerable garrison. In the 4th century it became an important bishoprics seat. In the first half of the 5th century Ratiaria was still a major centre with a large population, however in the 40ties of the 5th century it was sacked by the Huns. Under Anastasius I (491-518) restoration operations were carried out and the town received a new name ANASTASIANA RATIARIA. It seems the overrunning of the town in 586 by the Avars led to the end of its existence.
For a long time archeological information about Ratiaria was based on chance finds. The first excavations were carried out by V. Velkov between 1958 and 1962. It was also Velisar Velkov who wrote the first summarized publication about Ratiaria. Excavations were renewed over the 1976-1991 period, including work with Italian specialists. Georgetti has offered the most exhaustive review of the results of excavations.
Ratiaria was situated on a raised river terrace along the Danube. The analysis of an aerial photograph by L. Giorgetti allows the conclusion that the fortifications of Ratiaria originally were in the form of a square and later was extended to a rectangular shape with dimensions 426 m by 284 m. However this photograph only allows the location of the southwestern sector of the original fortifications. Chance discoveries show that towards the 3rd and early 4th century a considerably larger wall was built, including new ground in an eastern direction. The protected area amounted to approximately 30 ha - 35 ha. It is not clear whether it was maintained in the 6th century.
Giorgetti's restoration of the plan and the street network of Ratiaria is largely hypothetical. The only positive locations which can be established on the photograph are the streets and the insulae in the southwestern part of the fortified area. The most exhaustively studied sector of the street comes from the so-called second northern decumanus.
The course and structures along the main water supply system for Ratiaria - from the Zhidovetz locality over 10 km in a southwestern direction - are well known. A drain covered by an arch, found by chance on the southeastern part of the town was probably the main drain (cloaca maxima).
Only part of the western wall of Ratiatria with its towers and the western gate, probably the principal gates, has been studied. Three main construction periods have been established: from the end of the 1st and early 2nd century; from the end of the 3rd and early 4th century; from the end of the 5th and the early 6th century.
Remains from various buildings have been found off the western wall, including that of a late-Roman bath. A large building, which functioned until the end of the 6th century was established to the northeast, close to the western gate. Buildings from the 4th-6th century have been partially studied earlier in the central town section and the northeastern urban zone - the so called building with the treasure.
The central northern city zone has been studied with a representative complex with a large one apse hall. The hall is considered to fall within the early 4th century and is considered the residence of the ruler of the province of Dacia Mediterranea. One of the arguments for building work on a large scale was the rebuilding of the complex at the end of the 5th and early 6th century.
The aerial photograph shows the outlines of an enormous bath structure with an area of approx. 0.9 ha.
Up to the mid 5th century Ratiaria had considerable outskirts in a southern and eastern direction. The quarter on the left bank of the Archaritsa river appears to have been occupied by dwellings, while artisan's workshops were on the right bank of the river. At excavations in the Yaliata locality, to the north of the fortifications a representative dwelling was partially uncovered (probably the residence of the harbour master). A modest Christian basilica was built here towards the end of the 4th century
L. Giorgetti believes that a specific camp was made with dimensions 100 m by 60 m beyond the town walls and sees this in connection with the stay of Legio 13 Gemina after the end of the 4th century in Ratiaria. However in the respective sector only burials have been found. Considering the tendencies of the stationing of military units at the time, the headquarters and the barracks of the legion should be expected to have been in the protected part of Ratiaria, including its late Roman extension, not beyond them.
Data from the great number of incidental burials shows that towards the 3rd - 4th century the necropolis of Ratiaria was extended and placed as far as possible from the town fortifications. The situation towards the 5th -6th century was quite different when the necropolises appear close to the walls, including the area of earlier quarters. Evidently these changes reflect the general state and development of the town during these periods.
Spain awarded shipwreck treasure
A deep sea treasure-hunting company has been ordered by a US judge to hand over half a million gold and silver coins to the government of Spain.
