Teamwork made Man brainier, say scientists

April 11, 2012 by Mariette le Roux


Learning to work in teams may explain why humans evolved a bigger brain, according to a new study published on Wednesday.

Compared to his hominid predecessors, Homo sapiens is a cerebral giant, a riddle that scientists have long tried to solve.

The answer, according to researchers in Ireland and Scotland, may lie in social interaction.

Working with others helped Man to survive, but he had to develop a brain big enough to cope with all the social complexities, they believe.

In a computer model, the team simulated the human brain, allowing a network of neurons to evolve in response to a series of social challenges.

There were two scenarios. The first entailed two partners in crime who had been caught by the police, each having to decide whether or not to inform on the other.

The second had two individuals trapped in a car in a snowdrift and having to weigh whether to cooperate to dig themselves out or just sit back and let the other do it.

In both cases, the individual would gain more from selfishness.

But the researchers were intrigued to find that as the brain evolved, the individual was likelier to choose to cooperate.

"We cooperate in large groups of unrelated individuals quite frequently, and that requires cognitive abilities to keep track of who is doing what to you and change your behaviour accordingly," co-author Luke McNally of Dublin's Trinity College told AFP.

McNally pointed out, though, that cooperation has a calculating side. We do it out of reciprocity.

"If you cooperate and I cheat, then next time we interact you could decide: 'Oh well, he cheated last time, so I won't cooperate with him.' So basically you have to cooperate in order to receive cooperation in the future."

McNally said teamwork and bigger brainpower fed off each other.

"Transitions to cooperative, complex societies can drive the evolution of a bigger brain," he said.

"Once greater levels of intelligence started to evolve, you saw cooperation going much higher."

The study appears in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, a journal published by Britain's de-facto academy of sciences.

Commenting on the paper, Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary anthropologist at Oxford University, said the findings were a valuable add to understanding brain evolution.

But he said there were physiological limits to cooperation.

Man would need a "house-sized brain" to take cooperation to a perfect level on a planet filled with humans.

"Our current brain size limits the community size that we can manage ... that we feel we belong to," he said.

Our comfortable "personal social network" is limited to about 150, and boosting that to 500 would require a doubling of the size of the brain.

"In order to create greater social integration, greater social cohesion even on the size of France, never mind the size of the EU, never mind the planet, we probably have to find other ways of doing it" than wait for evolution, said Dunbar.

(c) 2012 AFP



Archaeologists rewrite history of the Trefael Stone

April 13, 2012


The Trefael Stone, a scheduled ancient monument in south-west Wales originally thought to be an ancient standing stone is actually the capstone of a 5,500-year-old tomb, according to new research from an archaeologist at the University of Bristol.

Excavations of the site in an isolated field near Newport by Dr. George Nash and colleagues indicate that the 1.2m high stone once covered a small burial chamber, probably a portal dolmen, Wales’ earliest Neolithic burial-ritual monument type.

The stone bears multiple cupmarks, circular holes gouged into its surface associated with ritual burial activity in the Neolithic and Bronze Age.  As the stone’s shape suggests that of a capstone, the archaeologist Frances Lynch, writing in 1972, suggested the site could be a possible dolmen site.  However, no geophysical survey or excavation was carried out – until now.

As the first archaeologists to fully investigate the site, Dr. Nash and his colleagues Thomas Wellicome and Adam Stanford found a further 30 cupmarks of varying size and quality on the stone, along with an array of prehistoric artefacts that has led the team to suggest that this site was more than just a standing stone.

From last year’s excavation season the team unearthed sherds of pottery which appear to date from the late Neolithic; two perforated, water-worn beads similar to those found at the Early Mesolithic coastal settlement site at the Nab Head on the Pembrokeshire coast; and the remains of human bones.  The archaeologists plan to conduct radiocarbon-dating and other tests on these remains when the required permissions have been granted to remove the bones.

Dr. Nash said: “The excavation of this monument gives archaeologists a rare insight into the ritual-funerary activity of Britain’s earliest farming communities.  What is more significant is the survival of pottery and human bone from this period within such acidic soils.”

A burial site of this age is very rare as intense farming practices since the seventeenth century have destroyed many ancient sites.  Further excavations are planned for September this year.

More information: ‘Transcending artistic ritual boundaries, from dolmen to menhir: The excavation of the Trefael Stone, South-west Wales’ by George Nash, Adam Stanford, Isabelle Therriault and Thomas Wellicome in Adoranten



Secrets of the earliest Britons could be hidden in 5,000-year-old tomb



Archaeologists have discovered the remains of a Neolithic portal dolmen, one of Western Europe's oldest ritual burial chambered monuments, in an isolated field in Wales.


