🧐 Ancient Beat #44: A new silk road, kissing cousins, and the oldest rune stone
Hi folks! Welcome to issue #44 of Ancient Beat. There was a ton of news this week, so I’ve got lots to share. And I’m sharing it a day late! 😬
Sit down with a nice Saturday morning cup of something warm. Here’s the latest ancient news. 👇
🗞 Ancient News: Top 5
World’s Oldest Rune Stone Found in Norway, Archaeologists Believe — A rune stone was found in a grave in Hole municipality, Norway. Materials found alongside it have dated it to between 0 and 250 CE, making it the oldest rune stone, and even the oldest example of written words, in Scandinavia. Until now, a spearhead and comb were the earliest. It appears to have been carved with a knife or needle. Eight of the runes on the front face seem to spell out the name of a woman. According to Kristel Zelmers, “The text possibly refers to a woman called Idibera and the inscription could mean 'For Idibera'.” It could also be other variations of the name or even a kin name. Perhaps it is the name of the person in the grave. The article goes further into the fascinating origin of runes if you’d like to dig deeper.
Study May Have Solved the Mystery of the Nazca Lines — The same team that recently discovered 168 new geoglyphs in the Nazca Desert of Peru (see issue #39) believe the Nazca Lines to be an ancient form of communication. In short, linear geoglyphs would have been used to travel from one valley to another, while animal geoglyphs, which are generally positioned on slopes near ancient pathways, marked routes that were used for communication between settlements. Nothing conclusive, but interesting nonetheless.
Has An Unknown Ancient ‘Israel Silk Road’ Been Discovered? — Cotton and silk fabrics were discovered in the Arabah on the border of Israel and Jordan, dating to 1,300 years ago. The fabrics most likely originated in India or China. According to Guy Bar-Oz, “Our findings are apparently the first evidence that there was also an ‘Israeli Silk Road’ that passed through the Negev and the Arava and is a new link that was not known until today in the international trade routes that connected East and West, between Asia and Europe from the main Silk Road.” He went on to say, “This road, which diverged from the traditional road, passed from the north of Israel along the route of the Spice Route, crossed the steppe and connected to the roads that crossed the Land of Israel along its length as well as to the Mediterranean ports.” This discovery has a big impact on our knowledge of the flow of “goods, people, technologies, and ideas.”
Marriage Rules in Minoan Crete Revealed by Ancient DNA Analysis — A new study found that marriage partners in Bronze-Age Minoan Crete and Mycenaean Greece were determined by kinship. The researchers were able to genetically reconstruct an ancient family tree for the first time in the Mediterranean region, as prior attempts failed due to the region’s climate causing poor preservation. They found that the sons still lived in their parents’ hamlet when they grew up, and their children, along with one wife’s sister’s child, were buried together under the courtyard of the estate. This indicates that family ties were strong and people stuck around. They also found that it was common to marry a first cousin. According to Eirini Skourtanioti, “More than a thousand ancient genomes from different regions of the world have now been published, but it seems that such a strict system of kin marriage did not exist anywhere else in the ancient world. This came as a complete surprise to all of us and raises many questions." The researchers speculate that the reason for such marriages might have been to prevent inherited farmland from being divided.
Archaeologists Shed Light on the Lives of Stone Age Hunter-Gatherers in Britain — Excavations in North Yorkshire, England uncovered a small hunter-gatherer settlement from 10,500 years ago. Animal remains (elk, red deer, beavers, birds, etc.), traces of woodworking, and tools and weapons made of bone, antler, and stone were found. Some of the tools were decorated and taken apart before being deposited on what was once the shore of an island on a lake. Animal remains were also deposited in such a fashion and the researchers believe that these people had strict rules about how to handle the remains of animals, as well as the objects used to kill them. According to Nick Overton, “The Mesolithic in Britain was before the introduction of pottery or metals, so finding organic remains like bone, antler and wood, which are usually not preserved, are incredibly important in helping us to reconstruct people’s lives.” And according to Amy Gray Jones, “People often think of prehistoric hunter-gatherers as living on the edge of starvation, moving from place to place in an endless search for food, and that it was only with the introduction of farming that humans lived a more settled and stable lifestyle. But here we have people inhabiting a rich network of sites and habitats, taking the time to decorate objects, and taking care over the ways they disposed of animal remains and important artifacts. These aren’t people that were struggling to survive. They were people confident in their understanding of this landscape, and of the behaviors and habitats of different animal species that lived there.” They also found these people were managing and manipulating wild plants.
