"Space Archaeologists" Find Hundreds of Pyramids, Lost Tombs, and Forgotten Cities

If Indiana Jones and Google Earth had a love child, it would be GlobalXplorer, a "space archaeology" software by TED Prize winner Sarah Parcak.

Archaeologist Sarah Parcak is allowing anyone in the world with an internet connection to participate in discovering new archaeological sites, and protect vulnerable archeological sites from looting. Using the $1 million she got from winning the TED Prize as well as support from the National Geographic Society and DigitalGlobe, she recently launched GlobalXplorer. The organization seeks to engage people from all backgrounds in finding and preserving archaeological sites through the use of satellite images. The methods in question have, according to GlobalXplorer’s website, already produced impressive results. It notes:


So far, Dr. Parcak’s techniques have helped locate 17 potential pyramids, in addition to 3,100 potential forgotten settlements and 1,000 potential lost tombs in Egypt — and she's also made significant discoveries in the Viking world and Roman Empire. With the help of citizen scientists across the globe, she hopes to uncover much, much more... So far, Sarah’s methods have proved over 90% successful in producing significant discoveries.

Parcak’s vision uses modern satellite technologies to scan the world for archeologically promising data. With the power of crowds, there are sure to be many fascinating finds at staggeringly fast rates.

Currently, the organization is working primarily in Peru, whose rich historical sites have been plundered by many looters. One way GlobalXplorer prevents looting is by allowing users to note which regions seem vulnerable. Archaeologists can vet the cites that illicit high rates of concern. Then, collaborating with the Peruvian government, the organization is able to help protect those areas. This is a welcome solution to a centuries-old problem. The Guardian noted back in 2011, for example, how conquistadores and contemporaries alike had reduced the grand remains of the Moche civilization of northern Peru to a “lunar landscape” and one of the largest pyramids in pre-Columbus Latin America to “an eroded, plundered shell.”

Some archeologists have criticized Parcak’s vision, arguing that her method of crowdsourcing the analysis of satellite images may actually work to encourage looting – by inadvertently pointing them to where the loot is. However, such concerns are moot, according to Kristina Killgrove’s article on the program for Forbes. She describes the robust system through which GlobalXplorer protects against mistakenly informing looters:

The millions of little satellite tiles are displayed to users randomly. The user cannot pan out, navigate around, or see additional nearby tiles. There are no location references or coordinates shown to the user of the platform either. Rather, the unique tile ID is matched with location information after a GlobalXplorer user tags it. The data are then sent to Parcak and her team for further analysis. In this way, users are collecting data without compromising sensitive information about potential archaeological sites.

Although GlobalXplorer uses the wisdom of crowds, it also conceals information to protect against being exploited.

The approach of allowing virtually anyone to contribute information while simultaneously implementing measures to regulate them is an approach shared by arguably the largest information crowdsourcing project: Wikipedia. Wikipedia famously allows anyone to edit any entry while also subjecting every change to the scrutiny of administrators, who vet arguments submitted by readers both for and against the edits. Thus, like GlobalXplorer, Wikipedia has implemented rigorous procedures to allowing users to contribute whatever they like while also minimizing undesirable outcomes of unchecked freedom.

In addition to GlobalXplorer, there are several other examples of researchers using the wisdom of crowds to make discoveries. Phylo, for example, is a game developed at McGill University. It loosely resembles Tetris and exploits humans’ abilities for pattern-recognition to help decode genetic diseases. And Foldit made headlines after just three weeks of its release in 2011 for revealing insights into the structure of an enzyme related to AIDS. There’s little reason to doubt, then, why tapping crowds for archaeological insights shouldn’t be promising as well. Dr. Parcak's idea promises to unlock torrents of exciting archaeological findings all over the world.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.