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    Ancient Maya burned their dead rulers to mark a new dynasty

    An ornament found with the burned remains of royal people at a Maya templeDr Christina T. Halperin
    Around 1200 years ago in a Maya city, the bones of several royal people were burned and unceremoniously discarded within the foundations of a new temple. These recently discovered remains may have marked a fiery political transition at a time of upheaval in the Maya world.
    “When we first started excavating, we had no idea what this was,” says Christina Halperin at the University of Montreal. She and her colleagues made the discovery in 2022 at the archaeological site of Ucanal, located in present-day Guatemala.
    The researchers found the deposit mixed in with rocks beneath a pyramid temple structure. The deposit contained the bones of at least four people, along with thousands of ornamental fragments and beads. The bones of two individuals and many of the ornaments showed evidence of burning at high temperature.Advertisement

    It was clear this wasn’t a normal set of remains, says Halperin. But it was the nosepiece and obsidian eye discs of a burial mask that made clear they were royal individuals. She says sifting these clues from the ash “took forever”.
    Despite their apparent highborn origins, the royals’ burned remains were not carefully buried but were instead “dumped there”, says Halperin. Radiocarbon dating of the bones and ash also indicated at least one individual had died up to a century before the remains were burned between AD 773 and 881. This suggests the bones were exhumed from a previous burial and then burned.
    This timing corresponds with the rise of a new leader at Ucanal named Papmalil, an outsider who came to power amid a wider unravelling of Maya society. Within that context, the researchers think the deposit may be the product of what is known as the “fire-entering rite”, a Maya ritual that dramatically marked the destruction and end of the previous dynasty and the preeminence of the next. “This rite seems to be both an act of veneration, but also an act of destruction,” says Halperin.
    Simon Martin at the University of Pennsylvania says the discovery provides vivid physical evidence for the theory that influence from outside cultures contributed to radical shifts in Maya society during this period. “These are the ancestors. These are the forebears,” he says. “To do this kind of thing is really tearing all of that up.”

    Topics:archaeology/anthropology More

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    Ancient humans lived inside a lava tube in the Arabian desert

    Researchers exploring the Umm Jirsan lava tube system in Saudi ArabiaPALAEODESERTS Project, CC-BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons​.org/licenses/by/4.0/)
    Archaeologists have found evidence of human habitation within lava tubes for the first time, in the deserts of northern Saudi Arabia.
    Lava tubes are caves that form during a volcanic eruption. The surface of a river of lava cools and solidifies, while hot molten rock continues to flow beneath it. Eventually, lava drains out of the tube, leaving behind a tunnel.

    Mathew Stewart at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, and his colleagues excavated a trench inside Umm Jirsan. At 1.5 kilometres in length, it is the biggest lava tube in Saudi Arabia. The researchers discovered animal bones, stone tools and pottery stretching back at least 7000 years and possibly as much as 10,000 years.
    Stewart and his team have worked in the region for more than 15 years and have previously found numerous stone structures on the surface, confirming human habitation. However, the desert’s hot, arid climate has caused organic material to break down, making it difficult to date.
    On the surface, the landscape is a “hot, dry and flat basalt desert”, says Stewart. “But when you are down in the lava tube, it’s much cooler. It’s very sheltered and it would have been a great place of refuge.”
    “It’s transforming our understanding of the prehistory of the Arabian peninsula,” he says.
    In parts of the underground network at Umm Jirsan, the researchers also found human bones, but these are thought to have been dragged in by hyenas.
    In other lava tubes nearby, Stewart and his colleagues found rock art, including representations of domestic sheep and goats that would have been made by “cultural contemporaries” of the groups using the lava tubes as a refuge, he says.
    Mike Morley at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, describes the lava tubes as being like “prefabricated activity spaces”.
    “As a scientist who works primarily in caves, I am excited that we have another type of cave system being used by past human populations,” says Morley. “These finds represent a treasure trove of archaeological information for Arabia, a massive region that has only recently been investigated systematically for prehistoric archaeology.”
    Lava tubes have also been suggested as possible places for humans to shelter on the moon and Mars.

