Did Peking Man wield a spear? New research suggests early humans were assembling weapons in China 700,000 years ago

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


About 700,000 years ago, at a time when China’s climate was chillier than it is today, a group of Homo erectus lived in a cave system in Zhoukoudian China.

They had a striking appearance. With a heavy brow ridge, large robust teeth and a brain size approaching our own, these people had long since left Africa, their ancestors travelling thousands of kilometres into East Asia.

Until recently scientists believed that they lived in more recent times, perhaps only 500,000 years ago. That idea was repudiated two years ago in the journal Nature, when a team of scientists used aluminum/beryllium dating to show that Peking Man was about 700,000 years old.

When researchers arrived at that date it left them with a mystery.

"There is evidence that Homo erectus had physically adapted to the cold, but they probably also had to be doing something in terms of behaviour to handle the cold of a glacial period in northern China,” said Professor Susan Antón, of New York University.

Today, thanks to new lab research, we have an idea as to what some of this behaviour may have been.

A team of scientists led by Dr. Chen Shen, of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto Canada, have been re-examining the tools that Peking Man used. Subjecting them to close microscopic examination the researchers have found that this group of Homo erectus was smarter than we give them credit for.

“The new study suggests that Peking Man lithic technology was not simple as previously thought,” writes Dr. Shen in the abstract of a paper presented at a recent Society for American Archaeology conference. “The micro-wear evidence indicates many typed tools were made for specific tasks related to processing animal substances.”

That’s not all. Peking Man didn’t just know how to butcher animals, he also knew the best way to hunt them – with the business end of a stone pointed spear.

“Importantly, most pointed tools were probably hafted, and this provides arguably the earliest evidence for the composition tools in the Chinese Middle Pleistocene,” writes Shen.

But if this is the case how exactly did they haft (assemble) these weapons? Did Peking Man use sinew or some sort of sticky liquid?

Unfortunately we’re going to have to wait a little bit for the answer.

In an email Dr. Shen said that he is in China right now, continuing his research. He and his team are in the process of getting their findings published in a scientific journal and, once that process is complete, will be able to grant media interviews.

So until then we are left with an enticing possibility. Perhaps Homo erectus adapted to a cold climate in much the same way Homo sapiens (modern humans) did – by crafting spears to hunt animals and tools capable of efficiently butchering them.



Bear DNA is clue to age of Chauvet cave art

19 April 2011 by Michael Marshall

Magazine issue 2809.


EXPLORING a gorge in south-east France in 1994 for prehistoric artefacts, Jean-Marie Chauvet hit the jackpot. After squeezing through a narrow passage, he found himself in a hidden cavern, the walls of which were covered with paintings of animals.


But dating the beautiful images - which featured in Werner Herzog's recent documentary film Cave of Forgotten Dreams - has led to an ugly spat between archaeologists. Could the bones of cave bears settle the debate?


Within a year of Chauvet's discovery, radiocarbon dating suggested the images were between 30,000 and 32,000 years old, making them almost twice the age of the famous Lascaux cave art in south-west France. The result "polarised the archaeological world", says Andrew Lawson, a freelance archaeologist based in Salisbury, UK.


Lawson accepts the radiocarbon findings. "Nowhere else in western Europe do we know of sophisticated art this early," he says. But Paul Pettitt of the University of Sheffield, UK, is adamant that the paintings cannot be that old. The dating study doesn't stand up, he claims, insisting that the paintings' advanced style is enough to mark them as recent. To suggest otherwise, he says, would be like claiming to have found "a Renaissance painting in a Roman villa".


Despite a comprehensive radiocarbon study published in 2001 that seemed to confirm that the paintings were indeed 30,000 years old (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/35097160), Pettitt and his colleagues were unconvinced. Two years later they argued that the cave walls were still chemically active, so the radiocarbon dating could have been thrown out by changes over the millennia to the pigments used to create the paintings (Antiquity, vol 77, p 134).


To try to settle the controversy, Jean-Marc Elalouf of the Institute of Biology and Technology in Saclay, France, and his team have turned to the remains of cave bears. Along with mammoths and other huge mammals, cave bears (Ursus spelaeus) dominated the European landscape until the end of the last ice age.


The Chauvet cave contains several depictions of cave bears, and Elalouf argues that these must have been painted while the bears still thrived in the area. To pin down when the bears disappeared, his team collected 38 samples of cave bear remains in the Chauvet cave and analysed their mitochondrial DNA.


