Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Flexibility Marked Early Human Diet

What our earliest ancestors ate has long been a subject speculation among anthropologists. But now, more and more evidence offers clues to their diet.

"The hallmark of the human diet is flexibility, the ability to find or make a meal in any environment," says anthropologist William Leonard of Northwestern University. He cites evidence for a variety of diet in different places, noting that animal herders in Siberia get more than half of their food from meat, while meat makes up only 5 percent to 6 percent of the diet of potato farmers in Peru.

High nutrition diets became necessary for humans to meet the increasing energy demands of the large brain, and the hunting-gathering lifestyle developed as humans took advantage of grazing animals such as antelope and gazelle. The staple foods of humans are much more nutritionally dense than those of other large primates, which can subsist on leaves and fruit, he said.

The size and shape of the jaw and wear on the teeth can tell us a lot about what ancient people ate, said Peter Ungar of the University of Arkansas. Yet it can sometimes be misleading. For example, one skull with large, flat teeth was thought to indicate a diet heavy in nuts that could be chomped open. But tooth wear and other evidence indicates that this individual mostly ate softer items for an everyday diet.

"Maybe what we are looking at (in the teeth) is a fallback adaptation for when the preferred foods weren't available," he suggested.

Click here for the Associated Press article.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Sorry, Googlers, It's Not Atlantis

It was entirely predictable: Google Earth’s new capabilities enabling people at their home computers to scan contours of the oceans’ floors would lead directly to discovery of Atlantis.

Observers recently reported to Google’s offices what appeared to be a grid of streets and the outlines of a big city on the sea floor about 600 miles off the African coast. Experts had said this was one of the possible sites of the city described by Plato, the Greek philosopher.

But Google said the lines represented sonar data collected from boats. "It's true that many amazing discoveries have been made in Google Earth including a pristine forest in Mozambique that is home to previously unknown species and the remains of an ancient Roman villa," a Google statement said.

"In this case, however, what users are seeing is an artifact of the data collection process. Bathymetric (or sea floor terrain) data is often collected from boats using sonar to take measurements of the sea floor," the statement continued. "The lines reflect the path of the boat as it gathers the data. The fact there are blank spots between each of these lines is a sign of how little we really know about the world's oceans."

The story of Atlantis, a fabled utopia destroyed in ancient times, has captured the imagination of scholars ever since it was first described by the philosopher Plato more than 2,000 years ago.

Click here for the BBC article.
Photo shows suspicious Google Earth image.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Interest Revived in Lost Amazonian Civilization

Artist's conception of El Dorado, based on conquistadors' accounts.

A book entitled The Lost City of Z by journalist David Grann ~ plus the recent discovery of some jungle-covered ruins in the Amazon basin ~ are igniting interest in the legendary golden city of (take your pick) Paititi, El Dorado, or simply Z.

Grann’s book follows the trail of Victorian adventurer Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett who died in the Amazonian jungles searching for Z. There is some speculation, however, that he may have found his legendary destination prior to his death.

For more information on Fawcett’s search, plus far-more-speculative information collected by New Age author Eric von Daniken, Allan Colston’s blog “The Last Days of Tolemac” has interesting recent posts on Fawcett, Juan Moricz, and Padre Carlos Crespi.

The entire Paititi-El Dorado-Z story is fascinatingly on a par with speculation about Atlantis and Lemuria, with tantalizing tales of current-day artifacts worth far more than their weight in gold when it comes to the evidence they could shed on a major lost civilization.

Click here for the Time magazine article on Fawcett.
Click here for the Last Days of Tolemac blog, then scroll down a few posts.

Fawcett (second from right) and his team in the Amazonian jungle, 1925.

Fable Number 137 ~ The Nightengale, the Hawk, and the Bird-Catcher

A hawk alighted in a nightengale's nest and found her baby chicks there. When the nightengale returned, she begged him to spare her chicks. The hawk said, "I will grant your request if you sing me a pretty song." Even though she mustered all her courage, the nightengale trembled with fear. Stricken with terror, she started to sing but her song was full of grief. The hawk, who had seized her chicks, exclaimed, "That is not a very nice song!" He then snatched up one of the chicks and swallowed it. Meanwhile, a bird-catcher approached from behind and stealthily raised his snare: the hawk was caught in the sticky birdlime and fell to the ground and was captured.

Moral: People who lay traps for others should be careful not to fall into a trap themselves.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Nearly 3,000 Languages Facing Extinction

The world’s human languages are disappearing about about as quickly as species are going extinct. Of the 6,900 languages spoken in the world, 2,500 are now endangered, according to the United Nations.

That’s a huge increase from the last atlas compiled in 2001, which listed 900 languages threatened with extinction.
  • There are 199 languages in the world spoken by fewer than a dozen people, including Karaim with six speakers in Ukraine, and Wichita, spoken by 10 people in Oklahoma.
  • The last four speakers of Lengilu talk among themselves in Indonesia.
  • Some 178 other languages are spoken by between 10 and 150 people.
More than 200 languages have become extinct over the last three generations, such as Ubykh that fell silent in 1992 when Tefvic Esenc passed on, Aasax in Tanzania, which disappeared in 1976, and Manx in 1974.

