New technologies challenge old ideas about early hominid diets

Public release date: 13-Oct-2011

Contact: Matt Sponheimer



University of Colorado at Boulder


New assessments by researchers using the latest high-tech tools to study the diets of early hominids are challenging long-held assumptions about what our ancestors ate, says a study by the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Arkansas.


By analyzing microscopic pits and scratches on hominid teeth, as well as stable isotopes of carbon found in teeth, researchers are getting a very different picture of the diet habitats of early hominids than that painted by the physical structure of the skull, jawbones and teeth. While some early hominids sported powerful jaws and large molars -- including Paranthropus boisei, dubbed "Nutcracker Man" -- they may have cracked nuts rarely if at all, said CU-Boulder anthropology Professor Matt Sponheimer, study co-author.


Such findings are forcing anthropologists to rethink long-held assumptions about early hominids, aided by technological tools that were unknown just a few years ago. A paper on the subject by Sponheimer and co-author Peter Ungar, a distinguished professor at the University of Arkansas, was published in the Oct. 14 issue of Science.


Earlier this year, Sponheimer and his colleagues showed Paranthropus boisei was essentially feeding on grasses and sedges rather than soft fruits preferred by chimpanzees. "We can now be sure that Paranthropus boisei ate foods that no self-respecting chimpanzee would stomach in quantity," said Sponheimer. "It is also clear that our previous notions of this group's diet were grossly oversimplified at best, and absolutely backward at worst."


"The morphology tells you what a hominid may have eaten," said Ungar. But it does not necessarily reveal what the animal was actually dining on, he said.


While Ungar studies dental micro-wear -- the microscopic pits and scratches that telltale food leaves behind on teeth -- Sponheimer studies stable isotopes of carbon in teeth. By analyzing stable carbon isotopes obtained from tiny portions of animal teeth, researchers can determine whether the animals were eating foods that use different photosynthetic pathways that convert sunlight to energy.


The results for teeth from Paranthropus boisei, published earlier this year, indicated they were eating foods from the so-called C4 photosynthetic pathway, which points to consumption of grasses and sedges. The analysis stands in contrast to our closest human relatives like chimpanzees and gorillas that eat foods from the so-called C3 synthetic pathway pointing to a diet that included trees, shrubs and bushes.


Dental micro-wear and stable isotope studies also point to potentially large differences in diet between southern and eastern African hominids, said Sponheimer, a finding that was not anticipated given their strong anatomical similarities. "Frankly, I don't believe anyone would have predicted such strong regional differences," said Sponheimer. "But this is one of the things that is fun about science -- nature frequently reminds us that there is much that we don't yet understand.


"The bottom line is that our old answers about hominid diets are no longer sufficient, and we really need to start looking in directions that would have been considered crazy even a decade ago," Sponheimer said. "We also see much more evidence of dietary variability among our hominid kin than was previously appreciated. Consequently, the whole notion of hominid diet is really problematic, as different species may have consumed fundamentally different things."


While the new techniques have prompted new findings in the field of biological anthropology, they are not limited to use in human ancestors, according to the researchers. Current animals under study using the new tooth-testing techniques range from rodents and ancient marsupials to dinosaurs, said Sponheimer.


Much of Sponheimer's research on ancient hominids has been funded by the National Science Foundation.



100,000-Year-Old Art Workshop Discovered in South Africa

Discovery reveals new clues about human cognition very early in the development of symbolic expression, a function unique to being human.

September 2011, Cover Stories, Daily News

Thu, Oct 13, 2011


Within the darkness of Blombos Cave near Cape Town, South Africa, archaeologists have uncovered an assemblage of tools and remains of what appears to be a workshop or work area containing toolkits used by early modern humans about 100,000 years ago to mix, make and store ochre, the earliest form of paint often used by Paleolithic people to create artwork on the walls of caves and for other decorative purposes.

