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Scientists find gems and genomes

Arturo Godoy / Brown University

This tamale bowl depicting a peccary was among the treasures discovered in an Early Classic Maya tomb containing the remains of a king dressed as a ritual dancer.

The year's top developments in archaeology and anthropology range from unearthed tombs in the Americas to unraveled genetic codes for the long-lost cousins of modern humans. Which discovery should rank as No. 1? That's for you to decide.

Every year, Archaeology magazine lists its top 10 discoveries of the past 12 months. It's a great list, and we've added a few extras to ponder as well. Take a look at this lineup, read up on the details on msnbc.com and Archaeology's website, and cast a vote for your favorite discovery using the online ballot at right.


Here's Archaeology's top 10:

Tomb of Hecatomnus robbed:  Turkish authorities arrest looters who are suspected of tunneling their way into one of antiquity's most intriguing tombs — an underground chamber thought to represent the final resting place of Hecatomnus, who ruled Caria in the fourth century B.C. and was the father of Mausolus. The burial place of Mausolus, known as the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. (And now you know how the word "mausoleum" got its start.)

Paleolithic tools on Crete: Scientists announce the discovery of stone tools at two sites on the island of Crete that are between 130,000 and 700,000 years old. The find implies that the ancient ancestors of modern humans made their way to Crete across 40 miles of open sea — and that would represent the earliest indirect evidence of seafaring.

Royal tombs in Guatemala (and Mexico):´╗┐ A trench made by looters led archaeologists to a series of bizarre finds beneath the El Diablo pyramid at the Maya city of El Zotz in Guatemala. The ´╗┐items found in the 1,600-year-old tomb included infant skeletons and severed fingers, textiles and carvings, all accompanying the remains of a king dressed as a ritual dancer. Yet another royal tomb was found in Mexico. The 2,700-year-old tomb, found within a pyramid in southern Chiapas state, containing jade collars, pyrite and obsidian artifacts — and the remains of a high priest or ruler linked to the region's ancient Olmec culture.

Early pyramids in Peru: The discovery of two ancient pyramid complexes on the western edge of Peru's Amazon lowlands demonstrates that monumental architecture had spread across the Andes and well into the jungle thousands of years before the Spaniards arrive. Archaeologists saw signs of successive building phases stretching back at least 2,800 years.

HMS Investigator found: Marine archaeologists expected to spend weeks looking for the wreck of the HMS Investigator, a British ship that was the first to sail the westernmost leg of the Northwest Passage. Instead, they found it after less than 15 minutes of searching. Side-scan sonar located the ship under 30 feet of water, right at the spot where the crew left it in 1853.

Neanderthal genome decoded: Geneticists completed their first-draft sequence of the Neanderthal genome, based on analysis of DNA extracted from ancient bone samples dug up in a Croatian cave. The analysis suggests that a tiny part of the Neanderthals' genetic heritage lives on in some of us — specifically, non-Africans. This discovery ranked as one of Science's top 10 breakthroughs of the year. And just today, some of the researchers who were behind the genome project came out with another jaw-dropping discovery: Another breed of hominid ancestors, known as the "Denisovans," appeared to be genetically distinct from modern Homo sapiens as well as the Neanderthals.

Child burials in Carthage: Anthropologists spent decades examining the cremated remains of hundreds of children who were buried in a Carthaginian cemetery between the eighth and the second centuries B.C. Their mission was to determine whether these were the victims of large-scale child sacrifices. The conclusion? Although it's possible that the Carthaginians may have occasionally sacrificed humans, a credible claim can be made that most of the children died of natural causes.

Lucy's 'great-grandfather' in Ethiopia: The 3.3 million-year-old skeleton of a short-legged female nicknamed Lucy is arguably the most famous fossil of a human ancestor. In June, anthropologists announced that they unearthed a 3.6 million-year-old partial skeleton, apparently representing a much larger male from the same species. The fossil was dubbed Kadanuumuu, or "big man" in the language of Ethiopia's Afar region, where both skeletons were found.

Jamestown's church uncovered: Archaeologists excavating the remains of Virginia's 400-year-old Jamestown settlement say they've found the remains of the earliest Protestant church in North America. Five postholes probably held the wooden columns that supported the Jamestown fort's first church, which was built in 1608 and probably served as the site of Pocahontas' wedding in 1614.

Kinder, gentler carbon dating: Scientists say they've developed a new method for radiocarbon dating of ancient samples ... which doesn't require destruction of the sample. Texas A&M's Marvin Rowe says the nondestructive method for carbon dioxide extraction has worked with samples of wood, charcoal and animal skin, as well as bone from a mummy and an ostrich eggshell. The process isn't perfect, but archaeologists say the technique could allow for the testing of Native American remains that modern tribes don't want harmed. The method could be used as well if scientists decide they want to run more tests on the Shroud of Turin.

Also in the news: In addition to the 10 discoveries listed by Archaeology's editors, my favorite stories of the year include the seeming solution of the King Tut "murder mystery" ... the recipe for Cleopatra's pearl cocktail ... the discovery of the "Hazor Code" tablets ... the exploration of Syria's 6,000-year-old lost city ... the 18th-century ship found at New York's Ground Zero ... the world's oldest leather shoe ... the brouhaha over Noah's Ark ... the 3,550-year-old boy tourist at Stonehenge ... and of course the return to the Titanic. If your fancy is struck by any of these tales, or others that cropped up during the past year, vote for "None of the Above" and feel free to make a comment below.  

Archaeology's editors announced their "Undiscovery of the Year": a study knocking down the idea that an Earth-smashing comet or asteroid sparked a catastrophe for Stone Age settlers and animals in North America nearly 13,000 years ago.

The magazine's website also offers a rundown on five threatened archaeological sites around the world, including the Native American sites that could be threatened by huge solar-array farms in southeastern California. Check out the full year-end coverage as well as the other gems offered by Archaeology magazine.

More of the year in review:


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