TIME Archaeology

Scientists Discover Salamanders the Size of Cars

An artist's rendition of a previously unknown species of crocodile-like "super salamander" that roamed the Earth more than 200 million years ago. Image, made available by the University of Edinburgh on Tuesday March 24, 2015.
Marc Boulay–Cossima Productions/University of Edinburgh/AP An artist's rendition of a previously unknown species of crocodile-like "super salamander" that roamed the Earth more than 200 million years ago. Image, made available by the University of Edinburgh on Tuesday March 24, 2015.

The creature lived some 220 million years ago

Scientists have discovered the bones of ancient salamanders that they say would have been the size of cars.

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh excavated the bones in southern Portugal, where they have already found remains from at least 10 individual bodies, the BBC reports. Though related to the modern salamander, the animal would have behaved more like a crocodile or alligator when it likely feasted on early dinosaurs and mammals some 220 million years ago.

Scientists continue to dig up the flat-headed, toothy amphibians and expect to uncover hundreds more bodies on the site.

[BBC]

TIME Archaeology

World’s Largest Asteroid Crater Unearthed in Australia

Evidence of 250-mile wide impact zone found deep underground

Scientists have discovered evidence of a 250-mile wide crater in central Australia they believe was created by a colossal asteroid hundreds of millions of years ago.

The largest impact zone ever discovered is no longer visible on the Earth’s surface, researchers from the Australian National University said in a statement Monday, but could be identified by evidence buried deep in the earth’s crust.

The scientists had been drilling for another geothermal research project when, by chance, they came across rock layers that had been turned to glass, which usually signifies a high-energy impact. Their findings, published recently in the journal Tectonophysics, contributes to the understanding of the Earth in prehistoric times.

“Large impacts like these may have had a far more significant role in Earth’s evolution than previously thought,” said lead researcher Andrew Glikson. Still, the exact details of when the impact occurred remain unclear. While the rocks surrounding the impact zone are around 300 million years old, scientists said they have not yet found a similar layer in other sediments the same age.

“It’s a mystery — we can’t find an extinction event that matches these collisions,” Glikson said. “I have a suspicion the impact could be older than 300 million years.”

TIME england

London Rail Work Unearths Thousands of Skeletons From Bedlam

Scientists hope thousands of skeletons recently found in a Bedlam can reveal new information about the bubonic plague

(LONDON) — They came from every parish of London, and from all walks of life, and ended up in a burial ground called Bedlam. Now scientists hope their centuries-old skeletons can reveal new information about how long-ago Londoners lived — and about the bubonic plague that often killed them.

Archaeologists announced Monday that they have begun excavating the bones of some 3,000 people interred in the 16th and 17th centuries, who now lie in the path of the Crossrail transit line. They will be pored over by scientists before being reburied elsewhere.

One recent workday, just yards from teeming Liverpool Street railway station, researchers in orange overalls scraped, sifted and gently removed skeletons embedded in the dark earth. In one corner of the site, the skeleton of an adult lay beside the fragile remains of a baby, the wooden outline of its coffin still visible. Most were less intact, a jumble of bones and skulls.

“Part of the skill of it is actually working out which bones go with which,” said Alison Telfer, a project officer with Museum of London Archaeology, which is overseeing the dig.

Due to open in 2018, the 73-mi. trans-London Crossrail line is Britain’s biggest construction project, and its largest archaeological dig for decades. The central 21-kilometer (13-mile) section runs underground, which has meant tunneling beneath some of the oldest and most densely populated parts of the city.

For Londoners, that has brought years of noise and disruption, but for archaeologists it’s like Christmas. Almost every shovelful of earth has uncovered a piece of history, or prehistory: bison and mammoth bones; Roman horseshoes; medieval ice skates; the remains of a moated Tudor manor house.

Chief archaeologist Jay Carver says the Bedlam dig could be the most revealing yet.

“It’s going to be archaeologically the most important sample we have of the population of London from the 16th and 17th centuries,” Carver said.

