Audio News for June 21st to June 27th, 2009

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for June 21st to June 27th, 2009.


Stone Age flutes recreate the earliest sound of music


Our first story is from Germany, where a bone flute unearthed in a cave was carved some 35,000 years ago.  It is the oldest handcrafted musical instrument ever discovered.  The cave’s location, in what is now southwestern Germany, dates to the same place and time that early modern Homo sapiens was also carving the earliest known examples of figurative art in the world.  Archaeologist Nicholas J. Conard of the University of Tübingen reported the discovery last fall of three flutes: a bone flute and two fragments of ivory flutes at Hohle Fels Cave in the hills west of Ulm.  The bone flute, with five finger holes, was the most complete of the musical instruments recovered from the caves.  Until now, such artifacts as were found were too rare and not dated precisely enough to support wider interpretations of the early rise of music.  The earliest evidence came from France and Austria, but was much more recent than 30,000 years ago.  In Conard’s article on the flutes, published by the journal Nature, he argues that these German finds demonstrate the presence of a well-established musical tradition at the time when modern humans were spreading into Europe.   Radiocarbon dates earlier than 30,000 years ago can be inexact, but samples from the bones and related material were tested independently by two laboratories, in England and Germany, using different methods, and the results from all tests agreed on ages of at least 35,000 years.  According to Conard, the new flutes are close to 40,000 calendar years old, and date to the initial settlement of the region.  Other artifacts of stone and ivory, including flint-knapping debris and bones of hunted animals, were found in the sediments with the flutes.  The bone flute was made from a hollow bone from a griffon vulture, a common bird at the time.  The preserved portion measures about 8.5 inches long and includes the end of the instrument into which the musician blew.  Decorations also appear on it in the form of two deep, V-shaped notches and four fine lines near the finger holes.  One end appears to have been broken off; going by the usual length of these bird bones, two or three inches are missing.  Previously, in 2004, Conard found a seven-inch long ivory flute with three holes at the Geissenklösterle cave, also near Ulm, but was unable to secure a date for it.  Friedrich Seeberger, a specialist in ancient music, reproduced the ivory flute in wood and found that it produced a range of notes comparable in many ways to modern flutes.  A replica has yet to be made of the recent discovery, but the archaeologists expected the five-hole flute with its larger diameter to provide similar, perhaps greater, range musical possibilities.  The recording that follows is from the wooden replica of the ivory flute found in 2004.

[sound file 25flute_audio.mp3 goes here]

Pacific obsidian study tracks early human links from Japan to Russia


In the cold waters of the northwestern Pacific Ocean, researchers are analyzing the origin of obsidian flakes to better understand how people settled and interacted in the inhospitable Kuril (KYOOR-eel)  Islands.  Colby Phillips, a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of Washington, and Robert Speakman of the Smithsonian Museum’s Conservation Institute used X-ray fluorescence spectrometers to pinpoint the origin of 131 flakes of obsidian to locations some distance from the Kurils.  The Kuril archipelago stretches 800 miles between the northernmost Japanese island of Hokkaido and the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia.  While the islands are volcanic in origin, they have no obsidian sources.  Prehistoric peoples found obsidian highly desirable for its easy, controllable flaking and ability to produce a very sharp edge.  Thus, they often procured it from considerable distances.  The small flakes studied come from 18 sites on eight islands in the Kuril chain, and span a period from about 500 B.C. to about A.D. 1200.  Phillips and Speakman used a database of obsidian signatures to match them to four sources on Hokkaido and five sources on Kamchatka, with a bit more than 60 percent originating in Kamchatka.  Human occupation of the Kurils is thought to have begun about 2000 B.C. at the southern end of the island chain near Hokkaido and gradually spread northward, toward the Kamchatka end of the chain.  Phillips noted, however, that obsidian shows up at all the sites and over all time periods.   Passing the obsidian along through trade, gifts or other exchange may have played a role in social networks as people migrated along the Kurils.  For people living in an isolated region subject to tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, social relationships with other groups would be valuable.  The distribution of obsidian throughout the islands shows that people maintained such ties following a basic pattern, in which obsidian from Hokkaido was found mainly in the Southern Kurils but also in the central islands, while Kamchatka obsidian was found only in the Central and Northern Kurils.  Since the time that their research was accepted for publication by the Journal of Archaeological Science, Phillips and Speakman have sourced an additional 700 obsidian flakes, with similar results.

