Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Drought Contributed to Mayan Collapse

Opening to Actun Tunichil Muknal, an entrance to the Mayan underworld.

Xibalba was a Maya name for the underworld, home of the gods of death and disease. Caves, not the lofty pyramids left behind by the ancient Maya, were the entrances to Xibalba. And here, in caves like Actun Tunichil Muknal in Belize, they left sacrifices ~ plates, bowls and captive's remains ~ as offerings to the gods.

For more than four millennia, Maya conducted rituals in caves like Actun Tunichil Muknal, where archaeologist Jaime Awe, director of Belize's Institute of Archaeology, led teams to explore starting in 1993. The Maya abandoned their pyramid-adorned ceremonial centers by 1050 A.D. In a recent paper in the Latin American Antiquity Journal, Awe and colleagues presented evidence from caves like this one that drought played a role in the famed collapse of the ancient Maya.

They compared charcoal dates left by torches to large jars left behind to find that more elaborate gifts were left at the most intense periods without rain, evidence of a "drought cult," Awe says. "They were asking for more water from caves seen as a water source and home of the gods."

When things got really tough, human sacrifices turn up in caves like Actun Tunichil Muknal, best known for its "Crystal Maiden" skeleton ~ a woman sacrificed here and left behind, her bones glistening with the limestone that cements her and many other sacrifices to the floor. "They were likely war captives, captured and brought here to be killed on the spot," Awe tells USA Today. "When things get hard, people take more extreme steps," he proposes.

“We are not arguing that drought was the sole reason for the Maya 'collapse'," Awe says. He argues the ancient Maya culture was "already broken" by deforestation and related excesses when the lack of water piled more weight on the society of the time. "It was a straw piled on the camel's back."

Click here for the complete article in USA Today.

Middle East's Oldest Village Unearthed in Iran

Iranian and English archeologists have discovered what is believed to be the Middle East's oldest village ~ datomg back to at least 9800 BC ~ in western Iran.

The unique archeological discovery reveals Iran was the main Neolithic center of the Middle East.

"The historical site dates back to 9800 BC and evidence suggest inhabitance in the site continued until 7400 BC," according to Hassan Fazeli, director of Iran's Archeology Research Center.

Archeologists believe such findings prove that Iran's dwellers moved out of caves around 11,800 years ago and settled in the plains.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Did Humans Feast on Neanderthals?

Computer-assisted paleoanthropological reconstruction of a Neanderthal child based on skull fragments unearthed in Gibraltar.

Scientists remain uncertain about the type of interaction that may have occurred during the Palaeolithic era between Neanderthals and humans. There has been speculation that the two species interbred in Europe between 33,000 and 24,000 years ago. Now, new evidence points to humans possibly having eaten Neanderthals and used their bones for ornaments.

According to Cosmos Online:

Re-examined artifacts from the Les Rois cave, a settlement of early modern humans in southwest France, include a jawbone with flint-knife cut marks on it and a pendant made from a child's tooth cut out of another jawbone, according to a report in the Journal of Anthropological Sciences.

“Secondary burial practices and cannibalism are the two explanations traditionally proposed to account for modifications on prehistoric human bones,” the researchers wrote.

Although researchers can’t be certain the 30,000-year-old jawbone belonged to a Neanderthal, several of its features are characteristic of that species, said co-author Marian Vanhaeren, an archaeologist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research in Nanterre.

The idea will provoke considerable opposition from scientists who believe Neanderthals disappeared for reasons that did not involve violence. Neanderthals were a sturdy species who evolved in Europe 300,000 years ago, made complex stone tools and survived several ice ages before they disappeared 30,000 years ago - just as modern human beings arrived in Europe from Africa.

And according to Britain's Guardian:

The idea will provoke considerable opposition from scientists who believe Neanderthals disappeared for reasons that did not involve violence. Neanderthals were a sturdy species who evolved in Europe 300,000 years ago, made complex stone tools and survived several ice ages before they disappeared 30,000 years ago - just as modern human beings arrived in Europe from Africa.

Some researchers believe Neanderthals may have failed to compete effectively with Homo sapiens for resources, or were more susceptible to the impact of climate change. But others believe our interactions were violent and terminal for the Neanderthals. According to Rozzi, the discovery at Les Rois in south-west France provides compelling support for that argument.

