🧐 Ancient Beat #55: Hallucinogens, hunter-gatherer economies, and a currency that became art
Hi folks, and welcome to issue #55 of Ancient Beat! I was on the road yesterday so I’m a little late getting this one out.
Wishing you all a very happy Easter, Eostre, Passover, Ramadan, Mahavir Jayanti, Vaisakhi, springtime, normal Saturday, or whatever else you might be celebrating! 😀
Here’s the latest ancient news. 👇
🗞 Ancient News: Top 5
Direct Evidence of the Use of Multiple Drugs in Bronze Age Menorca from Human Hair Analysis — Hair from prehistoric individuals is rare in the Mediterranean region, but archaeologists found some at the cave site of Es Càrritx in Menorca thanks to the hair (which was dyed read) being stored separately in wooden containers. Chemical analysis of the hair, which is thought to be from a shaman, detected the alkaloids ephedrine, atropine, and scopolamine, showing that this individual used alkaloid-bearing plants in the first millennium BCE. Alkaloids have a lot of health benefits. For example, they’re antibacterial and anti-inflammatory. But they’re mostly known as hallucinogens and stimulants. This is an important find because it adds one more data point in the investigation into how long humans have been consuming hallucinogens. And interestingly, the boxes that held the hair had concentric circles which may be eyes that allude to inner vision. One thing I’d like to note here. I saw headlines about “drug-fueled cave raves”, which is really far from the mark IMO. By and large, these types of substances were used for rituals and ceremonies — something with which this study agrees. So you can safely ignore such click-baity titles.
Archaeology Shows How Hunter-Gatherers Fitted into Southern Africa’s First City, 800 Years Ago — Africa’s earliest state-level society and urban city was Mapungubwe. It arose 800 years ago from an early farming society in what is now South Africa. New research found two things: 1. Hunter-gatherers already lived in the area when the society arose, and 2. They were an integral part of the economy and had access to its wealth. That they had access to wealth, the accumulation of which was fundamental to the rise of the Mapungubwe Kingdom, shows that they played a role in the society and economy in ways that weren’t recognized until now. Indeed, trade even seems to have affected what wares the hunter-gatherers crafted, which in turn gave them access to trade wealth like ceramics, glass beads, and metal. The investigation continues as the researchers try to discover whether the hunter-gatherers themselves followed suit and developed a more complex society at this time.
Ancient African Empires' Impact on Migration Revealed by Genetics — A new study found that, “roughly 600 years ago people from north and east Africa were migrating into the region of the Kanem-Bornu Empire, likely reflecting its huge impact on trade across Africa. Historical records of the empire are poor, so it is exciting to show how it possibly had such a geographically widespread impact on the continent, perhaps bringing in people from over 1,000 kilometers away,” according to Nancy Bird. Kanem-Bornu was an empire that spanned 2,000 kilometers and 1,000 years in modern-day Cameroon and Chad. Its impressive trade network led to the presence of genetic traces from all over Africa in present-day Cameroon — in fact, Cameroon has more genetic diversity by some measures than the whole of Europe. The study also found important information about the Kingdom of Aksum. Nancy Bird again, “We see evidence of migrations from the Arabian Peninsula into Sudan during the era of the Kingdom of Aksum, highlighting its importance as a global center around 1,500 years ago. We also see evidence of Arabic groups migrating into Sudan down the Nile, but importantly these genetic signals almost entirely originate after the peace treaty between Makuria and Egypt had started to break down.” And one last thing they found: The migration of Bantu speakers may have gone not only east but west, and probably due to climate change that happened at the same time. According to Garrett Hellenthal, “The African continent has an immense and complicated pre-colonial history often overlooked by western curricula. The legacy of colonialism means that many events in African history have been deliberately obscured or lost. This includes the range and influence of historical African empires.” I covered a study on the Bantu Expansion back in issue #23 if you’d like to go down a rabbit hole this Easter. 🐰
Archaeologists Find Link Between Israel, Kingdom of Sheba — The veracity of the Bible’s assertion that the Queen of Sheba met with King Solomon to confirm tales of his wisdom has been in question for some time, but a new study supports the story. Researchers looked at an inscription on the neck of a large pottery urn that was dated to the time of Solomon. The inscription is in the Sabaean language — Saba being a kingdom in South Arabia that is thought to be one and the same as the biblical Sheba. The urn was made near Jerusalem and the inscription was added before it was put into the kiln, so the Sabaean script wasn’t added elsewhere. Plus, there was incense in the urn, which is something that Shebaites produced. According to Daniel Vainstub, the urn showed, “…the presence of speakers of the language of Sheba in Israel during Solomon’s time, but also about the geopolitical relationship in our region. Mainly in light of the place where the urn was discovered, an area known for being the center of King Solomon’s administrative activity and Jerusalem. This is further evidence of the extensive commercial and cultural ties that existed between Israel under King Solomon and the Kingdom of Sheba.”
