Human Ancestor May Put Twist in Origin Story, New Studies Say

Two-million-year-old fossils—and possibly skin—offering key insights.

Ker Than for National Geographic News

Published September 8, 2011


Two-million-year-old bones—and possibly skin—from a pair of primate fossils are offering new insight into the apelike species that may have given rise to the first humans.


Known as Australopithecus sediba, the ancient human ancestor was discovered in the Malapa region of South Africa in 2008 and was described for the first time last April.


Now a suite of five studies, published in this week's issue of the journal Science, is delving deeper into the species' unusual mix of human and apelike traits to help refine A. sediba's place in the time line of human evolution.


After examining A. sediba's anatomy, for instance, scientists think they may have evidence that the species was capable of making and using tools.


In addition, the team thinks it may have found samples of fossilized skin. If confirmed, the discovery would mark the first time any type of soft tissue has been recovered from an early human ancestor.


"We've started an open-access experiment"—called the Malapa Soft Tissue Project—"to determine if we do in fact have skin," said study leader Lee Berger, an anthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.


"We are enlisting the entire scientific community in exploring this possibility."


Overall, Scott Simpson, a paleontologist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, called the fossils "extraordinary."


"They come from a time period that is very important, circa two million years ago, that we just don't know a lot about," said Simpson, who did not participate in the studies.


The A. sediba skeletons belong to a male child in his early teens and a female thought to be roughly 30 years old. The pair likely died within days or perhaps even hours of each other and may have been related.


The two primates apparently fell into a chasm, coming to rest in an underground cave system also littered with the bones of other animals. Over time this ancient "death trap" filled with breccia, a cemented stone material that helped preserve the remains.


The new studies build on previous work showing that A. sediba possessed an unusual mix of primitive and derived—or humanlike—traits.


For example, the partial pelvis and right foot of the adult female suggest that A. sediba was capable of standing and walking upright. Its ankles were very humanlike, but it had thin, apelike heels.


This odd combination of foot features suggests the 4-foot-tall (1.2-meter-tall) A. sediba almost certainly still climbed trees, the team says, yet was also capable of walking upright on the ground, much like a human.


"I don't think any of us ever imagined that this particular suite of anatomy would exist in the human fossil record," Brian Richmond, a paleoanthropologist at George Washington University who was not involved in the study, said of the A. sediba fossils in general.


"But it actually fits perfectly with the way evolution tinkers and plays with anatomy, so it's exciting to see these evolutionary experiments and processes happening in our own family tree."


Also surprising are A. sediba's hands and brain, which, when considered together, raise the possibility that the creature had the capacity to create and use stone tools.


Using powerful x-ray scans, the team created a virtual mold, or endocast, of the braincase of the A. sediba child.


"With every heartbeat, the brain pounds out its shape on the developing skull of a child, eventually leaving a beautiful impression of the external shape and form of the brain on the inside of the skull," study co-author Kristian Carlson, also from the University of Witwatersrand, explained in a statement.


"By mapping the contours of this surface, a clear image of the original brain located in the skull can be produced."


The endocast shows that the overall shape and organization of A. sediba's brain was similar to that of modern humans yet was surprisingly small—only about a quarter the size of a modern human brain, or a little larger than the brain of a chimpanzee.


"What this study is showing reinforces the idea that our brains began reorganizing [into a more humanlike configuration] before there was any dramatic change in size," George Washington University's Richmond said.


A. sediba's possible abilities as a toolmaker are also supported by an analysis of the right hand of the female skeleton, which is the most complete hand yet known from an early hominin—the term that refers to our ancestors and their close evolutionary relatives.


The hands of most early hominins are known from just a few isolated bones gathered from different individuals and cobbled together. But in the case of the A. sediba female, only a few hand bones—the tips of four fingers and a wrist bone—are missing.


The fossil hand shows A. sediba had a relatively long thumb compared with its other fingers. This would have given the species a remarkably humanlike "precision grip," which is necessary for making stone tools.


A precision grip is one that involves the thumb and fingers but not the palm. Other primates are capable of some precision grips, but humans are unique in their ability to apply force with these grips and use them for fine manipulations.


According to the study authors, A. sediba would have an excellent precision grip. In fact, its hands might have been even more agile than ours, because of its longer thumb.


"It was kind of hyper-human in that regard," Richmond said.


