Friday, August 31, 2012

Siberian Mummy Has Detailed Tattoos

High in the Altai mountains of Siberia, not far from the border between Russia and Mongolia, researchers have found the mummified body of a young woman covered with tattoos that archeologists say look remarkably modern.

The woman, probably about 25 years old, was buried some 2,500 years ago and found in 1993. She most likely belonged to the Pazyryk tribe, nomads who inhabited the area for centuries. Kept cold in the permafrost, she was, say the scientists, well enough preserved that one can see intricate tattoos of animals and what appear to be deities.

“Compared to all tattoos found by archeologists around the world, those on the mummies of the Pazyryk people are the most complicated and the most beautiful,” said Natalia Polosmak, the lead researcher, in an interview with The Siberian Times. “It is a phenomenal level of tattoo art. Incredible.”

The young woman has come to be known as the Ukok princess. She was buried on a remote plateau with six horses, possibly her spiritual escorts to the next world, and two men, possibly warriors. The men had tattoos, as well. Polosmak said there are older examples of tattooing — Oetzi, the famous “iceman” from 3,300 B.C. in the Italian Alps, had some short, parallel lines on his legs and lower back — but there’s been no body decoration as elaborate as what the Ukok princess had.

On her left shoulder, said Polosmak, the young woman had a depiction of a fabulous mythic animal — a deer with a griffon’s beak and a Capricorn’s antlers. On her wrist was a deer with elaborate antlers. The same deer/griffon also appeared on the body of the man found closest to the princess, covering most of the right side of his body.

The Ukok woman has been kept frozen since she was discovered. A case is now being prepared so that she can be preserved while on public display.

The tattoos were probably made of dyes made from burned plants, rich in potassium. The skin was apparently pierced with a needle or another sharp object, and rubbed with a mixture of soot and fat.

Even though the Ukok princess lived some 500 years before Jesus, Polosmak said some things have not changed.

“I think we have not moved far from Pazyryks in how the tattoos are made,” she said. “It is still about a craving to make yourself as beautiful as possible.”

Potter, Ned. 2012. "Siberian Mummy Has Detailed Tattoos". ABC News. Posted: August 16, 2012. Available online:

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Stonehenge: Facts & Theories About Mysterious Monument

Stonehenge is an enigmatic prehistoric monument located on a chalky plain north of the modern day city of Salisbury, England. It was started 5,000 years ago and modified by ancient Britons over a period of 1,000 years. Its purpose continues to be a mystery. A gloomy summer day at Stonehenge in southern England. The biggest of its stones, known as sarsens, are up to 30 feet (9 meters) tall and weigh 25 tons (22.6 metric tons) on average. It is widely believed that they were brought from Marlborough Downs, a distance of 20 miles (32 kilometers) to the north. Smaller stones, referred to as “bluestones” (they have a bluish tinge when wet or freshly broken), weigh up to 4 tons and most of them appear to have come from the Preseli Hills in western Wales, a distance of 156 miles (250 km). It’s unknown how people in antiquity moved them that far; water transport was probably used for part of the journey. Recently, scientists have raised the possibility that during the last ice age glaciers carried these bluestones closer to the Stonehenge area and the monument’s makers didn’t have to move them all the way from Wales.

Before Stonehenge

Although construction of Stonehenge began about 5,000 years ago, the area appears to have been of symbolic importance for a much longer period of time.

As early as 10,500 years ago three large pine posts, which were totem poles of sorts, were erected at the site. Then around 5,500 years ago two earthworks known as Cursus monuments were erected, the longest of which ran for 1.8 miles (3 km). The purpose of these structures is unknown.

Construction of the monument

The building of Stonehenge started about 5,000 years ago with the creation of an earthwork enclosure. The presence of post holes suggests that either bluestones or upright timber posts were propped up on the site. In addition, archaeologists have found numerous cremation burials dating to this time and the centuries that followed. Recent research suggests that up to 240 people were buried in total, making Stonehenge the large Neolithic burial site in Britain.

Around 4,600 years ago construction ramped up with the erection of dozens of bluestones in a double circle at the site. This monument was not to last and by 4,400 years ago it had been replaced by something far grander.

The new structure had a series of sarsen stones erected in the shape of a horseshoe, with every pair of these huge stones having a stone lintel connecting them. In turn, a ring of sarsens surrounded this horseshoe, their tops connecting to each other, giving the appearance of a giant interconnected stone circle surrounding the horseshoe.

By 4,300 years ago this monument had been expanded to include the addition of two bluestone rings, one inside the horseshoe and another between the horseshoe and the outer layer of interconnected sarsen stones.

This would be the end of major construction at Stonehenge. As time went on the monument fell into neglect and disuse, some of its stones fell over while other were taken away. [In Photos: A Walk Through Stonehenge]

Significance to its makers

There are numerous theories as to why Stonehenge was built. At the time it was made, people in the area were herders and farmers. They left no written records behind.

An “avenue” connecting Stonehenge with the River Aven is aligned with the solstice. In addition, research at the nearby ancient settlement of Durrington Walls, a site that also contains a series of wooden pillars, shows that pigs at the site were slaughtered in December and January, suggesting that the winter solstice was marked at Stonehenge.

The burials at Stonehenge offer another clue. Recent research indicates that the burials took place from its beginning, around 5,000 years ago, to its high point when the sarsen stones were set down. Among the burial goods is a mace head, an item historically associated with elite members of society. This discovery raises the question whether the people buried at the monument were local leaders and Stonehenge, in some way, commemorated them.

A monument of unification

One new theory about Stonehenge, released recently by members of the Stonehenge Riverside Project, is that Stonehenge marks the “unification of Britain,” a point when people across the island worked together and used a similar style of houses, pottery and other items.

It would explain why they were able to bring bluestones all the way from west Wales and how the labor and resources for the construction were marshalled.

In a news release, professor Mike Parker Pearson of the University of Sheffield said that "this was very different to the regionalism of previous centuries. Stonehenge itself was a massive undertaking, requiring the labour of thousands to move stones from as far away as west Wales, shaping them and erecting them. Just the work itself, requiring everyone literally to pull together, would have been an act of unification."

Jarus, Owen. 2012. "Stonehenge: Facts & Theories About Mysterious Monument". Live Science. Posted: August 16, 2012. Available online:

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Stone Age skull-smashers spark a cultural mystery

AN UNUSUAL cluster of Stone Age skulls with smashed-in faces has been found carefully separated from the rest of their skeletons. They appear to have been dug up several years after being buried with their bodies, separated, then reburied.

Collections of detached skulls have been dug up at many Stone Age sites in Europe and the Near East - but the face-smashing is a new twist that adds further mystery to how these societies related to their dead.

Juan José Ibañez at the Spanish National Research Council in Barcelona says the find may suggest that Stone Age cultures believed dead young men were a threat to the world of the living.

No one knows why Neolithic societies buried clusters of skulls - often near or underneath settlements. Some think it was a sign of ancestral veneration. "When people started living together [during the Neolithic period], they needed a social cement," says Ibañez. Venerating ancestors might have been a way of doing this. But the violence demonstrated towards the skulls in the latest cluster suggests a different story.

The 10,000-year-old skulls were found in Syria. Like those found in other caches, they have been cleanly separated from their spines, suggesting they were collected from dead bodies that had already begun to decompose. Patterns on the bone indicate that some had been decomposing for longer than others, making it likely that they were all gathered together for a specific purpose.

Most of the skulls belonged to adult males between 18 and 30 years old. One - belonging to a child - was left intact; one was smashed to pieces; the remaining nine lacked facial bones. "There was a pattern," says Ibañez. "The top of the skull and the jaw were there, but they were missing all of the bones in between." His team believes the facial bones were smashed out with a stone and brute force. "There were no traces of cutting," he says (American Journal of Physical Anthropology, DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.22111).

Ibañez reckons Stone Age people believed they would receive some benefit - perhaps the strength of the young men the skulls once belonged to - by burying them near or beneath their settlements. Why the faces were smashed in invites speculation.

It may have been an act of spite or revenge, says Ibañez. Or the skulls may have been brought together to create a "community of the dead", perhaps in order to spiritually interact with the living.

"The post-mortem violence suggests young men were seen as carrying a particular threat," says Stuart Campbell at the University of Manchester, UK. Destroying their facial structures may have been a way of destroying the individuals' identities, he says.

Liv Nilsson Stutz at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, says the act could have helped deal with grief. "Taking away facial identity could be a way of separating the dead from the living," she says.

Hamzelou, Jessica. 2012. "Stone Age skull-smashers spark a cultural mystery ".New Scientist. Posted: August 16, 2012. Available online:

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Danes frequently confronted by religion

Ramadan dinners in the Danish Parliament, staff parties without either pork or alcohol and prayer rooms at the airport are all examples of how religion is becoming more visible in public spaces.

"Prior to the mass migration of the '60s, '70s and '80s, almost all Danes shared similar values and were members of the national Christian church, so religion was not an issue in everyday life. There was no need to discuss neither one's own nor another person's religious viewpoint, and secularisation was a matter of course. Today, it is difficult to be in a public place, read the newspaper, or go to school or work without encountering religious expressions and symbols," says Niels Valdemar Vinding, a PhD student from the Centre for European Islamic Thought at University of Copenhagen and co-author of a recently published report from the European research project RELIGARE that examines religious diversity and secular models in Europe.

Secularism under pressure

"Everywhere in Europe it is clear that the concept of secularism, where religion remains a private matter, is under pressure. Everything suggests that in the future religious organisations will have more influence on schools, workplaces and the media. This means that both private and public institutions will be dealing with religion more often," explains Vinding.

The report is one of six national reports examining the nexus between secularism and religion in a specific European country. The reports are based on interviews with a variety of religious, secular and political leaders. The reports are key contributions to the research project RELIGARE, which brings together university researchers from ten different European countries.

