Human migrations: Eastern odyssey

Humans had spread across Asia by 50,000 years ago. Everything else about our original exodus from Africa is up for debate.

Tim Appenzeller

02 May 2012


One day some 74,000 years ago, in a swampy valley in the south of India, dawn never came. In the half-light, greyish dust sifted down, blanketing the ground and turning trees to ghosts. Far to the east, a volcano called Toba on the Indonesian island of Sumatra had unleashed one of the greatest eruptions ever known, flinging thousands of cubic kilometres of rock into the atmosphere and spreading a pall of ash across southern Asia.


Clive Oppenheimer, a volcanologist at the University of Cambridge, UK, has studied the ash deposits in India's Jurreru Valley to reconstruct the events that followed. Within days, the trees shed their whitened foliage; rains later swept ash into layers several metres thick on the valley floor. Eventually, the lakes and swamps vanished, perhaps because the climate had become drier and cooler. Toba had transformed a lush habitat into a wasteland.


The catastrophe had witnesses. Archaeologists digging beneath the ash layer have found stone artefacts indicating that humans were living in the valley before the eruption. But were they modern humans — people like us — or some other, now extinct, branch of the human lineage?


Today, the thick ash deposits of the Jurreru Valley mark a division not only in the geological record but also between archaeologists debating one of the field's biggest questions: when and how did modern humans leave their African cradle and colonize Asia, Earth's largest landmass? It was the first great expansion of the human species, carrying people some 12,000 kilometres to Australia by about 50,000 years ago. But just how early the pioneers set out is controversial — as are the routes they followed, the tools they carried and, most fundamental of all, what triggered the migration. Were they enticed into the wider world by a favourable climate, or propelled by a revolution in technology and culture?


In archaeologists' shorthand, the debate boils down to a simple question: pre-Toba or post-Toba? At one pole of the debate, Paul Mellars at the University of Cambridge argues passionately that modern humans left Africa long after the Toba eruption, 60,000 years ago at the earliest. Equipped with new technologies, including bows and arrows, they beach-hopped along the coastline of the Arabian peninsula, India and southeast Asia, reaching Australia in short order. Genetic analyses of contemporary Asians that point to a late, rapid colonization have bolstered his confidence. “I'm more convinced than ever that I'm right,” he says, before adding, “I guess they all say that.”


His opposite number, Michael Petraglia at the University of Oxford, UK, certainly does. He is convinced that people spread into Asia at least 74,000 years ago, and perhaps as early as 125,000 years ago, well before Toba, during a wet, warm interlude between ice ages, carrying tools no more sophisticated than those made by earlier humans. Rather than following the coast, he thinks they wandered along river valleys and lake shores, advancing and retreating as the environment allowed, more like wildlife than a wave of colonists (see 'Asian migration'). He takes heart from discoveries that testify to the presence of modern humans in the Arabian Peninsula, on the very doorstep of Asia, more than 100,000 years ago. “I'm feeling more and more confident through time,” he says.


It is a full-throated academic duel. Petraglia calls Mellars' view “baseless archaeologically”; Mellars vows to “demolish the pre-Toba model”. Their passion is fuelled both by the prize of understanding the first great human migration — and by the lack of decisive evidence. That leaves many other archaeologists in the same position as Chris Stringer of London's Natural History Museum, who says he is “sitting on the fence” until researchers unearth more data. The wait may not be long. Archaeologists are busily hunting for artefacts and even fossils of the first modern Asians, which could finally put the debate to rest.


Most of Asia is “a blank map, if you will, in its prehistory”, says Petraglia. Scattered fossils record the archaic peoples — Homo erectus, Neanderthals and the recently identified Denisovans — who had the continent to themselves before modern humans moved in. But few artefacts and no convincing fossils record this arrival. Researchers have mostly relied on the DNA of people today to reconstruct the ancient story.


Geneticists collected mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) — which is inherited only from the mother — across much of Asia, focusing on isolated native groups thought to be descendants of early human settlers in their areas. They identified distinctive mtDNA variants, or haplotypes, and compared them to create a family tree of the African exodus. To date its roots and branches, they used estimates of mutation rates as a molecular clock.


The tree's root is marked by a haplotype called L3 that originated before humans left Africa; its genetic signature is found in many Africans and every non-African today. The latest readings of the molecular clock date L3 to 60,000–70,000 years ago2, suggesting that humanity left Africa a few thousand years after Toba. The three next-oldest haplotypes — immediate descendants of L3 outside Africa — are 60,000–65,000 years old. All three gave rise to multiple 'starbursts' of genetic variation, scattered all the way from Arabia to Bali. “For that to happen,” says geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer of the University of Oxford, “people would have had to move very fast, before new mutations occurred.”


