Human Ancestors Were Fashion Conscious

by Michael Balter on 6 March 2013, 2:10 PM | 3 Comments


The 2013 Academy Awards were, as always, as much about making appearances as about making films, as red carpet watchers noted fashion trends and faux pas. Both Jessica Chastain and Naomi Watts wore Armani, although fortunately not the same dress. And Best Supporting Actress Anne Hathaway switched from Valentino to a controversial pale pink Prada at the last minute because her original dress looked too much like someone else's. Of course, no actress would be caught dead wearing the same style 2 years in a row. A new study of ancient beaded jewelry from a South African cave finds that ancient humans were no different, avoiding outdated styles as early as 75,000 years ago.


Personal ornaments, often in the form of beads worn as necklaces or bracelets, are considered by archaeologists as a key sign of sophisticated symbolic behavior, communicating either membership in a group or individual identity. Such ornaments are ubiquitous in so-called Upper Paleolithic sites in Europe beginning about 40,000 years ago, where they were made from many different materials—animal and human teeth, bone and ivory, stone, and mollusk shells—and often varied widely among regions and sites.


Even more ancient personal ornaments go back to at least 100,000 years ago in Africa and the Near East. But this earlier jewelry seems less variable and was nearly always made from mollusk shells. So some archaeologists have questioned whether these earlier ornaments played the same symbolic roles as the later ones, or even whether they were made by humans at all.


In a new study in press at the Journal of Human Evolution, a team led by archaeologist Marian Vanhaeren of the University of Bordeaux in France claims to have found evidence of a relatively sudden shift in the way that shell beads were strung. The beads were found at Blombos Cave in South Africa in archaeological layers dated between 75,000 and 72,000 years ago, during a time period marked by four distinct layers of artifacts called the Still Bay tradition. This tradition includes bone awls and sophisticated stone spear points and knives, as well as beads from jewelry: sixty-eight specimens of the southern African tick shell, Nassarius kraussianus, most found clustered together and thought to be part of individual necklaces or bracelets. All the shells are perforated with a single hole, and the team's microscopic studies—as well as experiments with shells of the same species collected near the site—have suggested that they were punctured with a finely tipped bone point.


To get an idea of how the shell beads were worn, Vanhaeren and her colleagues examined the wear (smoothing) around the perforations and on other parts of the shells. They then carried out additional experiments in which N. kraussianus shells were shaken together for many hours at a time and exposed to a diluted vinegar solution meant to mimic human sweat, among other tests, while strung together in various ways.


By stringing the shells themselves in various configurations, the team identified six possible ways that the beads could have been worn, including tying a knot around each shell, stringing them in a continuous row, braiding them with two strings at a time, and reversing the orientations of the shells to each other. Then, by analyzing the wear on the shells caused by these arrangements, Vanhaeren and colleagues determined just how the beads were strung. "In the lower [older] layers, the shells hang free on a string with their flat, shiny [sides] against each other," Vanhaeren says. But like all fashions, that one didn't last long: In the two upper, younger layers, "the shells are knotted together two by two, with their shiny side up" (see photos).


The team concludes that this is the earliest evidence of a shift in "social norms" or "customized style," a change that "parallels the many similar changes in symbolic norms observed among more recent and historically known human societies." It is not yet clear whether the earlier residents of Blombos changed their own fashion ideas, or if they were later replaced by another group of early humans who liked to wear their beads differently. Either way, the findings suggest that these beads, like jewelry today, served a fully symbolic function, the team concludes.


It's an "impressive in-depth study" filled with "fascinating detail," says Olaf Jöris, an archaeologist at the MONREPOS Archaeological Research Centre in Neuwied, Germany. Stanley Ambrose, an archaeologist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, adds that the team's "basic conclusions"—that there was a change in style, or at the very least a change in technique, during the Still Bay period—"seem sound." He adds that the shell beads come from a time when overall cultural innovation among early humans appears to have been speeding up, as evidenced by the short-lived nature of the Still Bay itself, which was soon replaced with other stone and bone tool styles.