India tops the list of countries with the greatest number of endangered languages, 196 in all, followed by the United States, which stands to lose 192 and Indonesia, where 147 are in peril.

Click here for the complete Discovery article.

Roman Villa Still Yielding Many Artifacts

Aqueducts at the Villa delle Vignacce site south of Rome.

Excavations at an ancient Roman villa and bath complex in the outskirts of Rome have unearthed a wealth of surprisingly well-preserved artifacts, including the marble head of a Greek god. The site of the Villa delle Vignacce, towards Ciampino airport south of Rome, was first explored by archeologists in 1780.

Excavations began in earnest only about two years ago, revealing a residence attached to an elaborate thermal bath complex dating to the first century A.D. complete with hot baths, large tubs and a communal latrine. Since then, archeologists said they had also uncovered prized artifacts including fragments of columns, floor slabs and the head of a marble statue believed to represent either the Greek divinity of Zeus Serapide or Asclepius, the god of medicine and healing.

"It's very unusual to find such well-preserved remains in Rome because most of the sites have usually been plundered already and the artifacts stolen," Dora Cirone, an archeologist on the dig, told reporters last week. "Luckily, much of the remains here were found buried below floor level, and no one had laid their hands on it."

The complex initially belonged to Quintus Servilius Pudens, a wealthy friend of Emperor Hadrian, who probably held private parties in the baths for his friends, archeologists said.

Click here for the Reuters article.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Drought Contributed to Angkor Demise

The collapse of Cambodia's great ancient city of Angkor may have been due to a massive drought nearly 600 years ago and not rival Siamese forces and widespread deforestation as previously suspected. Bands from tree rings show that Southeast Asia was hit by a severe and prolonged drought from 1415 until 1439, coinciding with the period during which many archeologists believe Angkor collapsed.

From the city of famed temples, Angkorian kings ruled over most of Southeast Asia between the 9th and 14th centuries. They oversaw construction of architectural stone marvels, including Angkor Wat, regarded as a wonder of religious architecture and designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations.

Until now, the 1431 invasion from Siam — what is now Thailand — has long been regarded as a main cause of Angkor's fall.

"Given all the stress the Khmer civilization was under due to political reasons and so forth, a drought of the magnitude we see in our records should have played a significant role in causing its demise," said Brendan Buckley, a research scientist at Columbia University's Tree-Ring Laboratory and one of the world's top tree ring experts.

Click here for the Associated Press article.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Iowa Dig Produces 100,000 Artifacts

Archaeologist David Benn at the dig site.

Eight weeks of archaeological digging in southeastern Iowa has yielded 100,000 artifacts and is increasing knowledge about little-known hunter-gatherers who lived in the area about 1,700 years ago.

The area's ancient inhabitants are believed to be part of the Weaver culture located not far from the confluence of the Iowa and Cedar rivers near Oakville in Louisa County, where fish and game were plentiful, said Dave Benn, a research archaeologist.

The Native Americans lived in a doughnut-shaped village around a communal area and occupied 20 to 25 tree branch and bark wigwams capable of housing up to 10 people each.

“They ate a huge number of fish, and we also found turtle and deer bones,” Benn said of the diet of the people about whom little is known. “They lived well, they ate well, and there was a lot of food here. There were villages up and down the banks of rivers all through the area. This one is a particularly good find, probably the best I’ve seen in a decade.”

Many of the recovered artifacts are unrecognizable bone fragments and pottery shards, but there are also stone arrowheads and spear points, stone axe heads and pits laden with ancient trash that give a glimpse of how the village lived. “As archaeologists, we are very interested in trash,” Benn said. “We’re all about trash.”

Click here for the complete Quad-City Times article.

Noah's Flood Now Believed Smaller

Noah's Flood, or The Deluge, by Gustave Dore.

Scientists now think the ancient flood that’s the basis for the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark was not nearly as large or deep as earlier believed.

Researchers generally agree that, during a warming period about 9,400 years ago, an onrush of seawater from the Mediterranean spurred a connection with the Black Sea. A previous theory said the Black Sea rose up to 195 feet (60 meters), possibly burying villages and spawning the tale of Noah's flood and other inundation folklore.

But the new study ~ largely focused on relatively undisturbed underwater fossils ~ suggests a rise of no more than 30 feet (10 meters).

Marine geologist Liviu Giosan and colleagues carbon-dated the shells of pristine mollusk fossils, which the researchers say bear no evidence of epic flooding. Found in sediment samples taken from where the Black Sea meets the Danube River, the shells "weren't eroded, agitated, or moved," said Giosan, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. "We know the mud is exactly the same age as the shells and so can determine what the sea level was about 9,400 years ago."

The results suggest the Black Sea rose 15 to 30 feet (5 to 10 meters), rather than the 150 to 195 feet (50 to 60 meters) first suggested 13 years ago by Columbia University geologist William Ryan and colleagues.

Click here for the complete National Geographic article.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Disease May Have Sealed Rapa Nui Fate

Some of the famous Easter Island head sculptures.

