Lee Berger put his ad up on Facebook on October 7th, 2013. He needed diggers for an exciting expedition. They had to have experience in palaeontology or archaeology, and they had to be willing to drop everything and fly to South Africa within the month. “The catch is this—the person must be skinny and preferably small,” he wrote. “They must not be claustrophobic, they must be fit, they should have some caving experience, climbing experience would be a bonus.”
“I thought maybe there were three or four people in the world who would fit that criteria,” Berger recalls. “Within a few days, I had 60 applicants, all qualified. I picked six.” They were all women and all skinny—fortunately so, given what happened next. Berger, a palaeoanthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand, sent them into the Rising Star Cave, and asked them to squeeze themselves through a long vertical chute, which narrowed to a gap just 18 centimeters wide.
That gap was all that separated them from the bones of a new species of ancient human, or hominin, which the team named Homo naledi after a local word for “star.” We don’t know when it lived, or how it was related to us. But we do know that it was a creature with a baffling mosaic of features, some of which were remarkably similar to modern humans, and others of which were more ape-like in character.
This we know because the six women who entered the cave excavated one of the richest collections of hominin fossils ever discovered—some 1,550 fossil fragments, belonging to at least 15 individual skeletons. To find one complete skeleton of a new hominin would be hitting the paleoanthropological jackpot. To find 15, and perhaps more, is like nuking the jackpot from orbit.
RTFA. It is a delightful read. Science, adventure, perseverance.
Thermal images captured by an small drone allowed archaeologists to peer under the surface of the New Mexican desert floor, revealing never-before-seen structures in an ancient Native American settlement.
Called Blue J, this 1,000-year-old village was first identified by archaeologists in the 1970s. It sits about 43 miles south of the famed Chaco Canyon site in northwestern New Mexico and contains nearly 60 ancestral Puebloan houses around what was once a large spring.
Now, the ruins of Blue J are obscured by vegetation and buried in eroded sandstone blown in from nearby cliffs. The ancient structures have been only partially studied through excavations. Last June, a team of archaeologists flew a small camera-equipped drone over the site to find out what infrared images might reveal under the surface.
“I was really pleased with the results,” said Jesse Casana, an archaeologist from the University of Arkansas. “This work illustrates the very important role that UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) have for scientific research.”
Casana said his co-author, John Kantner of the University of North Florida, had previously excavated at the site and the drone images showed stone compounds Kantner had already identified and ones that he didn’t know about.
For example, the thermal images revealed a dark circle just inside the wall of a plaza area, which could represent wetter, cooler soil filling a kiva, or a huge, underground structure circular that would have been used for public gatherings and ceremonies. Finding a kiva at Blue J would be significant; the site has been considered unusual among its neighbors because it lacks the monumental great houses and subterranean kivas that are the hallmark of Chaco-era Pueblo sites…
The images also could guide archaeologists’ trowels before they ever break ground.
Modern imaging tech has been inspiring archaeologists for a spell. Data mining satellite photos has been used successfully working up a number of ancient sites around the world. Nice to see one more peaceful use derived from a technology much beloved of our government for spying on folks and occasionally killing them.
As usual, RTFA for a bit more detail.
The skeleton of the young adult male was found by a Durham University PhD student in a tomb in modern Sudan in 2013 and dates back to 1200BC.
Analysis has revealed evidence of metastatic carcinoma, cancer which has spread to other parts of the body from where it started, from a malignant soft-tissue tumour spread across large areas of the body, making it the oldest convincing complete example of metastatic cancer in the archaeological record.
The researchers from Durham University and the British Museum say the discovery will help to explore underlying causes of cancer in ancient populations and provide insights into the evolution of cancer in the past. Ancient DNA analysis of skeletons and mummies with evidence of cancer can be used to detect mutations in specific genes that are known to be associated with particular types of cancer.
Even though cancer is one of the world’s leading causes of death today, it remains almost absent from the archaeological record compared to other pathological conditions, giving rise to the conclusion that the disease is mainly a product of modern living and increased longevity. These findings suggest that cancer is not only a modern disease but was already present in the Nile Valley in ancient times.
Lead author, Michaela Binder, a PhD student in the Department of Archaeology at Durham University, excavated and examined the skeleton. She said: “Very little is known about the antiquity, epidemiology and evolution of cancer in past human populations apart from some textual references and a small number of skeletons with signs of cancer.
“Insights gained from archaeological human remains like these can really help us to understand the evolution and history of modern diseases.
“Our analysis showed that the shape of the small lesions on the bones can only have been caused by a soft tissue cancer even though the exact origin is impossible to determine through the bones alone…”
Previously, there has only been one convincing, and two tentative, examples of metastatic cancer predating the 1st millennium BC reported in human remains…
The skeleton was examined by experts at Durham University and the British Museum using radiography and a scanning electron microscope (SEM) which resulted in clear imaging of the lesions on the bones. It showed cancer metastases on the collar bones, shoulder blades, upper arms, vertebrae, ribs, pelvis and thigh bones.