Click here for the Cosmos Online article.
Click here for the Guardian article.
Click here for an earlier article about interbreeding.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Ancient Jar Handle Bears Hebrew Script

A section of the jar handle with its ancient inscription.

Archaeologists have uncovered a nearly 3,000-year-old jar handle bearing ancient Hebrew script. It was found on Jerusalem's Mount of Olives and is significantly older than most inscribed artifacts unearthed in the ancient city.

The Iron Age handle is inscribed with the Hebrew name Menachem, the name of an Israelite king, as well as a partly intact letter, the Hebrew character "lamed," meaning "to." That suggests the jar was a gift to someone named Menachem, said Ron Beeri, who directed the excavation for the Israel Antiquities Authority.

"It's important because it shows that they actually used the name Menachem during that period," Beeri said. "It's not just from the Bible, but it's also in the archaeological record."

Based on the style of the inscription, he dated the handle to around 900 B.C., the time of the first Jewish Temple in Jerusalem as recounted in the Bible. The vessel the handle was attached to did not survive, so it is impossible to tell what it was used for. Similar vessels were known to have held products like oil or wheat.

Click here for the Associated Press article.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Primate Fossil Shows Missing Evolutionary Link

After 47 million years, the fossil named Ida remains remarkably preserved.

Scientists are proclaiming that a primate fossil nicknamed Ida is the missing evolutionary link between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom.

A top-level international research team who have studied the 47-million-year-old fossil in secret for the past two years believe she is the most complete and best preserved primate fossil ever uncovered.

According to Britain’s The Guardian:

The skeleton is 95% complete and thanks to the unique location where she died, it is possible to see individual hairs covering her body and even the make-up of her final meal – a last vegetarian snack.

"This little creature is going to show us our connection with the rest of all the mammals; with cows and sheep, and elephants and anteaters," said Sir David Attenborough, who is narrating a BBC documentary on the find. "The more you look at Ida, the more you can see, as it were, the primate in embryo."

"This will be the one pictured in the textbooks for the next hundred years," said Dr Jørn Hurum, the palaeontologist from Oslo University's Natural History Museum who assembled the scientific team to study the fossil. "It tells a part of our evolution that's been hidden so far. It's been hidden because the only [other] specimens are so incomplete and so broken there's nothing almost to study."

Ida was originally discovered by an amateur fossil hunter in the summer of 1983 at Messel pit, a world renowned fossil site near Darmstadt in Germany. He kept it under wraps for over 20 years before deciding to sell it via a German fossil dealer, who then notified Hurum in Oslo.

Click here for the article in The Guardian.

Ancient Native Americans Decorated Teeth

Ancient skull found in Chiapas, Mexico, displays embedded gems and notched teeth.

Sophisticated dentistry allowed Native Americans to decorate their teeth with gems, notches and grooves as far back as 2,500 years ago. The finding is based on a survey of thousands of teeth from collections in Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History.

Dental decoration was popular predominantly with men. "They were not marks of social class" but instead meant for pure decoration, José Concepción Jiménez, an anthropologist at the institute, told National Geographic.

The early dentists used a drill-like device with a hard stone such as obsidian, which is capable of puncturing bone."It's possible some type of [herb based] anesthetic was applied prior to drilling to blunt any pain," Jiménez said.

The ornamental stones—including jade—were attached with an adhesive made out of natural resins, such as plant sap, which was mixed with other chemicals and crushed bones.

The dentists likely had a sophisticated knowledge of tooth anatomy. For example, they knew how to drill into teeth without hitting the pulp inside. "They didn't want to generate an infection or provoke the loss of a tooth," Jiménez said.

Click here for the National Geographic article.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Mayan Creation Myth Now Deemed Earlier

A section of the Mayan panels uncovered in the Guatemalan rain forest.

Archaeologists studying two large carved stucco panels in northern Guatemala say the panels depict a scene from the Popol Vuh ~ the Mayan creation myth ~ yet predate any other such artifacts by a millennium.

The recently uncovered panels ~ 26 feet long and 20 feet high ~ formed the sides of a channel for carrying rainwater into a series of stepped pools, where it was stored for drinking and agriculture. They date to 300 BC.

Idaho State University archaeologist Richard Hansen, directing the ongoing excavation, says the panels depict an important scene from the Popol Vuh, a text of the Mayan myth first recorded in the 16th century. In the part of the story shown, the Hero Twins swim through the underworld after retrieving the head of their father, the deity Hun Hunahpu, according to Discover News.