They found that almost all the samples were genetically similar, suggesting the cave bear population was small, isolated and therefore vulnerable. Radiocarbon dating showed the samples were all between 37,000 and 29,000 years old, hinting that by the end of that period they were extinct, at least locally. Samples from a nearby cave, Deux-Ouvertures, gave similar results (Journal of Archaeological Science, DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2011.03.033).


Given the age of the cave bear remains, "it is clear that the paintings are very ancient", says Elalouf. Michael Knapp of the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, who also studies cave bears, says he has no doubts about the DNA analysis.


While we do not know exactly when cave bears became extinct, all reliably dated remains in Europe are at least 24,000 years old, says Martina Pacher of the Commission of Quaternary Research in Vienna, Austria. "So the results at Chauvet are not surprising, and I agree with their conclusions," she says.


"We now have an independent line of evidence that the bears [in Chauvet] date to before 29,000 years ago," Lawson says. "That bolsters the case for an early date."


Pettitt remains unconvinced, calling the new research "sloppy". He says that the team is trying to extrapolate the regional spread of the bears over time by relying on evidence from just two caves.


Pettitt also questions whether the paintings show cave bears at all: brown bears lived in the area long after the cave bears were gone. But Elalouf says the two species can be distinguished by skull shape, and that the paintings definitely show cave bears.




Analysis by Rossella Lorenzi

Fri Apr 29, 2011 03:38 PM ET


A 2,000-year-old Roman ship in the middle of a plain near the ancient port of Rome has been unearthed by Italian archaeologists.


The wooden vessel was found at a depth of 13 feet during repair work on a bridge that links the modern town of Ostia with Fiumicino, where Rome's main airport is located.


Measuring 36 feet in length, the ship is the largest ever excavated near the ruins of Ostia Antica, a port city near the mouth of the Tiber River that rivals the riches of Pompeii.


So far, only the right side of the ship is visible. Remains of ropes, used by the ancient Roman sailors, are beginning to emerge.


“The bow and stern are still missing. From the way the ship is built, we can date it to the first imperial age,” Anna Maria Moretti, archaeological superintendent for Rome and Ostia, said.


A thick layer of clay has basically sealed the vessel, leaving the wood intact.


Described as "spine-tingling" by culture minister Giancarlo Galan, the discovery shows that when the ship sailed the Mediterranean, the coastline was some 2-2.5 miles farther inland than it is now.


Several Roman ships, now housed in a museum at Ostia, were discovered during the construction of the Fiumicino Airport in the 1950s. But experts believe that the newly found ship is much more important.


“It’s a unique find. At that depth, we have never found a ship," Moretti said.


The ship’s large size suggests that it might not be an isolated find. More vessels might be buried in the area, possibly indicating the exact location where the Roman empire's biggest fleet was stationed.


Indeed, Ostia is just 1.2 miles away from Portus, a monumental seaport now reduced to a large hexagonal pond on a marshy land.


Begun by the emperor Claudius in 42 A.D., inaugurated by Nero and greatly enlarged by Trajan in the 2nd century, the harbor fed a city of more than one million down into the Byzantine period and beyond.


In addition to Ostia and Portus, “the archaeologists believe that a third seaport might have existed in the area,” wrote the daily Il Corriere della Sera.


As the excavation continues, the archaeologists are keeping the ship constantly covered in water in order to preserve the wood.


“We must prevent the wood from drying out. Restoring the ship will be an extremely delicate task,” Moretti said.



Girl 'murdered' by Roman soldiers in north Kent

28 April 2011 Last updated at 15:17


The body of a girl thought to have been murdered by Roman soldiers has been discovered in north Kent.


Archaeologists working on the site of a Roman settlement near the A2 uncovered the girl who died almost 2,000 years ago.


"She was killed by a Roman sword stabbing her in the back of the head," said Dr Paul Wilkinson, director of the excavation.


"By the position of the entry wound she would have been kneeling at the time."


The Roman conquest of Britain began in AD43, and the construction of Watling Street started soon afterwards linking Canterbury to St Albans.


A small Roman town was built on the route, near present-day Faversham.


Dr Wilkinson is the director of SWAT Archaeology - a company which carries out digs before major building work takes place on sites which may hold historical interest.


He was in charge of a training dig excavating Roman ditches when they made the shocking find.


Dr Wilkinson said that she had been between 16 and 20 years old when she was killed, and her bones suggested that she had been in good health.


He also believes the body had then been dumped in what looked like a hastily dug grave.


"She was lying face down and her body was twisted with one arm underneath her body. One of her feet was even left outside the grave," he said.