A contradictory relationship

The picture the report portrays of the typical Dane's reaction to the tension between secularism and religion is a bit blurry. On the one hand, Danes cherish diversity, support the idea of having room for all and believe in giving each individual the freedom to follow their own faith and convictions. On the other hand, many would like a high degree of legal regulation when it comes to those forms of religion and religious expression that seem strange or different. An example of such regulation was seen in the amendment of the Judicial Code of 2009, which forbade judges and lay judges from wearing headscarves in courtrooms.

"It is not a case of two opposite sides of opinion, it is rather a an overlap of opinions," says Vinding. "People support personal freedom and religiosity, but not at any price. Some Danes can be perfectly comfortable with a morning hymn being sung in school, and at the same time have a problem with halal meat being served in institutional meals without seeing a clear picture of the contradiction or sense of injustice."

EurekAlert. 2012. "Danes frequently confronted by religion". EurekAlert. Posted: August 16, 2012. Available online:

Monday, August 27, 2012

Science on the Silk Road: Taste for adventure

It wasn't quite the lowest point of the expedition. But Paolo Gasparini was decidedly uncomfortable at a banquet in the small town of Alga, Kazakhstan, when he was given the honour of dividing a boiled sheep's head among the gathering. He could sense the silent alarm of his young colleagues, fearing that soon they would be politely chewing on an eye or an ear. Fighting nausea, Gasparini, a medical geneticist at the University of Trieste, Italy, sympathetically sliced each of them just a taste of skin, passing the traditionally valued sense organs to the village elders.

The sheep's-head ritual did, however, neatly reflect the mission of the trip. The Italian scientists were gathering DNA samples from members of the many different ethnic groups that live along the Silk Road — a 2,000-year-old trading route between China and Europe — to map the genetic roots of food preference and of the senses that contribute to it. The team set out from Trieste in July 2010 and collected its final samples this June in northern Kyrgyzstan. It had amassed about 1,100 DNA samples and thousands of sensory-test results from a dozen or so distinct populations, ranging from Caucasian to Turkish and Mongolian.

Full flavour

Over the past two decades, researchers have identified receptors on the tongue for sweet, umami ('savoury'), bitter, sour and salty. They have realized that the sensation of flavour is created when signals from these receptors are integrated in the brain with food-related signals from the hundreds of odorant receptors in the nose and nasal passages. But understanding why people prefer certain foods is still a major scientific puzzle.

Subtle variations in the genes that encode the taste and smell receptors are likely to have a big influence. But many genes involved in touch, hearing and sight — those that respond to the creamy feel of fatty food, the sound of crunching nuts, the sight of a crimson tomato — also have a role. Travelling the Silk Road gave Gasparini and his team a unique opportunity to identify genetic influences on food preference by studying isolated populations, in which such variants are relatively easy to find. “The expedition approaches an almost unexplored dimension of what makes people different,” says Yurii Aulchenko, a statistical geneticist from the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Novosibirsk.

Researchers in evolutionary and population genetics are watching with interest, as is the food industry. Humans evolved in environments where food was scarce and poisonous plants a constant threat. As a result, calorie-dense fatty foods can be hard to resist, whereas the bitter tastes that are common in toxic plants can make some nutritious foods, such as broccoli, unpalatable. In the modern, food-rich world, that genetic legacy helps to push people towards diets that contribute to obesity and ill-health. Understanding the roots of food preferences might one day help to change people's behaviour. “Eventually, industry might be able to develop foods that are enjoyable without being bad for you,” says Jim Kaput, head of clinical translational research at the Nestlé Institute of Health Sciences in Lausanne, Switzerland, which collaborates with the Nestlé Research Center in Lausanne on studies linking genomics and food preferences. “But right now we understand almost nothing — we need a lot more basic research,” says Kaput.

Genetic gastronomy

The Silk Road expedition — officially called Marco Polo, after the Venetian explorer who travelled the route in the thirteenth century — was born five years ago, when Gasparini met Enrico Balli, director of the Medialab of the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste. The two hit it off immediately. Balli, a straight-talking physicist turned science-communicator, was itching to film exotic locations. Gasparini, tall and genial, had spent most of his scientific life studying the genetics of isolated communities in dead-end valleys of the Italian Alps. He had become interested in the genetics of food preferences, was consulting with food companies, and had been dreaming vaguely of accessing remote, isolated populations in more grandiose mountain chains in Asia or South America, where scientists have rarely ventured.

Such populations were often founded by just a few people who went on to marry within the group, so their descendants tend to be genetically homogeneous. This makes it easier to work out if a gene variant is associated with a particular characteristic, such as a taste preference, than it is in a large, genetically diverse group. Comparing different isolated populations can be even more valuable. If a variant is associated with the same trait in genetically different groups, that may be a sign that it is important across almost all populations.

The Silk Road offers a potential paradise for such genetic exploration. The route traverses massive mountain ranges such as the Pamir and the Tian Shan in central Asia and passes through pockets of the nomadic tribes who originally populated the region, as well as ethnically diverse groups descended from traders who settled en route, often near the roadside inns called caravanserais. These populations did not tend to share their genes, but they did share recipes. Cuisines are remarkably similar along much of the Silk Road — variations on tandoor breads, noodles with vegetable or mutton sauces, and dried or fresh fruit. This means that differences in food preferences between groups are likely to be down to variations in genes rather than in dietary cultures, making them even more appealing to the geneticists.

But before Gasparini and Balli could study these groups, they had to reach them. They originally conceived the expedition as a do-it-yourself venture, in which they would simply drive themselves from country to country. Fortunately, they consulted Lilia Smelkova — co-founder of Terra Madre, a network of farmers in developing countries established by the non-profit campaign group Slow Food, which is based near Turin, Italy. Smelkova is an expert in the former Soviet republics that Gasparini and Balli planned to visit. “I thought they were quite crazy,” she says, knowing the civil-war-torn, multilingual, sometimes despotic territories that the scientists planned to traverse and the closed communities that they wanted to study. “But I loved their ideas, so I agreed to help — by joining them.” Smelkova used her contacts to help the researchers to win the confidence, and the cooperation, of villages on the route.

Taste test

The team, consisting of ten or so people, split the expedition across three summers (see 'Silk-Road science'). The first year, they set off for Georgia armed with just a few clothes and some compact equipment, and fell into a gruelling schedule. Each day, they drove — often for many hours — to a community that was to be sampled and tested. A local Terra Madre helper explained the tests, and volunteers were asked to donate DNA by spitting into plastic tubes. Then the scientists tested volunteers' abilities to hear different sound frequencies, to taste salty or bitter compounds soaked into scraps of filter paper, to distinguish different shades of colour and to identify 12 different smells impregnated in marker-pen-like sticks. The team also showed the volunteers pictures of 80 different food types and asked them to indicate how much they liked or disliked each one. At night, the scientists would feed the results into their computers before collapsing into bed. The expedition's success depended entirely on getting sample tubes containing saliva back to Italy, but this proved nerve-rackingly difficult. When they arrived home after the first leg in September 2010, the researchers found that Uzbek customs had stopped a precious shipment of 350 tubes gathered in Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Despite exhaustion, Balli says, “I flew back to Tashkent, and brought them straight back in a suitcase.”

Systematic analyses of the Silk Road data will keep the scientists busy for years. The team is carrying out a detailed analysis of small variants known as single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in all the DNA samples, and will fully sequence up to 50 samples.

The scientists have already identified eight variants in known genes, including one for an ion channel involved in sensing spicy-hotness, which are associated with a taste for particular foods. And they have found that variants of the gene for the TAS1R2 protein, part of a sweetness receptor, are associated with a strong liking for vodka and white wine (N. Pirastu et al. J. Food Sci.; in the press). The results fit with reports linking preferences for alcohol and sweetness in mice (S. M. Brasser et al. Physiol. Genomics 41, 232–243; 2010), and hint that both substances are perceived by the same receptor.

There may be bigger scientific stories hiding in the data. Gasparini says that the team is seeing an emerging association in Tajikistani populations between an olfactory receptor gene and both sensitivity to bitter tastes and a tendency to mistake smells. If the finding holds up, it will be the first demonstrated genetic link between smell and taste perception, and it could help to explain how signals from different senses combine to sculpt individual food preferences. The finding may also offer clues to how evolution might have shaped the senses. “Who knows?” Gasparini muses. “Might evolution have compensated those who can't distinguish smells efficiently by selecting genes that make them more sensitive to bitter tastes, so they have a better chance of recognizing poisons?”

Diet and diversity

The genetic data will serve another purpose by filling a gap in the international 1000 Genomes Project, which is cataloguing genetic variants in different populations across the globe, but until now had no representatives from central Asia. Population geneticists curious about how different peoples evolved will find their own stories in the Silk Road DNA, says Aulchenko. “We know a lot about the big migrations — out of Africa, for example — but we don't know how trade shaped genetic variation.”

The data were hard won. At the trip's lowest point, on the drive through Tajikistan from Qal'aikhum to Khorugh in the Pamir Mountains, a road closure forced the jeep convoy to detour for 16 tense, sweltering hours along the Panj River, which forms part of the border with Afghanistan. The few metres between the road and the river were laid with landmines.

Still, Gasparini and Balli have caught the fieldwork bug, and are planning another expedition for next year. At the end of the nineteenth century, members of a small, isolated Italian population near Trieste emigrated in droves to South America — where they settled in different valleys in the Andes. Gasparini wants to compare these people's taste preferences and the acuity of their senses with those of their relatives in Italy. Unlike the Silk Road populations, the groups have the same genetic backgrounds but very different diets. Gasparini hopes that this will create a natural laboratory for exploring the interaction of diet and other environmental factors with interesting gene variants identified in the Silk Road samples.

