Category Archives: Archaeology

Prehistoric moms were much better at raising their children than we give them credit for

Credit: Fatherly.

Infant mortality was huge in ancient times compared to nowadays when we have access to modern healthcare. It is thus reasonable to believe the farther back in time you go, the greater the proportion of babies who don’t make it past infancy. Indeed, examinations of remains from hunter-gatherer burial sites suggest that nearly half of all babies born in prehistoric times succumbed within the first year of their lives. But a recent study performed by researchers in Australia paints a strikingly different picture, concluding that previously reported mortality figures are likely very wrong.

Missing the forest for the trees

The work conducted by the researchers at the Australian National University is a great example of what happens when there is sampling bias, showing how looking at a single narrow piece of evidence can distort the context of the big picture.

“It has long been assumed that if there are a lot of deceased babies in a burial sample, then infant mortality must have been high,” lead author Dr. Clare McFadden, from the ANU School of Archaeology and Anthropology, said in a statement.

“Many have assumed that infant mortality was very high in the past in the absence of modern healthcare.”

“When we look at these burial samples, it actually tells us more about the number of babies that were born and tells us very little about the number of babies that were dying, which is counterintuitive to past perceptions.”

McFadden and colleagues combed through a massive dataset from the United Nations on infant mortality, fertility, and deaths occurring during infancy from 97 countries. This analysis showed that fertility — and not mortality rate — had a much greater influence on the proportion of deceased infants. The more infants born, the greater the fraction of infants that succumbed prematurely.

If that’s the case in our modern world, the same likely happened in ancient times as well, with the notable distinction that the magnitude of the effect was even greater. Based on the UN data, the researchers made an intellectual leap and concluded that physical burial samples from the last 10,000 years do not support the notion that infant mortality was as high as 40%, as some have previously claimed based on archaeological findings. In other words, although it may sound counterintuitive, the great number of infant burials actually reflects a high degree of fertility, which suggests that ancient parents had the resources and capabilities to raise a lot of children.

“Burial samples show no proof that a lot of babies were dying, but they do tell us a lot of babies were being born,” McFadden said.

“If mothers during that time were having a lot of babies, then it seems reasonable to suggest they were capable of caring for their young children.”

We still know very little about what motherhood was like thousands of years ago. When did women first become mothers and how many children did they have on average? Nobody knows and we’ll likely never find definite answers to these questions. Instead, we have a lot of assumptions, some more prone to errors than others.

McFadden hopes these insights change our entrenched perceptions surrounding our ancestors, which are often misrepresented as brutish. Today’s humans share the same emotional experiences as those from the dawn of history. She also wants to highlight the stories of women living in ancient times, whose stories have often occupied the background in favor of male-centered ones.

“We hear a lot of stories about conflict involving males and even narratives around colonization and expansion of populations tend to have a focus on men and I think it’s really important to be telling these stories of women in the past and what the female experience was like, including the roles they played in the community and as a mother,” Dr. McFadden said.

“We hope that further research, applied with the lens of our findings, will add to our understanding of infant care and motherhood in the past.”

The findings appeared in the American Journal of Biological Anthropology.

This is one of the oldest pieces of cloth in the world — and it’s made from something surprising

A piece of cloth dating from the Stone Age was analyzed in unprecedented detail, and you’ll never guess what it’s made from.

This piece of cloth is from the Stone Age. Photo: Antoinette Rast-Eicher, University of Bern.

An ancient, rock-star city

When most people think about the Stone Age, they envision small groups of hunter-gatherers, maybe people living in caves, or at most, a small village. But in the Anatolia peninsula in today’s Turkey, the city of Çatalhöyük hosted as many as 10,000 people.

Established some 9,000 years ago and first excavated in 1958, Çatalhöyük has a rock-star status among archaeologists. It’s the largest known settlement from what archaeologists call the Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods.

“When Çatalhöyük was excavated from the late 1950s onwards, it was considered one of the oldest cities ever. Even though new discoveries show that this is no longer true, the place still has a high celebrity factor,” says Bender Jørgensen, a specialist in archaeological textiles and one of the authors of the new study.

Çatalhöyük appears to have been composed entirely of domestic buildings, with no obvious public buildings (or at least none identified yet), although the civilization that built the city appears to have engaged in complex religious practices. Surprisingly, all the houses archaeologists have found seem to have been kept scrupulously clean, which is highly unusual for a Neolithic settlement. Among the many findings from the city is also a piece of cloth, which could help researchers understand how these ancient people made their clothes.

Some archaeologists believe they made them from wool, while others believe they used linen instead. Now, thanks to the new study, we know the answer: it’s neither.

Çatalhöyük after the first excavations. Image credits: Omar Hoftun.

Overlooked materials

Jørgensen worked with Antoinette Rast-Eicher, a specialist in identifying fabric fibers. They put together a team to analyze the cloth carefully, and they were finally able to figure out what it’s made from: trees. Specifically, bast fibers — soft, woody fibers obtained from the inner bark of some trees.

“Bast fibres were used for thousands of years to make rope, thread, and in turn also yarn and cloth,” says Jørgensen.

Bast fibers can be extracted from the area between the bark and the wood in trees such as willow, oak, or linden. Apparently, the people of Catalhöyük used oak trees to fashion their clothes. They also used oak as a building material and probably harvested the bast fibers in the process.

Bast fibers Image credits: Vladimir Lobachev.

Furthermore, linen — presumed by some researchers to be a key material for these ancient people — did not seem to play an important role at Catalhöyük. Not only did they not appear to grow flaxseed (from which linen is made), but they also didn’t import it from elsewhere.

Bast fibers are largely overlooked, but based on recent findings, researchers should pay more attention to them as a potential material for fashioning clothes.

The study was published in the journal Antiquity.

The Vikings (and their mice) were the first to reach these idyllic Portuguese islands

If you were living in the cold and rugged landscapes of medieval Scandinavia, exploring other places probably sounded like a good idea. Especially if it’s a place like the Azores — an archipelago of nine inviting islands in the middle Atlantic, some 1400 km (860 m) from Portugal’s coastline.

According to a new study, Viking explorers did just that: they reached the Azores centuries before Portuguese explorers. When the Portuguese came, they didn’t find any traces of the Vikings, but a new study detected “unambiguous” evidence that the Vikings were indeed the first on the islands.

Image credits: Martin Munk.

In 1427, a Portuguese navigator set foot on an uninhabited, idyllic island. With its lush cliffs, beautiful beaches, and deep blue waters, the island must have been a sight to behold. We’re not really sure what the explorer’s name was — he is only known from a reference on a chart drawn by a Catalan cartographer in 1439, and the map was marred by an inkwell accident in 1869 that partially smudged the explorer’s name.

Historians suspect that his name was either Diogo de Sunis or Diogo de Silves — but whatever it was, he must have thought he discovered a new part of a previously unknown land. Later Portuguese explorers confirmed his finding and revealed it to be a part of the Azores archipelago, nine volcanic islands.

Nowadays, the Azores islands are as dramatic as ever, but they’ve been settled by the Portuguese for centuries. However, some researchers suspected that this may not be the whole story. Particularly, that someone (Vikings) was on the island before the 15th century.

But since there was no archaeological evidence (that was found yet, at least) to support that idea, they had to look for evidence in other places.

In 2015, a study found some evidence in the unlikeliest of places: mice. The study noted intriguing genetic similarities between mice in the Azores and in Northern Europe. But as tantalizing as this evidence was, it was insufficient to draw any clear conclusions. Now, the needed evidence may have finally been discovered.

An old map of the Azores islands.

Around a decade ago, Pedro Raposeiro, an ecologist at the University of the Azores, Ponta Delgada wanted to explore the Azores’ climate by analyzing sediment cores from lakebeds across the archipelago. This is a common approach used by many climate scientists, and the layers of sediment from the cores can be dated pretty accurately.

But in addition to climate information, researchers also found signs of human disturbance: pollen from non-native crops that explorers would have brought along and spores from fungi that grow on livestock dung. This was not surprising — but what was surprising was that these traces extended all the way back to 700 years before the Portuguese settled on the Azores.

In one particular layer, that was dated to AD700-850, researchers found clear signs of human activity: an increase in charcoal particles, a dip in the pollen of native trees, and a compound (5-beta-stigmastanol) that is found in the feces of animals such as cows and sheep. This suggests that some of the island’s trees were being cut down and burned, presumably to make way for pastures.

Similar signs were found in a layer dated to 100 years later, as well as in layers dated to 1150 and 1300 respectively.

“The occupation of these islands began between 700 and 850 CE, 700 years earlier than suggested by documentary sources. These early occupations caused widespread ecological and landscape disturbance and raise doubts about the islands’ presumed pristine nature during Portuguese arrival,” the researchers write in the study.

The Azores.

The team adds that the Norse were likely the ones who first set foot on the Azores. They were among the few who had the technology to reach the islands (or perhaps the only ones), and by the 8th century, various areas in Europe noted that they were reached (and attacked) by Norse seafarers. While there’s no smoking gun pointing to the Vikings, they are the most likely culprits.

