Mastodons, rhinos, and even camels — all in the great state of California.
- A ranger working for a San Francisco water utility discovers a massive petrified forest and its ancient residents.
- The forest dates from the Miocene era 10 million years ago.
- Mastodons, horses, and rhinoceroses lived there.
As we go about our daily lives, it's easy to forget that the places we find ourselves weren't always the way they are now. While people driving down Highway 163 in Utah's Monument Valley may be awestruck by the towering red rocks, they may not think about what those rocks signify — the floor of an ancient ocean. In some places, history is simply hidden by the passage of time.
In the summer of 2020, Ranger Naturalist Greg Francek suddenly noticed he was standing in the midst of an entire petrified forest. Looking further, he discovered the fossilized remains of some of its ancient inhabitants. It soon became clear that Francek had come across one of the most important fossil sites ever discovered in California.
To protect the site, its exact location has not been revealed beyond its location nestled somewhere near the base of the Sierra Nevada foothills.
One fossil, the another
Credit: Bureau of Land Management/Flickr
Francek was poking around the Mokelumne River Watershed east of San Francisco. He works for the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD), which has managed the land around the Pardee and Camanche reservoirs that supply water to 1.4 million people living in San Francisco's East Bay for about a century.
Francek's eye was caught by an anomalous shape in the dirt. Closer examination revealed it was a piece of fossilized wood. "I looked around the area further," he recalled in a statement to EBMUD, "and I found a second tree. And then a third and so on. After finding dozens of trees I realized that what I was looking at was the remains of a petrified forest."
A few weeks later, he says, "I located the first vertebrate fossils. What I didn't comprehend at the time was the amazing fact that I was looking at the bones of great beasts that had roamed this landscape millions of years ago."
Realizing he'd found something significant, Francek reached out to EBMUD, who contacted an environmental consulting firm, who in turn reached out to Chico State's Russell Shapiro, a professor of paleontology and stratigraphy in the Geological and Environmental Sciences Department. Soon, paleontologists and geologists poured into the site, where excavation is ongoing.
Shapiro explains the excitement. "What you hope to find is a tip of a tusk. Not only do we have the tip, but we have the entire thing. And it's just beautiful ivory. It's mind-blowing." He and his students are among those working the site. They describe the process in Chico State Today.
"This new find is highly significant for both the sheer volume and diversity of the fossils," Shapiro told EBMUD. "This was a profound juncture in time when land animals evolved as forestland shifted to grassland."
The great beasts of the petrified forest
Credit: Chico State Today
A wide variety of fossilized remains have been found in the watershed. There are the ancestors of elephants: mastodons and four-tusked gomphotheres. (The last mastodon fossils discovered in California were found in 1947 during construction of a pipeline in Contra Costa County.)
Researchers have also unearthed camel fossils (!) and a massive 400-pound salmon with spiked teeth. Add to the list tapirs, horses, tortoises, and even rhinoceroses. No other site comparable in diversity has ever been found in the Golden State. Shapiro describes the story the fossils tell:
"I can look out and picture a movie reel of the lands changing. Through the trees, I see one group of elephants peek out as another walks by, and then great horses come in."
According to EBMUD, experts hope to find answers to an assortment of intriguing questions as work progresses: "Why are all these fossils in this location? How did they die? What happened and when?"
Unfortunately, we'll have to wait. It will take years to complete the study of the site.
How do archaeologists know if someone was buried intentionally tens of thousands of years ago?
- The oldest known burial ritual in Africa has been discovered on the coast of Kenya.
- A small child appears to have been buried intentionally in a cave 78,000 years ago.
- This new research offers insights into ancient funerary practices.
How did the emergence of Homo sapiens affect ideas around death? What legacies have been passed down from ancient times? And can these give us insights into the origins of our current rituals around dying?
Possible answers to these questions could be derived from a new study in Nature, led by María Martinón-Torres of the National Research Center on Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain. It focuses on a two- to three-year-old child found buried in a Kenyan cave roughly 78,000 years ago. While this isn't the oldest burial grounds for Homo sapiens — to date, that is in Israel — this new discovery of a seemingly intentional burial offers insights into the evolution of how humans treated death.
The dearth of excavation sites in Africa has made studying ancient funerary practices difficult. The remains of this young child were discovered in a pit in the Panga ya Saidi cave site located in a tropical region of coastal Kenya. Taphonomic evidence, which examines the process of fossilization, suggested that the child was intentionally placed in a flexed position (sort of curled up like a ball) in the burial pit.
