Audio News for May 1st to May 7th, 2011.

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from May 1st to May 7th, 2011.


Prehistoric cave paintings found in Northern Spain


Our first story is from Spain, where archaeologists made an amazing “accidental” discovery. Located in a cave in the northern region of the country archaeologists discovered prehistoric paintings representing horses and human hands. According to regional officials, researchers found the red paintings, which date back about 25,000 years, as they were looking for signs of ancient settlements. The chance finding was difficult to spot because the paintings are badly deteriorated, noted archaeologist Diego Garate.

The first Homo sapiens arrived in small groups in northern Spain around 35,000 years ago. They cohabited for a time with the last of the Neanderthals and then developed a significant culture known as the Upper Paleolithic, producing stone blade tools and decorating cave walls. Researchers will return to further explore the caves for evidence of prehistoric utensils or tools. The paintings date to around the same time as the Spanish Altamira Cave paintings, which are some of the world's best known and preserved prehistoric paintings.

World’s first villages may have consisted of community centers, not homes


Now, journey with us to Jordan, where archaeologists have found evidence of the world’s first villages. Until recently, archaeologists believed that the 12,000-year-old stone and mud-brick buildings that made up these small settlements were the houses of the area’s first farmers as they transitioned away from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. But the recent discovery of a large, amphitheater-like building adds to growing evidence that the earliest permanent buildings might not have been homes, but community centers.

The find suggests that during the dawn of agriculture, early farmers may have come together first to engage in communal activities, and only later to begin living together in communities. Archaeologists have little doubt that the larger villages that crop up throughout the Near East about 10,000 years ago, were residential communities made up of individual family houses. However, the earliest Neolithic villages are smaller, and include a variety of buildings of different sizes and shapes.

At an 11,500-year-old site called Jerf el Ahmar in Syria, for example, the entire community apparently used a number of structures, including storehouses and a circular building with a long bench. Moreover, at 11,000-year-old Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey, researchers have argued that fantastic monolithic stone structures were part of a community ritual center.
The team led by Bill Finlayson, director of the Council for British Research in the Levant in London and archaeologist Steven Mithen, an archaeologist at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, report the discovery of a large, oval-shaped building at a site in southern Jordan called Wadi Faynan 16. Early farmers lived here between 11,600 and 10,200 years ago, cultivating plants such as wild barley, pistachios, and fig trees, and hunting or herding wild goats, cattle, and gazelle.

The recently discovered structure is made of mud-brick, has a floor of mud plaster, and measures 22 by 19 meters. A long bench a meter deep and half a meter high surrounds its central area. In parts of the building, there is a second bench above the first one forming additional tier of seating. In addition, along the southern side of the building, a wave pattern incised into the mud-brick decorates the lower bench. The building’s central area also contains a series of stone mortars set into plaster platforms on the floor, possibly used to grind wild plants. The structure includes a number of post-holes, which the team thinks might have held up a roof that covered at least part of the building. The team also found two other, smaller structures, interpreted as storehouses for cereals and other food resources. The three structures lie within a cluster of other buildings in a 1-hectare site. However, none of these other buildings appears to be domestic houses either.

Finlayson, Mithen, and their colleagues conclude that the evidence from the site, combined with evidence from other sites, suggests that the earliest villages were made up communal structures where people came together to process their wild harvests and possibly also to engage in community performances. Research at similar sites have inferred that the farmers lived in small camps near the central site, but such open air habitations are very difficult to find and often leave little or no archaeological traces.

Evidence of ancient infanticide found in Roman Britain


According to a new study, infanticide, the killing of unwanted babies, was common throughout the Roman Empire and other parts of the ancient world. The study in the Journal of Archaeological Science explains that until recently, infanticide was widely tolerated in human societies around the globe. Before modern methods of contraception, it was one of the few ways of limiting family size that was both effective and safe for the mother.

Based on archaeological finds, the practice appears to have been principally widespread in the Roman Empire. Simon Mays, a senior scientific officer for the Ancient Monuments Laboratory of English Heritage, and colleague Jill Eyers, focused their attention on the Yewden Roman villa. This villa, dating from the 1st to the 4th century, is located at Hambleden, Buckinghamshire, England. A 1921 excavation of Hambleden determined the site has 97 infant burials, the largest number of such burials for any Roman location in Britain. The excavator at the time suspected infanticide with clandestine disposal of the bodies. Since few infant skeletons show evidence of cause of death, Mays and Eyers used an indirect method to investigate possible cases of infanticide. Natural deaths tend to show a dispersed age distribution at burial sites. At places where infanticide occurred, the age distribution is uniform, corresponding to full-term newborns.
The researchers took bone measurements of the Hambleden infant remains and compared them to those taken at two other sites: Ashkelon, Israel and the medieval Wharram Percy, England. Infants buried at Wharram Percy likely died of natural causes. Ashkelon told a different story. There investigators found nearly 100 full-term infants cast into a sewer that ran beneath a brothel.
Although the archaeologists uncovered the Hambleden babies in graves, their age distribution matched that of the infants at Ashkelon. The findings add to the growing body of evidence that infanticide was common in the Roman Empire. The reason so many infants were buried in Hambleden is unclear. The infant burials were clustered rather than scattered, and the excavated area just happened to contain the infant burial ground.

Unique Mayan staircase dates to Classic Period


Our final story is from Mexico, where an international team has discovered a stairway with Maya hieroglyphs located at El Palmar Archaeological Zone, in the southeastern state of Campeche. Researchers from the National Institute of Anthropology and History, the University of Arizona and the National Autonomous University of Mexico found the 6-step staircase that reveals El Palmar had contacts with Calakmul, in Campeche, and Copan, Honduras, almost 1300 years ago. Project leaders announced that the stairway consists 90 blocks with more than 130 hieroglyphs that refer to events from the Classic Maya period of AD 250-900.

While researchers have found 20 other stairways in the Mayan lowlands, the one at El Palmar is associated with small structures in the periphery of the site, instead of being linked to a monumental building at the central area.

The two archeologists revealed that the first 4 steps were in good shape, while the 5th and 6th were in pieces and needed to be restored. Epigraphist Octavio Esparza Olguin, who studied the hieroglyphs, believes the text narrates a visit paid by foreign people, maybe dignitaries, to El Palmar, and the steps were carved on September 13th, 726 AD. The inscriptions also contain Information about the lords of the site, as well as visits by the lords of Copan and Calakmul, the cities that kept contact with El Palmar before being defeated, respectively, by Tikal and Quirigua (Guatemala) between 736 and 738.

El Palmar excavations also yielded a burial with an offering that dates back to the time when the stairway was constructed in 8th century AD. Archaeologists found skeletal remains of a high-ranking male along with two vessels and other bones.

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