Hand axes excavated on Crete suggest hominids made sea crossings to go 'out of Africa' By Bruce Bower

Web edition : Friday, January 8th, 2010


ANAHEIM, Calif. — Human ancestors that left Africa hundreds of thousands of years ago to see the rest of the world were no landlubbers. Stone hand axes unearthed on the Mediterranean island of Crete indicate that an ancient Homo species — perhaps Homo erectus — had used rafts or other seagoing vessels to cross from northern Africa to Europe via at least some of the larger islands in between, says archaeologist Thomas Strasser of Providence College in Rhode Island.


Several hundred double-edged cutting implements discovered at nine sites in southwestern Crete date to at least 130,000 years ago and probably much earlier, Strasser reported January 7 at the annual meeting of the American Institute of Archaeology. Many of these finds closely resemble hand axes fashioned in Africa about 800,000 years ago by H. erectus, he says. It was around that time that H. erectus spread from Africa to parts of Asia and Europe.


Until now, the oldest known human settlements on Crete dated to around 9,000 years ago. Traditional theories hold that early farming groups in southern Europe and the Middle East first navigated vessels to Crete and other Mediterranean islands at that time.


“We’re just going to have to accept that, as soon as hominids left Africa, they were long-distance seafarers and rapidly spread all over the place,” Strasser says. Other researchers have controversially suggested that H. erectus navigated rafts across short stretches of sea in Indonesia around 800,000 years ago and that Neandertals crossed the Strait of Gibraltar perhaps 60,000 years ago.


Questions remain about whether African hominids used Crete as a stepping stone to reach Europe or, in a Stone Age Gilligan’s Island scenario, accidentally ended up on Crete from time to time when close-to-shore rafts were blown out to sea, remarks archaeologist Robert Tykot of the University of South Florida in Tampa. Only in the past decade have researchers established that people reached Crete before 6,000 years ago, Tykot says.


Strasser’s team cannot yet say precisely when or for what reason hominids traveled to Crete. Large sets of hand axes found on the island suggest a fairly substantial population size, downplaying the possibility of a Gilligan Island’s scenario, in Strasser’s view.


In excavations conducted near Crete’s southwestern coast during 2008 and 2009, Strasser’s team unearthed hand axes at caves and rock shelters. Most of these sites were situated in an area called Preveli Gorge, where a river has gouged through many layers of rocky sediment.


At Preveli Gorge, Stone Age artifacts were excavated from four terraces along a rocky outcrop that overlooks the Mediterranean Sea. Tectonic activity has pushed older sediment above younger sediment on Crete, so 130,000-year-old artifacts emerged from the uppermost terrace. Other terraces received age estimates of 110,000 years, 80,000 years and 45,000 years.


These minimum age estimates relied on comparisons of artifact-bearing sediment to sediment from sea cores with known ages. Geologists are now assessing whether absolute dating techniques can be applied to Crete’s Stone Age sites, Strasser says.


Intriguingly, he notes, hand axes found on Crete were made from local quartz but display a style typical of ancient African artifacts.


“Hominids adapted to whatever material was available on the island for tool making,” Strasser proposes. “There could be tools made from different types of stone in other parts of Crete.”


Strasser has conducted excavations on Crete for the past 20 years. He had been searching for relatively small implements that would have been made from chunks of chert no more than 11,000 years ago. But a current team member, archaeologist Curtis Runnels of Boston University, pointed out that Stone Age folk would likely have favored quartz for their larger implements. “Once we started looking for quartz tools, everything changed,” Strasser says.



Heavy Brows, High Art?: Newly Unearthed Painted Shells Show Neandertals Were Homo sapiens's Mental Equals

A discovery of painted shells shows that Neandertals were capable of symbolism, sweeping away age-old thinking that they were stupid

By Charles Q. Choi  


Newly discovered painted scallops and cockleshells in Spain are the first hard evidence that Neandertals made jewelry. These findings suggest humanity's closest extinct relatives might have been capable of symbolism, after all.