Any discomforts of expedition science are overwhelmingly compensated for by the gains, says Gasparini. And if nothing else, the Marco Polo expedition taught him that boiled sheep's head is not his dish of choice.


Abbott, Alison. 2012. "Science on the Silk Road: Taste for adventure". Nature. Posted: August 18, 2012. Available online:

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Archaeologists Begin Underwater Investigations in Iran

The port town of Siraf is located in the northwestern part of Bushehr Province in southern Iran and has a long rich history. Now, a joint team led by Iranian archaeologist Hossein Tofiqian and US-based Iranian expert Sorna Khakzad, have begun work on the partly submerged port.

Searching beneath the waves

At one time, the port had been one of the major centres for marketing pearls and silk in the region, but has gradually submerged over the centuries. The team is currently working to identify any trace of the port structures before deciding on a full excavation strategy. The American members of the team have brought all the specialist equipment necessary for underwater excavations.

Three or four main periods of archaeological activity have previously been identified at the site. The earliest layer dating back to the Parthian period (247 BCE – 224 CE), as well as a major level of activity relating to the Sassanid (224 CE– 651 CE) and early Islamic periods, almost all of which now lie beneath the waves. According to some historians, the city of Siraf had a population of about 300,000 during the early Islamic period and was one of the largest in the region, however, today, just 7000 people live there.

Previous work

According to David Whitehouse, one of the first archaeologists to excavate the ancient ruins of Siraf, marine trade between the Persian Gulf and Far East began to flourish at this port due to the vast expansion of trade in consumer goods and luxury items at the time. The first contact between Siraf and China occurred in 185 AD and by the 4th century it was a busy port. However, over time trade routes shifted to the Red Sea and Siraf was forgotten. Discovered there in past archaeological excavations are ivory objects from east Africa, stone from India, and lapis from Afghanistan. There are also the ruins of the luxurious houses of extremely rich traders who made their wealth through the port’s success.

In 2006, the remains of a shipwreck were found near the port of Siraf. Initial studies revealed that it was a merchant ship belonging to either the Parthian or Sassanid periods. It was discovered at a depth of 70 metres with more than 40 ceramic amphora-like jars – but with no handles – scattered along the seabed.

The British Museum also had a major research project on the site from 2007-2009 resulting in all of the finds and samples being registered and entered on the Museum’s central database. These records form the basis of further research and analysis of the collection and serve as a primary record of the objects themselves. Specification, descriptions and images of the finds from Siraf can now be accessed by searching the Collection database online.

A central objective of the project was to use the study of the finds to characterise and illustrate the full range of materials typically represented at a major Early Islamic (about seventh to eleventh century) port in the Indian Ocean. Particular attention has been given to the ceramics, which account for approximately half of the collection. Early Islamic pottery manufactured within the Persian Gulf region has been recovered from coastal sites distributed throughout the Indian Ocean from the southern tip of Japan to South Africa. By improving our understanding of pottery from a single influential port, it is possible to appreciate interactions that took place over a far broader geographic area.

Past Horizons. 2012. "Archaeologists Begin Underwater Investigations in Iran". Past Horizons. Posted: July 27, 2012. Available online:

Saturday, August 25, 2012

National Museum of Afghanistan welcomes return of looted treasures

The National Museum of Afghanistan has seen the return of 843 heritage objects including items recovered in 3 separate seizures of smuggled artefacts by the UK Border Force and another group from other investigations by the Art and Antiques Unit of the Metropolitan Police.

A precious cargo

The precious cargo, weighing just over two tonnes, left RAF Brize Norton, in Oxfordshire on the 12 July 2012 after the British Museum and the Royal Air Force worked together to make the historic repatriation possible.

Travelling onboard a C17 transport aircraft, the material was first transported to Camp Bastion, the main military base in Helmand. After a short stop, it took off again on the second leg of the journey, on a C130 Hercules aircraft, to Kabul.

These objects were identified as originating in Afghanistan by the British Museum and were stored there for safekeeping and recording until their return to Kabul.

Additional objects were saved by private individuals which included exquisite examples of the Begram Ivories, which were featured in the exhibition Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World in 2011 and an important sculpture of Buddha. Both these priceless treasures were stolen from the National Museum of Afghanistan during the civil war (1992-1994) and found their way onto the black market.

Exquisite art

The Begram Ivories date to the first century AD and originally decorated Indian wooden furniture excavated in hidden store-rooms at the ancient city of Begram. Those in the consignment had been feared lost since the civil war until they were identified on the black market and acquired on behalf of the Kabul museum by an anonymous private donor in 2010. They were conserved at the British Museum through additional support from the exhibition sponsor Bank of America Merrill Lynch as part of its Art Conservation Project, and temporarily exhibited as part of the exhibition in 2011.

The Buddha dates to the second or third century AD and was found in 1965 at Sarai Khuja, north of Kabul, and was exhibited in the museum there until the civil war during which period it disappeared abroad into private hands. It was again identified and acquired on behalf of the National Museum of Afghanistan and is offered by the donor in memory of the late Carla Grissman (1928-2011), who did much to work with the Afghan museum staff and who was one of the founding members of SPACH (Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage).

5000 years of cultural heritage

The additional objects date from the late third millennium BC onwards and include Bactrian Bronze Age cosmetic flasks, stamp seals and statuettes of types known to have been buried as grave-goods; three decorated stone compartmented bowls of a type previously only known from excavations at the Greek city of Ai Khanum in northern Afghanistan; Greco-Bactrian, Kushan and medieval Islamic coins; Islamic metal and pottery vessels, and assorted other minor items of mixed date and materials. These items therefore cover almost all the great periods of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage. The items were seized by UK Border Force and the Art and Antiques Unit of the Metropolitan Police as they passed through Britain, presumably for sale on the black market.

The opportunity has also been taken to send the National Museum a large number of copies of the exhibition catalogue including copies specially translated into Dari and Pashto.

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum said “I am delighted that these important artefacts have been safely returned to the National Museum in Kabul. This is the outcome of the ongoing dialogue between our cultural institutions as well as the support of the authorities to identify and preserve items from the national collection of Afghanistan that had been illegally removed during years of conflict.”

Returning a countries legacy

In 2011 the British Museum signed a three-year Memorandum of Understanding with the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul and both parties agreed to continue collaborative efforts to identify and return objects to Kabul which had either been stolen from the National Museum during the civil war or otherwise illegally exported from Afghanistan. In 2009 UK Border Force in conjunction with the British Museum and the International Red Cross returned 1490 seized objects, thus bringing the total number of objects returned to over 2,330.

Past Horizons. 2012. "National Museum of Afghanistan welcomes return of looted treasures". Past Horizons. Posted: August 5, 2012. Available online:

Friday, August 24, 2012

Mass grave in London reveals how volcano caused global catastrophe

When archaeologists discovered thousands of medieval skeletons in a mass burial pit in east London in the 1990s, they assumed they were 14th-century victims of the Black Death or the Great Famine of 1315-17. Now they have been astonished by a more explosive explanation – a cataclysmic volcano that had erupted a century earlier, thousands of miles away in the tropics, and wrought havoc on medieval Britons.

Scientific evidence – including radiocarbon dating of the bones and geological data from across the globe – shows for the first time that mass fatalities in the 13th century were caused by one of the largest volcanic eruptions of the past 10,000 years.

Such was the size of the eruption that its sulphurous gases would have released a stratospheric aerosol veil or dry fog that blocked out sunlight, altered atmospheric circulation patterns and cooled the Earth's surface. It caused crops to wither, bringing famine, pestilence and death.

The Icelandic volcano of 2010, which spewed out ash which disrupted flights for a few days, was miniscule in comparison.

Mass deaths required capacious burial pits, as recorded in contemporary accounts. In 1258, a monk reported: "The north wind prevailed for several months… scarcely a small rare flower or shooting germ appeared, whence the hope of harvest was uncertain... Innumerable multitudes of poor people died, and their bodies were found lying all about swollen from want… Nor did those who had homes dare to harbour the sick and dying, for fear of infection… The pestilence was immense – insufferable; it attacked the poor particularly. In London alone 15,000 of the poor perished; in England and elsewhere thousands died."

There does not seem to have been any explanation at the time; it was probably assumed to be a punishment from God. London's population at the time was around 50,000, so the loss of 15,000 would have radically changed the city.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the volcano's exact location has yet to be established. Mexico, Ecuador and Indonesia are the most likely areas, according to volcanologists, who found evidence in ice cores from the northern hemisphere and Antarctic and within a thick layer of ash from Lake Malawi sediments. The ice core sulphate concentration shows that it was up to eight times higher than Indonesia's Krakatoa eruption of 1883, one of the most catastrophic in history.

Some 10,500 medieval skeletons were found at Spitalfields market, the site of the Augustinian priory and hospital of St Mary Spital, and the remains suggest there may have been as many as 18,000. The excavation between 1991 and 2007 by the Museum of London Archaeology (Mola) was the largest ever archaeological investigation in the capital. It was a member of that team, osteologist Don Walker, who discovered the link with a volcano. The findings will be revealed in Mola's report, to be published on Monday.

"That was a eureka moment," he told the Observer. "These people living in medieval London would have had no idea that this global event – one of the largest volcanic eruptions of the Holocene, which is the last 10,000 years, and certainly the largest of the last millennium – was causing the problems."

He now believes that mass burials in medieval pits across Britain and Europe might also have been caused by the same disaster.

When the skeletons were found, he said: "People immediately thought Black Death, or battle graves, but there wasn't enough evidence of injuries." Radiocarbon dating revealed dates around 1250. "So we thought 'what could it be'?"

