Category Archives: Archaeology

8,000-year-old skeletons in Portugal could be world’s oldest mummies

After they revisited photos of ancient human skeletons first exhumed in Portugal’s Sado Valley in the 1960s, archaeologists now believe that the 8,000-year-old remains went through a mummification practice before their burial. This would make the remains the oldest evidence for Mesolithic mummification in Europe. In fact, it could very well be the earliest evidence of mummification in the world.

Researchers performed experiments to study how the human body decomposes in various conditions and positions. This illustration depicts three states of soft tissue decomposition, from the fully fleshed body on day one to body desiccation seven months later. Credit: European Journal of Archaeology.

The oldest evidence of deliberate mummification in Egypt, the most famous region in the world for mummies, is about 5,500 years old. However, researchers believe mummification may have been much more common during prehistoric times and could in fact be much older — it’s just that evidence is hard to come by due to the fragile nature of mummified tissue.

But using a clever technique, it may be possible to tell whether decomposed remains may have originally undergone mummification, significantly extending the timeline of such burial practices.

Excavations in the Sado Valley in southern Portugal, at the sites of Arapouco and Poças de S. Bento, between 1958 and 1964 recovered more than 100 skeletons dating between 8,000 and 7,000 years ago. Unfortunately, much of the original documentation for these extraordinary finds was lost, including photographs, site plans, and field drawings.

That’s until João Luís Cardoso, an archaeologist at the Open University in Lisbon, came across three rolls of film while studying a local archive.

These verified photos depict 13 bodies exhumed in 1961 and 1962, which Cardoso and colleagues used to reconstruct their likely burial positions using an archaeothanatological analysis. Based on knowledge of natural decay processes, this method has made it possible to reconstruct in detail how humans have historically dealt with their dead.

An illustration comparing the burial of a fresh cadaver and a desiccated body that has undergone guided mummification. Credit: Uppsala University and Linnaeus University in Sweden and University of Lisbon in Portugal.

In addition to observations about the spatial distribution of the ancient bones from Sado Valley,  forensic anthropologist Hayley Mickleburgh performed decomposition experiments to predict how human corpses pin different burial positions could look like if they had been mummified or not.

Together, these observations suggest that some of these remains must have been mummified. Although there was no soft tissue left, the archaeologists reached this conclusion based on deductions from indirect evidence like the position of the bodies, with their knees bent and pressed against the chest, as well as the presence of sediment infill around the bones and the absence of disarticulation. An unprepared decomposing corpse will disarticulate at weak joints relatively quickly after its burial, but mummified bodies still preserve articulation.

The authors of the new study believe that before being buried, the desiccating bodies were gradually tightened with ropes, binding the limbs in place and compressing the remains into the desired position. This would explain some of the signs of mummification, which was likely performed to ease transport to the grave and to preserve the shape of the body in life after burial.

Overall, the Portuguese researchers strongly believe that prehistoric mummification may have been much more widespread across the world than previously thought, despite the lack of direct evidence of soft tissue. This is why follow-up observations of ancient archaeological sites using archaeothanatological analysis are paramount in order to uncover new robust evidence of pre-burial practices in prehistory. In other words, this may just be the beginning of a new exciting phase in mummy archaeology.

Whether or not the Sado Valley burials represent the oldest mummies in the world discovered thus far remains contested. The oldest confirmed mummies in the world are the 7,000-year-old Chinchorro mummies, found on Chile’s coast. But people likely mummified their dead much earlier than that, even in hunter-gatherer communities.

The findings appeared in the European Journal of Archaeology.

Ship of legendary explorer Shackleton found in Antarctica 107 years after it sank

The Endurance was finally uncovered, over a century after it sank in the Weddell Sea in Antarctica. The ship was part of a famous expedition led by Sir Ernest Shackleton but got trapped in pack ice, forcing the expedition members to camp for months in the Antarctic and make a heroic escape.

Despite laying under 3km (10,000 feet) of frigid water for over a century, the ship seems to be in impeccable shape, almost frozen in time. The ship was discovered just several kilometers from where it was abandoned after a search mounted by the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust (FMHT) investigated the area for two weeks.

Using a South African icebreaker, Agulhas II, the search team deployed submersible units to comb the area. After coming across various interesting targets, they finally uncovered the wreck site on Saturday, spending the next few days documenting and photographing the site.

In a blog post announcing the find, Director of Exploration Mensun Bound couldn’t contain his excitement:

“Ladies and Gentlemen,

I don’t know how else to say this, so I am going to come straight to the point.

We have found the wreck of the Endurance!”

“In a long career of surveying and excavating historic shipwrecks, I have never seen one as bold and beautiful as this.”

The mission’s leader, the veteran polar geographer Dr. John Shears also told the BBC that this is an incredible achievement, describing the moment when they saw the ship as “jaw-dropping”. Shears also emphasized that this was “the world’s most difficult shipwreck search”, battling blizzards, bitterly cold temperatures, and constantly shifting sea-ice. “We have achieved what many people said was impossible,” Shears said.

Pristine shape

The ship looks much like it did when it was last photographed by Shackleton’s filmmaker, Frank Hurley, in 1915. While some things have obviously broken down, you can still see the hull, the deck, and the porthole window from Shackleton’s cabin. The anchors are still around, as are some of the boots and crockery the crew abandoned with the ship.

“Most remarkable of all was her name – E N D U R A N C E – which arcs across her stern with perfect clarity. And below is the 5-pointed Polaris star. Just as in Hurley’s famous photographs,” Bound adds.

Some sea creatures (such as filter feeders) have colonized the wreck but there don’t seem to be any wood-eating worms that would degrade the ship structurally.

The wreck itself cannot be moved or disturbed in any way, as it is a designated monument under the international Antarctic Treaty. Therefore, researchers can’t bring anything to the surface, and all they’ve done now was to document the position and situation for the ship.

A legendary expedition

Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton led three expeditions into the Antarctic. The one that employed the Endurance was launched in 1914, and Endurance departed from South Georgia, British Overseas Territory in the southern Atlantic Ocean, for the Weddell Sea on 5 December. But the situation quickly took a turn for the worse, as the ship became trapped in an ice floe. The crew waited until February and then realized that the ship would be trapped until spring (in the southern hemisphere, spring starts in September).

Shackleton ordered the conversion of the ship to a winter station, and the crew managed to tough it out until September. But when the ice started to release, the crew’s hopes that the ship would be freed safely were destroyed. The ice put extreme pressure on the ship’s hull, damaging it, and the ship was taking water. In November, the crew abandoned the ship.

The next two months, Shackleton and his crew camped on a large, flat ice floe (basically an ice island), hoping that it would drift towards Paulet Islands 250 miles (402 km) away, where some stores were cached. This too failed. Shackleton decided to set up a more permanent camp on a different flow, hoping to drift to a safe island. This too did not happen. The floe broke in two, and Shackleton’s crew was forced into lifeboats, heading towards the nearest island.

The exhausted men managed to end up their three lifeboats at Elephant Island, 346 miles (557 km) from where the Endurance sank, after being adrift on ice for almost 500 days. Shackleton gave his mittens to photographer Frank Hurley (who had lost his) and suffered severe frostbites as a result. In a desperate last-ditch attempt, Shackleton decided to take one of the three lifeboats and head for whaling stations 720 nautical miles (1,334 km) away.

Launching the lifeboat from the shore of Elephant Island, 24 April 1916.

Shackleton packed minimal supplies and head out with a handful of people, only to be met by a hurricane. They landed on an island and Shackleton and two members braced a yet-untried land route over dangerous, uncharted mountainous terrain. Ultimately, they were able to reach a whaling station and after several tries, rescue the surviving members of the expedition.

The fact that researchers now have such a connection to this expedition is a spectacular achievement. “We will pay our respects to ‘The Boss’,” said Dr. Shears, using the nickname the Endurance crew had for their leader.

Still, the current expedition hopes they can uncover even more from the ship and will now embark on thorough scientific research of the vessel.

“You can even see the holes that Shackleton’s men cut in the decks to get through to the ‘tween decks to salvage supplies, etc, using boat hooks. In particular, there was the hole they cut through the deck in order to get into “The Billabong”, the cabin in “The Ritz” that had been used by Hurley, Leonard Hussey (meteorologist), James McIlroy (surgeon) and Alexander Macklin (surgeon), but which was used to store food supplies at the time the ship went down,” Bound concluded in an article for the BBC.

Stonehenge may be a giant solar calendar whose roots may extend all the way to ancient Egypt

Credit: Antiquity Journal.

Over the years, archaeologists have put forward a number of theories attempting to explain why Stonehenge was built. Now, new research posits that the Stonehenge circles served as a calendar that tracks the solar year of 365.25 days, calibrated by the alignment of the solstices.

However, if that is indeed the case, it’s an odd one with 12 months of 30 days, divided into 10 day weeks. Such calendar designs were previously seen in ancient Egypt, which could mean the Stonehenge timekeeping system may have had its roots elsewhere.

What was Stonehenge used for?

Stonehenge is the world’s most famous Neolithic site but also one of the most enigmatic ancient monuments, whose precise purpose is still a mystery. Much of that mystery comes down to the fact that writing didn’t exist in England until the Romans arrived 2,500 years after the iconic circular stone pillars were raised. In this vacuum, various more or less evidenced-based theories have been proposed.

Some believe Stonehenge is an astronomical calculator, a religious site, or an important community gathering place like a sort of town hall. But whenever there’s a good mystery, fringe communities and their outlandish theories aren’t too far behind.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Stonehenge was a hot spot for hippies and the New Age counterculture, with millions flocking to the Salisbury Plain, a site thought to be imbued with magical and mystical powers. One Canadian gynecologist proposed in 2003 in an essay published in a medical journal that Stonehenge is a metaphorical vulva — the opening by which Earth Mother gave birth to her plants and animals. The article employed side-by-side illustrations of Stonehenge seen from above and female genitalia. Others think that, like the Egyptian pyramids, Stonehenge couldn’t have been possibly built by prehistoric humans. Instead, it was obviously made by aliens who used the stone pillars as a landing pad for their spacecraft. Yeah…

But ancient alien-origin enthusiasts may have gotten one thing right: Stonehenge most likely had a strong connection to the cosmos and the stars, specifically the hot glowing giant ball of helium and hydrogen close by, the Sun.

Small-sized sarsen stone S21 (left) in the Sarsen Circle, with the normal-sized S22 to the right. View looking outwards from inside the circle. Credit: Antiquity Journal, Timothy Darvill.

In a new study published today in the journal Antiquity, Professor Timothy Darvill from Bournemouth University in England takes a fresh look at the most recent evidence from the Salisbury archaeological site, concluding Stonehenge’s sarsen elements represent a calendar based on a tropical solar year of 365.25 days. But this calendar is just a tool. Its grander purpose, according to the researchers, was to facilitate festivals and ceremonies.

“I’ve been working on Stonehenge for more than 30 years and in 2008 undertook excavations inside the stone settings at the centre of the site. That led us to start looking at the individual components of the monument and wondering how they all fitted together. Instead of seeing it as one big structure we now see it as several pieces that fit together, rather like in modern times one might see a church or temple as having different elements each of which is connected with different aspects of the working of the site,” Darvill told ZME Science.

The solar origin of one of the most mysterious places on Earth

Most archaeologists agree that the current still standing Stonehenge structure was preceded by an earthwork circle built on the same spot, which seems to have been a cemetery for cremated bodies. Some 500 years later, between 2600 and 2500 BC, Stonehenge as we know it was built once it entered “Stage 2” with the constructions of the three sarsen structures –the Trilithons, Sarsen Circle, and the Station Stone Rectangle. Sarsen stones refer to the vertical pillars, which were capped by horizontal lintels.

Building Stonehenge with Neolithic technology is literally a monumental task. Each sarsen weighs 25 tons on average and could have required at least 1,000 people each to transport it over a distance of 24 km (15 miles). As such, it must have taken multiple generations to complete the project. But once in place, these components weren’t altered or moved ever again, a fact supported by analyses showing that most of the stones were quarried from a single source on the Marlborough Downs.

Summary of the way in which the numerology of sarsen elements at Stonehenge combine to create a perpetual solar calendar. Non-sarsen elements have been omitted for clarity. Drawing by V. Constant/Antiquity Journal.

It is under this guise of a unified group that the sarsen elements need to be understood, Darvill argues. This way, their “numerical significance” opens up the possibility that they represent building blocks for a calendar based on the 365.25 solar days in the mean tropical year. Each of the 30 stones in the sarsen circle represents a day within a month. One month is divided into three weeks each of 10 days, with distinctive stones in the circle marking the start of each week.

“The recognition that the sarsen stone elements have an integrity because the stones are almost all from the same source and were put up at the site at the same time. Given these observations, it seems likely that they also have an integrity of structure. What makes it novel is that while many people have tried to find a calendar in the arrangement of stones, non-one has previously shown how one might actually work. The perpetual solar calendar is very easy to use,” Darvill said.

Under this logic, every stone has its place and purpose. The five Trilithons in the center of the site represent the intercalary month, while the four Station Stones outside the Sarsen Circle serve as markers to notch up until a leap day. In doing so, the ancient people of Stonehenge managed to frame the winter and summer solstices by the same pair of stones every year. One of the trilithons also frames the winter solstice, perhaps marking the new year.

A 10-day week calendar seems odd, but the researchers claim that these were more common during this period. A very similar solar calendar was developed in the eastern Mediterranean around 3000 BC and was adopted in ancient Egypt as the Civil Calendar, still widely used in the Old Kingdom at about 2600 BC. This raises the genuine possibility that the calendar was imported from the continent, with archaeological evidence supporting the existence of trade and cultural networks that could have facilitated this knowledge transfer. The study mentions the nearby “Amesbury Archer”, who was buried nearby around the same period Stage 2 was erected, but was actually born thousands of miles away in the Alps and moved to Britain as a teenager.

However, there’s more to Stonehenge than just an oversized time-keeping device. The huge efforts undertaken at Stonehenge hint that the ancient site served a very important purpose. The researchers believe the calendar helped local communities synchronize conceptual cosmologies with the solar cycle, “so that the received narratives could be understood in ways that structured behaviors and relationships.”As such, the stone circles were essential for timing celebrations and other crucial rituals. Secondly, the calendar allowed elites to acquire and legitimize power, since they were the ones who now control the timing of important communal events and the interpretation of cosmologies as signs and messages from the gods.

“Time-reckoning systems bring communities closer to their gods by ensuring that events occur at propitious moments. Astrology was an important, though controversial, tool in ancient medicine and healing rites. An accurate calendar was required to maximise effects that depended on people being in the right place at the right time,” the researchers wrote in their study.

Although plausible, not everyone is convinced by this conclusion. Speaking to ZME Science, archaeologist Mike Pitts described the new proposal as “ingenious” but adds that it would be equally possible to come up with other explanations.

“For example, there could have been a “Fellowship of the Ring” with five or 10 members. The largest and most prominent stones are the five trilithons (each two uprights and one lintel). These could represent five different societies that had formed an alliance, which they marked by building Stonehenge. If the trilithons were heads (a male and female leader, say, united by a lintel) each of the five could then be represented by six descendant families, symbolised by stones in the circle (giving 30) united by the ring of lintels that joins them,” said Pitts, who is the editor of the publication British Archaeology and the author of a number of notable books on Stonehenge.

“Entirely fanciful, but no more or less supported by evidence than a calendar.”

Pitts added that it would be odd for Stonehenge society not to use the lunar cycle, especially since the lunar month could be neatly represented by the 30 stones in the circle.

“Almost all recorded human societies, at any time or place, have used the sun and moon to mark time. That there are roughly 365 days in a year is a fact of living on Earth. The people who built Stonehenge almost certainly had a calendar and it is very likely it was based on observations of the sky. There is no need to invoke connections with societies on the other side of Europe to explain this,” Pitts said.

Whatever may be the case, the origin and meaning of Stonehenge are still far from settled.

“There is still so much more to know about Stonehenge,” Darvill concludes.

Intricate Roman mosaic discovered right next to iconic London skyscraper

If there’s a place you wouldn’t expect to find Roman archaeology, it’s probably smack down in the middle of a big city like London. But that’s exactly where researchers from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) have found two decorated panels set in what is would have once been a Roman dining room from the late second or early third century AD. The mosaics lie close to The Shard, a 72-story skyscraper in central London.

Credits: MOLA / Andy Choppin.

The Romans deployed mosaics in a variety of private and public buildings, either on floors or on walls (though those on floors are far more likely to survive in time). They typically depict either artistic motifs or heroic/historical scenes.

In this case, the larger section measuring of the mosaic (measuring 5m x 3.5m / 16.4 x 11.4 feet) features the former: large, colorful flowers and bands of intertwining strands — a relatively common motif known as a guilloche. Meanwhile, the smaller of the two mosaics measuring 1m x 1.5m (3.2 x 4.8 feet) has a simpler design, with two examples of a decorative motif found in many cultures called Solomon’s knot, consisting of two intertwined stylized flowers and geometric motifs in red.

Needless to say, researchers were not expecting something like this in the heart of London.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime find in London. It has been a privilege to work on such a large site where the Roman archaeology is largely undisturbed by later activity – when the first flashes of color started to emerge through the soil everyone on site was very excited,” MOLA site supervisor, Antonietta Lerz, told the BBC.

Credits: MOLA / Andy Choppin.

The mosaics were part of a Roman mansio — an official stopping place on a Roman road, or via, maintained by the central government for the use of officials and those on official business. Think of it as a sort of upmarket motel for Roman officials with business in and around the Roman city of Londinium, the capital of Roman Britain. The Roman Londinium, founded around AD 47–50, would go on to become London. The mansio was likely located on the outskirts of Londinium, connecting the city to the main road.

The excavations are part of a local regeneration program, which will design a new neighborhood comprising of homes, workspace, shops, and restaurants. The project, called the Liberty of Southwark, has already made several valuable archaeological findings, offering a window into Roman-day London.

The mosaics will now be carefully recorded and relocated off-site, where more elaborate conservation work is to be carried out. Afterward, they will be displayed publicly, though details have not been announced. Two more London mosaics (discovered in 1803 and 1869) are currently under display at the Museum of London and the British Museum respectively.

Ultimately, after the relocation and conservation work is done, work will continue on the construction project.

Credits: MOLA / Andy Choppin.

British archeologists uncover 5,000-year-old stone drum in the grave of three children

One of the “most significant ancient objects ever found in the British Isles”, a stone-carved drum, will be put on display at the British Museum starting next week.

The 5,000-year-old drum, carved from chalk. Image credits The British Museum.

Art is hard to define, but it can be very easy to recognize. A 5,000-year-old drum, carved from a block of chalk uncovered near Yorkshire in northern England in 2015, definitely seems to fit the bill. According to Neil Wilkin, the curator of the exhibition “The World of Stonehenge” at the British Museum, this is one of the most remarkable archeological discoveries ever made in Britain.

The piece will go on display at the exhibition, which opens February 17, for the public to enjoy and discuss.

Stone and roll

“This is a truly remarkable discovery, and is the most important piece of prehistoric art to be found in Britain in the last 100 years,” said Neil Wilkin.

According to the Museum, this drum is one of the most significant objects ever discovered on the British Isles. By all indication, it is not a functional musical instrument — as it is carved from a single piece of chalk and has no internal resonance cavity — but was, rather, created as a talisman or artistic sculpture.

The drum was discovered in the grave of three children that were buried close together, either touching or holding hands. It was placed above the head of the eldest child, together with a chalk ball and a pin made from polished bone. The burial site lies around 240 miles (380 kilometers) from Stonehenge near the village of Burton Agnes.

It is one of only four known examples of its kind. Known as the Folkton Drums, all three are part of the British Museum’s collections. The other three were discovered in 1889 at the burial site of a single child around 15 miles (24 kilometers) from the site ar Burton Agnes. They are currently on loan to the Stonehenge Visitor Centre.

These drums are “some of the most famous and enigmatic ancient objects ever unearthed in Britain”, according to the Museum, with the most recent one “of the most elaborately decorated objects of this period found anywhere in Britain and Ireland”.

Radiocarbon dating places the creation of the drum between 3005 and 2890 BC, the same time as the first construction phase of Stonehenge. As such, it provides invaluable cultural context regarding that time.

“Analysis of its carvings will help to decipher the symbolism and beliefs of the era in which Stonehenge was constructed,” said Wilkin.

These drums showcase the fact that communities across Britain and Ireland maintained quite significant levels of contact and communications, as they shared artistic styles of expressions and, as suggested by the discovery of these objects in burial sites, spiritual beliefs.

The drums are all sculpted out of local chalk and adorned with stylized human faces and geometric patterns. A pair of concentric circles with pairs of eyes on each drum resembles a human face.

While it is still unclear what the purpose of these drums were — ritual purposes are definitely involved here — archaeologist Anne Teather notes that they may have been teaching aides or items meant to maintain standardization of measurement. She notes that the circumferences of each of the drums form whole-number divisions of ten long feet (ten, nine, and eight times, respectively), which was a unit of measuring distance in wide use in stone-age Britain.

While it’s very likely that other such drums were fashioned from more accessible and more easily processed materials such as wood, these examples were carved out of stone (likely for ceremonial purposes), which helped them survive through the ages.

Modern humans ventured into Neanderthal territory much earlier than we thought

Until now, archaeological findings suggested that Neanderthals disappeared from Europe about 40,000 years ago, soon after the arrival of Homo sapiens – with limited evidence of encounters between the two groups. But a new study is now saying otherwise, showing evidence that Homo sapiens ventured into Europe much earlier than we thought, deep into Neanderthal territory. 

Image credit: The researchers.

The discovery of a child’s tooth and hundreds of stone tools at a cave in France by a group of archaeologists and paleoanthropologists pushes back the arrival of Homo sapiens to about 54,000 years ago. The study also showed that the two types of humans alternated in living in the cave, located in the Rhone region of France.

“We’ve often thought that the arrival of modern humans in Europe led to the pretty rapid demise of Neanderthals, but this new evidence suggests that both the appearance of modern humans in Europe and disappearance of Neanderthals is much more complex than that,” study coauthor Chris Stringer said in a press statement.

A long-term project

Since 1990, the team of researchers has been carefully investigating the sediment on the cave floor. The site is a strategic point in the landscape, they argue, as the river Rhone flows through a narrow between two mountain ranges. Inhabitants of the site would have clear views of herds of animals, today replaced by trains and a highway.

The researchers now discovered hundreds of thousands of objects that they attributed to either modern humans or Neanderthals. These included triangular stone points that were used by Homo sapiens to cut or scrape and as spear tips. Similar tools from the same period were found 3,000 kilometers (1,900 miles) away in present-day Lebanon.

Image credit: The researchers.

Dental remains from at least seven individuals across 12 archaeological layers were also found in the cave. The researchers identified six of these individuals as Neanderthal. But there was a surprise. In a layer between the Neanderthal layers, the team found a fossil moral from a modern human child, between two and six years old.

While they couldn’t find evidence of cultural exchanges between modern humans and Neanderthals who alternated the cave, the succession of occupants is significant on its own. It’s the first-time evidence of the two groups living in the same place is found. They rotated quite rapidly, even abruptly, at least twice, according to the study. 

Understanding human history is a tricky process, but an important one. Modern humans originated in Africa and made their first migration between 50,000 to 70,000 years ago. Ancient hominins existed and coexisted before the emergence of Homo sapiens. Some of these groups are identified by fossils, while others by their genetic legacy. 

Many questions now remain after the study, as the researchers explain in a blog post in The Conversation. Did modern humans have a relationship with the Neanderthals, exchanging information for example? Did they interbreed at some point? How did modern humans learn about the stone tools in such a short period of time? 

“The findings are really exciting and are another piece in the puzzle of how and when modern humans arrived in Europe,” Stringer said. “Understanding more about the overlap between modern humans and other hominins in Eurasia is vital to understanding more about their interactions, and how we became the last remaining human species.”

The study was published in the journal Science Advances

How Neanderthals made indoor cave fires without choking

Reconstruction of ancient human in the Lazaret Cave, France. Credit: De Lumley, M. A.

Although early humans moved about from place to place with the seasons in search of food, they often used caves on a semi-permanent basis. These convenient natural dwellings offered shelter to small communities of hunter-gathers and were the focal center of many of their activities, from cooking to religious ceremonies. To supplement these activities, Neanderthals and early modern humans would often make fires inside the cave to roast their meat, warm themselves during cold nights, and illuminate the dark cavern. But there’s a problem: fires make a lot of smoke, and indoor smoke has the propensity to choke and blind people. So how did they do it?

According to a new study performed by archaeologists at Tel Aviv University, the indoor fires worked because they were perfectly planned. Ran Barkai and colleagues built a virtual model of the famous Lazaret Cave on the French Mediterranean coast, placing 16 hypothetical hearths throughout the cave, studying how smoke moved for each.

The Grotte du Lazaret along the French Riviera was excavated for many years, providing archaeologists and anthropologists with rich evidence including hearths of Neanderthals or their close relatives around 160,000 years ago. The cave offers generous living spaces, measuring 40 meters deep, up to 15 meters high, and 15 meters wide. Although Homo sapiens lived in this cave as well, judging from skeletal remains, some 40,000 years ago, Lazaret’s long history sheltering humans is largely tied to Neanderthals.

For each hypothetical hearth, the researchers simulated smoke density throughout the 290-square-meter cave. It turned out that the spot with the most optimal smoke dispersion coincided with the location of the actual hearths unearthed in the sediment layers of the cave. These hearths were all very closely placed across more than 150,000 years of habitation in virtually the same spot, around 13 meters from the cave mouth, roughly at the center of the cave.

In this location, the fire could be exploited to its fullest for various activities and needs while exposing them to a minimal amount of smoke. The least favorable location was the cave’s entrance — although the risk of smoke pollution is the lowest there, such a hearth is too far away to support other essential activities.

Previously, archaeologists had found multiple hearths across the cave’s 28 defined sediment layers (each corresponding to a distinct period of occupation), all of which were confined to the same five-square-meter area at the center of the cave. This prime location was close to areas of specialized activity, including those reserved for butchering animals like red deer, a space for drying and cooking meat, a dining area, another that served as a trash bin for discarded bones, a tool-making area, and sleeping quarters.

Neanderthal interior designers

This prehistoric cave organization was not random but rather planned, according to the location of the fireplace.

“It is clear to us that once they entered, they made a survey of the cave and they invited a Neanderthal internal designer, and they decided, ‘We’ll put the kitchen here, we’ll put the sleeping area over here,’ and so on,” Barkai said.

These findings speak volumes about the organizational capabilities of Neanderthals, who were able to choose the perfect location for their hearth and manage the cave’s space as early as 170,000 years ago — long before modern humans set foot in Europe.

“This ability reflects ingenuity, experience, and planned action, as well as awareness of the health damage caused by smoke exposure. In addition, the simulation model we developed can assist archaeologists excavating new sites, enabling them to look for hearths and activity areas at their optimal locations,” Professor Barkai concludes.

The use of fire by early humans is still a matter of contention. Questions remain about when exactly in our evolution humans learned how to control fire and ignite it at a will and when humans began using fire on a daily basis. But if Lazaret is any indication, at least some groups of Neanderthals seemed to have a very good grasp of ancient pyrotechnics.

The findings were reported in the journal Scientific Reports.

Inca-era human ‘vertebrae on posts’ may have been one last-ditch effort to save their ancestors’ remains from Conquistador looting

Some of the vertebrae-on-reed posts that were found in the Andes. Credit: C. O’Shea/Antiquity Publications Ltd

Archeologists were startled to find over 200 reed sticks strung up with human vertebrae while exploring tombs in Peru. These peculiar burial customs, which date from the 16th century, have invited all sorts of speculation as to their purpose. Although at first glance it seems like this manipulation of human remains looks like a desecration of fallen enemies, a new study suggests the opposite. According to archeologists from the UK, Colombia, and the USA, these ‘vertebrae-on-posts’ are a response to tomb destruction performed extensively by Spanish conquistadors during the early colonization of South America – a desperate act by local Andean indigenous communities to salvage the remains of their ancestors.

The odd reed posts threaded with vertebrae were first uncovered in 2012 during an archaeological expedition to Peru’s Chincha Valley, inside the ruins of stone burial chambers called chullpas. Among the team was Jacob Bongers, who at the time was still a graduate student. Over the years, Bongers would return to the site, examining chullpas across the valley, once part of a prosperous nation known as the Chincha Kingdom, before its incorporation into the mighty Inca Empire during the Late Horizon period (after 1400 AD).

Chullpas. Credit: J.L. Bongers/Antiquity

Now an archeologist at the Sainsbury Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, Bongers has documented 192 individual examples of vertebrae-on-posts, with bones belonging to both children and adults. One of the sets even had a skull threaded. There is no evidence of cut marks, which suggests the bones were placed on the sticks after the skeletal remains were exposed, and the vertebrae aren’t strung up in their natural order.

At first, the scientists thought that the threaded vertebrae were the object of a bad joke by looters. But as they kept finding more, it became clear there was more to it and a systematic and unique burial practice was unfolding before their eyes. Interviews with locals who had encountered similar burials confirmed the vertebrae-threaded posts weren’t made by looters and are likely very old. Just how old no one could tell them.

In a study published this week in the journal Antiquity, Bongers and international colleagues performed radiocarbon dating of some of the samples, finding they are about 500 years old, dating between 1520 and 1550 C.E. This timeline places the remains into a brutal historical context, when early European colonists were in actively campaigning to obliterate Inca culture, particularly Andean religious practices that were seen as heretical. To Bongers, this context may serve to explain the chullpas reed sticks: remains in an advanced state of decomposition were strung up wooden poles deliberately to transport and store them to other, more remote tombs where they would be spared from the foreigners’ desecration.

Credit: J. Gmez Meja/Antiquity 

The Colonial period was devastating to the Chincha, whose population plummeted from over 30,000 heads of households in 1533 to just 979 households in 1583 through a combination of disease, famine, and murder. Tomb looting was also widespread, as chronicled by Peruvian historian Pedro Cieza de León, who wrote “there was an enormous number of graves in this valley in the hills and wastelands. Many of them were opened by the Spaniards, and they removed large sums of gold”. 

 “When the Spanish came in and looted these tombs, they are ripping up textile bundles and looking for gold, they are looking for silver,” Bongers told Haaretz. “You can imagine it being a fairly violent act, bodies and body parts are being scattered about.”

The looting was seen as a great transgression, perhaps much greater than in other cultures given the special relationship Andean societies had with their dead. Starting with the second millennium BCE, and perhaps much earlier, cultural traditions in the Andes often involved the removal and modification of parts of dead human bodies. This includes removing the hands from old remains and depositing them elsewhere as offerings, as well as trophies like Nazca heads, drums made from flayed human skins, skulls carved into drinking cups, and more.

It was also common to keep the mummified remains of family members out in the open, from common households to palaces. These open and public tombs invited the community to venerate their ancestors by placing offerings or, on some occasions, parading the remains during festivals.

To European conquistadors and their Judeo-Christian mindset, these were unacceptable spectacles of heresy.

“In this vein, we argue that after chullpas were looted—possibly as part of European campaigns to extirpate Indigenous religious practices—local groups re-entered these graves to assemble disaggregated human remains by threading posts through vertebrae. As looting became widespread and epidemics and famine decimated the Chincha population in the sixteenth century AD, it is possible that communities across the Chincha Valley coordinated to string vertebrae on reeds to reconstruct the dead. This social process may have served as a means of restoring the potency of the formerly corrupted dead,” the authors wrote in their study.

This interpretation is, for the time being, a sort of educated speculation. The researchers hope to uncover more insights using genetic sequencing of remains from tombs where vertebrae strung on posts were found, as well as elsewhere.

What’s behind the mystery of Easter Island’s statues?

Credit: Pixabay.

Located smack in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean, Easter Island is one of the most enigmatic places in the world. Even to this day, no one is sure how the first humans on the island managed to paddle at least 3,600 kilometers – the shortest distance from mainland South America. But the most mysterious feature of Easter Island is the nearly 1,000 monolithic statues that dot its surface.  

We still don’t know how exactly the islanders moved the human-head-on-torso statues, known as “moai” in the native language. Why the early Easter islands undertook this colossal effort deep in their isolation is also a mystery.

Unfortunately, the natives did not keep a written record and the oral history is scant. But recent research is starting to fit at least some of the pieces into this puzzle, providing clues as to the purpose and significance of these stone giants that have stirred the public’s imagination for so long.

A most intriguing island and people

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Easter Island, or Rapa Nui as it is known by the indigenous people, is truly a unique place. Although Pacific islands conjure the image of a tropical paradise, the triangular Easter Island is a very rugged landscape, lacking coral reefs and idyllic beaches. Geologically speaking, Easter Island is an amalgamation of three volcanoes that erupted sometime around 780,000 to 110,000 years ago, so it’s an extremely young island. It lies near the western end of a 2,500-kilometer-long chain of underwater volcanoes called the Easter Seamount Chain that resembles the classic Hawaiian hot spot track.

The original colonizers of the island are thought to have voyaged 2,000 kilometers from southeastern Polynesia in open canoes, or as far as 3,600 kilometers from mainland Chile. The most recent archeological evidence suggests colonization didn’t occur until about 1200 C.E. From that time until Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen first spied it on Easter Day 1722 – hence the island’s name – the people of Easter Island lived in absolute isolation from the outside world. No one from Easter Island sailed back to the mainland, nor did anyone from the mainland come to visit.

Once these people arrived at the island, that was it. They were stuck there and had to work with the limited resources they had at their disposal — and it wasn’t much.  The volcanic material meant much of the soil was unusable for agriculture, but the natives did manage to grow yams, sweet potatoes, bottle gourds, sugar cane, taro, and bananas.

Intriguingly, although the island is tiny, which at 164 square kilometers is slightly smaller than Washington D.C., people were segregated into multiple clans that maintained their distinct cultures. Archeological evidence shows stylistically distinct artifacts in communities only 500 meters apart, while DNA and isotope analyses of the natives’ remains also showed that they didn’t stray too far from their homes, despite the small population size.

Speaking of which, researchers disagree about the size of the island’s population. Some estimate the population peaked at about 15,000, before it crashed to just a few thousand prior to European contact. Most estimates, however, hover at around 3,000 by 1350 C.E., and remained more or less stable until Roggeveen spotted the island, after which the population started decreasing as slavery and mass deportation followed shortly thereafter.

But what seems certain is that the Easter Island civilization was in decline well before Europeans first set foot on its shores. Easter Island used to be covered by palm trees for 30,000 years, as many as 16 million of them, some towering 30 meters high — but it is largely treeless today. Early settlers burned down woods to open spaces for farming and began to rapidly increase in population. Besides unsustainable deforestation, there is evidence that palm seed shells were gnawed on by rats, which would have badly impacted the trees’ ability to reproduce.

Once most of the trees were gone, the entire ecosystem rapidly deteriorated: the soil eroded, most birds vanished along with other plant life, there was no wood available to build canoes or dwellings, people started starving and the population crashed. When Captain James Cook arrived at the island in 1774, his crew counted roughly 700 islanders, living miserable lives, their once mighty canoes reduced to patched fragments of driftwood.

For this reason, the fate of Easter Island and the self-destructive behavior of its populace has often been called “ecocide”, a cautionary tale that serves as a reminder of what can happen when humans use their local resources unsustainably. However, more recent research suggests that deforestation was gradual rather than abrupt. And, in any event, archeological evidence shows that the Rapanui people were resilient even in the face of deforestation and remained healthy until European contact, which contradicts the popular view of a cultural collapse prior to 1722.

So, perhaps the Rapanui weren’t as foolish and reckless as some have suggested. After all, they not only managed to flourish for centuries on the most remote inhabited island in the world but built some of the most impressive monuments in history, the amazing moai (pronounced mo-eye)

What we know about the mysterious moai

Moai with fully visible bodies. Credit: Pixabay.

Archeologists have documented 887 of the massive statues, known as moai, but there may be as many as 1,000 of them on the island. These massive statues carved from volcanic rock usually weigh 80 tons and can reach 10 meters (32.8 ft) in height, though the average is around half that. The largest moai, dubbed “El Gigante”, weighs around 150 tons and towers at an impressive 20 meters (65.6 ft), while the smallest only measures 1.13 meters (3.7 ft). Each moai, carved in the form of an oversized male head on a torso, sits on a stone platform called ahu.

“We could hardly conceive how these islanders, wholly unacquainted with any mechanical power, could raise such stupendous figures,” the British mariner Captain James Cook wrote in 1774.

Archaeologists have documented 887 of the massive statues, known as moai, but there may be up as many as 1,000 of them on the island. These massive statues carved in volcanic rock usually weigh 80 tons and can reach 10 meters in height, though the average is around half that. The largest moai, dubbed “El Gigante”, weighs around 150 tons and towers at an impressive 20 meters, while the smallest only measures 1.13 meters. Each moai, carved in the form of an oversized male head with bust, sits on a stone platform called ahu.

More than 95% of the moai were carved in a quarry at the volcano Rano Raraku. This quarry is rich in tuff, compressed volcanic ash that is easy to carve with limited tools. The natives had no metal at all and only used stone tools called toki.

From the quarry, the heavy statues were transported to the coast, often kilometers away. They likely employed wooden logs which they rolled to move the massive monoliths or used wooden sleds pulled by ropes. However they managed to transport the statues, they did so very gently, without breaking the nose, lips, and other features. Accidents did sometimes happen though, since there are a few statues with broken heads and statues lying at the bottom of slopes.

Eyeholes would not be carved into the statues until they reached their destination. In the Rapanui civilization’s later years, a pukao of red scoria stone from the Pruna Pau quarry would sometimes be placed on the head of the statue, a sign of mana (mental power). The final touch would be marked with eyes of coral, thereby completing the moai, turning it into an ‘ariŋa ora or living face.

However, half of all identified moai, nearly 400 statues, were found still idling at the Rano Raraku quarry. Only a third of the statues reached their final resting place while around 10% were found lying ‘in transit’ outside of Rano Raraku. It’s unclear why so many moai never left their quarry after the craftsmen went to such lengths to carve them, but the great challenges when attempting to move such large blocks of stone didn’t make it easy.

Most of the transported moai are believed to have been carved, moved, and erected between 1400 and 1600 BCE. By the time Cook arrived at the island, the natives seem to have stopped carving such statues — or at least not nearly as the rate they used to — and were neglecting those still standing.

What were the moai for?

Many of the transported moai are found on Easter Islands’ southeast coast, positioned with their backs to the sea. The consensus among archaeologists is that they represent the spirits of the ancestors, chiefs, and other high-ranking males who made important contributions to Rapanui culture. However, the statues don’t capture the defining features of individuals, as you’d see in Roman or Greek sculptures of, say, Caesar or Alexander the Great. Instead, they’re all more or less standardized in design, representing a generic male head with exaggerated features.

Carl Lipo, an anthropologist at Binghamton University in central New York, doesn’t buy into the idea that moai represent their ancestors. There are no ahu and statues found on the top of hills, the obvious place where you’d expect to find monuments meant to send a symbolic message. The moai are instead placed right next to where the natives lived and worked, which suggests they may be landmarks positioned near a valuable resource.

Lipo and colleagues mapped the location of the moai alongside the location of various important resources, such as farmlands, freshwater, and good fishing spots. The statistical analysis suggests the moai sites were most associated with sources of potable water.

“Every single time we found a big source of freshwater, there would be a statue and an ahu. And we saw this over and over and over again. And places where we didn’t find freshwater, we didn’t find statues and ahu,” Lipo told Scientific American, adding that the statues weren’t exactly markers that communicate “this is where you can find drinking water”. That would have been highly impractical considering the Herculean task of carving and moving the statues. Instead, the statues were placed where they are since that’s where people could find the resources they needed to survive.

Since there were many culturally distinct tribes on the small island and there is a great deal of variation in terms of size for the statues, the moai could also serve to signal status to neighboring communities. Large statues are costly, meaning the biggest moai could be regarded as proof that a particular group of tribesmen is clever and hard-working.

Another line of thought suggests the statues are sacred sites of worship. When Roggeveen arrived on the island in 1722, he described in his ship log how he witnessed natives praying to the statues.

“The people had, to judge by appearances, no weapons; although, as I remarked, they relied in case of need on their gods or idols which stand erected all along the sea shore in great numbers, before which they fall down and invoke them. These idols were all hewn out of stone, and in the form of a man, with long ears, adorned on the head with a crown, yet all made with skill: whereat we wondered not a little. A clear space was reserved around these objects of worship by laying stones to a distance of twenty or thirty paces. I took some of the people to be priests, because they paid more reverence to the gods than did the rest; and showed themselves much more devout in their ministrations. One could also distinguish these from the other people quite well, not only by their wearing great white plugs in their ear lobes, but in having the head wholly shaven and hairless.”

Finally, the giant stone sculptures may have served an important role in farming — not for astronomy purposes as seen with other megalithic sites like Stonehenge but in the very literal sense. The soil on Easter Island is highly prone to erosion, especially in the absence of the once plentiful woods. But when Jo Anne Van Tilburg, an archeologist and head of the Easter Island Statue Project, sampled the soil around quarries, she found it was unexpectedly fertile, high in calcium and phosphorus.

“Our analysis showed that in addition to serving as a quarry and a place for carving statues, Rano Raraku also was the site of a productive agricultural area,” Tilburg said in a statement.

“Coupled with a fresh-water source in the quarry, it appears the practice of quarrying itself helped boost soil fertility and food production in the immediate surroundings,” said Dr. Sarah Sherwood, a geoarchaeologist and soils specialist at the University of the South in Sewanee and a member of the Easter Island Statue Project.

In related research, anthropologist Mara Mulrooney of the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu analyzed various archeological sites on the island and found the Rapanui people cultivated gardens of yams, sweet potatoes, taro and other crops in enclosures with stones and boulders strategically placed on the soil. The rocks not only protected the plants from the wind and deterred weed growth but also boosted soil nutrients thanks to the weathering of minerals.

When Tilburg and Sherwood excavated two of 21 partially buried statues on the slopes of Rano Raraku, they revealed each statue was etched with crescent shapes and other figures on their back. A carved human head found resting against the base of one of the statues suggests that these moai may have served a ceremonial purpose of some kind, perhaps related to plant growth.

Carved designs on the back of an Easter Island statue suggest that the stone creation was used in soil fertility rituals, researchers say. Credit: Easter Island Project.

If quarry sites were the main farming plots, this would explain why so many statues haven’t been moved from their origin. Perhaps the islanders were not aware that the volcanic statues were making the soil fertile thanks to the minerals they contain, and instead attributed their plant growth to some divine intervention. As such, the statues may serve a double role as a ritual object and fertilizer. 

The culture of Easter Island and why the heads are there is something we may never fully understand, but with each archeological trip, we are getting closer to uncovering the secrets of the Rapanui.

Eating meat may have not been decisive trigger in human evolution

For decades, the theory that eating meat enabled our ancestors to develop their brains and bodies was prevalent. But the theory may not stand up to scrutiny.

Evidence of carnivory and butchery can be found in bones, showing cut marks from early tools. Image credits: Briana Pobiner/George Washington University.

Many quintessential human traits are associated with Homo erectus, a species of archaic human that emerged some 2 million years ago. H. erectus was the first human ancestor to spread throughout Eurasia, ranging from today’s Spain to Indonesia. If you’d like to pinpoint an ancestor to humanity, H. erectus would be as good a guess as any.

We don’t have much fossil evidence about H. erectus, but from what little we have discovered, it seems that meat-eating increased once H. erectus entered the stage. Many anthropologists interpreted this as direct causation, proposing that consuming meat may have provided these archaic humans with the energy required to develop bigger, more potent brains. Meat eating would also help explain why the stomachs of these ancestors became smaller (which can happen with carnivores). The theory was first published in 1995 and has remained popular since.

But the theory may be influenced by sampling bias. Simply put, researchers say, we’ve been looking too much into some pieces of evidence and not enough into others. Dr. W. A. Barr, the study’s lead author, explains:

“Generations of paleoanthropologists have gone to famously well-preserved sites in places like Olduvai Gorge looking for, and finding, breath-taking direct evidence of early humans eating meat, furthering the viewpoint that there was an explosion of meat eating after two million years ago.”

“However, when you quantitatively synthesize the data from numerous sites across eastern Africa to test this hypothesis, as we did here, the “meat made us human” evolutionary narrative starts to unravel.”

The Olduvai Gorge or Oldupai Gorge in Tanzania is one of the most important paleoanthropological localities in the world. Image via Wiki Commons.

In the new study, researchers analyzed 59 sites spread across 9 areas of east Africa, dating from 2.6 to 1.2 million years ago. They were expecting to find signs of increasing meat consumption across this period. They used several metrics to quantify meat-eating: the number of sites that preserved signs of butchering, the total count of animal bones across sites, and the number of different layers in which meat had been discovered.

In principle, their method was simple: let’s see if, for instance, the percentage of bones bearing butchering marks increases after the emergence of H. erectus. This turned out not to be the case: instead, sites that had more bones also had more butchered bones — but the percentage was stable over time. In addition, the researchers say, sites with fewer bones have been less intensively investigated.

1.5 million year old fossil bones with cut marks from Koobi Fora, Kenya. Image credits: Briana Pobiner.

This doesn’t necessarily rule out the theory that meat was essential in our human development, but it does show that we need much more evidence if we want to support it. It also shows just how easy it is to find evidence to support your idea when you’re looking for it. Several studies have noted the number of animal bones carved by H. erectus, but previous studies have not compared the number of these bones to the total number of bones. Dr Briana Pobiner, one of the study’s co-authors, says:

“This study changes our understanding of what the zooarchaeological record tells us about the earliest prehistoric meat-eating. It also shows how important it is that we continue to ask big questions about our evolution, while we also continue to uncover and analyze new evidence about our past.”

Researchers also explained that we’re seeing an incomplete picture because when it comes to fossils, we’re at the mercy of nature. For instance, older layers (from right before H. erectus) are less likely to form useful fossils, so we have a poorer understanding of what was going on before this time.

If the extra nutrients humans likely needed didn’t come from meat, they could have come from better tools or cooking techniques — but these theories also need more evidence, the researchers conclude.

The study was published in PNAS.

The frozen poop knife: debunking a popular myth

An example of a “hand-shaped” knife blade made out of frozen human feces by anthropologists at Kent State University. Image credits: Metin et al (2019).

Inuit stories can get pretty dark — probably a result of living in the constant cold of the Arctic and subarctic. But this particular story is something else.

According to legend, a family in the 1940s (or 50s, depending on the version) wanted to abandon the rough, nomadic lifestyle of the Inuits. But the grandfather wanted to stay. He refused to come along, clinging to his traditions. To push him to leave, the family took away all his tools. But instead, the man stepped outside, defecated, waited for his poop to freeze, and then fashioned it into a frozen blade, sharpening it with a spray of his saliva.

This is where it gets even darker — and if you want to be spared the gruesome details, you may want to skip this paragraph. Using his poop-fashioned blade, the man killed a dog, used its ribcage to fashion a sled and its hide to conceil another dog, and then just sled away on his ghastly construction, never to be seen again.

It’s a pretty good story. But according to researchers, it can’t be true.

For shits and giggles

The story was popularized by anthropologist Wade Davis in his book Shadows in the Sun, based on an encounter with an Inuit named Olayuk Narqitarvik. Narqitarvik claimed that the story is well known — but it’s not clear if the story was meant to be true and literal, or if it was more of a folk tale meant to showcase how Inuits can deal with adversity.

Among anthropologists, the story became well known, and stirred some debate. Some took it literally — supported by notes such as the one left by Danish Arctic explorer Peter Freuchen, who in his autobiography in 1953, recounted how he shaped excrement in the form of a chisel, waited for it to freeze, and then used it to escape from a pit of snow and ice (a claim that is also debatable).

There are plenty of stories on Inuit tenacity and resilience in the face of adversity. For instance, they fashioned sled runners from fish wrapped in skins and moss. But is the poop knife story real, or was it a funny story that Narqitarvik (or someone else) made up? It was anyone’s guess — until recently.

A qamutiik (Inuit sled) with runner dogs.

Making a poop knife

At some point, a high schooler named Metin Eren heard the story on NPR. Eren would go on to become an experimental archaeologist at Kent State University, Ohio. He wanted to put the story to the test, and had the right facilities to do it.

Eren runs a lab where he and colleagues recreate various historical tools. To create the right type of poop, Eren went on an “Arctic” diet for 8 days. Meanwhile, one of his colleagues, Michelle Bebber, was the “control poop” — consuming a regular Western diet. For five days, both collected their poop, storing it at −20 °C until the experiments began.

After enough raw material was harvested, two types of knives were built: either by hand, or in a mold.

A “knife mold”. Image credits: Eren et al (2019).

Understandably, the researchers didn’t want to slaughter an animal so instead, they just ordered some pig hide, muscle, and tendons.

“We reasoned that if knives manufactured from human feces cannot cut hide, muscle, and tendons in a simple, controlled setting, then the notion that such knives could be used to butcher an entire animal would also not be supported,” the researchers write in the study.

Minutes prior to the experiment, the fashioned knife were removed from the freezer and further sharpened with a metal file — so they had an extra edge compared to the story. The knives were then buried for several minutes in −50 °C dry ice to ensure they’re frozen enough to cut. Except they didn’t.

A fake faecal falchion

Neither the molded nor the hand-shaped knives were able to cut through the hide. The Inuit-diet poop and the Western-diet poop knives performed equally badly — they couldn’t cut. Instead, even after being frozen at such low temperatures, they simply melted upon contact, leaving behind gross “streaks of fecal matter”.

Knives from the ceramic molds failed to cut or slice the pig hide, leaving only streaks. Image credits: Eren et al (2019).

“Our experiments assessed the functionality of knives made from human feces in controlled conditions that provided optimal conditions for success. However, they were not functional. “

The researchers did everything in their power, including sharpening the knives, but they did not cut. The only thing in the story that they didn’t do was to use saliva to sharpen the knives. “We are skeptical that saliva will increase fecal blade efficacy,” the team writes.

For this study, Eren received an Ig Nobel Prize — a yearly satirical award that celebrates ten unusual achievements that “first make people laugh, and then make them think.” But Eren rightfully points out that disproving urban myths is something researchers must actively try to do.

“Anthropologists must actively seek out unsupported claims, assumptions, rumors, and urban legends, and by testing them ensure any narratives that follow are as sturdy as possible.”

The anecdote may not be technically true, but its point still stands: Inuits don’t lose hope when faced with the cold, they are resourceful and savvy. That much is clearly true — poop knife or not.

“While much research has shown foragers to be technologically resourceful, innovative, and savvy, we suggest that this ethnographic account should no longer be used to support that narrative,” the researchers conclude.

5,000-year-old ‘scepters’ may actually be the oldest drinking straws in the world

Artist impression of Maikop people sharing beer from a common vessel using long straws. Credit: Kevin Wilson.

More than a hundred years ago, archeologists found eight ancient tubes made of silver and gold inside a large Bronze Age burial mound in the Caucuses. Some of the artifacts, which are over 5,000 years old, have bull figurines on the stem, which has invited speculation that they are scepters reserved for the elite. But now Russian scientists claim that the tubes were likely used to drink beer from a communal vessel, making them the oldest drinking straws identified thus far.

“Party like a Sumerian”

The metal tubes were first excavated in 1897 by a team of archeologists led by Professor Nikolai Veselovsky of St Petersburg University in a huge mound located on the outskirts of Maikop, a small town in the north-western Caucasus, right on the edge of the steppe. The tubes were found inside one of three separate compartments of a large chamber of the burial mound, or kurgan. The chamber contained the skeleton of an adult in a crouched position covered in the remains of a richly decorated garment, along with hundreds of beads of semi-precious stones and gold, ceramic vessels, precious metal cups, weapons, and tools.

All of these valuable artifacts were arranged along the walls of the burial chamber, except for a set of eight 0.7-meter-long, thin gold and silver tubes. They are now on display at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg and, until recently, their purpose has been a matter of contention. But a new analysis by researchers led by Dr. Viktor Trifonov from the Institute for the History of Material Culture at the Russian Academy of Sciences in St Petersburg shows the ‘scepters’ are actually straws used to drink beer.

“A turning point was the discovery of the barley starch granules in the residue from the inner surface of one of the straws. This provided direct material evidence of the tubes from the Maikop kurgan being used for drinking,” said Trifonov in a statement.

The design of the ‘sceptre’ components from the Maikop kurgan: 1) one of eight silver perforated tips; 2) joint between two segments of the silver tube, and longitudinal seam; 3–5) types of fittings; 6) probable soldered longitudinal seam. Credit: V. Trifonov.

In their new study published today in Antiquity, and aptly named “Party like a Sumerian: reinterpreting the ‘scepters’ from the Maikop kurgan”, the authors compare the kurgan tubes to long straws depicted in Sumeria from the 3rd millennium BCE onwards. These long straws were placed in large communal vessels, allowing people to share a drink from the same container.

Like Sumerian straws, the Maikop tubes have metal strainers designed to filter out impurities, which are common in ancient beer. A large vessel was found in the Maikop Kurgan whose volume could hold enough beer for eight drinkers to each have seven pints.

“If the interpretation is correct, these fancy devices would be the earliest surviving drinking straws to date,” said Trifonov.

Schematic drawing of the Maikop straws, four of which have bull figurines. Credit: V. Trifonov.

Good customs travel far

The location of the burial mound where the tubes were found is hundreds of kilometers away from the other earliest evidence of drinking straws in Mesopotamia. Although far away, cultural exchange and trade may have spread the practice of communal drinking between Mesopotamia and the Caucasus civilizations.

The findings also shed light on the Maikop culture, which must have had close ties with its rich southern neighbors and must have had a wealthy elite of its own. We know that drinking ceremonies in ancient Sumeria were typically reserved for royal funerals. The thin tubes along with other prized artifacts found so close together in the burial of a high-status individual suggest the same practices also took place among Bronze Age civilizations in the Caucasus region.

“Before having done this study, I would never have believed that in the most famous elite burial of the Early Bronze Age Caucasus, the main item would be neither weapons nor jewelry, but a set of precious beer-drinking straws,” said Trifonov.

Fish-like scale armor found in 2,500-year-old tomb in China

Leather scale armor from the Arms and Armor Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, which deemed very similar to the ancient leather scale armor found in China. A – front view with skirt folded inside, B – face up, view from proper right side, C – face down, view from proper right side, with one detached scaled piece which might have been a shoulder flap. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Gift, 2000. Photo: Department of Arms and Armor, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Inside a 2,500-year-old grave in northwestern China, archaeologists were stunned to find intricate armor made of more than 5,000 overlapping leather scales. The warrior buried with the armor likely fitted the garment as you would an apron, without any assistance from a second person, making it highly battle-ready. This kind of armor design is unique for its time and place, and was likely imported from the Middle East where it is thought to originate.

The unisex armor, unearthed at an archaeological site near the city of Turfan, right at the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, would have provided ample protection against blows, stabs, and arrows. Besides the military artifact, archaeologists found the remains of a man around age 30 when he died, presumed to be the warrior that used to equip the armor, alongside pottery fragments, two horse cheek pieces made from horn and wood, and a sheep skull.

Scale armor offers better protection from blunt attacks than mail and is cheaper to produce, but it is not as flexible and does not offer the same amount of coverage.

Yanghai leather scale armor (IIM127:11): main fragments outside, view of scales. Credit: D.L. Xu, P. Wertmann, M. Yibulayinmu.

Scale armors were worn by warriors of many different cultures and often adorned their horses as well. The material used for the scales could vary wildly, from bronze and iron to pangolin scales and paper. Some examples include the lorica squamata, a type of scale armor used by the ancient Roman military during the Roman Republic and at later periods, or the gyorin kozane used by the samurai in Japan.

But armor as old as what was found at the Yangai cemetery in Turfan is exceedingly rare, as few such sleeveless garments from antiquity have withstood the test of time. According to Live Science, only a 14th-century B.C. leather scale armor found at King Tutankhamun’s ancient Egyptian tomb and a Scythian armor dating from the 8th to 3rd century B.C. come close.

After reconstructing the newly described armor from China, archaeologists led by Patrick Wertmann, a researcher at the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies of the University of Zurich, counted 5,444 small leather scales and 140 larger ones. All were made of cow rawhide and were arranged in horizontal, overlapping rows that were connected by leather laces.

Assyrian infantry archer (left) in scale armor depicted in a relief from the south west palace of Sennacherib (reigned 704-681 BCE) in Nineveh and
Assyrian cavalry archer in scale armor depicted in a relief from the palace of Assurbanipal (reigned 669-631 BCE) in Nineveh. Photos: The Trustees of the
British Museum.

Around 500 other burials were excavated from the ancient cemetery where the leather armor was found, with archaeological evidence suggesting it was in use for nearly 1,400 continuous years until the second century A.D. We know very little about the people who were buried there and used to live in the Tarim Basin more than 2,500 years ago. Archaeologists have named them the Cheshi people. They practiced agriculture, lived in tents, and likely kept cattle and sheep. Like other nearby cultures, they must have also been horse riders and archers.

The man from the burial site, however, may not have been Cheshi. There is no other scale armor from this period or earlier in China. This style, however, is quite common among the Persians and Scythians of the time. Even some Greeks wore them, although they preferred other styles of armor.

Although rife with speculation, the researchers believe the armor was most likely not made in China. From what they could gather, the archaeologists think instead that it was fashioned by Neo-Assyrian craftsmen, whose work can be found depicted in 7th century B.C. stone carvings. If this is true, then the Yanghai armor would constitute one of the earliest pieces of evidence of West-East technological transfers of the first millennium B.C.

As for the warrior whom the armor belongs to, things are even murkier. The design of the armor is proper for both mounted cavalrymen and foot soldiers. The presence of the horse cheek pieces suggests the man was of the former quality. The man could have been a Cheshi who imported the armor from the West through some means or a foreign soldier with Assyrian equipment come to fight in China.

The findings appeared in the journal Quaternary International.

No, Ancient Greeks probably didn’t kill their ‘weak’ babies

For centuries, one famous story of Greek philosopher Plutarch was told and retold. Plutarch, who was born in the first century AD and is noted for a series of biographies called Parallel Lives, noted how the ancient Spartans (a nation known for its warfare prowess) would take lowborn, deformed, or weak babies and essentially kill them by casting them away.

Plutarch wrote that this is “on the grounds that it is neither better for themselves nor for the city to live [their] natural life poorly equipped.”

As centuries passed, society seemed to take Plutarch’s story for granted. It became a testament to how ruthless and strict the Spartans were — everyone had to be tough, even babies. Some have even used this as justification for atrocities. The Nazi regime (and some communist regimes), would also cast the disabled away from society or outright slaughter them.

But this ancient practice may have not been true in the first place.

Questionable history

For starters, Plutarch wasn’t writing about things he was witnessing himself — he was writing about events 700 years before he was born, making him much less of a reliable narrator. Furthermore, another one of Plutarch’s stories mentions an unusual Spartan king called Agesilaus II who was short and “impaired in his legs” (lame), but was still a good leader — how could such a person reach adulthood? Furthermore, an anonymous Greek doctor writing in 400 BCE mentions adults who are “weasel armed”, strongly hinting that the disabled were not cast away, and were allowed to become members of society. All this and plenty of other writings cast doubt on the idea that only “strong” babies were allowed to grow up, and the archaeological evidence further suggests that this practice was not widespread, if it existed at all.

In 1931, excavations in Athens uncovered the remains of over 400 infants. Recently, researchers have analyzed those remains, noting that they seem to exhibit patterns similar to other areas in the ancient world, finding no evidence of selective infanticide. Particularly, one infant skeleton showed signs of severe hydrocephaly — a severe condition that can be fatal even today — and the infant was cared for until his last day.

Another archaeological find subtly hints that the Ancient Greeks would take care of their infants regardless of their condition. Several graves located all over Greece contained small ceramic bottles with spouts, and some of these spouts have baby tooth marks. The study author, California State University classicist Debby Sneed believes these bottles would have been used to feed infants with disabilities such as cleft palate — a disability that occurs when a baby’s lip or mouth don’t form properly during pregnancy. Multiple figurines also from around Greece depict adults with deformities.

Not yet settled

All this makes it very unlikely for the practice to be commonplace in the ancient Greek world — but it doesn’t necessarily mean the practice wasn’t carried out at all. It could be a pure myth or a very uncommon practice, but as archaeologists like to say, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

There could also be circumstances to explain why the practice is not often described: it could be that some people would indeed abandon disabled infants (or even “normal” infants, if they couldn’t afford to feed them), and someone else, be it a temple, another family, or possibly some elderly members of society would pick them up and try to raise and care for them. The shame of abandoning infants would also explain why there are so few mentions of the practice.

Ultimately, there’s not enough evidence to definitely cast out Plutarch’s story, but there’s still substantial evidence against it. As is often the case in archaeology, the debate will likely continue until definitive evidence is found to support one side or the other — which, as it’s also often the case in archaeology, can take a long time. At any rate, the idea that Spartans or other Greeks sacrificed the disabled is at least questionable.

“It was neither legally mandated nor typical in ancient Greece to kill or expose disabled infants, and uncritical (and unfounded) statements to the contrary are both dangerous and harmful,” the study concludes.

The study was published in Hesperia.

The face of a man whose head was mounted on a stake 8,000 years ago

More than 8,000 years ago in Sweden, a man nicknamed “Ludvig” was murdered and had his head mounted on a spike. Now, a forensic artist employed a combination of archaeology, genetics, and computer-aided modeling to restore the man’s face as it may have looked before Ludvig met his tragic end.

The face of Ludvig

Archaeologists found the man’s cranium — along with others belonging to several adults and one infant — inside boggy sediment at the Kanaljorden site in Motala, Sweden, in 2012. The remains, which also included animal bones, were discovered on a stone platform submerged in the middle of a small lake.

All adult skulls bore signs of trauma prior to their death, which suggests they met a violent end. Remnants of wooden stakes were found inside the skulls of two of the men, one of them being Ludvig, suggesting their heads were mounted to stakes. This is a very odd ritual for those times. Decapitation and subsequent staking didn’t become common until thousands of years later, particularly in the Middle Ages.

Ludvig’s facial reconstruction in progress. Credit: Oscar Nilsson.

Swedish forensic artist Oscar Nilsson was impressed by the story of this mysterious Mesolithic hunter-gatherer murder when he was contacted by archaeologists two years ago to perform a facial reconstruction. He decided to use all modern resources at his disposal to bring Ludvig’s face back to life, complete with all of Ludvig’s individual quirks.

Nilsson first scanned the skull of the Mesolithic man who died in his 50s and then printed a 3D plastic replica of it. The jaw was missing, which proved very problematic during the reconstruction process. The forensic artist estimated the size and shape of the jaw using a lengthy and complex process. Thankfully, Ludvig’s DNA was easy to sequence, revealing his ancestry, as well as important physical characteristics such as hair, eye, and skin color.

Credit: Oscar Nilsson.

Animal remains from the site, including those belonging to boar, elk, bears, and badgers served as inspiration for other elements in the reconstruction. For instance, Nilsson dressed Ludvig in the skin of a wild boar and lent him a hairstyle inspired by these animals. The front of Ludvig’s hairstyle is similar to the short bristles on the boar’s body, while the back features a wisp of hair reminiscent of the tail. This “is of course purely speculative, but such a specific and dramatic finding calls for a matching interpretation,” Nilsson told Gizmodo.

Credit: Oscar Nilsson.

A scar corresponding to a prominent one-inch wound on the top of his skull, which showed signs of healing, according to a 2018 study by Swedish archaeologists, was also added. A dash of white body paint on Ludvig’s chest — a fashion known to be practiced among Stone Age people — completed the man’s look.

A mysterious end

Archaeologists don’t know exactly how Ludvig died. All adult skulls retrieved at the Kanaljorden site exhibited signs of trauma. The females sustained repeated injuries on the back and side of the head, while the males suffered from a single blow on the top of the head.

Why Ludvig’s head ended up on a stake is even more of an enigma. Mesolithic hunter-gatherers tended to bury their dead, even those of their enemies. Decapitating foes, as a form of trophy hunting or warning, became a practice much later in history.

What we know for sure is that, for whatever reason, the two skulls from the archaeological dig in Sweden were at one point mounted on stakes and later laid to rest in the shallow lakebed on the stone platform with the other hunter-gatherer remains.

Now, 8,000 years later, Ludvig’s story has resurfaced in a fantastic reconstruction that blends archaeology, history, and art.

This article originally appeared in July 2021.

Pristine 2,300-year-old Scythian woman’s boot found in frozen Altai mountains

Credit: Hermitage Museum.

It’s hard to find a decent pair of boots that don’t disintegrate after one year these days, let alone 2,300 years. Believe it or not, that’s how old this astonishing boot, discovered in a Scythian burial mound in Siberia’s frigid Altai Mountains, is.

The red cloth-wrapped leather boot was discovered in 1948, alongside jewelry, food, weapons, and clothing. Like many ancient cultures, the Scythians buried their dead with various belongings that may have come in handy in the afterlife.

It was also customary for the Scythians to construct burial mounds by building wooden structures in the bottom of deep holes that they dug. These log cabin-like burial mounds were lined and floored with dark felt, while the roof was covered with layers of larch, birch bark, moss, and other local materials.

Illustration of a Scythian burial mound. Credit: Institute of Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, St Petersburg.

That’s pretty impressive and rather surprising considering the Scythians (pronounced ‘SIH-thee-uns’) were nomadic warrior people. The Scythians flourished from 900 BC to around 200 BC, and at their point of maximum expansion had an influence extending over Central Asia, from the northern Black Sea all the way to China.

There is much we don’t know about Scythian culture since they didn’t leave written records. However, we do have accounts written by ancient people who actually employed writing, such as the Greeks, Assyrians, and Persians. One thing’s for sure, they all seemed pretty terrified by them.

Writing in his 5th-century BC book Histories, Herodotus said that ‘None who attacks them can escape, and none can catch them if they desire not to be found.’

One of their trademark features was the use of a powerful type of bow made from different layers of wood and sinew, which proved game-changing on the battlefield. Centuries before the Huns and their Golden Horde, Scythians employed large numbers of mounted archers that could shower hundreds of deadly missiles within minutes, raining death upon their enemies.

Apart from the writings of historians from other cultures, which typically centered around war, what we know about the Scythians is largely through excavations of their burial mounds, called kurgans.

Being nomadic people, the objects that they buried with their dead were of the same nature as the objects that were employed in day to day life: portable, lightweight, and small. Some of the artifacts found in the Scythian burial molds include small drinking flasks and wooden bowls.

Other times, Scythians buried amazing artifacts such as this woman’s boot, which is made of soft red leather and has a sole adorned with geometric patterns sewn with pyrite crystals and black beads.

But why would someone take so much effort to decorate the surface of a boot that would simply deteriorate from walking? Some historians believe that Scythians regularly socialized around fires while sitting on their knees. In this pose, the bottom of the shoes would be visible to others to see. Alternatively, the shoes may have been made exclusively for burial, which would explain their immaculate state.

In addition, the combination of the sturdy kurgan structures and the frozen Siberian Altai Mountains made it possible for this stunning boot to be preserved in time.

The stunning Scythian artifact is now housed at display at the  State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Archaeologists discover stunning, ancient gold trove in Cyprus

In 2018, archaeologists at the New Swedish Cyprus Expedition struck gold — quite literally. They discovered two Bronze Age tombs, both underground chambers, in the ancient city of Hala Sultan Tekke. Hala Sultan Teke is a mosque and tekke complex in the capital of Cyprus, Larnaca, built on one of the largest Bronze Age archaeological sites. Based on these new findings, the site may be even more important than previously thought.

Some jewelry pieces found in the tombs resemble designs worn by Queen Nefertiti. Image credits: Peter Fischer, Teresa Bürge.

The excavations were made by researchers from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden as part of the “New Swedish Expedition” which started in 2010. The team discovered burial chambers that must have belonged to a family (or families) of great wealth. Overall, the research team found 150 human remains and over 500 funeral goods, including many pieces containing gold and jewelry. The remains were placed one over the other, suggesting that the burial chamber would have been used for multiple generations. Most likely, it was the mausoleum of the city’s rulers.

“The finds indicate that these are family tombs for the ruling elite in the city,” excavation leader Peter Fischer, professor emeritus of historical studies at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, said in a statement.

“For example, we found the skeleton of a 5-year-old with a gold necklace, gold earrings and a gold tiara. This was probably a child of a powerful and wealthy family.”

A gold necklace found at the site. Image credits: Peter Fischer, Teresa Bürge.

It’s pretty obvious that for the family, the mausoleum had a significant importance. It wasn’t just a simple burial chamber, it also served a ceremonial role. Testament to this is a particular artifact uncovered inside.

“We also found a ceramic bull,” Fischer said. “The body of this hollow bull has two openings: one on the back to fill it with a liquid, likely wine, and one at the nose to drink from. Apparently, they had feasts in the chamber to honor their dead.”

As if the jewelry pieces weren’t remarkable enough, upon closer analysis, archaeologists found that they belong to different cultures. For instance, there is a blue lapis lazuli gemstone from Afghanistan, a red carnelian gemstone from India, and amber from around the Baltic Sea — valuables from the trade partners of the kingdom at the time. Another notable find is a cylinder-shaped seal made of a mineral called hematite and inscribed in cuneiform, the written language of ancient Mesopotamia. The cuneiform text mentions three names: two historical kings (father and son) from the 18th century BC, as well as Amurru, a god worshipped in the Akkadian and Sumerian kingdoms. “We are currently trying to determine why the seal ended up in Cyprus more than 1000 kilometres from where it was made,” the researchers said in a statement.

For historians, the ceramics discovered at the same are almost as important as the jewels themselves, because they offer valuable cultural information.

“The way that the ceramics changed in appearance and material over time allows us to date them and study the connections these people had with the surrounding world. What fascinates me most is the wide-ranging network of contacts they had 3,400 years ago,” Fischer explains.

A large ceramic pot featuring Grecian war chariots. Image credits: Peter Fischer, Teresa Bürge.

All of the objects from the excavation that have been processed and studied are stored in museums in Nicosia and Larnaca in Cyprus.

Now, the next step for researchers is to carry out genetic analysis on the remains discovered there and piece together as much as possible about this dynasty.

“This will reveal how the different individuals are related with each other and if there are immigrants from other cultures, which isn’t unlikely considering the vast trade networks,” says Peter Fischer.

Neanderthals were the first to artificially transform the world, turning a forest into grassland 125,000 years ago

Credit: Pixabay.

Many scientists believe we’ve now crossed a new geological epoch known as the Anthropocene, in recognition of the fact that, despite their short time on Earth, humans have fundamentally altered the physical, chemical, and biological makeup of the planet. Agriculture, urbanization, deforestation, and pollution have all caused extraordinary changes on Earth. But, perhaps, ironically it may have all started with a different, extinct species of humans.

The earliest evidence of ecosystem change at the hands of hunter-gathers has been pinpointed at a lignite quarry near Halle in Germany, where researchers found Neanderthal activities from 125,000 years ago transformed closed forests into open grasslands. The deforestation seems to have been mostly done through fire.

“Archeologists have long been asking questions about the character and temporal depth of human intervention in our planet’s ecosystems. We are increasingly seeing very early, generally weak signs of this,” says Wil Roebroeks, an archeology professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

Roebroeks and colleagues have analyzed evidence collected over the decades at the Neumark-Nord quarry, including hundreds of slaughtered animals, numerous stone tools, and charcoal remains. Some 130,000 years ago, the region experienced a prosperous warm spell that promoted the growth of thick deciduous forests stretching from the Netherlands to Poland, which were inhabited by deer and cattle, but also elephants, lions, and hyenas.

These forest lands attracted communities of Neanderthal hunter-gatherers, who rapidly moved in, especially into areas with lakes. They effectively competed with other carnivores and occupied their own ecological niche until the region was occupied by advancing ice 115,000 years ago.

Compared to forested regions where Neanderthals didn’t live, the scientists found that the Neanderthal inhabited regions experienced a significant decrease in tree cover. Instead of dense forests, the Neanderthal habitat was much lighter and open. There are also signs that these ancient people settled at least semi-permanently in the region, which is unusual in itself since Neanderthals are thought of as highly mobile groups. Perhaps the open landscape, which attracted plenty of game and offered reasonable shelter, was attractive enough to keep some Neanderthal groups more or less settled in one place.

Stone tools found at the Neumark-Nord site in Germany. Credit: Eduard Pop/Leiden University.

However, there’s a chicken or egg problem. While it’s tempting to look at the charcoal data and imagine Neanderthal activity burned the local vegetation, they could have also moved into more advantageous open areas after wildfires did all the hard work for them.

Whether or not the Neanderthals initiated the deforestation, one thing is at least clearer: they kept these areas open, and they did so for at least 2,000 years. At similar neighboring lakes where there was no Neanderthal activity, such as hunting, collecting wood, making tools, and building shelters, the dense forest vegetation remained largely intact.

There’s ancient evidence that modern humans altered the landscape much in the same way, but these kinds of practices were seen only in the past 50,000 years. In contrast, the new findings point to much earlier artificial ecosystem changes at the hand of Neanderthals.

The ability of humans to alter nature is obvious today when our cities stretch over hundreds of square miles and carbon emissions from our activities have grown to such copious amounts that we’ve come to change the climate. The origin of this long process of changing the planet to suit our needs is typically considered the advent of agriculture, which appeared about 10,000 years ago. But recent research, such as the present study, increasingly suggests environmental alteration by hominins started much earlier, albeit at a smaller scale. Neumark-Nord is, perhaps, the earliest example of such interventions.

“It also adds something to the behavioral spectrum of early hunter-gatherers. They weren’t simply ‘primal hippies’ who roamed the landscape picking fruit here and hunting animals there. They helped shape their landscape,” says Roebroeks.

The findings appeared in the journal Science Advances.

Archaeologists find 1,000-year-old Mayan canoe in underwater cave in Mexico

The canoe is dated to between 830 CE and 950 CE. Credit: INAH.

Divers found a perfectly preserved wooden canoe used by the ancient Maya submerged in an underwater cavern in southern Mexico. The almost completely intact canoe is believed to be almost 1,000 years old and is now recognized as the most well preserved Mayan boat ever found.

According to archaeologists from the Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) in Mexico, the canoe was likely used to transport water from the cenote near the ruins of Chichén Itzá or deposit ritual offerings. A cenote is basically a sinkhole filled with freshwater, thousands of which dot the Yucatán peninsula.

The extraordinary discovery was made almost by accident while archaeologists were surveying the area before it might get destroyed by a controversial train project. The so-called Maya Train is supposed to connect Mexico’s poorest southern states with richer regions and promote tourism. But critics, among them prominent native figures, believe the new railroad will do more harm than good, potentially threatening hundreds, maybe thousands of archaeological sites like the cenote at Chichén Itzá.

The cenote where the ancient Mayan canoe was found. Credit: INAH.

While diving in the cenote, archaeologists found a cave about 4.5 meters (15 feet) below the water level. Inside the cave, they found the canoe. But they also explored an ancient well and nearby deep valley where they discovered mural paintings, a ceremonial knife, and fragments of 40 pottery vessels that were likely intentionally broken as part of ritual events. Collectively, these artifacts suggest that the canoe was also involved in ritualistic activities.

The canoe is over 1.6 meters (5 feet) long and 80 centimeters (2.5 feet) wide, and preliminary research suggests that it dates to between 830 CE and 950 CE. However, a sample was sent to Sorbonne University in Paris where scientists there will perform a dendrochronological analysis (tree ring counting) to provide a more precise dating.

Archaeologists also found pottery and a knife close to the Mayan boat. Credit: INAH.

If the currently estimated dating is confirmed, that would mean the canoe was employed very close to the height of Maya civilization. During this zenith, there were dozens of cities scattered across southern Mexico and Central America, which were home to as many as ten million people, and the Maya made important achievements in math and art.

According to INAH, archaeologists have already commissioned a 3-d model of the canoe, which they hope to release soon in order to facilitate further research and the manufacturing of full-scale replicas.

Roman mosaic found beneath farmer’s field in the UK portrays famous Greek legend

A group of archeologists have found a Roman villa containing a mosaic that portrays scenes from Homer’s Iliad, the fight between Achilles and the Trojan hero, Hector. The mosaic dates back to the third or fourth century AD and it was first found by a farmer in Rutland, UK, who got in touch with researchers from the University of Leicester.  

Image credit: Historic England

Historic England, the public body that looks after England’s historic artifacts, described the mosaic as “one of the most remarkable and significant ever found in Britain.” It’s so striking that it has been immediately designated as a “Scheduled Monument” — the highest designation a monument can receive in the UK.

It’s not just beautiful, but also important from a historical perspective.

“It gives us fresh perspectives on the attitudes of people at the time, their links to classical literature, and it also tells us an enormous amount about the individual who commissioned this piece,” John Thomas, project manager on the excavations, said in a press statement. This is someone with a knowledge of the classics, who had money.”

A remarkable finding

The mosaic measures 11 meters by almost seven meters and forms the floor of what’s believed to be a dining or entertaining room. Mosaics were common in public and private buildings in the Roman empire, depicting famous figures. However, only a few handfuls have been found in Europe depicting the battle between Achilles and Hector, and mosaics this elaborate and intricate could only be commissioned by someone rich and knowledgeable.  

The room was part of a Roman villa building from the late Roman period, according to the archaeologists’ findings. The villa is also next to other buildings, such as aisled barns and possibly a bathhouse – all likely occupied by a wealthy individual. The site was re-used and re-purposed later on, based on breaks and fire damage in the mosaic.

“To have uncovered such a rare mosaic of this size, as well as a surrounding villa, is remarkable. Discoveries like this are so important in helping us piece together our shared history. By protecting this site we are able to continue learning from it, and look forward to future excavations,” Duncan Wilson, head of Historic England, said in a statement. 

The archaeologists also found human remains within the debris covering the mosaic. The individuals were probably buried after the building was no longer In use, and while their exact age is unknown, the researchers estimate the structure was repurposed in the late Roman or early Medieval period – a period in history not well understood. 

The villa was found within an arable field, where the remains had been disturbed by plowing and other activities — as it so often happens. Historic England will work with the landowner, Jim Irvine, for him to convert the fields to sustainable grassland and pasture use. These schemes are essential to protect historic and natural environments, they argue, while also offering some compensation for the landowners. 

The discovery of the villa and the mosaic will be features as part of the Digging for Britain TV show on BBC in early 2022. In the meantime, evidence from the site will be analyzed by a team from the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) and by specialists from Historic England, including the mosaic expert David Neal. 

“A ramble through the fields with the family turned into an incredible discovery. Finding some unusual pottery amongst the wheat piqued my interest and prompted some further investigative work,” Jim Irvine, who initially discovered the remains, said in a statement. “Later, looking at satellite imagery, I sported a very clear crop mark.”