Audio  news for January 31st to February 6th, 2010


Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for January 31st to February 6th, 2010.


DNA from burials show westerners in ancient Mongolia


Our first story is from eastern Mongolia, where DNA analysis of 2,000-year-old bones has discovered a Westerner amongst the ancient burials.  The skeleton under investigation is that of an older man from one of more than 200 tombs recently excavated at Duurlig Nars, a 2,000-year-old cemetery in eastern Mongolia, near its border with China.  Surprisingly, the DNA analysis shows that this man’s genetic origins lay much farther west.  According to geneticist Kyung-Yong Kim of Chung-Ang University in Seoul, South Korea, whose team is analyzing the chromosomal material extracted from the bones, several distinctive traits in the DNA show that the man was an Indo-European, that is, the descendant of eastern Europeans or western Asians.  Despite his foreign ancestry, however, he was a respected person in ancient Mongolia's Xiongnu Empire, as shown by his burial very near a high-ranking leader.  Judging by previous excavations as well as descriptions in ancient Chinese texts, the empire was a multicultural union of nomadic tribes that differed both ethnically and linguistically.  The Xiongnu Empire covered a vast territory in and around Mongolia from 209 BC to AD 93, including the major trading route known as the Asian Silk Road.  That fabled east-west trade route opened the empire to both Western and Chinese influences.  The language spoken by Xiongnu rulers and political elites has not yet been determined.  However, the new genetic evidence shows that the 2,000-year-old man was multi-ethnic, like the Xiongnu political system itself.  On the man’s Y chromosome, which carries material inherited from paternal ancestors, he bears a set of genetic mutations that are common today among male speakers of Indo-European languages in Eastern Europe, central Asia and northern India.  At the same time, he had mitochondrial DNA mutations, which are inherited from maternal ancestors, that are typically found in speakers of modern Indo-European languages in central Asia.  According to Charles Brenner, a DNA analyst in Oakland, California, and one of the study’s coauthors, there is no information to show whether this 60- to 70-year-old man came to Mongolia during his lifetime or was from a family that had already lived there for generations.  The analysis is part of a study to be published in an upcoming issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.  Two other skeletons from the Xiongnu cemetery show outside genetic links, to people who live in northeastern Asia.  The Duurlig Nars genetic signatures support the idea that Indo-European migrations to northeastern Asia started before 2,000 years ago.   Scholars have long sought to trace the origin and spread of related languages now found in Europe, India and other parts of Asia. One hypothesis holds that Indo-European languages grew through several waves of expansion and conquest by nomads known as Kurgans.  Kurgans had domesticated horses and could travel long distances, which they might have used to leave their homeland north of the Black Sea around 6,400 years ago.  Another view holds that farmers from ancient Turkey spread Indo-European tongues as they moved eastward, beginning around 9,000 years ago.  Since 1978, discoveries of 2,400- to 4,000-year-old mummified corpses with European features in northwestern China, not far from Mongolia, have fueled the Kurgan hypothesis.  Remains of large wheels found with these blond-haired individuals raise the controversial possibility that these foreigners introduced carts and chariots to the Chinese.  Since about 2,000 years ago, the easternmost Indo-European languages were likely spoken in northwestern China.  Therefore, an Indo-European speaker could have allied himself with Xiongnu political elite and earned an eternal resting place in a privileged Xiongnu cemetery.

Vanished people’s dwellings found in northern Mexican caves


In Mexico, archaeologists have found more than a dozen dwellings up to a thousand years old in caves at Barranca de la Sinforosa or Sinforosa Gully, in the state of Chihuahua.  Preliminary studies of ceramics and remains point to use by the Tubar (too-BAHR).  The Tubar people isolated themselves in the Tarahumara (TAH-rah-oo-MAH-ra) mountain range during the 16th century to avoid Christian missionaries, and were destroyed by the late 19th century.  According to archaeologist Enrique Chacon (cha-COHN), of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), the team of researchers identified three types of sites.  The architecture, burial system and comparison to regional research shows that one group dates to the 16th-17th centuries, while others could go back to the 11th Century.  One later site held at least six individuals of both sexes and diverse ages.  Another revealed five individuals dating from AD 1000 to 1450, whose remains were wrapped in vegetable fiber matting pinned together by wooden needles.  Also at the site were offerings, such as ceramic artifacts and vegetal gourds.  The caves are similar to the cliff dwellings of the Ancient Southwest, Chacon noted.   The Tubar people were nomadic and then semi-nomadic for centuries before finally settling down in small communities that used the caves as dwellings, graves and storage locations.  Two ceremonial or ritual sites were identified, which feature holes drilled into the rocks on hillsides where rituals took place.  One of the ceremonial sites was found atop a hill and the other at the entrance of a cave.  The archaeological investigation began after local people reported the remnants in 2009.

