Using lasers to map archaeological sites

My day job involves laser technology, so this was a nice intersection of study and work. From the New York Times:

in the dry spring season a year ago, the husband-and-wife team of Arlen F. Chase and Diane Z. Chase tried a new approach using airborne laser signals that penetrate the jungle cover and are reflected from the ground below. They yielded 3-D images of the site of ancient Caracol, in Belize, one of the great cities of the Maya lowlands.
In only four days, a twin-engine aircraft equipped with an advanced version of lidar (light detection and ranging) flew back and forth over the jungle and collected data surpassing the results of two and a half decades of on-the-ground mapping, the archaeologists said. After three weeks of laboratory processing, the almost 10 hours of laser measurements showed topographic detail over an area of 80 square miles, notably settlement patterns of grand architecture and modest house mounds, roadways and agricultural terraces.
“We were blown away,” Dr. Diane Chase said recently, recalling their first examination of the images. “We believe that lidar will help transform Maya archaeology much in the same way that radiocarbon dating did in the 1950s and interpretations of Maya hieroglyphs did in the 1980s and ’90s.”

Read the full story


Pictish art may be a language

The ancestors of modern Scottish people left behind mysterious, carved stones that new research has just determined contain the written language of the Picts, an Iron Age society that existed in Scotland from 300 to 843.

The highly stylized rock engravings, found on what are known as the Pictish Stones, had once been thought to be rock art or tied to heraldry. The new study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A, instead concludes that the engravings represent the long lost language of the Picts, a confederation of Celtic tribes that lived in modern-day eastern and northern Scotland.

“We know that the Picts had a spoken language to complement the writing of the symbols, as Bede (a monk and historian who died in 735) writes that there are four languages in Britain in this time: British, Pictish, Scottish and English,” lead author Rob Lee told Discovery News.

Read the story on Discovery News
Scientific American‘s take on the story


60,000 year old Ostrich shell paintings

From Scienceblogger “Not Rocket Science” : The latest finds show that people were carvings symbolic patterns into ostrich eggs as early as 60,000 years ago. Pierre-Jean Texier from the University of Bordeaux discovered a set of 270 eggshell fragments from Howieson Poort Shelter, a South African cave that has been a rich source of archaeological finds. 
From Science News: The unusually large sample of 270 engraved eggshell fragments, mostly excavated over the past several years at Diepkloof Rock Shelter in South Africa, displays two standard design patterns. Each pattern enjoyed its own heyday between approximately 65,000 and 55,000 years ago, the investigators report in a paper to be published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

(Back to Rocket Science): Judging by their patterns, the fragments must have come from at least 25 separate eggs, although probably many more. Texier says that the sheer number is “exceptional in prehistory”. Their unprecedented diversity and etched patterns provide some of the best evidence yet for a prehistoric artistic tradition. While previous digs have thrown up piecemeal examples of symbolic art, Texier’s finds allow him to compare patterns across individual pieces, to get a feel of the entire movement, rather than the work of an individual.

 Back to Science News: Researchers already knew that the Howiesons Poort culture, which engraved the eggshells, engaged in other symbolic practices, such as engraving designs into pieces of pigment, that were considered to have been crucial advances in human behavioral evolution. But the Diepkloof finds represent the first archaeological sample large enough to demonstrate that Stone Age people created design traditions, at least in their engravings, Texier says.

(Continue reading full Science News story… )


I’m on a boat!

From Wired Science and Science News:

Human ancestors that left Africa hundreds of thousands of years ago to see the rest of the world were no landlubbers. Stone hand axes unearthed on the Mediterranean island of Crete indicate that an ancient Homo species — perhaps Homo erectus — had used rafts or other seagoing vessels to cross from northern Africa to Europe via at least some of the larger islands in between, says archaeologist Thomas Strasser of Providence College in Rhode Island.


Neanderthal Shell Art

From Scientific American:

Newly discovered painted scallops and cockleshells in Spain are the first hard evidence that Neandertals made jewelry. These findings suggest humanity’s closest extinct relatives might have been capable of symbolism, after all.

Body ornaments made of painted and pierced seashells dating back 70,000 to 120,000 years have been found in Africa and the Near East for years, and serve as evidence of symbolic thought among the earliest modern humans (Homo sapiens). The absence of similar finds in Europe at that time, when it was Neandertal territory, has supported the notion that they lacked symbolism, a potential sign of mental inferiority that might help explain why modern humans eventually replaced them.

