Human fossils hint at new species

14 March 2012 Last updated at 15:19

By Jonathan Amos, Science correspondent, BBC News


The remains of what may be a previously unknown human species have been identified in southern China.

The bones, which represent at least five individuals, have been dated to between 11,500 and 14,500 years ago.

But scientists are calling them simply the Red Deer Cave people, after one of the sites where they were unearthed.

The team has told the PLoS One journal that far more detailed analysis of the fossils is required before they can be ascribed to a new human lineage.

"We're trying to be very careful at this stage about definitely classifying them," said study co-leader Darren Curnoe from the University of New South Wales, Australia.

"One of the reasons for that is that in the science of human evolution or palaeoanthropology, we presently don't have a generally agreed, biological definition for our own species (Homo sapiens), believe it or not. And so this is a highly contentious area," he told BBC News.

Much of the material has been in Chinese collections for some time but has only recently been subjected to intense investigation.

The remains of some of the individuals come from Maludong (or Red Deer Cave), near the city of Mengzi in Yunnan Province. A further skeleton was discovered at Longlin, in neighbouring Guangxi Province.

The skulls and teeth from the two locations are very similar to each other, suggesting they are from the same population.

But their features are quite distinct from what you might call a fully modern human, says the team. Instead, the Red Deer Cave people have a mix of archaic and modern characteristics.

In general, the individuals had rounded brain cases with prominent brow ridges. Their skull bones were quite thick. Their faces were quite short and flat and tucked under the brain, and they had broad noses.

Their jaws jutted forward but they lacked a modern-human-like chin. Computed Tomography (X-ray) scans of their brain cavities indicate they had modern-looking frontal lobes but quite archaic-looking anterior, or parietal, lobes. They also had large molar teeth.

Dr Curnoe and colleagues put forward two possible scenarios in their PLoS One paper for the origin of the Red Deer Cave population.

One posits that they represent a very early migration of a primitive-looking Homo sapiens that lived separately from other forms in Asia before dying out.

Another possibility contends that they were indeed a distinct Homo species that evolved in Asia and lived alongside our own kind until remarkably recently.

A third scenario being suggested by scientists not connected with the research is that the Red Deer Cave people could be hybrids.

"It's possible these were modern humans who inter-mixed or bred with archaic humans that were around at the time," explained Dr Isabelle De Groote, a palaeoanthropologist from London's Natural History Museum.

"The other option is that they evolved these more primitive features independently because of genetic drift or isolation, or in a response to an environmental pressure such as climate."

Dr Curnoe agreed all this was "certainly possible".

Attempts are being made to extract DNA from the remains. This could yield information about interbreeding, just as genetic studies have on the closely related human species - the Neanderthals and an enigmatic group of people from Siberia known as the Denisovans.

Whatever their true place in the Homo family tree, the Red Deer People are an important find simply because of the dearth of well dated, well described specimens from this part of the world.

And their unearthing all adds to the fascinating and increasingly complex story of human migration and development.

"The Red Deer People were living at what was a really interesting time in China, during what we call the epipalaeolithic or the end of the Stone Age," says Dr Curnoe.

"Not far from Longlin, there are quite well known archaeological sites where some of the very earliest evidence for the epipalaeolithic in East Asia has been found.

"These were occupied by very modern looking people who are already starting to make ceramics - pottery - to store food. And they're already harvesting from the landscape wild rice. There was an economic transition going on from full-blown foraging and gathering towards agriculture."

Quite how the Red Deer People fit into this picture is unclear. The research team is promising to report further investigations into some of the stone tools and cultural artefacts discovered at the dig sites.

The co-leader on the project is Professor Ji Xueping of the Yunnan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology.


Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter



Canadian archeologists unearth rare wooden statue of pharaoh


A rare wooden statue of an Egyptian pharaoh, believed to represent the female king Hatshepsut, that was unearthed last summer by a team of Canadian archeologists led by University of Toronto professor Mary-Ann Pouls Wegner. Hatshepsut ruled Egypt for more than two decades about 3,500 years ago, but most images of her were erased by a successor seeking to secure his position as pharaoh.


