Audio news for December 13th to December 19th, 2009.


Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for December 13th to December 19th, 2009.


Amazon deforestation reveals ancient civilization


Our first story is from South America, where signs of what could be a previously unknown ancient civilization are emerging from beneath deforestation in the Amazon.  Spotted from the air in a region spanning Brazil's border with Bolivia are some 260 oversize avenues, ditches and enclosures.

The conventional view is that before the arrival of the Spanish and Portuguese in the 15th Century, no complex societies existed in the Amazon basin, in contrast to the Andes farther west, where the Incas built their cities.  Now forest clearance, increased air travel and satellite imagery are telling a different story.

Denise Schaan of the Federal University of Pará in Belém, Brazil, made many of the new discoveries from planes or by examining Google Earth images.  According to Schaan, every week investigators are finding new structures.  Some of them are square or rectangular, while others form concentric circles or complex geometric figures such as hexagons and octagons connected by avenues or roads.  The researchers describe them all as geoglyphs.  Their discovery, in an area of northern Bolivia and western Brazil, follows other recent reports of immense sprawls of interconnected villages known as "garden cities" in north central Brazil, dating from around AD 1400.  However, the structures unearthed at the garden city sites are not as consistently similar or geometric as the geoglyphs, Schaan says.

Martti Pärssinen of the Finnish Cultural and Academic Institutes in Madrid, who works with Schaan, firmly believes no direct relationship exists between the garden cities and the geoglyphs.  Nevertheless, both discoveries demonstrate that a large population lived in upland areas of western Amazonia much before the European incursion.

Ditches up to 11 meters wide and 1 to 2 meters deep form the geoglyphs.  They range from 90 to 300 meters in diameter and are thought to date from around 2000 years ago through the 13th Century.  Excavations have unearthed ceramics, grinding stones and other signs of human habitation at some of the sites, but not at others.  This suggests that some sites had purely ceremonial roles, while others may have been for defense.  However, piles of dirt outside the highly symmetrical ditches are unusual for defensive structures.

Many of the structures are oriented to the north, and the team is investigating whether they might have had astronomical significance.  Colin McEwan, head of the Americas section at the British Museum in London, notes that many of the great early civilizations had a riparian basis and the Amazon has long been underestimated and overlooked in that sense.  According to McEwan, although no evidence suggests that the Amazonians built pyramids or created written language as societies in ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia did, in terms of a trend towards increasing social complexity and domestication of the landscape, this wasn't just a pristine forest with isolated nomadic tribes.  These were substantial, sedentary and in the long-term very successful cultures.
While some Inca sites lie just 200 kilometers west of the geoglyphs, researchers have not found Inca artifacts at the new sites.  Neither do they seem to have anything in common with Peru's Nasca geoglyphs.  Alex Chepstow-Lusty of the French Institute for Andean Studies in Lima, Peru, has no doubt that current research is only scratching the surface of pre-Columbian societies in Amazonia.  Sadly, the economic development and forest clearance that is revealing these pre-Columbian settlement patterns is also the threat to having enough time to properly understand them.

Cleopatra’s Pylon emerges from Alexandria’s harbor


In Alexandria, Egypt, archaeologists have lifted an ancient granite temple pylon out of the waters of the Mediterranean.  The pylon, which had lain for centuries as part of the palace complex of Cleopatra, submerged in Alexandria's harbor, once stood at the entrance to a temple of Isis.  It will be the centerpiece of an ambitious underwater museum to display the sunken city, toppled into the sea by earthquakes in the 4th Century.

Divers and underwater archaeologists used a giant crane and ropes to lift the 9-ton, 7.4-foot-tall pylon, covered with muck and seaweed, out of the water.  The temple, dedicated to Isis, goddess of fertility and magic, is at least 2,050 years old, but likely much older.

Craftsmen cut the pylon from a single slab of red granite quarried in Aswan, 700 miles to the south.  It was part of a palace belonging to the Ptolemaic dynasty, whose last monarch, Queen Cleopatra, pursued Roman general Marc Antony.  Both committed suicide following their defeat by Octavian, who became Augustus Caesar.

The palace, along with other buildings and monuments, lay scattered on the seabed in the harbor of Alexandria, the second largest city of Egypt.  Since 1994, archaeologists have been exploring the ruins, which are abundant with some 6,000 artifacts.  Other parts of Alexandria's coast contain another 20,000 objects, according to Ibrahim Darwish, head of the city's underwater archaeology department.

In recent years, excavators have discovered dozens of sphinxes in the harbor, along with pieces thought to be part of the Alexandria Lighthouse, or Pharos, which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.  The pylon is the first major artifact extracted from the harbor since 2002, when authorities banned further removal of major artifacts from the sea fearing it would damage them.  Retrieving the pylon, originally discovered by a Greek expedition in 1998, was a laborious process.  For weeks, divers cleaned it of mud and scum, and then dragged it across the sea floor for three days to bring it closer to the harbor's edge for the extraction.  A truck stood by to ferry the pylon to a freshwater tank, where it will lie for six months until all the salt dissolves.  This is necessary because salt acts as a preservative underwater but causes damage in the open air.

Bronze-Age mourners buried flowers


Archaeologists in Scotland have found the first proof that prehistoric people placed bunches of flowers in the grave when they buried their dead.  Excavators discovered the bunch of meadowsweet blossoms in a Bronze Age grave at Forteviot, south of Perth.  Researched believed that pollen found in earlier digs came from honey or the alcoholic drink mead, but this find may finally rule out that explanation.

According to Dr. Kenneth Brophy, from the University of Glasgow, the flowers, which are three to four millimeters across, do not look like very much.  Nevertheless, they are the first proof that people in the Bronze Age, 4000 years ago, were actually placing flowers with burials.  

Excavators found a clump of organic material, which they say is the stems of the flowers, along with the dark brown heads.  Mourners placed the flowers at the head of the high-status individual they buried in the grave.  Excavators also found pieces from a birch bark coffin in the grave, and a bronze dagger with a gold hilt band.  Dr. Brophy explained that researchers are used to finding metalwork in burials.  However, to find very human touches in the form of flowers is something very rare, if not unique.

The finds all come from a Bronze Age grave - or cist - excavated by the Universities of Aberdeen and Glasgow.  An avenue of oak posts and large earthworks marked the site.  Next year, archaeologists will try to confirm if a sandstone slab found nearby was part of a stone circle.   

New evidence shows prehistoric Africans ate wild sorghum


Our final story is from Mozambique, where the consumption of wild cereals among prehistoric hunters and gatherers appears to be far more ancient than previously thought.  A University of Calgary archaeologist has found the oldest example of extensive dependence on cereal and root staples in the diet of early Homo sapiens who lived more than 100,000 years ago.

Julio Mercader, holder of the Canada Research Chair in Tropical Archaeology in the University’s Department of Archaeology, recovered dozens of stone tools from a deep cave with starch grains on them, showing that ancient people ate wild sorghum.  Wild sorghum, the ancestor of the main cereal consumed today in sub-Saharan Africa for flours, breads, porridges and alcoholic beverages, was part of Homo sapiens' pantry along with the African wine palm, the false banana, pigeon peas, wild oranges, and the African potato.  This is the earliest direct evidence of humans using pre-domesticated cereals anywhere in the world.

According to Mercader's findings published in the research journal Science, this broadens the timeline for the use of grass seeds by our species and is proof of an expanded and sophisticated diet much earlier than believed.  The newly discovered wild sorghum consumption happened during the Middle Stone Age, a time when the collecting of wild grains has traditionally been considered an immaterial activity and not as important as the consumption of roots, fruits and nuts.

 In 2007, Mercader and colleagues from Mozambique's University of Eduardo Mondlane excavated a limestone cave near Lake Niassa used sporadically by ancient foragers over the course of more than 60,000 years.  Deep in the cave, they uncovered dozens of stone tools, animal bones and plant remains relating to prehistoric dietary practices.  The discovery of several thousand starch grains on the excavated plant grinders and scrapers showed that prehistoric people brought wild sorghum to the cave and processed it systematically.

Mercader notes that starch use could represent a critical step in human evolution by improving the quality of the diet in the African savannas and woodlands where the modern human line first evolved.  Researches consider the inclusion of cereals in the diet an important step in human evolution because of the technical complexity and culinary manipulation that are required to turn grains into staples.  Mercader concludes the evidence is on par with grass seed use by hunter-gatherers in many parts of the world during the closing stages of the last Ice Age, approximately 12,000 years ago.

 In this case, the trend dates back to the interglacial period, some 90,000 years earlier.  The Canada Research Chairs program, Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the U of C’s Faculty of Social Science, and the National Geographic Society supported Mercader’s work.

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