First Plant Material Found On Ancient Hominins' Teeth - Remains Of Food Found In 2 Million-Year-Old Dental Plaque

28 June 2012 University of the Witwatersrand


The first direct evidence of what our earliest ancestors ate has been discovered due to a two million-year-old mishap that befell two early members of the human family tree.


The find has provided the most robust evidence to date of what at least one pair of hominins consumed. This remarkable research is published in the online edition of the prestigious journal Nature on Wednesday, 27 June 2012, and will appear in the 5th July print edition.


“The find is unprecedented in the human record outside of fossils just a few thousand years old. It is the first truly direct evidence of what our early ancestors put in their mouths and chewed – what they ate,” says Prof. Lee Berger, Reader in Human Evolution and the Public Understanding of Science at the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, who led the team comprising of nine leading scientists from across the globe. The lead author is Amanda Henry of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, a specialist in dental calculus and tartar.


Other specialists on the multidisciplinary team included dental micro-wear specialists, isotopic specialists and phytolith researchers – scientists whom study the physical remains of ancient plants. “We have been very lucky to bring together such a diverse group of talented individuals to conduct this study,” says Henry.


Almost two million years ago, an elderly female and young male of the species Australopithecus sediba fell into a sinkhole, where their remains were quickly buried in sediment. As a result of this death, parts of the teeth were extremely well-preserved which has now enabled scientists to analyse the teeth in three different ways. In 2010, Berger and his colleagues described the remains of these creatures.


Berger also noticed what appeared to be stains on the teeth and realised they were probably dental plaque – tartar or calculus – mineralised material that forms on teeth. Three types of analysis Peter Ungar, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the University of Arkansas and the scientist responsible for conducting the dental micro-wear studies explains: “We have a very unusual type of preservation in this instance as the state of the teeth was pristine.”


This preservation enabled the researchers to analyse the teeth in three different ways. Dental micro-wear analyses of the tooth surfaces and high-resolution isotope studies of the tooth enamel were conducted on these remarkably well-preserved teeth. In addition, because the teeth had not been exposed to the elements since death, they also harboured areas of preserved tartar build-up around the edges of the teeth. In this plaque, the scientists found phytoliths, bodies of silica from plants eaten almost two million years ago by these early hominins.


“It is the first time that we have been able to look at these three elements in one or two specimens,” says Ungar. Using the isotope analysis, the dental micro-wear analysis and the phytolith analysis, the researchers closed in on the diet of these two individuals, and what they found differs from other early human ancestors from that period. The micro-wear on the teeth showed more pits and complexity than most other australopiths before it. Like the micro-wear, the isotopes also showed that the animals were consuming mostly parts of trees, shrubs or herbs rather than grasses. The phytoliths gave an even clearer picture of what the animals were consuming, including bark, leaves, sedges, grasses, fruit and palm.


Tests were conducted on the surrounding sediments to ensure the samples from the plaque were really part of the diet, and not contamination. “By testing the sediments in which the hominid was buried we can be sure that the phytoliths in the calculus were not from post depositional contamination,” says Prof. Marion Bamford from the Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontology at the University of the Witwatersrand, who worked on the phytolith analysis.




“I found the evidence for bark consumption the most surprising,” says Berger. “While primatologists have known for years that primates, including apes, eat bark as a fallback food in times of need, I really had not thought of it as a dietary item on the menu of an early human ancestor.” Matt Sponheimer, a Professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who worked on the isotopic research elaborates: “The results suggested a different diet than we have found in other early hominins, and were rather like what we find in living chimpanzees. We were not expecting Sediba to look unlike Australopithecus and Homo as various researchers have suggested affinities to one genus or the other, or both.”


Ungar adds: “These findings tell us a really nice story about these two individuals. We get a sense of an animal that looked like it was taking advantage of forest resources. This kind of food consumption differs from what has been seen in evidence from other australopiths. They come out looking like giraffes in terms of their tooth chemistry. A lot of the other creatures there were not eating such forest resources.”


“To think that we have direct evidence of what these near humans put in their mouths and chewed, still preserved in their mouths after two million years is pretty remarkable,” concludes Berger.





