kottke.org posts about archaeology
Paintings in a cave in Indonesia have been dated to 40,000 years ago, as old or older than any paintings found in Europe.
For decades, the only evidence of ancient cave art was in Spain and southern France. It led some to believe that the creative explosion that led to the art and science we know today began in Europe.
But the discovery of paintings of a similar age in Indonesia shatters this view, according to Prof Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London.
"It is a really important find; it enables us to get away from this Euro-centric view of a creative explosion that was special to Europe and did not develop in other parts of the world until much later," he said.
The discovery of 40,000-year-old cave paintings at opposite ends of the globe suggests that the ability to create representational art had its origins further back in time in Africa, before modern humans spread across the rest of the world.
"That's kind of my gut feeling," says Prof Stringer. "The basis for this art was there 60,000 years ago; it may even have been there in Africa before 60,000 years ago and it spread with modern humans".
Erik Vance on why real working archaeologists don't care for Indiana Jones.
"Oh God," he groans, "Don't even go there. Indiana Jones is not an archeologist."
It's not surprising that academics -- hell bent on taking the fun out of everything -- would hate our beloved and iconic movie version of them. But Canuto is no killjoy. His ironic tone and acerbic wit seem honed by long boring days in the sun. So I bite. I quickly learn that there's a good reason why most every archeologist on Earth hates Indy. And that they might have a point. Because Jones isn't an archeologist at all.
"That first scene, where he's in the temple and he's replacing that statue with a bag of sand -- that's what looters do," Canuto says, grinning. "[The temple builders] are using these amazing mechanisms of engineering and all he wants to do is steal the stupid gold statue."
Makes you wonder if Jones was one of the Raiders referred to in the title of the first movie. (via @riondotnu)
The latest word on Homo floresiensis, the potential new species of hobbit-like humans discovered ten years ago in Indonesia, concerns a pair of papers which argue the single specimen found is actually a regular human with Down syndrome.
Now, the debate has reignited with two new papers published this week by a team of researchers from Penn State and other institutions. In one of those papers, they argue that the Flores skull is not a new species, but instead represents an ancient person with Down syndrome.
The researchers also point out, in the second paper, that the original report on the bones seemed to have exaggerated the skull's diminutive size. Cranial measurements and features, along with shorter thigh bones, the team found, all correspond with modern manifestations of Down syndrome. "The difference is significant, and the revised figure falls in the range predicted for a modern human with Down syndrome from the same geographic region," they say in a statement.
Recent discoveries in Brazil that humans were present in South America as early as 22,000 years ago has contributed to the growing belief that the Clovis First hypothesis is wrong.
Researchers here say they have unearthed stone tools proving that humans reached what is now northeast Brazil as early as 22,000 years ago. Their discovery adds to the growing body of research upending a prevailing belief of 20th-century archaeology in the United States known as the Clovis model, which holds that people first arrived in the Americas from Asia about 13,000 years ago.
"If they're right, and there's a great possibility that they are, that will change everything we know about the settlement of the Americas," said Walter Neves, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Sao Paulo whose own analysis of an 11,000-year-old skull in Brazil implies that some ancient Americans resembled aboriginal Australians more than they did Asians.
Up and down the Americas, scholars say that the peopling of lands empty of humankind may have been far more complex than long believed. The radiocarbon dating of spear points found in the 1920s near Clovis, N.M., placed the arrival of big-game hunters across the Bering Strait about 13,000 years ago, long forming the basis of when humans were believed to have arrived in the Americas.
More recently, numerous findings have challenged that narrative. In Texas, archaeologists said in 2011 that they had found projectile points showing that hunter-gatherers had reached another site, known as Buttermilk Creek, as early as 15,500 years ago. Similarly, analysis of human DNA found at an Oregon cave determined that humans were there 14,000 years ago.
This is nutty...by chance, a group of archaeologists found what are believed to be the oldest known human footprints outside of Africa on a beach in England. The footprints are an estimated 800,000 years old and are now completely gone. The tide that uncovered them washed them away in less than a month.
The footprints have been described as "one of the most important discoveries, if not the most important discovery that has been made on [Britain's] shores," by Dr Nick Ashton of the British Museum.
"It will rewrite our understanding of the early human occupation of Britain and indeed of Europe," he told BBC News.
