Scientists Push Back the Clock on Early Human Finds

New dating indicates early human fossils found in Turkana Basin, East Africa, are older than previously thought.

Sun, Dec 01, 2013


An international multi-disciplinary team of scientists have determined that a well-known group of early Homo (early human) fossils discovered in previous investigations at Koobi Fora in the Turkana Basin of East Africa have an age range that is older than previously estimated.

Led by archaeologist Josephine C.A. Joordens of the Netherlands' Leiden University, the researchers combined magnetostratigraphy and strontium (Sr) isotope stratigraphy techniques to develop a new age constraint range for 15 selected hominin fossils found in deposits on the Karari Ridge of the Koobi Fora region in the eastern Turkana Basin (Kenya). Magnetostratigraphy measures the polarity of Earth's changing magnetic field at the time a stratum (layer) was deposited. Strontium isotope stratigraphy involves measuring the ratios of Strontium isotopes in sediments to determine relative ages between successively deposited sediments. The fossils included key specimens such as cranium KNM-ER 1470, partial face KNM-ER 62000 and mandibles KNM-ER 1482, KNM-ER 1801, and KNM-ER 1802, all well-known among scientists and scholars involved in human evolution research. The fossil KNM-ER 1470, for example, has been classified as belonging to the early human species Homo rudolfensis, discovered by Bernard Ngeneo in 1972 and considered a possible theoretical contender for being ancestral to the human line. It has been dated to about 1.9 million years BPE.


Now, however, the results of their tests and analyses show a new age-range constraint of between 1.945 ± 0.004 and 2.058 ± 0.034 Ma, making the fossil finds older than previously estimated, and providing a sharper, more specific age range for their deposit.

"To address questions regarding the evolutionary origin, radiation and dispersal of the genus Homo," writes Joorden, et al. in their report, "it is crucial to be able to place the occurrence of hominin fossils in a high-resolution chronological framework. The period around 2 Ma (millions of years ago) in eastern Africa is of particular interest as it is at this time that a more substantial fossil record of the genus Homo is first found."

In addition to the new age range, their research shed light on the possible geographic origins and ecological/climatological adaptability of these early humans. As they report:

"........our results show that in this time interval, hominins occurred throughout the wet–dry climate cycles, supporting the hypothesis that the lacustrine Turkana Basin was a refugium during regionally dry periods. By establishing the observed first appearance datum of a marine-derived stingray in UBU [upper Burgi] deposits at 2.058 ± 0.034 Ma, we show that at this time the Turkana Basin was hydrographically connected [via a postulated ancient 'Turkana River'] to the Indian Ocean, facilitating dispersal of fauna between these areas. From a biogeographical perspective, we propose that the Indian Ocean coastal strip should be considered as a possible source area for one or more of the multiple Homo species in the Turkana Basin from over 2 Ma onwards."

The study report, Improved age control on early Homo fossils from the upper Burgi Member at Koobi Fora, Kenya, has been published in the December 2013 issue of the Journal of Human Evolution. 



Cannibal Neanderthal gang in northern Spain ate 12 of their neighbours raw, scientists say

Study shows the early humans butchered their rivals, breaking open their skulls and bones to extract the marrow

ADAM WITHNALL   Sunday 24 November 2013


Scientists have discovered the remains of a group of Neanderthals in northern Spain who were butchered and eaten by a group of local cannibals, according to research presented at the Royal Society in London.


First discovered deep inside the El Sidron cave system in 1994, the bones had been preserved for 51,000 years and have now been analysed using modern-day CSI forensic techniques.


According to reports in the Sunday Times, Carles Lalueza-Fox of the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona told the Society the slaughtered group included three children aged from two to nine, three teenagers and six adults.


“They appear to have been killed and eaten, with their bones and skulls split open to extract the marrow, tongue and brains,” he said.


“All had been butchered. It must have been a big feast.”


Dr Lalueza-Fox said the bone pile likely washed through a sinkhole from a rocky shelter above, eventually settling in the small alcove of the cave system where they were found.


This meant they were kept in a condition unlike almost any other Neanderthal remains, and proved a perfect snapshot of a single, deadly clash, likely between two local gangs.


The tools found at the site of the slaughter came from a few kilometres away, Dr Lalueza-Fox said, suggesting their fellow early human attackers were probably also their neighbours.


Finally, scientists proposed a theory for the motive behind the attack – and a simple one at that.


