Audio News for August 16th to August 22nd, 2009
Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for August 16th to August 22nd, 2009.
Caribbean cave site yields new insight into early extinctions
Our first story is from the Dominican Republic, where a prehistoric water-filled cave has yielded an extraordinary find of stone tools, a small primate skull in outstanding condition, and bones of several species of sloths. As announced by Indiana University archaeologists, the discoveries extend, by thousands of years, the knowledge of the area, and the rare find will give insights into the earliest inhabitants of the Greater Antilles and the animals they encountered. In the investigations led by Charles Beeker, director of Academic Diving and Underwater Science Programs at the University, the researchers' focus has been on the era a short 500 years ago when the Old World and New World first met after Christopher Columbus stepped ashore in the Caribbean. According to Beeker, the virtually intact extinct faunal skeletons are amazing, but what may prove to be a fire pit from the first human occupation of the island is the unexpected delight. Beeker and researchers found the tools and bones in fresh water 28- to 34-feet deep in a cave called Padre Nuestro. Nearby, underwater in the same cave, were more recent Taino (TIE-no) artifacts. The Taino were the first Native American peoples to encounter Europeans. Beeker and his colleagues have been diving at that particular cave that sits beneath a limestone bluff since 1996. The three stone tools, made of basalt and limestone, are palm-sized and show clearly identifiable signs of human craftsmanship. The tools are estimated to be 4,000 to 6,500 years old, while the bones of the sloths and primate might range in age from 4,000 and 10,000 years old. The sloth bones came from six or possibly seven animals of several species, including one the size of a black bear and another the size of a large dog. The primate skull is significantly different from the other primate skulls found in the Caribbean. While sloth bones are not rare, only a handful of primate skulls have been found in the Caribbean, and the others, found in the late 1800s and early 1900s, are three times as large. According to anthropologist Geoffrey Conrad, director of the Mathers Museum of World Culture, no place has sloths, primates and human-made stone tools together in a clear, tight association around the same period. These data will help to sort out the relationship in time between humans and extinct animals in the Greater Antilles. The lithics and bones have not only expanded the research program to an earlier time but also to an issue of concern worldwide, the extinction of native birds and animals upon the arrival of humans. Caribbean sloths are one of many species that became extinct soon after the arrival of humans. The cave, which is part of an aquifer system that supplies water to nearby resorts, is now closed for research purposes.
Iron Age barrel of butter found in Irish bog
Two peat workers in Ireland have discovered a 3,000-year-old oak barrel, full of butter, in a bog in County Kildare. The pair, working the bog late last May, noticed a distinctive white streak in the peat. What they found was an oak barrel, cut out of a trunk, full of butter. It was largely intact, except for a gash towards the bottom of it caused by the plow. It was head down, and had a lid. In the barrel, the butter had expanded over time, causing a split along the middle. Measuring about three feet long and almost a foot wide, it weighs in at almost 77 pounds. The butter has turned white and now is essentially animal fat; the same substance found on well-preserved bodies of people or animals found in the bog. According to Pádraig Clancy from the Conservation Department of the National Museum, it is rare to find a barrel as intact as this one, especially with the lid undamaged, and attached. He estimates that the barrel is approximately 3,000 years old, from the Iron Age. Researchers believe the butter was put into the bog for practical reasons, rather than ritual. Clancy explained that accounts dating back to the 1850's describe how people used to wash their cattle once a year in the bog and then put some butter back into the bog as a kind of payment. This was more superstition than religious belief. However, it is more likely that 3,000 years ago, people were simply using the preservative power of the bog to store the butter. Such a large amount would have probably been the harvest of a community rather than an individual farmer. Staff at the Conservation Department are drying out the barrel and, once dry, it will be soaked in a wax-like solution to preserve it.
