WEST VIRGINIA: The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has increased steadily in the industrial era, but Native Americans 2,100 years ago also left a noticeable carbon footprint. Studies of cave formations and sediments from Buckeye Creek Cave show a dramatic change in atmospheric carbon at that time, when local Native Americans burned forests, perhaps to encourage the growth of more desirable plants.
(Photo Courtesy Gregory Springer, Ohio University)
CALIFORNIA: The harsh 1846–47 winter in the Sierra Nevada mountains condemned the Donner Party, a wagon train of 81 pioneers, to cannibalistic infamy. Detailed analysis of bone fragments discovered in a hearth at their Adler Creek campsite show that their desperation diet included cattle, deer, horse, and a family dog, represented by the bone cross-section above. But there’s no smoking gun—no human bones were identified.
(Photo Courtesy Gwen Robbins, Appalachian State University;)
FRANCE: It’s amazing what can survive in the ground under the right conditions. Researchers have just discovered intact neural structures in the naturally preserved brain of an 18-month-old child from the 13th century. The formation of adipocere, a kind of organic wax, preserved the brain; none of the child’s other soft tissues survived. More research is necessary, but the find may show how brains have changed in the last 700 years.
(Photo: Courtesy Heinz Sonderegger Institute of Anatomy, University of Zurich)
ENGLAND: It was widely thought that the only Africans in Roman Britain were low-status males, often slaves. But the so-called "Ivory Bangle Lady," discovered in 1901 and named for some of the jewelry that she was buried with in the fourth century, is changing that view. The wealth of her grave goods, which included a blue glass jug and bracelet, and the condition of her skeleton indicate she was of elite status. But new analyses of her skull features suggest, surprisingly, that she was of mixed-race ancestry.
(Image Courtesy Aaron Watson, Courtesy Hella Eckardt, University of Reading)
ITALY: Ancient Roman lead—perhaps not the sexiest of discoveries—is having a great year. Lead coffins have been found in Roman graves before, but none quite like the one recently unearthed by archaeologists at the city of Gabii, east of Rome. This expensive burial is less a coffin than an expertly folded, 1,100-pound lead burrito. Rather than tearing it open and risk damaging the contents, researchers are looking into novel imaging techniques, such as thermography and focused radiation, to get a peek inside.
Bringing Roman lead to the modern world, scientists at the National Institute of Nuclear Physics are using lead bricks found on a 2,000-year-old shipwreck off Sardinia as special shielding in a high-tech experiment involving neutrinos (neutrinoless double beta decay, for those scoring at home) to help understand the evolution of the universe. The ancient bricks have lost their share of the lightly radioactive isotope lead-210, which would interfere with the experiment.
(Image Courtesy The Gabii Project, Il Nuovo Saggiatore/Societa Italiana di Fisca Bologna)
ISRAEL: The “desert kites” of the Near East are made of long, low walls that meet in a circular enclosure. Dating back 4,000 to 6,000 years, they have been the subject of wacky theories (aliens and such), but researchers recently studied 16 in detail and confirm that they were used to corral herds of wild game into killing pits. They’re surprisingly sophisticated in placement and design—they were built adjacent to natural pastures, and the pits were sunken to give the animals the illusion of a gap in the wall.
(Image Courtesy Uzi Avner, Ben-Gurion University of the Nege)
CHINA: Next time you dig into a plate of traditional-style moo shu pork, remember this: Mitochondrial DNA studies show that China’s pigs are direct descendants of the region’s first domesticates, from around 10,000 years ago. The research project into China’s swine heritage may help explain animal husbandry practices across the centuries. Today, Chinese pigs dominate the global pork market.
(Image Courtesy Michael Herrera)
CHILE: Arsenic occurs naturally in the drinking water of the Camarones Valley—just as modern people there struggle with this tasteless, odorless poison, so did the area’s earliest inhabitants, the Chinchorro. Hair samples from 45 mummies dating from 600 to 7,000 years ago show that nearly all the individuals had enough arsenic in their systems to make them sick. Some mummies in low-arsenic areas still had high levels of the toxin in their hair, suggesting they may have migrated from one settlement to another.
(Image Courtesy Bernardo Arriaza, University Tarapaca de Ariza)
SOUTH AFRICA: We think of eggshells as fragile and ephemeral, but that’s not so for ostrich eggshells. Some early modern humans used them as water containers, and pieces of them, engraved with geometric designs, now show that these peoples were engaged in symbolic communication 60,000 years ago—a key development in the evolution of modern human behavior. Experts think the markings on 270 fragments found at the Diepkloof rock shelter might have identified them as property of particular communities.
(Photo Courtesy Pierre-Jean Texier, University of Bordeaux 1)
EGYPT: A smoothly polished, eight-foot-tall, red granite head depicting Amenhotep III (c. 1390–1352 B.C.) was discovered in the pharaoh’s funerary temple at Kom el-Hettan on Luxor’s West Bank. Unlike the famous Colossi of Memnon nearby, which also depict the 18th Dynasty pharaoh, this statue would have represented him standing, not sitting.
(Photo Courtesy drhawass.com)