Possibly pivotal human ancestor debated

Fossils yield new look at species that may have spawned humankind

By Bruce Bower May 7th, 2011; Vol.179 #10 (p. 16)   MINNEAPOLIS


Fossils described last year as representatives of an ancient species critical to human evolution have reentered the scientific spotlight and set off a new round of debate over the finds’ true identity.


Researchers described analyses of new and previously recovered remains of a South African species called Australopithecus sediba on April 16 at a meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. Evidence is accumulating, they reported, that 2-million-year-old A. sediba formed an evolutionary connection between relatively apelike members of Australopithecus and the Homo genus, which includes living people.


It’s now clear that A. sediba shares more skeletal features with early Homo specimens than any other known Australopithecus species does, said Darryl de Ruiter of Texas A&M University in College Station. “We think A. sediba is a possible candidate ancestor for the genus Homo.”


De Ruiter suspects that an isolated population of the hominid species Australopithecus africanus gradually evolved into A. sediba, resulting in a species characterized by an unusual mix of skeletal traits, some typical of Australopithecus in general and others of early Homo.


That scenario, outlined in symposium presentations by De Ruiter and Lee Berger  of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, remains controversial despite the new fossil discoveries.


Ian Tattersall of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City endorsed A. sediba as a distinct species, probably closely related to A. africanus. “I wouldn’t classify it as the root of the Homo genus, though,” he commented.


De Ruiter acknowledged the possibility that two partial A. sediba skeletons previously excavated from a collapsed, underground cave (SN: 5/8/10, p. 14), as well as newly retrieved fossils from the cave, might represent a late-surviving form of Australopithecus africanus unrelated to Homo. Previous A. africanus finds date from about 3 million to 2.4 million years ago in South Africa. Fossils of A. africanus show lots of anatomical disparities from one individual to another, so that species might well encompass fossils attributed to A. sediba, remarked John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Much uncertainty surrounds the identity of fossil members of the human evolutionary family between 3 million and 2 million years ago, he said.


Possible Homo fossils date to around 2.3 million years ago in East Africa, suggesting that even if A. sediba truly is a new species, it evolved after Homo did.


New A. sediba fossils from the same South African cave complex, many belonging to the previously discovered partial skeletons, underscore this ancient species’ mosaic anatomy, Berger said. A largely complete female pelvis displays relatively straight, vertically aligned hips and an elongated birth canal, much like early Homo species. Other Australopithecus females possessed a relatively short, wide pelvic opening and flaring hip bones.


New A. sediba foot bones include a chimplike heel and a humanlike ankle, Berger said. Fossils from the shoulders, rib cage and spine, as well as surprisingly long arm bones, typify Australopithecus.


Many newly recovered fossils are largely encased in hardened sediment. Computerized scanning produced 3-D images of complete fossils for analysis.


Digital reconstructions also aided an analysis led by De Ruiter of previously recovered A. sediba skulls and teeth, along with newly unearthed teeth. These remains also contain a blend of Australopithecus and Homo traits, De Ruiter reported.




A possible Neanderthal burial ground suggests that they practiced funeral rituals and possessed symbolic thought before modern humans.

By Jennifer Viegas

Wed Apr 20, 2011 11:40 AM ET




Evidence for a likely 50,000-year-old Neanderthal burial ground that includes the remains of at least three individuals has been unearthed in Spain, according to a Quaternary International paper.


The deceased appear to have been intentionally buried, with each Neanderthal's arms folded such that the hands were close to the head. Remains of other Neanderthals have been found in this position, suggesting that it held meaning.


Neanderthals therefore may have conducted burials and possessed symbolic thought before modern humans had these abilities. The site, Sima de las Palomas in Murcia, Southeast Spain, may also be the first known Neanderthal burial ground of Mediterranean Europe.


"We cannot say much (about the skeletons) except that we surmise the site was regarded as somehow relevant in regard to the remains of deceased Neanderthals," lead author Michael Walker told Discovery News. "Their tools and food remains, not to mention signs of fires having been lit, which we have excavated indicate they visited the site more than once."


Walker, a professor in the Department of Zoology and Physical Anthropology at the University of Murcia, and his colleagues have been working at the site for some time. So far they have found buried articulated skeletons for a young adult female, a juvenile or child, and an adult -- possibly male -- Neanderthal.


"We cannot say whether these three individuals were related, though it is likely," he said, explaining that DNA has been denatured due to high ambient temperatures. "Surely the child was related to one of the others, though."


