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Stones, Bones ‘n Things

Posted Apr 16,2010

C (1).LR 

It may not look like much, but this toe is a royal digit of King Tut's father, Akhentaten. More importanty, perhaps, is that its story tells why it is important to put things back where they belong. Photograph courtesy of Frank Rühli.

From time to time something happens that should be noted because it provides a great example of what there should be more of. I'm talking about the return to Egypt of King Tut's dad's toe. According to a press release from Egypt's Supreme Council on Antiquities, the toe had been missing since 1907.

The back story is that Dr. Frank Rühli, a Swiss radiologist and mummy expert, became aware of the toe's existence and arranged to return it to Egypt. This happy event occurred just days ago. According to Rühli, the toe came into the possession of Professor R. G. Harrison of Liverpool in the late 1960s. In 1966 Harrison published a study of a mummy from Valley of the Kings tomb KV 55 and argued that the body was that of Akhenaten, the likely father of King Tut. It was only weeks ago that Dr. Zahi Hawass of the Supreme Council published the results of an analysis that supported Harrison's identification of KV 55 as Akhenaten by comparing the DNA of the KV 55 mummy to that of King Tut.

The return of the toe comes in the context of a growing clamor for the return of remains and artifacts—stolen or removed under questionable circumstances—to their places of origin. The Maori want mummified heads returned from museums around the world just as badly as the Greeks want the Elgin marbles to the Parthenon. Although Akhenaten's toe is a small thing, the gesture of returning it is grand and should be applauded. It points the way for private citizens, museums, and governments to redress some wrongs that have certainly occurred in the past.—Chris Sloan

Posted Apr 10,2010

LeeLee Berger brought attention back to South Africa's amazing record of human fossils after the end of Apartheid. Here he examines a bone fragment in a cave in the islands of Palau in the Pacific Ocean. Despite that project's unhappy ending, Berger remains one of the most active and enthusiastic paleoanthropologists. Photo by author.

This week's announcement of a new species of human ancestor from South Africa will start another round of debates in paleoanthropology. Whether the fossils named Australopithecus sediba represent a new species and whether they have been assigned to the right group will be questioned, as well as whether or not they have anything to do with the human lineage that led to us. This week's announcement will also be another chance for Lee Berger, an American paleoanthropologist whose career has been marked by what to many other scientists would have been knock-out blows from the media and his peers.

Posted Mar 25,2010


Tsunami! A towering wall of water smashing all man creates is the general theme of this entertaining 60s-ish art piece from the National Geographic Image Collection. Truthfully, however, as soon as man began building cities, tsunamis began smashing them. Probably the earliest recorded tsunami struck the Biblical city of Ugarit mid second century B.C. Art by Pierre Mion/National Geographic Stock.

National Geographic's recent focus on water inspired me to write something about "water gone mad" and the efforts of several grantees seeking to understand the frequency of such events.

For most indigenous coastal populations a strong earthquake means one thing—it’s time to run for the hills. As reported by The New York Times most of the 3,000 residents of the fishing village of Tubul, Chile knew to make tracks to higher ground as soon as they felt the onset of a powerful earthquake .

Posted Mar 25,2010

T. rexThe discovery of a small tyrannosaur in Australia means that this group was not restricted to the northern supercontinent known as Laurasia. Whether the southern supercontinent had gigantic tyrannosaurs, like the Tyrannosaurus rex and hatchling shown in this painting, is not known. Art by Michael Skrepnick.

We are living in the midst of a great dinosaur bone rush. This phenomenon is the result of paleontologists  striking dino gold on every continent—even Antarctica. It seems that every day there is a new dinosaur named or a new revelation that improves our understanding of the Mesozoic era, the time when dinosaurs dominated the Earth. Such discoveries are pouring out of places like China, Mongolia, Argentina, North America, and Madagascar. Yet Australia has been a black hole.

Posted by Chris Sloan | Comments (2)
Filed Under: Paleontology, Stones, Bones ‘n Things
Posted Jan 30,2010

Students excavate a kiln at Cheung Ek, Cambodia. Photo courtesy of Phon Kaseka

Cheung Ek is infamous for being the site of a Khmer Rouge killing field—some 20,000 Cambodians were murdered here between 1975 and 1979. Yet Cheung Ek also has a much older history, and today a team of archaeologists led by Phon Kaseka of the Royal Academy of Cambodia is investigating what lies beneath this once horrifying landscape.

