'Lucy' Lived Among Close Cousins: Discovery of Foot Fossil Confirms Two Human Ancestor Species Co-Existed

ScienceDaily (Mar. 28, 2012)


A team of scientists has announced the discovery of a 3.4 million-year-old partial foot from the Woranso-Mille area of the Afar region of Ethiopia. The fossil foot did not belong to a member of “Lucy’s” species, Australopithecus afarensis, the famous early human ancestor. Research on this new specimen indicates that more than one species of early human ancestor existed between 3 and 4 million years ago with different methods of locomotion.



The partial foot was found in February 2009 in an area locally known as Burtele.

“The Burtele partial foot clearly shows that at 3.4 million years ago, Lucy’s species, which walked upright on two legs, was not the only hominin species living in this region of Ethiopia,” said lead author and project leader Dr. Yohannes Haile-Selassie, curator of physical anthropology at The Cleveland Museum of Natural History. “Her species co-existed with close relatives who were more adept at climbing trees, like ‘Ardi’s’ species, Ardipithecus ramidus, which lived 4.4 million years ago.”

The partial foot is the first evidence for the presence of at least two pre-human species with different modes of locomotion contemporaneously living in eastern Africa around 3.4 million years ago. While the big toe of the foot in Lucy’s species was aligned with the other four toes for human-like bipedal walking, the Burtele foot has an opposable big toe like the earlier Ardi.


“This discovery was quite shocking,” said co-author and project co-leader Dr. Bruce Latimer of Case Western Reserve University. “These fossil elements represent bones we’ve never seen before. While the grasping big toe could move from side to side, there was no expansion on top of the joint that would allow for expanded range of movement required for pushing off the ground for upright walking. This individual would have likely had a somewhat awkward gait when on the ground.”

The new partial foot specimen has not yet been assigned to a species due to the lack of associated skull or dental elements.

The fossils were found below a sandstone layer. Using the argon-argon radioactive dating method, their age was determined to be younger than 3.46 million years, said co-author Dr. Beverly Saylor of Case Western Reserve University. “Nearby fossils of fish, crocodiles and turtles, and physical and chemical characteristics of sediments show the environment was a mosaic of river and delta channels adjacent to an open woodland of trees and bushes,” said Saylor. “This fits with the fossil, which strongly indicates a hominin adapted to living in trees, at the same time ‘Lucy’ was living on land.”


Journal Reference:

Yohannes Haile-Selassie, Beverly Z. Saylor, Alan Deino, Naomi E. Levin, Mulugeta Alene, Bruce M. Latimer. A new hominin foot from Ethiopia shows multiple Pliocene bipedal adaptations. Nature, 2012; 483 (7391): 565 DOI: 10.1038/nature10922



DNA traces cattle back to a small herd domesticated around 10,500 years ago

March 27, 2012

All cattle are descended from as few as 80 animals that were domesticated from wild ox in the Near East some 10,500 years ago, according to a new genetic study.


An international team of scientists from the CNRS and National Museum of Natural History in France, the University of Mainz in Germany, and UCL in the UK were able to conduct the study by first extracting DNA from the bones of domestic cattle excavated in Iranian archaeological sites. These sites date to not long after the invention of farming and are in the region where cattle were first domesticated.

The team examined how small differences in the DNA sequences of those ancient cattle, as well as cattle living today, could have arisen given different population histories. Using computer simulations they found that the DNA differences could only have arisen if a small number of animals, approximately 80, were domesticated from wild ox (aurochs).

The study is published in the current issue of the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution. Dr Ruth Bollongino of CNRS, France, and the University of Mainz, Germany; lead author of the study, said: "Getting reliable DNA sequences from remains found in cold environments is routine.

"That is why mammoths were one of the first extinct species to have their DNA read. But getting reliable DNA from bones found in hot regions is much more difficult because temperature is so critical for DNA survival. This meant we had to be extremely careful that we did not end up reading contaminating DNA sequences from living, or only recently dead cattle."

The number of animals domesticated has important implications for the archaeological study of domestication.

Prof Mark Thomas, geneticist and an author of the study based at the UCL Research Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment: "This is a surprisingly small number of cattle. We know from archaeological remains that the wild ancestors of modern-day cattle, known as aurochs, were common throughout Asia and Europe, so there would have been plenty of opportunities to capture and domesticate them."

Prof Joachim Burger, an author of the study based at the University of Mainz, Germany, said: "Wild aurochs are very different beasts from modern domestic cattle.

"They were much bigger than modern cattle, and wouldn't have had the domestic traits we see today, such as docility. So capturing these animals in the first place would not have been easy, and even if some people did manage snare them alive, their continued management and breeding would still have presented considerable challenges until they had been bred for smaller size and more docile behavior."