Body ornaments made of painted and pierced seashells dating back 70,000 to 120,000 years have been found in Africa and the Near East for years, and serve as evidence of symbolic thought among the earliest modern humans (Homo sapiens). The absence of similar finds in Europe at that time, when it was Neandertal territory, has supported the notion that they lacked symbolism, a potential sign of mental inferiority that might help explain why modern humans eventually replaced them.


Although hints of Neandertal art and jewelry have cropped up in recent years, such as pierced and grooved animal-tooth pendants or a decorated limestone slab on the grave of a child, these have often been shrugged off as artifacts mixed in from modern humans, imitation without understanding, or ambiguous in nature. Now archaeologist João Zilhão at the University of Bristol in England and his colleagues have found 50,000-year-old jewelry at two caves in southeastern Spain, art dating back 10,000 years before the fossil record reveals evidence of modern humans entering Europe.


At the Cueva (Cave) Antón, the scientists unearthed a pierced king scallop shell (Pecten maximus) painted with orange pigment made of yellow goethite and red hematite collected some five kilometers from that site. In material collected from the Cueva de los Aviones, alongside quartz and flint artifacts were bones from horses, deer, ibex, rabbits and tortoises as well as seashells from edible cockles (Glycymeris insubrica), mussels, limpets and snails; the researchers also discovered two pierced dog-cockleshells painted with traces of red hematite pigment. No dyes were found on the food shells or stone tools, suggesting the jewelry was not just painted at random.


In addition, Zilhão and his colleagues saw an orange pigment–coated horse bone at Aviones that might have served as a pin to prepare or apply mineral dyes or to pierce painted hides as well as three thorny oyster (Spondylus gaederopus) shells that might have served as paint cups, holding as they did residues of hematite, charcoal, dolomite and pyrite. The researchers also came across lumps of red and yellow pigments there that had to have come from afield, such as the area of La Unión three to five kilometers to the northwest, which has served as a gold and silver mining district since antiquity.


These discoveries, in combination with earlier findings hinting at Neandertal ornaments and funerary practices, suggest "Neandertals had the same capabilities for symbolism, imagination and creativity as modern humans," Zilhão says. Anthropologist Erik Trinkaus at Washington University in Saint Louis, who did not take part in this study, notes, "I'm hoping that this will start to bury the idea that's been around for 100 years—that Neandertals died out because they were stupid."


The rarity of such finds, however, thus far might still suggest to some that Neandertals were not great minds, "the number of sites that have these pigmented shells from either Neandertals or modern humans is something that you can count on the fingers of one hand," Trinkaus says. "These finds are very thin on the landscape."


Instead of Neandertals and modern humans developing jewelry independently, two intriguing possibilities this discovery raises are that Neandertals taught our ancestors art—or vice versa.


"I have argued that the archaeological culture associated with Europe's earliest modern humans, the Proto-Aurignacian, features a mix of ornaments of different traditions: small, basket-shaped beads similar to those known from South Africa since about 75,000 years ago, likely to have been used as parts of composite beadworks, and pierced animal teeth, likely to have been used as isolated pendants," Zilhão says.


Although tooth pendants are entirely unknown in the modern humans of Africa and the Near East prior to their dispersal into Europe, Zilhão adds they are precisely the kinds of ornaments linked with the Châtelperronian industry in France during the upper Paleolithic period of the Stone Age, which is linked with the Neandertals. "This mix indicates a significant level of cultural exchange at the time of contact, and the persistence in early modern human cultures of Europe of items and traditions of Neandertal origin," he says.


The scientists are set to detail their findings online January 11 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.



Did Neanderthals wear make-up?


Scientists claim to have the first persuasive evidence that Neanderthals wore "body paint" 50,000 years ago.


The team report in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that shells containing pigment residues were Neanderthal make-up containers.

Scientists unearthed the shells at two archaeological sites in the Murcia province of southern Spain.


The team says its find buries "the view of Neanderthals as half-wits" and shows they were capable of symbolic thinking.

Professor Joao Zilhao, the archaeologist from Bristol University in the UK, who led the study, said that he and his team had examined shells that were used as containers to mix and store pigments.