Delving into documentary evidence he found references in 1257-58 to "heavy rains" and "a failure of the crops; …a famine ensued… many thousand persons perished". Specific diseases of malnutrition – scurvy and rickets – were also found among some skeletons, although malnutrition would not have been the sole cause of death during famine. Many would have suffered hunger-induced diseases, such as dysentery, and diseases which are more a product of social disruption caused by famine, such as typhoid fever.

In exploring the cause of such devastation, he discovered that volcanologists had been trying to locate the site of this massive volcano. He said: "What is new is linking the cause of the deaths of so many thousands to this volcano. No-one has linked it to archaeological evidence – and specifically to these mass burial pits. Documentary evidence is not necessarily reliable, whereas now we've got physical evidence."

Volcanologist Bill McGuire, author of Waking the Giant, on how climate triggers earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes, said: "Volcanoes have a very long reach because they can impact climate…They don't just affect people nearby." He cited an Icelandic eruption in 1783 which produced a sulphurous cloud that hung over Europe for nearly a year, affecting air quality and causing thousands of deaths.

The 13th-century eruption was far bigger, he said. "This was the biggest eruption in historic times. It may have brought the temperatures down by 4°c, a huge amount. Because it was somewhere in the tropics it meant that the winds of both hemispheres were able to carry these gases right across the planet. If you have a volcanic eruption at high latitudes, then the gases will stay in the northern hemisphere. But if you have an equatorial or tropical eruption that's big enough, then the sulphur gases can spread into both hemispheres and really encircle the whole planet in a sulphurous veil."

McGuire is Professor of Geophysical and Climate Hazards at University College London. Asked whether another such volcanic eruption is due, he said: "It's been pretty quiet for a while. I'm looking forward to something big." Only a volcanologist would take that view.

Alberge, Dalya. 2012. "Mass grave in London reveals how volcano caused global catastrophe". The Guardian. Posted: August 5, 2012. Available online:

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Bilingualism 'can increase mental agility'

Bilingual children outperform children who speak only one language in problem-solving skills and creative thinking, according to research led at the University of Strathclyde.

A study of primary school pupils who spoke English or Italian- half of whom also spoke Gaelic or Sardinian- found that the bilingual children were significantly more successful in the tasks set for them. The Gaelic-speaking children were, in turn, more successful than the Sardinian speakers.

The differences were linked to the mental alertness required to switch between languages, which could develop skills useful in other types of thinking. The further advantage for Gaelic-speaking children may have been due to the formal teaching of the language and its extensive literature.

In contrast, Sardinian is not widely taught in schools on the Italian island and has a largely oral tradition, which means there is currently no standardised form of the language.

Dr Fraser Lauchlan, an Honorary Lecturer at the University of Strathclyde's School of Psychological Sciences & Health, led the research. It was conducted with colleagues at the University of Cagliari in Sardinia, where he is a Visiting Professor.

Dr Lauchlan said: "Bilingualism is now largely seen as being beneficial to children but there remains a view that it can be confusing, and so potentially detrimental to them.

"Our study has found that it can have demonstrable benefits, not only in language but in arithmetic, problem solving and enabling children to think creatively. We also assessed the children's vocabulary, not so much for their knowledge of words as their understanding of them. Again, there was a marked difference in the level of detail and richness in description from the bilingual pupils.

"We also found they had an aptitude for selective attention- the ability to identify and focus on information which is important, while filtering out what is not- which could come from the 'code-switching' of thinking in two different languages."

In the study, a total of 121 children in Scotland and Sardinia- 62 of them bilingual- were set tasks in which they were asked to reproduce patterns of coloured blocks, to repeat orally a series of numbers, to give clear definitions of words and to resolve mentally a set of arithmetic problems. The tasks were all set in English or Italian and the children taking part were aged around nine.

During the research, Dr Lauchlan's post at the University of Cagliari was funded by the Sardinian Regional Government (Regione Autonoma della Sardegna).

EurekAlert. 2012. "Bilingualism 'can increase mental agility'". EurekAlert. Posted: August 3, 2012. Available online:

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Samson Legend Gains Substance with New Find

A small stone seal found in Israel could be the first archaeological evidence of the story of Samson, the Bible's most famous strongman.

Less than an inch in diameter, the seal depicts a man with long hair fighting a large animal with a feline tail.

The seal was excavated at the Tell Beit Shemesh site in the Judaean Hills near Jerusalem at a level that dates to roughly the 11th century BC.

Biblically speaking, this was during the time when the Jews were led by leaders known as Judges, one of whom was Samson.

The location where the stone seal was unearthed, close to the Sorek river that marked the ancient border between Israelite and Philistine territories, suggests the figure could represent the Biblical slayer of Philistines.

A character that jumped from the Old Testament into legend, Samson was given supernatural strength by God to overcome his enemies.

The strength, which Samson discovered after encountering a lion and ripping it apart with his bare hands, was contained in his long hair.

Samson, who killed 1,000 Philistines single-handedly with a donkey jawbone and then gloated over his triumph, was seduced by Delilah, a Philistine woman who lived in the valley of Sorek. She cut his long hair, depriving him of his strength and resulting in his imprisonment by the Philistines, who blinded him and put him to work grinding grain at Gaza.

Samson regained his strength one final time, when he brought the temple of Dagon down upon himself with the Philistines, killing "many more as he died than while he lived," according to the Book of Judges.

Despite the circumstancial evidence, excavation directors Shlomo Bunimovitz and Zvi Lederman of Tel Aviv University do not actually claim that the figure on the seal is the Biblical Samson. Rather, the seal probably indicates that a story was being told at the time of a hero who fought a lion.

"Eventually it found its way into the biblical text and onto the seal," the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.

The archaeologists also found a large number of pig bones near the river Sorek on the Philistines territory, while they unearthed nearly none on the Israeli land.

This would suggest the locals chose not to eat pork to characterize themselves from the Philistines.

“These details add a legendary air to the social process in which the two hostile groups honed their separate identities, the way it happens along many borders today," Bunimovitz told Haaretz.

Lorenzi, Rossella. 2012. "Samson Legend Gains Substance with New Find". Discovery News. Posted: August 3, 2012. Available online:

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Ancestral Remedies to the Rescue

Ethnobotanists are fond of the joke that pills don’t grow on trees. The punch line, of course, is that they actually do. Countless pharmaceutical products originate from trees or other plant species, many of which are probably still waiting to be discovered. This week around 1,300 natural products researchers and practitioners gathered in New York to discuss the latest findings in their field, including the ways in which nature, culture and conservation overlap to provide health benefits to millions and how those links can best be preserved.

“The goal is not only to identify plants but to guard and honor this traditional wisdom in order to keep bio-cultural diversity intact,” said Michael Balick, the vice president for botanical science and director of the Institute of Economic Botany at the New York Botanical Garden. The hope, he said, is to help underserved peoples deal with globalization and the loss of their cultures.

In a presentation at the conference, Dr. Balick discussed his work helping the islands of Palau, Pohnpei and Kosrae identify and preserve their ethnobotanical heritage in the face of Western cultural intrusions.

Scholars coined the term ethnobotany about a century ago for the study of the many ways that indigenous peoples make use of plants. Today that field studies and analyzes traditional medical practices based on natural substances that were the basis for the development of novel pharmaceuticals.

In many cases, it took hundreds of years of trial and error for cultures around the world to identify what local species could treat a stomach ache or defuse an infection. In some cases – in China’s ancient pharmacopeias, for example, or Europe’s 16th-century texts on medicinal herbs — that knowledge was preserved in writing for future generations. In other cases, however, the traditions were never codified, but rather passed down orally.

In many communities today, that traditional knowledge threatens to be snuffed out in a generation or two. In many cases, “young people would rather watch television, get on the Internet or migrate to more Western locations,” Dr. Balick said. “So a lot of the elders are concerned about loss of information.”

In Micronesia, for example, no one he interviewed over a 10-year period could recall how to make clothing from fibers from local breadfruit trees, a tradition that used to be common amongst the islanders.

Local knowledge can also help save lives. When a cholera epidemic hit Pohnpei, the local medical dispensary quickly ran out of pharmaceuticals to treat patients’ severe diarrhea. The pharmacist’s great-grandmother then offered a remedy that involved what seemed like common weeds growing around the clinic. Her homegrown treatment helped alleviate some of the epidemics’ symptoms and also inspired the idea of creating local health-care manuals.

Dr. Balick helped enlist around 60 experts — including traditional healers, physicians, botanists, toxicologists, linguists and social scientists, many of them native to the islands — to assemble the manuals. His team began by interviewing elders about which resources, both above ground and in the reefs and waters surrounding the islands, they relied on for medicinal benefits. “People were invited to share information that they would like not to be gone when they pass,” he said.

They compiled island-specific manuals for Palau and Pohnpei that addressed primary health care for ills like bites, stings, colds, flus and infectious diseases. In some cases, including “mangrove sickness,” which is characterized by achy muscles, stomach ache, dizziness and fatigue, people identified nine separate plants as useful treatments. Those who shared their knowledge are fully credited in the books.

Dr. Balick said he hoped \the manuals would help the islanders become self-sustaining and self-reliant, as they were in the past, in treating ailments that deplete life and financial resources in the communities. In conducting surveys, he found that the more traditional knowledge people have, the more they report being healthy and happy as they age. The manuals are not meant to replace allopathic medicine but rather complement and support it.

He points out that nearly three billion people on the planet have limited access to Western medicine and thus depend on some level on traditional medicines derived from plants. “My goal is to try to help people help themselves in a way that is sustainable and respectful to the environment,” he said.

Sustainability initiatives often originate within the communities and nations themselves. The Micronesia Challenge, for example, was organized by Micronesian nations with the goal of conserving 30 percent of their marine resources and 20 percent of their terrestrial resources by 2020 so they can preserve local flora and fauna for future generations’ use.

