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Kiruna: The Swedish Town That Has to Pick Up and Move Two Miles East

Kiruna, the northernmost town in Sweden, is dependent on the mine that employs most of its 18,200 residents. Because the iron ore is running out, the townspeople were forced to decide if they wanted to risk staying as the mine was dug deeper—likely leaving the ground too unstable to support buildings—or move. With huge fissures already appearing around the city, they decided to move, and earlier this year, the entire town launched the incredibly arduous process of moving two miles east.

But while uprooting an entire town is almost unfathomably complicated, this unprecedented move also serves as an opportunity to apply modern city planning to a site with a clean slate. White, a Swedish architecture firm, and Kjellander + Sjöberg, a Swedish design firm, are working to rectify many of the annoying quirks of the original Kiruna.

Despite its small size, the sprawling and unfocused city (which was founded in 1900) is difficult to get around on foot, but through careful planning, the new Kiruna will foster community and activity. Narrow streets designed to protect pedestrians from the wind will wrap around a centralized town square that will serve as the focal point for a biannual culture festival. Residential units will be concentrated in ultra-insulated apartments along streets situated on an east-west axis. Mostly, they want to inject a new sense of culture into what has long been a cold, desolate mining settlement that fails to attract tourists and suffers a grave gender imbalance as young women move away.

But while the layout will be brand new, not all the buildings will be. Many of the town's earliest structures—things like a clock tower and a 1912 church that are distinguished by durable, high-quality construction—will be making the move as well. Buildings that don't make the cut won't be wasted, however. These demolished buildings will be recycled via a depot called the Portal, where residents will be able to both deposit and pick up wood, metal, and glass for projects in the new Kiruna.

The process will not be a speedy one. The hope is to move most of the residents in two waves over the next 20 years. But the town has given itself a full 85 years to fully extract from the site of old Kiruna, with plans for the move covering steps from now until 2100.

In fact, the townspeople have known this was coming since 2004, when the state-owned mining company Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara AB (LKAB) first determined that they would need to drill deeper to mine and thus disrupt the foundation of the town. Many put their lives on hold, unsure of where and when their homes would be moving. But now, with the long process getting underway, that period of waiting is drawing (albeit slowly) to a close and the tiny, northernmost city in Sweden is ready to embark—with the help of thousands of city planners, architects, landscape designers, biologists, urban designers, civil engineers, demolition and construction experts, builders, and social anthropologists—on a two-mile journey.

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AFP, Stringer, Getty Images
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
The Most Complete Fossil of an Early Human Relative Goes on Display
AFP, Stringer, Getty Images
AFP, Stringer, Getty Images

Twenty years after it was discovered in an African cave, one of the most important fossils in the quest to demystify human evolution is finally on display. As Smithsonian reports, Little Foot, an Australopithecus specimen dating back more than 3 million years, was revealed to the public this month at the Hominin Vault at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Evolutionary Studies Institute in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Paleontologist Ron Clarke discovered the first bone fragments from the fossil in 1994. The pieces came from the remains of a young female’s feet, hence the nickname. Clarke and his team spent years excavating Little Foot bit by bit from the Sterkfontein cave system in South Africa until the bones were fully removed in 2012. The shattered remains had been embedded in a concrete-like material called breccia, making them incredibly tricky to recover. But the sum of the parts is monumental: Little Foot is the most complete Austrolopithecus fossil known to science.

The hominid genus Austrolopithecus played an essential early role in the chain of human evolution. Lucy, another famous hominid fossil, is a member of the same genus, but while Lucy is only 40 percent complete, Little Foot retains 90 percent of her skeleton, including her head. It’s also possible that Little Foot surpasses Lucy in age. Most paleontologists agree that Lucy lived about 3.2 million years ago, while one analysis places Little Foot’s age at 3.67 million years.

Austrolopithecus is believed to have spawned Homo, the genus that would eventually contain our species. The discovery of Lucy and other fossils have led scientists to designate East Africa as the cradle of human evolution, but if Little Foot is really as old as tests suggest, then South Africa may deserve a more prominent point in the timeline.

Following Little Foot’s public debut, the team that’s been studying her plans to release a number of papers exploring the many questions her discovery raises.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Mark Golitko
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
6000-Year-Old Skull Might Belong to World's Oldest Tsunami Victim
Scientists speak to residents in Aitape.
Scientists speak to residents in Aitape.
Mark Golitko

Tsunamis and other natural disasters have taken a deadly toll on human populations for millennia, and now we may have the oldest example of that truth yet. An international team of anthropologists and environmental researchers recently analyzed a cracked skull that belonged to a person who likely died in a tsunami some 6000 years ago. They detail their find in a new study published in PLOS One.

The partial skull in question, known as the Aitape skull, was found in Papua New Guinea in 1929 during a geological survey by an Australian scientist named Paul Hossfield. It has since been dated to the mid-Holocene epoch, or around 6000 years ago.

For the current study, the scientists returned to the site of the 1929 discovery to sample and analyze the sediment there to find out more about what might have killed the person millennia ago. They had only Hossfield's basic field descriptions to go on, but University of Notre Dame anthropologist Mark Golitko, one of the study’s authors, says that based on those descriptions, they think they were able to sample within 100 yards or so of the skull's original location.

The top of a brown cracked skull against a pink background
Arthur Durband

Based on the grain size, chemical signature, and marine microalgae found within the sediment samples, they were able to determine that around the time that the skull was buried, the area was inundated with water, probably from a tsunami. At that time, the site, located near the present-day town of Aitape, would have been just along the shoreline. Aitape was also the site of a devastating tsunami in 1998, and the Holocene sediments resembled the ones associated with that disaster.

It's possible that the skull was buried before the tsunami hit, and the grave was ripped apart by the waters and the rest of the bones scattered. However, during the powerful 1998 tsunami that killed more than 2100 people in Papua New Guinea, bodies buried in modern cemeteries were not uprooted even as the sediment above them washed away, making it more likely that the ancient skull belonged to someone killed in the disaster.

The new analysis has "made us realize that human populations in this area have been affected by these massive inundations for thousands of years," study co-author James Goff of the University of New South Wales said in a press statement. "Given the evidence we have in hand, we are more convinced than before that this person was either violently killed by a tsunami, or had their grave ripped open by one."

Field Museum anthropologist John Terrell, another co-author of the study, said, "If we are right about how this person had died thousands of years ago, we have dramatic proof that living by the sea isn't always a life of beautiful golden sunsets and great surfing conditions."

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