Category Archives: Archaeology

Genetic analysis of ancient massacre shows people were killed indiscriminately

Unfortunately, it seems humans have been killing each other since time immemorial. Usually though, when archaeologists find signs of killing, there’s a reason and a pattern to it. But at the Potočani site in today’s Croatia, people were slaughtered indiscriminately 6,200 years ago — and we’re not really sure why.

The Potočani site. Image credits: Novak et al (2021).

“The site of the mass burial at Potočani was discovered purely by chance in 2007,” says study author Mario Novak to ZME Science. “One of the locals from the village was building a garage and the discovery was a result of an erosion caused by heavy rain at the construction site. The subsequent archaeological rescue excavations led by Jacqueline Balen from the Archaeological Museum in Zagreb uncovered a roughly circular pit approx. 2 meters in diameter and about 1 m in depth that was partially destroyed on one side containing numerous commingled human remains.”

At first, the archaeologists thought these were recent remains, from World War 2 or the Croatian War of Independence from the 90s. But there were no modern materials in the pit, just a few pottery fragments. The more researchers looked at the site, the more it seemed like these weren’t modern people at all. There were no dental fillings (a sign of recent provenance) and no modern remains.

Radiocarbon dating of three human bone fragments from the bit suggested a burial date of 6,200 years ago, and also suggested that the people were buried at the same time, not over a longer period of time. It all pointed at the same thing: these people were slaughtered thousands of years ago.

An ancient massacre

The pottery fragments and radiocarbon dating connect this burial to the so-called Lasinja culture. Not that much is known about them, Novak explains. They came in the Middle Copper Age (the Eneolithic) and spread in neighboring Austria, Hungary, and Slovenia.

“There are only a few known burials associated with this culture. We know from material remains mostly excavated from their settlements that they were one of the first people in this part of Europe to start using metal (copper) and that cattle played a very important role in their every-day lives. It is possible these people were semi-nomadic following their herds of cattle,” Novak explains.

“So far, there are dozens of known Lasinja sites known in Croatia but only a few have been thoroughly excavated and investigated,” he adds.

Novak and colleagues were able to retrieve genomic data from the bones of 38 of the 41 individuals found in the mass grave, and in the new study, they published the results. The individuals featured both sexes (21 males and 20 females), and spanned different age groups. Less than half of them were adults, and 11 were children under the age of 10.

Some individuals were linked by family (a younger man, his two young daughters, and his nephew were all found in the pit), but 70% of them were unrelated. The victims do seem to have similar ancestry and seem to have been in the area for a while, so it’s not a case of a new population coming in and getting wiped out. Overall though, there seems to be no clear pattern connecting them — it seems a case of large-scale, indiscriminate killing.

[Also Read: 10,000 Year Old Hunter-Gatherer Massacre Uncovered]

The available evidence is scarce. We don’t know who did this or why. Researchers suspect a fight for resources driven by a change in climate, though it could be an in-versus-out-group conflict (such as targeting of specific families or recent migrants), or even religious ritual.

“Usually, fights over the resources associated with climatic changes and the increase of population is proposed as one of the possible causes. In Potočani, it could be linked with resources, maybe even cattle as it was one of their most important resources,” adds Novak.

This isn’t the first ancient site of this nature, Novak also adds. Numerous sites of this sort have been found in central Europe (Germany, Austria), associated with the so-called Linearbandkeramik culture, some 7,000 years ago. In those cases, violence was aimed towards members of a certain community. In this particular case, it wasn’t an entire community that got wiped out — it was a small part of a larger population that may have numbered in the hundreds.

“In the case of Potočani, we don’t know who might be the perpetrator, but in some other cases from Europe, the attackers were local populations attacking the newly immigrated individuals. Unfortunately, for most prehistoric massacre cases we probably will never get a clear answer to that question.”

We may think of war and massacres as connected to cities, countries, and civilizations — but the results show that large-scale indiscriminate killing isn’t just restricted to modern or historic times, and it’s not even restricted to settled civilizations.

Further research is needed to establish just how frequent this type of violence was and why it happened. Ultimately, this dark episode could help us understand “why such violent episodes occurred in ancient times, but unfortunately are also happening even today,” Novak concludes.

Journal Reference:  Novak M, Olalde I, Ringbauer H, Rohland N, Ahern J, Balen J, et al. (2021) Genome-wide analysis of nearly all the victims of a 6200 year old massacre. PLoS ONE 16(3): e0247332. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0247332

Scythians weren’t the nomadic warriors many portray them as — they also settled down

Scythians are ancient people that lived in the steppes of Eurasia from approximately the 7th century BC until the 3rd century BC. They’re often portrayed as nomadic peoples who moved along as they traded and raided — but a new study challenges this notion. Using isotopic analysis, researchers have shown that, at least sometimes, the Scythians also settled down and practiced agriculture.

A gold Scythian artifact. Image in public domain.

Scythians were excellent horse riders and carried out frequent raids on both European and Middle-Eastern civilizations, but also facilitated trade along the legendary Silk Road. For these reasons (and because they couldn’t prove otherwise), many archaeologists considered Scythians to be nomads. But in a new study led by Dr. Alicia R. Ventresca Miller, the evidence suggests otherwise.

“The Scythians are often imagined as nomadic warriors roaming the steppe, but our finds suggest that most people remained local to their settlements and only a few moved long distances,” Miller tells ZME Science.

Miller is a bioarchaeologist and stable isotope analyst at the University of Michigan. Her work focuses on populations in the steppe, focusing on nomadic cuisine and the rise of urban economies. Along with her colleagues, she measured isotopes of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and strontium in human teeth and bones from several Scythian-era burial sites in Ukraine.

Bronze mirror found at one of the researched sites. Image credits: Svetlana Andrukh.

Isotopes don’t just reflect what these populations ate, they also show where they were spending time geographically. Researchers found that at least some Scythians consumed a varied diet with numerous domesticated crops, and they didn’t seem to move all that much. To reach this conclusion, they particularly looked at strontium isotopes.

“Strontium isotopes are connected to variation in geologic substrates and soils. Plants growing in soils take up strontium, and then plants are eaten by livestock and humans – who then have the same strontium isotope values. Thus the “local” values of a specific place are determined by studying the underlying geology of a particular place. We then compare the strontium isotope values of humans and compare them to the local area,” Miller explains.

Results suggest that the Scythians weren’t a homogeneous bunch — they were diverse. Some were undoubtedly on the move, but most were sedentary. They raised cattle and millet and did more than just trade and plunder. The idea of large wandering Scythian populations, as romantic as it may be, just doesn’t seem true.

“Daily life among the Scythians was likely much like today – it included both urban and rural people, some were farmers, others livestock herders. There is also strong evidence for job specialization, thus there were people engaging in making detailed gold ornaments,” Miller concludes. “At urban sites, millet farming was an important part of the diet alongside livestock herding.”

The study has been published in PLOS ONE.

The earliest coastal wall shows humans were battling sea level rise in the Neolithic era

Off the shores of northern Israel, archaeologists have discovered at least sixteen Neolithic settlements from 9,000 – 6,500 years ago. What’s special is that at the site, researchers also found evidence of what is possibly one of the first attempts to protect a human settlement against sea level rise. The wall is over 100 meters long — an indication that this ancient village truly fought against the sea.

Exposed stone-built features in shallow water at the archaeological site of Tel Hreiz. Image credits: Ehud Galili.

Man against the sea, it’s a tale as old as time. Usually when we envision this story, we see man trying to explore and conquer the sea but sometimes, the sea strikes back. Sea level rise is currently a major problem for the world’s coastal environment due to man-made climate change, but other (natural) sea level rise events have happened in the past.

The Tel Hreiz settlement in Israel is mostly underwater nowadays. But back in its heyday, it would have been a thriving and bustling area. Archaeologists excavating the underwater site have found plenty of architecture and evidence from the day, as well as human remains. But perhaps the most interesting structure on the site was a long, boulder-built wall located seaward of the settlement.

The wall was first exposed by winter storms in 2012. Archaeologists measured, photographed, and documented it before the sea covered it with sand once again. In 2015, however, another storm partially uncovered the structure again, giving researchers another chance to investigate it.

The boulder wall stretches over 100 meters (or yards) and is currently three meters below sea level and 90 meters offshore. Back during Tel Hreiz’s occupation, that would have been the “swash zone”, an area alternately covered and exposed by incoming waves.

