The archaeological research that hits the headlines

Read some of the biggest stories coming out of Elsevier’s archaeology journals

We’ve made the following articles freely available from 14th November 2017- 31st January 2018.

Approaching rice domestication in South Asia: New evidence from Indus settlements in northern India,” Journal of Archaeological Science (February 2017) – open access

Beyond size: The potential of a geometric morphometric analysis of shape and form for the assessment of sex in hand stencils in rock art,”Journal of Archaeological Science (February 2017) – open access

Explaining the origin of fluting in North American Pleistocene weaponry,” Journal of Archaeological Science (May 2017)

Reconstructing Ancestral Pueblo food webs in the southwestern United States,” Journal of Archaeological Science (May 2017)

Palaeolithic and prehistoric dogs and Pleistocene wolves from Yakutia: Identification of isolated skulls,” Journal of Archaeological Science (February 2017)

Funerary practices or food delicatessen? Human remains with anthropic marks from the Western Mediterranean Mesolithi,” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology (March 2017)

Diets, social roles, and geographical origins of sacrificial victims at the royal cemetery at Yinxu, Shang China: New evidence from stable carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur isotope analysis,” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology (December 2017)

Early evidence for travel with infectious diseases along the Silk Road: Intestinal parasites from 2000 year-old personal hygiene sticks in a latrine at Xuanquanzhi Relay Station in China,” Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports (October 2016)

Were our ancestors skilled engineers? How did disease travel along the Silk Road? And did we really eat each other a few thousand years ago? Archaeology can be fascinating and exciting for scientists and non-scientists alike; it gives us a glimpse into how our ancestors lived, the challenges they faced and how the world became what it is today.

So it’s perhaps little surprise that archaeology research often hits the headlines. Stories from Elsevier’s archaeology journals feature frequently in news media around the world, giving readers a snapshot of some of the research being done to unravel history’s mysteries.

Ancient diets

13,500 years ago in North America, Clovis people were engineering weapons that could absorb shock at the base and still remain usable at the tip. Writing in the Journal of Archaeological Science, researchers from Southern Methodist University in Dallas say the Clovis people used a technique called fluting, which involves chipping off a thin groove from both sides of the base of a stone point, so it will crumple more easily there than at the tip when it is thrust into an animal.

You can read more about the research and our engineer ancestors in the International Business Times and ScienceNews.

There’s also evidence that people weren’t just using weapons to hunt animals – bones discovered in the Santa Maria Caves (Coves de Santa Maria) in Alicante, Spain have scratch and bite marks on them indicating that people were eating each other. In their study in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, researchers from Universitat de València analyzed 30 human bones and found markings that matched those on the remains of animals eaten by Mesolithic hunters, such as red deer, wild boar and rabbit.

Cannibalism is clearly a controversial topic, even thousands of years after the fact, and people around the world read the story, through outlets like the Daily Mail and CBS News.

Death and disease

What goes in must come out, and analyzing the remains of toilet waste is helping researchers understand more about health and disease throughout history.

A Cambridge-based team studied bamboo sticks with cloth wrapped around them, which were likely used as bottom wipers 2,000 years ago, to understand how disease may have been spread from east to west. In their study in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, the researchers analyzed the wipers, which were found in a latrine pit at a 2,000-year-old Chinese relay station on the Silk Road, and discovered eggs from four species of parasites, including Chinese liver fluke. The story was covered in The Guardian.

Archaeologists can also understand more about how people lived and died by studying their bones to see what they ate. Bones in a burial ground in China reveal that soldiers may have been captured and enslaved for several years before being sacrificed in China's Shang dynasty between the 16th and 11th century. Writing in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, researchers from Simon Fraser University in Canada analyzed the bones, showing that although the people sacrificed were not local, they had eaten a local diet for a few years before their death. You can read more in Ars Technica.

Tools and techniques

As new technologies emerge, archaeologists can understand much more from artefacts we’ve already been looking at for hundreds of years.

For example, a new geometric method can identify whether a person is male or female from the shape of their hand stencil, making it possible to find out more about the people who created ancient cave paintings. In a study in the Journal of Archaeological Science, researchers from the University of Liverpool showed that their method, which looks at 19 “anatomical landmarks” on the hand, can predict the artist’s sex with 90% accuracy.

They’re working on more modern-day samples before turning their tool on to the cave paintings. Even without revealing whether the ancient artists were mostly male or female, the technique got plenty of interest, and was covered in the International Business Times and The Conversation.