The three skeletons represent some of the best-preserved, and most methodically excavated remains of Neanderthals.


"Such discoveries are extraordinarily uncommon," Walker said.


The Neanderthals were found covered together with rocks burying their remains. The researchers believe it's likely that other Neanderthals intentionally placed the rocks over the bodies from a height. While it cannot be ruled out that an accident killed the three individuals, the scientists believe that wasn't the case.


"I think there is just enough evidence at Sima de las Palomas to think that three articulated skeletons are unlikely to have been the result of a single random accident to three cadavers that somehow escaped the ravages of hyenas and leopards, which were present at the site," Walker said.


Unburnt bones of two articulated panther paws were embedded in rock "in an area where the rest of the animal's skeleton was conspicuous by its absence notwithstanding its proximity to the human skeletons," the authors write.


The researchers speculate that a Neanderthal cut off the panther paws and kept them. It is also possible that the paws were added to the bodies before burial, perhaps holding some ritual significance.


The remains of six to seven other Neanderthals, including one baby and two juveniles, have also been excavated at the site. The tallest individual appears to have been an adult who stood around 5'1".


Erik Trinkaus, a professor of physical anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, is one of the world's leading experts on Neanderthals. He told Discovery News that "it is certainly possible that they (the Neanderthals at Sima de las Palomas) were buried."


He said a few dozen documented Neanderthal burials from Western Europe, Eastern Europe and Southwest Asia have already been documented.


Trinkaus added that the Neanderthal remains from Spain will "provide us with our first glimpse of overall Neanderthal body form in Southern Europe, as well as additional specimens for a number of aspects of Neanderthal biology."



Italy: Ancient Roman mausoleum found under tonnes of garbage

last update: April 20, 16:32


Pozzuoli, 20 April (AKI) - Italian police near Naples discovered a 2,000-year-old Roman-era mausoleum buried under tons of illegally-dumped garbage.


The mausoleum, which dates back to the second century AD, was found by police hidden beneath 58 tonnes of garbage in the coastal town Pozzuoli while they were impounding the site they say was used to illegally dispose of waste.


Police used earth-moving equipment to dig through the garbage revealing the entrance to the mausoleum which was used to hide refuse.

Marble beams and decorations came to light after trash was removed from the tunnel.

The owner and user of the 1,700 square meter site are accused of breaking Italian environmental and archeological conservation laws



Anglo-Saxon hall unearthed at Bamburgh Castle

21 April 2011 Last updated at 15:02


An archaeological research team in Northumberland has unearthed a medieval hall underneath Bamburgh Castle.


Bamburgh Castle Research Project dug up a small trench under the inner courtyard at the core of the castle and discovered an Anglo-Saxon hall.


The team believes that the discovery probably dates back to medieval times.


The dig was carried out after the researchers invited Channel 4's Time Team to the castle to help them with their latest archaeological project.


Graham Young, Director of Bamburgh Castle Research Project, said: "Although it's a small trench, because we've seen rock-cut structural features elsewhere, we can fit that into a background.


"We know it's occupied, it's written about in contemporary texts so it's fascinating to see the actual material itself, the archaeology."


From the small trench, the teams discovered a posthole sealed over by a mortar spread right in the main bedrock of the castle.


They believe it is a medieval floor surface and the posthole underneath could date back even earlier than medieval times.


Mr Young said: "It's brilliant, it's a perfect excuse to go and actually look right at the heart of the fortress because you need a good excuse to go right into the very focus of everything and it fits in.


"We've been there for quite a while now and it's very nice to get lots of external experts in and sort of see it through fresh eyes."


The Time Team archaeologists were at the site for three days.


Mr Young said: "We expected it be be chaotic having a film crew arrive and we weren't disappointed in any way because it was.


"They did an amazing job, much better than we could ever have done in reinstating the turf, which I'm sure Davie, who cuts the grass lovingly, was very relieved about."


The show airs on Sunday, 24 April at 1730 BST on Channel 4.



Researchers reveal historic church's subterranean secrets

21 April 2011 Kingston University


Researchers from Kingston University in London have carried out a full scientific survey of an historic churchyard widely believed to be the site of the crowning of at least two Anglo-Saxon kings. The team used an earth resistance meter to survey a graveyard at the site where possibly as many as seven kings were crowned, during the 10th Century, including Athelstan, the first king of a unified England in 925, and Ethelred the Unready in 978-9.


