Top 10 discoveries in archaeology in 2006

August 22, 2007


In its final 2006 issue Archaeology Magazine  listed the top 10 discoveries in archaeology made this year. Here are my favorites:

The discovery of a three million year old child in what is now Ethiopia.

I wrote about Baby Selam in another contribution.  Her discovery adds to a growing collection of fossilized remains. Occasionally you might find a reference in the literature minimizing the finds. Usually this is done in terms of the volume represented by these bones. Some authors think that the total volume of fossilized hominid remains might easily fit in a box, or a pick up. Aside from being wrong, this is totally irrelevant. Researchers continue to unearth more fossils every year. This not only adds to the volume of known bones, it also improves our understanding of human evolution. That is what is most important.

Pushing back the dates on the development of writing in the New World.

All too often people focus on the development of writing in the Old World. Researchers quite frequently fall into the trap of looking for the absolute earliest evidence of a certain achievement. By doing so, they fall into the trap that the earliest writing system was at the root of all other writing systems. Not so. The indigenous cultures of the Americas stand out in many ways, not in the least because of the fact that their civilizations made remarkable progress independently from the Old World. Diffusionists notwithstanding, the Olmec, Maya, Aztec and Inca people were capable of great things, which they learned on their own.
A discovery of a carved stone in the southern part of the Mexican state of Veracruz has pushed back the date of the earliest writing in the Americas . Originally estimated to date to about 2650 years ago, writing now seems to have been around 3000 years ago .

DNA analysis identifies human remains found near the tomb of China’s first Emperor to belong to a man from Persia.

A popular line in many of Hollywood’s movies is “You can run, but you can’t hide.”  It seems that some of that message is now rubbing off onto the archaeology world. Take the case of human remains found in the proximity of the tomb of China’s first emperor . At a distance of about a half a kilometer from the museum housing the world famous terracotta warriors, Chinese archaeologists uncovered a mass grave containing the remains of at least 121 individuals. Genetic testing was performed on 15 people. Much to the delight of the scientists, the DNA of one of these men pointed to a west Eurasian origin, possibly Persia, or what is now roughly Iran.  All kinds of speculation abound about who this man might have been and what he was doing in China. Professor Victor Mair of the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania  is very intrigued by the find but has already cautioned that this only conforms what we already knew: there was an influx of foreigners into early Imperial China.

Not on the list, but worthy of an honorable mention, at least in my book, would be the following breakthroughs.

A better understanding of the Antikythera mechanism.

In 1900 sponge divers off the coast off the island of Antikythera , in the Aegean, encountered a shipwreck littered with artwork and one mysterious item. The device, which was heavily corroded, consisted of a several interlocking wheels. What was it? A time device?  A computer?  Not until recently did we finally find out.

Researchers from the University of Cardiff, Wales, studied the mechanism using cutting edge scanning technology. They were able to read the inscriptions on the device as relating to the motions of the moon and the sun . They established the date of the mechanism at 150-100 B.C.

This is a unique device, the likes of which were not seen again until about 1000 years later. One is left wondering what led to the disappearance of this knowledge. What might have been if such a loss had not occurred? We will never know.

Worth keeping track of: possible discovery of Aztec emperor’s tomb.

Anyone digging a pit in downtown Mexico City is bound to come across remnants from Aztec times. And so it was late 2006, when the following story hit the wires “Tomb of Aztec Emperor May Lie in Mexico” .  A large carved stone slab, said to represent the goddess Tlaltecuhtli  was uncovered in the Mexican capital. A date encountered on the stone places it during the reign of Emperor Ahuizotl . The size of the stone, as well its representation of a fearsome deity, have led archaeologist Eduardo Matos  to surmise that it could be a grave marker for the emperor. Excavations are ongoing at the time of writing.
If the prediction holds true, this would be the first imperial grave ever found in Mexico.

Authored By Dirk Van Tuerenhout

As curator of anthropology, Dirk is responsible for the museum’s artifact collection and is involved in its temporary and permanent anthropology exhibits. Dirk is an expert in human cultures; he curates the Museum’s Hall of the Americas and specializes in native American cultures like the Aztec and Maya.

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