Bedlam cemetery opened in 1569 to take the overspill as the city’s churchyard burial grounds filled up. It is the final resting place of prosperous citizens and paupers, religious dissenters including the 17th-century revolutionary Robert Lockyer and patients from Bedlam Hospital, the world’s first asylum for the mentally ill. The hospital’s name, a corruption of Bethlehem, became a synonym for chaos.

Tests on the bones by osteologists may reveal where these Londoners came from, what they ate and what ailed them — which in many cases was the plague. There were four outbreaks of the deadly disease over the two centuries the cemetery was in use, including the “Great Plague” that killed 100,000 people in 1665.

Carver says researchers will analyze DNA taken from pulp in the skeletons’ teeth to help fill in the “evolutionary tree of the plague bacteria.”

The technique was used to discover the plague bacterium, Yersinia pestis, in 14th-century skeletons excavated at another Crossrail site, identifying them as victims of the Black Death that wiped out half the city’s population in 1348.

Scientists should be able to compare the bacterium found in Bedlam’s plague victims with the 14th-century samples, helping to understand whether the disease — which still infects several thousand people a year — has evolved over the centuries.

Sixty archaeologists working in shifts — 16 hours a day, six days a week — will spend about a month removing the remains. After scientific study, they will be reburied on Canvey Island in the Thames Estuary — the latest in a long line of Londoners to move east out of the congested city.

The old burial ground will be the site of a new train station, whose users will probably give little thought to the history beneath their feet.

But Telfer says she never forgets that these fragile bones were once living, breathing individuals.

“When you are doing something like this, you do feel a connection with them,” she said. “I think you have a responsibility to treat them with great respect. It’s quite a special process.”

TIME Archaeology

Oldest Known Fossil in Human Lineage Found in Ethiopia

The remains are estimated to be some 2.8 million years old

A handful of teeth and a partial jawbone unearthed in Ethiopia are now thought to be the oldest fossil ever found of the species that evolved into humans, researchers say in a new report.

The U.S.-led team that discovered the fossil a couple hundred miles away from the capital, Addis Ababa, believe the remains are some 2.8 million years old, making the fossil around 400,000 years older than other discovered remains thought to be from the Homo genus, which scientists believe to be our lineage.

The researchers reported their findings in the journal Science and said they have could help fill in some evolutionary gaps that are still uncertain. Prior to the genus Homo, there was the hominid Australopithecus afarensis. Researchers say the specifics of the evolution between the two during that time is still unknown.

“By finding this jaw bone we’ve figured out where that trajectory started. This is the first Homo,” study author Brian Villmoare of the University of Nevada in Las Vegas told The Guardian. “It marks in all likelihood a major adaptive transition.”

TIME Archaeology

Scientists Unlock Secrets of Ancient Scrolls Near Pompeii

Italy Ancient Scrolls
Salvatore Laporta—AP David Blank, professor of Classics from the University of California, looks through a microscope at an ancient papyrus at the Naples' National Library, Italy, Jan. 20, 2015.

The breakthrough could help find more long-lost texts in a ruined library

Scrolls charred in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii are being read for the first time in almost 2,000 years, thanks to new X-ray technology.

The scrolls were recovered about 260 years ago from the ruins of the ancient Roman city Herculaneum, near Pompeii, preserved in a grand villa believed to be owned by the family of Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, the New York Times reports.

In the famous eruption, they were burned black by a blast of hot gas and had been thought to be indecipherable, since any attempt to unroll the brittle scrolls would destroy them.

But thanks to the new, advanced imaging technology, scientists in Naples, Italy have begun to decipher the first lines of two scrolls. CNET reports that the X-rays are so powerful that researchers analyzed the handwriting to determine the author of one of the scrolls, Epicurean philosopher Philodemus. These scrolls are just a small piece of what is thought to be still buried in the library of the Herculaneum villa, and this breakthrough could lead to the rediscovery of many long-lost texts by Rome and Greece’s most famous philosophers, according to the NYT.

The results appeared in the scientific journal Nature.

