Northwest Passage: Americas populated via Alaska, genetics show

Brian Vastag


A single population of prehistoric Siberians crossed the Bering Strait into Alaska and subsequently fanned out to populate North and South America, according to a new genetic analysis of present-day indigenous Americans.


The study also hints that early Americans reached Central and South America by migrating down the Pacific coast by land or sea and only later spread into the interior of South America.


"We have good evidence that a single migration [from Siberia] contributed a large fraction of the ancestry of the Americas," says population geneticist Noah Rosenberg of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who led the large international study team.


The finding draws on the largest database of Native American genetics ever compiled. The data include DNA from nearly 500 people belonging to 29 groups scattered across Canada, Mexico, Central America, and South America. The researchers also studied samples from 14 Tundra Nentsi individuals living in eastern Siberia.


"They should be commended for bringing together an enormous database, something no one has done before," says Tom Dillehay, an archaeologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.


The team examined 678 genetic markers in the human genome and found that one of the markers ties every Native American group to the Tundra Nentsi. The marker, moreover, is found nowhere else in the world. "It's extremely difficult to explain this kind of pattern unless all of the Native American populations ... have a large degree of shared ancestry," says Rosenberg.


In addition, the Canadian groups share more genes with the Siberians than do the groups in Central and South America, Rosenberg and his team report online in the November PLoS Genetics.


Tracing further migration through the Americas, the team then correlated genetic variations among different tribes with each group's location as measured along inland or coastal routes. The genetic data suggest that most migration to Central and South America followed the coast.


"That's the easy way south," says Vance Holliday, an archaeologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He cautions, however, that the groups that populated the South American interior would have had to surmount the formidable Andes Mountains.


Despite the migration findings, Holliday and Dillehay both say that southward migration along interior routes should still be considered. Dillehay notes that the current study excludes Native Americans from the United States and eastern Brazil. "It's a sampling bias," he says, that might have erroneously favored the Pacific coast migration model.


Rosenberg says that a second paper will soon address the genetics of tribes in the United States and whether there was more than one major Siberian migration.


While the study points to an eastern Siberian origin for most of the genes that spread across the Americas, it can't rule out small genetic contributions from other groups, says Kari Britt Schroeder of the University of California, Davis. In 2001, scientists unearthed 8,000- to 11,000-year-old skulls in Brazil that strikingly resemble today's Australian aborigines (SN: 4/7/01, p. 212). The find fueled speculation that several waves of immigrants from different parts of Asia reached the Americas.


"Even if Native Americans share a lot of ancestry from a single origin, there still could be contributions from other groups," says Schroeder.



Early Human Ancestors May Have Had "Harem" Societies

Brain Handwerk for National Geographic News

November 29, 2007


Some early human ancestors may have lived in "harem" societies much like those of modern gorillas and orangutans, a new fossil study suggests.


Such an arrangement is known to arise in some modern primate species when males mature later in life than females and become much larger than their mates.


In these cases a single dominant male mates with and protects a large harem of females.


The new find is based on analysis of fossils from the human relative Paranthropus robustus.


The primate species, which lived in Africa about 2 million to 1.2 million years ago, is closely related to early humans but is a dead-end branch of the family tree.


P. robustus is a descendant of Australopithecus afarensis, the species that also gave rise to the Homo genus that includes modern humans.


Charles Lockwood, an anthropologist at University College London, and colleagues looked at roughly three dozen fossil skulls and teeth from P. robustus.


Telltale traits of the fossils showed that male members of the species matured late in life.


This led Lockwood to theorize that P. robustus males competed for groups of mates much the way gorillas do today.


The findings appear this week in the journal Science.


Male gorillas and orangutans grow significantly in adulthood and tend to become dramatically larger than females of their species.


"Orangutans are the most extreme situation," Lockwood said.


"Male orangutans go through an amazing transformation. They put on a lot of weight and get flanges on the sides of their faces. They appear nearly twice their old size, though some of that is an illusion and the change in the skeleton is much more subtle."


Adult males can stand 5 feet (1.5 meters) tall and weigh more than 200 pounds (90 kilograms), while females reach about 3.5 feet (a meter) tall and weigh in around 110 pounds (50 kilograms).


Such extreme size differences aren't common in other primates such as chimpanzees or humans—species in which harem mating behavior is abnormal.


Among humans, a single dominant male ruling a bevy of mates may seem to be a lucky individual. But the reproductive strategy was actually quite hazardous, scientists say.


The P. robustus fossils, found at the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage site in South Africa, are predominantly those deposited by ancient predators such as leopards and hyenas.


Because the remains are mostly male, they appear to have become victims far more often than females.


"Basically, males had a high-risk, high-return lifestyle in this species," Lockwood said.


"They most likely left their birth groups at about the time they reached maturity, and it was a long time before they were mature enough to attract females and establish a new group.


"Some of them were killed by predators before they got the chance," he added.


"One reason why that's important is because there are so few females in the fossil sample, [so] it appears that they were relatively safe.


"A key inference is that there were stable groups of females that would have allowed males to pursue this [harem] strategy."


Richard Potts, director of the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, notes that it's very difficult to reconstruct early human ancestors' sex and social life.


"Lockwood's study is very clever in using the fossil record to interpret the pattern of growth in males and females in P. robustus and connecting it to the pattern of male competition, which seems to parallel that of gorillas," Potts said.


He also cited earlier theories that suggested the species may have lived in harem-type groups.


These more speculative ideas centered on the environmental conditions of life on an open savanna.


Widely dispersed plants might have caused males to emphasize defending their proximity to females rather than basing their territories on food sources, the theories say.


"It's intriguing to me that Lockwood and colleagues have come up with anatomical evidence that converges on a similar interpretation about the social lives of Paranthropus," Potts said.




Syrian archeologists discover ancient remains among famous ruins



DAMASCUS, Syria - Syrian archeologists have discovered an ancient glass jar containing an infant's ashes at one of the Mideast's most famous sites from Classical antiquity.


The discovery of the 2nd century A.D. jar amid the ruins of Palmyra was the first of its kind, shedding light on previously unknown funeral practices common at the time.


Archeological official Khalil Hariri says archeologists unearthed the jar from a newly discovered cemetery within Palmyra.


Hariri says the ashes inside the container, which measured 24 centimetres in height and 18 centimetres in diameter, revealed that the infant had been cremated.


He says the mission discovered pottery, furniture and lamps in the cemetery, as well as glass vials in which mourners put their tears.


Palmyra, located some 240 kilometres northeast of Syria's capital Damascus, was the centre of an Arab client state to the Roman empire and thrived on the caravan trades across the desert to Mesopotamia and Persia.



Remains of ancient city discovered in east China

Posted: 2007/11/30

From: Mathaba


HANGZHOU, Nov. 29 (Xinhua) -- Chinese archaeologists said Thursday they have discovered the remains of an ancient city in eastern Zhejiang Province, which could better prove the long history of Chinese civilization.


The relic was found near Mojiao Mountain between Liangzhu and Pingyao townships in Yuhang District of the provincial capital Hangzhou, said Bao Xianlun, director of Zhejiang Provincial Cultural Heritage Bureau.


Based on the remains, experts estimate the ancient city covered an area of about three square kilometers. There are still pieces of walls as high as four meters at the site.


The location of the ancient city should have been carefully selected and it can be dated prior to the late period of the Liangzhu culture (about 4,150 to 5,250 years ago), according to Liu Bin, a research fellow with the bureau.


The Liangzhu culture is believed to be one of the key prehistoric cultures in the Taihu Lake area. It is named after Liangzhu, where a number of relic sites have been discovered since the 1930s.


Yan Wenming, an archaeologist from Beijing University, said the discovery of the city remains showed that the Liangzhu culture period had entered an advanced development stage of prehistoric civilization.



China to start excavation of horse-and-chariot burial

www.chinaview.cn 2007-11-29 10:09:14

JINGZHOU, Hubei Province, Nov. 29 (Xinhua)

Chinese archaeologists will soon start excavations at the horse-and-chariot chamber of a tomb dating back 2,300 to 2,400 years, more than 100 years older than the tomb containing the terracotta army.


"Excavation will start on the 131-meter-long horse-chariot sector of the Xiongjiazhong Tomb before February, 2008," said Yan Pin, director of the Archaeology Bureau of Jingzhou, central China's Hubei Province, where the tomb is.


The tomb is the largest and best preserved yet found in China from the State of Chu in the Warring States Period (475-221 BC). The excavation was formally launched in August 2006 after three comprehensive surveys of the tomb made since 1979.


"We have found more than 30 horse-and-chariot pits arrayed in a row in the tomb. It is the largest of such finds from the Warring States Period," said Yan.


The excavation has been progressing scoop by scoop, but the work has been assisted with state-of-the-art mapping and computerized technology.


Archaeologists do not yet know the occupant of the tomb, which covers an area of 60,000 square meters. They surmise that the master of the tomb was a Chu noble, since a large amount of treasures, particularly jade items, have been unearthed from the tomb's burial sector.


Over 1,300 jade items from the tomb were put on show in Jingzhou in September, the largest exhibition of jade articles in China.


"The burial is large in scale and well arranged. We have found 92 graves that might be people buried with the dead, which was a burial custom of the State of Chu - showing a dedication to the master even after death," said Yan.


Many scholars suspected that the master of the tomb was one of the kings in the State of Chu. In all, 11 kings ruled Chu successively.


"The great probability is that the tomb is of King Zhao of Chu, named Xiong Zhen, who was the last king of the state," said Xu Wenwu, a professor with the Changjiang University.


The king's name is also linked with the name of the tomb, Xiongjiazhong, which literally means the tomb of a family surnamed Xiong. But professor Xu said that his deduction needs to be supported by findings from the tomb.


According to sources with the Jingzhou city government, the tomb is expected to be turned into a museum, like that of the tomb of the terracotta warriors in the mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shihuang in Shaanxi.



Chinese archaeologists prepare to open 2,200-year-old coffin

www.chinaview.cn 2007-11-27 21:32:16

JINGZHOU, Hubei Province, Nov. 27 (Xinhua)


Chinese archaeologists are preparing to open a 2,200-year-old, well-preserved coffin in central China's Hubei Province, which may contain large amounts of silk fabrics.


A detailed plan is being drawn up to open the coffin, excavated in the Xiejiaqiao No. 1 Tomb dating back to about 200 B.C. in Jingzhou City, said Yan Pin, director of Jingzhou Cultural Heritage Bureau.


The coffin was transported to a storehouse in the Jingzhou City Museum where archaeologists will open it on Thursday if everything goes well, Yan told Xinhua.


Four layers of delicate and well-designed silk cloth were found wrapped around the 2.46-meter-long coffin when it was excavated.


Yan said it was rare to see such a well-preserved tomb in China.


Based on current excavations since Nov. 20, there will surely be large amounts of silk in the coffin, he said.


"But we have to be careful when opening it as silk with a history of 2,000 years can easily be carbonized when exposed to the air," Yuan said.


Workers are conducting preparatory work such as blocking out sunlight and sterilizing the warehouse for Thursday's opening.


The identity of the tomb's owner is still unknown.



Russian archaeologists find unique mummies in Egypt

21:56  27/ 11/ 2007


AL-FAYUM, November 27 (RIA Novosti) - Russian archaeologists have found well-preserved mummies in Egypt dating to the country's Ptolemaic era, the head of the Russian Academy of Science's Egyptology department announced on Tuesday.


"Well-preserved mummies of this period are extremely rare," Galina Belova said.


The discoveries were made in the Egyptian oasis of Al-Fayum, where several mummies, combining traits of Hellenic and Egyptian traditions, have previously been found.


Teams of Russian archaeologists are currently carrying out excavations in Memphis, the ancient capital of Egypt, in Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast, and near Luxor in the country's south.


"Burials from the Greco-Roman period are laid at the depth of two meters or lower," Belova said, adding that as a rule, coffins of the period are not decorated.


However, the Russian team found a 2,000-year-old family tomb containing three well-preserved mummies from the Ptolemaic era. The wooden coffins were ornamented with colored paintings and carved with hieroglyphs, recounting the family's story.


A man, probably the head of the family, was buried with a gold-plated mask. The remains will be x-rayed to establish the man's true age and to reconstruct his appearance.


The tomb also contained 1.4-meter coffin made of compressed papyrus. Judging by the illustrations adorning the coffin, it contains a mummy of a child, probably a girl, but researchers have decided not to open it 'in the field'.


A mummy of an old woman with well-preserved hair has also aroused interest, as well as a tomb of a baby, buried with mummified dogs, cats, monkeys and ibises (long-legged wading birds).



Historians hustle as flood threatens ancient town

November 28, 2007, 10:13


A large settlement dating back to the first century BC has been found in the Russian republic of North Ossetia. But since the archaeological site is in a valley next to a hydroplant under construction, there's a race to unlock its secrets, before it's flooded.


Most of the 60 people working at the site in the Zaramag Valley are amateurs with professionals guiding them.


Every day they antique jewellery, tools, weapons and crockery that once belonged to the ancient tribe of Alans, the ancestors of modern Ossetians.


But in just a few weeks time, the whole valley will be flooded. It will become a reservoir for Zaramag hydroplant. Once built, it will solve North Ossetia's energy problems.


The archaeologists regret that they may not be able to finish the work. They say they did everything they could to prolong their stay in the valley.


But there is just no way to explore such a large area in a short period of time: "It is practically impossible to excavate a territory of 8,000 square metres in three months. We are just doing our best," says Sergey Dzutsev one of the scientists at the site.


Since there was no way to stop the plant construction when it was halfway through, Ossetians try to save what's possible.



Elusive biblical Jerusalem wall finally found, Israeli archaeologist says

The Associated Press

Published: November 29, 2007


JERUSALEM: A biblical wall that has eluded archaeologists for years has finally been found, according to an Israeli scholar.


A team of archaeologists in Jerusalem has uncovered what they believe to be part of a wall mentioned in the Bible's Book of Nehemiah.


The discovery, made in Jerusalem's ancient City of David, came as a result of a rescue attempt on a tower which was in danger of collapse, said Eilat Mazar, head of the Institute of Archaeology at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem-based research and educational institute, and leader of the dig.


Artifacts including pottery shards and arrowheads found under the tower suggested that both the tower and the nearby wall are from the 5th century B.C., the time of Nehemiah, according to Mazar. Scholars previously thought the wall dated to the Hasmonean period (142-37 B.C.).


The findings suggest that the wall is actually part of the same city wall the Bible says Nehemiah rebuilt, Mazar said. The Book of Nehemiah (chapters 3-6) gives a detailed description of construction of the walls, destroyed earlier by the Babylonians.


"We were amazed," she said, noting that the discovery was made at a time when many scholars argued that the wall did not exist.


"This was a great surprise. It was something we didn't plan," Mazar said.


However, another scholar doubted whether the wall was biblical.


The first phase of the dig, completed in 2005, uncovered what Mazar believes to be the remains of King David's palace, built by King Hiram of Tyre and also mentioned in the Bible.


Ephraim Stern, professor emeritus of archaeology at Hebrew University and chairman of the state of Israel archaeological council, corroborated Mazar's claim. "The material she showed me is from the Persian period," the period of Nehemiah, he said. "I can sign on the date of the material she found."


Another scholar disputed the significance of the discovery.


Israel Finkelstein, professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University, called the discovery "an interesting find," but said the pottery and other remains do not indicate that the wall was built in the time of Nehemiah. Because the debris was not connected to a floor or other structural part of the wall, the wall could have been built later, Finkelstein said.


"The wall could have been built, theoretically, in the Ottoman period," he said. "It's not later than the pottery — that's all we know."



Iron Age and Roman discoveries at Olympic site

Wed Nov 28, 2007 2:23pm GMT


LONDON (Reuters) - Digs at the London Olympic site have unearthed evidence of Iron Age and Roman settlements, authorities said on Wednesday.


Pottery and a Roman coin have been found on the site of the planned Aquatics Centre in Stratford, east London.


They were buried behind a wooden river wall that may have been built and used by the Romans.


The coin, which has been dated to 330-335 AD, shows two soldiers and their standards on one side, and emperor Constantine II and Caesar on the other.


The 150-million pound Zaha Hadid-designed centre has been radically overhauled recently, with a large pedestrian bridge having been incorporated into the roof structure.


Uncertainty remains over its final cost, while only one contractor is believed to be interested in taking on the project after two dropped out.


But the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA), responsible for creating the 2012 Games infrastructure, said the archaeological finds would not delay the building programme.


The items will go on show at the Museum of London as part of its collection and record of the site's dig.


London's Iron-Age dwellers would have lived on a small area of dry land in a valley of lakes, rivers and marshes, and would have fished in the River Lea, the ODA said.


The Aquatics Centre will be beside the river, which is currently being widened by eight metres as part of a programme to restore the ancient waterways of the Lower Lea Valley.


Archaeologists are currently dating the woodwork and trying to establish how the finds link to evidence of Roman activity in the Hackney Wick area, which would have overlooked the Lea Valley.


ODA Chief Executive David Higgins said: "It is a story of change and transformation dating back centuries."


He added: "The archaeological work has been long planned in conjunction with our programme and will not cause any delays."


(Reporting by Avril Ormsby; Editing by Steve Addison)