The most plausible route for a rapid migration is along the coast of the Indian Ocean, which could have been followed for thousands of kilometres without the need to master new environments. By the mid-2000s, most researchers accepted the 'coastal express', as this post-Toba migration scenario is sometimes known. Later analyses of mtDNA and of the male Y chromosome suggested that the exit from Africa was even more recent, perhaps less than 60,000 years ago. And in an influential 2006 review in Science3, Mellars argued that the sparse archaeological record of Asia and Australia not only supported the genetic evidence of a rapid post-Toba migration, but showed how cultural advances could have helped to drive it.


There is no trace of any ancient beachcombers or their camps, which Mellars says is no surprise because sea-level rise since the most recent ice age has flooded the former coastline. “Your earliest sites in any area are going to be under the sea, and 20 kilometres or more out to sea,” he says.


But Mellars sees important clues further inland. The earliest artefacts from the Jurreru Valley and other sites in India and Sri Lanka are simple stone points, scrapers and cores — the lumps of rock left after points were flaked off. All could have been made by archaic humans. Later, well after Toba, they give way to much more sophisticated handiwork: small, finely worked 'microlithic' blades that might have served as arrowheads, shaped bone points, beads and pieces of ostrich eggshell adorned, in one case, with cross-hatching.


The change in the record “appears almost overnight”, Mellars says, and mirrors the transformation seen in Europe some 45,000 years ago, when modern humans arrived, bringing sophisticated tools and ornaments that outshone the cruder handiwork of the continent's resident Neanderthals. If Europe's great cultural flowering commenced with a wave of modern human immigrants, he asks, why should Asia's be any different?


Mellars suggests that the migrants carried technology from a culture known as Howiesons Poort, which flourished in southern and eastern Africa from 65,000 to 50,000 years ago. This sophisticated technology, he thinks, was key to launching modern humans out of their native continent. “Innovation would have enormously facilitated expansion eastward,” he says.



Critics say the theory faces a serious obstacle, however. Although the genetics suggest that the coastal express dispersed people across Asia at least 55,000 years ago, the earliest microlithic tools found so far in South Asia are no more than 40,000 years old. Mellars is unfazed by the lag, noting that sea-level rise would have flooded the coastal pioneers' earliest sites. The Asian locations with microblades should be younger, he says — because they lie well inland. “That's a totally different environment. You've got a lot of adapting to do, and you won't do it overnight.”


While Mellars was picturing a late and rapid expansion of culturally advanced people, Petraglia was digging beneath the grey ash beds in the Jurreru Valley and speculating about a very different scenario. He and his colleagues had excavated simple scrapers and cores from below the ash, dated to between about 77,000 and 74,000 years ago4. Neanderthals or other archaic humans could have made them — but, says Petraglia, “no one has ever argued for Neanderthals in India, ever”. Instead, he and his colleagues argued, the artefacts were reminiscent of ones from southern Africa, where the only toolmakers were unquestionably modern humans.


To Petraglia, the implication was clear: modern humans found their way to India before Toba blew its top. As for the microblade technologies that Mellars attributes to a wave of later migrants, Petraglia argues that a long-established population of modern humans developed the new tools on their own.


He dismisses some geneticists' conclusion that clues in modern human DNA rule out a migration from Africa to Asia any earlier than 60,000 years ago. “My issue with these guys is, what are they sampling? They're sampling modern humans that live today — a small subset of what out-of-Africa was.” The genetic signal of earlier arrivals has simply been lost, he says, as populations shifted and vanished.


Petraglia's claim intrigued at least one geneticist. Stephen Oppenheimer studies mtDNA and contributed to the coastal-express model5. In his view, the migration had to have been rapid and coastal — but not necessarily as recent as other geneticists have insisted. A clue to an earlier date, he says, comes from mtDNA studies in India. One set of variants was less diverse than expected, suggesting to him that the first modern humans in India suffered some kind of catastrophe that reduced their numbers to almost nothing.


The cause, he speculated, might have been the Toba ash cloud, which would imply that modern humans were already established in India at the time of the eruption. He was also intrigued by other hints of a pre-Toba population of modern humans in Asia — such as a foot bone from the Philippines and a skull from China — although all were of uncertain age or origin.


Oppenheimer notes that DNA is an inexact clock. He concedes that the most likely dates for the L3 haplotype — and the exit from Africa — fall after Toba. But “the logic is in the error bars”, he says. “The upper limit for the most recent confidence estimate is 79,000 years ago, which means the L3 date straddles Toba.” If DNA can't resolve the dispute, he says, the clinching evidence will have to come from archaeology.


