Fossil Human Skulls Unearthed in Spanish Cave Shed Light on Neandertal Evolution

Neandertal evolution was not a linear process, suggests study.

Thu, Jun 19, 2014


The recent recovery and analysis of 17 early human fossil skulls from the Sima de los Huesos ("Pit of Bones") cave pit site in the Sierra de Atapuerca cave system of northern Spain have illuminated our understanding of how Neandertals, a more ancient, extinct sister species of Homo sapiens (modern humans), actually evolved, according to a study report published this week in Science.

Currently led by Juan Luis Arsuaga of the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain, archaeological teams have been excavating at the site for four decades, and have recovered the largest assemblage of early human fossils ever discovered at any one site in the world.

"After thirty years, we have recovered nearly 7,000 human fossils corresponding to all skeletal regions of at least 28 individuals," says study co-author Ignacio Martinez, Professor of Paleontology at the University of Alcalá. "This extraordinary collection includes 17 fragmentary skulls, many of which are very complete."

The 17 skulls, according to the researchers, represent a single population of a hominin (early human) species. Although some of have been studied before, seven are presented anew here, and six are more complete than ever before, after many hours of painstaking assemblage in the lab. Now, with the mostly intact samples for study, the researchers have been able to more clearly define the common features of what they believe to be a single population.


The fossils exhibited a mosaic of physical characteristics that could not be wholly attributed to any single, recognized human species to date. The skull samples showed clear Neandertal features in the face and teeth. The researchers suggest these 'Neandertal-derived' features were functionally related to mastication, or chewing. "It seems these modifications had to do with an intensive use of the frontal teeth," Arsuaga said. "The incisors show a great wear as if they had been used as a 'third hand," typical of Neanderthals." But elsewhere, the skulls showed characteristics that diverted from the Neandertal model. The braincase itself, for example, still showed features associated with more primitive hominins.


Observations like these led the researchers to suggest support for the 'accretion model' of Neandertal evolution, or something similar to cladogenesis, wherein evolution takes place through a splitting of species into branches or "clades", leading to the development of a greater variety of sister species.

However, according to Arsuaga,"we think based on the morphology that the Sima people were part of the Neanderthal clade, although not necessarily direct ancestors to the classic Neanderthals."

"One thing that surprised me about the skulls we analyzed," Arsuaga continued, "is how similar the different individuals were. The other fossils of the same geological period are different and don't fit in the Sima pattern. This means that there was a lot of diversity among different populations in the Middle Pleistocene."

In other words, because other European Middle Pleistocene fossil specimens found in Europe do not exhibit the suite of features seen in this fossil group, the researchers suggest that more than one evolutionary lineage appears to have coexisted during the European Middle Pleistocene, with that represented by the Sima sample being closer to the Neandertals. The work of Arsuaga et al. suggests that facial modification was the first step in Neandertal evolution, a mosaic pattern fitting the prediction of the accretion model.

Key to the study findings was the homogeneity of the Sima samples. "All of the individuals recovered at the site represent the same biological population which makes it possible for anthropologists to study individual variation as well as sexual differences in the skeleton and patterns of growth and development, among other aspects," report Arsuaga, et al. in a press release of the Centro Mixto UCM-ISCIII de Evolución y Comportamiento Humano. "While considerable differences in size are apparent within the collection, with some larger skulls and some smaller ones, the anatomical features that anthropologists study to examine evolutionary relationships do not vary much within the Sima population. This combination of mosaic evolution and anatomical homogeneity led the authors to favor a branching pattern of evolution, known as cladogenesis in evolutionary studies, in the European Middle Pleistocene."

So what species do these Sima fossils represent? The study authors do not assign the fossils to any specific species. But mitochondrial DNA was recently extracted and analyzed from one of the Sima fossils. The results suggest that this population was not a group of "early Neandertals". Nor, as has been previously suggested, were they representatives of another early human species called Homo heidelbergensis, thought to be ancestral to the Neandertals. The Sima jawbones (mandibles) were observed to be anatomically distinct from that of heidelbergensis.

But there is much more to come from the Pit of Bones.

