Someone stabbed a cave bear in the head with a spear 35,000 years ago

Someone stabbed a cave bear in the head with a spear 35,000 years ago

Enlarge (credit: Gimranov et al. 2021)

During the last Ice Age, more than 100 cave bears died in Imanay Cave, a 100-meter-long corridor of stone in Russia’s southern Ural Mountains. The dead bears, along with a cave lion and a few other Pleistocene mammals, left behind nearly 10,000 bones, which have mostly worn down to small fragments over the millennia. Most of them were so-called small cave bears, Ursus spelaeus eremus, notable for being smaller than the so-called large cave bear, Ursus spelaeus—and for their apparent habit of dying en masse while hibernating through the harsh Pleistocene winters, leaving behind huge assemblages of bones for modern paleontologists to find.

Most of the cave bear bones found in Eurasia, including the ones at Imanay Cave, show no signs of violence, butchering, or gnawing. They seem to have died quietly, perhaps of cold, starvation, or illness. But while cleaning one cave bear skull from Imanay, Dmitry Gimranov of the Ural Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences and his colleagues noticed a rather suspicious hole in the parietal bone, near the back of the skull.

The lower edge of the hole is a gentle curve with a flattened base, while the upper edge is more uneven and widens sharply in the middle. Its shape is strikingly similar to the cross-section of stone projectile points unearthed in the same layer of cave sediment as most of the bear bones. Those points tend to have a flat ventral (or lower) side and a more curved dorsal (or upper) side with a sharp rib of stone sticking up along the center. And they’re about the same size as the hole in the bear skull.

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Earliest known burial in Africa is that of a small, fragile child

Earliest known burial in Africa is that of a small, fragile child

Enlarge (credit: Mohammad Javad Shoaee)

A child died two to three years into their life in the coastal highlands of what is now Kenya 78,000 years ago. Archaeological evidence suggests that survivors wrapped the small body tightly before laying it, curled on one side with the tiny head resting on a pillow, in a carefully dug pit in Panga ya Saidi cave. The child’s grave is now the oldest known example of people in Middle Stone Age Africa burying their dead.

A child called Mtoto

A thesaurus is a handy thing, but sometimes seemingly tiny differences in meaning can actually have a huge impact. Consider the implications of “disposing of bodies” versus “laying the dead to rest.” One of the things archaeologists are most interested in about the lives of the earliest members of our species—and our close relatives, now extinct—is when and how we first began to make that distinction.

When did early humans stop viewing a dead human body as something smelly to be removed from the living area before it attracted scavengers and sickness? When did they decide it needed to be treated carefully to ensure safe passage to an afterlife—or perhaps give peace for the living?

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Pre-Columbian people in the Atacama raised parrots for their feathers

two perching scarlett macaws

Enlarge / Scarlet macaws (credit: Abul Az Abu Jamil)

Centuries ago, indigenous South Americans brought live parrots hundreds of kilometers across the Andes Mountains, then raised them in captivity in the Atacama Desert, according to a recent study.

The Atacama is one of the last places you’d look for tropical parrots. It’s the world’s driest desert, and it stretches along the Pacific coast of Chile to the west of the Andes Mountains. Most communities in the Atacama are hundreds of kilometers from the nearest place a tropical bird might find livable. But Pennsylvania State University archaeologist Jose Capriles and his colleagues recently examined the skeletons and mummies of 27 Amazonian parrots, representing at least six species, that had been buried as funeral offerings for the dead at several pre-Columbian sites in the Atacama.

They found that the birds had most likely been kept in captivity and plucked often for their bright red, yellow, blue, and green feathers. To get to the desert, the birds must have been captured in their tropical Amazon habitats and carried across the Andes along trade routes. Captured parrots probably arrived on the llama caravans that frequented oasis communities like Pica, in northern Chile.

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Archaeologists use DNA to investigate 6,200-year-old massacre mystery

Archaeologists use DNA to investigate 6,200-year-old massacre mystery

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Archaeologists working near the small Croatian village of Potočani made a grim discovery in 2007. In a shallow pit, just a meter deep and two meters wide, they found the jumbled bones of at least 41 people. Radiocarbon dating on several of the bones revealed that they’d been in the pit for around 6,200 years. The dead included men, women, and children, from toddlers to the elderly, and it was clear that they had died violently.

Thirteen of the 41 people in the pit had taken lethal blows to the sides or backs of their skulls from a mix of different weapons. Based on the shape of the injuries, these probably included stone hammers, wooden clubs, and copper axes.