A team of Canadian archeologists has unearthed a rare wooden statue of a pharaoh at a dig site in southern Egypt, and clues suggest the figure may be an important new representation of Hatshepsut — the great female king who enjoyed a long and successful reign about 3,500 years ago, but was almost erased from history by a male successor trying to secure his own power.


Researchers led by University of Toronto archeologist Mary-Ann Pouls Wegner also exposed two previously unknown religious buildings and found dozens of animal mummies — including cats, sheep and dogs — during a hugely successful excavation last summer near the ancient city of Abydos.


Pouls Wegner told Postmedia News on Tuesday that the discoveries, made in the midst of modern Egypt's ongoing political revolution, led to some "tense moments" as the Canadian researchers negotiated with Egyptian antiquity experts and security officials about how best to unbury the statue and ensure its preservation during a period of national upheaval.


"We couldn't believe it," she said, recalling the day the statue was unearthed at the ancient cult centre near a famous temple dedicated to Osiris, god of the afterlife. "It was lying face down and we were really excited, but we wanted to make sure it would be safe. And because of the unrest, the chain of command was not entirely clear."


The royal statue — thought to have been used as a lightweight alternative to stone for ritual processions — and the other artifacts found at Abydos were placed under guard and eventually given crucial attention by conservation experts.


The discovery, announced recently at a meeting of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities, is to be fully detailed in a forthcoming publication.


The pharaonic figure is not obviously a female, said Pouls Wegner, but is notable for its "smaller waist" and the "more delicate modelling of the chin."


These attributes were typically reserved for female subjects in Egyptian art. And because Hatshepsut was traditionally depicted in the manner of a male pharaoh, such subtle clues are often used by experts to confirm her identity in stone statues and other imagery, she said.


But relatively few depictions of Hatshepsut have survived because of a concerted effort by her stepson and immediate successor — Tuthmosis III — to erase all prominent images of the female ruler. Many experts believe the campaign of destruction was carried out so Tuthmosis could claim credit for Hatshepsut's achievements and suppress challenges towards the legitimacy of his own rule.


Hatshepsut had initially assumed power in Ancient Egypt after the death of her husband, Tuthmosis II, and before Tuthmosis III was old enough to perform his kingly duties.


But she soon consolidated her position as pharaoh and ended up ruling for about 22 years, directing wars, key trade agreements and the construction of many major monuments.


"I do think there was a problem with having two rulers at the same time," said Pouls Wegner, explaining why Hatshepsut's successor may have felt compelled to obliterate his stepmother from Ancient Egypt's pharaonic iconography.


But "she is one of the most fascinating rulers," Pouls Wegner noted, "first because she was a woman and second because so many of her monuments have been defaced."


Pouls Wegner said she hopes to pursue further research aimed at identifying the type of wood used to carve the statue and to conduct carbon dating on the object to more precisely pin down its age.


Pouls Wegner's research team included three archeologists from the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt, U.S. illustrator Tamara Bower and University of Toronto graduate students Meredith Brand, Amber Hutchinson, Christina Geisen and Janet Khuu.


© Copyright (c) Postmedia News



Ancient footprints found in peat at Borth beach


15 March 2012 Last updated at 08:30


Human and animal fossilised footprints that may be from the Bronze Age have been exposed on a Ceredigion beach.

Archaeologists are racing against changing tides to record and excavate the find in peat at Borth, which gives a snapshot of a time when the shore lay further west.

The team believes the footprints could be 3,000 to 4,000 years old.

Staff and students from the University of Wales Trinity St David are carrying out the work.

As well as the footprints, a line of post holes has been found, which could have been a causeway.

They lie across an area that would have been salt marsh when the footprints were made.

The Royal Commission on Ancient and Historic Monuments is providing survey support, mapping the extent of the peat and other exposed features.

Submerged forests have been found further north on the beach and nearby in the past.

