Archaeology and Paleontology November 7-8, 2012

At "Europe's Oldest Town," Unusual Fortifications Hint at Prehistoric Riches   National Geographic - November 8, 2012
In a Bulgarian mound, archaeologists have found perhaps Europe's earliest massive fortifications. It's controversially being called Europe's oldest known town. But whatever Solnitsata's place in history, it's becoming clear that the 6,500-year-old Bulgarian site - not far from the continent's earliest known gold horde - had something very much worth protecting. Researchers announced last week they'd discovered 10-foot-tall (3-meter-tall), 6-foot-thick (1.8-meter-thick) stone walls around the settlement. The find is among the evidence for Solnitsata's oldest-town status - and further proof of an advanced Copper Age Balkan trade network, according to dig leader Vasil Nikolov, a Bulgarian archaeologist. Long before the first wheel rolled through Europe, precious goods were likely crisscrossing the Balkans on pack animals and possibly in carts with sledlike bottoms. Salt, essential for preserving meats, joined gold and copper among the most prized cargo. And with its rare and coveted brine springs, Solnitsata, near present-day Provadiya, was a key producer, boiling off the salt and baking it into ready-to-trade blocks to supply its region with the essential mineral. Salt wealth might explain those heavy-duty walls, which archaeologist David Anthony called "quite unusual."

First Polynesians Arrived in Tonga 2,800 Years Ago   Live Science - November 7, 2012
The first Polynesian settlers sailed to Tonga between 2,830 and 2,846 years ago, according to new research. The findings, published Nov. 7 in the journal PLoS One, relied on ultra-precise dating of coral tools found at Tonga's first settlement. "The technique provides us with unbelievable precision in dating quite ancient materials," said David Burley, a co-author of the study and an archaeologist at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. "This stuff is almost 3,000 years old, and the date range is within 16 years." The new techniques could be used to trace the migration of Polynesia's prehistoric seafarers as they colonized the archipelagos of the Pacific Ocean, he said. The Lapita people, the ancestors of modern-day Pacific Islanders, first sailed from coastal New Guinea roughly 5,000 years ago, reaching the Solomon Islands around 3,100 years ago and gradually expanding farther east toward what is now the archipelago Tonga, Burley told LiveScience. Across a string of Pacific islands, the Lapita left traces of their culture: primitive nail files broken from staghorn coral reefs. The ancient inhabitants of Oceania likely used these coral files to smooth the surfaces of wooden objects or shell bracelets, Burley said.

Tomb of Ancient Egyptian Princess Discovered in Unusual Spot   Live Science - November 7, 2012
The tomb of an ancient Egyptian princess has been discovered south of Cairo hidden in bedrock and surrounded by a court of tombs belonging to four high officials. Dating to 2500 B.C., the structure was built in the second half of the Fifth Dynasty, though archaeologists are puzzled as to why this princess was buried in Abusir South among tombs of non-royal officials. Most members of the Fifth Dynasty's royal family were buried 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) to the north, in the central part of Abusir or farther south in Saqqara. Saqqara holds a vast burial ground for the ancient capital Memphis and is home to the famous Step Pyramid of Djoser.

Complex Tool Discovery Argues for Early Human Smarts   Live Science - November 7, 2012
Rocks carved into ancient stone arrowheads or into lethal tools for hurling spears suggest humans innovated relatively advanced weapons much earlier than thought, researchers in South Africa say. The researchers' finds, partially exposed by a coastal storm, suggest ancient peoples were capable of complex forms of thinking, scientists added. Modern humans originated in Africa about 200,000 years ago, but when modern human ways of thinking emerged remains controversial. For instance, some researchers note that the first signs of complex thought such as art appeared relatively late in history, suggesting that genetic mutations linked with modern human behavior occurred as recently as 40,000 years ago. Other scientists argue that modern human thought originated much earlier but that the evidence was largely lost to the rigors of time.