“The position and morphology (appearance) of the wounds strongly suggest that these people didn’t run from their attackers,” archaeologist Mario Novak, of Croatia’s Institute for Anthropological Research, told Ars, “but were most probably kneeling or lying with their hands tied.” That evidence, along with the presence of so many women and children in the group, told archaeologists that they hadn’t unearthed the aftermath of a battle, but a massacre.

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#ancient-dna, #ancient-europe, #ancient-people-did-stuff, #ancient-warfare, #archaeology, #biological-anthropology, #biological-archaeology, #copper-age, #forensic-archaeology, #mass-grave, #neolithic, #osteology, #science

Listen to haunting notes from an 18,000-year-old conch shell trumpet

Color photo of a person with a conch shell raised to their mouth, silhouetted against a red-painted cave wall.

Enlarge / Archaeologists in 1931 found the conch shell near the entrance of Marsoulas Cave. This is a reconstruction of where and how the shell might have been played. (credit: G. Tosello)

After 18,000 years of silence, an ancient musical instrument played its first notes. The last time anyone heard a sound from the conch shell trumpet, thick sheets of ice still covered most of Europe.

University of Toulouse archaeologist Carole Fritz and her colleagues recently recognized the shell as a musical instrument. To understand more about how ancient people crafted a trumpet from a 31cm (1 foot) long conch shell, the archaeologists used high-resolution CT scans to examine the shell’s inner structure: delicate-looking whorls of shell and open chambers, coiled around a central axis, or columella. A series of overlapping photographs and careful measurements became a full-color, 3D digital model of the shell, and image enhancement software helped reveal how Magdalenian people had decorated the instrument with red ocher dots.

And in a lab at the University of Toulouse, a horn player and musicology researcher became the first person in 18,000 years to play the conch shell. The musician blew into the broken tip, or apex, of the shell and vibrated his lips as if he were playing a trumpet or trombone. Very carefully, he coaxed three loud, clear, resonant notes from the ancient instrument:

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#acoustics, #ancient-people-did-stuff, #anthropology, #archaeology, #cave-paintings, #conch-shells, #experimental-archaeology, #ice-age, #magdalenian, #music, #musical-instruments, #musicology, #paleolithic-europe, #science

This painted pig is the world’s oldest figurative art

Color photo of stylized pig painted in red on a rock wall

Enlarge (credit: Brumm et al. 2021)

A pig painted on the wall of an Indonesian cave is the world’s oldest figurative art—that is, it’s the oldest known drawing of something,

rather than an abstract design or a stencil.

The 45,500-year-old ocher painting depicts a Sulawesi warty pig, which appears to be watching a standoff between two other pigs. If that interpretation is correct, the painting is also a contender for the world’s oldest narrative scene. And it hints at how much the earliest Indonesians observed and recorded about the animals and ecosystems around them. A growing pile of evidence tells us that the first people to reach the islands of Indonesia carried with them a culture of art and visual storytelling, as well as the means to cross the expanses of water between the islands, eventually reaching Australia.

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Rock art in a California cave was a visual guide to hallucinogenic plants

This red pinwheel image (left), which is around 500 years old, may depict the unfurling petals of a datura flower (right).

Enlarge / This red pinwheel image (left), which is around 500 years old, may depict the unfurling petals of a datura flower (right). (credit: Rick Bury and Melissa Dabulamanzi)

At a cave in Southern California, archaeologists recently found centuries-old bundles of hallucinogenic plants tucked into crevices in the low ceiling, near a painting that may depict a flower from the same plant, called datura. The painted images may have been a visual aid to help people understand the rituals they experienced in the cave.

Chew on this

University of Central Lancashire archaeologist David Robinson and his colleagues describe the bundles of leaves and stems tucked into the domed ceiling of California’s Pinwheel Cave. The five-armed pinwheel that gives the cave its name is painted in red nearby, attended by a bizarre-looking figure with antennae, eyes pointed in different directions, and a long body. Archaeologists have dubbed it the Transmorph, perhaps because it wouldn’t answer to anything else they tried. Based on radiocarbon dates of the bundles, people placed them in the room’s nooks and crannies over several centuries, from about 1530 to 1890.

That matches the age of charcoal from nearby chambers in the cave, where people left behind traces of more mundane activities: cooking meat, grinding seeds and nuts, and making stone projectile points. Whatever rituals happened in Pinwheel Cave, they weren’t hidden away or separate from everyday life.

