Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Did Peking Man wield a spear? New research suggests early humans were assembling weapons in China 700,000 years ago

A replica of the skull of Peking Man. New research indicates that this group
of Homo erectus used spears and sophisticated butchering tools. Photo by
Yan Li, CC Attribution share-alike 3.0 unported

Never underestimate Peking Man.
About 700,000 years ago, at a time when China’s climate was chillier than it is today, a group of Homo erectus lived in a cave system in Zhoukoudian China.
They had a striking appearance. With a heavy brow ridge, large robust teeth and a brain size approaching our own, these people had long since left Africa, their ancestors travelling thousands of kilometres into East Asia. 
Until recently scientists believed that they lived in more recent times, perhaps only 500,000 years ago. That idea was repudiated two years ago in the journal Nature, when a team of scientists used aluminum/beryllium dating to show that Peking Man was about 700,000 years old.
When researchers arrived at that date it left them with a mystery.
"There is evidence that Homo erectus had physically adapted to the cold, but they probably also had to be doing something in terms of behaviour to handle the cold of a glacial period in northern China,” said Professor Susan Antón, of New York University.
Today, thanks to new lab research, we have an idea as to what some of this behaviour may have been.
A team of scientists led by Dr. Chen Shen, of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto Canada, have been re-examining the tools that Peking Man used. Subjecting them to close microscopic examination the researchers have found that this group of Homo erectus was smarter than we give them credit for.
“The new study suggests that Peking Man lithic technology was not simple as previously thought,” writes Dr. Shen in the abstract of a paper presented at a recent Society for American Archaeology conference. “The micro-wear evidence indicates many typed tools were made for specific tasks related to processing animal substances.”
That’s not all. Peking Man didn’t just know how to butcher animals, he also knew the best way to hunt them – with the business end of a stone pointed spear.
“Importantly, most pointed tools were probably hafted, and this provides arguably the earliest evidence for the composition tools in the Chinese Middle Pleistocene,” writes Shen.
But if this is the case how exactly did they haft (assemble) these weapons? Did Peking Man use sinew or some sort of sticky liquid?
Unfortunately we’re going to have to wait a little bit for the answer.
In an email Dr. Shen said that he is in China right now, continuing his research. He and his team are in the process of getting their findings published in a scientific journal and, once that process is complete, will be able to grant media interviews.
So until then we are left with an enticing possibility. Perhaps Homo erectus adapted to a cold climate in much the same way Homo sapiens (modern humans) did – by crafting spears to hunt animals and tools capable of efficiently butchering them.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Scribbled by a community of nuns – Ancient Coptic graffiti adorns walls of 3,200 year-old Egyptian temple

New research shows that about 1,500 years ago a community of Coptic nuns scribbled graffiti 
onto the temple of Seti I at Abydos. Photo by Steve F-E Cameron, CC attribution
3.0 unported

Who says nuns don’t have any fun?
A new research project led by Professor Jennifer Westerfeld, of the University of Louisville, is taking a look at a unique set of graffiti scribbled onto the walls of a 3,200 year old Egyptian temple.
The temple was built at Abydos by Seti I, a powerful pharaoh who pushed the borders of the Egyptian empire as far as modern day Syria. It contains two courtyards, two hypostyle halls, chapels and an enigmatic structure known as the “Osireion,” which may commemorate the Egyptian story of creation.
Today this complex is covered in a large amount of graffiti dating from ancient times up until the medieval period. Westerfeld believes that a community of nuns contributed to this defacement, writing on its walls around 1,500 years ago.
A significant corpus of late antique graffiti from the temple appears to have been produced by a community of Coptic nuns who periodically visited the site,” she writes in the abstract of a paper recently presented at the annual meeting of the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE).
Coptic is the Egyptian branch of Christianity and became widely practiced after the religious reforms of the Roman emperor Constantine in the early 4th century AD.
Westerfeld said that a find like this, if validated, is unprecedented.
“Such a collection of epigraphic evidence for female monastic activity is virtually unparalleled in Egypt,” she writes.  “This material has never been fully edited or studied.”
In an email Professor Westerfeld declined an interview request, cautioning that this research is at a “very preliminary” stage and more work needs to be done.
However, if she is right, we’re about to learn about a community that, until now, has not had a voice in Egyptian history.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Rising above the Acropolis – Constellation “Draco” signalled beginning of Athenian athletic festival new research shows

New research shows that 2,500 years ago revellers near the Erechtheion, a temple on the
Acropolis pictured here, would have seen the constellation Draco tower above them.
Image courtesy Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, CC Attribution
2.0 generic

A sky map of Draco, a constellation located near the north star.
Map by Torsten Bronger CC attribution share-alike 3.0 unported. 

