Audio News for April 1 to 7, 2012


Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica! I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from April 1st to April 7th, 2012.


Burial find in Taiwan may show connection with far traveling Pacific settlers


In our first story, Taiwanese archaeologists working on an islet off China have uncovered the remains of a Stone Age male that may provide clues about ancient people who eventually settled throughout the entire Pacific. The man, who was approximately 35 when he died around eight thousand years ago, is possibly a remote relative of Taiwan's aborigines, who today make up about two percent of the island's population.

According to team leader, Chen Chung-yu, a research fellow at Taiwan’s Academia Sinica institute, judging from the method of burial, the man could be from what we now call the Austronesia language family. The aborigines of Taiwan belong to this language family, as do the people who migrated across the Pacific in prehistoric times, settling as far as Easter Island off the coast of Chile.

Chen and his team excavated the nearly complete skeleton on Liang Island, a tiny Taiwanese-controlled islet 19 miles off China's southeastern Fujian province. The Taiwanese military discovered the burial site as it was digging up the soil to prepare for the construction of a road on the island.

The body was in a fetal position, a position used by Taiwan’s aborigines as late as the 20th century. It is one of the oldest and best preserved skeletons ever to turn up on Taiwan. Further DNA research on the skeleton will determine its genetic make-up, but there could be a link, since the ancestors of Taiwan's aborigines, and of most Pacific islanders, likely lived in southern China at that time.

Chen noted that the people of the Austronesian language family lived near the ocean and were very mobile, and they had developed some level of shipbuilding techniques that had already enabled them to sail far offshore on a frequent basis. Chen cites a canoe previously excavated in east China's Zhejiang (je-jiang) province as evidence of this. However, due to the lack of resources on the tiny landform, settlers could not live permanently on Liang Island, and the 35-year-old may have died during such a routine maritime excursion.

New evidence shows use of fire by human ancestors one million years ago


An international team led by the University of Toronto and Hebrew University has found microscopic traces of wood ash, alongside animal bones and stone tools, in a layer dated to one million years ago at the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa. The find could signify the earliest known evidence of the use of fire by human ancestors.

According to anthropologist Michael Chazan, co-director of the project, the analysis of the animal bones suggests that human ancestors as early as Homo erectus 1.7 million years ago may have begun using fire as part of their way of life, marking an evolutionary turning point. Fire would have kept our ancient relatives warm in harsh climates and allowed them to cook their food, releasing trapped nutrients in the process. Early humans would have also spent less time looking for food, and thus had more energy to expend on other activities.

Because of the ability to cook food, human teeth may have become smaller due to the need to chew less. Having to spend less time foraging for food could have reduced the time between births, allowing for population growth. Some have hypothesized that the increased nutrition derived from fire-cooked food may have contributed to the development of a larger brain.

However, it remains unclear who lit the first manmade flame. Convincing evidence of habitual use of fire goes back nearly 400,000 years, overlapping with both ancient Homo sapiens and Neanderthals. While some scientists believe the use of fire went back much further in time, others remain doubtful.

An international team studied sediments from the cave, which is located in the Northern Cape province of South Africa, to look for evidence of burning. Team members found plant ash, probably from burned twigs and grasses used as tinder, as well as charred bone fragments.

However, it is difficult to tell with the naked eye whether a grayish bone turned that ashy color because it was cooked or because it fossilized over time. To obtain more detail about the bone’s mineral structure, the researchers put the bone fragments under a microscope and shone infrared light on them.

They found that the bone fragments contained large-needled crystals, showing that they were fire-heated to high temperatures. Had the ashy color been the result of fossilization, the crystal in the bone would have been a smaller plate-like shape. The bones would have had to be heated to more than 750 degrees Fahrenheit to obtain the larger needle-like crystals.

This and the fact that the scorched bones were discovered about 100 feet deep inside the cave is further evidence that the charred matter was probably not the result of a wildfire, but was intentionally burned. Though the scientists cannot say who exactly lit the fires, the most likely suspect would be Homo erectus, thought to be the longest surviving of our early human relatives.


