Oldest Human Fossil in Western Europe Found in Spain

Sat, Aug 03, 2013 AddThis


An international team of researchers have announced the discovery of the oldest hominin (early or archaic human) fossil ever found in Western Europe, pushing back the clock on when early humans first colonized Western Europe after their exodus from Africa.

The find, a fossil tooth (molar) uncovered through excavations at the site of Barranco León in the Orce region of southeastern Spain, was dated to about 1.4 million years ago using several combined dating techniques, including Electron Spin Resonance (ESR) in combination with paleomagnetic and biochronological data. 

"While the range of dates obtained from these various methods overlaps with those published for the Sima del Elefante hominin locality (1.2 Ma), the overwhelming majority of evidence points to an older age," reports study author Dr. Isidro-Moyano and colleagues. "Thus, at the moment, the Barranco León hominin is the oldest from Western Europe."* Until now, Sima del Elefante, a rockshelter located in the Sierra de Atapuerca mountain range of northern Spain, held the record for the earliest human fossils in Western Europe.

The tooth, identified as belonging to a species of Homo (genus of great apes that includes modern humans and species closely related to them), was found in sediments at the stratigraphic "Level D". The researchers have not identified the specific human species to which the tooth belonged, but fossil finds in Europe dated to this time range have generally been theorized to be associated with Homo erectus, the first archaic species of early human thought to have exited Africa and colonized Eurasia. The tooth was found within an associated context of lithic (stone) artifacts and large mammal remains.

A total of 1,244 stone artifacts were excavated, including cores, whole flakes, flake fragments, waste flakes or débris, retouched (re-worked) pieces, angular fragments, modifed cobbles (including hammerstones) and unmodified materials (cobbles and stones). They found that all of the artifacts were made from flint, limestone and quartzite. Researchers identified the lithic assemblage as characteristic of Oldowan technology, the earliest known stone tool industry, first discovered at Olduvai Gorge in East Africa by Louis Leakey in the 1930s. The same industry was found at Dmanisi in the country of Georgia, where early human fossils dated to about 1.8 million years ago were discovered.

"The striation marks and polished areas on the lithic material are similar to those reported in well known African and European assemblages such as Olduvai Gorge, Koobi Fora or Monte Poggiolo," writes Isidro-Moyano, et al. "These marks suggest that the tools were used on a variety of materials."*

The researchers also suggest that the stone tools were manufactured at the site. Early humans typically used knapping (the shaping of stone by striking or pressure-flaking with other stones) to manufacture stone tools.  "The primary goal of the Barranco León knappers seems to have been obtaining small flakes, perhaps to fulflll immediate needs including rapidly cutting meat from large herbivore carcasses," adds Isidro-Moyano, et al.*

The animal remains consisted of both large mammals, such as hippopotamus and bison, as well as small mammals. The large mammal remains, they conclude, showed evidence of anthropic activity, the bones showing fractures, impact points, and flake scars, along with a scattering of bone flakes. 

Thus, given the fossil tooth and its dating and the behavioral markers indicated by the stone tools and the associated mammal remains, Isidro-Moyano and colleagues conclude that the find "represents the oldest anatomical evidence of human presence in Western Europe. This finding, combined with the important lithic tool assemblage from the level D of Barranco León, confirms that Western Europe was colonized soon after the first expansion out of Africa, currently documented at the Dmanisi site."*

Details of the study are published in the Journal of Human Evolution. To read more, see The oldest human fossil in Europe, from Orce (Spain).





Two 6,000-year-old 'halls of the dead' unearthed, in UK first


The remains of two large 6000-year-old halls, each buried within a prehistoric burial mound, have been discovered by archaeologists from The University of Manchester and Herefordshire Council -- in a UK first.


The sensational finds on Dorstone Hill, near Peterchurch in Herefordshire, were thought to be constructed between 4000 and 3600 BC.


Some of the burnt wood discovered at the site shows the character of the building's structure above ground level -- in another UK first.


The buildings, probably used by entire communities, are of unknown size, but may have been of similar length to the Neolithic long barrows beneath which they were found – 70metres and 30m long.


They were, say the team, deliberately burnt down after they were constructed and their remains incorporated into the two burial mounds.


However -- much detail has been preserved in the larger barrow: structural timbers in carbonized form, postholes showing the positions of uprights, and the burnt remains of stakes forming internal partitions.


Most importantly, the core of each mound is composed of intensely burnt clay, representing the daub from the walls of the buildings.