"With excavations continuing and new fossils being discovered each field season," report Arsuaga, et al., "there is certainly reason to believe that the Sima de los Huesos will yield more surprising findings in the future."

A detailed feature article about the work and latest findings at Sima de los Huesos will be published in the upcoming September 2014 issue of Popular Archaeology Magazine.



Siberian Bronze Age skull reveals secrets of ancient society

June 18, 2014


SASKATOON – Unlike most hunter-gatherer societies of the Bronze Age, the people of the Baikal region of modern Siberia (Russia) respected their dead with formal graves. These burial sites are a treasure trove for archeologists and one particular specimen was so unique that bioarchaeologist Angela Lieverse traveled across the world just to bring it back to the Canadian Light Source synchrotron for examination.


“I’ve conducted research with the Baikal-Hokkaido Archaeology Project since the late nineties, and this specimen really intrigued me,” said Lieverse, associate professor of archaeology at the University of Saskatchewan. “I’ve known about this skull for about 10 years and there are a couple things about it that are fascinating.”


The first, she said, is that this individual is missing the two front teeth on the lower jaw. And the second is that there is an obvious stone projectile tip embedded in the exact same spot of the mandible where the two incisors should be.


“We knew there was a projectile, we could see it, but we didn’t know if it occurred years before the individual died or if it happened around the same time as his death,” she added. “I suspected it happened earlier and had something to do with the very unusual missing teeth.”


The specimen was found in a marked cemetery northwest of Lake Baikal. The skeleton was buried ceremoniously with a nephrite disk and four arrowheads, one of which was broken and found in the eye socket.


After radiocarbon dating and analysis, it was determined the individual was a 35-40 year-old male from the early Bronze Age, about 4420-3995 BP (Before Present).


With permission from a Russian colleague, Lieverse traveled to Siberia and returned to the Saskatoon synchrotron to examine a specimen that contained secrets and surprises.


The Biomedical and Imaging Therapy (BMIT) beamline at the CLS is a unique facility where specimens such as this can be examined using powerful X-ray light.


Working alongside Dr. David Cooper, Canada Research Chair in Synchrotron Bone Imaging, Isaac Pratt, anatomy and cell biology PhD student, and Dr. George Belev, BMIT Staff Scientist, researchers were able to reconstruct the arrowhead fragment from the jaw using advanced imaging techniques.


“We discovered that the missing teeth had nothing to do with the projectile,” said Lieverse. “Turns out that this individual had a rare case of agenesis – where the two central incisors never formed – a genetic trait that affects less than half of a per cent of all people.”


This is one of the only examples in the archaeological literature of the occurrence of this kind of genetic dental anomaly. 


The projectile tip, it turned out, was in fact a broken piece of the arrowhead that was placed in the eye socket. Lieverse suspects that the arrowhead was removed from the man’s face, either during the struggle or before the burial.


“We know that the people of the Baikal region had a very little history of violence.  This is one of only three specimens dating to this period that have any evidence of violence at all.


“A projectile point fired into somebody’s face is probably not an accident. You can say with some certainty there is an intention of violence there.”


Acknowledgments: This research is part of the Baikal-Hokkaido Archaeology Project (BHAP) based at the University of Alberta and funded largely by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Thank you to Dr. George Belev and the CLS BMIT staff for their assistance with the SRµCT, and to Chantal Kawalilak for assistance with the HR-pQCT imaging, Dr. David Cooper and the University of Saskatchewan College of Medicine, Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, and Isaac Pratt, Fellow in the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Training grant in Health Research Using Synchrotron Techniques (CIHR-THRUST).


About the CLS:


The Canadian Light Source is Canada’s national centre for synchrotron research and a global centre of excellence in synchrotron science and its applications. Located on the University of Saskatchewan campus in Saskatoon, the CLS has hosted 1,700 researchers from academic institutions, government, and industry from 10 provinces and 2 territories; delivered over 32,000 experimental shifts; received over 8,300 user visits; and provided a scientific service critical in over 1,000 scientific publications, since beginning operations in 2005.


