🧐 Ancient Beat #61: Biome diversity, a 45-foot petroglyph, and the world's oldest (precise) blueprints
Hi folks! Welcome to issue #61 of Ancient Beat. Wanna hear something crazy? I was looking at the stats of Ancient Beat and we have readers in 69 countries and 49 US states! I really did not expect that, and I am thrilled to have folks reading this all over the world. So wherever you are, thanks for tuning in!
Here’s the latest ancient news. 👇
🗞 Ancient News: Top 5
Stone Engravings of Mysterious Ancient Megastructures May Be World's Oldest 'Blueprints' — Two engravings previously discovered in Saudi Arabia and Jordan are now thought to be blueprints of ancient desert kites, according to a recent study. Desert kites are low stone walls that make various shapes (like stars). They are thought to have been huge traps for wild animals — sometimes miles long — and there are over 6,000 of them in the Middle East and Central Asia. Check out issue #28 for more on the topic. Anyway, according to Rémy Crassard, “The amazing discovery is that the plans are to scale. [The kites/engravings are] constrained by shape, by symmetry, and by dimensions. We had no idea that people at that time were able to do that with such accuracy.” That’s really something. The researchers say the engravings and respective kites were made at about the same time (7,000-8,000 years ago). We know of some construction plans for buildings and boats in Egypt and Mesopotamia, as well as some rough schematics from the Stone Age, but nothing this precise. It should be noted, however, that these engravings could also be maps of pre-existing kites used in rituals or for planning hunts, as opposed to being blueprints.
300,000-Year-Old Footprints Uncovered in Germany — Dating to 300,000 years ago, the oldest known human footprints in Germany were discovered in Lower Saxony. They probably belong to Homo heidelbergensis. And since the footprints included those of two youngins, it looks to be a family outing. There were also footprints of an extinct elephant and rhinoceros — the first footprint of either animal to have been found in Europe. I always love reading about footprints… there’s just something so personal about them. I can’t help but think about what those folks were up to. If you’re as interested as I am, I covered other footprints that were found in issues #22, #32, and #37.
Giant Petroglyph Carving Found Hidden Under Moss in Sweden — Archaeologists noticed a part of what looked like a ship beneath a layer of moss on a rock slab in a pasture in Sweden. After removing the moss, they found a 45-foot petroglyph with 40 figures, including 13 ships, 9 horses, 7 people, and 4 chariots. According to Andreas Toreld, “These are very large things, including a two-meter ship and a person over one meter in height. The figures are well-carved and deep. The motifs are not unique, but the location on an almost vertical outcrop is unusual.” The petroglyph dates to the 7th or 8th century BCE. At the time, the rock face was part of an island and it appears that the creators carved it from a boat.
Early Humans in Europe Were Making Fires at Least 250,000 Years Ago — According to a new study, humans in Europe were making and controlling fire 250,000 years ago, which is 50,000 years earlier than previously thought. The researchers found a ring of fires encircling something (possibly a sleeping area or animal enclosure) as well as evidence that fire was used for cooking, warmth, and defense. They also chose specific types of wood for their burning properties (heat, lack of smoke, etc.). According to Clayton Magill, “This is important because our species is defined by our use of fire. Being able to cook food to feed our big brains is one of the things that made us so successful in an evolutionary sense. Fire also brings protection and fosters communication and family connection. And we now have definitive, incontrovertible evidence that humans were starting and stopping fires in Europe about 50,000 years earlier than we suspected.” There is evidence of fire being controlled by Homo erectus 1.5-2 million years ago — possibly even as far back as 3 million years ago. And I covered new evidence of 1-million-year-old fire control in issue #16. But this is the oldest evidence in Europe.