The markings were first indentified in May last year during a low tide. Rough seas had eroded the sandy beach to reveal a series of elongated hollows.
Did you know that there are new human beings? Like, not just new human babies but new species of humans? And not just new species of humans, but new species of humans who lived at the same time as, and even possibly bred with, modern humans, aka us? (Helloooooo, mesofacts.)
If you've read kottke.org over the years, you've likely heard of Homo floresiensis (aka Flores man, aka Hobbits), a species whose remains were discovered in present-day Indonesia in 2003. Homo floresiensis lived 95,000 to 13,000 years ago and stood about three feet high.
In this month's National Geographic, Jamie Shreeve tells the story of the 2010 discovery of the Denisovans, hominids who lived in modern-day Russia as late as 40,000 years ago. Only a handful of bone fragments and teeth have been recovered, but DNA and other evidence suggests that Denisovans, Neanderthals, and modern humans lived together in the same place and interbred.
By the time of the Denisova symposium, Pääbo and his colleagues had published first drafts of the entire Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes. Reading so many more pages allowed Pääbo and his colleagues, including David Reich at Harvard University and Montgomery Slatkin at the University of California, Berkeley, to discover that human genomes today actually contain a small but significant amount of Neanderthal code -- on average about 2.5 percent. The Neanderthals still may have been swept into extinction by the strange, high-browed new people who followed them out of Africa, but not before some commingling that left a little Neanderthal in most of us, 50,000 years later. Only one group of modern humans escaped that influence: Africans, because the commingling happened outside that continent.
Although the Denisovans' genome showed that they were more closely related to the Neanderthals, they too had left their mark on us. But the geographic pattern of that legacy was odd. When the researchers compared the Denisovan genome with those of various modern human populations, they found no trace of it in Russia or nearby China, or anywhere else, for that matter -- except in the genomes of New Guineans, other people from islands in Melanesia, and Australian Aborigines. On average their genomes are about 5 percent Denisovan. Negritos in the Philippines have as much as 2.5 percent.
In 2012, evidence emerged of a possible new human species, the Red Deer Cave people, who lived in what is now southern China.
The Red Deer Cave dwellers' unusual features included a flat face, a broad nose, a jutting jaw that lacked a chin, large molar teeth, a rounded braincase with prominent brow ridges, and thick skull bones, the researchers say.
Their brains were "moderate in size," Curnoe added.
Despite this seemingly primitive human design, radiocarbon dating of charcoal from the fossil deposits suggests the Red Deer Cave people lived just 14,500 to 11,500 years ago, the team says-a time by which all other human species, such as Neanderthals, are thought to have died out.
As with the other potential new human species, and as is proper in science, there is some skepticism about the Red Deer Cave people.
The team's suggestion that the Red Deer Cave people are somehow evolutionarily unique is receiving a skeptical reception from other scientists.
Physical anthropologist Erik Trinkaus described the findings as "an unfortunate overinterpretation and misinterpretation of robust early modern humans, probably with affinities to modern Melanesians"-indigenous peoples of Pacific islands stretching from New Guinea to Fiji (map).
"There is nothing extraordinary" about the newly announced fossil human, added Trinkaus, of Washington University in St. Louis, via email.
Philipp Gunz, of Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, isn't convinced by the study team's interpretation either.
"I would be surprised if it really was a new human group that was previously undiscovered," said, Gunz, also a physical anthropologist.
Archaeologist Marc Azéma thinks that Stone Age artists may have fashioned their cave paintings in such a way as to suggest movement, crude movies that came to life as the flickering light from a fire danced on the walls.
Not only that, Paleolithic artists may have also have invented the thaumatrope thousands of years before the Victorians in the 1800s.
Consisting of a card or disk with different designs on either side, the device demonstrates the persistence of vision: When the card or disk is twirled, the designs appear to blend into one.
Rivère discovered that Paleolithic artists used similar optical toys well in advance of their 19th-century descendants.
The artist examined Magdalenian bone discs -- objects found in the Pyrenees, the north of Spain and the Dordogne, which measure about 1.5 inches in diameter.
Often pierced in their center, the discs have been generally interpreted as buttons or pendants.