Some historians dismiss the Popol Vuh as a contaminated, containing not only ancient Mayan mythology but also Spanish Catholic influences. Hansen believes the panels establish key portions of the stories as genuinely Mayan. “We can now extend the authenticity of the creation myth back another 1,000 years,” he says.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Did One Small African Tribe Populate the World?

New genetic research is leading a group of geneticists and archaeologists to speculate that a small African tribe that crossed the Red Sea some 70,000 years ago is responsible for the spread of human beings around the globe.

“What you can see from the DNA of all non-Africans is that they all belong to one tiny African branch that came across the Red Sea,” says Oxford University geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer. “If it was easy to get out of Africa we would have seen multiple African lineages in the DNA of non-Africans but that there was only one successful exit suggests it must have been very tough to get out.”

The recent genetic research indicates that it was not until around 70,000 years ago that humans were able to take advantage of falling sea levels to cross into Arabia at the mouth of the Red Sea, and from there to spread along the Arabian coast as a prelude to colonizing the rest of the world.

Click here for the article.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Latest "Venus" Is Earliest Ever Found

Figure is thought to be the world's oldest representation of a human.

A small ivory carving of a large-breasted woman uncovered in a German cave last September is now believed to be 35,000 years old and perhaps the oldest known example of figurative art yet found. 

Now regarded as the earliest of the so-called Venus artifacts, the figurine is of the same age as some other very early artwork, including cave paintings in France and Italy. According to an article in yesterday’s New York Times:

Nicholas J. Conard, an archaeologist at the University of Tübingen, in Germany, who found the small carving in a cave last year, said it was at least 35,000 years old, “one of the oldest known examples of figurative art” in the world. It is about 5,000 years older than some other so-called Venus artifacts made by early populations of Homo sapiens in Europe.

The discovery, Dr. Conard wrote, “radically changes our view of the origins of Paleolithic art.” Before this, he noted, female imagery was unknown, most carvings and cave drawings being of mammoths, horses and other animals.

This Venus is reminiscent of the most famous of the sexually explicit Stone Age figurines, the Venus of Willendorf, discovered in Austria a century ago. That Venus is somewhat larger and dated about 24,000 years ago. Scholars speculate that Venus figurines were associated with fertility beliefs or shamanistic rituals.

Click here for the New York Times article and video.
Click here for the Los Angeles Times article.
Click here for other Ancient Tides "Venus" posts.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Pharaoh's Missing Pyramid Discovered

A section of the Saqqara Serapium along the uncovered ceremonial road.

Egyptian archaeologists have uncovered the base of a pharaoh’s "missing pyramid" and a ceremonial procession road where high priests carried mummified remains of sacred bulls.

The pyramid is believed to be that of King Menkauhor, an obscure pharaoh who ruled for only eight years more than 4,000 years ago. In 1842, German archaeologist Karl Richard Lepsius mentioned Menkauhor's pyramid among his finds at Saqqara, calling it the "Headless Pyramid" because its top was missing. But the desert sands covered Lepsius' discovery, and no archaeologist since was able to find it.

"We have filled the gap of the missing pyramid," Egyptian antiquities head Zahi Hawass said told reporters on a tour of the discoveries at Saqqara, the necropolis and burial site of the rulers of ancient Memphis, the capital of Egypt's Old Kingdom, south of Cairo.

Click here for the Discovery News article.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Fable Number 184 ~ Winter and Spring

Winter made fun of Spring and mocked her for the fact that as soon as Spring appears, nobody can keep still. Some people go off to the meadows or into the woods, others like to gather flowers and lilies or perhaps gaze upon a rose as they twirl it in the air, or to twine it in their hair; while some board ships and even cross the sea to meet different kinds of people. No one worries any longer about the winds or the great downpours of rain from the sky. 

"Whereas I resemble a dictator or a despot," said Winter. "I command everyone to look not at the sky, but down to the ground. I frighten them and make them tremble and sometimes I make them content themselves while having to stay indoors all day." 

Spring replied: "Indeed, that is exactly why mankind would be glad to get rid of you, whereas even the mere mention of my name is enough to bring them pleasure. By Zeus, there is no name more pleasant than mine! That is why they think fondly of me when I am gone and give thanks when I appear again."