A few examples of artefacts discovered at the site. Image credits: Galili et al / PLOS.

The seawall comprises large boulders of limestone and aeolianite, neither of which are naturally found in the area — so they would have been brought there for a purpose and used to build a wall. Why anyone would have built a wall facing the sea thousands of years ago leaves little to the imagination.

The inhabitants of Tel Hreiz would have gone through a lot of trouble to defend their village. They carried the boulders for several kilometers (the closest sites are 3.8 and 1.6 km away, respectively), planned the construction and put it all together. They bravely fought against the sea… and they lost.

At the time, the Mediterranean coast experienced sea level rises of 12-20 cm approximately every 30 years, due to post-glacial sea rise. The sea rise would have increased the frequency of destructive storms, and despite the admirable work put into the seawall, the wall proved unable to hold back the Mediterranean Sea. Still, researchers note that the structure is a testament to its builders’ creativity and capacity, and that it’s unique for its history.

“There are no known or similar built structures at any of the other submerged villages in the region, making the Tel Hreiz site a unique example of this visible evidence for human response to sea-level rise in the Neolithic,” the authors write.

The finding also carries a cautionary tale for our modern society. In 2019, global mean sea level was 3.4 inches (87.6 millimeters) above 1880 levels — it’s not as much as what the people of Tel Hreiz had to deal with, but it’s comparable. Much of this rise (about a third) happened in the past three decades, when climate change truly started to kick in.

Nearly 40% of the world’s population lives on the coast, and as long as temperatures keep rising, sea levels will continue to rise as well, putting billions of people at risk.

The study “A submerged 7000-year-old village and seawall demonstrate earliest known coastal defence against sea-level rise” was published in PLOS ONE.

Puppy paws on the walls: ancient house featured unusual decorations

Archaeologists excavating the ancient city of Sardis found a 1,500 year-old-house in fantastic shape. Not only is the house excellently preserved, but its tiles were decorated with puppy prints and chicken decorations.

The archaeologists discovered a dog paw print on one of the house’s terracotta floor tiles. Image credit: Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College.

It’s not as well-known as the likes of Athens or Rome, but in its heyday, the ancient city of Sardis would have rivalled them. During the Iron Age, Sardis was the capital of the ancient Lydian Empire in today’s Turkey. The city flourished for centuries, from the time of Alexander the Great and well into the Roman period, leaving behind numerous structures and artefacts that researchers have been excavating for decades.

Among these treasures, archaeologists also found a house which appeared to belong to military people — or at least, associated somehow with the military. The association is given away by five longswords found in the house — quite a lot, when you consider that only three other swords had ever been discovered at Sardis. The swords are Roman “spathae,” a type of longsword. In addition, the team also uncovered buckles and a lead seal, said Vanessa Rousseau, an adjunct professor of art history at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, during the joint annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America and the Society for Classical Studies.

As remarkable as they may be, something else is the star of the show: a group of floor and wall paintings and designs… of sorts. The tiles preserve paw prints of puppies, and even one hoof print of a goat. It’s not clear if this was an intentional design or not, but probably not: most likely, the animals walked on the tiles as they were drying up before being placed into the oven. The walls also feature paintings on plaster, mimicking curtains or drapes. Perhaps the most unusual find is a set of tiles with bird drawings. The marks are definitely intentional, and would have also been done prior to the tiles being fired.

The bird drawing. Image credit: Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College.

The house was in use for some 200 years, before an earthquake destroyed it sometime in the seventh century.

Like many cities of this region, Sardis fell into decline in the sixth and early seventh centuries AD, and much of the city was abandoned (especially the lower part). However, the acropolis was described by the Greek historian Polybius as the “strongest place in the world”, and it remained an important stronghold throughout the Byzantine period.

A part of Sardis. Image credit: Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College.

The people of Sardis invented the world’s first coins, and throughout much of Antiquity, they were renowned among Greek kings for their wealth. They had thriving treaties with the civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece.

Australia’s oldest cave painting is 17,000-year-old kangaroo art

The oldest-known Australian Aboriginal rock painting was created over 17,000 years ago, a new paper shows. The rock painting showcasing a kangaroo-like animal was discovered among dozens of other paintings and was dated with the aid of ancient wasp nests.

Image credits: Finch et al / Nature (2021).

In 2010, Damien Finch was hiking through Australia’s bushland when he came across something stunning: Aboriginal cave art. He was intrigued and saddened that not much was known about the art and the civilization that made it — not even when they were painted. So he decided to rectify that and started studying them.

“I first saw these paintings up close during a hike in a remote part of the Kimberley in 2010. It is astounding to see so much evidence of ancient human cultural activity in an environment without any of the other signs of human activity that we expect such as roads, power poles, buildings and plastic rubbish! It made me very curious to understand more about the paintings and the culture that created them,” Finch tells me in an email.

In a new study, Finch and colleagues worked with Aboriginal Traditional Owners from the Kimberley region in Western Australia to analyze the rock art specimens.

Dating rock art is really hard. Aboriginal art uses iron oxide pigments and no organic material — which means any radiocarbon analysis isn’t possible. So instead, Finch got creative (and a bit lucky). He found that some of the rocks nearby contained the remains of ancient wasp nests, which can be carbon dated. He found these mud wasp remains both under and above the painted surfaces — so by dating both of these, he could pincer in on the age of the art.

Image credits: Finch et al / Nature (2021).

It’s not the first time the method has been used, Finch says. It was used as early as 1997 when pollen extracted from a wasp nest (not over rock art) was dated, but it was less than 2,000, the researcher says. Now, researchers have adapted the technique and made it more reliable, even for small wasp remnants.

“By studying wasps building nests and then analyzing modern nests back in the laboratory, we determined that they frequently contained charcoal fragments. So we concentrated on methods to date charcoal rather than pollen which was less abundant. Radiocarbon dating has been used to date charcoal for more than 50 years and has been the mainstay of archaeological dating. Our radiocarbon dates on wasp nests built on top of paintings tell us that the painting must be older than the age of the nest. Similarly, if the nest is underneath the painting the age of the nest provides a maximum age for the painting.”

Overall, they found 27 such remains above and below 16 rock paintings. The paintings include a snake, a lizard-like figure, and three macropods (a family of marsupials including kangaroos, wallabies, and quokkas). However, one painting of a kangaroo (or a kangaroo-like creature) was dated to between 17,500–17,100 years ago, making it the oldest dated painted figure in Australia to date.

Image credits: Finch et al / Nature (2021).

Unfortunately, however, not much is known about the people who created this art. Not much archaeological information has been retrieved, but Finch hopes we can learn something from this art.

“I don’t know that we can say too much about a culture as it was 17,000 years ago. We struggle to understand the culture at the time of the pyramids and that was only 5,000 years ago.  But now, for the first time, we can combine what we see in the paintings with what we know about the environment as it existed at the same time, around the end of the Last Ice Age. Science can tell us about the prevailing climate and sea-levels as well as the plants and animals available at that time.  I am sure future researchers will draw these threads together with what we now know about the age of the rock art to come up with further insights about the lives of these ancient people,” Finch tells ZME Science.

The kangaroo is unlikely to be Australia’s oldest painting — it’s only the oldest one we’ve found so far. Considering that humans reached Australia some 65,000 years ago, the chances are more ancient art is just waiting to be discovered.

In the meantime, this is a sobering reminder of how much we’ve yet to learn about these ancient peoples. Bit by bit, Finch hopes to fill in the gaps.

“It was surprising just how few records existed and how little was known about them in the non-indigenous community. Through our research, we aim to improve this situation.”

Journal Reference: Ages for Australia’s oldest rock paintings, Nature Human Behaviour (2021). DOI: 10.1038/s41562-020-01041-0 

Russian researchers want to study ancient viruses from the Siberian permafrost

Russian state laboratory Vector has announced a new research project in which it will probe ancient animals frozen in the Siberian permafrost, looking for ancient. The aim of the project is to identify such viruses and conduct advanced research into virus evolution.

“We hope that interesting discoveries in the world of viruses await us, one researcher was quoted.”

The remains of many Paleolithic creatures are trapped in the icy grip of the Siberian permafrost. Aided by global warming that melted some of the ice, expeditions have uncovered the remains of numerous kinds of animals preserved by the freezing temperatures. The remains are interesting by themselves, but Russian researchers now want to probe even further, and look at what type of viruses these organisms may have hosted.

The study will be focused on remains discovered in 2009 in Yakutia, a vast region of north-eastern Siberia where remains of Paleolithic animals including mammoths, elk, dogs, partridges, rodents, hares, and many others have been discovered. The researchers will be probing these groups looking for ancient viruses, called paleoviruses.

“We are conducting studies on paleoviruses for the first time,” said Maxim Cheprasov, head of the Mammoth Museum laboratory at Yakutsk University, who added that they have already carried out several bacterial studies on the samples.

The research is a collaboration between Vector and the University of Yakutsk. The work began with analysis of tissues extracted from a prehistoric horse thought to be at least 4,500 years old. Researchers drill a tiny hole and take tissue samples, placing them in a test tube. They then carry out a series of analyses on this sample, from genome sequencing to isolation of total nucleic acids, to obtain data on the entire biodiversity of the microorganisms in the sample.

“If nucleic acids aren’t destroyed, we will be able to obtain data on their composition and establish how it changed, what was the evolutionary development of microorganisms. Vector researcher Olesya Okhlopkova explains in a press release. She adds that they will also “determine the epidemiological potential of currently existing infectious agents.”

Sergei Fedorov, one of the participating researchers, adds that the findings are kept in a special freezer at temperatures of -16 to -18 degrees Celsius (around 0-3 degrees Fahrenheit). Mammoths will be a point of particular interest for the project, but researchers will look at samples from various ancient animals. “We hope that interesting discoveries in the world of viruses await us,” says Fedorov

Vector is a secluded research institute that, in Soviet times, was weaponized and used in the Soviet biological warfare program. The laboratory made important progress in smallpox research, but also researched the production of various viruses and toxins. In post-Soviet times, the center focuses on vaccine research (for Hepatitis A or influenza, for instance), diagnosis systems, and other epidemiological research.

Vector also developed a COVID-19 vaccine (EpiVacCorona, not the Sputnik V) which was licensed in October in Russia and is scheduled to begin mass production in February.

Norway’s stave churches are much older than thought

Stave churches were once common throughout northern and north-western Europe. Now, with a few exceptions, these medieval wood constructions are only found in Norway.

Surviving stave churches mostly date from 1150-1350 — or so we thought. According to a new analysis, though, they may be a bit older than previously believed.

Normally, the age of wooden churches is measured from the analysis of individual logs. Cores are taken from logs and dated by tree rings, which are compared to already dated technology. This technique, which is called dendrochronology, is invasive, however, and not recommendable in some of the very old churches. It also has some limitations in terms of accuracy — which is why researchers are now trying out a new approach.

It’s called photodendrometry, and instead of taking cores from logs, involves photographing

“We now know the age of some stave churches almost to the year,” says Terje Thun. He is an associate professor at the NTNU University Museum in Trondheim and is one of the country’s foremost experts in dendrochronology, or tree ring dating.

Photodendrometry basically involves taking detailed and high-resolution photographs of the wall boards in various churches and then, in the lab, seeing if the tree rings are visible and can be identified. This greatly reduces the need for cores and, researchers say, might also provide more accurate results.

“In this way, researchers were able to examine all parts of the stave churches without any invasive techniques,” Thun said.

Using a method called photodendrometry, researchers can reduce the number of core samples they need to take for dating wooden buildings. They can now get enough information from photographs, which yields more data and more precise information. Pictured: Thomas Bartholin (at left) and Jan Michael Stornes. Photo: Leif Anker

Thun has spent much of his career gathering wood samples from stave churches, attempting to understand when and how these structures were raised in Norway. Norway also had a comprehensive church preservation that greatly accelerated the research. Although the program ended in 2016, it helped fill many voids in our knowledge of stave churches.

The Urnes stave church, thought to be the oldest one still in existence, was estimated to have been built using timber from 1069 and 1070, with a slightly younger part dated to 1129-1130. It’s very likely that the year in which the trees were cut down is also the year in which construction began.

This is significantly older than reserchers were expecting, Thun says.

“Research has been done on the stave churches in the past, too, but not as systematically as under the stave church program. Over the years, dating estimates were based on construction technique and style and spanned almost a hundred years.”

“Now we’re sure of the age, and several of our stave churches are older than first thought,” Thun says.

Photo from Urnes Stave Church, taken while photographing tree rings in the church choir. Photo: Jan Michael Stornes

But it’s not just the year in which the churches was constructed — this approach can also reveal much about the climate at the time when the church was built. The reason why researchers are able to correlate tree rings and tie them to a specific year is because different environmental conditions (such as precipitations) affect the width of the tree ring. Essentially, every year in an area has a unique ‘signature’ in tree rings.

Thun’s colleague, researcher Helene Løvstrand Svarva, is looking at what can be inferred about the local weather and climate at the time when the churches were built.

“Dendroclimatology is a major field of study, and here in Northern Europe we can use the trees’ response to summer temperatures to find out more about climate variations over time,” she says.

For instance, she says, many stave churches were built during a period called the Medieval Climate Anomaly, when temperatures were higher than the periods before and after it.

“Long chronologies allow us to see variations over time that can give us a picture of how temperatures have changed. It’s especially interesting to find out how today’s climate can be seen in light of the climate almost a thousand years ago,” she says.

The researchers also found a strong need for reconditioning programs, as many of the studied stave churches appeared to have structura and construction issues.

Oldest beer factory found in a 5,000-year-old Egyptian site

Credit: Egypt Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

Humans have had a relationship with beer that spans all the way to prehistory. We know that people have been brewing beer in Israel as early as 13,000 years ago, even long before they started growing cereals. When they did finally start growing grain, humans did so to brew more beer rather than bake bread. However, it wasn’t until 5,000 years ago or so that beer was brewed in a systematic, industrial manner, judging from recent excavations in Egypt.

Beer brewed in kingly volume

The ancient brewery was discovered in Abydos, a prominent sacred city and one of the most important archaeological sites of ancient Egypt. Since 1912, archaeologists working at the site have unearthed all sorts of artifacts, including eight-grain kilns dating back to 3100 to 2700 BCE. However, it was only recently that the dozens of excavations at the site completed the jigsaw puzzle, revealing the full extent of the archaeological complex, which also includes tombs and other structures.

Some of the ancient kilns at Abydos. Credit: Egypt Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

According to archaeologists at the University of Pennsylvania who took part in the North Abydos expedition, the facility consisted of eight large areas, each measuring 20 meters (65 feet) long. Each production area contained about 40 earthenware pots arranged in two rows. This suggests that the factory could have produced beer at quite a large scale for its time, with about 22,400 liters (5,000 gallons) being made at maximum capacity during one batch.

“At more than 22,000 liters per batch, the scale of production at Abydos was an order of magnitude greater than anything else of its time. Both its scale and location in a sacred desert landscape at Abydos reserved exclusively for the use of Egypt’s early kings situate the brewery as an important component of a new system of royal expression at a critical moment in Egypt’s history, along with the construction of monumental tombs and ritual enclosures, the sacrificial burial of courtiers and retainers, and in one case the burial of an entire fleet of boats,” said Wendy Doyon, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania.

Matthew Adams of New York University, the co-head of the archaeological mission at Abydos, believes the factory was designed specifically to supply the royal rituals with beer at the funeral facilities of the kings of Egypt. The estimated date of the facility corresponds to the so-called Naqada III period, which includes the reign of King Narmer.

“We can now add to these better-known symbols of early royal power an industrial production site built on an unprecedented scale to support royal ritual at ancient Abydos,” Doyon added.

Neanderthals and humans used the Levallois technology, a new study shows

In the good old days, when humans and Neanderthals roamed the land together, the Levallois technology was pretty much the best available technology of the time. It was essentially a flint knapping technique that may not seem like much to you nowadays, but offered distinct advantages over what was available before.

Until recently, it was thought that only Homo sapiens had access to this technology and could use it, but a single tooth seems to challenge that belief. The tooth, long-held in a private collection, was recently re-analyzed. It appears to belong to a 9-year-old Neanderthal child and was linked to an assemblage that used Levallois technology, indicating that Neanderthals were capable of using the technique as well as humans. The study is notable because it challenges the long-held idea that Levallois technology is a trademark of human evolution.

Photos of Nubian Levallois cores associated with Neanderthal fossils. Image credits: UCL, Institute of Archaeology & courtesy of the Penn Museum, University of Pennsylvania.

The study started when researchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History teamed up with international partners to re-examine the fossil and archaeological record of Shukbah Cave. Shukbah (or Shuqba) Cave in today’s Palestine was brought to the world’s attention by renowned archaeologist Dorothy Garrod in 1928. She reported a rich assemblage of animal bones and stone tools, often concentrated in well-marked hearths.

Garrod understood that the cave had been inhabited by hominins, and she also found one tooth (the one that now turned out to belong to a Neanderthal child). The hominin tooth shows clear Neanderthal characteristics, making it the southernmost known fossil specimen of this population/species, researchers note, adding that this is the first direct association between Neanderthals and Nubian Levallois technology.

“Professor Garrod immediately saw how distinctive this tooth was. We’ve examined the size, shape and both the external and internal 3D structure of the tooth, and compared that to Holocene and Pleistocene Homo sapiens and Neanderthal specimens. This has enabled us to clearly characterise the tooth as belonging to an approximately 9 year old Neanderthal child,” says Dr. Clément Zanolli, from Université de Bordeaux. “Shukbah marks the southernmost extent of the Neanderthal range known to date,” adds Zanolli.

All this from a tooth

Photo and 3D reconstruction of a tooth of a 9-year-old Neanderthal child. Image credits: Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

Genetic evidence already shows that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals interbred several times in their evolutionary history, and now archaeological evidence is starting to suggest the two groups mingled more than a few times. This has broad ramifications for understanding our heritage, and
Shuqba offers a rare chance to link the tools with the people who used them.

“Sites where hominin fossils are directly associated with stone tool assemblages remain a rarity – but the study of both fossils and tools is critical for understanding hominin occupations of Shukbah Cave and the larger region,” says lead author Dr. Jimbob Blinkhorn, formerly of Royal Holloway, University of London and now with the Pan-African Evolution Research Group.

“Illustrations of the stone tool collections from Shukbah hinted at the presence of Nubian Levallois technology so we revisited the collections to investigate further. In the end, we identified many more artifacts produced using the Nubian Levallois methods than we had anticipated,” says Blinkhorn. “This is the first time they’ve been found in direct association with Neanderthal fossils, which suggests we can’t make a simple link between this technology and Homo sapiens.”

Although humans and Neanderthals used a wide range of stone tool technologies, the Levallois technology is special because it was thought to be uniquely used by humans. But we’re not as special as we once thought — or alternatively, the Neanderthals were just as special as us.

Further analysis could reveal even more about this assemblage, but Shuqba has different problems at the moment.

A cave in disarray

The view from Shukbah Cave. Image credits: Amos Frumkin.

Although Homo sapiens and Neanderthals shared the use of a wide suite of stone tool technologies, Nubian Levallois technology has recently been argued to have been exclusively used by Homo sapiens. The argument has been made particularly in southwest Asia, where Nubian Levallois tools have been used to track human dispersal in the absence of fossils.

After Garrod left Palestine in 1928, no further archaeological work was carried out at Shuqba until 2000. Shuqba Cave is currently under threat due to Israeli road building, decay, lack of protection,and extensive garbage dumping. Recent research noted that archaeologists are more interested in “biblical sites” than places like Shuqba.

The area could still hold valuable findings, but plagued by disinterest and major waste-dumping problems, it seems more at risk than ever. The area has been added to the 2013 UNESCO “tentative list” for possible designation as a World Heritage Site, but there has been little progress.

The study was published in Nature Scientific Reports.

Medieval cemeteries tell tales of fractures, broken jaws, and a very hard life

They didn’t have Netflix, Twitter, Starbucks. But that wasn’t nearly the worst of it. Daily life in medieval Britain seems to have been a tale of broken bones and bad, violent behavior. New research from Cambridge reveals how tough it could get for men and women to keep body and mind intact between the 10th and 14th centuries.

Life in medieval Cambridge would have been very, very different than it is today. Image credits: Malgorzata Bujalska.

The level of hardship endured by Cambridge’s medieval inhabitants is chilling. University of Cambridge researchers used X-ray analysis to discover evidence of skeletal trauma in the remains of 314 individuals from three cemeteries in Cambridge, England. They used X-ray analysis.

According to a university’s press release, severe trauma was remarkably prevalent in medieval Britain.

“Severe trauma was prevalent across the social spectrum. Life was toughest at the bottom – but life was tough all over.” One friar had lived with defensive fractures on his arm and signs of blunt force trauma to his skull. “Such violence-related skeletal injuries were found in about 4 percent of the population, including women and people from all social groups.”

The investigators said life, however, took its hardest physical toll on the working poor.

“Ordinary working people had more ‘skeletal trauma,’ likely through accident and injury while laboring in agriculture and construction,” said the caption in a video posted on YouTube by the university. The findings of the team have been published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

The team analyzed bones from medieval burial sites, determining the nature of the breaks and fractures, with each bone fracture cataloged. The study authors stated that “Skeletal trauma was highest in All Saints parish burial ground, indicating that the poor, whether working urban or rurally, had the highest risk of injury. The pattern and types of fractures observed suggests that males experienced more severe traumatic events than females. However, females that were routinely involved in manual labor were also at increased risk of injury.”

Marks of abuse

Researchers found different types of fractures. Some fractures suggested personal histories of violence and domestic abuse was a likely culprit. One older woman buried in the parish grounds appeared to bear marks of lifelong domestic abuse. The damage she suffered was no joke: it was so severe that it’s hard to interpret it as anything else other than abuse.

“She had a lot of fractures, all of them healed well before her death. Several of her ribs had been broken as well as multiple vertebrae, her jaw and her foot,” said Dr. Jenna Dittmar, Department of Archaeology. Addressing the jaw, for example, Dittmar added that “Today, the vast majority of broken jaws seen in women are caused by intimate partner violence.”

But although the poor suffered the brunt of the damage, the rich weren’t spared from violence. The team visited three sites that carried remains from the poorest, also, the working poor, and the wealthy. One of the three sites, for example, was a friary with rich benefactors. Wealthy donors were buried there, but there was also a graveyard for the working poor. Yet another place was a charitable hospital that buried the infirm and the destitute.

Of the three sites, the Hospital of St John the Evangelist contained the fewest fractures. Established in the 12th century, the hospital provided help to the needy, offering help and spiritual care. Many of the folks there had evidence of chronic illness and would have been unable to work. Dr. Dittmar said, “We can see that ordinary working folk had a higher risk of injury compared to the friars and their benefactors or the more sheltered hospital inmates.”

The study authors note that “The highest prevalence rate was observed on the individuals buried at All Saints by the Castle (44%, n = 37/84), and the lowest was seen at the Hospital of St John (27%, n = 42/155). Fractures were more prevalent in males (40%, n = 57/143) than females (26%, n = 25/95).” Likely risky scenarios for incidents affecting bones — men may have worked in the fields with heavy ploughs pulled by horses or oxen, or lugged blocks and beams in town.

Stonehenge? It’s probably built from second-hand materials

You’re a prehistoric builder. You look at these magnificent rocks used to build Stonehenge and you think “You know what would be even cooler? If we moved them a few hundred miles away”. While we can’t say exactly what went through the mind of these ancient builders, but modern research has revealed convincing evidence that parts of Stonehenge were constructed using rocks dragged from a different monument in modern day Wales.

Researchers believe some stones used at Stonehenge, near Salisbury in southwest England, were used in an earlier monument 175 miles (280 kilometres) away in southwest Wales. Image credits: Parker Pearson.

Built some 4,600 years ago, Stonehenge has fascinated historians and artists alike for centuries. We know, from previous research, that it was a bustling spiritual center, and must have held a huge significance for the society that built it. But scientists are also learning more things about it every year, including where it originally came from.

The first clue about Stonehenge’s origin comes from geology. The monument is constructed from a type of bluestone — a specific type of rock that is only found in Wales, not where Stonehenge currently lies. This has been suggested by researchers several times but it was conclusively demonstrated by several recent studies. In 2015, one such study revealed that the bluestones were extracted from quarries in the Preseli hills, some 280 kilometres (180 miles) away in west Wales. In 2019, researchers zoomed in even more, finding two specific quarries where the bluestones would have been extracted from.

Now, researchers have found another tantalizing piece of evidence suggesting that not only were the 43 giant bluestones moved over a whopping 150 miles — but they were removed from another dismantled monument. In other words, what’s possibly the most iconic monument in the world may be a second-hand creation.

A needle in a bluestone haystack

The discovery came when researchers analyzed the remains of another stone circle called Waun Mawn. Waun Mawn is one of the oldest stone circles in Britain and the country’s third largest. It has a diameter of 360 feet (110 metres) — the same as the ditch that encloses Stonehenge — and, like Stonehenge, is aligned to the midsummer solstice sunrise. It’s also a stone’s throw away from the bluestone quarries.

The Waun Mawn stone circle in the Preseli Hills in north Pembrokeshire, west Wales, during excavation in 2018, viewed from the north. Image credits: Adam Stanford/Parker Pearson et al./Antiquity Publications Ltd.

Archaeologists had been looking for this type of sister site to Stonehenge for a few years, but they discarded Waun Mawn because the preliminary surveys didn’t really show anything of interest.

In modern archaeology, researchers deploy remote surveys to “see” beneath the ground. These geophysical methods aren’t perfect, but they usually offer a good indication of where archaeologists should dig to find the most interesting things. For some unclear reason, the geophysical surveys at Waun Mawn didn’t find anything. But after ruling out other possible candidate sites, the archaeologists decided to dig anyway.

It was a grueling task that involved many days spent in cold, wind, and rain — but it was worth it.

“It was hard work over eight years with a big team and we hit many dead ends,” said study author Parker Pearson for ABC. “We had to start by excavating the bluestone quarries, then doing geophysical surveys across rough terrain, excavating possible sites, finding out that none of these were what we were searching for, and finally going back to a site we had discounted.”

“So, going back to it and finding out we should have stuck with it from the very beginning was certainly a surprise,” he added. “But the years in between weren’t wasted because we really get to know the landscape and to cross off all the other likely possibilities.”

Although they haven’t found completely irrefutable evidence, everything about what archaeologists found at Waun Mawn seems to suggest a connection to Stonehenge. It’s not just the size and geometry of the site that fits, it’s also the time: Waun Mawn stone circle was created somewhere after 3600 BC, a few hundred years before the first stages of construction at Stonehenge. The type of rocks also fits — it’s the same type of bluestone in the two monuments. Furthermore, one of the rocks at the site has an unusual pentagonal shape, just like the rocks seen in Stonehenge, and the rock chippings are also similar.

This stone hole was uncovered at Waun Mawn, with the stone packing used to secure the missing monolith still present. Image credits: Parker Pearson.

Building (and moving) the first Stonehenge

So why did they do it? Why did they go through this gargantuan task of carrying dozens of giant megaliths across the country? We’re not exactly sure.

The area around Waun Mawn thrived until some 5,000 years, when activity in the area seems to have completely stopped.

This begs two questions: first, what happened to these people, why did they migrate to different areas — and perhaps more importantly, why did they take the huge stones with them?

“It’s as if they just vanished. Maybe most of the people migrated, taking their stones—their ancestral identities—with them,” archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson, from UCL, said.

Moving three-ton bluestones 180 miles to Salisbury Plain, where Stonehenge currently lies, must have been a mammoth task, so why did they do it? At this point in the research, it’s not clear why they did it, but the rocks themselves must have been extremely important, “considered as not just valuables, but the very essence of who they were,” notes Pearson.

Not all researchers are convinced by this theory, and it’s up to upcoming research to prove whether this proto-Stonehenge was indeed built and dismantled in Wales and then transported to Salisbury. Further excavations are already underway.

Myth meets reality

The study is also notable because it seems to be linked with a piece of myth. In a 12th century book, the Welsh cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote the story that the mythical wizard Merlin was enlisted to lead an army to Ireland and transport a ring of giganting mystical stones to what is believed to be Salisbury Plain.

We now know this to be nothing more than pseudohistory or myth, but this new find seems to suggest a kernel of truth to this legend — it may have not been Ireland but Wales, and it wasn’t magic that transported the rocks but hard work and clever engineering, but it seems like a kernel of truth nonetheless, and one of the rare instances where myth and reality actually intertwine.

In addition to the monument itself, the large-scale migration also raises some intriguing questions. The people who were buried at Stonehenge also appear to have originated from West Wales, as genetic analyses have shown, so the signs of a mass migration are there — which means there may have been other megalith sites waiting to be discovered.

“My guess is that Waun Mawn was not the only stone circle that contributed to Stonehenge,” said Parker Pearson in a news statement.

Journal Reference: Mike Parker Pearson et al. The original Stonehenge? A dismantled stone circle in the Preseli Hills of west Wales, Antiquity (2021). DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2020.239 , doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2020.239

Listen to a 17,000-year-old musical instrument made from a seashell

Credit: Science Advances.

In 1931, archaeologists stumbled upon a 17,000-year-old conch shell in a richly decorated cave in the Pyrenees. For more than eight decades, the ancient artifact had been gathering dust in the storeroom of a French museum until it was re-examined by researchers. They found that the shell was drilled purposefully to turn the shell into a musical instrument. Remarkably, they even managed to play near-perfect instruments out of the horn, showing that it still works after all these years.

Hunter-gatherers of musical notes

Originally, the shell belonged to some living organism, perhaps a sea snail called Charonia lampas, judging from its characteristics. It measures 31 centimeters in length and 18 centimeters in width.

Initially, when excavators found the shell in the Marsoulas cave, which was adorned with all sorts of marvelous prehistoric art, they thought it must have served a ceremonial purpose as a fancy drinking cup.

In reality, the conch shell is a lot more interesting than meets the eye. When scientists at the French National Centre for Scientific Research re-analyzed the artifact, they identified deliberate modifications that enabled the production of sounds with musical pitch. Besides holes drilled at certain intervals, the artisan also removed the apex of the shell, as well as the outermost lip of the shell, enabling a player to insert their hands to modulate the sound.

The Charonia shell bears the traces of important modifications of human origin. Credit: Science Advances.

Essentially, the modified conch shell is a musical horn, the oldest known instrument of its type. Only bone flutes have been retrieved from an earlier date.

The Sound of an 18,000-year-old Conch Shell Instrument.

When the researchers realized the shell’s true purpose, they enlisted a trained horn player to offer some feedback. The musician was able to play three clear notes, very close to C, D, and C#.

“We already know that prehistoric people transformed many shells into portable ornaments and that they thus attributed substantial corporal symbolism to them. This seashell horn, with its unique sonority, both deep and strong with an enduring reverberation, sheds light on a musical dimension until now unknown in the context of Upper Paleolithic societies,” the authors wrote in the journal Science Advances.

The inner part of the conch is decorated with red pigment of the same kind as that used on the fingerprint artworks on the walls of the cave. This means that the hunter-gather musician who originally used the conch must have also participated in the painting of the images on the walls — making this perhaps the earliest combination of music and illustrative art in history. 

Archaeologists in Turkey have discovered a major, previously unknown kingdom

“We had no idea about this kingdom. In a flash, we had profound new information on the Iron Age Middle East,” said Prof. James Osborne of the Oriental Institute, an archaeologist who specializes in examining Iron Age cities. Osborne and colleagues have discovered what looks like a major political center in ancient Turkey from about 2700 years ago — and we knew nothing about it.

The half-submerged stone with inscriptions dating to the 8th century BC. Image credits: James Osborne.

It started in 2019, when a local farmer told the group that a nearby canal had a strange stone with some unknown writing on it. At that time, researchers were exploring a giant, ancient mound site in central Turkey called Türkmen-Karahöyük and went to investigate what the farmer had pointed out. They knew the area was riddled with archaeological finds, but they were shocked by what they found.

“We could see it still sticking out of the water, so we jumped right down into the canal – up to our waists wading around,” said archaeologist James Osborne from the University of Chicago in early 2020.

“Right away it was clear it was ancient, and we recognised the script it was written in: Luwian, the language used in the Bronze and Iron ages in the area.”

Osborne wasn’t an expert in Luwian, but he was fortunate enough to work just down the hall from two experts who translated it as being written by a king called Hartapu.

The upper mound of Türkmen-Karahöyük from the northwest. Photograph courtesy of KRASP.

The ancient stone block turned out to be a military boast. It noted that the local rulers had defeated the kingdom of Phrygia led by king Midas. Phrygia had been led by several kings named Midas, but dating suggests that it could be the legendary king Midas, who was said to be cursed by the gods to turn everything he touched into gold.

Phrygia was a local powerhouse and defeating it would have been quite the feat, so whoever wrote the plaque must have also represented a strong kingdom — but researchers had no idea about it before.

“We had no idea about this kingdom,” Osborne said. “In a flash, we had profound new information on the Iron Age Middle East.”

This fits in quite well with other recent findings. A few miles to the south, researchers had also found a block writing of King Hartapu, but no one knew who he was or what he ruled — until now.

Luwian inscriptions from a nearby dig. Image credits: Oriental Institute.

Researchers have their work cut out for them. Judging by the size of the Türkmen-Karahöyük mound, there’s plenty more left to be discovered — and who knows what they’ll find?

“Inside this mound are going to be palaces, monuments, houses,” Osborne said. “This stele was a marvellous, incredibly lucky find – but it’s just the beginning.”

The mound from above (Google Earth / via OI).

Ancient shred of Israeli fabric reveals the secrets of “royal purple”

Some fashion choices can be uninspired, but the great have a potential to echo through the ages. Archeologists working in Israel’s Timna Valley have uncovered an ancient example of the latter — scraps of purple cloth from biblical times.

A wool textile fragment decorated with pink-purple threads discovered at the site. Image credits Dafna Gazit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Being rich and powerful isn’t as fun if you don’t flaunt it to everyone. Judging by the fancy hats and other items that ancient nobles and royalty wore, our ancestors likely agreed. Still, while the modern world gave us brave new ways to show off our status, our forefathers had to resort to simpler means, such as wearing clothes dyed with expensive pigments.

Excavation works at an Iron-Age copper production site in the Timna Valley yielded a scrap of such refined clothing. The patch of ancient woolen fabric still bears tassels and fibers dyed with purple, a ‘royal’ color at the time due to its price. Purple dye is often mentioned in the Bible, the team notes, and analysis of the cloth revealed it hails from approximately 3000 years ago, around the time of kings David and Solomon, two important kings in Jewish and Christian history.

This is the first time we’ve found remnants of purple cloth from this time, the team adds.

This shirt? King material.

“This is a very exciting and important discovery,” explains Dr. Naama Sukenik, curator of organic finds at the Israel Antiquities Authority. “In antiquity, purple attire was associated with the nobility, with priests, and of course with royalty. The gorgeous shade of the purple, the fact that it does not fade, and the difficulty in producing the dye, [made it] often cost more than gold.”

Finding the material here of all places is a two-fold surprise: first, this was an industrial area. The Timna Valley site is still littered with slag produced by bellowing furnaces in which copper was smelted. It’s not exactly a place for fine clothes, even if you own some. Furthermore, the closest source for the dye (made in minute quantities from individual mollusks) is the Mediterranean sea which is over 300 km away.

Still — important people need to get around, and they have the money to afford luxurious, far-away dyes. What’s more exciting about the discovery is that it represents the first actual piece of dyed purple cloth we’ve found from the Iron age in the whole Southern Levant.

“Until the current discovery, we had only encountered mollusk-shell waste and potsherds with patches of dye, which provided evidence of the purple industry in the Iron Age,” adds Dr. Naama Sukenik. “Now, for the first time, we have direct evidence of the dyed fabrics themselves, preserved for some 3000 years.”

Excavations at the Timna site have been ongoing for a few years now. The very dry climate of the area means organic material such as textiles could remain well preserved even after thousands of years, giving us a unique opportunity to peer into the lives of our ancestors. This is why the team is confident that the discovery of this strip of cloth was only possible here. Prof. Erez Ben-Yosef from Tel Aviv University’s Archaeology Department, the paper’s corresponding author, explains that “the state of preservation at Timna is exceptional and it is paralleled only by that at much later sites”.

“In recent years, we have been excavating a new site inside Timna known as Slaves’ Hill. The name may be misleading since far from being slaves, the laborers were highly skilled metalworkers. Timna was a production center for copper, the Iron Age equivalent of modern-day oil. Copper smelting required advanced metallurgical understanding that was a guarded secret, and those who held this knowledge were the “Hi-Tech’ experts of the time,” he adds.

“Slaves’ Hill is the largest copper-smelting site in the valley and it is filled with piles of industrial waste such as slag from the smelting furnaces. One of these heaps yielded three scraps of colored cloth. The color immediately attracted our attention, but we found it hard to believe that we had found true purple from such an ancient period.”

The Banded Dye-Murex and Spiny Dye-Murex (Bolinus brandaris) are two species of mollusks endemic to the Mediterranean. They’re also the source of ancient purple dye. Pigments were produced starting from a gland within their bodies which was then processed in a complex series of chemical steps that could take several days to produce dye. If the materials were left exposed to light, an azure color (‘tekhelet’) would be produced; if not, purple (‘argaman’) was the end result.

Both colors, the authors note, are mentioned in ancient sources and often mentioned together. They often held religious or symbolic value (such as showcasing wealth and power). In the Bible, the Temple priests, kings David and Solomon, and Jesus of Nazareth are described as having worn clothing colored with purple.

The presence of the dye in the cloth was established using a high-performance liquid chromatography device, which found unique molecules known only in certain species of mollusks. In archaeology in general, explains lead author Dr. Naama Sukenik of the Israel Antiquities Authority, cloth is typically dyed with plant-based pigments, as these were much cheaper, simpler to produce, and readily available while animal-based pigments were more “prestigious”.

As part of the research, the team also recreated the dye using mollusks from Italy (where they are enjoyed as food). Although it took ‘thousands of mollusks’, they managed to successfully recreate the color — having the ancient equivalent to check against helped a lot. Among some of the findings is a ‘double-dyeing’ method “in which two species of mollusk were used in a sophisticated way, to enrich the dye,” says Dr. Sukenik.

“The practical work took us back thousands of years,” adds co-author Prof. Zohar Amar, “and it has allowed us to better understand obscure historical sources associated with the precious colors of azure and purple.”

During its day, Timna was part of the Kingdom of Edom, which bordered the Kingdom of Israel to the south.

The paper “Early evidence of royal purple dyed textile from Timna Valley (Israel)” has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Ancient bronze rings and ribs were some of the earliest money

Credit: M.H.G. KUIJPERS.

Money makes the world go round, and it all may have started more than 5,000 years ago. In a new study, researchers have described what they believe to be one of the earliest examples of currency. Only instead of paper bills or metal coins, these 5,000-year-old denominations took the form of bronze rings, ribs, and even axe blades.

The odd-looking currencies were identified by a team of researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands, who examined over 5,000 such objects from more than 100 ancient hoards of artifacts from Europe, ranging from Germany to Scandinavia.

Although some of the objects don’t conjure the familiar image of ‘money’, the researchers are confident they served as currency due to their weight, which falls within the Weber fraction — the idea that if objects differ by very little in mass, a human weighing them by hand won’t tell the difference.

The team performed a statistical analysis of the weighted objects, finding that around 70% of the rings were similar enough to be indistinguishable by hand, averaging 195 grams in mass. Similar results were reported for the bronze ribs and axe blades.

“The euros of Prehistory came in the form of bronze rings, ribs and axes. These Early Bronze Age artefacts were standardized in shape and weight and used as an early form of money,” the researchers said.

Credit: M.H.G. KUIJPERS.

When and how money first appeared is the subject of ongoing research. It also depends on how you define money, which can be either a means of exchange or a means of account (i.e. credit). What’s certain is that initially, people bartered, making direct trades between two parties of desirable objects.

The fact that these objects occurred in hoards and had consistently similar shape and weight, led the researchers to conclude that these objects were employed as a very early form of standardized currency. As technology improved, Middle Bronze Age people in Europe had access to more sophisticated weighing tools that allowed them to mint currencies that had a much more uniform shape and weight, unbiased by the human perception by hand.

According to the researchers, bronze ribs and other objects were a game-changer in the ancient world due to their ability to be duplicated by casting the metal in molds. Over time, these copies naturally gave rise to an abstract concept of weight. Later, such rudimentary forms of money were replaced by coinage which proved extremely successful, largely due to its portability, durability, and the high degree of control of production that it offered to political leaders (hence the state).

And although the ancient objects don’t look like money as we imagine it today, their shape isn’t all that surprising, falling under so-called utensil currency. Elsewhere, scientists have found money shaped like knives and spades in China or like a hoe and axe in Mesoamerica. Alternatively, people have even used live animals such as cows as a form of currency, but the age of this practice is difficult to assess for obvious reasons. Officially, the first known form of currency is believed to be the Mesopotamian shekel, which emerged nearly 5,000 years ago.

The findings appeared in the journal PLOS ONE.

Scientists find amazing 5,000-year-old crystal dagger in Spain

Credit: Miguel Angel Blanco de la Rubia.

Inside an ancient tomb near Seville, researchers found the remains of several individuals buried in a ritualistic fashion, as well as a most striking artifact: a quite beautiful dagger made from rock crystal. The intricately carved crystal dagger has been dated to at least 3000 BCE, making it the “most technically sophisticated and esthetically impressive collection of rock crystal material culture ever found in Prehistoric Iberia,” according to Spanish researchers who investigated the site.

Prehistoric humans in Europe made most of their tools from chert and flint. Tools made by knapping ‘rock crystals’ (macro-crystalline quartz) were far less prevalent, but nevertheless, people developed a technique for their manufacturing that appeared during late prehistory in certain European regions, such as the southwest Iberian Peninsula in the third millennium BCE.

Although rock crystal tools were more difficult to fashion and the raw materials weren’t as abundant as sedimentary rock, prehistoric people likely cherished them due to their social value. Just as we stand in awe today at their sight, one would imagine that people were even more impressed by them thousands of years ago.

This particularly exquisite rock crystal tool, a 8.5-inch long dagger, was found in one of eight megalithic tombs from Valencina de la Concepción, a site near Seville in Spain that is considered one of the most significant for the study of Copper Age Iberia.

The tomb, known as the Montelirio tholos, was excavated between 2007 and 2010. It is a great megalithic construction with a 39-meter (128-foot) corridor leading to a main chamber with a 4.75-meter (15.5-foot) diameter from which, through a narrow corridor, a secondary chamber is accessible.

Credit: Miguel Angel Blanco de la Rubia.

Researchers found the remains of at least 25 individuals, alongside numerous sumptuous grave goods, including shrouds and clothes made of tens of thousands of perforated beads and decorated with amber beads, as well as many flint arrowheads, found fragments of gold blades, ivory objects, and of course the dazzling crystal core.

The arrowheads, blade, and rock crystal dagger were found at the back of the main chamber. No other objects were found in the rest of the chamber, which is suspicious. The accumulation of artifacts right next to the main chamber’s access corridor “suggest an offering similar to those discovered in the main corridor, where the arrowheads, although made of lower quality materials, were found in large groups associated with an altar and other offerings (plants),” said researchers at the University of Granada and the University of Seville in a study published in Quaternary International.

Credit: Miguel Angel Blanco de la Rubia.

At least several females and one male identified within Montelirio tholos are believed to have died due to poisoning. The remains of the women were arranged in a circular fashion in a chamber next to the bones of the male, who may have been a person of high status. The dagger itself was found in a different chamber “in association with an ivory hilt and sheath.”

Credit: Miguel Angel Blanco de la Rubia.

There are no sources of quartz of the kind used in the dagger near the site, which suggests the materials were sourced from far afield. The researchers say this is another reason why these crystal daggers and arrowheads may have been reserved to a few elite individuals who could afford them, having a dual significance.

“On the one hand, it had a social significance due to the exoticism of the material and the fact that its transformation required very specific skills and probably some degree of technical specialisation. They probably represent funerary paraphernalia only accessible to the elite of this time-period. The association of the dagger blade to a handle made of ivory, also a non-local raw material that must have been of great value, strongly suggests the high-ranking status of the people making use of such objects.”

“On the other hand, rock crystal must have had a symbolic significance as a raw material invested with special meanings and connotations. The literature provides examples of societies in which rock crystal and quartz as raw materials symbolise vitality, magical powers and a connection with ancestors.”

Ancient teeth confirm: people have been trading internationally for thousands of years

We often hear how we’re living in a more interconnected world than ever before — and that is true. But people have never lived in complete isolation from others. New research comes to support this view, by showing that long-distance trade in food and spices was already taking place between Asia and the Mediterranean region over 3000 years ago.

Image credits John Oliver.

Spices such as turmeric and foods including bananas were known and present in the Mediterranean region during the Bronze Age, the paper explains, much earlier than previously assumed. The authors further note that such plants were not endemic to the Mediterranean, so the only way they could get there was via long-distance trade.

Megiddo Mall

“Exotic spices, fruits, and oils from Asia had reached the Mediterranean several centuries, in some cases even millennia, earlier than had been previously thought,” says Philipp Stockhammer from LMU, who led the research. “This is the earliest direct evidence to date of turmeric, banana, and soy outside of South and East Asia.”

The international team of researchers analyzed the tartar (dental deposits) on the teeth of 16 people unearthed in excavations at the Megiddo and Tel Erani sites in modern-day Israel. This area mediated any ancient travel and trade between the Mediterranean, Asia, and Egypt. If you wanted to travel between these places in the 2nd millennium BCE, you had to go through the Levant.

What the researchers were looking for was food residue, such as proteins or plant microfossils, that remained preserved in the dental plaque over the last thousands of years. From there, they hoped, they could reconstruct the local diet.

Dental plaque or calculus is produced by bacteria that live in our mouth. As it forms it can capture small particles of food, which become preserved.

“This enables us to find traces of what a person ate,” says Stockhammer. “Anyone who does not practice good dental hygiene will still be telling us archaeologists what they have been eating thousands of years from now!”

The techniques they used fall under the domain of paleoprotemics, a relatively new field of science concerned with the study of ancient proteins. The team managed to identify both “ancient proteins and plant residues” from the teeth, revealing that their owners had consumed foods brought from faraway lands.

It was quite surprising for the team as well. Such techniques are difficult to use, they explain, because you have to piece together what food people ate judging solely from the proteins they contained. The proteins themselves must also survive for thousands of years until analyzed, so there’s also quite a lot of luck required to pull it off.

The team confirmed the presence of sesame in local diets at the time (sesame is not an endemic plant to the Levant), suggesting that it had become a staple food here by the 2nd millennium BCE. The teeth of one individual from Megiddo showed turmeric and soy proteins, while one individual from Tel Erani showed traces of banana proteins — all of them likely entering the area through South Asia.

“Our analyses thus provide crucial information on the spread of the banana around the world. No archaeological or written evidence had previously suggested such an early spread into the Mediterranean region,” says Stockhammer. “I find it spectacular that food was exchanged over long distances at such an early point in history.”

Naturally, the team can’t rule out that this individual traveled or lived in South Asia for a period of time, consuming local foodstuffs during this time. They also can’t estimate the scale of any trades going on, only find evidence that such networks probably existed.

Still, the findings showcase how early long-distance trade began, and they go to show that people have been living in and building an interconnected world for a very long time now. While definitely interesting and important from an academic point of view, such results also help to put our current social dialogues around globalization, trade, and immigration into perspective.

The paper “Exotic foods reveal contact between South Asia and the Near East during the second millennium BCE” has been published in the journal PNAS.

Archaeologists uncover ancient street shop in Pompeii

Pompeii, the ancient Roman city buried by a volcanic eruption in the year 79 AD, continues to impress and dazzle archaeologists. Recently, they’ve uncovered a frescoed hot food stand that would have been the Roman equivalent of a street food shop, complete with advertisements and actual remains of food.

The fast-food eatery is the first intact structure of its type to be excavated, said Pompeii Archaeological Park’s longtime chief, Massimo Osanna. It’s called a thermopolium, and it’s essentially a hot-food-and-drink stand, covered by attractive frescoes that would appeal to Roman passersby.

The thermopolium is basically a multi-sided counter, with wide holes inserted into the top where the vessels for hot food would be stored (not unlike some modern hot food or soup stands). Aside from the stand itself, remains of the food itself have also been found. Traces of pork, snails, beef, and fish have been uncovered, something which Valeria Amoretti, a site anthropologist, calls a “testimony to the great variety of animal products” that Romans used.

“Our preliminary analyses shows that the figures drawn on the front of the counter, represent, at least in part, the food and drink that were sold there,” said Amoretti for Reuters.

“We know what they were eating that day,” said Osanna, referring to the day of Pompeii’s destruction in 79 A.D. The food remains indicated “what’s popular with the common folk,” Osanna told Rai state TV, noting that street-food places weren’t frequented by the Roman elite.

A segment of the structure was first discovered in 2019, and since then, archaeologists kept digging until they dug up the entire structure.

The stand features several remarkable frescoes, including images of two upside-down mallards and a rooster, likely an advertisement for the menu. Another fresco depicted a dog on a leash, perhaps reminding walkers to keep their pets on a leash. The painting also features vulgar graffiti, which Romans seem to have been quite fond of.

Nine amphorae were also uncovered, with analysis hopefully revealing their content.

There were also a few surprises about the dig, such as the complete skeleton of a dog — a small dog, about 20-25 cm (8-10 inches) tall at shoulder level. Remains such as this are very rare in Ancient times, and the find suggests that Romans were already mindful of selective breeding for dogs. A bronze ladle, presumably used by the shop owners, was also uncovered.

Pompeii was destroyed by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius, near present-day Naples in Italy. It was sealed by the ash and lava, remaining almost like a time capsule offering a peek into the life of the Romans. The eruption covered the city, hiding it up until the 16th century. By the 1700s, clandestine digs started on site with people looking for valuables and in 1750, archaeological digs also started. So far, about two thirds of the entire city has been uncovered.

Full genome of a human (and her oral microbes) recovered from Stone Age chewing gum

A piece of birch pitch used as chewing gum by one of our ancestors is yielding a wealth of genetic data for researchers. A team at the University of Copenhagen has now extracted the complete genome of a human female from a piece of ancient ‘chewing gum’. This 5,700 year-old material was made from birch pitch, the authors report, and was found during excavations in Lolland, Denmark.

“It is amazing to have gotten a complete ancient human genome from anything other than bone,” says Associate Professor Hannes Schroeder from the Globe Institute, University of Copenhagen, who led the research.

‘What is more, we also retrieved DNA from oral microbes and several important human pathogens, which makes this a very valuable source of ancient DNA, especially for time periods where we have no human remains”.

Artistic reconstruction of the woman who chewed the birch pitch. She has been named Lola. Illustration by Tom Björklund.

Old gum, new insights

The genetic data indicates that this gum was chewed by a female, who was more closely related to hunter-gatherers from mainland Europe than to those who lived in central Scandinavia at the time. The team reports she likely had dark skin, hair, and blue eyes.

Her birchy chewing gum was found during archaeological excavations at Syltholm, east of Rødbyhavn in southern Denmark, which were carried out in advance of a tunnel construction project. The team explains that the conditions at Syltholm are “completely unique”, with the muddy soil helping to preserve organic mater.

“It is the biggest Stone Age site in Denmark and the archaeological finds suggest that the people who occupied the site were heavily exploiting wild resources well into the Neolithic, which is the period when farming and domesticated animals were first introduced into southern Scandinavia,” says Theis Jensen, Postdoc at the Globe Institute, who worked on the study for his PhD and also participated in the excavations at Syltholm.

The genetic material extracted from the piece of gum supports this timeline — the team found traces of hazelnut and duck DNA in the material. In addition, they also recovered DNA from several strains of oral microbes, some helpful and other opportunistic pathogens. Among them, the team found DNA strands that could be originated from the Epstein-Barr Virus, which is known to cause infectious mononucleosis or glandular fever. Professor Schroeder says this illustrates the value of ancient ‘chewing gums’ in researching our ancient microbiomes, their evolution over time, and the evolutionary path of important human pathogens.

Birch pitch is a dark substance produced by heating the tree’s bark. It enjoyed extensive use in ancient times as a glue, most notably for securing stone tools to their wooden handles. However, quite a number of pieces of this pitch have been found with tooth imprints, suggesting that they were also enjoyed as a kind of chewing gum, for oral hygiene, or as a medicine against toothache (it has mild antiseptic properties). Alternatively, it has been suggested that people chewed the material to prepare it for use (the pitch solidifies on cooling).

The paper “A 5700 year-old human genome and oral microbiome from chewed birch pitch” has been published in the journal Nature Communications.

Why ancient populations carved voluptuous ‘Venus’ women figures over 30,000 years ago

Venus of Willendorf. Credit: Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 3.0

If you’ve ever been to a history museum, you may have seen a Venus figurine. They’re made from soft stones, clay, ivory, or bone, and depict very voluptuous feminine figures. In fact, some features are so exaggerated that anthropologists often questioned whether they even represent pregnant or obese women.

Most Venus figurines were carved some 26,000–21,000 years ago, although some were dated to at least 35,000 years ago. Researchers today interpret them as symbols of beauty and fertility, but the original meaning and purpose of these figurines is not known — they may have even served a ritual purpose, but little is known about them.

A new study looking at ancient famine and ice age variations suggests that the figures were indeed obese, but this represented a type of beauty standard or an ideal at the time.

Unusual art

Obesity is, for the most part, a modern problem — having too much food available is not something many of our ancestors could have bragged about. So what’s the deal with this type of art?

“Some of the earliest art in the world are these mysterious figurines of overweight women from the time of hunter gatherers in Ice Age Europe where you would not expect to see obesity at all,” said Richard Johnson, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine specializing in renal disease and hypertension. “We show that these figurines correlate to times of extreme nutritional stress.”

Some 48,000 years ago, ancient humans in Europe were undergoing a period called the Aurignacian. The Aurignacians, people who lived in that period, had already established themselves as a force in the biological world. They hunted reindeer, horses, and mammoths with the spears and the tools they built. They also fished, and supplemented their diets by foraging for berries, nuts and plants.

But things took a turn for the worse for them. As the Ice Age set in, temperatures plunged and disaster struck. The ice sheets were advancing, it was getting colder and colder, and the ancestral lifestyle couldn’t be supported for most populations. Some moved south, in search of warmer climates. Others took refuge in forests, wreaking havoc on the ecosystem as they hunted and overhunted anything they could find.

It was in this period of generalized hunger that the Venus figurines emerged.

“During this period, humans faced advancing glaciers and falling temperatures that led to nutritional stress, regional extinctions, and a reduction in the population,” the authors note in the study.

Johnson and colleagues suspected this wasn’t a coincidence. They measured the waist-to-hip ratios and waist-to-shoulder-ratios of the figures and noted where the figures had been found. They then compared this map of locations with the map of known glaciers — the points where the temperatures were lowest and food was likely the scarcest.

They found an interesting trend: the closer the figurines were to glaciers, the more likely they were to have over-represented body ratios. In other words, the more people hungered, the more they looked at obesity as a standard.

“We propose they conveyed ideals of body size for young women, and especially those who lived in proximity to glaciers,” said Johnson, who in addition to being a physician has an undergraduate degree in anthropology. “We found that body size proportions were highest when the glaciers were advancing, whereas obesity decreased when the climate warmed and glaciers retreated.”

While this is somewhat speculative, it makes a lot of sense. It’s not uncommon for scarcity of resources to define ideals. An obese woman would have been more likely to deliver a child — although it’s unlikely that too many women were overweight at the time. However, the figurines may have had a spiritual meaning, a charm that would protect women through pregnancy and nursing children.

This idea is also backed by the fact that the figurines were worn down, suggesting that they were kept for many years, and possibly passed down through generations.

“The figurines emerged as an ideological tool to help improve fertility and survival of the mother and newborns,” Johnson said. “The aesthetics of art thus had a significant function in emphasizing health and survival to accommodate increasingly austere climatic conditions.”

The study has some limitations. The number of figurines was small to begin with, and the researchers didn’t have access to the actual sculptures — they had to rely on photographs for measurements (which means they couldn’t use measures like circumference). Researchers also note that the shift to leaner figurines could also mark a stylistic change rather than one relating to hunger.

There’s always some uncertainty when dealing with this type of study, but interdisciplinary methods, such as the ones deployed here, can help us better understand these ancient populations. In many ways, modern archaeology isn’t about finding new things — it’s about interpreting and putting them into context.

The study has been published in the journal Obesity.