Audio news from February 27th to March 5th, 2011.

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from February 27th to March 5th, 2011.


Signs of early seafarers surface off California coast


Our first story is from the United States, where three sites on California’s Channel Islands are adding to the evidence of a diversified ocean-based economy among early North American inhabitants. Reporting in the March 4 issue of Science, a team led by the University of Oregon and the Smithsonian Institution details the discovery of scores of stemmed projectile points and crescents dating from about 12,000 to 11,000 years ago. The artifacts are associated with the remains of shellfish, seals, geese, cormorants and fish. The team also found thousands of artifacts made from chert, a flint-like rock used to make projectile points and other tools. Some of the projectiles are so delicate that their only practical use would have been for hunting on the water.

According to Jon Erlandson, professor of anthropology and director of the Museum of Natural and Cultural History at the University of Oregon, this is among the earliest evidence of seafaring and maritime adaptations in the Americas, and extends our awareness of the very real diversity of Paleoindian economies. The points from the islands are extraordinary in their thinness, with serrated edges and prominent barbs. Although stemmed points were also found, they are very different from the iconic fluted points of the Clovis and Folsom peoples, used for hunting big game on land. The artifacts were recovered from three sites that date to the end of the Pleistocene epoch on Santa Rosa and San Miguel islands, which were a single continuous Island during that time.

Rising seas since the Pleistocene have flooded the shorelines and coastal lowlands where early populations would have spent most of their time. Thus Erlandson and his colleagues focused their search on upland features such as springs, caves, and chert outcrops that would have drawn early maritime peoples into the interior of the island.

The artifacts and animal remains recovered have deeper implications for understanding the peopling of the Americas. To begin with, the technologies involved suggest these early islanders were not members of the land-based Clovis culture. Instead of fluted points, the islands produce points and crescents similar to artifacts found in the Great Basin and Columbia Plateau areas, including some found in pre-Clovis levels at Paisley Caves in eastern Oregon. But while crescent points are dated to between 8,000 and 10,000 years old in California, the new island finds date from 11,000 to 12,000 years old. The points also range in size from very tiny to quite large, suggesting that they were used for hunting a wide variety of animals. Some are associated with thousands of bird bones. Looking at a wider context, the Channel Island points are also broadly similar to stemmed points found at early sites around the Pacific Rim, from Japan to South America.

Six years ago, Erlandson proposed that Late Pleistocene sea-going people may have followed a coastal route, what he has called the "kelp highway." This stretched from Japan to Kamchatka, along the south coast of Beringia and Alaska, then southward down the Northwest Coast to California. Kelp forests are rich in seals, sea otters, fish, seabirds, and shellfish such as abalones and sea urchins. The newly reported sites support a picture of pre-Clovis immigrants moving down the coast, living on this rich diversity of ocean mammals, fish, shellfish, birds and associated plants.

High caves in Nepal yield previously unknown burial type


Traveling next to Nepal, we visit a more gruesome scene, where the remains of 27 ancient men, women, and children have been found in cliffside caves. Many of the bones bear cut marks pointing to a previously unknown Himalayan death ritual. The skeletons were placed in these cliff face mortuaries some 1,500 years ago, with two-thirds of them having been defleshed before the burial. After defleshing, most likely using a metal knife, the remains were neatly laid to rest on what appear to have been wide wooden shelves. However, due to centuries of exposure, the platforms had collapsed by the time the team entered the chambers and the bones were in disarray. Also at the site were goat, cow, and horse remains, perhaps sacrificial gifts for the dead, though their exact purpose remains a mystery.

The burial caves were human-made, dug into the typically reddish cliffs of the Upper Mustang district, 4,200 meters above sea level, or nearly 14,000 feet high. In ancient times, rock outcrops and probably ladders would have eased access to the caves. Since then, however, erosion has rendered the chambers accessible to only professional climbers, such as seven-time Everest summitter Pete Athans, who co-led the team. According to a statement by Athans, clues to when these caves were built, and by who, are melting before our eyes and the caves are under great threat, because they are situated in a fragile rock matrix that has already collapsed some time in the past.

There is little known about the three ancient Himalayan groups that defleshed and entombed their dead in the high Mustang caves. The team has ruled out cannibalism. Project co-leader Mark Aldenderfer, an archaeologist at the University of California at Merced, explained that the processing of the skeleton is very different than if someone was simply removing meat from an animal for eating. These ancient people’s corpses were handled in a respectful fashion. Preliminary DNA analysis of some of the bones suggests the defleshing subjects were relatives. Aldenderfer and his team think the practice of defleshing corpses and entombing them in caves might be a previously unknown bridge between two other known death rituals. One is the Tibetan sky burial, which was thought to have originated several hundred years later. Sky burial involves dismembering a body and exposing it to the elements and to scavengers such as vultures. Present-day Tibet is just a few miles from the cave tombs.

