DNA analysed from early European

By Paul Rincon

Science reporter, BBC News


Scientists have analysed DNA extracted from the remains of a 30,000-year-old European hunter-gatherer.

Studying the DNA of long-dead humans can open up a window into the evolution of our species (Homo sapiens).

But previous studies of this kind have been hampered by scientists' inability to distinguish between the ancient human DNA and modern contamination.

In Current Biology journal, a German-Russian team details how it was possible to overcome this hurdle.

Svante Paabo, from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and colleagues used the latest DNA sequencing techniques to study genetic information from human remains unearthed in 1954 at Kostenki, Russia.

Excavations at Kostenki, on the banks of the river Don in southern Russia, have yielded large concentrations of archaeological finds from the Palaeolithic (roughly 40,000 years ago to 10,000 years ago). Some of the finds date back as far as 45,000 years.


The DNA analysed in this study comes from a male aged 20-25 who was deliberately buried in an oval pit some 30,000 years ago.

Known as the Markina Gora skeleton, it was found lying in a crouched position with fists reaching upwards and a face orientated down towards the dirt. The bones were covered in a pigment called red ochre, thought to have been used in prehistoric funeral rites.

The type of DNA extracted and analysed is that stored in mitochondria - the "powerhouses" of cells. This mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is passed down from a mother to her offspring, providing a unique record of maternal inheritance.

Using technology pioneered in the study of DNA from Neanderthal bones, they were able to distinguish between ancient genetic material from the Kostenki male and contamination from modern people who handled the bones, or whose DNA reached the remains by some other means.


The new approach, developed by Professor Paabo and his colleagues, exploits three features which tend to distinguish ancient DNA from modern contamination. One of these is size; fragments of ancient DNA are often shorter than those from modern sources.

Previous ancient DNA studies used the widespread polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology. PCR amplifies a few pieces of genetic material, generating thousands to millions of copies of a sequence. But the researchers found many fragments of ancient DNA were too small to be amplified by PCR.

A second characteristic of ancient DNA was its tendency to show particular changes, or mutations, in the genetic sequence at the ends of DNA molecules.

A third feature was a characteristic breakage of molecules at particular positions in the DNA strand.

The apparent ease with which modern DNA can infiltrate ancient remains has led many researchers to doubt even those studies employing the most rigorous methods to weed out contamination by modern genetic material.

"The ironic thing is that our group has been one of those that raised this issue," Professor Paabo told BBC News.

"To take animal studies on cave bears, for example, if we use PCR primers specific for human DNA on cave bear bones, we can retrieve modern human DNA on almost every one. That has made me think: 'how can I trust anything on this'."


Using the new techniques, the researchers were able to sequence the entire mitochondrial genome of the Markina Gora individual.

Future studies like the one in Current Biology could help shed light on whether the humans living in Europe 30,000 years ago are the direct ancestors of modern populations or whether they were replaced by immigrants who introduced farming to the continent several thousand years ago.

The modern gene pool contains a wide variety of mtDNA lineages. Studying these maternal lineages provides scientists with clues to the origins and histories of human populations.

Scientists look for known genetic signatures in order to classify an individual's mtDNA into different types, or "haplogroups". These haplogroups represent major branches on the family tree of Homo sapiens.

Early arrival

The researchers were able to assign the Kostenki individual to haplogroup "U2", which is relatively uncommon among modern populations.

U2 appears to be scattered at low frequencies in populations from South and Western Asia, Europe and North Africa.

Despite its rarity, the very presence of this haplogroup in today's Europeans suggests some continuity between Palaeolithic hunters and the continent's present-day inhabitants, argue the authors of the latest study.


U2, along with closely related haplogroups such as U5, are among those which could plausibly have arrived in Europe during the Palaeolithic.

Geneticists use well-established techniques to "date" particular genetic events, such as when a haplogroup first diversified. The "U" branch (comprising haplogroups U1, U2, U3 and so on) appears to be more ancient than many other genetic lineages found in Europe.