Archaeological studies on the number and size of prehistoric animal bone have shown that not only cattle, but also goats, sheep and pigs were all first domesticated in the Near East. But saying how many animals were domesticated for any of those species is a much harder question to answer. Classical techniques in archaeology cannot give us the whole picture, but genetics can help - especially if some of the genetic data comes from early domestic animals.

Dr Jean-Denis Vigne, a CNRS bio-archaeologist and author on the study, said: "In this study genetic analysis allowed us to answer questions that – until now –archaeologists would not even attempt to address.

"A small number of cattle progenitors is consistent with the restricted area for which archaeologists have evidence for early cattle domestication ca. 10,500 years ago. This restricted area could be explained by the fact that cattle breeding, contrary to, for example, goat herding, would have been very difficult for mobile societies, and that only some of them were actually sedentary at that time in the Near East."

Dr Marjan Mashkour, a CNRS Archaeologist working in the Middle East added "This study highlights how important it can be to consider archaeological remains from less well-studied regions, such as Iran. Without our Iranian data it would have been very difficult to draw our conclusions, even though they concern cattle at a global scale".

More information: 'Modern Taurine Cattle descended from small number of Near-Eastern founders" is published in the current issue of Molecular Biology and Evolution.

Provided by University College London



Evidence stacks up that monolith at Gardom’s Edge is astronomically aligned

26 March 2012 Royal Astronomical Society (RAS)


Under embargo until 27 March 2012 00:01 GMT

Researchers at the Nottingham Trent University have gathered new evidence that a 4000-year-old monolith was aligned to be an astronomical marker.  The 2.2 metre high monument, located in the Peak District National Park, has a striking, right-angled triangular shape that slants up towards geographic south. The orientation and inclination of the slope is aligned to the altitude of the Sun at mid-summer. The researchers believe that the monolith was set in place to give symbolic meaning to the location through the changing seasonal illuminations. Dr Daniel Brown will present the findings on Tuesday 27th March at the National Astronomy Meeting in Manchester.


The rare example of a monolith is located at Gardom's Edge, a striking millstone grit ridge less than an hour's drive from Manchester. The researchers have carried out a microtopography survey of the surface surrounding the monolith.  Their findings indicate the presence of packing stones around the base of the monolith, evidence that it was placed carefully in position. They have also carried out 3-D modelling of illumination of the stone through the seasons, adapting for changes in the Earth’s tilt to the ecliptic plane over four millennia. 


The landscape surrounding the stone harbours many ancient monuments such as Bronze Age roundhouses, a late Neolithic enclosure, and other traces of a long lasting human occupation. The researchers believe that the stone is also late Neolithic, set in place around 2000 BC.


"Given the sensitivity of the site, we can’t probe under the surface of the soil.  However, through our survey, we have found a higher density of packing stones on one side, supporting the case that the stone has been orientated intentionally,” said Dr Brown.


The 3-D modelling shows that during the winter half-year, the slanted side of the stone would remain in permanent shadow; during most of the summer half-year it would only be illuminated during the morning and afternoon; close to midsummer it would be illuminated all day. The researchers are currently backing up the model by gathering contemporary photographic evidence of the stone.


"The stone would have been an ideal marker for a social arena for seasonal gatherings," said Dr Brown. "It's not a sundial in the sense that people would have used it to determine an exact time.  We think that it was set in position to give a symbolic meaning to its location, a bit like the way that some religious buildings are aligned in a specific direction for symbolic reasons."


The researchers hope that the new evidence will support the case for a wider archaeological survey of the site.


"The use of shadow casting in monuments of this period is quite rare in the British Isles," said Dr Brown. "But there are some examples including New Grange, Ireland, and some Clava cairns in the north-east of Scotland that have been proposed to include the intentional use of shadows. Both are associated to burial sites using the symbolism of a cyclic light and shadow display to represent eternity. Given the proximity of the Neolithic enclosure and possible ritual importance of this site, the Gardom’s Edge monolith could be another such example."





Archaeologists uncover earliest stringed instrument on Skye

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012 | Posted by Kirsty Topping


EXPERTS believe they have found the remains of the earliest stringed instrument ever found in Western Europe – dating to more than 2,300 years ago – at an excavation on the Island of Skye.

Cabinet Secretary for Culture Fiona Hyslop today revealed the small wooden fragment that it is believed comes from a lyre. It has been burnt and broken, but the notches where strings would have been placed are easy to distinguish on the artefact.

Music archaeologists Dr Graeme Lawson and Dr John Purser studied the fragment which was discovered at High Pasture Cave.


