Top 5 Discoveries of 2015

This year’s Top 10 Discoveries reach us from vastly different cultures and across eons. Some raise new questions about what it means to be human and what separates us from our species’ relatives. Others bring us face to face with individual people, their travels, their faith, their hold on power. Several, covering matters as diverse as slavery and the origins of art, come to us via newly applied scientific methods. Taken together, this year’s discoveries present anarray of insights into endeavors, large and small, spanning millions of years.

Jamestown’s VIPs

Top Ten Jamestown

Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the Americas, is perhaps the United States’ most consistently prolific archaeological site. This year researchers have analyzed four previously excavated graves found in the chancel of the original 1608 church, a burial location surely reserved for prominent figures. Scientific, forensic, and genealogical work identified the remains of four members of Jamestown’s leadership—and turned up at least one new mystery.


The Chaplain—Reverend Robert Hunt, the chaplain of the settlement, is thought to have died in 1608. His remains were wrapped in a shroud instead of a coffin, reflecting his piety, and he was buried facing the congregation.


The Soldier—By contrast, Captain William West, killed by Native Americans in 1610, was buried in an ornate coffin, of which only the nails remain. His bones had high lead content, due to use of high-status drinking vessels, and found with him were the delicate remnants of a silk military sash.


The Nobleman—An even more elaborate, human-shaped coffin held the remains of Sir Ferdinando Wainman, Jamestown’s master of ordnance, who died during the “starving time” of 1609–1610, when some 70 percent of the colonists perished. His remains also had the high lead content of an aristocrat.


The Explorer—Captain Gabriel Archer, another victim of the starving time, had explored much of the northeast coast of America before the colony was established. His grave contained a fragment of a staff carried by British officers, as well as a silver box holding human bone fragments and a lead ampulla—almost certainly a Catholic reliquary. Was Archer a secret Catholic in the Protestant colony, or was the box repurposed and given some new significance for the first American outpost of the Anglican Church?


Mythological Mercury Pool

Top Ten Teotihuacan

Mercury is often found in Mesoamerican tombs in the form of a powdery red pigment called cinnabar, but its liquid form is extremely rare. So it was with some surprise that Sergio Gomez, an archaeologist with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, discovered traces of liquid mercury this year in three chambers under the early-third-century A.D. Feathered Serpent Pyramid in the ancient city of Teotihuacan. Gomez believes the mercury was part of a representation of the geography of the underworld, the mythological realm where the dead reside. The silvery liquid was probably used to depict lakes and rivers.


Since uncovering the entrance to a tunnel leading beneath the pyramid in 2003, Gomez has found five underground chambers containing thousands of artifacts, including many thought to be offerings, such as skeletons of large jaguars and wolves. Other objects, such as figurines made of jade from Guatemala and seashells from the Caribbean, indicate how far Teotihuacan’s influence extended. In addition to helping maintain the mercury in liquid form, the humidity and lack of oxygen in the underground chambers have preserved plant seeds and fragments of something that might be human skin.



Tomb of a Highborn Celt

During a routine investigation of an area slated for construction in the village of Lavau in north-central France, archaeologists happened upon one of the most remarkable Iron Age discoveries of the past century. Beneath a mound measuring 130 feet in diameter, researchers from France’s National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research were stunned to find the burial of an early Celtic “prince” dating to the fifth century B.C. They were initially unable to determine the individual’s gender, and some of the accoutrements associated with dress found near the body suggested the skeleton belonged to a woman. But testing has now confirmed with certainty that the deceased was, in fact, male.


This wealthy Iron Age prince was buried with an assortment of luxury items, including imported Mediterranean vessels, gold jewelry, and a chariot. A finely crafted bronze wine cauldron decorated with the heads of animals and mythological creatures, and a black-figure Greek wine pitcher, indicate that the Celts in this area had robust trade and political ties with the Greeks and Etruscans—and also distinguish this as the grave of a significant person. “He had to be at the top of the local aristocracy,” says archaeologist Bastien Dubuis. “All this wealth is a reflection of the central importance of the character buried here, who exercised economic and political power in the region.”


Imported Mediterranean wine was a key commodity for the early Celts. This burial and others like it demonstrate that rituals and paraphernalia associated with the drinking and distribution of wine played a vital role in Celtic society.

The First Artists

Top Ten Cave Art

Dating cave art is notoriously difficult. But a team of researchers has taken advantage of serendipitous conditions in caves on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi to establish that images there rival any known from Western Europe in terms of age. A stencil created as the artist blew pigment around a hand is at least 39,900 years old, they report, and a painting of a piglike animal was laid down at least 35,700 years ago.


The researchers established the designs’ minimum ages by calculating the dates of deposits that had built up on top of the pigment. They had observed that, as mineral-laden water percolates through the caves’ limestone walls, calcite gradually accumulates on their surfaces. These deposits contain uranium, which decays to thorium at a known rate, so their age can be ascertained from the ratio of the two elements.


The discovery raises a new question: Did people in Southeast Asia and Western Europe develop artistic expression independently, or was it pioneered by early humans before they left Africa? “We don’t know,” says Maxime Aubert of Griffith University in Australia, “but my opinion is it probably developed a long time ago, in Africa, and then it just spread out.”


Baby Bobcat

The native cultures of ancient North America expressed their close relationship to animals in their art and their rituals, none more so than the Hopewell Culture, which flourished along the rivers of the Northeast and Midwest between 200 B.C. and A.D. 500. When Angela Perri of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology opened a box in the Illinois State Museum’s collection labeled “puppy,” she expected to find the remains of a dog burial, common enough in the Hopewell Culture. The bones had come from a 1980s rescue excavation at the Elizabeth Mounds site in western Illinois. “As soon as I opened it, I said, ‘I think we have a problem,’” Perri recalls. “I knew right away from its distinctive teeth that it was a cat.”


She determined that the nearly complete skeleton belonged to a juvenile bobcat, between four and seven months old. The bones show no signs of trauma, indicating the bobkitten likely died of natural causes, probably malnutrition. “It looks like they came across a baby that they tried to raise but failed,” says Perri. “When it died they had become close enough to it that it warranted this special burial.”


Along with the bones, Perri found four shell beads and two carved effigies of bear teeth worn as a necklace—grave goods common to Hopewell human burials—making this the only decorated burial of a wild cat found in North America, as well as the only animal buried alone in its own mound. Though the Hopewell had had domesticated dogs for hundreds of years, Perri says that having a tamed bobcat would have been “a very uncommon experience.”

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