Early Aegean site dates to era before agriculture


In the Greek Islands, the ruins of the oldest human settlement in the Aegean have been unearthed in excavations by a multi-national team of Greek, Italian and American archaeologists on the island of Limnos (LEEM-noss).  The excavation began in early June and so far has found mainly stone tools of a high quality, from the Pre-Neolithic period, pointing toward a settlement of hunters, gatherers and fishermen of the 12th millennium BC.  Until now, it was believed that the oldest human presence in the Aegean had been located elsewhere, at a tiny islet north of Alonissos (ah-lo-NIS-sos), and at the Maroula (mah-ROOL-ah) site on Kythnos (KITH-noss) island, both dating to around 8,000 BC.  The Limnos excavations are being led by Nikos Efstratiou (NEE-kohs ef-STRAH-tee-you), professor of Prehistoric Archaeology at the Thessaloniki (thess-ah-loh-NEE-kee) Aristotle University, with the assistance of the municipality and additional funding by the Institute for Aegean Prehistory.  Limnos is a region with significant prehistoric archaeological finds, such as Poliochne (po-lee-OAK-nee), an ancient town inhabited from the middle of the 5th millennium BC to the end of the 2nd millennium BC, and the Koukonesi (koo-KOH-ne-see) islet settlement dating approximately to the same period, the Early to Late Bronze Age. 

Cave carvings may link Cherokee script to prehistoric petroglyphs


Our final story is from the United States, where an archaeologist working in caves has found what may be the earliest known examples of Cherokee Script.  The invention of the Cherokee script is attributed to Sequoyah, who noted how white settlers made marks on paper, and realizing that these “talking leaves” could confer power and success, dedicated his life to creating a written form of his own language.  Born around 1770, Sequoyah was given the Anglo name George Gist by his father, an English fur trader, and his mother, a daughter of a prominent Cherokee family.  However, it was as Sequoyah that he started devising a writing system for Cherokee around 1809.   Ten years later, despite some ridicule, he finished the script of 85 characters.  Each represents a distinct sound in the spoken tongue, with the syllables combining to spell words.  Within a few years, most Cherokees had adopted this syllabary, and Sequoyah became a folk hero as the inventor of the first Native American script in North America.  His achievement is the only known instance of an individual’s single-handedly creating an entirely new system of writing.  Kenneth B. Tankersley of the University of Cincinnati now has found what he believes are the earliest known examples of the Sequoyah syllabary, 15 characters roughly cut into the wall of a cave in southeastern Kentucky, a place sacred to the Cherokee as the traditional burial site of a revered chief.  The characters are accompanied by a date that is hard to make out in part but is apparently carved by the same hand, and is either 1818 or 1808.  If the date proves to be 1808, Sequoyah was probably the only one then with knowledge of the writing and so must have carved the characters himself.  If the date is 1818, someone he taught may have carved the characters.  After discovering the cave writing in 2001, Tankersley carried out subsequent research to establish that Sequoyah often visited caves for spiritual inspiration while he was working on the syllabary, and also visited this specific region.  Tankersley first described his discovery in a paper on Cherokee rock art presented last year at a meeting of the Society for American Archaeology.  Additional details and interpretation were reported in an article in the current issue of Archaeology, the magazine of the Archaeological Institute of America.  Any new findings about Sequoyah are important because his invention of Cherokee writing promoted rapid strides in education and the culture of one of the largest Native American populations.  Some crucial early steps in his development of the script had been lost, because Sequoyah’s wife had destroyed examples of his early efforts, calling it “the devil’s work.”  Tankersley notes some intriguing petroglyphs carved on the wall alongside the Cherokee characters and is investigating possible links between the traditional glyphs and a few of the symbols in Sequoyah’s script.  If a link can be established, the inscription might be like a Rosetta stone, in this case showing where prehistory meets history.

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