Herodotus Returns

Fresh vandalism, theft reported at petroglyph site

Reports say Inscription Canyon, an important Native American rock art site in the Mojave Desert, has been vandalized. People have been using the petroglyph-covered walls as target practice (the walls are riddledwith bullet holes), as well as simply stealing inscribed rocks by loading them into pickup trucks. This is just one of several cases of rock art vandalism I’ve read about this year (recently, at Sears Point Arizona) and it makes me no less ill. Archaeological looting happens all over the world, but it seems that Americans are even more willing than others to squander their heritage. The lack of awareness of native american archaeological sites in the US is disturbing: we only hear about sites like Inscrition Canyon when they are destroyed. Read the article:

Art older than the Mona Lisa graces the Mojave Desert’s vermillion rocks, yet the only security system that protects it is secrecy and a harsh landscape.

Ancient people once carved animals, humanoid figures and intricate pattens into canyon walls for reasons only they know at thousands of sites throughout the desert. But with people accessing these remote areas with off-road vehicles, vandalism and theft has increased.

Inscription Canyon, north of Hinkley, is one area people know about. Archaeologist Jim Shearer, who works with the Bureau of Land Management, estimates that between 2,000 and 5,000 people a year visit the site to view its petroglyphs. It bears signs of vandalism and theft as fresh as this year, he said.

More on the vandaliam at Inscription Canyon.


Bhimbetka rock shelters, India
May 1, 2010, 3:13 pm
Filed under: Hunter-Gatherer, India, Rock Art, Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

I recently had a chance to visit the Bhimbetka rock shelters in Madhya Pradesh, India, which hold one of the greatest galleries of prehistoric art anywhere in the world. This cluster of sandstone rock formations were home to nomadic hunter-gatherers from as far back as 100,000 years ago right up to the 1700s (Medieval period). That’s 1117 centuries of continuous habitation. On the walls of the shelters, there are layers upon layers of beautiful paintings, dating back about 10,000 years. Some depict daily life – people herding animals, for example – others are more enigmatic depictions of mythical beasts and anthropomorphic figures. An article about my visit is forthcoming in Culturama magazine in Chennai. I’ll post the pdf when it comes out.

photos courtesy of Archaeological Survey of India.

Neanderthals interbred with humans
April 25, 2010, 12:22 pm
Filed under: Neanderthals, Uncategorized | Tags: ,

A recent study shows that Neanderthals and humans did, in fact, interbreed. There’s a little bit of Neanderthal in all of us, apparently. (Unless your family comes from Africa). The study will be put to the test soon, when the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology publishes their genome study. I wonder about the nature of these Neanderthal-human liaisons. Most anthropologists seem to believe that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens had some kind of conflict. Homo sapiens appeared in a part of the world where Neanderthals had reigned alone for a hundred thousand years. The two species eventually would  have been competing for resources; some form of conflict would have been inevitable. And remember Neanderthals were wiped out. Homo sapiens surely helped this process along. So, my unscientific hunch is that any Neanderthal-human interbreeding came in the rape-pillage aftermath ‘war.’

Archaic humans such as Neanderthals may be gone but they’re not forgotten — at least not in the human genome. A genetic analysis of nearly 2,000 people from around the world indicates that such extinct species interbred with the ancestors of modern humans twice, leaving their genes within the DNA of people today.

The discovery, presented at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on 17 April, adds important new details to the evolutionary history of the human species. And it may help explain the fate of the Neanderthals, who vanished from the fossil record about 30,000 years ago. “It means Neanderthals didn’t completely disappear,” says Jeffrey Long, a genetic anthropologist at the University of New Mexico, whose group conducted the analysis. There is a little bit of Neanderthal leftover in almost all humans, he says.

The researchers arrived at that conclusion by studying genetic data from 1,983 individuals from 99 populations in Africa, Europe, Asia, Oceania and the Americas. Sarah Joyce, a doctoral student working with Long, analyzed 614 microsatellite positions, which are sections of the genome that can be used like fingerprints. She then created an evolutionary tree to explain the observed genetic variation in microsatellites. The best way to explain that variation was if there were two periods of interbreeding between humans and an archaic species, such as Homo neanderthalensis or H. heidelbergensis.