CLS operations are funded by Canada Foundation for Innovation, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Western Economic Diversification Canada, National Research Council of Canada, Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Government of Saskatchewan and the University of Saskatchewan.


Synchrotrons work by accelerating electrons in a tube to nearly the speed of light using powerful magnets and radio frequency waves. By manipulating the electrons, scientists can select different forms of very bright light using a spectrum of X-ray, infrared, and ultraviolet light to conduct experiments.


Synchrotrons are used to probe the structure of matter and analyze a host of physical, chemical, geological and biological processes. Information obtained by scientists can be used to help design new drugs, examine the structure of surfaces in order to develop more effective motor oils, build more powerful computer chips, develop new materials for safer medical implants, and help clean up mining wastes, to name a few applications.


For more information visit the CLS website

For photos to accompany this story and more images from the CLS visit our Flickr gallery



4,500-year-old food items found in cupboard in Bristol

-6:25PM, SAT 21 JUN 2014, last updated Sat 21 Jun 2014


University staff expecting to find nothing more than dustballs during a departmental cupboard clean out stumbled on royal food items from the Mesopotamian city of Ur in southern Iraq.


Researchers from the University of Bristol pulled a wooden box down from the top of a cupboard in the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology and found it was filled with ancient pottery, seeds and animals bones.


The goods were marked with words such as 'predynastic', 'sargonid' and 'Royal Tombs' written on index cards.


The team's investigation revealed that these were the remains of food offerings from a royal tomb at least 4,500 years old.


It is believed the remains were collected during famous excavations by Sir Leonard Wolley in the site of Ur in southern Iraq during the 1920s and 1930s, but staff had no idea the rare items were being stored at the university.


Experts described the discovery as particularly exciting due to the rarity of such environmental finds in this early period of archaeological fieldwork.


Dr Tamar Hodos, senior lecturer in Archaeology at the university said the remaining mystery was how the box had come to be left on top of the cupboard.


The environmental remains themselves were published in 1978 in Journal of Archaeological Science.


The authors of that study were based at the Institute of Archaeology, London, and at the University of Southampton, and none of them had any known connection to the University of Bristol that might explain how the material came to reside here.


If anyone can shed light on this mystery, we would love to hear from them.


The remains will now join the rest of the British Museum's collection from Ur, which is part of a digitisation programme sponsored by the Leon Levy Foundation and undertaken with the University of Pennsylvania Museum.



'Mystery coin' found in Jersey hoard

Coin expert Philip De Jersey said it was likely to be Armorican but could not say any more

21 June 2014 Last updated at 09:21

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A "mystery coin" has been uncovered as part of work to discover the secrets of the world's largest Celtic coin hoard.


The hoard of some 70,000 coins and jewellery pieces was found by two metal detector enthusiasts in 2012.


Jersey Heritage conservator, Neil Mahrer, is working on separating the coins in full view of the public at the Jersey Museum.


He said so far experts had not been able to work out its origins due to an unusual "geometric pattern".


Mr Mahrer said: "Our Celtic coin expert Philip De Jersey has been our go-to man for instant identification of anything strange and he usually mails us straight back with our answer but this coin has stumped him.


"He reckons its Armorican but the geometric pattern is apparently unknown, which is always exciting."


The work to separate some 70,000 coins is expected to take about three years

This is not the only discovery made as part of the restoration work.


Mr Mahrer said on the first day of work on the hoard they found a "beautiful blue glass bead" next to a piece of silver wire.


Dr Sonia O'Connor from Bradford University said the size of the hole was too big to be a necklace piece and was likely part of a larger object.


It is believed the coins date back to about 40BC during the Roman occupation of Jersey

Mr Mahrer and his team are working in a glass fronted room as part of the Treasure: Uncovering Celts and Romans exhibition at the Jersey Museum.


It is designed to allow visitors to watch as the team remove gold and silver objects as well as coins from the hoard, thought to be worth about £10m.