It is thought the tomb was built from giant boulders about 5,500 years ago. Its capstone bears a seemingly random pattern of dozens of circular holes gouged into its surface – symbols of Neolithic or Bronze Age ritual burial activity.


What makes it particularly interesting is that the site has rare remains of human bones and shards of decorated pottery. An official burial licence must now be sought before the bones can be removed, but eventually radiocarbon-dating and other tests planned for the remains may give new insight into our early farming ancestors.


The archaeological excavation near Newport in Pembrokeshire has been led by George Nash, Thomas Wellicome and Adam Stanford, who plan to resume work in September.


Dr Nash, an archaeologist and lecturer at Bristol University, said: "The dolmen is the earliest type of monument you can find in the Neolithic era.


"It is very rare to discover such a site of this age. Since 1600, intense farming practices have meant a lot of ancient sites were destroyed. What is unique about the whole thing is that we are dealing with thick, acidic soils but the bones and the pottery have survived."


While the tomb is thought to date from 3,800BC, the pottery with its grooved design appears contemporary with late Neolithic activity, Dr Nash believes. Further finds include two perforated, sea-worn shale beads, each about 4.5cm in diameter, which are thought to be some form of jewellery.


Dr Nash has linked them to hundreds of examples found in the 1970s at a nearby coastal settlement from the Early Mesolithic period 9,000 years ago. He believes his Neolithic site may have even older, Mesolithic origins.


The marked stone – now thought to be the capstone of the dolmen – was long ago tilted on its side in a field off the beaten track. Although its existence was recorded in 1929, and it was designated as a scheduled monument, it was just thought to be an ancient standing stone some 1.2m high


Dr Nash said: "In 1972, the archaeologist Frances Lynch [only] referred to the site as a possible portal dolmen site because of the shape of the capstone. She did no geophysical survey, no excavation. It was just a speculative comment. Until we dug it, this site had never been investigated."


A geophysical survey has revealed the lines of the dolmen, including a linear stone alignment in keeping with an ancient burial monument, previously mistaken for a field boundary.


Dr Aron Mazel, an archaeologist and lecturer at Newcastle University, said the discovery of a Neolithic dolmen was "very exciting because there are not many of them about".


He added: "What is particularly interesting about this one is the number of ancient capmarks on the slab ... and the recovery of human remains with pottery. They will be able to extract a lot of information from the bones: where these people came from, where they lived, and whether they came from far."



Ancient burial urns uncovered at St Albans King Harry Park site

Debbie White

Saturday, April 14, 2012, 6:58 PM


TWO-thousand-year-old human remains, described as being of “national significance,” have been unearthed at a major building site in St Albans.


Archaeologists have found an entrance to the Iron Age tribal capital of Verlamion, precursor to the Roman city of Verulamium, and five urns, several holding cremated remains, dating back 2,000 years.


The ancient items were discovered at former school playing fields on King Harry Lane, currently being transformed into 150 homes.


One of the conditions of approval for the Linden Homes development was that archaeologists could investigate the site before it was built upon.


The urns have been dubbed King Harry one, two, three, four and five in honour of their burial location.


Andy Hood, archaeologist at Foundations Archaeology, Swindon, explained that the urns were found packed in soil and placed vertically at an entrance to Verlamion, which is modern day St Albans.


He said: “They probably date back to the conquest period – the Roman conquest of AD43. I would describe it as of national importance, and a significant find.”


Andy explained that the local inhabitants were at the centre of power when the Romans arrived.


The urns themselves have stayed safe underground for two millennia, despite being buried just 40cm below the surface, where local school children were until recently using the site as playing fields.


Three urns were found in one pit – possibly the remains of a family. A further two were found in two single pits but all five were in close proximity to each other. Remnants of a metal object, possibly a brooch, were also found in one of the urns.


Andy said: “We think there is a Roman burial ground there.”


Investigation of a nearby dyke on the site has unearthed a purse of copper-alloy Roman coins.


They and the urns have been sent to Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, where months of analysis lie ahead, to determine the age and sex of those cremated.


A key research question is whether they contain the remains of members of the British Catuvellauni tribe or maybe Roman soldiers or dignitaries.


However it is courtesy of high-tech CT scanning that conservators and archaeologists have gleaned so much already about the contents of the vessels.


Kelly Abbott, contract conservator at the centre, said it would have been difficult examining the urns without such scanning, as the ceramic exterior was fragmented, held together by soil, as were fragments of bone, like layers of a sandwich.