More on Neanderthal-human liaisons.

Roman-Era Mummy discovered in Egypt Bahariya Oasis
April 12, 2010, 11:43 am
Filed under: Egypt, Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

Archaeologists digging near the Bahariya Oasis in Egypt have uncovered 14 ancient Egyptian tombs, one of which held a female mummy encrusted in jewels. They were clearing a foundation, apparently, for a planned youth center. I wonder if some construction workers in Egypt are budding archaeologists, if they always secretly hope to be part of the next big find.

The Greco-Roman tombs, in Bahariya Oasis, 300 km (190 miles) southwest of Cairo, were discovered during probes that indicated they may be part of a much larger necropolis, Egypt’s Culture Ministry said in a statement Monday.

A 97-cm (38-inch) tall female mummy, found in the stair-lined interior of one of the rock-hewn tombs, was cast in colored plaster inlaid with jewelry and eyes.

More on the discovery in Bahariya Oasis.

Ostrich Eggs in South Africa point to early signs of human language
March 5, 2010, 8:58 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: ,

Archaeologists in South Africa have recently unearthed some of the earliest evidence of human behavior – a cache of ostrich eggs dating back 60,000 years, etched with intricate geometric designs.

The abstract carvings are signs of what archaeologists call ‘symbolic thinking,’ a capacity particular to Homo sapiens. Unlike earlier hominids, our brains allow us to affix meaning to objects, to draw associations, to recognize and create symbols.

Symbolic thinking is the roots of writing, language and art; it is, to risk grandiosity, what makes us human.

So when the team at Diepkloof Rock Shelter, led by prehistorian Pierre-Jean Texier, dug up the 60,000-year-old decorated ostrich eggs, they knew they’d found something special. The eggs suggest that we ‘became human’ – i.e. started creating art, decorating objects and thinking symbolically – 20,000 earlier than scholars had originally thought.

Read the rest of the piece at Heritage Key

Maori canoe stumbled upon at New Zealand beach
February 10, 2010, 10:15 am
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

An ancient Maori canoe was recently discovered by a passerby on a New Zealand beach. The canoe, specialized for fishing and river travel, is known as a waka. The waka has not been dated, but the Maori arrived in New Zealand roughly a thousand years ago.

It took a couple of days to plan its excavation so that the seven-metre waka would not be damaged.

Finding the whole length of a waka is fairly rare, as usually only sections are found, such as the prow or stern.

Auckland Regional Council parks staff and locals carefully moved the waka on to a truck, which took it to a temporary home at the regional council depot.

“It’s difficult to date the waka because it may have been created from a tree many hundreds of years old, and there is no surrounding material that we can date,” says ARC historic heritage specialist Robert Brassey.

More on the discovery.

Iron Age find in Laos reveals prehistoric burial customs
January 24, 2010, 4:39 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

Archaeologists in Laos have uncovered 2,000-year-old remains at a burial ground in a cave in Luang Prabang province. The first evidence of a secondary burial in Laos, this find will certainly shed light on customs during what scholars call the Iron Age in Southeast Asia.

The discovery of Iron Age human bone fragments in Laos has shed new light on the region’s prehistoric burial customs, state media reports said Friday. A team of Lao and foreign archeologists foundthe fragments last week in a burial ground believed to be about 2,000 years old when South-East Asia was in the Iron Age, the Vientiane Times reported.

The discovery was made during a dig known as the Middle Mekong Archaeological Project, which is a joint effort between Laos’ Department of Heritage and the University of Pennsylvania Museum in the United States.

“Last week, we unexpectedly found two skulls and a fragment of a third, a baby, along with some body bones,” said Joyce White, associate curator at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. “It is quite a significant discovery of Lao archaeology.”

Also among the items found was a burial pot containing human bones, which was the first such example of a secondary burial, or the custom of dismembering a corpse and removing all flesh so the bones could be placed in a container.

Although the practice was common in neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam, this was the first evidence of a secondary burial in what is now Laos.

More on the find in Laos.