Dr Lawson, of Cambridge Music-archaeological Research, said: “For Scotland – and indeed all of us in these islands – this is very much a step change. It pushes the history of complex music back more than a thousand years, into our darkest pre-history. And not only the history of music but more specifically of song and poetry, because that’s what such instruments were very often used for.

“The earliest known lyres date from about 5,000 years ago, in what is now Iraq: and these were already complicated and finely-made structures. But here in Europe even Roman traces proved hard to locate. Pictures, maybe: but no actual remains.

“But it’s the location of the find that keeps amazing – and delighting – us. Here is an object which places the Hebrides, and by association the neighbouring mainlands, in a musical relationship not only with the rest of the Barbarian world but also with famous civilisations. It now becomes a world that was held together not just by technology and trade but also by something as ephemeral and wonderful as music and poetry and song.”

Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs Fiona Hyslop said: “This is an incredible find and it clearly demonstrates how our ancestors were using music and ritual in their lives. The evidence shows that Skye was a gathering place over generations and that it obviously had an important role to play in the celebration and ritual of life more than 2,000 years ago.


“A project like this brings so many organisations and individuals together. The site has revealed insights into the practises of people who continued to use the cave complex over a very long period.

“This find is exciting and shows the variety of expertise there is in archaeology. The skilled excavation team realised immediately that they had something special, the finds were then passed onto the laboratory and then specialists in musical traditions were able to support that initial realisation. All of it leading to today and us being able to unveil this replica of what the lyre would have looked like.”

The bridge was found during the excavations of High Pasture Cave.

Archaeologist Steven Birch said: “Access to the natural cave at High Pastures was of prime importance to the people using the site and throughout its use the entrance was modified on several occasions which included the construction of a stone-built stairwell. Descending the steep and narrow steps, the transition from light to dark transports you out of one world into a completely different realm, where the human senses are accentuated. Within the cave, sound forms a major component of this transformation, the noise of the underground stream in particular producing a calming environment.

“The cave provided a major focus for a wide range of activities including metalworking, craft specialisation and the deposition of everyday objects, human remains and the debris from some major feasting events. These activities took place at the site over a period of some 800 years between the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age, although the use of the site extends back in time for at least 5000 years.

“The discovery of the wooden bridge from the musical instrument represents a fitting end to the excavations at the site and conjures up a vivid image of the past, showing people gathering together for religious ceremonies, feasting on pig and cattle, and drinking to the accompaniment of music.”

Cultural historian Dr John Purser said: “What, for me, is so exciting about this find is that it confirms the continuity of a love of music amongst the Western Celts.

“Stringed instruments, being usually made of wood, rarely survive in the archaeological record; but they are referred to in the very earliest literature, and, in various forms, were to feature on many stone carvings in Scotland and Ireland, and to become emblematic in both countries.


“Such an instrument would traditionally have been used in a number of contexts, but in particular for accompanying song, declamation and recitation. The panegyric tradition is deeply embedded in Gaelic culture, and within that tradition includes praise songs, funeral elegies, and incitement.

“In the Gaelic tradition there were three basic types of music – “Sleep strain”, “Wail strain” and “Laughter strain”. We may legitimately imagine the musician who owned and played this instrument, performing such music both as a soloist, in combination with other instruments and especially, with the human voice.”

The project was supported by Highland Council, Historic Scotland and the National Museums of Scotland.

Convener of The Highland Council, Councillor Sandy Park said: “The Highland Council is delighted to support the research at High Pasture Cave and we are very excited about the implications of this extremely significant find. The Island of Skye has long been a seat of musical tradition but we had no idea how far back in time people were playing in this area.

“The discovery of a fragment of the oldest stringed instrument in Western Europe, will not only put the Highlands of Scotland firmly on the musical map of ancient Europe but it will benefit tourism on the island immensely. I am looking forward to hearing the full results of this research which I am sure will be a major feature in the Highland Archaeology Festival seminar in October.”

Dr Fraser Hunter, Principal Curator, Iron Age and Roman Collections, National Museums Scotland, said: “This find puts sound into the silent past. National Museums Scotland is delighted to be supporting the project by carrying out work on a wide range of finds from the site. This new research is casting fresh light on the lives and beliefs of people 2000 years ago.”

When fieldwork was completed in 2010 the artefacts were transferred to AOC Archaeology in Loanhead, Edinburgh, for conservation.

Dr Andy Heald, MD of AOC Archaeology said: “Previous to this the earliest musical representation we had encountered had been a carved concert lyre and plectrum on the side of an exquisite Roman altar we excavated from Musselburgh in 2010 but to have an actual fragment of an even earlier lyre really fires the imagination. It brings another dimension of our Iron Age antecedents to life.”



