An update for archaeologists

Posted December 1st, 2009 by Andrea Vianello

I try to present here some recent trends in archaeological research that I could detect in the recent archaeological literature. DNA studies prompted by the Darwinian celebrations continue to appear, and seem to concentrate on the origins of things. In 2009 papers have been published on the domestication of plants and animals, including rice; cerealsbananas; legumessilkworms; horses (additional papers); sheep; maize (really many more additional papers); foxes; etc. The above selection of papers is not comprehensive or exhaustive; it only aims at proving that there has been increased interest on the topic recently.

Another hot topic among researchers has been the refinement of the human tree. Homo floresiensis (also known as “hobbits”) seem to have been a separate species, though consensus has not been reached yet; Ida is probably not related to us; Ardi (Ardipithecus ramidus) joins the lineage (a more recent update); and finally the fossils from Spanish cave Sima de los Huesos (Atapuerca) are causing a lively debate among palaeoanthropologists on difficulties to attribute them to existing hominin lineages, and possibly suggesting that the “Out of Africa” theory should allow for a series of events rather than a single one. I have been in Atapuerca very recently and I can add that they “barely scratched the surface” of the archaeological deposits there. That site will be a source of new discoveries at least for several decades and because it spans from the earliest European hominins to the Bronze Age, it has the potential of providing a cultural and osteological sequence unrivalled in Europe.

I present here a modified (English text inserted) picture of the informative panel just in front of the entrance of the cave, where Homo heidelbergensis is mentioned. Prof. Arsuaga, the director of excavations, has agreed in late 2009 that the fossil bones from the cave do not resemble other known specimens of Homo heidelbergensis and therefore a new name/lineage will be needed along with a new info panel.

Atapuerca: info panel in front of entrance of Sima de los Huesos

Atapuerca: info panel in front of entrance of Sima de los Huesos

Atapuerca: other view of the external archaeological deposits

Atapuerca: other view of the external archaeological deposits

It is evident from all the mentioned papers that the focus of recent researches is currently placed on the origins of things, from the first domesticated plant/animal to the first human being to get out of Africa or reach Europe. It will take some time before studies will appear presenting the archaeological contexts in which domestication happened or full contexts from Atapuerca and other caves. Such studies will stop wondering how precocious human beings were in dong this and that and rather focus on key questions such as why they domesticated plants and animals. The human lineage remains a mess to some extent, largely due to the increasing pace of research and the high mediatic interest. I have to report however an increasing trend from some researchers to descend the mediatic circus with bold claims only to attract attention and receive more funding. This trend is sometimes giving too much visibility to relatively minor studies and sometimes causing public claims and counterclaims that only make science look as insecure, one perspective among others, or a non-necessary quest. These two articles, respectively from the New York Times and the New Scientist should provide some food for thought.

I conclude this short update reminding everyone that a new exhibition has opened at the British Museum in London: Moctezuma. Somehow however, this exhibition does not seem to have the same appeal to the public of the ones on the terracotta warriors or Tutankhamun, but it should be worth visiting if you happen to visit the British Museum while it is ongoing.

Atapuerca: external archaeological deposits outside the Sima de los Huesos