Pottery 20,000 years old found in a Chinese cave


The Associated Press


BEIJING — Pottery fragments found in a south China cave have been confirmed to be 20,000 years old, making them the oldest known pottery in the world, archaeologists say.


The findings, which will appear in the journal Science on Friday, add to recent efforts that have dated pottery piles in east Asia to more than 15,000 years ago, refuting conventional theories that the invention of pottery correlates to the period about 10,000 years ago when humans moved from being hunter-gathers to farmers.


The research by a team of Chinese and American scientists also pushes the emergence of pottery back to the last ice age, which might provide new explanations for the creation of pottery, said Gideon Shelach, chair of the Louis Frieberg Center for East Asian Studies at The Hebrew University in Israel.


"The focus of research has to change," Shelach, who is not involved in the research project in China, said by telephone.


In an accompanying Science article, Shelach wrote that such research efforts "are fundamental for a better understanding of socio-economic change (25,000 to 19,000 years ago) and the development that led to the emergency of sedentary agricultural societies."


He said the disconnection between pottery and agriculture as shown in east Asia might shed light on specifics of human development in the region.


Wu Xiaohong, professor of archaeology and museology at Peking University and the lead author of the Science article that details the radiocarbon dating efforts, told The Associated Press that her team was eager to build on the research.


"We are very excited about the findings. The paper is the result of efforts done by generations of scholars," Wu said. "Now we can explore why there was pottery in that particular time, what were the uses of the vessels, and what role they played in the survival of human beings."


The ancient fragments were discovered in the Xianrendong cave in south China's Jiangxi province, which was excavated in the 1960s and again in the 1990s, according to the journal article.


Wu, a chemist by training, said some researchers had estimated that the pieces could be 20,000 years old, but that there were doubts.


"We thought it would be impossible because the conventional theory was that pottery was invented after the transition to agriculture that allowed for human settlement."


But by 2009, the team — which includes experts from Harvard and Boston universities — was able to calculate the age of the pottery fragments with such precision that the scientists were comfortable with their findings, Wu said.


"The key was to ensure the samples we used to date were indeed from the same period of the pottery fragments," she said.


That became possible when the team was able to determine the sediments in the cave were accumulated gradually without disruption that might have altered the time sequence, she said.


Scientists took samples, such as bones and charcoal, from above and below the ancient fragments in the dating process, Wu said.


"This way, we can determine with precision the age of the fragments, and our results can be recognized by peers," Wu said.


Shelach said he found the process done by Wu's team to be meticulous and that the cave had been well protected throughout the research.


The same team in 2009 published an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in which they determined the pottery fragments found in south China's Hunan province to be 18,000 years old, Wu said.


"The difference of 2,000 years might not be significant in itself, but we always like to trace everything to its earliest possible time," Wu said. "The age and location of pottery fragments help us set up a framework to understand the dissemination of the artifacts and the development of human civilization."



World's Oldest Purse Found—Studded With a Hundred Dog Teeth?

Andrew Curry in Berlin

for National Geographic News

Published June 27, 2012


The world's oldest purse may have been found in Germany—and its owner apparently had a sharp sense of Stone Age style.


Excavators at a site near Leipzig uncovered more than a hundred dog teeth arranged close together in a grave dated to between 2,500 and 2,200 B.C.


According to archaeologist Susanne Friederich, the teeth were likely decorations for the outer flap of a handbag.


"Over the years the leather or fabric disappeared, and all that's left is the teeth. They're all pointing in the same direction, so it looks a lot like a modern handbag flap," said Friederich, of the Sachsen-Anhalt State Archaeology and Preservation Office.


The dog teeth were found during excavations of the 250-acre (100-hectare) Profen (map) site, which is slated to become an open-pit coal mine in 2015.


So far the project has uncovered evidence of Stone and Bronze Age settlements, including more than 300 graves, hundreds of stone tools, spear points, ceramic vessels, bone buttons, and an amber necklace.


Thousands of finds from later periods—including the grave of a woman buried with a pound (half a kilogram) of gold jewelry around 50 B.C.—have also turned up.


Even among such a rich haul, the purse is something special, according to Friederich, who managed the excavation project. "It's the first time we can show direct evidence of a bag like this."


As rare as the dog-tooth handbag may be, canine teeth are actually fairly common in Stone Age northern and central European burials, Friederich said.