The cause of the cancer can only be speculative but the researchers say it could be as a result of environmental carcinogens such as smoke from wood fires, through genetic factors, or from infectious diseases such as schistosomiasis which is caused by parasites.
They say that an underlying schistosomiasis infection seems a plausible explanation for the cancer in this individual as the disease had plagued inhabitants of Egypt and Nubia since at least 1500BC, and is now recognised as a cause of bladder cancer and breast cancer in men.
As our scientific knowledge progresses, I’m confident we’ll discover more and more ailments are as much the result of pollutants from our society as simply advancing age. There have been significant numbers of illnesses reduced if not removed from our life’s experience by an understanding of just how little of one or another chemical or residue can induce ill health.
I’ve witnessed enough of the silliness in the bad old days. Cripes, when I served my apprenticeship at the age of seventeen the factory I worked in still did little custom case-hardening jobs by dropping red-hot steel parts into cyanide powder!
Peruvian archaeologist Luis Jaime Castillo flies a drone over Cerro Chepén – Mariana Bazo/Reuters
In Peru, home to the spectacular Inca city of Machu Picchu and thousands of ancient ruins, archaeologists are turning to drones to speed up sluggish survey work and protect sites from squatters, builders and miners.
Remote-controlled aircraft were developed for military purposes and are a controversial tool in U.S. anti-terrorism campaigns, but the technology’s falling price means it is increasingly used for civilian and commercial projects around the world.
Small drones have been helping a growing number of researchers produce three-dimensional models of Peruvian sites instead of the usual flat maps – and in days and weeks instead of months and years.
Speed is an important ally to archaeologists here. Peru’s economy has grown at an average annual clip of 6.5 percent over the past decade, and development pressures have surpassed looting as the main threat to the country’s cultural treasures, according to the government.
Researchers are still picking up the pieces after a pyramid near Lima, believed to have been built some 5,000 years ago by a fire-revering coastal society, was razed in July by construction firms. That same month, residents of a town near the pre-Incan ruins of Yanamarca reported that informal miners were damaging the three-story stone structures as they dug for quartz…
Archaeologists say drones can help set boundaries to protect sites, watch over them and monitor threats, and create a digital repository of ruins that can help build awareness and aid in the reconstruction of any damage done.
“We see them as a vital tool for conservation,” said Ana Maria Hoyle, an archaeologist with the Culture Ministry…
Drones are already saving archaeologists time in mapping sites – a crucial but often slow first step before major excavation work can begin. Mapping typically involves tedious ground-level observations with theodolites or pen and paper…
In Peru, archaeologists say it is only a matter of time before drones replace decades-old tools still used in their field, and that the technology can and should be used for less destructive uses.
“So much of the technology we use every day comes from warfare,” said Hoyle. “It is natural this is happening.”
Today’s Luddites will continue to mess their knickers over this, of course. They get even more uptight when you point out they’re Luddites – without understanding the roots of the definition, no doubt.
Condemning a technology on its own because of how it’s used by some – and who is using it – is ridiculous. You may as well stop wearing shoes because Caeser’s legions wore them.
A garden doorstep at a home in Devon in the UK has been identified as a rare Sri Lankan artefact expected to fetch more than £30,000 at auction.
The auctioneer Bonhams says the carved granite step is a Sandakada Pahana – or moonstone – similar to those found in temples dating from Sri Lanka’s Anuradhapura period (c400BC-1000AD).
Sri Lanka’s director of archaeology says it is unclear if it is authentic…But if so, he believes the authorities should take steps to acquire it.
The stone was found in the garden of a bungalow in Devon. Its owner said that it was originally in a home in Sussex that her family had bought in 1950.
Bonhams says the house had been purchased from a tea planter who had lived in Sri Lanka…
The stone will be put up for auction in Bonhams’ Indian and Islamic sale in London on 23 April.
This is why everyone in America watches ANTIQUES ROADSHOW on PBS. Those exciting moments when you discover something you’ve played with since you were a child is worth more than your car.
A team working in South Africa claims to have found the earliest known sleeping mats, made of plant material and dated up to 77,000 years ago — 50,000 years earlier than previous evidence for human bedding. These early mattresses apparently were even specially prepared to be resistant to mosquitoes and other insects.
Early members of our species, Homo sapiens, were nomads who made their living by hunting and gathering. Yet they often created temporary base camps where they cooked food and spent the night. One of the best studied of these camps is Sibudu Cave, a rock shelter in a cliff face above South Africa’s Tongati River, about 40 kilometers north of Durban. Sibudu was first occupied by modern humans at least 77,000 years ago and continued to serve as a favored gathering place over the following 40,000 years. Since 1998, a team led by Lyn Wadley, an archaeologist at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, has been excavating at Sibudu, uncovering evidence for complex behaviors, including the earliest known use of bows and arrows.
Over the past several years, the team has found that many of the archaeological layers featured large, 1-centimeter thick swaths of plant remains, including the remnants of both stems and leaves. Most of them cover at least three square meters. The team suspected that these swaths were the remains of bedding, but the earliest previous evidence for sleeping mats is only between 20,000 and 30,000 years old, at sites in Spain, South Africa, and Israel, where similar but more fragmentary arrangements of plant remains have been found…
The team found that the swaths, which dated from 77,000 to 58,000 years ago, were made from sedges, rushes, and grasses, plants that grow down by the Tongati River but are not found in the dry rock shelter. Thus the people at Sibudu must have gathered them deliberately and brought them to the cave. Under the microscope, blocks of the plant material showed signs of compression and repeated trampling. In the earliest layer, 77,000 years old, the team found the leaves of Cryptocarya woodii, also known as Cape laurel, or the “bastard camphor tree,” an aromatic plant whose leaves are used in traditional medicines even today. The leaves contain several chemical compounds that can kill insects, and the team suggests that early humans chose them to protect against malaria-carrying mosquitoes and other pests…
Among the plant remains, Wadley’s team also found tiny fragments of chipped stone and crushed, burnt bone, which the researchers interpret as evidence that these were not only sleeping mats but also work surfaces where tools were fashioned and food was prepared. Thus while early modern humans were skilled at organizing their living spaces, some parts of the cave served double duty, Wadley says. “There were no rules for separate eating, working, or sleeping places,” she says. “Breakfast in bed may have been an almost daily occurrence.”
AAAS articles are almost always informative, useful, educational. Sometimes the effort to be entertaining can be pretty corny. :)
Among the various substances and structures they examined at microscopic level I wonder what remains of insects associated with humans may have been found? Like fossilized Cimex lectularius?
Why on Earth would you want to strap one of these to your wrist? It barely tells the time, and it can’t take pictures, tweet or connect to your Facebook. In fact, very few people would have the faintest idea what it is, or why you’d want one at all. But for those that do recognize its intricate gears and dials, this tiny, complex piece of machinery tells a vivid and incredible tale. It’s a story of gigantic scientific upheaval, of adventure and shipwreck on the high seas, of war and death. A story of amazing intellect, lost riches and impossible chance – a sunken treasure that Jaques Cousteau once described as “more valuable than the Mona Lisa” – and it’s connected with an ancient celebrity whose star shone so brightly that he’s still a household name more than 2200 years after his death… Read on!
Historians and scientists alike live for the great “Eureka” moments, where some newly discovered fact can turn our understanding on its head and lead to a richer picture of our world and our species. And there are few scientific or historic discoveries more significant than the one made by a Greek sponge diver in October 1900, on the Mediterranean sea bed…
Historians at the time largely ignored the device for one simple reason – the technology required to make such complex metallic gear systems simply didn’t exist back in 100 B.C. It appeared to have an epicyclic, or planetary gear system in it – and those hadn’t popped up anywhere else in history for another 1900 years or so. It was assumed that the machine had been misplaced, accidentally left with the wreckage, or wrongly cataloged, so it was shelved for another 49 years, until an English physicist called Derek Price decided to have a closer look in 1951.
With better technology and plenty of time at hand, Price soon realized that this was indeed an ancient device – in fact, there was some kind of instructive script carved into it, faded almost to obscurity, that put it right in the 100-300 B.C. period. This was a true Eureka moment – it put amazingly advanced technology in the hands of the Ancient Greeks.
In fact, it instantly became not only the world’s earliest known use of planetary gears, but the first known mechanism that used clockwork gears at all. Various civilizations earlier than the Ancient Greeks had used wooden peg-in-hole gear systems to transfer motion, but this was an order of magnitude more complex than anything before it, and indeed anything for a millennium and a half after it.
There began a painstaking scientific examination of every available fragment of this ancient machine – there were 82 pieces in total – over the course of the next 50 years. As technology improved, it was applied to the fragments of what had become known as the Antikythera mechanism.
RTFA. I’ve blogged about the antikythera mechanism before – especially when the first complete replication was completed. This is a fascinating tale of engineering history, coupled with early knowledge of the relative motion of heavenly bodies.
Bravo for Hublot deciding to replicate this in miniature.
Humans were hunting large mammals in North America about 800 years earlier than previously thought, new analysis of a controversial mastodon specimen – with what appears to be a spear tip in its rib – seems to confirm.
The find suggests humans were hunting mastodons using tools made from bone about a thousand years before the start of the “Clovis culture”, reputedly the first human culture in North America. Other evidence points to mammoth hunting using stone tools around this time, but the notion of pre-Clovis hunting has remained highly controversial.
