Friday, January 23, 2009

Dancing Figure Dates to Mississippian Period

The drawing on the roof of the concealed rock shelter is about a foot long.

A drawing of a dancing stick figure recently discovered in a rock shelter in Tennessee's remote Cumberland Plateau dates likely from 1000 to 1600 AD.

“I knew that Native American rock art had been found in the area, but I didn't realize this was so significant," said Corey Holliday, a cave specialist who found the drawing. "My first impression was that someone had drawn it with charcoal."

In fact, the artist most likely lived during the Mississippian Period between A.D. 1000 and 1600 and used a paint based on a prehistoric recipe whose main ingredient was pulverized clay, according to Jan Simek, a University of Tennessee anthropology professor who specializes in cave archaeology.

Simek determined that the reason the pictograph looks so fresh is because it has been protected by a veneer of calcium carbonate leaching out of the sandstone.

"It is a remarkable figure," Simek said. "In my mind, there is no chance it is a recent fake."

Click here for the complete article.

Pre-Islamic Inscription Found in Yemen

A castle-shaped inscription recently discovered in Raima Homed, Yemen, is the first of its kid, according to a team from the General Organization for Antiquities and Museums (GOAM). That’s because of the clearness of the shape of the castle, the pre-Islamic handwriting ( Musnad), and the pictures of animals found behind it.

The inscription was carved into a large rock in a mountain in front of the area where a team from the Department of Antiquities last week found the ancient monument in Hesn Ja’ar in Raima. The team is now expected to cover the area to determine its importance and historical value of the new findings.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Repeated Cataclysms Destroyed Earliest Civilization in the Americas

The main pyramid  in the ruins of Caral, Peru, 120 miles north of Lima.

Peruvian archaeologists exploring the oldest city in the Americas.

The earliest civilization in the Americas ~ a sizeable society capable of building large pre-Mayan structures along the Peruvian coast ~ likely was destroyed nearly 4,000 years ago by earthquakes and torrential rains, followed by a deadly march of sand across fertile fields.

"This maritime farming community had been successful for over 2,000 years, they had no incentive to change, and then all of a sudden, 'boom,'" said Mike Moseley, a distinguished professor of anthropology at the University of Florida. "They just got the props knocked out from under them."

According to information released by the University of Florida, the people of the Supe Valley along the central Peruvian coast did not use pottery or weave cloth in the settlements they founded as far back as 5,800 years ago. But they flourished in the arid desert plain adjacent to productive bays and estuaries.

Most impressively, the Supe built extremely large, elaborate, stone pyramid temples -- thousands of years before the better-known pyramids crafted by the Maya. The largest so far excavated, the Pirámide Mayor at inland settlement Caral, measured more than 550 feet long, nearly 500 feet wide and rose in a series of steps nearly 100 feet high.

The Supe seemed to thrive in the valley for about 2,000 years. But around 3,600 years ago, an enormous earthquake ~ Moseley estimates its magnitude at 8 or higher ~ struck Caral and a nearby coastal settlement, Aspero.

The earthquake destabilized the barren mountain ranges surrounding the valley, sending massive amounts of debris crashing into the foothills. Subsequent El Niños brought huge rains, washing the debris into the ocean. There, a strong current flowing parallel to the shore re-deposited the sand and silt in the form of a large ridge known today as the Medio Mundo. The ridge sealed off the formerly rich coastal bays, which rapidly filled with sand.

Rapidly Uninhabitable Land

Strong ever-present onshore winds resulted in "massive sand sheets that blew inland on the constant, strong, onshore breeze and swamped the irrigation systems and agricultural fields," the paper says. Not only that, but the windblown sand had a blasting effect that would have made daily life all but impossible, Moseley said.

The bottom line: What had for centuries been a productive, if arid, region became all but uninhabitable in the span of just a handful of generations. The Supe society withered and eventually collapsed, replaced only gradually later on -- by societies that relied on the much more modern arts of pottery and weaving, Moseley said.

With much of the world's population centers built in environmentally vulnerable areas, the Supe's demise may hold a cautionary tale for modern times, the researchers said. El Niño events, in particular, may become more common as global climate change continues.

