Audio News for June 3rd to June 9th, 2007

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for June 3rd to June 9th, 2007.


New findings show Polynesians arrived in South America before the Spaniards


Our first story comes to us from New Zealand, where researchers have provided the first direct evidence that Polynesians sailed across the Pacific Ocean to reach South America years before the arrival of the Spanish.  Analysis of chicken bones found in Chile shows Polynesians reached the continent no later than 1407.  Using genetic analysis and radiocarbon dating of chicken bones, researchers showed that the poultry originated in Polynesia, not Europe as was previously believed.  The possibility of contact between Polynesia and the New World has been a controversial subject since Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl's famous 1947 voyage aboard his crude raft Kon-Tiki.  Heyerdahl believed that an ancient, fair-haired race originating high in the Andes around Lake Titicaca sailed to the Pacific islands.  He attempted to prove his ideas by setting off on a 4300-mile journey from the west coast of South America on a raft based on Inca designs.  Despite Heyerdahl's demonstration, the idea that Polynesians could have routinely or even occasionally navigated across the Pacific was considered improbable.  One of the most convincing pieces of evidence of cultural contact, however, was the presence of sweet potatoes found in archaeological sites throughout Polynesia.  Sweet potatoes dating from about AD 1000 have been found on the Cook Islands one of the Polynesian Islands.  Heyerdahl's trip and the discovery of the sweet potatoes showed South Americans could have taken the sweet potato to the islands but did not demonstrate that the islanders could have come to South America. According to archaeologist Elizabeth A. Matisoo-Smith of the University of Auckland, the chicken bone analysis provides the strongest evidence that the Polynesians arrived in South America before the Spaniards.  Thermoluminescent dating of ceramics from the site indicate it was occupied from AD 700 to 1390.   Radiocarbon dating showed the bones were about 622 years old.  Even with possible errors, they dated between AD 1321 and 1407; well before Spaniards came to the New World.  Genetic analysis of the chicken bones showed that they were identical to genetic sequences of chicken from that same time period in American Samoa and Tonga, both more than 5,000 miles from Chile.  With this new evidence, Matisoo-Smith concluded that the Europeans didn't pick them up in Polynesia and bring them back to South America.  Archaeologist Terry L. Jones of California Polytechnic State University is pleased because this finding supports his theory that Polynesians also landed in the Northern Hemisphere.  He and linguist Kathryn A. Klar of UC Berkeley have argued that the Chumash Indians of Southern California learned to build their sewn-plank canoes from the Polynesians, in part because the names of the boats are very similar in the two distinct languages.  Bone fishhooks used by the Indians also closely resembled those used in Polynesia.   Jones theorized that if we know they landed in Chile then why is it so difficult to imagine they couldn't have made it to Southern California?

Unique sarcophagi discovered in Croatia


Our next story is from Croatia, where pieces of at least three marble-topped sarcophagi and a 45 foot section of wall have been found in Solin, the capital of the Roman province of Dalmatia. Dating to the second half of the 3rd century AD, these unique sarcophagi were made in Greece exclusively for Dalmatia.  According to archaeologist Goran Skelac, director of the Zagreb-based Geoarcheo company, the site could be one of the most important findings so far in this region. The sarcophagi are unique works, given their size and quality, and are expertly made with deep reliefs depicting scenes of various divinities and figurative scenes.  Some of the scenes represented have never been seen before.  All the work is being conducted under the supervision of the Conservatory Department of the Ministry of Culture.  A research team was also established and headed by academician Nenad Cambij who will explore, evaluate and document the findings.

Discovery of ancient beads in Morocco suggests very early human culture


Our next story is from Morocco where ancient beads dating to about 82,000 years ago have been uncovered in a limestone cave.  Twelve beads were uncovered in Taforalt in eastern Morocco by an international team of archaeologists led by Oxford University's Institute of Archaeology. Colored with red ochre and made from Nassarius or mollusk shells, the beads have holes in their centers and show signs of being hung.  Beads used for decorative purposes are considered one of the earliest signs of modern human behavior or culture.  Four independent dating methods on the beads resulted in the 82,000 year old date.  According to Chris Stringer, human origins expert at London’s Natural History Museum, the new finding settles the question as to whether there was widespread symbolic behavior by early modern humans 75,000 years ago.  These beads are not the oldest found in the world, however. That title belongs to two beads uncovered from Skhul in Israel during the 1930s.  Last year, the beads were dated to around 100,000 years old.  These beads, and similar ones from Israel and South Africa, come from the same genus or group of species of the Nassarius. The similarities provide evidence that human ideas could cross wide areas of Africa in ancient times.  Stringer theorizes that if you draw a triangle to the three furthest known locations of Homo sapiens between 75,000-120,000 years ago, that triangle stretches from South Africa to Morocco to Israel.  Shell beads have now been found at all three points of that triangle, with three different stone tool industries.  Such behavior had probably spread right across the early human range by this time, and would have been carried by modern humans as they dispersed from Africa in the last 100,000 years.   Fossil and genetic evidence suggests modern humans, or Homo sapiens, originated in Africa about 200,000 years ago.  They migrated beyond Africa and the Middle East about 50-70,000 years ago and eventually spread throughout the world. Evidence of more complex human behaviors such as art, symbolism and burial practices provide information about the evolution of culture in our human ancestors.  This new finding adds to the growing body of evidence for modern human behavior or culture beginning in Africa long before it reached Europe.

Remains from Viking graves subject to DNA analysis


Our final story is from Norway, where Viking graves containing the famous ships Oseberg and Gokstad will be reopened in an effort to gain new knowledge from the remains of the two women and one man buried inside them.  Researchers fear the remains from Viking times may be in the process of disintegrating, if they haven't already.  They want to apply new methods of studying human bones that might yield new information about the Vikings' genetics and background.  When the remains of the man buried in the Gokstad mound were re-buried in 1928, they were packed into gauze, fastened to an oak plank and laid in a casket made of lead. It was then sealed and placed in a stone sarcophagus.  A similar re-burial procedure was used for the remains of two women found in the nearby Oseberg mound southwest of Oslo. Those remains, however, were placed in an aluminium casket.  According to Terje Gansum of the Midgard Historical Center in Vestfold, scientists fear that condensation caused by temperature swings in both metal caskets may cause the textile to dampen and possibly destroy or damaged the remains.  The two graves are to be reopened between September 10 and September 14.  Some bones from one of the Oseberg women were held back from re-burial in the 1940s, and a team of experts in Copenhagen were able to trace her origins to the Black Sea area through DNA analysis. Archaeologists now would like to determine, among other things, whether she was related to the other women in the grave.

That wraps up the news for this week!
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I'm Laura Kelley and I'll see you next week!