When the dragon rose the games began!
About 2,500 years ago, at a time when Athens was in its prime, the people of the city celebrated the birth of Athena, their patron goddess, with a great event.
Known as the Panathenaic festival it featured a series of athletic games that included chariot races, javelin throwing and boating. It even had a bloody contest known as pankration, a combination of wrestling and boxing which is not that dissimilar from today’s mixed martial arts.
Celebrated annually around late July – mid August it was an important part of the city’s life and now, thanks to new research by Professor Efrosyni Boutsikas of the University of Kent, we have evidence that astronomy played a role in these games. She reconstructed the sky over the Athenian acropolis, determining how it would have looked about 2,500 years ago. Her results were published in the latest issue of the American Journal of Archaeology.  
Professor Boutsikas found that at the time of the Panathenaic festival the constellation Draco, a string of stars that look like a dragon, rose above the revellers – appearing prominently in the night sky.
The Panathenaia took place at the one time in the year when Draco’s upper culmination was visible within one to two hours after sunset,” she writes in the paper. “If observed from the north porch of the Erechtheion [a temple on the Acropolis] or nearby, these movements of Draco would have been an impressive sight, as the constellation is one of the largest in the sky.”
Ironically this constellation has been making headlines the past two weeks as modern day astronomers have detected a massive explosion in it, a cataclysm that may have been caused by a star wandering near a black hole.
Ancient timekeeping
Boutsikas argues that the rising of Draco would have been used to designate the start of the games. “Stellar observations, in addition to the luni-solar calendar, were widely used in Greek timekeeping,” she writes.
“Stellar observations are more accurate than luni-solar ones, and, in the case of Greece, where each polis [city state] had its own calendar with different month names and intercalation times, stellar observations could have been a way to ensure that the gods received their sacrifices at the correct time of year and that pilgrims from across the Greek world would arrive in time to attend cult rites.”
She also pointed out that Draco is associated with Athena in ancient mythology. The Roman astronomer Hyginus mentioned this, writing 2,000 years ago that:
Some say that this dragon was thrown at Minerva [Roman name for Athena] by the Giants when she fought them. Minerva, however, snatched its twisted form and threw it to the stars, and fixed it at the very pole of heaven. And so to this day it appears with twisted body, as if recently transported to the stars.
(Translation by Mary Grant)
To the people of Athens this dragon would have remained there for all eternity, moving around the heavens. Each summer it would rise above the Acropolis, commanding the night sky and signalling the birthday of the goddess who put him there – Athena.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Valley of the Kings mystery – New research shows 3,500 year old tomb contained infants who suffered from disease

The Valley of the Kings is set to reveal another secret.
Photo by Przemyslaw Idzkiewicz CC Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic
 It certainly wasn’t a tomb for a pharaoh.

New research presented recently at the annual meeting of the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE) shows that a tomb in the Valley of the Kings, KV 44, contained the remains of infants who were suffering from disease. The skeletons of adult women were also found but no men.
The tomb was first discovered in 1901 by Howard Carter who found it to be looted and containing “rubbish.” Its design is remarkably simple, consisting of a shaft entryway and chamber with no apparent decoration on the walls.  
It was constructed at some point during Egypt’s New Kingdom period (3,500 to 3,100 years ago), a time of great prosperity that saw the valley become populated with the tombs of pharaohs. During the 22nd dynasty (around 2,900 years ago) it was re-used, housing a woman named Tentkerer.
In the 1990’s a team led by Professor Donald Ryan, of Pacific Lutheran University, excavated the tomb and found skeletal remains. Recently another team led by Dr. Jerome Cybulski, of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, examined the skeletons and made some surprising finds.
 “The human remains were exclusively of females and infants with about half the latter sample (n = 8) showing signs of disease,” he writes in the abstract of his paper. “We compare this demographic with other multiple occupant tombs in the Valley to show the unusual nature of KV44 and use all available evidence to speculate on who these people might have been.”
This, heart-wrenchingly, is where the story ends for now.
Dr. Cybulski refused an interview request and, despite the fact that the meeting was open to the general public and media, also refused to release a copy of the paper he presented. The meeting was held in Chicago.
“Thanks for the kind invitation to discuss our project. I can only give an interview when the work is written up, peer-reviewed, and accepted for publication,” he wrote in an email.
So until this appears in a peer-reviewed journal we must wait to see the full details on the new secret the Valley of the Kings is set to reveal.