Cross-dressing and magical flying

28 April 2012 — 28 April 2012 Leicester, University of

Location: University of Leicester


Viking experts are converging on the University of Leicester to discuss topics ranging from the high-profile, grisly murder of Archbishop St Ælfheah one thousand years ago this April,  to a discussion of linguistic evidence for magical flying and cross-dressing male deities in Viking mythology.


A unique Viking boat burial, the first discovery of its kind on the UK’s mainland, will be celebrated at the 2012 Viking Symposium hosted by the University of Leicester on 28 April, with photographs of the recent groundbreaking excavation of the one thousand year old boat burial on display for all to appreciate.


The conference also includes a tour of landscapes of violence and governance in an era well known for its bloody nature.


Dr Philip Shaw of the University’s School of English said of the Symposium: “We’re delighted to welcome this year’s Symposium to Leicester, at a time when we’re seeing exciting developments in Viking Studies at the University.  The Symposium offers an invaluable opportunity for us to engage in discussion with the general public on the latest research on the Vikings, and the exciting new discoveries that specialists in the area continue to make.


“2011 saw the discovery of the Ardnamurchan Viking boat burial by a team co-directed by Leicester’s Dr Oliver Harris. The display of images from the fully intact Viking boat burial site will offer a detailed visual illustration of the period under discussion; the exhibition is an excellent opportunity for members of the public to see a tangible example of a historical culture’s burial rites brought to life through one of the most important archaeological finds of recent years.”


The importance of the discoveries of artefacts by hobbyists and members of the public is highlighted in a discussion led by Wendy Scott, the Portable Antiquities Scheme’s Finds Liaison Officer for Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland, who will explain how cataloguing these finds can impact upon the research of experts. The scheme recognises the valuable contribution of Viking enthusiasts and hobbyists.


Dr Shaw said of the scheme: ”It offers the possibility of gaining a much richer view of the past, both across the country and in our local area.”



Introducing the May/June issue of British Archaeology,

available from Friday March 30, and in shops April 6




We had an overwhelming response from readers to last issue’s front cover exclusive – Mick Aston’s resignation from Time Team – and print a selection of these with thoughts from Time Team’s founder and executive producer, Tim Taylor



Archaeologists have excavated a complete cemetery near Perth that may be all that remains of an otherwise unknown small Pictish community. The early medieval graves (third to eighth centuries AD) were found during routine evaluation of a field destined for agricultural development. Individual graves were surrounded by circular- or square-shaped ditches, and contained no artefacts



Last year two metal detectorists searching 230 miles apart from each other – one near Penrith, Cumbria, and the other near Fincham, Norfolk – found two similar but rare objects. Made over 2,500 years ago from copper alloy or bronze, with a hollow socket for a handle and curved, triangular-shaped blades, they are thought to be leather-working tools of a type that is still in use today. The new finds bring the total known up to ten



We know St Paul’s as one of London’s most revered buildings, whose dome survived the blitz to offer a defining counterpart to the rising verticals of modern city architecture. But an earlier tragedy is less well remembered: Wren’s triumph was made possible by the destruction of one of Europe’s largest medieval buildings in the great fire of 1666, which also took away a huge portico by Inigo Jones. The cathedral’s archaeologist John Schofield has been exploring



In April 75 years ago the Institute of Archaeology opened for business in a luxury London villa, under the direction of a playboy and soon-to-be TV star; its next full-time director was a Marxist who had previously worked with an illegal revolutionary socialist group in Australia. Being led by two of the world’s greatest archaeologists, however, is not the institute’s only distinction, as Gabriel Moshenska explains



At the time of the Roman invasion the Iceni occupied what is now Norfolk and beyond. Their queen Boudica led a damaging but failed revolt against the invaders in AD61, after which the tribe seems to have vanished from history. Will Bowden thinks we are wrong to write off the Iceni in this way. And he has a very strange building to prove it



Aldborough, as the estate agents of North Yorkshire say, is conveniently located near the A1 motorway and highly sought after. But the village was once a busy town and an important feature of Roman Britain (like the road). Rose Ferraby and Martin Millett report how survey is bringing the lost city to life



We read about the “mystery” of places like Stonehenge or the pyramids, but here is a part of the world where truthfully almost nothing was known of its ancient history, despite its being traditionally popular with adventurous tourists and in the midst of some of the world’s great early cultures. Ruth Young and Pakistani colleagues proved there is much to be found – though being surrounded by Al-Qaeda training camps, with a daily threat of kidnapping and fieldworkers protected by armed guards, did not make work easy: Young was warned not to continue research



It has never been easier for a wide range of people to investigate the past, and new ideas and technologies bring new opportunities. We hear from two community projects, about something that works – and something that didn’t