🧐 Ancient Beat #34: Dolmens, Neanderthal communities, and 1,000-mile social networks
Hi folks! Welcome to issue #34 of Ancient Beat. My wife has been suggesting (strongly) that this newsletter needs some images… and wives always know best. So you’ll find a sprinkling of images in this issue — hope you enjoy them! They’re all in the paid portion this time around, but I’ll add them to the free portion too when there’s a good one to share.
Anywho, here’s the latest ancient news. 👇
🗞 Ancient News: Top 5
Ancient DNA Provides First Insights into Neanderthal Family — A DNA study of 11 Neanderthals found in Chagyrskaya Cave in Siberia is offering a snapshot into their family life. They identified a father, his teenage daughter, a man related to the father, and two second-degree relatives (possibly an aunt and her nephew). Two other Neanderthals found nearby in another cave are not part of the same family. The research supports the theory that Neanderthals lived in small groups of about 20 people. And it shows that they may have practiced patrilocality, or female exogamy, where males stay and (some) females leave to join other families, as at least 60% of females were from other communities. There also seems to have been some inbreeding. But it’s important to note that the fossils analyzed in this study are from late in the timeline of Neanderthals, so these findings may only relate to a specific culture living at a time close to their extinction. Indeed, a few years back, a paper found that they lived in larger groups.
Black Death Left a Mark on Human Genome — Analysis of DNA from the Middle Ages identified genetic changes that took place during the Black Death to give Europeans a genetic edge against the plague. The genes that were “positively selected” involved skin pigmentation, inflammation, and susceptibility to autoimmune diseases, as well as genes with code for proteins that latch onto harmful bacteria. According to Douglas Golenbock, “The side effect [of the Black Death] seems to be that the Europeans have a more proinflammatory immune system than those who have never experienced Black Death.” So the genetic changes helped people at the time, but they may have come at a cost to their descendants. And this may be why Europeans respond differently to some diseases than others do.
Drone Photos Reveal an Early Mesopotamian City Made of Marsh Islands — Ground penetrating radar from a drone indicated that the Mesopotamian city of Lagash, which flourished between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq almost 5,000 years ago, consisted of four marsh islands connected by waterways. There was no geographical or ritual center, which is odd since most Mesopotamian cities usually expanded out from temples or administrative districts to farmlands. Instead, each island was a sector of the city, and each had its own economic practices. One was criss-crossed with canals, which would have been good for fishing and collecting reeds for building. Two islands showing evidence of gated walls, large kilns, and carefully laid out streets might have been where crops and pottery were produced. And another was dominated by a temple. Remains of footbridges between marsh islands can also be seen in the drone footage. These findings line up with previous studies that suggested Lagash was built on raised mounds in marshes.
Excavations Uncover the Treasures of the Ancient Inhabitants of the Taman Peninsula — A cache of artifacts has been found in a warrior’s burial on the Taman Peninsula of Russia. One of the items is an ornate Iranian sword from between the 4th and 6th centuries. Other high-status pieces include glass jugs, wooden and metal utensils, and wooden boxes filled with cloth. The researchers believe the sword suggests a connection with the Sassanian or Neo-Persian Empire, possibly as a military trophy or diplomatic gift. According to a statement, “There is no doubt that this person was a representative of the elite of Phanagoria and was a bearer of the military aristocratic culture of the Bosporan Kingdom in the Migration Period.” They also excavated a 1st-century burial of a woman with a silver medallion on her chest, with zodiac signs and an image of Aphrodite. It also contained a red clay jug, scissors, bronze mirror, and jewelry including pendants in the form of doves, which relate to the cult of Aphrodite. Researchers believe the woman was either a priestess or a worshiper.
Neolithic Obsidian Artifacts from Iran Analyzed — A new study of 12,000-year-old obsidian artifacts that were unearthed 50 years ago at the sites of Ali Kosh and Chagha Sefic in Iran showed that the artifacts came from seven different places, including a volcano located an incredible 1,000 miles away. That’s a long way for something to travel. A computer model showed that there were probably larger social networks and more communities between these sources and the settlement than was previously thought.