Said Professor Christopher Henshilwood from the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, who led the excavations: "This discovery represents an important benchmark in the evolution of complex human cognition (mental processes) in that it shows that humans had the conceptual ability to source, combine and store substances that were then possibly used to enhance their social practices.  We believe that the manufacturing process involved the rubbing of pieces of ochre on quartzite slabs to produce a fine red powder. Ochre chips were crushed with quartz, quartzite and silcrete hammerstones/grinders and combined with heated crushed, mammal-bone, charcoal, stone chips and a liquid, which was then introduced to the abalone shells and gently stirred. A bone was probably used to stir the mixture and to transfer some of the mixture out of the shell."


A detailed report is published in the October 14th issue of the prestigious Science magazine.


Henshilwood actually discovered the assemblage while excavating the Blombos Cave along with colleagues back in 2008. Findings included an assortment of lithic hammers and grindstones, and two abalone (sea snail) shells that had evidently been used as containers to hold and store a red, ochre-rich mixture that was also mixed with ground bone and charcoal. Ochre, the prime ingredient of the ancient paint, is derived from a naturally colored clay containing iron mineral oxides. It produces the yellow or red color so often associated with the ancient paint and seen to embellish drawings and other works of prehistoric art and possibly used for other purposes, such as body decoration. The sediments in which the ochre containers were found were dated to about 100,000 years based on Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) dating.


The use of the ancient paint in human history is well documented only after about 60,000 years ago, which means that the Blombos Cave finds may push back the use of the paint to earlier periods. The finds also indicate that humans as far back as 100,000 years ago were methodically producing and storing the material, representing a critical point in human thinking within the context of human evolution.  "The recovery of these toolkits adds evidence for early technological and behavioural developments associated with humans and documents their deliberate planning, production and curation of pigmented compound and the use of containers," says Henshilwood. "It also demonstrates that humans had an elementary knowledge of chemistry and the ability for long-term planning 100,000 years ago."

Video (below): A 100,000 year old ochre processing workshop at Blombos Cave, South Africa. [Produced by Loic Quentin]


Details of the findings are published in the October 14, 2011 issue of the journal Science, a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).*

* "A 100,000-Year-Old Ochre-Processing Workshop at Blombos Cave, South Africa," by C.S. Henshilwood; F. d’Errico; K.L. van Niekerk; S.-E. Lauritzen at University of Bergen in Bergen, Norway; C.S. Henshilwood at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa; F. d’Errico; R. García-Moreno at Université de Bordeaux in Talence, France; F. d’Errico; R. García-Moreno at CNRS in Talence, France; Y. Coquinot; M. Menu at Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France in Paris, France; Y. Coquinot; M. Menu at CNRS in Paris, France; Z. Jacobs at University of Wollongong in Wollongong, NSW, Australia.

Copyright © 2011 Popular Archaeology, Press Publisher Online Publishing System



Egyptologist discovers ‘royal’ coffin in seaside museum

Press release issued 10 October 2011


An extremely rare Egyptian coffin, possibly belonging to the son of a king or a very senior official, has been ‘discovered’ at Torquay Museum by an archaeologist at the University of Bristol.


Dr Aidan Dodson, a senior research fellow in Bristol’s Department of Archaeology and Anthropology made the discovery while undertaking a long-term project to catalogue every single Egyptian coffin in English and Welsh provincial museums.

Dr Dodson said: “When I walked into Torquay Museum for the first time I realised that the coffin was something really special.  Not only was it of a design of which there is probably only one other example in the UK (in Bristol), but the quality was exceptional.


“Cut from a single log of cedar wood, it is exquisitely carved, inlaid and painted.  For a child to have been given something like that, he must have had very important parents – perhaps even a king and queen. Unfortunately, the part of the inscription which named the boy and his parents is so badly damaged that we cannot be certain.


“The inscription had been re-worked at some point for a new owner – a 2,500 year old mummified boy, anonymous but given the name Psamtek by his current custodians, that came to Torquay Museum with the coffin when in was donated in the 1950s.  ‘Psamtek’ is in fact nearly 1,000 years younger than the coffin itself.”


