New archaeogenetic research refutes earlier findings

11 June 2013 Huddersfield, The University of


WHEN did modern humans settle in Asia and what route did they take from mankind’s African homeland? A University of Huddersfield professor has helped to provide answers to both questions.  But he has also had to settle a controversy.


Professor Martin Richards, who heads the University’s Archaeogenetics Research Group, co-authors a new article in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.  It refutes a recent theory, that there is archaeological evidence for the presence of modern humans in southern Asia before the super-eruption of the Mount Toba volcano in Sumatra.

One of the most catastrophic events since humans evolved, it happened approximately 74,000 years ago.  In 2005, Professor Richards led research published in an article in the journal Science which used mitochondrial DNA evidence to show that anatomically modern humans dispersed from their Africa homeland via a “southern coastal route” from the Horn and through Arabia, about 60,000 years ago – after the Toba eruption.‌


‌However, a team of archaeologists excavating in India then claimed to have found evidence that modern humans were there before the eruption – possibly as early as 120,000 years ago, much earlier than Europe or the Near East were colonised.  These findings, based on the discovery of stone tools below a layer of Toba ash, were published in Science in 2007.


Now Professor Richards – working principally with the archaeologist Professor Sir Paul Mellars, of the University of Cambridge and the University of Edinburgh, with a team including Huddersfield University’s Dr Martin Carr and colleagues from York and Porto – has published his rebuttal of this theory.  In doing so, they have been able to draw on a much greater body of DNA evidence that was available for the earlier article.


“One of the things we didn’t have in 2005 was very much evidence from India in the way of mitochondrial sequences.  Now, with a lot of people doing sequencing and depositing material in databases there are about 1,000 sequences from India,” said Professor Richards.


‌By using the mitochondrial DNA of today’s populations and working backwards, and by drawing on a wide variety of other evidence and research, the team was able to make much more precise estimates for the arrival of modern humans in India.


‌The evidence suggests dispersal from Africa and settlement in India no earlier than 60,000 years ago.

“We also argue that close archaeological similarities between African and Indian stone-tool technologies after 70,000 years ago, as well as features such as beads and engravings, suggest that the slightly later Indian material had an African source,” states Professor Richards.


“There were people in India before the Toba eruption, because there are stone tools there, but they could have been Neanderthals – or some other pre-modern population,” he adds.


“The replacement of the presumably archaic humans living previously in South Asia by modern people with these new technologies appears analogous to the replacement of Neanderthals by modern humans in Europe and western Asia 50-40,000 years ago.”




Full bibliographic information

Genetic and archaeological perspectives on the initial modern human colonization of southern Asia, by P. A. Mellars, M. B. Richards, K. C. Gori, M. Carr, and P. A. Soares is in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/06/07/1306043110



Ancient Siberians may have rarely hunted mammoths

Study suggests Stone Age folk sporadically killed the beasts, primarily for ivory

By Bruce Bower


Contrary to their hunting reputation, Stone Age Siberians killed mammoths only every few years when they needed tusks for toolmaking, a new study finds.


People living between roughly 33,500 and 31,500 years ago hunted the animals mainly for ivory, say paleontologist Pavel Nikolskiy and archaeologist Vladimir Pitulko of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Hunting could not have driven mammoths to extinction, the researchers report June 5 in the Journal of Archaeological Science.


On frigid tundra with few trees, mammoth tusks substituted for wood as a raw material for tools, they propose. Siberian people ate mammoth meat after hunts, but food was not their primary goal.


Several European and North American sites have yielded single mammoth carcasses lying amid stone tools. Such finds could reflect either hunting or scavenging. Finds at Siberia’s Yana archeological site provide an unprecedented window on the hunting and killing of mammoths over a long time period, says archaeologist John Hoffecker of the University of Colorado Boulder.


Mammoth bones appear in sufficient numbers at some sites in Europe to suggest that hunters there did seek more than ivory, says archaeologist Jiří Svoboda of Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic. Whatever happened at Yana, many groups were probably interested in obtaining mammoth meat, fat, bones, tusks and skin, Svoboda says.