"Given that some are decorated on both sides with animals shown in different positions, we realized that another type of use, relating to sequential animation, was possible," the researchers said.
They mentioned one of the most convincing cases, a bone disc found in 1868 in the Dordogne. On one side, the disc features a standing doe or a chamois. On the other side, the animal is lying down.
Azéma and Rivère discovered if a string was threaded through the central hole and then stretched tight to make the disc rotate about its lateral axis, the result was a superimposition of the two pictures on the retina.
Incredible that moviemaking is tens of thousands of years old instead of just a couple hundred.
Any old archaeologist can find ancient cities by looking for evidence of buildings etc, but it takes a next level Indiana Jones to use satellites. A group of archaeologists are doing just that, finding "14,000 settlement sites spanning eight millennia in 23,000 square kilometres of northeastern Syria".
The satellite-based method relies on the fact that human activity leaves a distinctive signature on the soil, called anthrosols. Formed from organic waste and decayed mud-brick architecture, anthrosols are imbued with higher levels of organic matter and have a finer texture and lighter appearance than undisturbed soil -- resulting in reflective properties that can be seen by satellites.
Menze trained software to detect the characteristic wavelengths of known anthrosols in images spanning 50 years of seasonal differences. This automation was key. "You could do this with the naked eye using Google Earth to look for sites, but this method takes the subjectivity out of it by defining spectral characteristics that bounce off of archaeological sites," says Ur.
Recent analysis of some Viking bones suggests that women were a significant part of the Viking settlement of England around 900 A.D.
So, the study looked at 14 Viking burials from the era, definable by the Norse grave goods found with them and isotopes found in their bones that reveal their birthplace. The bones were sorted for telltale osteological signs of which gender they belonged to, rather than assuming that burial with a sword or knife denoted a male burial.
Overall, McLeod reports that six of the 14 burials were of women, seven were men, and one was indeterminable. Warlike grave goods may have misled earlier researchers about the gender of Viking invaders, the study suggests. At a mass burial site called Repton Woods, "(d)espite the remains of three swords being recovered from the site, all three burials that could be sexed osteologically were thought to be female, including one with a sword and shield," says the study.
Archaeologists are using infrared satellite images to find several undiscovered pyramids and ancient settlements in Egypt.
The team analysed images from satellites orbiting 700km above the earth, equipped with cameras so powerful they can pin-point objects less than 1m in diameter on the earth's surface.
Infra-red imaging was used to highlight different materials under the surface.
Ancient Egyptians built their houses and structures out of mud brick, which is much denser than the soil that surrounds it, so the shapes of houses, temples and tombs can be seen.
Be sure to click through to see some of the satellite images...the scale and the amount of detail uncovered is amazing. (via @tomcoates)
The Paris Review's John Jeremiah Sullivan interviews filmmaker Werner Herzog and archeologist Jan Simek about cave paintings in the south of France (subject of Herzog's new 3-D documentary) and middle Tennessee (Simek's area of expertise):
On the subject of the lighting in this film, Dr. Simek, you made an observation, which is that the light tends to be in motion ...
The light never rests. Every time he changes the picture, it goes through a light sweep. The film is clearly concerned with how the moving light causes the images themselves to change. This is not inaccurate at all. The original impression that this artwork made was in some ways dictated by how it got lit by the people who made it, with torchlight.
What we did was very simple: we walked with the light, so that the source of light would make the shadows move slightly, like curtains of darkness rising. Or, for example, a fade-out would be done by just physically removing the light. So it was never a purely technical thing; it was always something human, as if somebody with torchlight were just leaving or coming in.
When you try to imagine how these images looked for Paleolithic people, in the flickering shadows, the animals must have been moving, must have had a strange life in them.
I was also struck by Herzog's reaction to Sullivan's observation that Cave of Forgotten Dreams largely departs from the heroic-discovery mode common to movies about cave explorers:
I'm suspicious of that notion of adventure. It belongs to earlier centuries, and somehow fizzled away with, let's say, the exploration of the North and South Poles, which was only a media ego trip, unhealthy and unwise, on the part of some individuals. The Polar explorations were a huge mistake of the human race, an indication that the twentieth century was a mistake in its entirety. They are one of the indicators.