The secrets of the mummified boy were probed by Torbay Hospital’s state-of-the-art CT scanner in 2006 in an attempt to determine his age and cause of death.  It was discovered that he was three to four years old - around three years younger than previously thought - but there were no obvious signs of the cause of death.


Ever since he went on show as part of a major redevelopment at Torquay Museum in 2007, ‘Psamtek’, the only human mummy on public display in the county, has captured the imagination of thousands of curious visitors.


But now his own coffin has stolen the limelight, after it was discovered that it is nearly 1,000 years older than the body it contains.  Further investigation reveals the coffin may have been made for a junior member of royalty more than a century before the time of the famous boy king Tutankhamun.


Museum curator Barry Chandler said: “It's an extraordinary discovery and means that the coffin is now the most spectacular exhibit in our entire collection. It's extremely rare – even the British Museum doesn't have one quite like it."


Both the coffin and its contents were donated to the museum in 1956 by Lady Winnaretta Leeds, daughter of sewing machine heir Paris Singer.  Fascinated by Egyptology, Lady Leeds travelled to the Middle East many times.  It was during one of her visits in the 1920s that she is thought to have bought the coffin and mummy.


For years they were kept hidden away in storage until Torquay Museum carried out a £2 million refurbishment and decided to make the items the centrepiece of an Egyptian exhibition in their new Explorers' Gallery.


Mr Chandler said the museum always thought the coffin and its contents had not gone together and that the original occupant had been taken out so it could be reused.


“We thought perhaps the coffin dated back another 200 years or so to about 700BC," he said. "But we never realised it had actually been made somewhere between the reign of Ahmose I and the early years of the reign of Thutmose III – the first and fifth rulers of the 18th Dynasty – so somewhere between 1525 and 1470 BC.


“Not only has it gained an awful lot of age, but it has gone back to one of the most famous Egyptian dynasties of all.  No-one knows who exactly Devon's own ‘Psamtek’ was. It's possible that he perished during a turbulent period in Egypt's past when coffins were in short supply.”


The coffin is covered in linen impregnated with plaster.  Predominantly painted white, it has a red-painted face – indicating a male – and eyes that are made from volcanic glass and limestone mounted in bronze.  Further down, "perfectly modelled" knees are another of the features that indicate that the coffin must have originally contained someone important – either the child of a pharaoh or the offspring of a government minister.



An early Celtic "Stonehenge" discovered in the Black Forest

11 October 2011 Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum


A huge early Celtic calendar construction has been discovered in the royal tomb of Magdalenenberg, nearby Villingen-Schwenningen in the Black Forest. This discovery was made by researchers at the Römisch-GermanischesPress Zentralmuseum at Mainz in Germany when they evaluated old excavation plans. The order of the burials around the central royal tomb fits exactly with the sky constellations of the Northern hemisphere.


Whereas Stonehenge was orientated towards the sun, the more then 100 meter width burial mound of Magdalenenberg was focused towards the moon. The builders positioned long rows of wooden posts in the burial mound to be able to focus on the Lunar Standstills. These Lunar Standstills happen every 18,6 year and were the ‘corner stones’ of the Celtic calendar.


The position of the burials at Magdeleneberg represents a constellation pattern which can be seen between Midwinter and Midsummer. With the help of special computer programs, Dr. Allard Mees, researcher at the Römisch-Germanischen Zentralmuseum, could reconstruct the position of the sky constellations in the early Celtic period and following from that those which were visible at Midsummer. This archaeo-astronomic research resulted in a date of Midsummer 618 BC, which makes it the earliest and most complete example of a Celtic calendar focused on the moon.


Julius Caesar reported in his war commentaries about the moon based calendar of the Celtic culture. Following his conquest of Gaul and the destruction of the Gallic culture, these types of calendar were completely forgotten in Europe. With the Romans, a sun based calendar was adopted throughout Europe. The full dimensions of the lost Celtic calendar system have now come to light again in the monumental burial mound of Magdalenenberg.



