🧐 Ancient Beat #43: Dark Earth, self-healing concrete, and Denisovan scent perception
Hello, friends! Welcome to issue #43 of Ancient Beat. Lots of interesting finds this week, so let’s get right into it. Here’s the latest ancient news. 👇
🗞 Ancient News: Top 5
Ancient Maya Structures Were Aligned to a Mysterious 260-Day Calendar — Researchers used LiDAR to look at the astronomical orientations of 415 Olmec and Maya ceremonial structures in Mesoamerica from between 1100 BCE and 250 CE. They found that many of the structures were oriented with the solstices, quarter days, or lunar cycles of a 260-day calendar. In short, they are positioned in a way that corresponds with the sunrises on February 11 and October 29, which are 260 days apart. It was previously thought that this type of calendar went back only as far as 300 BCE, so this study suggests that the Maya understood the stars much earlier than previously thought. No one is quite sure why they used 260 days, but the researchers favor theories involving some kind of numerological significance, or the scheduling of rituals.
We Finally Know How Ancient Roman Concrete Was So Durable — Roman “pozzolanic” concrete was incredibly durable. The Pantheon holds the record for the world’s largest dome of unreinforced concrete, and it is still intact, 2,000 years later. Part of its strength comes from mixing volcanic ash with lime, but it turns out that it also has to do with how it was mixed — something we didn’t know until now. Researchers looked at small, white chunks of lime which were originally thought to be caused by poor mixing of materials, despite the rest being very well-mixed, and found that they were not caused by carelessness. The Romans created quicklime, then used a process called “hot mixing” to combine it with the ash and water, and this process created those chunks. The process is also responsible for compounds that wouldn’t have otherwise formed, and accelerated reactions that reduced curing and setting times for faster construction. And here’s the kicker: Those chunks, or “lime clasts”, give the concrete the ability to self-heal. When a crack forms, it goes to the chunks because they have higher surface area than other particles. And when water then goes into the crack, it reacts with the chunk to create a solution that hardens and essentially glues the crack back together. The team plans to sell it now as a more environmentally-friendly concrete.
Study Investigates Source of Amazon’s “Dark Earth” — The Amazon’s soil is generally quite poor in nutrients, but there is a soil found near archaeological sites that is incredibly fertile. It’s known as “Terra Preta” or “Dark Earth". Whether it was made intentionally, or as a byproduct of habitation, or due to geologic processes has been a mystery, but a new study suggests that it was created intentionally thousands of years ago. Apparently, the Kuikuro people of Brazil intentionally create their own enriched soil known as “eegepe” by using ash, food scraps, and controlled burns. The researchers compared Dark Earth from around the Kuikuro villages with that of other archaeological sites and found that they had “striking similarities”. Both are less acidic than surrounding soils, with higher levels of nutrients. According to Taylor Perron, “People in the ancient past figured out a way to store lots of carbon for hundreds or even thousands of years.”
Mass Production of Stone Bladelets Shows Cultural Shift in Levantine Paleolithic — A new study showed that stone bladelets found at the Al-Ansab 1 archaeological site in Jordan were mass-produced on-site. The bladelets are attributed to the Ahmarian culture of the Near East (40,000-45,000 BP). The study suggests that el-Wad points, which are typical of this culture, probably resulted from attempts to reshape bigger, asymmetrical bladelets to match the quality of their unmodified bladelets, which are smaller, elongated, and symmetrical. According to the authors, the southern Ahmarian had already undergone a shift to the preferred use of small bladelets for spear and arrow tips 40,000 years ago — something which was unclear until now. The shift to bladelets allowed for long-range hunting. Even more importantly, since they were standardized and disposable, they allowed humans to cover great distances in unknown areas without having to find big, high-quality raw material. This was key in the success of Homo sapiens during the Upper Paleolithic, and for our spread throughout Europe.