Since 2008, scientists have unearthed 1,103 bones from at least 31 mammoths at Yana. Radiocarbon measurements indicate that mammoth remains gradually accumulated there over 2,000 years.


Right shoulder blades from two mammoths contain pieces of stone spear points. An ivory splinter, possibly from a spear’s shaft, pierced one of these bones. Another shoulder blade and a thigh bone display holes made by spears. Angles of these wounds suggest that hunters struck mammoths from behind. “Yana people definitely attacked from the mammoth’s blind spot,” Nikolskiy says.

Most mammoth bones at Yana come from animals with slightly curved tusks that were the best size and shape for making hunting weapons, Nikolskiy and Pitulko propose.


Researchers have found five mammoth bones from the base of the animals’ tongues at a campsite not far from where remains were excavated. Meaty parts of the animals were probably consumed there, the investigators say.


While hunting was not the main cause of mammoths’ extinction in Asia and Europe, it may have been the last straw as warming temperatures shrank livable areas for the creatures.



£3.5m project to research ancient music

11 June 2013 Huddersfield, The University of


MODERN Europeans will hear again the music and the instruments of their distant ancestors – from dwellers in caves to audiences at Greek and Roman amphitheatres – thanks to a £3.5 million project in which a University of Huddersfield lecturer plays a key role.


Dr Rupert Till  – who is already renowned for projects such as a recreation of the acoustics of Stonehenge – is one of a team of researchers throughout Europe who have devised the European Music Archaeology Project (EMAP).  Its aim is to seek a common European musical heritage rooted in antiquity.  Dr Till himself will oversee the creation of a special record label, which will feature the project’s findings.


Using a wide range of evidence – including archaeological survivals and ancient pictures – the EMAP researchers will attempt to reconstruct primitive musical instruments from as long ago as 40,000 BC and as “recently” as 400 AD.  Specialist performers will then experiment with the recreated instruments and reach conclusions about the type of music that was played on them.


“The project is not really designed to recreate ancient music as such,” says Dr Till. “You can’t really know what music sounded like thousands of years ago.  But you can produce music that demonstrates the instruments and some of the techniques used.”


Dr Till – already established as a researcher of ancient acoustics and music – was invited to join EMAP more than two years ago and he and his colleagues worked hard on an application for funding via the EU’s Cultural Programme.  The efforts paid off spectacularly.


The panel that scrutinised applications gave the EMAP submission 99 out of 100 points, the highest score of any of the applications for EU Culture Programme grant funding this year.


A principal goal of EMAP is to create a travelling exhibition that will display – visually and aurally – the results of the research.  The exhibition will be accompanied by concerts and workshops.


One of Dr Till’s roles will be to direct an EMAP record label, which will issue demonstrations of the ancient instruments.  His plans include visits to historic venues in Rome, Greece and Pompeii in order to make on-site recordings.


‌Also, he will create a “digital time machine” as part of the exhibition.


‌“You will enter this space and start with a cave in Spain, hearing a bone flute. Then perhaps you will travel to Stonehenge and see someone playing instruments there.  You will go forward in time to Greece and hear instruments played in reconstructed acoustics and spaces.”


“EMAP is going to be a high quality, high impact project and it’s expected that the exhibition will be seen by one and a half million people,” said Dr Till.


‌‌In addition to his central role in EMAP, Dr Till – who is Senior Lecturer in Music Technology at the University of Huddersfield – has recently  received funding of £100,000 from the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council for a project entitled “Songs of the Caves: acoustics and prehistoric art in Cantabrian caves”.


He will study the Altamira prehistoric cave system in Spain – a World Heritage Site – and research the relationship between acoustics and wall paintings, leading to reconstructions of historic instruments.


Prof Jim Al-Khalili made a programme for BBC Radio Four called 'Hearing the Past' in which he featured Dr Till's recreation of the acoustics of Stonehenge.





Unique gold figurine of naked woman found in Denmark

A small figurine depicting a slim, naked woman was recently found in a Danish field. Strangely, this is the fifth in a series of tiny golden human figurines found recently in the area.

