Audio News for March 30th to April 5th, 2008

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for March 30th to April 5th, 2008.


DNA from Oregon caves supports pre-Clovis date for First Americans


From the United States, dried excrement found in a group of Oregon caves has given scientists the clearest evidence to date that humans roamed the New World at least 1,000 years earlier than previously believed. The prehistoric feces, deposited in a cave some 14,300 years ago, contain DNA from ancient relatives of modern-day Native Americans, according to the research. The discovery added fresh weight to emerging theories that Stone Age people from Asia somehow bypassed ice sheets sealing off North America before 11,000 BC. Nearly all scholars agree that humans were in the Americas by then, but until recently few archeologists accepted that an earlier arrival was even possible because of the difficult ice barriers. The new timeline comes from six pieces of dried excrement, called coprolites, found within the Paisley Caves complex by University of Oregon archaeologist Dennis Jenkins and painstakingly analyzed by Eske Willerslev and colleagues at the Denmark’s Centre for Ancient Genetics at the University of Copenhagen. According to the research, the coprolites contained DNA signatures that could belong only to Native Americans and certain populations in northeastern Asia. Excrement contains genetic material from plants and animals eaten as well as particles of tissue from the intestines. These materials yield DNA. The new research doesn't set an exact arrival date for humans, but it shakes up long-held assumptions that humans couldn't have punched past the glaciers covering nearly all of present-day Canada and the northern United States much before 13,000 years ago. That's when warming would have allowed easier transit from Siberia and Alaska, then joined by a land bridge, into the heart of North America by interior passageways. Because this research puts humans in the New World more or less concurrently with the ice wall, the find supports emerging hypotheses that the first Americans followed a rugged, coast-hugging route down the Pacific Northwest - perhaps coursing from peninsula to peninsula in primitive watercraft. Until a decade ago, broad consensus among scientists held that the first Americans were the so-called Clovis people, known for their delicately fluted spearheads and other distinctive stone and bone tools. Clovis sites are numerous across North America, but none has proved much older than 13,000 years. The Paisley Cave coprolites were dated using radiocarbon methods. The ultra-dry and cool soils in the caves are ideally suited to preserving organic material.

Be sure to visit TAC at on Monday, April 14, to see a special on-site Video Interview with Dr. Dennis Jenkins in Oregon’s High Desert at Paisley Caves, where he discovered the ancient human coprolites.

New Stonehenge dig aims to show its healing functions


In England, the first excavation inside the ring at Stonehenge in more than forty years is getting under way. The two-week dig will try to establish, finally, the precise dating of the construction of the monument. The new dig will also try to answer the mystery of the smaller bluestones that stand inside the giant pillars. Researchers believe these rocks, brought all the way from Wales, hold the secret to the real purpose of Stonehenge as a place of healing. The scientists leading the project are two of the United Kingdom's leading Stonehenge researchers - Professor Tim Darvill, of the University of Bournemouth, and Professor Geoff Wainwright, of the Society of Antiquaries. They are convinced that the 4,500-year-old landmark was similar to a "Neolithic Lourdes" - a place where people went on a pilgrimage to get cured. Some of the evidence supporting this theory comes from the dead. A significant proportion of the newly discovered Neolithic remains show clear signs of skeletal trauma. Some had undergone operations to the skull, had walked with a limp, or had broken bones. Modern techniques have established that many of these people had evidently traveled huge distances to get to southwest England, suggesting they were seeking spiritual help for their ills. Darvill and Wainwright have also traced the bluestones, the stones in the center of Stonehenge, to the precise spot they came from in the Preseli hills, 150 miles away in the far west of Wales. Neolithic inscriptions found at this location indicate the ancient people there believed the stones to be magical and for the local waters to have healing properties. Darvill and Wainwright hope the dig will demonstrate such beliefs also lay behind the creation of Stonehenge. The dig will also provide a more precise dating of the Double Bluestone Circle, the first stone circle erected at Stonehenge. Archaeologists tried to date the first circle in the 1990s and estimated it at approximately 2,550 BC; but a more precise dating has not been possible. This excavation is a new effort aimed at retrieving fragments of the original bluestone pillars in a context suitable for proper dating.

Hoard of Viking coins documents trade with Arabs


Swedish archaeologists have discovered a rare hoard of Viking-age silver Arab coins near Stockholm's airport. Approximately 470 coins were unearthed at an early Viking Age burial site. The coins date from the 7th to the 9th Century A.D., when Viking traders traveled extensively. No similar find in that area of Sweden has been seen since the 1880s. According to archaeologist Karin Beckman-Thoor, most of the coins were minted in Baghdad and Damascus, but some came from Persia and North Africa. The team from the Swedish National Heritage Board had just started removing a stone cairn at the site when they found one coin and could not understand why it was there. They continued digging, found more coins, and realized it was a Viking-age stash left there in about AD 850. Such Viking caches usually come from Gotland - a large Swedish island in the Baltic Sea. Beckman-Thoor added that no Viking was buried at the site and the grave is older, although a village had been settled nearby. The Vikings may have believed that ancestors would protect the hoard. The Vikings traveled widely in their longships in the Baltic region and Russia from the late 8th to the 11th centuries. They are known to have traveled as far as North Africa and Constantinople, now Istanbul. More than a millennium ago, trading Norsemen were also making their way east. Bearing luxurious furs and attractive nodules of amber, they penetrated the vast steppes of what is today Ukraine, Belarus and Russia and entered Central Asia. There they met Muslim traders who paid for Norse wares with silver coins, which the Vikings themselves did not mint, and which they coveted. Their routes were various, and by the ninth and 10th centuries, a regular trade network had grown up. Some Norsemen traveled overland and by river, while others sailed over both the Black and Caspian Seas, joined caravans and rode camelback as far as Baghdad.

Joint Russian-American team studies origins of whaling in the Arctic


In our final story, recent findings by a Russian-American research team suggest that prehistoric cultures were hunting whales at least 3,000 years ago, a thousand years earlier than previously known. From University of Alaska’s Museum of the North, archaeology curator Daniel Odess presented the team's findings at the recent annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology. The researchers focused on the Un'en'en site near the modern whaling village of Nunligran on the Chukotka Peninsula of Russia. The team believes this site, discovered in 2005, was representative of the Old Whaling culture. The only other previously known Old Whaling culture site is on Cape Krusenstern, north of Kotzebue in northwestern Alaska. According to Odess, the importance of whaling in arctic prehistory is clear. Prehistoric settlements were situated and defended so that people could hunt whales. Yet, as important as whaling is, we know very little about how, where and when it began. On one of the last days of the excavation they found a picture: an ivory carving, approximately 50 cm long, with detailed carvings of animals and humans, including scenes of men in umiaks harpooning whales. The carving was found within the wooden roof of the structure the team excavated. Radiocarbon dating of wood samples in direct contact with the ivory carving confirms its age as 3,000 years old. The images on the carving combined with other evidence, including a site ideally situated for hunting whales and walruses, the remains of those animals, and the appropriate tools for hunting and butchering, suggest that 3,000 years ago, people on the southern coast of the Chukotka Peninsula were hunting whales and walruses in much the same way that Eskimos were at the time. The 2007 fieldwork was the first joint Russian-American archeological project in Chukotka and was supported by funding from the National Park Service and the National Science Foundation. Researchers continue to examine the artifacts, which are housed at the Institute for Heritage in Moscow.

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