Oddly, A. sediba's grip appears to have been more humanlike than that of the larger-brained and bigger-bodied Homo habilis, which is widely considered to be the earliest known member of the genus Homo.


However, the A. sediba fossils are about 300,000 years younger than an upper jaw, discovered by anthropologist William Kimbel, that's thought to belong to a species of Homo, possibly H. habilis.


Still, Berger and his team think it's possible A. sediba gave rise to the Homo genus. (Explore a graphic of the possible branches on the human family tree.)


The researchers suggest the Malapa specimens could have been younger remnants of an enduring species that gave rise to Homo at an earlier date.


Alternatively, H. habilis may have represented a failed side branch of the human family tree, and it was actually A. sediba that was the direct ancestor of Homo erectus, the species widely regarded as the immediate forerunner of modern humans, Homo sapiens.


"We're saying you have to at least consider that possibility," Berger said.


But George Washington University's Richmond said he is not ready to accept such a drastic revision to the human time line.


"The craniodental evidence that H. habilis is the ancestor of H. erectus is still too compelling to force H. habilis out as a side branch," he said. "I don't think the data supports that view yet."


Anthropologist Philip Rightmire of Harvard University is also hesitant to make such a leap, for the same reason.


"The origins of H. erectus are still quite mysterious at this point," said Rightmire, who was not part of the study.


"We just don't know what happened. But I think that H. habilis is still the best bet. If you want to put your money on one horse or the other, that would be the one."


Case Western's Simpson added that these and other tough questions about human evolution are what make the A. sediba fossils so important.


"Good fossils allow you to fill in things you already suspect and support existing ideas, but great fossils are completely unexpected," he said.


"These are fossils that have to be dealt with, and that's not a bad thing at all."



Into the Stone Age With a Scalpel: A Dig With Clues on Early Urban Life


Published: September 7, 2011


CATALHOYUK, TURKEY — A pair of space-age shelters rising from the beet and barley fields of the flat Konya Plain are the first clue to the Catalhoyuk Research Project, where archaeologists are excavating a 9,000-year-old Neolithic village.

The experts, armed with scalpels, gingerly scraped away micro-layers of white plaster from a wall deep in the dig last month to reveal what the project director, the British archaeologist Ian Hodder, called a “very exciting” and “particularly intriguing” painting with deep reds and reddish oranges thought to be made with red ochre and cinnabar.

 “We were taking off many, many layers of plaster and we have a program where a joint team of Turkish and British conservators try to take them off one by one, so it’s extremely slow-going,” Dr. Hodder said this week by telephone.

 “I got called over to where they were working because they saw some paint. The pattern initially didn’t look like very much: We often find just specks of paint or a wall of all-red paint. But this time it gradually emerged that this was a complete painting, and the best preserved painting that I’ve ever seen at Catalhoyuk, with wonderfully fresh, bright colors and very neat lines.”

Word of the discovery spread quickly through the international team on site as more of the painting was exposed.

 “It is by far the most intricate and elaborate painting we have found during our excavations here since the mid-90s,” Dr. Hodder said. “We’ve been waiting quite a long time for something so elaborate.”

But Stone Age paintings don’t come with labels explaining what they are.

 “An interesting aspect of some of the paintings at Catal,” Dr. Hodder said, “is that they are very enigmatic and full of ambiguity and difficult to read.

 “But the two main contenders for what this new discovery might show are that it’s simply a geometric design whose meaning is not clear,” he said. “An alternative is that it’s not just a geometric design, but that it is a representation of bricks, some sort of structure,” maybe an early blueprint of some sort.

Houses were “a very important symbol socially and a focus of life at Catal,” he said. “Maybe they were trying to draw the relationship between them and the house but it’s not easy to make sense of it. We have to do more work on it.”

Catalhoyuk — where people occupied mud-brick houses from about 7400 B.C. to about 6000 B.C. — is 60 kilometers, or 37 miles, southeast of Konya in central Turkey. The area is dotted with gently rising mounds that obscure the ancient roots of urbanization and draw archaeologists from around the world.

An international team of people from 22 countries worked on the site this year, led by experts based at Stanford University in California and University College London in Britain, and backed by sponsors like Boeing, Shell and the Turkish bank Yapi Kredi.

