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Top ancient mysteries of 2011

Peter Schmid / Lee Berger / Univ. of Wits.

The skeletal hand of an adult female Australopithecus sediba is nestled within a modern human hand. The analysis of the A. sediba bones led to what some experts called a "game-changing" view of evolution in 2011.

Do archaeologists ever get tired of delving into ancient mysteries? One of my all-time favorite articles from The Onion is the one about the archaeologist who's fed up with "unearthing unspeakable ancient evils," but in real life, you can't beat a good story about archaeology, paleontology or paleoanthropology.

I'm combining several different scientific disciplines in this end-of-year roundup of ancient mysteries. Archaeology has to do with studying the peoples of the past through an analysis of the things they've left behind, ranging from the bones of Ötzi the Iceman to the pigeon nests built in a cave near Jerusalem. Paleontology is the branch of geology that focuses on the fossil record left behind by bygone organisms, including dinosaur dung. And paleoanthropology focuses on our prehistoric ancestors and their relationships to other species.

It's been a busy year for archaeologists coping with the tumult that swept over Egypt and Libya ... for paleontologists debating where different species fit on the org chart for extinct organisms ... and for anthropologists analyzing how humans swapped DNA with heaven knows what other kinds of hominids. Here's a quick rundown, with assists from the editors of Archaeology magazine and paleo-blogger Brian Switek.

Archaeology
The top 10 discoveries of 2011, as rated by Archaeology, include revelations about these ancient mysteries:

I would add two late-breaking stories to the mix: one about the mysterious markings on the floor of an ancient complex in Jerusalem, and another about long-hidden 16-foot-wide pits in the ground near Stonehenge.

Paleontology
I asked Switek to help me sort through the year's top stories in paleontology, and he was kind enough to send this recap:

"Last year the big news was that paleontologists had restored the colors of two feathered dinosaurs. This year, there doesn't seem to be any major story that competes. But that's not to say that nothing significant happened in 2011. Here's a rundown of what I thought was interesting and important.

"Dinosaur growth: Over the past few years, paleontologists have been tussling over how many dinosaur species we have collected so far. The great Triceratops-Torosaurus debate of 2010 really brought this ongoing argument into focus, and there were several 2011 papers which continued the conversation. Early in the year paleontologist Andy Farke criticized the 'Torosaurus as Triceratops' hypothesis, and a reply to his reply has just appeared. Likewise, paleontologists suggested that the hadrosaur Anatotitan and the tyrannosaur Raptorex were really just growth stages of already-known dinosaurs (the latter being similar to Tarbosaurus, a juvenile of which was also described this year)." [Here's another take on the tussle over Triceratops.]

"Dinosaur senses: Two big papers - published at about the same time - probed dinosaur senses. One focused on smell, and the other vision. Studies like these represent our broadening understanding of dinosaur biology. It's not all about naming new species." [Learn more about the smell and night vision research] 

"Archaeopteryx: This year marked the 150th anniversary of when Archaeopteryx was discovered. The year has been full of ups and downs. Even though an 11th specimen of the feathered dinosaur was announced, a ballyhooed paper proposed that the creature was not an early bird but rather a non-avian dinosaur more distantly related to the first birds." [Here's more ballyhoo about the claim that Archaeopteryx wasn't a bird.]

"New species: New dinosaurs are named just about every week, but there were at least two that caught my eye. One was Brontomerus - a sauropod whose name translates to "thunder thighs" - and Teratophoneus, a short-snouted tyrannosaur. (I just realized that both were found in Utah, though, so perhaps I have a bias for my adoptive state!)" [Learn more about "Thunder Thighs" as well as other ancient wonders in Utah.] 

"Other paleo: I usually don't cover the really big stories - I like to root around for tales no one is telling - but a few studies from this year got my attention."

• Plesiosaurs gave birth to live young
• Marsupial "wolf" hunted more like a cat
Late-surviving predator was similar to those that swam the Cambrian
• Earliest saber-toothed herbivore found
• Ammonoids trapped parasites in pearls
• Cache of fossil feathers found in amber
• Woolly and Columbian mammoths may have interbred

Paleoanthropology
To round out this big list, here are a few of the tales of human ancestors that caught my eye over the past year:

That's more than 30 tales of ancient mysteries to ponder. Which ones do you find most intriguing, or are there other tales we've missed? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.


Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.