Article created on Thursday, December 5, 2013


Using novel techniques to extract and study ancient DNA researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, have determined an almost complete mitochondrial genome sequence of a 400,000-year-old representative of the genus Homo from Sima de los Huesos, a unique cave site in Northern Spain, and found that it is related to the mitochondrial genome of Denisovans, extinct relatives of Neanderthals in Asia. DNA this old has until recently been retrieved only from the permafrost.


Sima de los Huesos, the “bone pit”, is a cave site in Northern Spain that has yielded the world’s largest assembly of Middle Pleistocene hominin fossils, consisting of at least 28 skeletons, which have been excavated and pieced together over the course of more than two decades by a Spanish team of paleontologists led by Juan-Luis Arsuaga. The fossils are classified as Homo heidelbergensis but also carry traits typical of Neanderthals. Until now it had not been possible to study the DNA of these unique hominins.

Matthias Meyer and his team from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, have developed new techniques for retrieving and sequencing highly degraded ancient DNA. They then joined forces with Juan-Luis Arsuaga and applied the new techniques to a cave bear from the Sima de los Huesos site. After this success, the researchers sampled two grams of bone powder from a hominin thigh bone from the cave. They extracted its DNA and sequenced the genome of the mitochondria or mtDNA, a small part of the genome that is passed down along the maternal line and occurs in many copies per cell. The researchers then compared this ancient mitochondrial DNA with Neanderthals, Denisovans, present-day humans, and apes.


From the missing mutations in the old DNA sequences the researchers calculated that the Sima hominin lived about 400,000 years ago. They also found that it shared a common ancestor with the Denisovans, an extinct archaic group from Asia related to the Neanderthals, about 700,000 years ago. “The fact that the mtDNA of the Sima de los Huesos hominin shares a common ancestor with Denisovan rather than Neanderthal mtDNAs is unexpected since its skeletal remains carry Neanderthal-derived features”, says Matthias Meyer. Considering their age and Neanderthal-like features, the Sima hominins were likely related to the population ancestral to both Neanderthals and Denisovans. Another possibility is that gene flow from yet another group of hominins brought the Denisova-like mtDNA into the Sima hominins or their ancestors.


“Our results show that we can now study DNA from human ancestors that are hundreds of thousands of years old. This opens prospects to study the genes of the ancestors of Neanderthals and Denisovans. It is tremendously exciting” says Svante Pääbo, director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

“This unexpected result points to a complex pattern of evolution in the origin of Neanderthals and modern humans. I hope that more research will help clarify the genetic relationships of the hominins from Sima de los Huesos to Neanderthals and Denisovans” says Juan-Luis Arsuaga, director of the Center for Research on Human Evolution and Behaviour. The researchers are now pursuing this goal by focusing on retrieving DNA from more individuals from this site and on retrieving also nuclear DNA sequences.


Source: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig


More Information

A mitochondrial genome sequence of a hominin from Sima de los Huesos – Nature

Hominin DNA baffles experts – Nature News

400 thousand year old human mtDNA from Sima de los Huesos – Dienekes’ Anthropology Blog


Cite this article

Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig. mtDNA from 400,000 year old hominin: a great leap forward. Past Horizons. December 05, 2013, from http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/12/2013/DNA from 400,000 year old hominin: a great leap forward



New evidence suggests Neanderthals organized their living spaces

Behavior indicates yet another similarity with modern humans

Contact: David Kelly



University of Colorado Denver



DENVER (Dec. 3, 2013) – Scientists have found that Neanderthals organized their living spaces in ways that would be familiar to modern humans, a discovery that once again shows similarities between these two close cousins.


The findings, published in the latest edition of the Canadian Journal of Archaeology, indicate that Neanderthals butchered animals, made tools and gathered round the fire in different parts of their shelters.


"There has been this idea that Neanderthals did not have an organized use of space, something that has always been attributed to humans," said Julien Riel-Salvatore, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado Denver and lead author of the study. "But we found that Neanderthals did not just throw their stuff everywhere but in fact were organized and purposeful when it came to domestic space."


The findings are based on excavations at Riparo Bombrini, a collapsed rock shelter in northwest Italy where both Neanderthals and, later, early humans lived for thousands of years. This study focused on the Neanderthal levels while future research will examine the more recent modern human levels at the site. The goal is to compare how the two groups organized their space.


The site comprises three levels assigned to Neanderthals. Scientists found that Neanderthals divided the cave into different areas for different activities. The top level was used as a task site – likely a hunting stand - where they could kill and prepare game. The middle level was a long-term base camp and the bottom level was a shorter term residential base camp.


Riel-Salvatore and his team found a high frequency of animal remains in the rear of the top level, indicating that the area was likely used for butchering game. They also found evidence of ochre use in the back of the shelter.


"We found some ochre throughout the sequence but we are not sure what it was used for," Riel-Salvatore said. "Neanderthals could have used it for tanning hides, for gluing, as an antiseptic or even for symbolic purposes – we really can't tell at this point."


In the middle level, which has the densest traces of human occupation, artifacts were distributed differently. Animal bones were concentrated at the front rather than the rear of the cave. This was also true of the stone tools, or lithics. A hearth was in back of the cave about half a meter to a meter from the wall. It would have allowed warmth from the fire to circulate among the living area.


"When you make stone tools there is a lot of debris that you don't want in high traffic areas or you risk injuring yourself," Riel-Salvatore said. "There are clearly fewer stone artifacts in the back of the shelter near the hearth."


The bottom level, thought to represent a short-term base camp, is the least well known because it was exposed only over a very small area. More stone artifacts were found immediately inside the shelter's mouth, suggesting tool production may have occurred inside the part of the site where sunlight was available. Some shellfish fragments also suggest that Neanderthals exploited the sea for food; like ochre, these are found in all the levels.


The discoveries are the latest in continuing research by Riel-Salvatore showing that Neanderthals were far more advanced than originally thought.


In an earlier study, he found that Neanderthals were highly innovative, creating bone tools, ornaments and projectile points. He also co-authored a paper demonstrating that interbreeding between Neanderthals and humans may have led to the ultimate demise of the outnumbered hominins. Still, Neanderthal genes make up between one and four percent of today's human genome, especially among Europeans.


"This is ongoing work, but the big picture in this study is that we have one more example that Neanderthals used some kind of logic for organizing their living sites," Riel-Salvatore said. "This is still more evidence that they were more sophisticated than many have given them credit for. If we are going to identify modern human behavior on the basis of organized spatial patterns, then you have to extend it to Neanderthals as well."


The study was published in the latest issue of the Canadian Journal of Archaeology. Co-authors include Ingrid Ludeke, a University of Colorado Denver MA student; Fabio Negrino of the Istituto di Storia della Cultura Materiale (Genoa, Italy); and Brigitte Holt, of UMass – Amherst.



Riel-Salvatore, J., I.C. Ludeke, F. Negrino, & B.M. Holt. 2013.A spatial analysis of the Late Mousterian levels of Riparo Bombrini (Balzi Rossi, Italy). Canadian Journal of Archaeology 37(1): 70-92.


The University of Colorado Denver offers more than 130 degrees and programs in 13 schools and colleges and serves more than 28,000 students. The University is located on the Denver Campus and the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, Colo.



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Copyright ©2013 by AAAS, the science society.



9000 year old music and alcohol - a powerful mix

Article created on Tuesday, December 3, 2013


Excavations in 1986 and 1987 at the early Neolithic site of Jiahu, located in Henan Province, Northern China, yielded six complete bone flutes as well as fragments of approximately 30 others.


Tonal analysis of the Neolithic flutes revealed that the seven holes they contain corresponded to a scale remarkably similar to the eight-note scale of “do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do“. This carefully-selected tone scale suggested to the researchers that the musician of the seventh millennium BCE could play music and not just single notes.


The exquisitely-crafted flutes are all made from the ulnae or wing bones of the red-crowned crane (Grus japonensis Millen). The best-preserved flute has actually been played and this presented a rare opportunity to hear musical sounds from nine millennia ago. Two audio recordings of the flutes being played are available here: WAV file 1 (4.2 Mb), WAV file 2 (1.7 Mb).


Jiahu continued to provide scientists with insights into the early lives of Neolithic peoples in this region of China as archaeo-chemist Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania Museum sampled ceramics taken from dated layers and found traces of alcohol made from rice, honey and fruit.


Jiahu lies in the Central Yellow River Valley in mid-Henan Province and was inhabited from 7000 BCE to 5700 BCE. The site was discovered in 1962 by Zhu Zhi, late director of the Wuyang County Museum, but only in the past 15 years has significant excavation activity taken place. In addition to the musical instruments and evidence of fermentation, the site has yielded important information on the early foundations of Chinese society.


