TIME Archaeology

The Strangest Beast on the First Americans’ Menu

Remains of the day: post-Clovis humans consider what used to be called dinner
Remains of the day: post-Clovis humans consider what used to be called dinner RONALDO SCHEMIDT; AFP/Getty Images

An early ancestor of the elephant and an early ancestor of modern humans lived together in North America. That was good news for the hungry people, but not for the proto-elephants

There were a lot of things on the menu for early Americans—deer, antelope, buffalo. But if you really wanted to eat well, and you were an especially early early American, there was nothing quite like a good haunch of gomphothere. That, it turns out, may have been one of the staples of the prehistoric Clovis culture, and while plenty of people never heard of this particular predator or its prey, the fact that they crossed paths is very big news.

The Clovis people are believed to be the earliest occupants of North America, arriving in the southwestern part of the continent somewhere between 13,000 and 13,500 years ago. Gomphotheres, a faintly freakish, four-tusked ancestor of the elephant, had the humans beat by a lot, first appearing on the scene as far back as 33 million years ago. The scientific wisdom had always been that the two species never co-existed, but the scientific wisdom hadn’t reckoned with a site called El Fin del Mundo (the end of the world) in northwestern Mexico.

Researchers from the University of Arizona, the National Autonomous University of Mexico and elsewhere began exploring the site in 2007, after a local rancher reported finding animal remains. They continued digging until 2012, and in a paper just published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), revealed conclusive proof that the gomphotheres thundered and the Clovis people hunted at the same time and in the same place—and the Clovis got the better of the deal.

The first discoveries at the site were a few complete Clovis spear points, along with bones that appeared to be from a large bison. That made it a nice find, but hardly a remarkable one. The following year, however, the investigators unearthed a mandible that was not remotely bison-like, but was entirely gomphothere-like, and that changed everything.

Further digging revealed the complete remains of two gomphotheres—one 13 to 24 years old and the other a comparative juvenile at 10-12 years old. Mingled in with the bones were more spear points and though weathering on the bones made it hard to look for the cut marks and gouges that usually indicate butchering, the signs of a hunt were unmistakable. For one thing, animals that die natural deaths leave bones arranged in more or less the proper skeletal configuration. In this case, however, the remains were stacked in two distinct, non-anatomical piles.

The fact that some of the spear points the investigators unearthed were mingled in with the bones suggests that the Clovis hunters either simply tossed them there after they were done with the remains, or that the points were somehow lost in the flesh of the carcass and too hard to retrieve. The condition of the points suggests they may indeed have been well-embedded. “Three of the four points are complete,” the researchers wrote, “but the fourth is missing its base due to an impact-related snap.”

History was not kind to either the gomphothere or the Clovis culture. The proto-elephants eventually died off and were replaced by the modern, two-tusked model. And the Clovis culture eventually dispersed and settled into different sub-cultures, each adapting to the conditions on its own part of the continent. Some archaeologists think that the gomphothere might have had the last laugh, since the end of the Clovis line could have been caused by the disappearance of it and other such “megafauna” to hunt. The prey went down, but it may have taken the predator culture with it.

TIME Archaeology

Relics of ‘End of World’ Plague Excavated in Egypt

The plague is believed to have claimed the lives of 5,000 people a day in Rome alone

A new archaeological discovery in Egypt includes traces of an ancient disease that some in the Roman Empire considered a harbinger of the apocalypse.

The discovery was made in Luxor by members of the Italian Archaeological Mission to Luxor, LiveScience reports. Researchers uncovered the remains of bodies covered with lime, presumably used to disinfect the diseased, as well as three kilns in which the lime was made. They also found human remains scattered throughout a site that bears traces of a bonfire —likely a place where many disease victims were incinerated.

An analysis of pottery remains in the kilns indicates that the findings date from the 3rd century A.D., when a vicious plague claimed the lives of thousands living in the Roman Empire, including at least two emperors. The epidemic, which Carthaginian bishop Cyprian wrote signaled the end of the world, struck around 250 A.D. It is now considered to have significantly contributed to the empire’s decline.