The burial of Mtoto
The original excavation of this pit took place in 2013. By 2017, archaeologists dug into Middle Stone Age (MSA) layers, uncovering the partial skeleton of the child. The poorly preserved bone fragments were plastered and transported for laboratory analysis, first to the National Museums of Kenya and then onto Burgos, where Martinón-Torres and her team began their work.Besides the seemingly deliberate position of the body, the team noticed a few clues that suggested the child was swaddled in cloth, possibly with the intention of preserving the corpse. They also speculate the body was placed in a cave fissure — known as funerary caching — before being covered with sediment.
Plan view of the 2017 excavation next to a superimposed image of Mtoto to better depict the position of the child.Courtesy of Nature.
The child, who they named Mtoto, appears to have been intentionally buried. The authors reached this conclusion based on: the identification of a clearly dug pit; evidence that discriminates the burial fill from the surrounding layers; the completeness and integrity of the skeleton; the body's tightly flexed position; and the notable differences between the child's remains and the remains of animals in the same layer.
Other burial sites
Two earlier excavations in Taramsa, Egypt and Border Cave, South Africa were similar to the one in this Kenyan cave. However, the Panga ya Saidi remains appear to predate the Egyptian ones by 10,000 years and the South African ones by 4,000 years. Taken together, the team writes that these three digs reveal important insights in the funerary practices of our ancestors.
"The [Panga ya Saidi] child, in combination with the infant burial from Border Cave and the funerary caching of a juvenile at Taramsa, suggests that H. sapiens populations were intentionally preserving the corpses of young members of their groups between about 78 and 69 [thousand years]. Before 78 [thousand years], we know of no unambiguous burials of modern humans in Africa, despite the fact that earlier [Middle Stone Age] populations demonstrate sophisticated forms of symbolic expression."
The researchers are excited to have made headway on the cradle of civilization — a continent that rarely gives up its secrets. While researchers have discovered symbolic representations in Africa dating back at least 320,000 years, these new insights into death rituals are important for understanding the evolution of human consciousness, as well as how we view mortality.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
A study from Carnegie Mellon University tracks the travels of tarantulas since the Cretaceous period.
- Scary-looking tarantulas actually prefer to keep to themselves and stay in their burrows.
- Their sedentary nature makes a puzzle of their presence in so many places around the world.
- Researchers discover that this is because they've been around a very long time and rode drifting continental land masses to their contemporary positions.
Whenever a movie script calls for the protagonist to be menaced by a spider, central casting typically places a call to a tarantula wrangler. Tarantulas, or theraphosids, are hairy and big — they're the largest spiders in the world — and for many people, the ultimate spider nightmare.
Reality is much tamer. Tarantulas are not actually aggressive. They're homebodies, preferring to spend their time in their burrows with their families. Females and their young hardly ever leave home, and males only go out to mate. Stay away from them, and they'll stay away from you.
This makes tarantulas' presence on six out of seven continents something of a mystery. How did such non-adventurous creatures end up in so many places? A new study published in the journal PeerJ from a team of international researchers provides the answer: They walked there as they rafted across the earth atop drifting continental masses.
Ancestry.com for tarantulas
Credit: Foley, et al./ PeerJ
The lead author of the study is Carnegie Mellon University's Saoirse Foley, whose team included researchers from Universität Trier in Germany and Yale-NUS College in Singapore. Together, they conducted a wide-ranging analysis of 48 spider transcriptomes, a compilation of RNA transcripts inside of cells. The researchers used the transcriptomes to construct a "family tree."
The tarantula family tree was then time-calibrated using fossil data. (Tarantula fossils are rare, so the team used software to assist in the calculation using the ages of fossils from other types of spiders.)
Combined, the data allowed the researchers to construct a tarantula family tree dating back about 120 million years to the Cretaceous period. Around this time, giant crocodiles were walking — yes walking on legs — in South Korea.
Landmasses on the move
A map of Godwana 240 million years ago.Fama Clamosa/Wikimedia Commons
Tarantulas are Americans from a time when the Americas were part of the supercontinent Gondwana and still attached to Australia, Africa, Antarctica, and India.
The researchers tracked tarantulas' migration atop pieces of Gondwana as the landmasses slowly assumed their current positions.
A few detours along the way
The study identifies tarantulas' ancestral ranges.Credit: Foley, et al. /PeerJ/ Map credit: https://mapchart.net, 2021. Licensed under CC BY 4.0 SA.
The research revealed that tarantula migration wasn't just a matter of riding the continents.
Researchers discovered that the spiders may have done some dispersing through the areas in which they found themselves. Their arrival into Asia was, for example, two-pronged. Once the tarantulas were in India, they split into two groups — one group stayed on the ground while the other took to the trees — before that landmass collided with Asia and the spiders moved northward. The two groups arrived in Asia 20 million years apart from each other.