In 2003, the site was made famous when tortoise shells were discovered to have symbols carved onto them (now known as Jiahu Script). Radiocarbon dating suggests the tortoise shells found within human graves date from 6600-6200 BCE. According to some archaeologists the script bears certain similarities to the 2nd millennium BCE oracle shell script. A 2003 report interpreted the Jiahu Script “not as writing itself, but as features of a lengthy period of sign-use which led eventually to a fully-fledged system of writing.”



To date, only five percent of Jiahu Neolithic village has been excavated, uncovering 45 house foundations, 370 cellars, nine pottery kilns and thousands of artefacts of bone, pottery, stone and other materials. The excavations are helping to provide an insight into the very early structures of Chinese society.


Source: Brookhaven National Laboratory


More Information

Zhang, JuZhong, Garman Harboolt, Changsui Wang, and ZhaoChen Kong. “Oldest playable musical instrument found at Jiahu early Neolithic site in China.” Nature. 23 September 1999

[Rincon; Li, X; Harbottle, Garman; Zhang Juzhong; Wang Changsui (2003). 'The earliest writing? Sign use in the seventh millennium BC at Jiahu, Henan Province, China'. Archaeology 77. pp31–44]

McGovern PE, Zhang J, Tang J, Zhang Z, Hall GR, Moreau RA, Nuñez A, Butrym ED, Richards MP, Wang CS, Cheng G, Zhao Z, Wang C.

Fermented beverages of pre- and proto-historic China.  Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2004 December 21; 101(51): 17593–17598.

Published online 2004 December 8. doi:  10.1073/pnas.0407921102


Brookhaven National Laboratory. 9000 year old music and alcohol – a powerful mix. Past Horizons. December 03, 2013, from http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/12/2013/9000-year-old-music-alcohol-powerful-mix





Tullie House Museum in Carlisle, Northwest England, has two rare Neolithic wooden tridents now on display. The artefacts were discovered in 2009 during excavation work, but so far, despite much examination and discussion, these 6000 year old objects have baffled archaeologists as to their intended function.


Only four other similar tridents exist in the UK and they were all found in the nineteenth century, two from Ehenside Tarn, in Cumbria, Northwest England, and two from a bog in Armagh, Northern Ireland. They are all almost identical in design and this suggests that they were made for a purpose that required a very specific form that was understood when crafted.


The two tridents displayed at Tullie House, were discovered during archaeological excavations prior to the construction of the Carlisle Northern Development Route (CNDR) by a team from Oxford Archaeology North in advance of a new transport route on the River Eden flood plain to the west of the village of Stainton. Archaeological surveying in an area rich in Roman heritage was an important part of the planning and pre-construction process and the exceptional preservation found in the ancient paleochannels has excited everyone, including the construction firm building the road.


Andy Dean, Regional Director from Balfour Beatty said, “The discovery of these tridents was an important and exciting event during the preparation work for the new road. The project team expected there to be archaeological finds in the vicinity of Hadrian’s Wall and Vallum, however the tridents, tools and flints discovered in the flood plain is of [equal] national importance.”

The tridents both measure over 2 metres in length and each has been expertly crafted – using stone tools – from a single plank of mature split oak (c 300 year old tree). They would have been heavy objects, seemingly built for their strength.


The fieldwork was undertaken in 2009, and a programme of post-excavation analysis is ongoing involving specialists from a wide range of fields and different organisations.

One of the most exciting areas uncovered – which produced the tridents – was a a multi-period prehistoric site to the west of the village of Stainton, perched upon an early Holocene terrace of the River Eden and excavations soon unearthed a large assemblage of finds, dating predominantly from the very end of the Mesolithic and into the Neolithic period.

It comprised a series of palaeochannels, with a dense, in situ scatter of struck lithic material (c 300,000 pieces) on an island between two of these channels. Finds of worked wood and stone within the channels, associated with well-preserved palaeoenvironmental assemblages, indicate various phases of human activity from from c 5500 BC cal onwards.

The lithic material is predominately characteristic of a narrow-blade, geometric microlithic technology and so is in general, consistent with a late Mesolithic date (OA North 2011). The other types which were also recovered, such as leaf-shaped points and polished stone pieces are usually considered to be later in date. One possible conclusion is that the site is transitional, encompassing the Mesolithic-Neolithic continuum.


