Giant stone-age axes found in African lake basin

September 10th, 2009


Oxford University researchers have unearthed new evidence from the lake basin in Botswana that suggests that the region was once much drier and wetter than it is today.


They have documented thousands of stone tools on the lake bed, which sheds new light on how humans in Africa adapted to several substantial climate change events during the period that coincided with the last Ice Age in Europe.


Researchers from the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford are surveying the now-dry basin of Lake Makgadikgadi in the Kalahari Desert, which at 66,000 square kilometres is about the same size of present day Lake Victoria.


Their research was prompted by the discovery of the first of what are believed to be the world’s largest stone tools on the bed of the lake. Although the first find was made in the 1990s, the discovery of four giant axes has not been scientifically reported until now. Four giant stone hand axes, measuring over 30 cm long and of uncertain age, were recovered from the lake basin.


Equally remarkable is that the dry lake floor where they were found is also littered with tens of thousands of other smaller stone-age tools and flakes, the researchers report.


Professor David Thomas, Head of the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford, said: ‘Many of the tools were found on the dry lake floor, not around its edge, which challenges the view that big lakes were only attractive to humans when they were full of water.


'As water levels in the lake went down, or during times when they fluctuated seasonally, wild animals would have congregated round the resulting watering holes on the lake bed. It’s likely that early human populations would have seen this area as a prolific hunting ground when food resources in the region were more concentrated than at times when the regional climate was wetter and food was more plentiful and the lake was full of water.’


This work is part of an ongoing project investigating the complex history of major changes in climate in Africa. Co-researcher Dr Sallie Burrough has dated the sediment and shorelines of the lake basin, which has shown that the mega lake was filled with water on multiple occasions in the last 250,000 years. The research team has also investigated islands on the floor of the lake - remnants of former sand dunes - which suggest the region’s climate has also been both windier and markedly drier than it is today.


Professor Thomas said: ‘The interior of southern Africa has usually been seen as being devoid of significant archaeology. Surprisingly, we have found and logged incredibly extensive Middle Stone Age artefacts spread over a vast area of the lake basin.


'The record the basin is revealing is one of marked human adaptation in the past. Early humans saw the opportunity to use the lake basin when it was not full of water, but at least seasonally dry. It shows that humans have adapted to climate change and variability in a sustained way.'


Many archaeologists believe that equivalent lakes in the North African Sahara desert played an important part in the ‘Out of Africa’ human expansion theory, as the ancestors of all modern humans would have chosen a wet route out of Africa. The new research is the first time that this giant Botswanan lake basin in southern Africa has been the focus of scientific research, and these findings could provide new evidence to support the theory about a hominid migration through and expansion from Africa.


Professor Thomas and Dr Burrough are planning further research into how the lake was formed and how it came and went. They say that the most likely explanation is that sustained periods of greater rainfall in the Angolan Highlands resulted in much greater flow in the Zambezi River, with the water being diverted into the lake basin due to a quirk of geology.


New research, beginning in 2010 and funded by the Leverhulme Trust, will investigate possible links between the lake basin and the Zambezi River, while initial discussions are in hand for setting up a major international geo-archaeologist programme to further unravel the complexities of human-climate-environment interactions in this important and under-researched region.


Provided by Oxford University (news : web)



Early Humans Wove, Dyed Flax in Caucasus

By Art Chimes

Washington, DC

14 September 2009


An international team of researchers has found evidence that humans in what is now Georgia were using flax some 30,000 years ago.


Flax is one of the oldest domesticated crops, and has been used to make linen for thousands of years. Flax fibers are also used in rope, twine, and paper.


Harvard University archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef says he and his colleagues stumbled across the flax while looking through soil samples for grains of pollen, which prehistoric archaeologists use to infer climate conditions.


"So this was absolutely an accidental discovery, and of course a fascinating one."


The bits of flax they found were microscopic, but some of the fibers showed signs of having been cut, knotted, and even colored using some of the 100 Caucasus plants suitable for dying fiber.