The area was first excavated in the 1960s by another Briton, James Mellaart, now 85, who established that it had been home to an advanced culture of people transitioning from a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a more settled farming life.

Their houses were uniformly rectangular, and entered by holes in the roof rather than front doors. Each had a hearth and an oven, plus platforms that seemed to have been used for sleeping. When a new house was needed, it was built atop the old one. The houses also served as cemeteries: The dead were buried beneath the floor.

Another find this summer was a row of 11 handprints inside a house and above a burial platform. Still another was the discovery of a young calf’s head that had been painted red and installed in a house, above a platform that covered nine burials.

“One sort of pattern that we noticed is that the paintings seem to be concentrated around burial platforms,” Dr. Hodder said. “We don’t really understand what that relationship is. Is it a way to communicate with the dead? Another idea would be that the paintings are there to protect people from the dead, or to protect the dead from people.”

Over more than 1,400 years, as many as 16 layers of housing were formed, each serving as many as 8,000 people. Dr. Hodder’s team has dug through all 16 layers to reach a lake bed from the Pleistocene era.

 “From the excavations to date,” said Shahina Farid, the project’s field director from University College London, “we find that all of the houses are built up against each other. There are no streets or alleys. It was a very dense population. But a lot of activity would have taken place at the roof level. And the traversing would have been at the roof level as well. And in between groups of houses were these open areas where they chucked out their rubbish. It’s those areas that are the richest for us because they actually kept their houses very clean.”

For Ms. Farid, deciphering the inscrutable is part of the appeal.

 “Archaeology will always engage people because it’s putting a puzzle together,” she said during an interview at the site. “And it’s a puzzle we will never, ever complete.”

 “There are always going to be missing pieces and it’s that sense of awe — that there are things we do today that people were doing 9,000 years ago. You can’t help but be awed by that.”

 “We are trying to understand why they chose this spot to live. We look at what we call their art. Why were they so interested in bulls? Why were they using certain geometric designs? What were daily activities and what were ritual activities? We try to define this,” she said. “Are we looking at the beginnings of religion? And what is all this symbolism telling us about the beginnings of civilization?”

If it sounds a bit like detective work, it is. The team even has a fire forensics expert working with the site.

 “Archaeology is a bit like C.S.I.,” Ms. Farid said, referring to the Crime Scene Investigation television series. “There are certain things we know happened. A wall is a wall is a wall. But someone else might turn up and say why do you think that’s a wall? And you look at them and you think, well, it’s mud-brick and it’s a wall. Sometime in the future someone will start questioning why we interpreted something as a wall. But for now, we can only interpret based on the data that we have at hand.”

Dr. Hodder, now with Stanford, has been researching at Catalhoyuk since 1993, with a 25-year permit granted by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, and under the auspices of the British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara. The project’s assistant director is Serap Ozdol from Ege University in Izmir.

Officially, their goals are threefold: to excavate the site, to conserve it and its finds and to present it to the public.

The terrain should be ripe for discoveries in the years to come. “We’ve only excavated 4 percent of Catal,” Dr. Hodder said. “What we’ve done is like digging a very small part of New York and then inferring from that what life was like.”

From a third to one-half of the people digging at the site are Turkish, he said. “I see it as an increasingly Turkish project and we hope to hand it over ultimately to a Turkish team.”

Getting the local community involved is key to preserving the work done over the decades at Catalhoyuk. Last year, 15,000 people toured the site.

While the Visitor Center is open year-round and contains replicas of finds from the dig, the main relics are on display at the Museum of Anatolian Civilization in Ankara and at the Konya Archaeological Museum.

Many visitors are schoolchildren. “They have a great day here,” Ms. Farid, the field director, said. “And as Gulay Sert, who runs our summer school project, says, if one of these children grows up to be a civil engineer, and sees that his or her road will cut through a mound and stops to think ‘That’s archaeology’ and decides to skirt around the mound, then our work is done.”

It was in fact a school trip that set Ms. Farid on her a career path to dusty Anatolia.

 “It was the Egyptians!” she said, recounting her introduction to “The Treasures of Tutankhamen” at the British Museum in 1972. “Yeah, it was the excitement of discovery. But now it’s not the discovery that excites me. People always ask what’s the best thing you’ve ever dug up? And I don’t know because it’s not an item, it’s a story. It’s the story that goes with it that excites me. That’s what we have to teach people as well. A treasure is a treasure but without a story, it’s half what it’s worth.”