Archaeologists hail "magical moment" as rare Roman gold coin found at Vindolanda

By Ben Miller | 19 June 2014


Archaeologists thought they had more chance of winning the lottery than finding a gold coin at the Roman site of Vindolanda – until a volunteer from France struck lucky


In a breakthrough which defied two generations of diggers along Hadrian’s Wall, a volunteer French archaeologist has found the first gold coin at Vindolanda, the Roman site which has been intriguing excavators for almost 50 years.


Described as being “well-worn”, the confirmed aureus bears the image of the Emperor Nero, dating it to around AD 64 or 65. The precious currency was worth half a year's salary for serving soldiers, but was lost on the northern outpost of the empire following 300 years in circulation.


 “I thought, ‘it can’t be true’,” says Marcel Albert, from Nantes, who has spent six years taking part in a dig which has attracted participants from across the world.


“It was just sitting there as I scraped back the soil, shining, as if someone had just dropped it.”


Thousands of coins have been found at the former auxiliary fort, which is perhaps best known for revealing a treasured set of writing tablets.


“My first find at Vindolanda nearly 20 years ago was a coin, but because of their scarcity I didn’t think for a moment that I would ever see a gold coin unearthed at the site,” said Justin Blake, the Deputy Director of Excavations at the Vindolanda Trust.


“It was an absolutely magical moment for the whole team.”


Beads, brooches, rings, leather shoes, arrowheads, pottery and a gaming counter have already been unearthed during the opening half of the digging season at Vindolanda.


“You actually have more chance of winning the lottery than finding a gold coin on a Roman military site,” says Dr Andrew Birley, the Director of Excavations.


“So this is a special and very likely one-off find.”


Experts hope to carry out extensive research before putting the coin on show at the site’s museum.


“It had been a great year on site to date with a whole host of finds,” reflects Sonya Galloway, of the Trust.


“Just yesterday they found an iron spoon also from the 4th Century level – perhaps it was used by an angry wife to hit the person over the head with when it was realised they lost the gold coin.


“They are excavating three areas of the site this year – the fort, where this discovery was made, the vicus, where they are digging deep into the pre-Hadrianic levels, and further to the north of the main site, where we have a Canadian Field School from the University of Western Ontario.”


Excavations will continue until September 19 2014. Visit Vindolanda’s blog for the latest updates.



Remains of 'End of the World' Epidemic Found in Ancient Egypt

By Owen Jarus, Live Science Contributor   |   June 16, 2014 07:42am ET


Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of an epidemic in Egypt so terrible that one ancient writer believed the world was coming to an end.


Working at the Funerary Complex of Harwa and Akhimenru in the west bank of the ancient city of Thebes (modern-day Luxor) in Egypt, the team of the Italian Archaeological Mission to Luxor (MAIL) found bodies covered with a thick layer of lime (historically used as a disinfectant). The researchers also found three kilns where the lime was produced, as well as a giant bonfire containing human remains, where many of the plague victims were incinerated.


Pottery remains found in the kilns allowed researchers to date the grisly operation to the third century A.D., a time when a series of epidemics now dubbed the "Plague of Cyprian" ravaged the Roman Empire, which included Egypt. Saint Cyprian was a bishop of Carthage (a city in Tunisia) who described the plague as signaling the end of the world.


Occurring between roughly A.D. 250-271, the plague "according to some sources killed more than 5,000 people a day in Rome alone," wrote Francesco Tiradritti, director of the MAIL, in the latest issue of Egyptian Archaeology, a magazine published by the Egypt Exploration Society.


Tiradritti's team uncovered the remains of this body-disposal operation between 1997 and 2012. The monument his team is excavating was originally built in the seventh century B.C. for a grand steward named Harwa. After Harwa's death, the Egyptians continuously used the monument for burial (Akhimenru was a successor who built his own tomb there). However, after its use for body disposal during the plague, the monument was abandoned and never used again.


The use of the complex "for the disposal of infected corpses gave the monument a lasting bad reputation and doomed it to centuries of oblivion until tomb robbers entered the complex in the early 19th century," Tiradritti writes.


