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Showing posts from 2006

It's all Greek to me

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Science went back to its roots this week. Results just reported in the science journal Nature (DOI: 10.1038/nature05357) have focused the spotlight on several chunks of green and white metal that were found in the eastern Mediterranean in 1900.  It might not sound much to get excited about but the century-old find is forcing a drastic reassessment of ancient technology.
Next to the island of Antikythera, roughly half way between Crete and the mainland of Greece, sponge divers found a Roman ship that had been transporting Greek cargo. In amongst the recovered objects were 82 fragments of bronze.  Over the years, different people have had a bash at looking at the bits and pieces but the remains continued to puzzle scientists. The British researcher De Solla Price spent much of his career from the 1950s to the 1970s trying to understand them.  He argued they were the part of a sophisticated device capable of astronomical calculations.  Not everyone was convinced. The find became known as …

The battle for Middle-Earth

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In 2004, I was a member of an Australian and Indonesian team that reported the discovered remains of a one-metre tall adult human from the Indonesian island of Flores (DOI: 10.1038/nature02956). Named Homo floresiensis, but better known as the hobbit, the find was terribly exciting: the individual had a brain the size of a chimpanzee with many anatomical features that harked back to some of the earliest known humans. I was involved with the radiocarbon dating of the site and discovered that the main skeleton was only around 18,000 years old while a white volcanic ash laid down 13,000 years ago capped the final remains of this species.  This may all sound a long time ago but geologically speaking it was yesterday; in Europe, Neanderthals appear to have died out by 30,000 years ago. Next to ourselves, the ages from Flores make the hobbits the most recently surviving species of human.
With the news coverage of the discovery, a few researchers voiced concern that the remains may represent …

Past climate and people

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In these climatically uncertain times, its worth looking at how our ancestors responded to change.  If we want to investigate this theme, arguably the best interval of time worth probing is the last 11,500 years: a period rich in archaeological remains and synonymous with the development of agriculture and the emergence of civilisation.  Although it makes a lot of sense that the conditions had to be stable enough for these advances to be made, we now know that significant climatic changes took place throughout this period.  If we can get a handle on what effect these had, we should get an idea of how to deal with the changes predicted for the future.
One particularly impressive study has just been reported on east Saharan archaeological sites (DOI: 10.1126/science.1130989).  Looking at nearly 500 radiocarbon ages from 150 sites and comparing the results to climate reconstructions for the region, researchers have been able to show that there was very little human occupation of the Sahar…