Audio News for December 14th to December 20th, 2008
Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from December 14th to December 20th, 2008.
Earliest cave-dwellers uncovered in South Africa
Our first story is from South Africa, where a team from University of Toronto has discovered the earliest evidence of human ancestor cave-dwelling. Using a combination of dating methods, the bottom level of Wonderwerk Cave in Northern Cape Province has been dated back to 2 million years ago. A small number of diminutive stone tools have been recovered from excavations at this level. Geological evidence indicates tools were left in the cave and not washed into the site from the outside. The combination of stone tools indicating the presence of human ancestors and the dating of the level lead to the conclusion that human ancestors or hominids were in the cave 2 million years ago, which is the earliest evidence of intentional cave occupation by human ancestors.
While a number of hominid species existed in southern Africa during that era, the most likely manufacturer of the tools found in the cave is Homo habilis. The oldest known stone tools in the world date to 2.4 million years from sites in Ethiopia. The Wonderwerk Cave discoveries are close in age to the very earliest known stone tools and similar in date to the bottom levels in Kenya’s Olduvai Gorge.
Wonderwerk Cave was formed by water action in the Dolomite rocks of the Asbestos Hills. This rock formation is over 2 billion years old and includes some of the oldest rock on earth. The cave was discovered when local farmers dug up large parts of the cave in the 1940’s to sell the sediments for fertilizer. The cave is a South African National Heritage site due to its role in discovering the human and environmental history of the area.
Entire ancient city discovered in Peru
Now we shift to Peru, where researchers excavating at the Cerro Patapo archaeological site have discovered the ruins of an entire city. Scientists believe the city, located 14 miles from the Pacific coast city of Chiclayo, was part of the Wari (wah-REE) culture that existed in what is now Peru between about AD 600 and AD 1100.
If initial suppositions prove correct, the discovery would connect the ancient Wari civilization to the Moche (MO-chay) culture, which flourished from about AD 100 to 600. Researchers say the buried city stretches over 3 miles. Finds include ceramic, bits of clothing and the well-preserved remains of a young woman. Evidence of human sacrifice is also present, with locations specifically designated to the purpose and a mound of bones at the bottom of a nearby cliff.
The discovery provides the first evidence of Wari culture, which expanded from the country's south, in northern Peru. The Wari people made their capital near modern-day Ayacucho, in the Andes, but traveled far and wide and are known for their extensive network of roads. Earlier this year, archeologists at the Huaca Pucllana ruins in Lima, located some 500 miles south of Chiclayo, discovered a mummy that is also thought to be Wari.
One of Africa’s oldest languages closer to being deciphered
In Sudan, excavators have unearthed three ancient statues engraved with a little-understood sub-Saharan language. Archaeologists believe the inscriptions could bring them closer to deciphering one of Africa's oldest languages.
The stone rams, symbolizing the Egyptian god Amun, were carved during the time of the Meroe (may-row-ay) Empire, a period of kingly rule that lasted from about 300 BC to AD 450 and left hundreds of remains along the River Nile north of Khartoum (Car TOOM.) According to Vincent Rondot (Ron-DOUGH), director of the dig carried out by the French Section of Sudan's Directorate of Antiquities, each statue displayed an inscription written in Meroitic (May-row-i-tic) script, the oldest written language in sub-Saharan Africa. Rondot notes that although it is one of the last ancient languages that we still don't understand, we have no problem pronouncing the letters. But we can't understand it, apart from a few long words and the names of people.
Sudan has more pyramids than adjacent Egypt, but few people visit its remote sites, and repeated internal conflicts have made excavation difficult. Rondot said that the dig at el-Hassa, the site of a Meroitic town, had uncovered the first complete version of a royal dedication, previously found only on fragments of carvings from the same period. Researchers are still trying to work out the meaning of the words by comparing them with broken remnants of similar royal dedications in the same script.
The statues were found three weeks ago under a sand dune at the site of a temple to the god Amun, an all-powerful deity in Sudan. The site is close to Sudan's Meroe pyramids, a cluster of more than 50 granite tombs 120 miles north of the capital that are one of the main attractions for Sudan's few tourists. The dig, funded by the French foreign ministry, would also provide vital information on the reign of a little-known king, Amanakhareqerem (amana karakerem), mentioned in the inscriptions on the rams. Rondot explained that before the dig began, only four documents contained his name.
Ancient Georgians may have cremated dead
Finally, we visit the United States, where recent excavations at a prehistoric American Indian burial site on Ossabaw Island revealed cremated remains, an unexpected find that offers a glimpse into ancient Indian culture along Georgia’s coast.
Exposed by erosion, the pit discovered beneath 2 feet of sandy dirt first appeared to be a grave just long and deep enough to bury a human body. However, it revealed a few small bones, apparently from fingers or toes, mixed with charcoal, bits of burned logs and pottery shards all predating the arrival of the first European explorers by at least a century. The find led researchers to suspect American Indians used the ancient pit to burn bodies of the dead, making it a rare example of cremation among the early native inhabitants of the southeastern U.S.
According to archaeologist Tom Gresham, who worked on the excavation and serves on Georgia's Council on American Indian Concerns, it is a special sort of burial. The way Indian tribes over time buried their dead varied tremendously, but cremations are fairly rare.
Located six miles off the Savannah coast, Ossabaw Island remains one of Georgia's wildest barrier islands. Hogs, deer, armadillos, and Sicilian donkeys roam the state-owned island's 11,800 acres. Live oaks tower above the remains of slave plantations and ancient Indian burial mounds. Researchers have found proof that humans came to Ossabaw more than 4,000 years ago. It's believed native people at first may have used the island as a winter camp, feeding on shellfish before moving inland to hunt deer in the spring.
Dave Crass, Georgia's state archaeologist, noted that burial mounds on Ossabaw typically hold intact human remains. Carbon dating on charcoal from the cremation pit places it between AD 1290 and 1420. Archaeologists initially thought the pit might be 1,000 to 3,000 years old based on pottery shards they found. Although carbon dating revealed it to be more recent, the find is still considered prehistoric because it predates the arrival of the first European explorers in Georgia in 1520. Crass noted that what makes this particular site unusual is that the individual was apparently cremated and then the remains were apparently taken from this pit and interred somewhere else.
David Hurst Thomas, a curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, was not involved in the Ossabaw excavation but has been studying Indian burials on neighboring St. Catherines Island for 30 years. Out of about 900 graves he's studied there that predate the arrival of Europeans, only nine held cremated remains. The Ossabaw cremation pit, roughly 6 feet long and 3 feet deep, had other unique characteristics. In the beginning, Crass and fellow archaeologists suspected it might be a more modern grave because of its flat bottom and straight sides. Early Indian graves tend to have round bottoms because people used digging stick instead of shovels. The few human bones found in the pit will be studied further in hopes of determining if they belonged to more than one person. After that, they will be re-interred under the oversight of the Council.
That wraps up the news for this week!
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I'm Laura Kelley and I'll see you next week!