Ruins reveal how Roman gladiators won their spurs

By Tony Paterson in Berlin

Tuesday, 6 September 2011


Archaeologists using sophisticated radar equipment say they have located a remarkably well-preserved underground Roman gladiator school that will give them "sensational" new insights into the lives of the fighters 1,700 years ago.


The site, 24 miles east of Vienna, contains the remains of a heated training hall for combatants. It was discovered beneath the former Roman settlement of Carnuntum, which is already home to one the finest amphitheatres ever found. Archaeologists say it is the first gladiator school ever found outside Italy.


Frank Humer, an archaeologist with Vienna's Ludwig-Boltzmann Institute, which found the school while conducting a detailed radar scan of the site, said: "The wooden post that gladiators traditionally used as their mock opponent during training is still visible in the middle of the school's arena."


Mr Humer told Germany's Der Spiegel magazine yesterday that the find had been possible only because of significant advances in ground-penetrating radar equipment, which allowed archaeologists to clearly identify structures beneath the earth. "We now know what is down there and we can take our time before deciding whether to excavate," he said.


The Vienna institute team has been able to make detailed images of the gladiator school. They reveal that its centre was dominated by a circular arena equipped with wooden benches.


The school houses a heated training hall which combatants would have used during cold central European winters. There are also a bath house, administrative offices and small cell-like rooms for the gladiators themselves.


Roman gladiators took their name from the Latin "gladius", or sword, and were pitted against each other or wild animals for the entertainment of both emperors and the public. Many were admired for their bravery, celebrated in artworks and even buried in ornate graves as a mark of respect. But only a few were volunteers. Despite their fleeting fame, the majority were slaves doomed to die an early and violent death.


Carnuntum was the capital of the Roman province of Pannonia, which covered Austria and much of what are now the Balkans. Experts say the school was founded in the middle of the first century AD, when the settlement became the headquarters of Rome's Legio XV Apollinaris and had a comparatively large civilian and military population.


Bloody gladiator games reached their peak between in first century BC and the second century AD and continued until the fourth century AD, by which time Christianity had become the official religion. The last known gladiator games took place in the late 5th century AD.


To cope with the high demand for gladiatorial entertainment, the Carnuntum settlement boasted two amphitheatres: one for Roman legionnaires and one for the common public which was situated close to the gladiator school.


Mr Humer said radar images of the site showed that it also contained what was probably a gladiators' graveyard. He said the immediate plan was to use the radar images to build a life-sized model of the gladiator school. "If all goes well, we may not even have to dig it up – we will be able to leave it in the ground where it won't be damaged," he added.


Life in a Saxon hall

The re-enactment society Regia Anglorum is reconstructing an early medieval Saxon hall in Kent using materials and construction methods of the time

Interview by Dale Berning

The Guardian,   Saturday 10 September 2011


Regia Anglorum is a re-enactment society that aims to recreate as accurately as possible life in Anglo-Saxon and Viking Britain. Over the past 10 years, we have been building the Wychurst project – a fortified manor hall, using materials and construction methods of the time – on three acres of land in Kent. We have a rotation of 60-odd people who work on the project in the middle weekend of each month.


The hall is 30ft high, 60ft long and 30ft wide, and is based on the West Hall at Cheddar, built around 850. No buildings of this type from the period have survived, so we did an enormous amount of research from archaeological dig reports and written accounts. It is built entirely in English oak, mostly sourced from within a mile of the site, which makes it a very accurate reconstruction. It is a great hall, where the local lord would have lived with his family and a few of his men. It would have served as town hall, law court, police station and as a place for protection.


We've constructed roads and pathways, palisades, a cottage and a big woodshed. The roof is on, the walls are in, and the windows – holes with shutters – let in enough light to read by. The interior of the roof is painted with limewash, so it reflects light very well. In the morning you get long shafts of sunlight lighting the space, and it's very romantic to sit by the fire.


You can build a great big fire in the middle of the hall, without being kippered to death by the smoke – that's one of the reasons great halls were so tall – to keep smoke out of your eyes. When the fire is lit, the space is very comfortable.


It is very dry – the roof is watertight, covered with 18,000 hand-cleft oak shingles, and very large. Modern people live in small houses, and being together in this vast, communal space, lit only by fire and hanging lamps, fosters a sense of community. The hall is still being built – we recently added a wooden floor and are now in the process of decorating, so the interior is becoming less austere.