By: René Laursen, Bornholm Museum

June 12, 2013 - 06:12


A field on the Danish island of Bornholm has in recent years been the site of many surprising archaeological finds. The most recent one of these was of a golden figurine of a naked woman.


The small, heavily arched figurine is only 4.2 cm tall and weighs 3 grams, has many details and bears the mark of quality craftsmanship.


Stretched arms and sagging breasts

The woman has a long and slender body, which may have been made out of a thin bar of gold. The head is elongated with a protruding jaw and incised hair. The breasts are sagging and below both shoulders are notches, indicating that her arms have been tied around her body.


The arms are stretched and the thumbs are pressed against one another, while the other fingers are facing downwards. On the stomach is a more clearly incised belt decorated with a zig-zag pattern, and the private parts are clearly visible between the short and thin legs.


Possibly a symbol of fertility and health

The golden woman appears to be either standing on her toes or jumping up athletically with the insteps stretched. And above the elegantly shaped feet, the calves and knees are clearly visible.


When viewing the figurine from the front, it is tempting to associate the naked, buxom, athletic female figure with fertility and health.


Remarkably, the back side has ten prominent ‘teeth’, something that has never been seen before.


Naked female figurines are a rarity in Nordic Iron Age art, where male figurines dominated.


The fifth figurine in the series

The golden woman is the fifth in a series of small, golden human figurines from the Smørenge field on Bornholm. The first four are all believed to depict men, while there is no doubt about the gender of the last addition to the series.


The first figurine was found in the spring of 2009, together with a number of other finds, including several gold-foil figures, while the next three appeared in spring 2012.


Common to all the five figurines is that the heads are plastically formed, but otherwise there is a great deal of variation.


The plough separated the figurines

The five figurines were probably buried in the same place, individually or collectively, at some point during the 6th century AD, i.e. the Migration Period.


Three of them were found within five metres of each other, while the other two were found 10-15 metres further away. Presumably it was the plough that separated them.


This location may have been chosen due to the presence of one or more springs.


Only an excavation would give more information about the characteristics of the place, and such plans have now become a high priority.


This article is reproduced on this site by kind permission of Skalk, a Danish periodical with articles about Danish prehistoric and medieval archaeology, history and related topics.



Archaeologists use revolutionary laser technology to find lost medieval city in Cambodia

By Agence France-Presse

Saturday, June 15, 2013 7:57 EDT


A lost medieval city that thrived on a mist-shrouded Cambodian mountain 1,200 years ago has been discovered by archaeologists using revolutionary airborne laser technology, a report said.


In what it called a world exclusive, the Sydney Morning Herald said the city, Mahendraparvata, included temples hidden by jungle for centuries, many of which have not been looted.


A journalist and photographer from the newspaper accompanied the “Indiana Jones-style” expedition, led by a French-born archaeologist, through landmine-strewn jungle in the Siem Reap region where Angkor Wat, the largest Hindi temple complex in the world, is located.



The expedition used an instrument called Lidar — light detection and ranging data — which was strapped to a helicopter that criss-crossed a mountain north of Angkor Wat for seven days, providing data that matched years of ground research by archaeologists.


It effectively peeled away the jungle canopy using billions of laser pulses, allowing archaeologists to see structures that were in perfect squares, completing a map of the city which years of painstaking ground research had been unable to achieve, the report said.


It helped reveal the city that reportedly founded the Angkor Empire in 802 AD, uncovering more than two dozen previously unrecorded temples and evidence of ancient canals, dykes and roads using satellite navigation coordinates gathered from the instrument’s data.


Jean-Baptiste Chevance, director of the Archaeology and Development Foundation in London who led the expedition, told the newspaper it was known from ancient scriptures that a great warrior, Jayavarman II, had a mountain capital, “but we didn’t know how all the dots fitted, exactly how it all came together”.


“We now know from the new data the city was for sure connected by roads, canals and dykes,” he said.


The discovery is set to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States.


Damian Evans, director of the University of Sydney’s archaeological research centre in Cambodia, which played a key part in developing the Lidar technology, said there might be important implications for today’s society.


“We see from the imagery that the landscape was completely devoid of vegetation,” Evans, a co-expedition leader, said.


“One theory we are looking at is that the severe environmental impact of deforestation and the dependence on water management led to the demise of the civilisation … perhaps it became too successful to the point of becoming unmanageable.”


The Herald said the trek to the ruins involved traversing rutted goat tracks and knee-deep bogs after travelling high into the mountains on motorbikes.


Everyone involved was sworn to secrecy until the findings were peer-reviewed.


Evans said it was not known how large Mahendraparvata was because the search had so far only covered a limited area, with more funds needed to broaden it out.


“Maybe what we see was not the central part of the city, so there is a lot of work to be done to discover the extent of this civilisation,” he said.


“We need to preserve the area because it’s the origin of our culture,” secretary of state at Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture, Chuch Phoeun, told AFP.


Angkor Wat was at one time the largest pre-industrial city in the world, and is considered one of the ancient wonders of the world.


It was constructed from the early to mid 1100s by King Suryavarman II at the height of the Khmer Empire’s political and military power.


June 2013, Cover Stories, Daily News



Medieval Leprosy Genomes Shed Light on Disease’s History

13 June 2013 Universitaet Tübingen


Tübingen-led scientists reconstruct the complete historical genome of medieval and ancient scourge


An international team of scientists reconstructed a dozen medieval and modern leprosy genomes – suggesting a European origin for the North American leprosy strains found in armadillos and humans, and a common ancestor of all leprosy bacteria within the last 4000 years.


It is the first time scientists have reconstructed an ancient genome without a reference sequence (de novo) due to the extraordinary preservation of the medieval pathogen’s DNA. This finding indicates that ancient bacterial DNA may survive in some cases much beyond the one million year boundary suggested for vertebrate DNA.


Leprosy, a devastating chronic disease caused by the bacterial pathogen Mycobacterium leprae, was prevalent in Europe until the late Middle Ages. Today, the disease is found in 91 countries worldwide with about 200,000 new infections reported annually.


To retrace the history of the disease, an international team of scientists, led by Johannes Krause from Tübingen University and Stewart Cole from EPFL Lausanne, have reconstructed entire genome sequences of M. leprae bacteria from five medieval skeletons that were excavated in Denmark, Sweden and the United Kingdom as well as seven biopsy samples from modern patients.


The researchers compared the medieval European M. leprae genomes with 11 worldwide modern strains, including the seven biopsy strains, revealing that all M. leprae strains share a common ancestor that existed within the last 4000 years. This is congruent with the earliest osteological evidence for the disease in the archaeological records dated to 2000 BC from India. The genome comparisons indicate a remarkable genomic conservation of the bacteria during the past 1,000 years. The team of scientists could furthermore show that M. leprae genotypes in medieval Europe are today found in the Middle East, whereas other medieval strains show a striking similarity to modern strains found today in North American armadillos and leprosy patients suggesting a Eu-ropean origin of leprosy in the Americas.


One skeleton from Denmark (Jorgen 625) showed extraordinary preservation of the pathogen DNA, allowing a genome reconstruction without using a modern reference sequence, which was never done before for an ancient organism’s genome. The scientists found that almost half of the DNA recovered from that particular specimen derived from M. leprae bacteria; this is orders of magnitude higher than the amount of pathogen DNA usually observed in skeletons and modern patients. They furthermore found that the M. leprae DNA was far better preserved compared to the human DNA, which may explain this unusually high amounts of bacterial DNA in these skeleton samples.


According to the authors this may be due to the extremely thick and impervious waxy cell wall of the leprosy bacillus that protects their DNA from degradation. Therefore, the authors speculate that some bacterial DNA may be preserved much longer than any vertebrate DNA, which is usually less protected. “This opens the possibility that certain types of bacterial DNA may survive well beyond the maximum age for mammalian DNA of around one million years,” says Krause and adds, “This gives us a real perspective to trace back the pre-historic origins of a disease.”


Full bibliographic information

Verena J. Schuenemann et al. 2013. Genome-wide comparison of medieval and modern Mycobacterium leprae. Science, in press, 1238286



Scientists Uncover Clues to Pattern of Leprosy in Medieval Europe

After exhuming medieval human graves, archaeologists and biologists are finding new answers.

Thu, Jun 13, 2013


It is well known that leprosy was a common disease in Medieval Europe. In fact, it is estimated that in some areas as many as one in every 30 people were infected. But at the turn of the 16th century, leprosy had very quickly become a disease of far less than epidemic proportions. Why the sudden change?

An international team of biologists and archaeologists have combined their efforts to answer that question by decoding nearly complete genomes from five strains of Mycobacterium leprae, the bacterium responsible for leprosy. 

To do this, they first exhumed remains of humans buried in medieval graves. Next, the researchers reconstructed the bacterium genomes by using a newly developed method designed for an unprecedented level of precision.

"We were able to reconstruct the genome without using any contemporary strains as a basis," says Pushpendra Singh, the study co-author.  Singh participated in the study with Johannes Kraus and colleagues at the Tübingen University, Germany.

What they found was nothing short of surprising. The medieval genomes were nearly identical to the contemporary (modern day) genomes, and their mode of spreading is the same. They needed to look for a different cause for the sudden historical decline.

"If the explanation of the drop in leprosy cases isn't in the pathogen, then it must be in the host, that is, in us; so that's where we need to look," explains Stewart Cole, co-director of the study and the head of EFFL's Global Health Institute.

They suggest that "natural selection" resulting in human resistance to the disease may be the answer.  "In certain conditions, victims could simply be pressured not to procreate," Cole says. "In addition, other studies have identified genetic causes that made most Europeans more resistant than the rest of the world population, which also lends credence to this hypothesis."



Medieval Dungeon discovered in England



Workers installing a new water main in the town of Faversham, in southeast England, have discovered a prison and dungeon dating back to the 14th century.


Initially the discovery of a thick curved wall signalled the possible foundations of a religious building; however further research shows that it most likely was the gaol of the local government of Faversham.


Archaeologist Tim Allen, from Kent Archaeological Projects, said:,“In my entire career I’ve never found a dungeon before, so this is a really rare discovery which we estimate dates back to the 14th century.


“The site is beneath where the town’s second Guildhall stood that was built during the mid-16th century. However, use of this Guildhall was short lived, as you can imagine the noise and smell coming from the dungeon meant this wouldn’t have been a pleasant place to work.


“It was then, in the early 17th century, that local dignitaries turned the existing and iconic market hall building within Market Place into the current Guildhall.”


The find was made by the South East Water company as they were installing a new £37,000 water main in Middle Row following a number of recent bursts.


James Smith, South East Water Delivery Manager, said “This exciting piece of history emerged during careful archaeological surveys carried out during the excavation work prior to laying the pipe.


“As there is a lot of heritage in Faversham we took the extra precaution of having archaeologists working alongside our contractor so when they spotted this curved wall they were able to halt work and carry out further investigations. This has meant we’ve been able to protect and record this piece of local history.”


Source: South East Water



Murder discovered among the ruins of Taunton Priory

By Western Daily Press          | Friday, June 14, 2013, 05:00

By Tina Rowe



It lay forgotten for more than 400 years, but when archaeologists began investigating the site of Taunton Priory they found evidence of past lives, and a possible murder.


The fascinating tale of the discoveries, under the disused County Garage, not far from Somerset County Cricket Ground, is told in a new book by the man who instigated the excavations. Steve Membery, senior historic environment officer with Somerset County Council, set the project in motion in 2005 after developers Gadd Homes applied to build 24 flats on the site. Excavations carried out in 1977 in an orchard east of Canon Street, had already yielded tantalising clues to the priory, including a cemetery and bell-founding pit.


When the Gadd Homes application was made Taunton Deane Borough Council, the planning authority, consulted the county Heritage Service. Evaluation was needed to show if the cemetery continued as far as the garage. Human burials were soon found and planning permission for the flats was given on condition that any further burials would be left in place or fully excavated if building work was likely to disturb them. Context 1 Archaeology was appointed as excavator.