Although hints of Neandertal art and jewelry have cropped up in recent years, such as pierced and grooved animal-tooth pendants or a decorated limestone slab on the grave of a child, these have often been shrugged off as artifacts mixed in from modern humans, imitation without understanding, or ambiguous in nature. Now archaeologist João Zilhão at the University of Bristol in England and his colleagues have found 50,000-year-old jewelry at two caves in southeastern Spain, art dating back 10,000 years before the fossil record reveals evidence of modern humans entering Europe.

Full article


Mayan king may have been a foreigner

From Science News:

A man’s skeleton found atop a stone slab at Copán, which was the capital of an ancient Maya state, contains clues to a colonial expansion that occurred more than 1,000 years before Spanish explorers reached the Americas.
The bones come from K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, or KYKM for short, the researchers report in an upcoming Journal of Anthropological Archaeology. KYKM was the first of 16 kings who ruled Copán and surrounding highlands of what is today northern Honduras for about 400 years, from 426 to 820, say archaeologist T. Douglas Price of the University of Wisconsin–Madison and his colleagues. KYKM’s bone chemistry indicates that he grew up in the central Maya lowlands, which are several hundred kilometers northwest of Copán.
Along with inscriptions at Copán, the new evidence suggests that the site’s first king was born into a ruling family at Caracol, a powerful lowland kingdom in Belize. KYKM probably spent his young adult years as a member of the royal court at Tikal, a Maya kingdom in the central lowlands of Guatemala, before being sent to Copán to found a new dynasty at the settlement there, Price’s team proposes.
“These findings reinforce the notion that the Copán state was founded as part of a colonial expansion,” says archaeologist and study coauthor Robert Sharer of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “They also demonstrate the widespread connections maintained by Maya kings.” This line of investigation aims to unravel how Classic era Maya city-states, which dominated parts of Mexico and Central America from about 200 to 900, originated and developed.
Hieroglyphics at Copán that were deciphered more than 20 years ago refer to KYKM as a foreigner who was inaugurated as king in 426 and arrived the next year. But it has been unclear whether the inscriptions referred to an actual historical event or were a form of royal propaganda. In 2007, archaeologist David Stuart of the University of Texas at Austin noticed that an inscription carved on a Copán stone monument referred to KYKM by a title indicating that he was originally a Caracol lord.
Archaeologists Arlen Chase and Diane Chase of the University of Central Florida in Orlando, who direct excavations at Caracol, consider it plausible that Copán’s first king was a Caracol lord but doubt that he arrived via Tikal. No signs of a political relationship between Caracol and Tikal appear at the time that KYKM took over at Copán, Arlen Chase notes.
Instead, KYKM probably came directly from Caracol, Arlen Chase says. By the year 150, Caracol hosted numerous royal activities and had extensive ties to settlements near Copán. “It would not be surprising for Copán to have coveted a Caracol individual to become their first ruler,” he says.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Early Copán Acropolis Program, U. of Penn. Museum and Instituto Hondureno de Antropologia e Historia

Read full story


Large Prehistoric fauna and you

Featured in the New York Times:

Whenever modern humans reached a new continent in the expansion from their African homeland 50,000 years ago, whether Australia, Europe or the Americas, all the large fauna quickly disappeared. [Editorial comment: Hmmm, not exactly true, but I’ll go with it for now]

This circumstantial evidence from the fossil record suggests that people’s first accomplishment upon reaching new territory was to hunt all its all large animals to death. But apologists for the human species have invoked all manner of alternative agents, like climate change and asteroid impacts [I am not one of these, for the record, but I don’t think we were that well coordinated or that large a community to hunt out all the big fauna in North America].

A careful analysis of lake deposits in New York and Wisconsin has brought new data to bear on this heated debate. A team led by Jacquelyn Gill, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, has uncovered a critical sequence of events that rules out some explanations for the extinction of the large animals and severely constrains others.

The first event documented by Ms. Gill and her colleagues is the pace of extinction in North America, known from other research to have affected all animal species over about 2,200 pounds and half of those weighing more than about 70 pounds, the weight of a large dog.