Within the palaeochannels, finds of worked wood and stone, associated with well-preserved palaeoenvironmental assemblages, indicate various phases of human activity. The earliest of these, dating to the later Mesolithic represents the opportunistic reuse of beaver-made structures bearing the scars left by voracious gnawing.

Beavers can have a dramatic effect on their environment, coppicing woods to create clearings, ponding streams with their dams and creating artificial islands with their lodges. Human hunter-fishers may have been attracted to such modified environments, perhaps explaining the evidence for human activity at this level within the channel at Stainton West.

One log bore what has been interpreted as claw marks of a brown bear that had once climbed a tree prior to felling and then reused within a beaver dam.


Subsequently, a later Neolithic phase of activity starting in the early part of the fourth millennium cal BC comprised the construction of a wooden platform and other structures in a channel and the accidental or deliberate deposition of various wooden and stone artefacts. This included the two large wooden tridents, several polished axeheads and fragments of polissoirs (stones for polishing stone axeheads).

Burnt mounds, a sauna type structure, fish traps and medieval exploitation of the river continue to show the areas importance over thousands of years. To learn more about the finds, visit the dedicated website: http://cndr.thehumanjourney.net/ where hundreds of images can be viewed.


Despite detailed study of the Stainton West tridents, the function of these objects still remains a mystery. They do not appear to be well-suited for use as digging forks or fishing spears, or once covered in skin and used as paddles, as was speculated in the case of the Ehenside tridents from Penrith. However, there was no evidence for this at Stainton West, and they do not seem ideally formed for use as paddles.

Generally, it is not possible to deduce the function of the objects from patterns of wear on the tines or elsewhere, as none is evident. Taylor and Bamford (2013) have examined the tridents and then compared them to wooden forks of known function, concluding that there are no clear parallels.


What do you think?

If you have an idea of what they may be, then either comment below using Facebook or contact us by email – editor@pasthorizons.com and we will pass on all your ideas.

Source: Fraser Brown (Oxford Archaeology North) and Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery Trust


More Information

Carlisle Northern Development Route (CNDR) post-excavation project.

Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery Trust

Oxford Archaeology North

Darbishire, R D, 1874 Notes on discoveries in Ehenside Tarn, Cumberland, Archaeologia, 44(2), 273-92.

Taylor, M, and Bamforth, M, 2013 Waterlogged wood analysis report, CNDR 08, unpubl rep.

OA North, 2011 Stainton West, Carlisle Northern Development Route: Archaeological Assessment,unpubl rep.

Armagh tridents from bog

Cite this article

Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery Trust. Rare Neolithic wooden tridents on display. Past Horizons. December 06, 2013, from http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/12/2013/neolithic-wooden-tridents-mystery-artefacts



Scientists Reveal Extraordinary Sonic Properties of Stonehenge Bluestones

Dec 2, 2013 by Sci-News.com


British researchers, reporting in the journal Time & Mind: the Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture, may have cracked the mystery of why the builders of Stonehenge chose to haul some of its giant bluestones 320 km away from Wales to Salisbury Plain.


Their pilot study is focused on bluestones in the Carn Menyn Ridge, Preseli Hills, south-west Wales, the source area of some of the Stonehenge bluestones.


According to local legend, the bluestones possess magical and healing properties. But what Dr Paul Devereux and Dr Jon Wozencroft from London’s Royal College of Art have now discovered are the extraordinary ‘sonic properties’ of these stones, which might have led to their use in Stonehenge.


After testing over 1,000 stones at points all along the Carn Menyn Ridge, they found that on average, between 5-10 percent of the rocks ‘ring’ when hit. In localized places, the figure rises to 15–20 percent, ‘with a few very small hotspots up to double that percentage again.




“When struck, some make a range of metallic sounds, from pure bell-like tones to tin drum noises to deeper gong-like resonances,” Dr Devereux and Dr Wozencroft explained.


Being in no doubt that the source area of the Stonehenge bluestones is a noteworthy soundscape, the scientists traveled to Stonehenge itself. The sonic properties of the bluestones were tested in situ, the first time this had ever been done.


“Was sound a key reason behind the otherwise inexplicable transport of these stones from Preseli to Salisbury Plain – whether they were to be rung at Stonehenge, or simply because the megalith builders associated them with the magical properties of the astonishing Carn Menyn soundscape?”


“Stonehenge will never tell us for certain. But given all that the study has discovered, such a suggestion may well ring true with further research.”