Dr. Balick’s colleagues help support the initiative by identifying and inventorying endemic flora, fungi and biodiversity hot spots on the islands. From there, they work with locals on designing protected areas to preserve rare species.

“What we find is more successful is not that outsiders designate and exclude people, but that local communities are directly involved in conservation and sustainable management of their resources,” he said. “We’re in a race against time to hopefully identify where those rare species are so we can help local people and organizations get them into protected regions.”

Nuwer, Rachel. 2012. "Ancestral Remedies to the Rescue". New York Times Blogs. Posted: August 1, 2012. Available online:

Monday, August 20, 2012

Archeologists unearth extraordinary human sculpture in Turkey

A beautiful and colossal human sculpture is one of the latest cultural treasures unearthed by an international team at the Tayinat Archaeological Project (TAP) excavation site in southeastern Turkey. A large semi-circular column base, ornately decorated on one side, was also discovered. Both pieces are from a monumental gate complex that provided access to the upper citadel of Kunulua, capital of the Neo-Hittite Kingdom of Patina (ca. 1000-738 BC).

"These newly discovered Tayinat sculptures are the product of a vibrant local Neo-Hittite sculptural tradition," said Professor Tim Harrison, the Tayinat Project director and professor of Near Eastern Archaeology in the University of Toronto's Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations. "They provide a vivid glimpse into the innovative character and sophistication of the Iron Age cultures that emerged in the eastern Mediterranean following the collapse of the great imperial powers of the Bronze Age at the end of the second millennium BC."

The head and torso of the human figure, intact to just above its waist, stands approximately 1.5 metres in height, suggesting a total body length of 3.5 to four metres. The figure's face is bearded, with beautifully preserved inlaid eyes made of white and black stone, and its hair has been coiffed in an elaborate series of curls aligned in linear rows. Both arms are extended forward from the elbow, each with two arm bracelets decorated with lion heads. The figure's right hand holds a spear, and in its left is a shaft of wheat. A crescent-shaped pectoral adorns its chest. A lengthy Hieroglyphic Luwian inscription, carved in raised relief across its back, records the campaigns and accomplishments of Suppiluliuma, likely the same Patinean king who faced a Neo-Assyrian onslaught of Shalmaneser III as part of a Syrian-Hittite coalition in 858 BC.

The second sculpture is a large semi-circular column base, approximately one metre in height and 90 centimetres in diameter, lying on its side next to the human figure. A winged bull is carved on the front of the column and it is flanked by a sphinx on its left. The right side of the column is flat and undecorated, an indication that it originally stood against a wall.

"The two pieces appear to have been ritually buried in the paved stone surface of the central passageway through the Tayinat gate complex," said Harrison. The complex would have provided a monumental ceremonial approach to the upper citadel of the royal city. Tayinat, a large low-lying mound, is located 35 kilometres east of Antakya (ancient Antioch) along the Antakya-Aleppo road.

The presence of colossal human statues, often astride lions or sphinxes, in the citadel gateways of the Neo-Hittite royal cities of Iron Age Syro-Anatolia continued a Bronze Age Hittite tradition that accentuated their symbolic role as boundary zones, and the role of the king as the divinely appointed guardian or gate keeper of the community. By the ninth and eighth centuries BC, these elaborately decorated gateways, with their ornately carved reliefs, had come to serve as dynastic parades, legitimizing the power of the ruling elite. The gate reliefs also formed linear narratives, guiding their audiences between the human and divine realms, with the king serving as the link between the two worlds.

The Tayinat gate complex appears to have been destroyed following the Assyrian conquest of the region in 738 BC, when the area was paved over and converted into the central courtyard of an Assyrian sacred precinct. These smashed and deposited monumental sculptures also include a magnificently carved lion that was discovered last year and Hieroglyphic Luwian-inscribed stelae (stone slabs or pillars used for commemoratives purposes). Together these finds hint of an earlier Neo-Hittite complex that might have once faced the gateway approach.

Scholars have long speculated that the reference to Calno, identified as one of the "kingdoms of the idols" in Isaiah's oracle against Assyria (Isaiah 10:9-10), alludes to the Assyrian devastation of Kunulua (i.e., Tayinat). The destruction of the Luwian monuments and conversion of the area into an Assyrian religious complex may represent the physical manifestation of this historic event, subsequently memorialized in Isaiah's oracle.

EurekAlert. 2012. "Archeologists unearth extraordinary human sculpture in Turkey". EurekAlert. Posted: July 30, 2012. Available online:

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Later Stone Age got earlier start in South Africa than thought

Study led by CU-Boulder pushes back onset date of South Africa's Later Stone Age by more than 20,000 years

The Later Stone Age emerged in South Africa more than 20,000 years earlier than previously believed -- about the same time humans were migrating from Africa to the European continent, says a new international study led by the University of Colorado Boulder.

The study shows the onset of the Later Stone Age in South Africa likely began some 44,000 to 42,000 years ago, said Paola Villa, a curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History and lead study author. The new dates are based on the use of precisely calibrated radiocarbon dates linked to organic artifacts found at Border Cave in the Lebombo Mountains on the border of South Africa and Swaziland containing evidence of hominid occupation going back 200,000 years.

The Later Stone Age is synonymous to many archaeologists with the Upper Paleolithic Period, when modern humans moved from Africa into Europe roughly 45,000 years ago and spread rapidly, displacing and eventually driving Neanderthals to extinction. The timing of the technological innovations and changes in the Later Stone Age in South Africa are comparable to that of the Upper Paleolithic, said Villa.

"Our research proves that the Later Stone Age emerged in South Africa far earlier than has been believed and occurred at about the same time as the arrival of modern humans in Europe," said Villa. "But differences in technology and culture between the two areas are very strong, showing the people of the two regions chose very different paths to the evolution of technology and society."

A paper on the subject was published July 30 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Co-authors included Sylvain Soriano of the Center National de la Recherche Scientifique, or CNRS, at the University of Paris; Tsenka Tsanova of the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Leipzig, Germany; Ilaria Degano, Jeannette Lucejko and Maria Perla Colombini of the University of Pisa in Italy; Roger Higham of the University of Oxford in England; Francesco d'Errico of the CNRS at the University of Bordeaux in France; Lucinda Blackwell of the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa; and Peter Beaumont of the McGregor Museum in South Africa.

A companion paper published in PNAS and led by d'Errico reports on organic materials found at Border Cave dating to the Later Stone Age, an indication that the San hunter-gatherer culture first thought to have begun about 20,000 years ago in the region probably emerged as early as 44,000 years ago, said Villa.

Organic artifact assemblages at Border Cave dating to the Later Stone Age included ostrich eggshell beads, thin bone arrowhead points, wooden digging sticks, a gummy substance called pitch that was used to haft, or attach, bone and stone blades to shafts and a lump of beeswax likely used for hafting. The assemblage also included worked tusks of members of the pig family, which likely were used to plane wood, and notched bones that may have been used for counting.

A wooden digging stick from Border Cave dated to about 40,000 years ago was found in association with bored but broken stones likely used to weight such sticks. The sticks and stone weights are similar to digging implements used by women of the prehistoric San hunter-gatherer culture in the region to unearth bulbs and termite larvae, a practice that continued into historic times, said Villa. "These digging sticks from Border Cave are the oldest artifacts of this kind known from South Africa or anywhere else in Africa."

The new PNAS study led by Villa also indicates big changes were occurring in hunting technology during the Later Stone Age at Border Cave, said Villa. They included a shift from spears hafted with stone points -- the main hunting weapon in the Middle Stone Age -- to the likely use of the bow and arrow, a technology that included very thin bone points that probably were tipped with poison, she said.

"The very thin bone points from the Later Stone Age at Border Cave are good evidence for bow and arrow use," said Villa. "The work by d'Errico and colleagues shows that the points are very similar in width and thickness to the bone points produced by San culture that occupied the region in prehistoric times, whose people were known to use bows and arrows with poison-tipped bone points as a way to bring down medium and large-sized herbivores."

Chemical analyses showed the poison used with such bone points was most likely ricinoleic acid, which can be derived from the seeds of castor oil plants and which has been identified as being used in South Africa at least 24,000 years ago. "Such bone points could have penetrated thick hides, but the lack of 'knock-down' power means the use of poison probably was a requirement for successful kills," said Villa.

The lump of beeswax from Border Cave also dating to about 40,000 years ago -- the oldest known beeswax used by humans ever discovered -- was wrapped in plant fibers that may have been similar to fibers used to make the strings for hunting bows, said Villa.

While stone tools continued to be manufactured in the Later Stone Age at Border Cave, stone spear points from the Middle Stone Age gave way to tiny, thin flakes known as microliths that were probably hafted on shafts, much like the bone points, with pitch made from the bark of a common type of coniferous tree found in the region.

While a 2011 study co-authored by Villa and Wil Roebroeks of Leiden University in the Netherlands showed that Neanderthals mastered the manufacture of pitch in Europe 200,000 years ago, it was not a particularly simple task since the process involved burning peeled bark in the absence of air, said Villa. The Later Stone Age inhabitants of South Africa probably dug holes into the ground and inserted bark peels, then lit them on fire and covered the holes tightly with stones. "This is the first time pitch-making is demonstrated in South Africa," said Villa.

The Upper Paleolithic Period in Europe that corresponds to the Later Stone Age in South Africa also spurred complex new technologies that helped humans survive and thrive in much different environments. Artifacts from the Upper Paleolithic included spear-throwers, bone needles with eyelets for sewing furs, bone fishing hooks, bone flutes and even ivory figurines carved from mammoth tusks.

Villa said that a fundamental rearrangement of human behavior that had its beginnings 50,000-60,000 years ago in Africa and spread to Europe -- an idea first proposed by Stanford University archaeologist Richard Klein -- appears quite plausible.

EurekAlert. 2012. "Later Stone Age got earlier start in South Africa than thought". EurekAlert. Posted: July 30, 2012. Available online:

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Archaeologists from Bonn discover in Mexico the tomb of a Maya prince

Cup provided key clue

Archaeologists from the Department of Anthropology of the Americas at the University of Bonn have been excavating for the past four years together with the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History in the Maya city of Uxul in Campeche, Mexico. The aim of the excavation project under the direction of Prof. Dr. Nikolai Grube and Dr. Kai Delvendahl is to investigate the process of centralization and collapse of hegemonic state structures in the Maya Lowlands using the example of a mid-sized classic Maya city (Uxul) and its ties to a supra-regional center (Calakmul). Research at Uxul, located close to the border with Guatemala, is being funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG).

Since 2011, excavations have concentrated on the royal palace complex, which is located directly south of the main plazas in the center of Uxul. The palace extends 120 x 130 meters and consists of at least eleven individual buildings which surround five courtyards. "The palace complex was built around 650 AD, a time when the neighboring ruling dynasty from Calakmul was extending its influence over large areas of the Maya Lowlands," explains Professor Grube. In 2011, six sculpted panels were discovered during excavations of the southern stairway of the largest building of the group, Structure K2. Four of these panels depict kings from Calakmul, playing ball. The similarities in the layout of the centers of Calakmul and Uxul and especially of the main palace complexes in the two cities let the researchers to suggest that Uxul, originally a smaller independent kingdom, may have been temporarily ruled and inhabited by members of the Kaan Dynasty of Calakmul. Through recent excavations in several of Uxul´s central buildings, the changes in the physiognomy of the city´s center can be linked directly to the time of military and political expansion of the Kaan Dynasty during the reign of Yukno´m Ch´een II, in the first half of the 7th century. However, the influence subsided after 705 AD, and there is a strong likelihood that a local ruling family came back to power for a few generations. At the start of the 9th century, Uxul was almost completely abandoned.

Richly furnished tomb

"During this year´s excavation below one of the southern rooms of Structure K2, we have discovered a richly furnished tomb, which can be dated to the time right after the influence of Calakmul in Uxul had ended" explains Dr. Delvendahl. The walls of the crypt are made of rough stone and the chamber was covered with a corbel vault, typical for the Maya culture. In the interior of this tomb chamber which dates back about 1,300 years, the remains of a young man were discovered who was buried on his back with his arms folded. Deposited around him were four ceramic plates and five ceramic vases in an exceptionally preserved state, some of which were decorated with spectacular paintings and moldings. A unique plate, painted in the famed Codex-Style, was covering the skull of the deceased.

Vessel with dedication may point to the identity of the deceased

"On one of the vases, there was a simple dedication, written in elegantly molded hieroglyphics, which read: '[This is] the drinking vessel of the young man/prince'. Also a second molded vessel appears to mention a young man or prince" says Professor Grube. Although these references are not definite clues as to the identity of the departed, the location of the tomb and the absence of certain status markers, such as jade jewelry, would indicate that the deceased was a young male member of the ruling family who was not in direct line for the throne. A possible date on one of the vessels corresponds to the year 711 AD; therefore the death of the young prince and the construction of his tomb can be dated back to the second or third decade of the 8th century. The exceptionally preserved ceramics in particular make this tomb one of the most significant discoveries of its kind in the entire Maya Lowlands.

EurekAlert. 2012. "Archaeologists from Bonn discover in Mexico the tomb of a Maya prince". EurekAlert. Posted: July 30, 2012. Available online:

Friday, August 17, 2012

Ancient teeth provide evidence for early stress

Prehistoric remains are providing strong, physical evidence that people who acquired tooth enamel defects while in the womb or early childhood tended to die earlier, even if they survived to adulthood.

Emory University anthropologist George Armelagos led a systematic review of defects in teeth enamel and early mortality, recently published in Evolutionary Anthropology. The paper is the first summary of prehistoric evidence for the ‘Barker hypothesis’ – the idea that many adult diseases originate during fetal development and early childhood.

The Barker Hypothesis

The Barker hypothesis is named after epidemiologist David Barker, who during the 1980s began studying links between early infant health and later adult health. The theory, also known as the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease Hypothesis (DOHaD), has expanded into wide acceptance.

As one of the founders of the field of bioarchaeology, Armelagos studies skeletal remains to understand how diet and disease affected populations. Tooth enamel can give a particularly telling portrait of physiological events, since the enamel is secreted in a regular, ring-like fashion, starting from the second trimester of fetal development. Disruptions in the formation of the enamel, which can be caused by disease, poor diet or psychological stress, show up as grooves on the tooth surface.

Armelagos and other bioarchaeologists have noted the connection between dental enamel and early mortality for years. For the Evolutionary Anthropology paper, Armelagos led a review of the evidence from eight published studies, applying the lens of the Barker hypothesis to remains dating back as far as 1 million years.

"Teeth are like a snapshot into the past,” Armelagos says. “Since the chronology of enamel development is well known, it’s possible to determine the age at which a physiological disruption occurred. The evidence is there, and it’s indisputable.”

Ancient human teeth are telling secrets that may relate to modern-day health: Some stressful events that occurred early in development are linked to shorter life spans.

Specific studies reveal individual stresses

One study of a group of Australopithecines from the South African Pleistocence showed a nearly 12-year decrease in mean life expectancy associated with early enamel defects. In another striking example, remains from Dickson Mounds, Illinois, showed that individuals with teeth marked by early life stress lived 15.4 years less than those without the defects.

“During prehistory, the stresses of infectious disease, poor nutrition and psychological trauma were likely extreme. The teeth show the impact,” Armelagos says.

Until now, teeth have not been analysed using the Barker hypothesis, which has mainly been supported by a correlation between birth weight in modern-day, high-income populations and ailments like diabetes and heart disease.

“The prehistoric data suggests that this type of dental evidence could be applied in modern populations, to give new insights into the scope of the Barker hypothesis,” Armelagos says. “Bioarchaeology is yielding lessons that are still relevant today in the many parts of the world in which infectious diseases and under-nutrition are major killers.”

Past Horizons. 2012. "Ancient teeth provide evidence for early stress". Past Horizons. Posted: July 30, 2012. Available online:

Thursday, August 16, 2012

All chickens descend from south east Asia

All chickens descend from south east Asia, new archaeological research has found, with scientists dubbing these common ancestors the "great, great grandmothers of the chicken world".

The team of researchers from the University of New England (Armidale, Australia) studied the ancient DNA – known as mitochondrial DNA – preserved within 48 archaeological chicken bones and found the same DNA signature present in bones from Europe, Thailand, the Pacific, Chile, the Dominican Republic and Spanish colonial sites in Florida.

Project researcher Dr Alison Storey says chickens have been domesticated for at least 5400 years and it has been difficult to determine the ancient origin and dispersal of chickens because of the way successive civilisations carried the domesticated poultry with them wherever they went.

"What we found is that one of the sequences in the different chicken bones was very similar over a wide geographic area. This tells us that the chickens that we found in archaeological sites all over the world shared an ancient ancestor who was domesticated somewhere in southeast Asia a long time ago," Dr Storey told the ABC.

"All of our domestic chickens are descended from a few hens that I like to think of as the 'great, great grandmothers' of the chicken world," she says.

The report, published in the journal PLos ONE, has implications for the world of human movement as much as it does for the DNA of poultry. The report says: "Understanding when chickens were transported out of domestication centres and the directions in which they were moved provides information about prehistoric migration, trade routes, and cross cultural diffusion."

Knight, Anneli. 2012. "All chickens descend from south east Asia ". The Telegraph. Posted: July 27, 2012. Available online:

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Religion in Human Evolution, part 4: the role of worship

This is part 4. I know, I previously advertised the series as being 3 part, however, they published another article since I scheduled this series.

The emergence of gods, who require worship, dates from a particular set of economic and social changes

Robert Bellah's book is dense with theories and examples. To pull out any particular theme risks distortion. Nonetheless, it's clear that one of the big stories of his book is an account of how religions have changed from being only a way to express or to discover their societies to becoming, potentially, a way in which to criticise them. Since, as he often says, nothing is ever lost, those religions that acquired an idea of utopia, or of absolute moralities, did not thereby abandon their older uses. Religions became divided within themselves as part of the process by which they made it possible to criticise existing societies. That's yet another reason why generalisations about "religion" will always find counter-examples, even when they are confined to modern and literate religions.

One such generalisation is that religions entail worship. This isn't true of the rituals and mythologies we have so far studied, and Bellah dates the emergence of gods, who require worship, to a particular set of economic and social changes. This kind of god is "not so radically different from the powerful beings we have already encountered, but … their relation to humans as exemplified in their role in ritual has shifted: they are now worshipped."

Worship involves submission rather than invocation. The worshippers kneel or prostrate themselves. They offer gifts. This isn't just a recognition of God's higher status – it's also a hope that some of this status will rub off on the worshipper. This is a subtle but important difference from the kind of relationship implied in ritual.

In the kinds of hunter-gatherer ritual discussed last week, where the spirit world is understood as the domain of "powerful beings", the relationship is closer to possession by humans: "Powerful beings among the Kalapalo, Australian Aborigines and Navajo were often, though not always, alpha male figures, who could be terribly destructive when crossed, even inadvertently, but with whom people could identify if they followed the proper ritual, and, through identification, their power could become, at least temporarily, benign."

But when the gods are conceptualised as powerful chiefs – more like the Homeric gods than the Navajo powerful beings – they fit into the hierarchy of power that descends through earthly societies, too. Worship becomes something that can only effectively be performed by the right people. Something like a priesthood emerges, though the priests are also chieftains.