In fact, the sheer numbers of teeth in graves around the region suggest dogs were as much livestock as pets—the purse flap alone required the teeth of dozens of animals.


In other area Stone Age burials, dog and wolf teeth, as well as mussel shells, have been uncovered in patterns that suggest that corpses were covered with studded blankets, which have long since disintegrated, Friederich said.


More commonly, though, dog teeth are found in hair ornaments and in necklaces, for both women and men.


"It seems to have been very fashionable at the time," said Harald Staueble, senior archaeologist at Germany's Saxon State Archaeology Office.


"Not everyone was buried with such nice things—just the really special graves."



Mohenjo Daro: Could this ancient city be lost forever?

27 June 2012 Last updated at 00:06

By Aleem Maqbool

BBC News, Mohenjo Daro, southern Pakistan


Pakistani officials say they are doing their best to save one of the most important archaeological sites in south Asia, Mohenjo Daro. But some experts fear the Bronze Age site could be lost unless radical steps are taken.


It is awe-inspiring to walk through a home built 4,500 years ago.


Especially one still very much recognisable as a house today, with front and back entrances, interconnecting rooms, neat fired brick walls - even a basic toilet and sewage outlet.


Astonishingly, given its age, the home in question was also built on two storeys.


But it is even more impressive to walk outside into a real Bronze Age street, and see all of the other homes lining it.


And to walk the length of it, seeing the precise lanes running off it before reaching a grand, ancient marketplace.


This is the marvel of Mohenjo Daro, one of the earliest cities in the world.


In its day, about 2600 BC, its complex planning, incredible architecture, and complex water and sewage systems made it one of the most advanced urban settings anywhere. It was a city thought to have housed up to 35,000 inhabitants of the great Indus civilisation.


While I was overwhelmed by the scale and wonderment of it all, my eminent guide to the site was almost in tears of despair.


"Every time I come here, I feel worse than the previous time," says Dr Asma Ibrahim, one of Pakistan's most accomplished archaeologists.


"I haven't been back for two or three years," she says. "The losses since then are so immense and it breaks my heart."


Dr Ibrahim starts to point out signs of major decay.


In the lower town of Mohenjo Daro, where the middle and working classes once lived, the walls are crumbling from the base upwards. This is new damage.


The salt content of the ground water is eating away at the bricks that, before excavation, had survived thousands of years.


As we move to the upper town where the elite of the Indus civilization would have lived, and where some of the signature sites like the large public bath lie, it appears even worse.


Some walls have collapsed completely, others seem to be close to doing so.


"It is definitely a complicated site to protect, given the problems of salinity, humidity and rainfall," says Dr Ibrahim. "But most of the attempts at conservation by the authorities have been so bad and so amateur they have only accelerated the damage."


One method used has been to cover all the brickwork across the vast site with mud slurry, in the hope the mud will absorb the salt and moisture.


But where the mud has dried and crumbled, it has taken with it fragments of ancient brick, and the decay goes on underneath.


There are even parts of the site where millennia-old bricks have been replaced with brand new ones.


"In a way, it is testament to Mohenjo Daro that it is still standing, given everything that has been thrown at it in the last few decades in the name of conservation," says Dr Ibrahim.


Even the Mohenjo Daro museum has been looted, with many of its famous seals (thought to have been used by traders) among the artefacts that were stolen. They have not been recovered.


A guide at the site says he too has seen the dramatic changes in its condition and upkeep.


And while Pakistani visitors do still come on public holidays, he says very few foreign tourists visit Mohenjo Daro now. He suggests that might be because of Pakistan's security problems.


Given the damage being done to this World Heritage Site, a poor tourism strategy has become the least of its troubles.


It was the government of Pakistan that was in charge of Mohenjo Daro for decades, but recently responsibility was handed over to the provincial authorities in Sindh. They have now set up a technical committee to rescue the site.


Burying the site may be the only hope


"We need urgently to listen to experts from all fields to save Mohenjo Daro," says Dr Ibrahim.


"Yes, there is salinity, but local farmers have worked out how to overcome that problem so why can't we? But we have to do something soon, because if things carry on like this, in my assessment, the site will not last more than 20 years."


