'Little Foot' Fossil Could Be Human Ancestor

14 March 2014 3:30 pm

Ron Clarke



He may be called Little Foot, but for human evolution researchers he’s a big deal: His is the most complete skeleton known of an early member of the human lineage. Ever since the skeleton was discovered in a South African cave in the 1990s and named for its relatively small foot bones, researchers have been fiercely debating how old it is, with estimates ranging from about 2 million years to more than 3 million. A new geological study of the cave concludes that Little Foot is at least 3 million years old. If correct, that would mean he is old enough to be a direct ancestor of today’s humans, and could shift South Africa to the forefront of human evolution.


The first traces of the skeleton were found in the early 1990s by Ron Clarke, a paleoanthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. He was rummaging through boxes of animal bones previously excavated in the Sterkfontein caves, about 40 kilometers northwest of Johannesburg, where a number of fossils of australopithecines—advanced apes similar to the famous Lucy—have been discovered. Clarke found four small australopithecine foot bones, and set off with his team to unearth the skeleton that they came from.


In 1997, they found it, deeply embedded in rock that had formed after Little Foot apparently fell 20 meters into the cave through a hole in the ground above. Virtually the entire skeleton was preserved down to the smallest finger and toe bones, an extremely rare event. (Lucy, for example, is only about 40% complete.) It took more than 15 years to excavate the fragile fossils from the rock.


Several teams tried to determine the age of the skeleton by dating the rocks around it, using techniques based either on the earth’s magnetic field or the decay of uranium in the rocks. (The bones are far too old for radiocarbon dating, which cannot peer back further than about 45,000 years.) Clarke’s team estimated Little Foot to be about 3.3 million years old—about as old as Lucy, found in East Africa. And although its anatomical details have yet to be published in detail, Clarke says Little Foot appears to be somewhat closer to later humans than Lucy: While its skull is primitive like Lucy’s, its hands are more modern, and its feet have both apelike and human features.


But the dating has remained controversial. Three other teams have come up with later dates of about 2.2 million to 2.6 million years, although they all considered the younger dates to be more likely. If the fossils are indeed younger or about the same age as the first members of Homo, which date about 2.5 million years ago, they cannot be ancestral to it.


The dating discrepancies were largely due to a difference of opinion about how soon the rocks around the bones were formed after Little Foot fell into the cave: Clarke insisted that a great deal of time had passed, while the other researchers concluded that they had probably been laid down relatively soon after the poor australopithecine’s fatal accident. So Clarke teamed up with geomorphologist Laurent Bruxelles of the University of Toulouse in France to undertake what they claim is the most detailed study yet of how the rocks in the cave, along with its stalactites and stalagmites, were formed. The conclusions, in press at the Journal of Human Evolution, were announced today at simultaneous press conferences in Paris and Johannesburg, led by Bruxelles and Clarke, respectively.


The team, using a combination of microscopic and geochemical techniques, concluded that after Little Foot fell into the cave, spaces began to appear between the skeleton and the rock that first formed around it. Over a period of at least 1 million years, these spaces were filled by repeated flows of minerals carried by water flowing through the cave, similar to the way that stalactites and stalagmites are formed by the dripping of water. So while other teams may have been correct in dating these so-called flowstones to as late as 2.2 million years old, the skeleton itself is much older, Bruxelles and Clarke argue. They were not able to come up with an exact age, but estimate that Little Foot died at least 3 million years ago, based on dates previously obtained for other parts of the cave near where the skeleton was found.


At the Paris press conference, Bruxelles pointed out that many researchers had earlier discounted the possibility that Little Foot was a candidate as an ancestor of Homo because of the late date. Thus, many scientists had focused their search for human origins on East Africa, especially Ethiopia, where Lucy was found, and Kenya. But the new dating puts South Africa back in the running as the original home of the Homo line, Bruxelles said.


Paul Renne, a dating expert at the Berkeley Geochronology Center in California, says that this kind of detailed study of the cave’s geology “has been long overdue.” Renne adds that no matter how precise the dating of the flowstones surrounding Little Foot, “without accurate geologic context they are useless. Actually, they are worse than useless because incorrect conclusions may be drawn from them, as seems to have been the case” with the younger proposed dates for the skeleton.