Petraglia and his supporters say that evidence has grown much stronger in the past two years, thanks to the discoveries that put modern humans in Arabia more than 100,000 years ago. What he calls the “smoking gun” comes from Oman, where a group led by Jeffrey Rose of the University of Birmingham, UK, found 106,000-year-old stone relics that are as diagnostic of modern humans as a lost mobile phone would be today. Consisting of distinctive triangular cores and long spear points made from them, this kind of technology was first excavated in Nubia, a region in northern Sudan, at sites inhabited by modern humans. Yet here they were, more than 2,000 kilometres away, on the other side of the Red Sea6. “There's no question,” says Rose. “It's the same people.”


They reached Oman not with the aid of superior technology, Rose says, but because climate and ecosystems favoured the move. At the time, the Arabian peninsula was a moist savannah teeming with game. “The territory next door suddenly turned green and people from northeastern Africa moved in,” says Rose. “These people would have been moving into what they already knew.”


But did these early explorers press on, from Arabia into Iran and India? No, says Mellars. Theirs was a failed expansion, like one documented in Israel, where modern humans were present more than 100,000 years ago but then vanished. When the climate cooled and dried about 75,000 years ago, turning Arabia back into a desert, the Nubian pioneers either died out or retreated to Africa. “There's not a smell, not a whiff [of Nubian technologies] that has ever been detected in India,” says Mellars. “If Mike Petraglia could come to me with one of those Nubian cores and say, 'Look, we found this in India,' I would get down on my knees and say, 'Sorry, Mike, I got it wrong'.”


Even if the Nubian toolmakers did not wander farther into Asia, other ancient Arabian populations might have, Petraglia and others say. At a site in the United Arab Emirates called Jebel Faya, Simon Armitage of Royal Holloway, University of London, and his colleagues have found even older artefacts, dating to as early as 125,000 years ago and resembling objects made by modern humans in eastern Africa7.


“People say mute stones speak. They don't. We're the ones who impose our views on them.”

Jebel Faya sits on a promontory jutting toward Iran, and its inhabitants could easily have pushed eastward a few thousand years later. By 110,000 years ago, ice sheets were beginning to build up far to the north and sea level was dropping, markedly narrowing the Straits of Hormuz and easing the crossing to Iran. “It's extremely plausible that a population at Faya could have moved on,” Armitage says.


But plausibility is perhaps the strongest argument that Armitage and others favouring the pre-Toba model can make. If a band of pioneers did wander from Arabia into a welcoming green Asia during the last interglacial, their tracks are faint indeed.


The pre-Toba artefacts from the Jurreru Valley look nothing like the Arabian ones, says Anthony Marks of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, who studied the Jebel Faya material. And the archaeologist who analysed the oldest relics from the Jurreru Valley and provided key support for the claim that they are the handiwork of modern humans is no longer so sure. Chris Clarkson of the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, a frequent collaborator of Petraglia's, now thinks they might be the work of an unidentified population of archaic people.


Clarkson and others say it is simply too soon to know for sure whether our ancestors were in India to watch the volcanic ash rain down 74,000 years ago. Pre- or post-Toba: either scenario rests on sparse and ambiguous artefacts. “People say mute stones speak,” says Marks. “They don't. They just lie there. We're the ones who impose our views on them.”


What is needed is what archaeologists always need: more and better evidence. “We're at the tip of the iceberg, really,” says Petraglia. “We've done the best we can with a few sites.” On the Arabian Peninsula, along the coast of the Indian Ocean, and in the heart of India, archaeologists continue to search. Perhaps they will find tools clearly made by modern humans before Toba, or a coastal encampment left by later colonists, littered with microlithic blades. Or, most definitive of all, a skull entombed beneath the Toba ash, silently announcing the presence of modern humans — or ceding the ground to our archaic cousins.


Nature 485, 24–26 (03 May 2012) doi:10.1038/485024a


Oppenheimer, C. Eruptions that Shook the World (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011).

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Soares, P. et al. Mol. Biol. Evol. 29, 915–927 (2012).


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Mellars, P. Science 313, 796–800 (2006).


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Petraglia, M. et al. Science 317, 114–116 (2007).


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Macaulay, V. et al. Science 308, 1034–1036 (2005).


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Rose, J. I. et al. PLoS ONE 6, e28239 (2011).


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Armitage, S. J. et al. Science 331, 453–456 (2011).


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Bronze Age Espionage

Did Ancient Germans Steal the Pharaoh's Chair Design?

By Matthias Schulz



Roughly 3,500 years ago, folding chairs remarkably similar to ones found in Egypt suddenly became must-have items in parts of northern Europe. Scholars are now looking into this potential case of ancient industrial espionage.


When Tutankhamen died, his tomb was filled with all manner of precious objects, including two folding chairs. The more attractive one is made of ebony and has ivory inlays.