"And therefore, it's not surprising that they even dyed their own — whatever they [made] from it. Let's say they made ropes or strings, that they dyed some of them," Bar-Yosef said


The discovery dates from a time when modern humans were fanning out through the Middle East into Europe and Central Asia, displacing the Neanderthals. By 30,000 years ago, they'd already reached Dzudzuana Cave, where the flax was discovered, though Bar-Yosef says it's unclear whether flax might have been used even earlier.


"Whether it started with modern humans, I'm not sure. Maybe Neanderthals had it before. But we don't know."


There's no way to know for sure how these early humans discovered that a plant could be turned into fibers that could be woven in useful ways, but Bar-Yosef says it probably was a woman who figured it out.


"Men, males, used to be the hunters, go after the animals, and so on. Females were always around the camp, but they were the ones who paid attention to the botany, to the plants all around [them]."


Harvard archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef says the chance discovery of flax fibers at a site inhabited thousands of years before the plant was known to be used illustrates the key role that science has come to play in uncovering the past.


"When you start digging a site, you can expect anything, because there are a lot of things which were not preserved, and other that [were] preserved in such a way that you don't see them. And therefore, a chance discovery through the microscope shows you that the involvement of science in archaeology is critical."


The researchers identified more than 1300 fragments of flax fiber from various locations in the cave, sometimes in combination with bits of dyed and twisted fur from the Caucasus antelope called the tur. In a report published in the journal Science, Bar-Yosef writes that this might — might — suggest that the early humans in the Dzudzuana Cave in Georgia were processing fur and cloth. 



Stone man joins carved animals in neolithic farmyard

Ian Sample


Thursday 10 September 2009 13.58 BST


A reclining man with a bushy beard and big nose is the latest to join a haul of stone figurines unearthed at the ancient site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey. The sculpture, which measures around six inches high, was uncovered at the neolithic site last week.


Çatalhöyük was the final resting place of some of the world's first farmers. Other figurines representing farmyard animals and people in sitting and standing positions have already been excavated at the site, which dates back to the dawn of farming some 9,000 years ago.


Archaeologists working on the site have discovered primitive houses with rooms decorated with vulture skulls, wild boar tusks and teeth from weasels and foxes. Some of the buildings are believed to have humans buried beneath them.


The discovery of female figurines at Çatalhöyük has led anthropologists to speculate that the community worshipped "mother goddesses".


Death and violence feature prominently in the sculptures, with some missing heads and others with exposed ribs, hip bones and pelvises.



Ancient figurines were toys not mother goddess statues, say experts as 9,000-year-old artefacts are discovered

By David Derbyshire

Last updated at 9:08 AM on 10th September 2009


They were carved out of stone and squeezed out of clay 9,000 years ago, at the very dawn of civilisation.


Now archaeologists say these astonishing Stone Age statues could have been the world's first educational toys.


Nearly 2,000 figures have been unearthed at Catalhoyuk in Turkey - the world's oldest known town - over the last few decades. The most recent were found just last week.


Made by Neolithic farmers thousands of years before the creation of the pyramids or Stonehenge, they depict tiny cattle, crude sheep and flabby people.


In the 1960s, some researchers claimed the more rotund figures were of a mysterious large breasted and big bellied "mother goddess", prompting a feminist tourism industry that thrives today.


But modern day experts disagree.


They say the "mother goddess" figures - which were buried among the rubbish of the Stone Age town - are unlikely to be have been religious icons.


Many of the figures thought to have been women in the 1960s, are just as likely to be men.


Archaeologist  Prof Lynn Meskell, of Stanford University, said: "The majority are cattle or sheep and goats. They could be representatives of animals they were dealing with - and they could have been teaching aides.


"All were found in the trash - and they were not in niches or platforms or placed in burials."


Out of the 2,000 figurines dug up at the site, less than five per cent are female, she told the British science Festival in Surrey University, Guildford.


"These are things that were made and used on a daily basis," she said. "People carried them around and discarded them."