The burial site was just outside the Roman town, with cemeteries close by.


Dr Wilkinson said the body was found with some fragments of iron age pottery which would date the grave to about AD50, and suggest that she was part of the indigenous population.


Another indication of her origin, according to Dr Wilkinson, is the orientation of the body.


Romans buried their bodies lying east-west, whereas this body was buried north-south, as was the custom for pagan graves.


'Local populations were killed'

Many people have a romantic view of the Roman invasion, Dr Wilkinson said.


"Now, for the first time, we have an indication of how the Roman armies treated people, and that large numbers of the local populations were killed.


"It shows how all invading armies act the same throughout history. One can only imagine what trauma this poor girl had to suffer before she was killed," he said.


She will be re-buried at the site.



Significant Medieval Treasure found in Austria

TUESDAY, APRIL 26, 2011  |  NEWS


The Austrian Federal Monument Agency (BDA) reported a “fairy tale” find on Good Friday.  An unidentified Austrian man found about 200 mediaeval artefacts estimated to be around 650 years old while digging to expand a garden pond in 2007.  The discovery has been called one of the most “significant mediaeval treasure finds.”


Austria’s BDA, in charge of national antiquities, said the treasure trove, found in the vicinity of Wiener Neustadt, consists of more than 200 rings, brooches, ornate belt buckles, gold-plated silver dishes and other pieces or fragments, many encrusted with pearls, fossilized coral and other ornaments. It says the objects are about 650 years old and are being evaluated for their provenance and worth.


According to to the BDA,  the man was digging to enlarge a small pond in his back garden when he found the buried treasure in 2007 consisting of 153 pieces of jewellery and 75 other precious objects and fragments.


In 2010, the man had decided to move house, he came across the bags and boxes containing the treasures that he had initially “given no importance to and banished to the basement”. He continued in an article in Prolil magazine in Austria that “[the artefacts] were ..  surrounded by lumps of earth” and  “their forms were barely visible.” The man then cleaned some of them with household products, took a photograph of the objects and then asked for help with their identification on internet forums.  Several offers followed, but one, from an amateur archaeologist, encouraged the finder to report his discovery to the BDA as the responsible authority – which he immediately did.


He wishes to make this beautiful and historical treasure available to the public, placing value on the public good rather than his own financial gain

The monetary value will only be assessed after all the research on provenance and materials has been done, but the finder, who wishes to remain anonymous, has no intention of selling. He wishes to make this beautiful and historical  treasure available to the public, placing value on the public good rather than his own financial gain.


Many of the jewels will be presented to the public on May 2 in Vienna’s Hofburg Palace complex, the official residence of the President of Austria, the seat of government, and a museum showcasing imperial Hapsburg history.


Wiener Neustadt, meaning  New Vienna  gained important privileges given to the city in order to enable it to prosper. It remained a part of Styria, which after the 1278 Battle on the Marchfeld fell to the House of Habsburg and in 1379 became a constituent duchy of Inner Austria.


In the 15th century Wiener Neustadt experienced a population boom, when Emperor Frederick III of Habsburg took up a residence here and established the Diocese of Wiener Neustadt in 1469.  This may go some way to explain the wealth of this find, given the importance of the city at this time.



‘Bog butter’ from 3,000 BC found in ancient underground store

Peat cutter said the ancient food still smells of dairy

By CATHY HAYES , IrishCentral.com Staff Writer

Published Friday, April 29, 2011, 7:20 AM

Updated Friday, April 29, 2011, 10:43 AM


Over 100 pounds of "bog butter" have been discovered in Tullamore, County Offaly. This ancient food substance, thought to been buried as a form of refrigeration, is thought to be 5,000 years old, dating from the Iron Age.


Brian Clancy and his uncle Joe were cutting turf in Ballard Bog when they made the discovery.


Joe explained "We were cutting turf and I found what looked like a huge piece of timber…We took it out with a spade and it turned out to be bog butter." Speaking to the Irish Times he said "It looked like a keg or an urn with two handles and a lid carved from a solid piece of wood."


The container has carving marks around the edges with a removable lid with handles and holes, possibly for carrying. The wooden vessel measures a foot in diameter and is almost two feet tall. The 100 pound container was buried seven-feet down.


Theories about exactly what "bog butter"  is vary. Some believe it was a special type of butter made at a certain time during the years and buried so that it might be preserved. Joe said the butter still has a dairy smell. In the past some "bog butter" that has been tested has been meat based.