Such ingenious chairs were already being used in Egypt more than 4,000 years ago. The brilliantly simple design consists of two movable wooden frames connected to each other with pins and with an animal hide stretched between -- a kind of ur-camping stool.

It isn't surprising, given the advanced nature of their society, that the Egyptians were familiar with such comfortable seating. Astonishing, however, is that the gruff chieftains of northern Europe also sat on such chairs.


Some 20 Nordic folding stools have been discovered so far, most of them north of the Elbe River in Germany. The majority were found by mustachioed members of the educated classes, who burrowed into their native soils in the 19th century in search of "national antiquities." The wood had usually rotted away, leaving only the golden or bronze clasps, rivets and knobs.


The only complete specimen was found in 1891 in Guldhøj (Golden Hill) near Kolding on the Jutland peninsula, which forms modern-day mainland Denmark. The chair, made of ash wood and with an otter-skin seat, was found lying in a tree-trunk coffin. Dendrochronologists have dated the specimen, made by a local carpenter, to 1389 B.C.


But folding chairs clearly originated in the Orient. The oldest depiction of one is found on roughly 4,500-year-old Mesopotamian seals. Egyptians were also familiar with folding chairs at any early date. Dignitaries used them as mobile thrones, and the long stretchers at their bases prevented the chairs from sinking into the sand.


The fact that the design reached so far north led many scholars to posit that northern Europeans developed it independently and in parallel to the Egyptians. But that view has now been challenged. "The design and dimensions of the chairs are too similar," says Bettina Pfaff, an archaeologist from Nebra, near the eastern German city of Halle, who specializes in prehistory. Her colleague Barbara Grodde also finds that there is "a remarkable similarity" between the Egyptian and Nordic models.


In other words, Pfaff says, "they were copied." This, in turn, presupposes that there was contact between sunny Egypt and the swampy North some 3,400 years ago.


Other evidence for such contact has also turned up. In recent years, archaeologists have discovered how far-reaching the trade network had already become in the Bronze Age. Blacksmiths from Germany's Harz Mountains worked with gold from Cornwall, while others imitated Mycenaean swords or looped needles from Cyprus.


"The elites throughout Europe were in communication at the time," says Bernd Zich, an archaeologist from Halle, adding that luxury goods were exchanged across great distances "usually on foot."


Such goods were apparently passed on from tribe to tribe and from region to region in a type of relay. But things were somehow different with the folding chairs. While they were used in the Orient and the far north, none of these folding chairs have been found in a wide swath of land between the two regions, either among the inhabitants of stilt houses in the Alps or among the Bronze Age residents of Italy and France.


Is it possible, then, that a northern trader made the long journey from the Baltic Sea to Egypt, stole the design and brought it back home? As farfetched as the idea might seem, it is certainly plausible. Archaeologists have recently concluded that there were long-distance scouts more than 3,000 years ago who brought tin from Germany's Erz Mountains all the way to Sweden. They probably traveled in oxcarts on dirt roads. Such ancient caravans probably also traveled along southern routes heading toward Africa.


Scholars are also determining the dates of such knowledge transfers. Egypt became a major power under Thutmose III (1479 to 1426 B.C.), whose armies reached the borders of modern-day Turkey. This changed the flows of goods. Even the Greek mainland fell under the spell of the pharaohs.


It was precisely at this time that a messenger from the North Sea coast could have been in Egypt and copied the chair's design onto papyrus. Starting in 1400 B.C., the stools started being made in the far north and abruptly became fashionable. It appears that every prince of the moors was suddenly determined to have one of the new thrones from the south.


Craftsmen copied the exotic chairs down to the last detail. They often used oak or ash for the frame. A particularly fine piece discovered in Bechelsdorf, in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein, has elaborate ornamentation, with decorative metal tassels that chime and a deerskin seat.


Many speculate that the furniture belonged to clan leaders entitled to an elevated position while traveling. Although the stool was only about 25 centimeters (10 inches) high, it would be high enough since everyone else would be forced to sit cross-legged on the ground.

But not all find this theory convincing. The objects were often discovered in "poorly furnished graves," explains Pfaff, the archaeologist. Instead, she believes the strange pieces of furniture belonged to a "spiritual elite" that was "not necessarily wealthy," such as healers and magicians with a connection to the world of spirits.


The man from Guldhøj could have also been one of these sorcerers. Apparently afraid of the dead, those who buried his body placed one of his own shoes under his head. In this way, Pfaff says, the corpse "could no longer climb out of the grave."


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan



New UF study shows early North Americans lived with extinct giant beasts

Filed under Florida, Natural History, Research, Sciences on Thursday, May 3, 2012.



A new University of Florida study that determined the age of skeletal remains provides evidence humans reached the Western Hemisphere during the last ice age and lived alongside giant extinct mammals.