But Jöris and some other archaeologists caution against drawing too many firm conclusions from the work. Randall White, an archaeologist at New York University in New York City, has questioned—on the basis of experiments that he and his students carried out—whether the perforations in the Blombos beads were actually made by humans. He suggests that the holes were the result of burial damage, trampling, or even erosion by acidic soils. Jöris says the researcher's assumption that the shell beads were strung as necklaces or bracelets could be wrong, because they did not consider the possibility that they were sewn onto clothing, a cultural style often found in the European Upper Paleolithic. That arrangement could have caused wear patterns that the team did not consider, he says.


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Stone-Age Skeletons Unearthed In Sahara Desert

Tia Ghose, LiveScience Staff WriterDate: 07 March 2013 Time: 07:19 AM ET


Archaeologists have uncovered 20 Stone-Age skeletons in and around a rock shelter in Libya's Sahara desert, according to a new study.


The skeletons date between 8,000 and 4,200 years ago, meaning the burial place was used for millennia.


"It must have been a place of memory," said study co-author Mary Anne Tafuri, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge. "People throughout time have kept it, and they have buried their people, over and over, generation after generation."


About 15 women and children were buried in the rock shelter, while five men and juveniles were buried under giant stone heaps called tumuli outside the shelter during a later period, when the region turned to desert.


The findings, which are detailed in the March issue of the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, suggest the culture changed with the climate.


From about 8,000 to 6,000 years ago, the Sahara desert region, called Wadi Takarkori, was filled with scrubby vegetation and seasonal green patches. Stunning rock art depicts ancient herding animals, such as cows, which require much more water to graze than the current environment could support, Tafuri said.


Tafuri and her colleague Savino di Lernia began excavating the archaeological site between 2003 and 2006. At the same site, archaeologists also uncovered huts, animal bones and pots with traces of the earliest fermented dairy products in Africa. [See Images of the Stone-Age Skeletons]


To date the skeletons, Tafuri measured the remains for concentrations of isotopes, or molecules of the same element with different weights.


The team concluded that the skeletons were buried over four millennia, with most of the remains in the rock shelter buried between 7,300 and 5,600 years ago.


The males and juveniles under the stone heaps were buried starting 4,500 years ago, when the region became more arid. Rock art confirms the dry up, as the cave paintings began to depict goats, which need much less water to graze than cows, Tafuri said.


The ancient people also grew up not far from the area where they were buried, based on a comparison of isotopes in tooth enamel, which forms early in childhood, with elements in the nearby environment.


The findings suggest the burial place was used for millennia by the same group of people. It also revealed a divided society.


"The exclusive use of the rock shelter for female and sub-adult burials points to a persistent division based on gender," wrote Marina Gallinaro, a researcher in African studies at Sapienza University of Rome, who was not involved in the study, in an email to LiveScience.


One possibility is that during the earlier period, women had a more critical role in the society, and families may have even traced their descent through the female line. But once the Sahara began its inexorable expansion into the region about 5,000 years ago, the culture shifted and men's prominence may have risen as a result, Gallinaro wrote.


The region as a whole is full of hundreds of sites yet to be excavated, said Luigi Boitani, a biologist at Sapienza University of Rome, who has worked on archaeological sites in the region but was not involved in the study.


"The area is an untapped treasure," Boitani said.


The new discovery also highlights the need to protect the fragile region, which has been closed to archaeologists since the revolution that ousted dictator Moammar el Gadhafi.


Takarkori is very close to the main road that leads from Libya into neighboring Niger, so rebels and other notorious political figures, such as Gadhafi's sons, have frequently passed through the area to escape the country, he said.


Follow Tia Ghose on Twitter @tiaghose. Follow LiveScience on Twitter @livescience. We're also on Facebook &Google+. Original article on LiveScience.com




Article created on Saturday, March 9, 2013

This article titled “Stonehenge may have been burial site for Stone Age elite, say archaeologists” was written by Maev Kennedy, for The Guardian on Saturday 9th March 2013 00.03 UTC


Centuries before the first massive sarsen stone was hauled into place at Stonehenge, the world’s most famous prehistoric monument may have begun life as a giant burial ground, according to a theory disclosed on Saturday.

More than 50,000 cremated bone fragments, of 63 individuals buried at Stonehenge, have been excavated and studied for the first time by a team led by archaeologist Professor Mike Parker Pearson, who has been working at the site and on nearby monuments for decades. He now believes the earliest burials long predate the monument in its current form.

