Big digs: The year 2016 in archaeology

Crossing continents

Page-LadsonImage copyrightBRENDAN FENERTY
Image captionA mastodon leg bone is retrieved from the Page-Ladson site in the Aucilla River, Florida

At another waterlogged site in the middle of a Florida river, archaeologists had a further rare encounter with the past. Underwater archaeologists at the site of Page-Ladson found stone tools that are around 14,550 years old.

This remarkable discovery adds to growing evidence that is challenging ideas of how humans populated North America. Traditionally, hunter-gatherers are thought to have crossed the Bering land bridge into the Americas from northeast Asia no earlier than 13,000 years ago, quickly hunting local populations of megafauna to extinction.

The Page-Ladson site pushes back that date by more than a thousand years. Interestingly, the stone tools in question were found alongside the remains of now-extinct megafauna.

Cut marks on a tusk from the site showed that people had hunted or scavenged a mastodon, proving that human populations co-existed with such megafauna for at least two thousand years before they became extinct.

Feline friends

In a different story of animal interactions, ancient DNA has now been used to explore when and where cats were domesticated. A team analysed the remains of over 200 cats from archaeological sites in Eurasia and Africa from the past 10,000 years.

They found that wild cats probably developed a mutually-beneficial relationship with early farmers in the Near East at the start of agriculture. These cat populations grew and spread with farming communities to the eastern Mediterranean, southeast Europe and beyond.

Mummified catImage copyrightNHM/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
Image captionAnimals were mummified in ancient Egypt for thousands of years

Stores of grain kept by these groups would have attracted rodents, which in turn attracted cats, sparking the process of domestication. A cat skeleton found in a human burial in Cyprus suggests that cats played a role in household life from as early as 9,500 years ago.

A separate expansion of Egyptian cat populations occurred several thousand years later, spreading through Africa and Eurasia, travelling with people over land but also by sea.

Ancient seafaring cats – taken on board ships to stop rodents destroying precious cargos and provisions – probably helped the rapid spread of cats to all corners of the world, putting cats firmly on the map.

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