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Asphalt may have poisoned ancient Americans

asphalt
© Image: Julie Dermansky/Corbis
Useful but harmful
On the beaches of southern California you can sometimes find clumps of a sticky black substance with a texture halfway between molasses and rubber. Could these tar balls - collected by humans for thousands of years - provide evidence that our long-standing relationship with hydrocarbons was toxic from the outset?

Long before we started asphalting roads, prehistoric people around the world used bitumen, which seeps from the ground naturally in places. Archaeological finds suggest that California's prehistoric locals, the Chumash people, eagerly collected the tar balls. They used them to caulk the seams of ocean-going craft and waterproof woven baskets to make drinking vessels, as well as for making casts for broken bones and poultices for sore joints. Some Chumash even chewed bitumen like gum.

We now know that bitumen can be a source of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) - pollutants that have been linked to a number of health problems (see "Poisonous ingredients"). To find out whether California's tar balls had the potential to damage the Chumash's health, Sebastian Wärmländer of Stockholm University in Sweden and colleagues analysed samples taken from Californian beaches and from the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles. They found the tar contained 44 PAHs, including many known carcinogens.

Sherlock

Is This the World's Oldest Fish Tank?

gradoroman
© Courtesy of Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali, Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici del Friuli Venezia Giulia.
The hull of the Grado Roman shipwreck in situ. The second-century ship spanned some 55 feet and held hundreds of amphoras containing fish products.
An ancient Roman shipwreck nearly 2,000 years old may once have held an aquarium onboard capable of carrying live fish, archaeologists suggest.

The shipwreck, which lay 6 miles (nearly 10 kilometers) off the town of Grado in Italy, was discovered by accident in 1986. Approximately 55 feet (16.5 meters) long, it dated back to the mid-second century and had a cargo of about 600 large vases known as amphoras that contained sardines, salted mackerel and other fish products.

Curiously, its hull possessed a unique feature -- near its keel was a lead pipe at least 2.7 inches (7 cm) wide and 51 inches (1.3 meters) long. Why pierce its bottom with a hole that seawater could rise up?

Scientists now suggest this pipe was connected to a hand-operated pump to suck up water. The aim? To keep a constant supply of flowing, oxygenated water into a fish tank onboard the ship.

Magic Wand

Marlborough Mound: 'Merlin's burial place' built in 2400 BC

Marlboro Mound

Marlborough Mound had previously baffled historians
A Wiltshire mound where the legendary wizard Merlin was purported to be buried has been found to date back to 2400 BC.

Radiocarbon dating tests were carried out on charcoal samples taken from Marlborough Mound, which lies in Marlborough College's grounds.

The 19m (62ft) high mound had previously mystified historians. Some believed it dated back to about 600 AD.

English Heritage said: "This is a very exciting time for British prehistory."

Dig leader Jim Leary said: "This is an astonishing discovery.

"The Marlborough Mound has been one of the biggest mysteries in the Wessex landscape.

"For centuries people have wondered whether it is Silbury's little sister; and now we have an answer. "

'Dramatic history'

Silbury Hill, an artificial man-made mound about five miles away, also dates back to 2,400 BC.

Marlborough Mound was reused as a castle and became an important fortress for the Norman and Plantagenet kings.

Info

Ancient War Revealed in Discovery of Incan Fortresses

Inca Fortress
© Samuel Connell
The fortresses at the site, Quitoloma, were filled with Inca weaponry, including stones for slingshots.

Incan fortresses built some 500 years ago have been discovered along an extinct volcano in northern Ecuador, revealing evidence of a war fought by the Inca just before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Andes.

"We're seeing evidence for a pre-Columbian frontier, or borderline, that we think existed between Inca fortresses and Ecuadorian people's fortresses," project director Samuel Connell, of Foothill College in California, told LiveScience.

The team has identified what they think are 20 fortresses built by the Inca and two forts that were built by a people from Ecuador known as the Cayambe. The volcano is called Pambamarca.

The team's research was presented in March at the 76th annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA), in Sacramento, Calif.

"We know that there are many, many fortresses throughout northern Ecuador that haven't been identified one way or the other," said Chad Gifford, of Columbia University, who is also a project director.

Sherlock

The Other Mystery of Easter Island

Image
© Unknown
Moai Statues
Easter Island is branded into popular consciousness as the home of the mysterious and towering moai statues, but these are not the only curiosity the South Pacific island holds. Where the moai are fascinating for their unknown purpose and mysterious craftsmen, the island's lost language of Rongorongo is equally perplexing. The unique written language seems to have appeared suddenly in the 1700s, but within just two centuries it was exiled to obscurity.

Known as Rapa Nui to the island's inhabitants, Rongorongo is a writing system comprised of pictographs. It has been found carved into many oblong wooden tablets and other artifacts from the island's history. The art of writing was not known in any nearby islands and the script's mere existence is sufficient to confound anthropologists. The most plausible explanation so far has been that the Easter Islanders were inspired by the writing they observed in 1770 when the Spanish claimed the island. However, despite its recency, no linguist or archaeologist has been able to successfully decipher the Rongorongo language.

Info

Canada: Ancient Site of Human Activity Discovered in Eastern Ontario

Dig reveals thousands of stone items at portage on South Nation River

An Ottawa archeologist has discovered a rare site of human activity in Eastern Ontario from between 3,500 and 9,000 years ago. Paul Thibaudeau, an adjunct professor at Carleton University, has been leading a team of archeologists, students, and volunteers collecting artifacts from a dig near Casselman, east of Ottawa. It is only one of a half-dozen sites in Eastern Ontario that are considered reliable evidence of human presence during the period.

Thousands of stone items have been found at what Thibaudeau said was a portage around a waterfall and rapids on the South Nation River. The spot is believed to have been a temporary hunting and animal-skinning camp. Small stone tools used in skinning, remnants of tools, and waste from the toolmaking process have been found. "They were coming, staying briefly, and moving on, that's what we can tell right now," he said.

He knew he was onto something when one of his crew, Kelly Berckmans, of Ottawa and a Carleton student, found what appeared to be a piece of glass but turned out to be a crystal quartz "end scraper."

"When I saw that -that got me excited. When I started seeing a lot of quartz flakes, a lot of chipped stone in the other test pits I said something is going on here."

Info

Climate Played Big Role in Vikings' Disappearance From Greenland

Climate History
© William D'Andrea, Brown University
William D'Andrea, right, and Yongsong Huang of Brown University took cores from two lakes in Greenland to reconstruct 5,600 years of climate history near the Norse Western Settlement.

The end of the Norse settlements on Greenland likely will remain shrouded in mystery. While there is scant written evidence of the colony's demise in the 14th and early 15th centuries, archaeological remains can fill some of the blanks, but not all.

What climate scientists have been able to ascertain is that an extended cold snap, called the Little Ice Age, gripped Greenland beginning in the 1400s. This has been cited as a major cause of the Norse's disappearance. Now researchers led by Brown University show the climate turned colder in an earlier span of several decades, setting in motion the end of the Greenland Norse. Their findings appear in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Brown scientists' finding comes from the first reconstruction of 5,600 years of climate history from two lakes in Kangerlussuaq, near the Norse "Western Settlement." Unlike ice cores taken from the Greenland ice sheet hundreds of miles inland, the new lake core measurements reflect air temperatures where the Vikings lived, as well as those experienced by the Saqqaq and the Dorset, Stone Age cultures that preceded them.

"This is the first quantitative temperature record from the area they were living in," said William D'Andrea, the paper's first author, who earned his doctorate in geological sciences at Brown and is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Massachusetts - Amherst. "So we can say there is a definite cooling trend in the region right before the Norse disappear."

Question

Maybe Mona Lisa? Buried Skeleton Found

Mona Lisa
© Louvre Museum, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
This is a retouched picture of the Mona Lisa, a painting by Leonardo DaVinci, currently housed at the Louvre museum in Paris, France. It has been digitally altered from it's original version by modifying its colors.

Archaeologists searching for the remains of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa have uncovered a skeleton that may belong to the mysterious woman.

The skeleton was unearthed in a Florence convent where researchers are searching for the remains of Lisa Gherardini Del Giocondo, the women believed to be the model for da Vinci's famous painting. Based on an early look at the cranium and pelvis, the skeleton appears to be female, Bologna University anthropologist Giorgio Gruppioni told news agencies Friday (May 27).

However, more study is needed to determine if the skeleton is, in fact, female, much less whether she lived and died around the same time as Del Giocondo.The researchers were led to the church by historical records, including Gherardini's death certificate discovered a few years ago. She reportedly spent her last two years (until her death in 1542) at St. Ursula in Florence after her husband's death. The documents note that there is a crypt beneath the church floor where Gherardini would have been buried.

Researchers plan to continue the excavation of the skeleton. If the bones do belong to a woman and are from the right time period, the archaeologists will attempt to extract DNA from the skeleton to compare it with the remains of two of Del Giocondo's children, buried in a separate cemetery. They also hope to reconstruct her face to compare it with that of the Mona Lisa painting.

Arrow Down

The 6ft shrimp that BIT BACK! Fossil found of prehistoric prawn monster that used razor- sharp teeth to crack shellfish

A giant prehistoric shrimp-like monster which terrorised the oceans more than half a billion years ago has been discovered by scientists.

The fearsome-looking beasts, known as anomalocaridids, grew up to 6ft long and - unlike today's prawns - could bite back, using its razor-sharp teeth to crack open shellfish.

They were already believed to be the largest animals of the 'Cambrian' period which first spawned our complex ecosystem.

Image
© AFP/Getty Images
Prawn to be wild: A recreation of a anomalocaridids, fearsome beasts that killed their prey using giant sharp teeth


Sherlock

US: A Stonehenge Under Lake Michigan

Image
© unknown
While scanning underneath the waters of Lake Michigan for shipwrecks, archeologists found something a lot more interesting than they bargained for, as they discovered a boulder with a prehistoric carving of a mastodon, as well as a series of stones arranged in a Stonehenge-like manner.

At a depth of about 40 feet into Lake Michigan's Grand Traverse Bay, using sonar techniques to look for shipwrecks, archeologists discovered sunken boats and cars and even a Civil War-era pier, but among all these they found this prehistoric surprise, which a trained eye can guess by looking at the sonar scans photos in this article.
Image
© unknown

"When you see it in the water, you're tempted to say this is absolutely real," said Mark Holley, a professor of underwater archaeology at Northwestern Michigan University College who made the discovery, during a news conference with photos of the boulder on display in 2007. "But that's what we need the experts to come in and verify.