A recent study found a very high percentage of U types in the skeletal remains of ancient hunter-gatherers from Central Europe compared with later farming immigrants and modern people from the region.

Meanwhile, an analysis last year of mtDNA from 28,000-year-old remains unearthed at Paglicci Cave in Italy showed this individual belonged to haplogroup "H" - the most common type found in modern Europeans.




Relic reveals Noah's ark was circular

Maev Kennedy


Friday 1 January 2010 22.35 GMT


That they processed aboard the enormous floating wildlife collection two-by-two is well known. Less familiar, however, is the possibility that the animals Noah shepherded on to his ark then went round and round inside.


According to newly translated instructions inscribed in ancient Babylonian on a clay tablet telling the story of the ark, the vessel that saved one virtuous man, his family and the animals from god's watery wrath was not the pointy-prowed craft of popular imagination but rather a giant circular reed raft.


The now battered tablet, aged about 3,700 years, was found somewhere in the Middle East by Leonard Simmons, a largely self-educated Londoner who indulged his passion for history while serving in the RAF from 1945 to 1948.


The relic was passed to his son Douglas, who took it to one of the few people in the world who could read it as easily as the back of a cornflakes box; he gave it to Irving Finkel, a British Museum expert, who translated its 60 lines of neat cuneiform script.


There are dozens of ancient tablets that have been found which describe the flood story but Finkel says this one is the first to describe the vessel's shape.


"In all the images ever made people assumed the ark was, in effect, an ocean-going boat, with a pointed stem and stern for riding the waves so that is how they portrayed it," said Finkel. "But the ark didn't have to go anywhere, it just had to float, and the instructions are for a type of craft which they knew very well. It's still sometimes used in Iran and Iraq today, a type of round coracle which they would have known exactly how to use to transport animals across a river or floods."


Finkel's research throws light on the familiar Mesopotamian story, which became the account in Genesis, in the Old Testament, of Noah and the ark that saved his menagerie from the waters which drowned every other living thing on earth.


In his translation, the god who has decided to spare one just man speaks to Atram-Hasis, a Sumerian king who lived before the flood and who is the Noah figure in earlier versions of the ark story. "Wall, wall! Reed wall, reed wall! Atram-Hasis, pay heed to my advice, that you may live forever! Destroy your house, build a boat; despise possessions And save life! Draw out the boat that you will built with a circular design; Let its length and breadth be the same."


The tablet goes on to command the use of plaited palm fibre, waterproofed with bitumen, before the construction of cabins for the people and wild animals.


It ends with the dramatic command of Atram-Hasis to the unfortunate boat builder whom he leaves behind to meet his fate, about sealing up the door once everyone else is safely inside: "When I shall have gone into the boat, Caulk the frame of the door!"


Fortunes were spent in the 19th century by biblical archaeology enthusiasts in hunts for evidence of Noah's flood. The Mesopotamian flood myth was incorporated into the great poetic epic Gilgamesh, and Finkel, curator of the recent British Museum exhibition on ancient Babylon, believes that it was during the Babylonian captivity that the exiled Jews learned the story, brought it home with them, and incorporated it into the Old Testament.


Despite its unique status, Simmons' tablet which has been dated to around 1,700 BC and is only a few centuries younger than the oldest known account was very nearly overlooked.


"When my dad eventually came home, he shipped a whole tea chest of this kind of stuff home seals, tablets, bits of pottery," said Douglas. "He would have picked them up in bazaars, or when people knew he was interested in this sort of thing, they would have brought them to him and earned a few bob."


Simmons senior became a scenery worker at the BBC, but kept up his love of history, and was very disappointed when academics dismissed treasures of his as commonplace and worthless. His son took the tablet to a British Museum open day, where Finkel "took one look at it and nearly fell off his chair" with excitement.


"It is the most extraordinary thing," Simmons said of the tablet. "You hold it in your hand, and you instantly get a feeling that you are directly connected to a very ancient past and it gives you a shiver down your spine."


The human fascination with the flood and the whereabouts of the ark shows few signs of subsiding.


The story has travelled down the centuries from the ancient Babylonians and continues to fascinate in the 21st century.


Countless expeditions have travelled to Mount Ararat in Turkey, where Noah's ark is said to have come to rest, but scientific proof of its existence has yet to be found.


Recent efforts to find it have been led by creationists, who are keen to exhibit it as evidence of the literal truth of the Bible.


"If the flood of Noah indeed wiped out the entire human race and its civilization, as the Bible teaches, then the ark constitutes the one remaining major link to the pre-flood world," says John D Morris of the Institute for Creation Research.


"No significant artefact could ever be of greater antiquity or importance."


In the Victorian era some became obsessed with the ark story. George Smith the lowly British museum assistant who, in 1872, deciphered the Flood Tablet which is inscribed with the Assyrian version of the Noah's ark tale could apparently not contain his excitement at his discovery.


According to the museum's archives: "He jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement and to the astonishment of those present began to undress himself."



Egypt lifts huge 'Cleopatra temple' block from sea


A huge granite block thought to have once formed part of a temple pillar in a sunken palace of Cleopatra has been raised from the sea at Alexandria.

The nine-tonne stone, said to be from a temple to the goddess Isis, was lifted by crane out of the waters which have covered the palace for centuries.

It was cut from a slab of red granite quarried in Aswan, some 1,100km (700 miles) to the south, officials say.

There are plans to exhibit it in a new museum devoted to the sunken city.

Earthquakes are thought to have toppled the city in the 4th Century.

"This is one of the most important archaeological finds in Alexandria, among the 400 items recovered by the Greek archaeological team that has been engaged in underwater research since 1998," Egyptian Culture Minister Faruq Hosni said at the scene.

Laborious operation

Cleopatra's palace and other buildings and monuments lie strewn on the seabed in harbour of Alexandria, the country's second-largest city.

In recent years, excavators have discovered dozens of sphinxes in the harbour, along with pieces of what is believed to be the Alexandria Lighthouse, or Pharos, which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

The block is the first major artefact extracted from the harbour since 2002, when authorities banned further removal of major objects from the sea for fear it would damage them.

It was discovered by a Greek expedition in 1998.

To retrieve it, divers had to spend weeks cleaning it of mud and scum before dragging it across the sea floor for three days to bring it closer to the harbour's edge.

A lorry stood by to ferry the block to a freshwater tank where it will lie for six months until all the salt, which acts as a preservative underwater but damages it once exposed, is dissolved.

Zahi Hawas, Egypt's top archaeologist said the block was unique.

"We believe it was part of the complex surrounding Cleopatra's palace," he was quoted by The Associated Press as saying as he watched the block being brought ashore.

"This is an important part of Alexandria's history and it brings us closer to knowing more about the ancient city."



A piece of history resurfaces


After 14 centuries, a giant monolith from a submerged temple was raised from the seabed in Alexandria last week, Nevine El-Aref watched the dramatic recovery


There was more activity than usual in Alexandria's Eastern Harbour last week as a team working offshore made preparations to ready the dock for the unloading of a giant piece of history. An enormous yellow crane stood ready to lift a pylon, or ceremonial entrance tower, belonging to the Ptolemaic temple of Isis Lochias which has been under the sea for 14 centuries.


Meanwhile, five underwater archaeologists in diving gear were inspecting the planned route on the seabed along which pylon tower would be moved.


The event was watched by 1,000 or so Egyptian and international journalists, TV anchors, photographers and producers as well as curious local people. It was planned that the media observe the event from the deck of a yacht, however, this wasn't possible due to the bad weather that hit Alexandria


The weather also interfered with plans for raising the pylon. After mud and scum which clung to the surface of the pylon, a huge, single block of granite was removed, the monolith was dragged across the seabed for three days from its original position at Shaba to bring it closer to the harbour edge for its final extraction.