Black sticks of the pigment manganese, which may have been used as body paint by Neanderthals, have previously been discovered in Africa.


"[But] this is the first secure evidence for their use of cosmetics," he told BBC News. "The use of these complex recipes is new. It's more than body painting."


The scientists found lumps of a yellow pigment, that they say was possibly used as a foundation.

They also found red powder mixed up with flecks of a reflective brilliant black mineral.


The shells were coated with residues of mixed pigments


Some of the sculpted, brightly coloured shells may also have been worn by Neanderthals as jewellery.


Until now it had been thought by many researchers that only modern humans wore make-up for decoration and ritual purposes.


There was a time in the Upper Palaeolithic period when Neanderthals and humans may have co-existed. But Professor Zilhao explained that the findings were dated at 10,000 years before this "contact".


"To me, it's the smoking gun that kills the argument once and for all," he told BBC News.


"The association of these findings with Neanderthals is rock-solid and people have to draw the associations and bury this view of Neanderthals as half-wits."


Professor Chris Stringer, a palaeontologist from the Natural History Museum in London, UK, said: "I agree that these findings help to disprove the view that Neanderthals were dim-witted.

But, he added that evidence to that effect had been growing for at least the last decade.

"It's very difficult to dislodge the brutish image from popular thinking," Professor Stringer told BBC News. "When football fans behave badly, or politicians advocate reactionary views, they are invariably called 'Neanderthal', and I can't see the tabloids changing their headlines any time soon."



Massive statue of Pharaoh Taharqa discovered deep in Sudan

By Owen Jarus

Friday, 8 January 2010


No statue of a pharaoh has ever been found further south of Egypt than this one. At the height of his reign, King Taharqa controlled an empire stretching from Sudan to the Levant.


A massive, one ton, statue of Taharqa that was found deep in Sudan. Taharqa was a pharaoh of the 25th dynasty of Egypt and came to power ca. 690 BC, controlling an empire stretching from Sudan to the Levant. The pharaohs of this dynasty were from Nubia – a territory located in modern day Sudan and southern Egypt.


The Nubian pharaohs tried to incorporate Egyptian culture into their own. They built pyramids in Sudan – even though pyramid building in Egypt hadn’t been practised in nearly 800 years. Taharqa’s rule was a high water mark for the 25th dynasty. By the end of his reign a conflict with the Assyrians had forced him to retreat south, back into Nubia – where he died in 664 BC. Egypt became an Assyrian vassal – eventually gaining independence during the 26th dynasty. Taharqa’s successors were never able to retake Egypt.


In addition to Taharqa’s statue, those of two of his successors - Senkamanisken and Aspelta – were found alongside. These two rulers controlled territory in Sudan, but not Egypt.


Dr. Julie Anderson of the British Museum is the co-director for the Dangeil excavations. This project is an archaeological mission of the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums, Sudan. It is also co-directed by Dr. Salah eldin Mohamed Ahmed.


Dr. Anderson confirmed that no statue of a pharaoh has ever been found further south of Egypt than this one. “That’s one reason it’s so exciting and very interesting,” she said. The discovery was such a surprise that one colleague of Anderson's didn't believe it at first saying that the statues “can’t possibly be (at) Dangeil.”


Dangeil is near the fifth cataract of the Nile River, about 350 kilometres northeast of the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. There was a settlement at the time of Taharqa, but little of it has been excavated. Most of the finds discovered at Dangeil, so far, date to the time of the Kingdom of Meroe (3rd century BC – 3rd century AD).


While this is the furthest south that a pharaoh’s statue has been found, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Dangeil is the southern border of Taharqa’s empire. It’s possible that he controlled territory further up the Nile.


The statue of Taharqa is truly monumental. “It’s a symbol of royal power,” said Dr. Anderson, an indicator that Dangeil was an “important royal city.”


It’s made of granite and weighs more than one ton. It stood about 2.6 meters (8.5 feet) when it had its head. In ancient times it was smashed into several pieces on purpose. This was also done to the two other statues. It’s not known who did this or why. It happened “a long time after Taharqa,” said Anderson.