Bibliographic information: Paul Devereux & Jon Wozencroft. Stone Age Eyes and Ears: A Visual and Acoustic Pilot Study of Carn Menyn and Environs, Preseli, Wales. Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture, published online December 02, 2013; doi: 10.1080/1751696X.2013.860278



Welsh church uncovers stunning medieval wall paintings

6 December 2013 Last updated at 02:26 GMT


Built on the site of a 7th century monastery and founded around 1200, St Cadoc's in Llancarfan, Vale of Glamorgan is, from the outside, just another beautiful small Welsh village church.


But inside, conservators have uncovered some stunning 15th century wall paintings to the delight of locals, visitors and experts alike.


After the discovery of a thin red line of paint on the wall, a team of experts were brought in to investigate what else was lurking behind the 20 layers of limewash added over five centuries.


Now, after five years of restoration work, the church is revealing its treasures: startlingly bold images of the seven deadly sins, a royal family, a ghoulish death figure - and what has been described as one of the largest and most spectacular tableaux of St George and the Dragon ever seen in a British church.


The work was funded by local trusts, Wales's heritage body Cadw and the Heritage Lottery Fund.


Having been closed except for services during the long periods of conservation work, St Cadoc's is now ready for the public to see the pictures for themselves.


BBC News went to visit the church and meet the people bringing the paintings to life.



Digging Up George Washington's Pre-Revolutionary War Kitchen

Wed, Dec 04, 2013

Mount Vernon, Virginia


Anyone visiting George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation estate today couldn't possibly miss, among other things, this U.S. Founding Father's large, white, well-appointed mansion house and its associated outbuildings. It has graced post cards for decades. It represents his home as it looked in its prime, as he lived in it following his terms as the Nation's first President.

What visitors don't usually see, however, are the remains of a different estate lying just below the surface -- different because, in 1775, Washington embarked on a major campaign to renovate and remodel the Mansion, outbuildings, and even the landscape, transforming it to the place visitors see restored today. Now, archaeologists are exposing part of the hidden pre-1775 footprint, more particularly the foundations of an early pre-Revolutionary War kitchen adjacent to the west side of the Mansion.

"We uncovered sections of the north, east, and south brick wall foundations of the first-period kitchen and the north cheek of its chimney base," writes Luke Pecoraro, Assistant Director for Archaeological Research at Mount Vernon in a report. Other artifacts included fragments of white salt-glazed stoneware, a type of ceramic ware imported directly from England and used at Mount Vernon in the late 1750's, and hand-painted pearlware, a type of ceramic ware that is not documented in the orders of imports to the estate, and thus could only have been revealed through archaeological investigation.


Archaeologists know, based on the estate inventory taken after Washington's older half-brother Lawrence's death in 1752, that there were four pre-1775 outbuildings, which included an earlier storehouse, dairy, kitchen, and washhouse. In conjunction with the archaeological record, this has defined an approximate visual concept of the earlier Mount Vernon Mansion complex. To further investigate and elucidate this earlier construction, Mount Vernon’s Historic Preservation and Collections Department, in conjunction with the Historic Preservation Program in the Department of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at the University of Maryland (UMD), organized a field school led by archaeologists and consisting of students representing 8 U.S. universities.  Says Pecoraro: "The focus of the summer [2013] field work was the 1775 kitchen, offering an opportunity for us to explore the first generation of outbuildings at Mount Vernon, specifically an early kitchen and dairy, that George Washington inherited from his brother Lawrence and used for approximately 20 years before tearing them down to enlarge the Mansion, build a new kitchen, and connect the two with a covered archway."

"A single test unit was opened for the dairy, where we encountered the intact southwest corner of the building’s sandstone foundations," added Pecoraro. "Artifacts found in the eighteenth-century dairy destruction rubble included fragments of ceramic vessels, plaster from the interior walls, and a decorated rim to a wine glass bearing a pattern that was identical to a sherd recovered from the near-by South Grove midden."

The South Grove midden was a refuse pit used by the Washington family and enslaved families during the late 18th century. Located near the family kitchen, it was excavated by archaeologists from 1990 through 1994, resulting in the recovery of nearly 300,000 artifacts.


"Our final discovery [for the 2013 season] was the cobblestone surface of what we believe to be George Washington’s circular driveway," Pecoraro continued. "In some places it is less than an inch below the modern road surface. These cobblestones had been documented in two previous excavations."

The field school will continue at least through the next season in 2014. Individuals interested in participating should link to the informational flyer here.

See the project website for more, including videos.