One saving grace may be that some of the city remains unexcavated and so remains protected.


Some experts have gone so far as to suggest the entire site should be buried again to halt its decline.


It is a sign of the desperation of those who love Mohenjo Daro, and who are pained to see a city that once rivalled sites of its contemporary civilisations in Egypt, Mesopotamia and China, losing its glory in this undignified way.



Queen’s hair pin found in a toilet

PARIS - The Associated Press


A hairpin belonging to 16th century French Queen Catherine de Medici has been discovered at a royal residence outside Paris. What has conservators scratching their heads is exactly where it was found: down a communal toilet.


Officials said it’s the first time in modern history that a possession of the Renaissance royal has been found at Fontainebleau Palace. Though the queen was renowned across Europe for her lavish jewelry, much of her collection has been lost, sold or stolen over the centuries.


The rare 9 centimeter-pin was identified easily because it bore interlocking C’s - for “Catherine.”

The artifact was found by accident as archeologists dug around the toilet to prepare the surrounding area for restoration.


Droguet called the find a “mystery.” “But what would Catherine de Medici be doing there? Maybe it was a lady-in-waiting who took it. Perhaps it just fell in.”



Archaeologists Unearth Rare 17th Century Find at Jamestown Excavations

Thu, Jun 21, 2012


It was discovered while archaeologists were carefully digging fill soil above a cellar dated to the early James Fort period (1607-1610) at Jamestown, Virginia, the site of North America's first successful English colony. The artifact was the lower leaf of an ivory pocket sundial known in the 17th century as a diptych dial. It clearly bore the name of its maker, Hans Miller, who was a 17th century craftsman known to have made sundials in Nuremberg, Germany. Like many objects found at the Jamestown excavations, it had taken the long journey across the Atlantic, likely in the pocket of one of early Jamestown's gentlemen colonists. Such pieces were more commonly carried by individuals of gentry status.

It is not totally unique within the Jamestown context. Another lower leaf section of a table dial was recovered in 1998 from a structure near one of the palisades of the original James Fort. The diptych dial, on the other hand, was found in a cellar near James Fort's first well, which was only 10 feet away from the cellar.

"Such dials have two leaves like a book, hinged together on one end so the leaves open out to form a right angle", reports the discoverers at the Jamestown site. "Most diptych dials include a horizontal dial engraved on the inside of the lower leaf and a vertical dial on the inside of the upper. Strung between the two leaves is a "pole string" to serve as the gnomon (the object that makes a shadow; measuring the length and position of that shadow indicates the hour of the day)".

The most practical use for the instrument was thus to determine the time of day, but Jamestown curator Bly Straube believes that, more than telling time, it "was the aesthetic or religious satisfaction from making a device to simulate the heavens. The presence of these dials at Jamestown represents the age in which they were produced -- an age of exploration and discovery that was as much about philosophy as it was science. The "compass Dyall" was more than a timekeeper to the 17th century individual; it was a way for a gentleman engaged in the art of "dyalling" to ponder his place in the world".[1]

See the video below for more details about this unusual find, and read more news about the activities and progress of the excavations at Jamestown.





Cromwell’s men’s severed heads buried in James Green

Published on Friday 15 June 2012 09:22


HUMAN remains believed to belong to three of Oliver Cromwell’s soldiers have been unearthed during redevelopment work at James Green.


The discovery was made in recent days and the remains are now being examined by an archaeologist, Patrick Neary.


“The heads of seven of Cromwell’s men are believed to be buried there. They were killed near Ballinakill in Co Laois in 1642 and their heads were hung from the Market Cross in Kilkenny on the next market day and later buried. To date we have found what we believe are two severed heads belonging to the soldiers ,” he said.


This was at the beginning of Cromwell’s tenure and although Cromwell himself had yet to arrive in Ireland seven men (two officers and five soldiers), who were part of the English government forces were killed when they took on the Confederates. It was a bloody battle involving 60 of the government forces, who were marching from Ballyragget to Ballinakill and an estimated 600 of the Confederates.


The remains were discovered during development work of James Green. They have been removed and will be examined by an osteo archaelogist and are destined to be handed over to the National Museum in Dublin.