“This study, without compromising the physical integrity of the roll, has not merely discovered traces of the ink inside it, but has also helped identify with a certain likelihood the style of handwriting used in the text, along with its author,” the researchers conclude in the report.

“It holds out the promise that many philosophical works form the library of the ‘Villa dei Papiri’, the contents of which have so far remained unknown, may in future be deciphered without damaging the papyrus in any way.”

[CNET]

TIME Archaeology

Neanderthals May Have Used Tools, Making Them Smarter Than We Thought

A multipurpose bone tool dating back to before the Stone Age was discovered in France

A new discovery suggests that Neanderthals, the immediate ancestors of human beings, may not have been as technologically inferior to our species as previously thought.

Researchers from the University of Montreal found a multipurpose bone tool in Burgundy, France, that dates back to the Neanderthal era, Science Daily reported.

“It proves that Neanderthals were able to understand the mechanical properties of bone and knew how to use it to make tools, abilities usually attributed to our species, Homo sapiens,” said Luc Doyon, a University of Montreal anthropologist who participated in the excavation.

The pre–Stone Age implement is the first of its kind ever discovered, and challenges a long-held assumption that Neanderthals did not have the cognitive ability to create tools. Marks on the artifact, supposedly fashioned from the left femur of a reindeer, indicate that it was used as a scraper, a sharpener for stone tools and a device to puncture meat.

[Science Daily]

TIME People

DNA Test on Richard III Raises Questions About Claims to the Throne

BRITAIN-ROYALS-HISTORY
Leon Neal—AFP/Getty Images A painting of Britain's King Richard III by an unknown artist is displayed in the National Portrait Gallery in central London on January 25, 2013.

DNA samples suggest he was a blue-eyed blond

DNA tests conducted on the remains of King Richard III suggest that contrary to historical records, the king had blue eyes, blond hair and a less-than-ironclad claim to the throne.

Two years after the king’s remains were discovered beneath a parking lot in the English city of Leicester, geneticists have found a likely divergence between the king’s real life appearance and how he was painted after his death, CNN reports. “The genetic evidence shows he had a 96% probability of having blue eyes, and a 77% probability of having blond hair, though this can darken with age,” said University of Leicester genetic specialist Turi King.

The findings also raised questions about Richard III’s claimed descent from his predecessor, Edward III. Five living descendants from that royal bloodline had intriguing mismatches in their genetic markers, suggesting a mysterious break occurred somewhere along the family tree.

[CNN]

TIME Archaeology

Greek Archaeologists May Have Found Alexander the Great’s Mother

Many believe Alexander himself is buried in Egypt

Greek experts have found human remains that they believe are from one of Alexander the Great’s immediate family members, possibly his mother, his wife or his son.

The bones were found in a crypt in the northern Greek province of Macedonia, in an area that Alexander used as a military base. The Times reports that the Greek culture ministry put out a statement saying, “It is clear that the dead person was a hero, a mortal who was worshipped by society at that time.”

This new find comes about a month after the discovery of King Phillip II’s remains, Alexander the Great’s father.

[The Times]

TIME Dinosaur

The Biggest, Baddest Dinosaur Ever Has Been Discovered

Spinosaurus at National Geographic
Bill Clark—CQ-Roll Call Pedestrians walk past the newly erected replica of the Spinosaurus, the largest predatory dinosaur to ever roam the Earth, in front of the National geographic Society in Washington on Sept. 8, 2014.

Most of North Africa is no more than a sun-scorched desert today, but 95 million years ago the landscape was crisscrossed by rivers, dotted with marshes and populated with all sorts of reptilian monsters. The German paleontologist Ernst Stromer stumbled on this lost world back in 1912. Among the fossils he brought back to Munich were a few bones from a strange-looking predator he called Spinosaurus aegyptiacus—notably a long, thin jawbone studded with sharp teeth and a backbone festooned with enormous spines. The animal was clearly a predator, and the bones were so huge that this new creature could, he thought, be even bigger than T. Rex.

Unfortunately, most of Stromer’s fossil collection was destroyed in an Allied bombing raid during World War II, leaving just his drawings and descriptions. That record has obsessed University of Chicago paleontologist Nizar Ibrahim since he read about them as a child, and, says Nizar, “I always wanted to go back to do the same thing Stromer did a century ago.”

A few years ago, he did. The results have just appeared in a new report in Science. And it turns out that Spinosaurus was even stranger than Stromer realized. “There are so many ways it was unusual,” says Ibrahim, “that it’s hard to come up with my top three favorites.” At nearly 50 ft. long, he says the creature was in fact bigger than T. Rex—the biggest predatory dinosaur ever found, by about nine feet. “It had a long snout like a crocodile,” he says. “It had a big sail on its back.”

And perhaps most important from a scientific perspective, Spinosaurus is the first swimming dinosaur ever discovered (ichthyosaurs weren’t dinosaurs, so they don’t count). “It had relatively puny hind legs,” says Ibrahim’s University of Chicago colleague Paul Sereno, who co-authored the new paper, “with wide feet and flat claws that are ideal for paddling.”

Its tail, unlike that of T. Rex, was flexible, which would have helped propel it through the water, and its nostrils were high up on its head, allowing it to breathe as it searched for its underwater prey—freshwater sharks, among other things. “The skull,” says Ibrahim, “resembles the skull of fish-eating crocodiles, and the tip of the snout, with its slanted, interlocking teeth, is like a fish-catching trap.” The sail—the biggest ever found on a dinosaur—was almost certainly used to attract females, since it didn’t have a rich system of blood vessels that would have marked it as an adaptation for getting rid of excess heat. For that reason, says, Sereno, “It was probably brightly colored.”

If Spinosaurus is the biggest, weirdest predatory dino ever found, and the tale of its discovery a mystery story lasting nearly a century, the way it was reconstructed was almost equally unusual: the scientists digitized Stromer’s old drawings of the bones he’d found, digitized images of the bones they’d found, and merged them with a computer to figure out what the whole creature must have looked like—a process you’ll see, along with the story of Spinosaurus’ discovery and rediscovery, on a National Geographic/NOVA special airing on PBS on Nov. 5 at 9 p.m. You can see Spinosaurus itself, meanwhile, at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., starting September 12.

And if Spinosaurus itself isn’t strange enough to grab you, there’s plenty more to come. “We’ve collected an entire menagerie of strange predators,” says “Ibrahim, “and we’ll be publishing more papers. I’m interested in Spinosaurus, but also in the world it lived in. Spinosaurus had bizarre adaptations,” he says, “but they make sense once you understand the bizarre river system it ruled.”

 

 

 

 

TIME Archaeology

Stonehenge Was Actually Part of a Huge Ancient Complex, Researchers Discover

2014-08-05_(05.23h)__D7100__0025_f.jpg
From the University of Birmingham, England An undated photo published by the University of Birmingham, England, of Stonehenge

Burial mounds, sun-aligned pits and ancient delights galore

For a disenchanted visitor to Stonehenge in the south of England, the iconic array of 4,000-year-old pillars may have signified little more than a pile of rocks. But a new discovery that Stonehenge was actually the heart of a huge complex of ancient burial mounds and shrines could win over even the most cynical observer.

Researchers at the University of Birmingham have found a host of previously unknown monuments, including ritual structures and a massive timber building that was likely used for burial of the dead during a complicated sequence of exposure and de-fleshing.

“New monuments have been revealed, as well as new types of monument that have previously never been seen by archaeologists,” Professor Vincent Gaffney, the project leader, said in a statement Wednesday. “Stonehenge may never be the same again.”

The project, which made use of remote sensing techniques and geophysical surveys, discovered large prehistoric pits, some of which are aligned with the sun, and new information on Bronze Age, Iron Age and Roman settlements and fields.

Stonehenge draws more than 1.2 million visitors a year, including President Barack Obama last week, the Associated Press reports.

 

 

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