Audio News for April 3rd to April 9th, 2011.

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from April 3rd to April 9th, 2011.


Paleoindian skull found with mastodon bones in underwater Mexican cave


Our first story is from Mexico, where explorers have discovered what might be the oldest evidence of humans in the Americas. PET (Projecto Espeleológico de Tulum), an organization that specializes in the exploration and survey of underwater caves on the Yucatan Peninsula recently explored a large pit named Hoyo Negro, or Black Hole, deep within a flooded cave. Their explorations revealed the remains of an Ice Age mastodon and a human skull at the bottom of the 200-foot deep chasm inside the Aktun-Hu cave system.

The PET team reached Hoyo Negro after the divers travelled more than 4,000 feet through the underwater passages using underwater propulsion vehicles. Once in the pit, they started surveying and documenting its dimensions. During the various dives for mapping and surveying, they found several megafauna remains and what was undoubtedly a mastodon bone, as well as a human skull at the depth of about 140 feet.

The team contacted Guillermo de Anda, an archaeologist from the University of Yucatan in Merida (UADY) who says the skull appears pre-Maya, which could make it one of the oldest set of human remains in the area and possibly the oldest evidence of humans yet discovered in the Americas. Archaeological and genetic data have long supported a northeast Asia origin for the populations that first settled North and South America. The so-called “First Americans” or Paleoindian peoples likely entered into these new lands sometime between 15,000 and 20,000 years ago.

The human remains as well the bones of extinct species of Pleistocene megafauna, offer an extraordinarily rare glimpse into a period that witnessed the peopling of the New World. During the Late Pleistocene, these caves were dry. As the last glacial maximum came to end, the melting of the polar ice caps and continental ice sheets raised sea levels worldwide. The caves of the Yucatan Peninsula filled with water and the First Americans remained hidden for millennia.
Cave divers have discovered other ancient human remains on the Yucatan peninsula. In 2008 divers found a 13,600 year old female skeleton and in 2010 they found a possible ritual burial from 10,000 years ago.

Asian bamboo tool technology both complex and complicated


The long-held theory that early human ancestors in East Asia created their tools from bamboo and wood is much more complicated than originally imagined, according to a new study. Until now, research has failed to address a fundamental question: Is it even possible to make complex bamboo tools with simple stone tools?

An experimental archaeological study in which a modern-day flint knapper replicated the fabrication process of bamboo knives confirms that it is possible to make a variety of bamboo tools with the simplest stone tools. However, according to archaeologist Metin I. Eren, the expert knapper, the “bamboo hypothesis” always represented all bamboo species, and bamboo tool-making as equal.

The researchers found that crudely knapped stone choppers made from round rock "cobbles" performed surprisingly well for chopping down bamboo. In addition, bamboo knives were efficiently crafted with stone tools. While the knives easily cut meat, they were not effective at cutting animal hides, possibly discouraging their use during the Stone Age. Some knives made from a softer bamboo species entirely failed to produce and hold a sharp edge. The research does not discredit the idea that prehistoric people could have made and used bamboo implements, but instead suggests that upon arriving in East and Southeast Asia people probably did not suddenly start churning out all of their tools from bamboo raw materials either.

As in Africa, previous fossil discoveries in East Asia have indicated that early human ancestors continuously inhabited those regions for as much as 1.6 million years. Unlike Africa and western Eurasia, however, where stone tools show increasing and decreasing complexity, East Asia's stone tools remain somewhat simple. Researchers know that simple flaked "cobble" industries existed in some parts of the vast East and Southeast Asia region. Stone tool discoveries there have been limited to a few hand axes, cleavers and choppers flaked on one side, indicating a lack of more advanced stone tool-making processes, innovation and diversity found elsewhere.

Scientists have hypothesized various explanations for the lack of complex stone tools in East and Southeast Asia. Some researchers suggest that human ancestors during the early Stone Age left Africa with rudimentary tools and were then cut-off culturally once they reached East Asia, creating a cultural backwater. Others suggest a lack of appropriate stone raw materials in East and Southeast Asia.

The new study demonstrated that complex stone tools could be manufactured on stone perceived to be "poor" in quality. Using the crudely knapped stone choppers, the researchers chopped bamboo stalks and produced sharp, durable bamboo knives, as well as a spear.

Colorado site sheds light on Mesa Verde origins


Our next story is from Mesa Verde in the United States, where the mystery of the magnificent legacy of the Pueblo Indians of the American Southwest remains just that...a mystery. Who really built them, where did they come from, and what is their story?

Archaeologists of the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center hope to find answers at the Dillard site in Colorado. A ceremonial center that dates from the AD 7th century, the site includes evidence of a great kiva, and at least several smaller structures called “pit-houses.” For the prehistoric pueblo people, kivas were gathering places for the community, where religious ceremonies and other public events went on in a central location.

Archaeologists discovered the site in 1991 during a survey ahead of construction of a private residential community. That survey also revealed evidence of more than 120 other pit-houses surrounding the core site, making it and the surrounding area one of the largest clusters of remains from this era.

According to Dr. Shirley Powell, Vice President of Programs at the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, this new study will shed light on the Basketmaker III period, which dates from AD 500 to 750. This period saw a population boom as well as great technological advances and social change including building the first great kivas.

Powell notes that the public is encouraged to make a lasting contribution to the understanding of the Basketmaker III period by joining the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center for an archaeology program. Everyone will have the opportunity to work side-by-side with Crow Canyon archaeologists and educators in the field and lab, investigating this pivotal time in Pueblo history.


Leprosy apparently didn’t ostracize medieval warrior


Our final story is from the cemetery of Campochiaro in central Italy, where excavators have found the bones of a soldier with leprosy who may have died in battle. Studying ancient leprosy, caused by a bacterial infection, may help scientists figure out how the infectious disease evolved.

According to researcher Mauro Rubini, an anthropologist at Foggia University in Italy, the cemetery also reveals the warlike ways of the semi-nomadic people who lived in the area between the sixth and eighth centuries. The war wounds, caused by battle-axes and maces, show evidence of surgical intervention and provide a peek into the medical capabilities of medieval populace of Italy.

Between the years 500 and 700, when the cemetery was in use, the area was under the control of the Lombards, a Germanic people who allied with the Avars, and a culturally diverse group of Mongols, Bulgars and Turks. Research has failed to reveal a stable settlement so the cemetery was likely used by a military outpost of Lombards and Avars, who were guarding against invasion from the Byzantine people to the south.

Archaeologists have excavated 234 graves with many containing both human and horse remains. Burying a man with his horse is a tradition from Siberia, Mongolia and some Central Asian regions, Rubini notes, suggesting that the Avars brought their death rituals with them to Italy.
Rubini and his colleague Paola Zaio detailed three of these bodies in an upcoming article published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The first man was approximately 55 when he died. Researchers are not sure what killed him, but they do know that he managed to survive a blow to the head that tore a 2-inch hole in his skull. The pattern of the wound and the size of the hole suggest a Byzantine mace as the weapon. The man probably went through the medieval equivalent of brain surgery because the margins of the wound are smooth and free of fragments. Whatever happened, the man survived his wound. The bone had begun to heal and grow before the man died.

Warrior No. 2, another man of 50 or 55, painted a similar forensic picture. Judging by the shape of the wedge-shaped dent in the man's skull, he probably received his blow from a Byzantinian battle-ax. Like his comrade with the hole in the head, this man survived for a long time after the injury.

The bones of the third warrior show the telltale wasting and mutilation of leprosy, now known as Hansen's disease. In ancient times, a diagnosis of leprosy often banished sufferers from society. Apparently, the Lombards and Avars took a more tolerant approach because they buried this warrior, who died around age 50, in the cemetery along with his comrades. The leprosy sufferer's skull bears the mark identified as a sword slash. Since the wound shows no signs of healing, the man probably died immediately or shortly after receiving the blow.
Rubini and other researchers are working to extract the DNA of the bacteria that causes leprosy from his bone. The goal is to compare the medieval version of the disease to the bacteria alive today.

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