Audio news for February 7th to February 13th, 2010


Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for February 7th to February 13th, 2010.


North from Alaska, the Iron Rush was on!


Our first story is from Canada, where one of the country’s top archaeologists contends that the ancient Thule Inuit migrated rapidly from Alaska across the Canadian North in just a few years, not gradually over centuries as traditionally assumed.

In a recently published collection of essays by some of the world's leading Arctic archaeologists, Canadian Museum of Civilization curator emeritus Robert McGhee advances the idea he first presented two decades ago that a 4,000-kilometer pursuit of iron from Greenland's famous Cape York meteorite deposit was the reason for the rapid spread of the Thule culture across Canada around AD 1250.

McGhee asserts that new radiocarbon data and other re-evaluations of Eastern Arctic archaeological sites suggest that around 750 years ago, the Alaska-based Thule embarked on an ambitious voyage by skin boat and dogsled, almost directly from Alaska to Greenland, within a few summer traveling seasons.  Notably, Thule Inuit archaeological sites near the Cape York deposits are older than those in Canada, which are closer to Alaska, further suggesting a first rush to the northeast Arctic followed by a more gradual dispersal of population groups throughout present-day Nunavut, Northwest Territories and Yukon.

McGhee believes the Thule Inuit learned of the valuable metal at the Cape York meteorite field through contact with Canada's aboriginal Dorset people, who were already using iron and trading it with Norse sailors from southern Greenland and Iceland.  The Dorset people, a paleo-Eskimo culture that disappeared from the Canadian Arctic when the Thule Inuit arrived, used Cape York meteoric iron for centuries, according to the archaeological record.  McGhee adds, it is plausible to suggest that iron from the Cape York meteorites and metal goods traded from the Norse, may have been the magnet that drew ancestral Inuit eastward from Alaska.

His interpretation of Inuit origins in Canada being the result of commercial motives challenges the current view that ancient native cultures would only migrate to new territories systematically in response to environmental pressures, dwindling food supplies or competition from rival peoples.  McGhee concludes that future archaeological work may show the ancestral Inuit to be more accurately viewed as an entrepreneurial people driven by the same kinds of economic opportunities that prompted such explorers as Christopher Columbus or John Cabot to sail for the New World centuries later.  

Early Islamic-era village found in Saudi Arabia


In a much warmer place, Saudi Arabia, archaeologists have discovered an ancient village near the shores of the Persian Gulf.  The find is a residential settlement belonging to the beginning of Islam and consists of more than 20 houses containing coins, bits of pottery, limestone, and glass pieces.

The site features two-stage architecture; the first stage represents the beginning of residential units that might date back to the 7th Century.  Several modifications to the original design of the housing units, as well as many other public utilities, in addition to the new flooring over the old, indicate a second building phase.

Each house measures 16 by 12 meters and, on average, contains three or four rooms with an external courtyard.  Residents possibly used one of the rooms for the storage of dates, while the rest of the rooms were residential in function.  The courtyard contains a number of furnaces or ovens.  Three mounds are also located on the site.  On the surface, especially on the mounds, is a large quantity of pottery and broken glass pieces dating back to the early Islamic era.  Next to each group of three houses is a water system made up of a circular water well built of irregular stones from the nearby seashore.  Each well connects to an oval-shaped building, which researchers believe is a water tank with two channels for drainage.  The channels contain pottery jars to control the volume of water drained.

According to Dr. Ali Al Ghabban of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, this is one of several archaeological projects undertaken by his agency throughout Saudi Arabia.

Did Stonehenge hedge hide secret rituals?


Now we hop over to England where, according to a new study, landscape features detected at Stonehenge may have been screens to block onlookers from seeing secret rituals.  During a site survey, English Heritage, the government agency responsible for maintaining the monument, uncovered evidence for two encircling hedges, possibly thorn bushes, planted some 3,600 years ago.  The newfound banks are too low and unsubstantial to have had a defensive role.  According to English Heritage archaeologist David Field, the best explanation is that they represent some sort of hedge bank.

Field’s team discovered the two landscape anomalies in April 2009.  The shallow earthworks, running inside a ring of known Bronze Age pits, are barely visible to the professional eye.  Researchers did not find any physical evidence of vegetation, but the shallow features resemble former hedge banks seen around formerly hedged fields.

While no firm evidence of prehistoric landscape-gardening traditions is known, signs of tree cultivation are known from the time Stonehenge was in use.  Field points out that standard-size trees were being cultivated and looked after in order to provide straight, telegraph-pole-like features for the construction of palisades or fences of defensive stakes.  With that in mind, vegetation screens are quite feasible, Field concludes.

Previous archaeological investigations at Stonehenge have focused mainly on the stones themselves.  The latest finds, reported in the March/April edition of British Archaeology magazine, come as a surprise according to editor Mike Pitts, an archaeologist and Stonehenge researcher.  While Pitts believes the hedge hypothesis is a perfectly reasonable explanation, archaeologists have not excavated of these features.  Until that happens, the idea cannot be put to the test.

The April 2009 landscape survey used advanced technology, such as high-resolution surface lasers, to distinguish shapes invisible to the human eye.  Pitts adds that this is the first earthworks survey of the monument since 1919.  The new survey located a flattened mound near the center of Stonehenge that may be a burial.

The Stonehenge area, littered with prehistoric burial mounds, and the monument itself likely served primarily as a cemetery.  The suspected burial mound possibly dates to the earliest phases of the monument, as early as 5,000 years ago.


Ancient haircut reveals early Greenland DNA


In our final story, scientists have decoded the whole genome of an ancient human for the first time in history.  Researchers analyzed thick tufts of hair from a man who lived 4,000 years ago along the west coast of Greenland, revealing facts about a previously unknown human migration and leaving scientists with a detailed picture of what the Greenlander probably looked like.

More than 20 years ago, Danish-led excavations unearthed four fragmentary bones and several hair tufts belonging to an ancient man, dubbed Inuk.  Archaeologists found the hair along with other waste, suggesting that it was the remains of an ancient haircut.  A nearly complete sequence of nuclear DNA extracted from strands of his hair, the first such sequence obtained from an ancient person, highlights a previously unknown and relatively recent migration of northeastern Asians into the New World about 5,500 years ago.

The subject was part of a Paleo-Eskimo culture archaeologists call the Saqqaq.  According to studies of the genome of this individual, the Saqqaq's were closely related to the Chukchis, who live on the eastern tip of Siberia, instead of Native Americans as previously suspected. The Greenlander's ancestors likely split from the ancestral Chukchis 5,500 years ago and migrated across the Arctic regions of North America before settling in Greenland.

Complete mapping of the genome has allowed scientists to form a detailed picture of what the Greenlander may have looked like.  Variations in his nuclear DNA suggest he had brown eyes; type-A Positive blood;large, flat front teeth typical of Asians and Native Americans; and thicker hair than most Europeans or Africans.  Typical of residents of cold northern climates, his metabolism probably was slow and he had a broad, short body.  He also probably had dry earwax commonly found in Asians.

According to Dr. Morten Rasmussen, who led the genome-mapping team, evidence also indicates the Greenlander was at risk of baldness, despite the quantity of hair recovered.  In fact, he probably died at a young age.

That wraps up the news for this week!
For more stories and daily news updates, visit Archaeologica on the World Wide Web at, where all the news is history!
I'm Laura Kelley and I'll see you next week!