An archaeological team from Kingston University in South West London has gone beneath the surface of the historic churchyard at the borough’s All Saints Church to try to find out more about its history. The team carried out a full scientific survey of the site in the heart of Kingston’s town centre, with local people and school children also taking the opportunity to get involved.


A church has stood on the grounds for well over 1,000 years and is of great historical significance. It is widely believed to be the site of the crowning of at least two Anglo-Saxon kings, and possibly as many as seven, during the 10th Century, including Athelstan, the first king of a unified England in 925, and Ethelred the Unready in 978-9. Nothing remains above ground of the original Saxon church except for outlines marked by stones outside the south door of the present building.


Dr Helen Wickstead, an archaeology expert from the University, and her colleagues used an earth resistance meter to survey the entire graveyard. The device measures the resistance the weak electrical current it produces encounters as it passes through the earth. The results mean that a two-dimensional image can be created of exactly what lay below ground. 


Dr Wickstead was asked by the church to carry out the survey ahead of redevelopment work. “We discovered three possible brick vault structures but have no idea who was actually buried there. Usually they contain coffins of members of a family in an underground chamber,” she said.  “We know exactly where these vaults are now and we’re hoping to use the documentary evidence available – historical maps, church records and aerial photographs – to find out who was laid to rest there and precisely when they date from.  It would be fascinating to find out their stories.”


Students from Kingston University’s MA in Museum and Gallery Studies and BSc (Hons) in Forensic Science took part in the project along with pupils from Nonsuch High School for Girls in Cheam. Local people also had the chance to get involved during the weekend of exploratory activity.


“Several passers-by came along and showed a real interest in what we were doing,” Dr Wickstead said.  “Some of the mapping was actually done by interested people who just happened to be out and about in Kingston on the day. From that point of view it was also a huge success and the school children and students involved really enjoyed it and learned a lot.  We got to make some new discoveries and gave people the opportunity to explore archaeology and geophysics in a way they wouldn’t normally do.”


Vicar of All Saints Parish Church Reverend Jonathan Wilkes said he had been delighted to work with the University on the project.  “An important element of our redevelopment concerns the heritage the site holds and represents, so gaining a deeper understanding of what's below the surface will inform and educate us as we move forward,” he said.  “We’re particularly interested in what the survey tells us about the site of St Mary's Chapel which lies to the south of the current building and which is only acknowledged now by plaques that mark where the walls would have been. We were really pleased that through this open event Helen and the university team were able to bring archaeology to anyone who was in the town on those days. This approach is something that we hope to develop further in the future.”


Leah Rogers, 23, who is originally from New York and currently completing the Museum and Gallery MA at Kingston University, said she had got a lot out of taking part.  “One of my major projects at the moment involves deciding what a hypothetical museum focusing on Kingston would look like in 2030,” she said.   “Being from the United States originally, it was fascinating to get an understanding of one of the borough’s heritage sites and how important it might be to local people in the future.  This ended up being a great example of community participation. People were very curious about what we were doing, especially when they saw us holding the earth resistance meter, which looks a bit bizarre if you haven’t seen one before.”


Following the success of the All Saints project, final year forensic science students from the University will be taught the practical part of their forensic archaeology module at the church.





Geocacher finds ancient Yavapai jar

4/16/2011 10:00:00 PM

Joanna Dodder/The Daily Courier

The Daily Courier


When Dave Kurr was a kid exploring the hills north of Prescott with his friends, he was bummed out when they would find arrowheads and he never did.


It took him until he was 43 years old to find an Indian artifact, but he's made up for it by finding an amazingly rare ceramic jar on the Prescott National Forest.


And instead of keeping it to show his friends, he chose to do the right thing by leaving it where it was and reporting it to archaeologists, so everyone could learn more about the people who created it.


"It's not going to do me any good in my house," Kurr said. "I thought it would be more beneficial to them."


Kurr found an intact clay jar used by the Yavapai people long ago. He knew it was against federal law to keep it, although he didn't know the penalty for a first offense under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 could be as strong as a $20,000 fine and a year in prison.


Realizing that the location of an artifact is important to understanding it, he photographed it, marked its coordinates on his GPS and left it in place.


Then he looked around on the Internet to find an archaeologist he could tell about his find. He located Kelley Ann Hays-Gilpin, an expert on Northern Arizona pottery who teaches archaeology at Northern Arizona University and is chair of anthropology at the Museum of Northern Arizona.


"He's an angel, because he did the right thing," Hays-Gilpin said. "He's just been so generous.


"He just knew that was for everybody, and for the Yavapai descendants."


But Kurr had no idea just how rare the jar is.


