Audio News for January 6th to January 12th, 2008

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from January 6th to the 12th, 2008.


Tonga may be original home of Polynesian cultures


Our first story is from the Polynesian island of Tonga, where pottery shards appear to confirm the birthplace of Polynesian cultures. According to Professor David Burley of Simon Fraser University in Canada, the most ancient original Polynesian community is located just east of Tonga's capital. The confirmation comes as something of a blow for Samoa, which has advertised itself for decades as the “cradle of Polynesia.” Archaeologists first excavated the site in the 1960s and found pottery that was different from more recent sites in Tonga, but very similar to pottery found in Fiji, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia. The pottery, named Lapita after the site in New Caledonia where it was first found, spread east through Melanesia and into the Pacific by a mysterious group of people who eventually became the first Polynesians. Designs in the pottery are very distinctive and show the relationships of sites, as well as similarities to tapa cloth designs and traditional tattoo designs. Linguistic evidence also suggests a direct and early arrival in Tonga from the west. According to Burley, a final excavation last year nailed the Tonga position as the starting point for Polynesian expansion when it turned up pottery that was 2,900 years old. Tonga was the first group of islands in Polynesia to be settled by the Lapita people about 3000 years ago. The site for the original village was ideal. The Lapita would have arrived when the lagoon sea level was higher than today. No mangroves grew there, so the lagoon shore was a big beach and the lagoon was full of shellfish. The excavators found that the site was packed with layers of shellfish. Other remains show that the people were eating lots of turtles and birds, with 26 species identified so far. Within a century of establishing this village, the first Polynesians had settled the whole of Tonga, Burley said. A thousand years later they moved eastwards to eastern Polynesia.

Prehistoric people may have mapped the stars


Our next story is from the Italian Alps, where prehistoric people may have mapped the stars on stone. Two groups of cup-shaped markings carved on a pair of boulders may represent the Pleiades star cluster. The carved boulders are near the Plan des Sorcières (Plawn day sor-see-AIRS)-- literally “The witches' plateau”--in Val d'Aosta, Italy. According to archaeo-astronomer Guido Cossard, who made the discovery, the series of cup markings have the same shape as the famous star cluster, and it may represent what he calls the most ancient star map ever found. Cossard added that the entire site is clearly aligned to the rising point of the Pleiades. An additional cup mark can be seen on the boulders which may represent the Seventh Sister of the Pleiades, considered to be missing. Although the Pleiades are popularly termed the Seven Sisters, only six stars are easily visible to the naked eye, and a considerable mythology has grown up to account for the “missing” Pleiad.

Ancient canoes located in Florida


Our third story comes from Lake Trafford in Florida, where dropping lake levels have revealed ten ancient canoes that may be more than a thousand years old. Dredging activity at the lake and natural wave action uncovered the canoes. Archaeologist George Provenzali of Janus Research in Tampa was called in to measure the canoes and take samples for radiocarbon dating to decipher their age and to determine what kind of trees they were made from. The largest canoe fragment is almost 14 feet long. Some seem to be made of cypress, but others were constructed from pine. According to Provenzali, radiocarbon dating should be complete within two months.
The samples showed wood as fresh as recently cut trees. Although dead plant material normally breaks down quickly, the canoes had been buried in sediment devoid of oxygen, where the organisms that cause decomposition can't live. Previous finds of ancient canoes have mainly come from northern Florida, where canoes are up to 7,000 years old. However, in south Florida, canoes of any sort have been rare. The Lake Trafford canoes would be very difficult to remove and preserve, so they will be left in the lake. Once the rain comes and covers them, they will be preserved for hundreds or thousands of years.

DNA testing reveals contents of ancient Greek shipwreck


We end this week’s news in Sweden, where molecular science has decoded 2,000 year old DNA from jars on a sunken Greek shipwreck to discover their original contents. The discovery, reported by Maria Hansson of Lund University, opens up a whole new field of molecular archaeology, which will yield new insights into ancient agriculture and trading networks. The ancient Mediterranean civilizations often used ceramic jars called amphorae (am-fo-ray) as shipping containers, and piles of amphorae are often the only remnant of ancient shipwrecks after the boats themselves have decayed. Researchers trying to learn the jars’ original contents are often unsuccessful because the amphorae only occasionally hold visible clues, such as olive pits. Hansson and her colleague Brendan Foley of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts suspected that ancient DNA molecules could supply some of the needed evidence.
They analyzed ceramic material scraped from the inside of two amphorae from a fourth century B.C. shipwreck found near the Greek island of Chios. Tiny DNA fragments were found trapped in the pottery. One jar probably contained olive oil flavored with oregano. This was a surprise, because historians thought that amphorae of that style usually carried wine, which Chios was known for. The other jar’s DNA was either from mastic — gum from a shrub cultivated on Chios — or pistachio, a related plant. Ancient Chians used mastic resin as a wine preservative and flavoring. Because the second jar was thought likely to have contained wine, it was checked for grape DNA. While none was found, the wine may have washed away because wine dissolves in water better than oil or resin.

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