National Geographic : 1990 Feb
Playing Board Games in the Stone Age They didn't play chess or bridge, but people who lived 7,900 years ago had ways to spend their leisure time. Scientists excavating a Neolithic BILL LYONS site in Jordan have found what may be the oldest game board yet known. Gary O. Rollefson of San Diego State University and his colleagues, working with National Geographic So ciety support, have been uncovering the remains of Ain Ghazal, one of the largest population centers in the Mid dle East between 7000 and 5000 B.c. (GEOGRAPHIC, February 1984). Last summer, while excavating a house, they found a limestone slab with two parallel rows of circular depressions, six in each row, cut into it. "It didn't suggest anything utilitarian or ritualis tic," Rollefson recalls. "This is proba bly the oldest indication we have that people then took time out for leisure." Rollefson thinks that the game played on the board (above) used pebbles or seeds as counters. To a Jordanian member of Rollefson's crew (top), the board wasn't unusual: He had played a modern version, called mancala, on a wooden board before working at Ain Ghazal. BILLLYONS Bird Population Crash on a Shetland Island The scene is Foula, one of the Shet land Islands (GEOGRAPHIC, April 1977). In 1989 arctic terns fared badly: There were no fledglings for the fifth year in a row. Puffins produced few surviving young for the third straight year. And while 6,000 kitti wake pairs produced about a thousand fledglings in 1989, up from a lone chick in 1988, that was a far cry from the ear lier norm of about 8,000. Robert Furness of Glasgow Univer sity has been studying seabirds on Foula for nearly two decades. The vast colonies of nesting birds did a little bet ter in 1989 than in 1988, "the worst year ever recorded," Furness says, but the situation remains grim. The seabirds feed on sand eels, small fish that had once been present in enor mous quantities in the North Atlantic Ocean around Foula. But in recent years sand eel stocks have declined dramatically, making it difficult for KEVINSCHAFER,EARTHWATCH birds that feed on or near the surface like terns, kittiwakes, puffins, and northern fulmars (bottom)--to find enough food for their chicks. Most of the eggs hatch normally. "There's nothing intrinsically wrong with the chicks," Furness says. Some experts have blamed the sand eel decline on fishing; in response, the British government imposed a partial ban on the sand eel fishery before the 1989 fishing season closed. But Furness says scientists really aren't sure why sand eel numbers dropped around F wFoula; fishing has continued off other Shetland islands without a significant effect on the size of bird populations. He will be back this summer to see how Foula's seabirds are faring. PAULA. SELDEN Unraveling the Secret of a Spider's Web any animals have a single fea ture we associate with them: a camel's hump, an elephant's trunk, a turtle's shell. When we think of a spider, we think of the distinctive web in which it traps its prey. But when did the spider first acquire the ability to weave webs? No one knows yet, but Paul Selden, a research er at the University of Manchester in England, has evidence that spiders could weave orb, or radial, webs as long ago as 140 million years. Selden studied four tiny fossil spi ders found in two Spanish quarries "Each piece of spider looks like a little brown flake just under the surface of the translucent rock," he says-and found that they had "accessory claws" that modern spiders use to weave a web. The age of the orb-web weavers turns out to be many million years earlier than any previously known. Scientists have discovered fossils of spiders that could spin silk threads almost 400 million years ago. But such spiders probably used the silk to line their burrows or as aids in sensory per ception, Selden says. The Spanish spi ders are the earliest known that could weave the common orb web: one that hangs in the air and traps the flying insects that are the spider's prey.