"These are processes that continue into the present," said Dan Sandweiss, the paper's lead author and an anthropology professor and graduate dean at the University of Maine.

Click here for the complete University of Florida article.

More traces of the earliest civilization in the Americas.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Rainforest Tribe Linked to Ancient Mayans

A Lacandon Mayan 'god pot' traditionally used as an incense burner, probably as recently as 100 years ago, found in a 500-year-old temple in Chiapas, Mexico.

Researchers have confirmed that a mysterious people living deep in the rainforests of southern Mexico and Guatemala are the unconquered Maya. These indigenous people fled to the rainforests when the Spanish first arrived in the Yucatan in 1511.

In 2006, archaeologist Joel Palka and Fabiola Sánchez Balderas, president of the Maya culture and conservation organization Xanvil, returned to the area to map the ancient Maya sites and investigate sacred rock art and cave shrines at Lake Mensabak in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. What they found was evidence of an ancient settlement of Lacandon Maya, a group that had long been overlooked and ignored by archaeologists, according to Palka.

Descendants of the unconquered groups still live there today. The current residents of Mensabak are modern Maya who, unlike some of their ancestors, have had contact with outside communities.

"The lion's share in Maya archaeology has been devoted to research on the tombs, temples, and awe-inspiring finds of Classic Maya civilization," Rani Alexander, an archaeologist at New Mexico State University, told National Geograpic magazine.

Ancient and Modern

Palka, now at the University of Illinois in Chicago, and Sánchez Balderas surmised that the ancient sites and shrines they uncovered in 2006 at Lake Mensabak belonged to Classic Mayans from 600-800 AD and Historic Mayans from1525-1950 AD.

The "ancient" Maya that locals said were in Guatemala until the 1920s were actually post-conquest Maya who resisted assimilation. After the 1920s some adopted new lifestyles while others, such as the Lacandon, slipped across the border into Chiapas and held tight to tradition.

“The most surprising element is that much of the culture and behavior from pre-contact Maya culture continues to the present, including stone tool use and head-shaping," said Palka.

Click here for the complete National Geographic article.

Mysterious Undersea Wall Found Near Taiwan

Section of the wall formation in the Taiwan Strait.

A biodiversity researcher has discovered a huge basalt rock formation in the Taiwan Strait, resembling a city wall and rivaling similar monoliths on land. The 200-meter-long, 10-meter-high undersea wall ~ resembling thousands of pillars packed together ~ is near the Pescadores archipelago, researcher Jeng Ming-hsiou said on Monday.

Jeng was diving in the area when he saw and filmed the wall 25 miles west of Taiwan's main island. "It was completely unexpected," he told Reuters. "It's not easy to see these formations underwater."

Basalt walls such as the famed Giant's Causeway on the coast of Ireland and the Wairere Boulders of New Zealand are known to have occurred on land but seldom, if ever, are found at sea.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Nazca Beheaded Own Brethren for Trophies

The South American people who carved the Nazca Lines across the Peruvian desert some 2,000 years ago also were great collectors of human heads, according to Discovery News.

The Nazca civilization ~ flourishing in Peru between the first century BC and the fifth century AD and sliding into oblivion by the time the Inca Empire rose to dominate the Andes ~ is mostly known for carving in the desert hundreds of geometric lines and images of animals and birds that can only be viewed from the air.

They also boasted the largest collection of human heads in the Andes region of South America. Carefully prepared, the lips sewed with long cactus spines, all heads featured a hole in the center of the forehead so that a carrying rope could be inserted. Hanged and suspended from these woven cords, the heads were long believed to be war trophies.

Heads Came from Own People

But recent analysis of the diet-related substances found in the teeth of some heads unearthed in 1925, reveals that the Nazca built their collection not from foreign enemies slain in battles, but from their own people.

"Nazca pottery gives us very interesting information about the role of trophy heads, both in the hands of warriors and also in ritual activities, such as burials and ritual caches. We can use sophisticated laboratory techniques to answer very interesting questions about the past, even when the excavations took place almost 100 years ago," archaeologist Kelly Knudson of Arizona State University in Tempe, told Discovery News.