Unlike the earliest anatomically modern humans, who coped with periods of food shortage by joining forces in large, efficient groups, Neanderthals tended to gather in small family gangs of around 10-12.


When times were tough in winter, this meant they had to resort to extreme measures.


Dr Lalueza-Fox said: “I would guess they were killed in winter when food was short. There is no evidence of any fire so they were eaten raw immediately and every bit of meat was consumed. They even cut around the mandibles of the jaw to extract the tongues.”



10,000-year-old house uncovered outside Jerusalem

With range of dramatic finds in excavations ahead of highway expansion, archaeologists trace 10 millennia of human development

BY HAVIV RETTIG GUR November 25, 2013, 4:24 pm 297

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's political correspondent.


A remarkable archaeological find in the Judean lowlands southwest of Jerusalem includes a six-millennia-old cultic temple and a 10,000-year-old house.


The ancient sites were located in routine archaeological digs conducted ahead of a planned expansion of Route 38, the main access road to Beit Shemesh. The building is the oldest ever found in the area, and constitutes remarkable “evidence of man’s transition to permanent dwellings,” researchers said Monday.


Labeling it “a fascinating glimpse into thousands of years of human development,” the Israel Antiquities Authority, together with the Netivei Israel Company that is carrying out the highway expansion, invited the public to visit the excavation site in Eshtaol on Wednesday, November 27.


“Settlement remains were unearthed at the site, the earliest of which dates to the beginning of the eighth millennium BCE and latest to the end of the fourth millennium BCE,” the authority said in a statement Monday.


“We uncovered a multitude of unique finds during the excavation,” said Amir Golani, one of the excavators for the Antiquities Authority. “The large excavation affords us a broad picture of the progression and development of the society in the settlement throughout the ages. Thus we can clearly see that in the Early Bronze Age, 5,000 years ago, a rural society made the transition to an urban society. We can see distinctly a settlement that gradually became planned, which included [streets] and buildings that were extremely impressive from the standpoint of their size and the manner of their construction. We can clearly trace the urban planning and see the guiding hand of the settlement’s leadership that chose to regulate the construction in the crowded regions in the center of the settlement and allowed less planning along its periphery.”


The finds allow the researchers to “trace the development of a society which became increasingly hierarchical,” Golani said.


The oldest building found dates from the time of the earliest known domestication of plants and animals.


“Whoever built the house did something that was totally innovative because up until this period [local human groups] migrated from place to place in search of food. Here we have evidence of man’s transition to permanent dwellings, and that in fact is the beginning of the domestication of animals and plants; instead of searching out wild sheep, ancient man started raising them near the house,” researchers said in a statement.


The researchers included Golani, Ya‘akov Vardi, Benyamin Storchan and Ron Be’eri, who serve as excavation directors for the Antiquities Authority.


The house is the oldest structure ever found in the Judean lowlands, they said, dating back to the period known to archaeologists as the Pre-Pottery Neolithic.


“The building, almost all of which was found, underwent a number of construction and repair phases that allude to its importance,” they said.


Near the building, excavators found a collection of nine flint and limestone axes placed side by side.


“It is apparent that the axes, some of which were used as tools and some as cultic objects, were highly valued by their owners. Just as today we are unable to get along without a cellular telephone and a computer, they too attributed great importance to their tools. Based on how it was arranged at the time of its discovery it seems that the cluster of axes was abandoned by its owner for some unknown reason,” the researchers concluded.


But the building wasn’t the only find at the site. A handful of buildings from the end of the Chalcolithic period, some 6,000 years ago, was found nearby. At the site, excavators found a six-sided stone column standing some 1.3 meters (51 inches) high and weighing several hundred kilos.


“The standing stone was smoothed and worked on all six of its sides,” the archaeologists said, explaining that its broad face was oriented eastward and concluding that the find ”alludes to the presence of a cultic temple at the site.”


The standing stone (mazzevā) which is worked on all of its sides, serving as evidence of cultic activity in the Chalcolithic period. (photo credit: Zinobi Moskowitz, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

The standing stone (mazzevā) which is worked on all of its sides, serving as evidence of cultic activity in the Chalcolithic period. (photo credit: Zinobi Moskowitz, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)


“In the past, numerous manifestations have been found of the cultic practice that existed in the Chalcolithic period. However, from the research, we know of only a few temples” located at Ein Gedi and Teleilat Ghassul in present-day Jordan.




Article created on Thursday, November 28, 2013


The first evidence of proto-agricultural activity in what is now the state of Nuevo Leon in northeastern Mexico, is estimated to date from 3500-3000 BC, based on new research by archaeologists from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH).

This proto-agriculture was practised by hunter-gatherers who collected wild variants of what later became the staple domesticated crops of the region. The evidence for this activity comes from seeds, corn cobs and husks found at the small rock shelter site of El Morro.

“In Nuevo Leon archaeologists have never before identified any site with this type of evidence. After two seasons in El Morro , Municipality of Aramberri, we recovered approximately a thousand cobs and fragments, ” said Dr. Araceli Rivera Estrada, an INAH researcher for the region.

Exploring various rock shelters

Araceli Rivera, who in recent years has been devoted to exploring the various rock shelters in the area, highlighted the relevance of this finding saying, “evidence that hunter-gatherers of the region had already begun the initial process of farming from the Archaic period will lead us to reassess the categories to denote indigenous groups in the south of the state. ”

The researcher explained that the oldest records of the three major crops domesticated in Mexico (corn, squash and beans) come from only five caves which were excavated in the 1950s and 60s – Romero and Valenzuela near Ocampo (Tamaulipas); Coxcatlán and San Marcos, in the Tehuacan Valley (Puebla) and Guilá Naquitz (Oaxaca), with dates ranging from 7000 to 3000 years BC.


The INAH specialist reported that the recent investigation was conducted in the rock shelter which also contained a large amount of rock art representing human and animal figures.

“Inside, systematic excavations have recovered a large quantity of seeds, leaves, stems, fruits and even flowers as well as various species of corn ” said Rivera.

The archaeologists also found fragments of basketry and cordage.

Middle Archaic period

Rivera said “charcoal samples obtained at different stratigraphic levels of the El Morro deposit are in the process of being dated at the Laboratory of the Division of Studies and Academic Support INAH “.

He added that by association with two lithics that were recovered in the earlier layers, the agricultural material could be dated to the Middle Archaic period (3000-1500 BC).


Source: INAH



Chinese archaeologists uncover 4,000-year-old fortifications

(Xinhua)    08:14, November 29, 2013


Archaeologists said fortifications of the largest neolithic Chinese city ever discovered were excavated on Wednesday and Thursday in northwest China's Shaanxi Province.


The ruins of two square beacon towers, once part of the city wall of the 4,000-year-old Shimao Ruins in Shenmu County, have been uncovered, according to Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology.


One of the towers is 18 meters long, 16 meters wide and four meters tall, while the other is 11.7 meters long, about 10 meters wide and three meters tall, said Su Zhouyong, deputy head of the institute.


Sun said the discovery is a breakthrough and contributes greatly to archaeological research on ancient Chinese fortifications.


The Shimao Ruins were first found in 1976 in the form of a small town, and archaeological authorities only identified the ruins as part of a much larger city -- the largest of its kind from neolithic time -- last year after measuring the exact size of the ancient stone city.


The city was found to have a central area, and inner and outer structures. The walls surrounding the outer city extended over an area of 4.25 square kilometers.


Archaeologists said it was built about 4,300 years ago and was abandoned roughly 300 years later during the Xia Dynasty, the first dynasty in China to be described in ancient historical chronicles.



Archaeologists Uncover Earliest Evidence of Birth of Buddha

Ancient timber structure links to Buddha nativity and confirms birth in the sixth century BCE.

Mon, Nov 25, 2013


Scientists excavating within the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Maya Devi Temple in Lumbini, Nepal, have unearthed a timber structure that they date to the sixth century BCE. It is situated within and underlies a temple that is considered sacred to many as the birthplace of Siddhārtha Gautama, or Buddha. Until now, there has been no archaeological evidence supporting a date any earlier than the third century BCE for Buddha's life. Some historians have suggested the death of Buddha took place sometime in the late 4th century or early 3rd century BCE, although there are a number of traditions with varying dates.

"This sheds light on a very long debate," said excavation co-leader Robin Coningham of Durham University, U.K.

Working amidst meditating monks, visiting pilgrims and nuns, the international team of archaeologists, led by Coningham along with Kosh Prasad Acharya of the Pashupati Area Development Trust in Nepal, discovered the timber structure remains while excavating under an overlying series of successive brick temples. To determine the dating of the timber structure, including a previously unknown first brick structure superimposed above it, charcoal and sand grain samples removed from the relevant layers of the early timber structure were tested using radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence techniques. Interestingly, geoarchaeological research also revealed evidence of ancient tree roots within the timber structure's central space. This latter find is important because, according to Buddhist tradition, Queen Maya Devi, the mother of Buddha, gave birth to him while grasping a branch of a tree. Coningham and his colleagues suggest that the open central space from which the charcoal and sand samples were removed was large enough to accommodate the tree. Thus, concludes Coningham, "we have very clear evidence that this [timber] shrine was focused around the tree." The later brick temples built over the timber structure, which was built around the open central space, were also arranged around this central space. Moreover, the results of their investigation indicated that the central space had "never been covered by a roof," suggesting the significance of a space that clearly required special or unique treatment.


Said Coningham: "Very little is known about the life of the Buddha, except through textual sources and oral tradition. We thought 'why not go back to archaeology to try to answer some of the questions about his birth?' Now, for the first time, we have an archaeological sequence at Lumbini that shows a building there as early as the sixth century B.C."

Long lost and hidden by jungle overgrowth, ancient Lumbini was rediscovered in 1896 and, because of an inscription on a sandstone pillar discovered at the site, was identified as the birthplace of the Buddha. The inscription bears record of a historic visit by 3rd century India's Emperor Ashoka to the site of the Buddha's birth. The inscription also included the site's name as Lumbini. Under Ashoka's patronage, Buddhism spread from present-day Afghanistan to Bangladesh.

Other key historic sites related to Buddhism are Bodh Gaya, where Gautama became the Buddha; Sarnath, where he began his preaching; and Kusinagara, where he died.

Among the world's major religions, Buddhism is followed by about 500 million people, with hundreds of thousands who make the pilgrimage to Lumbini annually.  


The research was funded by the government of Japan in partnership with the government of Nepal under a UNESCO project for conserving and managing the Lumbini site. Funding was also provided by the National Geographic Society, Durham University, and Stirling University. The report details are published in the December 2013 issue of the international journal Antiquity.

A documentary on Coningham's exploration of the Buddha's life, "Buried Secrets of the Buddha," will premiere in February internationally on National Geographic Channel.



Treasure trove reveals Iron Age town

Västra Vång in Blekinge is now a sleepy rural community on Sweden’s southern Baltic coast. It has never been mentioned in ancient or medieval writings. So why are gold figurines and bronze busts turning up there?

November 23, 2013 - 06:32

By: Ingrid Spilde


Perhaps the locals should have had suspected there was a wealth of history in the soil beneath them. Several discoveries in the past and more recently show that long ago, this spot was out of the ordinary.


Burial mounds from the Viking Age abound here. In the 1860s residents dug up a six kg Viking treasure consisting of jewellery and over 4,000 silver coins. But archaeologists are now making discoveries that suggest this place was a significant, but unmapped centre.


That revelation started to become clearer in 2004 when researchers from Blekinge Museum found a little bronze mask with Celtic characteristics. They kept a lid on the news to prevent the site from being disturbed by treasure hunters. In 2012 and 2013, a team of archaeologists was dispatched to see if more treasures could be unearthed.


It turned out that they could.


No less than 29 guldgubbar have been found beneath the turf. The term means “little old man of gold”, and is also found in Norway and Denmark. These are thin pieces of hammered gold, fashioned as clothed men or women.


The figurines date back to the 6th century AD and were made for a few centuries. They are made of very thinly beaten gold and only a centimetre or two in height. But their significance towers over their size, according to the Swedish archaeologists.


“The discovery of gold from this period shows that people in the area served as soldiers in the Roman Army,” says Björn Nilsson, of Södertörn University College in a press release.


“Up here in the Nordic countries the gold coins that had been paid to the soldiers were melted down and formed into guldgubbar and guldkoner [gold wives]," he said.



This and two other heads that were turned up are similar to a mask unearthed in 2004. They have Celtic culture characteristics. (Photo: Max Jahrehorn, Blekinge Museum)

These gold figurines are most often found in spots which once had a significant political or ritual status, according to Blekinge Museum.


This is Sweden’s third largest treasure trove of guldgubbar. Soil in Vång also concealed five small bronze busts and a large assortment of undeterminable metal objects.


Could have been a cult spot

The researchers have found signs of iron production, a forge, the making of glass beads and handicrafts in bronze, as well as plenty of house ruins and other remnants of former inhabitancy.


The Blekinge Museum writes on its web pages that these clues tell us this was a vital community during the Iron Age.


But the characteristic metal artefacts are what really please the archaeologists.


All were found on a majestic hilltop in the middle of the former community. Perhaps this has been more than a place people resided. Could it have been the centre of a cult?


In any case, the museum notes that there are plenty of indications that this was an important site back in the Iron Age.


Västra Vång is centrally located by the Baltic, which since prehistory has been a thriving area for Northern European sea traffic and trade. The archaeologists conclude that these discoveries show Vång’s Iron Age residents were well acquainted with their contemporary world, near and far.



Mass grave found near cathedral

29 NOVEMBER 2013


Archaeologists have found a mass grave close to one of Britain's favourite cathedrals.


Bones from 18 bodies have been discovered by Durham University experts during building work at the Palace Green Library, part of the World Heritage Site in the historic city centre.


At first it was thought the bodies were buried in Durham Cathedral's medieval cemetery which was bigger than the current burial plot.


But further examination revealed an unorthodox and intriguing layout to the bodies which archaeologists say is proof of a mass burial.


Richard Annis, senior archaeologist, Archaeological Services Durham University, said: "We have found clear evidence of a mass burial and not a normal group of graves.


"The bodies have been tipped into the earth without elaborate ceremony and they are tightly packed together and jumbled.


"Some are buried in a North to South alignment, rather than the traditional East to West alignment that we would expect from a conventional medieval burial site."


Further research will be carried out on the remains, which will be tested to show their age. This will happen in the New Year.


Mr Annis added that no definitive interpretation could be offered at this stage in the investigation, saying: "The process of post-excavation processing, examination and analysis is essential to allow us to draw proper conclusions about this group of human remains.


"It is too early to say what they may be."


Once the bones have been examined - with permission from the Ministry of Justice - they must be reinterred at an approved burial ground.



A Robot Turtle Will Help Underwater Archaeologists to Inspect Shipwrecks

Nov. 26, 2013


The Robot Safari in London Science Museum will see the world premiere of the underwater robot U-CAT, a highly maneuverable robot turtle, designed to penetrate shipwrecks.


U-CAT's locomotion principle is similar to sea turtles. Independently driven four flippers make the robot highly maneuverable; it can swim forward and backward, up and down and turn on spot in all directions. Maneuverability is a desirable feature when inspecting confined spaces such as shipwrecks. The robot carries an onboard camera and the video footage can be later used to reconstruct the underwater site.

"U-CAT is specifically designed to meet the end-user requirements. Conventional underwater robots use propellers for locomotion. Fin propulsors of U-CAT can drive the robot in all directions without disturbing water and beating up silt from the bottom, which would decrease visibility inside the shipwreck," says Taavi Salumäe, the designer of the U-CAT concept and researcher in Centre for Biorobotics, Tallinn University of Technology.

"The so called biomimetic robots, robots based on animals and plants, is an increasing trend in robotics where we try to overcome the technological bottlenecks by looking at alternative technical solutions provided by nature ," explains Prof. Maarja Kruusmaa, a Head of Centre for Biorobotics.

Underwater robots are nowadays mostly exploited in oil and gas industry and in defense. These robots are too big and also too expensive to be used for diving inside wrecks. Shipwrecks are currently explored by divers, but this is an expensive and time consuming procedure and often too dangerous for the divers to undertake. U-CAT is designed with the purpose of offering an affordable alternative to human divers.

U-CAT is part of an EU funded research project ARROWS, which is developing technologies to assist underwater archaeologists. The technologies of the ARROWS project will be tested in the Mediterranean Sea and in the Baltic Sea, two historically important but environmentally different regions of Europe. "In the ARROWS project, the U-CATs would work in cooperation with larger underwater robots and together with image recognition technologies for discovery, identification and reconstruction of underwater sites, would facilitate the work in all phases of an archaeological campaign," says Dr. Sebastiano Tusa, an underwater archaeologist from Sicilian Regional Government.

In London Science Museum, the team will show the U-CAT robot as well as its interactive downscaled models u-CATs operating in an aquarium. Robot Safari is open for visitors from 28 November to 1 December.