Ms. Gill found a clever proxy for these disappearances. A fungus known as Sporormiella has to pass through the digestive system to complete its life cycle, and its spores are found in animal dung. By measuring the number of spores in the lake deposits, the Wisconsin team documented the steady disappearance of large animals from 14,800 years to 13,700 years ago, they reported in Thursday’s issue of Science.

The next clue to emerge from the lake deposits was the pollen of new plants including broad-leaved trees like oak. This novel plant community seems to have emerged because it was released from being grazed by large mammals.

The third clue is a layer of fine charcoal grains, presumably from fires that followed the buildup of wood.

This sequence of events has direct bearing on the megafauna whodunit. First, it rules out as the cause an impact by an asteroid or comet that occurred 12,900 years ago — the animals were dead long before.

It also excludes the standard version of a more popular explanation, that of habitat loss due to climate change. The extinction of large animals occurred before the emergence of the new plant communities. Ms. Gill said that some other aspect of climate, like direct temperature change, could have been involved [so it WAS climate change, then?].

The third suspect to be cleared is the people of the Clovis culture [editorial comment: well, duh!!!!], which first appeared some 13,000 years ago, well after the extinction event. The Clovis people have long been considered the first inhabitants of North America, which they probably reached by trekking across the land bridge that joined Siberia and Alaska during the last Ice Age.

So, do the new data exculpate humans of the murder of the North American mammoth? Not exactly. Butchered mammoth bones some 14,500 years old have been found in Wisconsin. There were evidently pre-Clovis people in North America, and they could have hunted the large animals to death. [no, no, look at frequency, not presence/non-presence of scraping on bones. Humans are also scavengers and opportunistic meat eaters]

But Ms. Gill is not yet willing to declare people guilty. “At this stage it’s too early to completely eliminate climate change,” she said.

Nor is it clear that the pre-Clovis people had the technology to take down large game like mammoths. [you can take down mammoth by driving them off a cliff, but I’ll go with this for now]. Ms. Gill plans to analyze many more lake bottoms before rendering any final verdict.

Am I just being grumpy here, or does this article sort of miss the point, or try to keep the “mystery alive” just for a good story? Interesting research, however.


Mummies had clogged arteries

A recent study of mummies found a significant number of the elite mummies (which most were) had clogged arteries, calcification of vessels, and other symptoms of heart disease and obesity.

This has been found before, but this is the largest study so far.

The BBC article I read suggested it was caused by the supposed large amounts of fatty meats being eaten by the elite.

However, as I suspected he might, Rafe said “There’s currently a bit of discussion on GNXP (Gene Expression). Michael Eades, auther of Protein Power, has published in the past showing that the Egyptian elite were in fact obese quite regularly, and attributes it to a diet that was very high in grains combined with a sedentary lifestyle, not the high in meat diet proposed in the BBC article.”

Quoted from Science Daily: “UC Irvine clinical professor of cardiology Dr. Gregory Thomas, a co-principal investigator on the study, said, ‘The findings suggest that we may have to look beyond modern risk factors to fully understand the disease.'”


culture · technology

Multi-tasking in the stone-age

Stone blades found in Sibudu Cave, near South Africa’s Indian Ocean coast, bear traces of compound adhesives that once joined them to wooden hafts to make spears or arrows.

Why is this so cool? Because by systematically replicating the ancient glues, using only Stone Age techniques and ingredients, the researchers discovered that ocher improves the bonding capacity of such natural adhesives as acacia gum. They also learned that those ingredients are highly variable in chemical composition and thus in key characteristics, such as viscosity, that affect the strength of the bond.

To make an effective glue, say the researchers, ancient artisans would have had to adjust their recipes in real time to compensate for unpredictable ingredients, staying mindful of their goal while shifting their focus back and forth among the various steps in the process.

So maybe they were just mad scientists! Mwahahaha!


Latest news on female primates, of the human and non-human variety

The latest and the greatest about women primates!

1. hot climates tend to produce more girls

2. Márta Daróczi-Szabó, an archaeozoologist at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, recently lead an archaeological dig that found up to 10 dogs sacrificed and buried near house foundations, apparently as a way to ward off evil. Dogs protecting the home, in a somewhat odd way.

3. And finally, the slightly annoying practice of my mother-in-law constantly stealing food from her son’s plate actually had an evolutionary reasoning behind it: by stealing food, female orangutans test the patience and hospitality of males to see if they’d be good mates. So all those years of stealing actually trained my husband to be a good mate. Thanks Judy!