The disease has been dubbed “the plague of Cyprian,” as the bishop wrote extensively about its effects on the human body. The “intestines are shaken with a continual vomiting, [and] the eyes are on fire with the injected blood,” he wrote in Latin in his De mortalitate. Most modern-day scientists believe the deaths were caused by smallpox.

TIME Archaeology

Bachelor Party Discovers 3-Million-Year-Old Elephant Fossil

A celebratory bro gathering casually stumbled upon the well-preserved bones of a beast that predates woolly mammoths

Some bachelor parties are like the “wolf pack” in The Hangover, wreacking havoc wherever they go; others accidentally end up making valuable contributions to natural history — like one did in New Mexico earlier this month.

A group of guys were reportedly hiking through Elephant Butte Lake State Park when a strange protruding object caught their eye, the Telegraph reports. After they dug a little deeper — literally — they unearthed an excellently preserved elephant skull, and, thinking they discovered woolly mammoth bones, snapped pictures for the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.

According to the museum, it wasn’t a woolly mammoth, but in fact something much older: the skull of a stegomastodon, an ancestor of modern elephants that first walked in North America around 15 million years ago and went extinct about 10,000 years ago.

Archeologists promptly recovered the 1,000-pound remains, which they say are the most complete of their kind, and will put them on display after they finish studying them.

Now, let’s hope the groom’s marriage lasts as long as the fossils did.

Correction appended: The original version of this story incorrectly described the location of Elephant Butte Lake State Park.

[Telegraph]

TIME Science

The Exosuit Lets Researchers Stay Submerged for Hours

Wear it to the Enchantment Under the Sea dance

Though it may not seem like it, the bottom of the sea is about as alien as space; perhaps even more so (within the bit of space we’ve explored, I should say), considering all of the strange creatures that dwell fathoms beneath the surface. Below certain depths, we can only speculate what’s deeper down—it’s that unknowableness that makes the seas and skies such fertile homes for our imagination.

Archaeologists have plumbed the depths nearly as much as marine biologists, and have run into many of the same problems; particularly that of staying beneath the waves long enough to properly get their hands on a historical artifact. Enter the Exosuit: Shiny and vaguely human-shaped with clamping grips for hands, it looks like gear from a future manned mission to space.

Even so, it solves the problem nicely—wearing the suit, researchers can stay beneath the surface almost indefinitely.

“With the Exosuit, our bottom time becomes virtually unlimited,” Brendan Foley, co-director of field operations at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Deep Submergence Laboratory (and the first lab to test the suit), told New Scientist. “Now we can have an archaeologist in the suit for hours, and we’ll only have to come up to answer the call of nature.”

TIME fashion

These Are the World’s Oldest Pants

German Archaeological Institute

5,000 years old and still in fashion.

Jeans may have been invented in 1873, but these trousers beat that date by a long shot. A pair of wool pants was recently discovered in a graveyard in western China’s Tarim Basin dating back to around 3,300 years ago. They’re the oldest pants archaeologists have ever found—though they look like they might fit in quite well at Anthropology.

The ancient pants were created for horse-riding, and it shows in the design. They feature straight fitting legs (no bell-bottom here) and a wide crotch with a sewn reinforcement, plus elegant bands of patterned decoration. Rather than the modern method of cutting down large pieces of fabric, the early pants were woven on a loom in precisely-sized segments to form the final garment, like nomad couture.

The find “supports the idea that trousers were invented for horse riding by mobile pastoralists,” University of Pennsylvania China expert Victor Mair tells Science News. So if pants were invented to ride horses in China 5,000 years ago, what excuse do we have for creating crop-tops?

TIME Archaeology

Over 200 Paintings Discovered in Cambodia’s Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat Hidden Painting
Antiquity Publications

Sceintists found ancient graffiti in a monument thousands of tourists pass through every day

Hundreds of paintings were discovered in the 12th century Cambodian temple complex Angkor Wat hiding in plain sight.

Though thousands of people pass through the religious monument every day, nobody had ever noticed the ancient graffiti on the faded walls. Researcher Noel Hidalgo Tan first saw the red and black pigment on the walls of the monument when he visited and decided to investigate, Smithsonian Magazine reports. After scientists took pictures using an intense flash, they then used a tool from NASA to digitally enhance the colors of the images.

They found more than 200 ancient images of animals and boats and people, among other things, according to Antiquity, a quarterly archeology review.

Scientists hypothesize that the images are actually graffiti left long ago by visitors when the temple was abandoned in 1431, American Association for the Advancement of Science reported. Archaeologists hope to gain a new perspective on Cambodia’s history through the lost images.

TIME Human Origins

Found: North America’s Most Remarkable Skeleton

The skull of Naia, as it appeared in 2011, having rolled into an upright position
The skull of Naia, as it appeared in 2011, having rolled into an upright position Photo by Roberto Chavez Arce

The extraordinarily complete remains of a 12,000 year old girl shed new light on the origins of the earliest Americans.

Just a few months ago, a report on the remarkably preserved skeleton of a child buried 12,500 years ago in what is now Montana shed some important new light on the earliest humans to reach the Western Hemisphere. The child, known as Anzick-1, showed a direct genetic kinship to most modern Native Americans. That proved what scientists have long believed: the people Columbus and other explorers encountered when they arrived from Europe were descended from ancestors who had crossed over from Asia more than 12,000 years ago.

Whether those First Americans came in one wave or many, however, and whether they set off from different parts of Asia or one has been unclear. The facial features of many ancient skeletons don’t resemble modern Native Americans all that closely, raising the possibility of different waves of immigration, from different points of origin. Since Anzick-1 didn’t come with a complete skull, he didn’t help settle the question.

But a remarkable new skeleton, discovered in an underwater cave in Mexico, may have just done so. As described in a new paper in Science, the remains belong to a teenage girl, nicknamed Naia, who lived and died between 11,000 and 12,000 years ago. Her skull, like others from her era, is narrower and taller than those of modern Native Americans. Her DNA, however, is a match for people living today.

“This suggests,” said James Chatters, an independent forensic anthropologist at a press conference, “that Paleo-Americans and Native Americans descended from the same homeland. The differences between them likely arose from evolution after [their] gene pool became separated from the rest of the world.” In short, say the authors, Naia is a sort of missing link that argues strongly for a single migration out of Asia and into the Americas.

The conclusion isn’t a slam-dunk, the researchers acknowledge: their genetic analysis is based on Naia’s mitochondrial DNA, which lives outside a cell’s nucleus, and which is passed on only by the mother. In principle, that could point to an intermingling between two immigrant groups, because one female who bred with males in both groups would pass on a single mitochondrial fingerprint. The offspring who resulted might be heirs to very different paternal genes, but they would look closely related. Only DNA from a cell’s nucleus can truly establish a single origin, and, said co-author Deborah Bolnick of the University of Texas at Austin, “we don’t have data from the rest of the nuclear genome.”

They’re hoping to get it, though: only some of Naia’s remains have been removed from the cave, in order to disturb the site as little as possible. But the scientists are planning to retrieve more, which will make more-thorough testing possible.

There’s also the remaining mystery of why the skulls—and thus the faces—modern Native Americans look so different from those of their first-generation ancestors, but it’s a mystery that may have a simple answer. Even subtle changes in diet or environment could have exerted evolutionary pressures that reshaped the skull in some adaptive way. The changes could also be due to what’s known as genetic drift, a more or less random process that happens in all organisms over time.

Chatters and his colleagues don’t pretend that the story of North American migration has now been told. There are so few well-preserved skeletons of this age—a half dozen at most—that each new find has the potential to change things significantly. It took a long time for our ancestors to arrive here and settle the continent, and it will be a long time before we fully understand their journey.

TIME Archaeology

FBI Raids Home of Real Life Indiana Jones

Investigators say the 91-year-old traveler may have knowingly or unknowingly improperly amassed a collection of "immeasurable" cultural significance.

+ READ ARTICLE

The FBI raided the home of a 91-year-old artifact collector in Indiana on Wednesday who is suspected of violating treaties and federal laws while amassing his extensive collection over a lifetime, CBS News reports.

After an FBI investigation determined that Donald Miller may have knowingly or unknowingly improperly collected artifacts, archaeologists and other experts joined authorities to begin parsing through the collection—which includes Native American items, and objects from at least nine other countries including China, Russia, Italy and Greece—and identifying which artifacts, if any, must be repatriated.

On Wednesday, an FBI mobile command vehicle and several tents were set up outside Miller’s home southeast of Indianapolis.

Special Agent in Charge Robert Jones told CBS that while the monetary value of the collection is still unclear, the “cultural value of these artifacts is immeasurable.”

Miller, who has not been charged with a crime, says he has rightful ownership of the items and is cooperating with the FBI. “I have been in 200 countries collecting artifacts,” he said according to CBS.

[CBS News]

TIME Archaeology

What Ancient Aztecs Shared With Modern New Yorkers

New studies suggest that all cities—big, small, primitive and contemporary—grow in similar ways

There wouldn’t seem to be a whole lot that Coeur d’Alene, Idaho (pop. 44,000) shares with Shanghai, China (pop. 24 million), but size isn’t everything. A new study published in PLoS One now shows that all cities, regardless of age and population, grow in pretty much the same way.

As urban scientists have known for a while, densely packed cities can, in some ways, be a bargain. The more infrastructure you build, the less you need of it per person—having twice the number of people means less than twice as much train track. And the amount of money generated by the city’s economy per capita, like other socioeconomic measures including number of patents produced and violent crimes committed per capita, grows in the other direction. Twice as many people means a GDP that’s more than twice as high as before, more than twice as many patents, more than twice as many crimes.

Recently, a team of investigators who sifted through data on 1,500 ancient towns, villages, and cities that flourished in the Basin of Mexico over the course of 2,000 years sought to determine how long ago these laws of scaling emerged. Since the basin is where Mexico City—one of the most densely populated places in the world—stands today, the site could yield some powerful lessons.

(MORE: Enjoy Old French Wine? How’s 2,500 Years For You?)

Archaeologist and lead author Scott Ortman, a professor of anthropology at University of Colorado, began the work by digging out the data collected by researchers in an epic burst of fieldwork in Mexico in the 1960s and re-examining it. Superficially, the scaling laws seemed to apply. “I got on my computer and opened up the data set,” he recalls, “and I saw mathematical patterns that seemed to correspond to the models.”

It was electrifying, and he, physicist Luis Bettencourt of the Santa Fe Institute, and their other collaborators started to delve into the data in earnest, but they quickly ran up against a problem: figuring out the population of different towns from just the archaeological traces left behind is tough since they could not be sure of the methods earlier investigators used to crunch their numbers, which could cast doubt on any analyses that might be conducted later. So Ortman wound up doing a kind of archaeology of archaeology, painstakingly retabulating the raw data to make sure it stood up.

It did. With their re-examined data set, the team was able to say that the settlements did get denser as they grew in just the way that the models of modern cities suggest, and most likely not because of some quirk of how populations were estimated. This means that some ancient cities might have had more inhabitants than previously thought, and might have been more culturally or technologically sophisticated as well.

(MORE: Road Workers Destroy Ancient Mayan Pyramid)

“What we’re working on is a framework or perspective in which all human societies, past and present, actually work in the same way,” says Ortman. “They appear radically different on the surface due to the scale of coordination that’s involved, but the fundamental processes that create those patterns are the same.”

Just why cities are so productive is easy enough to understand. For all the stresses of urban living, the very proximity of so many other people starts a virtuous cycle.“Your life is a path through a city,” Bettencourt explains. “You go to work, you take your kids to school, you go to the grocery store. ” As you move through that densely populated space, you have more interactions with less effort than you would in the countryside, and the result, on a large scale, is more business deals closed, more inventions produced, more brainstorms that otherwise would have stayed quiet. Yes, the subways screech and the taxis ignore you in the rain, but the payoff—once you get home and dry off—can be considerable.

(MORE: America’s Big Cities Are Inequality Hot Spots)

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