Human Ancestors Preferred Mosaic Landscapes and High Ecosystem Diversity — Researchers used well-dated human fossils and sites combined with climate and vegetation model simulations covering the last 3 million years to reveal what types of biomes (savannah, rainforest, etc.) were favored by hominins (including Homo sapiens). They found that earlier African groups preferred open environments like grassland. After hominins migrated to Eurasia 1.8 million years ago, Homo erectus, heidelbergensis, and neanderthalensis gained tolerances for other biomes like forests. According to Pasquale Raia, “To survive as forest-dwellers, these groups developed more advanced stone tools and likely also social skills.” Eventually, Homo sapiens emerged and we were so adaptable that we were able to survive in biomes like deserts and tundra. That part is strange to me because my understanding is that Neanderthals were able to handle cold climates before we were. 🤷♂️ Anyway, the researchers also noted that human occupations sites clustered around regions with high biome diversity. According to Elke Zeller, “Our analysis shows the crucial importance of landscape and plant diversity as a selective element for humans and as a potential driver for socio-cultural developments.” In other words, this indicates that ecosystem diversity played a key role in human evolution. Really makes ya think about all those old-growth biomes we’re cutting down.
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🗞 Ancient News: Deep Dive
South Africa's Desert-Like Interior May Have Been More Inviting to Our Human Ancestors — Between 195,000 and 123,000 years ago there was a glacial phase called Marine Isotope Stage Six (MIS6), and many believed that the only Homo sapiens to survive this time were those who lived in a chain of caves that were surrounded by lush landscape in the Cape of South Africa. Apparently, little research in this regard has been conducted on the interior of South Africa, as it was thought to be uninhabited and inhospitable, at least during the waves of MIS3 and MIS2. But a new study says it might have actually been more fertile and temperate during this ice age than previously thought. According to the researchers, humans probably lived around a series of inland paleolakes, and there is plenty of evidence of habitation to back this. The dried-up lakes were dated to the same period, showing that it was not as dry as was previously thought, as rainfall and humidity would have been needed to keep the lakes from drying up. That means there was vegetation, which means there were animals and probably humans. It was previously thought that the climate and nutrient stability (which included omega fatty acids) of the coast allowed humans to become behaviorally modern, but it seems like they were able to do this inland as well. There’s a lot more in the article about exactly what their analysis found and how they found it, so check out the article if you’d like to get technical.
Humans Were Kissing At Least 4500 Years Ago, Reveal Ancient Texts — There has been a lot of debate around when humans started smooching. Some say the earliest evidence was in Sanskrit texts from India 3,500 years ago. But there is also evidence of humans and Neanderthals making out tens of thousands of years ago (as evidenced by their plaque). And heck, bonobos even kiss each other while getting it on. So I think it’s safe to say that it goes way back. But I digress. A review of ancient texts showed that romantic kissing was practiced in Mesopotamia and Egypt 4,500+ years ago. This pushes the generally accepted date back by at least 1,000 years. Multiple accounts have been found, all mentioning the topic offhandedly as if it was commonplace. The researchers suggest that kissing started independently in many places instead of spreading everywhere from one place. Interestingly, people who could read cuneiform have been aware of this for decades, but it wasn’t known by the general scientific community. I covered a study way back in issue #22 about how modern herpes variants may have come from Bronze-Age kissing in Europe after it had come from Asia.
Enigmatic 7,000-year-old Figurine Found In Italian Cave Shocks Archaeologists — If you’ve been reading the Beat for a while now, you’ll know that I have a particular fascination with springs and caves as sacred spaces for ancient peoples. Well, Italy’s Battifratta Cave checks both boxes. The spring at its entrance is thought to have been used for ritualistic purposes in the past, and deep within it, a rare clay figurine was found. It dates to 7,000 years ago and is feminine in form. The figurine is suspected to be associated with agriculture and fertility because at the time, the first farming communities on the peninsula inhabited the area. It is unknown which culture created it so the researchers are looking for iconographic signatures.
Archaeologists Discover 4,000-Year-Old Temple in Western Peru — A 4,000-year-old U-shaped temple was discovered at the site of Miraflores in Peru. Cult activities have been identified at the pyramidal structure… and if you’re wondering how something can be both U-shaped and pyramidal, it’s because there is a central pyramidal structure flanked by two long, rectangular buildings, making a “U”. This is typical of this type of temple in Peru. They also found the oldest (and largest, according to some sources) complete chacana (cross symbol) ever found in the Andes. This engraving shows that the symbol was used continuously from at least 4,000 years ago up to the Inca period. Here’s a video with more information if you’d like to take a closer look.
