Audio News for November 20th to 26th, 2011

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from November 20th to the 26th, 2011.

Fiber analysis confirms long-haired dog fur use in traditional Salish weavings


Our first story focuses on the ancient Pacific Northwest, where research at the University of York has produced the first clear evidence that the textiles woven by the indigenous peoples used dog hair as the fiber.  In recent years, scientists have hotly debated whether textiles such as blankets and robes made by the skillful Coast Salish weavers before contact with Europeans were made of dog hair, as oral histories have claimed.  Coast Salish oral tradition refers to a special dog that was bred locally until the mid-19th Century for its woolly hair or fleece used in the textile industry.   Now highly sensitive equipment has allowed researchers from York’s BioArCh, the departments of biology, archaeology and chemistry, to test this by analyzing the protein composition of 11 textiles in different locations, representing 25 samples in total.  

The samples, all taken from artifacts in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of the American Indian collections, included blankets, a sash and a fur robe.  Most of the textiles were collected in the early- to mid-19th Century, including two famous American northwest expeditions: the Lewis and Clark trek from 1803 to 1806, and the Wilkes Expedition, from 1838 to 1842.   The results found evidence of dog hair in the fur robe and six of the woven textiles, primarily in a blend with goat hair.  However, the results, recently published in the journal Antiquity, show no real proof of a preference for dog hair in high status fabrics, and no textiles made entirely of dog hair.  Instead, researchers conclude that dog hair was used to supplement mountain goat hair, possibly as a bulking material.  Surprisingly, the results also indicate that commercial sheep wool was also incorporated into textiles in the 19th Century. Previous investigations had implied that sheep wool was not used in Salish weaving.  

The research was led by Dr. Caroline Solazzo, a Marie Curie Research Fellow from York’s Department of Archaeology and a former Postdoctoral Fellow at the Museum Conservation Institute at the Smithsonian Institution.  According to Dr Solazzo, dogs have a long history of interaction with humans, from companionship to guarding and hunting, but raising dogs for fiber production was a unique cultural adaptation in the Pacific Northwest.  It is perhaps because this is so unusual that some have doubted the use of dog wool.  While dog hair was used in all of the textiles sampled that were produced before 1862, it was absent from blankets woven in the late 19th Century to early 20th Century.  In particular, dog hair was absent from all of the twill-woven ceremonial-type blankets, indicating that for these, weavers preferred mountain goat hair, for both aesthetic and technical reasons.

The Coast Salish peoples are indigenous to the Pacific Northwest coastal areas of northern Washington and southern British Columbia and are particularly noted for their large, finely woven blankets.  In pre-contact times, the blankets were important items and their uses in gifting and distribution were present in all aspects of social life.  As well as having a functional use, they were important in ceremonies such as marriages and funerals.  According to co-author Susan Heald, the senior textile conservator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, Salish weaving is undergoing a resurgence, so it is important to confirm the use of dog hair in traditional weaving.  The new research indeed confirms the Coast Salish oral history about the use of dog hair.  It appears that people used dog hair mixed with goat wool in everyday textiles, although goat hair alone was used in ceremonial blankets.  

According to bioarchaeologist Matthew Collins, from York’s Department of Archaeology, protein mass spectrometry is a useful new tool for the study of textiles and other artifacts composed of proteins, such as silk, wool, ivory, leather, bone and parchment, in which the original source of production is difficult to identify.  The existence of a woolly dog is supported by historic accounts of 18th Century European explorers.  People reportedly kept dogs on small islands off the coast to prevent interbreeding with short-haired village dogs.  The dog disappeared less than 100 years after the first contact with Europeans.  According to Dr. Solazzo, the results show that the description of textiles in museum collections as dog hair blankets should be reconsidered, since results showed no textiles made solely of this fiber.  Pure dog hair blankets conceivably at one time were more common, but considered of lower value, used more heavily, and thus used up before entering collections.

Skull fragment shows Stone Age had both violence and TLC

In China, analysis of a human cranium dated to the Middle Pleistocene period shows evidence that violent human assault and trauma occurred there about 126,000 years ago. Farmers discovered the skull fragment, known as the Maba cranium, along with remains of other mammals in 1958 while removing sediments for fertilizer from a cave at Lion Rock in Guangdong province.  Researchers recently examined it using stereomicroscopy and a high-resolution CT scanner, which allowed them to examine the cranium's inner bone structure.  This verified that healing had occurred in the ancient wound, confirming that whatever incident had occurred to produce the damage did not lead to immediate death. 