Mixed martial arts champion used as army recruit for Roman Empire


In ancient Turkey, one Roman city took an unusual approach to recruiting soldiers for the emperor's army. A newly translated inscription, dating to 1,800 years ago, reveals that the Roman city Oinoanda, in southwest Turkey, turned to a mixed martial arts champion to recruit for the Roman army and bring the new soldiers to a city named Hierapolis, located hundreds of miles to the east, in Syria.

His name was Lucius Septimius Flavianus Flavillianus and he was a champion at wrestling, as well as in pankration [pan-KRAW-tee-on], a bloody, at times lethal, form of mixed martial art where contestants would try to pound each other unconscious or into submission. There were only two known rules: no eye-gouging and no biting.

Flavillianus proved to be a successful military recruiter, so much so that he became a cult figure after he died, with each tribe of the city erecting statues in his honor. The inscription, discovered in 2002 and only recently translated from Greek, is on the base of a statue found in Oinoanda's agora [AG-ora] and erected by the people of the city. The inscription describes Flavillianus as a champion athlete.

Nicholas Milner, a researcher with the British Institute at Ankara, published the translation in the most recent edition of the journal Anatolian Studies. According to Milner, in the Roman Empire, this sort of lionizing is very rare.

By the time he took up duties recruiting soldiers, Flavillianus was a mature man who triumphed in many of these contests. This experience as a champion fighter, and the fame that came with it, helped Flavillianus in his task.

Being a top athlete was celebrity status in Roman times. A celebrity would have a greater ability to drum up support and large numbers of volunteers, notes Milner. He is not sure why Flavillianus became an army recruiter, although he believes honor was a likely motivational factor.

Mounds shaped like animals in Peru could be images of Andean zodiac


In our final story, University of Missouri anthropology professor emeritus Robert Benfer has identified numerous animal effigy mounds rising above the coastal plains of Peru, a region already renowned for the Nazca lines and other cultural treasures.

For more than a hundred and fifty years, scientists have investigated massive animal-shaped mounds, such as Serpent Mound in Ohio, created by the indigenous people of North America, but have discovered few animal effigy mounds in South America until now. According to Benfer, some of them are more than 4,000 years old and built at the same time as the pyramids in Egypt.

Benfer identified the mounds, which range from five meters to 400 meters long, in each of the six valleys he surveyed in coastal Peru. Images of the mounds from Google Earth revealed the shapes of birds, including a giant condor, a 5,000 year-old orca, a duck, and a caiman/puma monster seen in bone and rock carvings from the area.

Benfer notes that the finding of animal effigy mounds changes our conception of early Peruvian prehistory. They possibly represent the Andean zodiac, and could support a controversial interpretation of some Nazca figures as representations of the zodiac.

Benfer suggests the ancient Peruvians built the structures as terrestrial representations of constellations they saw in the stars, representing the stars and aligning with them. Benfer has so far found astronomical orientations at every giant mound. For example, at the Chillón Valley site, an earthen condor's charcoal eye aligned with the Milky Way when viewed from a nearby temple. Viewed from the same temple, the caiman/puma mound lined up with the summer solstice that occurs in June.

Benfer thinks that astronomer priests may have directed construction of the mounds and then made observations of the sky and offerings to the Earth from atop the earthen creatures.

Previously, the only other known South American animal-shaped mounds were a few sites in the Andes, but Benfer's discoveries may be the beginning of a new collection of sites. In each field season, he has found more giant mounds and more fields of smaller ones. Two years ago, while studying satellite views of archaeological sites, Benfer noticed some jagged teeth-like structures on one of the mounds north of Lima. Previously misidentified as irrigation canals, after a ground survey of the area, Benfer realized he was standing atop the caiman/puma monster of Chillón Valley.

He soon found the nearby condor mound and went on to recognize numerous other earthen animal mounds. Although the animal effigies appear to be plentiful, researchers have overlooked them since the first days of scientific archaeology in Peru.
That wraps up the news for this week!
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I'm Laura Pettigrew and I'll see you next week!