Sunday, February 16, 2014

Clovis DNA Points to Native-American Origins

The genetic sequence from a prehistoric baby in a 12,000-year-old Clovis burial site in Montana is providing significant data on the origins of the earliest Americans. Until now, archaeologists have had to rely mainly on tools made of stone and bone, and other artifacts to tell the story of human migration about 15,000 years ago to the New World.

Now that story is bolstered with some dramatic, ancient DNA, extracted from the remains of a 1-year-old boy who died in what is now Montana more than 12,000 years ago, according to a study described in Nature magazine.
"Clovis is what we like to refer to as an 'archaeological complex,' " says Michael Waters, an archaeologist at Texas A&M University.
That complex is defined by characteristic tools, he says.  
The Clovis artifacts were common for about 400 years, starting about 13,000 years ago. But at this point, there is only one set of human remains associated with those sorts of tools: that of the baby from Montana. "So this genetic study actually provides us with a look at who these people were," Waters says.
The most obvious conclusion from the study is that the Clovis people who lived on the Anzick site in Montana were genetically very much like Native Americans throughout the Western Hemisphere.

Image: Depiction of Clovis people, Mastodon State Park, Missouri


Saturday, January 25, 2014

If Noah's Ark Existed, Was It Round?

After examining a 3,700-year-old clay tablet with instructions on how to build an ark, the expert who translated it says he doubts Noah’s Ark ever existed.

The ark instructions call for construction of a huge circular coracle, 3,600 square meters large and made like a giant rope basket strengthened with wooden ribs, waterproofed with bitumen inside and out. What’s described is a giant version of a craft the Babylonians knew very well, in daily use up to the late 20th century to transport people and animals across rivers, according to British Museum expert Irving Finkel.

According to the Guardian: "I am 107% convinced the ark never existed," Finkel said. The tablet gives a version of the ark story far older than the biblical accounts, and Finkel believes the explanation of how "holy writ appears on this piece of Weetabix," is that the writers of the Bible drew on ancient accounts encountered by Hebrew scholars during the Babylonian exile.

Texts about a great flood and the order by God to the one just man to build a boat and save himself, his family, and all the animals, clearly older than the Bible story, were first found in the Middle East in the 19th century. They caused both consternation and wild excitement, including an expedition to find the broken part of one tablet in a mountain of shattered clay fragments.

The tablet was brought to Finkel on a museum open day by Douglas Simmons, whose father, Leonard, brought it back to England in a tea-chest full of curios, after wartime service in the Middle East with the RAF.


Saturday, January 11, 2014

More Paintings Rumored Near Lascaux

Another cave containing prehistoric paintings may exist just four kilometers from the famous Lascaux caves in southwestern France. The original cave art at Lascaux was found in 1940, and attracted hordes of visitors until it was closed to the public in 1983 to protect the artwork.

A group of teenagers near the town of Montignac discovered in 1940 a complex network of Paleolithic caves with a series of 17,000-year-old frescos. According to Archaeology News Network:
The rumors of a second cave covered in pre-historic artwork have been circulating for years, but it appears local authorities are now ready to take them seriously after one local family shared an extraordinary secret they had kept to themselves for half a century. 
According to French media reports this week, preliminary investigations by the town’s mayor, as well as authorities in the Dordogne region, have proved promising enough to warrant a more detailed probe into a patch of land 4 km from the site of the Lascaux caves. 
 “There’s no certainty, and we are still quite far from having the necessary evidence to confirm the existence of another decorated cave,” Montignac mayor Laurent Mathieu told French daily Le Figaro this week. 
 Despite that caution, however, Mathieu did confirm that the culture department of the Dordogne regional administration would soon be mapping out a 10-hectare area for “further research.” This region will also be placed under surveillance, to prevent amateur archaeologists from conducting their own, unsupervised investigations.
The possibility of a second discovery near the town came about in August, when an elderly local woman told the mayor that her husband – who had died in August – had come across a cave with prehistoric frescos back in 1962, but had covered the entrance for fear of bringing hassle on himself. The secret had stayed in the family for 51 years, until she finally shared it with the mayor.


Image: Researcher examining paintings in the original Lascaux chamber.


Monday, December 16, 2013

Did Rats Eradicate Easter Island Trees?

New speculation on what caused the demise of civilization on Easter Island gives the ancient islanders more credit for innovative adaptations to environmental problems, though ultimately the story ends on the same desolate note.
The updated theory and sequence of events come from anthropologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo from the University of Hawaii. According to NPR:
Professors Hunt and Lipo say fossil hunters and paleobotanists have found no hard evidence that the first Polynesian settlers set fire to the forest to clear land — what's called "large scale prehistoric farming." 
The trees did die, no question. But instead of fire, Hunt and Lipo blame rats . . . Polynesian rats (Rattus exulans) stowed away on those canoes, Hunt and Lipo say, and once they landed, with no enemies and lots of palm roots to eat, they went on a binge, eating and destroying tree after tree, and multiplying at a furious rate.
They say the rats played havoc with the island’s trees, causing a massive degrading of vegetation and eliminating several animal species. The NPR report concludes: “On Easter Island, people learned to live with less and forgot what it was like to have more. Maybe that will happen to us. There's a lesson here. It's not a happy one.”

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Ashes of Ancient Halls Made Into Mounds


Archaeologists in England have unearthed the burned remains of two massive 6,000-year-old buildings whose ashes were shoveled into piles to make burial mounds.

"The buildings seemed to have been deliberately burned down," says Julian Thomas, a professor at the University of Manchester who’s leading the excavation. Researchers believe these halls of the living may have been transformed into "halls of the dead" after a leader or important social figure died.
The remnants were uncovered in an open field near Dorstone Hill in Herefordshire. For decades, amateur archaeologists have noticed pieces of flint blades in the area and wondered whether the land there contained relics of a long-forgotten time.
 According to LiveScience.com:
When Thomas and his team began excavating, they found two large burial mounds, or barrows, that could have held anywhere from seven to 30 people each.  
The smaller barrow contained a 23-foot-long (7 meters) mortuary chamber with sockets for two huge tree trunks. Digging deeper, the researchers uncovered postholes, ash from the timbers, and charred clay from the walls of an ancient structure. 
These burnt remains came from what were once two long-halls, the biggest of which was up to 230 feet (70 m) long, with aisles delineated by wooden posts and several internal spaces.
It’s not clear who built the halls and barrows, though the building construction is similar to that found in England between 4000 B.C. and 3600 B.C, predating the construction of Stonehenge by a millennium.

Artist's conception of one of the long halls.