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Thursday, December 20
by Jessica E. Saraceni

In eastern Germany, archaeologists from the University of Freiburg say they have uncovered the oldest-known wells in Europe. The four wells are approximately 7,000 years old, and had been lined with wood that had been shaped with stone tools. “In reconstructions, houses from this era have probably been underestimated,” said team leader Willy Tegel.

Traces of medieval buildings and a 2,000-year-old Roman settlement have been uncovered at a road construction site in southwest England. The settlement was probably inhabited by local elites who were conquered by the Romans in the first century A.D. “After the army moved north to conquer the rest of the population, the native elite were becoming more Romanized and assimilating into the Roman Empire and economy,” said Devon county archaeologist Bill Horner.

A 2,000-year-old hospital has been discovered in Sri Lanka’s ancient city of Anuradhapura, near the Thuparama Dagoba, which dates to the third century B.C. and is said to contain the right collarbone of the Buddha. The hospital consists of a spa and medical rooms. Grinding stones and knives have been found there, in addition to a latrine system carved from rock.

The remote caves of Carajàs contain some of the earliest evidence of human settlement in the Amazon, but they are threatened by plans to expand a mining operation that extracts iron ore for export. Archaeologists and speleologists are surveying the caves, since at least 24 of them will probably be destroyed. “This is a crucial moment to learn about the human history of the Amazon, and by extension the peopling of the Americas,” said Brazilian caver and historian Genival Crescêncio.

Researchers from the University of Utah have determined that the ability to make a clenched fist offers some protection to the bones of the human hand during a fight, and therefore may have been just as important as the ability to manipulate objects as a shaping force in the evolution of the human hand. “Ultimately, the evolutionary significance of the human hand may lie in its remarkable ability to serve two seemingly incompatible, but intrinsically human, functions,” they wrote in the Journal of Experimental Biology. Apes are not able to form a clenched fist.

Wednesday, December 19
by Jessica E. Saraceni

An analysis of fossilized tooth enamel from three Australopithecus bahrelghazali individuals suggests that they ate primarily tropical grasses and sedges. “No African great apes, including chimpanzees, eat this type of food despite the fact that it grows in abundance in tropical and subtropical regions,” said Julia Lee-Thorp of Oxford University. These very early human ancestors lived in central Africa 3.5 million years ago, so their diet may have diverged from that of great apes earlier than had been thought. Similar results would have been obtained if the hominins had been eating other animals that had eaten the plants, which grew in landscapes with few trees. The teeth are not sharp like carnivore teeth, however.

Meanwhile, at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, dental physical scientists are learning how tooth enamel is laid down as a person grows from a child into an adult. It had been thought that enamel forms in layers, much like tree rings, but tests of ancient teeth conducted with a new x-ray diffraction technique suggest that the process is much more complex. “The research is the first step towards a truly accurate four-dimensional model of enamel growth that will allow scientists to more accurately interpret the movements and feeding habits of ancient people,” said Maisoon Al-Jawad of Queen Mary’s University.

It had been assumed that stone pipes and other artifacts excavated from southern Ohio’s Tremper Mound in the early twentieth century were carved from local stone some 2,000 years ago. Yet a new investigation shows that most of the stone and perhaps even the finished objects themselves were imported from Illinois and Minnesota. The Hopewell people of southern Ohio are also known to have collected obsidian from Wyoming, mica from the Appalachians, shells from the Gulf Coast, and exotic animal skulls from distant regions. “Strange animals, strange minerals, strange things were really a focus,” said Thomas Emerson of the University of Illinois.

And, it had been thought that pottery styles in Troy changed after the Trojan War because the Trojans were forced out and replaced by different populations. But chemical analysis of pre- and post-war pottery from Troy indicates that the clay for all of the vessels came from the same local sources. “There is substantial evidence for cultural continuity,” said Peter Grave of the University of New England in Armidale, Australia. He adds that the change in style could reflect a desire to align with the new political elites in the region.

The ancient Maya used three different calendars to keep track of time: a 260-day sacred calendar used for scheduling religious ceremonies; a 365-day secular calendar; and the 144,000-day, or 400-year Long Count calendar. The end of the thirteenth cycle of this calendar will end tomorrow. “You’ll get up in the morning and go forward, and the Maya cycles will have clicked over another day,” explained Walter Witschey of Longwood University.


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