The company, Odyssey Marine Exploration, raised the haul from a shipwreck in the Atlantic, suspected to be that of a Spanish naval vessel.
The Spanish government argued that the treasure formed part of the country's national heritage.
But Odyssey intends to appeal, saying it has a claim to the treasure.
This is just the latest round of a long-running and sometimes murky dispute, says the BBC's Steve Kingstone in Madrid.
The haul of coins - thought to be worth some $500m (£308m) - came to light in 2007, when Odyssey announced the recovery of artefacts from a wreck in the Atlantic.
It kept the location of the wreck secret, in what it said was an attempt to deter looters.
The haul was brought ashore in Gibraltar and quickly flown to Miami - enraging the Spanish government, our correspondent says, which says the wreck is that of the Mercedes, a naval frigate destroyed by the British in 1804.
Just over a year ago, the Spanish government filed a suit with a federal court in Florida - where Odyssey is based - demanding the haul be handed over.
Late on Wednesday, a judge ruled that the court lacked jurisdiction over the case, and that the property should be returned to Spain under a principle known as "sovereign immunity".
Spain's Culture Minister Angeles Gonzalez-Sinde expressed joy at the decision.
"It's a very positive decision for the Spanish government and for all the Spanish citizens because it guarantees that this ship and the remains of this ship will come back to Spain, which was originally the owner of this ship," he told the BBC.
"I am pretty sure that Spaniards will have the opportunity to travel back in time and to have a chance to see this treasure."
But in a statement, Odyssey said it would appeal against the ruling.
The Nasdaq-listed company argues that there is no conclusive proof that the wreck is that of the Mercedes and that even if it is, much of the cargo on board the ship belonged to private individuals and not the Spanish state.
"I'm confident that ultimately the judge or the appellate court will see the legal and evidentiary flaws in Spain's claim, and we'll be back to argue the merits of the case," said the firm's CEO, Greg Stemm.
Archeologists unearth 17th century stone flask, buried 380 years ago to ward off witches
By PAUL HARRIS
Last updated at 11:44 AM on 04th June 2009
It is guaranteed to strike fear into the evil heart of any passing witch.
But a far worse fate would follow if the bizarre contents of this ancient stone flask did the job for which they were intended.
The witch would immediately convulse in screaming agony - and the spell she cast would be turned back upon her for evermore.
Well, that's the theory at least. But around 380 years after this so-called witch bottle was buried upside-down in a secret pit, no one can tell if its magic - and particularly those painful looking nails and pins - ever did the trick.
What is certain is that someone went to enormous trouble to compose the most powerful anti-witch potion known to 17th century man.
And in doing so, their message in a bottle gave modern archaeologists a fascinating glimpse into the sorcery and superstitions of another age.
The 9-inch tall stoneware bottle was hailed today as the most important discovery of its kind - the only one ever found complete and unopened.
It contained not just sharp objects designed to inflict pain on the witch, but human hair and urine, some fingernail clippings, and, curiously, some belly-button fluff.
One of the bent iron nails appears to have been used to pierce a heart-shaped piece of leather. Then the entire mixture was sprinkled with that customary seasoning so beloved by opponents of evil - brimstone.
The bottle was placed in a 5ft pit and covered with earth in what was probably undeveloped land at the time.
It stayed there until builders excavating in Greenwich, South London, uncovered it in 2004.
The casket contained not just sharp objects designed to inflict pain on the witch, but human hair and urine, some fingernail clippings, and some belly-button fluff
To the unaccustomed eye, the glazed and decorated flask might have looked as if it contained the finest wine the 17th century could afford.
But archaeologists and scientists immediately recognised it for what it was - a vessel hidden by the ill or dying when they believed they were being persecuted by a witch.
A long and painstaking investigation then began to establish precisely what it contained.
Although other witch bottles have been discovered elsewhere over the years, none has given analysts such a perfect and intriguing specimen.
They have either been damaged or empty, or the contents have been contaminated or destroyed when the inquisitive finder pulls out the cork.