With last speaker’s death another ancient island language is extinct


In the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, another ancient tribal language has become extinct with the last speaker’s death.  The woman, named Boa Sr (BO-a SUR), was in her 80s and had lived through the Japanese occupation during World War II as well as waves of sickness brought by British settlers.  She was the last native of the island chain who was fluent in a language called Bo.  Named after her now-extinct people, Bo is one of 10 Great Andamanese languages, and is thought to date back to pre-Neolithic human settlement of Southeast Asia some 65,000 years ago.  Although her language had been studied intensively by linguists, Boa Sr spent the last few years of her life unable to converse with any other native speakers.  She also spoke Hindi and another local language, but other local people, while from related tribes, were unable to comprehend her collection of Bo songs and stories.  According to Narayan Choudhary, a linguist at Jawaharlal Nehru University who was part of an Andaman research team, her loss is not just the loss of the Great Andamanese community, but a loss for several disciplines together, including anthropology, linguistics, history, psychology, and biology.  The Andaman Islands are an archipelago in the Bay of Bengal, governed by India.  The aboriginal population has steadily declined since British settlers colonized the islands in 1858, using them as a penal colony for the next 100 years.  On some islands, tribes retained their distinct culture by dwelling deep in the forests and fending off colonizers, then missionaries and finally even documentary film makers with arrows.  Nevertheless, the last remnants of remoteness ended when roads were put through the forests in the 1970s.  According to the non-governmental organization Survival International, over the past 150 years the population of Great Andamanese people has plummeted from about 5,000 to 52.  According to Stephen Corry, Survival International's director, outright massacres killed many of the Great Andamanese initially.  The survivors were hit hard by paternalistic colonial practices that brought epidemics of new disease, stole their land and took away their independence.  With the death of Boa Sr and the extinction of the Bo language, a unique part of human society is now just a memory.  Corry called Boa's loss a bleak reminder of the struggle needed to prevent this happening to the other remaining tribes of the Andaman Islands.

Roman era church remains found below later Spanish version


Our final story is from Catalonia, in Spain, where early reports from an urban planning project indicate the discovery of an older Roman version of the medieval church of Sant Feliu Girona (sahnt FAY-lee-oo heer-OHN-a).  The discovery came in the first excavations ever carried out in the historic church’s chancel, which is the space around the altar reserved for the clergy and the choir.  In a medieval cathedral of Sant Feliu’s type, the chancel was usually enclosed or blocked off from the nave, or main area of the church, by an altar screen.  The smaller early version from the Roman period had a cross-shaped layout with an apse at the top, three naves forming the base, and two side chapels extending as the arms.  Several tombs were also in the early church, which dates from the sixth and seventh centuries AD.  The research at the church is part of a European project coordinated by the city of Brindisi, Italy, and including participants from France’s national university in Toulouse as well as the University of Girona.  The urban research project, which included three weeks of excavation, brought to light several tombs, including one that is clearly from a Roman Christian, suggesting that those buried there were bishops or other leading individuals from the late Roman, early Christian era.  According to Professor Josep Maria Nolla, the archaeologist directing the excavations, actual human remains were not found, and indications are that the bodies had long since been removed to some other location.  The graves, however, were well preserved, including wood and nails from coffins, suggesting that when that early church was rebuilt into a larger one, the skeletal remains were simply gathered up for reburial elsewhere.  The European sponsored project in Gerona, north of Barcelona, focuses not only on helping that city, but on developing solutions to the problem faced by many medium sized cities that are finding their past history during town planning and development.  Many of the archaeological sites of interest in such towns are embedded into the current urban fabric that is increasingly under demand for expansion.

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