At 2pm sharp the crane moved, and onlookers had their first glimpse of this hitherto virtually unseen piece of Ptolemaic architecture. Weighing nine tonnes and at 2.25 metres tall, the pylon looked beautiful as it surfaced, touching the air for the first time since the shoreline collapsed and the sea moved in at some time around the seventh century BC. The piece was a single slab cut from the red-granite quarries of Aswan and was once part of Isis Lochias Temple, which was located alongside Queen Cleopatra's intended mausoleum in the sunken Royal Quarter beneath the waters of Alexandria's Eastern Harbour.


After being raised and safely brought ashore, the pylon tower was transported to the Roman theatre where it will be fully cleaned and restored in preparation for becoming the centerpiece of an underwater museum which will eventually be constructed offshore in the Stanley area of Alexandria. The museum will exhibit more than 200 objects raised from the Mediterranean seabed.


"This is an important part of Alexandria's history and it brings us closer to knowing more about the ancient city," said Culture Minister Farouk Hosni, who was present at the event. He described the pylon tower as unique among Alexandria's antiquities.


The pylon was not discovered until 1998, when it was found along with 400 other artefacts by a Greek archaeological mission working with divers from the Underwater Archaeology Department in Alexandria. At the time they were conducting a comprehensive archaeological survey in the coastal area of Shatbi.


The pylon is the first submerged artefact to be lifted out of the sea since 2002, when the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) prohibited the removal of any submerged objects.


Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the SCA, explained that behind prohibiting the extraction of submerged historical pieces were two reasons. On the one hand, the SCA is conducting an extensive archaeological and cultural project with UNESCO to study all the procedures necessary to build a new underwater museum in Alexandria. On the other hand, extracting further pieces would require more time as would the cleaning of the objects from accumulated salts


When the planned museum is in place, visitors will be able to enjoy an underwater tour walking along special tunnels among the various sunken objects. "If the study shows it's possible, this could become a magical place, both above and underwater," Hawass said.


"If you smell the sea here, it means that you are smelling the history of ancient Alexandria," Hawass told Al-Ahram Weekly.


Ibrahim Darwish, head of museums in Alexandria and one of the archaeologist-divers, said the tower was part of an entrance to a temple dedicated to Isis Lochias and was located on Cape Lochias. According to ancient sources, Cleopatra's mausoleum stood near this temple. A door lintel and a coin bearing the image of a similar tower were among objects discovered there in 1998.


Archaeologist Harry Tzalas, who headed the 1998 underwater archaeological mission, told the Weekly that the lifted pylon was the most important artefact found in the submerged Royal Quarter as it is a symbol of an amalgamation of Greek and Pharaonic architectural styles. Tzalas pointed out that since the pylon, which is cut in the ancient Egyptian architectural style, was found at the entrance of the Greek temple of Isis Lochias, and shows that some of the monuments of Alexandria were not only in the Graeco-Roman style but Pharaonic as well.


Although the Eastern Harbour is the place where Mark Anthony died after being defeated by Octavian, and where Cleopatra tragically ended her life, Tzalas said, the couple were not buried there. He explained that the Cleopatra mausoleum was being built near the Isis temple but was not ready when she died, and she was not buried there.


The Hellenic Institute for Ancient and Mediaeval Alexandrian Studies has carried out 13 underwater archaeological surveys in Alexandria since 1998. The area of study extends for 14km east of the promontory of Silsileh (ancient Cape Lochias), to the peninsula of Montazah (ancient Taposiris Parva). The surveys focussed on a series of sites that were detected by preliminary diving and through the use of a side-scan sonar device.


At Shatbi, where the pylon was found, many architectural elements made of granite, each weighing several tonnes, have also been discovered. It appears clear that the archaeologist- divers are working on part of the submerged Royal Quarter that, in Ptolemaic times, among other buildings was a palace sanctuary of Isis and the mausoleum of Cleopatra.


This site is adjacent to the submerged eastern contour of the Royal Quarter that was partially located on the promontory, having at its tip the temple of Isis Lochias. Man-made targets were detected during the side scan sonar survey. Some deep-water targets can be interpreted as shipwrecks (it must be assessed whether these are ancient or modern wrecks), while others may indicate man-made structures. The mission's fifth and sixth campaigns were most rewarding, as divers were able to work very near the tip of the cape due to the favourable weather. Several architectural elements, most made of red granite, were found scattered on the sea floor at a depth of seven metres. Most important because of their size are three very large pieces weighing several tonnes each: a complete pedestal; part of the framing of a gigantic door preserved up to a length of 3.6 metres; and a complete architectural element that was part of a pylon 2.6 metres high. This architectural element is of particular interest because it is known that in Ptolemaic times such monumental entrances were placed in front of temples to imitate the Pharaonic style, and this piece was found in the immediate vicinity where it is known that the temple of Isis Lochias stood. Another 10 smaller architectural elements made of granite were also found there.


In the coastal area extending immediately south of the first site, aerial photography has clearly shown man- made structures in the shallows near the beach. In the immediate vicinity north of these structures, in deeper waters, side-scan sonar has detected a number of abnormalities on the seabed of elongated contours running parallel to the cape. There is also a line of structures parallel to the coast. The depth varies from one to five metres. During the mission's fifth and sixth campaigns, two trenches were dug in the sand under the stilt on which the Shatbi Casino stands. Numerous pottery shards, most dating to the Late Roman period, as well as small broken pieces of marble and granite, were recovered. The excavation will be resumed in the future, in order to establish if, as it is believed, the Casino stands on the ruins of the Martyrium of St Mark, a revered monument dating from the fourth century AD.



Threshold to Cleopatra's mausoleum discovered off Alexandria coast

Helena Smith in Athens


Wednesday 23 December 2009 22.10 GMT


They were one of the world's most famous couples, who lived lives of power and glory but who spent their last hours in despair and confusion. Now, more than 2,000 years since Antony and Cleopatra walked the earth, historians believe they may finally have solved the riddle of their last hours together.


A team of Greek marine archaeologists who have spent years conducting underwater excavations off the coast of Alexandria in Egypt have unearthed a giant granite threshold to a door that they believe was once the entrance to a magnificent mausoleum that Cleopatra VII, queen of the Egyptians, had built for herself shortly before her death.


They believe the 15-tonne antiquity would have held a seven metre-high door so heavy that it would have prevented the queen from consoling her Roman lover before he died, reputedly in 30BC.


"As soon as I saw it, I thought we are in the presence of a very special piece of a very special door," Harry Tzalas, the historian who heads the Greek mission, said. "There was no way that such a heavy piece, with fittings for double hinges and double doors, could have moved with the waves so there was no doubt in my mind that it belonged to the mausoleum. Like Macedonian tomb doors, when it closed, it closed for good."


Tzalas believes the discovery of the threshold sheds new light on an element of the couple's dying hours which has long eluded historians.


In the first century AD the Greek historian Plutarch wrote that Mark Antony, after being wrongly informed that Cleopatra had killed herself, had tried to take his own life. When the dying general expressed his wish to pass away alongside his mistress, who was hiding inside the mausoleum with her ladies-in-waiting, he was "hoisted with chains and ropes" to the building's upper floor so that he could be brought in to the building through a window.


Plutarch wrote, "when closed the [mausoleum's] door mechanism could not open again". The discovery in the Mediterranean Sea of such huge pieces of masonry at the entrance to what is believed to be the mausoleum would explain the historian's line. Tzalas said: "For years, archaeologists have wondered what Plutarch, a very reliable historian, meant by that. And now, finally, I think we have the answer.