This is a bit of a surprise says Foley, noting that the two Indian variants demonstrate tarantula adaptability at work:
"Previously, we did not consider tarantulas to be good dispersers. While continental drift certainly played its part in their history, the two Asian colonization events encourage us to reconsider this narrative. The microhabitat differences between those two lineages also suggest that tarantulas are experts at exploiting ecological niches, while simultaneously displaying signs of niche conservation."
After years of speculation a team of researchers has pinpointed the age of this ancient mystery.
- The Plain of Jars consists of over 90 sites containing thousands of jars scattered across Laos.
- According to new research, these jars were constructed sometime between 1240 and 660 BCE.
- In 2019, UNESCO named a cluster of 11 regions as a World Heritage Site.
The stone jar sites scattered around Laos are considered the most unique and important archaeological finds in all of Southeast Asia. In total, over 90 sites have been identified, with each site containing between one and 400 jars, some of which weigh up to 20 tons.
Carved of rock and cylindrically-shaped, the predominantly undecorated jars—only one features a "frogman" etched into its exterior—vary in shape and size, though they are predominantly constructed of sandstone. Other materials used include breccia, conglomerate, granite, and limestone. The jars range from one to three meters tall.
The purpose of these jars has long been debated. Given their proximity to funerary grounds, they might have served a ritual purpose or merely marked where the dead were buried. They might have housed cremated remains. A more pragmatic purpose has been put forward: to collect monsoon rainwater.
The Plain of Jars, as this network is known, was heavily bombed by the United States Air Force in the 1960s. In fact, the USAF dropped more bombs on Laos (specifically, these jar sites) than in the entirety of World War II—a total of 262 million cluster bombs. Some 80 million remain undetonated, making them a daily threat to the population of Laos today.
Protective measures are now being taken. In 2019, UNESCO designated a group of 11 of these regions as a World Heritage Site. The organization notes that these sites represent a historical crossroads between the Mun-Mekong system and the Red River/Gulf of Tonkin system, noting that beyond ritual purpose, they could have been utilized by travelers in some capacity—hence the rainwater theory.
After decades of speculation and research, a team led by two Australian researchers and one Laotian researcher have dated these jars. Using a fossil-dating technology known as Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL), the team examined sediment from underneath jars at 120 different locations, discovering that they were constructed sometime between 1240 and 660 BCE.
View to the southwest at megalithic jar Site 1.
Credit: Louise Shewan, et al.
Dr. Louise Shewan from the University of Melbourne explains,
"With these new data and radiocarbon dates obtained for skeletal material and charcoal from other burial contexts, we now know that these sites have maintained enduring ritual significance from the period of their initial jar placement into historic times."
How the jars were moved around Laos remains unknown. As with other ancient mysteries—the various henges around Scotland and England; the interconnected network of cities in the Harappan civilization—understanding the rituals associated with and technologies used to create awe-inspiring monuments remains a dream for many archaeologists.
The team behind this research plans on examining more samples from these Laotian jars—a particularly daunting challenge considering less than 10 percent of jar sites have been cleared of American explosives. Shewan is excited about the prospects of what further testing could reveal, however.
"We expect that this complex process will eventually help us share more insights into what is one of Southeast Asia's most mysterious archaeological cultures."
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
The chariot survived ancient eruptions and modern-day looters to become a part of the world heritage site.
- Archeologists recently discovered a first-of-its-kind chariot in Pompeii.
- The ceremonial chariot is decorated with bronze and tin medallions, while the sides sport bronzesheets and red-and-black paintings.
- Given looting activity in the area, it's lucky the 2,000-year-old treasure wasn't lost to the world heritage site.
In 79 CE, near the Bay of Naples, Mt. Vesuvius erupted. Geologically, this was business as usual for the volatile volcano, but for the nearby cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, it proved a cataclysmic event.
After the terrifying initial blast, the volcano spewed ash and rocks miles into the atmosphere. As this volcanic drift cooled, it began to snow onto the cities. It collapsed buildings under its weight and suffocated those unlucky enough to not flee. Then came the pyroclastic flows—massive waves of ash, gases, and lava fragments that washed over the cities at speeds of more than 100 miles per hour. All told, Vesuvius unleashed more than 100,000 times the energy of the two atomic bombs dropped during World War II on doomed towns nestled beneath it.
It seemed as though the cities weren't simply wiped off the map but practically from history itself, banished to a footnote in historical text. And so when explorers in the 1700s found the super-heated ash had preserved the city with taxidermic care, it was a miraculous discovery.
