MEXICO: The Young Man of Chan Hol was interred in a cave in the Yucatán more than 10,000 years ago, and there he stayed, even as sea levels rose and the cave flooded. Three years ago, divers found his remains 1,800 feet in. After studying them in situ, archaeologists have methodically removed the bones, some of the oldest in North America, for conservation and additional study. Physical anthropologists hope they will provide insight into the peopling of the Americas.
SCOTLAND: Talk about Old World craftsmanship. This pocket watch was found in the 1990s on the wreck of the Swan, a ship that sank in 1653 during the English Civil War. It is covered with rock-like encrustations, but X-ray computed tomography—the same process used to peer into the famous Antikythera Mechanism—has now revealed a beautifully preserved interior. Steel parts corroded away, but the intact brass holds remarkable details, including a maker's mark. Nice work, "Niccholas Higginson of Westminster."
(Courtesy Trustees of the National Museums of Scotland)
ENGLAND: At Vindolanda, a Roman frontier town, archaeologists found a mystery from the third century A.D. In a shallow grave in the town's barracks were the remains of a girl just eight to 10 years old. In Roman times, burials were done outside settlements, so the find suggests someone committed a criminal act and then colluded with other men in the barracks—the Fourth Cohort of Gauls—to bury the evidence.
(Courtesy Vindolanda Trust)
ITALY: Once thought to be almost exclusively meat-eaters, Paleolithic people in Europe may have munched on flatbread as well. Grinding stones—from Italy, Russia, and the Czech Republic—are embedded with starch grains, suggesting that 30,000 years ago people processed roots from cattails and ferns into flour, a food option for lean hunting times. The find pushes the first use of flour back by 10,000 years and suggests that women played a role in food production at the time. Researchers report that simple bread made with cattail flour doesn't taste so bad.
(Courtesy Instituto Italiano di Preistoria e Protostoria)
SWITZERLAND: In dreams, a door is supposed to represent opportunity or a passage to a new phase in life. The one that archaeologists found under a new parking garage for Zürich's opera house represents clever design and a surprising level of preservation. The 5,000-year-old poplar door, in amazing condition for being one of the oldest in Europe, has a sophisticated joinery design—unusual and rarely found in woodwork from the period.
(Courtesy City of Zürich, Office of Urbanism)
PERU: Some of the tattoos on a 1,000-year-old female Chiribayan mummy might have been more than decoration. In addition to designs on her limbs, she had 12 overlapping rings tattooed on her nape. While most of the markings were made with straight carbon soot, the ones on the neck were done with partially burned plant matter. That and the fact that the neck designs are close to acupuncture points suggest they might have been applied to relieve muscle or nerve pain.
(Courtesy Brown University, Photo Courtesy Maria Anna Pabst, Medical University of Graz)
ISRAEL: Wedding reception. Thanksgiving. Natufian burial ceremony. Archaeologists found what they believe is the earliest clear evidence for feasting. A concentration of butchered tortoises and wild cattle at a mortuary site suggest that the Natufians 12,000 years ago celebrated the burial of the dead with large communal meals. The behavior marks a critical turning point in human culture, as the Natufians began the transition from the isolation and wariness of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to the interdependence and sedentism of an agricultural community.
(Courtesy Natalie Munro, University of Connecticut, Photo by Naftali Hilger)
PALAU: When humans hunt or harvest an animal, individuals of that species often get smaller. Think of a heavily fished lake—few fish survive to grow to full size. Human presence might have had the opposite effect on the humped conch, a small sea snail that has been eaten for thousands of years. As human population has grown, the average size of the conchs has—in defiance of conventional wisdom—crept upward. This might be caused by human activity and agriculture adding nutrients to the water.
(Courtesy Scott Fitzpatrick, North Carolina State University)
INDIA: Many studies have looked at bioturbation—how plants and animals alter archaeological sites—but rarely in ground saturated by monsoons. Researchers working on Paleolithic sites noticed that water buffalo leave deep, lasting footprints in mud. So they set up an experiment, creating and placing their own stone tools, wetting the ground, and leading buffalo across it. They found the hooves could push artifacts down by eight inches—thousands of years in the archaeological record in some places—and noted patterns that can help determine if other sites have been disturbed by lumbering bovines.
(Courtesy Metin Eren, Southern Methodist University; and Christina Neudorf, University of Wollongong)
PAPUA NEW GUINEA: Archaeologists have found the earliest high-altitude settlements of modern humans, 1.2 miles up in the chilly Ivane Valley. People used the five camps around 49,000 years ago, leaving behind stone tools and charred nutshells and bones. They may have lived there, as opposed to more temperate areas on the coast, to take advantage of abundant high-altitude food resources. But they would have needed some well-developed survival skills to thrive and avoid hypothermia.
(Courtesy Andrew Fairbairn, University of Queensland)