Stash of Ancient Jewelry, Full-Figured Statues Discovered   Live Science - November 7, 2012
> A hoard of jewelry, figurines and other objects crafted by early farmers in Serbia nearly 8,000 years ago is set to go on public display for the first time at a German museum. Archaeologists dug up the largely undisturbed stash of artifacts during excavations this summer at the site of a Neolithic settlement in Belica, Serbia, about 90 miles (140 kilometers) south of Belgrade. The collection consists of some 80 objects fashioned from clay, bone and stone, including abstract figures, piece of jewelry and miniature axes. The excavations notably uncovered several rotund female figurines carved from serpentinite, a type of rock that was worn smooth by rivers and streams before being picked up by Neolithic artists. Researchers say they are not sure whether these tiny stylized sculptures of full-figured ladies served as idols, lucky charms or fertility symbols.

Microfossils Reveal Secrets of Ancient Ocean Changes   Live Science - November 8, 2012
> No matter how many times you've been in the ocean, you've probably never noticed foraminifera. But "forams," as scientists call these microscopic organisms for short, are everywhere - from the water surface to the seafloor, all around the world. They've been here since before the time of the dinosaurs, and now they're revealing vital information about the history of the world we live in. Here's how: As forams grow, their tiny shells record the chemical and physical conditions of the ocean, which are tightly linked to those of the atmosphere. When they die, they collect on the seafloor, where settling sediment and other dead organisms eventually bury them. Some forams are preserved as microfossils. Over hundreds of millions of years, these microfossils have stacked up on the seafloor to form an incredible natural archive of ocean and climate data.

Ancient Murder Mystery? Stone Age Bodies Discovered in Well   Live Science - November 8, 2012
More than 8,000 years ago, a 19-year-old woman and a slightly older man fell - or were they pushed? - into a well. Archaeologists have now uncovered the remains, revealing a Stone Age mystery. No one knows whether the couple fell into the well by accident or whether foul play was involved, but archaeologists say the choice of final resting place closed the water source for good. "What is clear is that after these unknown individuals fell into the well, it was no longer used for the simple reason that the well water was contaminated and was no longer potable," Toyam Tepper, the excavation director for the Israel Antiquities Authority, said in a statement.


Jet-Size Pterosaurs Took Off from Prehistoric Runways   Live Science - November 8, 2012
It's a bird It's a plane It's a plane-size bird! If humans had lived 67 million years ago in what is now Texas, they would've had a hard time missing the giant flying pterosaur called Quetzalcoatlus, which was the size of an F-16 fighter jet. The biggest animal ever to fly in the history of the world, this pterosaur dominated the sky with its 34-foot (10 meters) wingspan. Fossils of the creature have been found in Big Bend National Park, in an area that was heavily forested in the late Cretaceous. But this presents a puzzle: How did it fly? The region lacked the cliffs that make flight for such large birds easy to conceive. A new computer simulation has the answer: These beasts used downward-sloping areas, at the edges of lakes and river valleys, as prehistoric runways to gather enough speed and power to take off.

2-Ton 'Alien' Horned Dinosaur Discovered   Live Science - November 8, 2012
Paleontologists in Canada have discovered fossils of a new 2-ton, 20-foot-long horned dinosaur that roamed the Earth about 80 million years ago. And its headgear would've put on quite a show for the ladies. The dinosaur, a distant cousin of Triceratops called Xenoceratops foremostensis, is one of the oldest specimens known to date of the ceratopsid group. The beast's name, Xenoceratops, translates to "alien horned-face," referring to its strange pattern of horns on its head and above its brow, and the rarity of such horned dinosaurs in this part of the fossil record.

New "Sauron" Dinosaur Found, Big as T. Rex   National Geographic - November 7, 2012
Named after the demonic Eye of Sauron from the Lord of the Rings films, a new species of flesh-ripping dinosaur terrorized North Africa some 95 million years ago, a new study says.

Flying Dino Too Weak to Lift Off?   Discovery - November 8, 2012
Pterodactyls had the wingspan of a F-16 fighter, but they may have been too out of shape to fly. A new analysis of the largest of pterodactyls suggests they were too big and their muscles too weak to vault into the air and fly. Instead, they were right at the upper limit of animal flight and needed a hill or stiff breeze so they could soar like hang gliders.