When the men found the container Joe returned to his house and researched bog butter on the Internet. He then returned to the bog and "filled a wheelbarrow with the peat and put the keg into it and brought it home and contacted the National Museum of Ireland.”


Although it is one of the most common ancient discoveries in Ireland's bogs it is unusual to find such a large quantity of the substance.



'We've just scratched the surface': Divers find 'oldest shipwreck in the Caribbean'.... and treasure that could be worth MILLIONS


Last updated at 12:49 AM on 29th April 2011


A chance encounter with a fisherman has led one team of treasure hunters to discover what they believe is the oldest shipwreck in the Caribbean.

And after only diving the site - located off the Dominican Republic coast - a handful of times, the team at Deep Blue Marine has unearthed some serious treasure.

At the last count Captain Billy Rawson and his crew had uncovered 700 silver coins that could be worth millions, jade figurines and even a mirrored stone that was possibly used in Shamanic rituals.


Everything was in pretty good condition, despite dating back to the 1500s.

'We only started diving last autumn and haven't gone down that much because it's been the winter,' said Randy Champion, vice president of the Utah-based company. 


'We have just scratched the surface,' he added. 'All of the stuff we've found is just from mucking about really.'

Although the team haven't officially confirmed which ship they are diving, Mr Champion said they had a pretty fair idea - but were keeping quiet for now.


'If it's the ship we think it is, she probably went down in a hurricane,' Mr Champion said.

'We have looked at the prevailing currents and wind directions in archives and found a cannon and ballast stone on the wreck that was all going in the wrong direction.

'That suggests it was probably a hurricane as winds go counter clockwise.'

The Blue Water Marine team believe this ship was heading back to Spain with a haul of newly minted coins.


It would have been quite small, around 50ft to 60ft, with 25 to 45 people on board, Mr Champion said.

There were almost certainly a few dignitaries on board hitching a lift, and they wouldn't have made the journey all the way back to Spain with just 700 coins.

'There are thousands and thousands down there,' Mr Champion added.

Most of the coins don't have dates on, so the team have been busy cleaning them up and trawling through reference books to identify them.

'These coins could be worth just $1,000,' Mr Champion said. 'But then one similar to ours sold for $132,000 the other day.

'They could be worth millions. But they aren't worth anything unless someone buys them.'

One set of coins could be worth $1million on its own. The crew won't know whether they have it until the clean up operation is complete.

The pre-Columbian carved jade figurines, all approximately 2in to 3in high, could be 500 years older than the wreck itself.

Mr Champion said some had holes in the back side suggesting they could have been part of a head piece.

This also suggests the crew of the 1500s ship probably weren't altogether that straight laced and almost certainly stole a lot of their booty.


'They had to satisfy the king's request, but would have taken other things too,' said Mr Champion.

The crew also found what were thought to be mirrors made out of iron pyrite, but Mr Champion isn't convinced.

'Mirrors weren't common at the time,' he said. 'They could have been used in a Shaman-type ritual.'

But he insists that they don't dive the site just for the money.

'We're not just looking for things that glitter and things that are real pretty,' he said. 'We're trying to find out what happened to this ship.'

Deep Blue Marine are contracted by the Dominican Republic to search and uncover treasure from the wreck. They then split the proceeds 50/50.


They had been surveying 42 miles of coastline with high-tech equipment in an effort to find the wreck.

But they got lucky after the chance encounter with a local fisherman who sold them an old coin he had found while diving.

To their astonishment the team discovered it was one of the oldest coins ever minted and knew they had found what they were looking for.

'We said to this guy: "If you show us where you found the coin you can come and work for us",' said Mr Champion.

The team are planning another dive in two weeks but it is a gruelling process as the wreck is covered in sand and coral.

It takes them 12 hours to sail around the island to the dive site. They then drop anchor and take smaller boats out to dive from.


It's a 6am start and the team often don't return until 8pm. They can be out there for weeks at a time.

And it's not without its dangers. 'There are just as many pirates right now as there were then,' Mr Champion said.

The crew have been fired upon by the Dominican Republic's Navy - 'a case of mistaken identity' - and have even been pillaged by a gang of thieves who boarded their boat in the middle of the night.

They made off with thousand of dollars worth of diving equipment - despite an armed guard, provided by the government, being on board.

Sharks too are always in the back of their minds, Mr Champion said, as are the treacherous diving conditions, waves and being crushed by rocks.

'It's better than being stuck at a desk,' Mr Champion added.

And it's certainly worth it when the crew strikes gold - or, in this case, silver.