Famous Benin Bronzes Were Made of German Brass — The Benin Bronzes are a collection of thousands of African works of art, including Bronze heads, plaques, figurines, and more. Created by the Edo people of Nigeria, they are from between the 16th and 19th centuries. It has been suggested that the metal was sourced from manillas (small brass rings) that were used as currency in trade between Europe and West Africa. And the ore used to create the manillas was thought to have come from Britain or Flanders. But these were just educated guesses until now. A new study’s chemical analysis confirmed that manillas were probably a major source of the metal, as the metal composition is similar to that of manillas found in Portuguese trade prior to the 18th century. Furthermore, these manillas are very similar to ores from German Rhineland, meaning that this may have been the source of the ore (not Britain/Flanders). And lastly, the researchers found that the Edo artists were very selective about the metals they used in their art. It’s worth noting here that this was not the only source of metal, so there is still a big question mark here that the researchers are digging into. This headline was a little more recent than I usually cover, but I like the story — I mean, this metal traveled 4,000 miles and became a currency for trade, then these people took that currency and made art from it. There’s something beautiful about that.
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🗞 Ancient News: Deep Dive
Shields in Viking Ship Burial May Have Been Used in Combat — While it was previously thought that the shields used in Norway’s Gokstad ship burial (900 CE) were purely ceremonial, it turns out that they were functional equipment on the ship that may have been used in combat. This is evidenced primarily by organic material and stitch holes indicating that they were covered in rawhide. They were circular, with tapered wooden boards around a central shield boss. And they were painted yellow and black. So for a little mental imagery, imagine overlapping shields wrapping around a Viking ship, forming yellow and black crescents. Probably looked pretty cool, and more than a little intimidating. I’m just saying, if I’d seen that headed my way, I wouldn’t not have shat my breeches. 😰
Yak Milk Consumption Among Mongol Empire Elites — A new study of ancient dental calculus pinpointed when the elite of the Mongol Empire started drinking yak milk — the 13th century. It’s the first example of yak milk ever recovered from an archaeological context. The find came from the remains of an elite woman who had consumed it in her lifetime. She was buried along with others who were dated to roughly 1200 CE, and the permafrost, which is now melting, preserved the remains. According to Shevan Wilkin, “What is really exciting is that between cows and yaks, there is only a single difference in the amino acid sequence in the most commonly recovered milk protein, and in this case, we were able to recover the part which is specific to yak, Bos mutus.” They also discovered proteins from horse and ruminant milk and blood. Other finds at the site include a silk robe with a dragon on it and a gold Buddha figurine.
Vikings May Have Made Morston Fake Gold Arabic Dinar — A fake Arabic dinar from the 9th century was discovered back in 2021 in Norfolk, England, but it’s making headlines now because researchers have analyzed the unique find. Turns out, it’s not a great counterfeit — the Arabic script isn’t quite right. Vikings did come into contact with the Muslim world, so it’s plausible that this was made by them, and that would add up, as it clearly wasn’t a Muslim who created it. There’s no evidence of Arabic traders in England at the time, though, so it was probably created in Scandinavia and then brought to England.
Archaeologists Uncover 4,500-Year-Old Ritual Weapon Engraved with Tigers — A 4,500-year-old ritual ax was discovered at the site of Dinggeng in Wuxi City, China. It is from the Liangzhu Culture period. The Liangzhu people emerged in 3300 BCE in the Yangtze River Delta and collapsed in 2300 BCE, primarily due to massive flooding. Recent finds at the site include 329 stone tools, 73 stone and bone arrowheads, and plenty of ceramic and jade artifacts. But the stone ax with tigers on one side, and clouds and birds on the other, was the most notable discovery. It was found on a sacrificial platform. Damage suggests that it was actually used in rituals (but probably not in conflict).
Archaeologists Find 12 Severed Hands from Ancient Egypt — Twelve severed hands were recently found buried palm-down in the courtyard of an ancient Egyptian Hyksos palace at the site of Tell el-Dab’a. The palace is from the 15th Dynasty (1640-1530 BCE). This is the first physical proof of hand amputations found in ancient Egypt, though they are seen in some tomb inscriptions. It is unknown whether the individuals were dead when the hands were amputated, but they did find that they were all from adult males. The Hyksos people brought a practice of taking such trophies to Egypt, so that’s probably what happened here.
New Discoveries from Roman Site of North-Western France — A sanctuary, along with several dwellings made of earth and wood, has been discovered in Brittany, France. The sanctuary was probably dedicated to the Roman god of war, Mars, as indicated by dozens of swords and spearheads left as offerings there, as well as a small statuette of the deity. Domestic goods, furniture, billhooks, brooches, (other) weaponry, and coins (both Gallic and Roman) were discovered there as well. It dates to the 4th century CE. A small Gallo-Roman necropolis was also discovered nearby, with 40 burials and funerary objects that included silver bracelets, pins, belt buckles, glass beads, ceramics, traces of shoes, and a pearl necklace.
A Roman Statue Unearthed at the Site of St Polyeuctus’ Church, Which Was Once Constantinople’s Largest Church — A marble statue of Roman origins was discovered at the site of the Church of St. Polyeuctus in Istanbul, Turkey. The head, legs, and arms are missing. It dates to the 2nd century CE. The researchers state that the statue may have been dedicated to Asclepieion, the god of medicine in Greek mythology. I did some digging but wasn’t able to figure out why they think this or why we’re talking about Greek mythology instead of Roman. 🤷♂️
Prehistoric Snake Bones Discovered in South China — 6,000-year-old bones of a Burmese python were discovered in the Zuojiang River basin of China. The snake would have been almost 15 feet long, a record for the species in China. And the bones have signs of butchering and burn marks, so they may shed light on the origins of snake hunting in south China.
DNA Reveals – One Of Sunken Warship Vasa’s Crewmen Was A Woman — When the Swedish warship, Vasa, sank on its maiden voyage in 1628, 30 people died. It was raised in 1961, but only now have researchers confirmed that one of the individuals, labeled “G”, was mislabeled as a man when she was, in fact, a woman. It was already known that women were on board when the ship sank, but now they know that at least one of their bodies was recovered with the ship.
Aboriginal Art and Knowledge Unlocks Mystery of Fairy Circles — This one falls more on the biology side of things, but there’s an important lesson in it that I think is important to remember in archaeology (and life, in general) so I’ll include it. “Fairy Circles” are enigmatic circles that polka-dot some dry, arid landscapes. No one really knew how they were formed, but recent research announced that they’re probably formed by plants competing for resources. Well, now it seems that this was incorrect. After asking Aboriginal individuals in Australia, they were told that they’re formed by underground termites. Simple as that. And research now backs this up. The knowledge had been passed down from generation to generation. And it impacted them greatly, as they would eat these bugs. Just goes to show how important it is to collaborate with, and learn from, indigenous wisdom keepers.
Residence of 8th Century Japanese Prince Toneri Uncovered — An 8th-century imperial residence was recently discovered in Heijo-kyo (today’s city of Nara), which was the capital of Japan during the 8th-century Nara period. It is thought to be the home of Prince Toneri, the son of Emperor Tenmu and Empress Jito. The site is 370 square meters and consists of three main buildings that employ the “hottate-bashira” architectural method wherein massive pillars support a huge structure. Roofing tiles, square holes for the pillars (nearly 5 feet on each side!), and other remnants of the buildings were found. Prince Toneri is best known for compiling “Nihon Shoki”, which is the second oldest book in Japanese classical history, and for his patronage of Buddhism. An apartment building is now being built on top of it.
Mysterious Gold Bronze Age Ring Donated to Norwich Museum — Ok, so the “news” portion of this one isn’t overly interesting — an artifact has been donated to a museum. I usually focus on discoveries, so I almost skipped this one, but the artifact is too cool to skip. It’s a half-inch gold ring from the Bronze Age in a “C” shape. No one knows how or why it was worn. One theory is that it’s a nose ring that didn’t require a piercing. Who knows. Pretty cool though!
Ancient Mummy Labels Help to Reconstruct Climate of Roman Egypt — Labels were attached to mummies during Ptolemaic and Roman periods of Egypt — something like a modern toe tag, except it also identified the family and included a short prayer for the afterlife. They also sometimes served as a substitute for a stela. Some were made of wood, and these wooden labels are helping researchers to understand the climate conditions of the time, thanks to tree rings being wider during times of favorable growth conditions. The researchers have been able to identify indicators of droughts and good years, but they’re still trying to assign dates to these years. If they find a datable specimen in a historical context, they’ll be able to create a data set that will give us a greater understanding of the climate at the time. And if not, there’s always radiocarbon dating, though that won’t be as exact and it would require special permission since it is invasive.
❤️ Recommended Content
As a (new) dad, I feel it’s my duty to share this ancient Roman dad joke that was discovered in a papyrus scroll dated to 44 BCE: “Did you hear the rumor about butter? Well, I'm not going to spread it.” 🙄 They weren’t so different from us after all.
In the spirit of Easter, here’s an article that dives into six ancient resurrection stories.
Here’s an article about Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt, an archaeologist who lived a life like something out of Indiana Jones. She protected treasures from Nazis, survived interrogation by the Gestapo (as a spy), made major discoveries at a time when French archaeology was an exclusive boy’s club, and was just generally a badass. To quote her, “You don’t get anywhere without a fight. If I became a brawler, it was out of necessity.”
Here’s an article about how the stories of individuals — stories that were lost to slavery —are being relearned and honored in Charleston, South Carolina, thanks to DNA analysis and other methods.
Here’s an interesting article about how ancient peoples in Mesoamerica treated ruins, reminding us that they had their own past as well. And in most cases, they didn’t look at them as dilapidated ruins, but as sacred places worthy of respect.
This article tells the story of William R. Royal, an amateur who found prehistoric remains in a sinkhole in Florida. In short, he found stalactites in a cave 70 feet underwater, indicating that it hadn’t always been underwater. The last time this would have been possible was 6,000 years ago, and at the time, humans weren’t supposed to have arrived in Florida until 3,500 years ago. Needless to say, he got a lot of grief when he announced that he had found human remains (including brain tissue) in the cave. The remains were later dated to between 7,140 and 7,580 years ago. And another set of remains dated to 11,900 years ago. The article goes on to talk more about underwater archaeology.
Thanks, everyone, I hope you have a wonderful weekend!
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