“These results are consistent with recent archaeological and genetic data suggesting that the Norse were most likely the earliest settlers on the islands.”

So what happened to them? When the Portuguese arrived in the Azores, they described the islands as “pristine” and said they found no trace of anyone, so the previous settlers had already left for some time, for reasons that are not entirely clear. That’s a story for another time.

The study was published in PNAS.

A different way of looking at the sky — Brazilian ethnoastronomy and its unique constellations

We often regard the invention of astronomy from a Greek perspective — after all, most of the official constellations and planets are named after Greek mythology. The names are connected to epic stories that permeated ancient people’s imagination, making it easier to pass the information to a younger generation. However, astronomy was not exclusive to western philosophy– other people used astronomy in their lives as well, and they had their own, different systems.

Archeoastronomy focuses on the way ancient civilizations used astronomy, either for religious purposes or scientific observations. It is known from archeoastronomy that Mesoamerican cultures used their architecture as a form of measuring time. Their legacy is studied by ethnoastronomy.

The Southern Cross, Milky Way and Carina Nebula, viewed from Kenya.Credit…Babak Tafreshi/National Geographic Society, via Corbis

We know a few examples of different astronomical classifications. The Aboriginal culture has a constellation called Emu, the Australian ostrich, between the Southern Cross and Scorpius. Similarly, in African Tswana and Venda traditions, the Southern Cross is a group of giraffes.

Brazilian indigenous groups also have their own astronomical system. Most of the information we now know can be traced to the moment when the Europeans started interacting with these indigenous people, also through more careful observation from explorers who visited the Americas as part of their academic lives. For most of the outsiders, the indigenous culture was seen as inferior, limited, and they formed a narrative  in order to fit in the eurocentric view:

“With the true God, who created heaven and earth, they don’t care. They believe, with a long tradition, that heaven and earth have always existed. In fact, they know nothing about the beginning of the world, they just narrate that there was once a vastness of water in which all their ancestors drowned. Only a few there escaped on a boat and others on tall trees. I think it must have been the flood.” (Hans Staden between 1547 and 1548)

However, although Europeans tried to discard indigenous knowledge, an important part of it survives to this day.

Tupis, Tupinambá, Guarani

Tupi is the term used to describe the people and the family of languages that includes 41 native languages spoken between Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay. The Tupinambá people, one of the Tupi ethnic groups that lived in the Atlantic Forest in Brazil, speak a Tupi language, so researchers chose to name the people Tupinambá, and Tupi their language.

The Guarani, also living in the same countries listed above, are distinguished from the Tupinambá because they don’t speak any of the 41 languages, they speak the Guarani language. Historians believe the Guarani descended from the Tupinambá and a series of migrations changed their language over time.

Percentage of Indigenous population with national population by country in Latin America and the Caribbean (end 1990s-beginning 2000s). Credits: Raul A Montenegro and Carolyn Stephens.

In Brazil alone, there are known 220 indigenous ethnicities. The most populous group is the Guarani, approximately 46,000 people.  Anthropologists estimate that there are at least 185 isolated groups between Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, Bolívia, and Ecuador. Of these, many have their own way of looking at constellations.


Despite the many disturbing events that took place when Europeans started colonizing Brazil, records of local astronomy still exist, and they’re a good source of information for researchers. These written records provide the ‘Rosetta stone’’ that enables astronomers to translate the constellations named by the natives to the stars as we know them today.

The Tupinambá people, one of the Tupi ethnic groups that lived in the Atlantic Forest in Brazil, used to mark time according to moon phases, proving they used astronomy in their lives. The Europeans learned that as they asked the age of native Brazilians they met, the replies were large numbers, and the foreigners soon connected it to a different system of units.

Tupinambás understood the tides and their connection to the lunar phases, even without a gravitational theory. In 1612, the Franciscan missionary Claude d’Abbeville wrote that “the Tupinambá attribute the ebb and flow of the sea to the Moon and distinguish the two high tides very well that occur at the full moon and the new moon or a few days later”. It was only in 1632 that Galileu Galileiwrote in his book ‘Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems’ that the mechanism which causes the tides are Earth’s rotation and translation. It took 75 years until Isaac Newton gave the correct explanation but still lagging years behind the Tupinambás.

The seasons

Thanks to Professor Germano Afonso’s work, we learned more about Tupi astronomy in recent years. Afonso spent months among the Tupi, collecting all the information he could. He discovered that among the Tupi, the common celestial bodies used as a calendar were the Moon, the Sun, Pleiads, the galactic center, Orion and Scorpius’ region, and the Southern Cross. Their gnomon, the solar clock, called the Cuaracyraangaba, is a vertical stone pointing at the zenith, similar to many other cultures around the globe. According to local myth, the Nhanderu god created four other main gods who helped create the world. Nhanderu represents the zenith and the four gods are the cardinal points.

Indigenous solar observatory in the Mato Grosso do Sul State University.

For the Tupi, there are only two seasons: the new weather (spring and summer) and the old weather (autumn and winter) — which makes sense for a good part of the Brazilian territory in terms of climate, the four seasons system work better for mid-latitudes. Thanks to the gnomon, they knew the day on which season started depending on the Sun’s directions. This is simple, in the Southern Hemisphere, the Sun rises and sets closer to the South in the summer and closer to the north in winter.


Different from the zodiac constellations, constellations were not only patterns between stars for the indigenous people,, but also the light and dark marks in the Milky Way. Nhanderu is the best example for the dark constellations, it is the dark region near Cygnus, a northern constellation in the Milky Way plane, deriving its name from the Greek word for swan. Both the Large and Small Magellanic clouds (dwarf galaxy companions to the Milky Way) are constellations as well, both named after South American animals: Tapir’s fountain and Skunk Pig’s fountain respectively.

The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds over Paranal Observatory in Chile. Image via the European Southern Observatory.

Seasonally, the Pleiads were another tool to mark the year, they knew they would appear in a wet season and disappear in the dryer one.

The Rhea constellation. Credits: Almanaque Brasil.

The beginning of summer is based on the constellation of the Old Man marking the start of the rainy season in the North of Brazil. It is the image of a disabled person made out of some of Orion and Taurus stars. The head is in the Hyades star cluster, above the head Pleiads, Orion’s belt is in the left leg, while a shorter leg ends with Betelgeuse. He also holds a stick with his right hand to help to stand. In their mythology, the Old Man lost his right leg after he was  murdered by his wife who was younger and interested in the man’s younger brother. The gods felt sorry for him and took him to the sky in the form of a constellation.

Old Man constellation: The Old Man, in more modern vernacular, may be composed of the Hyades star cluster as his head and the belt of Orion as part of one leg. Tupi folklore relates that the other leg was cut off by his unhappy wife, causing it to end at the orange star now known as Betelgeuse. The Pleiades star cluster, on the far left, can be interpreted as a head feather. In the featured image, the hobbled Old Man is mirrored by a person posing in the foreground. Folklore of the night sky is important for many reasons, including that it records cultural heritage and documents the universality of human intelligence and imagination. Image Credit & Copyright: Rodrigo Guerra.

It’s evident that looking towards the sky is part of human nature. For Europeans, Native Americans, Aborigines, Africans, and many other cultures around the world, this was clearly a common pursuit of knowledge. The differences are the myths and shapes used alongside these observations, but the guiding principles were the same.For millennia, the sky was the best calendar we had, and it was a way to prepare for the weather ahead. Perhaps we should add a few different gods to name new planets and stars observed.

Rare 500-year-old manuscript mentioning legendary artifact analyzed by researchers

Henry VIII of England famously broke the Church of England away from the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church, setting a chain of events that would mark Britain (and parts of Europe) for centuries to come. Now, an analysis of an ancient manuscript shows how people prayed at the time, and how pilgrimage around a wooden artifact in England took place.

The Bromholm prayer roll, Ink, silver, and gold on parchment, 1370x130mm. Image credits: Gail Turner / Journal of the British Archaeological Association.

A medieval soap opera — with major consequences

In 1527, Henry VIII really wanted a divorce — or rather, an annulment. His wife at the time, Catherine of Aragon, had not given birth to a living son, which Henry saw as a threat to his dynasty. Henry claimed that this lack of a male heir was because his marriage was “blighted in the eyes of God” and went to Pope Clement VII to ask him to annul his marriage.

The Pope refused. In part, this was because according to canon law at the time, he couldn’t grant an annulment like that. But it also didn’t help Henry’s cause that earlier the same year, the Pope had been taken hostage by Catherine’s nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, whose troops had sacked Rome.

It was a political dispute more than a religious one, but it quickly escalated. Bit by bit, Henry tore Britain from under the influence of the Pope and cemented his own power, until, in 1532, he demanded that the church renounce all authority to make laws. The process was called “Reformation”. Soon after that, Henry also dissolved all monasteries and priories and confiscated all their wealth to fill his own coffers.

Among these was also Bromholm Priory. The priory was an important pilgrimage site in Britain because it was said to hold a wooden piece of the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. This artifact was called ‘Rood of Bromholm’, and it’s featured prominently on the manuscript.

The ruins of Bromholm Priory today. Image credits: Michael John Button.

“In particular,” art historian and study author Gail Turner states, “the study demonstrates Christian devotion in medieval England.

“It gives insight into the devotional rituals connected to a large crucifix (‘Rood’) at Bromholm Priory, in Norfolk, and uncovers a direct link between this 16th-century artifact and a famous religious relic once associated among Christians with miracles.”

Faith, five centuries ago

The manuscript is now in private ownership and has never before been analyzed extensively or published in full. A reference to a local bishop helped Turner date it to between 1505 and 1535, and Turner believes the manuscript (which was made from two pieces of vellum stitched together) was originally owned by a prosperous pilgrim. Few artifacts of this type survive to this day. This one is 13 cm wide, by a meter long.

Image credits: Gail Turner

In addition to being so rare, the manuscript is valuable for another reason: it shows us how people at the time viewed the Christian faith.

“The roll reflects a time when the laity (non-clergy) had a real belief in both visible and invisible enemies,” says Turner, who has worked at Tate Britain, the Arts Council, and as a consultant for Christie’s and at the Courtauld.

“For their owners, prayer rolls…were prized as very personal inspirations to prayer, although during the Reformation and after they were commonly undervalued and dismissed. The survival of such a magnificent roll for over 500 years is therefore remarkable.”

It also shows how worshippers conducted pilgrimages at the time. Worshippers apparently touched or kissed images of Jesus on the cross ”to experience Christ’s Passion more directly and powerfully”, says Turner. This type of mark is also visible on the manuscript, presumably as the owner prayed to it. Similar marks were also identified on other rolls.

After the Bromholm Priory was abandoned, the trail of the Rood of Bromholm was lost. A 1537 letter says that it went to London, but after that, there are no more clues. Turner assumes it was ‘destroyed in London with many other relics, although its fate remains uncertain’.

The study was published in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association.

Airborne survey reveals how Mesoamerican cultures built their cities

The location of architectural complexes, as revealed by Lidar. Image credits: Takeshi Inomata (provided)

Few civilizations on Earth have evolved independently, but the Olmec civilization is one of them. The Olmecs were the earliest known major Mesoamerican civilization emerging in 1600 BC, and lasting to about 400 BC, when environmental changes made many of their villages uninhabitable.

The Olmecs influenced many later civilizations, including the Maya. Researchers now know that Olmec and Maya settlements covered wide areas in Mexico and Guatemala, but many of their ancient settlements are still undiscovered or insufficiently studied. To make matters even worse, they are often hidden by vegetation.

To map these hidden structures, a team led by Takeshi Inomata from the University of Arizona carried out a large-scale airborne survey using Lidar — a remote sensing method that pulses a laser to measure ranges (variable distances) to the Earth. It’s a bit like radar, but it uses light instead of radio waves. Lidar is very useful for archaeology because it reveals elements that may not be visible to the naked eye on the surface.

Inomata and colleagues started with a high-resolution survey covering 1000 square kilometers, but they also used publicly available data acquired by the Mexican government, which covered an 85,000 square kilometer area.

“A study of this wide area was unthinkable some years ago, and this kind of dataset really revolutionizes how we conduct archaeological investigations,” Inomata told ZME Science.

A part of the surveyed area. Image credits: Takeshi Inomata.

By using Lidar, they were able to image 463 sites, even in some parts covered by thick jungle vegetation. Based on the results, it seems that there are five types of architecture and settlement layout — which may correspond to different periods of the Olmec and Maya civilizations.

It was already known that the cities of these civilizations were designed based on cosmological patterns. The new findings suggest that the major Olmec center of San Lorenzo (built in the 2nd millennium BC) was based on the ancient Mesoamerican calendar. Other sites in the area suggest that this type of influence was widespread.

“Their orientations vary, and in some cases, they appear to have tried to fit those large complexes in whatever flat space available. But when they could, they seem to have aligned the complexes to the sunrise on specific dates, referring possibly to the zenith passage day of the sun (when the sun passes perpendicularly above the ground), which is about May 10 in this area,” says Inomata. “This day marks the beginning of the rainy season and the planting of maize. Some complexes are oriented to the sunrise on 40 days before the zenith passage days, others are to the sunrise on 60 or 80 days before. This appears to show the prototype of Mesoamerican calendars, which were based on the unit of 20 days. If we are right, they may be the earliest representation of such calendrical concepts that we can see.”

Lidar-based 3D image of a site called Buenavista on the day of the sunrise alignment. Image credits: Takeshi Inomata.

Another intriguing finding is that these sites seemed to feature a lot of rectangular structures, including for their monuments — which is somewhat surprising as Olmec sites often featured monumental pyramidal mounds

“The main finding is that we now know that these horizontally extensive and standardized complexes spread across the western Maya area and the Olmec region. Most of those sites were not known, and even when the presence of some mounds were known, their overall rectangular shapes were not recognized. We thought that pyramids are the hallmark of Mesoamerican civilizations. But before the development of pyramids, there were monumental constructions that emphasized horizontal dimensions and standardized rectangular designs.”

Now that we have a birds’ eye view of these sites, archaeologists can now investigate them on ground level and see what more we can find about these ancient civilizations. However, ground investigations tend to be much more time-consuming than airborne surveying.

“We have been doing excavations and ground surveys in the eastern part of this study area. We will continue our ground investigations in that part, but it will take many years and the involvement of many other scholars to examine many of the sites that we found over this large area,” Inomata also adds for ZME Science.

Excavation at La Carmelita. Image credits: Takeshi Inomata.

As anthropologist Robert M. Rosenswig points out in the accompanying News & Views article, this precise mapping of Mesoamerican sites is an extremely important first step in documenting the archaeology of the inhabitants of the southern Gulf Coast — it essentially lays out a roadmap for research for decades to come.

There’s still plenty of things to learn about these ancient cultures, and new technology can be very helpful. Last year, Inomata and colleagues also shed new light on different Maya settlements, forcing archaeologists to rethink how the civilization evolved.

The study “Origins and spread of formal ceremonial complexes in the Olmec and Maya regions revealed by airborne lidar” has been published in Nature.

Neanderthals likely spoke and understood language like humans

With each new study, scientists’ perceptions on Neanderthals have shifted away from that of mindless brutes to highly complex hominids — a new study is cementing the notion that our extinct cousins were very human-like. One central question in human evolution is whether spoken language was employed by other species in the Homo lineage. A study published today confirms that Neanderthals were indeed linguistically capable.

“This is one of the most important studies I have been involved in during my career”, says Rolf Quam, an anthropology professor at Binghamton University and co-author of the new study. “The results are solid and clearly show the Neandertals had the capacity to perceive and produce human speech. This is one of the very few current, ongoing research lines relying on fossil evidence to study the evolution of language, a notoriously tricky subject in anthropology.”

The Atapuerca Mountains in north-eastern Spain may not look like much. They feature gentle slopes and a rather dry landscape, interrupted from time to time by forests and the occasional river. But these mountains hold a karstic environment that is key to understanding how humans came to be, and what life was for our early ancestors.

The most important site is a cave called Sima de los Huesos (Pit of Bones). Anthropologists have recovered over 5,500 human remains which are at least 350,000 years old from this site. The remains belong to 28 individuals of Homo heidelbergensis, an archaic hominin that lived from approximately 700,000 years to 300,000 years ago. Scientists believe that H. heidelbergensis is the ancestor of Homo neanderthalensis.

For their study, Quam along with colleagues at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid performed high resolution CT scans of Atapuerca fossils in order to produce virtual 3D models of the ear structure. The scientists generated models for Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, as well as for the ancestors of the Neanderthals.

The ear models were then inputted into software that can estimate hearing abilities based on the structure of the ears up to 5 kHz, which is most of the frequency range of modern human speech sounds.

Compared with the Atapuerca fossils, the researchers found that the Neanderthals had slightly better hearing in the 4-5 kHz range, which closely resembles modern humans.

The study also assessed the frequency range of maximum sensitivity, also known as the occupied bandwidth, for each species. The wider this bandwidth, the easier it is to distinguish complex sounds and to deliver a clear message in the shortest amount of time.

Once again, compared to their Atapuerca ancestors, Neanderthals showed a wider bandwidth resembling modern humans.

“This really is the key,” says Mercedes Conde-Valverde, professor at the Universidad de Alcalá in Spain and lead author of the study. “The presence of similar hearing abilities, particularly the bandwidth, demonstrates that the Neandertals possessed a communication system that was as complex and efficient as modern human speech.”

This begs the question: what did a Neanderthal language sound like? According to the researchers, one of the most intriguing findings of the study is that Neanderthal speech likely included an increased use of consonants.

“Most previous studies of Neandertal speech capacities focused on their ability to produce the main vowels in English spoken language. However, we feel this emphasis is misplaced, since the use of consonants is a way to include more information in the vocal signal and it also separates human speech and language from the communication patterns in nearly all other primates. The fact that our study picked up on this is a really interesting aspect of the research and is a novel suggestion regarding the linguistic capacities in our fossil ancestors,” Quam said.

These documented improvements in auditory capacity in Neandertals mirrors increasing complexity in stone tool technology, domestication of fire, and possible symbolic practices. We know, for instance, that Neanderthals also painted, fashioned jewelry, and employed abstract thinking in which symbols or images are used to represent objects, persons, and events that are not present.

As such, the study suggests that increasingly complex behaviors coevolve with increasing efficiency in oral communication. More insights may be gleaned once the researchers extend this investigation to other species of Homo.

“These results are particularly gratifying,” said Ignacio Martinez from Universidad de Alcalá in Spain. “We believe, after more than a century of research into this question, that we have provided a conclusive answer to the question of Neandertal speech capacities.”

Diver finds 900-year-old Crusader sword in Israel

Nir Distelfeld, an inspector for the Israel Antiquities Authority, with the 900-year-old Crusader sword. Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority.

Shlomi Katzin was on one of his usual Saturday dives off the coast of Carmel beach, in northern Israel, when he stumbled across the discovery of a lifetime. Helped by meteorological conditions, as the waves and undercurrents shifted the sand beneath him, the diver was shocked to see metal anchors and an elongated object that turned out to be a 900-year-old longsword dating back to the Crusades.

The perfectly preserved Medieval weapon measures one meter in length and has a 30-centimeter hilt, according to experts from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). It is likely made of iron, said Nir Distelfeld, an inspector for the IAA’s Robbery Prevention Unit.

Recognizing that the sword is likely ancient and of great archaeological value, Katzin brought the artifact ashore and, fearing it may end up in the wrong hands, immediately contacted local authorities who handed over the item to the National Treasures Department.

Although the sword is covered in marine life and sediments, experts claim the sword is preserved very well and should look amazing once the restoration process is complete.

“We will ensure it is displayed to the public,” IAA general director Eli Escosido told Times of Israel.

The Crusades represented a series of religious wars between European Christians and Muslims in the Middle East, which disputed control over holy sites considered sacred by both parties. Eight major Crusade expeditions occurred between 1096 and 1291.

Diver Shlomi Katzin with the sword he found. Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority.

Several religious knightly military orders were birthed out of the Crusades, including the Knights Templar, the Teutonic Knights, and Hospitallers. The newly discovered longsword likely belonged to such a knight, as common footsoldiers could not afford such a high-quality weapon for its time.

Carmel beach, where the sword was found, is known as a natural anchorage that has been in use since as early as 4,000 years ago. It was likely also used by the Crusaders 900 years ago to land on the shores of the Holy Land. Archaeologists are now surveying the site, on the lookout for more artifacts that might tell us more about Crusaders and perhaps even the identity of the knight who lost his sword. 

Roman concrete from noblewoman’s tomb still stands strong 2,000 years later. Here’s why

The tomb of Caecilia Metella is still remarkably intact after nearly 2,000 years since it was completed. Credit: Tyler Bell.

One of the world’s biggest engineering problems is concrete. Critical infrastructure built over the last century — bridges, highways, dams, and buildings — are now crumbling before our eyes. Repairing and rebuilding this decaying infrastructure is estimated to cost trillions of dollars in the United States alone.

When steel reinforcements were introduced to concrete in the 19th century, it was rightfully at the time hailed as a massive step up in innovation. Adding steel bars to concrete speeds up construction time, uses less concrete, and allows the engineering of long, cantilevered structures such as miles-long bridges and tall skyscrapers. These early engineers who introduced these projects thought reinforced concrete structures would last at least 1,000 years. In reality, we now know their lifespan is between 50 and 100 years.

Concrete was originally developed by the ancient Romans, whose building techniques were lost with the fall of the empire and wasn’t reinvented until 1824 when an Englishman named Joseph Aspdin discovered Portland cement by burning finely ground chalk and clay in a kiln until the carbon dioxide was removed.

However, the durability of the two types of concrete is worlds apart. Many magnificent Roman buildings, such as the Pantheon, still stand proud even to this day after nearly 2,000 years.

In a new study, scientists describe another example that serves as a testament to the craftsmanship of Roman concrete, illustrating the case of a large cylindrical tomb that serves as the final resting place for 1st-century noblewoman Caecilia Metella.

Investigations performed by geologists and geophysicists at the University of Utah show that the tomb’s concrete is of particularly high quality and durability, even by Roman standards, surpassing that of the tombs for her male contemporaries.

The secret is the particular type of volcanic aggregate the Roman craftsmen use and a bit of luck owed to the fortuitous chemical interaction of rainwater and groundwater with these aggregates.

The concrete that outlived an empire

Caecilia’s tomb lies on the edge of the Appian Way, the famous ancient Roman road that connected Rome to Brindisi, in the southeast. The structure is monumental for its time, measuring 70 feet (21 meters) in height and 100 feet (29 meters) in diameter. It consists of a drum-shaped tower on top of a square-shaped base.

It was erected around the year 30 BCE, which means Caecilia must have passed away while Rome was still a Republic. Just a few years later, in 27 BCE, Octavianus Augustus, Julius Caesar’s nephew, proclaimed himself Emperor, opening up a new age for Rome.

Her imposing tomb is worthy of her status. The daughter of a wealthy nobleman, she married into the family of Marcus Crassus, probably the wealthiest man in the world at the time (and one of the wealthiest in history, relatively speaking) and the third member of the famous triumvirate alliance with Caesar and Pompey.

Marie Jackson, research associate professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Utah, first visited the tomb in 2006 with a permit from Italian archaeologists to collect a small sample of mortar for analysis. When she arrived at the site, she was stunned by the almost perfectly preserved brick masonry walls and the water-saturated volcanic rock outcrop in the substructure.

Now, in a new study, Jackson teamed up with colleagues from MIT and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to zoom into the microstructure of the tomb’s concrete using an array of modern tools at their disposal. These instruments include the microdiffraction beamline at the Advanced Light Source (ALS) that produces a “micron size, extremely bright and energetic pencil X-ray beam that can penetrate through the entire thickness of the samples, making it a perfect tool for such a study,” said co-author Nobumichi Tamura of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Modern concrete mixes Portland cement— limestone, sandstone, ash, chalk, iron, and clay, among other ingredients, heated to form a glassy material that is finely ground — with aggregates, such as ground sand or rocks. These aggregates, usually sand or crushed stone, are not intended to chemically react because if they do, they can cause unwanted expansions in the concrete.

In contrast, Roman concrete didn’t use cement. Instead, they would make the concrete by first mixing volcanic ash, known as “tephra”, with limestone and seawater to make mortar, which is later incorporated into chunks of volcanic rock, the ‘aggregate’. Previously, while studying drilled cores of Roman harbor concrete, Jackson found an exceptionally rare mineral, aluminous tobermorite (Al-tobermorite) in the marine mortar. The mineral’s presence surprised everyone because it is very difficult to make. For Al-tobermorite to form, you need a very high temperature. “No one has produced tobermorite at 20 degrees Celsius,” she says. “Oh — except the Romans!”

Later, Jackson studied mortar from the Markets of Trajan and found a mineral called strätlingite, whose crystals block the propagation of microcracks in the mortar, preventing them from linking together and fracturing the concrete structure.

Roman concrete can actually grow stronger with time

Scanning electron microscopy image of the tomb mortar. The C-A-S-H binding phase appears as gray while the volcanic scoriae (and leucite crystals) appear as light gray. Credit: Marie Jackson.

At Caecilia’s tomb, the researchers were in for yet another surprise. The particular variety of tephra used in the ancient Roman structure was richer in leucite, a rock-forming mineral of the feldspathoid group. Over the centuries, rainwater and groundwater percolated through the walls of the tomb and dissolved the leucite, releasing its potassium into the mortar. The potassium dissolved and reacted with a building block in the mortar called C-A-S-H binding phase (calcium-aluminum-silicate-hydrate).

This remodeling led to a more robust cohesion in the concrete, despite much less strätlingite than seen in the Markets of Trajan.

“It turns out that the interfacial zones in the ancient Roman concrete of the tomb of Caecilia Metella are constantly evolving through long-term remodeling,” said Admir Masic, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at MIT. “These remodeling processes reinforce interfacial zones and potentially contribute to improved mechanical performance and resistance to failure of the ancient material.”

If Roman concrete is so awesome, why don’t we still use it? There are many reasons why the ancient construction material is not at all feasible for our contemporary needs. Sourcing the kind of volcanic ash in the original recipe is not possible for much of the world, which now uses an estimated 4 billion tons of cement every year. Roman concrete also lacks the compressive strength required for modern huge infrastructure projects, among other things.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t important lessons to be learned from Roman concrete that may help the next generation of concrete to overcome current shortcomings in our crumbling infrastructure. That’s exactly what Jackson and colleagues are set to do, part of an ongoing U.S. Department of Energy ARPA-e project. The objective is to find a new ‘recipe’ that could reduce energy emissions associated with concrete production by 85% and vastly improve the lifespan of the material.

The findings appeared in the Journal of the American Ceramic Society.

Ice Age humans have been using tobacco since at least 12,300 years ago

The findings were made at the Wishbone site in northwestern Utah. Credit: Daron Duke.

Nicotine is one of the most addictive drugs, and humans may have first noticed this as early as 12,300 years ago. That’s the age of old charred seeds of the wild tobacco plant, which were found within an ancient preserved hearth at the Wishbone site, near the Great Salt Lake Desert in Utah. Alongside the charred seeds, archeologists found stone tools and duck bones.

Previously, the oldest evidence of tobacco used dated to 3,300 years ago, based on nicotine residue found inside a pipe from Alabama. The new findings show that hunter-gatherer communities were familiar with tobacco much earlier than thought, even during the last Ice Age.

Chewing wild tobacco around the campfire

Some of the burned wild tobacco seeds that were found by the archaeologists. Credit: Angela Armstrong-Ingram.

Today, there are over 1.3 billion tobacco users worldwide. The addictive habit is responsible for more than eight million deaths every year in the world.

The tobacco plant is native to North and South America and until Cristopher Columbus was given some dry leaves as a gift, people outside the two continents were not exposed to it. It soon proved a hit, though. If it wasn’t for tobacco, the English may have never succeeded in colonizing North America since the riches were far fewer than in South America where the Spaniards rapidly expanded thanks to the economic incentives.

While Native Americans used tobacco in religious ceremonies and for supposed medical purposes, the smoking of tobacco in Europe became a daily habit.

However, what the European colonists were smoking was the domesticated variety. Scientists don’t know when the tobacco plant was first domesticated and used in agriculture, but there is evidence that suggests the process began some 5,000 years ago in the Southern United States and in Mexico. Around this time, archaeologists noticed an uptick in the domestication of food crops at large and an increase in tobacco use artifacts, such as seeds, residues, and pipes stained with nicotine.

The Utah charred seeds discovered by archaeologists led by Daron Duke of the Far Western Anthropological Research Group in Nevada belong to Nicotiana attenuata, also known as coyote tobacco. This particular species of wild tobacco was never domesticated but Indigenous people in the region use it to this day.

“On a global scale, tobacco is the king of intoxicant plants, and now we can directly trace its cultural roots to the ice age,” said Duke.

Although the area where the seeds were found is now desert terrain, during the time that Ice Age hunter-gatherers consumed them, the region was a marshland filled with waterfowl and wetland plants.

Alongside the seeds, archaeologists found sharp stone-cutting tools and spear tips made from obsidian. One of the spear points was stained with remains of blood. Analysis in the lab showed the blood proteins belonged to a mammoth or mastodon.

There are no other hints regarding the culture of these hunter-gatherer groups that experimented with tobacco. But seeing how popular the plant went on to become, it is likely that people “have already been at least casually tending, manipulating and managing tobacco well before the population and food-requirement incentives that drove investments in agriculture,” Duke said.

The findings appeared in the journal Nature Human Behavior.

3,000-year-old Mesopotamian tablets document the earliest known case of PTSD

Assyrian relief of a horseman from Nimrud, now in the British Museum. “Battle scene, Assyrian, about 728 BC. From Nimrud, Central Palace, re-used in South-West Palace.” Credit: British Museum.

Researchers studying ancient texts from Mesopotamia dating to 1300 BCE came across descriptions of symptoms that sound remarkably similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. As such, this may be the earliest depiction of PTSD in history.

The findings were reported in the journal Early Science and Medicine by Walid Khalid Abdul-Hamid of Queen Mary University of London and Jamie Hacker Hughes of the  Veterans and Families Institute at Anglia Ruskin University. Speaking to BBC News, the researchers said that the Assyrian soldiers “described hearing and seeing ghosts talking to them, who would be the ghosts of people they’d killed in battle – and that’s exactly the experience of modern-day soldiers who’ve been involved in close hand-to-hand combat.”

Nothing new under the sun

According to the researchers, professional soldiers enlisted by the Assyrian Dynasty in Mesopotamia, present-day Iraq, between 1300BC and 609BC first went through a year-long bootcamp, which also involved civil works like building roads, bridges, and other infrastructure for the kingdom. The soldiers were then sent to war for a year and, if they made it back in one piece, they were allowed to return their families for one year before repeating the cycle again.

But as the ancient texts analyzed by the researchers showed, although their bodies might have come back home intact, some of the soldiers’ minds were in shatters.

PTSD has only fairly recently been formally described by psychiatrists, after studies of Vietnam war veterans. Previously, doctors simply dismissed PTSD symptoms in soldiers as ‘shell shock’ or ‘battle fatigue’.

“Ancient soldiers facing the risk of injury and death must have been just as terrified of hardened and sharpened swords, showers of sling-stones or iron-hardened tips of arrows and fire arrows. The risk of death and the witnessing of the death of fellow soldiers appears to have been a major source of psychological trauma,” the paper reads. “Moreover, the chance of death from injuries, which can nowadays be surgically treated, must have been much greater in those days. All these factors contributed to post-traumatic or other psychiatric stress disorders resulting from the experience on the ancient battlefield.” 

Until now, the oldest reference to PTSD-like symptoms came from ancient Greece, in texts by Herodotus describing the aftermath of the infamous Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE. Herodotus claimed that some Athenian warriors had hallucinations and suffered from spontaneous blindness following their close encounter with death on the battlefield. Achilles, hero of the Trojan war, is commonly held to be an ancient sufferer of PTSD as well. And in one potential account of PTSD, one chronicler described the crusaders coming home from the Third Crusade (1189-92), writing that though these men “survived unharmed … their hearts were pierced by swords of sorrows from different sorts of suffering”.

Although PTSD is challenging (and sometimes impossible) to diagnose from text alone, these accounts show that trauma and distress haunted veterans likely since humans first waged war on one another. 

Machine learning reveals archaeology from up to 5,000 years ago

As modern technologies are emerging, they can help us learn a thing or two about ancient history as well. In a new study published by Penn State researchers, a machine learning algorithm was able to find previously undiscovered shell rings and shell mounds left by Indigenous people 3,000 to 5,000 years ago.

Shell rings in LiDAR data. The rings stand out due to their slope and elevation change compared to the surrounding landscape. 
Image credits: Dylan Davis, Penn State.

When humans build structures, it changes the environment around. Even once a structure is gone, the remains can still detectable for hundreds or even thousands of years. For instance, if you build a house, the porosity and topography of the surrounding soil will change ever so slightly, as will the chemistry of the soil beneath your house (as traces of man-made materials seep underground). Oftentimes, we can detect these changes if we look closely enough — and with the proper technological tool. Maybe it’s a tiny slope, maybe it’s some difference in soil humidity, or something else, but if we can gather the right type of data, we can see where human structures were built even thousands of years ago.

But it’s not easy. For decades, researchers looked for structures from the ground based on historical hints or what they could see with the naked eye. But vegetation can easily mask these subtle differences. In recent years though, aerial surveys have made a big difference. With airborne Lidar, Synthetic Aperture Data, or other types of spectral data, researchers were able to uncover more archaeological structures far easier than before.

But there was still a problem: there’s a lot of airborne data to analyze, and the data isn’t always clear. So how do you comb through all the data and find what looks promising? Well, you train an algorithm, of course.

The team began with a public Lidar data set and then used a deep learning process to recognize the algorithm to find shell rings, shell mounds, and other landscape objects that could be indicative of archaeological remains. They then manually went over the maps and located the known rings, using these to train the algorithm. For an even better training program, they rotated some of the maps by 45 degrees.

“There are only about 50 known shell ring sites in the Southeastern U.S.,” says Dylan S. Davis, doctoral candidate in anthropology at Penn State. Davis is also an author of the new study. “So, we needed more locations for training.”

“One difficulty with deep learning is that it usually requires massive amounts of information for training, which we don’t have when looking for shell rings,” Davis adds. “However, by augmenting our data and by using synthetic data, we were able to get good results, although, because of COVID-19, we have not been able to check our new shell rings on the ground.”

After training the algorithm, the team was able to use it to discover hundreds of new promising structures, including ones in counties where no previous discovery had been made. Since shell rings are thought to be centers of exchange of goods, they can provide a lot of information on ancient societies, showing what resources they traded and whether or not they used the available resources sustainably or not.

Aerial view of shell rings
Shell rings located on Daws Island, South Carolina. Both rings are approximately 150 to 200 feet in diameter and are comprised largely of oyster, mussel and clam shells.

“The rings themselves are a treasure trove for archaeologists,” said “Excavations done at some shell rings have uncovered some of the best preservation of animal bones, teeth and other artifacts.”

Archaeologists will now try to explore these sites on the ground and confirm the findings. But what’s perhaps even more exciting is that the artificial intelligence algorithms that they used are already included in ArcGis, a commercially available geographic information system. This means that the algorithms could be trained to find different types of structures in different geographical areas, potentially opening a whole new era of airborne archaeological exploration. The researchers also provide the code and tools they used and encourage others to replicate their approach. It doesn’t even need to be archaeology — other structures of interest could also be scoured thusly.

“Archaeologists are using more and more AI and automation techniques,” Davis concludes. “It can be extremely complicated and requires specific skill sets and usually requires large amounts of data.”

Archaeologists uncover hidden citadel in ancient Maya city

Using airborne data, a group of archaeologists discovered a previously unknown structural complex near the Maya city of Tikal, in what is now Guatemala. While the city is notable in itself, what makes the discovery even more interesting is that the complex’s structures are similar to buildings in Teotihuacan, a Mesoamerican city. 

View of the Teotihuacan Complex at Tikal. Image credit: Researchers

The ruins of Tikal have been the subject of extensive study since the 1950s, with researchers documenting details of every structure and cataloguing all excavated items. This has made Tikal one of the best understood archeological sites in the world. Nevertheless, there’s always something new to discover — as we can see in this study. 

Stephen Houston from Brown University and Thomas Garrison from the University of Texas have discovered that what was thought to be a natural hilly area near Tikal’s center was actually a neighborhood of ruined buildings intentionally designed to look like Teotihuacan, the most powerful and largest city there was in ancient Americas.

“What we had taken to be natural hills actually were shown to be modified and conformed to the shape of the citadel,” Houston said in a statement. “Regardless of who built this smaller-scale replica and why, it shows without a doubt that there was a different level of interaction between Tikal and Teotihuacan than previously believed.”

Understanding Tikal

The area where the complex was found hadn’t been explored until now as researchers believed that the hills were just part of the natural landscape. Houston and Garrison used LIDAR, a light detection and ranging technology, to build 3D models of the surface and identify structural features. This was followed then by an on-site exploration that confirmed the findings.

In the area, which is roughly 62 acres, the researchers confirmed with excavations that the buildings were built with mud plaster than limestone, a material usually used by the Maya society. In fact, the structures appeared to be scaled-down versions of the buildings from Teotihuacan’s citadel, located more than 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) away. 

The researchers also found human remains near the replicated buildings. The bodies were surrounded by several funerary items such as animal bones and projectile points. There was also plenty of coal, suggesting the assemblage was deliberately set on fire – a death ritual that is similar to the one used with warriors at the citadel of Teotihuacan. 

It’s not the first-time evidence is found of the influence of Teotihuacan in Tikal, as contacts between the two societies were common. Maya elites lived and traded in Teotihuacan. But after centuries of peace, Teotihuacan conquered Tikal in 378 CE.  The new findings suggest a more intense contact between the two, the researchers argue.

“The architectural complex we found very much appears to have been built for people from Teotihuacan or those under their control,” Houston said. “Perhaps it was something like an embassy complex, but when we combine previous research with our latest findings, it suggests something more heavy-handed, like occupation or surveillance.”

The study was published in the journal Antiquity. 

Researchers in Turkey uncover what may be the world’s first mosaic

Archeologists working in central Turkey have uncovered what may be the “ancestor” of all Mediterranean mosaics. This piece dates back over three and a half centuries, hailing from the Bronze Age. While impressive in and of itself, researchers hope that its discovery can help us better understand the history of the quite mysterious Hittite people.

The mosaic. Image via

The mosaic was unearthed at a site some three hours’ driving distance from Turkey’s capital city of Ankara, according to local news outlets. This site is known as Uşaklı Höyük, and some 3,500 years ago, it was the site of a Hittite temple. On its grounds, archeologists have uncovered a mosaic consisting of over 3,000 unpainted stones, whose natural shades of beige, red, and black were used to create various curves and triangle shapes. This piece of art predates the oldest known mosaics — from ancient Greece — by around 700 years.

Researchers working at the site believe that this element was meant as a stepping stone of some sort and wasn’t necessarily put together with the intention of being a mosaic. However, given its age, this may very well be the “ancestor” of all mosaics, with the ideas used in its construction later replicated throughout the Mediterranean.

A true original

“It is the ancestor of the classical period of mosaics that are obviously more sophisticated. This is a sort of first attempt to do it,” says Anacleto D’Agostino, excavation director of Uşaklı Höyük.

“For the first time, people felt the necessity to produce some geometric patterns and to do something different from a simple pavement. Maybe we are dealing with a genius? Maybe not. It was maybe a man who said ‘build me a floor’ and he decided to do something weird?”

The site was first located in 2018, and teams of Turkish and Italian archaeologists have been working here ever since. The site sits in the shadow of the Kerkenes mountain on the grounds of an ancient temple which, the team explains, was very likely dedicated to Teshub. This was a storm god of the Hittites, roughly equivalent to Zeus in ancient Greek mythology.

D’Agostino says that while the exact use of this proto-mosaic is unknown, it is possible that it was made to resemble the Kerkenes mountain, likely to serve a ritual purpose. Ceramic fragments and the remains of a palace have also been found at the site, hinting at its original size, inhabitation levels, and overall importance.

Based on these, the team is quite confident that Uşaklı Höyük is the lost city Zippalanda, an important settlement and place of worship for Teshub, mentioned frequently in Hittite tablets. The Hittites employed cuneiform writing and left behind a relative wealth of texts on clay tablets.

“Researchers agree that Uşaklı Höyük is one of two most likely sites. With the discovery of the palace remains alongside the luxurious ceramics and glassware, the likelihood has increased,” D’Agostino says.

Still, until solid, verifiable proof is found — such as a tablet or inscription mentioning the site’s original name — this remains pure conjecture. Despite the extent of the ruins at Uşaklı Höyük, precious few artifacts have been uncovered at the site. 

By the way, these are not the same Hittites that most people are familiar with — those mentioned in the bible. The Hittites who made this mosaic lived during the late Bronze Age and were vying for supremacy in the region with other great civilizations of the era: the New Kingdom of Egypt, the Middle Assyrian Empire, and the Mittani Empire.

These Hittites were pretty advanced for their time, being some of the first to use, and perhaps even the inventors of, iron smelting from meteoric iron. Even so, like many other empires and states during the time, the Hittite empire crumbled during the Bronze Age collapse, and the Hittites broke into small kingdoms scattered through today’s Syria, Lebanon, and the Levant. What caused this collapse of virtually every major organized state at the end of the Bronze Age is still a matter of much debate and little evidence; among the leading theories is that either invading ‘sea peoples’ or shifts in climate caused widespread social unrest.

“I don’t know if we can find a connection between ancient Hittites and people living here now. Centuries and millennia have passed, and people moved from one place to another,” D’Agostino says. “But I would like to imagine that some sort of spiritual connection exists.”

In honor of this possible connection, the archeologists working at Uşaklı Höyük have also been recreating dishes from recipes found on clay tablets at the site, trying to stay as faithful to the techniques and materials used in antiquity. The team explains that they also reproduced Hittite ceramics using local clay for the purpose. So far, they’ve sampled baked dates and bread cooked using these dishes, says Valentina Orsi, co-director of the excavation, which were “very good”.

Cosmic impact could be inspiration behind biblical story of Sodom

The destruction of Tall el-Hamman, a vibrant city from the Bronze age located in the southern Jordan Valley, could have inspired the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, two legendary biblical cities that were destroyed by God becoming too wicked. 

An artist depiction of the blast. Image credit: The researchers.

About 3,600 years ago, Tall el-Hamman was the largest continuously occupied city in the southern Levant, having hosted people for a few thousand years. It was the political center of the valley, alongside the cities of Jericho and Tell Nimrin. More than 50,000 people lived in the area, which hosted mudbrick buildings up to five stories tall.

The site has been frequently visited by archaeologists and biblical scholars as it hosts valuable cultural evidence, all compacted into layers of dirt and rock as the settlement was built, destroyed, and rebuilt over the years. But there’s a specific internal in the Middle Bronze Age layer that recently caught the eye of a group of researchers. 

In addition to what you would expect to find from destruction from earthquakes and warfare, the researchers also found pottery shards with surfaced melted into glass and partially melted building material. This would indicate an anomalously high-temperature event, which they think was a space rock raising havoc in the city. 

“Flashing through the atmosphere, the rock exploded in a massive fireball about 2.5 miles above the ground. The blast was around 1,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima atomic bomb. The shocked city dwellers who stared at it were blinded instantly. Air temperatures rapidly rose above 2,000ºC,” writes co-author Christopher Moore, for the Conversation. 

Seconds after the meteorite, a shock from the explosion smashed into the city, Moore said. It moved at about 740 miles per hour, with deadly winds demolishing every building. None of the 8,000 people living at the moment in Tall el-Hamman or any animals survived, Moore wrote, with their bodies torn apart and their bodies blasted into fragments. 

A long-term research

Getting some answers of what actually happened in Tall el-Hamman took almost 15 years of excavations by hundreds of people, then followed by detailed analyses of the excavated material. Archaeologists, geologists, geochemists, cosmic-impact experts, medical doctors, and mineralogists participated in the remarkable research effort. 

A map of the location of the city. Image credit: The researchers

After dismissing an earthquake, a fire, and a volcanic eruption as possible cataclysmic events, the researchers concluded that a small asteroid must have been the main culprit behind the city’s destruction. It was likely similar to the one that cleared out 80 million trees in Tunguska, Russia, in 1908, and much smaller than the one that took out the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago, Moore explained.

The researchers found finely fractured sand grains called shocked quartz that is only formed at 725,000 pounds per square inch of pressure. The layer of dirt also had very small diamondoids — variants of a carbon cage molecule that are as hard as diamonds. Woods and plants in Tall el-Hamman turned into these diamond-like materials because of the temperature and high pressure from the space rock. 

At the laboratory, experiments also showed that the pottery and mudbricks at Tall el-Hammam melted at temperatures above 1.500ºC – hot enough to melt a car in minutes. The surfaces of the pottery are also spattered with small melted metallic grains, such as iridium, platinum and zirconium silicate, with a melting point over 1.500ºC 

The researchers believe that the oral description of the city’s destruction was passed down from generation to generation until it was registered as the story of the Sodom and Gomorrah. The Bible describes an urban center near the Dead Sea that was fully devastated by stones and fire falling from the sky, killing all the city’s inhabitants. 

“Could this be an ancient eyewitness account? If so, the destruction of Tall el-Hammam may be the second-oldest destruction of a human settlement by a cosmic impact event, after the village of Abu Hureyra in Syria about 12,800 years ago. Importantly, it may the first written record of such a catastrophic event,” Moore writes.

The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

23,000 year-old ‘ghost tracks’ show humans arrived in the Americas much earlier than thought

Fossilized human footprints left in White Hands National Park are between 23,000 and 21,000 years old. Credit: National Park Service.

Scientists have found fossilized footprints in New Mexico dating back 23,000 years. The leading theory of how the Americas were first populated suggests that humans first set foot on the continents after the end of the “last glacial maximum”, no more than 16,000 years ago. This latest “unequivocal evidence”, as the scientists called it, shows that humans arrived much earlier in the Americas, likely before the start of the last ice age, perhaps as early as 30,000 years ago.

Americas: the final frontier

After the early humans migrated out of East Africa, likely in multiple waves, they quickly spread throughout Eurasia, reaching the southern coast of Asia and even all the way to Oceania by about 50,000 years ago. However, the Americas proved a hard nut to crack. It would take many thousands of years before humans finally set foot in North America, and then traveled south to Central and South America.

The earliest humans in the Americas likely originated from Central Asia. They crossed the Beringia land bridge, a now underwater vast plain where wooly mammoths and other animals once roamed. During the Last Glacial Maximum, which lasted from about 26,500 to 19,000 years ago, so much water was locked into ice that sea levels are supposed to have been even 120 meters lower than they are today. Islands became peninsulas and underwater plains became valleys and meadows. For a few thousand years, Siberia and Western Alaska were connected by one continuous expanse.

Humans, along with other fauna, took advantage of this opportunity and migrated to North America. Archaeological evidence, such as spearheads, suggest that people belonging to the Clovis culture, named after a town in New Mexico where the first such artifacts have been discovered, were among the first to settle the continent some 14,000 years ago.

However, other archaeological evidence found over the last two decades has cast doubt over the peopling of the Americas by Clovis people. For instance, excavations performed at a cave in Zacatecas, in central Mexico, by archaeologists led by Ciprian Ardelean from the Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas led to the discovery of a treasure trove of stone tool artifacts, some as much 31,000 years old.

Another study published in Nature, led by Lorena Becerra-Valdivia, an archaeological scientist at the University of New South Wales and the University of Oxford, showed that by at least 15,000 years ago, the North American continent was already widely settled.  Six Brazilian sites — five in the state of Piaui and the other one in Moto Grosso — are more than 20,000 years old. Clearly, humans must have migrated from Asia much earlier than that.

At the height of the last ice age, much of the northern parts of the continent were covered by huge barren ice sheets that would have made human migration from Asia into North America all but impossible. So any migration should have occurred either before or after this glacial episode that lasted nearly 20,000 years. New remarkable evidence found in New Mexico points to the former.

Barefoot in the park

The ‘ghost tracks’ had been spotted for a number of years in the White Sands area but only when the ground was wet. Credit: USGS, Bournemouth University.

For years, people have noticed that in particularly wet periods of the year at White Sands National Park in New Mexico, you could see footprints appearing as if out of nowhere on the ground. They would disappear again when the soil dried out, earning them the nickname “ghost tracks”.

In 2016, wildlife scientist David Bustos confirmed the phenomenon and that the tracks were left by humans — and their significance is even grander than anyone could have imagined.

In a new study published in the journal Science, archaeologists radiocarbon-dated ancient seeds found inside some of the fossilized footprints in a dry lake bed at White Sands, finding some are up to 23,000 years old. The seeds belong to an aquatic plant Ruppia cirrhosa, commonly known as ditchgrass, which thrived on the banks of the now dried-up lake.

Although the site where the prints have been found is now mostly a desert, when the prints were engraved White Sands looked very different, a lush wetland populated by mammoths, wild camels, cattle, and Stone Age humans.

These prints are carved into fine silt and clay, making them very fragile. Scientists took photos and then made 3D models in order to not disturb them.

Most of the human tracks appear to be those of teenagers and children, with adult footprints being less frequent. This suggests that the teenagers would be sent to the lake to do simple labor such as fetching water, firewood, and other resources, while the adults were involved in more skilled labor such as hunting. “Children accompany the teenagers, and collectively they leave a higher number of footprints,” the scientists mention in their study.

These footprints were found along with those of animals in multiple sediment layers spanning at least 2,000 years. This suggests that human presence in the area during the last glacial maximum was sustained rather than a single, one-off event by some isolated group of humans.

Scientists from White Sands National Park, the National Park Service, USGS, Bournemouth University, University of Arizona and Cornell University, in connection with the park’s Native American partners, have collaborated and consulted on this research.

England’s first American colony mysteriously disappeared without a trace over 400 years ago. Scientists are now looking for clues

Credit: Public Domain.

In the 17th century, the British were watching the Spaniards with heartburning envy as they set up a global colonial empire that brought home ships filled with gold. Queen Elizabeth found it unacceptable for her kingdom to stand by idle and ordered expeditions to the New World, dreaming of the same riches the Spaniards had plundered in South and Central America.

These colonization expeditions, however, proved incredibly harrowing and unsuccessful before the first permanent colony was founded in 1607 at Jamestown in Virginia. Thousands of hopeful immigrants died or went missing during the long years before the English could establish a stable footing in North America. Among them were the crew of Sir Walter Raleigh, one of Queen Elizabeth’s favorite subjects who was tasked with founding the first North American colony in 1585.

Raleigh tasked an expedition of 117 men, women, and children to establish a settlement on Roanoke Island, situated on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, in 1587. They called it the Cittie of Raleigh.

Portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

When a resupply mission arrived finally at the site three years later due to delays caused by the Spanish Armada, everyone was gone. They found the Cittie of Raleigh deserted, plundered, and surrounded “with a high pallisado of great trees, with cortynes and flankers, very fort-like”. 

Nothing remained that would foretell of the colonists’ presence there apart from the word “CROATOAN” carved into one of the trees and the letters “CRO” carved into another nearby tree. Croatoan were names given to the place and people of modern-day Hatteras Island, about 50 miles south of Roanoke Island off the Outer Banks.

Modern day search for the Lost Colony

Now, archaeologists have recommenced surveys and digs around the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site in a bid to unearth new clues that may unravel the mysterious fate of the Lost Colony. What’s interesting about this expedition is that the public will be invited to view the dig and even contribute until September 24.

“The upcoming dig offers a unique opportunity for anyone interested in the fate of the Lost Colony to watch professional archaeologists at work,” said David Hallac, superintendent, National Parks of Eastern North Carolina.

The archaeologists are exploring multiple sites deemed promising following surveys using ground-penetrating radar in 2016. This includes areas where archaeologists found several artifacts, such as earthenware fragments, which they believe could be a metallurgical and science workshop set up by Thomas Harriot and Joachim Gans just a few years before Raleigh’s settlers arrived.

Sir Raleigh sent explorers Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe to scout the island in 1584, who wrote back that it was inhabited by two native tribes, the Manteo and Wanchese. Some of the new digs will focus on this expedition as well.

Earthenware fragments found at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site believed to be originated from the first settlers. Credit: National Park Service.

Hopefully, the artifacts the archeologists might find could help determine the fate of the Lost Colony. Previous expeditions found artifacts 50 miles west of Roanoke Island and about 50 miles south of Roanoke Island, on Hatteras Island. Both discoveries suggest that the initial colonists split up into two or more widely separated survivor camps. They were likely aided by Native Americans without whom they could never have survived.

Raleigh himself never visited North America. Instead, he led expeditions in 1595 and 1616 to the Orinoco river basin in South America, in search of the golden city of El Dorado. During the last expedition, a detachment of Raleigh’s men attacked a Spanish outpost, in violation of peace treaties with Spain and against Raleigh’s orders. Upon Raleigh’s return to England, King James ordered his execution to appease the Spanish ambassador.

Archaeologists find best-preserved human remains in Pompeii

Secundio’s remains were found at the Porta Sarno necropolis. Credit: Cesare Abbate.

The Roman Empire was no stranger to rag to riches stories, despite the momentous inequality that plagued the realm. Take Marcus Venerius Secundio of Pompeii, for instance. The man was born a slave but managed to gain his freedom, then quickly climbed the social ladder, becoming a priest until he died at the ripe old age of 60. Now, almost two thousand years later, Italian archaeologists have excavated Secundio’s tomb and were stunned to find his were the best-preserved remains found in the once-great city of Pompeii thus far.

Pompeii was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year 79 AD. However, its terrible and harrowing undoing also ensured the city was preserved arguably like no other ancient settlement. Under the many layers of ash and pumice, archaeologists have unearthed remarkably well-preserved buildings, artworks, and frescos, as well as human remains, some of them gruesomely trapped in their death pose by the eruption’s hot ash.

The tomb of Marcus Venerius Secundio. Credit: Archaeological Park of Pompeii.

Yet despite Pompeii being rediscovered in 1738, the site continues to impress and dazzle archaeologists. The tomb of Secundio, whose partially mummified remains are thought to be the most well-preserved found thus far, marks such an occasion.

Although it’s not clear when Secundio was buried, one thing’s certain: he died before the Vesuvius eruption. His final resting place was uncovered at the Porta Sarno necropolis, close to one of the main entrance gates into the city.

His partially mummified remains, including white hair, bones, and even an ear, amazed the researchers from the European University of Valencia and the Archaeological Park of Pompeii  – a lucky find considering the Roman custom was to cremate the dead.

The fact that Secundio, who was part of a college of priests known as the Augustales, was found buried is indicative of his high social status. Secundio “may well have had himself buried and even embalmed with the precise intention of preserving his body from the moisture of the grave,” Llorenç Alapont, an archaeologist at Valencia University, told ANSA.

Closeup of Marcus Venerius Secundio’s remains. Credit: Archaeological Park of Pompeii.

“The tomb at the Sarno gate is really an extraordinary discovery because of all the information it can give us, a unique burial for that era in Pompeii, and it may in some ways also change our knowledge on the rules of death rites in the Roman world,” Alapont added.

The marble inscription from Secundio’s tomb. Credit: Archaeological Park of Pompeii.

That’s not all. A marble slab found on top of the tomb not only contains information about Seuncdio’s life but also makes reference to theatre performances in Pompeii that were conducted in Greek. This is the first evidence that Pompeii hosted performances in the Greek language and is a testament to the cosmopolitan nature of the great fallen city. Archaeologists also found a glass bottle inscribed with the name of a woman, Novia Amabilis, who might have been Secundio’s wife.

“It’s an extremely interesting testimony, which must be linked to the others that we have of the presence of Greeks and above all Greek culture in Pompeii,” Former Pompeii director Massimo Osanna said in a statement, who added that Greek culture was  “all the rage in Pompeii.”

People in the Philippines are the most Denisovan in the world

Genetic analysis has found clear traces that humans and Denisovans interbred in the past. The Philippine ethnic group known as the Ayta Magbukon has the highest level of Denisovan ancestry in the world.

The Negritos group in the Philippines comprises some 25 different ethnic groups, scattered throughout the Andaman archipelago in South-East Asia. They were once considered to be a single population, but the more researchers looked into it, the more they found that Negritos are actually very diverse.

In the new study, Maximilian Larena of Uppsala University and colleagues set out to establish the demographic history of the Philippines. Their project involved indigenous cultural communities, local universities, as well as official and non-governmental organizations from the area. With everyone working together, they were able to analyze 2.3 million genotypes from 118 ethnic groups in the Philippines — including the diverse Negrito populations.

The results were particularly intriguing for a population called the Ayta Magbukon, which still occupy vast swaths of their ancestral land and continue to coexist with the lowland population surrounding them. The Ayta Magbukon seem to possess the highest level of Denisovan ancestry in the world.

“We made this observation despite the fact that Philippine Negritos were recently admixed with East Asian-related groups—who carry little Denisovan ancestry, and which consequently diluted their levels of Denisovan ancestry,” said Larena “If we account for and masked away the East Asian-related ancestry in Philippine Negritos, their Denisovan ancestry can be up to 46 percent greater than that of Australians and Papuans.”

This finding, along with the recent discovery of a small-bodied hominin called Homo luzonensis, suggests that multiple hominin species inhabited the Philippines prior to the arrival of modern humans — and these groups likely interbred multiple times.

The Denisovans are a mysterious group of hominins identified in 2010 based on mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) extracted from a juvenile female finger bone from the Siberian Denisova Cave. Although researchers haven’t found numerous traces of DNA, they’ve discovered traces of their DNA in modern populations. Apparently, this group in the Philippines has the highest percentage of Denisovan DNA in the world — at least that we’ve found so far.

“This admixture led to variable levels of Denisovan ancestry in the genomes of Philippine Negritos and Papuans,” co-author Mattias Jakobsson said. “In Island Southeast Asia, Philippine Negritos later admixed with East Asian migrants who possess little Denisovan ancestry, which subsequently diluted their archaic ancestry. Some groups, though, such as the Ayta Magbukon, minimally admixed with the more recent incoming migrants. For this reason, the Ayta Magbukon retained most of their inherited archaic tracts and were left with the highest level of Denisovan ancestry in the world.”

Researchers hope to sequence more genomes and better understand “how the inherited archaic tracts influenced our biology and how it contributed to our adaptation as a species,” Larena concludes.

Journal Reference: “Philippine Ayta possess the highest level of Denisovan ancestry in the world” 

Bronze artifact indicates Romans threw enemies to the lions across their empire, even as far as Britain

Credit: University of Leicester Archaeological Services.

It was rather common during ancient Rome, especially in times of economic hardship, to have prisoners, slaves, criminals, and various enemies of the state executed by feeding them to hungry circus animals, including lions and tigers. This capital punishment, known as Damnatio ad bestias (“condemnation for beasts”), is thought to have been widespread across the Roman empire, but it was only recently that archaeologists have found the first evidence that lions may have been used in executions in Britain.

Archaeologists surveying a site in Leicester came across an elaborately decorated Roman bronze key handle depicting a man locked in pitch battle with a ferocious lion, under the eyes of four naked and fearful youths. According to researchers at King’s College in London, this artifact likely depicts the execution of a ‘barbarian’, the fate of all who dare oppose Rome.

This unique artifact was found buried under the floor of a late Roman townhouse excavated in 2016.

“When first found, it appeared as an indistinguishable bronze object, but after we carefully cleaned off the soil remarkably we revealed several small faces looking back at us, it was absolutely astounding, ” said Dr. Gavin Speed, who led the excavations at a site off Great Central Street in Leicester

“Nothing quite like this has been discovered anywhere in the Roman Empire before.

Credit: University of Leicester Archaeological Services.

The figure portrayed on the bronze key handle displays features typically associated with ‘barbarians’ (basically anyone not Roman or Greek), including a mane-like hair, bushy beard, bulging eyes, and trousers below a naked torso. The lion is about to deliver the killing blow, being wrapped around the body of its victim with its open mouth menacing the side of the head. The four youth witnessing the scene are thought to symbolize the ‘children of the tribe’, their harrowing experience serving as a warning to those who would oppose Roman dominion.

“A cautious reading of the handle would see it as a similarly generic representation of damnatio, albeit an unusually vivid one. However, recent osteological studies give grounds for suggesting that spectacles of this kind involving lethal violence were familiar to British audiences. In particular, the analyses of fragmentary human skeletal material from the London Wall and of skeletons from graves in the cemetery south-west of Roman York have linked them plausibly to arena violence. In both cases the remains are those of adult males of geographically diverse origins and show signs of frequent violent trauma, both over their lifetimes and as the cause of their deaths. One York individual’s pelvis bears possible puncture wounds from an as yet unidentified animal, and so takes us a little closer to a likely spectacle context in which humans met their deaths through violent contact with animals. Taking this evidence into account, and noting the evidence described above for destruction of captives in the provinces as well as in the metropolis, it is not impossible that the handle’s creation was inspired directly by a spectacle located in Britain, even perhaps in the adjacent theatre,” the researchers wrote.

Beautiful mosaic excavations from the opulent Roman home in Leicester where the key was found. Credit: University of Leicester Archaeological Services.

The artifact itself was probably forged a century or more after Britain was conquered by Rome by Emperor Claudius in 43 AD. Judging by its intricate ornaments, this fancy key probably served less of a functional role. Instead, it was probably used like a charm item that granted security and protection to the household.

Besides the exquisite key handle, archaeologists working at the Leicester Roman site also found a wonderfully preserved mosaic floor, roads, and an ancient theater.

The key handle will probably be displayed to the public at the Jewry Wall Museum in Leicester, following the completion of major refurbishment work expected to be completed by 2023.

The findings were reported in the journal Britannia.