The buildings were likely to have been long structures with aisles, framed by upright posts, and with internal partitions.


The smaller barrow contains a 7m by 2.5m mortuary chamber, with huge sockets which would have held upright tree trunks at each end.


These massive posts bracketed a linear 'trough' lined with planks, which would have held the remains of the dead.


Professor of archaeology from The University of Manchester Julian Thomas and Dr Keith Ray Herefordshire Council's County Archaeologist, co-directed the excavation.


Professor Thomas said: "This find is of huge significance to our understanding of prehistoric life-- so we're absolutely delighted.


"It makes a link between the house and a tomb more forcefully than any other investigation that has been ever carried out.


"These early Neolithic halls are already extremely rare, but to find them within a long barrow is the discovery of a lifetime."


He added: "The mound tells us quite a bit about the people who built it: they sought to memorialize the idea of their community represented by the dwelling.


"And by turning it into part of the landscape, it becomes a permanent reminder for generations to come.


"Just think of how the burning of the hall could have been seen for miles around, in the large expanse of what is now the border country between England and Wales."


Archaeologists have long speculated that a close relationship existed between houses and tombs in Neolithic Europe, and that 'houses of the dead' amounted to representations of the 'houses of the living'.


In addition to the two long mounds, the site has provided evidence for a series of later burials and other deliberate deposits, including a cremation burial and a pit containing a flint axe and a finely-flaked flint knife.


The objects have close affinities with artefacts found in eastern Yorkshire in the Late Neolithic (c. 2600 BC).


Dr Ray said: "These subsequent finds show that 1000 years after the hall burial mounds were made, the site is still important to later generations living 200 miles away – a vast distance in Neolithic terms.


"The axe and knife may not have been traded, but placed there as part of a ceremony or an ancestral pilgrimage from what is now East Yorkshire.


"So we witness an interconnected community linking Herefordshire and East Yorkshire by marriage and by descent 5000 years ago."


He added: "In the British context, the Dorstone find is unique and unprecedented.


"We were hoping our work with The University of Manchester would help us to give us a clearer picture of the origins of these long barrows- but we were surprised how clearly the story came through.


"It's very exciting for us: for 15 years I have been arguing that Herefordshire has something important to say on the national picture of our Neolithic heritage."



Neolithic engraved stone discovered at the Ness of Brodgar

Article created on Thursday, August 1, 2013


Throughout the excavations at the Ness of Brodgar on the Scottish island of Orkney, numerous examples of Neolithic “art” have been uncovered. In fact, by 2010 around 80 “decorated” items had emerged from the site and now it stands at 450 inscribed pieces.


Now in Structure 10 – interpreted as a ritual building – a find has been made that has been described by site director Nick Card as “inspiring” and “one of the finest pieces of art from this period found at Ness of Brodgar, if not the United Kingdom.”


The engraved stone was found at the base of the later south-west internal corner buttresses and consists of two sides carved with intricate etched designs.


An initial examination has revealed a finely incised chevron design and small cup marks as well as a main design of interconnecting triangles which can be paralleled on a slab discovered at Skara Brae in the 1970s and a lightly inscribed stone from Maeshowe discovered by archaeologist, Patrick Ashmore in the 1980s. There are also some similar motifs on Irish passage-tombs, including Newgrange, Knowth, Fourknocks and Loughcrewthis.


However, these newly discovered engravings are finer and more complex pieces of art than the previous examples and highlights the importance of the Ness of Brodgar as a monumental site.


Decoration on stones from Orkney from the Neolithic period is almost entirely angular and shares a commonality with the decoration found on Grooved Ware ceramics. In 2011 the first painted walls were discovered at the site along with a fragment of painted Grooved Ware pottery, suggesting that pre-history may have been much more colourful than we imagine it to be.


This new find only highlights the life of ritual and decoration that occupied the people of Orkney five millennia ago. Nick Card explained, ” the fine scratched lines and then deeply incised patterns suggest that it was the act of carving that was as important as the final design.”


“Until now, Skara Brae had the most recorded Neolithic art in the UK, with about 70 panels. But we have already discovered 450 here. A new piece of decorative art comes up every day. We now have the largest collection in the UK.” Nick said


Only a small part of the 4-5,000 year-old site which covers over 2.5 hectares has been excavated so far. It lies between the world famous sites of  Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness, sitting in a landscape that suggests a powerful ritual draw to communities.



Archaeology: The milk revolution

When a single genetic mutation first let ancient Europeans drink milk, it set the stage for a continental upheaval.

Andrew Curry

31 July 2013


In the 1970s, archaeologist Peter Bogucki was excavating a Stone Age site in the fertile plains of central Poland when he came across an assortment of odd artefacts. The people who had lived there around 7,000 years ago were among central Europe's first farmers, and they had left behind fragments of pottery dotted with tiny holes. It looked as though the coarse red clay had been baked while pierced with pieces of straw.


Looking back through the archaeological literature, Bogucki found other examples of ancient perforated pottery. “They were so unusual — people would almost always include them in publications,” says Bogucki, now at Princeton University in New Jersey. He had seen something similar at a friend's house that was used for straining cheese, so he speculated that the pottery might be connected with cheese-making. But he had no way to test his idea.


The mystery potsherds sat in storage until 2011, when Mélanie Roffet-Salque pulled them out and analysed fatty residues preserved in the clay. Roffet-Salque, a geochemist at the University of Bristol, UK, found signatures of abundant milk fats — evidence that the early farmers had used the pottery as sieves to separate fatty milk solids from liquid whey. That makes the Polish relics the oldest known evidence of cheese-making in the world1.


Roffet-Salque's sleuthing is part of a wave of discoveries about the history of milk in Europe. Many of them have come from a €3.3-million (US$4.4-million) project that started in 2009 and has involved archaeologists, chemists and geneticists. The findings from this group illuminate the profound ways that dairy products have shaped human settlement on the continent.


During the most recent ice age, milk was essentially a toxin to adults because — unlike children — they could not produce the lactase enzyme required to break down lactose, the main sugar in milk. But as farming started to replace hunting and gathering in the Middle East around 11,000 years ago, cattle herders learned how to reduce lactose in dairy products to tolerable levels by fermenting milk to make cheese or yogurt. Several thousand years later, a genetic mutation spread through Europe that gave people the ability to produce lactase — and drink milk — throughout their lives. That adaptation opened up a rich new source of nutrition that could have sustained communities when harvests failed.


This two-step milk revolution may have been a prime factor in allowing bands of farmers and herders from the south to sweep through Europe and displace the hunter-gatherer cultures that had lived there for millennia. “They spread really rapidly into northern Europe from an archaeological point of view,” says Mark Thomas, a population geneticist at University College London. That wave of emigration left an enduring imprint on Europe, where, unlike in many regions of the world, most people can now tolerate milk. “It could be that a large proportion of Europeans are descended from the first lactase-persistent dairy farmers in Europe,” says Thomas.


Young children almost universally produce lactase and can digest the lactose in their mother's milk. But as they mature, most switch off the lactase gene. Only 35% of the human population can digest lactose beyond the age of about seven or eight (ref. 2). “If you're lactose intolerant and you drink half a pint of milk, you're going to be really ill. Explosive diarrhoea — dysentery essentially,” says Oliver Craig, an archaeologist at the University of York, UK. “I'm not saying it's lethal, but it's quite unpleasant.”


Most people who retain the ability to digest milk can trace their ancestry to Europe, where the trait seems to be linked to a single nucleotide in which the DNA base cytosine changed to thymine in a genomic region not far from the lactase gene. There are other pockets of lactase persistence in West Africa (see Nature 444, 994–996; 2006), the Middle East and south Asia that seem to be linked to separate mutations3 (see 'Lactase hotspots').


The single-nucleotide switch in Europe happened relatively recently. Thomas and his colleagues estimated the timing by looking at genetic variations in modern populations and running computer simulations of how the related genetic mutation might have spread through ancient populations4. They proposed that the trait of lactase persistence, dubbed the LP allele, emerged about 7,500 years ago in the broad, fertile plains of Hungary.


Once the LP allele appeared, it offered a major selective advantage. In a 2004 study5, researchers estimated that people with the mutation would have produced up to 19% more fertile offspring than those who lacked it. The researchers called that degree of selection “among the strongest yet seen for any gene in the genome”.


Compounded over several hundred generations, that advantage could help a population to take over a continent. But only if “the population has a supply of fresh milk and is dairying”, says Thomas. “It's gene–culture co-evolution. They feed off of each other.”


To investigate the history of that interaction, Thomas teamed up with Joachim Burger, a palaeogeneticist at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz in Germany, and Matthew Collins, a bioarchaeologist at the University of York. They organized a multidisciplinary project called LeCHE (Lactase Persistence in the early Cultural History of Europe), which brought together a dozen early-career researchers from around Europe.


By studying human molecular biology and the archaeology and chemistry of ancient pottery, LeCHE participants also hoped to address a key issue about the origins of modern Europeans. “It's been an enduring question in archaeology — whether we're descended from Middle Eastern farmers or indigenous hunter-gatherers,” says Thomas. The argument boils down to evolution versus replacement. Did native populations of hunter-gatherers in Europe take up farming and herding? Or was there an influx of agricultural colonists who outcompeted the locals, thanks to a combination of genes and technology?


One strand of evidence came from studies of animal bones found at archaeological sites. If cattle are raised primarily for dairying, calves are generally slaughtered before their first birthday so that their mothers can be milked. But cattle raised mainly for meat are killed later, when they have reached their full size. (The pattern, if not the ages, is similar for sheep and goats, which were part of the dairying revolution.)


On the basis of studies of growth patterns in bones, LeCHE participant Jean-Denis Vigne, an archaeozoologist at the French National Museum of Natural History in Paris, suggests that dairying in the Middle East may go all the way back to when humans first started domesticating animals there, about 10,500 years ago6. That would place it just after the Middle Eastern Neolithic transition — when an economy based on hunter-gathering gave way to one devoted to agriculture. Dairying, says Roz Gillis, also an archaeozoologist at the Paris museum, “may have been one of the reasons why human populations began trapping and keeping ruminants such as cattle, sheep and goats”. (See 'Dairy diaspora'.)


Dairying then expanded in concert with the Neolithic transition, says Gillis, who has looked at bone growth at 150 sites in Europe and Anatolia (modern Turkey). As agriculture spread from Anatolia to northern Europe over roughly two millennia, dairying followed a similar pattern.


On their own, the growth patterns do not say whether the Neolithic transition in Europe happened through evolution or replacement, but cattle bones offer important clues. In a precursor study7, Burger and several other LeCHE participants found that domesticated cattle at Neolithic sites in Europe were most closely related to cows from the Middle East, rather than indigenous wild aurochs. This is a strong indication that incoming herders brought their cattle with them, rather than domesticating locally, says Burger. A similar story is emerging from studies of ancient human DNA recovered at a few sites in central Europe, which suggest that Neolithic farmers were not descended from the hunter-gatherers who lived there before8.


Taken together, the data help to resolve the origins of the first European farmers. “For a long time, the mainstream of continental European archaeology said Mesolithic hunter-gatherers developed into Neolithic farmers,” says Burger. “We basically showed they were completely different.”


Given that dairying in the Middle East started thousands of years before the LP allele emerged in Europe, ancient herders must have found ways to reduce lactose concentrations in milk. It seems likely that they did so by making cheese or yogurt. (Fermented cheeses such as feta and cheddar have a small fraction of the lactose found in fresh milk; aged hard cheeses similar to Parmesan have hardly any.)


To test that theory, LeCHE researchers ran chemical tests on ancient pottery. The coarse, porous clay contains enough residues for chemists to distinguish what type of fat was absorbed during the cooking process: whether it was from meat or milk, and from ruminants such as cows, sheep and goats or from other animals. “That gave us a way into saying what types of things were being cooked,” says Richard Evershed, a chemist at the University of Bristol.


“It's been an enduring question in archaeology — whether we're descended from Middle Eastern farmers or indigenous hunter-gatherers.”


Evershed and his LeCHE collaborators found milk fat on pottery in the Middle Eastern Fertile Crescent going back at least 8,500 years9, and Roffet-Salque's work on the Polish pottery1 offers clear evidence that herders in Europe were producing cheese to supplement their diets between 6,800 and 7,400 years ago. By then, dairy had become a component of the Neolithic diet, but it was not yet a dominant part of the economy.


That next step happened slowly, and it seems to have required the spread of lactase persistence. The LP allele did not become common in the population until some time after it first emerged: Burger has looked for the mutation in samples of ancient human DNA and has found it only as far back as 6,500 years ago in northern Germany.


Models created by LeCHE participant Pascale Gerbault, a population geneticist at University College London, explain how the trait might have spread. As Middle Eastern Neolithic cultures moved into Europe, their farming and herding technologies helped them to out-compete the local hunter-gatherers. And as the southerners pushed north, says Gerbault, the LP allele 'surfed' the wave of migration.


