World news in brief: Morocco, China, and the United States

A round-up of some of the latest archaeology news from around the world, including: evidence of an ear infection identified in 100,000-year-old remains; analysis of ancient Chinese bronze formulae; and a rethinking of how Cahokia's North Plaza was used.

Ancient ear infection

A recent re-examination of skeletal remains, first excavated from the Dar-es-Soltane II cave in Morocco in the 1970s, has identified one of the earliest-known case of chronic ear infection or acquired deafness.

Dating to c.100,000 years ago, the remains belong to a man who was around 50 years old at the time of his death. Micro-CT scans of his skull, carried out by researchers from the University of Coimbra (Portugal), the École pratique des hautes études and the Collège de France (both in France), and the INSAP (Morocco), have revealed that his left ear had unusual bone growth in the semi-circular canals and around the cochlea, which may have been caused by a pathological condition known as labyrinthitis ossificans. While the full extent of the damage is unknown, it is probable that he would have had some degree of hearing loss, as well as possibly suffering from vertigo and dizziness.

IMAGE: International Journal of Paleopathology, D Coutinho-Nogueira et al.

Re-examining ancient Chinese bronze formulae

Analysis of the composition of bronze coins contemporary with an ancient Chinese text known as the Kaogong ji has shown that previous interpretations of the six formulae for casting bronze that it contains may be incorrect.

The formulae are based on the combination of two components – jin and xi – which had long been assumed to refer to pure metals, probably copper and tin. The bronze coins examined by Dr Ruiliang Liu from the British Museum and Professor A M Pollard from the University of Oxford, however, contained high levels of lead as well as copper and tin. This suggests that, as the formulae only refer to two ingredients, those ingredients must have been metal alloys. Based on the composition, the researchers suggest that jin was a leaded tin-bronze alloy, while xi was a copper-lead alloy.

IMAGE: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Cahokia’s North Plaza

Cahokia – a pre-contact Native American city (c.AD 1050-1400) near the modern city of St Louis, Missouri – consists of a number of earthwork mounds and flat, rectangular ‘plazas’, believed to have been used as ceremonial gathering places. Today, one of these, the North Plaza, is regularly flooded by the nearby Mississippi River, so it had previously been assumed that this area must have been drier when the site was in use. New research (published in the journal World Archaeology: has shown that this was not the case, however, and that even then the site would have frequently been underwater. It may be that this plaza was used only seasonally or was built there as a reflection of the river’s significance.