The first bluestones, the smaller standing stones, were brought from Wales and placed as grave markers around 3,000BC, and it remained a giant circular graveyard for at least 200 years, with sporadic burials after that, he claims.

It had been thought that almost all the Stonehenge burials, many originally excavated almost a century ago, but discarded as unimportant, were of adult men. However, new techniques have revealed for the first time that they include almost equal numbers of men and women, and children including a newborn baby.

“At the moment the answer is no to extracting DNA, which might tell us more about these individuals and what the relationship was between them – but who knows in the future? Clearly these were special people in some way,” Parker Pearson said.

A mace head, a high-status object comparable to a sceptre, and a little bowl burnt on one side, which he believes may have held incense, suggest the dead could have been religious and political leaders and their immediate families.

The team included scientists from the universities of Southampton, Manchester, Bournemouth, Sheffield, London, York and Durham. Their work is revealed for the first time in a documentary on Channel 4 on Sunday night, Secrets of the Stonehenge Skeletons.

Archaeologists have argued for centuries about what Stonehenge really meant to the people who gave hundreds of thousands of hours to constructing circles of bluestones shipped from Wales, and sarsens the size of double-decker buses dragged across Salisbury plain. Druids and New Age followers still claim the site as their sacred place. Others have judged it a temple, an observatory, a solar calendar, a site for fairs or ritual feasting or – one of the most recent theories – a centre for healing, a sort of Stone Age Lourdes.

The latest theory is based on the first analysis of more than 50,000 fragments of cremated human remains from one of the Aubrey holes, a ring of pits from the earliest phase of the monument, which some have believed held wooden posts. Crushed chalk in the bottom of the pit was also revealed, suggesting it once supported the weight of one of the bluestones. Dating the bones has pushed back the date of earliest stone circle at the site from 2500BC to 3000BC.

Parker Pearson believes his earlier excavation at nearby Durrington Walls, which uncovered hut sites, tools, pots and mountains of animal bones – the largest Stone Age site in north-west Europe – is evidence of a seasonal work camp for the Stonehenge builders, who quarried, dragged and shaped more than 2,000 tons of stone to build the monument. Analysis of the animal bones shows some of them travelled huge distances – from as far as Scotland – and were slaughtered at Durrington in mid-summer and mid-winter: “Not so much bring a bottle as bring a cow or a pig,” Parker Pearson said.

Mike Pitts, an archaeologist, blogger and editor of the British Archaeology journal, who has excavated some of the cremated human remains from Stonehenge, says the new theory proves the need for more research and excavation at the site.

“I have now come to believe that there are hundreds, maybe many times that, of burials at Stonehenge, and that some predate the earliest phase of the monument,” Pitts said. “The whole history of the monument is inseparably linked to death and burial – but I believe that there are hundreds more burials to be found across the site, which will tell us more of the story.”

Almost all the prehistoric human remains come from the eastern side of the circle, and many had been excavated by earlier archaeologists including William Hawley in the 1920s, who regarding them as unimportant compared with the giant stones, reburied them jumbled together using one of the Aubrey holes as a convenient pit.

“There must be more, in the western quadrant, or buried outside the enclosure ditch. A new excavation could clinch it,” Pitts said.

This autumn visitors to Stonehenge will see more interpretation of its complex history than ever before, when English Heritage finally opens its long-awaited visitor centre – originally planned to usher in the new millennium in 2000.




It didn't sink! Full-size, sewn-together replica of a Bronze Age boat launched to trials success



For the first time in almost 3000 years – a full size Bronze Age style sea-going boat has been launched in Britain. Slipping gracefully down a slipway today into Falmouth Harbour, Cornwall, the 15m-long vessel was then paddled by its 18 person crew for two 500m trial trips.


The launch – part of a long-term experimental archaeology investigation into Bronze Age marine technology – is already providing valuable new insights into prehistoric seafaring.


“I’m so happy with the responsiveness of the boat. We always said you had to build the whole boat to understand what Bronze Age people experienced,” said the project’s leader, University of Exeter archaeologist,  Professor Robert Van de Noort, who is working together with the National Maritime Museum Cornwall. 