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This ancient big-game hunter was a woman

This ancient big-game hunter was a woman

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At Wilamaya Patjxa, an archaeological site in southern Peru, archaeologists unearthed the skeleton of a young woman whose people buried her with a hunters’ toolkit, including projectile points. The find prompted University of California Davis archaeologist Randall Haas and his colleagues to take a closer look at other Pleistocene and early Holocene hunters from around the Americas.

Their results may suggest that female hunters weren’t as rare as we thought. And that, in turn, reminds us that gender roles haven’t always been the same in every culture.

The hunter of Wilamaya Patjxa

“The objects that accompany [people] in death tend to be those that accompanied them in life,” Haas and his colleagues wrote. And when one young woman died 9,000 years ago in what is now southern Peru, her people buried her with at least six stone spear tips of a type used in hunting large prey like deer and vicuña (a relative of the alpaca). The points seem to have been bundled along with a stone knife, sharp stone flakes, scraping tools, and ocher for tanning hides.

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A giant cat picture was just discovered among the Nazca Lines

The cat is drawn from the side, with its head turned toward the viewer.

Enlarge / The cat is drawn from the side, with its head turned toward the viewer. (credit: Johny Isla via AP)

Workers at the Nazca Lines site recently found the faded, partially eroded outline of a cat stretching across a desert hillside.

The cat joins the ever-growing list of about 900 shapes and images that ancient people etched into the Nazca Desert soil. At 37 meters (121 feet) long, the cat is among the smaller geoglyphs in the desert; some of the largest shapes, down on the flat valley floor, span more than 500 meters (1,600 feet). Like other geoglyphs in the Nazca Desert, the cat’s ancient designers etched it into the ground by clearing away the dark surface sediment to form pale lines.

Geoglyph finds usually take months of trekking through the desert or poring over aerial photos, but the latest one was a happy accident. Workers were making improvements to a path leading up to a hilltop vantage point when they noticed the cat.

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#ancient-people-did-stuff, #ancient-south-america, #archaeology, #cats, #geoglyphs, #indigenous-south-america, #nasca, #nasca-lines, #nazca, #nazca-lines, #pre-columbian-civilizations, #science

This 9,000-year-old skeleton is the oldest cremation in the Near East

Fire.

Enlarge / Fire. (credit: Soreen D. / Flickr)

A cremation pit recently unearthed at Beisamoun, just north of the Sea of Galilee, contained the burned remains of a person who died sometime between 7013 and 6700 BCE (according to radiocarbon dating). The person’s name and story are lost to us, but their remains are evidence of a drastic change not only in how people lived but in what they believed about life and death.

A time of change

The cremation dates to a time of social and cultural change in the region around what is now northern Israel. Around 7000 BCE, people abandoned many of the larger settlements in the region; the archaeological record shows homes and villages falling into disuse and disrepair. Until that time, people in villages like Beisamoun had often buried their dead in the floors of their homes. People evidently wanted to keep their ancestors and relatives close to the center of family life. At Beisamoun, people stuck around, but they started building in a lighter construction style and stopped burying dead relatives under the floor. It marked the end of a period that archaeologists working in the Levant call the Late Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, which is precise but not terribly catchy.

It’s no coincidence that the oldest evidence of cremation in the Near East dates from this same time of cultural and social change. “The way you handle the dead is directly connected to beliefs,” Fanny Bocquentin, an archaeologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), told Ars.

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People slept on comfy grass beds 200,000 years ago

People slept on comfy grass beds 200,000 years ago

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Fragments of glassy petrified grass and microscopic traces of plant material, dating to around 200,000 years ago, are all that’s left of a Paleolithic hunter-gatherer’s bed in the back of Border Cave. In the same part of the rock shelter, archaeologists found layers of ash with more recent (as in only around 43,000 years old) and better-preserved leaves of dried grass laid on top, as if people had burned their old, dirty bedding and then laid fresh, clean sheaves of grass over the ashes—the rock shelter version of changing the sheets.

The finds shed light on an aspect of early human life that we rarely get to consider. Most of the artifacts that survive from more than a few thousand years ago are made of stone and bone; even wooden tools are rare. That means we tend to think of the Paleolithic in terms of hard, sharp stone tools and the bones of butchered animals. Through that lens, life looks very harsh—perhaps even harsher than it really was. Most of the human experience is missing from the archaeological record, including creature comforts like soft, clean beds.

Beds were burning

Until now, the oldest bedding archaeologists had ever found came from another South African site called Sibudu, where people 77,000 years ago had piled up layers of grasslike wetland plants called sedge, mixed with assorted medicinal plants, and occasionally burned the old layers. Some modern people in parts of Africa also use plants as bedding in similar ways. The Border Cave find shows that people have been making comfy sleeping pallets out of grass for at least 200,000 years—nearly as long as there have been Homo sapiens in the world.

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Ancient seashell beads may help unravel the origins of string

Ancient seashell beads may help unravel the origins of string

Enlarge (credit: Oz Rittner)

People living on the Israeli coast 120,000 years ago strung ocher-painted seashells on flax string, according to a recent study in which archaeologists examined microscopic traces of wear inside naturally occurring holes in the shells. That may shed some light on when people first invented string—which hints at the invention of things like clothes, fishing nets, and maybe even seafaring.

Seashells by the seashore

Picking up seashells has been a human habit for almost as long as there have been humans. Archaeologists found clam shells mingled with other artifacts in Israel’s Misliya Cave, buried in sediment layers dating from 240,000 to 160,000 years ago. The shells clearly weren’t the remains of Paleolithic seafood dinners; their battered condition meant they’d washed ashore after their former occupants had died.

For some reason, ancient people picked them up and took them home.

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Incest may have helped early Irish rulers maintain their claims to power

Incest may have helped early Irish rulers maintain their claims to power

Enlarge (credit: Ken Williams, shadowsandstone.com)

A man buried in the inner chamber of Newgrange passage tomb was the product of a union between siblings, according to ancient DNA analysis. He was also more distantly related to people buried at passage tombs up to 150km away, suggesting that a network of related rulers controlled Ireland in the centuries after populations of Neolithic farmers first reached the island from mainland Europe. Th find gives us new insight into the last phase of the Stone Age and the beginning of agriculture and settled village life in the area.

Some rumors never die

In the 11th century CE, someone in County Meath, Ireland, finally wrote down a salacious folktale that had been passed down for about 4,000 years. According to the story, an ancient king, who hailed from a tribe of gods, had slept with his sister on the winter solstice as part of a magic ritual to restart the Sun’s daily cycle and save the world from endless night. The couple supposedly did the deed in one of the county’s huge burial mounds, which the locals named Fertae Chuile, or the Hill of Sin.

Today, we know that hill as the Dowth passage tomb, a construction in which buried sections are reached through an entry marked by large stones. Dowth is a close neighbor of the more famous Newgrange passage tomb. And every winter solstice, the sun shines through the stone passage at Newgrange and lights up the innermost burial chamber. And nearly a thousand years after the local legend was first written down, ancient DNA suggests that at least part of the story—the most troubling part, naturally—was actually true.

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#ancient-dna, #ancient-europe, #ancient-people-did-stuff, #archaeology, #incest, #ireland, #megaliths, #monument-building, #neolithic, #newgrange, #passage-tombs, #population-genetics, #science

13,300-year-old Chinese bird figurine found in a rubbish heap

13,300-year-old Chinese bird figurine found in a rubbish heap

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The figurine is a small songbird, about 19.2mm (0.75 inches) long, standing on a pedestal. It’s carved from a burned, blackened fragment of animal bone. Whoever created it was probably a hunter-gatherer living at Lingjing, in northern China, near the end of the last Ice Age; their culture also made simple pottery and shaped black chert into small, sharp blades. To modern eyes, the carving looks pretty simple, but it’s the work of an artist who knew how to combine several techniques (and work with multiple tools) to shape a figure out of bone. And that means that by the time the ancient artist put tool to bone 13,300 years ago, people in northern China had already developed a long and unique tradition of carved bone art.

The songbird in the well

In 1958, a few years before archaeologists realized how much of the past lay buried at Lingjing, construction crews dug a well about 5 meters (16.4 feet) down, scooping out sediment that had accumulated during the end of the last Ice Age. The well-diggers piled all the dirt up nearby without paying much attention to the ancient potsherds, stone tools, and other artifacts mixed in with it.

When Shandong University archaeologist Zhanyang Li and colleagues found the pile in 2005, they realized that they’d been quite lucky; normally, the well-digging would have mixed together artifacts from different layers, making it impossible to tell when anything had come from. But the 1958 crew happened to dig their well in a part of the site where nothing had been buried since the Paleolithic. The only artifacts in their pile of discarded dirt were small black chert blades and coarsely made pottery—distinctive objects very similar to those found in a layer at Lingjing dating to between 14,000 and 13,000 years ago. Those were mixed with charcoal and burned animal bones that radiocarbon dated to around 13,300 years ago.

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Archaeologists find a way to look for ancient beer

Barley grain used in the production of beer at the Asahi Kanagawa Brewery in Japan.

Enlarge / Barley grain used in the production of beer at the Asahi Kanagawa Brewery in Japan. (credit: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Over the last few years, archaeologists have learned a lot from ancient people’s dirty dishes. Microscopic residues clinging to the inside of potsherds contain chemical traces of ancient food and drink, which have revealed remarkable details of ancient people’s diets. But as much as we now know about when people started eating certain grains or fermenting milk to make cheese, we’re still not sure when people first started brewing beer. It’s hard to tell a container used for beer from one that was just storing plain old grain.

But by looking at the remains of ancient grains under a microscope, archaeologists can tell whether the grains had been malted—the first step in the process of brewing beer.

When grains start to germinate, or sprout, they release an enzyme called diastase, which converts the grain’s stockpile of starch into sugar. The whole point of malting is to make the grains release diastase but then stop the process before the starch gets turned into sugar. Once the brewer adds yeast to the malted grain, then, the diastase can produce more sugar to feed the yeast—and that produces carbon dioxide, alcohol, and a sweet taste. To make this happen, brewers soak grains in water so they start to germinate, then stop the process by air-drying the grains and heating them in an oven.

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#ancient-egypt, #ancient-europe, #ancient-people-did-stuff, #archaeology, #beer, #experimental-archaeology, #neolithic, #science

Rare miniature rock art found in Australia

Rare miniature rock art found in Australia

(credit: Brady et al. 2020)

Ancient artists used several techniques to paint images on rock. Sometimes they drew by hand, but other times they would place an object like a hand, a leaf, or a boomerang against the wall and spatter it with paint, leaving behind a spray of color surrounding a silhouette of the object. This may sound like a simple way to produce art, but there’s new evidence that it could be a fairly complex process. People in northern Australia seem to have used beeswax to shape miniature stencils to paint on the walls of Yilbilinji Rock Shelter in Limmen National Park.

Welcome to Marra Country

The miniature images are part of a veritable gallery of rock art on the roof and rear walls of Yilbilinji. Over thousands of years, people came here to paint people, animals, objects, tracks, dots, and geometric motifs in striking red, yellow, black, and white. There’s even a European smoking pipe in the mix, which shows that at least some of the paintings must have been created after the colonists arrived.

Out of 355 images painted on the walls, only 59 are stencils—outlines of full-sized hands and forearms surrounded by sprays of white pigment (probably made with local kaolin clay). But 17 of those stencils are too small to have been done the usual way, by spattering an actual object with paint to leave a life-sized outline on the wall. They depict people—sometimes holding boomerangs and shields or wearing headdresses—crabs, echidna, at least two species of turtle, kangaroo pawprints, and geometric shapes.

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World’s oldest yarn hints that Neanderthals had basic math skills

Color photo of excavation site from inside the excavation pit

Enlarge / This is what Abri du Maras looks like today, with archaeologists digging into its ancient past. (credit: M-H. Moncel)

A tiny scrap of thread stuck to the lower side of a stone flake offers a huge insight into Neanderthal life. The 6.2mm (0.24 inch) long bit of thread, spun from plant fibers, is the oldest example of the material ever found. According to uranium-series dating, the thread came from a layer of sediment between 52,000 and 41,000 years old at a Neanderthal site called Abri du Maras, in France. Its nearest rival for the “oldest string ever” title is a fragment of fiber from a 19,000-year-old site in Israel.

When Kenyon College archaeologist Bruce Hardy and his colleagues looked at the thread under a microscope, the fibers turned out to be from bast: a fibrous layer of tissue just beneath the bark of a tree. These particular fibers had probably come from a conifer like pine, which would have been available nearby, according to pollen and charcoal traces from the site. An ancient craftsperson had twisted fibers together clockwise to make twisted bundles and then twisted three bundles together counterclockwise to make a 3-ply cord. The cord was about 0.5mm thick (lace weight, if you’re a modern knitter or crocheter).

46,000 years ago, the thread may have been wrapped around the end of the 60mm (2.4 inch) long stone tool as a grip, or it may have been part of a net or woven bag that held the tool. It may even have been completely unrelated—just a bit of domestic jetsam dropped on the same patch of cave floor where the stone flake later wound up.

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New Guinea villagers unearth evidence of the island’s Neolithic past

Handmade clay pottery.

Enlarge (credit: Ben Shaw)

When people in New Guinea started tending crops like yam and fruits around 8,000 years ago, they transformed nearly everything about life on the island. By around 5,000 years ago, people had begun settling in houses supported by wooden posts. The farmers developed new kinds of cutting tools, and they carved stone pestles to prepare yams, fruits, and nuts. They also wove brightly colored fabrics with dyed fibers, elaborate carved stone figures of birds, and traded across 800km of ocean for obsidian.

The details of daily life were uniquely New Guinea. But the big picture—more people, settled village life, new types of stone tools, and a sudden flourishing of symbolic art—might have been familiar to people from other early agricultural societies around the world. Together, those things are a bundle of cultural trends that archaeologists call Neolithic.

Until recently, archaeologists didn’t think New Guinea had developed its own Neolithic culture. Instead, many researchers thought all the trappings of Neolithic village life had arrived around 3,200 years ago with the Lapita, a group of seafaring farmers who came to the island from Southeast Asia. That’s because the few Neolithic artifacts that could be properly dated all seemed to come from after the Lapita arrived. But the people of the small highland village of Waim recently rewrote that narrative with a chance discovery during a local construction project.

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3,400-year-old Mesoamerican ball court sheds light on origins of the game

Ancient stylized image of ball game players.

Enlarge (credit: University of Oregon)

Millennia ago, a stone court would have hosted teams of players wearing belts and loincloths using their hips to knock a hard rubber ball toward goals at either end of the court. The ball game, which re-enacted a creation story recorded in the Maya religious text Popul Vuh, was a major part of political, religious, and social life for the Maya and the Aztec, and for the Olmec before them. But archaeologists don’t yet know much about where people first started playing the game or how it became a cultural phenomenon that spread across the area that now includes Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador.

Layers of ball courts

The ball court—a stone-floored alley about 50 meters (165 feet) long, bounded by steep stone walls and earthen mounds—once occupied a place of honor in the heart of the ancient city. But sometime between 1174 and 1102 BCE, the people of Etlatongo dismantled parts of the court and ritually “terminated” its life. That ceremony left burned bits of plant, mingled with broken Olmec-style pottery, animal bones, shells, and a few human bones (which may or may not have come from a later cemetery) scattered on the carved bedrock floor of the court and atop the earthen mounds that ran the length of its sides.

But beneath that 12th century BCE ball court lay another, even older one, dating to 1374 BCE. That’s roughly when (as far as archaeologists can tell from the available evidence) the formal version of the game—the one played on elaborate stone courts for crowds of wealthy, high-ranking spectators in major urban centers—was still being developed. Archaeologists Jeffrey Blomster and Victor Salazar were surprised to find a ball court so old in the mountainous highlands of Mexico instead of the Olmec-dominated tropical lowlands, where archaeologists have assumed the game got started.

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People built bone circles at the edge of ice sheets, and we don’t know why

People built bone circles at the edge of ice sheets, and we don’t know why

Enlarge (credit: Alexander Pryor)

As the last Ice Age tightened its hold on Europe, a group of people living near the Don River piled dozens of mammoth bones into a 12.5m (30ft) wide circle. They may have lived in the shelter of the mammoth bones for a while, huddling around fragrant fires of conifer wood and mammoth bone and making stone tools. But the traces they left are so light that it seems they didn’t stay long—or maybe they only visited occasionally.

A truly mammoth structure

Archaeologists found the bone circle in 2015. It’s one of about 70 mammoth-bone circles scattered around eastern Europe and western Russia, and it’s one of three within a few hundred square meters of each other near the modern village of Kostenki, about 500km (310 miles) south of Moscow. Excavations unearthed the first bone circle at Kostenki during the 1960s. A second structure nearby now lies buried under construction on private land. The third bone circle at Kostenki, discovered in 2015, is the largest and the oldest structure of the sort ever found.

Fragments of charcoal from inside the circle, along with samples of mammoth bone and ivory, radiocarbon-dated to around 20,000 years ago, during the coldest stage of the Last Glacial Maximum. Ice sheets several kilometers thick stretched southward across most of northern and western Europe. But people somehow made a living on the cold, inhospitable steppes just southeast of the glaciers. They also built huge circles out of mammoth bones—archaeologists just aren’t sure why.

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