One idea is that there was a dynastic struggle. A group came to power in Nubia that was determined to eliminate reminders of Taharqa’s reign and that of this successors. Another possibility is that in 593 BC an Egyptian military force, led by pharaoh Psamtek II, succeeded in reaching Dangeil and decided to damage the statues.


The largest piece of Taharqa's statue is the torso and base. This part of the statue is so heavy that the archaeological team had to use 18 men to move it onto a truck.


“We had trouble moving him a couple hundred meters,” said Anderson. The move was “extremely well planned,” with the team spending eight to nine days figuring out how to accomplish it without the statue (or the movers) getting damaged.


Given the lack of moving equipment the team resorted to “traditional methods.” Anderson and Ahmed say that “the back of the statue was first protected with sacking after which a heavy plank of wood was attached to the backpillar. Trenches were dug under the statue to facilitate the attachment of the wood backing,”


The team than rotated the statue so that it rested on this wood. A platform of red-brick and silt was created beneath the statue. “The statue was raised upwards, one brick’s thickness at a time (approximately 80mm), using wooden and iron levers.” A team of 18 men then brought it to a truck, dragging it over an ancient wall.


Taharqa’s ancient statue movers would have had an even rougher job. The nearest granite quarry is at the third cataract – hundreds of kilometres up the Nile. The trip was “certainly many days” said Anderson, consisting of a river ride and in “some places dragging.”


The construction of the statue and the painstaking effort to move it to Dangeil “demonstrates how powerful he (Taharqa) was.”



Egyptian Eyeliner May Have Warded Off Disease

By Katie Cottingham

ScienceNOW Daily News

8 January 2010


Clearly, ancient Egyptians didn't get the memo about lead poisoning. Their eye makeup was full of the stuff. Although today we know that lead can cause brain damage and miscarriages, the Egyptians believed that lead-based cosmetics protected against eye diseases. Now, new research suggests that they may have been on to something.

Previous work indicates that the Egyptians added lead to their cosmetics on purpose. When analytical chemist Philippe Walter and colleagues at CNRS and the Louvre Museum in Paris analyzed the composition of several samples of the Egyptians' famous bold, black eyeliner in the Louvre's collection, they identified two types of lead salt not found in nature. That means that ancient Egyptians must have synthesized them. But making lead salt is a tricky, delicate process that requires tending for weeks--and unlike other common makeup components, the salts are not glossy. So why did they bother?


Ancient manuscripts gave the scientists a clue. It turns out that in those days, people made lead salts and used them as treatments for eye ailments, scars, and discolorations. When Walter told analytical chemist Christian Amatore of the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris about the findings, Amatore says he was intrigued because lead is now known to have so many toxic effects.


To see if the lead might confer any health benefits, Amatore, Walter, and colleagues added lead salts to human skin cells called keratinocytes, which were grown in the lab. The researchers hypothesized that the lead would stress the cells and cause them to make hydrogen peroxide, nitric oxide, and other compounds involved in the body's immune response. And indeed, cells treated with lead began pumping out more nitric oxide than did control cells, the team reports online in Analytical Chemistry.


Amatore says that nitric oxide sets off a series of biochemical processes in the body that ultimately send immune cells called macrophages to the site of infection, where they engulf invading organisms. That's probably not what's happening in keratinocytes, says immunologist Martin Olivier of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, who was not involved in the study. It's unlikely that macrophages or other immune cells would exit the body and burst through the skin to fight off infectious agents at the surface, he notes. Instead, nitric oxide released by keratinocytes could directly kill eye-disease-causing bacteria on the skin or near the eye by breaking down a bacterium's structure or DNA. Another plausible scenario, says Olivier, is that lead itself could directly stimulate immune cells already present in the eyelid.


This potential benefit of lead is contrary to everything we know about the substance, but it could fit the model of hormesis, says epidemiologist Jennifer Weuve of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois. "The premise behind hormesis is that, for certain exposures, there might be a window where the exposure is harmful but also one where it's helpful," she explains.