Biggest haul of Roman gold in Britain could have been found

Britain's biggest haul of Roman gold, worth millions of pounds, could have been found in Worcestershire by a treasure hunter.

9:38AM BST 16 Oct 2011


Details of the treasure remained sketchy and the identity of the lucky metal detecting enthusiast has not been revealed. But it is understood Worcestershire County Council and the county coroner have been informed because of the potential archaeological significance.


The treasure, found at Bredon Hill, the site of an Iron Age fort in Worcestershire, is already being compared with the Staffordshire Hoard, the country's biggest ever find of Anglo Saxon gold. It netted lucky Terry and local farmer Fred Johnson a whopping £1.6 million each after being unearthed in a muddy field at Hammerwich, near Brownhills, West Midlands.


Dr Roger White, an expert in Roman archaeology from the University of Birmingham, described the possibility of a new find in Bredon as "exciting". "As well as potentially valuable pieces, these coins are historic documents, and they can tell a story on their own," he said. "Bredon Hill is not a major hub of Roman activity, but it does sit between the settled areas of two tribes, while Worcester has a Roman foundation, and was a major focus of iron production. "Hoards like this potential one in Bredon are always intriguing and the whole buried treasure thing captures the imagination. "And from an historical point of view, it is exciting. This could give us enormous amounts of information."


Excitement was spreading amongst Britain's metal detecting community this week as people tried to find more details of the find. "Very few people know about this find at Bredon Hill, even in the metal detecting community," said a fellow enthusiast. "But the rumours are that this could be a really huge haul of Roman coins and there could be an official announcement about it soon.'' Nearby Worcester is a hotspot for Roman artefacts and evidence of settlements from the period has been discovered in villages scattered around the area.

Dr White said there could be a wide variety of reasons why the coins were buried at Bredon Hill.

"Sometimes large burials of coins are evidence of a religious ritual, an offering to the gods," he explained.

"In other cases, someone who was under threat could have buried them because they wanted to hide their wealth.

"Another regular occurrence was coins being recalled, so they could be melted down to produce more currency. When that happened, Romans would head into the garden, and bury their money to keep it safe for the future.

"It will be fascinating to find out what is there in terms of coins, but also why, and how, it came to be buried there.

"Every hoard is different, and the bigger the number of coins, the more we can find out about the history of the area."

A spokeswoman for Worcester shire County Council refused to comment, but it is understood that the coin find has been reported to the coroner.

Metal detector enthusiasts have been hunting for the next big find since the Staffordshire Hoard was uncovered in 2009.

The treasure, which included hundreds of bejeweled battlefield items, added up to 5kg of the purest gold and 2.5kg of silver.

Some of the jewels were eventually put on display at the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, after a huge fundraising campaign to keep the Anglo Saxon artefacts in the region.




Last updated at 20:49, Thursday, 13 October 2011


The first week of a 12-day excavation on land below Papcastle has uncovered remains of a Roman building which could have been used as a Roman bath house or a high status building.


Grampus Heritage is leading the community excavation on land owned by Robert and Edmund Jackson.


Archaeologists found evidence of walls of a large Roman building, shards of pottery and metal objects.


The excavation is part of a development phase before the non-profit organisation puts in a full application bid in March for £200,000 to the Heritage Lottery to fund a three-year project.


The team hopes the project will build a picture of the Roman heritage along the banks of the River Derwent at Cockermouth and Papcastle.


Phase one of the bid has already been accepted, providing funding for six months and the cash was used for the two-week dig and a further six days of digging at an unconfirmed location, which will show the team where resources should be directed for the main project.


Archaeologist Mark Graham said: “It is too early to identify exactly what the building was used for but we have to ask ourselves was this a Roman bath house or could it have been used as a high status building for an official person in the town?


“We hope the dig will show the importance of Roman Papcastle and that it was a site of incredible administrative importance.