"Allowing a dying man to be hoisted on ropes was not a very nice, or comforting thing to do, but Cleopatra couldn't do otherwise. She was there only with females and they simply couldn't open such a heavy door."


The threshold, part of the sunken palace complex in which Cleopatra is believed to have died, was discovered recently at a depth of eight metres but only revealed this week. It has yet to be brought to the surface.


The archaeologists have also recovered a nine-tonne granite block which they believe formed part of a portico belonging to the adjoining temple of Isis Lochias. "We believe it was part of the complex surrounding Cleopatra's palace," said Zahi Hawas, Egypt's top archaeologist. "This is an important part of Alexandria's history and brings us closer to knowing more about the ancient city."


According to Plutarch, who based his accounts largely on eyewitness testimonies, Antony died within seconds of laying eyes on his beloved queen and mother of his children.


Cleopatra, the most powerful woman of her day and Egypt's most fabled ruler, is believed to have taken her own life just days later, legend has it with the aid of an asp.



Tomb of legendary general Cao Cao unearthed in central China

www.chinaview.cn  2009-12-27 22:58:08

BEIJING, Dec. 27 (Xinhua)


The tomb of Cao Cao, a renowned warlord and politician in the third century, was unearthed in Anyang City of central China's Henan Province, archaeologists said Sunday.


Cao Cao (155-220 A.D.), who built the strongest and most prosperous state during the Three Kingdom period (208-280 A.D.), is remembered for his outstanding military and political talents.


Cao Cao is also known for his poems that reflected his strong character. Some of the poems are included in China's middle school textbooks.


Three ancient corpses, one man and two women, were found in the two-chamber tomb in Xigaoxue village of Anyang. The man was found to have died in his sixties, which coincides the age of Cao Cao when he died, Liu Qingzhu, director of the academic committee of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told a press conference in Beijing.


More than 250 articles, made of gold, silver, pottery and etc, were unearthed from the 740-square-meter tomb, a size appropriate for a king. Archaeologists also found 59 engraved stone plates logging the name and amount of the articles buried in the tomb. Seven of the plates logged weapons "often used by the king of Wei", or Cao Cao, Liu said.


Also unearthed were a large amount of paintings drawn on stone plates, Liu added.


Cao Cao wrote in his will that his burial place should be simple, which corresponds to the fact that the walls of the tome were not painted and few precious articles were found, said Hao Benxing, head of Henan's Institute of Archaeology.


The position of the tomb is in line with historical recordings and ancient books from Cao Cao's time, Hao added.


Although further excavations are yet to be carried out, current evidences are adequate to prove this is Cao Cao's tomb, said Guan Qiang, director of the archaeology department of China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage.


The tomb had been raided for several times before archaeologists started to excavate it in Dec. 2008, Guan said.


The police are working to retrieve the stolen articles, he added.


The governments of Henan and Anyang are planning to display the tomb to the public, Hao said.



Medieval stone cross identified on Dartmoor

Wednesday, December 30, 2009, 18:19


ARCHAEOLOGISTS have discovered a stone cross estimated to be over 700 years old in a remote spot on Dartmoor.


It is thought to have once served as a Christian waymarker or boundary stone.


The team, led by Win Scutt and Ross Dean of City College Plymouth, stumbled on the cross when surveying the ruins of a medieval settlement on the slopes of Gutter Tor, Dartmoor. No longer upright, the cross was not identified until the last day of the survey.


"We had assumed it was a gatepost until examining the shape of the stone and the incisions. We were bowled over when we realised what it actually was," said Win Scutt.


Although probably unfinished, the cross has been chiselled from a two metre long block of granite.


The head of the cross has three arms, while the shaft is decorated with a long incised channel.


The cross lies close to the ruins of two medieval long houses that date to the same period.


The survey was being carried out as part of a training exercise for students on the University of Plymouth's Foundation Degree in Archaeological Practice.