Tag Archives: stone

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

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

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

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

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

Stone and roll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stone-age humans mostly ate meat, then ran out of big animals

Stone age humans used to dine mainly on meat, a new study reports. It was only as megafauna (the huge animals of yore, like mammoths) died off that vegetables were increasingly making their way on the menu.

Image credits Uwe Ruhrmann.

A new paper offers a fresh and interesting interpretation of how humanity made the trek from hunting to agriculture. According to the findings, ancient humans were primarily carnivores, with game meat making up an important part of their diet. But as the species they hunted died out, vegetables and plant matter made up a growing part of their diets. These extinctions likely also led to the domestication of plants and animals, as our ancestors needed to secure sources of food.

Traditional cuisine

“So far, attempts to reconstruct the diet of stone-age humans were mostly based on comparisons to 20th-century hunter-gatherer societies,” explains Dr. Miki Ben-Dor of the Jacob M. Alkov Department of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, first author of the paper.

“This comparison is futile, however, because two million years ago hunter-gatherer societies could hunt and consume elephants and other large animals — while today’s hunter-gatherers do not have access to such bounty. The entire ecosystem has changed, and conditions cannot be compared. We decided to use other methods to reconstruct the diet of stone-age humans: to examine the memory preserved in our own bodies, our metabolism, genetics, and physical build. Human behavior changes rapidly, but evolution is slow. The body remembers.”

The team trawled through almost 400 scientific papers from various disciplines, trying to determine whether stone-age humans were carnivores or omnivores. They collected around 25 lines of evidence, mostly from papers dealing with genetics, metabolism, physiology, and morphology, that can help us determine this.

One of the tidbits cited by the team includes the acidity of the human stomach. This is “high when compared to omnivores and even to other predators”, they explain, which means our bodies have to spend extra energy to keep them so. But it also provides some protection from bacteria often found in meat, suggesting that this was an adaptation meant to help our ancestors eat meat. Ancient peoples hunted large animals whose meat would feed the group for days or weeks, meaning they often ate old meat laden with bacteria.

Another clue they list is the way our bodies store fat. Omnivores, they explain, tend to store fat in a relatively small number of large cells. Predators do it the other way around — humans also share this latter approach of using a large number of relatively small cells. A comparison with chimpanzees also shows that areas of our genetic code are inactivated to specialize us for a fat-rich diet (in chimps, these changes support a sugar-rich diet).

Archeological evidence also supports the meat-eating hypothesis. Isotope ratio studies on the bones of ancient humans, alongside evidence of how they hunted, suggests our ancestors specialized in hunting large or medium-sized animals that had a lot of fat. Large social predators today also hunt large animals and get over 70% of their energy from animal sources, the team writes, and this parallel suggests that early human groups acted a lot like hypercarnivores.

“Hunting large animals is not an afternoon hobby,” says Dr. Ben-Dor. “It requires a great deal of knowledge, and lions and hyenas attain these abilities after long years of learning. Clearly, the remains of large animals found in countless archaeological sites are the result of humans’ high expertise as hunters of large animals.”

“Many researchers who study the extinction of the large animals agree that hunting by humans played a major role in this extinction — and there is no better proof of humans’ specialization in hunting large animals. Most probably, like in current-day predators, hunting itself was a focal human activity throughout most of human evolution. Other archaeological evidence — like the fact that specialized tools for obtaining and processing vegetable foods only appeared in the later stages of human evolution — also supports the centrality of large animals in the human diet, throughout most of human history.”

The findings go against the grain of our previous hypotheses on how humans evolved. Previously, it was assumed that humans’ dietary flexibility allowed them to adapt to a wide range of situations and environments, giving them an evolutionary edge; but the current findings suggest that we evolved largely as predators instead. That’s not to mean that they ate only meat — there is well-documented evidence of plant-eating during this time — but plants only gained a central part in their diets in the latter days of the stone age.

Stone tools specialized for processing plants started appearing around 85,000 years ago in Africa and about 40,000 years ago in Europe and Asia, the team adds, suggesting plants were increasingly being eaten. The researchers also explain that such tools show an increase in local uniqueness over time, a process similar to that seen in 20th-century hunter-gatherer societies. In contrast, during the time when the team believes humans acted more like apex predators, stone tools maintained very high degrees of similarity and continuity regardless of local ecological conditions.