It's called a Tizon Wiped jar, and only a handful are known to exist.


"It doesn't get much rarer than that," Hays-Gilpin said.


It's probably the first time someone has found something like this on the Prescott National Forest and turned it in.


"To find one pretty much whole is phenomenal," said Elaine Zamora, an archaeologist on the Prescott National Forest who helped relocate the jar and bring it to the forest offices in Prescott. "It's a thrill to see it."


Kurr, now a resident of Scottsdale, was geocaching near the Pine Mountain Wilderness Area when he found the jar. Geocaching is like a treasure hunt in which one person hides a container in a remote area and puts the GPS coordinates online, then others try to find it.


So Kurr was walking off-trail where few people travel, looking in places that few people look. He had hiked 11 miles when he thought he might have found the geocache he was seeking, under a rock overhang.


Instead, he found an earthen jar that a Yavapai Indian had left there perhaps centuries ago.


"I just knew it was clay, and it was old," Kurr said. "And I couldn't believe how thin it was.


"If I would not have been looking for a geocache, I never would have found it."


It was in the perfect spot to weather the ages, archaeologists said.


"It was well protected from the elements, or we would have found a bunch of pieces," Zamora said. "Someone stashed it there. They probably intended to come back to get it." Hays-Gilpin agreed.


"Somebody protected it by putting it in those rocks... but they didn't come back," she said.


When Kurr recently brought his children and other family members to see the jar at the Prescott National Forest office, they pondered who might have left the jar in the rocks so many years ago.


"I'd just love to know the story behind it," Kurr's wife, Jennifer, said.


"I think it's the coolest thing ever," said Kurr's sister Carolyn, who still lives in Prescott. "It just has such presence."


A bedrock food-grinding site is not far away from the spot where the jar was sitting, so it's possible that someone was storing food they had ground up nearby. Or, they might have been storing berries or water they collected.


Judging by all the soot on it, someone might have been using it for cooking, too, Zamora said. The context of the site might eventually help experts narrow the possibilities.


No good dating methods exist for the jar itself, Hays-Gilpin said. It could date anywhere from about 1400 to 1890.


"This was everyday pottery for the Yavapai people," Hays-Gilpin said. "Every Yavapai family had a couple of those.


"We know the Yavapai made and used that kind of pottery for hundreds of years, but there are not very many intact."


That's because the jars are so fragile, and the Yavapai people were hunter-gatherers who moved around a lot.


It's called a "wiped" jar because its maker wiped or scraped it with something like coarse grass or a corncob while it was still wet, Hays-Gilpin explained. That would help thin the walls evenly, provide a texture for easy gripping, and protect it against abrasion and thermal shock from repeated heating during cooking.


It's the first Tizon Wiped jar Hays-Gilpin has ever seen, and she is highly impressed at how skilled its maker was at shaping and firing it.


"It's amazing," she said. "It's just beautiful. It's plain, but it has a very elegant shape.


"To me, it's a marvel of engineering."



Bones of Leper Warrior Found in Medieval Cemetery

Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience Senior WriterDate: 07 April 2011 Time: 11:46 AM ET


The bones of a soldier with leprosy who may have died in battle have been found in a medieval Italian cemetery, along with skeletons of men who survived blows to the head with battle-axes and maces.


Studying ancient leprosy, which is caused by a bacterial infection, may help scientists figure out how the infectious disease evolved.


The find also reveals the warlike ways of the semi-nomadic people who lived in the area between the sixth and eighth centuries, said study researcher Mauro Rubini, an anthropologist at Foggia University in Italy. The war wounds, which showed evidence of surgical intervention, provide a peek into the medical capabilities of medieval inhabitants of Italy.


"They knew well the art of war and also the art of treating war wounds," Rubini told LiveScience.


Buried horses and bashed-in skulls


The cemetery of Campochiaro is near the central Italian town of Campobasso. Between the years 500 and 700, when the cemetery was in use, Rubini said, the area was under the control of the Lombards, a Germanic people who allied with the Avars, an ethnically diverse group of Mongols, Bulgars and Turks. No signs of a stable settlement have been found near Campochiaro, Rubini said, so the cemetery was likely used by a military outpost of Lombards and Avars, guarding against invasion from the Byzantine people to the south.


So far, Rubini said, 234 graves have been excavated, many containing both human and horse remains. Burying a man with his horse is a tradition that hails from Siberia, Mongolia and some Central Asian regions, Rubini said, suggesting that the Avars brought their death rituals with them to Italy.