    Topics:archaeology/ancient humans More

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    Untangling the enigmatic origins of the human family’s newest species

    Callao cave in the Philippines, where fossils from Homo luzonensis were foundFlorent Detroit/Callao Cave Archaeology Project
    This is an extract from Our Human Story, our newsletter about the revolution in archaeology. Sign up to receive it in your inbox for free every month.
    On 10 April 2019, our extended family got a bit bigger. A study in Nature reported the discovery of a new species of hominin called Homo luzonensis, from the Philippines. My colleague and fellow fossil enthusiast Colin Barras wrote about it for New Scientist.
    It’s been five years since the announcement,… More

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    How a sugar acid crucial for life could have formed in interstellar clouds

    Researchers may have figured out how a crucial ingredient that cells need to produce energy could form in deep space.

    Calculations and lab experiments suggest that glyceric acid can arise from radiation blasting carbon dioxide and ethylene glycol in interstellar clouds, researchers report in the March 15 Science Advances.

    The study is “a great start to understand how these molecules are formed in space,” says Anthony Remijan, an astrochemist at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Va., who was not involved in the research. The finding suggests that “if you put the right mixture together, in the right conditions, maybe you can even afford more complex molecules in space,” he says. More

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    Stone Age blades could have been used for butchery, not just hunting

    Prehistoric stone blades called Clovis points could have been used as weapons – or butchery toolsMetin I. Eren
    Stone “Clovis points” used by prehistoric hunters to kill animals are also remarkably efficient at cutting meat off a large animal carcass – at least according to a modern bison butchering experiment. The finding complicates our knowledge of prehistoric hunting practices.
    Archaeologists teamed up with modern hunters to compare how well replicas of two types of prehistoric stone tools could harvest meat from an animal carcass. They used a humanely killed bison bull weighing more than 450 kilograms.

    “This study actually showed that Clovis points were more effective than what was presumed to be the butchery tool: large stone flakes,” says Metin Eren at Kent State University in Ohio.
    The five hunters, associated with the MeatEater outdoor lifestyle company, took just 3 hours and 10 minutes to completely butcher the bison carcass using both stone tools. But the Clovis points achieved a butchering efficiency of 0.38 kilograms of meat per minute, whereas the handheld stone flake tools processed 0.34 kilograms of meat per minute.
    The Clovis points, which were mounted on wooden handles, had the added benefit of not injuring any users, whereas four out of five experts suffered minor cuts while using the handheld stone flakes.
    But the Clovis points also required frequent resharpening during the butchering – and three of the 10 stone tools broke. “They demonstrate that the Clovis points work well, but they also demonstrate that the Clovis points break a lot,” says John Shea at Stony Brook University in New York, who was not part of the study. “And this is important because those things are not easy to make.”
    Still, prehistoric peoples in the Americas may have adopted “such a labour-intensive and breakage-prone artefact” as part of social displays of group cooperation and stone working skills, says Shea.
    Field processors butcher the bison with stone tools, while recorders take notes on how they use themSeth Morris
    Another surprise came from how a Clovis point snapped and broke in a way that was nearly identical to how another Clovis point on an atlatl weapon broke when hurled at an elephant carcass in a previous study. “The possibility of snap breaks being mistaken for impact breaks is an eye-opener from the standpoint of interpreting how Clovis points might have been used,” says Vance Holliday at the University of Arizona, who did not participate in the study.
    That means broken Clovis points discovered at prehistoric archaeological sites may not represent a “smoking gun for hunting”, as researchers previously believed. They could instead show how people “came across an already dead animal and scavenged it”, says Eren. In other words, deducing prehistoric hunting and scavenging behaviours just got a lot more complicated.

    Topics:archaeology/ancient humans More

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    The Biology of Kindness review: Living well and prospering

    What is the impact of being kind on our bodies and lifespan?Kara McWest / Stockimo / Alamy
    The Biology of Kindness
    Immaculata De Vivo and Daniel Lumera, translated by Fabio De Vivo
    MIT Press (first published in Italian in 2020)
    We tend to think about kindness as a quality that helps others, not ourselves. But a new book, The Biology of Kindness: Six daily choices for health, well-being, and longevity, unpicks the impact of being kind on our bodies and lifespan, as well as the effect of four other traits and behaviours – optimism, forgiveness,… More

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    The unexpected reasons why human childhood is extraordinarily long

    Rene Bernal/Unsplash
    I WAS going to start this article another way. But that was before my 10-year-old daughter intervened. In fact, I had already begun writing when she bounced up and tried to scam me. She offered to bet me £10 that she could make an ordinary pencil write in the colour red. Alas for the budding entrepreneur, I refused the bet: she was too confident, so I suspected she had something up her sleeve. But I did let her reveal her trick. She took a lead pencil and wrote “in the colour red”. Then she laughed like a hyena and went off to try scamming her mother.
    Our bright little spark has opinions about everything from video games and sports to books. She is learning basic algebra and coding, and her Taylor Swift expertise vastly outstrips mine. Yet, despite all this knowledge, she has years to go before adulthood. If she lives an average lifespan, a quarter of her years will be spent underage.

    The long human childhood is a real oddity. No other primate spends so much time becoming an adult. Over the course of our species’ evolution, along with more obvious physical changes, childhoods got vastly longer. Traditionally, palaeoanthropologists have paid little attention to children, but now that is changing. A spate of intriguing discoveries in the past few years is building a picture about human childhood: when this seemingly unproductive life stage expanded, why it is so long and what prehistoric kids got up to. The findings don’t just throw light on a dark corner… More

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    Medieval horses buried in London had far-flung origins

    International trade may have helped medieval elites acquire the best horses for jousting tournamentsPRISMA ARCHIVO / Alamy
    Horses owned by the elite in medieval England were probably imported from continental Europe, possibly travelling hundreds of kilometres, according to tooth analysis of horses unearthed at a cemetery in London.
    In the 1990s, commercial excavators stumbled across an unusually large horse burial site in central London. Subsequent digs at the site, now known as the Elverton Street cemetery, have uncovered 70 whole or partial horse remains. Some of the graves have been dated to between 1425 and 1517, but the cemetery may have been used over a wider period.

    “It’s medieval Britain’s only real, good example of a horse cemetery,” says Oliver Creighton at the University of Exeter in the UK. “We usually find [horse remains] scattered across archaeological sites in very small numbers.”
    To learn more about the origin and lives of these medieval horses, Creighton and his colleagues collected and analysed the molars from 15 horses buried at the site.
    Plants from different parts of the world contain varying levels of carbon, oxygen and strontium isotopes – atoms with different numbers of neutrons. When an animal eats these plants, these isotopes accumulate in their bones and teeth over time. So, by analysing the chemical signatures of the horses’ teeth, the team could pinpoint where they probably came from.
    This revealed that at least seven came from abroad, possibly from Scandinavia or the western Alps, says Alexander Pryor, also at the University of Exeter.
    “These were also some of the largest medieval horses yet discovered in the UK,” says Pryor, which suggests that English elites may have sought out the best horses from Europe.
    The arrangement of their teeth seemed to suggest the use of a special mouthpiece typically reserved for horses groomed for battle or jousting tournaments.
    “There’s a good chance the horses could have come from the jousting arena at Westminster Palace, which was just a kilometre away,” says Creighton.
    “The nature of horse teeth – with very high crowns that develop over quite a long time – gives them huge potential for studies using isotopes to track movements over the course of an individual horse’s life,” says David Orton at the University of York, UK. “But this is the first paper I’ve seen that really seems to make full use of that potential.”

    Topics:archaeology/history More