Some time ago, after Kelly was recovering from back surgery, she was given a CT scan where she joked with a radiographer that it would be great to use such technology to look inside artefacts.


Months later that wish turned into reality when a radiographer at BMI Bath Clinic offered to scan the unearthed urns in her own time.


Kelly said that it was thanks to the radiographer who, using 3D technology and scanning every angle, that the remains were discovered.


She added: “We wouldn’t have been able to investigate them otherwise. Museums don’t get massive amounts of funding, so this was phenomenal. It was because of their kindness we could get those images as it is not something that conservators can normally get hold of.”


Helen Williams, senior conservator, said that an “amazing amount of detail has come from the scan”.


She said that the centre had never received so many urns, which are all different sizes, to “micro-excavate,” or examine on a micro level, at once.


Jeremy Alden, Linden Homes technical director, said: “We have spent a great deal of time liaising with county archaeologists to ensure a robust dig was successfully concluded as part of the redevelopment process at King Harry Park.


“We are delighted that finds of such significance have been uncovered intact and with the help of the Wiltshire Conservation service can be properly interpreted and lead to a greater understanding of local history.”


The Iron Age entrance within the development has been set aside as a grassed area and will not be built upon. The artefacts will, once analysed and preserved, be placed in a museum.



Archaeologists Excavate Major Ancient Urban Center in Macedonia

The monumental city played a key strategic role in Greek and Roman times.

March 2012, Cover Stories, Daily News

Thu, Apr 12, 2012


Known as Heraclea Lyncestis, its ancient remains are located atop a low-lying hill near the present-day town of Bitola in the Republic of Macedonia. Under the direction of Anica Georgievska and Engin Nasuh of the National Museum of Bitola, with cooperation from the New Bulgarian University, a team of archaeologists, students and volunteers will be revealing more of its remains, exploring the residential areas near a monumental Roman theater that punctuates its appearance.

Founded in the fourth century BC by the conquering Phillip of Macedon, it was a key strategic urban center along the Via Egnatia road in Antiquity, connecting Rome and Asia Minor. Conquered later by the Romans, it was mentioned in the chronicles describing the campaigns of Julius Caesar, and inscriptions, monuments and artifacts discovered at the site have provided clear evidence of the town’s rising prosperity and significance during the Roman period. During the Byzantine period, It was the residence of bishops. In the end, its urban prominence and history came to an end in the late sixth century when the Slavs conquered Pelagonia, the geographical plain between present-day Greece and the Republic of Macedonia.


Previous excavations have revealed portions of a fortification wall on the site's acropolis, including two basilicas in the town itself. The remains of Heraclea have become well-known for the remarkably well-preserved mosaics found within the basilicas. Dated to the the fifth and sixth centuries AD, they depict geometric and figured patterns. Most remarkable was the mosaic found in the narthex of the large basilica – a rectanglular framework of 36 octagonal panels, linked together and featuring images of mythological figures, fishes, and water birds. Mosaics were also found in other structures near the basilicas, including streets and buildings dated to the fourth and fifth centuries.


The most recent work has focused on the second century AD theater located on the slopes of the acropolis and surrounding areas. Much of the theater has been excavated and the auditorium has been recently restored. Now, archaeologists will focus on the buried residential structures, where they hope to recover important information that will shed light on the lifeways of the people in the town, its relationship to the outside world, and additional details concerning the historical or chronological development of the urban landscape.

More information about the project and fieldwork can be obtained at the website at http://www.bhfieldschool.org/bh2007.hlexc.html



Greek and Byzantine-era tomb discoveries in Alexandria prompt construction freeze

Egyptian archaeologists find four Greek and Byzantine-era tombs in old Alexandria’s eastern necropolis, bringing a halt to planned residential project

Nevine El-Aref , Friday 13 Apr 2012


Egyptian archaeologists have discovered four Greek and Byzantine-era rock tombs in a section of old Alexandria's eastern necropolis in an area neighbouring Al-Ibrahimeya tunnel.


The site was discovered during excavations carried out by the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA) and stretches between the areas of Al-Shatbi and Mostafa Kamel.


Excavations uncovered four rock-hewn Greek and Byzantine tombs containing a collection of funerary pots, perfume containers and lamps.


MSA minister Mohamed Ibrahim stated that the aim of the excavations was to inspect the area for archaeological artefacts before declaring it free for residential building.


“It is a very important discovery that adds more detail to the archaeological map of Alexandria,” Ibrahim told Ahram Online.


A finely decorated clay container from the second century BC was among the discoveries, he added.


Director general of Alexandria antiquities, Mohamed Mostafa, explained that the most important tomb is one dating from the Greco-Roman era which include an open courtyard with two rocky cylindrical columns in the middle.