Rubini and his colleague Paola Zaio detailed three of these bodies in an article to be published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. The first man was about 55 when he died, the researchers found. They aren't sure what killed him, but they do know what he managed to survive: a blow to the head that tore a 2 inch (6 centimeter) hole in his skull. The pattern of the wound and the size of the hole suggest a Byzantine mace as the weapon, Rubini said.


Almost as alarming, the man probably went through the medieval equivalent of brain surgery. The margins of the wound are smooth and free of fragments, Rubini said.


"Probably the margins were polished with an abrasive instrument," he said.


Whatever happened, the man survived his wound. The bone had begun to heal and grow before the man died, Rubini said.


A leper warrior?


Body No. 2, another man of 50 or 55, painted a similar forensic picture. Judging by the shape of the wedge-shaped dent in the man's skull, Rubini said, he probably got in the way of a Byzantinian battle-ax. Like his comrade with the hole in the head, this man survived for a long time after he was wounded.


The third soldier wasn't so fortunate, the researchers suspect. First of all, his bones show the telltale wasting and mutilation of leprosy, now known as Hansen's disease. In ancient times, leprosy sufferers were often banished from society. Apparently the Lombards and Avars took a more tolerant approach, Rubini said, because this man, who died around age 50, was buried in the cemetery along with the other dead. [Read: Earliest Known Case of Leprosy Unearthed]


The leprosy sufferer's skull bears the mark of what Rubini and Zaio indentify as a sword slash. It may not have killed him, but the wound shows no signs of healing, suggesting the man died within hours of sustaining it.


"The Avar society was very inflexible militarily, and in particular situations all are called to contribute to the cause of survival, healthy and sick," Rubini said. "Probably this individual was really a leper warrior who died in combat to defend his people against the Byzantinian soldiers."


Whoever he was, the mysterious leper may help researchers understand how the disease evolved over time. Rubini and other researchers are working to extract the DNA of the bacteria that causes leprosy from bones found in the cemetery. The goal is to compare the medieval version of the disease to the bacteria alive today, Rubini said: "We study the past to know the present."



Italian researchers hope to dig up remains of the real Mona Lisa

Excavators in Florence are searching for the bones of Lisa Gherardini, thought to be the model for Leonardo's painting

Associated Press in Rome

The Guardian,            Tuesday 5 April 2011


Researchers hope the excavation of a convent in Florence will lead them to the bones of the woman who posed for Leonardo da Vinci's painting. Photograph: Amel Pain/AP

Italian researchers are planning to dig up bones in a Florence convent to try to identify the remains of a Renaissance woman believed to be the model for the Mona Lisa. If successful, the research might help ascertain the identity of the woman depicted in Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece – a mystery that has puzzled scholars and art lovers for centuries and generated countless theories.


The project aims to locate the remains of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a rich silk merchant named Francesco del Giocondo. Tradition has long linked Gherardini to the painting, which is known in Italian as La Gioconda and in French as La Joconde. Giorgio Vasari, a 16th-century artist and biographer, wrote that Leonardo painted a portrait of del Giocondo's wife.


Gherardini was born in 1479. A few years ago, an amateur Italian historian said he had found a death certificate showing she died on 15 July 1542, and her final resting place was the Convent of St Ursula in central Florence. That is where the digging will begin later his month, said Silvano Vinceti, an art historian and the project leader.


The project is part of a trend of employing CSI-like methods in art history, for example to find out about an artist's technique, discover details hidden in a painting or even learn about an artist's life or death. The group led by Vinceti has already reconstructed the faces of some Italian artists on the basis of their skulls, and last year it said it had identified the bones of Caravaggio and discovered a possible cause of death, 400 years after the artist died in mysterious circumstances.


The Mona Lisa project uses some of the same techniques applied to the Caravaggio investigation.


First, the researchers will use ground-penetration radar to search for hidden tombs inside the convent. Then they will search the bones to identify ones that are compatible with Gherardini's – bones that belonged to a woman who died in her 60s in the period in question. The group will also look for specific characteristics such as traces of possible diseases or bone structure to match what is known of Gherardini's life.


If such bones are identified, the researchers will conduct carbon dating and extract DNA, which will be compared to that extracted from the bones of Gherardini's children, some of whom are buried in a basilica also in Florence.


Finally, if skull fragments are found, depending on how well-preserved they are, the group might attempt a facial reconstruction. This step will be crucial to ascertain whether Gherardini was indeed the model for the Mona Lisa and thus the owner of that famous smile.