“Our study addresses a very great current controversy — both scientific and non-scientific. It is hard to convince a devout vegetarian that his/her ancestors were not vegetarians, and people tend to confuse personal beliefs with scientific reality,” adds Prof. Ran Barkai, also of the Jacob M. Alkov Department of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, and a co-author of the paper.

“Our study is both multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary. We propose a picture that is unprecedented in its inclusiveness and breadth, which clearly shows that humans were initially apex predators, who specialized in hunting large animals. As Darwin discovered, the adaptation of species to obtaining and digesting their food is the main source of evolutionary changes, and thus the claim that humans were apex predators throughout most of their development may provide a broad basis for fundamental insights on the biological and cultural evolution of humans.”

The paper “The evolution of the human trophic level during the Pleistocene” has been published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Ring of ancient, massive shafts found near Stonehenge

In archeology, sometimes you can teach an old site new tricks, it seems. New research reports the discovery of at least 20 huge shafts forming a circle at Durrington Walls, the site of a stone-age village about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from Stonehenge.

The position of the shafts in relation to Durrington Walls and the village of Durrington, UK.
Image credits Vincent Gaffney et al., (2020), intarch.

The discovery of this major, buried monument could help us better understand how the iconic stone circle in England came to be, or what its purpose was.

Ancient digs

“The size of the shafts and circuit surrounding Durrington Walls is currently unique,” says Vince Gaffney, an archaeologist at the University of Bradford and corresponding author of the paper describing the findings.

“It demonstrates the significance of Durrington Walls Henge, the complexity of the monumental structures within the Stonehenge landscape, and the capacity and desire of Neolithic communities to record their cosmological belief systems in ways, and at a scale, that we had never previously anticipated.”

When the shafts were first found, the team assumed they were natural structures, formed by water flowing through the chalky subsurface. However, remote sensing and sampling quickly showed that this wasn’t the case, and that the shafts were built by human hands.

Researchers say the shafts appear to have been dug around 4,500 years ago. Exactly what their purpose was remains unclear, but the team suspects they served a religious purpose, for example acting as a boundary around a circular monument known as the Durrington Walls henge.

The shafts are, on average, 864 metres from Durrington Walls henge, forming a circle around 2 kilometers in diameter. They are over 10 meters (32 feet) in diameter and 5 meters (16 feet) deep. Although 20 have been discovered so far, there are likely more to be found at the site.

“When these pits were first noted it was thought they might be natural features—solution hollows in the chalk,” says Gaffney. But geophysical surveys carried out at the side showed “there was a pattern on a massive scale.”

Britain is a hotbed for archaeology. Stonehenge, built between 3000 B.C. and 1600 B.C., is iconic across much of the world and one of the country’s top tourist attractions, and a feat of engineering during its day — but it’s by no means the country’s only stone circle. These structures are thousands of years old and the reasons why they were built are still poorly understood It was likely a religious or spiritual place, or a means of keeping track of the seasons.

Among the more exciting implications of this finding is that it betrays a relatively advanced understanding of mathematics, without which the ancient builders couldn’t have produced a neat and organized circle on the scale seen here.

The paper “A Massive, Late Neolithic Pit Structure associated with Durrington Walls Henge” has been published in the journal Internet Archaeology.

Pumice: the floaty, foamy, fragile stone and its uses

Often found in cosmetics shops and beauty tip articles, this funnily-named rock has a very violent origin.

Image credits Kai Schreiber / Flickr.

Pumice is a lightly colored rock with a very foamy structure. It’s so porous, in fact, that most specimens can float on water (until they eventually become waterlogged and sink). The secret to its structure lies in the birth of pumice: violent volcanic eruptions.

Out with a bang!

Some volcanoes pop off quite violently. It happens to those whose magma is very thick, viscous, and has a high content of volatiles (mostly water and some carbon dioxide). During such an explosive eruption, highly-pressurized magma inside the volcano is ejected to the surface or underwater. Here, it rapidly cools and depressurizes. The whole process is a lot like throwing a mind in a bottle of coke, and at this stage, the lava looks a lot like the foam. The volatiles inside it bubble up as the lava cools and hardens, creating pumice.

So you can think of pumice as being frozen foam du lava. Its very name shares a root with the Latin word ‘spumam’ (‘foam’).

