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Kinez Riza

Archaeologists Find 30,000-Year-Old Jewelry in Indonesia

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Kinez Riza

We have thousands of examples of Ice Age works from Europe—curvy Venus figurines, beads carved from bone, and cave paintings of saber-toothed cats and mammoths dating back some 35,000 years. Those sites are also the best documented in the world, having been studied since the 19th century.

Evidence of the earliest art on other continents is much more scant, but it's increasingly being recorded across the world. In the latest study that attempts to offer a more complete picture of human creativity, researchers report that they’ve discovered jewelry and pigments inside of an Ice Age cave in Indonesia that are between 22,000 and 30,000 years old. They published their findings today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Archaeologist Adam Brumm and his colleagues have been seeking traces of the earliest inhabitants of Sulawesi. The island is shaped a bit like a withered starfish and it’s the biggest in Wallacea, the region between the Asian and Australian continental shelves.

The researchers made headlines in 2014 when they discovered [PDF] that cave artwork among the towering karst formations on Sulawesi’s southwestern peninsula could be among the oldest in the world. Using a precise dating method, they documented hand stencils that are nearly 40,000 years old. They also found a figurative painting of a pig-deer (or babirusa) that was more than 35,000 years old, rivaling the age of the animal paintings inside France’s famous Chauvet Cave.

As detailed in the current study, the archaeologists excavated the floor of another cave known as Leang Bulu Bettue.

“We started digging at this limestone cave because it was the only site I had seen in the region which seemed to have escaped the ravages of erosion and disturbance from local farmers digging up the guano-rich cave earth for use as fertilizer,” Brumm, who is an associate professor at Griffith University in Australia, tells mental_floss. The cave also had rock art preserved on its walls and ceilings—red and purple hand stencils that are identical to some of the nearby cave paintings described in 2014.

So, the researchers suspected they would find some undisturbed archaeological deposits—and indeed they did.

They dug up stone artifacts carved with geometric patterns like Xs and parallel lines, as well as chunks of ochre, a natural pigment that was used in cave painting. They unearthed a perforated finger bone from a local bear cuscus, a kind of marsupial, that was possibly used for a necklace, and they found unfinished disk-shaped beads made from a babirusa tooth. The artifacts date to between 22,000 and 30,000 years ago.

Prehistoric ornaments excavated from the cave site Leang Bulu Bettue, along with how the archaeologists think they might have been worn. Image Credits: Prepared by M. Langley and A. Brumm; bear cuscus bone image is courtesy of Griffith University/Luke Marsden; bear cuscus and babirusa photographs: Shutterstock

 
Brumm says that of Wallacea’s 2000 islands, only seven have so far yielded archaeological deposits from the Pleistocene, the epoch when the last Ice Age occurred. Therefore, the total number of artifacts from the region is “pitifully small,” he says, perhaps numbering only a dozen or so.

“This profound imbalance in research intensity makes it extremely difficult to draw meaningful comparisons between the ‘Ice Age’ cultures of Wallacea and Europe,” Brumm says.

The fact that the newly discovered artifacts were made from the bones of animals that are only found on Sulawesi suggests that early humans were “drawn to the symbolic potential of the exotic species they encountered” when they colonized this region, Brumm says.

“This speaks of a flexibility in early human culture in this little understood part of the ‘Ice Age’ world—an ability to adapt existing art forms and symbolic culture to entirely new environments and ecosystems,” Brumm adds. And he thinks it’s exactly this kind of flexibility that would have allowed people from this region to colonize an isolated continent like Australia around 50,000 years ago.

Archaeologist Iain Davidson, an emeritus professor at the University of New England in Australia, who wasn’t involved in the study, similarly thinks the same skills that allowed people to make watercraft and navigate across Wallacea “should have enabled them to represent their world symbolically.”

Davidson calls the discovery very important "primarily because it adds to the emerging picture of an early rock art world in the region where there has been thought to be none; now it is clear that there is,” Davidson tells mental_floss. “It was always likely, but maybe only a matter of looking and using the appropriate techniques, which is what this team has done really well.”

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Antarctic Heritage Trust
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History
Researchers Find 100-Year-Old Antarctic Fruitcake in 'Excellent Condition'
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Antarctic Heritage Trust

If you want a snack that really won’t go bad, consider the fruitcake. Conservationists working with artifacts from Cape Adare, Antarctica, just discovered a remarkably well-preserved fruitcake dating back a full century, according to Gizmodo.

The fruitcake dates back to Robert Falcon Scott’s disaster-plagued Terra Nova expedition, which began in 1910. Documentation proves that Scott brought tins of the same Huntley & Palmers fruitcake with him to Cape Adare, about 1700 miles south of New Zealand.

The 106-year-old fruitcake tin is rusted and its paper wrapper damaged—though still largely intact—but the cake itself “was in excellent condition,” as a press release from the New Zealand-based Antarctic Heritage Trust, whose researchers discovered the tin, describes. The release says it “looked and smelt (almost) edible,” which is a glowing review for a food that dates back to William Taft’s presidency.

A rusted rectangular tin holds a century-old fruitcake.
Antarctic Heritage Trust

Why fruitcake? “It’s an ideal high-energy food for Antarctic conditions, and is still a favorite item on modern trips to the Ice,” according to the AHT’s project manager for artifacts, Lizzie Meek. Four AHT conservators have been working to preserve almost 1500 artifacts from Cape Adare, where Norwegian explorer Carsten Borchgrevink erected the first buildings in Antarctica. (Scott’s expedition later used the same huts.) They're still standing, and the AHT’s next project will be preserving the structures.

The Cape Adare site is an Antarctic Specially Protected Area, and the trust is working under a permit that requires its conservators to return any artifacts to the huts after they’ve been restored, meaning Scott’s fruitcake will eventually go back to where it was found.

Surprisingly, this is not the first fruitcake that has stayed edible for more than a century. Fidelia Ford made a holiday fruitcake in 1878, and it’s still in the family. It’s not quite fresh, though. One of Ford’s descendants reviewed it thusly: “Not much of a taste, no, and not good.” Given that Scott’s fruitcake is set to return to Cape Adare eventually, it’s doubtful that anyone will get a taste. We’ll just have to use our imaginations.

[h/t Gizmodo]

All images courtesy Antarctic Heritage Trust

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Jim Forest, Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Scientists Devise Clever Way to Test Old Manuscripts’ DNA
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Jim Forest, Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When encountering an obstacle, some people stop and give up, some force their way through, and others find another way around. That's what scientists in the United Kingdom have done with a delicate manuscript from the Dark Ages. Barred from taking parchment samples, the resourceful researchers instead analyzed the eraser crumbs left behind after archivists cleaned the paper. They describe their findings in an article on the prepress server bioRxiv.

Co-author and archaeologist Matthew Collins of the University of York did not start out a manuscript man. Collins had been trying to extract DNA from animal bones unearthed at a Viking settlement to learn more about the culture's use of livestock. But the bones had decayed too far to offer much in the way of genetic material. "You can imagine the frustration," Collins said in an interview with The Atlantic.

Then he realized that animal remains can be more than just bones. There are skins, too—and those, at least, we've taken some pains to preserve. At least the ones we've written on.

"You look at [archive] shelves," Collins said, "and every one of them has a skin of an animal with a date written on it."

Collins's excitement at discovering this untapped bounty of data was soon tempered when he and his collaborator, biochemist Sarah Fiddyment, learned that sampling the manuscripts was completely off-limits.

But they weren't about to give up that easily. Fiddyment spent weeks following the conservators as they worked with the fragile animal-skin paper, learning their process and watching for possible openings. Finally, she saw it: eraser crumbs.

Conservators routinely use PVC erasers to lift stains, grime, and damage from historic documents. The friction created by gently rubbing the eraser against the paper creates an electric charge that pulls in molecules of dirt and oil. And probably other things, too, Fiddyment thought.

Fiddyment, Collins, and their colleagues began collecting eraser crumbs from manuscript conservators around the world. They analyzed each document's chemical makeup and were even able to compare proteins to identify the livestock species responsible for the skin.

The next step was to look at the DNA itself. The researchers turned to the York Gospels, a leatherbound Bible with pages dating back to the year 990. By collecting another tiny pile of eraser crumbs from cleanup of eight pages, they were able to collect enough of a sample to run thorough DNA tests.

Those pages had quite a lot to say about their creation and history. The tests revealed 1000-year-old genetic material from the cows and sheep that gave the book its parchment pages. Remarkably, the DNA was so intact that the scientists could identify the cows' ancestry (something close to our modern-day Norwegian reds and Holsteins) and sex (mostly female).

The pages also contained human DNA and even bacteria, most likely from the hands and saliva of the people who made, wrote, and used the book.

Speaking to The Atlantic, parchment expert Bruce Holsinger of the University of Virginia called the findings "an exciting breakthrough."

[h/t The Atlantic]

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