Nigerian highland culture revealed in iron artifacts and clay sculptures
In Nigeria, German archaeologists are looking for more clues to explain the obscure culture of the Nok. Some 2,500 years ago, a mysterious culture emerged in the region, leaving behind large terracotta statues and little else. Peter Breunig, an archaeologist at the University of Frankfurt am Main, has recovered half a ton of pottery shards representing broken pots, a clay lizard, and fragments of clay faces. A chipped head of a statue depicts an African man with a moustache, a fixed glare, and hair piled high up on his head. Breunig’s excavation is near the Nigerian highlands of Jos, where the poorly known Nok culture once flourished. The tropical region they lived in covered more than 80,000 square kilometers, an area the size of Ireland. The Nok lived in wooden huts and ate porridge made from pearl millet around 2,500 years ago. This was a time when change in belief systems washed over other continents, making the Nok sculptors the contemporaries of Buddha and the early Athenians. For years, people have believed that Africa was left behind at that time. Breunig, however, believes the Nok culture shows a different story. Around 500 BC, the population exploded, and people that had been living a Stone Age-like nomadic existence suddenly settled. This area near the equator is largely unexplored, and the German Research Foundation has allocated sizable funding toward that task. There are no skeletons preserved in the earth since the acidic soil dissolved all bones. Like their cemeteries, the temples and huts of the Nok have disappeared without a trace except in clay. Information on their farms and animals, village layout and religious life has survived only in the shards of clay statues. The largest of these figures are up to one meter tall and resemble what might be kings or members of a social elite. Others wear horned helmets or carved-out gourds on their heads. A third of the figurines are women. Iron artifacts have also been found, but an even more puzzling question is how the Nok people came to be smelting iron into bracelets, arrowheads and knives. No sub-Saharan people made anything comparable at the time. For a long time, researchers in Europe and the United States were largely unaware of the Nok. Only when a pioneer of thermoluminescent imaging presented new data in the 1970s did the archaeological community gain interest in this conundrum. Was it possible that, between 600 BC and AD 300, when the Chinese started building the Great Wall, African master sculptors in faraway Nigeria were making statues of the highest artistic order out of mud coils? Some archaeologists believe that the cultural renaissance resulted from contact with northern peoples, such as the Carthaginians, who might have arrived by desert. Others point to the so-called "black pharaohs" of Sudan, who dominated the Nile region around 700 BC. Breunig rejects the idea of such a transfer of ideas across the 3,000 kilometers of desert in between, given that Africans didn't have camels in pre-Christian times. He hypothesizes instead that Nok art evolved independently. Next winter, the high-tech caravan of researchers will move back into the bush with up to 40 excavation assistants. The project could finally shed some light on a phenomenon that is one of the biggest mysteries of early history.
Remains of extinct hippos on Cyprus may show cause of extinction
Our final story is from Cyprus, where thousands of prehistoric pygmy hippo bones are adding to data on the possible role of humans in the extinction of larger animals 12,000 years ago. First discovered by an 11-year-old boy in 1961, a small rock-shelter stuffed with hippo remains fundamentally rewrote archaeological records of when the island was first visited by humans. It has fired conjecture of being the first take-out diner where humans cooked and perhaps shipped out the meat. It also adds to a theory that humans could have eaten some animals to extinction. In Cyprus, the pygmy hippo, a species resembling a large pig, vanished around the same time people appeared on the island. Alan H. Simmons, a professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada, believes that humans likely were at least partially responsible for their extinction. Simmons led excavations at the site, called Akrotiri-Aetokremnos, in 1987, 1988, and 1990, and returned in 2009 for a smaller scale excavation in the area. Half way down a cliff on Cyprus's southern coast, thousands of remains were found of the animal that roamed the island for perhaps a million or more years during the Pleistocene period, and then died out around 12,000 years ago. Today, nothing remotely resembling a pygmy hippo roams the island. According to Simmons, over 500 individual hippos are represented at the site, and for some reason humans stored the bones, perhaps for use as fuel. Along with the pygmy hippo bones the archaeologists discovered man-made tools, pointing to a link between humans and the animals. Radiocarbon dating puts the site at around 10,000 BC, about 3,000 years earlier than had been thought for the arrival of humans on the island. According to Simmons, a small group of humans could have triggered extinction of the animals, which were already under stress from cold and dry climatic changes around 12,000 years ago. Many animals went extinct around the same time. Simmons is investigating two possible extinction scenarios: either that they went extinct solely due to climate changes at the end of the Pleistocene, or that humans contributed to their extinction. The species had originally come from the mainland full-sized and then, due to isolation and limited food, underwent the dwarfing process well documented on islands. Simmons and his team believe that the humans who killed them primarily processed and cooked them at the site and consumed at least some of them on-site. Whether the humans using Aetokremnos were permanent occupants of Cyprus or long-stay visitors is a matter still open to question. The hunters may not have lived on the island, Simmons noted, but could have been travelers in search of meat or other resources. Cyprus is up to 30 miles from the nearest land, thus such voyages would have required considerable sea-faring skills.
That wraps up the news for this week!
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I'm Laura Kelley and I'll see you next week!