Lactase persistence had a harder time becoming established in parts of southern Europe, because Neolithic farmers had settled there before the mutation appeared. But as the agricultural society expanded northwards and westwards into new territory, the advantage provided by lactase persistence had a big impact. “As the population grows quickly at the edge of the wave, the allele can increase in frequency,” says Gerbault.


The remnants of that pattern are still visible today. In southern Europe, lactase persistence is relatively rare — less than 40% in Greece and Turkey. In Britain and Scandinavia, by contrast, more than 90% of adults can digest milk.


Cattle conquest

By the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age, around 5,000 years ago, the LP allele was prevalent across most of northern and central Europe, and cattle herding had become a dominant part of the culture. “They discover this way of life, and once they can really get the nutritional benefits they increase or intensify herding as well,” says Burger. Cattle bones represent more than two-thirds of the animal bones in many late Neolithic and early Bronze Age archaeological sites in central and northern Europe.


The LeCHE researchers are still puzzling out exactly why the ability to consume milk offered such an advantage in these regions. Thomas suggests that, as people moved north, milk would have been a hedge against famine. Dairy products — which could be stored for longer in colder climes — provided rich sources of calories that were independent of growing seasons or bad harvests.


Others think that milk may have helped, particularly in the north, because of its relatively high concentration of vitamin D, a nutrient that can help to ward off diseases such as rickets. Humans synthesize vitamin D naturally only when exposed to the sun, which makes it difficult for northerners to make enough during winter months. But lactase persistence also took root in sunny Spain, casting vitamin D's role into doubt.


The LeCHE project may offer a model for how archaeological questions can be answered using a variety of disciplines and tools. “They have got a lot of different tentacles — archaeology, palaeoanthropology, ancient DNA and modern DNA, chemical analysis — all focused on one single question,” says Ian Barnes, a palaeogeneticist at Royal Holloway, University of London, who is not involved in the project. “There are lots of other dietary changes which could be studied in this way.”


The approach could, for example, help to tease apart the origins of amylase, an enzyme that helps to break down starch. Researchers have suggested that the development of the enzyme may have followed — or made possible — the increasing appetite for grain that accompanied the growth of agriculture. Scientists also want to trace the evolution of alcohol dehydrogenase, which is crucial to the breakdown of alcohol and could reveal the origins of humanity's thirst for drink.


Some of the LeCHE participants are now probing further back in time, as part of a project named BEAN (Bridging the European and Anatolian Neolithic), which is looking at how the first farmers and herders made their way into Europe. Burger, Thomas and their BEAN collaborators will be in Turkey this summer, tracing the origins of the Neolithic using computer models and ancient-DNA analysis in the hope of better understanding who the early farmers were, and when they arrived in Europe.


Along the way, they will encounter beyaz peynir, a salty sheep's-milk cheese eaten with nearly every Turkish breakfast. It is probably much like the cheese that Neolithic farmers in the region would have eaten some 8,000 years ago — long before the march of lactase persistence allowed people to drink fresh milk.


Nature 500, 20–22 (01 August 2013) doi:10.1038/500020a



Laois ‘bog body’ said to be world’s oldest

4,000-year-old remains were discovered on Bord na Móna land in Co Laois in 2011

Eoin Burke-Kennedy

Fri, Aug 2, 2013, 17:44


The mummified remains of a body found in a Laois bog two years ago have been found to date back to 2,000BC, making it the oldest “bog body” discovered anywhere in the world.

The 4,000-year-old remains, which predate the famed Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun by nearly 700 years, are those of a young adult male.

He is believed to have met a violent death in some sort of ritual sacrifice.

The body was unearthed in the Cúl na Móna bog in Cashel in 2011 by a Bord na Móna worker operating a milling machine.

Initially, experts thought it dated from the Iron Age period (500BC-400AD), placing it on a par with similar finds in other Irish bogs.

However, radiocarbon tests on the body; the peat on which the body was lying; and a wooden stake found with the body, date the body to the early Bronze Age, around 2,000BC.

The discovery promises to open a new chapter in the archaeological record of Bronze Age burial in Ireland.

Eamonn Kelly, keeper of Irish antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland, said previously the earliest bog body discovered in Ireland dated to around 1,300BC but “Cashel man” substantially predates this period, making one of the most significant finds in recent times.

He said the remains are those of a young adult male which were placed in a crouched position and covered by peat, probably on the surface of the bog.

The man’s arm was broken by a blow and there were deep cuts to his back which appear to have been inflicted by a blade, which indicate a violent death, Mr Kelly said.

Unfortunately, the areas that would typically be targeted in a violent assault, namely the head, neck and chest, were damaged by the milling machine when the body was discovered, making it impossible to determine the exact cause of death.

Nonetheless, Mr Kelly believes the wounds on the body, combined with the fact that it was marked by wooden stakes and placed in proximity to an inauguration site, point to the individual being the victim of a ritual sacrifice.

“It seems to be same type of ritual that we’ve observed in later Iron Age finds. What’s surprising here is that it’s so much earlier.”

Because of the lack of calluses on the hands and the well-groomed fingernails observed in other finds, though not this one as the hands were not recoverable, Mr Kelly suggests the victims were most likely “high-born”.

“We believe that the victims of these ritual killings are kings that have failed in their kingship and have been sacrificed as a consequence.”

The museum is awaiting further test results on samples taken from the man’s bowel which should reveal the contents of the meal he was likely to have consumed before he died.

The chemical composition of bogs can preserve human bodies for thousands of years.

Archaelogists have discovered more than 100 ancient bodies in Irish bogs but few as well-preserved as “Cashel man”.



Romania recovers ancient gold coins, jewels

AFP 30 JULY 2013 - 21H25


Romania recovered gold coins and silver jewels dating back to the first century BC that were stolen from the site of Sarmizegetusa Regia, the capital of the ancient Dacian people, the national history museum said Tuesday.


"The recovery of five coins and 14 pieces of jewellery is the crowning of more than two years of efforts made by prosecutors, policemen and by Romanian and German experts," the museum said in a statement.


The coins, from the era of king Koson (1st century BC), were stolen from Sarmizegetusa between 2004 and 2007, museum director Ernest Oberlander-Tarnoveanu told AFP.


He said that both the coins and the jewels were recovered from a German auction house.


Since 2007, Romania has recovered 13 golden Dacian bracelets and more than 500 gold coins plundered from archaeological sites.


The Dacians, an Indo-European people conquered by the Romans in the first century AD, are the ancestors of the Romanians.


A man charged with "complicity to the theft of cultural goods" was arrested Monday, prosecutors said.


The suspect, Horia-Camil Radu, had been indicted in 2008 but fled Romania before the trial began.


In 2010 he was arrested by British authorities while he was heading to Germany where he planned to sell 160 Dacian, Byzantine and Roman gold coins.


Tests conducted by British Museum experts showed that 145 of the coins were part of a Dacian treasure stolen from Sarmizsegetusa, an UNESCO heritage site.


The coins are to be sent back to Romania soon, prosecutors said.



Ancient Feathered Shield Discovered in Peru Temple

Owen Jarus, LiveScience Contributor   |   August 01, 2013 07:57am ET


Hidden in a sealed part of an ancient Peruvian temple, archaeologists have discovered a feathered shield dating back around 1,300 years.


Made by the Moche people, the rare artifact was found face down on a sloped surface that had been turned into a bench or altar at the site of Pañamarca. Located near two ancient murals, one of which depicts a supernatural monster, the shield measures about 10 inches (25 centimeters) in diameter and has a base made of carefully woven basketry with a handle.


Its surface is covered with red-and-brown textiles along with about a dozen yellow feathers that were sewn on and appear to be from the body of a macaw.  The shield would have served a ritualistic rather than a practical use, and the placement of the shield on the bench or altar appears to have been the last act carried out before this space was sealed and a new, larger, temple built on top of it.


The discovery of this small shield, combined with the discovery of other small Moche shields and depictions of them in art, may also shed light on Moche combat. Their shields may have been used in ceremonial performances or ritualized battles similar to gladiatorial combat, Lisa Trever, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, told LiveScience.


Trever and her colleagues, Jorge Gamboa, Ricardo Toribio and Flannery Surette,  describe the shield in the most recent edition of Ñawpa Pacha: Journal of Andean Archaeology.


Though only about a dozen feathers now remain on the shield, in ancient times it may have had a more feathered appearance. "I suspect that originally it had at least 100 feathers sewn on the surface" in two or more concentric circles, Trever said.


The Moche people, who lived on the desert coasts and irrigated valleys of the Pacific side of the Andes Mountains, likely had to import the feathers, as macaws  resided on the eastern side of the Andes, closer to the Amazon.


What symbolic meaning the macaw had for the Moche is a mystery. "We know that the Moche used many animal metaphors in their art and visual culture," Trever said. "They may have had a specific symbolic meaning to the macaw, but because the Moche didn't leave us any written records we don't know precisely what they thought."


The shield was found close to two ancient murals, one of which depicts a "Strombus Monster," a supernatural beast with both snail and feline characteristics, and the other an iguanalike creature. The researchers note in their paper that the monster is often shown in Moche art battling a fanged humanlike character called "Wrinkle Face" by some scholars. The iguana in turn is often shown as an attendant accompanying Wrinkle Face on his journeys.


The shield was found close to two murals, shown here in watercolour illustration. The mural on the left is of an iguana like creature while the one on the right is of a Strombus Monster that has both snail and feline characteristics.

Credit: Illustrations by Jorge Gamboa and Pedro Neciosup for the Pañamarca projectView full size image

Although a depiction of Wrinkle Face has yet to be found in the sealed area where the shield is located he may yet turn up in future excavations. "What the exact relationship is between the deposition of the shield and the adjacent pictorial narrative is an active question," Trever said.


It appears as if the Moche liked to keep their shields small, bringing up the question of whether they were meant for something like gladiatorial combat or some other type of fighting.


Whereas the newly discovered shield was meant for ritual and not for combat, the researchers note that another small Moche shield, this one found at the site of Huaca de la Luna, was likely meant for combat, being made of woven cane and leather, but measuring only 17 inches (43 cm) in diameter. In addition, depictions of Moche shields in ceramic art show people wearing small circular or square shields on their forearm.


It's "more like a small shield that's used to protect the forearm and maybe held over the face in hand-to-hand combat with clubs," she said of the Moche shields. "They apparently didn't need, or didn't use, large shields to protect themselves from volleys of arrows or spears that were thrown."


We "have to think about the style of hand-to-hand combat" they were used for, she added. "Is it something that is more ritual in nature, more of a ritual combat, gladiatorial combat," Trever said.


Jeffrey Quilter, director of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, has proposed another idea as to why Moche shields were so small. He points out that the Moche used a two-handed club that gave them great reach and could land a lethal blow.


"The power of such weapons may have been so great as to render shields effectively useless, perhaps resulting in their diminished size over time, becoming more useful as arm guards or to ward off the occasional sling stone or dart than as true shields for body protection," he writes in a paper published in the book "The Art and Archaeology of the Moche" (University of Texas Press, 2008). He notes that the Moche do appear to have used some long-range weapons in combat such as sling stones and darts.


Regardless of why the Moche preferred small shields, their repeated depiction indicates the shields served their purpose well. They "did seem to use very small shields compared to what we know of from other parts of the world, but they seemed to have served for the style of battle that they performed," Trever said.



Medieval boat discovered on River Chet, Loddon

1 August 2013 Last updated at 14:48

The remains of the boat were lying in what is believed to have been an old river channel of the River Chet


The remains of a boat which could be more than 600 years old has been discovered by a team excavating a new drainage dyke in Norfolk.


The oak timber remnants, dated circa 1400, were found near Loddon during work on the Broadland Flood Alleviation Project (BFAP) along the River Chet.


Archaeologist Heather Wallis said: "No boats of this date have previously been found in Norfolk."


She added it was a "unique opportunity" to "record a vessel of this type".


The BFAP is a long-term project to provide a range of flood defence improvements, maintenance and emergency response services within the tidal areas of the Rivers Yare, Bure, Waveney and their tributaries.


Paul Mitchelmore, from the Environment Agency, said the boat was the latest of "several interesting archaeological finds" encountered during the project.


He added: "We are very pleased to be helping to provide an insight into life of the past in the Broads at the same time as working for the future of the area through our flood defence works."


'Tricky' operation

Ms Wallis said the boat is "particularly significant" being located within the Norfolk Broads.


"This has had a strong reliance on water transport and related industries, particularly since the creation of the Broads by peat digging in the medieval period.


"We think it dates between 1400 and 1600 AD and is very well preserved. It might have been used for carrying lighter good on the river."


The project team plan to recover the timber toward the end of the week but it would be a "tricky" operation.


"Some of the planks on the side of the boat are quite loosely in place so we'll be removing them separately to put into wet storage," said Ms Wallis.


"In the long term we hope it will go for conservation and end up in one of Norfolk's museums."