Friday, December 28, 2007

Most Interesting Archaeological Discoveries of 2007

Yes, it is the time for yearly round-ups.

Archaeology Magazine has posted what it thinks are the 10 most important discoveries of the year. I agree with a fair amount, but I have some differences of opinion. Here are mine:

1.) North America and world devastated by asteroid strike 13,000 BP: This one is still being tested like any good hypothesis, but there seems to be geological evidence that the impact of a comet or asteroid caused mass destruction in North America, and kicked off the Younger Dryas event. While the spin for this is that it killed off the megafauna and ended Clovis, the ramifications are bigger. One possible spin-off of this major, if correct, discovery would be a much better understanding of the Younger Dryas mini-Ice Age. The conventional wisdom is that the melting of the Laurentide ice sheet, as part of global warming at the end of the Pleistocene, changed the salinity of the North Atlantic current, very quickly plunging the world into a return to glacial conditions. This climate change has been suggested as a major factor in the oldest known case of plant domestication in the Levant. This has also been the stuff of nightmares, informing the scenario that current global warming could cause a new ice age (best and unfortunately known from the scientifically implausible action movie The Day After Tomorrow). A major climatological report on global warming rejected this scenario last year, but knowing even more about this significant event, and its relationship (or lack of one) to the previous bout of global warming is very relevant to the 21st century. This event would also have ramifications for attempting to understand the peopling of the Americas.

EDIT 2010: The years have not been kind to the meteor impact hypothesis.

Also on the climate front, a lagoon in Puerto Rico has provided a record of hurricanes for the last five thousand years. At a minimum, I can think of ways this could be used in combination with Maya historical records, let alone in combination witharchaeological evidence throughout the North Atlantic.

2.) Pre-Columbian contact between Polynesia and South America. Chicken bones were excavated from a Chilean site dating to the 14th century. Now, this could simply be bad dating near the time of the Spanish arrival. But DNA from the bones shows the chickens were related to chickens raised by Polynesians, not Europeans. This seems to confirm transoceanic contact across the Pacific.

This may not be a huge surprise, since it seems at least some early migrants to North America may have come by boat, though others seem to have walked, and the chronology and details of these land migrations are becoming clearer.

EDIT 2010: Likewise, this case seems to have fallen apart.

In related news, a coin found in Australia suggests earlier European contact, sometime in the 17th century.

3.) Oldest evidence of modern human behavior now in Morocco. 82,000 BP beads push back modern behavior even further, and more importantly, place it early on the opposite side of the African continent than previous finds and expectations.

Elsewhere in the modern behavior field, genetic evidence suggests Neanderthals may have been able to speak. And Homo floresiensis increasingly looks like a species, and not diseased moderns.

4.) Domesticated maize pushed back to 7300 BP in Mesoamerica. Phytolith evidence from the Gulf Coast, eventually to be the Olmec heartland four thousand years later, pushes the date back a millennium. This is in concert with similar dates in the Balsas valley.

Elsewhere in Mesoamerican agriculture, Joya de Ceren continues to give up surprises, this time the first evidence of a manioc field in Mesoamerica.

5.) Earliest Astronomical Site in South America (and the Americas?). A 2200 BC "fox" temple in Peru may provide the oldest evidence of architectural solar alignments in the Americas. Elsewhere in Peru, a younger complex, dating to 400 BC, appears to be an observatory, using numerous pillars to observe solar events. Because of their written records and calendars, Mesoamericans have long been considered the main calendar-keepers and astronomers of the Americas, but that view may have to change. However, a stone found in the Huastec area of the northern Gulf Coast of Mesoamerica may contain calendrical information from 600 BC, and definitely provides more information on the poorly understood Huasteca.

Elsewhere in the world, Romans may have designed their cities in accordance with astronomical alignments. Non-western or earlier cultures are often thought of in this light, and seeing the Romans there intrigues me.

6.) Remote sensing two emperor's tombs. These could be stories for the future, but remote sensing has detected a structure within the burial mound of Qinshihuang, the first Chinese emperor, and in what is suspected to be the tomb of Ahuizotl, one of the most powerful Aztec emperors, and the first to have a tomb discovered. And while neither a tomb nor an emperor, excavation has revealed material from the time of the second king of Rome.

7.) Three important communities in the British Isles (sort of). Stonehenge, long considered an isolated Neolithic ritual site, is now part of the largest Neolithic settlement from Northern Europe. Another neolithic community has been uncovered in the Orkneys of Scotland, and may rival the famous site of Skara Brae. And undersea mapping is giving a first peak into the Late Paleolithic and Mesolithic landscape of what would become the North Sea.

8.) Thera eruption created tsunami that smashed eastern Mediterranean. While long recognized that the Minoans suffered a huge blow from the eruption in ca. 1500 BC, it is now clear that tsunami waves wreaked havoc as far away as Egypt.

Elsewhere in Mediterranean news, genetic evidence suggests that the Etruscans may have had a West Asian origin, as recorded by Herodotus.

9.) New ideas about the emergence of urban life in Eurasia. A regional perspective is showing that a broad swath of cities existed in southwestern and central Asia in the third millennium BC. While there do seem to be new developments, this seems to be an extension of what has been known for some time, if not discussed as widely as the Mesopotamian phenomenon. The Mesopotamian city of Tell Brak may have coalesced into an urban site from several pre-existing towns. And the process may have been violent.

10.) A rock art gallery in Australia is a major ancestor shrine. The site is being compared to a pantheon in regards to the number of depictions of ancestors and spirits.

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