While researching a story I wrote not too long ago about spaceflight and radio communications, I was surprised at how central the polar expeditions were to that story:
In 1929, Richard E. Byrd made history -- not for reaching the South Pole, but for bringing on his Antarctic expedition 24 radio transmitters, 31 receivers, five radio engineers, three airplanes and an aerial camera. Unlike Ernest Shackleton's trans-Antarctic expedition, who 15 years earlier spent 17 months fighting for their lives after being trapped in the polar ice, Byrd's team was able to stay in constant communication with each other and with the outside world. It was the beginning of modern technology-aided exploration, and arguably the model for human spaceflight.
Also, I think Werner Herzog may be the only living human being who is still allowed to say things like "the twentieth century was a mistake in its entirety" in semi-casual conversation. The rest of us lack the prerequisite voice, record of achievements, and enormous balls.
A mass grave of soldiers discovered in England is shedding new light on how medieval battles were fought. It's not a pretty picture.
In a letter sent nine days after the battle George Neville, the then chancellor of England, wrote that 28,000 men died that day, a figure in accord with a letter sent by Edward to his mother. England's total population at the time is thought not to have exceeded 3m people. George Goodwin, who has written a book on Towton to coincide with the battle's 550th anniversary in 2011, reckons as many as 75,000 men, perhaps 10% of the country's fighting-age population, took the field that day.
This summer's dry English weather has been unexpectantly good for archaeology. Aerial surveys over dry cropland has revealed the outlines of several prehistoric and Roman ruins.
The surveys show marks made when crops growing over buried features develop at a different rate from those nearby.
Photos here. (via clusterflock)
Lead ingots carried by a Roman ship sunk in 50 BC will be used to study the decay of neutrinos. Neutrino experiments are very delicate and need to be shielded from radioactive contamination, including possible contamination from the shielding itself.
This vast stretch of time means that the tiny amount of the radioactive isotope lead-210 originally present in the ingots, just as it exists in any normal lead object, has by now almost completely disappeared.
(via history blog)
A team of archeologists used aircraft-mounted LIDAR (a laser-based distance measuring system) to map the Mayan ruins of Caracol
. The imaging revealed more of the ruins in four days than on-the-ground teams have been able to do in the past 25 years.
The Chases, who are professors of anthropology at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, had determined from earlier surveys that Caracol extended over a wide area in its heyday, between A.D. 550 and 900. From a ceremonial center of palaces and broad plazas, it stretched out to industrial zones and poor neighborhoods and beyond to suburbs of substantial houses, markets and terraced fields and reservoirs. This picture of urban sprawl led the Chases to estimate the city's population at its peak at more than 115,000. But some archaeologists doubted the evidence warranted such expansive interpretations.
"Now we have a totality of data and see the entire landscape," Dr. Arlen Chase said of the laser findings. "We know the size of the site, its boundaries, and this confirms our population estimates, and we see all this terracing and begin to know how the people fed themselves."
An archeological find in Turkey, believed to be a temple built 11,500 years ago that predates "villages, pottery, domesticated animals, and even agriculture", suggests religion created civilization and not the other way around.
Most startling is the elaborate carving found on about half of the 50 pillars Schmidt has unearthed. There are a few abstract symbols, but the site is almost covered in graceful, naturalistic sculptures and bas-reliefs of the animals that were central to the imagination of hunter-gatherers. Wild boar and cattle are depicted, along with totems of power and intelligence, like lions, foxes, and leopards. Many of the biggest pillars are carved with arms, including shoulders, elbows, and jointed fingers. The T shapes appear to be towering humanoids but have no faces, hinting at the worship of ancestors or humanlike deities.
Photos and more from Smithsonian magazine and Wikipedia.
The discovery of stone tools that are possibly 130,000 years old on the island of Crete may indicate that humans were seafaring far earlier than is commonly believed.
Archaeologists and experts on early nautical history said the discovery appeared to show that these surprisingly ancient mariners had craft sturdier and more reliable than rafts. They also must have had the cognitive ability to conceive and carry out repeated water crossing over great distances in order to establish sustainable populations producing an abundance of stone artifacts.
Archeologists studying aerial photos of the coast of Wales found a 1000-year-old fish trap lurking beneath the waves.
The unique shape of the rock structure helped the Normans trap fish without boats or anything at all. All they had to do was wait for the tide to go out and hundreds of fish would be trapped behind the rocks.