When trial holes were dug fragments of carved stone were uncovered. Once the modern surface had been removed, a set of massive two metre-square Ham stone foundation pads were revealed. More were found which had clearly supported a substantial building. A column capital was found, along with stone carved in the Gothic style, tiles and fragments of medieval stained glass. It could mean only one thing, here, 400 years after its destruction on the orders of King Henry VIII, was the priory church itself.


"The church would have been the focus of monastic life for the canons, and a very important place for the people of medieval Taunton," writes Mr Membery.


The priory, founded in around 1120, was rebuilt in the 13th and early 14th century. The north wall, west entrance and part of the nave, 20.8 metres wide, were revealed, along with remains of a cloister. There were burials too, and here on-going analysis is providing tantalising glimpses into the lives of medieval inhabitants. Two young children lay hand-in-hand while the tip of a knife blade lay close to the throat of one man. A CT scan showed trauma to vertebrae, but it was impossible to tell if the injury caused his death.


Taunton Priory by Steve Membery is published by Somerset County Council Heritage Service, price £4.



Last surviving German bomber could take years to preserve

The last surviving German bomber lifted from the bottom of the Channel will be stored in hydration tunnels and sprayed every 20 minutes as part of a painstaking operation to preserve it that may take years to complete.

By Claire Carter12:00PM BST 12 Jun 2013


The Dornier Do 17 bomber was being driven back from Ramsgate to RAF Cosford last night after it was recovered from the seabed. The bomber had to be covered in citric-acid based gels for the journey to prevent it from corroding.

Experts don’t know how long it will take to preserve the historic bomber but it could take up to five years before it can be permanently displayed at the RAF Museum in London within the Battle of Britain exhibition.

It will now be stored in hydration tunnels for up to 18 months until it is stabilised, before being transferred to a conservation centre at RAF Cosford when experts will ensure it is properly preserved.

A spokesperson for the RAF Museum said: “The plan for when the plane came into Ramsgate was for the wings to be separated from it so it could be transported.

“In order to keep it moist it will be covered in a citric-acid based gel and it will then be placed inside hydration tunnels. It could be in these tunnels for six months, or it could be as long as 18 months.


“It will be sprayed every ten minutes out of every 30 with a citric acid based solution, to clean the aircraft and prevent any further corrosion.

“It will then be transferred to the conservation centre, but it could be about five years before it’s on permanent display.”

The plane had to be kept moist for the journey from Ramsgate to Cosford to prevent it corroding further when it comes into contact with oxygen, and this will be continued in the hydration tunnels.

It was one of the so called ‘flying pencils,’ nicknamed because of their narrow fuselage – none of which were thought to have survived the Second World War.

The plane was finally recovered after a series of attempts, hampered by the weather, to rescue it from the seabed and was winched from the sea covered in rust and barnacles on Monday evening.

Commercial diving company Seatech worked with the RAF Museum salvage team to recover the plane, and ten divers were involved with attaching lifting equipment to it.

A window of good weather allowed them to retrieve the Dornier Do 17 bomber.

John Harper, contracts manager at Seatech, said: “Usually when we try to bring an aircraft off the seabed we put strops round it, and generally what happens is it falls to pieces. We thought as this happened in past experience we would use a frame to try and lift it, but in the end we couldn’t do that because of the weather.”

Seatech had been working to recover the plane for the last 16 days, but had been hampered by the weather, and were able to recover it at about 6.30pm on Monday, when it was pulled to a barge.

Mr Harper added: “Parts of both of the engines fell off and a part of one of the wings. Divers had to go down afterwards and recover these.”

Mr Harper said there will be one final dive to search for anything else that had been left behind.

The aircraft at Goodwin Sands, off the Kent coast, was discovered by divers in 2008, and scans by the RAF Museum, Wessex Archaeology and the Port of London Authority confirmed it was a Dornier Do 17Z Werke number 1160.