“As we have not yet seen a record of this site in recent historical documents it is so exciting that we may be the first people to have uncovered these remains in hundreds, maybe thousands, of years.”


A geophysical survey last year created a picture of what might be below ground using magnetic signals, and showed what might have been a substantial Roman building.


The survey was part of a dig by volunteers at Broomlands, near the Lakes Homecentre, which revealed a water mill, evidence of a civilian settlement, a Roman road, camp and industry.


The team hopes the funding will also pay for an education consultant to engage local schools during the three-year project.


Grampus Heritage also hopes to find premises in Cockermouth to display some of the finds.


In 1998, Channel 4’s Time Team, led by Tony Robinson, visited Papcastle expecting to unearth remains of a Roman fort believed to have existed in the area.


Instead it found that there was a town attached to the fort, which thrust the village to the same level of importance as Carlisle and Corbridge.


l An open day will be held tomorrow from 10am to noon for anyone interested in the finds or wishing to volunteer for the next dig. Members from Grampus Heritage will meet in the James Walker car park.



Columbus blamed for Little Ice Age

Depopulation of Americas may have cooled climate

By Devin Powell Web edition : Thursday, October 13th, 2011



By sailing to the New World, Christopher Columbus and the other explorers who followed may have set off a chain of events that cooled Europe’s climate for centuries.


The European conquest of the Americas decimated the people living there, leaving large areas of cleared land untended. Trees that filled in this territory pulled billions of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, diminishing the heat-trapping capacity of the atmosphere and cooling climate, says Richard Nevle, a geochemist at Stanford University.


“We have a massive reforestation event that’s sequestering carbon … coincident with the European arrival,” says Nevle, who described the consequences of this change October 11 at the Geological Society of America annual meeting.


Tying together many different lines of evidence, Nevle estimated how much carbon all those new trees would have consumed. He says it was enough to account for most or all of the sudden drop in atmospheric carbon dioxide recorded in Antarctic ice during the 16th and 17th centuries. This depletion of a key greenhouse gas, in turn, may have kicked off Europe’s so-called Little Ice Age, centuries of cooler temperatures that followed the Middle Ages.


By the end of the 15th century, between 40 million and 80 million people are thought to have been living in the Americas. Many of them burned trees to make room for crops, leaving behind charcoal deposits that have been found in the soils of Mexico, Nicaragua and other countries.


About 500 years ago, this charcoal accumulation plummeted as the people themselves disappeared. Smallpox, diphtheria and other diseases from Europe ultimately wiped out as much as 90 percent of the indigenous population.


Trees returned, reforesting an area at least the size of California, Nevle estimated. This new growth could have soaked up between 2 billion and 17 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the air.


Ice cores from Antarctica contain air bubbles that show a drop in carbon dioxide around this time. These bubbles suggest that levels of the greenhouse gas decreased by 6 to 10 parts per million between 1525 and the early 1600s.


“There’s nothing else happening in the rest of the world at this time, in terms of human land use, that could explain this rapid carbon uptake,” says Jed Kaplan, an earth systems scientist at the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne in Switzerland.


Natural processes may have also played a role in cooling off Europe: a decrease in solar activity, an increase in volcanic activity or colder oceans capable of absorbing more carbon dioxide. These phenomena better explain regional climate patterns during the Little Ice Age, says Michael Mann, a climate researcher at Pennsylvania State University in State College.


But reforestation fits with another clue hidden in Antarctic ice, says Nevle. As the population declined in the Americas, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere got heavier. Increasingly, molecules of the gas tended to be made of carbon-13, a naturally occurring isotope with an extra neutron. That could be because tree leaves prefer to take in gas made of carbon-12, leaving the heavier version in the air.


Kaplan points out that there’s a lot of uncertainty in such isotope measurements, so this evidence isn’t conclusive. But he agrees that the New World pandemics were a major event that can’t be ignored — a tragedy that highlighted mankind’s ability to influence the climate long before the industrial revolution.