Nets were placed at a narrow exit to catch the fish on their way out. Fish weirs were so effective that overfishing led to a provision in the Magna Carta banning them in rivers.
All fish-weirs shall be removed from the Thames, the Medway, and throughout the whole of England, except on the sea coast.
Is there a mini Stonehenge under the waters of Lake Michigan?
In a surprisingly under-reported story from 2007, Mark Holley, a professor of underwater archaeology at Northwestern Michigan University College, discovered a series of stones - some of them arranged in a circle and one of which seemed to show carvings of a mastodon -- 40-feet beneath the surface waters of Lake Michigan. If verified, the carvings could be as much as 10,000 years old -- coincident with the post-Ice Age presence of both humans and mastodons in the upper midwest.
New studies show that prehistoric agriculture may have taken much longer to develop than previously thought.
Until recently researchers say the story of the origin of agriculture was one of a relatively sudden appearance of plant cultivation in the Near East around 10,000 years ago spreading quickly into Europe and dovetailing conveniently with ideas about how quickly language and population genes spread from the Near East to Europe. Initially, genetics appeared to support this idea but now cracks are beginning to appear in the evidence underpinning that model.
Before European conquerers arrived, large areas of the Amazon River basin had been cleared away to make room for a network of towns and villages.
The findings raise big questions, says Susanna Hecht of the University of California in Los Angeles.
For starters, it forces a rethink of the long-held assumption that these parts of the Amazon were virtually empty before colonisation. What's more, it shows that the large populations that did inhabit the region transformed the landscape.
"What we find is that what we think of as the primitive Amazon forest is not so primitive after all," Heckenberger told New Scientist. "European colonialism wasted huge numbers of native peoples and cleared them off the land, so that the forest returned."
I'm gonna plug 1491 again...the story above isn't news to anyone who's read this book, which argues that there was plenty going on in the New World before Columbus, et. al. arrived.
Some poop in a cave in Oregon has been dated to more than 14,000 years ago and identified as human, adding to other evidence that humans inhabited the Americas before the well-known Clovis people.
Other archaeologists agreed that the findings established more firmly than before the presence of people on the continent at least 1,000 years before the well-known Clovis people, previously thought to be the first Americans. Recent research at sites in Florida and Wisconsin also appears to support the earlier arrivals, and a campsite in Chile indicates migration deep into South America by 14,600 years ago.
What would happen to planet earth if the human race were to suddenly disappear forever? Would ecosystems thrive? What remnants of our industrialized world would survive? What would crumble fastest? From the ruins of ancient civilizations to present day cities devastated by natural disasters, history gives us clues to these questions and many more.
The upshot of Life After People is that, with the exception of some domesticated animals, our planet would be better off without us. Waaaay better off. Like if Mother Nature sat us down for a talk and said, "listen, you're really shitting on the rest of the planet, its residents, its ecosystems, etc. and, by the way, you're killing me slowly and painfully" and the only honorable thing to do would be to jump in a rocketship to colonize Mars or commit mass suicide so everything else could live in peace.
The other interesting thing about the show is how little is left of humans after a few thousand years of absence. Roads, buildings, cars, bridges; they all break down. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Great Pyramid at Giza might still be around in another ten thousand years, but it may be covered in sand. The Great Wall of China and Hoover Dam could survive for awhile longer. Mount Rushmore, caved out of solid granite, may last for 200,000 years or more. They didn't mention anything about cut & diamonds or objects made from platimun or titanium, but I imagine that they would last millions of years, if not practically forever.
Which leads you to wonder: if the Earth supported an advanced civilization that died out over 500,000 years ago, would we have any way of knowing they even existed? Small cut gemstones and platinum artifacts left behind by such a civilization would be difficult to discover unless they were of sufficient size. Fossils would certainly survive in some form and we could perhaps make some guesses as to their intelligence based on morphology. Would that be enough to detect them?
Update: Two other possible advanced civilization detectors: chemical and geological changes caused might show up in mineral layers and long-lasting nuclear waste. (thx, jordan & leonard)
The top 10 archeological discoveries of 2007 as determined by Archaeology Magazine. Among the discoveries are a cuneiform tablet naming someone who is also named in the Bible, more evidence that Polynesians visited the Americas before the Europeans "discovered" it, early agriculture in Peru, and early urbanization in Syria that followed a different model than other early cities.