“When I was steering the boat and it got up to speed, I could turn her easily and it was more seaworthy than I expected. We have learnt so much through the whole process and today’s launch has revolutionised everything we knew,” said the professor.


“There have been doubters, professionally, who questioned the feasibility of this vessel crossing the seas. This morning’s experiment strongly suggests that it was capable of doing so,” he said.


Andy Wyke, Boat Collection Manager at the Maritime Museum, said: “It has been incredible to see this whole project take shape in the Museum building over the past 11 months. Volunteers have poured everything into transforming three oak trees into what we have seen and achieved today.”


The vessel – based on ones excavated at Ferriby on the north bank of the Humber estuary in 1963 – will need a crew of 18 to 20 relatively muscular individuals to get her to operate at full power. The replica Bronze Age craft has been built, mainly by volunteers, under the direction of professional shipwright, Brian Cumby, at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall in Falmouth – in collaboration with prehistorian Professor Van de Noort. The project has been funded predominantly by a £177,000 grant  from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.



Bronze-Age Donkey Sacrifice Found in Israel

By Megan Gannon, News Editor | LiveScience.com


Archaeologists in southern Israel say they've uncovered a young donkey that was carefully laid to rest on its side more than 3,500 years ago, complete with a copper bridle bit in its mouth and saddle bags on its back.

Its accessories — and the lack of butchery marks on its bones — lead researchers to believe the venerated pack animal was sacrificed and buried as part of a Bronze Age ritual.

Donkeys were valuable beasts of burden in the ancient Near East. Donkey caravans helped open up vast trade networks across the Levant and Anatolia in the 18th and 17th centuries B.C., according to archives from Amorite settlements like Mari in modern-day Syria. Ancient Egyptian inscriptions from around the same time show that hundreds of pack donkeys were used in large-scale expeditions to mining sites in the eastern desert and southern Sinai, researchers say.

The animals have even been associated with royalty. In 2003, paleoscientists discovered the skeletons of 10 donkeys nestled in three mud graves dating back 5,000 years ago when Egypt was just forming a state. The donkey skeletons were lying on their sides in graves at a burial complex of one of the first pharaohs at Abydos, Egypt. [See Images of the Sacred Donkey Burial]

The donkey found in Israel seems to have been symbolically important, too, though this particular animal likely was never made to do hard labor before its death, said a team headed by archaeologist Guy Bar-Oz, of Israel's University of Haifa.

The grave was found in a temple courtyard, in the heart of the sacred precinct of Tel Haror, a Middle Bronze Age city near Gaza that was fortified by massive ramparts and a deep moat and dates back from around 1700 B.C. to 1550 B.C.

The donkey, estimated to be about 4 years old, was laid on its left side with its limbs neatly bent, the researchers say, and a copper bridle bit, a mouthpiece used to help steer animals, was found in its mouth. Some parts of the bit were extensively worn and it likely wasn't functional at the time of the burial. But an examination of the donkey's teeth suggests it was never meant to be practical.

"The absence of any sign of bit wear on the lower premolars indicates that the animal was not ridden or driven with a bit for prolonged periods of time," the researchers write in a paper published online this week in the journal PLOS ONE. "Moreover, the young donkey was still in the process of shedding its teeth and permanent teeth were just erupting. Based on its age, the Haror donkey would probably have been too young to be a trained draught animal."

The researchers say this is the only known Bronze Age bridle bit to be found in the mouth of an equid and that it likely served as a symbol of status, evoking the chariots that pulled soldiers, people of high-rank, and in a ritual context, images or statues of deities.

There were no butchery marks or burning traces on the donkey's bones, suggesting the animal was not killed to be eaten. In contrast, a pile of scratched-up bones from sheep and goat were discovered just above the donkey's carcass, which the researchers believe could be evidence of a feast after the ritual slaughter.



Chinese archaeologists excavate earliest bronze armor pieces

English.news.cn   2013-03-10 20:44:46                       

XI'AN, March 10 (Xinhua)


Archaeologists in northwest China's Shaanxi Province said Sunday that one piece of thigh armor and two pieces of upper-body armor dating back 3,000 years may be the oldest pieces of bronze armor ever unearthed in China.


