"Hobbits" Had Million-Year History on Island?

John Roach

for National Geographic News

Published March 17, 2010


New found stone tools suggest the evolutionary history of the "hobbits" on the Indonesian island of Flores stretches back a million years, a new study says—200,000 years longer than previously thought.


The hobbit mystery was sparked by the 2004 discovery of bones on Flores that belonged to a three-foot-tall (one-meter-tall), 55-pound (25-kilogram) female with a grapefruit-size brain.


The tiny, hobbit-like creature—controversially dubbed a new human species, Homo floresiensis—persisted on the remote island until about 18,000 years ago, even as "modern" humans spread around the world, experts say.


Found in million-year-old volcanic sediments, the newly discovered tools are "simple sharp-edged flakes" like those found at nearby sites on Flores—sites dated to later time periods but also associated with hobbits and their ancestors—said study co-leader Adam Brumm, an archaeologist at the University of Wollongong in Australia, via e-mail.


The finding implies that a culture of stone tool wielding ancient humans, with origins in Africa, survived on the island for much longer than previously believed, according to the new research, published online today by the journal Nature.


"That's exciting," because it suggests that by a million years ago, early humans had covered more ground on their exodus from Africa than previously thought, said paleontologist Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum of London, who wasn't involved in the new study.


The stone-and-bone record had suggested that the hobbits' ancestors—perhaps upright-walking-but-small-brained Homo erectus—left Africa about 1.5 million years ago and reached Flores by 880,000 years ago.


Once there, it's been thought, the hobbit ancestors quickly hunted a pygmy elephant species and a giant tortoise species to extinction.


The date of the newly discovered stone tools, though, suggests elephant and tortoise died off a hundred thousand years after Flores's colonization —indicating that the early Flores colonizers' role in the extinction "must have been minimal," study co-leader Brumm said.


What's more, these early colonizers could have been more primitive than H. erectus—"that is our working hypothesis," he added.


When the bones of the hobbit were first reported in 2004, the discovery team suggested they belonged to a unique species, Homo floresiensis, that had descended from Homo erectus.


Since then, scientists studying the hobbit bones have found features in the wrist, feet, skull, jaw, brain, and shoulders that suggest the little creature descended from something more primitive.


"I think that's looking increasingly likely from its anatomy," said the Natural History Museum's Stringer.


Not everyone is ready to accept the new date.


"I have no problem with hominins"—human ancestors—"being on Flores at 1.2 million years ago," anthropologist James Phillips said. "After all, they were on Java by around 750,000 [years ago]."


But the fact that the implements were found in million-year-old volcanic sediments doesn't guarantee the artifacts are a million years old, said Phillips, an emeritus professor with the University of Illinois at Chicago, said via email.


"There are many ways"—such as water-driven processes—"in which artifacts can move through sediments," Phillips said.


He's also dismayed that the new study assumes that stone-tool technology changed little on Flores for more than a million years.


"Everywhere else on Earth, change was slow but always—and I emphasize always—occurred."


Controversy is nothing new in hobbit science, with many experts still at odds over whether Homo floresiensis is a separate species at all.


Several scientists have argued, for example, that the hobbits were modern humans with a genetic condition that causes dwarfing and other defects.


Regardless of what they were and when they arrived, the question remains: How did primitive humans get to Flores in the first place?


The Natural History Museum's Stringer buys into a theory that they may have migrated from Africa, perhaps on foot, to the island of Sulawesi. There, the ancient humans may have been washed to sea by a tsunami—currents off Sulawesi flow southward, toward Flores.


"These creatures most likely got moved on rafts of vegetation," he said.


To help shore up this theory, the team behind the original hobbit discovery is currently looking for evidence on Sulawesi that would prove humans occupied the island even earlier than they did Flores.



Traditional theory challenged after tea leaves found in famous Chinese tomb

English.news.cn   2010-03-18 12:33:19   

XI'AN, March 18 (Xinhua)


Chinese archeologists have found remnants of tea leaves in tea sets unearthed from the family graveyard of the country's first known anthropologist, a man who lived 900 years ago.


The finding challenge the traditional theory that infused tea became popular only in modern times, said Zhang Yun, a researcher with Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archeology.


Pieces of green tea were found in a dozen bronze, porcelain and stone tea sets unearthed from a cluster of 29 tombs in Lantian County, he said.


Zhang led the excavations that lasted from December 2007 to December 2009, which produced a variety of sacrificial objects.


"In one of the tea sets, which contained a bronze cup and a filler that filters tea, we found about 20 pieces of remnants of tea leaves," said Zhang. "The tea leaf remains green, a sign that it was infused instead of boiled before it was served."


The archeologists also found stone kettles next to the tea sets. "These, too, were common kitchen utensils because water boiled in stone kettles was considered tasteless and therefore ideal for preserving the fragrance of the tea."


Zhang and his colleagues assumed the family loved tea, so family members were buried with their tea cups hoping they'd still be able to enjoy tea in the afterlife.


Besides the tea sets, Zhang and his colleagues also found liquor cups, incense burners and inkstones in the tombs. "These were essential items for Chinese intellectuals in the old days," said Zhang.


Several epitaphs were engraved with Lu Dalin's name, evidence that these tombs, including 20 for adults and nine for children, were Lu's family tombs.


Lu Dalin (1044-1091) lived in Lantian County throughout his life. He was the first in China to study ancient writings and bronze ware and is therefore recognized as the forefather of Chinese anthropologists.


The epitaphs suggested five generations of the family, including Lu himself, were buried at the site from 1074 to 1111, said Zhang.


The discovery of the tomb was listed as one of the six most important archeological finds in China last year.



Huge monkey god statue found

Mar 16, 2010



EGYPTIAN archaeologists have discovered a colossal ancient statue of the pharaonic deity of wisdom, Thoth, in the shape of a baboon, the council of antiquities said in a statement on Tuesday.


The four-metre tall statue was discovered in four pieces along with two statues while workers were lowering ground waters beneath Luxor to help preserve the city's pharaonic temples, the statement said. It dates back to the 18th Dynasty, which ruled Egypt until 1292 BC.


'It is the first time that a statue of Thoth, depicting him as a monkey, of this magnitude has been discovered,' Mansur Boraik, head of pharaonic antiquities in Luxor, told AFP.


The statues were discovered near the temple of Amenhotep III, who ruled until 1372 BC.


Another statue, of which only the upper half was found, depicted the king and the sky god Horus, represented as a falcon, antiquities chief Zahi Hawass said in the statement.


'The team also discovered an alabaster statue base that is expected to have been the base of one of Amenhotep III's statues,' he said.


A granite statue of the pharaoh Ramses III, who ruled about 3,000 years ago, was also found. – AFP



Phoenicia team navigate Cape of Good Hope

9:00am Tuesday 16th March 2010

By Laura Kitching »


A PRIMITIVE sailing venture being led by a Dorset adventurer has overcome its biggest challenge yet.


A team of 15 international sailors have breathed a sigh of relief as they successfully completed one of the toughest stretches of a 17,000-mile voyage around Africa – navigating the Cape of Good Hope.


This stretch of coastline is a considerable challenge in any modern sailing yacht, but the Phoenicia team managed it in a replica 600 BC Phoenician wooden ship.


Expedition leader Philip Beale, who conceived the project from his base at East Chaldon, near Lulworth, had described it as the ‘critical point in the expedition’.


He said: “It is undoubtedly one of the most dangerous stretches of coastline in the world, and the Phoenicia expedition team have made history by showing incredible seamanship and courage in gale force winds, waves seven meters high and a main sail torn in two before their eyes.


“But these challenges have not deterred the crew as they rounded the Cape during the early hours of Thursday, March 4.”


The ship is now alongside at the North Wharf of the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town where it has been invited to berth alongside other prestigious sailors including Dilip Donde, India’s first solo circumnavigator, and a team of sailors onboard ‘Majan’ – a state of the art Arabian 100 Trimaran.


Their stop in Cape Town has included a press conference and interviews, and they opened Phoenicia up to public visits over the course of the visit.


The Phoenician Ship Expedition has brought together sailors and adventurers from across the globe as part of the crew.


The expedition launched from Syria in summer 2008, and over the past 18 months an international crew, of up to 16 people on any one leg, have battled against the elements to re-trace the Phoenicians ancient route around Africa.


Follow the voyage progress at www.phoenicia.org.uk



Lava bread, anyone? Pompeii snack bar rises from the ashes after 2,000 years

Michael Day

Saturday, 20 March 2010


THE LAST patrons who stood at the L-shaped counter of Pompeii's best-known snack bar eating the house-speciality – baked cheese smothered in honey – had to leave in a hurry owing to violent volcanic activity. But after an unforeseen break in business of 1,921 years, the former holiday hotspot of ancient Rome's in-crowd will finally re-open for business tomorrow.


Visitors will be taken on a guided tour of the thermopolium (snack bar), once owned by Vetutius Placidus, and taste some of the food that was popular before the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79 that buried the city under 60 feet of ash and pumice.


As with many high-profile launches, tomorrow sees an advance opening ceremony for 300 special guests, chosen at random for a taste of Roman café society, according to the Italian news agency Ansa. The full opening will take place later.


When Vesuvius erupted for two days, most of its citizens died as an enormous wave of scalding gas and dust tore down the volcano's flanks and enveloped the city.


The thermopolium, one of the best preserved sites in Pompeii, has been closed to the public for years in order to protect it from further damage. But following months of detailed excavation and preservation work, all visitors will soon be able to go inside and get an idea of a typical ancient Roman lunch establishment.


Inside, as in many modern cafés and bars, visitors are greeted with a large, L-shaped, decorated counter where customers stood to enjoy a quick lunch. Cylindrical holes in the bar contained glass dolia, or jars, displaying food.


Archaeologists working at the site also found a jar full of coins, amounting to about two days' income. They speculate that the owner may have left them in a last-ditch attempt to save his wealth as he fled the doomed city. The thermopolium used to opened directly on to a main street, the Via dell'Abbondanza. All sections of Pompeii society would call by for snacks or a light Mediterranean lunch, two millennia before it became à la mode in Britain.


Dr Annamaria Ciarallo, an environmental biologist and researcher at Pompeii,said: "The food then was mainly based on cereals, vegetables, cheese and fish, with just a little meat. It was very healthy – the original Mediterranean diet."


But the sybaritic citizens of Pompeii were able to resist anything but temptation and sweet, calorie-filled desserts were the real stars of the snack bar. Its creations filled with sticky honey and ricotta cheese have direct descendants in the cafés of nearby Naples today. Two of these dishes, mostaccioli and globe, will be offered tomorrow for the visitors as part of a special one-off event marking the restoration of the bar.


Dr Ciarallo said many of the snack bar's customers would have grabbed snacks and light meals as take-aways. "There wasn't a lot of ceremony. Often people, especially the busy ones, would have eaten outside," she added.


For customers who preferred to sit, the thermopolium had a triclinium, or dining area, with couches. It was decorated with a beautiful painting showing the rape of Europa with Jupiter disguised as a bull. An internal garden, or viridarium, housed another seating area, which excavations suggest was once shaded by a pergola covered with grapevines and had flower beds in which herbs used in the kitchen were grown. The house of the owner and his family adjoined the premises.


The larario, or household shrine, is decorated with Corinthian columns. Wall paintings depict the household gods and personal companion spirit, carrying out a sacrifice at an altar. Mercury, the god of commerce, and Dionysius, the god of wine, are also painted on the shrine.



Saxon object mystery for Canterbury experts


A Saxon object which was uncovered in an archaeological dig in Kent cannot be identified by experts.

The circular silver, bronze and wooden disk was found in a Saxon burial ground at The Meads, Sittingbourne, in 2008.

Despite using microscopes, X-rays and reading articles about burial grounds, the Canterbury Archaeological Trust (CAT) has been unable to identify it.

CAT believe that the object could be a decorative form of mount as it was discovered next to a sword.

Finds manager of CAT Andrew Richardson said: "We don't currently recognise it, but it may be a decorative mount on something, but we don't know what it's mounted on.


"We'll analyse the wood on the back, to see what sort of wood it is and see whether it was attached to an item.

"We've been trawling thought the literature and we'll look at its relationship to other finds in the grave and see if we can figure out by looking at the corrosion of objects how it relates to other items."

The disc was discovered with about 2,500 other objects at The Meads burial ground.

The items are currently undergoing a cleaning and identification process at a temporary laboratory in the Forum Shopping Centre by a group of experts and volunteers who have been specially trained.



Fresh dig at Staffordshire hoard treasure site


Another dig is to be held at the site of where the UK's largest haul of Anglo-Saxon treasure was discovered.

The original find of 1,500 gold and silver pieces was made by metal detectorist Terry Herbert in a farmer's field in Staffordshire in July 2009.

Experts say the new dig is not expected to turn up any more gold, but could reveal how the original items came to be there.

Items from the hoard are on display in Stoke-on-Trent and Birmingham.

Stoke-on-Trent City Council's chief archaeologist Stephen Dean said the dig was to put the find into some some of context.

"We are trying to find features which could tell us what the landscape was like when the hoard was buried," he said.

"We might be looking for pits, ditches, for some structural evidence if any exists."

There is no evidence of any buildings there at the moment, he added.

Stoke-on-Trent City Council is working with Birmingham City Council and the Arts Fund to raise £3.3m by 17 April to buy the hoard.

The Arts Fund said £2m had been raised so far and famous names such as Dame Judi Dench and Noddy Holder had given their support to the appeal.

Monty Python star and historian Terry Jones is visiting Birmingham later to look at the hoard items on display there.

If the money is not raised, the collection could otherwise be divided and sold to private collectors.

The National Heritage Memorial Fund, the fund of last resort for the nation's heritage, is meeting on Tuesday to discuss whether to help with funds or not.

Items from the hoard can be seen at The Potteries Museum in Stoke and at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery until 18 April.