Medical-style CT scans and x-rays of the Greenwich find showed nails and pins clustered in the neck, suggesting it had been buried inverted.
Liquid was drawn through the cork with a syringe, and lastly, the contents were removed under laboratory conditions.
Of particular interest were the fingernails - perfectly manicured, like those of a gentleman, rather than torn and snagged like a labourer's.
An x-ray of the object reveals the contents while, right, a sample of the sharp nail-like discoveries
Nicotine in the urine suggested that whoever put it there probably smoked a clay pipe.
But it was the final discovery which underlined the bottle's association with the occult.
Retired chemist Dr Alan Massey, who led the analysis, established that there had been sulphur in the mixture.
In other words, the bottle contained brimstone, perhaps the most powerful deterrent a witch could encounter in a period when they were being burned at the stake.
According to the Bible, remember, false prophets and those possessed by the devil were 'cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone'.
Dr Massey said: 'In those days, witch bottles were a matter of life or death. If you had a very serious illness you would quite often think it had been caused by a witch's spell. There was a genuine fear of witches. It was believed the bottle would reflect the spell on whoever cast it, and inflict excruciating pain on them when they passed urine.'
Details of the Greenwich bottle analysis are being published in the July/August edition of British Archaeology magazine.
Editor Mike Pitts said: 'This find is remarkable on two counts. Firstly that the people who discovered it had the presence of mind not to open the bottle and, so to speak, let the scientific genie out.
'The second is the nature of the bottle and the contents, which are pretty bizarre. They serve to remind us of the strong belief in witchcraft that persists in society.'
Even today, instructions on how to make a witch bottle are readily available on the internet. So is it all mumbo-jumbo, or do they really work? Dr Massey prefers science to speculation. But he adds that another ancient bottle was discovered some years ago in a coffin. The occupant was still clutching it to his chest.
Ha-Ha! Ape study traces evolution of laughter
AP. By MALCOLM RITTER, AP Science Writer Malcolm Ritter, Ap Science Writer – Thu Jun 4, 3:10 pm ET
NEW YORK – When scientists set out to trace the roots of human laughter, some chimps and gorillas were just tickled to help. Literally.
That's how researchers made a variety of apes and some human babies laugh. After analyzing the sounds, they concluded that people and great apes inherited laughter from a shared ancestor that lived more than 10 million years ago.
Experts praised the work. It gives very strong evidence that ape and human laughter are related through evolution, said Frans de Waal of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta.
As far back as Charles Darwin, scientists have noted that apes make characteristic sounds during play or while being tickled, apparently to signal that they're interested in playing.
It's been suggested before that human laughter grew out of primate roots. But ape laughter doesn't sound like the human version. It may be rapid panting, or slower noisy breathing or a short series of grunts.
So what does that have to do with the human ha-ha?
To investigate that, Marina Davila Ross of the University of Portsmouth in England and colleagues carried out a detailed analysis of the sounds evoked by tickling three human babies and 21 orangutans, gorillas, chimps and bonobos.
After measuring 11 traits in the sound from each species, they mapped out how these sounds appeared to be related to each other. The result looked like a family tree. Significantly, that tree matched the way the species themselves are related, the scientists reported online Thursday in the journal Current Biology.
They also concluded that while human laughter sounds much different from the ape versions, its distinctive features could well have arisen from shared ancestral traits.
Jaak Panksepp of Washington State University, who studies laughter-like responses in animals but didn't participate in the new work, called the paper exciting.
It's the first formal study of how chimps and other apes respond to tickling, a highly detailed examination that compares an unusually wide range of species to humans, he said.
Panksepp's own work concludes that even rats produce a version of laughter in response to play and tickling, with chirps too high-pitched for people to hear. So he believes laughter goes even farther back in the mammalian family tree than the new paper proposes.
Robert Provine, a neuroscientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who wrote the 2000 book, "Laughter: A Scientific Investigation," said the new paper reveals some important insights, like details of the ape sounds that hadn't been appreciated before.