Pumice stone is usually created by underwater volcanoes. Particularly large eruptions can spawn whole islands or rafts of the stuff, but even humbler events can generate enough material to threaten cargo ships. Under certain conditions it can also form in subaerial (i.e. not-underwater) settings. If the source magma has a high level of volatile materials, a finer-grained variety known as pumicite can form instead. Less viscous magmas, in which gases can form bubbles more readily, create denser (and non-floaty) scoria. However, if there’s no eruption, there won’t be any pumice — it’s an extrusive ‘igneous’ mineraloid, so all deposits are centered around areas of current or past volcanic activity.

Image credits Jon Zander / Wikimedia.

However, if there’s no eruption, there won’t be any pumice — it’s an extrusive ‘igneous’ mineraloid — so all deposits are centered around areas of current or past volcanic activity.

Pumice stone isn’t exactly a rock in the strictest geological sense of the word because it has no internal crystalline structure. It cools too quickly for its atoms to arrange themselves the way they’d like to, so it has an overall amorphous (disorganized), glass-like structure. It can contain crystals, but these will be embedded in the amorphous matrix of the pumice — its exact make-up depends on the nature of its source magma. Instead, pumice is considered to be a mineraloid or a type of volcanic glass.

So let’s see what it’s good for.


Pumice soap.
Image Patrick Reijnders / Flickr.

It’s probably best-known for its cosmetic uses. Glass is quite hard, and volcanic glass isn’t any different, so it’s a very good abrasive.

The simplest way to employ a piece of raw pumice stone is to soften an area of calloused skin with warm water and then gently rub the stone on it to scrape it off. In our gentler, modern times, powdered pumice stone is often added to soaps or body gels to improve their cleaning power, or in creams and beauty products meant to exfoliate the skin. It’s a completely natural, generally chemically-inert, and has a neutral PH; it’s also more eco-friendly than synthetic alternatives such as plastic microbeads, making it quite popular in the public eye.

Cleaning, abrasives

Household cleaning products like scouring pastes and powders can also include pumice, which helps them better scrape off hardened, encrusted nastiness.

Industrial settings rely on pumice as mild abrasives in tasks where a particular surface needs scrubbing with a gentle touch. Pumice and its powders see use in glass polishing, the cleaning and texturing of electronic circuit boards, the cleaning of lithographic plates, the removal of surface oxide layers in metal surfaces meant for electroplating, the buffing of leather and fine woods, and as a tumbling agent for metal and plastic parts. The crumbly nature of pumice together with its high hardness means it can be processed without it losing effectiveness on tough surfaces.

In dentistry

Because it’s mildly abrasive and non-reactive, pumice powder is mixed into many whitening toothpastes and teeth polish products. This tradition runs back in excess of 4,000 years, with ancient Egyptians first employing the mineraloid in this role. Today, the powder sees use in dentistry as a cleaning and polishing agent, and for its antibacterial properties. The powder is also used to prepare teeth for resin fillings.

For water filtration and retention

Zoomed-in structure of pumice.
Image via Pxfuel.

Pumice can act as a pretty good filtration method due to its porous internal structure. Some advantages of pumice as a filtration medium are its effectiveness in removing particles, low filtration bed expansion, and relatively low cost of maintenance or replacement of the pumice. Being non-toxic and inert means it doesn’t dissolve or change the taste of whatever liquid it’s filtering.

The mineraloid is also quite effective at scrubbing biological material (such as hydrogen sulfide, mercaptans, and other volatile organics) from wastewater. The quality of the pumice, its production, processing, and transport has a big impact on the quality of the final filters, however. If you do plan to build a pumice filter, make sure to wash the material thoroughly beforehand.

Mixing in pumice with soils can help enhance its natural water-filtration abilities, and this approach has been used in low-impact ecological projects to prevent contamination and runoff from entering streams, lakes, or the water table.

Pumice stone can also be used as a substrate or mixed in with soils for plants as it can store moisture when the plants are overwatered and gradually release it as the soil dries up. Furthermore, its porous nature means it improves water and gas circulation through the soil, giving plants easier access to the nutrients they need — this is especially important in compact soils with lots of clay or for hydroponics. Golf courses often use pumice stone to maintain grass cover and the shape of the landscape despite the heavy traffic they see.

As a chemical and mechanical absorbent

The structure of pumice makes it very good at absorbing liquids, kind of like a mineral sponge. With adequate processing, this ability can increase quite dramatically. As such, pumice sees use in a wide range of tasks where liquids need to be contained, ranging from kitty litter to dry petroleum/chemical absorbents.

One of the more niche uses of the mineraloid is in bomb mitigation. Explosions cause damage through high-velocity shock waves that blast objects or structures with immense mechanical energy. In order to protect yourself from the explosion, you need to either stand far away (the energy dissipates with distance) or to use it up (bodies absorb the energy as they are deformed).

As we’ve seen earlier, pumice is quite hard, and it has a very complex internal structure. Breaking and squashing this structure into a compact block takes a lot of energy, as the pores inside the stone get compacted in sequence (i.e. the blast needs to deform the pumice throughout its volume). All in all, this makes pumice a very effective blast mitigation compound, and it sees use in bomb encasements to prevent damage from accidental detonations.

Paints, rubber, concrete

Pumice aggregate concrete.
Image in the public domain.

When mixed into paints and coatings as a filler, pumice helps them better retain color over time, makes them more resistant, and increases resistance to burnishing, staining, and scrubbing.

It can also be mixed into rubber. Pumice-reinforced tires have better performance of ice and snow, as the material helps increase friction; it’s useful in rubber abrasive wheels for the same reason. You’re overwhelmingly likely to have handled pumice rubber before — pencil erasers are made of this material as the mineral helps remove graphite from paper.

Finally, pumice aggregate concrete, which has been in use since the ancient Romans, offers much the same mechanical properties of regular concrete but with up to one-third reduction in weight (depending on the composition). Pumice concretes, however, have improved thermal, acoustic, and elastic properties compared to regular concrete.

I really like pumice because, on first sight, it doesn’t look like much. It’s brittle and untastefully light for a stone. But in a way, it’s a very good allegory for scientific knowledge: if you take the time to learn about it, even something that seems bland and uninteresting can whiten your teeth, clear up chemical spills, and stunt explosions all at the same time.

Oxen, the ‘robots of the late Neolithic’ jump-started economic inequality

New research is looking at the birth of economic inequality — and says it came riding the ox.

Image credits Jan Nijman.

Research at the Santa Fe Institute reveals how the deep and lasting economic divisions that took root in Eurasia around seven thousand years ago can be traced back to the adoption of the ox-drawn plow. This advancement, the team explains, decoupled productivity from human labor, which led to the social strata of haves and have-nots.

State of the cart

“Ox drawn plows were the robots of the late Neolithic,” explains co-author Samuel Bowles, an economist at the Santa Fe Institute.

“The effect was the same as today: growing economic disparities between those who owned the robots and those whose work the robots displaced.”

The team charts the surge of prehistoric inequality that sprouted around seven thousand years ago in societies across Eurasia in a new study. The economic origins of this surge, they explain, lies in the adoption of ox-drawn plows. Their results conflict with the long-held view that the transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture led to the rise of inequality.

According to the team, it wasn’t agriculture that caused it — it was a technology that made land more valuable and labor less.

In the first of two companion papers, the team presents new statistical methods of comparing wealth inequality needed for the ancient world — ones that can be applied to different kinds of wealth, societies, and regions, at different times throughout history. The team’s analysis included data from 150 archaeological sites and revealed a steep increase in inequality in Eurasia around 4,000 BC. That year is important as it’s several millennia after the advent of agriculture. This, along with the fact that the team “observed that some societies who adopted agriculture were remarkably egalitarian for thousands of years,” suggests agriculture didn’t cause the rise in inequality.

“The surprise here isn’t so much that inequality takes off later on, it’s that it stayed low for such a long time,” says lead author Amy Bogaard, an archaeologist based at the University of Oxford who is also an external professor at the Santa Fe Institute.

The team explains that agriculture around 4,000 BC (at least in Europe and the Middle East) revolved around patchworks of small garden plots, similar to today’s allotments in the UK.

Families would work together to grow crops on these plots, mostly cereals and pulses. Work was done by hand — the soil was tilled using hoes, sometimes using unspecialized cattle such as aging milk cows, and the crops needed to be harvested by hand. Take into consideration that the plots also needed constant surveillance to protect them from wild animals, and you get quite the busy landscape. In effect, how much work a family was able to put out limited how much food they were able to produce.

Where the cow comes in

Image credits Peter Wieser.

However, those farmers who could raise and maintain specialized cattle (plow oxen) could work much more land — a single farmer with an ox team could cultivate ten times the land area of a farmer that only used a hoe. In time, their greater production capability gave them access to more resources, which they used to acquire more land and oxen. The team explains that those who owned land and ox teams also began to primarily work with more stress-tolerant crops, like barley or certain kinds of wheat, further reducing the amount of labor they needed to put in.

By the second millenium BC, farming landscapes had transitioned to large fields, and societies were deeply divided between landowners (who passed their holdings to their children), and land-poor or landless families.

How this transition took place is detailed in the team’s second accompanying paper. It shows a key distinction between farming systems where human labor was the limiting factor for production versus those where human labor was more expendable, and land became the limiting factor.

“So long as labor was the key input for production, inequality was limited because families did not differ much in how much labor they could deploy to produce crops,” explains co-author Mattia Fochesato, an economist at Bocconi University. “But when the most important input became land, differences between families widened because land and other material forms of wealth could be accumulated and transmitted over generations.””By chance, or force, or hard work, some families came to have a lot more than others. Then radical inequality arose.”

One consequence of inequality, Bogaard notes, is that the most unequal societies tended to be more fragile and susceptible to political upheaval or climate change. The team cautions that their findings, although dealing with ancient events, are still very much relevant today.

“If there are opportunities to monopolize land or other key assets in a production system, people will. And if there aren’t institutional or other redistributive mechanisms, inequality is always where we’re going to end up,” Bogaard says. “There are many other kinds of assets now that we should think about people’s capacity to own and benefit from [apart from land].”

The paper “Comparing ancient inequalities: the challenges of comparability, bias, and precision” has been published in the journal Antiquity.

Earliest evidence of milk consumption comes from Stone Age Britain

Researchers, led by archaeologists at the University of York, have found the earliest evidence of milk consumption ever observed in the teeth of prehistoric British farmers.

Image credits Myriam Zilles.

The team identified a milk protein called beta lactoglobulin (BLG) in the mineralized dental plaque of seven individuals who lived around 6,000 years ago. The findings will help improve our understanding of when humans developed lactose persistence (LP), the ability to digest lactose in milk. It’s also the earliest confirmed sighting of the BLG molecule so far.

Luckily they didn’t brush their teeth

“The fact that we found this protein in the dental calculus of individuals from three different Neolithic sites may suggest that dairy consumption was a widespread dietary practice in the past,” says lead author Dr. Sophy Charlton, from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York.

Dental plaque, while not something you want to have, can be used to gain insight into the diets of ancient people. The material traps proteins from food, through saliva, which are then mineralized in plaque or tartar. The samples of dental plaque analyzed in this study are the oldest to be investigated for protein content, the team explains.

The Neolithic period in Britain ran from 4,000 to 2,400 BC and saw the transition from hunter-gatherer communities to farming, mostly revolving around the growing of wheat and barley and the domestication of animals such as cows, sheep, pigs, and goats. This time also saw the emergence of complex cultural practices such as the construction of monumental and burial sites.

The remains used in this study come from three different Neolithic sites in England: Hambledon Hill, Hazleton North (both in the south of England), and Banbury Lane (in the East Midlands). Individuals from all three sites had milk proteins from goats, cows, and sheep, suggesting that multiple domesticated species were reared at the same time.

“It would be a fascinating avenue for further research to look at more individuals and see if we can determine whether there are any patterns as to who was consuming milk in the archaeological past — perhaps the amount of dairy products consumed or the animals utilised varied along the lines of sex, gender, age or social standing,” says Dr. Charlton.

Finding these proteins in the ancient teeth is particularly exciting, as previous genetic work has suggested that people living at the time did not yet have the ability to digest lactose.

Overall, it means that the ancient farmers either consumed milk in small amounts or processed it into foods such as cheese (which removes most of the lactose). Lactose persistence, our ability to consume milk into adulthood, was the result of a mutation in the genes encoding production of lactase, which breaks down lactose. How and why we evolved this ability is of quite some interest to researchers, as milk and dairy products played an important part in past diets, as well as those of today — and this study gives us a better idea of when the mutation occurred, the conditions that helped it appear, and how people dealt with lactose intolerance before it.

“Because drinking any more than very small amounts of milk would have made people from this period really quite ill, these early farmers may have been processing milk, perhaps into foodstuffs such as cheese, to reduce its lactose content,” says Dr. Charlton.

“Identifying more ancient individuals with evidence of BLG in the future may provide further insights into milk consumption and processing in the past, and increase our understanding of how genetics and culture have interacted to produce lactase persistence.

The paper “New insights into Neolithic milk consumption through proteomic analysis of dental calculus” has been published in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.

Small blade.

In the stone-age people recycled flint on purpose to produce precision blades

Research from Tel Aviv University (TAU) shows that recycling may, in fact, be an ancient tradition. Prehistoric humans deliberately “recycled” discarded or broken flint tools 400,000 years ago to create smaller, more specialized tools.

Small blade.

Tuber cutting with a small recycled flake, alongside a close-up.
Image credits Flavia Venditti / AFTAU.

In collaboration with members from the University of Rome, researchers from TAU’s Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures used two different spectrometry methods to analyze small, peculiar tools that have been uncovered at prehistoric sites throughout Europe and North Africa. Their edges show signs of use, the team reports, and were likely used for in food preparation. This theory is also supported by micro residue found embedded in the edges.

Recycling, before it was cool

“Recycling was a way of life for these people,” says Prof. Ran Barkai from TAU, the paper’s corresponding author. “It has long been a part of human evolution and culture. Now, for the first time, we are discovering the specific uses of the recycled ‘tool kit’ at Qesem Cave.”

The site of Qesem Cave is located just outside Tel Aviv. It was discovered during road construction projects which were undergoing in the area in 2000. Together with caves in Spain and North Africa and digs in Italy and Israel, Qesem produced the tiny blades the team analyzed in the study. Along with other material retrieved from these sites, the tiny blades show signs that prehistoric humans recycled broken tools, or those that were no longer needed, into tinier but more specialized blades.

Due to these cave’s microclimates, the flint tools were preserved in excellent condition, along with residue material from their use embedded in their edges — allowing for their proper analysis. The researchers used two techniques to do so: Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) and scanning electron microscopy coupled with energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (SEM-EDX).

“We used microscopic and chemical analyses to discover that these small and sharp recycled tools were specifically produced to process animal resources like meat, hide, fat and bones,” explains Dr. Flavia Venditti of the TAU and lead author of the study.

“We also found evidence of plant and tuber processing, which demonstrated that they were also part of the hominids’ diet and subsistence strategies.”

Signs of use were found on the outer edges, the team reports, indicative of cutting activity. Material on the blades suggests that they were used in activities related to the consumption of food: butchery activities and tuber, hide and bone processing.

The team went to great pains to meticulously analyze the tools to “demonstrate that [they] were used in tandem with other types of utensils,” according to Dr Venditti. This would suggest that the recycling was a deliberate process, used specifically to produce a more specialized tool to be used as part of a larger kit.

“The research also demonstrates that the Qesem inhabitants practiced various activities in different parts of the cave: The fireplace and the area surrounding it were eventually a central area of activity devoted to the consumption of the hunted animal and collected vegetal resources, while the so-called ‘shelf area’ was used to process animal and vegetal materials to obtain different by-products,” she adds.

The study touches on two hot topics in the field of stone-age archaeology, looking at both the role of small tools and that of recycling in prehistoric communities. The findings show that recycling was an established, on-going practice at Qesem Cave rather than a more opportunistic process. The people in this area had ample access to flint, the team also notes, so it wasn’t a question of scarcity. Rather, it seems that this group of people deliberately used tool recycling to produce these tiny blades because it was the most effective way to do so. The blades had to be tiny yet sharp, as they were used in tasks where “precision and accuracy were essential,” Venditti concludes

The paper “Recycling for a purpose in the late Lower Paleolithic Levant: Use-wear and residue analyses of small sharp flint items indicate a planned and integrated subsistence behavior at Qesem Cave (Israel)” has been published in the journal Journal of Human Evolution.


Kidney stones form like any rock, may hold day-by-day history of your body’s health

Kidney stones are actual stones, in the geologic sense of the word, new research reveals.


Fluorescence micrograph of a human kidney stone.
Image credits Mayandi Sivaguru et al., 2018, Nature.

The combined efforts of an interdisciplinary team — which included a geologist, a microscopist, and a medical doctor — revealed a surprising trait of kidney stones. These lumps of matter, traditionally believed to be homogenous elements, actually form layer-by-layer, just like any other natural or artificial mineralization.

More crucially, however, the team reports that kidney stones partially dissolve and regrow throughout their lifetime — a discovery that may unlock new, noninvasive treatments for these hurtful pebbles.

Kidney stones don’t break your bones

Kidney stones are built up from calcium-rich layers that bear a striking resemblance to other mineralizations in nature, such as those forming coral reefs, Roman aqueducts, stalactites or stalagmites, structures associated with hot springs, or subsurface oil fields, the team reports. This goes directly against the common-held wisdom that kidney stones are unique among all other rocks in nature, being homogenous and never dissolving.

“Contrary to what doctors learn in their medical training, we found that kidney stones undergo a dynamic process of growing and dissolving, growing and dissolving,” explains University of Illinois geology and microbiology professor Bruce Fouke, co-lead researcher of the paper.

“This means that one day we may be able to intervene to fully dissolve the stones right in the patient’s kidney, something most doctors today would say is impossible.”

The team’s findings were made possible by new imaging technology. This allowed the authors to look at the stones in better detail than ever before, and also employ a wider array of light- and electron-based microscopy for the task. To give you an idea of how extensive the microscopy effort was as part of this research, the methods applied by the team included: bright-field, phase-contrast, polarization, confocal, fluorescence and electron microscopy, several combinations of these methods, topped off with X-ray spectroscopy.

What’s really exciting to me personally, given my background in geophysics, is that many of these imaging techniques are traditionally the domain of geology and other earth sciences. While common-place in such fields, they haven’t really been used to study mineralizations in living organisms, such as kidney- or gallstones, Fouke remarks.

The team’s use of ultraviolet light during imaging was also particularly helpful, he adds, as the technique makes certain minerals or proteins fluoresce at the right wavelengths — allowing for quick and accurate identification of these elements under the microscope. A relatively new technology, Airyscan super-resolution microscopy, also allowed the team to snap some incredible, 140-nanometer resolution shots of the kidney stones’ structures:

Kidney stones microscopy.

COD= calcium oxalate dihydrate; COM= calcium oxalate monohydrate; UA= uric acid; HSE= historic sequence of events.
Image credits Mayandi Sivaguru et al., 2018, Nature.

“Instead of being worthless crystalline lumps, kidney stones are a minute-by-minute record of the health and functioning of a person’s kidney,” Fouke explains.

The images reveal that kidney stones start out as tiny crystals of calcium oxalate dihydrate, a mineral known as Weddellite. These crystals may lose some water, depending on conditions in the body, transitioning into calcium oxalate monohydrate (mineral Whewellite). And yes, they do sound a bit like Pokemon names.

In the early phases of kidney stone formation, these crystals bind together into irregular clumps. Organic matter and other mineral species later cake onto this core in successive layers, creating an outer shell. The process is very well known to geologists.

The presence of these layers also allowed the team to recreate the developmental history of the kidney stone, just like you would with a geological structure. Gaps in these layers point to certain parts of the stones — usually the interior dihydrate crystals — having dissolved in the past, the team reports. These gaps were subsequently filled, usually by calcium oxalate monohydrate crystals.

Kidney stone formation.

Image credits Mayandi Sivaguru et al., 2018, Nature.

“In geology, when you see layers, that means that something older is underneath something younger,” Fouke said. “One layer may be deposited over the course of very short to very long periods of time.”

“Therefore, just one rock represents a whole series of events over time that are critical to deciphering the history of kidney stone disease,” Fouke said.

The research shows that, far from being a single lump of stable crystal, kidney stones are actually a hodge-podge of whatever minerals and organic substances happened to trail along the kidney during the stone’s lifetime. They are also very dynamic, evolving continuously, potentially encasing a history of the body’s going-ons over time.

“Given these rough estimates, each nano-layer may have formed on a sub-daily basis of hours or in some cases even minutes,” the paper reads.

“If correct, kidney stones could be ‘read’ in the future under clinical conditions as an unprecedented ultrahigh-sensitivity record of in vivo human renal function and dynamic biogeochemical reactions.”

The paper “Geobiology reveals how human kidney stones dissolve in vivo” has been published in the journal Nature.

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.

Treasure trove of stone tools found in Puget Sound

Is there anything you can’t buy in today’s shopping malls? The list must be pretty short already, but now we can cut artifacts off it. Archaeologists in Redmond US., working on a routine survey to get the green light for a construction site near a mall in the area, found thousands of stone tools estimated to be at least 10,000 years old, “The Seattle Times” reported.

It started off as a routine dig, but it quicky became one of the most important finds in the area when the archaeologists dug deeper.
Image via seattletimes

The lot is situated on the shores of Bear Creek, a tributary to the Sammamish River, near Redmond Town Center in Redmond, Washington. It was already surveyed back in 2009, during a project to restore salmon habitat in the creek (they were confined in a rock-lined channel decades before). The findings then were an unremarkable assortment of artifacts, reported archaeologist Robert Kopperl of SWCA Environmental Consultants, who led the field investigations.

This time however, the team dug deeper, and found a foot-thick layer of peat. Preserved in the remnants of this ancient marsh, the team found more than 4,000 stone flakes, scrapers, awls and spear points crafted by the ancient inhabitants of the region.

“We were pretty amazed,” said Robert Kopperl.“This is the oldest archaeological site in the Puget Sound lowland with stone tools.”

Carbon dating showed that the peat was at least 10,000 years old, making the tools some of the oldest found in Puget Sound. The site appears to have been occupied by small groups of people who were making and repairing stone tools, said Kopperl.

Preliminary chemical analysis of one of the tools showed traces of the food the stone age people of Puget Sound were eating, including bison, deer, bear, sheep and salmon.

Archaeologists are very excited about the find, and it’s easy to see why: this treasure trove of artifacts is already offering fresh insight into a time when the last ice age was drawing to a close and humans shared the land with prehistoric bison and mammoths, that roamed freely and in large numbers in Western Washington, and it promises to reveal much more until all the artifacts are analyzed.

“We knew right away that it was a pretty significant find,” said Washington State Historic Preservation Officer Allyson Brooks.

Kopperl and his colleagues published their initial analysis earlier this year in the journal PaleoAmerica. He’ll discuss the findings Saturday morning in a presentation sponsored by the Redmond Historical Society.

The largest stone carving lies on the descent from the raised platform of the Outer Court, heading north towards the Inner Court, behind the Hall of Preserved Harmony.

How to build Beijng’s Forbidden City with 100-tonne stone blocks tens of miles away


(c) Wiki Commons

This “How to” may not be that relevant in modern times, but in the XIV and XV century, I could think of a few civilizations that would have loved to learn how Chinese engineers moved huge volumes of rock from quarries tens of miles away. Such blocks of stone, weighing at least 100 tonnes, were used to build the splendid Forbidden City, which resides in the traditional Beijing center. There were no high power machines during that time, and using brute force alone meant that construction would take forever. Instead, historical documents and a recent computation made by scientists at the University of Science and Technology Beijing, show that raw material for the palace was brought  on wooden sledges along ice roads. Basically, the Chinese engineers took advantage of natural lubrication conditions.

One of the biggest attractions at the Forbidden Palace is the “Large Stone Carving” that graces the stairway to the Hall of Preserving Harmony. Impressive and beautiful figurines and decorations are littered throughout the stone, however the huge monolith is one single block, and it weighs no less then 272 metric tonnes. How on earth did they move this kind of material, considering it came from tens and tens of miles away? Maybe even farther.

The wheel was invented in China well before that, since the 4th century BC actually. Even in the late 1500s, however, Chinese wheeled vehicles could not carry loads exceeding around 86 tonnes, says Thomas Stone, a fluid mechanicist at Princeton University in New Jersey, and a member of the team that performed the study. For great loads,  the use of wooden sledges was required.

Imagine whole tree trunks the size say of a telegraph pole lined up one after the other. The stone, pulled by many men and burden animals, would slide along these tree trunks. In practice, however, this theory is met with a lot of challenges. This would only work on smooth, hard surface to prevent the rollers from becoming mired.  So, again, how did they do it?

Building a palace one (big) stone at a time

Photo by Jakub Hałun.

Luckily, the Chinese kept a lot of documents for their projects be them agriculture, arts or, of course, construction. The researchers found a 500-year-old Chinese record claiming that in 1557,  112-metric-tonne stone was transported over 28 days to the Forbidden City from a quarry by ice sledge. This quarry was located 70 kilometers away from Beijing.

The team of scientists decided to test this historical documentation and they computed the friction, power and delivery time for the same amount of load under various scenarios. Dragging a 112-tonne sledge over bare ground would require more than 1,500 men, however the   same sled across bare ice or across wet, wooden rails would require 330 men to pull. Here’s the interesting part, though: when a thin film of water is poured on top of the ice during the winter when most transports would take place,  fewer than 50 men would be needed to tow the load. Lubricated in this fashion, the stones would have slid along at a stately 0.18 miles (0.29 kilometers) an hour, the analysis finds.\

“I’m not surprised. If you get enough people, enough rope, and enough time, you can move just about anything,” says archaeologist Charles Faulkner of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who was not on the study team. “And they had a lot of time. And a lot of people.”

And certainly, we couldn’t have expected anything less from the people who built the Great Wall of China. Findings and results were reported in a paper published in the journal  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences .