Footprint Discovery Hints at Humans in the Americas More Than 20,000 Years Ago

Seeds found in fossilized tracks fuel new speculation about when—and how—people arrived

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#archaeology, #biology, #paleontology, #social-sciences

23,000-year-old footprints suggest people reached the Americas early

23,000-year-old footprints suggest people reached the Americas early

Footprints left behind in layers of clay and silt at New Mexico’s White Sands National Park may be between 23,000 and 21,000 years old. That’s based on radiocarbon dating of the remains of grass seeds buried in the layers of sediment above and below the tracks. If the dates are correct, the tracks are evidence that people walked beside the now-dry Lake Otero during the height of the last Ice Age, when kilometers of ice covered the northern half of the continent. And that would mean that people must have arrived in North America—and made their way to an area well south of the ice—before the ice sheets expanded enough to close off the route.

Arriving ahead of the ice sheets

Bournemouth University archaeologist Matthew Bennett and his colleagues found a total of 61 human footprints east of an area called Alkali Flat, which was once the bed and shoreline of an ancient lake. Over time, as the lake’s edge expanded and contracted with shifts in climate, it left behind distinct layers of clay, silt, and sand. Seven of those layers, in the area Bennett and his colleagues recently excavated, held human tracks along with those of long-lost megafauna.

Some of the sediment layers contained the remains of ancient grass seeds mixed with the sediment. Bennett and his colleagues radiocarbon dated seeds from the layer just below the oldest footprints and the layer just above the most recent ones. According to the results, the oldest footprints were made sometime after 23,000 years ago; the most recent ones were made sometime before 21,000 years ago. At that time, the northern half of the continent lay several kilometers below massive sheets of ice.

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#archaeology, #first-americans, #footprints, #indigenous-americans, #peopling-of-the-americas, #radiocarbon-dating, #science, #white-sands

Pompeii tomb reveals formerly enslaved man’s rise to wealth and power

Pompeii tomb reveals formerly enslaved man’s rise to wealth and power

Enlarge (credit: Pompeii Archaeological Park)

Archaeologists working in Pompeii recently unearthed the tomb and partially mummified remains of a man who died a few decades before the eruption. The man, Marcus Venerius Secundio, according to his epitaph, had once been enslaved, but by the end of his life he’d obtained enough wealth and status to sponsor four days of theater performances in Pompeii.

Rags to riches in Imperial Rome

Archaeologists rediscovered Marcus Venerius Secundio’s tomb in the ancient cemetery, or necropolis, of Porta Sarno in the eastern part of Pompeii, where tourists aren’t allowed. His tomb was large and imposing, with a colorfully painted facade depicting green plants on a blue background; traces of the paint still cling to the stone even after 2,000 years. It was also sealed so well that its occupant’s remains had partially mummified, preserving some soft tissue and a few tufts of white hair, along with some scraps of fabric.

Because Pompeii is both amazingly well-preserved and extensively studied, archaeologists were able to match the name inscribed over the tomb’s entrance to a name on wax tablets in the house of a banker named Lucius Caecilius Jucundus, across the city from the necropolis. The banker’s tablets recorded Marcus as a “public slave” who worked as a custodian in the Temple of Venus, which once stood at the western end of town (that’s almost certainly where the second part of his name, Venerius, comes from). But at some point he became a libertus, or freedman, and began to build a new life for himself.

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#ancient-rome, #archaeology, #mummification, #pompeii, #science, #slavery, #vesuvius

DOJ repatriates looted “Dream of Gilgamesh” tablet, other artifacts to Iraq

A rare cuneiform tablet engraved with a portion of the ancient Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh will be returned to Iraq, per the US Department of Justice, along with 17,000 other looted artifacts.

Enlarge / A rare cuneiform tablet engraved with a portion of the ancient Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh will be returned to Iraq, per the US Department of Justice, along with 17,000 other looted artifacts. (credit: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

During the unrest in Iraq in April 2003, opportunistic looters stole some 15,000 priceless cultural artifacts from the National Museum of Iraq, taking advantage of the evacuation of museum staff until US forces were able to restore order. These artifacts have been showing up on the antiquities market ever since, often accompanied by forged or questionable claims of provenance. Thousands of them were purchased by billionaire Steve Green, founder of the Hobby Lobby craft chain store, on behalf of the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC. Those artifacts included the so-called “Dream of Gilgamesh” tablet, a rare cuneiform text dating back to ancient Mesopotamia.

US customs agents seized the tablet in 2019, and last week, a US District Court in New York ordered Hobby Lobby to forfeit the tablet so it could be returned to Iraq. An additional 17,000 looted artifacts are also being repatriated to Iraq, the result of a months-long effort between Iraqi authorities and the US. According to Iraqi Cultural Minister Hassan Nazim, “This is the largest return of antiquities to Iraq.” Archaeological looting in Iraq has been going on for at least a century, with estimated revenues from the sale of stolen artifacts amounting to between $10 and $20 million annually.

“This forfeiture represents an important milestone on the path to returning this rare and ancient masterpiece of world literature to its country of origin,” said Jacquelyn M. Kasulis, acting US attorney for the Eastern District of New York. “This office is committed to combating the black-market sale of cultural property and the smuggling of looted artifacts.”

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#antiquities, #archaeology, #gilgamesh-dream-tablet, #hobby-lobby, #museum-of-the-bible, #science

Historian recreates Thomas Cromwell’s London mansion in exquisite detail

Artist's reconstruction of Thomas Cromwell's mansion on Throgmorton Street in 1539, London, England.

Enlarge / Artist’s reconstruction of Thomas Cromwell’s mansion on Throgmorton Street in 1539, London, England. (credit: Peter Urmston)

Tudor England was a treacherous place for ambitious courtiers, as the steady rise and sudden tragic fall of Thomas Cromwell—one of the chief architects of the English Reformation under King Henry VIII—makes clear. Cromwell had just completed work on a magnificent private mansion in London when he fell out of the king’s favor and was summarily beheaded. Now, a British historian has produced the most detailed analysis yet of both that mansion and the townhouse in which Cromwell lived prior to its completion, presented in a new paper published in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association.

“These two houses were the homes of this great man; they were the places where he lived with his wife and two daughters, where his son grew up,” said Nick Holder, a historian and research fellow at English Heritage and the University of Exeter, who authored the new paper. “It was also the place he went back to at night after being with Henry VIII at court and just got on with the hard graft of running the country. No one else has looked at these two houses in quite as much detail, comparing all the available evidence. This is about as close as you are going to get to walking down these 16th-century corridors.”

There was a time when historians considered Thomas Cromwell to be a rather insignificant court figure during Henry VIII’s reign. That view began to shift in the 1950s, as historians realized just how much Cromwell may have influenced the king and Parliament during a particularly chaotic period in British history. Much of that chaos, it must be said, stemmed from the monarch’s impetuous nature, particularly when it came to wives.

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#archaeology, #gaming-culture, #history, #science, #thomas-cromwell, #tudor-history, #wolf-hall

Archaeologists find ancient Egyptian warship sunk near Alexandria

Archaeologists find ancient Egyptian warship sunk near Alexandria

Enlarge (credit: Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities)

Twenty-four hundred years ago, Heraklion was ancient Egypt’s largest port on the Mediterranean Sea. Today, the ancient city lies submerged beneath Abu Qir Bay, a few kilometers off the coast of Alexandria. Archaeologists recently discovered the wreck of a warship from the city’s final years buried in the seabed for 2,100 years beneath five meters of clay and crumbled pieces of an ancient temple to the Egyptian god Amun.

A fast but unlucky warship

The outline of the wrecked ship suggests speed. Its 25 meter-long hull is about six times longer than it is wide, meaning that it was a long, sleek vessel built to race through the water. Clearly, this was no cargo vessel; ships built to haul cargo or passengers tend to be wider, built for capacity rather than speed and agility. The team of archaeologists from the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology who discovered the wreck say it was probably a warship, and its captain picked an unlucky day to tie up in the channel that flowed along the south side of the Temple of Amun in Heraklion.

Some of the city’s inhabitants called the place Heraklion; others called it Thonis, and archaeologists have found stone monuments inscribed with both names together. Coins and bits of pottery found among the city’s submerged ruins suggest that Thonis-Heraklion flourished from the 500s to the 300s BCE. When Alexander the Great founded Alexandria 32 kilometers to the southeast in 331 BCE, the new city replaced Thonis-Heraklion as Egypt’s largest Mediterranean port, and the older city began to decline.

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#ancient-egypt, #archaeology, #earthquakes, #nautical-archaeology, #ptolemaic-dynasty, #science, #shipbuilding, #shipwrecks, #underwater-archaeology

Genealogists say Leonardo da Vinci has 14 living relatives

Analysis of the reputed self-portrait drawing by Leonardo da Vinci (~1515, Biblioteca Reale, Turin).

Enlarge / Analysis of the reputed self-portrait drawing by Leonardo da Vinci (~1515, Biblioteca Reale, Turin). (credit: C. Tyler/Saiko, Creative Commons)

A recently assembled Leonardo da Vinci family tree, spanning 21 generations from 1331 to the present, could pave the way for DNA testing that might confirm whether the bones interred in da Vinci’s grave are actually his. Two art historians’ hopes of uncovering a genetic explanation for the Renaissance artist’s brilliance, however, will probably be doomed by scientific reality.

Da Vinci’s modern family

To construct the family tree, art historians Alessandro Vezzosi and Agnese Sabato dug through birth, death, and property records spanning the last 690 years. They also interviewed surviving relatives to learn more about the famous artist, scientist, and inventor’s modern extended family. In the end, they traced da Vinci’s family from his grandfather, born in 1331, to the 14 relatives living today. Leonardo da Vinci himself had no children, and his modern relatives all descend from his 22 (!) half-siblings.

The present family played an essential role in the new study. “Many of them have collaborated, together with their relatives, to the collection and verification of information,” wrote Vezzosi and Sabato, “helping enthusiastically to contact other family members and retrieve new documents and images.” Those many-times-great nieces and nephews include several office workers (one of whom served as a naval gunner in the 1960s), a retired upholsterer, a surveyor, and a state employee who is “passionate about motorcycling and music.” The oldest is now 85 years old, and the youngest is just one year old.

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#ancient-dna, #archaeology, #dna, #european-history, #genealogy, #historical-figures, #history, #leonardo-da-vinci, #renaissance, #science

After defeating Hernando de Soto, the Chickasaw took his stuff and remade it

Florida Museum archaeologist Charles Cobb holds an axe head known as a celt, one of more than 80 metal objects likely from the de Soto expedition. To create this distinct shape, a Chickasaw craftsperson reworked Spanish iron to mimic traditional stone versions.

Enlarge / Florida Museum archaeologist Charles Cobb holds an axe head known as a celt, one of more than 80 metal objects likely from the de Soto expedition. To create this distinct shape, a Chickasaw craftsperson reworked Spanish iron to mimic traditional stone versions. (credit: Jeff Gage/Florida Museum of Natural History)

In 1540, Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto, fresh from ravaging the Inca Empire, marched onto Chickasaw lands in what’s now northern Mississippi with 600 men and hundreds of livestock. By the spring of 1541, de Soto had offended the Chickasaw so badly that they burned his camp and drove the whole Spanish expedition off their lands. Archaeologists recently unearthed evidence that people from nearby Chickasaw communities gathered up the things the fleeing Spaniards left behind and put them to use in some innovative archaeologist.

It’s a surprisingly cool story to find buried in a paper titled “Nascent Colonialism and Heterogenous Hybridity,” but that’s academia for you.

The spoils of war

Archaeologists excavating the centuries-old Chickasaw sites in an area called Stark Farms unearthed a surprising number of European metal objects: a cannonball, a mouth harp, a bridle bit with a golden crest, and more. They also found objects which had been broken up or modified into more traditional Chickasaw tools: bits of copper shaped into beads and pendants, pieces of iron horseshoes broken and sharpened into scraping tools, and barrel bands bent, broken, and ground into sharp cutting tools called celts.

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#archaeology, #chickasaw, #colonial-americas, #colonization, #conquistadors, #de-soto, #indigenous-communities, #indigenous-north-america, #science

A Neanderthal carved a geometric design in bone 51,000 years ago

A Neanderthal carved a geometric design in bone 51,000 years ago

(credit: Leder et al. 2021)

During the Middle Ages, people ventured into the cave now called Einhornhohle to collect unicorn bones. It’s tempting to wonder whether those medieval cryptid hunters would be disappointed or fascinated to learn that the bones they unearthed from the cave actually belonged to ancient bison, deer, cave lions, bears, and other animals that died 50,000 years ago. Archaeologists began excavating the cave in 2017, and while cleaning and sorting their trove of non-unicorn bones, they discovered the handiwork of a long-dead Neanderthal artisan.

Around 51,000 years ago, someone carved a geometric design into the second phalanx, or toe bone, of a giant deer. The carver was almost certainly a Neanderthal, based on the bone’s radiocarbon-dated age, because no one but Neanderthals lived in Europe until around 45,000 years ago. As archaeologist Dirk Leder of the Lower Saxony State Service for Cultural Heritage and his colleagues put it, Einhornhohle is “situated along the northern boundary of the world known to be inhabited by Neanderthals,” in the Harz Mountains of northern Germany.

Three parallel lines cut diagonally across the surface of the bone. Another of set of parallel lines cross the first three at more-or-less a right angle; the carver was a few degrees off, but that’s still respectably precise for someone eyeballing their measurements and working with a flint blade. At the base of the bone (the end closer to the leg), the carver added four short lines, roughly parallel but not lined up quite as precisely as the others. Leder and his colleagues describe the resulting pattern as “offset chevrons.”

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#archaeology, #experimental-archaeology, #extinct-hominins, #neanderthals, #paleolithic, #paleolithic-europe, #science, #symbolic-thought

Archaeologists “flabbergasted” to find Cerne Giant’s origins are medieval

Behold, the "Rude Man" chalk giant carved on a hill above the village of Cerne Abbas in Dorset, England.

Enlarge / Behold, the “Rude Man” chalk giant carved on a hill above the village of Cerne Abbas in Dorset, England. (credit: Barry Batchelor/PA Images/Getty Images)

The Cerne Abbas Giant is a 180-foot-tall figure of a naked man wielding a large club, carved with chalk into a hilltop in Dorset, England. The figure’s generously sized erect phallus has earned it the nickname “Rude Man,” and no doubt contributes to its popularity as a tourist attraction. Archaeologists have long speculated over exactly when, and why, the geoglyph was first created. Now, thanks to a new analysis of sediment samples, they have narrowed down the likely date for the Rude Man’s creation to the late Saxon period—a surprising result, since no other similar chalk figures in the region are known to date from that time period.

“This is not what was expected,” said geoarchaeologist Mike Allen, who has been working with the National Trust on the ongoing project to learn more about the Cerne Abbas Giant. “Many archaeologists and historians thought he was prehistoric or post-medieval, but not medieval. Everyone was wrong, and that makes these results even more exciting.”  National Trust senior archaeologist Martin Papworth told the Guardian he was “flabbergasted” by the results: “I was expecting 17th century.”

In the 1990s, archaeologists relied on soil samples to date another well-known geoglyph—the 360-foot-long Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire—to between 1380 and 550 BC. And the Long Man of Wilmington in East Sussex dates back to the 16th century.  “Archaeologists have wanted to pigeonhole chalk hill figures into the same period,” said Allen. “But carving these figures was not a particular phase—they’re all individual figures, with local significance, each telling us something about that place and time.”

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#archaeology, #cerne-abbas-giant, #geoglyphs, #science

Did lead poisoning cause downfall of Roman Empire? The jury is still out

Ancient Rome’s emperors did some pretty bizarre stuff—bursting into uncontrollable fits of laughter, appointing a horse as a priest, dressing in animal skins and attacking people… the list goes on. Why did they act this way? Possibly… lead poisoning.

There are any number of factors that contribute to the demise of an entire civilization, like the collapse of the Roman Empire circa 476 AD. The empire’s slow decline is typically attributed to barbarian invasions, failed military campaigns, economic challenges, government corruption, and an over-reliance on slave labor, among other factors. But it’s also been suggested that the toxic effects of lead poisoning on increasingly erratic rulers may also have contribute to its demise—a debate that has been revisited in a new Reactions video from the American Chemical Society.

Lead has a number of properties that make it attractive for practical use. It’s cheap, widely available, corrosion resistant when exposed to air and water, has a low melting point, and is highly malleable, which means it’s easy to fashion into a wide range of products. But lead is also highly toxic if it finds its way into the human body, which is why we use it far less these days compared to even 100 years ago. Common symptoms of lead poisoning include anemia, nerve disorders, memory loss, inability to concentrate, and even infertility. Lead exposure may also be a factor in malaria, rickets, gout, and periodontal disease.

Since 1943, scientists have known that lead can have adverse effects on neurological development in children, leading to behavioral problems and lowered intelligence. That’s because it can easily replace calcium. Calcium is how neurons in the brain communicate, and if lead replaces it, there is either too little communication among neurons, or too much. This can cause erratic mood swings, or difficulty processing information, for instance.

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#ancient-rome, #archaeology, #chemistry, #gaming-culture, #lead-poisoning, #science

Is the “Dragon Man” skull actually from a new hominin species?

Two early-human skulls against a black background.

Enlarge / The Harbin skull (left) and the Dali skull (right). (credit: Ni et al. 2021)

The reported discovery of a new hominin species from China created a lot of buzz last week. Its discoverers—paleoanthropologists Xijun Ni, Qiang Ji, Chris Stringer, and their colleagues—say that a skull discovered near Harbin, in northeast China, has a combination of features that’s so different from Neanderthals, Denisovans, and Homo sapiens that it must be a separate species. The researchers have named the find Homo longi after the river where the skull was unearthed. Based on statistical comparisons of the skull’s measurements with skulls from other hominins, Ni and colleagues say that Homo longi is a sister species to Neanderthals, Denisovans, and us.

But that’s still very much open for debate among paleoanthropologists, and the debate raises questions about how (or whether) we should draw lines between hominin species.

Meet the Harbin skull

Based on uranium-series dating, the Harbin skull lay buried for at least 146,000 years, but it’s in remarkably good shape. Fossil hominin skulls often end up crushed or warped by the weight of the earth above them after many millennia in the ground, but the Harbin skull isn’t distorted at all. It’s also intact, even though the only tooth still attached is a left molar. That’s unusual in itself, because teeth usually are the most common hominin fossil finds.

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#ancient-hominins, #anthropology, #archaeology, #denisovans, #extinct-hominins, #hominins, #human-evolution, #neanderthals, #paleoanthropology, #science, #skulls

How a 17th-century illustration is helping archaeologists find Viking ships

How a 17th-century illustration is helping archaeologists find Viking ships


In 1650, a Danish physician and antiquarian named Ole Worm conducted the first survey of a Viking cremation burial site known as the Kalvestene. Worm created a map of the locations of all the “ship settings”—stones arranged in the shape of vessels—marking the graves. Now, a team of archaeologists has compared its own detailed surveys with Worm’s original illustrations and may have discovered two new ship settings that are consistent with that centuries-old survey, according to a recent paper published in the Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology.

Vikings typically buried their dead, along with the deceased’s material possessions, within a wooden ship. They then covered the grave with dirt to create a raised earthen mound. The Kalvestene, on a small island called Hjarnø, is one of about 25 such sites in Denmark. Even though it’s a relatively small grave field, the Kalvestene (literally translated as “the calf stones”) was nonetheless well-known in the region. It is first mentioned in the 12th-century treatise Gesta Danorum (“The History of the Danes” or “Deeds of the Danes”) by Danish theologian Saxo Grammaticus, and there are many other references throughout medieval and early modern texts.

“It’s such an interesting site, and the fact that it is referred to in medieval sources—when other, larger monuments aren’t—demonstrates it was a significant site, too,” co-author Erin Sebo of Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, told Ars.

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#archaeology, #gaming-culture, #science, #the-kalvestene, #viking-ships

All the major players spent time in the Denisovan cave

Neanderthals and Denisovans probably enjoyed the view from Denisova cave, too.

Enlarge / Neanderthals and Denisovans probably enjoyed the view from Denisova cave, too. (credit: flickr user: loronet)

At various points in the last 300,000 years, Denisova Cave has sheltered three different species of hominins. But with fossils from only eight individuals—four Denisovans, three Neanderthals, and the daughter of a Neanderthal/Denisovan pairing—it’s hard to tell a detailed story about when each species lived in the cave. According to a recent genetic study, however, the Denisovans were the first, arriving around 250,000 years ago. And they may still have been there when the first members of our species arrived around 45,000 years ago.

That timeline is the result of a recent study of mitochondrial DNA (genetic material passed directly from mother to child) mixed into the deep layers of sediment covering the cave floor. The fragments of ancient DNA probably came from a mixture of feces, decomposing remains, and shed skin and hair that ended up mixed with the dirt of the cave floor, according to archaeologist Elena Zavala of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, lead author of the study.

“We know that DNA can bind to the minerals found in the sediments and we have also seen microfossils when examining the sediments under a microscope,” she told Ars in an email. “Future studies linking specific elements of the sediment to DNA preservation will help increase our understanding of this process.”

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#ancient-dna, #archaeology, #denisova-cave, #denisovans, #homo-sapiens, #human-ancestors, #human-evolution, #human-migration, #mitochondrial-dna, #neanderthals, #paleoanthropology, #paleolithic, #science, #stone-tools

Cold-case files: Archaeologists discover 3,000-year-old victim of shark attack

Original excavation photograph of Tsukumo No. 24, a young adult male with evidence of severe trauma consistent with an attack by a white or tiger shark.

Enlarge / Original excavation photograph of Tsukumo No. 24, a young adult male with evidence of severe trauma consistent with an attack by a white or tiger shark. (credit: Kyoto University)

Marine biologists have spent decades counteracting the popular misconception of sharks as aggressive predators that target humans, particularly in the wake of the blockbuster Jaws franchise. But fatal attacks nonetheless do happen—and they happened even in prehistoric times. While examining the skeletal remains of a prehistoric hunter-gatherer cemetery in Japan dating back some 3,000 years, University of Oxford archaeologists found distinctive evidence that one such skeleton had been the victim of a fatal shark attack. They described their findings in a new paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. It’s the oldest known victim of a shark attack yet—like a prehistoric cold-case film.

The Tsukumo burial site in Japan’s Okayama Prefecture was discovered by construction workers in the 1860s and first excavated in 1915. More than 170 human skeletons were unearthed and housed at Kyoto University. The site dates to the Late-Final Jōmon period of the Japanese archipelago. Co-authors J. Alyssa White and Rick Schulting, both from Oxford, made their discovery while examining the remains for evidence of violent trauma, part of a larger study on violence in prehistoric Japan. Remains categorized as Tsukumo No. 24 showed marks of severe trauma that proved especially puzzling.

“We were initially flummoxed by what could have caused at least 790 deep, serrated injuries to this man,” said White and Schulting. “There were so many injuries and yet he was buried in the community burial ground, the Tsukumo Shell-mound cemetery site. The injuries were mainly confined to the arms, legs, and front of the chest and abdomen. Through a process of elimination, we ruled out human conflict and more commonly-reported animal predators or scavengers.”

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#archaeology, #forensic-archaeology, #physical-anthropology, #science, #sharks, #tsukumo

Archaeologists recreated three common kinds of Paleolithic cave lighting

Spanish archaeologists recreated three common types of Paleolithic lighting systems.

Enlarge / Spanish archaeologists recreated three common types of Paleolithic lighting systems. (credit: Medina-Alcaide et al, 2021, PLOS ONE)

In 1993, a media studies professor at Fordham University named Edward Wachtel visited several famous caves in southern France, including Lascaux, Font-de-Gaume, Les Combarelles, and La Mouthe. His purpose: to study the cave art that has justly made these caves famous.  Wachtel was puzzled by what he called “spaghetti lines” on the drawings, partially obscuring them. There were also images of, say, an ibex with two heads, a mammal with three trunks, or a bull drawing superimposed over the drawing of a deer.

His guide for the La Mouthe tour was a local farmer, and since there were no electric lights in this cave, the farmer brought along a gas lantern. When the farmer swung the lantern inside the cave, the color schemes shifted, and the engraved lines seemed to animate. “Suddenly, the head of one creature stood out clearly,” Wachtel recalled. “It lived for a second, then faded as another appeared.” As for those mysterious spaghetti lines, “they became a forest or a bramble patch that concealed and then reveled the animals within.”

Wachtel subsequently published a paper entitled, “The First Picture Show: Cinematic Aspects of Cave Art,” in which he concluded that the cave drawings were meant to be perceived in three dimensions—one of them being time. These could have been the first “protomovies,” he thought.

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#archaeology, #gaming-culture, #history, #paleolithic, #science

Two Viking burials, separated by an ocean, contain close kin

Two Viking burials, separated by an ocean, contain close kin

Enlarge (credit: Ida Marie Odgaard AFP)

Roughly a thousand years ago, a young man in his early 20s met a violent end in England. 800 kilometers (500 miles) away, in Denmark, an older man who had survived a lifetime of battles died sometime in his 50s. At first glance, there’s nothing to suggest a connection between them over such a distance. But according to a recent study of their DNA, the two men were second-degree relatives: half-siblings, uncle and nephew, or grandfather and grandson.

Today, their skeletons lie side-by-side in the National Museum of Denmark, reunited after centuries, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported.

Geneticists sequenced the pair’s DNA as part of a much larger study, which sampled and sequenced ancient DNA from more than 400 human skeletons at sites across Europe and Greenland. That data revealed that Vikings were much more ethnically diverse than historians have often assumed, and it helped track the migrations that defined the Viking Age. Against the backdrop of those larger patterns, the ancient DNA from two skeletons, buried hundreds of kilometers apart under very different circumstances, told a much more personal story.

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#anthropology, #archaeology, #biological-anthropology, #medieval-europe, #science, #skeletons, #viking-age, #vikings

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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#ancient-people-did-stuff, #anthropology, #archaeology, #bears, #cave-bears, #hunter-gatherers, #ice-age, #pleistocene, #science, #zooarchaeology

Ancient cemetery tells a tale of constant, low level warfare

Ancient cemetery tells a tale of constant, low level warfare

Enlarge (credit: Crevecoeur and Antoine 2021)

When archaeologists in the 1960s unearthed a 13,400-year-old cemetery at Jebel Sahaba in Sudan, it looked like they’d stumbled across the aftermath of a large-scale battle fought during the Pleistocene. At least half the people buried at the site, which straddles the banks of the Upper Nile, bore the marks of violence: broken skulls, arrow and spear tracks gouged in bones, and stone projectiles still embedded in their bodies.

The site now lies at the bottom of the human-made Lake Nasser, created by the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s. But the remains now reside in the British Museum’s collection (for better or worse), and anthropologists Isabelle Crevecoeur of the University of Bordeaux and Daniel Antoine of the British Museum recently re-examined the skeletons. With more modern microscope technology, the anthropologists noticed some skeletal trauma that the original archaeologists had missed. It turned out that about two thirds of the population of the ancient cemetery had bones damaged by either blunt-force trauma or—most often—by projectiles like spears and arrows. That included three out of four adults and roughly half the children.

Since the 1960s, archaeologists have thought of Jebel Sahaba as the earliest example of large-scale warfare between groups of people. But despite all the evidence of violence, the bones of the 13,000-year-old dead don’t actually seem to tell the story of a pitched battle with massive casualties. Instead, it looks like people along the Upper Nile Valley at the end of the Pleistocene lived with the constant threat of smaller-scale fighting, which affected men, women, and children alike. If you’re a gamer, think of it as living in a PvP zone in the midst of an environmental crisis.

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#ancient-africa, #ancient-warfare, #ancient-weapons, #anthropology, #archaeology, #aswan-high-dam, #biological-anthropology, #climate-change, #forensic-anthropology, #nile, #pleistocene, #projectile-points, #science, #skeletons, #stone-tools, #sudan, #trauma

Archaeologists have now identified two 17th century Swedish shipwrecks

Two shipwrecks discovered in 2019 have been identified as 17th century Swedish war ships <em>Apollo</em> and <em>Maria</em>.

Enlarge / Two shipwrecks discovered in 2019 have been identified as 17th century Swedish war ships Apollo and Maria. (credit: Vrak Museum of Wrecks)

Back in 2019, Swedish maritime archaeologists discovered the wrecks of two 17th century ships at the bottom of a busy Swedish shipping canal near Vaxholm. Initially they suspected these might be the sister ships of the doomed war ship Vasa, which sank in 1628 on her first trip out of port. Thanks to analysis of wood samples obtained from the wrecks, we now know they are actually two rather younger war ships, the Apollo and Maria.

Wooden sailing ships were the high-tech military vehicles of their day, and Vasa and her sisters—Äpplet, Kronan, and Scepter, all built on the order of King Gustav II Adolf (1594-1632)—were among the earliest to carry large numbers of heavy cannon. The Vasa set sail for the first time on August 10, 1628, but as she sailed down the harbor, a strong gust of wind filled the sails and caused the ship to tip so far over to her port side that water poured into the open gunports on the lower deck.

The Vasa sank within minutes, and 30 crew members and guests perished with her, trapped inside the sinking ship. The catastrophe was largely due to a flaw in the Vasa‘s design: the hull’s upper works were too tall and heavy, so its center of gravity was so far above the water, the ship would heel in response to even a relatively slight gust of wind. She might have yet survived, had the gunports not been open. The wreckage of the Vasa was salvaged in 1961, and is now housed in the Vasa Museum in Stockholm.

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#archaeology, #maritime-archaeology, #science, #shipwrecks, #vasa, #vaxholm, #vrak-museum-of-wrecks

Archaeologists train a neural network to sort pottery fragments for them

Archaeologists train a neural network to sort pottery fragments for them

(credit: Pawlowicz and Downum 2021)

Real archaeological fieldwork is seldom as exciting as it looks in the movies. You tend to get fewer reanimated mummies, deadly booby traps, and dramatic shootouts with Nazis. Instead, you’ll see pieces of broken pottery—a lot of them. Potsherds are ubiquitous at archaeological sites, and that’s true for pretty much every culture since people invented pottery. In the US Southwest in particular, museums have collected sherds by the tens of thousands.

Although all those broken bits may not look like much at first glance, they’re often the key to piecing together the past.

“[Potsherds] provide archaeologists with critical information about the time a site was occupied, the cultural group with which it was associated, and other groups with whom they interacted,” said Northern Arizona University archaeologist Chris Downum, who co-authored a new study with Leszek Pawlowicz.

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#ancestral-pueblo, #ancient-north-america, #archaeology, #machine-learning, #neural-networks, #potsherds, #pottery, #pre-columbian-civilizations, #science

Climate change is erasing humanity’s oldest art

color photo of archaeologists examining rock art in a dark cave

Enlarge / Detailed rock-art recording by ARKENAS archaeologist in Maros-Pangkep. (credit: Adhi Agus Oktaviana)

The limestone caves and rock shelters of Indonesia’s southern Sulawesi island hold the oldest traces of human art and storytelling, dating back more than 40,000 years. Paintings adorn the walls of at least 300 sites in the karst hills of Maros-Pangkep, with more almost certainly waiting to be rediscovered. But archaeologists say humanity’s oldest art is crumbling before their very eyes.

“We have recorded rapid loss of hand-sized spall flakes from these ancient art panels over a single season (less than five months),” said archaeologist Rustan Lebe of Makassar’s culture heritage department.

Erasing history

The culprit is salt. As water flows through a limestone cave system, it carries minerals from the local bedrock, which eventually end up in the limestone. At the limestone’s surface, those minerals oxidize into a case-hardened rocky crust. Nearly all of oldest rock art in Maros-Pangkep—like the oldest drawing in the world that actually depicts an actual object—is painted in red or mulberry-purple pigment on that hard outer layer. It’s resistant to most weathering, providing a durable canvas for humanity’s oldest artwork.

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#aquaculture, #archaeology, #cave-art, #cave-painting, #climate-change, #conservation, #cultural-heritage, #indonesia, #pleistocene, #rock-art, #science, #sulawesi

Mount Vesuvius victims died just moments away from rescue

armi del soldato

armi del soldato

When Mount Vesuvius destroyed the Roman city of Pompeii in 79 CE, the eruption also killed hundreds of people huddled on the shores of nearby Herculaneum. A recent study of the remains of one victim, who died on the beach not far from a small naval vessel, suggests that he might have been a senior naval officer. If so, archaeological director Francesco Sirano and his colleagues suggest, the man may have been a rescue mission leader who arrived just in time to die with the people he was trying to save.

An untimely rescue

Pliny the Elder was a Roman naturalist and author who also found time to command the imperial fleet in the port city of Misenum, across the Bay of Naples from Pompeii and Herculaneum. During the height of Mount Vesuvius’ eruption, Pliny the Elder sent boats to rescue survivors from the beach at Herculaneum, which lies northwest of Pompeii and almost due west of the volcano. At least 300 people had fled for the shore, only to find themselves trapped between the volcano’s wrath and the sea. Some sought shelter in nearby boat sheds while others gathered on the beach to wait for help.

They never made it off the beach. A towering plume of material that had blasted skyward from the volcano finally collapsed under its own weight and sent a deadly wave of hot gas and debris, called a pyroclastic flow, flooding down the mountain’s slopes at nearly 100 kilometers per hour (62 miles per hour). Like the pyroclastic flows that struck Pompeii, this one brought instant, searing death.

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#ancient-rome, #archaeology, #disaster-archaeology, #forensic-archaeology, #herculaneum, #pliny-the-elder, #pompeii, #pyroclastic-flow, #roman-archaeology, #roman-empire, #science, #skeletons, #vesuvius, #volcano

By eating them, hyenas gathered 9 Neanderthal skeletons in one cave

By eating them, hyenas gathered 9 Neanderthal skeletons in one cave

Enlarge (credit: Italian Culture Ministry)

Archaeologists in Italy recently unearthed the remains of at least nine Neanderthals in Guattari Cave, near the Tyrrhenian Sea about 100 km southeast of Rome. While excavating a previously unexplored section of the cave, archaeologists from the Archaeological Superintendency of Latina and the University of Tor Vergata recently unearthed broken skulls, jawbones, teeth, and pieces of several other bones, which they say represent at least nine Neanderthals. That brings the cave’s total to at least 10; anthropologist Alberto Carlo Blanc found a Neanderthal skull in another chamber in 1939.

Italy was a very different place 60,000 years ago. Hyenas, along with other Pleistocene carnivores, stalked rhinoceroses, wild horses (an extinct wild bovine called aurochs), and people.

“Neanderthals were prey for these animals. Hyenas hunted them, especially the most vulnerable, like sick or elderly individuals,” Tor Vergata University archaeologist Mario Rolfo told The Guardian. The archaeologists found the Neanderthal remains mingled with the bones of rhinos, giant deer, wild horses, and other hyenas. Predators and scavengers tend to leave behind different parts of the skeleton than, say, flowing water or simple burial—and tooth marks are usually a dead giveaway.

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#ancient-dna, #anthropology, #archaeology, #extinct-hominins, #hominins, #neanderthals, #paleoanthropology, #science

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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#ancient-africa, #ancient-people-did-stuff, #anthropology, #archaeology, #burials, #funeral-practices, #grave-goods, #human-culture, #human-evolution, #middle-stone-age, #paleoanthropology, #science

Archaeologists found the site of Harriet Tubman’s family home

color photo of four people digging with woods in the background

Enlarge / Julie Schablitsky searches for artifacts at the site. (credit: Tim Pratt, MDOT)

In the years before the American Civil War, Harriet Tubman led dozens of enslaved people to freedom through the network of safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. During the war, she scouted, spied, and led military raids against Confederate forces. Now, archaeologists have pinpointed the Maryland childhood home where she learned her fieldcraft.

Tubman’s father Ben Ross inherited the 10-acre tract of land from his former enslaver in the late 1830s. “She would’ve spent time here as a child, but also she would’ve come back and been living here with her father in her teenage years, working alongside him,” said Schabitsky in a recent press conference announcing the find.

“This was the opportunity she had to learn about how to navigate and survive in the wetlands and the woods,” said Schabitsky. “We believe this experience was able to benefit her when she began to move people to freedom.” Her experience with her father also taught her the region’s coastal shipping routes and probably provided her with useful contacts.

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#archaeology, #civil-war, #harriet-tubman, #science, #sea-level-rise, #slavery, #underground-railroad

Africa’s first Iron Age culture had a sweet tooth

Africa’s first Iron Age culture had a sweet tooth


Chemical traces of 3,500-year-old beeswax on central Nigerian potsherds shed light on an often invisible aspect of ancient diets—and a bit about what fueled the culture that launched Africa’s Iron Age.

These farmers were super into metal

Terms like “Iron Age” only have meaning if you’re talking about a particular place, since periods of technological innovation didn’t begin at the same moment everywhere in the world. People in several regions discovered, at different times, how to turn iron ore into workable metal. Some cultures worked it out on their own, while others learned the new technology from neighbors, trading partners, or conquerors.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the Iron Age began sometime between 1000 and 550 BCE, and it began with the Nok people, a culture that sculpted elaborate terracotta figurines, farmed millet, and developed iron smelting. The first traces of Nok culture appear in Nigeria’s archaeological record around 1500 BCE, and they don’t vanish until 2,000 years later, around 500 CE. Archaeologists still aren’t sure whether the Nok culture arose in Nigeria or whether the Nok people moved south from someplace like modern Mauritania, Mali, Niger, or Chad, where millet is an indigenous crop.

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#ancient-africa, #ancient-food, #archaeology, #gc-ms, #iron-age, #iron-age-africa, #lipid-residues, #science

17th-century pirates might have stashed Middle Eastern coins in New England

Extreme close-up photo of centuries-old coins on blue velvet.

Enlarge / A Yemeni khamsiyat (top left), a Spanish real (top right), and an English shilling (bottom) from the 17th century. (credit: Associated Press)

According to historian and metal-detector enthusiast Jim Bailey, the handful of 17th-century Arabic coins unearthed at sites across New England could be remnants of an infamous pirate’s last big score—or, to put it another way, money stolen from a ship full of religious pilgrims during a horrific mass murder at sea.

“It’s a new history of a nearly perfect crime,” Bailey told the Associated Press.

Bailey found a handful of Colonial-era coins and musket balls, along with a shoe buckle, buried beneath a fruit orchard in Middletown, Rhode Island, in 2014. Amid the English and Colonial-issued coins, Bailey noticed something unusual: a coin as weathered and tarnished as the rest, but engraved in Arabic. It turned out to be a Yemeni coin called a khamsiyat, minted in 1693.

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#archaeology, #metal-detectors, #numismatics, #pilgrimage, #pirates, #science, #slavery

Archaeologists find “lost golden city” buried under sand for 3,400 years

Egyptian archaeologists have discovered a 3400-year-old city just outside Luxor, dating back to the reign of Amenhotop III, grandfather to King Tut.

Enlarge / Egyptian archaeologists have discovered a 3400-year-old city just outside Luxor, dating back to the reign of Amenhotop III, grandfather to King Tut. (credit: Zahi Hawass)

A team of Egyptian archaeologists has unearthed what some describe as an industrial royal metropolis just north of modern-day Luxor, which incorporates what was once the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes (aka Waset). The archaeologists dubbed the site “the lost golden city of Luxor,” and they believe it may have been devoted to manufacturing decorative artifacts, furniture, and pottery, among other items

Hieroglyphic inscriptions found on clay caps of wine vessels at the site date the city to the reign of the 18th-dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep III (1386-1353 B.C.), whose generally peaceful tenure was marked by an especially prosperous era, with Egypt at the peak of its international power. (Mud bricks at the site were also marked with Amenhotep III’s cartouche.) There are more surviving statues of Amenhotep III that any other pharaoh. He was buried in the Valley of the Kings, and his mummy was discovered in 1889. Analysis revealed that Amenhotep III died between 40 and 50 years of age, and he likely suffered from various ailments in his later years (most notably arthritis, obesity, and painful abscesses in his teeth).

The pharaoh’s eldest son and heir, Thutmose, died young, so the throne passed to his second son, Amenhotep IV, who soon changed his name to Akhenaten. (His queen was Nefertiti, and his son, who would eventually assume the throne, was the famous boy-king, Tutankhamun.) Akhenaten rejected the traditional polytheistic religion, dominated by the worship of Amun, and decided to start his own religion. He worshipped Aten instead (hence the name change) and would eventually try to suppress the worship of Amun entirely.

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#amenhotep-iii, #ancient-egypt, #archaeology, #egyptology, #history, #science

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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