The announcement was made after experts studied the artifacts retrieved from the tomb of a nobleman from the West Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC - 771 BC) in Shigushan Mountain of Baoji City.


Liu Junshe, head of the excavation team, said the discovery filled in a blank in China's early military history, as excavations of pieces of armor forged during or prior to the Qin Dynasty (221 BC - 206 BC) have been rare.


"The material of the 'armor' on the famed Terra Cotta Warriors has long been a mystery, but the pieces of armor found this time were forged hundreds of years prior to the Qin Dynasty-era underground army," Liu said.


Liu said the cuisse, or piece of thigh armor, was 29 cm in length and tube-shaped, while the two cuirass pieces, or upper-body armor pieces, measured 23.5 by 10 cm and 40 by 21 cm. Both had mortises to connect to each other or with the leather parts of the armor.


A bounty of bronze weaponry, wine vessels and other sacrificial objects were also unearthed along with the pieces of armor, suggesting that the tomb owner had been a high-ranking aristocrat and general.


The tomb cluster in Shigushan Mountain was discovered last year by some local farmers. Archaeologists found a wine vessel in another tomb. After being excavated, it was found to contain the oldest wine ever found in China.



Remarkable ringfenced burials from Roman Colchester

March 8, 2013 By Carly Hilts Filed Under: News


A recently-completed cemetery excavation close to Colchester’s Roman circus has revealed that some of Camulodunum’s citizens marked their grave plots with ditches and wooden fences. It had previously been speculated that, during the Roman period, those unable to afford stone monuments might have used wooden markers or mounds of earth to distinguish individual burials. Now a four-month investigation by Colchester Archaeological Trust has unearthed clusters of inhumations dated by grave goods and other finds  to the 2nd and 3rd century and surrounded in some cases by lines of small post-holes up to about 20cm in diameter.

‘This is certainly extremely unusual – I have never seen anything like it before,’ said CAT chief archaeologist Philip Crummy. ‘We have excavated about 400 inhumations and cremations here with much that is unusual. For example, we found areas of fenced burials at either end of the site, 80m apart, and it seems we are dealing not with one great cemetery area but a collection little plots used by different groups or families.’

Although little bone has survived due to Colchester’s acidic soil, some of the individuals in the fenced graves had been laid to rest with objects such as pots and, in two cases, mirrors. Iron studs indicate that several were buried wearing shoes, while one grave contained a jet medallion carved with the face of Medusa. Some of the burial plots were demarcated by narrow ditches, a practice hinted at during previous excavations in Colchester but never seen so clearly before.

‘Some years ago, we found a cemetery near here, with around 600 burials mostly 4th century Christian, crammed together and oriented east-west,’ said Philip. ‘Largely obliterated by these, however, we could see earlier north-south burials, and evidence of ditches. I wonder if this was typical of burials in the immediately pre-Christian period, at least in Colchester?’

Closer examination of the boundary ditches on the latest dig led to a poignant discovery: small, shallow grave cuts, arranged in lines end to end. While no skeletons have survived, the size and shape of the graves have led the team to interpret them as those of children.

‘We seem to have an unusually high number of child burials on this site,’ said Philip. ‘Most of them are unaccompanied but in some we have miniature pots which we have come to recognise as a diagnostic feature of children’s graves. One grave was particularly well-furnished with a mirror, a pair of iron shears, and what could be a small, copper-alloy candlestick. These graves were characteristically shallow and lacked coffins. A few of them contained vessels that had fallen over after being buried showing that they had lain in a void. This suggests the graves were simply shallow hollows in which the bodies and any grave goods were placed. Each of these pits was then covered with a layer of wooden boards laid side to side at ground-level  over which was mounded the upcast.

He added: ‘It is very rare that we get the chance to dig a burial ground from this period without it being disturbed and obscured by later use – this site has the potential to tell us so much about this part of Colchester’s history.’

‘This is the latest of a series of excavations linked to the redevelopment of Colchester Garrison. We have excavated over a thousand burials over a wide area and seen a range of subtly-varied burial traditions. The  overwhelming impression is one of cosmopolitan diversity in Roman Colchester.’