The study published online today in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology addresses the century-long debate among scientists about whether human and mammal remains found at Vero Beach in the early 1900s date to the same time period. Using rare earth element analysis to measure the concentration of naturally occurring metals absorbed during fossilization, researchers show modern humans in North America co-existed with large extinct mammals about 13,000 years ago, including mammoths, mastodons and giant ground sloths.

“The Vero site is still the only site where there was an abundance of actual human bones, not just artifacts, associated with the animals,” said co-author Barbara Purdy, UF anthropology professor emeritus and archaeology curator emeritus at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus. “Scientists who disputed the age of the human remains in the early 20th century just did not want to believe that people were in the Western Hemisphere that early. And 100 years later, every single book written about the prehistory of North America includes this site and the controversy that still exists.”

Following discovery of the fossils in South Florida between 1913 and 1916, some prominent scientists convinced researchers the human skeletons were from more recent burials and not as old as the animals, a question that remained unanswered because no dating methods existed.

“The uptake of rare earth elements is time-dependent, so an old fossil is going to have very different concentrations of rare earth elements than bones from a more recent human burial,” said lead author Bruce MacFadden, Florida Museum vertebrate paleontology curator. “We found the human remains have statistically the same concentrations of rare earth elements as the fossils.”

The little information known about the first humans to appear in North America is primarily based on bone fragments and artifacts, such as stone points used for hunting. Other sites in California, Montana and Texas show human presence around the same time period based on artifacts, but two nearly complete human skeletons were discovered at the Vero Beach site.

As bones begin to fossilize they absorb elements from the surrounding sediment, and analysis is effective in distinguishing different-aged fossils deposited in the same locality. Instead of radiocarbon dating, which requires the presence of collagen in bones, researchers used mass spectrometry to compare rare earth elements in the specimens because a lack of collagen in the Vero Beach specimens made radiocarbon dating impossible, Purdy said.

Researchers analyzed samples from 24 human bones and 48 animal fossils in the Florida Museum’s collections and determined the specimens were all from the late Pleistocene epoch about 13,000 years ago. While rare earth element analysis method is not as precise as radiocarbon dating, Purdy said the significance of human skeletons found in Vero Beach is unquestionable in terms of their presence in the Western Hemisphere.

“It is important to note that they [the authors] did not provide an absolute or chronometric date, rather the geochemistry shows that the trace elemental geochemistry is the same, thus the bones must be of the same age,” said Kenneth Tankersley, an assistant professor in the University of Cincinnati anthropology and geology departments.

Native fauna during the last ice age ranged from extinct jaguars and saber-toothed cats to shrews, mice and squirrels still present in Florida. Researchers speculate humans would have been wanderers much like the animals because there was less fresh water than in later years, Purdy said.

“Humans would have been following the animals for a food supply, but that’s about all we know,” Purdy said. “We know what some of their tools looked like and we know they were hunting the extinct animals but we know practically nothing about their family life, such as how these ancient people raised their children and grieved for their dead.”

Study co-authors include Krista Church of UF and the University of Texas, and Thomas Stafford Jr., of Stafford Research in Colorado and the University of Copenhagen.

“Vero is a historical context for the development of archaeology — these are the beginnings of the people of America,” MacFadden said. “The site is well-known in the literature but has been discounted, so we’re sort of reviving an understanding of this important locality and using newer techniques to revive the question about the antiquity of the humans.”



Danielle Torrent, dtorrent@flmnh.ufl.edu

Media Contact

Paul Ramey, pramey@flmnh.ufl.edu, 352-273-2054


Bruce MacFadden, bmacfadd@flmnh.ufl.edu, 352-273-1937



Mexican experts find ancient blood on stone knives


Associated Press



Traces of blood and fragments of muscle, tendon, skin and hair found on 2,000-year-old stone knives have given researchers the first conclusive evidence that the obsidian blades were used for human sacrifice so long ago in Mexico.


Researchers had long seen cut marks on ancient bones that appeared to suggest varied practices of dismembering victims in many pre-Hispanic cultures, but the find announced Wednesday positively identifies the sort of actual knives that were used in the ancient rituals.


Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History said the finding clearly corroborates accounts from later cultures about the use of such knives to cut out hearts or cut up bodies.


Researchers in Mexico had noticed what they believed were fossilized blood stains on stone knives as long as 20 years ago. But the institute said it took a methodical examination using a scanning electron microscope to positively identify the human tissues on 31 knives from the Cantona site in the central Mexico state of Puebla.


The collection of stone knives is from the little-known Cantona culture, which flourished at about the same time as the mysterious city-state of Teotihuacan. Cantona preceded by more than 1,000 years the region's most famous human sacrifice practitioners, the Aztecs.