Tell Brak seems to have grown from the outside in. In the south, cities began as a central settlement -- under a single authority -- that grew outward. But Ur's field survey shows that Tell Brak started as a central community ringed by smaller satellite settlements that expanded inward. "There isn't a very tight control over these surrounding villages, at least at this beginning period," says Ur. "So the assumption that we're making is that people were coming in under their own volition."
BLDGBLOG has a fantastic post on the interconnected mountain fortifications used by the Austrians and Italians in World War One. If you thought the Maginot Line was insane, wait until you see this. Geoff Manaugh's write-up is as smart as the mountain trenches were crazy:
...the idea of the Alps being riddled with manmade caves and passages, with bunkers and tunnels, bristling with military architecture, even self-connected peak to peak by fortified bridges, the Great Mountain Wall of Northern Italy, architecture literally become mountainous, piled higher and higher upon itself forming new artificial peaks looking down on the fields and cities of Europe, that just fascinates me—not to mention the idea that you could travel up, and thus go further into history, discovering that the past has been buried above you, the geography of time topologically inverted.
Also: great to see that BLDGBLOG has a book coming out—not so great that we have to wait until 2009. (via cosma shalizi)
Old chicken bones are a clue that the Polynesians made it to the Americas before the Europeans did. "The 50 chicken bones from at least five individual birds date from between 1321 and 1407 -- 100 years or more before the arrival of Europeans."
Thoughtful post on the extreme recency of recorded human history. We know very little about the people who lived before the invention of writing and collections of stories like the Bible, save for what we can glean from speechless skeletons, footprints, and other remains.
And look at how much is lost. Between the time of the couple fleeing across a field of volcanic ash and poor dead Lucy lies 400,000 years. If a Bible is a record of the struggle of a people for 2,000 years, we'd need 200 Bibles to tell us the tale of just this one obscure, remote branch of our lineage.
Some recent rigorous radiocarbon dating has thrown into doubt the theory that the Americas were first settled 11,000 years ago by the so-called Clovis peoples.
There's not enough information in this National Geographic story to figure out if the recent finds in Peru has anything to do with the Norte Chico civilization or not. "We found some old stuff somewhere in Peru"...thanks guys, let us know when you starting writing science news for the post-kindergarten crowd. Here's a bit more info on the discovery (still no connection to Norte Chico).
Watched America's Stone Age Explorers on PBS this evening, a summary of recent findings about who the first Americans were, where they came from, and when they arrived. Recent genetic and archeological evidence suggests they arrived earlier than generally accepted and may have originated from Europe rather than Asia.
Recently discovered human remains suggest that metrosexuals lived in Iron Age Ireland. One man's fingernails were manicured and his hands indicated he'd never done manual labor while the other wore hair gel imported from France and Spain. No word on if they wore their shirts tucked or untucked.
An oddly shaped hill in Bosnia is a 10,000 year old pyramid, says Bosnian archeologist Semir Osmanagic.
The pyramid is 100 metres high and there is evidence that it contains rooms and a monumental causeway... The plateau is built of stone blocks, which indicates the presence at the time of a highly developed civilisation.
4000 year-old pot of noodles found in China, settling (for now) the "hotly contested" question of who invented the noodle.
Further discovery of Homo floresiensis bones have strengthened researchers' argument that the so-called Hobbit is a new and distinct human species. More on Flores man at Nature, which is doing a weekly podcast now.
Evolution shocker! The discovery of a dinosaur footprint on the wall of a contemporary Brooklyn school proves that the earth is less than 6000 years old (and, perhaps, that dinosaurs could walk vertically). No word on the Flying Spaghetti Monster's involvement.
Robotics research suggests that Lucy walked upright like humans. Lucy, discovered in 1974 in Ethiopia, is a 3.2 million year old Australopithecus afarensis skeleton.
40,000 year-old human footprints found in Mexico. Humans are thought to have come to the Americas only 11,000 years ago.
Jared Diamond calls agriculture "the worst mistake in the history of the human race". "With the advent of agriculture [the] elite became better off, but most people became worse off".