According to report co-author, professor Lynne Schepartz of the School of Anatomical Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, the wound is very similar to what is observed today when someone is struck forcibly with a heavy blunt object.  As such, it joins a small sample of Ice Age bones showing probable evidence of trauma caused by humans and could possibly be the oldest example of interhuman aggression and human-induced trauma.  The remodeled, healed condition of the bone also indicates survival after a serious brain injury, a circumstance that increases for archaic and modern humans throughout the Pleistocene.  

Although it was not possible to determine with certainty if the wound was the result of interhuman aggression or an accidental incident, the injury does shed more light on the abilities of Pleistocene humans to survive serious injury and post-traumatic disabilities.  Whatever the reason for the wound, the Maba person would have needed social support and help, such as feeding, to recover, so the Maba cranium definitely attests to the early development of such human care systems.

New finds show Jerusalem’s western wall was not finished under King Herod

New digs in Jerusalem show that, contrary to popular belief, King Herod was not solely responsible for constructing the Western Wall.  Israel's Antiquities Authority, or IAA, announced Wednesday that the discovery of a mikveh, or ritual bath, alongside Jerusalem's ancient drainage channel challenges the conventional archaeological perception that Herod built the wall in its entirety.  The mikveh and other evidence now make it evident that construction was completed at least 20 years after Herod's death in 4 BC.   

The recent excavations, directed by IAA archaeologist Eli Shukron with assistance from Professor Ronny Reich of the University of Haifa, revealed three clay oil lamps of a type that was common in the first century AD, as well as seventeen identifiable bronze coins.  The clay oil lamps and bronze coins turned up when archeologists sifted through soil removed from inside the sealed mikveh.  According to Dr. Donald Ariel, curator of the IAA numismatic collection, the latest four coins were struck by the Roman procurator of Judea, Valerius Gratus, sometime around AD 17 or 18, which was about 20 years after Herod's death.   This archaeological information shows that the construction of the Temple Mount walls, an enormous project, went on for decades, and the wall was not completed during Herod’s lifetime.  The find confirms descriptions by the Jewish historian Josephus stating that the work was finished only during the reign of King Agrippa the Second, Herod’s great-grandson.


Southeast Asian island cave shows deep-sea fishing began by 42,000 years ago


In the southeast island nation of Timor-Leste (tee-more LESS-te), or east Timor (tee-MORE), excavations in a cave reveal that humans mastered deep-sea fishing earlier than was thought.  A team of Australian experts has uncovered evidence of the practice at the eastern end of Timor, an island lying north of Australia, in a small cave which contained the bones of more than 2,800 fish.  Some were caught as long as 42,000 years ago, showing an early development of the art of catching fast-moving, deep-water fish such as tuna.  Another key find was the world's earliest recorded fish hook, made of shell and dating from between 23,000 and 16,000 years ago.  

The results of the excavations at the Jerimalai Cave site were published in the latest issue of the journal Science and stem from work done by Professor Sue O'Connor from the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University.  According to O’Connor, the evidence demonstrates that prehistoric people had high-level maritime skills, and by implication, the technology needed to make the ocean crossings to reach Australia.  The site contained more than 38,000 fish bones, from 2,843 individual fish, dating back 42,000 years.  The Timor finds show that early modern humans in the islands of Southeast Asia were expert at catching types of fish that would be challenging even today, such as tuna.  The recovered fish hook was not likely to have been used for deep-sea fishing, but O’Connor thinks it’s possible that other types of hooks were being made at the same time.  

What is still unknown is exactly how these ancient people were able to catch fast-moving deep-ocean fish.  Tuna can be caught using nets or by trolling hooks on long lines through the water.  Simple fish aggregating devices, such as tethered logs, can also be used to attract them. So they may have been caught using hooks or nets from boats positioned over the deep waters where the fish are found.  Either way, it is clear that these people must have been using sophisticated technology and watercraft to fish offshore.  Timor is the largest eastern island in the Lesser Sunda Islands, the easternmost chain of major islands in the Indonesian archipelago.  The Sunda Islands, which include the famous island of Bali, are surrounded by deep oceanic trenches, supporting a rich variety of fish, but also creating treacherous seas.  

The eastern part of the island of Timor became the main part of the independent nation of Timor-Leste in 2002, along with a few smaller islands nearby.  The new archaeological finds on Timor-Leste may shed light on how people first traveled from these islands across to Australia, just to the south, because the Timorese fishermen must have had seaworthy boats capable of making the final ocean crossing to Australia.  We long have known that Australia's ancient ancestors were able to travel hundreds of kilometers by sea, because they reached Australia by around 50,000 years ago.  The watercraft that indigenous Australians used at the time of European contact, however, all were very simple rafts and canoes.  So how people arrived at such an early date has always been puzzling, and the new finds from Jerimalai Cave will also help address that puzzle.

That wraps up the news for this week!

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I'm Laura Pettigrew and I'll see you next week!