Ancient Easter Island natives get a bad rap for abusing their environment and destroying their own culture, but new research indicates European diseases may have been the real culprit in destroying the Rapa Nui.

The ancient Rapa Nui people would still be here in traditional form if it weren’t for the diseases introduced by European settlers in the 1800s. “Societies don’t just go into a tailspin and self-destruct,” says archaeologists Chris Stevenson, an archaeologist at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. “They can and do adapt, and they emerge in new ways.”

While evidence suggests the Rapa Nui people cut down 6 million trees in 300 years, for example, they were also developing new technological and agricultural practices along the way ~ such as fertilization techniques to restore the health of the soil and rock gardens to protect the plants. Other archaeological evidence indicates that the Rapa Nui radically changed their societal structure from one dominated by chiefs to one that was much more egalitarian in nature, too, which effectively leveled out their consumption patterns.

“That was the big adjustment that gets the population back to being more or less sustainable,” Stevenson says. “It was like telling today’s corporate head that the company can’t afford the million-dollar remodel of his office. But it didn’t matter because BANG, the Europeans arrive with their dirty diseases.” And that, Stevenson says, was the final nail in the coffin.

Click here for the complete Science Daily article.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Sinkhole Holds Ancient Florida Artifacts

Marker on sinkhole floor indicates a gourd used as an ancient canteen.

A 30-foot-deep sinkhole in southern Florida continues to yield artifacts now indicating the site ~ some 12,000 years ago, when it was dry land ~ may have been an ancient butcher shop.

"This is a warehouse of environmental, natural, historical, and archaeological remains in a very, very well preserved environment," Roger Smith, Florida's state underwater archaeologist, told National Geographic. "That's why it's a world-class site. I would call it a portal back into time."

Archaeologists have been recovering primitive relics from the spring ~ called Little Salt Spring ~ since 1977, when divers found the remains of a large, now extinct tortoise and a sharpened stake that may have been used by a hungry hunter to kill the animal 12,000 years ago. They found more from the tortoise this past July, along with the slaughtered remains of a giant ground sloth.

The discovery of the sloth's bones could indicate that Little Salt Spring was a sort of ancient butcher shop where hunters often killed and their prey and prepared meat when this was dry land. These remains come from the earliest known period of human activity in the Western Hemisphere.

Aerial view of sinkhole, about 12 miles south of Sarasota, Florida.

Click here for the complete National Geographic article.
Click here for a video about Ice Age people in Florida.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Stonehenge Link to Armenia?

A section of a circle of monoliths at Carahunge.

There are possible Neolithic connections between Carahunge ~ a large collection of uprighted stones near Sisan, Armenia ~ and England’s famed Stonehenge on the Salisbury Plain.

Carahunge ~ meaning "speaking stones" ~ is located 200 km from the Armenian capital Yerevan, near a town called Sisian. There are over 200 stones on the seven-hectare site and many have smooth angled holes in them, directed at different points in the sky, leading scientists to believe it may be the world’s oldest observatory, dating back 7,500 years.

A carving found on rocks near Lake Sevan shows that Neolithic Armenians knew the world was round, they could accurately measure latitude and were already skilled in astronomy, archaeology and engineering. One theory is that the earliest population of Britain, who perhaps came from Armenia, brought the ideas of Carahunge with them and played a role in the creation of Stonehenge and other European sites.

Click here for the complete Salisbury Journal article.

Friday, February 13, 2009

More Than Twenty Mummies Found at Saqqara

Egyptian archaeologists have found more than 20 mummies in a burial chamber dating back at least 2,600 years. Eight wooden and stone sarcophagi were also discovered during the excavations at the Saqqara site, said Zahi Hawass, Egypt's chief archaeologist.

One limestone sarcophagus sealed with plaster is thought to be more than 4,000 years old, according to the BBC.

The mummies ~ 22 of which were found in niches along a wall ~ were in a tomb dating to 640BC, Hawass said. One wooden sarcophagus had not been opened since ancient times, though one official said ancient grave robbers had probably reached it first, according to a government statement.

A mummy was found in the only sarcophagus to have been opened so far, and archaeologists said they were expecting to find more mummies in the others.

At right, a worker cleans the face of the recently discovered mummy.

Click here for the BBC article and a video.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Greek Nudity Exaggerated in Battles

Leonidas at Thermopylae by Jacques David, 1814.

As depicted in ancient art, Greek men may have strolled around naked when at parties, but new research indicates scenes of them engaged in naked warfare are probably inaccurate.

"In ancient Greek art, there are many different kinds of nudity that can mean many different things," Jeffrey Hurwit, an historian of ancient art at the University of Oregon, tells LiveScience. "Sometimes they are contradictory."

Hurwit says Greeks did walk around naked in some situations. Men strode about free of their togas in the bedroom and at parties called symposia, where they would feast and carouse. Nudity was also common on the athletic fields and at the Olympic games.

However, nudity ~ Greek or otherwise ~ could be risky in the wrong situations.

"Greek males, it is generally agreed, did not walk around town naked, they did not ride their horses naked, and they certainly did not go into battle naked," Hurwit said. "In most public contexts, clothing was not optional, and in combat nakedness was suicidal."

Click here for the LiveScience article.