The team has found that Cheung Ek was settled around 300 B.C. and played an important part in the emergence of Southeast Asia’s first great economy, the mysterious Indian-influenced civilization known as Funan. Centered in the lower Mekong floodplain, Funan flourished from about the first to the sixth century and eventually gave rise to the well-known kingdom of Angkor, which culminated in the 13th century.
Posted Oct 1,2009


NGS grantee Yohannes Haile-Selassie, shown here at his dig in Ethiopia at Woranso-Mille, was the discoverer of the most complete specimen of Ardipithecus ramidus at nearby Aramis in 1994. He also discovered Ar. ramidus's 5.5 to 5.8 million-year-old ancestor, Ar. kadabba. Photo © Liz Russell, courtesy of Yohannes Haile-Selassie.

Today the world will witness the long-awaited roll out of Ardipithecus ramidus. And what a roll out! This new member of the hominin lineage has features that are quite unexpected because they are unlike what we see in living great apes, which share common ancestry with humans. A whole issue of Science is devoted to this creature and the work of a dedicated group of scientists who spent many years in the desolate Middle Awash project area of the Afar depression in Ethiopia.

I've had the pleasure of meeting many of the Middle Awash team members over the years. Among them are many Ethiopians who started their careers in the Middle Awash more than 15 years ago as bright, dedicated students. Now they are PhDs who are spread throughout the world at prestigious institutions making significant contributions to science, not the least of which are the many papers being announced today concerning the anatomy and environment of Ardipithecus ramidus.

Buried in these scientific papers is a significant mention that may pass right by many readers. In the paper entiltled "Ardipithecus ramidus and the Paleobiology of Early Hominids," the authors mention how in the early 1990s, after much looking, they were only finding scrappy bits of early human fossils at Aramis. They go on to say, however, that "... on 5 November 1994, Y.H. S. collected two hominid metacarpal fragments (ARA-VP-6/5001a and b) from the surface of an exposed silty clay..." Those hand bones were the first bits found of what would become the substance of much of today's press announcement—the most complete skeleton of an adult early hominin since the discovery of Lucy, the australopith, in 1974. Who is its discoverer, Y.H.S.? It was none other than Yohannes Haile-Selassie, one of the Ethiopian students I mentioned.

Posted by Chris Sloan | Comments (5)
Filed Under: Paleoanthropology, Stones, Bones ‘n Things
Posted Jun 17,2009


With a beak, probably feathers, and a finger combination that is consistent with bird wings, will Limusaurus, a newly described theropod from China, knock the last standing pin of objections to the dinosaur-bird hypothesis down? Art © Portia Sloan

Storrs Olson, Curator of Birds at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, lambasted the community of scientists and journalists investigating the connection between theropod dinosaurs and birds in an open letter he sent to the head of National Geographic's Committee for Research and Development, Peter Raven, on November 1, 1999. In that letter, he said:

"The idea of feathered dinosaurs and the theropod origin of birds is being actively promulgated by a cadre of zealous scientists acting in concert with certain editors at Nature and National Geographic who themselves have become outspoken and highly biased proselytizers of the faith. Truth and careful scientific weighing of evidence have been among the first casualties in their program, which is now fast becoming one of the grander scientific hoaxes of our age—the paleontological equivalent of cold fusion."

Posted by Chris Sloan | Comments (4)
Filed Under: Stones, Bones ‘n Things
Posted Jun 11,2009

Dryopithecus.lr Rudapithecus hungaricus, above, may be the ancestor of African great apes, including humans, but it lived in Europe. Artwork © John Gurche.

While the spotlight of the day might rest on the newly announced Miocene ape, Anoiapithecus brevirostris, another important early great ape is sitting in the shadows. It is Rudapithecus hungaricus, which, along with Dryopithecus and Anoiapithecus, is considered by some to be related to living great apes. Rudapithecus may be the closest we have yet come to finding the ancestor of African great apes and humans. All of these fossil apes were found in Europe.

Posted by Chris Sloan | Comments (9)
Filed Under: Stones, Bones ‘n Things
Posted Jun 10,2009

Combo.lr The image of what appears to be a mammoth was recently discovered on a bone found in Vero Beach, Florida. The white box is approximately 3 inches wide. Florida Museum Photo by Mary Warrick.

Let's hope, hope, hope it is true—mammoth art in North America just like what they have in Europe. Now that is something I never thought I'd see. It is as if someone found American Indian arrowheads on the banks of the Seine.

A local newspaper in Vero Beach, Florida, Vero Beach 32963, has announced what will be among the most significant discoveries of prehistoric art in the New World, if it holds up. See the National Geographic news article and the Vero Beach 32963 report  for more information. The find, which is an engraved bone with what looks like a mammoth on it, is of major significance because there is simply nothing like it in the New World. Many such engravings, however, are known from European paleolithic art, which began around 35,000 years ago and continued until the end of the paleolithic around 10,000 years ago.

