Tag Archives: stone age

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.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Capuchin monkeys are 3,000 years into their own Stone Age

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Somewhere in Brazil’s remote Serra da Capivara National Park, stone tool technology has been refined and perfected for more than 3,000 years — but not by some tribe of humans. According to a 2019 study, bearded capuchin monkeys have been consistently using quartz stones to crack open cashew nuts, making the site the oldest non-human archaeological site in the world.

Since the past century, scientists have been aware that tool use is not an exclusively human trait. Many primates, for instance, use food-obtaining tools derived from sticks, which they employ in various creative ways. Chimps have been observed using sticks to smash fruit and some chimps have even been seen hunting bush babies with primitive spears that they thrust into the animal’s sleeping hollow. Some primates collect honey with sticks. Sumatran orangutans alone use up to 54 types of tools for extracting insects or honey.

Archaeological evidence suggests that chimpanzees in Côte d’Ivoire have been using stone tools to gain access to food for over 4,000 years. While not as old, recent digs in Brazil show that capuchin communities have adapted their tools over time. Researchers described over 122 capuchin stone artifacts of varying sizes and hardness — which cater to different types of foods — created over the course of 450 generations.

In other words, the capuchins in Serra da Capivara have their own archaeological record which traces back their antiquity. So, this is yet another trait that we’ve found is not unique to humans.

Understanding how capuchins have evolved in their tool use may reveal how other primates originally develop their own tool use, including our ancestors. Some of the oldest tools — deliberately flaked off rock projectiles and cutting tools — on the record are 3.3 million years old and are attributed to Australopithecus afarensis or Kenyanthropus platyops, two human ancestors. But before early human ancestors started to shape their own tools, scholars believe that they first used unmodified stone cobbles to process food, much like the capuchin in Brazil.

The oldest tools found at the site are relatively small and lightweight. Although these stones sustained a lot of damage from all the bashing, they did not exhibit any cashew stains (as seen today). But, something radically changed around 560 years or so ago, when the capuchin started wielding larger stones, implying they were going after harder foods. Finally, in the last 300 years, the capuchins have settled into an intermediate tool size and shape that is consistent with their current strategy of bashing cashew husks. This is evidenced by the telltale pockmarks on the rocks, stained brown from the cashew husks.

“We identify monkey stone tools between 2,400 and 3,000 years old and, on the basis of metric and damage patterns, demonstrate that capuchin food processing changed between ~2,400 and 300 years ago, and between ~100 years ago and the present day. We present the first example of long-term tool-use variation outside of the human lineage, and discuss possible mechanisms of extended behavioural change,” the authors concluded.

In other words, the tool use morphed to satisfy the capuchin’s diet. The researchers aren’t sure why their diet changed, but it could be that different groups of capuchin acquired a different taste for other foods. Alternatively, different plant foods appeared and disappeared in their area.

It’s quite remarkable to think about the fact that a non-human species is now fully in the Stone Age. Whether the capuchins can ever move into a more advanced stage of tool use is anyone’s guess at this point.

The findings appeared in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Scientists recreate torches and other Stone Age cave lighting

Examples of replicated paleolithic torche. Notice combustion marks left on the cave walls (B) and fallen remains from the torch on the cave floor (C). Credit: PLOS ONE.

For early hunter-gatherer groups fortunate enough to live close to caves, these natural underground dwellings offered perfect shelter that could be defended against predators and rivals and that were shielded from inclement weather. Humans in the Paleolithic (also known as the Old Stone Age, spanning from around 30,000 BCE until 10,000 BCE) would spend a lot of time in these caves, cooking food, fashioning tools, and spending the night before heading out to restock supplies the next day.

When dusk came, however, these people were not left completely in the dark. Charcoal and murals etched on the walls of deep galleries where there was never sunlight suggest that some hunter-gatherers employed lighting systems to illuminate their cave dwellings.

Now, in a new study, researchers in Spain have recreated three common Stone Age lighting systems — torches, grease lamps, and fireplaces — in order to get a better understanding of what it must have been like living and working in these environments.

“The artificial lighting was a crucial physical resource for expanding complex social and economic behavior in Paleolithic groups, especially for the development of the first palaeo-speleological explorations and for the origin of art in caves,” noted Mariángeles Medina-Alcaide from the University of Cantabria, Spain, and colleagues, in a new study published this week in the journal PLOS ONE.

Based on archaeological evidence found across several Paleolithic caves in Southwest Europe, the team manufactured five replicated torches made from ivy, juniper, oak, birch, and pine resins; two stone lamps that burn animal fat, namely bone marrow from cows and deer; and a small fireplace out of oak and juniper wood.

Each lighting system had particular qualities and drawbacks, which prompted cave dwellers to use them across different contexts. For instance, the wooden torches assembled from multiple sticks had a light intensity almost five times greater than a double-wicked grease lamp. The torches lasted for an average of 41 minutes (the shortest-lived torch burned for 21 minutes while the longest-burning torch stayed blazed for 61 minutes), making them ideal for exploring caves. The light emanating from the torches projected light in all directions up to almost six meters, making them great for wider spaces.

However, the torches required close supervision as they extinguished easily. The handler had to constantly wag the torch back and forth to increase oxygen flow and ensure the torch stayed lit. But their main disadvantage was the amount of smoke they generated, which could cause trouble in tighter galleries of a cave.

Grease lamps are ideal for lighting small spaces over a long period. The light intensity they generate is very similar to that of a candle, projecting light up to three meters. Multiple such lamps could light a larger room. However, the lamps weren’t well suited to transiting due to their dazzling effect and poor floor illumination. They burned for well over an hour though.

Set of photographs of stone lamp experiment. Credit: PLOS ONE.

Finally, the researchers also made a fireplace. This static system is perhaps the easiest and most readily available lighting system there is. The fireplace burned very smokily inside the cave and was extinguished after just 30 minutes. Air currents in the cave would make fireplace illumination unsuitable inside a cave network.

This investigation is important from many standpoints and may serve to shed light on many behavioral aspects of Paleolithic people. Because there were no written records left, scientists can only speculate on how ancient people lived based upon fragmentary evidence, like following a trail of breadcrumbs.

For instance, some stone age cave paintings have been etched hundreds of meters deep inside caves. They likely used some sort of combination of torches and lamps, and this lighting must have influenced the artistic process by altering color perception. As luminosity decreases, the human retina loses sensitivity to short wavelengths (green, blue, and purple), and then to long wavelengths (yellow, orange, and red).

Thus, red is best seen in low light conditions. The perception of colors also depends on the color temperature of the light; under incandescent or warm light (between 1000 and 2000 K), such as firelight, a yellow hue is emitted, and colors tend to appear more vivid.

“In any case, our experiments on Paleolithic lighting point to planning in the human use of caves in this period and the importance of lighting studies to unravel the activities carried out by our ancestors in the deep areas of caves,” wrote the authors. 

Ancient fragments of twisted fibers show Neanderthals grasped math and had a materialistic culture

Credit: Paul Hudson, Flickr.

The mental imagery of sluggish brutes regarding the Neanderthals has proven itself heavily distorted from reality. The latest findings that show our extinct cousins were capable of remarkable cognitive abilities come from the site of Abri du Maras, in France, where scientists have found fragments of twisted fiber between 41,000 to 52,000 years old that were fashioned by Neanderthals.

The study, which was published in the journal Scientific Reports, shows that Neanderthals mastered fiber technology and likely grasped basic mathematics judging from the patterning of the yarn and cords.

Discovering tools this old is a huge achievement in and of itself. Much of what we know about Middle Paleolithic culture comes from bones and stone tools since these are the only things that can typically last for so long before becoming degraded to oblivion.

The team of researchers, led by Bruce Hardy, a professor of anthropology at Kenyon College, Ohio, excavated multiple collapsed caves at the French site. They eventually came across a 60-mm-long Levallois flake — a stone tool made with the earliest core preparation and flake removal technology known to us — with adhering cord fragments.

“The flake was recovered in situ with the cord adhering to its inferior surface and was covered by sediment and breccia, demonstrating that the cord is at least contemporary with the deposition and burial of the flake and is therefore Middle Paleolithic in origin.,” the authors wrote in their study.

(a) SEM photo of cord fragment, (b) 3D Hirox photo of cord fragment, (c) schematic drawing illustrating s and Z twist; (d) enlarged Hirox photo with cord structure highlighted, arrows indicate location of photos e and f; (e) SEM photo of bordered pits (circled in red); (f) SEM photo of bordered pits. Credit: Drawing by C. Kerfant.

Upon examination, the researchers found that the ancient cord is comprised of 3 bundles of fibers in an S-twist, which were then plied together with a Z-twist to form a 3-ply cord.

In effect, this is the earliest evidence of spinning yarn from natural fibers found thus far. It implies that Neanderthals were more than capable of manufacturing advanced tools. Although it’s not clear how Neanderthals used fiber technology, the researchers assume that Neanderthals employed such materials to fashion anything from bags to fishing nets and baskets.

The fibers seem to be derived from bark, which also suggests that Neanderthals understood the seasonality of conifer tree growth.

SEM closeup of one of the Neanderthal cords found at the French site. Credit: Moncel.

Most importantly, the fiber fragments point to a basic understanding of math. To turn fibers into yarn and yarn into cord, the manufacturer has to understand how to combine various fibers, which can be seen as akin to combinations of pairs and sets of numbers in mathematics. A cord made out of three individual fibers is stronger than one made out of two, and the Neanderthals seemed to have understood this very well.

“These impressions reveal weaving technology and the production of textiles. The complexity of the textiles suggests that they are part of a well-established tradition that began much earlier,” the authors wrote.

Excavations at the Abri du Maras site are still ongoing, and the researchers are close to reaching a 90,000-year-old sediment layer. Perhaps even more striking artifacts and examples of ancient Neanderthal behavior might surface from the digs.

Archaeologists date prehistoric “Swiss army knife” from Chinese cave

Archaeologists uncovered versatile knapped stone tools dating back to 80,000 years — a technique which was thought to have evolved much later in Asia.

These artifacts found in China are among the nearly four dozen that reflect the Levallois technique of toolmaking. Image credits: Marwick et al / Nature.

The team reports finding “Levallois stones”, which are a distinctive type of stone knapping developed by the ancestors of modern humans. This type of technology first appeared in Europe and Africa some 300,000 years ago and is remarkable because it represents “multi-tool” of the prehistoric world — a sort of Swiss army knife of these ancient times. However, this type of stone tool was thought to only appear in Asia around 40,000 years ago, so the new finding pushes that date back by quite a bit. Since researchers were unable to link the discovery to any fossils or migratory population, they believe the technology was developed independently in Asia.

“It used to be thought that Levallois cores came to China relatively recently with modern humans,” said Ben Marwick, UW associate professor of anthropology and one of the paper’s corresponding authors. “Our work reveals the complexity and adaptability of people there that is equivalent to elsewhere in the world. It shows the diversity of the human experience.”

[panel style=”panel-default” title=”Levallois technique” footer=””]

The technique involves the striking of lithic flakes from a prepared lithic core. The core’s edges are trimmed by flaking off pieces around the outline of the intended lithic flake, creating a domed shape on the side of the core. Then, when the striking platform is finally hit, a lithic flake separates from the lithic core with a distinctive profile. This method provides a great deal of control regarding the size and shape of the final tool, which would have been used as a knife or a scraper. Projectiles could also be derived using a similar technique.

This type of tool is considered definitory for the sophistication level of the culture that built it. They were named after the Levallois-Perret suburb of Paris, where the first such stone flakes were found in the 1800s.[/panel]

The artifacts are not new — they were made in the Guanyindong Cave in Guizhou Province in the 1960s and 1970s. Marwick and colleagues now dated them using optically stimulated luminescence (OSL), which can determine age by assessing when a sediment sample, down to a grain of sand, was last exposed to sunlight — thus indicating for how long it was buried in sediment. This is a relatively unusual but precise dating technique.

“Dating for this site was challenging because it had been excavated 40 years ago, and the sediment profile was exposed to air and without protection. So trees, plants, animals, insects could disturb the stratigraphy, which may affect the dating results if conventional methods were used for dating,” said Bo Li, an associate professor of archaeology at the University of Wollongong in Australia and one of the paper’s corresponding authors. “To solve this problem we used a new single-grain dating technique recently developed in our OSL lab at the University of Wollongong to date individual mineral grains in the sediment. Luckily we found residual sediment left over by the previous excavations, so that allowed us to take samples for dating.”

The map shows where Levallois artifacts have been found. The oldest, dating to 337,000 years ago, have been found in Europe and Africa. The star on the map marks the site of Guanyindong Cave, where new research published in the journal Nature shows that this technology was used 80,000 to 170,000 years ago in Asia, much earlier than previously thought. Image credits: Warwick et al / Nature.

It’s unclear who exactly developed the tools, though it was presumably one of the precursors of modern humans. After the Levallois stones, the next technological step was developing more-refined cutting tools made of rocks and minerals that were more resistant to flaking. This was followed by compound tools, such as spear tips.

“The appearance of the Levallois strategy represents a big increase in the complexity of technology because there are so many steps that have to work in order to get the final product, compared to previous technologies,” Marwick said.

The main takeaway is that this type of stone tool innovation evolved independently in several parts of the world, which is not that unusual. Boatbuilding was developed independently in several parts of the world, as was handwriting, for instance.

The study was published in Nature.

Early human ancestors may not have passed down knowledge but simply crafted tools on instinct

Starting from a fist-size rock shaped into a tool in the early stone age, a new paper challenges the view that cultural transmission goes back for more than 2 million years.

Idea.

Image credits Tero Vesalainen.

Common wisdom holds that humanity owes its success to our ability to share information. Living in today’s world, where we have almost instant access to immense volumes of information through conversation, texts, advertising, the internet, it’s easy to see why.

It’s a process anthropologists call cultural transmission, and there was a time where people simply didn’t pass information along. We don’t exactly know when the switch took place, but it’s generally believed to have happened more than 2 million years ago. Now, a team led by Claudio Tennie, Research Group Leader in the Department for Early Prehistory and Quaternary Ecology of the University of Tübingen comes to challenge that view.

Rock’a’chopper

The paper first debates the Oldowan chopper hypothesis. The term “Oldowan” is used to denote your entry-level stone-age technology. It’s represented by fist-sized rocks that are smooth on one side and had just enough material removed to make a rough edge on the other. Back in the 1960s, Louis Leaky, a prominent paleoanthropologist, attributed such an artifact to the first member of the human genus, Homo habilis, the ‘handy human’. While Leaky and his colleagues didn’t explicitly say Homo habilis learned how to produce the tools through cultural transmission of information, Premo says his usage of the word “culture” alone is enough to imply that such mechanisms were at work.

Oldowan chopper.

An Oldowan chopper.
Image credits José-Manuel Benito Álvarez.

“All of their contemporaries figured that any stone tool must be an example of culture because they thought that humans are the only animals that make and use tools and humans rely on cultural transmission to do so,” said Luke Premo, associate professor of anthropology at Washington State University, and paper co-author.

“It made sense to them at the time that this ability might in fact distinguish our genus from all others.”

Premo and his fellow co-authors say there currently isn’t enough evidence to support a cultural transmission of the techniques used to make such tools. The team writes that it’s more likely these tools are “latent solutions” which rely on an animal’s inherent skill rather than cultural transmission — i.e. that they’re simple enough to be thought-up on the spot when needed, rather than having to be told how to manufacture them. Just like crows or chimpanzees can spontaneously learn to use tools, so too could Homo habilis have learned to make simple tools, like the Oldowan chopper, on their own.

“Our main question is: How do we know from these kinds of stone tools that this was a baton that somebody passed on?” said Premo. “Or was it just like the chimp case, where individuals could figure out how to do this on their own during the course of their lifetimes?”

The team further warns against equating complexity to a cultural flow of ideas, pointing out that while the tool looks “like it would require a lot of brain power,” animals can create very complicated structures such as beehives, beaver lodges, or spider webs, without sharing any information.

They also point out that the type of tool (rough-cut stone edges) remained virtually unchanged for over 1 million years. A culturally transmitted technique generally suffers at least slight changes over time, as individuals add on what they’ve been taught, or as information is lost. This static nature, Premo says, points to individuals with the same mental and motor skills coming up with the same solution again and again instead of the constant addition of innovations owed to information sharing today.

If it didn’t start over 2 million years ago, however, when did it start? The team points out that the production of other early hominin technologies, such as the Mousterian stone tools in use by the Neanderthals and other hominids between 160,000 to 40,000 years ago, involved many steps — as such it’s more likely that people passed it down rather than constantly re-discover the processes involved.

Overall, the authors don’t debate the fact that cultural transmission allowed us to thrive in virtually all environments around the planet.

“It does explain our success as a species,” Premo said. “But the reason we are successful might be much more recent than what many anthropologists have traditionally thought.”

If it really is such a recent feature, it could explain why we’re still having trouble coping with too much information.

“[Cultural transmission of information]can be hijacked,” Permo adds. “If you’ve got this system in which you receive information that can affect your behaviors… all it takes is somebody broadcasting information to you that makes you act in a way they prefer. And if you’re getting hundreds of messages every day, it can be difficult to discern what is important for you from what is important for somebody else.”

The paper “Early Stone Tools and Cultural Transmission: Resetting the Null Hypothesis” has been published in the journal Current Anthropology.

Macaques may have just entered the Stone Age

It took macaques in Thailand just 13 years to learn how to crack open nuts with rocks.

Yum yum! Image credits: Lydia Luncz.

There’s no official age for the beginning of the human Stone Age, but most anthropologists agree it started somewhere around 3.4 million years, ending 10,700 to 4,000 years ago, with the advent of metal working. Well, macaques seem to be entering that same period of their evolution. For over a century, macaques on the shore have been opening shells with rocks. Some of them moved inland and appeared to have figured out (and taught others) how to use rocks to open oil palm nuts.

What makes this behavior even more impressive is that oil palms have only been introduced to the area for 13 years. This means that within the span of 13 years, macaques figured out how to use rocks in a different setting. This could even mean that they’ve been in a Stone Age for a long time, since they have a deeper grasp of the rock-using process.

Using tools is not unheard of in the animal kingdom; on the contrary, there are a number of species which employ tools, from chimps to crows. But using stones is quite uncommon. In fact, only three species are known to do so: the western chimpanzees of West Africa, the bearded capuchins of Brazil and the long-tailed macaques of Thailand. But researchers thought this is strictly dependent on their particular environment — if they can move around and take the behavior with them, it paints a very different story.

“The chimpanzees live in tropical rainforest, and the capuchins in a dry savannah area,” says Lydia Luncz at the University of Oxford.

Meanwhile, the macaques live by Thailand’s seas, or at least spend a lot of time on the coast. However, they also like to roam inland. Luncz and colleagues followed the macaques through the Yao Noi Island in Thailand’s southern parts. They were ultimately led through an abandoned oil palm plantation, finding what appeared to be tools used to break nuts (hammer and anvil type rocks). Several broken nuts were found around the rocks. So they set up camera traps to see what was going on.

Thailand macaques have been cracking shells by the sea for decades. Image credits: Lydia Luncz.

Over the course of three weeks, they witnessed both male and female macaques visiting the sites, carefully placing the nuts on the anvil rocks and hitting them with the hammer rocks, until the delicious kernel was exposed. The fact that they’ve transferred this knowledge from sea shells to inland nuts is remarkable, but that they’ve done so in only 13 years at most is even more impressive.

It indicates that they understand the process. It might mean that they’ve truly entered the Stone Age.

“We know the macaques use stone tools at the shore – we believe they have transferred that behaviour to a new food source,” says Luncz. “They’ve applied what they know from the shore to a different ecosystem.”

“So this is the first nut-cracking macaque generation on the island,” she says.

A stone hammer and anvil used by macaques. Image credits: Lydia Luncz.

Elisabetta Visalberghi at the Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies in Rome, Italy, says this is not surprising behavior, and macaques are known to be highly adaptable and intelligent. They exhibit a wide array of manipulative behaviors in order to get food, she says. She also points out that macaques have also been spotted cracking sea almonds produced by trees along the shore, so maybe it’s not such a large mental leap.

Yet even so, it’s an intriguing behavior which researchers would like to understand. Luncz and collaborators will now try to see how (if at all) the macaques’ stone usage is changing. Identifying an evolution would be a significant breakthrough, and the anthropogenic impact could greatly accelerate this evolution.

Journal Reference: Lydia V. Luncz Magdalena S. SvenssonMichael HaslamSuchinda MalaivijitnondTomos ProffittMichael Gumert. Technological Response of Wild Macaques (Macaca fascicularis) to Anthropogenic Change.  DOI: 10.1007/s10764-017-9985-6

Stone age trade.

Around 4,500 years ago, Vietnamese stone-age traders traveled hundreds of kilometers to sell their wares

An archaeological team from The Australian National University (ANU) has found evidence of an expansive trading network in Vietnam which operated from about 4,500 years ago up to until around 3,000 years ago.

Stone age trade.

Note: this picture is not part of the study in any way, shape, or form. It’s just a funny flavor pic I found online.
Image credits Chris Jobling / Flickr.

A new paper reports that several settlements strewn about along the Mekong Delta region of Southern Vietnam were part of an ancient, sophisticated trade network. Large volumes of goods and materials were manufactured and shipped between them, often over distances of hundreds of kilometers. The discovery helps place early Vietnamese culture in a whole new light, and joins other findings that show ancient societies weren’t the simple, isolated, warring groupings of tribes we usually believe them to be — quite the opposite.

Rock for tat

The most striking discovery here isn’t that these people moved materials and goods around — we knew that already. What’s striking here is the scale of the operation, both in regards to the quantities produced and shipped, the huge length of routes, and the level of specialization involved. This latter factor, in particular, hints at a long-running trade operation. Specialized craftsmen need access to wider, stable markets to ensure there’s always someone buying their goods or such enterprises bog down.

Location of sites.

The location of settlements that were part of the ancient trade route.
Image credits Frieman et al., 2017.

“We knew some artefacts were being moved around but this shows evidence for a major trade network that also included specialist tool-makers and technological knowledge. It’s a whole different ball game,” said lead researcher Dr Catherine Frieman, Senior Lecturer in European Archaeology from ASU’s School of Archaeology and Anthropology, who specializes in ancient stone tools.

Dr Friedman made the discovery after she was asked to look at a cache of stone items unearthed at a site called Rach Nui in Southern Vietnam. There were even some sandstone grinding stones among the items, instruments which were used to fashion other tools such as stone axe heads. It struck Dr Frieman as odd to see them all the way here — since Rach Nui is nowhere near any sources of stone. In other words, people here had to import stone — and import a lot of it — to justify a local stone-fashioning industry. Even the sandstone used to fashion the grinding tool itself most likely came from a quarry some 80 kilometers (50 miles) away in the Mekong Delta.

The grindstones also come in different sizes, shapes, and judging by the grooves left in them, different use patterns. This indicates that highly-specialized stone processing techniques were used in local manufacturing. These included differently-shaped grindstones to be used on various parts of an axe-head, for example, or grind surfaces of various coarseness, meant to either shape or polish the stones — meaning that these were a people who didn’t just make tools, they made refined, high-quality tools.

“This isn’t a case of people producing a couple of extra items on top of what they need. It’s a major operation. The Rach Nui region had no stone resources. So the people must have been importing the stone and working it to produce the artefacts,” she said.

“People were becoming experts in stone tool making even though they live no-where near the source of any stone.”

Operation chain.

A schematic of the steps the team believes went into making the axes. It’s a much more complicated undertaking than you’d credit stone age communities with.
Image credits Frieman et al., 2017.

Dr Phillip Piper, an expert in Vietnamese archaeology at the ANU School of Archaeology and Anthropology and paper co-author, is using the findings to map how people in Southeast Asia transitioned from hunting and gathering to farming. According to him, there are numerous Neolithic sites in southern Vietnam that, despite being “relatively close together,” show “considerable variation in material culture, methods of settlement construction and subsistence.” This suggests that when communities started establishing permanent settlements throughout the delta and coastal regions, they also developed distinct social, cultural and economic systems.

These differences formed a ripe setting for trade to spring up,  moving “materials and manufacturing ideas over quite long distances” between the different communities.

“Vietnam has an amazing archaeological record with a number of settlements and sites that provide significant information on the complex pathways from foraging to farming in the region” Dr Piper said.

All in all, the findings peer into the complexity of Neolithic trading networks in the area and offers a glimpse of how technological know-how flowed side-by-side with finished goods and materials along these trade routes.

The full paper “Rach Nui: ground stone technology in coastal Neolithic settlements of southern Vietnam” has been published in the journal Antiquity.

A selection of 14 Middle Stone Age flakes found in a cave in South Africa. These come from a batch of 25; imaged here are only the ones with serrated edges. Credit: PLOS ONE.

Advanced 77,000-year-old Stone Age weapons found in South Africa

As early as 77,000 years ago, humans were already proficient at forging deadly weapons, judging from the recent discovery of an ancient Stone Age weapons cache in a South African cave. Archaeologists discovered 25 sharp and pointy weapons that had clear signs of both weapon manufacturing and handling.

A selection of 14 Middle Stone Age flakes found in a cave in South Africa. These come from a batch of 25; imaged here are only the ones with serrated edges. Credit: PLOS ONE.

A selection of 14 Middle Stone Age flakes found in a cave in South Africa. These come from a batch of 25; imaged here are only the ones with serrated edges. Credit: PLOS ONE.

Stone Age arsenal

The weapons were discovered in a cave around Sibudu located only 9 miles (15 kilometers) away from the Indian Ocean coast. Veerle Rots, a research professor at the Fund for Scientific Research at the University of Liège in Belgium, made multiple trips to the site in 2013 and 2014. Ultimately, Rots and colleagues managed to unearth, analyze, and describe two dozen dangerously sharp Middle Stone Age weapons.

The Middle Stone Age or Mesolithic is a period marked by significant technological advancements. By at least 285,000 years ago, humans in Africa had mastered the craftsmanship of various tools with an emphasis on flake rather than large core tools. One of the main innovations was the application of ‘prepared core technique,’ which involves flaking a core on one side from a single blow. This allowed the craftsman to make flakes of predetermined sizes and shapes, raising the level of standardization and predictability in stone technology.

Parts of the Middle Stone Age toolkit we can find the versatile handaxe, but also points, which could be hafted on to shafts to make spears, stone awls, which could have been used to perforate hides, and scrapers that were useful in preparing hide, wood, and other materials.

The find at the Sibudu cave, however, is the earliest evidence of an even more advanced form of Middle Stone Age technique called pressure flaking. Using such a technique, a craftsman can readily and easily refine the sharp edges of a weapon. Pressure flaking also gave toolmakers the ability to create notches where the piece could be bound more securely to the shaft of the weapon or tool, thus making it far more useful.

Pressure flaking: Using a pointed implement of wood, bone or stone, the artisan forces a flat flake from the lower surface of the tool by pressing against the edge in a slightly downward movement. Credit: Don's Maps.

Pressure flaking: Using a pointed implement of wood, bone or stone, the artisan forces a flat flake from the lower surface of the tool by pressing against the edge in a slightly downward movement. Credit: Don’s Maps.

No one knows when this important technique was invented, but the discovery at the South African cave proves the method is older than 77,000 years.

 Sibudu Cave

Left: map showing the location of the Sibudu Cave on the South African coast. Right: picture from the site where the stone weapons were found. Credit: PLOS ONE.

Closer inspection revealed the weapons had evidence of wear and tear but also organic residues like “glue, animal residues, including blood and bone fragments, [and] plant residues, including fibers,” scientists write in PLOS ONE. The sticky resin was likely used to bound the sharp-tipped stones to a shaft that could be thrown from a distance, thus making a spear or arrow. Some of these weapons used pressure flaking on both sides to create a double-edged stone, said the researchers who experimentally reproduced the weapons using the same ancient technology. At least 14 of the 25 stone weapons had impact-related damage and significant signs of wear and tear. This entails that advanced hunting technology was in place in Africa before 77,000 years ago. Interestingly, hunter-gatherers in Europe only caught on with pressure flaking sometime between 25,000 and 20,000 years ago.

Oldest cavities.

World’s oldest fillings come from the stone age and they’re basically asphalt

People have been going to the dentist for a much longer time than you’d believe. Archaeologists working in northern Italy have found the oldest known dental fillings. They were made from a mix of bitumen, hairs, and plants some 13,000 years ago.

Oldest cavities.

Image credits Stefano Benazzi.

There’s no such thing as a good toothache. That’s why we have dentists, and that seems to have been the case in the stone age, too — although I hear conditions weren’t as good back in the day. Faced with a lack of materials, tools, or you know, any sort of body of literature to guide their steps, ancient dentists had to be creative (they invented a lot of stuff back then). A pair of 13,000-year-old front teeth found in Italy stands testament to what they could achieve with a bunch of stones and bitumen.

Asphalt teeth

The teeth were discovered in the Riparo Fredian site near Lucca, northern Italy. Each one has a large cavity going from the surface all the way through to the pulp. They were probably hollowed out and enlarged with stone tools, judging by microscopic etches and markings on their walls. While poking though these holes, a research team lead by Gregorio Oxilia from the University of Bologna has found residues of bitumen with plant fibers and hairs mixed in. Although very different from what you’d see in today’s fillings, their purpose was probably the same — keep stuff away from the pulp and keep pain to a minimum.

“It is quite unusual, not something you see in normal teeth,” Stephano Benazzi, an archaeologist at the University of Bologna and corresponding author of the paper told New Scientist.

Benazzi noted that the etchings found in these teeth are similar to another set him and the team found in Italy in previous research. That set of teeth was dated as 14,000 years old, the oldest known evidence of dentistry we’ve ever seen. But this is the (new) first time we know of fillings being used.

Fredian upper central incisors.

Image credits Gregorio Oxilia.

It’s probable that the Paleolithic dentist drilled out the cavities and then filled them in — just like his modern counterparts would do. However, he only had tiny stone tools to drill with, probably no anesthetics, and bitumen to use for the fill. The team is unsure as to why the hairs and plant fibers were added to the mix (they did rule out the possibility of them being remains of food since they were added to the area after drilling). One theory is that the plants were chosen for their antiseptic properties, helping to keep the cavity healthy and clean of bacteria. Or the dentists thought fibers would help fix the filling. We don’t yet know.

What’s really striking is the time-frame of the fillings. They’re evidence of relatively advanced knowledge being put to use in fixing an ailment thousands of years before we though they’d become a significant affliction — the change in diet agriculture brought on is thought to have lead to a dramatic increase in cavities. Still, at this time Europe was seeing a lot of people migrating in from the near East, Benazzi adds. The foods they introduced to the continent may have led to more cavities, and then to dentistry.

The full paper “The dawn of dentistry in the late upper Paleolithic: An early case of pathological intervention at Riparo Fredian” was published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

 

Veggies

Time to update the Paleo Diet — it was heavy on plants and veggies, archaeologists found

Our stone-age ancestors probably ate a lot of veggies too, researchers have found by examining a site in Israel. Not only this, but they had a lot more diverse diet than we do today.

Veggies

Like this, but with more “cave”.
Image credits Unsplash / Pexels.

The role of meat in ancient human diets usually plays a large part in discussions on the subject for a very simple reason — the bones of butchered animals, along with the tool marks left on them, tend to preserve really well for archaeologists to find. Plant matter usually rots away pretty fast. And there’s also probably a cool factor involved. Stone-age men taking up huge prey with stone-tipped spears is awesome — something that gathering doesn’t evoke. Plants you can just kinda…pick up from the ground.

Still, be it due to lack of evidence or wow-factor, this leaves the role of veggies underrepresented in our understanding of what they ate. It also skews Paleo-diet cookbooks towards meats. But recent archaeological work at the Gesher Benot Ya’aqov site in northern Israel has provided the first glimpse into what kind of plants our ancestors had for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, along with animal-sourced food.

The site was inhabited some 780,000 years ago, probably by Homo erectus or a close relative. Waterlogging at the site helped preserve the foods, both plants as well as meat. Their diets were more diverse than what we eat today and included stuff you’d be hard-pressed to call “food”, such as roasted acorns or sedges.

Everything — it’s what’s for dinner

Yoel Melamed and Naama Goren-Inbar at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, and their colleagues have cataloged all the plant remains from the site during times where there was evidence of human activity. They then compared the remains from times where there is no trace of humans, to see what was indigenous and which plants were deliberately brought to the camp from the surrounding area.

They found that while you couldn’t be persuaded to eat your veggies on pain of death, our ancestors had no such qualms. Some 55 different kinds of plants were found at the site. These were eaten as vegetables or harvested for nuts, fruits, seeds, and roots. That’s a range of foodstuffs that’s enviable even today.

“The modern human diet is clearly restricted when compared to the [early] hominin diet or even to the early farmers’ diet,” says Goren-Inbar.

For example, evidence points to the consumption of the starchy white seeds of Euryale ferox, a type of water lily which probably grew in clumps. Bulrushes were also probably harvested for their starchy rhizomes. Thistle seeds were probably gathered seasonally as they’re a good source of oils. Later in the year, roasted acorns would come on the menu, as they’re an excellent source of starch — although wild boars and rodents were also snatching them up. Water chestnuts were also gathered as well as olives — which remain a core ingredient of the Mediterranean diet even today.

It’s not really surprising if you think about it. Early humans were hunter-gatherers, so they probably ate whatever they could find throughout the year — and you don’t want to pass on any meal in the wild. Earlier work at the site also revealed that this resourcefulness also shone through when eating the animals they hunted, such as consuming elephant brain.

“It gives one a substantial element of security when particular sources become rare or absent,” Goren-Inbar added.

Still, while the work has shown us what plants they ate, it doesn’t help us determine the ratios of what they ate. There was likely no set balance between meat and plant, as our opportunistic ancestors ate whatever has available at the time. But obtaining meat is more calorie and time intensive than harvesting plants. Humans also need plant-derived nutrients supplemented by relatively little meat and fat to survive. So the people here were likely predominantly vegetarians. Not strictly vegetarian, but the wide array of plants found at the site suggest that they were a major part of human diet even before agriculture.

The site also shows some of the earliest traces of controlled fire use and of tools to process foods before cooking. Coupled with the knowledge of which plants were available by season, this could have allowed the hominids to inhabit the same site all year round.

The full paper “The plant component of an Acheulian diet at Gesher Benot Ya‘aqov, Israel” has been published in the journal PNAS.

About 100,000 years ago, people with autism were championed, not shunned, and may even have shaped human evolution

A University of York study found that roughly 100,000 years ago, primitive societies weren’t shunning people with autism — in fact, they were embraced as respected specialists in their groups for their unique abilities, allowing them to play a central part in human evolution.

Characteristics associated with the autistic specter, such as attention to detail and exceptional memory skills, can be identified in cave art.
Image credits University of York.

Humans are social animals. The life we know today, with roads, grocery shops, smartphones, is only possible because generation after generation, we’ve worked together, pooling our abilities to improve our collective lives. But it hasn’t always been the case. A study now estimates that this group-oriented attitude, known as collaborative morality, emerged through a subtle evolutionary shift some 100,000 years ago. By changing the focus from a person’s characteristics to their abilities, skills, and value to the group, collaborative morality opened up a social niche for one demographic likely ostracized before — people with autism.

Rather than being left behind, the team concludes that they assumed an important role in their social groups due to their unique traits. This, in the long run, allowed them to play a major part in human development and evolution.

“We are arguing that diversity, variation between people, was probably more significant in human evolutionary success than the characteristics of one person,“ said Penny Spikins, senior lecturer in the archaeology of human origins at the University of York and lead author of the study.

Geneticists believe that autism has a long evolutionary history in humans, likely appearing before the stone age. Today, fields such as engineering, mathematics, law, and other academia attract a high rate of people with autism, most notably Asperger’s syndrome. Coping with autism even in the modern world is difficult at best. But, the team argues that the traits which push modern individuals towards these fields provided a powerful advantage for the early social groups of a hunter-gatherer society.

For example, autism is often associated with heightened visual, olfactory, and taste perception, as well as exceptional memory skills (very useful in navigating the world without GPS). Asperger’s syndrome is associated with a heightened attention to detail (recognizing different plants or animals), understanding of systems (such as the behavior of prey), and increased focusing ability.

What these people lacked in social integration, they more than made up for it by sheer group utility.

“It was diversity between people which led to human success and it is particularly important as it gives you different specialised roles,” Spikins added.

In essence, they formed society’s first specialists, filling in roles that the others couldn’t perform as well. Neurosciencenews cites the example of a 2005 study of an elderly reindeer herder with autism from Siberia who “revealed a detailed memory of the parentage, medical history and character of each one of his 2,600 animals.” His knowledge made a huge contribution to the herd’s management and survival, having a direct effect on the group’s prosperity and well-being. Despite being “more comfortable in the presence of the reindeer than humans,” he was a well-respected and important person in the group, had a wife, a son, and even grandchildren. A person with similar abilities would have likely received a similar treatment in a group of early humans.

But finding verifiable proof of autism in archaeological records has always been tricky for researchers. There is no skeletal record of the condition. There is indirect proof to be had, however, in observing how other people that differ from the norm were integrated, as well as cave art or other artifacts from which autistic behavior can be inferred.

“There has been a long-standing debate about identifying traits of autism in Upper Palaeolithic cave art,” Dr Spikins said.

“We can’t say some of it was drawn by someone with autism, but there are traits that are identifiable to someone who has autism. It was also roughly at that time that we see collaborative morality emerging.”

The authors are asking the public to help them with an online survey of cognition and art perception, which you can fill out here.

The full paper, “Are there alternative adaptive strategies to human pro-sociality? The role of collaborative morality in the emergence of personality variation and autistic traits” has been published online in the journal Time and Mind.

Wild oats might be the first cereal consumed by humans, as early as the Stone Ages

When asked to imagine a stone-age meal, most of us probably envision a boulder with pieces of charred meat, fruit, nuts and berries, with some mushrooms and some leaves thrown in the mix. Bread, pastry and basically everything that includes cereal couldn’t possibly be baked or cooked by a civilization that considers agriculture far fetched science-fiction.

But that’s not necessarily true. While analysing starch grains on ancient stone grinding tools from southern Italy, Marta Mariotti Lippi at the University of Florence in Italy and her colleagues were able to date the earliest known human consumption of oats as far back as 32,000 years ago – way before farming took root.

Wall paintings in Grotta Paglicci, Italy, where the grindstones were found.
Image via newscientist

Humans from the Paleolithic ground wild oats for flour, which they may have later boiled or baked in a simple flatbread, the team reports. And it wasn’t just a culinary fluke either: our ancestors also seem to have heated the grains before grinding, to dry them out in the colder climate of their time. Lippi also notes that this would have made the grains easier to grind and less likely to spoil, suggesting extensive experience and experimentation with the foodstuff.

The process involved several stages and took a great deal of time, but the advantages outweighed the effort and invested time. The grains are nutritionally valuable, and grinding them into flour made them easier to transport, an important advantage for a nomadic people, she added.

Grinding stone from Grotta Paglicci, Italy
Image credit to Stefano Ricci

It makes sense. For agriculture to appear, humans needed an incentive – recognizing the nutritional value wild grains had for them, having access to large quantities of quality seeds may have determined us to settle down and start growing cereal. When you consider that our civilization’s advance over the last 10,000 years was largely fueled by the grains agriculture produces, the benefits of incorporating them into our diet becomes apparent, says archaeologist Matt Pope of University College London.

“There is a relationship there to be explored between diet, experimentation with processing plant food and cultural sophistication.”

This is another example of the advances made by Europe’s Gravettian culture, which produced technology, artwork and elaborate burial systems during the Upper Palaeolithic era, says Erik Trinkaus at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri.

“These people were described 15 years ago as ‘Hunters of the Golden Age’, and the details of that are still being filled out.”

Mariotti Lippi’s team hopes to continue studying ancient grind-stones to reveal more about the Paleolithic diet. Grinding stones go back a long way, says Trinkaus, and people may well have been pounding and eating various wild grains even earlier than 32,000 years ago.

“We’ve had evidence of the processing of roots and cattails, but here we’ve got a grain, and a grain that we’re very familiar with,” says Pope. “If we were to look more systematically for ground stone technology we would find this is a more widespread phenomenon.”

 

Fifteen ton Monolith found under the Mediterranean Sea, estimates put its carving at 9350 years ago

Zvi Ben-Avraham of Tel Aviv University and Emanuele Lodolo of the National Institute of Oceanography and Experimental Geophysics in Trieste, have discovered a monolith in deep water, resting on a spot that was once an island off the coast of Sicily. Their study has been published in the Journal of Archeological Science.

3-D perspective view of the high-resolution bathymetric map where the monolith has been discovered. No vertical exaggeration. Numbers indicate the locations of the corresponding rock samples.
Image source Journal of Archeological Science, supplied.

The 12-metre high, limestone monolithic structure is believed to have been carved by stone-age men some nine millennia ago. This enormous stone totem was cut using primitive tools from a rocky outcrop found a few hundred meters away from its current position in an age when the Mediterranean Sea was still a dry basin.

“It was cut and extracted as a single stone from the outer rectilinear ridge situated about 300 to the south, and then transported and possibly erected,” the study reads. ”From the size of the monolith, we may presume that it weighs about 15 tons.”

The bloc now rests, split in two, on the bed of the Mediterranean Sea in the Sicilian Channel -between Tunisia and Sicily- under 40 meters of water.

The two pieces of the monolith. Image source Journal of Archeological Science, supplied.

The two pieces of the monolith.
Image source Journal of Archeological Science, supplied.

The area was submerged about 9350 years ago (give or take 200 years) when the last Ice Age retreated. Before that time the area was believed to be something of an archipelago, with a string of islands linking Europe to North Africa via a shallow sea.

The most striking feature the carvers cut into the stone are three deep holes. Two of these are on the sides of the stone, the third passes through the stone at one end.

“There are no reasonable known natural processes that may produce these elements,” the team wrote in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The three holes cut into the monolith. Image source ndad

The three holes cut into the monolith.
Image source Journal of Archeological Science, supplied.

Archeologists believe that the monolith had a practical, rater than religious use to the community. The island it was created on, Pantelleria Vecchia Bank, housed a thriving people that traded by sea and fished, before it was swallowed up by the Mediterranean.

“Most likely the structure was functional to the settlement. These people were used to fishing and trading with the neighboring islands. It could have been some sort of a lighthouse or an anchoring system, for example,” Lodolo said.

Manufacturing, moving and erecting a monolith of such size required careful cutting work, extraction techniques and transportation. Such skills had not been previously associated with such an ancient people, the study says.

“The discovery of the submerged site in the Sicilian Channel may significantly expand our knowledge of the earliest civilisations in the Mediterranean basin and our views on technological innovation and development achieved by the Mesolithic inhabitants.”

This is a microphotograph of the tooth crown in occlusal view with indication of the surface covered by beeswax (within the yellow dotted line). (c) Bernardini F, Tuniz C, Coppa A, Mancini L, Dreossi D, et al.

Oldest dental filling is beeswax

Researchers have found what’s believed to be the oldest dental feeling in history, dating from the stone age. The find was made after the jaw-bone of a middle-aged man dating back from 6,500 years ago had a tooth filled with beeswax, pushing back early human dentistry.

This is a microphotograph of the tooth crown in occlusal view with indication of the surface covered by beeswax (within the yellow dotted line). (c) Bernardini F, Tuniz C, Coppa A, Mancini L, Dreossi D, et al.

This is a microphotograph of the tooth crown in occlusal view with indication of the surface covered by beeswax (within the yellow dotted line). (c) Bernardini F, Tuniz C, Coppa A, Mancini L, Dreossi D, et al.

The jaw-bone was discovered some 100 years ago in modern Slovenia, and most likely belonged to a man between the age of 24 and 30. The dental work gathered dust in a local museum ever since, without attracting a great deal of attention, until researchers gave it a closer look in more recent times. Evidence suggests that the filling was made around the time of the man’s death, however it’s yet unclear whether the beeswax filling was made prior or after death.

If the latter is the case, than the filling may have been ritualistic in nature.  However, the researchers  led by Federico Bernardini and Claudio Tuniz of the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Italy in cooperation with Sincrotrone Trieste and other institutions, have found that the tooth exhibits some severed wear. This may hint towards the greater possibility of the filling being used as a dental treatment, alleviating pain and desensitizing the vertical crack in the enamel and dentin layers of the tooth.

As for the causes which may have lead to the tooth decay, the researchers involved in the study believe non-alimentary activities, possibly such as weaving, generally performed by Neolithic females, might be a factor. Concerning ancient dental practices, this isn’t the first evidence of early tooth treatment. In 2001, a graveyard in Pakistan dating as far back as 9,000 years yielded up 11 human molars showing drill holes; no fillings were present however.

“This finding is perhaps the most ancient evidence of pre-historic dentistry in Europe and the earliest known direct example of therapeutic-palliative dental filling so far,” says co-author Federico Bernardini.

The findings were reported in the journal PLOS One.

The oldest dildo could come from the Stone Age

Sex toys have definitely come a long way these past years, but as it turns out, they’re probably not as modern as you’d be tempted to think. Last week, an object carved out of antler bone was excavated from Sweden and it made archaeologists scratch their head quite a lot… and chuckle: the object has an unmistakable look of a penis. Although scientists have yet to be sure about what it was used for, it’s hard not to jump to conclusions.

“Your mind and my mind wanders away to make this interpretation about what it looks like – for you and me, it signals this erected-penis-like shape,” said archaeologist Gšran Gruber of the National Heritage Board in Sweden, who worked on the excavation. “But if that’s the way the Stone Age people thought about it, I can’t say.”

Still, the resemblance is… uncanny.

“Without doubt anyone alive at the time of its making would have seen the penile similarities just as easily as we do today,” wrote Swedish archaeologist Martin Rundkvist on his blog

Another idea was that it was used as a tool, such as to “chip flakes of flint”, researchers suggested, because the… other end was quite sharp. Even more interesting, it could be used as this IN ADDITION to its sexual purpose, which would make things so much more interesting.

Either way, Martin Rundkvist sums things up quite nicely:

But without doubt anyone alive at the time of its making would have seen the penile similarities just as easily as we do today. If it is actually a pressure-flaker for fine flint knapping, then this would tell us something about how such work was conceptualised in terms of gender.

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