Sex with Neanderthals was common for early Eurasian Homo sapiens, DNA says

Sex with Neanderthals was common for early Eurasian Homo sapiens, DNA says

Enlarge (credit: Hajdinjak et al. 2020)

DNA from the earliest Homo sapiens in Europe adds more detail to the story of our species’ expansion into Eurasia—and our complicated 5,000-year relationship with Neanderthals.

The earliest traces of our species in Eurasia are a lower molar and a few fragments of bone from Bacho Kiro Cave in Bulgaria, dating to between 46,000 and 42,000 years old. A recent paper describes DNA from those fossils, as well as a 42,000- to 37,000-year-old jawbone from the Oase site in Romania. The results suggest that the early waves of Homo sapiens in Eurasia included several genetically distinct groups, only some of which eventually passed their genes on to modern people. Most of those early Eurasians mingled with Neanderthals fairly often.

Paleolithic and ready to mingle

Neanderthals had lived in Europe and Asia for at least 350,000 years (and had a complicated population history of their own) when the first groups of Homo sapiens expanded northward from eastern Africa and the Levant. Today, many populations of modern humans still carry tiny fragments of Neanderthal DNA in our genomes as souvenirs from the mingling of two hominin species 45,000 years ago. But we still don’t know much about how often Neanderthals and Homo sapiens got together during the few millennia when they shared a continent.

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#ancient-dna, #ancient-hominins, #anthropology, #archaeology, #hominins, #human-evolution, #human-migration, #neanderthals, #paleogenomics, #science


DNA analysis solves curious case of the stillborn fetus in the bishop’s coffin

X-ray image of the mysterious fetus found in the coffin of the 17th-century Swedish Bishop Peder Winstrup.

Enlarge / X-ray image of the mysterious fetus found in the coffin of the 17th-century Swedish Bishop Peder Winstrup. (credit: Gunnar Menander)

When Swedish archaeologists in 2015 X-rayed the remains of a 17th-century bishop, they were shocked when the images revealed that the bishop shared his coffin with the remains of a stillborn premature baby. Now, ancient DNA analysis has revealed that the fetus was likely the bishop’s grandson, according to a new paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

Born in Copenhagen in 1605, Bishop Peder Winstrup was a prominent church figure in Denmark and Sweden during his lifetime, who helped found Lund University in 1666 while deftly navigating the constantly shifting political environment. (He was ennobled by the Swedish king, Charles X Gustav, when his diocese passed from Danish hands in 1658.) Winstrup died in late December 1679 and was buried in Lund Cathedral in January 1680. When his coffin was opened in the early 19th and 20th centuries, the body was remarkably well-preserved.

So when the curators of the Lund University Historical Museum heard, in 2012, that the bishop’s coffin would be moved to a new burial site outside the cathedral, they joined with scientists in a multidisciplinary collaboration to study the bishop’s remains before they were reinterred. The body was X-rayed and CT-scanned, along with the bishop’s clothing, various artifacts, and plant and insect remains.

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#adna, #ancient-dna, #archaeogenetics, #archaeology, #biology, #gaming-culture, #history, #osteology, #science


105,000 years ago in the Kalahari Desert, people invented complex culture

105,000 years ago in the Kalahari Desert, people invented complex culture


Between 125,000 and 70,000 years ago, people began to do some very modern things: collecting small objects for no practical reason, decorating things with pigments, and storing water and possibly even food in containers. The oldest known sites with evidence of those behaviors are along the coastline of southern Africa. Today, most of those important sites are right on the coast, but even during the Pleistocene, when sea levels were lower, they would have been close enough for the people who lived there to make use of marine resources.

And according to one idea in paleoanthropology, something about that way of life enabled those early people—or maybe pushed them—to innovate. Their distant neighbors who lived far from the sea supposedly lagged behind the cultural times. But Griffith University archaeologist Jayne Wilkins and her colleagues recently unearthed evidence that landlocked people were just as hip and modern as their counterparts on the coast.

Score one for flyover country

At Ga-Mohana Hill North Rockshelter, there’s a layer of sediment dating back to 105,000 years ago and scattered with stone tools. In it, Wilkins and her colleagues found a large chunk of red ocher, worn flat and striated on two sides, as if it had been used as pigment. The rock shelter also held a cache of translucent white calcite crystals, which hadn’t been worked or used as tools; it looked as if someone had gathered up the crystals simply for the sake of having them, or maybe as a ritual offering. Several broken, burned pieces of ostrich eggshell, buried in the same layer, may once have held stores of water.

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#ancient-africa, #ancient-people, #archaeology, #human-behavior, #human-evolution, #ostrich-eggshells, #paleoarchaeology, #pleistocene, #science, #shiny-rocks, #south-africa


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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#ancient-central-america, #ancient-people-did-stuff, #ancient-south-america, #archaeology, #atacama-desert, #biological-archaeology, #indigenous-communities, #indigenous-south-america, #parrots, #pre-columbian-civilizations, #science, #zooarchaeology


Iron Age warriors were laid to rest on fluffy down pillows

Close-up photos of two feathers (top) and microscopic images of their structure (bottom)

Enlarge / Rosvland used modern down feathers like these for comparison when he identified the species that contributed to the ancient pillow stuffing. (credit: Berglund and Rosvald 2021)

Archaeologists have found the remains of downy pillows in the graves of two high-ranking Iron Age warriors in Sweden, dating to the 600s and 700s CE. Both warriors were buried in large boats, along with weapons, food, and horses. Down from the pillows suggests locally sourced stuffing that may have had a symbolic meaning to the people preparing the burial.

The softer side of the Iron Age

When you think of Iron Age warriors, you think of—well, you think of iron, both literal and metaphorical. And the high-ranking warriors buried in two separate boat graves at Valsgärde probably had plenty of both. Inside each 10-meter-long oarship, the deceased lay surrounded by tools for hunting and weapons for battle. Each man once wore an elaborately decorated helmet. Three shields had been laid out to cover one corpse, and the other had two shields laid across his legs.

But even the ancestors of the Vikings had a softer side. Archaeologists found brittle, tangled clumps of down beneath the shields that once covered the two warriors’ remains, and tattered bits of fabric lay above and below the feathers. The fragments were all that remained of pillows and bolsters (long cushions which lay under the pillows to prop them up) stuffed with down—the fluffy, soft, fine inner layer of feathers that helps keeps birds warm.

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#ancient-europe, #archaeology, #boat-burials, #grave-goods, #iron-age, #science, #ship-graves, #vikings


A Maya ambassador’s grave reveals his surprisingly difficult life

An incredibly old and worn clay pot.

Enlarge / This painted vessel, which depicts a bird, is one of two found in the ambassador’s grave. (credit: Cambridge University Press)

The bones of a Maya ambassador suggest a life of privilege but not necessarily comfort and ease, even though he was a high-ranking official born into a powerful family. His skeleton also finishes the story started in the hieroglyphic inscriptions on his tomb, revealing his greatest achievement and his fall from power after political winds shifted.

Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair

In late 726 CE, diplomat Apoch’Waal’s fortunes were on the rise. He had inherited his father’s position as a lakam, or standard-bearer: a diplomatic emissary for the King of Calakmul. As a sign of his office, Apoch’Waal carried a banner on a pole while he walked hundreds of miles to broker alliances between the most powerful dynasties in the Maya world. When he spoke or smiled, the jade and pyrite inlays in his front teeth also revealed his high status.

That summer, Apoch’Waal took up his banner and set out on a 560-kilometer trek to Copán, in modern-day Honduras, to forge ties between the king of Copán and his own king. The successful alliance between kings was a high point in Apoch’Waal’s career, and he commemorated it a few months later by building a small ceremonial platform and temple for himself in his hometown of El Palmar, near Calakmul.

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#ancient-central-america, #archaeology, #biological-anthropology, #biological-archaeology, #forensic-anthropology, #grave-goods, #maya, #pre-columbian-civilizations, #science, #skeletons


Scientists solve another piece of the puzzling Antikythera mechanism

"Exploded" view of the new computer model of the Antikythera mechanism, showing how it might have worked.

Enlarge / “Exploded” view of the new computer model of the Antikythera mechanism, showing how it might have worked. (credit: Tony Freeth)

Scientists have long struggled to solve the puzzle of the gearing system on the front of the so-called Antikythera mechanism—a fragmentary ancient Greek astronomical calculator, perhaps the earliest example of a geared device. Now, an interdisciplinary team at University College London (UCL) has come up with a computational model that reveals a dazzling display of the ancient Greek cosmos, according to a new paper published in the journal Scientific Reports. The team is currently building a replica mechanism, moving gears and all, using modern machinery. You can watch an extensive 11-minute video about the project here (embedding currently disabled).

“Ours is the first model that conforms to all the physical evidence and matches the descriptions in the scientific inscriptions engraved on the mechanism itself,” said lead author Tony Freeth, a mechanical engineer at UCL. “The Sun, Moon, and planets are displayed in an impressive tour de force of ancient Greek brilliance.”

“We believe that our reconstruction fits all the evidence that scientists have gleaned from the extant remains to date,” co-author Adam Wojcik, a materials scientist at UCL, told the Guardian.

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#antikythera-mechanism, #archaeology, #astronomy, #gaming-culture, #history, #physics, #science


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

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


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


Egyptologists translate the oldest-known mummification manual

Battered ancient text against a white background.

Enlarge (credit: University of Copenhagen)

Egyptologists have recently translated the oldest-known mummification manual. Translating it required solving a literal puzzle; the medical text that includes the manual is currently in pieces, with half of what remains in the Louvre Museum in France and half at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. A few sections are completely missing, but what’s left is a treatise on medicinal herbs and skin diseases, especially the ones that cause swelling. Surprisingly, one section of that text includes a short manual on embalming.

For the text’s ancient audience, that combination might have made sense. The manual includes recipes for resins and unguents used to dry and preserve the body after death, along with explanations for how and when to use bandages of different shapes and materials. Those recipes probably used some of the same ingredients as ointments for living skin, because plants with antimicrobial compounds would have been useful for preventing both infection and decay.

New Kingdom embalming: More complicated than it used to be

The Papyrus Louvre-Carlsberg, as the ancient medical text is now called, is the oldest mummification manual known so far, and it’s one of just three that Egyptologists have ever found. Based on the style of the characters used to write the text, it probably dates to about 1450 BCE, which makes it more than 1,000 years older the other two known mummification texts. But the embalming compounds it describes are remarkably similar to the ones embalmers used 2,000 years earlier in pre-Dynastic Egypt: a mixture of plant oil, an aromatic plant extract, a gum or sugar, and heated conifer resin.

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#ancient-egypt, #archaeology, #egyptology, #embalming, #mummies, #mummification, #papyrus, #science


Archaeologists discover “Lamborghini” of chariots near ruins of Pompeii

A four-wheeled ceremonial chariot discovered by archaeologists near the ancient Roman city of Pompeii.

Enlarge / A four-wheeled ceremonial chariot discovered by archaeologists near the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. (credit: Archaeological Park of Pompeii)

Archaeologists in Italy have unearthed an elaborately decorated, intact four-wheeled ceremonial chariot near the ruins of the Roman city of Pompeii, famously destroyed when Mt. Vesuvius catastrophically erupted in 79 AD, BBC News reports. The archaeologists believe the chariot was likely used in festivities and parades—possibly even for wedding rituals like transporting the bride to her new home, given the erotic nature of some of the decorative motifs.

The find is extraordinary both for its remarkable preservation and because it is a relatively rare object. “I was astounded,” Eric Poehler, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who is an expert on traffic in Pompeii, told NPR. “Many of the vehicles [previously discovered] are your standard station wagon or vehicle for taking the kids to soccer. This is a Lamborghini. This is an outright fancy, fancy car. This is precisely the kind of find that one wants to find at Pompeii, the really well-articulated, very well-preserved moments in time.”

Other archaeologists weighed in on Twitter. “My jaw is on the floor just now!” tweeted Jane Draycott of the University of Glasgow. “Still wrapping my head around the latest incredible discovery,” Sophie Hay of the University of Cambridge tweeted in an extensive thread about the surprising find. “The details are extraordinary.”

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#archaeology, #history, #pompeii, #science


Egyptian royal mummy shows pharaoh wasn’t assassinated—he was executed

Egyptian royal mummy shows pharaoh wasn’t assassinated—he was executed

Enlarge (credit: Saleem and Hawass 2021)

CT scans of a mummified Egyptian pharaoh, once suspected to be the victim of a palace assassination, suggest that he was actually executed after being captured in battle in the mid-16th century BCE.

Pharaoh Seqenenre led his army from Upper Egypt in the 1550s BCE to face the Hyksos, a group of warriors from the Levant who occupied Lower Egypt and demanded tribute from Upper Egypt during what historians call the Second Intermediate Period. It’s known that Seqenenre died during this conflict, but it’s been unclear whether he was assassinated in his bed in the palace at Thebes or died on the battlefield.

A computed tomography (CT) scan offered a look at his wounds, along with the details of his mummification. Radiologist Sahar Saleem of Cairo University and former Egyptian Minister of Antiquities Zahi Hawass concluded that he most likely died near the front lines and was brought back to Thebes for mummification and burial.

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#ancient-egypt, #anthropology, #archaeology, #biological-anthropology, #egypt, #egyptology, #forensic-anthropology, #forensics, #hyksos, #mummies, #mummy, #science


Neanderthals used stone tool tech once considered exclusive to Homo sapiens

Neanderthals used stone tool tech once considered exclusive to Homo sapiens

Enlarge (credit: Blinkhorn et al. 2021)

The entangled history of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals in the Levant (the area around the eastern end of the Mediterranean) just got even more complicated. Paleoanthropologists recently identified a tooth from Shukbah Cave, 28km (17.5 miles) northwest of Jerusalem, as a Neanderthal molar. That makes Shukbah the southernmost trace of Neanderthals ever found, and it also links our extinct cousins to a stone tool technology previously considered an exclusive trademark of Homo sapiens.

The Levant was one of the first areas hominins reached when they began to expand beyond Africa, and the archaeological record suggests that early expansion happened in a series of waves. At some sites, layers of artifacts show that members of our species lived there for a while before being replaced by Neanderthals, and vice versa. It was a geographical crossroads, and like all such places, its story is dynamic and complex—and it can be hard to piece together from the bits of bone and stone left behind.

Often, stone tools are archaeologists’ best clue about who lived at a site and when. There are many ways to shape a piece of flint into something useful like a scraper or a hand ax, and archaeologists recognize different cultures based on subtle differences in those methods and the shape of the resulting tools. One approach to toolmaking, which produces distinctive stone points, is called Nubian Levallois. It’s one of several variations on a general theme of chipping flakes off a prepared stone core to produce a tool. Another variation on that theme is Mousterian technology, which is usually found at Neanderthal sites in western Europe. Nubian Levallois tools tend to turn up at sites from southern Africa to northeastern Africa.

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#ancient-hominins, #anthropology, #archaeology, #early-humans, #hominins, #human-migration, #levallois, #neanderthals, #out-of-africa, #paleoanthropology, #science, #stone-tools


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


Oldest DNA from poop contains a Neanderthal’s microbiome

El Salt is an open-air rock shelter nestled against the base of a limestone cliff. Archaeological evidence tells us that Neanderthals lived here from around 60,700 to 45,200 years ago.