That’s it for the free Top 5! If you’re a free subscriber and you’d like to read another 25 headlines and 6 pieces of content covering bog bodies, ostrich eggs, epigenetics, milk mustaches, tooth enamel, the rise and fall of Persian empires, 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
Mystery Of Europe’s Bog Body Phenomenon Solved By Scientists — Over the years, hundreds of ancient bodies have been found in European bogs, and many of the remains have been incredibly well-preserved thanks to the cool, acidic conditions. A new study shows that this is all due to a tradition that spans started in southern Scandinavia around 5000 BCE and spreads from there, with the most recent finds in the UK, Ireland, and Germany being from the Middle Ages into modern times. When the cause of death can be identified, it usually turns out to be quite unpleasant - ritual sacrifices, executions, and other victims of violence. The study also identified hotspots where many bog bodies were found. The hotspots include places where mass burials occurred after a battle, cult places where human remains and ritual offerings were found, and “war-booty sites” where large quantities of weapons were found near human remains. According to Roy van Beek, “Literally thousands of people have met their end in bogs, only to be found again ages later during peat cutting. The well-preserved examples only tell a small part of this far larger story.” The “well-preserved examples” that he is referring to are the famous “big mummies”.
Ostrich Eggs Dated More Than 4,000 Years Discovered In Negev Desert Of Southern Israel — Eight ostrich eggs preliminarily dated to between 4,000 and 7,500 years ago were uncovered near an ancient fire pit in the Nitzana sand dunes of Israel. The firepit is part of a 200-square-meter campsite that was once used by desert nomads. Burnt stones, flint, stone tools, and pottery sherds were also found. While not common, ostrich eggs have been discovered previously in funerary contexts, as luxury items, as water canteens, and of course, as food. In this case, it appears to be the latter. The proximity of the eggs to the campfire indicates that they were collected intentionally, and one of the eggs was even in the fire pit. According to Lauren Davis, “Although the nomads did not build permanent structures at the site, the finds allow us to feel their presence in the desert.”
High-Altitude Living Has Changed More Than Just the Genes of Some Peruvians — One study shows that the Quechua of Peru, who have lived at altitudes above 1500 meters for over 11,000 years, currently undergo epigenetic alterations. Essentially, living in extreme conditions changes the chemical modifications that control the activity of certain genes. This is the first evidence that living in mountains can alter not just a person’s genes, but also how their body uses them. The study focused on Quechua individuals who were born and raised at three different altitudes, and found significant differences in the methylation patterns among each group. Genes involved with the creation of red blood cells and the building of endurance muscles were more methylated with those born and raised at high altitudes, regardless of whether they moved to lower altitudes later in life. Indeed, many of the changes they found were found to be irreversible.
Using Paleogenomics to Elucidate 10,000 Years of Immune System Evolution — Researchers analyzed the variability of genomes in over 2,800 individuals who lived in Europe over the last 10,000 years. They found positive selection for advantageous mutations relating to innate immune response, including genes responsible for antiviral activity. Interestingly, most of these positive selection events began relatively recently, about 4,500 years ago. The researchers explain that this is probably due to population growth and the spread of severe infectious diseases like the plague. And while the risk of developing infectious diseases decreased, mutations that increased the risk of inflammatory disorders became more frequent. According to Lluis Quintana-Murci, “These results suggest that the risk of inflammatory disorders has increased in Europeans since the Neolithic period because of a positive selection of mutations improving resistance to infectious diseases.”
Drinking Milk 'Made Ancient Humans Bigger and Stronger' — A new analysis of human skeletons over a 25,000-year period found that milk consumption 7,000 to 2,000 years ago caused increased skeletal growth and taller populations in some areas. This took place where we had genes that enabled lactase persistence, or the ability to drink milk as an adult. According to Eoin Parkinson, “Agriculture emerged in the Near East before farming groups migrated into Europe, bringing a host of new domesticated plants and dairy-producing animals with them. In some parts of northern and central Europe, where local environments were not suited to the newly imported south-west Asian crops, human societies responded through increased consumption of milk.” You may remember way back in issue #22 that I covered a study stating how lactose intolerance was deadly during times of disease and famine, and drove natural selection for this lactase persistence, thus creating more of it in Europe.
Eating and Social Habits of People in the Balearic Islands 3,000 Years Ago – Reconstructed — By analyzing stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen in collagen, researchers reconstructed the diets of 49 individuals who were buried in the Cova des Pas’ necropolis in Menorca 3,000 years ago. The individuals, who were from the Talayotic culture, all had access to the same foods regardless of sex or age, implying an egalitarian social structure. There was also no difference in life expectancy of the treatment of burials. The study confirmed a diet of plants, along with cereals and meat, but very little marine food, which is unusual in the region. Also notable is that children were breastfed until the age of four years old.
Ancient Maya Cities, 'Super Highways' Revealed in Latest Survey — This story is piggybacking off of a story I covered in issue #40. You might remember the nearly 1,000 Maya sites found in Guatemala dating back to 2,000 years ago, which included pyramids, platforms, ballcourts, reservoirs, and 110 miles of raised roads. Well, those roads are in the news again thanks to a recent statement from the team overseeing the studies. They are referring to the roads as the world’s first extensive system of stone “highways or super-highways.” According to the researchers, “Collectively, we argue that the development of infrastructure demonstrates the presence of complex societies with strong levels of socio-economic organization and political power during the Middle and Late Preclassic periods.”
Child Buried with 142 Dogs in Ancient Egyptian Necropolis — A child’s burial was found at a necropolis at the oasis of Fayoum in Egypt. A huge number of dogs (142!) were buried with the child, all of which died the same way, with no evidence of violence. Since traces of blue clay were found on the dogs’ remains. And since blue clay was common in ancient Egyptian reservoirs, it is possible that they drowned in a flood. The same thing may have happened to the child, but strangely, a linen bag was placed over their head. Another burial in the necropolis had a similar bag, but that one was likely an execution, so this is a confusing find.
Inhabitants of Teotihuacan Neighborhood Were Linked to Lapidary Production — Previous excavations of the area called La Ventilla in the ancient Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacan showed that this neighborhood was where luxury objects were produced. A new study focused on an architectural complex called “3B”, which was inhabited 1,600 years ago by members of the city elite. These elites were linked to lapidary (stone/gem) production thanks to a large amount of byproduct found at the site. Also found were burials, 792 clay miniatures, 43 figures made with tizate, and 95 small vases.
DNA Study Offers Clues to Colonial-Era Slavery — A genetic study of remains found in an 18th-century cemetery in Charleston, South Carolina in the US showed that 17 out of 18 individuals had predominantly African ancestry, including West, West-Central, and Sub-Saharan African. According to Raquel Fleskes, “The distribution of African ancestries among the first-generation African individuals indicates that they were being transported from disparate areas of the African continent during the last half of the 18th century.” None of the individuals were related to each other, but as Fleskes said, “Kinship extends beyond the biological or genetic realm and is expressed in the types of care that we see in the grave goods.” The remains were in coffins, along with objects including tobacco pipes, beads, and coins.
Traces of Possible Maya Settlement Uncovered in Mexico — Two clay mounds were discovered prior to the construction of an oil pipeline in southeastern Mexico. The mounds are thought to have been housing platforms, indicating that an unknown Maya settlement may be located there, between the sites of Huimango and Comalcalco. Dating is in progress.
Written Records of Biblical King David Discovered by Researchers — The Mesha Stele, a basalt stone slab which is the largest source of the Moabite language discovered to date, was discovered in 1868 near the Dead Sea. But researchers have only recently been able to say with confidence that it explicitly references King David from the Bible. The contents are an account of King Mesha of Moab when he went to war with Israel, and the events that are detailed correspond (imprecisely) with 2 Kings chapter 3. It contains allusions to the Israelite god, the House of David, and the Altar of David, but whether these references to King David were correctly deciphered has been unsure until now, as some of the letters were unclear. The researchers created precise 3D renderings using Reflectance Transformation Imaging on digital images, allowing them to see what was hidden on the artifact. Note: While this is hitting headlines now, I can’t tell when the discovery was actually made. It may not actually be new news. 🤷♂️
British Archaeologists Find Egyptian Tomb of Royal Woman Dating to Nefertiti's Reign — You might remember that I covered the discovery of 60 mummies in Luxor in issue #42. Well, another tomb has been unearthed in the city, this time on the west bank of the Nile, and this one belongs to 18th-Dynasty (1550 -1292 BCE) royalty. It is located below what is believed to be the cliff tomb of the princess and governmental official Neferure. According to Mostafa Waziri, “The ceramics and fragmentary inscriptional evidence found in the newly uncovered royal tomb indicates that it belongs to several members of the royal family of the Thutmosid period of the 18th Dynasty.” Several sources say that it belongs to either a royal wife or princess of the Thutmosid lineage. A rock-cut staircase, two corridors, and a partially painted chamber have been excavated so far.
Skeletons Found Under Lindisfarne Car Park Could be Medieval — A group of burials of at least seven individuals was discovered during construction in Lindisfarne (AKA Holy Island), England. They have not yet been dated, but it is thought that they may be medieval.
Sichuan Paleolithic Site Offers Further Clues to Human Cultural Evolution — A large Paleolithic site with hundreds of stone artifacts, including axes and scrapers, as well as the bones of deer, cattle, horses, and other animals, has been found in Xiangshan, China. Preliminary dating puts the site at between 50,000 and 200,000 years old, with three consecutive periods of activity. Excavations began in July and the finds are just making headlines now.
Ancient Hebrew Coin from the Jewish Uprising Against Rome Discovered — During excavations in caverns near the Dead Sea, a Hebrew coin was discovered from the time of the Jewish uprising against Roman control around 132 CE. One side of the coin includes a palm tree and the inscription “Shimon” after the leader of the insurrection, Shimon Bar Kokhba. The other side says “Year Two of the Freedom of Israel”. Apparently, the coins were made as a sign of defiance.
Tooth Enamel Reveals Life Histories of Early Humans — A new study used tooth enamel to compare the diets of Homo erectus with that of contemporaneous orangutans and other animals. They found that their diet changed according to annual cycles, though less so than that of orangutans. According to Jülide Kubat, “These peaks indicate an abundant supply of plant food in the wet season, during which the rainforest, for example, produced many types of fruit. During the dry season, orangutans switched to other food sources, which may have included insects or eggs. By contrast, Homo erectus, as an omnivore and occasional carnivore, was less dependent on seasonal food supply—as indicated by the less pronounced peaks and lower [strontium to calcium ratio] values.” The process by which they were able to figure this out is really interesting. It’s a little too in-depth to go into here, but check out the article for more information.
Neanderthals Are Not The Only Species Whose Dentition Is Characterized By The Possession Of Thin Enamel — This was a big week for tooth-enamel enthusiasts. Is that a thing? 😂 Previously, it was thought that Neanderthals were the one species of the genus, Homo, to have “thin enamel”, but analysis of dental remains of Homo antecessor indicated that thin enamel was already present in the genus Homo 900,000 years ago. According to Laura Martín-Frances, “Due to its phylogenetic position and its relationship to both Neanderthals and modern humans, the H. antecessor collection represents a unique opportunity to find out when this thin enamel trait appeared in our genus.” Interestingly, of the two individuals studied, each had a different pattern — one with thin enamel like Neanderthals, and one with thick enamel like modern humans and most fossil species.
In the Neanderthal Site of Combe-Grenal, France: Hunting Strategies were Unaffected by Changing Climate — According to a new study, Neanderthals at the site of Combe-Grenal in France hunted in open environments, and their hunting strategies did not change as the climate changed. Neanderthals inhabited the site from 150,000 years ago to 45,000 years ago, during which the climatic and environmental conditions impacted the habits of local fauna. The researchers examined 400 specimens of hunted animals at the site and found that they still preferred open-habitat feeding ecology, even in times of climatic fluctuations. This resulted in Neanderthals staying out in the open as well.
Mummified Crocodiles Provide Insights Into Mummy-Making Over Time — A study analyzed ten mummified crocodiles found at the site of Qubbat al-Hawa in Egypt. Though these are a pretty common find, they aren’t usually examined thoroughly. Upon analysis, it was found that their preservation style was different from others, as they lacked evidence of resin and evisceration as part of the process. This is in keeping with the final phase of funerary use at this site during the 5th century BCE. This one brings me back to the crocodile heads I covered in issue #41.
Trove of rare tombs — some with preserved bones — unearthed in China — At the site of Dongsanlingzi Tombs in China, 43 new tombs were discovered. The tombs span four dynasties, from the Song Dynasty in 960 CE to the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1912. Song Dynasty remains had broken limbs, which are consistent with limb-breaking practices of Chinese burials, where they break the femur and tibia to bend the legs to the stomach. Artifacts included porcelain goods (bowls, pots, vases, and jars) and copper coins
Archaeological Treasure Trove! 21 Royal Han Tombs Unearthed in China — Archaeologists found 21 tombs from 2,000 years ago at the site of Changsha in China, and grave goods indicate that it may be a royal burial site. The Han Dynasty tombs were vertical pits, some with passageways, and they contained over 200 artifacts. The tombs included a rare double-layered tomb, as well as a rare pair of tombs which may have been a joint burial for a husband and wife.
Climate Change May Have Impacted the Rise and Fall of Middle Eastern Civilizations — Researchers studied variations of precipitation and vegetation in southeastern Iran over the course of the last 4,000 years via peat layers, and found that climate change coincided with the rise and fall of the Persian Empires. During wet periods, people engaged in more agriculture and communities thrived. During dryer periods, settlements were abandoned in favor of a nomadic lifestyle. The driest conditions in the Jiroft Valley 3,200 years ago coincided with the collapse of an advanced settlement in Konar Sandal. By contrast, two of the most powerful kingdoms in Eurasian history, the Achaemenid and Sasanian Empires, occurred during two of the wettest periods. According to Joyanto Routh, “Archaeologists suggest that these empires fell due to weak succession, pestilence, and political and military expansion. They generally overlook climate as a driving factor behind these changes. We don't deny that the arguments stated by archeologists are important. However, you have to consider that suddenly, an agricultural community could no longer grow cereals because the monsoon pattern had shifted—there was an acute scarcity of water. This had cascading effects that led to the decentralization of power and eventually the demise or abandonment of many settlements in the region.” Interesting when compared to the story about how Neanderthals didn’t have to change their practices at all.
Using Isotope and Ancient DNA Analysis to Learn More About the Mobility of Anatolian and Levantine Populations — The analysis of ancient DNA has shed light on the mobility of Anatolian and Levantine populations during the 9th and 8th millenniums BCE. The study focused on the transition from mobile hunter-gatherers to sedentary agriculturalists. Isotopic ratios showed that there was a decline in the mobility of people living around the site of Nevalı Çori, as evidenced by there being fewer non-locals. They also found that these people lived on a primarily vegetarian diet. Comparing the remains to those of a nearby site, the researchers also found that during this transition, relationships were growing closer, strengthening the theory that they were beginning to settle down.
Intact Ancient Papyrus Scroll Uncovered in Saqqara, the First in a Century — A 16-meter-long papyrus scroll was discovered in Saqqara, Egypt. It’s the first time a complete papyrus document has been found in about a century. It contains texts from the Pharaonic Book of the Dead.
❤️ Recommended Content
Here’s another one-star review! This one is a review of the Palace of Nestor in Pylos, Greece. “Bruh who names their palace nestor?” 😂
A little while back, I covered a re-analysis of a “shaman” unearthed near Stonehenge, which showed that he was in fact carrying a goldsmithing toolkit. Here’s a great discussion on the topic if you’d like to dig deeper.
Here are some incredible photos of India’s hilltop forts.
Here’s an article about 5 cities that vanished, which we’re now starting to understand better.
Here’s an article about a woman who ascended the ranks in Maya politics.
And here’s an article about how an intellectual hub in Iraq revolutionized science.
Phew, that’ll do it for this week. As always, let me know your thoughts!
And until next time, thanks for joining me.
(newish twitter: @jamesofthedrum)
P.S. If you like what you’re seeing, please consider forwarding it to a friend. It would mean a lot! 🙏