Today, Pompeii's fossilized slice-of-life gives historians an unprecedented view into a moment of history and culture. Bodies lie where they lived, traces of their clothes and other belongings still clinging to their forms. Frescos retain their imagery and vibrant colors. Fast food joints (called thermopolium) can be found with the jars still holding remnants of their menu items. Even the brain cells of a young man managed to survive the ages in vitrified conservation.
Each excavation teaches us something new about life in this Roman resort town, and Pompeii continues to surprise archeologists and historians well in the 21st century.
One dope Pompeian whip
Researchers carefully extract the chariot from the sedimentary rock encasing it.
Credit: Luigi Spina, Archaeological Park of Pompeii
In a recent discovery, researchers unearthed a first-of-its-kind chariot at Civita Giuliana, an excavation site north of Pompeii's ancient walls. In Roman times, the site served as a getaway for Rome's elite and wealthy citizens, a serene countryside brimming with villas and Mediterranean farms. So, it's understandable why such an exquisite chariot was found here.
"I was astounded," Eric Poehler, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who specializes in Pompeii traffic, told NPR. "Many of the vehicles I'd written about before ... are your standard station wagon or vehicle for taking the kids to soccer. This is a Lamborghini. This is an outright fancy, fancy car."
Located in a double-level portico, the chariot is a far cry from anything Ben-Hur would have been seen cruising around in. It sports four iron wheels and a high seat complete with arm- and backrest. The sides are adorned with engraved bronze and wooden panels painted with red-and-black figures. And the rear bumps with a register of bronze and tin medallion depicting Eros-inspired scenes of satyrs, nymphs, and cupids. In short, this chariot is slab.
"It is an extraordinary discovery for the advancement of our knowledge of the ancient world," Massimo Osanna, the director of the archaeological park, said in a statement. "At Pompeii vehicles used for transport have been found in the past, […] but nothing like the Civita Giuliana chariot."
But unlike a Lamborghini—which serves only to show the owner has more money than sense—this chariot served a social and cultural role. Likely a pilentum, it would have been rolled out in times of ceremony, potentially during festivals, processions, or weddings.
While similar chariots have been uncovered in northern Greece, this is the first such chariot to be discovered in Italy. Its presence in Pompeii will further help historians understand the people who called the city home, as well as their relation to the Mediterranean world.
As Poehler added, "This is precisely the kind of find that one wants to find at Pompeii, the really well-articulated, very well-preserved moments in time. And it happens to be in this case an object that is relatively rare despite its ubiquity in the past."
It belongs in a museum (not the black market)
Bronze and tin medallions depict satyrs, nymphs and cupids.
Credit: Luigi Spina, Archaeological Park of Pompeii
Beyond its gilded appeal, the chariot is also special because it survived so we could learn from it. The area where the vehicle was found has been favored in recent years by looters, and illicit tunnels had been dug precariously close to the chariot's resting place. For this reason, the archeological park has teamed up with the Public Prosecutor's Office of Torre Annunziata to protect Pompeii's history and excavate its treasures before they become lost or stolen.
"The collaboration between the Public Prosecutor's Office of Torre Annunziata and the Archaeological Park of Pompeii has proved itself to be a formidable instrument, not only for bringing finds of exceptional historical and artistic value to light, but also for halting the criminal actions of individuals who for years have been the protagonists in a systematic looting of the priceless archaeological heritage preserved in the vast area of the Civita Giuliana villa, which is still largely buried and to which the recent exceptional findings bear witness," Nunzio Fragliasso, chief prosecutor of Torre Annunziata, said in his joint statement with Osanna.
Nor is everything that glitters historic gold. Even Pompeii's everyday ephemera can have an outsized impact on history. Pompeian citizens, for example, viewed street walls as a type of "public advertisement space" and so painted them thick with graffiti. As historians must often rely on the written works of the literate elite, this graffiti gives the ordinary Pompeians their voice back. One such charcoal tag even corrected the record of Vesuvius's eruption by two months, from August to October, contradicting the traditionally accepted date set by Pliny the Younger.
"Today, archaeologists try to understand ancient societies by studying the entire material record -- not just the beautiful or luxurious objects, but also the broken bits of cooking pottery, the animal bones thrown into the trash, the microscopic grains of pollen in the soil, and much more," Caitlín Barrett, associate professor at Cornell University, told CNN.
This ephemera is also at risk. Looters looking for eye-catching treasure and artwork will often destroy everyday objects in their pursuit. And after centuries encased in protective sedimentary rock, the city has again been exposed to the rains, winds, and human blunders that erode. The goal now isn't just to excavate fantastic treasures, but to preserve the world heritage site and learn from it for as long as time (and maybe Vesuvius) will allow.