Teeth Show Same Substances

Published in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, the study examined 16 trophy heads of the Kroeber collection at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History and 13 mummified bodies buried in the Nazca region. Knudson and colleagues compared tooth enamel from the trophy heads with the mummified bodies.

Teeth from the trophy heads and from the mummified bodies showed no substantial differences in the ratios of several chemical substances, showing that the trophy heads came from the Nazca themselves rather than from outsiders.

"Our data do not support the hypothesis that Nazca trophy heads were taken from enemy warriors from foreign locales. We argue that transforming local Nazca individuals into trophy heads highlights their ritual role," the researchers concluded.

Top photo shows Nazca terracotta representation of a trophy skull, while lower photo shows actual skulls with the forehead hole.

Click here for the Discovery News article.

Animal DNA Will Show Manuscript Origins

Scholars have long argued the origins of many medieval manuscripts, but modern advances in genetics may provide important information, according to ScienceDaily.

Many medieval manuscripts were written on parchment made from animal skin. North Carolina State Assistant Professor of English Timothy Stinson is working to perfect techniques for extracting and analyzing the DNA contained in these skins with the long-term goal of creating a genetic database that can be used to determine when and where a manuscript was written.

"Dating and localizing manuscripts have historically presented persistent problems," Stinson told ScienceDaily, "because they have largely been based on the handwriting and dialect of the scribes who created the manuscripts ~ techniques that have proven unreliable for a number of reasons."

A Hundred Skins Per Manuscript

Stinson says genetic testing could resolve these issues by creating a baseline using the DNA of parchment found in the relatively small number of manuscripts that can be reliably dated and localized. Each manuscript can provide a wealth of genetic data, Stinson explains, because a typical medieval parchment book includes the skins of more than 100 animals.

Once Stinson has created a baseline of DNA markers with known dates and localities, he can take samples from manuscripts of unknown origin. He can then determine what degree of relationship there is between the animals whose skins were used in manuscripts of unknown origin and those used in the baseline manuscripts.

Click here for the ScienceDaily article.

Medieval Walls Contain Baked Bones

Medieval walls around Granada, Spain, contain animal bones to help strengthen them.

Archaeologists in Spain have determined that the purpose of a 14th century brick oven was to bake animal bones and mix them with other materials to produce a protective coating to strengthen the medieval walls of what is today Granada, Spain.

Ancient decorative and protective layers ~ or patinas ~ covering the outside of very old buildings have been subject of many analyses in archaeology, conservation and chemistry. Patinas have been a popular finishing for building exteriors and walls for aesthetic and protective reasons since ancient times.

“However, the results of this work are significant for archaeologists since this is the first report of burnt bones in a patina on a Muslim monument, as well as the archaeological artifacts ~ the oven and raw materials ~ used to produce them,” archaeologist Carolina Cardell told ScienceDaily.

Using a novel new method to identify the components of historical artifacts, the team found hydroxyapatite ~ the main component in bone pigments and animal bones ~ in the patina of Granada’s medieval walls. Their new test is inexpensive, identifies chemicals more accurately and does not harm the historical artifacts.

Click here for the ScienceDaily article.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Several Civilizations Born Along Fault Lines

'Vesuvius in Eruption,' by J.M.W. Turner, 1817.

A surprising number of birthplaces of ancient civilizations were on geological fault lines, making the locations more prone to active volcanoes, earthquakes and the large water springs that run parallel to seacoasts.

Archaeological geologist Eric R. Force of the University of Arizona in Tucson overlaid the locations of plate boundaries and the founding cities of thirteen ancient civilizations, according to Natural History magazine. Eleven of the thirteen fell within 120 miles of the Eurasian plate's southern boundary—too many and too close to be just coincidence.

Among the eleven cities were Rome, Corinth, Mycenae, Jerusalem, Ur in Iraq, and Hastinapura in India. The two exceptions were Memphis in Egypt and Zhengzhou in China.

The collision of tectonic plates can cause a number of geological cataclysms, some of which would obstruct cultural advancement, while others may help. Still, the reason why civilizations tend to arise near tectonic boundaries remains subject to speculation.

Making Way for the New

Force points out one intriguing possibility: that frequent shake-ups by earthquakes, tsunamis, or other natural disasters destroy the old, making way for improved infrastructure and new customs.

The seats of civilizations that sprang from older civilizations hugged tectonic lines more closely than the seats of self-generating societies, he found. Similarly, the farther a civilization was from a boundary, the longer it endured. The findings were detailed in the journal Geoarchaeology.

Click here for the Natural History magazine article.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Mayans Distorted Bodies to Create 'Beauty'

Some might think our culture goes to unacceptable lengths in enforcing society’s standards for beauty, but we’ve got nothing over on the ancient Mayans, who reshaped their children’s skulls and inlayed their own teeth with jade.

“The Maya went to extreme lengths to transform their bodies,” Professor Mary Miller reports in the new issue of Archaeology magazine. “They invested vast wealth and endured unspeakable pain to make themselves beautiful.”

As an example, Miller cites K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, who ruled the western Maya city of Palenque from 615 to 683, and after his death at the age of 80. His skeleton shows that soon after his birth, his head was strapped between two cradle-boards to compress it from back to front. This left an indentation above his brow, which was emphasized by an artificial nasal bridge, probably of clay or plaster, built up on to his forehead.

Pakal’s front teeth were filed into an inverted T-shape, marking him as also being the Sun God, something shown on his jade burial mask as well. For many Maya, notably those of the elite, dental decoration was seen as highly desirable. Teeth, especially the upper incisors and canines were filed and notched in a variety of designs, giving in some cases a distinctly crooked smile.

Most striking, however, were the dental inlays: a shallow hole was drilled into the front face of the tooth enamel (using a reed or bone hollow drill and an abrasive such as sand or jade dust), sometimes reaching the dentine within. Small discs of jade, obsidian or haematite were then cemented into the holes: the plant adhesive was so powerful that many burials found by archaeologists today still have the inlays firmly in place. Up to three discs were inserted into a single tooth, and jade and the other materials were combined to give a flash of apple-green, dull red and shiny black across the mouth; inlays and filing were also combined.

The Maya also painted their bodies, in life and in death. Narrative scenes on polychrome vases show pigments applied to face, chest and buttocks. In death, Pakal’s corpse was treated with alternating layers of red and black pigments, Miller reports. Red to the Maya was the color of the sunrise, black of the sunset, alternating with each other in the diurnal cycle, according to the Times article.

Click here for the Times of London article.

Monday, January 12, 2009

More on Roman Battlefield Discovery

Historical implications of the recent discovery of an ancient battlefield in Germany continue to grow. Current thinking is that Germanic tribes ambushed a Roman legion in the densely wooded forests during a period long after historians believed Rome had completely withdrawn from the northern areas.

This CNN video shows some interesting footage of the archaeological efforts as well as some of the discoveries made in recent weeks.

Click here for the complete CNN article.

Click here for my earlier posts on the discovery.

Friday, January 9, 2009

First Americans Arrived by Both Land and Sea

Artist's conception of the trek from Beringia some 15,000 years ago.

Did the first Americans arrive here by following a coastal route from their homelands in Asia and Alaska, or did they travel inland? A new study concludes that they did both, according to today’s edition of Current Biology.

The original colonizers of North and South America came from eastern Asia and migrated to the Americas after spending some time ~ perhaps several thousand years ~ in a region called Beringia, which included parts of Siberia and Alaska and the land bridge that once connected them.

Recent archaeological and genetic evidence has convinced most researchers that the colonists had already arrived in the Americas at least 15,000 years ago. But scientists have long debated what routes they took. The traditional view is that they tramped through an "ice-free corridor" that opened up in modern-day Canada at the end of the last Ice Age. More recently, however, some archaeologists and geneticists have argued that the first Americans marched as far south as Chile along the Pacific coast, which was also free of ice at the time.

A team studying genomes has found evidence of two migratory waves out of Beringia at about the same time, one that took the coastal route to South America and one that traveled the ice-free corridor to the Great Lakes and Great Plains. Evidence also suggests that the two groups, which must have been genetically separate even though they both inhabited Beringia at about the same time, spoke different languages.

Click here for the ScienceNOW article.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Queen Seshestet Mummy is Unearthed

Archaeologists, above, unearth the sarcophagus and mummy, whose remains are shown at left.

Egyptian archaeologists have found the mummy of Queen Seshestet, mother of a pharaoh who ruled Egypt in the 24th century BC, the government said on Thursday.

After five hours spent lifting the lid of a sarcophagus, they found a skull, legs, pelvis, other body parts wrapped in linen, and ancient pottery, the government's antiquities department said. They also found gold wrappings which would have been put on the fingers of the mummified person.

Grave robbers ransacked the burial chamber in ancient times and stole the other objects. "Although they did not find the name of the queen buried in the pyramid, all the signs indicate that she is Seshestet, the mother of King Teti, the first king of the Sixth Dynasty," chief archaeologist Zahi Hawass said in a statement. Teti ruled Egypt for at least 10 years around the year 2300 BC and is buried nearby.

Click here for the Reuters article.

Flurry of Comets Caused Famine of 536 AD

Multiple comets slamming into Earth about 1,500 years ago triggered a "dry fog" that plunged half the world into famine, scientists now say.

From the beginning of March 536 AD, a fog of dust blanketed the atmosphere for 18 months. During this time, "the sun gave no more light than the moon", global temperatures plummeted and crops failed, Dallas Abbott of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York told New Scientist.

Abbott and her team have now found the first direct evidence that multiple impacts caused the haze. They found tiny balls of condensed rock vapour or "spherules" in debris inside Greenland ice cores dating back to early 536 AD. Though the spherules' chemistry suggests they did not belong to an impactor, they do point to terrestrial debris ejected into the atmosphere by an impact event, Abbott says.

"This is the first concrete geological evidence for an impact at 536 AD," she says.

The fallout material was also laid down over several years, and some layers were particularly densely deposited. This suggests more than one impactor was involved - probably a comet, because they tend to fragment on their way to Earth.

Scientists have identified two possible underwater craters whose age ranges fit the global dimming event. The first appears to have formed when an object roughly 640 metres wide slammed into the Gulf of Carpentaria in Australia, and the other when a smaller object crashed into the North Sea near Norway.

Click here for the New Scientist article.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Sections of Great Wall are Disappearing

Some 20 percent of the Inner Mongolian stretch of the Great Wall of China has disappeared, archaeologists said this week. The affected stretch is about 98 miles long. In recent centuries, the Great Wall ~ built in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) ~ has been damaged by weather and human activities, leading to the disappearance of some sections.

The Great Wall was China's line of defense. Different sections meander across thousands of miles, passing through many provinces and autonomous regions, including Gansu, Ningxia, Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi, Shanxi, Hebei and Liaoning in north China.

Construction began during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), when sections were built in scattered strategic areas. The most visually striking part is generally considered to be a well-preserved 4,000-mile section from the late Ming Dynasty.

Click here for the Xinhua News Agency article.

Diamond Dust Points to Comet Cataclysm

Diamond dust dating to 12,900 years ago exists at six North American sites, pointing to Earth's impact with a rare swarm of carbon-and-water-rich comets or carbonaceous chondrites, reports a nine-member scientific team.

Nanodiamonds ~ produced under high-temperature, high-pressure conditions created by cosmic impacts and have been found in meteorites ~ are concentrated in similarly aged sediments at sites in Arizona, Oklahoma, Michigan, South Carolina and at two additional sites in Canada.

According to ScienceDaily, last year a team of scientists proposed that a cosmic impact event ~ possibly multiple airbursts of comets ~ set off a 1,300-year-long cold spell known as the Younger Dryas and led to the extinction of a large range of animals, including mammoths, across North America.

Now, reporting in today’s issue of the journal Science, a team led by the University of Oregon's Douglas J. Kennett, a member of the original research team, report finding billions of nanometer-sized diamonds concentrated in sediments ~ weighing from about 10 to 2,700 parts per billion ~ in the six locations during digs funded by the National Science Foundation.

"The nanodiamonds that we found at all six locations exist only in sediments associated with the Younger Dryas Boundary layers, not above it or below it," Kennett, a UO archaeologist, told ScienceDaily. "These discoveries provide strong evidence for a cosmic impact event at approximately 12,900 years ago that would have had enormous environmental consequences for plants, animals and humans across North America."

Click here for the complete ScienceDaily article.
Click here for today's Washington Post article.