Dr Martin Bates is one of the archaeologists leading the excavation team, and it was his father, retired geologist Denis Bates, who discovered the footprints last month.

Dr Bates told BBC Wales' news website: "My father has had an interest in submerged forests for many years.

"He was down in February as this part of the beach was very clear.

"For various reasons the patterns of sand movement have been temporarily altered and it means this area of beach has been stripped of sand.

"He noticed the marks and told me they didn't look natural."

He estimates they have a window of a few months to log the discoveries and take samples away for environmental testing before the sands shift again and cover the footprints up.

"In the context of Ceredigion and west Wales, it's the first time we have found this type of evidence.

"The submerged forests [nearby] are probably the most significant in the UK.

"What we have never had before is documented evidence of human habitation."

'Quite special'

Dr Bates added that there were a range of footprints discovered, including cattle, sheep or goat and possibly a bear.

However the one which resonates with him is a print which belonged to a young child.

"We have got a footprint of a four-year-old's foot where we can see the toes and everything.

"I can stand where this child was standing about 4,000 years ago and even though we would have been seeing different things, the intimacy of that is quite special."

Work in previous years on submerged forests found on the area to the north has established that a forest was growing in the area between 3000 and 2500 BC.

The area was gradually waterlogged with peat growth. A number of finds in the area included a Mesolithic composite tool of antler, two flints, an auroch (extinct ox) skeleton and a piece of antler.



Secrets of St Albans' Roman burial urns unlocked

14 March 2012 Last updated at 13:26


CT scanners are being used to help unlock the secrets of five Roman burial urns that were discovered at a housing development in Hertfordshire.

Conservators at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre were called in by archaeologists excavating at King Harry Lane in St Albans.

Work is being done to discover whether the remains inside the cremation urns belong to adults or children.

The urns were found at the entrance to a late Iron Age defended settlement.


Kelly Abbott, contract conservator with the Wiltshire Council Conservation Service, said: "Unlocking the mystery of these urns could provide a fascinating glimpse of life during the time of the Roman Conquest.

"Two of the urns contained bones which could be human. An osteoarchaeologist will now examine the bones and help provide even more detail."

Using the CT images to guide them, the conservators have detailed the contents of the urns and made the finds stable.

Once the cremations have been removed from the urns, the bones will be cleaned and dried under laboratory conditions.

The information gathered from this micro-excavation will then be sent to the archaeologists who will be able to interpret the evidence alongside the archaeology already discovered.

Archaeologists have determined that the site at King Harry Lane, was of significant importance.

St Albans, known as Verulamium, was a key site in the Roman period and as such, these cremation urns, along with the other archaeology on the site, are seen to be nationally important.



Cross and bed found in Anglo-Saxon grave shed new light on 'dark ages'

Archaeologists in Cambridge thrilled to discover grave with body of young woman on a bed with an ornate gold cross

Maev Kennedy

The Guardian, Friday 16 March 2012


The gold cross found in the grave of the young Anglo-Saxon woman. Photograph: Cambridge University

The dead are often described as sleeping, but archaeologists in Cambridgeshire have uncovered a bed on which the body of a young Anglo-Saxon woman has lain for more than 1,300 years, a regal gold and garnet cross on her breast.


Three more graves, of two younger women and an older person whose sex has not yet been identified, were found nearby.


Forensic work on the first woman's bones suggests she was about 16, with no obvious explanation for her early death. Although she was almost certainly a Christian, buried with the beautiful cross stitched into place on her gown, she was buried according to ancient pagan tradition with some treasured possessions including an iron knife and a chatelaine, a chain hanging from her belt, and some glass beads which were probably originally in a purse that has rotted away.


The field where she lay, now being developed for housing at the edge of the village of Trumpington on the outskirts of Cambridge, hid a previously unknown Anglo-Saxon settlement. It may have been a wealthy monastic settlement – more of it probably lies under the neighbouring farm and farmyard – although there are no records of any church earlier than the 12th century village church which overlooks the site.


Pectoral crosses from the dawn of Christianity in England, and bed burials - where the body was laid on a real bed, now traced only by its iron supports, centuries after the timber rotted – are both extremely rare.



Cambridge University video describing the discovery of the graves

There is only one previous record of the two together, a grave found at Ixworth in Suffolk in the 19th century. The excavation records for that find are patchy, whereas archaeologists from Cambridge university will be working for years to recover every scrap of information from the Trumpington site.


A gold and garnet pectoral cross of such quality, the most beautiful and sophisticated examples of Anglo-Saxon metalwork like the contemporary jewels found in the Staffordshire Hoard or the Sutton Hoo burial, could only have been owned by a member of an aristocratic or even royal family. Only five have been found, one in the coffin of St Cuthbert. In some contemporary pieces the gems came from as far as India, and the gold from melted down coins from Constantinople.


Sam Lucy, an Anglo-Saxon expert from Newnham College Cambridge, who helped excavate the site, said the small loops on the arms of the Trumpington cross, worn shiny by rubbing against the fabric, showed the woman probably wore the cross during her short life, at a time when the Anglo-Saxon aristocrats were gradually converting to the powerful new religion.


The find sheds further light on a period once known dismissively as the dark ages, now being revealed by archaeology as a time of superb craftsmanship and complex international trade routes.


While the body of the prince who was buried at Sutton Hoo was laid in a ship under a great mound of earth, and the warrior at Prittlewell in an oak plank chamber hung with his weapons and treasures, a small group of bed burials have been discovered, all believed to be of women, all from the same region and the same late 7th century date.


Lucy said the beds may well have been the ones the women used in life, as they are all believed to be pieces of real furniture, not made specially for a funeral ceremony. At Trumpington the evidence suggests the bed was lowered first into the ground, and then the body, uncoffined, laid on it.


Scraps of textile found under the chain may reveal what she wore when she went to her grave. The same Anglo-Saxon word, leger, can mean either a bed or a grave.


"It is striking that such a young woman was of such importance to own and be buried with an object as valuable as the cross. And it's almost unnerving that there was an important Anglo-Saxon settlement so close to us of which we had absolutely no records," she said.


The fields had already yielded a wealth of iron age and earlier material but the Anglo-Saxon finds were a complete surprise. The bones and teeth are in good condition, so further scientific tests should be able to establish where the little group came from, what their diet was, and whether they are related - though it will probably always be a mystery how they ended up, so young, buried in a field in Cambridgeshire.


The cross is going through a treasure valuation and inquest process, but the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge hopes to acquire and display it.



Anglo-Saxon Christian grave find near Cambridge 'extremely rare'

16 March 2012 Last updated at 07:18


An Anglo-Saxon grave discovered near Cambridge could be one of the earliest examples of Christianity taking over from Paganism, archaeologists said.

The skeleton of a teenage girl was found buried on a wooden bed, with a gold and garnet cross on her chest.

The grave is thought to date from the mid-7th Century AD, when Christianity was beginning to be introduced to the Pagan Anglo-Saxon kings.

It was uncovered at Trumpington Meadows by Cambridge Archaeological Unit.

The cross is only the fifth to be discovered in the UK.

Only 12 other "bed burials" have been found.

'Cusp of Christianity'

However, Alison Dickens, who led the excavation, said the combination of a bed burial - where the body was placed in a wooden frame held together by metal brackets - and a Christian symbol, was "extremely rare".

"We believe there has only been one other instance of a bed burial and pectoral cross together, at Ixworth in Suffolk," she said.

The grave of the teenager, who was believed to be about 16 years-old, was one of a cluster of four uncovered at the site south of Cambridge.

The three others were described as more typical Anglo-Saxon burials with no indications of Christianity.

The 3.5cm (1.4in) cross found on the girl's chest had probably been sewn onto her clothing.

Other artefacts, including a bag of precious and semi-precious stones, and a small knife were also found with the body.

Archaeologists said the craftsmanship of the cross was comparable to the royal Anglo-Saxon hoard discovered at Sutton Hoo, in Suffolk.

Dr Sam Lucy, a specialist in Anglo-Saxon burial from Newnham College, Cambridge, said the method of burial and quality of the jewellery could indicate the girl was from a noble or royal family.

"Christian conversion began at the top and percolated down," she said.

"This cross is the kind of material culture that was in circulation at the highest sphere of society."

She said the idea of burying a body with "grave goods" for the afterlife was "counter to the Christian belief of soul and not body continuing after death".

However, she believed the merging of burial rites showed the grave was "right on the cusp of the shift from Pagan to Christian".

Scientists from Cambridge Archaeological Unit now plan to analyse the skeletons and artefacts.

They hope to determine whether there was any relationship between the Christian girl and the three other skeletons found in close proximity to her.



The Viking journey of mice and men

19 March, 2012 - 06:02 PM


New research carried out at the University of York and published in BMC Evolutionary Biology has used evolutionary techniques on modern day and ancestral mouse mitochondrial DNA to show that the timeline of mouse colonisation matches that of Viking invasion.


House mice (Mus musculus) happily live wherever there are humans. When populations of humans migrate the mice often travel with them.Human settlement history over the last 1000 years is reflected in the genetic sequence of mouse mitochondrial DNA


During the Viking age (late 8th to mid 10th century) Vikings from Norway established colonies across Scotland, the Scottish islands, Ireland, and Isle of Man. They also explored the north Atlantic, settling in the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Newfoundland and Greenland. While they intentionally took with them domestic animals such as horses, sheep, goats and chickens they also inadvertently carried pest species, including mice.


A multinational team of researchers from the UK, USA, Iceland, Denmark and Sweden used techniques designed to characterize genetic similarity, and hence the relatedness of one population, or one individual, with another, to determine a mouse colonisation timeline.


Modern samples of mouse DNA were collected and compared to ancient samples dating mostly from the 10th to 12th century. Samples of house mouse DNA were collected from nine sites in Iceland, Narsaq in Greenland, and four sites near the Viking archaeological site, L’Anse aux Meadows, in Newfoundland. The ancient samples came from the Eastern and Western settlements in Greenland and four archaeological sites in Iceland.


Analysis of mouse mitochondrial DNA showed that house mice (M. m. domesticus) hitched a lift with the Vikings, in the early 10th century, into Iceland, either from Norway or the northern part of the British Isles. From Iceland the mice continued their journey on Viking ships to settlements in Greenland. However, while descendants of these stowaways can still be found in Iceland, the early colonizers in Greenland have become extinct and their role has been filled by interloping Danish mice (M. m. musculus) brought by a second wave of European human immigrants.


Dr Eleanor Jones, from Uppsala University in Sweden, who carried out the research as a PhD student with the Department of Biology at York, said: “Human settlement history over the last 1000 years is reflected in the genetic sequence of mouse mitochondrial DNA. We can match the pattern of human populations to that of the house mice.”


Professor Jeremy Searle, from Cornell University, who also carried out the research while working at York, added: “Absence of traces of ancestral DNA in modern mice can be just as important. We found no evidence of house mice from the Viking period in Newfoundland. If mice did arrive in Newfoundland, then like the Vikings, their presence was fleeting and we found no genetic evidence of it.”


Written by: HeritageDaily on March 19, 2012.

© 2011-2012 Heritage Daily All Rights Reserved



The Libyan Job: Insiders Used War to Steal Priceless Artifacts

By Mike Elkin Email Author March 16, 2012 |  6:30 am |  Categories: Crime and Homeland Security


BENGHAZI, Libya — The treasure was kept mostly in two wooden chests, and locked away in a bank vault: thousands of coins, jewelry and figurines, some around 2,600 years old. For decades it sat in the bank, unattended despite the historical and monetary value. Then, as a popular uprising erupted around the downtown bank last winter, someone entered the vault and made off with the trove.


Now, as Interpol searches for the collection on the illegal antiquities markets, questions are still being raised about the nature of the theft. One thing most seem to agree on: The heist was an inside job.


“I cannot say who did it,” said Ahmed Buzaian, an archaeology professor at Benghazi University, who was part of an outside group that investigated the crime scene. “But they knew exactly what was inside.”


What happened, according to the official story, strikes of Harry Houdini meets Ocean’s Eleven. At some point in late March — only a month after rebels in Benghazi had evicted the forces of Col. Muammar Qaddafi and not long after NATO began airstrikes in support of the rebels — a group of thieves broke into the National Commercial Bank of Benghazi, likely from the adjacent building that housed the secret police and that protesters torched at the beginning of the revolution.


Once inside the bank lobby, said Osama El-Ketaf, head of the bank’s legal office, they drilled directly into the vault through a little more than two feet of steel-reinforced concrete. The hole, he said, was big enough for a very skinny adult or a child. In the vault were a series of safes and chests, and power tools were used to tear the containers apart. Inside were nearly 8,000 gold, silver and bronze coins — along with maybe 300 rings, necklaces, bracelets and medallions and another 40 or so bronze and ivory figurines. All of them were unearthed over the first half of the last century in five Greco-Roman cities in northeastern Libya. Taken during the Italian retreat of its former colony in World War II, the trove was returned in 1961, and placed into the vault.


“There was a large, old-fashioned safe and a normal-size safe,” El-Ketaf said. “They sawed through the hinges of one, maybe using a circular saw. We found an extension cord leading from the building next door to the hole. They cut through the back of the other safe.” Then they ferried the ancient artifacts to the surface.


The vault has been shut off from view. Beside some bank personnel, the only people to have entered the vault after the theft were a few archaeologists. And what they saw made them suspicious. The thieves not only knew exactly where to drill to access the vault. The bank waited nearly two months to inform the antiquities department about the heist.


“When I saw the wooden chests ripped open, I started to feel dizzy,” said Nasser Abduljalil, who in April was appointed head of antiquities at the Greco-Roman city of Cyrene, around 110 miles northeast of Benghazi. “But what surprised me even more was that the bank had removed all of the other deposits beforehand” — while the artifacts remained behind, ripe for the taking.


El-Ketaf said the bank didn’t move the treasure because it didn’t have permission. The local Department of Antiquities office was never asked, and the head office in Tripoli was still under Qaddafi control. El-Ketaf added that the bank conducted its own inquiry and found that no one at the branch was connected.


“It might have been someone at the Department of Antiquities,” he said. “They knew what was there.”


Mohammed El-Shelmany at the Department of Antiquities office in Benghazi found many aspects of the robbery puzzling, including the fact that the thieves had left behind around 10 percent of the artifacts. El-Shelmany went to inspect the remainder, and among them were eight, small boxes, sealed with red wax.


“I had never seen these before, so I broke the seal and opened one,” El-Shelmany said. “Inside were modern keys. The bank said they were spare keys to other banks in the neighborhood. They stored them in the vault as a precaution.” El-Shelmany wondered why the thieves didn’t open the boxes.


The hole dug into the vault, around a foot in diameter, is another detail that the archaeologists have a hard time understanding. The safes, the archaeologists said, were opened violently. They doubted that a person small enough to squeeze through the hole could have caused the damage.


Archaeologists are now trying to recover the stolen artifacts. But it won’t be easy. The Qaddafi regime disavowed Libya’s ancient history as colonialist, so scholars were not allowed to study or document the collection, save for some of the Islamic coins. The chests’ contents were last checked in 1974, and another large group of coins and artifacts from Benghazi was placed into the two safes in 1980. Nor is there a definite price tag for what the trove contained; it depends on the types of coins and their rarity on the market. However, one Greek coin advertised on eBay that supposedly dates to 300 BC from Cyrene, is on sale for $3,500.


The Libyan judicial system is in theory investigating the theft and its many unanswered questions. But law and order are still elusive in Benghazi. El-Shelmany said he fears the truth may never be found.