But Andy Herries, a dating expert at La Trobe University near Melbourne, Australia, who led one of the teams that came up with younger dates based on magnetic analyses of the flowstones, says that nothing in the paper contradicts his team’s estimate that all of the rocks surrounding the skeleton were laid down between 2.6 million and 2.2 million years ago. And as for the 3-million-year date for the skeleton itself, Herries says it was “plucked out of thin air.” We still don’t know exactly how old Little Foot is, Herries insists, a point which Bruxelles and Clarke themselves concede.



Ancient 'Ritual Wand' Etched with Human Faces Discovered in Syria

By Tia Ghose, Staff Writer   |   March 11, 2014 12:33pm ET


Archaeologists have unearthed an ancient staff carved with two realistic human faces in southern Syria.


The roughly 9,000-year-old artifact was discovered near a graveyard where about 30 people were buried without their heads — which were found in a nearby living space.


"The find is very unusual. It's unique," said study co-author Frank Braemer, an archaeologist at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in France.


The wand, which was likely used in a long-lost funeral ritual, is one of the only naturalistic depictions of human faces from this time and place, Braemer said.


Researchers first uncovered the wand during excavations in 2007 and 2009 at a site in southern Syria called Tell Qarassa, where an artificial mound made from the debris of everyday human life gradually built up in layers over millennia. (Though many stunning archaeological sites have been looted or bombed since the onset of the Syrian Civil War, this site is in a fairly peaceful area and has so far escaped damage).


Other archaeological evidence from the site suggests the ancient inhabitants were amongst the world's first farmers, consuming emmer (a type of wheat), barley, chickpeas and lentils, and herding or hunting goats, gazelles, pigs and deer, the authors write in the March issue of the journal Antiquity.


After the skeletons and wand were buried, someone seems to have dug up and removed the skulls, placing them in the inhabited portion of the settlement.


The bone wand was likely carved from the rib of an auroch, the wild ancestor of cows, and was about 4.7 inches (12 centimeters) long. Two natural-looking faces, with eyes closed, were carved into the bone, though the wand was intentionally broken at both ends, with more faces likely originally adorning the staff.


The relic's purpose and symbolism remain a mystery.


"It's clearly linked to funerary rituals, but what kind of rituals, it's impossible to tell," Braemer told Live Science.


The find marks a transition in culture toward more interest in the human form. Older artifacts typically showed stylized or schematic representations of humans, but realistic depictions of animals. Art unearthed in what is now Jordan and Anatolia from the same time period also employs delicate, natural representations of the human form, suggesting this trend emerged simultaneously in regions throughout the Middle East, Braemer said.


The artistic innovation may have been tied to the emerging desire to create material representations of identity and personhood, the authors write in the paper.


Exactly why someone dug up the skulls and placed them within the living areas of the settlement is also unclear. But archaeologists unearthed similar finds in Jericho, Israel, dating to around 9,000 years ago, where the skulls of ancestors were covered with plaster and painted with facial features, then displayed in living spaces.


One possibility is that the practice was a form of ancestor worship, in which the human faces represented the living presence of supernatural beings in a humanized form.


It's also possible the heads on display were trophies from vanquished enemies, Braemer told Live Science.



3,000-year-old skeleton with cancer helps scientists understand disease evolution

Published March 17, 2014 Reuters


British archaeologists have found what they say is the world's oldest complete example of a human being with metastatic cancer and hope it will offer new clues about the now common and often fatal disease.


Researchers from Durham University and the British Museum discovered the evidence of tumors that had developed and spread throughout the body in a 3,000-year-old skeleton found in a tomb in modern Sudan in 2013.


Analyzing the skeleton using radiography and a scanning electron microscope, they managed to get clear imaging of lesions on the bones which showed the cancer had spread to cause tumors on the collar bones, shoulder blades, upper arms, vertebrae, ribs, pelvis and thigh bones.


"Insights gained from archaeological human remains like these can really help us to understand the evolution and history of modern diseases," said Michaela Binder, a Durham PhD student who led the research and excavated and examined the skeleton.


"Our analysis showed that the shape of the small lesions on the bones can only have been caused by a soft tissue cancer ... though the exact origin is impossible to determine through the bones alone."


Despite being one of the world's leading causes of death today, cancer is virtually absent in archaeological records compared to other diseases - and that has given rise to the idea that cancers are mainly attributable to modern lifestyles and to people living for longer.


According to the World Health Organisation's cancer research agency, new cancer cases rose to an estimated 14 million a year in 2012, a figure seen rising to 22 million within the 20 years.


Yet these new findings, published in the Public Library of Science journal PLOS ONE on Monday, suggest cancer is not only a modern disease, but was around in the Nile Valley even in ancient times.


Binder said the discovery should help scientists explore the underlying causes of cancer in ancient populations and give fresh clues about the evolution of cancer in the past.


Ancient DNA analysis of skeletons and mummies with evidence of cancer can be used to detect mutations in specific genes that are known to be associated with particular types of cancer.


The skeleton is of an adult male estimated to be between 25- and 35-years-old when he died. It was found at the archaeological site of Amara West in northern Sudan, on the Nile, 750 km downstream from the capital Khartoum.


The researchers said they could only speculate on what may have caused of the young man's cancer, but it may have been as a result of environmental carcinogens such as smoke from wood fires, or due to genetic factors, or from an infectious disease such as schistosomiasis, which is caused by parasites.


Schistosomiasis would be a plausible explanation, they said, since the disease has plagued inhabitants of Egypt and Nubia since at least 1500 BC and is now recognized as a cause of bladder cancer and breast cancer in men.



Secrets of Chinese Terra-Cotta Warrior Weapons Revealed

By Tia Ghose, Staff Writer   |   March 11, 2014 01:53pm ET


One of the most astounding archaeological discoveries of the 20th century is arguably the life-size terra-cotta army buried alongside China's first emperor. Now, scientists have figured out how the bronze triggers for the crossbows of the 8,000 terra-cotta warriors were manufactured.


Teams of craftspeople worked in small groups to produce the bronze pieces in batches for the tomb of ancient Emperor Qin Shi Huang, according to a new study detailed in the March issue of the journal Antiquity.


Historical documents suggest that soon after Emperor Qin Shi Huang ascended to the throne in 246 B.C., he began work on his tomb near Xi'an, China. When the tomb was first unearthed in the 1970s,it revealed thousands of lifelike terra-cotta statues of artisans, musicians, officials, horses and soldiers. The epic effort conscripted 700,000 laborers, many of whom were convicts or people who were in debt to the empire, said study co-author Xiuzhen Janice Li, an archaeologist who was at the University College London at the time of the new work and is now at the Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum Site Museum in China. [In Images: Ancient Chinese Warriors Protect Secret Tomb]


The massive undertaking had an important goal: ensuring the emperor's military power and resources in the afterlife.


As part of the huge project, craftspeople sculpted about 8,000 colorful warriors — likely using real human beings as inspiration — and those warriors wore stone armor and "wielded" lances, swords and crossbows.


But it wasn't clear exactly how these ancient weapons were made. The crossbows were made of wood or bamboo that rotted long ago, and only the tips and triggers for the bows remained, Li told Live Science.


To learn more about how the massive trove was built, Li and her colleagues visually inspected and measured about 216 of the five-part crossbow triggers from the mausoleum.


The lack of wear on the metal pieces suggests the weapons were never used in actual battle, but were instead built solely for the tomb, the researchers said.


In addition, the team analyzed the spots where triggers were found in the tomb, as well as the variation in the size and shape of the pieces.


The pieces were mostly uniform, suggesting the interlocking trigger parts were made in the same or nearly-identical molds and produced in small batches. Each batch of the trigger pieces was likely then assembled in small cells, or workshops, perhaps headed by an overseer.  That model contrasts with the "assembly line" hypothesis that some archaeologists thought might have been used.


The organization into small workshops was similar to the structure the emperor imposed on the rest of society in ancient China, said study co-author Marcos Martinón-Torres, an archaeologist at the University College London.


"He abolished any privileges inherited by blood, and the population was divided in small groups that were collectively responsible for their adherence to imperial laws," Martinón-Torres wrote in an email to Live Science. "For example, if someone in one of these groups committed a crime, all of them were held responsible, unless they reported the culprit and allowed them to be punished."


The manufacturing technique used in the workshop also may have been used by weapon makers for the Emperor of Qin's real armies, though that's just speculation, Martinón-Torres said.


"The cellular workshop model we postulate for the weapons manufacture in the mausoleum would have also offered useful flexibility for armies on the move," he said.



Laser and radar unveil the secrets of Roman bridges

Date: March 12, 2014

Source: Plataforma SINC



Discovering hidden arches, visualizing the sloped outline characteristic of the medieval period, finding a Renaissance engraving on a Roman arch or detecting restorations: these are some of the results that have been obtained in a recent study of more than 80 roman and medieval bridges. The assessment was carried out with the help of a ground-penetrating radar, a laser scanner and mathematical models, technology that benefit conservation.


Discovering hidden arches, visualising the sloped outline characteristic of the medieval period, finding a Renaissance engraving on a Roman arch or detecting restorations: these are some of the results that have been obtained by researchers at the University of Vigo (Spain) in their study of more than 80 Roman and medieval bridges. The assessment was carried out with the help of a ground-penetrating radar, a laser scanner and mathematical models, technology that benefit conservation.


In recent years, UNESCO and other organisations concerned with the conservation of cultural heritage have underlined the importance of using non-destructive methods to document monuments´ characteristics and evaluate their state of conservation.

Along these lines, researchers from the Applied Geotechnology Group at the University of Vigo have used laser and radar to study, using light beams and waves, around 85 ancient bridges in north-west Spain. The latest bridge to be studied: Monforte de Lemos, in Lugo, according to the Journal of Bridge Engineering.

"As well as obtaining information like the thickness of the stones inside, the GPR has reported the existence of two hollow arches in this medieval bridge, hidden underground at one of the edges," Dr. Mercedes Solla, one of the authors and current professor at the Defence Academy (Marín, Pontevedra), explains.

The GPR comprises an antenna that emits and receives short pulses, a control unit and a computer. The ensemble can be set up in a type of cart, in which the system is installed or in a mobile survey vehicle to collect data along the road of the bridge.

"The information from this system is combined with the information provided by the LiDAR or terrestrial laser scanner, whose beam sweeps over the whole bridge and in a few minutes takes the XYZ coordinates of millions of points of the monument," says Solla. The result is a point cloud, from which detailed plans and 3D models of the bridge can be obtained.

This has led to the detection of unknown structural and geometric details, including cracks in many of the constructions. In some cases, such as in the Roman bridge of Segura, between the municipalities of Piedras Albas (Cáceres, Spain) and Segura (Portugal), this technology has also been used to detect the remainders of a Renaissance engraving in one of the arches.

In another Roman bridge, in Lugo, researchers have identified restorations carried out over time, differentiating between areas where granite has been used (the waves of the radar spread faster) and others where schist is present, a material which has a lower conductivity. It has also been detected that the outline of the bridge sloped upwards and downwards during the Middle Ages, although today it is level.

According to Solla, "all this information is of historic interest, but it is also useful to civil engineers so that they can plan conservation, improvement and restoration measures in these types of infrastructures."

The researchers are currently working with a mobile bridge survey vehicle that comprises a mobile 3D laser scanner, a GPR, thermographic cameras and a surface 'profilometer'. The initiative is part of a European project for the application of technologies for infrastructure management and inspection (known in Spanish as SITEGI).


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Plataforma SINC. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

Mercedes Solla, Belén Riveiro, Henrique Lorenzo, Julia Armesto. Ancient Stone Bridge Surveying by Ground-Penetrating Radar and Numerical Modeling Methods. Journal of Bridge Engineering, 2014; 19 (1): 110 DOI: 10.1061/(ASCE)BE.1943-5592.0000497

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Plataforma SINC. "Laser and radar unveil the secrets of Roman bridges." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 12 March 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/03/140312082633.htm>.



Ancient petroglyphs found by drone in southern Utah

Posted on: 10:34 pm, March 11, 2014, by Todd Tanner, updated on: 05:05am, March 12, 2014


The video was made by Bill Clary of Colorado who owns ’Got Aerials,’ a business which sells drones. His website shows several samples of video taken by drones, many in spectacular outdoor settings.

Clary claims the petroglyphs were filmed on a high canyon wall in Southern Utah, but declined to say exactly where, telling FOX 13 he is making an effort to contact the property owners.

Jerry Spangler who heads the Colorado Plateau Archeological Alliance (cparch.org) reviewed the video for FOX 13.

“What you showed me is what we call San Juan basketmaker style. Broad shoulders, pecked in outline, skinny legs. It’s a very classic style made by the basketmaker people from about 500 B.C. through around 8600,” Spangler said.

Spangler said it is possible that the petroglyphs seen in the video have gone unnoticed for centuries, perhaps longer.

He added there are likely thousands of archeological sites in Utah yet to be discovered — there are hundreds of known sites, which have not yet been fully documented.

“Some of these sites are so incredibly difficult to get to, just for safety reasons we can’t get to them,” Spangler said.

Spangler believes drones could become an invaluable research tool, but also thinks it may be hard for organizations like the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and organizations like his own to keep up with the discoveries, which people like Clary will likely make.

Spangler said looting and vandalism at archeological sites has long been a problem, and speculates that the sharing of information online will accelerate such behaviors. He hopes Clary and others will closely guard information about locations and access, noting that each discovery is unique, and future finds could unlock clues to human history

“The more remote that sight is, the more likely it is to be intact,” Spangler said.

It is illegal to tamper with, vandalize, or remove anything from an archeological site on public property.

While the archeologist interviewed for our story did not immediately recognize the petroglyph panel, one of our viewers did. Jonathan Bailey is an avid hiker and photographer who says he and others have visited the petroglyph panel many times and provided photos as well. He says his photos were taken long before the panel was captured on video by a drone, dispelling the idea that the petroglyphs are a new discovery. Bailey maintains a website of his photos and adventures, which is well worth checking out.



Northampton Project Angel reveals town's medieval past

15 March 2014 Last updated at 08:55


Three "star finds" have been discovered by archaeologists at a dig on the site for Northamptonshire County Council's forthcoming new £43m headquarters.


The excavation in Fetter Street, Northampton, has revealed the remains of a medieval bread oven, an early 13th Century well shaft and trading tokens.


Jim Brown, from the Museum of London Archaeology, said the 12th Century oven suggested "a settlement nearby".


Excavation on the 1,400 sq m site continues until the end of August.


A number of sewing tools found on the site indicate a "cottage economy", said Jim Brown

"The bread oven suggests there ought to be a 12th Century settlement nearby," said senior project officer Mr Brown.


"It would have been for one or two households to share and would have worked a bit like a stone-baked pizza oven.


"By the time the well was created around the early 13th Century it's likely there were scattered domestic dwellings in the area which seems consistent with the documentary records of the time."


"Shield of France" type Jetton

The site yielded trading tokens from the 1400s

The site has been explored ahead of construction starting on Project Angel, part of a major regeneration scheme in the town that includes the opening of a new bus station and changes to the town's railway station.


'Skinning of cats'

"One of the exciting finds has been a cache of objects which seems to be part of a sewing kits with needles, pins and trading tokens which date it between 1400 and 1475," said Mr Brown.


"Given the period you're looking at cottage economies so it could be a personal sewing kit, or it could belong to a seamstress who did a little bit of work to earn a living in her own home.


"Previous digs have revealed evidence of the skinning of cats.


"Northampton is a great leather working town so it would be nice to be able to identify something that went with that industry."


He added it was "quite difficult" to build a bigger picture as the key findings to date were "separated by periods of time" but the fragments "demonstrate a sequential growth of activity" that fits with the town's development.


Construction work on the site is expected to begin by January 2015.