Two burial shafts filled with human skeletons and clay pots were also uncovered.


A cecorated 'Hidra' container -- a large pot filled with burned human remains -- was also unearthed along with a tombstone bearing the deceased’s name.


Mostafa told Ahram Online that the tomb’s walls still bear layers of plaster and traces of red paintings.


The second tomb has eight rock-hewn steps and is located under a modern building; the third and fourth ones are found on a deeper level and house a collection of clay lamps and pots of different sizes and shapes.


Within the debris, said Mostafa, archaeologists discovered a small burial site for a woman and her son dating from the late Roman period.


Following the discovery, the area will now be declared a protected archaeological site and all construction work prohibited.



Han Dynasty Tombs Found by Accident

Updated: 2012-04-13


More than 50 ancient and rare relics were uncovered in a tomb excavation in Guxian County, Anhui province. The 53-tomb complex is believed to have been under construction over many dynastic periods dating back to the Eastern Han Dynasty nearly 2,000 years ago.


The tomb complex was discovered accidentally on a construction site. It contains over 50 brick tombs from the Eastern Han, Tang and Song dynasties.


Experts identified the type of people who were buried there.


Zhao Lanhui, deputy researcher of the Bengbu Cultural Relics Institute, said, "lying south to north would perhaps be people of four generations. Due to its size, we know the tombs come from the Song Dynasty. It's small with a simple style.


The tombs hold a unique character that were built in an animal shape."


Though some tombs have been plundered over the years, precious relics have emerged, such as bronze mirrors, gold and silver garments, along with pottery boxes.


Many people buried here were considered common people, until the discovery of a special, delicate and well-preserved mirror.


Zhou Chongwen, archaeologist, said, "It's a relatively large bronze mirror, which means the owner held social status."


An archeological study is continuing on into its history and the people who lived here.


It's generating much interest in local heritage and cultural identity.



Viking-era 'piggy bank' yields silver treasure

Published: 11 Apr 12 16:22 CET | Double click on a word to get a translation


A bronze, Viking-era "piggy-bank" containing thousands silver coins dating from the 11th century has been unearthed on the Baltic island of Gotland in what Swedish archaeologists have described as a "fantastic" treasure find.


The silver treasure was found last Thursday during an archaeological examination of a field in Rone, on southern Gotland.


"We had an expert out there with a metal detector who got a signal that he's found something pretty big," Per Widerström, an archaeologist with the Gotland Museum, told The Local.


The same field has yielded previous treasure finds, including a well-known discovery from the 1880s, when a collection of nearly 6,000 coins dating from the 11th century were uncovered.


The field's reputation made it a target for amateur treasure hunters and plunderers, prompting the Gotland county administrative board to commission a survey of the area as a preventative measure against any further plundering of valuable archaeological finds.


After being alerted to the new find, Widerström and colleague Majvor Östergren went back out to the field to figure out exactly what lay beneath the surface.


"What we found was a bronze, Viking-era bucket filled with silver coins," he said.


A preliminary analysis of one of the coins revealed that it was likely minted in Germany some time between 1000 and 1040.


"It's fantastic," museum head Lars Sjövärd told the local helagotland.se news website.


X-rays also indicate that the bucket, which measures 23 centimetres in diameter and has a depth of about 17 centimetres, likely contains "thousands" of coins.


"We can't say for sure because the x-rays couldn't penetrate all the silver. There might be other silver artefacts in there, but as it looks now, the bucket appears filled to the brim with coins," said Widerström.


He explained that the find is unusual in that it was a complete treasure was found intact, something which is likely due to the fact that it was nestled just over 30 centimetres deep in the earth.


"Ploughs only go down about 29 centimetres, which means this treasure has managed to escape damage from all agricultural activity over the centuries," Widerström explained.


He compared the bronze bucket to a Viking-era "piggy bank" or "cash box", adding that the size of the find may be one of the first indications of a consolidation in the market of Viking merchants.


"Treasures found before this time are usually much smaller, while those found after, while fewer in number, tended to be much larger," Widerström said.


"We hope to be able to determine if the bucket was filled all at once, or one several occasions over time."


He refused to place a monetary value on the find, although museum head Sjövärd explained that even one of the silver coins could be worth "thousands" of Swedish kronor.


Widerström hopes to commence with more detailed examination of the treasure next week assuming additional resources are made available from the Swedish National Heritage Board (Riksantikvarieämbetet).


He added that the field where the coins were found has likely yielded its last Viking-era treasure.


"We're certain there isn't anything left there," Widerström told The Local.


David Landes