The mastodon was found in 1977 by a farmer called Emanuel Manis. He contacted archaeologist Carl Gustafson, who excavated the skeleton and noticed a pointed object embedded in its rib. Gustafson took a fuzzy x-ray and interpreted the object as a projectile point made of bone or antler.
By dating organic matter around the fossil, he estimated that it was about 14,000 years old. Other archaeologists challenged Gustafson’s dates and his interpretation of the fragment as a man-made point.
Decades later Professor Michael Waters from Texas A&M University contacted him about re-examining the specimen using modern technology. His analysis was published on Thursday in the journal Science…
Waters analysed collagen protein from the mastodon’s rib and tusks to confirm that the animal died about 13,800 years ago, almost exactly as Gustafson predicted…
Two other sites in Wisconsin appear to show people were hunting woolly mammoths and using stone tools between 14,200 and 14,800 years ago. The Manis specimen suggests they also hunted mastodons and used bone tools.
Together, the three sites provide strong evidence for pre-Clovis hunting. “They’re incontrovertible,” said Waters. “Clearly, people were hunting mammoths and mastodons again and again, playing a part in their ultimate demise…”
Waters does not credit alternative hypotheses. “Ludicrous what-if stories are being made up to explain something people don’t want to believe,” he said. “We took the specimen to a bone pathologist, showed him the CT scans, and asked if there was any way it could be an internal injury. He said absolutely not…”
Archaeologists can be as inflexible as politicians. Facts transmute into ideology and even when the ideology is disproven by new facts, advancements in analyzing evidence, those who are committed to their original understanding find it difficult to move on.
Waters said it best – describing what-if stories made up to explain something people don’t want to believe.
A spectacular haul of stone tools discovered beneath a collapsed rock shelter in southern Arabia has forced a major rethink of the story of human migration out of Africa. The collection of hand axes and other tools shaped to cut, pierce and scrape bear the hallmarks of early human workmanship, but date from 125,000 years ago, around 55,000 years before our ancestors were thought to have left the continent.
The artefacts, uncovered in the United Arab Emirates, point to a much earlier dispersal of ancient humans, who probably cut across from the Horn of Africa to the Arabian peninsula via a shallow channel in the Red Sea that became passable at the end of an ice age. Once established, these early pioneers may have pushed on across the Persian Gulf, perhaps reaching as far as India, Indonesia and eventually Australia.
Michael Petraglia, an archaeologist at Oxford University who was not involved in the work, told the Science journal: “This is really quite spectacular. It breaks the back of the current consensus view.”
1. Pretty consistent with human spirit to have early adopters.
2. Perfectly consistent for scientists to be open to further examination of existing theories. It’s part of what peer review is about.
Anatomically modern humans – those that resemble people alive today – evolved in Africa about 200,000 years ago. Until now, most archaeological evidence has supported an exodus from Africa, or several waves of migration, along the Mediterranean coast or the Arabian shoreline between 80,000 and 60,000 years ago…
The stones, a form of silica-rich rock called chert, were dated by Simon Armitage, a researcher at Royal Holloway, University of London, using a technique that measured how long sand grains around the artefacts had been buried…
The discovery has sparked debate among archaeologists, some of whom say much stronger evidence is needed to back up the researchers’ claims. “I’m totally unpersuaded,” Paul Mellars, an archaeologist at Cambridge University, told Science. “There’s not a scrap of evidence here that these were made by modern humans, nor that they came from Africa.”
Chris Stringer, a palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum in London, said: “The region of Arabia has been terra incognita in trying to map the dispersal of modern humans from Africa during the last 120,000 years, leading to much theorising in the face of few data.
“Despite the confounding lack of diagnostic fossil evidence, this archaeological work provides important clues that early modern humans might have dispersed from Africa across Arabia, as far as the Straits of Hormuz, by 120,000 years ago.”
The debate will continue. More will be learned. It is the nature of good science.
RTFA and reflect upon the first bits of information coming from the research.
Archaeologists on Orkney are investigating what is thought to be a 5,000-year-old tomb complex.
A local man stumbled on the site while using a mechanical digger for landscaping.
It appears to contain a central passageway and multiple chambers excavated from rock…
“Potentially these skeletons could tell us so much about Neolithic people,” said Orkney Islands Council archaeologist Julie Gibson. “Not only in relation to their deaths, but their lives.”
One end of the tomb was accidentally removed as it was discovered and as a result, the burial site has now been flooded. Archaeologists are in a race against time to recover its contents before they are damaged or destroyed.
“There might also be other material, pottery or organics such as woven grass, buried in there – which cannot last under the circumstances,” said Ms Gibson.
“Call before you dig” only works for gas lines and phone cables.
The team are posting daily video updates from the excavations which are expected to take 10 days.