Black Death Bacterium Identified: Genetic Analysis of Medieval Plague Skeletons Shows Presence of Yersinia Pestis Bacteria

ScienceDaily (Aug. 29, 2011)


A team of German and Canadian scientists has shown that today's plague pathogen has been around at least 600 years.


The Black Death claimed the lives of one-third of Europeans in just five years from 1348 to 1353. Until recently, it was not certain whether the bacterium Yersinia pestis -- known to cause the plague today -- was responsible for that most deadly outbreak of disease ever. Now, the University of Tübingen's Institute of Scientific Archaeology and McMaster University in Canada have been able to confirm that Yersinia pestis was behind the great plague.

The results of the research are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Previous genetic tests indicating that the bacterium was present in medieval samples had previously been dismissed as contaminated by modern DNA or the DNA of bacteria in the soil. Above all, there was doubt because the modern plague pathogen spreads much more slowly and is less deadly than the medieval plague -- even allowing for modern medicine.

The international team of researchers has for the first time been able to decode a circular genome important for explaining the virulence of Y. pestis. It is called pPCP1 plasmid and comprises about 10,000 positions in the bacterium's DNA. The sample was taken from skeletons from a London plague cemetery. The working group in Tübingen, led by Dr. Johannes Krause used a new technique of "molecular fishing" -- enriching plague DNA fragments from tooth enamel and sequencing them using the latest technology. In this way, the fragments were connected up into a long genome sequence -- which turned out to be identical to modern-day plague pathogens. "That indicates that at least this part of the genetic information has barely changed in the past 600 years," says Krause.

The researchers were also able to show that the plague DNA from the London cemetery was indeed medieval. To do that, they examined damage to the DNA which only occurs in old DNA -- therefore excluding the possibility of modern contamination. "Without a doubt, the plague pathogen known today as Y. pestis was also the cause of the plague in the Middle Ages," says Krause, who is well known for his DNA sequencing of ancient hominin finds, which help trace relationships between types of prehistoric man and modern humans.




Analysis by Christina Reed

Wed Sep 7, 2011 10:56 AM ET

Unravelling the mystery surrounding the shipwreck found last year during excavations of the World Trade Center site has resulted in several facts as well as theories. The 18th century vessel, likely a single-masted sloop, measured approximately 50 feet long, and had a shallow, double-ended draft aided by a small, tapered keel built of squared-off hickory that that ran from stem-to-stern. The hull was built from Philadelphia oak trees -- one of which had lived for at least 111 years and was still growing in 1773, its youngest sapwood preserved in one of the boat's timbers.

Maritime historian Norman Brouwer had suggested that the unusually crafted sailboat was from a small rural shipyard and the trees for its timber from the same forest. "The data we see suggest something very similar," says Neil Pederson of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory's Tree Ring Lab in Palisades, NY. "It's an interesting intersection in experts," he told Discovery News. He was part of a four-person dendrochronology team from the Tree Ring Lab working on samples of the vessel's white oak planks and its hickory keel. Other tree species used in the boat's construction included spruce and southern yellow pine, reported wood deterioration researcher Robert Blanchette of the University of Maine.

Looking up tree ring patterns for white oak timber samples is like hunting down a family's genealogy. To get the most accurate result, teams of people around the world need to have already done the manual labor of counting rings and entering forest timber chronologies into a database. Then it's a matter of sleuthing through generations of tree life-cycles to find a pattern that fits: where the timber samples and the trees share the same local climate of wet and dry years allowing them to make matching patterns of wide rings and skinny rings. So where to start?

An oak sailboat in New York could have originated anywhere in Europe or North America. Dutch ships originally carried sloops across the Atlantic in the 1600s. Whose side was this sailboat on? Pederson said when they first heard of the find they weren't sure if they could track the soggy wood - when the team saw the keelson, the upper floor of the hull, the planks looked like white oak. When Blanchette confirmed their suspicions but added that they'd be getting a sample of hickory from the keel, the tree-ring team were relieved. The hickory keel sample was key - "it's been extinct in Europe for two million years or so," Pederson said.