Posted by Chris Sloan | Comments (10)
Filed Under: Stones, Bones ‘n Things
Posted Jun 10,2009

Treasure picture.lr A diver brings up gold coins in this photograph that appeared in a 1965 National Geographic Magazine article about treasure hunting on Spanish ships that sank in 1715. Since then, concern has grown among archaeologists about what information is lost during such salvage operations. Photograph by Bruce Dale.

The search for sunken ships and underwater treasure is a standard plot line in Hollywood movies. In real life, the most successful treasure hunters aren’t a band of rough adventurers but companies, sometimes publicly traded, with smooth-talking CEOs. One such company, Odyssey Marine Exploration, is led by CEO Gregg Stemm, an individual who has earned notoriety in the underwater archaeological community by aggressively exploiting, some would say destroying, shipwrecks. Odyssey is currently embroiled in a legal dispute with the Spanish government over ownership of a sunken ship located some 180 miles west of Portugal in international waters. The discovery became public in May 2007 when Odyssey removed tons of coins from the wreck site to Florida.

Posted by Chris Sloan | Comments (0)
Filed Under: Stones, Bones ‘n Things
Posted Jun 8,2009

Chalk_01_6_8.lr Photograph of a newly discovered slate from Jamestown by Michael Lavin. The lines have been enhanced by rubbing fine chalk into them. Courtesy of Preservation Virginia.

They've done it again. The archaeological team at Jamestown has discovered a piece of slate with writing and drawings on it from a well that may be the first one that John Smith dug. There's no age on it yet, but the thought that it could have been the doodle pad of one of the earliest English colonists in Virginia is exciting.

Posted by Chris Sloan | Comments (0)
Filed Under: Stones, Bones ‘n Things
Posted May 21,2009

Eosimias.lr Why was Eosimias, shown here, left out of a scientific discussion about the origins of monkeys, apes, and humans and the recent announcement of Darwinius? The answer depends on who you ask. Model by Brian Cooley.  Photograph by author.

Behind the over-hyped quotes about a “missing link” (which I thought we all learned does not exist in nature) is an intriguing story about a longstanding scientific debate. The argument concerns what group anthropoids (monkeys, apes, and humans) evolved from. Yesterday, scientists presented Darwinius masillae, a superbly preserved fossil from the world famous Messel fossil site in Germany, as evidence to support the idea that anthropoids could have evolved from adapoids, a group of arboreal quadrupeds that lived over 55 million years ago. Proponents of this idea include two giants in the study of early mammals, Elywn Simons of Duke University and Philip Gingerich of the University of Michigan (an author on the paper published in PLoS One), among others. Both Simons and Gingerich are grantees of the National Geographic Society. On the other side of the debate are scientists who see evidence that the adapoids were the ancestors of lemurs and lorises, not anthropoids. Instead, they argue that the ancestor of anthropoids evolved from the omomyoids, another group of arboreal quadrupeds that lived at the same time as the adapoids during the Paleocene and Eocene epochs (66 to 35 million years ago).

Posted by Chris Sloan | Comments (14)
Filed Under: Stones, Bones ‘n Things
Posted May 17,2009

Tradebeads.LR One person's trash is another person's treasure at Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in America, where abandoned wells became trash pits. Shown here are trade beads and other odds and ends found in what archaeologists think might be Jamestown's first well. Photograph © Paula Neely and Preservation Virginia.

I last visited the historic site of Jamestown, located near Williamsburg, Virginia in 2007 to celebrate its 400th annivesary. Excitement filled the air at that time since wonderful artifacts, including pistols and swords, were pouring out of the excavations. One particularly promising excavation was a trash-filled hole archaeologists hoped might be the first well dug by colonists at Jamestown. The artifacts from that hole turned out to be a few years too young for it to be the first well. After the anniversary things quieted down. But now, thanks to the passion of Director of Archaeology Bill Kelso and Curator Bly Straube, things are revving up again. The team at Jamestown has discovered another deposit of trash that might well be John Smith's first well. This first well had a profound impact on the health and fate of the colonists. If archaeologists have found this first well, it could also have a profound impact on our understanding of Jamestown's first years. This update is from guest blogger Paula Neely of Mechanicsville, Virginia. Paula has closely followed developments at Jamestown for many years.—Chris Sloan

Posted by Chris Sloan | Comments (3)
Filed Under: Stones, Bones ‘n Things
Posted Mar 25,2009

Picture 1a
A reconstruction by Xing Li Da shows a newly described ornithischian, Tianyulong confuciusi, with feathers. Courtesy of Zheng Xiao Ting and Xing Li Da .

Well, it was bound to happen someday. Rumors of feathers among dinosaur groups other than theropods (meat-eaters like T .rex) have circulated now for some years. But here, with the announcement of feather-like structures on an ornithischian dinosaur in Nature, we have it not as rumor, but as a peer-reviewed report.

Posted by Chris Sloan | Comments (3)
Filed Under: Stones, Bones ‘n Things
Posted Mar 20,2009

MAsitesmalllr The peaceful landscape at Monte Albán in Mexico belies the fact that the culture that built it, the Zapotec, were quite violent. Photograph by Christina Elson.

I’m glad to see National Geographic news report on the Zapotec civilization whose roots are in the lovely Oaxaca Valley, Mexico. In the news story archaeologists offer ideas about what led to the decline of one of Mesoamerica’s earliest states. Some of their ideas echo what’s going on around us today—environmental instability, the collapse of the economic system, and loss of faith in state leaders. These problems caused people to drift away from a political organization they’d lived under for almost a thousand years.

There is another aspect of Zapotec culture that echoes current events—violence. This is a subject that is now receiving a lot of attention among archaeologists.  

Posted by Chris Sloan | Comments (5)
Filed Under: Archaeology, Stones, Bones ‘n Things
Posted Feb 24,2009

Sicilian mummy pix 1Many mummies, such as this one from Savoca in Sicily, are on the verge of disappearing because there are inadequate resources to protect them. Photo courtesy of Dario Piombino-Mascali.

One of National Geographic's iconic topics is mummies.
Whether it’s
King Tut or frozen Inca children, National Geographic brings you their
stories. In poll after poll, readers demonstrate a fascination with
mummies. Yes they can be macabre, and I suppose that’s part of their
lure, but there is something noble about them as well. Nothing
connects us with the past so much as these people of the past, these

Despite our fascination with mummies, remarkably little thought is
given to what happens to mummies after the media buzz is over. The
answer is, unfortunately, that the majority are not receiving the care
they deserve.

Thousands of mummies all around the world are decaying because of poor
storage conditions. The basement of the Cairo museum has hundreds of
mummies in need of attention. In Siberia and in the Andes, mummies are
defrosting because of warming temperatures at high latitudes and

I'm pleased we presented the story of mummy scientists Dario
Piombino-Mascali, Albert Zink, and Arthur Aufderhide in the February
issue. Scholars like these are highly trained in anatomy, forensics,
pathology, radiology and related specializations. To them, mummies are
a unique opportunity—there is simply no better way to study a
society’s diet, health, and life span. The story also illustrates the
critical condition of these Sicilian mummies. Some have been
vandalized and all are at risk of disappearing if left in their
current conditions.

I met Piombino-Mascali, Zink, and Aufderhide at a conference in the
Canary Islands in 2007. The February article on the Sicilian mummies
came out of that conference. The mummy scientists will be meeting
again soon. This time we will talk about raising awareness about the
future of mummies world-wide.  It seems to me that if scientists can
dig mummies up and the media can run stories about them, then together
we can find ways to raise awareness about mummy conservation. Mummies
might have a lot more secrets to reveal in the future and it’s the
least we can do for our ancestors.

Do mummies deserve a better deal? What cultural dimensions should
scientists and the media should consider ? What do you think about the
future of mummy studies?

Posted by National Geographic Staff | Comments (3)
Filed Under: Archaeology, Mummies, Stones, Bones ‘n Things
Posted Feb 19,2009

Mcgovern.lrArchaeologist Patrick McGovern in 1980 holding up a juglet discovered at one of the largest early Iron Age (ca. 1200-1050 B.C.) burial caves in the Holy Land.  The undisturbed cave was located by a cesium magnetometer and yielded some of the earliest low-carbon steel artifacts found anywhere in the world. Photo courtesy of Dr. Patrick McGovern.

In his inaugural speech President Obama called for putting science in its rightful place. This was music to the ears of many scientists and science-supporters. Science needs to be nurtured for the sake of the long term benefits, not short term goals. In this entry (after the jump), guest columnist Dr. Christina Elson points to one place that apparently did not get the message.—Chris Sloan

Posted by Chris Sloan | Comments (0)
Filed Under: Archaeology, Stones, Bones ‘n Things
Posted Feb 3,2009

Gold_photo  A golden Thracian wreath excavated from the Mogilanska mound in Vratsa, Bulgaria in the 1960s. Photo by James Stanfield.

The gold of ancient cultures is a blessing and a curse. It stirs the public imagination yet spawns neglect of good science and encourages crime.

Ancient gold is so fascinating to the general public that it steals the media spotlight from other important archaeological findings. Excavations with no gold compete for media attention with gold-rich ones and the vast majority of gold-poor excavations never make it into popular print or TV. This is a shame, but if it were not for the occasional gold find, many archaeological efforts would not get prominent media attention. I would argue that some attention, even if it leans on gold, is better than none. 

Posted by Chris Sloan | Comments (1)
Filed Under: Archaeology, Stones, Bones ‘n Things
Posted Dec 22,2008

BinghamHiram Bingham was 36 years old when he first climbed Machu Picchu in
1911 and set up camp in the ruins.
Photo by E.C. Erdis.

Hiram Bingham is a household name around National Geographic. It is one of those bigger than life names, like Peary, Leakey, and Powell, that will always be associated with a place. In Bingham's case, the place is Machu Picchu. Archaoelogist Christina Elson posts here on some of the complexities that have emerged in the wake of Bingham's achievements.—Chris Sloan

Posted by National Geographic Staff | Comments (1)
Filed Under: Anthropology, Archaeology, Stones, Bones ‘n Things
Posted Oct 9,2007

Machu_picchuAbove: Hiram Bingham photographed this excavation of a human skeleton in a cave at Machu Picchu during the Yale University and National Geographic Society-funded expedtion of 1912.

In the last few days two major contentious situations involving estranged antiquities were more or less resolved. I’m talking about the agreement between the Italian Cultural Ministry and the J. Paul Getty Museum of Los Angeles which arranged the return to Italy of 40 artifacts and the agreement between Yale University and the Government of Peru to return what Hiram Bingham III collected at Machu Picchu almost one hundred years ago.

National Geographic gave its first archaeological grant to Bingham in 1912 to fund his return to Machu Picchu and continued to fund him for several years. What the Society got out of it was a highly popular April 1913 National Geographic Magazine article and a longstanding fruitful relationship with Peru and scientists working there. What Yale got was over 380 museum quality specimens and thousands of other artifacts that it displayed at the Peabody Museum or used for research.

It wasn’t until recently that National Geographic became aware that the Machu Picchu collection at the Yale Peabody Museum was a loan and should have been returned to Peru. Terry Garcia, an executive vice president of the Society, investigated the terms of the agreement with Peru and Yale and one could say he was responsible for triggering a lengthy cascade of events that finally led to the recent agreement.

It took seven years for Yale to come around. Why? Admittedly there are complexities in all cases involving antiquities. In the Getty case, for example, the 40 objects came from different sources and the Getty wasn’t about to hand over objects worth millions without checking to make sure of the facts. But still, it appears that Italy had to threaten to break relations with the Getty Museum before there was action. And Peru had to threaten to sue Yale.

There are numerous other examples of countries that have been less successful in retrieving their heritage, despite threats. The “Elgin” Parthenon Marbles are still in London, aren’t they? And Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, still has not managed the return of the Nefertiti bust from Berlin. These prominent cases may be resolved some day through agreements like the ones reported above.

Another controversial case involves the Persepolis Fortification Archive (see map), a collection of thousands of cuneiform tablets from Iran that are in the U.S. for research. Victims of a 1997 Hamas terror bombing in Jerusalem argue that since Hamas was funded by Iran, the tablets should be seized and sold to raise the $400 million in damages awarded by a court (with Iran not present to contest). National Geographic is funding the scanning of the tablets to facilitate their return to Iran as soon as possible, but at this moment Iran is fearful that its cultural heritage, loaned in good faith to the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago in 1936, will never come home.

All of these situations have a common denominator: the artifacts left their country of origin. In some cases, this occurred illegally and in others there were clear agreements in place. The UNESCO convention (Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property) establishes guidelines which should, in principal, protect the cultural heritage of countries from illegal antiquities trade going forward. There are still problems implementing this, as the Getty situation illustrates, but what about cultural property that left countries illegally or under murky circumstances before 1972, when the convention was ratified? If 114 ratifying countries now agree that “…the transfer of ownership of cultural property is one of the main causes of the impoverishment of the cultural heritage of the countries of origin of such property,” then perhaps more countries and institutions holding such “transferred” artifacts should be more helpful in facilitating the return of cultural material when it is requested.

If you know of any cultural material that should really get back home, let’s hear about it. If you have pix, send them to stonesbonesnthings@gmail.com. —Chris Sloan

Posted by National Geographic Staff | Comments (5)
Filed Under: Anthropology, Archaeology, Stones, Bones ‘n Things
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