End of the world


Cyprian left a gut-wrenching record of what the victims suffered before they died. "The bowels, relaxed into a constant flux, discharge the bodily strength [and] a fire originated in the marrow ferments into wounds of the fauces (an area of the mouth)," he wrote in Latin in a work called "De mortalitate." The "intestines are shaken with a continual vomiting, [and] the eyes are on fire with the injected blood," he wrote, adding that "in some cases the feet or some parts of the limbs are taken off by the contagion of diseased putrefaction …"


Cyprian believed that the world was coming to an end.


"The kingdom of God, beloved brethren, is beginning to be at hand; the reward of life, and the rejoicing of eternal salvation, and the perpetual gladness and possession lately lost of paradise, are now coming, with the passing away of the world …" (translation by Philip Schaff, from the book "Ante-Nicene Fathers", volume 5, 1885).


While the world, of course, did not end, the plague weakened the Roman Empire. "It killed two Emperors, Hostilian in A.D. 251 and Claudius II Gothicus in A.D. 270," wrote Tiradritti. It is "a generally held opinion that the 'Plague of Cyprian' seriously weakened the Roman Empire, hastening its fall."


The newly unearthed remains at Luxor underscore the plague's potency. Tiradritti'steam found no evidence that the victims received any sort of religious rites during their incineration. "We found evidence of corpses either burned or buried inside the lime," he told Live Science in an interview. "They had to dispose of them without losing any time."


What caused the plague?


The plague may have been some form of smallpox or measles, accordingto modern day scientists. While the discovery of human remains associated with the plague will give anthropologists new material to study, Tiradritti cautions they will not be able to extract DNA from the bodies.


While stories about researchers extracting DNA from mummies (such as Tutankhamun) have made headlines in recent years, Tiradritti told Live Science he doesn't believe the results from such ancient specimens. "In a climate like Egypt, the DNA is completely destroyed," he said. DNA breaks down over time, and permafrost (something not found in Egypt) is the best place to find ancient DNA samples, Tiradritti said.


Immense monument


The discovery of the body disposal site is just one part of the team's research. Thebes is a massive site containing a vast necropolis, and the excavations of the MAIL are providing new data that allows scholars to determine how it changed between the seventh century B.C. and today.


The funerary complex of Harwa and Akhimenru, which the MAIL has been excavating since 1995, is one of the largest private funerary monuments of Egypt. Tiradritti notes that it is considered a key monument for studying a peak period in Egyptian art known as the "Pharaonic Renaissance" that lasted from the start of the seventh century B.C. until the mid-sixth century B.C. During this time, Tiradritti notes, artists created innovative new works that were rooted in older Egyptian artistic traditions.


Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Originally published on Live Science.



Demolitions reveal ancient Roman theater in Aegean town

İZMİR - Doğan News Agency


The stage walls and entrance of a Roman-era amphitheater in İzmir’s Kadifekale neighborhood, once covered by expropriated shanty houses, have been unearthed due to the efforts of the İzmir Metropolitan Municipality.


The municipality has issued an order of expropriation on a 12,900-squaremeter area to unearth the ruins of the amphitheater. So far, 137 title deeds covering an area of 11,115 square meters have been purchased and 175 buildings have been demolished. The judicial process for the expropriation of the last 15 buildings in the area is ongoing, municipal officials noted.


Archeologists will start working in the area once the demolition is over.


HDN The most comprehensive information about the ancient theater in Kadifekale can be obtained in the studies of Austrian architects and archaeologists Otto Berg and Otto Walter, who conducted studies in the region in 1917 and 1918, from their plans and drawings.


The remains of the theater, which is thought to have held a capacity of 16,000 people, has characteristics of the Roman era according to many researchers, the study reports. 


Ancient resources claim Saint Polycarp from İzmir was killed in this theater during the early ages of Christianity, namely the paganism period of the Roman era, suggesting the theater has witnessed some tragic events in history.


When the municipality revives the theater, it will be able to be seen by those visiting the Konak, Akllsancak, Karşıyaka and Bornova neighborhoods of the city. The renovated theater will be home to shows and concerts similar to the Ancient Theater of Ephesus.