So once the team did their own grueling process of slowly drying the timbers, waiting to see if the wood would decay, then sanding the samples, and counting the rings, sometimes as thin as one thousandth of a millimeter, and hoping each sample would provide at least 100 years of rings to make the sample comparable to other chronologies then the scientists got started looking for a match. They used a computer system to compare their samples with chronologies of forests from the New York State's Hudson Valley and then took a stab at a historical timber chronology they have from Philadelphia, "and that just about nailed it – really good," said Pederson.

When the wreck was first found the archaeologists were confused as to whether they were looking at the front (stem) or back (stern) of the vessel. Turns out the sloop was rounded at both ends. Last month the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey excavated behind a concrete wall, where archaeologists from the firm AKRF hoped to find remnants from the bow, where the figurehead and bowsprit thrust forward over the curving stem, the part of the sailboat that forms a bowshock of cresting waves and a good place to look for dolphins when under sail.

Eventually AKRF did recover a large portion of the structural part of the front of the boat. Now that material is with the Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation at Texas A&M University, where Director Kevin Crisman and his team are assisting the excavators with storage of the timbers. Alum and archeologist Carrie Fulton, now at Cornell University, spent a week cleaning, inspecting, and recording the new finds using stereophotography to generate 3D models.

One image (right) shows part of the Roman numeral II, a draft mark carved into the lower stem indicating the point where the vessel was two feet from the bottom of the keel. With light loads this mark would likely hover just at the water line indicating to the crew that they would run aground if they traveled through water that was less than two feet deep, an event they likely did often.

If the hull was part of the original vessel and not part of a refurbishment, the tree ring data point to a launch date for this shallow-sailing sloop that was sometime after the 1773 winter's Tea Party in Boston, and likely before the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, in the vessel's hometown. This is a boat that sailed during the American Revolution with a crew that traded up and down the Hudson River goods, such as leather shoes, they had collected during several long bouts spent in the Caribbean. But the crew were a bit lousy (but, really, who wasn't back then?) and, in its own way, so was the boat, having picked up tiny wood-boring Teredinidae mollusks, "the termites of the sea." But as Kevin Eckelbarger of the University of Maine's Darling Marine Center, who identified the shell morphology in the bored-out timbers, told Scientific American, "They are really aggressive. They make termites look like amateurs."

Curiously, the shipbuilder had the luxury of installing expensive iron fasteners instead of the typical wooden trunnels or treenails common during that time. A luxury, because of the price of iron then, but also a labor-saving trick that actually made the sailboat more vulnerable to storm damage and leaks. Marine archeologist Warren Riess of the University of Maine told Discovery News that for most sailing vessels of this period, shipbuilders typically drilled a hole through both the exterior and interior oak planks framing a boat's ribs and then pushed an octagonal trunnel, also made of oak, all the way through connecting both sets of planks. It was a labor intensive effort, but when the wooden planks expanded and contracted with changes in temperature the wooden trunnels did the same. Iron on the other hand was easier to install, but chewed through wooden hulls, perhaps just not as fast as the saltwater shipworms.

Riess speculates that the shipbuilder came into possession of the iron by chance, either from another "ship full of nails that came in from some place" needing fixing, or from iron captured during the revolution that made the metal suddenly cheap to buy.

Which brings up the question of what the owner of the vessel thought when he bought it. And the captain's intent and purpose during his command of the sail. The boat carried munitions, as would be expected. Other mercantile sloops of about the same size have storied histories serving on both sides of the Revolution. The single-masted sloop Katy, for example, was recommissioned in 1775 as the USS Providence, to clear out Tory vessels from New England colonial ports, sailed in and out of Philadelphia, and stormed British forts in Bermuda and the Bahamas, where her crew also helped in capturing two British sloops. The tables turned on August 14, 1779, in Penobscot Bay, now part of Maine, and the Providence crew scuttled their sailboat to keep her out of British hands.


One of the puzzle pieces into the history of the discovered World Trade Center vessel includes a pewter button with the number 52, a regiment of the British Army. Whether this is from a captured British soldier or something a superstitious sailor found remains unanswered. Perhaps the British were the last to claim the vessel. As Riess said, the British held New York City throughout the war, and evacuated in 1783 after the treaty in Paris. The last humans on the sailboat left it to sit on the shores of New York harbor where other occupants endemic to saltwater marshes such as horseshoe crabs, sponges, oysters, and snails made the oak planks home. AKRF ecologists even found the bones from a (now extinct) passenger pigeon - though the bones could have been leftovers from an earlier meal.


As Riess adds, "The vessel has been a puzzle since the beginning." With its double rounded ends and shallow draft this vessel would have made for easy cargo transfers in bays, and beaches. "This was a shallow draft needed to get into shallow areas, typical to load and unload. The tide goes out and you throw a couple planks onto the mud or sand and unload," he said. He offers several options for theories as to the purpose of the sailboat: although it may have been a simple grain or cargo vessel making trades up and down the Hudson River and between the Caribbean, perhaps it also peacefully helped ferry British soldiers out of New York City after the war, or maybe more notoriously the ship had a run-in with the Marsh Pirates of New Jersey.



Lost Great Escape tunnel is pinpointed

Published Date: 07 September 2011

By Allan Hall in Zagan, Poland

BRITISH archaeologists have discovered a missing tunnel at one of the most infamous German prison camp of the Second World War and unearthed a wealth of escapers' tools and equipment sealed underground.

The tunnel, named George, was shut down in 1945, when the Prisoners of War of Stalag Luft III were led off at gunpoint by their Nazi guards as the advancing Red Army closed in.

Its location at the camp, immortalised in the Hollywood blockbuster The Great Escape starring Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough and Donald Pleasance, remained a mystery until experts arrived in August and spent three weeks excavating the relics.

George was built by men bitter that they failed to escape through a tunnel named Harry on the night of 24 March, 1944, which had been dug by Allied PoWs at the prison. Harry and two other tunnels, named Tom and Dick, were dug beneath the feet of the Germans in what was intended to be the biggest breakout of the war, with more than 200 men set to escape. In the end, only 76 got out through Harry - and 50 of them were murdered by the Gestapo.

After the failure of the break-out, prisoners began a fourth tunnel, George, in the theatre of the sprawling camp, which held 10,000 men and stood in Germany during the war but today is in Poland . The tunnel's precise location was lost to history until last month.

Now, with the use of ground-scanning radar and the testimony of veterans who helped to construct it, George has yielded a hoard of materials chronicling the life of a PoW.

They include yards of wire that inmates stole from the Nazi searchlight power-lines to make electric light in the shaft and tunnel. Also found were numerous "klim tins" - powdered-milk containers - which were hollowed out and used as fat lamps stuck into the side of the tunnel walls when the electricity failed.

Others were joined together to form tubes along which air was pumped for the men digging at the face. Numerous bedboards were used to shore up the workings, and many jagged hinges, bits of old metal pails, hammers and jemmies, used to scour away the sandy soil of the camp, were also excavated.

"It is hardly a treasure in the conventional sense," said Marek Lazarz, director of the museum that has been built to honour the men of Stalag Luft III. "But it is priceless to us and a time capsule of what life was like back then.

"The finding of George brings to a close the mystery of where the tunnel exactly was. And we now have to change the model in the camp museum, because the tunnel was on the opposite side of the theatre to where we thought it was.

"Speculation remains, however, as to where they intended to go with the tunnel. From the theatre they were digging straight towards a separate part of the camp where the German guards lived.

"One theory is that they wanted to break in and arm themselves - there were real fears as the war drew to a close they would be massacred - and of course they knew by then of the fate of the other prisoners.

"But it could also be that they were headed for a wood that stood between their camp and the German one. From there they might have fancied their chances of escaping deeper into the forest. The tunnel was excavated with great care as it was an archaeological expedition. It has now been sealed again."

After the executions, British Intelligence managed to send orders to prison camps to halt all escape bids, but as the Allies closed in fears of reprisals from SS units grew - the famous Colditz glider was to be used to reach help if a massacre was imminent - so a means of escaping slaughter is the most likely reason for continuing to dig a tunnel after the order to stay put.

Squadron Leader Ivor Harris, 90, who operated the pump that fed air to the diggers at the end of the tunnel, said George was intended "for emergencies only".

As the Red Army approached in January 1945, the 2,000 remaining prisoners were forced to march 100km westwards to Spremberg, where they were dispersed to other camps. Some 200 died on the journey, killed either by the freezing temperatures or by the German guards.

Mr Lazarz added: "This rounds off the history of the camp. Tom, Dick and Harry have now been reunited with George, and the artefacts found within him will go on display soon."