Audio News for September 25th to October 1st, 2011

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from September 25th to October 1st, 2011.

Stone Age children’s art lessons identified on cave walls


New research in France shows that Stone Age toddlers may have attended a form of prehistoric nursery where they were encouraged to develop their creative skills in cave art by participating in an ancient form of finger-painting.  A Cambridge University conference on the archaeology of childhood reveals a provoking glimpse into life for children in the Paleolithic age, an estimated 13,000 years ago.  

Archaeologists at the Cave of a Hundred Mammoths have discovered that children actively helped to express themselves through “finger fluting,” a process of running fingers over soft red clay to produce zig-zags, swirls and crisscrossing lines.  One chamber has such an abundance of flutings by children that the researchers believe it was an area set aside specifically for them.  Identified in this room are the markings of four children, estimated to be between the ages of two and seven.  

According to Jess Cooney, a PhD student in Cambridge University's archaeology department, it is being speculated that this particular chamber could have been a playroom where the children gathered, or a room for practice where they were encouraged to make these marks in order to develop their artistic skills.  Alternatively, it could have been a room used in a ritual for particular children as a sort of initiation.  

The existence of children's art was first revealed in 2006 by archaeologists Leslie Van Gelder, of Walden University, and her husband Kevin Sharpe. Cooney, working alongside Gelder, has spent two years analyzing the presence of the hunter-gatherer offspring.  Flutings thought to be by a five-year-old girl are the most prolific throughout the cave system.  Works by four adults were also identified, though it is possible there were two additional adults present.  

According to researchers, the concurrence of the flutings of individuals indicates the relationships between the cave dwellers.  For example, the markings show that one seven-year-old girl was most often in the company of the smallest of the adults, probably a male and possibly her older brother.  Some of the children's flutings are high up on walls and on the ceilings, so they must have either been held up been sitting on someone's shoulders in order to make them, notes Cooney.  The research shows us that children were everywhere, even in the deepest caves, but they were not just running amuck.  It was a collaborative effort of both children and adults.

Additionally, flutings by the two-year-old child suggest that an adult guided his or her hand.  The flutings are very controlled, which is highly unusual for a child of that age, and suggest that they were being taught.  

The significance of finger flutings, however, has been widely debated in archaeological circles.  Some regard the marks, found in other caves in France, Spain, New Guinea, and Australia, simply as prehistoric graffiti, while others suggest they were used in rituals.  

Medieval Italian burial may be a suspected witch


In Italy, the skeletal remains of two 800-year-old women mark what may be a witch's graveyard.  The remains of one woman, found at Piombino, near Lucca in Tuscany, were surrounded by 13 nails and were neither contained in a burial shroud or a coffin.  The nails were driven into the woman's jaw and hammered around her to pin down her clothes, in what may have been an attempt to prevent her from rising from the dead.  

Two years ago a female skull was found near Venice with a stone driven through its mouth, which researchers said was a traditional way of preventing the rising of vampires from the dead.  
Seventeen dice surrounded another female body dug up at the site; 17 is an unlucky number in Italy because of its association with death.  The four letters of the Roman numeral seventeen – VXII – can be rearranged to make the Latin word “vixi,” meaning 'I have lived', a euphemism for 'I am dead'.  

Alfonso Forgione, an archaeologist from L'Aquila University who is leading the dig, is convinced such finds represent women who were killed for practicing witchcraft.  However, the archaeological evidence cannot explain why the women, if they were believed to be witches, were interred in hallowed ground, as the burial site is also the site of an ancient church.  One possible explanation is that perhaps the women came from influential families, rather than being peasant class, and so they were able to secure burial in consecrated Christian ground.

Ritual cannibalism confirmed among prehistoric tribe in northern Mexico


Traveling next to Mexico, recent skeletal analysis has confirmed historical reports that an ancient, isolated people participated in cannibalism in the hopes of receiving a good corn harvest later.  More than three dozen bones bearing evidence of boiling and defleshing shows that the Xiximes (cHEE-hee-mays, with the “X” guttural like ch in LOCH or German DICH) people were indeed cannibals.  Historical accounts by Jesuit missionaries recorded the Xiximes belief that ingesting their enemies and using the cleaned bones in rituals would guarantee the harvest.  However, some historians have disparaged the missionaries' reports of cannibalism as exaggerations.  

Nevertheless, the bones found in Cueva del Maguey should erase any doubts.  Analysis by José Luis Punzo, an archaeologist with the Durango office of the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History, showed that 80 percent of the recently excavated bones from houses dated to around AD 1425, bear marks and other evidence of being cut and boiled.  The bones came from the relatively untouched site of the Cave of the Maguey, deep in a pine forest and 8,530 feet above sea level.  
For the Xiximes, the planting-and-sowing cycle was intertwined with a cycle of cannibalism and bone rituals, according to the Museum’s report from the 14th Archaeology Conference of the North Frontier this summer in Paquimé (pah-kee-MAY), Mexico.  After each corn harvest, Xiximes warriors were deployed to hunt for enemies.  Most of the time the Xiximes would prey on lone men from other villages working in the fields; other times, they would engage small groups in forest battles, according to the historical record.  The warriors would bring the dead victims back to the village, where Xiximes would rip the bodies apart at the joints, taking care not to break the bones.  In cases when carrying a whole body was impractical, the head and hands would be removed and brought back to the village, according to research.  
Body parts were cooked in pans until the bones were clean.  The flesh was then cooked with beans and corn and eaten in a type of soup, as part of an all-night village ritual.  After the feast, the bones were stored for months in treasure houses.  Then, in the run-up to the annual planting season, the Xiximes would hang the bones from roofs and trees as enticements to the spirits to help the crops along.  

The mountains of what is now Durango State were once home to some 5,000 Xiximes, as well as other indigenous groups, but it was only the Xiximes and the like-minded Acaxées (ah-ca-HAY-ays) who are believed to have been cannibals, though no archaeological evidence for the practice has yet been found for the Acaxées.  Through their rituals, cannibalism, and bone hoarding, they clearly marked their identity, a boundary between “us” and “them.”  In ordinary battles, the two groups killed members of many other groups, but they ate only their own kind, in particular men.  Other native groups and Spanish colonizers, apparently, were not considered good enough to meet the ritual’s goals.

Texas drought exposes reservoir area sites to looting


Our final story is from the United States, where looters are taking advantage of falling lake levels in Texas to find long hidden artifacts, creating big problems for authorities.  With the water level so much lower at Lake Whitney, in the Dallas area, five sites full of Native American artifacts are now accessible for the first time in decades.  Some of the sites date back more than 8,000 years, and all are protected by State and federal law.  

U.S. laws make it a felony to remove any Native American artifact from government property, and this also violates the Texas state antiquities code.  In the past few months, however, more than thirty people have been caught digging illegally.  Authorities say that the issue is larger than simply the theft of ancient artifacts; the looters could also be disturbing ancient burial grounds.  According to Brady Dempsey, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, many Native American tribes of the area buried their family members and loved ones where they lived, so sites and burial areas can be intertwined.  

In one area, looters broke concrete open, burrowed in under it and then sifted through the dirt, taking what they could and leaving the archeological record scrambled.  Damage to these sites can be nearly impossible to reverse and  preserving these damaged sites is very expensive.  At one site that recently needed repair at Lake Whitney the cost was more than $30,000!

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