Medieval pottery and an old drain, believed to be from a well at The Closh to the River Breagagh have also being unearthed at the site. Excavations are ongoing and further finds are possible according to Mr Neary.


Mr Neary added that James Green is also believed to be close to the site of St James Church, which dates back to the 1300’s and was the departure point for pilgrims who made the pilgrimage to Santiago del Compostela in Spain.


The development works involve the removal of existing trees and flower beds, replanting with new trees and shrubs, the removal of the existing concrete footpath to be replaced with new footpaths, the refurbishment of the statue and the erection of new seats and lighting. The estimated cost of the development works is €50,000 and the works are expected to be completed by the end of the month.



Victorian domestic treasure trove found at Greenwich naval college

Champagne bottles, bowler hats and clay pipes among priceless hoard discovered bricked up under Royal Naval College steps

Maev Kennedy

guardian.co.uk, Sunday 1 July 2012 14.53 BST


A priceless hoard of Victorian rubbish – including champagne bottles, tennis balls, sports shoes, bowler hats, medicine jars, clay pipes and tobacco tins – has been discovered bricked up under steps leading to the imposing courtyard at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich.


The haul is so precisely the kind of domestic junk that any untidy householder shoves into a cupboard before an unexpected visitor, that archaeologists wonder if it represents just that, a hasty cleanup before a grand event at a site where royalty were regular visitors.


"It's the great thing about archaeology, it doesn't matter whether it's Roman or Victorian, things are always going to turn up which take you completely by surprise – and this was a real surprise and a bit of a mystery," said Nigel Jeffries from Museum of London Archaeology. "We were the first people to handle these objects since the space was bricked up 130 years ago. Was somebody just told to get rid of this stuff quickly – and spotted a convenient hole under the steps which was too good to pass by?"


The stash was found last winter when builders were replacing 1930s concrete render on the steps and removed damaged loose bricks, revealing the concealed space. The archaeologists were then called in.


The objects were datable to the 1870s and 80s from labels on the jars and tins, and the dishes for the Royal Naval officers' training college, which was established in 1873 in the magnificent buildings originally designed by Sir Christopher Wren as a hospital for naval pensioners.


"The mixture of objects is a mystery, too," Jeffries said. "Most of the shoes were odd. We only found a couple in pairs, which perhaps explains why they were thrown away. We're brought up on the legend of Victorian thrift yet the glass and tableware – made by firms such as Spode and Copeland – was of good quality and perfectly fit for use." They have been as carefully conserved as any buried treasure, and the most interesting will go on display at the visitors' centre, including a splendid clay pipe decorated with a view of the buildings.


Jo Hall, head of learning at the college, said some of the objects may have been stored waiting for repairs that nobody ever got round to – a tiny pot of gold paint was found, possibly intended for repairs to chipped rims of plates.


"They're particularly precious to us because they date from the naval college days – the officers left very little material evidence of their years here."


Shoes and pieces of clothing are so commonly found bricked up in old buildings as charms that one academic study has been tracking such finds across the country, but the Greenwich cache, including 17 shoes and three hats, marmalade and pickle jars and five scallop shells, does not appear to be a ritual deposit.



'Vampire-slaying kit' bought by Royal Armouries museum

25 June 2012 Last updated at 16:00


A "vampire-slaying kit" has been bought by the Royal Armouries museum in Leeds.


The 19th Century box, containing a prayer book, crucifix, pistols, wooden stakes and a mallet, was sold for £7,500 at an auction in North Yorkshire on Friday.


It had been left to a Yorkshire woman in her uncle's will.


The Royal Armouries said it expected the box would prove a major attraction when it went on display at the Clarence Dock museum later this year.


The box and its contents all date from the 19th Century but are likely to have been put together in the 20th Century.


It is thought it was produced to capitalise on the popularity of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula and the Hammer Horror Movies.


As well as the weaponry, the box contains a copy of the Book of Common Prayer from 1851 and a handwritten extract from the Bible which quotes Luke 19:27.


It reads: "But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me."


Jonathan Ferguson, curator of firearms at the Royal Armouries, said: "These kits are often said to have been made as novelties in the Victorian period, but research shows they are later than this.


"We've yet to establish a firm date for our kit, but we know it will attract a lot of interest from our museum visitors."