The archaeologists who found the knives gave them to researcher Luisa Mainou at the anthropology institute's restoration laboratories about two years ago. With help from specialists at Mexico's National Autonomous University, they were studied under the scanning electronic microscope and found to contain red blood cells, collagen, tendon and muscle fiber fragments.


While historical accounts from Aztec times, as well as drawings and paintings from earlier cultures, had long suggested that priests used knives and other instruments for non-life-threatening bloodletting rituals, the presence of the muscle and tendon traces indicates the cuts were deep and intended to sever portions of the victim's body.


"These finds confirm that the knives were used for sacrifices," Mainou said.


Susan Gillespie, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Florida who was not involved in the research project, said it was the first time to her knowledge that such tissue remains had been identified on obsidian knives.


"This is a compelling demonstration that these knives were used to cut human flesh," Gillespie said in an email.


She said other studies have found trace elements of organic remains such as food on ancient artifacts, so "with the right conditions such remains can preserve for long periods."


Gillespie said human sacrifice practices described by the Spanish conquerors or depicted in pre-Conquest paintings include heart removal, decapitation, dismemberment, disemboweling and skinning of victims.


The find announced Wednesday has already begun to shed some new light on the sacrifice practices of pre-Hispanic cultures, which believed that human blood was a sort of vital liquid needed to keep the cosmos in balance.


Some knives in the test had more traces of red blood cells, while others had more skin, and others more muscle or collagen, "which suggest that each cutting tool was used for a different purpose, according to its form," Mainou said.


Gillespie said the find also suggested the possibility that the sacrificial knives were ritually deposited, unwashed, in some special site after being used.


The Spanish conquerors have long been suspected of exaggerating accounts of mass human sacrifice in pre-Hispanic cultures to make their Indian subjects appear more brutal and less deserving of sympathy.


"The archaeological confirmation of human sacrifice is important both for supporting or contesting the many post-conquest historical accounts and pre-conquest imagery of sacrifice," Gillespie wrote.


Ventura Perez, an assistant professor of biological archaeology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who specializes in researching ancient forms of social violence, says bodies were sometimes hacked to pieces in the pre-Hispanic world for different reasons.


His analysis of cut marks on bones suggest that some may have been allowed to rot and were later dismembered for reburial, or that specific parts of bodies like craniums and long bones may have been harvested from bodies to keep as a form of ancestor worship.


He noted, however, that the presence of blood on blades suggested the victims bodies' were fairly fresh when cut.


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Oldest Astronomical Instrument Discovered in China

Chinese scientists have proposed that an object collected 35 years ago from a tomb of the Western Han Dynasty in Fuyang city and called “lacquerware of unknown names” could be a gnomon with template.


In 1977, archaeologists unearthed a great number of precious relics, including the unknown object, in the tomb of Xiahou Zao (the 2nd century BCE), the 2nd Marquis of Ruyin of the Western Han dynasty. However, no one has been able to identify the object as well as to explain the possible function of a pair of overlapping lacquered disks found in the same tomb.


A team of Yunli Shi, a professor at the Department of the History of Science and Scientific Archaeology, University of Science and Technology of China, has now proposed that the object is a special gnomon with template, while a pair of lacquered disks is an equatorial device for the positional observation of celestial bodies. Both are the oldest astronomical measuring instruments with definite information of date that can still be seen in the world. The findings appear in the Studies in the History of Natural Sciences.


The scientists noted that the gnomon with template is a typical instrument used by ancient Chinese astronomers in determining the advent of different seasons with the gnomon shadows cast on the template by the midday Sun.


The gnomon from the tomb of Xiahou Zao has two symmetric and foldable parts. As being fully set up in the south-north direction, the midday Sun will cast the shadow of a vertical tablet in the northern half onto three fixed positions on the template respectively on the days of the Summer Solstice, the Vernal/Autumnal Equinoxes, and the Winter Solstice.


“Geographically, this type of gnomon with template can only be used on the given latitude, and the one from the tomb of Xiahou Zao fits just right with the region between the capital of the dynasty Chang’an and the fief of the Marquis of Ruyin Fuyang,” explained Prof. Shi.


The edges of the two overlapping disks are marked respectively with the complete degrees of a celestial circle, and the names and degrees of each of the 28 lunar lodges.


Previous studies have suggested that they may make either an astrological tool similar to the two cosmic disks for divination from the same tomb, or a kind of astronomical instrument, but both theories are in need of definite evidence.


Mounted on top of a lacquerware box, the disks form a complete device good for the equatorial observation fitting just right with the geographical latitude of Fuyang, a prefecture-level city in northwestern Anhui province, China.