Still, Weuve cautions against adding lead to the eyeliner in your makeup case. Modern people live a lot longer than did the ancient Egyptians--many of whom died in their 30s--and the dangers of prolonged lead exposure outweigh any antimicrobial benefit, she says. Indeed, the Egyptians' eyeliner strategy would have backfired on them if they had lived long enough, she notes, as long-term exposure to lead may increase the risk of developing cataracts.



First Minoan Shipwreck

Volume 63 Number 1, January/February 2010 by Eti Bonn-Muller


Crete has seduced archaeologists for more than a century, luring them to its rocky shores with fantastic tales of legendary kings, cunning deities, and mythical creatures. The largest of the Greek islands, Crete was the land of the Minoans (3100-1050 B.C.), a Bronze Age civilization named after its first ruler, King Minos, the "master of the seas" who is said to have rid the waters of pirates. According to Thucydides, he also established the first thalassocracy, or maritime empire. The Minoans were renowned for their seafaring prowess, which opened trade routes with the powerful kingdoms of Egypt, Anatolia, and the Levant.


With the island of Pseira in the background, Hadjidaki proudly displays an intact, oval-mouth amphora she has just excavated at a depth of 131 feet. (Courtesy V. Mentoyannis)

Depictions of ships abound on Minoan seals and frescoes. They are detailed enough to show that the vessels were impressive: generally, they had 15 oars on each side and square sails, and were probably about 50 feet long. But little more was known about actual Minoan seafaring--until Greek archaeologist Elpida Hadjidaki became the first to discover a Minoan shipwreck.


Hadjidaki, a self-described "harbor girl," was born and grew up in the Cretan seaside town of Chania. An experienced and passionate diver trained in classical archaeology, she received funding from the Institute for Aegean Prehistory in 2003 to search for early ships near Crete. "I always wanted to find a Minoan shipwreck," she says, "so I started looking for one."


For nearly a month, she and a team of three sponge and coral divers aboard a 20-foot-long wooden fishing boat searched up and down the island's shores. On the second-to-last day of the survey, Hadjidaki decided to ditch the technology and go on gut instinct. She knew that in 1976, Jacques Cousteau had brought a team to the small island of Pseira, a Bronze Age port about one and a half miles from the northeastern coast of Crete in the Gulf of Mirabello. He was in search of Atlantis, thought by some to be associated with the nearby island of Thera. Cousteau had found Minoan pottery underwater near the shore, and suggested it came from ships sunk in the harbor by the volcanic eruption that destroyed Thera in 1650 or 1520 B.C. (The finds are now believed to be from houses on Pseira that fell into the sea during an earthquake.)


Intrigued, Hadjidaki and the team headed to a spot about 300 feet off Pseira, near where Cousteau had been. "I thought, why don't I go there and check it out myself?" she recalls. "But I said, I'm not going to go where Jacques Cousteau dived. I'm going to go to the deeper part."



Amazon explorers uncover signs of a real El Dorado


It is the legend that drew legions of explorers and adventurers to their deaths: an ancient empire of citadels and treasure hidden deep in the Amazon jungle.


Spanish conquistadores ventured into the rainforest seeking fortune, followed over the centuries by others convinced they would find a lost civilisation to rival the Aztecs and Incas.


Some seekers called it El Dorado, others the City of Z. But the jungle swallowed them and nothing was found, prompting the rest of the world to call it a myth. The Amazon was too inhospitable, said 20th century scholars, to permit large human settlements.


Now, however, the doomed dreamers have been proved right: there was a great civilisation. New satellite imagery and fly-overs have revealed more than 200 huge geometric earthworks carved in the upper Amazon basin near Brazil's border with Bolivia.


Spanning 155 miles, the circles, squares and other geometric shapes form a network of avenues, ditches and enclosures built long before Christopher Columbus set foot in the new world. Some date to as early as 200 AD, others to 1283.


Scientists who have mapped the earthworks believe there may be another 2,000 structures beneath the jungle canopy, vestiges of vanished societies.


The structures, many of which have been revealed by the clearance of forest for agriculture, point to a "sophisticated pre-Columbian monument-building society", says the journal Antiquity, which has published the research.


The article adds: "This hitherto unknown people constructed earthworks of precise geometric plan connected by straight orthogonal roads. The 'geoglyph culture' stretches over a region more than 250km across, and exploits both the floodplains and the uplands … we have so far seen no more than a tenth of it."


The structures were created by a network of trenches about 36ft (nearly 11 metres) wide and several feet deep, lined by banks up to 3ft high. Some were ringed by low mounds containing ceramics, charcoal and stone tools. It is thought they were used for fortifications, homes and ceremonies, and could have maintained a population of 60,000 – more people than in many medieval European cities.


The discoveries have demolished ideas that soils in the upper Amazon were too poor to support extensive agriculture, says Denise Schaan, a co-author of the study and anthropologist at the Federal University of Pará, in Belém, Brazil. She told National Geographic: "We found this picture is wrong. And there is a lot more to discover in these places, it's never-ending. Every week we find new structures."


Many of the mounds were symmetrical and slanted to the north, prompting theories that they had astronomical significance.


Researchers were especially surprised that earthworks in floodplains and uplands were of a similar style, suggesting they were all built by the same culture.


"In Amazonian archaeology you always have this idea that you find different peoples in different ecosystems," said Schaan. "So it was odd to have a culture that would take advantage of different ecosystems and expand over such a large region." The first geometric shapes were spotted in 1999 but it is only now, as satellite imagery and felling reveal sites, that the scale of the settlements is becoming clear. Some anthropologists say the feat, requiring sophisticated engineering, canals and roads, rivals Egypt's pyramids.


The findings follow separate discoveries further south, in the Xingu region, of interconnected villages known as "garden cities". Dating between 800 and 1600, they included houses, moats and palisades.


"These revelations are exploding our perceptions of what the Americas really looked liked before the arrival of Christopher Columbus," said David Grann, author of The Lost City of Z, a book about an attempt in the 1920s to find signs of Amazonian civilizations. "The discoveries are challenging long-held assumptions about the Amazon as a Hobbesian place where only small primitive tribes could ever have existed, and about the limits the environment placed on the rise of early civilisations."


They are also vindicating, said Grann, Percy Fawcett, the explorer who partly inspired Conan Doyle's book The Lost World. Fawcett led an expedition to find the City of Z but the party vanished, bequeathing a mystery.


Many scientists saw the jungle as too harsh to sustain anything but small nomadic tribes. Now it seems the conquistadores who spoke of "cities that glistened in white" were telling the truth. They, however, probably also introduced the diseases that wiped out the native people, leaving the jungle to claim – and hide – all trace of their civilisation.


• This article was amended on Wednesday 6 January 2010. Percy Fawcett's experiences in the Amazon were said to have partly inspired Arthur Conan Doyle's book The Lost World, but Fawcett's disappearance did not, contrary to a suggestion in the original article - he vanished after the book was published. This has been corrected.





WORK is currently being carried out on a plot of land between Calle Nosquera and Muro de las Catalinas to determine whether an underground car park can be built in the area which contains historic remains. By February, work should be completed on the plot where 46 council houses are to be built, and where initial excavations uncovered Roman remains from the IV century, homes build during the Almohad dynasty in the XI century, Nasrid remains from the XIV century, and Judeo-Christian remains from the XV century.


The director of the archaeological dig, Sonia Lopez, has said that so far the most interesting discovery is that the houses and streets in the area have been the same for more than 500 years. Another curious fact is that the dig has uncovered the brothels that were built in the city after Malaga was back in Christian possession. The houses were divided between the knight who took part in the battles, and this area was given to a nobleman from Murcia who turned all of the properties into brothels. It is interesting to know that this area has continued to be one of the city’s main areas for prostitution until now. Back in those days, the streets were closed off at night, no alcohol was sold, and a doctor visited the girls once a week.


The houses that are planned for the area will be mainly destined for young craftsmen and artists, so they can have a home, a workshop and a shop in which to sell their goods all in the same building.