The other possibly related funerary rite is older, hailing from the Zoroastrian religion, which has its roots in ancient Persia. Zoroastrians defleshed their dead or placed the bodies in locations where scavenger birds could quickly remove the flesh, to avert the evil Zoroastrians believed could be done if the corrupt flesh polluted the good creations of water, fire and fertile soil. Ancient people living in the Upper Mustang region could have adopted funerary rituals of passing Zoroastrians as they traveled west, Aldenderfer notes. These rites, in turn, may have transformed into, or inspired, the Tibetan sky-burial ritual. The new finds are only the latest to be uncovered in the remote cliffs. In the 1980s, a Nepalese-German team discovered cave tombs dating back about 3,000 years. The human remains in those caves were not defleshed, however. In 2009, the team that just made the new discovery also found another cave holding a trove of Tibetan art, manuscripts, and skeletons dating back to the 15th century.

Parthenon frieze fragments identified in Acropolis walls


In Greece, archeologists have located long-lost fragments from the 2,500-year-old Parthenon built into the outer walls of the Athens Acropolis, according to supervising officials. The fragments were pinpointed after a vertical scan of the 20-metre walls using a camera mounted on a modified weather balloon.

According to Mary Ioannidou (yo-AHN-i-doo), head of the Acropolis Restoration Service, they have known for many years that elements from the Parthenon and other monuments are incorporated or built into the walls. Some of the architectural elements are believed to be parts of the Parthenon's famous metopes, or panels of sculpted decoration, that alternated with triglyphs, or band of three vertical mini-columns, all around the building’s upper frieze. The triglyphs and metopes of ancient Doric friezes were rectangular to square in shape, which made them handy building materials for later walls, such as the construction that turned Athens’s ancient citadel into an even stronger fortress during the 18th century.

The use of architectural elements from temples and other buildings in fortifications was commonplace throughout antiquity as well as later. The Parthenon has sustained significant damage in its long history. Bombarded during Venetian siege of Ottoman-held Athens in the 17th century, it then underwent modifications that turned it first into a church, and then a mosque. In the early 19th century, workers employed by British ambassador Lord Elgin (WARNING: correct pronunciation is with a hard “g”: EL-guin) tore down a large number of decorative friezes from the Parthenon. They were shipped to London and were eventually put on display at the British Museum where they remain to this day. The museum has turned down Greek calls for their return, arguing that the marbles are part of a world heritage and are more accessible to visitors in London. It was originally believed that Elgin had taken all the fragments, Ioannidou stated. As it turns out, he did not.

Mini-subs and computer models aid underwater search for ancient hunting sites


Returning to North America in our final story, a team of scientists is preparing to search this spring for ancient artifacts along an underwater ridge that straddles the U.S.-Canada border. The ridge below Lake Huron marks a place the researchers believe was a caribou-hunting hot spot about 10,000 years ago for some of the earliest inhabitants of North America. Computer simulations that reconstruct a lost world now lying at the bottom of Lake Huron will guide them.

The planned probe of the Alpena-Amberley Ridge, named for the towns that mark the western and eastern ends of the 160-kilometre, or 100-mile long, ridge will use remotely operated sonar devices to map the underwater terrain. A team of scuba divers will also comb the long-submerged landscape in search of spearheads and other signs of hunting activity from the end of the last ice age.

University of Michigan researchers announced in 2009 that they had discovered rock formations along the underwater ridge similar to well-documented caribou-hunting structures used in prehistoric times by the Paleoindian peoples who once occupied Canada's Arctic and sub-Arctic territories. Now under about 35 meters, or 115 feet, of water, the ridge once formed a wide elevated corridor in a lake-dotted landscape, forming a natural passage that helped link the caribou wintering grounds in the south to their summer ranges in present-day Northern Ontario and beyond.

According to project leader John O'Shea, a University of Michigan archaeologist, the underwater ridge is quite important scientifically, because its location preserves the entire ancient landscape unmodified by farming, or modern development, as has happened nearly everywhere on land. The ancient occupants of the post-glacial regions created drive lanes, traditionally built from lines of rocks or cairns, which steered the migrating caribou toward kill sites. There, spear-wielding hunters who had hidden behind strategically situated hunting blinds, such as a piled-up wall of stone, would rise to attack the passing herd.

After almost 10 millennia at the bottom of Lake Huron, the unusual rock formations found in 2009 constitute promising, though not definitive, evidence for an ancient hunting culture. Confirmation means looking on the lake floor for clearer traces of human presence, such as fire pits, toolmaking sites and other hunting structures. The researchers have teamed with Wayne State University computer scientist Robert Reynolds to create a three-dimensional virtual model of the ridge, complete with animated caribou moving along the corridor, to help identify as many high-probability sites as possible for this year's archeological investigation.

Based on geological data that gives a general picture of the topography along the ridge 10,000 years ago, the simulation is allowing the researchers to visualize the paths caribou would likely have taken during their mass migrations. The simulation should also help the team plot where ancient hunters would have established staging grounds and positioned themselves around kill sites to maximize their harvesting chances.

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