Students find rare Roman temple on practice dig

Published: 4 May 12 10:40 CET


Archaeology students got a taste of the real thing during a digging lesson, when they stumbled upon what was this week confirmed to be a Roman temple – in an area not previously thought to have been populated.


Lecturers at Bonn University had set up a mock archaeological dig at a building site on campus to teach hopeful historians digging techniques. What they did not expect to find were the 2,000-year-old foundations of a building, nestled into the dense, clayish mud.


While the initial discovery was made in March, it was only in the past fortnight that the team realised the foundations were from a temple from the Roman era, the floor of which was scattered with broken pottery dating as far back as 800 BC.


The building, which could have been part of a wealthy country estate, was 6.75 metres wide and 7.5 metres long. It was probably made from wood or clay, but roof tiles and iron nails that matched other second century Roman buildings were fished out of the rubble.


Only one similar temple – a room surrounded by an enclosed walkway – has been found in that part of North Rhine-Westphalia. Builders uncovered a larger version while constructing the Bonn World Congress Centre in 2006.


Historians had previously thought that the only settlement in that area from the time was near the Rhine. But Dr Frank Rumscheid, archaeology professor at the university, said that the temple suggests people lived away from the lush river banks, in what is now the Poppelsdorf campus area, some kilometres back from the water.


Work is set to continue on the dig site, but when the excavation is complete and everything worth inspecting has been taken to the university laboratories, the site will be filled in and building work will continue.


“There’s not enough there to completely lift the foundations out and create a replica,” said Rumscheid. But he added that further archaeological investigation of the Poppelsdorf site could turn up more interesting finds.





Clues to the Thirty Years' War: Mass Grave Begins Revealing Soldiers' Secrets

By Christoph Seidler



It was one of the bloodiest battles of the Thirty Years' War, but until recently there was no trace of those who died there. Now a mass grave is shedding light on the mysteries of the Battle of Lützen. Were those who fought hungry young men or well-fed veterans? And where did they come from?



The morning of November 16, 1632 was foggy, so the mass killing could only begin after some delay. It wasn't until midday that the mist cleared, finally allowing the Protestant army of Sweden's King Gustav II Adolf to attack the Roman Catholic Habsburg imperial army led by Albrecht von Wallenstein. The slaughter lasted for hours in the field at the Saxon town of Lützen.


"In this battle the only rule that applied was, 'him or me,'" says Maik Reichel. "It was better to stab your opponent one extra time just to ensure there was no chance of him standing up again." The historian und former German parliamentarian for the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) is standing at the edge of a field on the outskirts of Lützen. After the battles here, the ground was soaked with blood. "About 20,000 men fought on each side and between 6,000 and 9,000 were killed," estimates Reichel, who heads the museum in the city castle.

When the soldiers in the religious war clashed on the outskirts of Lützen, the road from there to Leipzig was not yet called "B 87," but "Via Regia." The Red Cross nursing home and nearby supermarket that now stand on the battle site also didn't exist back then. But the past is present here when one goes looking for it. So far archaeologists have examined about one- third of the former battlefield, in total 1.1 million square meters (11.8 million square feet). Theoretically, only another one-third could still be examined. The rest has been covered by the nursing home, supermarket and small garden allotments.


Still, archaeologists have managed to recover thousands of objects from the battle. The top find was just recently discovered: a mass grave where victims of the brutal struggle were buried. It is likely one of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of similar graves. Systematic excavations helped researchers locate the dead soldiers, and recovery efforts between the street and blooming rapeseed plants have left the ground bare.


The bloody battle at Lützen isn't known for its military significance. There was actually no clear winner. Instead it's famous for the death of Sweden's King Gustav II Adolf, also commonly known as Gustavus Adolphus. But the dead piled up all the same. Archaeologists are especially interested in the up to 175 unlucky soldiers buried in this mass grave. Because their work is better accomplished in a laboratory rather than a field, a complete chunk of soil was unearthed and transported to the city of Halle with the help of cranes and flatbed trucks. The 55-ton hunk of earth, split into two pieces for logistical reasons, is laced with bones that are now being analyzed in the laboratory of the Saxony-Anhalt State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology. A wooden casing ensures that the discovery doesn't crumble.


Not much is known about the battle's dead. Mercenaries from Scotland, England and Croatia fought next to Germans, Austrians and Swedes. They died from wounds inflicted by muskets, pistols, swords, knives and halberds, which are pole weapons with axe blades mounted on top. But who were these fighters? Were they spring chickens or old warhorses? Were they well-fed or emaciated? And where did they come from?


These are questions that will be answered by the analysis in Halle, about a 45-minute drive from Lützen. Visitors to this bright, lofty laboratory can get some idea of the human dimensions of the battle by climbing a ladder onto the frame encasing the two soil blocks.