Friday, May 8, 2009

Ancient Garrison May Reveal Fortification Plan

A view of a newly discovered ancient fortification at Tell Heboua.

Archaeologists are hoping the discovery of a 3,500-year-old military garrison of mud-brick and seashells in Egypt's Sinai desert may be key to defining pharaonic-era defenses at the northeast gateway to ancient Egypt. They say inscriptions at Luxor's Karnak temple may serve as a guide to finding other outposts.

Determining the location of the garrison at the ancient city of Tharu is key to understanding where to start looking.

"As we understand from the inscription at Karnak temple, the city of Tharu had two fortifications with the Nile in the middle," Mohamad Abdul Maqsoud, who heads archaeological exploration in Egypt's Nile Delta and Sinai regions, told Reuters. "This city was used to protect Egypt and as a gate to the Delta. It was a post of control. If you wanted to cross the Nile, you asked for permission before you crossed the bridge.”

Most Egyptian fortifications at the time were made of stone, not easily available in the Sinai. So Egyptians used seashells to strengthen the mud brick used to build the garrison, with a 15-meter thick and 12-meter high wall to discourage attack.

Click here for the Reuters article.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Face of Earliest European is Reconstructed

At the behest of the BBC, a skilled forensic artist has reconstructed the head and facial features representing the first anatomically modern human to live in Europe ~ a person inhabiting the Carpathian Mountains of Romania about 35,000 years ago.

According to Britain's The Independent:

The artist's reconstruction ~ a face that could be male or female ~ is based on the partial skull and jawbone found in a cave where bears were known to hibernate. The facial features indicate the close affinity of these early Europeans to their immediate African ancestors, although it was still not possible to determine the person's sex.

The lower jawbone of the first modern European was discovered in 2002 in Pestera cu Oase, the "cave with bones", located in the southwestern Carpathians. The remaining fragments of skull were unearthed in 2003.

Scientists have dated the bones using radiocarbon analysis to between 34,000 and 36,000 years ago when Europe was occupied by both Neanderthal man, who had lived in the region for tens of thousands of years, and anatomically-modern humans – Homo sapiens – who had recently arrived on a migratory route from Africa via the Middle East.

Although the skull shares many modern feature of human anatomy, it also displays more archaic traits, such as very large molar teeth, which led some scientists to speculate the skull may belong to a hybrid between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals ~ an idea discounted by other experts.

The reconstruction was made for the forthcoming BBC 2 series The Incredible Human Journey, which documents human origins and evolution.

Click here for the complete The Independent article.

Earliest Beads Unearthed in Moroccan Cave

Shell ornaments recently uncovered in a cave in Morocco are believed to be some of the world’s oldest beads. The fingernail-size Nassarius marine shells are perforated and some are covered in decorative red ochre.

Up until now, Blombos cave in South Africa has been leading the “bead race” with 41 Nassarius shell beads that can confidently be dated to 72,000 years ago. The 47 shells found in Morocco are likely at least 82,000 years old.

Archaeologists widely believe that humans in Europe first started fashioning purely symbolic objects about 40,000 years ago, but in Africa this latest evidence shows that humans were engaged in this activity at least 40,000 years before this.

Research team leader Professor Nick Barton of the University of Oxford, said: “These new finds are exciting because they show that bead manufacturing probably arose independently in different cultures and confirms a long suspected pattern that humans with modern symbolic behavior were present from a very early stage at both ends of the continent, probably as early as 110,000 years ago.”

Click here for the ScienceDaily article.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Luhan Pyramid Tomb Some 5,000 Years Old

Abdul Rahman Ayedi brushes dust from vessels found in the tomb.

Archaeologists have unearthed a 5,000-year-old tomb near Egypt's mud-brick Lahun pyramid.

According to Reuters, the find debunks beliefs that the site dates back only to 12th dynasty pharaoh Senusret II who ruled 4,000 years ago, archaeologist Abdul Rahman Al-Ayedi said.

"The existence of this tomb is very significant because now we know that Senusret II, the builder of the pyramid, is not the founder of this site," Ayedi told Reuters in an interview. "It must have had religious significance in ancient Egypt, so that's why he chose it for his pyramid."

Inside the tiny tomb, too small for a person to stand, a box-like wood coffin contains the remains of a 40 to 49-year-old man who was likely a significant figure in the ancient Egyptian government of the time, Ayedi said. Buried in a bent position and wrapped in linens, the body was not well preserved because the tomb predates the era in which ancient Egyptians mummified their dead.

"This was a very early example of a coffin,” he said. “The body was buried flexed. The lid of the coffin was vaulted and the side of the coffin has a representation of the facade of a palace or a house."

Click here for the Reuters article.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Balsa Rafts Permitted Ancient American Trading

Dutch envoy Joris van Spilbergen sketched this South American balsa raft in 1619.

An MIT doctoral candidate and her colleagues may have solved the mystery of why a specific style of ancient metalwork appears in South America and in western Mexico, but nowhere in between. Leslie Dewan contends Ecuadorean traders a thousand years ago sailed regularly to western Mexico and back ~ a round trip of 3,800 miles ~ on sail-bearing balsa rafts.

According to Discover Magazine:

Archaeologists have long wondered why copper work and other metalwork in a style typical of ancient South America appears in western Mexico but nowhere in between the two areas. This absence suggested a sea-based trade, so Dewan’s group decided to explore whether such lengthy voyages were feasible.

They based their mathematical study of seaworthiness on 16th-century European explorers’ descriptions of Native American trading vessels in western Mexico. The explorers wrote of seeing rectangular, two-sailed vessels made of balsa, a wood native to Ecuador, tied together with a hemplike fiber. Reaching about 35 feet in length, the rafts could probably have borne up to 30 metric tons of cargo—as much as 19th-century barges did in the Erie Canal.

Dewan’s team also evaluated the role of wind and water currents, concluding that the traders may have spent a few months in Mexico and returned when currents shifted. Meanwhile, her team is preparing to construct an actual-size model for the trip from Ecuador to Mexico, as they theorize it was done 1,300 years ago.

Click here for the Discover Magazine article.
Click here for Leslie Dewan’s description of her project.
Click here for a similar Ecuadorian project called the Manteno Expedition.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Foot-Shaped Enclosures Symbolized Ownership

One of the sites with a foot-shaped enclosure in the Jordan Valley.

Five archaeological sites surrounded by foot-shaped enclosures are now believed to be among the earliest sites built in Israel, with the odd foot-shaped layout symbolizing ownership of the land.

According to ScienceDaily:

"The 'foot' structures that we found in the Jordan valley are the first sites that the People of Israel built upon entering Canaan and they testify to the biblical concept of ownership of the land with the foot," said archaeologist Prof. Adam Zertal of the University of Haifa, who headed the excavating team that exposed five compounds in the shape of an enormous foot.

The sites are believed to date back to the Iron Age I, around the 13th century BC. Based on their size and shape, it appears they were used for human assembly and not for animals.

Zertal told ScienceDaily that the "foot" held much significance as a symbol of ownership of territory, control over an enemy, connection between people and land, and presence of a deity. Some of these concepts are mentioned in ancient Egyptian literature. The Bible also has a wealth of references to the importance of the "foot" as a symbol of ownership, the link between people and their deity, defeating the enemy 'underfoot', and the temple imaged as a foot.

Click here for the complete ScienceDaily article.

Friday, May 1, 2009

More "Dark Age" Discoveries in Turkish Temple

Remains of the Tayinat temple in southeastern Turkey.

Stone slabs engraved with a dead language and found in an ancient temple in Turkey continue to shed light on the eastern European “dark age” from 1200 to 900 BC, according to a new article in National Geographic.

The Biblical Old Testament, Greek Homeric epics, and texts from Ramses III describe the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age as a period of cultural collapse, famine and violence.

But the temple ruins suggest otherwise.

"We're beginning to find new archaeological evidence that there was a continuation of writing traditions, as well as cultural and political continuity from the Bronze Age into this Iron Age period," according to Timothy Harrison of the University of Toronto's Tayinat Archaeological Project . "We are filling in a cultural and a political history of this era."

Harrison and colleagues found the temple in 2008 at the Tell Ta'yinat site, an archaeological settlement on the Plain of Antioch in southeastern Turkey. It appears to have been built during the time of King Solomon, between the 10th and 9th centuries BC. It was likely destroyed with the rest of Tell Ta'yinat during the 8th century BC.

Click here for the National Geographic article.