Catalhoyuk is one of the most important archaeological sites in the world. Established around 7,000 BC, it was home to  5,000 people living in mud brick and plaster houses.


Their buildings were crammed so tightly together, the inhabitants clambered over the roofs and used ladders to get into their homes.


The town dwellers were early farmers who had domesticated a handful of plants and kept wild cattle for meat and milk. Cattle horns were incorporated into the walls of their homes.


The town contains the oldest murals - paintings on plastered walls. Unlike later towns, there is no obvious hierarchy - no homes for priests or leaders, no temples and no public spaces.


The dead were buried in spaces under homes, rather than in cemeteries.


Some researchers believe it was an equalitarian society.


The town survived for around 2,000 years. It is not known what happened to its inhabitants, but they may have been killed by invaders or driven away by the loss of nearby farmland.


Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1212320/Ancient-figurines-toys-mother-goddess-statues-say-experts-9-000-year-old-artefacts-discovered.html#ixzz0R0zrvwRO



Giant statues give up hat secret

By Sudeep Chand

Science reporter, BBC News


Archaeologists believe they have solved one ancient mystery surrounding the famous Easter Island statues.


At 2,500 miles off the coast of Chile, the island is one of the world's most remote places inhabited by people.


Up to 1,000 years ago, the islanders started putting giant red hats on the statues.


The research team, from the University of Manchester and University College London, think the hats were rolled down from an ancient volcano.


Dr Colin Richards and Dr Sue Hamilton are the first British archaeologists to work on the island since 1914.


They pieced together a series of clues to discover how the statues got their red hats. An adze, a road, and an ancient volcano led to their findings.


Dr Richards said: "We know the hats were rolled along the road made from a cement of compressed red scoria dust."


Each hat, weighing several tonnes, was carved from volcanic rock. They were placed on the heads of the famous statues all around the coast of the island.


However, precisely how and why the hats were attached is unknown.


A ceremonial adze was found next to the hats


Dr Richards told BBC News: "These hats run all the way down the side of the volcano into the valley.


"We can see they were carefully placed. The closer you get to the volcano, the greater the number.


"It's like a church; you can't just walk straight to the altar.


"The Polynesians saw the landscape as a living thing, and after they carved the rock the spirits entered the statues."


Dr Richards and Dr Hamilton are joint directors of the "Rapa Nui (Easter Island) Landscapes of Construction Project". They will be working on the island over the next five years.


Dr Richards added: "We will look to date the earliest statues. Potentially this could rewrite Polynesian history."



Iron Age discovery unearthed at farm

ARCHAEOLOGISTS find remains of 2,000-year-old roundhouse

By Donna MacAllister

Published: 11/09/2009


ARCHAEOLOGISTS have uncovered the floor and timber beams of a 2,000-year-old roundhouse in the heart of a Moray farm, it emerged yesterday.


Experts believe the structure unearthed at Dykeside Farm, Birnie, was once the multistorey-power centre of an Iron Age settlement.


Last night, the archaeologist leading the excavation said it was the best-preserved roundhouse discovered on the site.


National Museums of Scotland curator Fraser Hunter said the “huge, impressive building” had a diameter of 50ft and had stood nearly 30ft high and showed how sophisticated the Iron Age settlers really were. He added: “People tend to think they were scratching around living difficult existences and staying in huts, but this is no hut. This was a huge and impressive building.”


The archaeologist said he believed there had been lots of smaller structures around the roundhouse but this had been the major power centre. “It’s absolutely remarkable,” he said. “Each time we come here it throws up surprises. It just shows what an important place this was 2,000 years ago. It’s giving us completely new insights into the Iron Age.”


The remains will be recorded before the timber is lifted carefully and sent away for analysis to gain insight into the type of wood used, and how the house was built.


The Birnie field has been excavated by archaeologists for the last 12 years.


Mr Hunter said the most significant discoveries had been five other roundhouses found this year, plus two hoards of Roman coins. In total 20 roundhouses have been found. Sheila McColl, Elgin Museum volunteer and archaeological representative of the Moray Society which manages the museum, said the site had put Moray on the Iron Age map.


“We have a case in the museum which displays the best finds made at Birnie, including the two hoards of Roman coins. We’re obviously very grateful to the National Museums of Scotland for letting us have this display.”


The National Museums of Scotland has organised an open day at the site on Sunday. Maps to the site can be picked up from Elgin Museum, High Street, Elgin. Booking is not required. Phone 0131 247 4050 for information.



Ashwell treasure find 'rare' and 'significant'

16:26 - 11 September 2009


A COLLECTION of Roman, Bronze, and Iron Age artefacts discovered in Crow Country have been hailed as a "rare" and "significant" find.


The items, which were originally dug up from a site in Ashwell in 2003, include the silver base of a Roman figurine, pieces of armour dating back to the Iron Age, and hundreds of coins and bone fragments. At an inquest held at Hertfordshire Coroner's Court in Hatfield yesterday (Thursday), coroner Edward Thomas declared the items treasure.


Archaeologist Gilbert Burley, from North Herts Archaeological Society, told the inquest that the items were excavated following the discovery of the original Ashwell hoard in 2002.


He said: "Treasure hoards of this nature are very rare things, and the Ashwell hoard is the first of its kind excavated for 200 years.


"After the discovery of the initial hoard, we at the North Herts Archaeological Society carried out further excavations over the following four years.


"These items are probably related to the main hoard, but were buried separately," he said.


Mr Burley explained that there was a settlement on the land in Roman times, probably housing 200 - 300 people.


Some of the items, which also include pottery, oyster shells, and animal bones, were buried to mark funerals or feasts, while others may have been left as a tribute to the goddess Senuna, as there is thought to have been a temple in the area.


Dr Ralph Jackson, from the British Museum, has been researching the hoard, and told the inquest: "The original hoard is a fantastic find, and this collection is rare and significant."


The items have been housed at the British Museum since they were discovered, and now that they have been declared treasure a valuation can be made by the museums valuation committee.


Once this has been completed, the museum will be able to purchase the items to add to their collection permanently.


The original hoard is already on display in the museums Weston Gallery of Roman Britain.



A Mystery in the Desert

By Virginia Morell

ScienceNOW Daily News

10 September 2009


In the early 1970s, archaeologists unearthed an unusual find in an ancient Chilean cemetery: the skulls of four women whose faces had seemingly been eaten away. None of the other 500-to-1000-year-old bones in the cemetery displayed the same disfigurement. Now, thanks to the region's arid climate, which helped mummify some of the women's facial tissue and brains, scientists think they have figured out what happened.


The cemetery--known as Coyo Oriente--lies near the city of San Pedro de Atacama, in the driest desert on Earth, the Atacama. Archaeologists say the land belonged to the ancient Atacameños, farmers and llama breeders, who wrapped their dead in finely woven cloth before placing them in their sandy graves.


A total of 255 skulls, including the four disfigured ones, were unearthed from the cemetery, and all contained bits of mummified brains and tissue. Maria Antonietta Costa, a physical anthropologist at the Catholic University of the North, San Pedro de Atacama, has painstakingly removed these small pieces over the past 30 years in an effort to figure out what happened to all of the people, including the four women.


At the 1998 Third World Congress on Mummy Studies in Arica, Chile, Costa asked paleoneurobiologist Otto Appenzeller of the New Mexico Health Enhancement and Marathon Clinics Research Foundation in Albuquerque his opinion of the four skulls. "It could have been leprosy, cancer, even tuberculosis," Appenzeller recalls telling her. In hopes of solving the mystery, the duo sent samples to Carney Matheson at the Paleo-DNA Research Laboratory at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario. He retrieved and amplified sufficient DNA to discover genes belonging to the parasitic protozoan Leishmania, which causes leishmaniasis. There are more than 30 species of this parasite, which is transmitted by various species of sand flies and attacks visceral organs, mucous membranes, or the skin. The scientists suspect that the women suffered from the mucocutaneous form, which causes chronic ulcers and lesions around the nose, eyes, and mouth if untreated.


Although leishmaniasis is endemic throughout much of South America, this is the first time it has been found in a South American mummy, the team reports online today in PLoS ONE. A previous x-ray study of skeletal remains from the cemetery had revealed lesions reminiscent of leishmaniasis in 2% of the bones.


"Leishmaniasis didn't occur to me" when he first looked at the skulls, says Appenzeller, because the disease isn't found in San Pedro de Atacama today. And it was unlikely to have been there a millennium ago, he says, because the region's dry weather prevents the parasite from completing its life cycle.


So how did the four women contract the disease? "We think that they were immigrants, Yungas," says Appenzeller--people who lived 400 kilometers away in the tropical lowlands on the eastern slope of the Andes, where leishmaniasis is endemic. The high-altitude Atacameños prized the hallucinogenic drugs of the lowland Yungas, leading to an extensive trading network; the two peoples likely intermarried as well. Most probably, the scientists say, the four women contracted the disease in their youth in the lowlands and married Atacameños before the facial lesions, which can take up to 20 years to develop, were apparent.


If the desert climate had not stopped the parasite, it could easily have become endemic in the Atacama, because "everything else it needs for its life cycle--sand, rodents, and dogs--is there," says Appenzeller. "Only the climate halted it." And in that bit of geographical good fortune, the researchers see a warning. "With today's climate change, and the movement of people, leishmaniasis is spreading," says Appenzeller, who notes that more than 600 U.S. service members stationed in Iraq have come down with the Old World form of the disease. The World Health Organization reports that leishmaniasis kills some 60,000 people a year and is the second largest parasite killer after malaria.


"It's a great study and should bring attention to this pathogen, which needs to be tracked and controlled," says Raffaella Bianucci, a physical anthropologist at the University of Turin, Italy. "Maybe because of climate change or migration, the disease is now in northern France and Germany, places you would never expect to find it in the past."



Loo unflushed for 500 years is archeologists’ goldmine

Finds in the Paisley drain could be a rich source of history

Simon Mundy

Published on 12 Sep 2009


Archaeologists from Glasgow University yesterday began digging in the grounds of Paisley Abbey, hoping to shed light on life in a medieval Scottish monastery.


The team, backed by volunteers from Renfrewshire Local History Forum, is carrying out a 12-day excavation of an ancient drain that lay undisturbed until its discovery in 1990. An initial excavation revealed an arched corridor almost 6ft high, and uncovered pottery fragments and gaming pieces, a complete chamber pot, and other artefacts.


This month’s dig is the first subsequent excavation of the drain, which dates to at least the fifteenth century.


Archaeology professor Steven Driscoll, part of the Glasgow team, said the site was uniquely well preserved. “What’s unusual is that it hasn’t been messed with. This is a loo that hasn’t been flushed for 500 years. We have a kind of sealed environment, containing artefacts like the earliest known piece of Scottish music, which we found scratched into pieces of slate.


“The monks here were part of an internationally connected order. They were using Paisley as a kind of communications centre – as we can see from these tags we’ve found, which were the binding of boxes being shipped to the continent.


“We’ll be finding out about the sorts of things that were growing in the gardens, and the things they were eating. So it’s possible to reconstruct the lifesyle of the monks.” Paisley Abbey was founded as a Cluniac priory in 1163, and became an abbey in 1245. The monastery was disbanded at the Scottish Reformation, in 1560, when the monastic buildings were handed over to the Hamilton family.


Andrew Eadie, of the Renfrewshire Local History Forum, said the excavation had been timed to link with next year’s Europe-wide celebration of the Cluniac monastic order’s 1100th anniversary.


“One of our aims is to make people in Paisley, and elsewhere in Scotland, realise that Paisley’s heritage goes back far longer than most people realise. Everyone thinks of Paisley as a mill town, but few know about the Paisley drain,” he said.