Heiko Heilmann is already up there, scraping soil away from a bone with a wooden spatula. In his hands the dirt gives way to reveal the remarkably well-preserved skeleton of a former fighter. The excavation technician has already uncovered 20 bodies from the first of the two blocks.


He starts the job by moistening the soil with a spray bottle. Then he carefully digs out the bones. The sight of the arms, legs, shoulders, pelvises and skulls is hard to take in. Loose bones are collected in aluminum trays. Little labels give the deceased provisional names such as "I1," "I2," I3," with the "I" standing for individual.


A few facts have already come to light. For example, the corpses were buried almost naked, presumably after being plundered. They were, at least, carefully laid to rest. The bodies were gathered from the battlefield and placed in a grave next to the street, arranged in two rows with their legs facing each other.


Several layers of dead probably lie within these two blocks, although researchers have only uncovered the first. The burials were not taken care of by the surviving soldiers, who were already on their way to the next battle. Instead the good citizens of Lützen had to take on the unpleasant job. They asked 200 soldiers in the neighboring garrison of Weissenfels for extra support.


The discovery at Lützen, being prepared by Heilmann with dental tools and brushes, is not unique, though. Researchers know of more mass graves in Germany from the Thirty Years' War. They have been found during the construction of a house in Höchstadt in central Franconia in 1985, excavated by a gravel dredge in Wittstock in Brandenburg in 2007 and exposed by pipeline engineers in Alerheim in southwest Germany in 2008. The grave at Wittstock has recently been put on display at the State Archaeological Museum in Brandenburg an der Havel.


But the grave at Lützen is an especially systematic and successful investigation, and its scientific results promise to be comprehensive, even though the work is still in its infancy. The skull of "I9", for example, shows clear traces of a blow. A lead bullet is lodged in the pelvis of "I2" from a shot to the buttocks. A strontium isotope analysis will uncover whether it was a Saxon, Swede or Scotsman that had to suffer that particular misfortune.


The analysis will likely be conducted by researchers from the Bristol University. The British specialists have already helped their German colleagues when the tomb of medieval Queen Edith was opened in Magdeburg in 2009. The procedure works like this: People in differing regions of the world are exposed to characteristic chemical forms of the metal strontium. Because the different isotopes of the element are integrated into the human body, they leave telltale signatures. With a little luck scientists can examine the bones to reconstruct where soldiers traveled in the years before their death. Teeth reveal information about their childhoods.

Anthropologists, chemists, historians, soil and weapons experts will conduct a joint analysis in the coming months. "We always work with other disciplines. Old school archaeology is out," says Alfred Reichenberger, spokesman for the Saxony-Anhalt State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology. The work will take a long time, that much is clear. But at some point there might be a visitor's center at the edge of the former battlefield, says Reichel, head of the Lützen museum.


The center will report on the horrors of the war and serve as a warning for today's generation. Because, as Reichel adds: "History doesn't repeat itself. But it has its habits."



Archaeologists accuse MoD of allowing US company to 'plunder' shipwreck

Experts take legal advice in effort to block lucrative deal on underwater excavation of HMS Victory

Dalya Alberge

The Observer, Sunday 6 May 2012


The Ministry of Defence is facing a legal battle and parliamentary questions after letting a US company excavate a British 18th-century warship laden with a potentially lucrative cargo.


Lord Renfrew is among leading archaeologists condemning a deal struck over HMS Victory, considered the world's mightiest ship when she sank in the Channel in 1744.


In return for excavating the vessel's historic remains, which may include gold and silver worth many millions of pounds, Odyssey Marine Exploration is entitled to receive "a percentage of the recovered artefacts' fair value" or "artefacts in lieu of cash".


Lord Renfrew, a Cambridge academic, said: "That is against the Unesco convention, in particular against the annexe, which states that underwater cultural heritage may not be sold off or exploited for commercial gain. Odyssey is a commercial salvager. It's not clear that payment could be obtained other than by the sale of the artefacts which are raised – which, of course, is how Odyssey has operated in the past. To raise artefacts simply for sale would be regarded by most responsible archaeologists as plundering."


Two bronze guns have already been recovered from the wreck and sold to the National Museum of the Royal Navy, funded out of the MoD's grant.


The archaeologists accuse the MoD of dereliction of duty in passing responsibility for the wreck to the Maritime Heritage Foundation (MHF), a charitable trust "which appears to have no financial, archaeological or management resources" while embarking on a project "that will cost millions".


Archaeologists are determined to halt the excavation and are taking advice from maritime lawyers. The issue was raised by the All-party Parliamentary Archaeology Group.


An Odyssey spokeswoman said that the MHF will work with an advisory group including representatives from the MoD and English Heritage, "to ensure that best archaeological practices are adopted in line with the annexe".