That’s it for the free Top 5! If you’re a free subscriber and you’d like to read another 23 headlines and 6 pieces of content covering archaic hominin diets, early human plant knowledge, new discoveries in Iraq, a megalithic dolmen in Ireland, ancient scribal culture, Thor's hammer, a massive Balbal statue, and more, sign up for the paid plan below.
🗞 Ancient News: Deep Dive
Ancient Humans Were Apex Predators For 2 Million Years, Study Finds — What we see in modern-day hunter-gatherer diets may not be indicative of what very ancient humans ate, as they had more access to large animals long ago. A new study showed that the genus, Homo, became highly carnivorous 2.5 million years ago, and remained that way until 11,700 years ago. Interestingly, the study looked at our current metabolism, genetics, and physical build because according to Miki Ben-Dor, “Human behavior changes rapidly, but evolution is slow. The body remembers.” They found that modern humans need more energy per unit of body mass than other primates, we have higher fat reserves than most omnivores, and our digestive tracks look like those of carnivores. However, the researchers also note that this does not mean we should eat more meat now. It’s also worth mentioning that the results go against other studies that have found localized evidence of diets heavy in plant material, so it might not be so cut-and-dry. The study originally came out last year, but a new version has been released, which is why it is making headlines.
Neanderthals May Have Been Carnivores – New Study — Here’s another headline in the same vein. While some previous studies have shown that neanderthals were heavy plant eaters, others have shown that they ate meat almost exclusively. New zinc isotope analysis supports that Neanderthals were mostly carnivores, who did not consume the blood of their prey. This is based on the analysis of one molar from the Gabasa site in Spain. The analysis also found that this neanderthal was weaned before they were two years old and that they died where they had lived as a child. Zinc isotope analysis worked so well at indicating diet that they will now analyze other fossils.
Prehistoric Plant DNA Hints at Early Human Knowledge — Ok, enough about meat, let’s talk about plants. Researchers analyzed plant DNA in cave sediments at a cave in southern Armenia, and found that humans processed at least 43 species of plants between 40,000 and 25,000 years ago. 38 of the plants are known to have uses as medicine, food, flavoring, bug repellent, dyes, and fibers. Bone needles were also found. This indicates a high degree of knowledge about plants. Speaking of which, what do you think they were using those other 5 plants for? Seems like they knew something we don’t.
Model Explores Modern Human Contact with Neanderthals — Using computer models, researchers have determined when neanderthals and sapiens might have come into contact with each other in France and northern Spain. They found that sapiens arrived 42,500 years ago and Neanderthals disappeared 40,870-40,457 years ago, and that they lived in the same area for 1,400-2,900 years (that math seems off to me, but I’m no mathematician). Interestingly, Neanderthal tools began looking more like sapien tools at this time, indicating a mixing of the species.
Megalithic Portal Tomb Identified in Ireland — Carraig á Mhaistin is a stone structure in Ireland’s Cork Harbor which was thought to either be a 19th-century folly (ornamental building) connected to Rostellan Castle or a megalithic dolmen. Turns out, it’s the latter because it sits at the end of a previously unrecognized 80-foot cairn which was hidden by mud and rising sea levels. This cairn is thought to have been built to provide support for a portal tomb.
Monumental Roman Structure Identified Using Ground Penetrating Radar — A Roman structure has been located using ground-penetrating radar beneath an 18th-century church in Danilo, Croatia. It is large and rectangular (20m x 10m), with a possible collonade, and a clearly visible entrance. The site was once a major Roman center, and the researchers believe they’re seeing the remains of a temple. It was already known that the 18th-century church was built on the foundations of a small Romanesque Christian temple. And now we know that even that structure was built on top of yet another temple.
Iraq Unveils Archaeological Park with Ancient Assyrian Carvings — A 2,700-year-old Assyrian carving has been unveiled in Iraq. The carving is 5 meters long by 2 meters tall, depicts kings praying to gods, and is cut into the walls of a 10-kilometer-long irrigation canal. It was found in recent years but was only recently unveiled as part of a park in the hopes of attracting tourists.
Mashki Gate: Stunning Ancient Rock Carvings Found in Iraq — Eight 2,700-year-old marble reliefs have been found at the ancient city of Ninevah in modern-day Mosul, Iraq. They depict war scenes, grape vines, and palm trees. It is believed that they once adorned the Assyrian King Sennacherib’s palace.
Norwich Timber Henge Burnt in Neolithic Winter Solstice Excavated — Arminghall Henge near Norwich, England is being excavated for the first time since the 1930s. Researchers now believe that the timber circle was deliberately set on fire during a winter gathering, and the remains were then added to the surrounding earthwork. It was built about 5,000 years ago with huge 5.5-ton posts that were 3 feet wide and stuck out of the ground about 32 feet. It aligns with the sun on the midwinter solstice, so that’s likely when it was set on fire. They also found that there was more of an escarpment in the past.
Ancient World's Multicultural Secrets Revealed by Handwriting Analysis of Scrolls — The use of AI in paleography (the study of ancient writing) allowed researchers to identify a change in the scribe working on a copy of the Book of Isaiah from the Old Testament 2,100 years ago. The second scribe was so good at imitating the first, that the difference is pretty much invisible to the naked eye. Pretty remarkable that we’re now able to identify scribes by their handwriting. This find, and the use of AI in paleography, will allow us to understand scribal culture better.
2,600-Year-Old Artifacts Belonging to the Kingdom of Medes Found in the Center of Anatolia — Excavations of Oluz Mound in Turkey have dug down to a layer with 2,600-year-old artifacts from the Medes culture, including a bronze plate and bronze arrowhead. This is the first time the Medes culture has been found in Anatolian archaeology. According to Şevket Dönmez, “Archaeologists were always surprised by the scarcity of findings in Anatolia, regarding the Medes, which Herodotus mentioned for pages and states that there were 6 tribes.” So this is a significant find that “proves the existence of the Medes in Anatolia.”
The Oldest Grave in Northern Germany 10,500 Years Old — Cremated remains from 10,500 years ago have been located in a bog in Lüchow, Germany. It is the oldest burial found in Germany to date. Another slightly more recent burial that was found was also a cremation, indicating that this may have been the preferred burial method for Mesolithic hunter-gatherers in the area.
Social Stratification Reflected in Bone Mineral Density and Stature — A new study found that socioeconomic status significantly impacted bone mineral density and stature in medieval people of Eastern Norway. People of higher status had higher bone mineral density and were taller. Interesting, but fairly unsurprising.
Drought-Hit Mississippi River Reveals 19th-Century Trading Ship — A citizen in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in the US found a sunken ship from the 19th century. It was revealed by low water levels. It may be the Brookhill, a trading ship built in 1896 which sank in a storm in 1915.
Iron Age Woman's Diet of 'Fish Suppers' — The tooth of a woman who lived in Orkney in the UK was analyzed, and they found that she had a diet rich in seafood for most of her life. This is unusual because there is very little evidence of fish being consumed in Iron-Age Britain, possibly due to social restrictions or taboos. As such, the researchers suggest that she held a special status.
Thor's Hammer Discovered in Sweden, Just a Bit Smaller — A small (3cm), 10th-century amulet in the shape of Mjölnir, Thor’s hammer from Norse mythology, was found in Ysby, Sweden. It was likely used as a talisman of protection.
Medieval Swiss Knight Left Graffiti in ‘King David’s Tomb’ Complex — Researchers used multispectral photography to reveal 40 new inscriptions at the pilgrimage site of King David’s tomb, in the room purported to be where Jesus’ Last Supper was held. The most notable was the name and heraldic emblem of a Swiss knight named Adrian von Bubenberg (or his son of the same name) who made the pilgrimage in 1466. It was written with charcoal.
Possible Irish Sweathouse Unearthed in Australia — A build at the site of Baker’s Flat in Australia was originally thought to be where mid-nineteenth century Irish immigrants who were fleeing the Great Famine produced whitewash for their homes, but now it is thought to have been a sweathouse used for healing. According to Susan Arthure, “Sweathouses were very common in Ireland up until probably famine times… What is really exciting about the one here at Baker’s Flat is that we can look not only at how people were following the same traditions, but how they were adapting.”
Ornate Golden Belt Unearthed by Czech Farmer — A Bronze Age gold belt measuring 49 centimeters by 9 centimeters and weighing 56.5 grams was found by a farmer in the Czech Republic. It is a thin metal alloy (84% gold) decorated with a series of concentric circles and a border. It may date to the Urnfield Culture from 1300 to 750 BCE.
Evidence Europeans Started Using Milk 7,400 Years Ago – New Study — According to a new study, milk was used 7,400 years ago by the first farmers in central Europe. Linearbandkeramik (LBK) pottery vessels were examined with new technology and it seems they were producing milk at scale. But while common, milk usage varied from settlement to settlement, with evidence found at 65% of sites. Interestingly, I covered a study in issue #22 showing that most ancient Europeans couldn’t digest lactose.
In Egypt, a Bell Dedicated to Ramses II has been Found — A still-functional cult bell was found in Egypt with over 1,200 ram skulls which were sacrificed to Ramses II about 2,000 years ago at a temple of Osiris that was built by Ramses. It was attached to the neck of one of the rams, and has four animal heads on it representing different gods. As you might guess, the researchers think this indicates a ram cult, and it shows that people still worshiped Ramses as a god 1,000 years after his death.
Stone Projectile Skills Help Foragers Occupy Rainforests during Southern Asia Migration — A new study of the Kitulgala Beli-lena cave site in Sri Lanka showed long-term stability of human occupation in rainforests from 45,000 to 8,000 years ago. According to Oshan Wedage, “Tropical rainforests have been seen as ecological barriers to human migration, but our interdisciplinary archaeological research now convincingly shows that this was not the case at all.” Homo sapiens were able to thrive in challenging habitats and migrate effectively. The research also suggests that these people moved from cave to cave, ensuring the long-term sustainability of their hunting and foraging grounds.
Potato Farmer Unearths Huge 6th-Century Balbal Statue in Kyrgyzstan — A farmer in Ak-Bulun, Kyrgyzstan discovered a large statue while plowing his field. It is about 10 feet tall and depicts a warrior from the waist up. The bottom part would have been buried and is uncarved. It was likely the memorial of an important person, marking their tomb.
❤️ Recommended Content
Time for another one-star review, but this one is from a few years before Yelp and Google made reviews easy. Here’s what Henry Miller had to say about the subterranean Cistern of Mycenae in 1939, “I refuse to go back down into that slimy well of horrors.” 😂
A few weeks back, I covered opium found in Israel. Here’s an article that discusses those vessels further, and even suggests that the shape of the vessels (which look like poppy flowers) was one of the earliest marketing strategies.
Here’s an article about how Vikings’ self-image was influenced by Ancient Rome, as evidenced by burials.
The Rosetta Stone has been making headlines recently, with Egypt wanting it to be repatriated. Here’s a story about the rivals who cracked the code of hieroglyphs.
Here’s an article about a pair of Levi’s jeans from the 1880s that were found in a mine in New Mexico years ago… they just sold for $87,400. They’re in surprisingly good shape. And they reference 1882’s Chinese Exclusion Act. The obvious question that no one seems to be asking is, why did someone leave their pants in the mine?
Wow, ancient diets, plant processing, and community structures — lots of studies this week exploring how we’ve lived for millions of years. Love it. As always, let me know your thoughts!
And until next time, thanks for joining me.
(newish twitter: @jamesofthedrum)
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