Enlarge / El Salt is an open-air rock shelter nestled against the base of a limestone cliff. Archaeological evidence tells us that Neanderthals lived here from around 60,700 to 45,200 years ago. (credit: Candela et al. 2021)

Biologist Marco Candela and his colleagues recently sequenced ancient microbial DNA from 50,000-year-old Neanderthal feces found at the El Salt archaeological site in Spain. The sequences included DNA from several of the microbes that still call our intestines home, as well as a few that have nearly vanished from today’s urban dwellers. According to Candela and his colleagues, their results suggest that the microscopic population of our guts may have been with us since at least 500,000 years ago, in the era of our species’ last common ancestor with Neanderthals.

Digging up Neanderthal poop

Mixed in with the layer of sediment that once formed the floor of a Neanderthal rock shelter in eastern Spain, archaeologists found millimeter-sized coprolites (fossil poop) and chemical signatures of human feces. An earlier study, published in 2014, sifted through the tiny coprolites to look for traces of Neanderthal diets. “These samples therefore represent, to our knowledge, the oldest known positive identification of human fecal matter,” wrote Candela and his colleagues.

They recently returned to El Salt for new samples, which they scoured for fragments of ancient DNA from the bacteria and other microbes that once lived in the intestines of Neanderthals. To weed out possible contamination, Candela and his colleagues sorted out the old, obviously degraded ancient DNA from the more pristine modern sequences. Most of the ancient DNA in the sediments came from bacteria that lived in the soil and water—tiny relics of the Pleistocene environment. But the rest included some familiar companions.

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#ancient-dna, #archaeology, #fecal-stanols, #gut-microbes, #human-microbiome, #metagenomics, #neanderthals, #paleoanthropology, #science


Review: The Dig brings a famous archaeological find to vivid life

Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes star in the new Netflix film The Dig.

Just before the outbreak of World War II, a widow and a local archaeologist team up to excavate large burial mounds in Suffolk, England, and discover priceless treasure, in the new Netflix film, The Dig.  It’s based on the 2007 novel of the same name by John Preston, and brings to vivid life the famous 1939 excavation at Sutton Hoo. It’s a quiet, thoughtful film with gorgeous cinematography and fine performances from the cast, although ultimately it feels rather lacking in depth and emotional heft.

(Some spoilers below.)

Sutton Hoo is the site of two early medieval cemeteries, incorporating a group of 20 or so earthen mounds. In 1937, a British widow named Edith Pretty inherited the land from her late husband, and hired a local archaeologist named Basil Brown to excavate the mounds, paying him 30 shillings a week. She was particularly interested in Mound 1. But after conferring with colleagues at the Ipswich Museum, Brown opted to excavate three smaller mounds (designated 2, 3, and 4) first, over the summer of 1938.

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#archaeology, #entertainment, #film, #gaming-culture, #netflix, #science, #sutton-hoo, #the-dig


Lost Alaskan Indigenous fort rediscovered after 200 years

Color illustration of a log fort with buildings inside its walls

Enlarge / This interpretive sign at the presumed “fort clearing” includes a reconstruction of what the fort probably looked like in 1804. (credit: National Park Service)

In 1804, Tlingit warriors sheltered behind the walls of a wooden fort on a peninsula in southeastern Alaska, preparing to repel a Russian amphibious assault. An archaeological survey near the modern community of Sitka recently revealed the hidden outline of the now-legendary fort, whose exact location had been lost to history since shortly after the battle.

The coolest battle you never heard of

The Tlingit had already sent Russia packing once, in 1802, after three years of mounting tensions over the Russian-American Trading Company (a venture akin to the better-known British East India Company), which had a presence on what’s now called Baranof Island. Because the Tlingit elders—especially a shaman named Stoonook—suspected that the Russian troops would soon be back in greater numbers, they organized construction of a fort at the mouth of the Kaasdaheen River to help defend the area against assault from the sea.

By 1804, the Tlingit had procured firearms, shot, gunpowder, and even cannons from American and British traders. They had also built a trapezoid-shaped palisade, 75 meters long and 30 meters wide, out of young spruce logs, which sheltered more than a dozen log buildings. The Tlingit dubbed it Shis’gi Noow—the Sapling Fort.

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#archaeological-remote-sensing, #archaeology, #battlefield-archaeology, #ground-penetrating-radar, #indigenous-communities, #indigenous-north-america, #native-americans, #naval-history, #science, #tlingit


Ancient embalmers used mud to hold a damaged mummy together

Color photo of painted coffin (top) and linen-wrapped mummy (bottom).

Enlarge / Sir Charles Nicholson donated the mummified person and the coffin to the University of Sydney in 1860, apparently having realized that an entire dead body is a pretty horrific travel souvenir. (credit: Sowada et al, PLOS ONE (CC BY 4.0

Approximately 3,200 years ago in Egypt, ancient embalmers encased a mummy in dried mud to repair the damage done by careless tomb robbers. Archaeologists recently used a CT scanner to unravel part of the dead person’s story. The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, revealed an unknown mummification technique, along with a strange tale of grave robbing, family devotion, and mistaken identity.

The person, now known only as NMR.27.3, died relatively young. The name of the deceased is lost to history, and their gender is debatable (more on that later). After death, grave robbers broke into their tomb at least twice, and now archaeologists have pieced together some fragments of the story—mostly the postmortem chapters.

What is left behind is a rare glimpse of life and death in ancient Egypt. The anonymous mummified person reveals that even years after death, living relatives still cared enough about the deceased to actually have the corpse repaired (sort of) after grave robbers damaged it. And to repair the mummy, ancient embalmers plastered mud over the linen wrappings to help the body hold its shape, a technique that modern archaeologists have never seen before.

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#ancient-egypt, #archaeology, #egyptology, #embalming, #funeral-practices, #human-remains, #mummies, #new-kingdom, #science


Egyptian archaeologists unearth dozens of tombs at Saqqara necropolis

Color photo of fragments of papyrus laid out on a table

Enlarge / Copies of the Book of the Dead, or excerpts from it, were often included in burials so the deceased would have a guide to the afterlife. (credit: Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities)

Archaeologists in Egypt are preparing to open a 3,000-year-old burial shaft at the Saqqara necropolis, south of Cairo, in the coming week.

The unexplored tomb is one of 52 burial shafts clustered near the much older pyramid of the Pharaoh Teti. Workers at the site found the entrance to the latest shaft earlier this week as they were preparing to announce a slew of other finds at the site, including the tombs of military leaders and high-ranking courtiers, a copy of the Book of the Dead, and ancient board games. Also among the discoveries is the name of the owner of an elaborate mortuary temple near Teti’s pyramid: Narat or Naert, the pharaoh’s queen.

“I’d never heard of this queen before. Therefore we add an important piece of Egyptian history about this queen,” archaeologist and former Egyptian Minister of Antiquities Zahi Hawass told CBS News. Archaeologists first unearthed the stone temple in 2010, but it wasn’t clear who the grand structure had been built for. At mortuary temples like this one, priests and supplicants could make offerings to the dead queen to keep her comfortable in the afterlife—and ask her to help them out in this world.

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#ancient-egypt, #archaeology, #book-of-the-dead, #burials, #egypt, #egyptology, #mummies, #new-kingdom, #old-kingdom, #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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#ancient-asia, #ancient-people-did-stuff, #archaeology, #cave-art, #cave-paintings, #human-migration, #indonesia, #pleistocene, #rock-art, #science, #sulawesi, #uranium-series-dating


Mexico City’s “tower of skulls” is architecture, history, and people

Mexico City’s “tower of skulls” is architecture, history, and people

Last month, archaeologists in Mexico City unearthed the eastern façade of a tower of skulls near the 700-year-old site of the Templo Mayor, the main temple in the former Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan. It’s a morbidly sensational find, but it’s also a potential treasure trove of information about the people who died at Tenochtitlan in the city’s final centuries. Here’s what the skulls in the tower could tell us if we ask them—and why we’d have to ask very carefully.

Archaeologists found 119 skulls built into the structure, a morbid addition to the 484 skulls found on the northeast side of the tower, which archaeologists rediscovered in 2015. Since 2015, excavations have reached 3.5 meters below modern street level, into the layers of ground once trod by Aztec priests, onlookers, and sacrificial victims. From those excavations, we now know that the 4.7 meter (15.4ft) tall tower was built in at least three phases, starting in the 15th century.

The nearby Templo Mayor once housed important shrines to the war god Huitzilopochtli and the rain and farming god Tlaloc. Many of the victims sacrificed to the two gods probably ended up as building blocks for the tower, properly known as the Huei Tzompantli, nearby. A tzompantli is a wooden scaffold for displaying skulls (exactly as the name suggests if you happen to speak Nahuatl; the word means something along the lines of “skull rack” or “wall of skulls”). The temple district of Tenochtitlan once boasted at least seven of them.

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#ancient-central-america, #anthropology, #archaeology, #aztec, #conquistadors, #human-sacrifice, #indigenous-communities, #mesoamerica, #pre-columbian-civilizations, #science, #skulls, #templo-mayor, #tenochtitlan


This is how hominins adapted to a changing world 2 million years ago

The versatility that helped humans take over the world emerged very early in our evolutionary history, according to sediments and stone tools from Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania.

Olduvai has provided some of the oldest known tools and fossils from our genus, Homo. A recent study lines that evidence up with environmental clues buried in the sediment. The results suggest that our early relatives were equipped to adapt to new environments by around 2 million years ago.

That seems to have been a key ability that allowed our relatives to go global. By 1.7 million years ago, an early human relative called Homo erectus had spread beyond Africa and throughout most of Asia, as far as Indonesia. They had reached western Europe by 1.2 million years ago. Along their travels, the hominins encountered environments very different from the ones their ancestors had evolved in, like the tropical forests of Indonesia and the arid steppes of central Asia.

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#ancient-hominins, #archaeology, #hominin-evolution, #hominins, #homo-erectus, #homo-habilis, #human-ancestors, #human-evolution, #olduvai-gorge, #paleoanthropology, #paleoarchaeology, #science, #stone-tools


Archaeology is going digital to harness the power of Big Data

Archaeology is catching up with the digital humanities movement with the creation of large online databases, combining data collected from satellite-, airborne-, and UAV-mounted sensors with historical information.

Enlarge / Archaeology is catching up with the digital humanities movement with the creation of large online databases, combining data collected from satellite-, airborne-, and UAV-mounted sensors with historical information. (credit: Brown University)

There’s rarely time to write about every cool science-y story that comes our way. So this year, we’re once again running a special Twelve Days of Christmas series of posts, highlighting one science story that fell through the cracks in 2020, each day from December 25 through January 5. Today: archaeologists are using drones and satellite imagery, among other tools, to build large online datasets with an eye toward harnessing the power of big data for their research.

Archaeology is finally catching up with the so-called “digital humanities,” as evidenced by a February special edition of the Journal of Field Archaeology, devoted entirely to discussing the myriad ways in which large-scale datasets and associated analytics are transforming the field. The papers included in the edition were originally presented during a special session at a 2019 meeting of the Society for American Archaeology. The data sets might be a bit smaller than those normally associated with Big Data, but this new “digital data gaze” is nonetheless having a profound impact on archaeological research.

As we’ve reported previously, more and more archives are being digitized within the humanities, and scholars have been applying various analytical tools to those rich datasets, such as Google N-gram, Bookworm, and WordNet. Close reading of selected sources—the traditional method of the scholars in the humanities—gives a deep but narrow view. Quantitative computational analysis can combine that close reading with a broader, more generalized bird’s-eye approach that can reveal hidden patterns or trends that otherwise might have escaped notice. The nature of the data archives and digital tools are a bit different in archaeology, but the concept is the same: combine the traditional “pick and trowel” detailed field work on the ground with more of a sweeping, big-picture, birds-eye view, in hopes of gleaning hidden insights.

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#12-days-of-christmas, #archaeology, #big-data, #digital-archaeology, #digital-humanities, #gaming-culture, #incan-empire, #science


Did Columbus find early Caribs in 15th century Caribbean? Jury is still out

Earlier this year, researchers analyzed the skulls of early Caribbean inhabitants, using 3D facial "landmarks" as a genetic proxy for determining how closely people groups were related to one another. A follow-up study this month added ancient DNA analysis into the mix, with conflicting results.

Enlarge / Earlier this year, researchers analyzed the skulls of early Caribbean inhabitants, using 3D facial “landmarks” as a genetic proxy for determining how closely people groups were related to one another. A follow-up study this month added ancient DNA analysis into the mix, with conflicting results. (credit: Ann Ross/North Carolina State University)

There’s rarely time to write about every cool science-y story that comes our way. So this year, we’re once again running a special Twelve Days of Christmas series of posts, highlighting one science story that fell through the cracks in 2020, each day from December 25 through January 5. Today: how facial characteristic analysis and DNA analysis, combined with archaeological work, are helping shed light on the history of the Caribbean’s original islanders.

In his accounts of encounters with the inhabitants of the Caribbean Islands in the 15th century, Christopher Columbus made several allusions to Carib raids upon peaceful Arawak villages, including sensational claims of the invaders eating the men and taking the women as wives. “I saw some who had marks of wounds on their bodies and I made signs to them asking what they were,” Columbus wrote in one account from his first voyage, upon arriving on the Bahamian island of Guanahani. “They showed me how people from other islands nearby came there and tried to take them, and how they defended themselves; and I believed and believe that they come Tierra Firme to take them captive.”

Most archaeologists have long dismissed these accounts as myths, but new scientific tools are helping shed light on the truth of the Caribbean’s original islanders. And the conflicting results of two separate studies, published 11 months apart, are raising fresh questions. The results of an analysis of facial characteristics from ancient human skulls from the region seemed to indicate Columbus’ account was accurate, according to a January paper published in Scientific Reports. But a follow-up paper published last week in Nature yields a different picture with its combination of genetic analysis with decades of archaeological research.

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#anthropology, #archaeology, #cannibalism, #christopher-columbus, #history-of-science, #science


Study sheds new light on polar explorer’s final hours, 100+ years later

Danish explorer Jørgen Brønlund's petroleum burner was found in 1973. Brønlund and two compatriots died in 1907 during an expedition to Greenland.

Enlarge / Danish explorer Jørgen Brønlund’s petroleum burner was found in 1973. Brønlund and two compatriots died in 1907 during an expedition to Greenland. (credit: Jørn Ladegaard)

Over 100 years ago, a Danish explorer named Jørgen Brønlund perished during an expedition to northeast Greenland, along with two members of his expedition. He left behind a diary detailing his last moments, with a black spot underneath his final signature. Scientists have now analyzed that spot using a variety of techniques to determine its composition, thereby shedding fresh light on Brønlund’s final hours, according to a November paper published in the journal Archaeometry.

Northeast Greenland is still one of the most hostile regions of the Arctic, with only the Sirius Patrol of the Danish Army occasionally crossing the frozen expanse on dog sledges during the coldest part of the year. Back in 1906, when the Denmark Expedition launched, many parts of the region had not yet been mapped; that was a primary objective of the expedition, along with various scientific studies. (Alfred Wegener was among the scientists in the expedition.)

The expedition sailed to Greenland on board the SS Danmark, landing in August 1906 and establishing a base camp (depot) called Danmarkshavn. Members were assigned to sledge teams to head northward. Jørgen Brønlund was part of Sledge Team 1, along with expedition commander Ludvig Mylius-Erichsen and Niels Peter Høeg Hagen. A significant part of their mission was to discover whether the so-called Peary Land (discovered by Robert Peary in 1891) was a peninsula—in which case it would remain part of the Danish Kingdom—or an island, in which case the US would claim it as a US territory.

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#12-days-of-christmas, #archaeology, #chemistry, #denmark-expedition, #physics, #polar-exploration, #science, #spectroscopy


Archaeologists excavate ancient Roman takeout counter at Pompeii

Archaeologists excavate ancient Roman takeout counter at Pompeii

Enlarge (credit: Pompeii Archaeological Park/Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism/Luigi Spina/Handout via REUTERS)

A recently-unearthed termopolium, or “hot drinks counter” served up ancient Roman street food—and plenty of wine—to the people of northeast Pompeii in the days before Mount Vesuvius destroyed the city in a cataclysmic 79 CE eruption. Painted bright yellow and decorated with detailed frescoes, the counter would have been a quick stop for hot, ready-made food and drinks. And the small shop still holds the remains of its proprietor and perhaps one of its last customers.

Archaeologists found the bones of at least two people in the termopolium. It’s difficult to say much about who they were or what they were doing when they died, because looters in the 1600s shoved the skeletons haphazardly out of their way, leaving one scattered around the room and parts of the other stuffed into a large dolium, or serving jar. The scattered set of bones mostly belonged to someone at least 50 years old, who may have been laying in bed when the pyroclastic flow swept through town. Space in the shop is set aside for storing a bed, and archaeologists found nails and wood residue under the scattered remains.

Ancient fast food

The termopolium is a surprisingly modern setup—or maybe it’s more accurate to say that modern quick-serve restaurants are based on a surprisingly ancient model. Food was displayed in deep terracotta jars called dolia, set into holes in the top of the counter, just like plastic or metal tubs set into the counter hold ingredients at Subway or Chipotle today. Presumably the jars could be removed and stored at the end of the day. Archaeologists also found ceramic cooking jars, flasks and amphorae for storing wine, and a bronze drinking bowl.

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#ancient-rome, #archaeology, #archaeology-of-food, #pompeii, #roman-archaeology, #science, #vesuvius


Divers recover a WWII Code Machine from the Baltic Sea

A deep-sea diver examines a heavily encrusted piece of machinery on the seabed.

Enlarge (credit: Reuters/Christian Howe)

When Nazi naval officers tossed their ship’s Enigma encryption machine overboard, they probably thought they were putting the device beyond anyone’s reach. Blissfully unaware that Allied cryptanalysts in Poland and at Bletchley Park in the UK had broken the Enigma code, the Nazis had standing orders to destroy their encryption devices to keep them out of Allied hands. Eighty years later, divers found the once-secret device tangled in an abandoned fishing net on the seafloor, and now it’s set to be put on display for everyone to see. LOL, Nazis pwned.

Research diver Florian Huber and his colleagues were trying to clear abandoned fishing nets from the Bay of Gelting, on the Baltic Sea near the German-Danish border, when they found the artifact. Derelict nets and other discarded fishing gear can still entangle fish, sea turtles, diving birds, and marine mammals like seals and dolphins. The World Wildlife Fund had hired the divers to clear them in November 2020.

“A colleague swam up and said ‘There’s a net there with an old typewriter in it,” Huber told the DPA news agency.

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#archaeology, #bletchley-park, #codebreaking, #cryptanalysis, #cryptography, #enigma, #enigma-machine, #science, #world-war-2


Lead-based inks likely used as a drying agent on ancient Egyptian papyri

Detail of a medical treatise from the Tebtunis Temple Library with headings marked in red ink.

Enlarge / Detail of a medical treatise from the Tebtunis Temple Library with headings marked in red ink. (credit: The Papyrus Carlsberg Collection)

An international team of scientists used high-energy X-rays to analyze 12 fragments from ancient Egyptian papyri and found lead compounds in both red and black inks used. According to their recent paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, this is evidence that these compounds were added not for pigmentation but for their fast-drying properties, to prevent the ink from smearing as people wrote. Painters in 15th century Europe used a similar technique when developing oil paints, but this study suggests ancient Egyptians discovered it 1,400 years earlier. So the practice may have been much more widespread than previously assumed.

“Our analyses of the inks on the papyri fragments from the unique Tebtunis temple library revealed previously unknown compositions of red and black inks, particularly iron-based and lead-based compounds,” said co-author Thomas Christiansen, an Egyptologist from the University of Copenhagen.

As I’ve written previously, synchrotron radiation is a thin beam of very high-intensity X-rays generated within a particle accelerator. Electrons are fired into a linear accelerator to boost their speeds and then injected into a storage ring. They zoom through the ring at near-light speed, as a series of magnets bend and focus the electrons. In the process, they give off X-rays, which can then be focused down beamlines. This is useful for analyzing structure because in general, the shorter the wavelength used (and the higher the energy of the light), the finer the details one can image and/or analyze.

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#ancient-egypt, #archaeology, #history, #papyrus, #physics, #science, #synchrotron-radiation


How many turkey feathers does it take to make an ancient blanket? 11,500

A fluffy gray blanket next to a coil of cord.

Enlarge / A segment of fiber cord that has been wrapped with turkey feathers, along with a single downy feather. (credit: Washington State University)

Indigenous Pueblo populations in the American Southwest—ancestors of today’s Hopi, Zuni, and Rio Grande Pueblo tribes—typically wove blankets, cloaks, and funeral wrappings out of animal hides, furs, and turkey feathers. Anthropologists at Washington State University (WSU) have examined one such ancient turkey-feather blanket and determined it took thousands of those feathers, wrapped around nearly 200 yards to yucca fiber, to make, according to a new paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

“Blankets or robes made with turkey feathers as the insulating medium were widely used by Ancestral Pueblo people in what is now the Upland Southwest, but little is known about how they were made because so few such textiles have survived due to their perishable nature,” said co-author Bill Lipe, emeritus professor of anthropology at WSU. “The goal of this study was to shed new light on the production of turkey feather blankets and explore the economic and cultural aspects of raising turkeys to supply the feathers.”

For their study, Lipe and his WSU colleague and co-author, Shannon Tushingham, studied a blanket framework on display at the Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum in Blanding, Utah. Although insects had devoured the original feather vanes and barbs, the shafts were still visible, wrapped around yucca fiber cords. They were also able to look at a second, smaller blanket which still had most of its feathers intact. Both blankets roughly date to the early 1200s CE.

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#anthropology, #archaeology, #science, #turkey-feathers


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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#ancient-north-america, #ancient-people-did-stuff, #archaeology, #cave-art, #cave-paintings, #chumash, #datura, #drugs, #hallucinogenics, #hallucinogens, #indigenous-communities, #indigenous-north-america, #rock-art, #science


Archaeologists find two more bodies among the ruins of Pompeii

Archaeologists find two more bodies among the ruins of Pompeii

Enlarge (credit: Reuters)

Archaeologists found the remains of two men lying in an underground room in a large villa on the outskirts of the Roman city of Pompeii, in southern Italy, Reuters reports. Based on the condition of their skeletons and clues from preserved traces of clothing, one man appears to have been a wealthy person in his 30s, while the other was likely a slave or laborer in his early 20s. They died together at the villa of Civita Giuliana, probably while trying to flee or seek better shelter from a dense, fast-moving cloud of superheated volcanic gas and ash.

The rich man and the slave

The find brings the total number of human remains at Pompeii and Herculaneum (a few kilometers west along the Bay of Naples) to more than 1,500. Historians estimate that around 12,000 people lived in Pompeii and another 12,000 lived on the rich farmland nearby, but we don’t know how many of those people died in the eruption or its aftermath.

And we know a surprising amount about those 1,500 people, because the thick layer of volcanic ash that entombed them also preserved the details of their final moments, along with hints about the lives that led up to those moments. Like many of the other remains at Pompeii, the two men in the villa lay in soft volcanic ash, which hardened around them and preserved the shape of their bodies long after their soft tissues had decayed. By making plaster casts of those impressions, archaeologists could see details like facial expressions and even the folds and pleats of clothing.

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#ancient-europe, #archaeology, #pompeii, #roman, #roman-archaeology, #rome, #science, #vesuvius, #volcanic-eruptions, #volcano


This farmer’s field was once a powerful stronghold in Iron Age Norway

In June, archaeologists began unearthing a Viking ship from a farmer’s field in eastern Norway. The 1,000- to 1,200-year-old ship was probably the grave of a local king or jarl, and it once lay beneath a monumental burial mound. A 2018 ground-penetrating radar survey of a site called Gjellestad, on the fertile coastal plain of Vikiletta, revealed the buried ship.

The Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research, or NIKU, announced the ship find in 2018, and it announced earlier in 2020 that excavations would begin over the summer to save the vessel from wood-eating fungus. NIKU archaeologist Lars Gustavsen and his colleagues’ recent study is the first academic publication of the survey results, and it includes the previously announced Gjellestad ship burial as well as the other ancient tombs and buildings. In the recently published paper, the radar images reveal the ghosts of an ancient landscape surrounding the royal tomb: farmhouses, a feasting hall, and centuries of burial mounds.

Altogether, the buried structures suggest that over several centuries, from at least 500 BCE to 1000 CE, an ordinary coastal farming settlement somehow grew into an important seat of power on the cusp of the Viking Age.

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#ancient-europe, #archaeology, #ground-penetrating-radar, #iron-age, #nautical-archaeology, #remote-sensing, #science, #vikings


This ancient big-game hunter was a woman

This ancient big-game hunter was a woman


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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#ancient-people-did-stuff, #ancient-south-america, #archaeology, #holocene, #hunter-gatherers, #pleistocene, #science, #women


Ancient DNA sheds light on our prehistory with dogs

Close up of a dog's face.

Enlarge (credit: Elizabeth Tersigni)

Genomics researcher Anders Bergstrom and his colleagues recently sequenced the genomes of 27 dogs from archaeological sites scattered around Europe and Asia, ranging from 4,000 to 11,000 years old. Those genomes, along with those of modern dogs and wolves, show how dogs have moved around the world with people since their domestication.

All the dogs in the study descended from the same common ancestor, but that original dog population split into at least five branches as it expanded in different directions. As groups of people split apart, migrated, and met other groups, they brought their dogs along. Dog DNA suggests that their population history mirrors the story of human populations, for the most part.

“Understanding the history of dogs teaches us not just about their history, but also about our history,” said Bergstrom, of the Francis Crick Institute, in a statement.

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#ancient-dna, #archaeology, #dog-domestication, #dogs, #domestication, #mesolithic, #neolithic, #paleolithic, #population-genetics, #science


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


The wreck of the WWII steamship Karlsruhe may hold lost Russian treasure

Color photo of shipwreck and cargo underwater

These sealed crates could hold nearly anything. (credit: Tomasz Stachura/ Baltictech/Handout via REUTERS)

A World War II shipwreck recently located off the coast of Poland may hold the dismantled pieces of the Amber Room, a Russian treasure looted by the Nazis and lost since 1945.

The wreck of the German steamship Karlsruhe lies 88 meters (290 feet) below the surface of the Baltic Sea and a few dozen kilometers north of the resort town of Ustka, Poland. It’s in excellent shape after 75 years on the bottom, according to the team of 10 divers from Baltictech who located the wreck in June and announced the find in early October.

“It is practically intact,” Baltictech diver Tomasz Stachura told the press in a statement.

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#archaeology, #nautical-archaeology, #nazis, #science, #shipwreck, #shipwrecks, #underwater-archaeology, #world-war-ii


Archaeologists delved into medieval cesspits to study old gut microbiomes

Archaeologists delved into medieval cesspits to study old gut microbiomes

Enlarge (credit: Sabin et al. 2020)

One of the things archaeology consistently teaches us is that humanity is remarkably resilient in the face of crisis. Another is that poop is forever. Archaeologists have already explored the contents of coprolites and the chemicals left behind by a city’s worth of human waste. And according to a recent study, DNA from your gut microbes can stick around for centuries under the right conditions.

Archaeogeneticist Susanna Sabin and her colleagues found DNA from human gut-dwelling microbes in samples from a 600-year-old household cesspit in Jerusalem and a 700-year-old public toilet in Riga, Latvia. Eventually, that data will help researchers plumb the depths of medieval microbiomes to understand how the microscopic populations of our intestines have evolved over the centuries. For now, the study offers a few small hints about medieval life and suggests that ancient toilets have more to tell us.

Medieval vs. modern microbiomes

We already know that the microbiomes of modern hunter-gatherers and modern urban dwellers look quite different from each other. Figuring out how those differences evolved could offer some insights about health problems in modern urban dwellers. Sabin and her colleagues thought medieval latrines might be a good place to start looking for clues since medieval cities were urban but not yet industrialized. They sequenced DNA in sediment samples from a 15th-century cesspit in Jerusalem and a 14th-century public latrine in Riga.

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#ancient-dna, #archaeology, #medieval-europe, #medieval-jerusalem, #medieval-toilets, #metagenomics, #microbiome, #science, #urban-microbiome


Metal detector enthusiasts find 6th-century Anglo-Saxon warrior’s grave

Metal detector enthusiasts find 6th-century Anglo-Saxon warrior’s grave

Enlarge (credit: University of Reading)

The Berkshire hilltop where metal detector hobbyists found a warrior’s grave was supposed to have been an unimportant patch of borderland between neighboring tribes 1,400 years ago. But the warrior, buried with a view of the Thames River valley and all the trappings of power and status, tells a different story. His presence suggests that this quiet bit of English countryside may have been in the thick of the power struggles that rippled across Britain in the decades after the Roman Empire receded.

Around 400 CE, Rome abandoned its far-flung colony in Britain and withdrew its troops back to the mainland of Europe. Not long after that, Germanic warriors from the continent swept onto the island: the forerunners of the Anglo-Saxons. Archaeologists don’t entirely agree on whether the Anglo-Saxons arrived as a huge wave of settlers who overwhelmed and replaced the native Britons, or whether only a smaller number of warriors came to Britain to seize power in the wake of Rome’s departure. Either way, they reshaped British culture and society over the next several centuries.

The Anglo-Saxon tribes banded together under strong military leaders. Over time, some of those groups would coalesce into the medieval Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Wessex, Mercia, and Kent. Others faded from power, wiped out or absorbed by their rivals. And that brings us to the stretch of the Thames River between Oxford and London, and the man archaeologists have nicknamed the Marlow Warlord.

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#anglo-saxon-period, #anglo-saxons, #archaeology, #grave-goods, #medieval-england, #medieval-europe, #metal-detectors, #science, #skeletons


Archaeologists find evidence of neurons in glassy brain of Vesuvius victim

Using scanning electron microscopy (SEM), forensic archaeologists have found evidence of human neurons in the remains of one of the victims of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79.

Enlarge / Using scanning electron microscopy (SEM), forensic archaeologists have found evidence of human neurons in the remains of one of the victims of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79. (credit: Pier Paolo Patrone)

Remember when we told you that the extreme heat produced during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD may have been sufficient to vaporize body fluids and explode skulls—possibly even turning one victim’s brain into glass? We now have fresh evidence that this might, indeed, have been the case, according to a new paper in PLOS ONE, reporting the discovery of preserved human neurons in the victim with the “glassified” brain.

“The discovery of brain tissue in ancient human remains is an unusual event,” said co-author Pier Paulo Petrone of the University Federico II of Naples. “But what is extremely rare is the integral preservation of neuronal structures of a 2,000-years-ago central nervous system, in our case at an unprecedented resolution. These and other results of the bioanthropological and volcanological investigations underway at Herculaneum are gradually bringing to light details never before highlighted, which enrich the complex picture of events of the most famous of the Vesuvius eruptions.”

According to Tim Thompson, a forensic anthropologist at Teesside University in the UK, brains don’t typically survive for long after death. “It’s one of the earliest things to decompose in a standard decompositional context,” he told Ars. But it is not unprecedented.

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#archaeology, #forensic-archaeology, #neurons, #science, #vesuvius, #vitrification


Studying clay-pot residues could help scientists recreate ancient recipes

Two rows of simply black pots.

Enlarge / Seven La Chamba unglazed ceramic pots were used in a yearlong cooking experiment analyzing the chemical residues of the meals prepared. (credit: Melanie Miller)

Archaeologists are fascinated by many different aspects of cultures in the distant past, but determining what ancient people cooked and ate can be particularly challenging. A team of researchers spent an entire year analyzing the chemical residues of some 50 meals cooked in ceramic pots and found such cookware retained not just the remnants of the last meal cooked, but also clues as to earlier meals, spanning a pot’s lifetime of usage. This could give archaeologists a new tool in determining ancient diets. The researchers described their results in a recent paper published in the journal Scientific Reports.

According to co-author Christine Hastorf, an archaeologist at the University of California, Berkeley (UCB), the project has been several years in the making. Hastorf has long been interested in the relationships between people and plants throughout history, particularly as they pertain to what people ate in the past. Back in 1985, she co-authored a paper examining the isotopes of charred plant remains collected from the inside of pots. She has also long taught a food archaeology class at UCB. A few years ago, she expanded the course to two full semesters (nine months), covering both the ethnographic aspects as well as the archaeological methods one might use to glean insight into the dietary habits of the past.

The class was especially intrigued by recent molecular analysis of pottery, yet frustrated by the brevity of the studies done to date on the topic. Hastorf proposed conducting a longer study, and her students responded enthusiastically. So they devised a methodology, assigned research topics to each student, and located places to purchase grain (maize and wheat from the same region of the Midwest), as well as receiving venison in the form of donated deer roadkill. She even bought her own mill so they could grind the grains themselves, setting it up in her home garage.

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#anthropology, #archaeology, #archaeology-of-food, #chemistry, #food-chemistry, #food-science, #science


New data on a volcanic eruption that scattered ash across Mayan lands

New data on a volcanic eruption that scattered ash across Mayan lands

(credit: Gerardo Aguirre-Díaz)

Maya civilization was blossoming into its golden age when a volcano erupted at the southern edge of the Maya region, in what is now El Salvador. Tens of meters of ash and debris buried the densely populated, fertile farming valleys around the Ilopango caldera. Aerosols blasted into the stratosphere by the eruption settled as far away as Greenland and Antarctica. While the wider Maya civilization was mostly unaffected, it took a century and a half for life to resume in the shadow of Ilopango.

In a recent study, Oxford University archaeologist Victoria Smith and her colleagues used tree rings from a stump caught in a pyroclastic flow, along with data from polar ice cores obtained more than 7,000km (4,300 miles) away. These dated the eruption to 431 CE, the early part of the Maya Classic Period. The date may help future archaeologists and climate researchers better understand the impacts of the eruption on Central America and the rest of the world.

Buried by Tierra Blanca Joven

Volcanoes make dangerous neighbors, but they have ways of drawing people close despite the risks. Fertile volcanic soils in the valleys of El Salvador supported dense populations in Maya villages and urban centers like Chalchuapa. By the beginning of the Maya Classic Period, around 250 BCE, the rulers at Chalchuapa had built temples and a ball court at the site. Artifacts found among the ruins reveal trade connections as far away as central Mexico.

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#ancient-central-america, #ancient-disasters, #archaeology, #maya, #pre-columbian-civilizations, #science, #volcanic-eruptions, #volcanoes


Not-so-hostile takeover: Human Y chromosome displaced the Neanderthals’ version

Comparison of Modern Human and Neanderthal skulls from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

Comparison of Modern Human and Neanderthal skulls from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. (credit: hairymuseummatt)

We know that Neanderthals left their mark behind in the DNA of many modern humans, but that exchange worked both ways. The groups of Neanderthals our species met in Eurasia around 45,000 years ago already carried some Homo sapiens genes as souvenirs of much earlier encounters. A recent study suggests that those early encounters allowed the Homo sapiens version of the Y chromosome to completely replace the original Neanderthal one sometime between 370,000 and 100,000 years ago.

Evolutionary geneticists Martin Petr, Janet Kelso, and their colleagues used a new method to sequence Y-chromosome DNA from two Denisovans and three Neanderthals from sites in France, Russia, and Spain (all three lived 38,000 to 53,000 years ago). The oldest Neanderthal genomes in Eurasia have Y chromosomes that look much more like those of Denisovans. Later Neanderthals, however, have Y chromosomes that look more like those of us humans.

Gene flow is a two-way street

Tens of thousands of years ago, our species shared the world with at least two other hominins. The tools, beads, and art they left behind hint that these other humans were probably a lot like us. And we were definitely all alike enough to have, apparently, a bit of sex.

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#ancient-dna, #ancient-hominins, #archaeology, #denisovans, #hominin-evolution, #human-evolution, #neanderthals, #paleoanthropology, #paleogenomics, #science


Humans reached Saudi Arabia at least 120,000 years ago

About 120,000 years ago, two or three people walked along the shore of a shallow lake in what is now northern Saudi Arabia. They left behind at least seven footprints in the mud, and today those tracks are the oldest known evidence of our species’ presence in Arabia.

A Pleistocene walk by the lake

Imagine that you’re a hunter-gatherer about 120,000 years ago, and you’re walking out of eastern Africa into Eurasia. Paleoanthropologists are still debating exactly why you’ve decided to do such a thing, and you almost certainly don’t have a destination in mind, but for now we’ll take it for granted that you just want to take a really, really long walk. Almost inevitably, you’ll come to the Levant, on the eastern end of the Mediterranean. From that important geographical crossroads, you’ve got some options: you could head north through Syria and Turkey then veer east into Asia or west into Europe. You could also strike out east, across the northern end of the Arabian Peninsula.

That was a better option then than it sounds now. Off and on during the Pleistocene, the Arabian Peninsula had a wetter climate than it does today. Evidence from ancient sediments, pollen, and animal fossils all suggest that today’s deserts were once grasslands and woods, crossed by rivers and dotted with lakes like the one at Alathar in the western Nefud Desert.

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#ancient-hominins, #archaeology, #footprints, #hominins, #human-migration, #out-of-africa, #pleistocene, #saudi-arabia, #science


Ancient DNA sheds light on Viking origins, travels

Modern reconstruction of a Viking longboat.

Enlarge / Modern reconstruction of a Viking longboat. (credit: Dun.can / Flickr)

A recent study of ancient DNA sheds light on who the Viking groups were and how they interacted with the people they met. The Viking Age, from around 750 to 1100 CE, left a cultural and economic impact that stretched from the coast of North America to the Central Asian steppe, and archaeology shows several examples of cultural exchange spanning continents. But to see patterns in how people swapped not only ideas, but genes, we need to look at the DNA of ancient people.

“We know very well that the Viking Age changed the cultural and political map of Europe a thousand years ago, but we don’t really know much about the demographic changes that accompanied these changes,” University of Copenhagen genomicist Ashot Margaryan told Ars. “This can be addressed based on population genetics methods.”

Who were the Vikings?

Today, we tend to think of the Vikings as one big mass of bearded raiders, swooping down European coasts, up rivers, and across the North Atlantic. But the Vikings didn’t see themselves that way at all. The people who set sail to raid, trade, fish, and settle during the Viking Age saw themselves as members of distinct groups, with a shared culture but not a shared identity. The genetic evidence, it turns out, is on the Vikings’ side.

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#ancient-dna, #ancient-europe, #archaeology, #medieval-europe, #population-genetics, #science, #viking-age, #vikings


Archaeologists with drones discover pre-Columbian earthworks in Kansas

On the left, the newly discovered earthwork and a few possible houses are marked on an aerial image of the site. On the left, you can see the outline of the circular earthwork in the thermal image.

Enlarge / On the left, the newly discovered earthwork and a few possible houses are marked on an aerial image of the site. On the left, you can see the outline of the circular earthwork in the thermal image.

It’s hard to imagine monumental archaeological sites still lying undiscovered beneath the fields of Kansas. But a drone survey just revealed the eroded remains of a wide ditch that once encircled a 2,000 square meter (21,000 square feet) area on a bluff overlooking the Walnut River. Filled in by 400 years of erosion and covered by topsoil and grass, the pre-Columbian earthwork shows up in thermal imaging but is otherwise nearly invisible from above.

“Our findings demonstrate that undiscovered monumental earthworks may still exist in the Great Plains,” said Dartmouth College archaeologist Jesse Casana. “You just need a different archaeological approach to recognize them.”

The newly rediscovered earthwork is part of a cluster of archaeological sites in the area, which was once home to the ancestors of the Wichita people. Those sites, abandoned for centuries and lost beneath cattle pastures and farms, may have been Etzanoa, the “Great Settlement” described by the conquistador Juan de Oñate, who marched a force through the area in 1601.

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#aerial-archaeology, #anthropology, #archaeology, #conquistadors, #drone, #indigenous-communities, #indigenous-north-america, #monument-building, #mound-builders, #pre-columbian-civilizations, #science


“Stonehenge Lego” scale model reveals the pagan monument’s unique soundscape

Adorable scale model of Stonehenge inside a large room.

Enlarge / Acoustic research using a scale model 1/12th the size of Stonehenge finds that the completed monument would have magnified speech and improved musical sounds, but only for those inside the stone circle. (credit: Acoustics Research Centre/University of Salford )

Scientists built a scale model of Stonehenge, the famous megalithic structure of stones in Wiltshire, England, and used it to recreate how sound would have been reflected off the surfaces of the stones. They found that the arrangement of the stones likely would have amplified speech and enhanced music but only if one was within the circle, according to a recent study in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Dubbed “Stonehenge Lego,” the scale model is the work of acoustical engineer Trevor Cox of the University of Salford in England and several colleagues. (Fun fact: way back in 2007/2008, Cox conducted a yearlong study to identify the top 10 worst sounds. The sound of someone vomiting topped the list, followed by microphone feedback, wailing babies, and a train scraping along the track rails.) This latest paper builds on their preliminary findings last year. They’ve since been working on testing the acoustics of different configurations of the stones that would have existed at different times in the monument’s long history.

Recreating historical “soundscapes” is part of a relatively young field known as acoustic archaeology (or archaeoacoustics). For instance, researchers have sought to understand how acoustics may have influenced the outcome of key Civil War battles, like the Battle of Seven Pines on May 31, 1862. Another effect of interest to acoustic archaeologists is the chirping sound—reminiscent of the call of the quetzal, a brightly colored exotic bird native to the region—when you clap your hands at the bottom of one of the massive staircases of the Mayan Temple of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza in central Mexico.

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#acoustics, #archaeological-acoustics, #archaeology, #gaming-culture, #physics, #science, #stonehenge


Peer inside a mummified cat from ancient Egypt, courtesy of high-res 3D X-rays

Scientists have digitally unwrapped three mummified animals from ancient Egypt using Micro CT scanning. Above: Digital unwrapping of a mummified cat's head, likely a strangled kitten.

Enlarge / Scientists have digitally unwrapped three mummified animals from ancient Egypt using Micro CT scanning. Above: Digital unwrapping of a mummified cat’s head, likely a strangled kitten. (credit: Swansea University)

The ancient Egyptians mummified animals as well as humans, most commonly as votive offerings to the gods available for purchase by visitors to temples. Many of those mummified remains have survived but are in such a fragile state that researchers are loath to disturb the remains to learn more about them. Now an inter-disciplinary team of scientists has managed to digitally “unwrap” three specimens—a mummified cat, bird, and snake—using a high-resolution 3D X-ray imaging technique, essentially enabling them to conduct a virtual postmortem, according to a new paper published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Studying fragile ancient artifacts with cutting-edge imaging technology confers a powerful advantage on archaeological analysis. For instance, in 2016, an international team of scientists developed a method for “virtually unrolling” a badly damaged ancient scroll found on the western shore of the Dead Sea, revealing the first few verses from the book of Leviticus. The so-called En Gedi scroll was recovered from the ark of an ancient synagogue destroyed by fire around 600 CE.

In 2019, we reported that German scientists used a combination of cutting-edge physics techniques to virtually “unfold” an ancient Egyptian papyrus, part of an extensive collection housed in the Berlin Egyptian Museum. Their analysis revealed that a seemingly blank patch on the papyrus actually contained characters written in what had become “invisible ink” after centuries of exposure to light. And earlier this year, we reported that scientists had used multispectral imaging on four supposedly blank Dead Sea Scrolls and found the scrolls contained hidden text, most likely a passage from the book of Ezekiel.  

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#anthropology, #archaeology, #micro-ct-scanning, #physics, #science, #x-ray-imaging


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


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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#ancient-israel, #ancient-people-did-stuff, #archaeology, #biological-archaeology, #cremation, #funeral-practices, #osteology, #science, #skeletons


People slept on comfy grass beds 200,000 years ago

People slept on comfy grass beds 200,000 years ago


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-africa, #ancient-people-did-stuff, #archaeology, #early-humans, #modern-humans, #paleoarchaeology, #paleolithic, #science, #south-africa


Archaeologists find the source of Stonehenge sarsen stones

Prehistoric stone circle in the English countryside.

Enlarge / Feasts at nearby Durrington Walls drew attendees from all over Britain. (credit: Stefan Kühn / Wikimedia)

The huge slabs of stone that make up the most iconic structures at Stonehenge came from about 25km away, according to chemical analysis. Since the 1500s, most Stonehenge scholars have assumed the 6- to 7-meter tall, 20 metric ton sarsen stones came from nearby Marlborough Downs, and a recent study, by University of Brighton archaeologist David Nash and his colleagues, has now confirmed that.

Geochemical detective work

Recent studies have traced Stonehenge’s bluestones to quarries in the Preseli Hills of western Wales, about 300km (200 miles) away. When another group of archaeologists studied the chemical isotope ratios in the cremated remains of people once buried beneath the bluestones, those researchers found that many of those people may have come from the same part of Wales between 3100 and 2400 BCE. Ancient builders set up the sarsen stones a few centuries after the arrival of the bluestones. Modern scholars have only been able to speculate about where the huge boulders came from—until now.

Sarsen, also called silcrete, is a sedimentary rock mostly made up of quartz sand cemented by silica (quartz is just silica in crystal form), formed in layers of sandy sediment. Thanks to erosion, sarsen boulders are now scattered in clumps all over southern England. Prehistoric Britons built monuments like Stonehenge and Avebury with sarsen boulders, Roman settlers used sarsen bricks to build their villas, and medieval people built sarsen churches and farm buildings. But the largest sarsen boulders we know of in Britain today are the ones at Stonehenge.

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#ancient-britain, #archaeology, #durrington-walls, #geochemistry, #monument-building, #neolithic, #prehistoric-britain, #science, #stonehenge, #stonehenge-construction