Why Did Ancient Humans Have Same Sense Of Smell, But Different Sensitivities? — Researchers developed a new technique that allows them to test the smell sensitivity on odor receptors grown in a lab, and they’ve started testing the scent perception of Neanderthals, Denisovans, and modern humans. How do people come up with this stuff? Crazy. According to Claire de March, “We had the odorant receptor genomes from Neanderthal and Denisovan individuals and we could compare them with today's humans and determine if they resulted in a different protein.” So they tested the response of the receptors to fragrances and found that Denisovans were less sensitive to odors that we perceive as floral, but much more sensitive to sulfur, balsamic, and honey — the latter being an essential high-calorie food that they may have eaten. Neanderthals were much less responsive to green, floral, and spicy scents, but they otherwise have very similar receptors to us. Olfactory receptors evolve primarily to aid in finding food, so further analysis may tell us more about ancient diets.
That’s it for the free Top 5! If you’re a free subscriber and you’d like to read another 21 headlines and six pieces of content covering hunter-gatherer networks, a crazy prehistoric “moment”, Maya commerce, human brains, wishing wells, ritual centers, the pioneering women of archaeology, and more, sign up for the paid plan below. And if you want access but it’s a little too steep for you right now, just shoot me an email. 😃
🗞 Ancient News: Deep Dive
Ancient DNA Reveals Migration from North America Across The Bering Sea and Unknown Prehistoric People in Siberia — It’s generally accepted that humans crossed from Asia to the Americas via the Bering Sea, but a new genomic study showed that people also moved in the opposite direction over the last 5,000 years, in multiple phases. And that’s not all. According to Cosimo Posth, “We describe a previously unknown hunter-gatherer population in the Altai as early as 7,500 years old, which is a mixture between two distinct groups that lived in Siberia during the last Ice Age. The Altai hunter-gatherer group contributed to many contemporaneous and subsequent populations across North Asia, showing how great the mobility of those foraging communities was.” Ancient Northeast Asian ancestry went 1,500 kilometers farther west than originally thought, and there are also genetic connections to the Jomon culture of Japan. One individual whose genome was analyzed was buried with rich burial goods and a “religious costume”, very different from other remains found in the area, and his genetic profile was completely different. It’s unclear whether he came from afar or if his population was nearby. In short, the data shows that ancient hunter-gatherer communities were highly connected across vast distances as early as 10,000 years ago.
Archaeologists Find Surprising ‘Moment in the Life’ of Prehistoric Hunters in Israel — According to a duo of studies, 60,000-year-old stone tools uncovered at an ancient lakeshore in Israel were not what we would usually expect. Neanderthals and Homo sapiens were highly advanced at this time, so generally, one would expect to find a range of tools, including scrapers, but they found barely any. Instead, they found mostly pointed elements and cutting elements. According to the researchers, this may indicate that they came for a very specific reason — ambushing animals, killing them, and butchering them. Interestingly, only a few of the pointed tips had impact fractures, and those didn’t indicate that they had been thrown from a safe distance, as one would expect. No, they were used for either thrusting or short-distance throws. In fact, many of the points seem to have actually been knives, not spears at all. So these hunters laid in wait, then got up close and personal with one-ton aurochs and other animals. Given the technology of the time, this more primitive approach is odd.
Human and Neanderthal Brains Have a Surprising ‘Youthful’ Quality in Common, New Research Finds — A new study modeled the brains of hundreds of living and fossil primates. They found that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals both have a high level of brain integration, particularly between the parietal and frontal lobes, compared to other primates. For example, they found that apes have integration similar to us until we reach adolescence, at which point, their integration falls away but ours continues into adulthood. What this means is that it isn’t just the size of our brains that differentiate us from our cousins, but also the integration between lobes. And since we don’t grow out of our brain integration as quickly, we have a greater capacity for learning. The other important thing here, in my opinion, is that Neanderthals were similarly able to learn. This adds up with everything we’re learning about how incredibly capable and intelligent they were.
Mayas Utilized Market-Based Economics – New Study — According to a new study, the ruling elite of the Maya people 500 years ago in the midwestern Guatemala highlands took a hands-off approach to the trade of obsidian outside of their region. Over time, with obsidian becoming more available, and craftsmen becoming more prevalent, a system developed that is similar to contemporary market-based economies. According to Rachel Horowitz, “Scholars have generally assumed that the obsidian trade was managed by Maya rulers, but our research shows that this wasn’t the case at least in this area. People seem to have had a good deal of economic freedom including being able to go to places similar to the supermarkets we have today to buy and sell goods from craftsmen.” She went on to say “For a long time, there has been this idea that people in the past didn’t have market economies, which when you think about it is kind of weird. Why wouldn’t these people have had markets in the past? The more we look into it, the more we realize there were a lot of different ways in which these peoples’ lives were similar to ours.”
Ancient “Wishing Well” With Ritual Deposits Discovered — A 3,000-year-old, wood-lined well has been located in Germering, Germany. Within the sediment layers at the bottom of the well, archaeologists found 26 bronze garment pins, a bracelet, two metal spirals, four amber beads, a wooden spoon, an animal tooth wrapped in wire, and 70+ decorated bowls, cups, and pots of the type that are commonly used as grave goods. The vessels are mostly intact, meaning that they were probably placed with care into the five-meter-deep well. The sediment and organic remains in the well suggest that groundwater dropped while it was in use, resulting in a long drought. Thus, the researchers suggest that the artifacts were used as sacrifices for a good harvest. The usage of this “wishing well” is not dissimilar to that of springs. And incredibly, about 13,500 artifacts have been discovered in 708 water wells in Germering. This one had the most valuable items.
Ice Age Hunting Camp Identified in Mexico — Mammoth bones and stone tools unearthed in Mexico in the 1950s have been reanalyzed. The researchers found that the objects came from a seasonal hunter-gatherer camp dated to 9,000 years ago. The camp is unusual because it is in the open air rather than a rock shelter or cave. They were also able to determine that these hunter-gatherers caught fish and cooked them with charcoal.
When Did the Threat of Smallpox Emerge? — According to a new mathematical analysis, smallpox originated 3,800 years ago, which is 2,000 years earlier than previously thought. This adds up since pox scars have been observed on ancient Egyptian mummies.
Canaanites Also Used Silver as Currency, Archaeologists Deduce — Silver was thought to have been used for payment in the southern Levant about 3,200 years ago, but a new study of silver hoards suggests that it was actually about 500 years earlier. And it’s about 1,000 years before coinage was invented. “Hacksilber”, or irregular bits of cut silver, was found at the sites of Megiddo, Gezer, Shiloh, and Tell el-‘Ajjul.
Ruins of an 800-Year-Old Royal Temple Discovered in Beijing — An 800-year-old temple has been discovered in Beijing, China. Within the ruins, jade books, dragon tiles, and phoenix patterns were found, showing that the site probably had ties to the aristocracy. There were also artifacts pointing to the religious nature of the temple, including the statue of a bodhisattva and statues of the “heavenly kings”.
Unusual Find – Headless Skeletons Discovered in a 7000-Year-Old Mass Grave in Slovakia — The remains of 38 individuals, all missing their heads except one child, were found in Vráble, Slovakia. The site dates back to 5250-4950 BCE. The position of the skeletons does not indicate that they were carefully buried. It is unclear whether this was a massacre, the work of head-hunters, the work of a peaceful skull cult, or something else entirely. The fact that the first cervical vertebra is sometimes preserved in the remains indicates a careful removal of the head, but more investigation needs to be done.
Ancient Water System Unearthed in Central China — About 260 feet of water channels were found at the ancient site of the imperial palace in Luoyang, China. The channels were built between 220 and 420 CE and ran parallel to each other. They were covered, but the cover had square holes to let in rainwater. They were used to bring water from outside the city into the palace and its lakes.
Byzantine Woman’s Remains Found at a Castle in Turkey — The remains of a woman from the 13th century were unearthed at Kadikalesi Castle in Turkey in an area that once contained a church and monastery. According to Umut Kardaşlar, “It is not very common to put a woman’s burial inside churches. Probably, this woman must have been a woman who donated a significant amount to the church, or she must have been the wife of a bureaucrat.”
Ancient Byzantine Church with Preserved Mosaic Floor Found Near Jericho — A 6th-century Byzantine church with a well-preserved mosaic floor was discovered near Jericho in the West Bank. It measures roughly 250 square meters. Many of the materials used to build the church are non-local, indicating that the church was pricey to build (and important).
Archaic Temple (Part of God Poseidon’s Sanctuary) at the Kleidi-Samikon Site In Greece — Remains of a temple have been unearthed at the Kleidi-Samikon site in Greece. The structure is located within the Poseidon sanctuary site which matches Strabo’s writings about an important shrine on the west coast of the Peloponnese 2,000 years ago. The temple may have also been dedicated to Poseidon.
Roman Cisterns Found in Ancient Maxul — Several cisterns and the remains of foundation walls were found in the Roman colonia of Maxula, modern-day Radès in Tunisia.
Roman-Era Sarcophagus Uncovered in Istanbul — Human bones and a sarcophagus dating to 2,000 years ago were found in Istanbul during a construction project.
Ancient Astronomy Inscription Discovered in Marvdasht — An inscription about astronomy and chronology was discovered at the amazing site of Naqsh-e Rostam in Iran. It has been translated but I’m having a hard time finding that translation. Based on the script and how it was written, it was probably written by scribes between 224 and 651 CE.
Archaeologists Uncover Branches at Relic Site in Central China's Henan — A layer of mulberry and cypress branches dating to the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) has been found in Shangqiu, China. It is believed to be remnants of the foundation of a city wall.
Prehistoric Ruins Discovered in East China — A 13,200-year-old site has been discovered in Zibo City, China. More than 1,000 relics, including pottery sculptures, were found. Most of the finds were animal bones (with cut marks), pottery sherds, sculptures, stoneware, and clamshell products. According to Zhao Yichao, “We can see that the pottery-making techniques had become relatively mature at that time, and the relics are the hitherto earliest potteries discovered in Shandong [Province].” Makes me think of the study I covered in issue #40 about ceramic vessels being spread by hunter-gatherers from Asia 20,000 years ago.
Fossilized Million-Year-Old Human Skull of Yunxian Man Excavated in China — In issue #31, I covered the discovery of a remarkably intact 1-million-year-old skull found at the site of Zuetangliangzi in China. It is thought to be the most intact Homo erectus cranium of its age found in inland Eurasia. The skull, known as “No. 3 Skull of Yunxian Man”, has now been fully unearthed. Researchers hope that it will provide insight into the origin and evolution of Homo erectus.
Archaeologists Discover Roman 'Ritual Centre' at Overstone — A 4,000-year-old ritual center centered around a spring was found in Overstone, England. The site was in use for over 2,000 years. The researchers note that it may have been used much earlier than 4,000 years ago, but only Bronze Age and Roman artifacts were found. One of the finds was a Bronze Age barrow (burial mound) built between 2000 and 1500 BCE, which strangely only held empty burial urns; no human remains. A building from the Roman period with elaborately painted plasterwork was also found, and it may have been a shrine associated with the spring. They also found large water tanks with 2,000-year-old remains including willow tree blossoms, pinecones, walnut shells, and a leather shoe. If you’ve been with Ancient Beat for a while, you’ll know that I have a fascination with how ancient peoples viewed springs as places of worship and otherworldly communication. It seems this was no exception.
❤️ Recommended Content
Here’s an odd one-star review that kinda cracked me up. This one is about the site of Scola Tower in Italy: “I was not there.” Well, thank you for your honesty. Maybe skip the review next time you aren’t somewhere? 😂
And since that proto-writing system was discovered by an amateur, here’s an article listing 31 other sites, artifacts, etc. that were discovered by amateurs. And this is just scratching the surface — keep digging, folks! 😀
Here’s an article about the pioneering women of archaeology.
Here are some haunting photos of ancient (and modern) ghost towns.
Here’s a short video featuring imagery of a restored home in the ancient city of Pompeii. The home was owned by two freed slaves.
Alrighty, that’s it for this week. Let me know your thoughts!
And until next time, thanks for joining me.
(newish twitter: @jamesofthedrum)
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