Bellah takes his examples for this part of the story mostly from Polynesia. The process must have gone on among almost all human societies, but in Polynesia it was still happening according to its own logic when literate westerners turned up to observe and record it. The islands were almost entirely isolated from the states that emerged in China and some parts of America, so their development is in a sense purer than that of any surviving hunter-gatherers, almost all of whom now are remnant populations driven out to the margins of the world.

Priests and kings both live off a surplus. There must be a surplus – at least of food – which can be redistributed, and redistribution implies inequality. Even in societies built around the generosity of chieftains, there is always an imbalance of power between those who give and those who receive. Generosity can be a mark of condescension.

On Polynesian islands, where there was both a possibility of surplus and a clear limit to the resources of any society, Bellah traces the simultaneous rise of organised religion and organised warfare. On Easter Island, the evidence of both is everywhere: the great carved heads looking down on the shattered remains of the society that built them, which destroyed itself and its ecology in unremitting centuries of internecine war.

In Hawaii, just before the Europeans arrived, society seems to have carried these tendencies towards another extreme.

"A stark distinction between social classes, even the existence of an outcaste class; heavy taxation of commoners; land expropriation at the will of chiefs; and – perhaps symbolic of the kind of society Hawaii had become – frequent human sacrifice. Chiefs ruled by divine right but also by force; and they could be conquered and killed by force."

What's important for his larger argument is that these developments were all new. There had been religions before without them. There have been religions since without them. But the kinds of religion that emerged in Hawaii, among many other places, correspond very well to the Voltairean model of all religion – a fraud in the service of despotism and inequality. Voltaire himself was cynical – or enough of a realist – to want to benefit from this. He wanted his servants to believe, because it kept them honest. Perhaps it is in the nature of all stable social systems to be able to buy off their most dangerous critics. But the Voltairean critique ignores the most interesting question, which is how some religions developed beyond institutionalised power worship. This is, for Bellah, the central question of the axial age, where his book ends. When gods first appear as the gigantic shadows of earthly tyrants, what is it that changes, and how, to make God instead into a source of light in which we can judge all societies, and even ourselves, against an ideal of justice?

Brown, Andrew. 2012. "Religion in Human Evolution, part 4: the role of worship". The Guardian. Posted: August 6, 2012. Available online:

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Religion in Human Evolution, part 3: the primacy of ritual over language

This is the third and final installment of a 3 part series.

When rites are enacted, rather than preached, they have the power to transform those who enact them

Robert Bellah starts his examples among the Kalapalo, an isolated people of Brazil. They have stories and rituals but the rituals, it appears, last much longer than the stories told around them. This is the opposite of the way we expect things to happen. As children of religions of the book, we can easily imagine that the text, or at least the story, is the spine of any religion. This is wrong. Ritual predates myth; it may well predate language itself, and have made it possible.

There are monkeys who give a particular scream when they see a leopard, and a different scream for a snake. This is communication – other monkeys will react appropriately when they hear these different screams – but it isn't yet language. Language starts when sounds become signs that point to other signs. In that sense, metaphor is the first form of speech, and not some later and confusing acquisition. In any case, the development towards language and metaphor can't have happened in a single jump, nor to a single visionary. It's no use being the only person in the world to understand the use of metaphor.

Bellah quotes Terrence Deacon, a strikingly impenetrable but important writer, on the ways in which the repetition entailed in collective drumming and singing supplies redundancy, and redundancy makes the scaffolding on which signs and sounds can come to mean both things in the external world and the sounds and signs that represent such things. That is the great enrichment that makes language and it depends on music. So far as we know, humans are the only species to make music collectively. Birds sing, but not in harmony. Only humans can make voices into choirs.

Kalapalo ritual is primarily musical, with myth operating more as comment than scenario, yet the idea of the dominance of music is itself embedded in myth. The Kalapalo classify various beings according to the sounds they make. The "powerful beings", who were there "at the beginning", express themselves through "music". Human beings use "speech". Other animate beings, including animals, have "calls". Inanimate things make "noises".

The stories told around these rituals are not exactly about gods, but about "powerful beings". The differentiation between them and humanity is neither complete nor absolute. Bellah writes:

The earliest human beings, the Dawn People, lived in close relation to the powerful beings and were in many ways like them. People today, descended from the Dawn People but lacking their ability, must be wary of powerful beings, with their enormous creative but also dangerous energy.

Some Kalapalo rituals can take more than a year to prepare. The rewards correspond to the effort: the powerful beings are sung to, and simultaneously sung into being.

There is a consequent merging of self with what is being sung about: just as in myth powerful beings participate in human speech, so in ritual, human beings participate in the musicality of powerful beings, and so achieve some of their transformative power.

So what is transformed in this way? Obviously, some of these rituals are concerned with health, but the main effect seems to be the transformation of the dancers themselves into a community. The celebrants see themselves as Kalopalo, rather than as members of their particular family group.

Economically, it means that everyone is obligated to participate, but everyone receives regardless of contribution. Ifutisu, the most basic value of Kalapalo life (subsuming the notions of generosity, modesty, flexibility, and equanimity in facing social difficulties, and respect for others) is extended beyond the domain of family to all people in the community.

It's worth noting, at this point, that the genders are segregated in these rites, as they are in Muslim and Orthodox Jewish worship to this day. But though we see this as divisive or hierarchical, it may be better to understand it as the breaking of old and entrenched divisions between families and their replacement by weaker, if more universal loyalties.

Because these changes are enacted, rather than preached, they have the power to transform those who enact them. To deal with gods, or powerful beings, is not just to change your role but your whole personality, in a lasting way. Some of these things are obviously true of some forms of religion even today. Pentecostal Christianity in its modern forms is built around transformative rituals and repetitive music. But the Kalapalo maintain a fundamental equality which is later lost. They have no lasting and permanent division between performer and audience, or priest and people. With the rise of agriculture and accumulation of goods that leads to civilisation all this will change. The first sign of state building will be human sacrifice.

Brown, Andrew. 2012. "Religion in Human Evolution, part 3: the primacy of ritual over language". The Guardian. Posted: July 30, 2012. Available online:

Monday, August 13, 2012

Religion in Human Evolution, part 2: faith, language, music and play

This is the second of a 3 part series.

Nothing is ever lost: belief systems are built on previous ones, but the earliest were not religions in our sense of the term

One of Robert Bellah's central ideas is that "nothing is ever lost". We are built like the cities of Troy on our previous selves. Every night we sleep uneasily on their rubble. Religious and ethical systems are also built on their predecessors, and this is true both socially and psychologically. Even the most abstract theologian will refresh her mind in ritual and, if she doesn't, will soon cease to believe.

This isn't because ritual dulls the mind and kill doubts, but because belief is an emotional fact, quite as much as disbelief can be. To hold that something is true and not to care in the least that it is so is not to believe it in any religious or important sense.

With this in mind, it's clear that, to look for the roots of religion, we have to look at the roots of language. This is another link to ritual, for Bellah believes that language and music come from the same roots. He talks about "musilanguage" as an early form of communication, in which the tones, the tunes and the rhythms convey a great part of the meaning. Musilanguage is still present in our lives today, of course. We can see it in everything that is lost when conversation is reduced to an exchange of plain text.

Both, he believes, arose first in play. Mammalian play is very important to him, for it is the first place in evolution where animals are free from deficiency consciousness. It is gratuitous behaviour. Play is undertaken for its own sake. It can be extremely serious: the opposite of "play" is not "serious", or even "real", but "work", which is something undertaken for ends outside itself. But play operates in its own time, and within its own rules, neither of which need have anything to do with the world outside.

It's worth noting in passing here that, although this is an "evolutionary" account of psychology, it is nothing like what's known as "evolutionary psychology". Bellah does not postulate a "play module", or explain that children who are good at games grow up to have more descendants than the nerds.

One other thing about play, which makes it important in the earliest forms of religion, and of language, is that it is essentially embodied. It starts with actions, and only later, if at all, moves on to ideas. It never entirely loses the connection to action. This is one way into the importance of ritual. There are certain things we know only because our bodies have done them, and some kinds of knowledge are inexplicable in words. Bellah is too high-minded to mention sex in this context, but anyone who was an unhappy teenage virgin can remember what such an absence of knowledge felt like. He talks instead about bicycle-riding, a less exciting example of a skill we can learn but never express in words.

Religious practice is full of gestures, of course: hands are clasped in prayer, or the whole body kneels, or lies flat in token of submission. These things are also performed for an audience. Solitary prayer is a very late and highly developed form of ritual. It starts as something communal. Music, dancing and storytelling are all embodied reactions to the world and, when you join in, they become a kind of explanation, too.

Nothing is ever lost. A theory is not a better version of a story, nor even a story cleansed of worthless decoration. I know there are people who believe it is. The progress from myth to theory is one of the central rationalist stories. But this is itself a myth more than a factual, historical account. It gains its power and coherence from a belief in progress. If that fails, there is nothing but confusion left. So what are the earliest religions we can find? The first thing they were not is "religions". They didn't have theologies. They didn't have priesthoods or scriptures. They didn't have explicit theories of how the world is. They may not even have had creation myths, in the sense that, without an order of time, creation might have happened yesterday. Living after Christianity as we do, we assume that creation myths have to explain why the world is not perfect. This may not have seemed to our ancestors a question worth asking.

What they did have was fierce egalitarianism. The first questions that ritual answered were not concerned with where we come from, but how to live as a community, which survives by sharing and co-operation. Literate religions have often been used to justify inequality. But the earliest religions of which we know, or which we can reconstruct, made all their participants equal in rituals. There was no one in them like a bishop, nor anyone like a king. The long and twisting road from there to the first dawn of universalist ethics is one that Bellah is trying to map. It passes through kings, and priest-kings who were even worse than bishops.

Brown, Andrew. 2012. "Religion in Human Evolution, part 2: faith, language, music and play". The Guardian. Posted: July 23, 2012. Available online:

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Religion in Human Evolution, part 1: the co-evolution of gods and humanity

This is the first of a 3 part series.

Robert Bellah's important book is an account of ways in which human beings have made religions and religions have made us

I am not fully recovered yet from my heart attack, but have been occupying my convalescence with Robert Bellah's book Religion in Human Evolution, and it's so powerful that I am going to write about it anyway. It is an account of some of the ways in which human beings have made religions and religions have made us. The process continues, of course. If there are two faculties that make us into people, they are narration and contemplation. Religions unite them, and stimulate both. But it does much more than that.

The book makes a change for this series: it only came out this year, and the author, a distinguished US sociologist, is still very much alive. But I think it is as important here as any of the classic authors we have dealt with before. That's a large claim. But Bellah offers a perspective on the various phenomena we call religion that unites history (in so far as we have it) with psychology and sociology. Any overarching theory must be this ambitious, because religion is complicated. It is something that people do to themselves, and to their societies, and at the same time something that whole societies do to themselves, to each other and to their constituent individuals. It has – sometimes – theoretical aspects. It has ritual aspects too. Even within Christianity, which is what most of us in the west know best, there are elements of dance, of play, of the exercise of power, of logic, poetry and morality; there are hermits and popes, inquisitors and housewives: all of these can be found without even mentioning myths.

Such an enormous diversity of roles is, of course, dependent on a diverse and complex society. You don't find popes, priests or inquisitors among the Bushmen, nor anywhere in prehistory. If we're looking for something common to all expressions of religion, it will not be sufficient to describe any single one. So Bellah starts with the common experience of everyday life – an endless round of purpose-driven problem-solving in which our wants can never be completely satisfied. The first, and almost the most important, point he makes is that everyday life is quite literally intolerable if there is nothing else and no other way to live.

But, as he goes on to point out, no one has to live like that. It's certainly not the world we live in all the time:

"Among language-using humans, however, the world of daily life is never all there is, and the other realities that human culture gives rise to cannot fail to overlap with the world of daily life, whose relentless utilitarianism can never be absolute.

"In spite of its 'apparent actuality', the world of daily life is a culturally, symbolically constructed world, not the world as it actually is. As such, it varies in terms of time and space, with much in common across the historical and cultural landscape, but with occasional sharp differences."

This is important. Not only are religions profoundly different from one another, but so are the worlds that they provide escape from and meaning to. There may be – and, in fact, there probably are – psychological or cognitive mechanisms underlying the different ways in which all cultures deal with the world. But these are differently expressed and elaborated, just as languages are, so that you simply can't translate entirely between them.

The evolution of language is necessarily closed off from us. With the possible exception of Pirahã, all the languages spoken today seem to be on a similar level of complexity, and we can't reconstruct how they got there. Religions are different. The big ones have histories, more or less partial and incomplete. Preliterate societies are still to be found and studied. Even though none of them have been untouched by modern industrial culture (if only by the fact of being studied), we can still see how they differ from one another, and from us. This is where he starts, in worlds where there are neither gods nor people as we know them.

A great part of the story of this book is the co-evolution of gods and humanity. Although he finishes in the "axial age", when modern religious and philosophical thought first appeared, and with it universalist ethics, he avoids the slithery optimism of Karen Armstrong. What we have are numerous universalist ethics, not just one. What got us here was not progress:

"No serious reader of this book can think it is a paean to any kind of religious triumphalism."

He writes:

"That religious evolution is simply the rise, onward and upward, of ever more compassionate, more righteous, more enlightened religions could hardly be farther from the truth."


Brown, Andrew. 2012. "Religion in Human Evolution, part 1: the co-evolution of gods and humanity". The Guardian. Posted: July 16, 2012. Available online:

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Warrior King Statue Discovered in Ancient Mediterranean City

A newly discovered statue of a curly-haired man gripping a spear and a sheath of wheat once guarded the upper citadel of an ancient kingdom's capital.

The enormous sculpture, which is intact from about the waist up, stands almost 5 feet (1.5 meters) tall, suggesting that its full height with legs would have been between 11 and 13 feet (3.5 to 4 m). Alongside the statue, archaeologists found another carving, a semicircular column base bearing the images of a sphinx and a winged bull.

The pieces date back to about 1000 B.C. to 738 B.C. and belong to the Neo-Hittite Kingdom of Patina in what is now southeastern Turkey. They were found at what would have been a gate to the upper citadel of the capital, Kunulua. An international team of archaeologists on the Tayinat Archaeological Project are excavating the ruins.

The Neo-Hittites were a group of civilizations that arose along the eastern Mediterranean after the collapse of the Hittite Empire around 1000 B.C. When the statues were carved, the area was emerging from the Bronze Age and entering into the Iron Age.

The male sculpture boasts a beard and inlaid eyes made of white and black stone. He wears a crescent-shaped pectoral shield on his chest and lion-head bracelets on his arms. On his back, a long inscription records the accomplishments of Suppiluliuma, the name of a king of Patina already known to have banded together with Syrian forces in 858 B.C. to face an invasion by Neo-Assyrians.

The column base stands about 3 feet (1 m) tall, with a diameter of 35 inches (90 centimeters). The column likely stood against a wall, as only the front is decorated with carvings of a winged bull flanked by a sphinx.

The presence of such statues was common in Neo-Hittite royal cities, the researchers said. The newly discovered carvings would have guarded a passageway of gates to the heart of the city.

"The two pieces appear to have been ritually buried in the paved stone surface of the central passageway," Tayinat Project director Tim Harrison, a professor of archaeology at the University of Toronto, said in a statement.

The passageway and gates seems to have been destroyed in 738 B.C., when Assyrian forces conquered the Neo-Hittite city. The area then appears to have been paved over and turned into a courtyard. Archaeologists have also uncovered smashed Neo-Hittite slabs and pillars as well as two carved life-size lions.

Pappas, Stephanie. 2012. "Warrior King Statue Discovered in Ancient Mediterranean City". Live Science. Posted: July 30, 2012. Available online:

Friday, August 10, 2012

Modern culture 44,000 years ago

Human behavior, as we know it, emerged earlier than previously thought

An international team of researchers, including scientists from Wits University, have substantially increased the age at which we can trace the emergence of modern culture, all thanks to the San people of Africa.

The research by the team, consisting of scientists from South Africa, France, Italy, Norway, the USA and Britain, will be published in two articles online in the prestigious journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, today at 19:00 South African Standard Time.

The paper titled Early evidence of San material culture represented by organic artifacts from Border Cave, South Africa was authored by Francesco d'Errico, Lucinda Backwell, Paola Villa, Ilaria Degano, Jeannette Lucejko, Marion Bamford, Thomas Higham, Maria Perla Colombini, and Peter Beaumont.

Doctor Backwell is a senior researcher in palaeoanthropology, and Professor Bamford a palaeobotanist at the Bernard Price Institute for Paleontological Research at Wits University.

"The dating and analysis of archaeological material discovered at Border Cave in South Africa, has allowed us to demonstrate that many elements of material culture that characterise the lifestyle of San hunter-gatherers in southern Africa, were part of the culture and technology of the inhabitants of this site 44,000 years ago," says Backwell.

A key question in human evolution is when in prehistory human cultures similar to ours emerged? Until now, most archaeologists believed that the oldest traces of San hunter-gatherer culture in southern Africa dates back 10,000, or at most 20,000 years.

The international team of researchers, led by Francesco d'Errico, Director of Research at the French National Research Centre, dated and directly analysed objects from archaeological layers at Border Cave.

Located in the foothills of the Lebombo Mountains in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, the site has yielded exceptionally well-preserved organic material.

Backwell says their results have shown without a doubt that at around 44,000 years ago the people at Border Cave were using digging sticks weighted with perforated stones, like those traditionally used by the San.

"They adorned themselves with ostrich egg and marine shell beads, and notched bones for notational purposes. They fashioned fine bone points for use as awls and poisoned arrowheads. One point is decorated with a spiral groove filled with red ochre, which closely parallels similar marks that San make to identify their arrowheads when hunting," says Backwell.

Chemical analysis of residues on a wooden stick decorated with incisions reveals that, like San objects used for the same purpose, it was used to hold and carry a poison containing ricinoleic acid found in castor beans. This represents the earliest evidence for the use of poison.

A lump of beeswax, mixed with the resin of toxic Euphorbia, and possibly egg, was wrapped in vegetal fibres made from the inner bark of a woody plant. "This complex compound used for hafting arrowheads or tools, directly dated to 40,000 years ago, is the oldest known evidence of the use of beeswax," says Backwell.

Warthog tusks were shaped into awls and possibly spear heads. The use of small pieces of stone to arm hunting weapons is confirmed by the discovery of resin residue still adhering to some of the tools, which chemical analysis has identified as a suberin (waxy substance) produced from the sap of Podocarpus (yellowwood) trees.

The study of stone tools discovered in the same archaeological layers as the organic remains, and from older deposits, shows a gradual evolution in stone tool technology. Organic artifacts, unambiguously reminiscent of San material culture, appear relatively abruptly, highlighting an apparent mismatch in rates of cultural change. This finding supports the view that what we perceive today as "modern behaviour" is the result of non-linear trajectories that may be better understood when documented at a regional scale.

Another paper, titled Border Cave and the Beginning of the Later Stone Age in South Africa will also be published today. The authors are Paola Villa, Sylvain Soriano, Tsenka Tsanova, Ilaria Degano, Thomas Higham, Francesco d'Errico, Lucinda Backwell, Jeannette J. Luceiko, Maria Perla Colombini and Peter Beaumont.

EurekAlert. 2012. "Modern culture 44,000 years ago ". EurekAlert. Posted: July 30, 2012. Available online: