Posts Tagged ‘Jason Daley’


Members of Ecuador’s Guangala culture may have outfitted the infants in skulls as a protective measure

By Jason Daley

Archaeologists excavating a site in Salango, Ecuador, have discovered evidence of a burial ritual that might even make Indiana Jones shiver. As the researchers report in the journal Latin American Antiquity, excavations at a pair of 2,100-year-old funerary mounds revealed several unusual sets of remains: namely, the skeletons of two infants wearing what appear to be bone “helmets” made from the skulls of older children.

Members of the Guangala culture interred the infants at Salango, an ancient ritual complex on the country’s central coast, around 100 B.C. Archaeologists unearthed the remains—as well as those of nine other individuals, many of whom were buried with small objects including figurines and shells—while conducting excavations between 2014 and 2016. Per the study, the discovery represents the only known evidence of “using juvenile crania as mortuary headgear” found to date.

One of the babies was around 18 months old at time of death, while the second was between 6 and 9 months old.

As the study’s authors write, “The modified cranium of a second juvenile was placed in a helmet-like fashion around the head of the first, such that the primary individual’s face looked through and out of the cranial vault of the second.”

The older infant’s helmet originally belonged to a child aged 4 to 12 years old; interestingly, the researchers found a small shell and a finger bone sandwiched between the two layered skulls. The second baby’s helmet was fashioned from the cranium of a child between 2 and 12 years old.


The researchers found a small shell and a finger bone sandwiched between the two layered skulls. (Sara Juengst/UNC Charlotte)

Perhaps most eerily, the older children’s skulls likely still had flesh when they were outfitted over the infants’ heads. Juvenile skulls “often do not hold together” if they are simply bare bone, the archaeologists note.

“We’re still pretty shocked by the find,” lead author Sara Juengst of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte tells Forbes’ Kristina Killgrove. “Not only is it unprecedented, there are still so many questions.”

Potential explanations for the unexpected burials abound: DNA and isotope analysis currently underway may clarify whether the infants and children were related, but even if these tests fail to provide a definitive answer, Juengst says the researchers “definitely have a lot of ideas to work with.”

Speaking with New Atlas’ Michael Irving, Jeungst explains that “heads were commonly depicted in iconography, pottery, stone, and with literal heads in pre-Columbian South America.”

She adds, “They are generally representative of power, ancestors, and may demonstrate dominance over other groups—such as through the creation of trophy heads from conquered enemies.”

According to the paper, the helmets could have been intended to protect the deceased’s “presocial and wild” souls as they navigated the afterlife. Other infants found in the funerary platform were buried with figurines placed near their heads, perhaps for a similar purpose. An alternative theory posits the skull helmets belonged to the infants’ ancestors and were actually worn in both life and death.

Jeungst and her colleagues also outline a “tantalizing hypothesis” centered on a volcano located near the burial site. Ash found at Salango suggests the volcano was active and likely interfering with agriculture in the area, potentially subjecting the children to malnourishment and even starvation. Sîan Halcrow, an archaeologist at New Zealand’s University of Otago whose research focuses on juvenile health and disease, tells Killgrove that all four sets of bones showed signs of anemia.

Another less likely explanation identifies the children as victims of a ritual designed to quiet the volcano. The remains show no signs of trauma, however, and as Juengst says to Newsweek’s Aristos Georgiou, the evidence suggests the four juveniles “probably were quite ill anyway.”

The most plausible explanation, according to Jeungst, is that the Guangala outfitted the infants with skulls “in reaction to some sort of natural or social disaster and [to ensure] that these infants had extra protection or extra links to ancestors through their burials.”

While the unusual burial may seem macabre to modern readers, Juengst tells Killgrove she found the helmets “strangely comforting.”

“Dealing with the death of young infants is always emotional,” she explains, “but in this case, it was strangely comforting that those who buried them took extra time and care to do it in a special place, perhaps accompanied by special people, in order to honor them.”

Read more: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/remains-infants-found-wearing-helmets-made-skulls-other-children-180973608/#qA6mSw6T0mpl92KM.99

by Jason Daley

Fiinding bones from early humans and their ancestors is difficult and rare—often requiring scientists to sort through the sediment floor of caves in far-flung locations. But modern advances in technology could completely transform the field. As Gina Kolta reports for The New York Times, a new study documents a method to extract and sequence fragments of hominid DNA from samples of cave dirt.

The study, published this week in the journal Science, could completely change the type of evidence available to study our ancestral past. Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, collected 85 sediment samples from seven archeological sites in Belgium, Croatia, France, Russia and Spain, covering a span of time from 550,000 to 14,000 years ago.

As Lizzie Wade at Science reports, when the team first sequenced the DNA from the sediments, they were overwhelmed. There are trillions of fragments of DNA in a teaspoon of dirt, mostly material from other mammals, including woolly mammoth, woolly rhinoceroses, cave bears and cave hyenas. To cut through the clutter and examine only hominid DNA, they created a molecular “hook” made from the mitochondrial DNA of modern humans. The hook was able to capture DNA fragments that most resembled itself, pulling out fragments from Neanderthals at four sites, including in sediment layers where bones or tools from the species were not present. They also found more DNA from Denisovans, an enigmatic human ancestor found only in single cave in Russia.

“It’s a great breakthrough,” Chris Stringer, anthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London tells Wade. “Anyone who’s digging cave sites from the Pleistocene now should put [screening sediments for human DNA] on their list of things that they must do.”

So how did the DNA get there? The researchers can’t say exactly, but it wouldn’t be too difficult. Humans shed DNA constantly. Any traces of urine, feces, spit, sweat, blood or hair would all contain minute bits of DNA. These compounds actually bind with minerals in bone, and likely did the same with minerals in the soil, preserving it, reports Charles Q. Choi at LiveScience.

There’s another—slightly scarier—option for the DNA’s origins. The researchers found a lot of hyena DNA at the study sites, Matthias Meyer, an author of the study tells Choi. “Maybe the hyenas were eating human corpses outside the caves, and went into the caves and left feces there, and maybe entrapped in the hyena feces was human DNA.”

The idea of pulling ancient DNA out of sediments is not new. As Kolta reports, researchers have previously successfully recovered DNA fragments of prehistoric mammals from a cave in Colorado. But having a technique aimed at finding DNA from humans and human ancestors could revolutionize the field. Wade points out that such a technique might have helped produce evidence for the claim earlier this week that hominids were in North America 130,000 years ago.

DNA analysis of sediments might eventually become a routine part of archeology, similar to radio carbon dating, says Svante Pääbo, director of the Evolutionary Genetics department at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in the press release. The technique could also allow researchers to start searching for traces of early hominids at sites outside of caves.

“If it worked, it would provide a much richer picture of the geographic distribution and migration patterns of ancient humans, one that was not limited by the small number of bones that have been found,” David Reich, Harvard geneticist tells Kolta. “That would be a magical thing to do.”

As Wade reports, the technique could also solve many mysteries, including determining whether certain tools and sites were created by humans or Neanderthals. It could also reveal even more hominid species that we have not found bones for, creating an even more complete human family tree.

Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/new-technique-pulls-ancient-human-dna-out-cave-soil-180963084/#5gzaxagh8RYmlP6s.99