The mystery of where Plymouth got its start

Archeologists dig deep for evidence of original palisades

By David Filipov  | GLOBE STAFF   JUNE 21, 2014


PLYMOUTH — Every American schoolchild knows the story of the Pilgrims’ settlement of Plymouth. But even the most exacting US historian cannot say for sure precisely where that settlement stood.


Now, a team of archeologists is digging through the sand at the bottom of Burial Hill in Plymouth center, their hopes set on unlocking a mystery that has intrigued researchers for generations: the location of the early 17th-century palisades that would define the original borders of the town that calls itself America’s Hometown.


“If we could find the remains of the original settlement it would be a huge find,” said David B. Landon, an archaeologist at the University of Massachusetts Boston who is leading the excavation. “For an archaeologist this would be a dream come true.”


Achieving this dream is a challenging task. The riddle is complicated by the way Plymouth grew out, each generation tearing down and building over and burying the past.


What is known is that the Pilgrims built their first fort atop the hill, with its sweeping view of their houses and the harbor beyond it, and in 1622 enclosed the fort and their settlement with palisades that extended down toward the waterfront. But those walls were later removed. By the end of the 17th century the entire hill had become a cemetery, and today, most of the territory believed to be within the original borders of Plymouth village is either paved over or built over.


The grassy area along School Street, at the bottom of Burial Hill, is owned by the town, but no one had ever dug there, in part for fear of disturbing unmarked graves.


The UMass Boston survey team used ground-penetrating radar — a geophysical survey device that allowed them to avoid graves while identifying foundations of 19th-century structures that once lined School Street. The researchers believe these buildings may be located on the sites of early 17th-century homes.


 “Our interest is in the historic structures,” said Landon, who is associate director of the Andrew Fiske Memorial Center for Archaeological Research at UMass Boston. “We are not disturbing any burials.”


The dig is a reminder that Plimouth Plantation, the place visited by school children, tourists, and other visitors over the years, is actually an historical recreation located 3.5 miles from the original settlement, which is in the current Plymouth center.


If the archeologists find the structures that stood while the palisades were there, that could lead to evidence of the walls themselves.


“We’re digging here in part because we think we might be close to where one of these walls came down from Burial Hill,” Landon said.



The findings so far have been modest. The dig as of Thursday had produced bits of pottery and porcelain, metal straps, rusted nails, charcoal, brick, and discarded oyster shells — evidence of the 19-century use of these structures as stables, storage areas, and a place to dump household garbage.


“It would be cool if this layer of sand that we’re just getting into had some 17th-century stuff in it,” said Eric Johnson, who is pursuing a graduate degree in historical archeology at UMass Boston. The older stuff, he said as he scraped the sand at the bottom of a four-foot-deep test trench, would be thicker, coarser: ceramics would be stoneware, the nails handmade.


Finding the 17th-century layer would be only part of the challenge. Any wood left in the ground from the palisades would have rotted away long ago.


“Essentially, you can identify the stains that are left in the soil from the actual posts that were used to construct something like this,” Landon said.


Behind him, red, blue, and yellow flags marked the geophysical survey area along the bottom of the hill. Several workers were using a giant sifter to go through sand dug up from other open ditches where the search for clues has begun.


The dig by the UMass Boston team has involved detailed work, sifting through dirt at Burial Hill in Plymouth.


“The dig is showing us more and more what this area looked like and what we can find potentially,” said Cynthia Snow, of Friends of Burial Hill, a group that seeks to preserve the grave markers in the cemetery. “I think it’s amazing.”


Historians have always known about the palisades -- Edward Winslow, one of the founders of Plymouth County, wrote about them. Various clues have allowed researchers to figure out their rough location, said Karin Goldstein, curator of collections and library at Plimoth Plantation, which is collaborating with the UMass Boston team.


“The coolest thing we could find would be the evidence of the palisades where they ran along the hill,” she said.


The team plans to excavate along the perimeter of Burial Hill, until June 27, but the dig is part of a multi-year site survey and excavation leading up to the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing.


If the team fails to make the big find this year, Landon said, they will continue next year. Not that he was giving up.


“Hope springs eternal with each turn of the trowel,” he said.


David Filipov can be reached at David.Filipov@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidfilipov.