Archaeologists working near Leipzig, Germany, have unearthed a surprisingly arrangement of more than 100 dog’s teeth in a grave between 4,200 and 4,500 years old. The way the teeth are arrayed suggests that they might have been sewn as decoration onto a piece of leather or textile which has since decayed, prompting the team who found it to call in the remnants of a purse. Taking a closer look has revealed that the teeth come from dozens of different dogs.
The team has already found hundreds of graves at the site, as well as artifacts like an amber necklace, bone buttons, stone tools, and, in one later grave, a pound of gold jewelry. Unfortunately, they have just a few years left to learn what they can from the place: it’s due to become a coal mine in 2015.
Photograph courtesy Klaus Bentele, LDA Halle
Tartar on the teeth of a young male Australopithecus sediba
To someone in the dentist’s chair, plaque is an unwelcome discovery, but to paleoanthropologists, it’s a gold mine of information. And the hardened plaque, called tartar or calculus, on the teeth of two Australopithecus sediba individuals revealed that these early humans had a taste for trees that included not only fruit, but also bark, wood, and leaves.
Louisiana’s new voucher program will kick in during the upcoming school year, giving students in failing public schools the funds to attend certain highly rated public schools and private institutions. Some of these private schools will be spreading ignorance to their students by using curriculum that openly clashes with modern science.
One textbook used by many private schools makes the creationist claim that no transitional fossils showing evolutionary changes have ever been found, which is simply not true. “This gradual change from fish to reptiles has no scientific basis,” the book reads. “For the change, to have taken place many transitional forms would have been developed. However, no transitional fossils have been or will ever be discovered because God created each type of fish, amphibian, and reptile as separate, unique animals. Any similarities that exist among them are due to the fact that one Master Craftsman fashioned them all” [poor reasoning and use of commas theirs; emphasis ours].
This excerpt comes from a high-school science book used in the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) curriculum, an educational tool in many Louisiana schools, like the Eternity Christian Academy in Calcasieu Parish, which is offering spots for 135 voucher students. British musician Jonny Scaramanga, who attended an ACE school while growing up as a Christian fundamentalist, has published this and other alarming textbook passages on his blog, Leaving Fundamentalism, including the creationist claim that the second law of thermodynamics disproves evolution.
One of the prints in El Castillo Cave’s Panel of Hands
was created more than 37,300 years ago.
A new study has revealed that Spain’s El Castillo Cave contains the oldest known cave paintings in Europe, with a handprint dating back 37,300 years and a red circle that was daubed onto the wall at least 40,600 years ago.
Instead of testing the paint’s age, a team of British and Spanish researchers measured the age of the stone that had formed around the drawings. In a cave, mineral-rich water drips over the walls, eventually depositing stalactites, stalagmites, and the sheet-like formations called flowstone. Some prehistoric artists had painted over flowstone made out of the mineral calcite, and then water flowed over the paint and deposited even more calcite, leaving the drawings sandwiched between mineral layers. The researchers used uranium-thorium dating to accurately determine the age of the mineral layers and therefore the window when the art itself was created; unlike the similar, more conventional carbon-14 method, uranium-thorium dating gives accurate results without damaging the subject.
The ancestors of modern humans developed color vision 30 million years ago. But it was not until the late 1700s that there are records of anyone seeing colors in an unusual way. English chemist John Dalton, who found that people thought he was joking when he asked whether a geranium flower was blue or pink, wrote a description in 1794 of what he saw for the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society journal: His world was suffused by shades of blue and yellow, but contained none of the mysterious sensation known as red. “That part of the image which others call red,” he wrote, “appears to me little more than a shade or defect of light.” It was one of the first mentions of colorblindness in human history.
In the centuries since, we have discovered what it is that robs some people of such sensations. Those of us with standard vision, called trichromats, have three kinds of pigments, or cones, in our retinae, each sensitive to a certain range of light and spaced out across the visible spectrum so that they can together convey to the brain everything from red to violet. In the colorblind, a mutated cone is so close to another in sensitivity that parts of the spectrum aren’t covered, or there are only two functioning cones, a condition called dichromacy. A difference of one cone causes a serious change in the number of discernable colors: Dichromats see on the order of 10,000 colors, trichromats on the order of a million. But that isn’t the end of the story. Recently, as genetic analyses and tests of color vision have grown more sophisticated, we are stumbling into one of the most curious discoveries in vision since Dalton’s day. Dichromats have 2 cones, trichromats have 3, tetrachromats have 4, making them theoretically capable of seeing 100 million colors.
This beautiful golden earring, decorated with figures of goats, was one of a trove of jewelry pieces that were wrapped in cloth and stuffed into a jar discovered by archaeologists at the Tel Meggido dig in Israel. When the team flushed the jar’s interior with water, earrings, a ring, and carnelian beads came tumbling out.
They aren’t sure why the jewelry was in the jar, but they posit that it could have been hidden there by the inhabitants of the home where the jar was found for safekeeping. The layer of soil where the find occurred dates from the 11th century BCE, a period when Meggido was under Egyptian rule, and the team believes the jewelry is either of Egyptian origin or inspired by Egyptian designs.
Image courtesy of American Friends of Tel Aviv University
The Xultun scribe’s chamber, with A, B, and C showing the locations of the calculations.
In a small closet-like chamber off a central plaza of the ancient Mayan city of Xultun, a scribe once sat with a paintbrush in hand.
On the north walls of the room, he painted an apparent self-portrait, facing a figure with an elaborate headdress, perhaps a ruler. But on adjacent walls, he and his successors, starting in about 800 C.E., painted and inscribed various astrological calculations. They are very similar to those found in the Dresden Codex, one of the most famous extant Mayan books, which contains numerous astrological and ritualistic cycles and is thought to have been copied from older books sometime between the 11th and 15th centuries. The markings on the scribe’s walls in Xultun, unveiled last week in a paper in Science, represent the earliest known depictions of some of these calculations.
The interior of a cenote
The cenotes of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo are peppered with mysterious skeletons. Over the millennia, these water-filled caves have served as burying grounds and sacrificial sites for native peoples, and in fact, several ancient sets of remains have been found so deep in the caves that they are inaccessible without diving equipment, suggesting that they must have been placed there when the caves were dry, before the ice caps melted around 8,ooo BCE, and putting them in the range of 10-14,000 years old.
Now, though, one of those ancient skeletons, called the Young Man of Chan Hol II since its discovery in 2010, has gone missing from its cenote. New Scientist reports that the National Institute of Anthropology and History has put up posters in bakeries, supermarkets, and divers’ shops throughout the town of Tulum in hopes of receiving tips as to the skeleton’s whereabouts and is considering legal action, though we’re not sure what actions are possible against thieves. Apparently there have been other archaeological thefts from cenotes as well; the cenotes are frequented by divers, and the authorities cannot guard them all.
Image courtesy of Darren Fry / flickr
In the search for life beyond our planet, astrophysicists and astronomers are usually the starring characters. Through SETI, they are listening for transmissions from aliens, and through telescopes like Kepler and research in arid regions of Earth they are studying what it might take for life to arise elsewhere. But those scientists are themselves being studied: by anthropologists. Wired has a thoughtful interview with Kathryn Denning, an anthropologist who specializes in understanding how people think about space exploration and alien life. Here’s one choice tidbit, in which she describes what she thinks of one common story of first contact: a signal from intelligent life electrifies humanity, which subsequently settles its differences and unites under a common banner.
Denning: One way to read that, in the most general sense, is that it’s a narrative that makes us feel better.
Two wooden coffin lids, painted with Egyptian symbols, were recently seized by the Israeli Antiquities Authority. Carbon dating of the lids has revealed that they are truly ancient: one is between 2,800 and 3,000 years old, dating from the Iron Age, the other between 3,600 and 3,400 years old, from the late Bronze Age. Read More