Scholars Expound on Mount Ebal Curse Tablet with Oldest Hebrew Text — A 3,200-year-old lead curse tablet was discovered a couple of years ago at Mount Ebal in the West Bank, and new analysis says that it is the oldest Hebrew text ever found in ancient Israel, by about 200 years. According to Scott Stripling, “The big point here is that we have evidence of Hebrew writing in Israel earlier than has previously been established, as well as mention of two of names of the Hebrew God, all from the site where the Bible said Joshua built an altar.”
3,000-Year-Old Bakery — Still Covered in Flour — Unearthed in Armenia — A white powder that was originally thought to be ash was discovered during the excavation of a large building at the site of Metsamor in Armenia. Turns out, it’s actually 3,000-year-old flour (several sacks worth) and they’re excavating a large-scale bakery. The building probably started as a public building before furnaces were added and folks got to baking delicious things. The inhabitants of Metsamor had no written language and they remain somewhat mysterious — check out the article for more information on them. I covered another find (a tomb with gold and carnelian jewelry) at Metsamor in issue #50. And yeah, I know muffins weren’t a thing back then, but this discovery makes me want to scrounge up a muffin.
Secrets in the Crawl Space Below Norway’s Oldest Cathedral — Back in 1967, an archaeologist went into a crawl space beneath the oldest cathedral in Norway: Stavanger Cathedral. In what sounds like a harrowing experience of his light going out and getting lost with nothing but rocks and human bones to keep him company, he learned that there were hallways, chambers, and burials under the church floor. More recently, archaeologists began excavating and they’ve now reported their results. They found the remains of over 30 skeletons from the 8th to 12th centuries. The burials were probably there back when there was a wooden church on the site, prior to the cathedral. According to Haldis Hobæk, “Our findings strengthen the interpretation that Stavanger was already a place with a certain status and social function in the Viking Age and up until the cathedral was built.”
DNA Study Shows Migration Patterns of Ancient Mexican Civilizations Much More Complex Than Expected — It was previously thought that there were several long-term droughts that forced people to move from northern Mexico to the south. But according to a new genetic analysis, the migration patterns of ancient Mexican civilizations were more complex than that, and these expected migrations did not actually take place. There were droughts, sure, but folks stayed put. Why? According to the researchers, they may have decided to endure the drought because of cinnabar commerce. The mineral was plentiful up north and sacred down south, so trade was likely.
Ancient Romans Sacrificed Birds to the Goddess Isis, Burnt Bones in Pompeii Reveal — The remains of at least birds were found at the temple of Isis in Pompeii. To be exact, there were eight chickens, a goose, a turtle dove, a pig, two clams, and possibly more birds. All we’re missing is a partridge in a pear tree. 🥁 The researchers believe these may be remnants of a ritual banquet where the birds were eaten in order to placate the goddess when they downsized her temple. The priests would have eaten some of it and left the rest for Isis. The temple’s renovations were made after an earthquake in 62 CE and Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, so it would have happened within that window. This discovery shows the importance of birds in the rituals of the cult of Isis, which became established in Roman society by the 1st century CE.
Ancient Roman-Era Marble Cargo Shipwreck Found by Israeli Beachgoer — A swimmer found a Roman-era shipwreck that was carrying marble off of Yanai Beach in Israel. The shipment itself was known about, but its location was not. The marble includes Corinthian columns decorated with capitals. The ship was probably en route to a temple or theater in a southern port city like Gaza, Ashkelon, or Alexandria. The ship would have been large, judging by the cargo.
Bronze Age Long-Distance Connections: Baltic Amber In Aššur — According to a recent paper, two beads that were found in a foundation deposit of Iraq’s great ziggurat of Aššur back in 1914 have now been identified as Baltic amber. The beads date to roughly 1800 BCE. This makes them some of the earliest specimens of amber in southwest Asia, and some of the most distant from the origin point of the Baltic region. It wasn’t until after the Únetice culture ended around 1550 BCE, that trade became better established and amber was more widely available. So these beads may have been gifts from well-traveled people from Central or Western Europe to elites of the area. Fun fact: These beads were actually two of several thousand beads of shell, stone, glass, and pottery that were discovered on the bedrock beneath the first layer of mudbricks. Any ideas about why all these beads were placed there prior to the ziggurat being built? I’m stumped. Offerings at a sacred site before the ziggurat was even a twinkle in an architect’s eye? Or perhaps offerings specifically for this large architectural undertaking? Interested to hear your thoughts!
Metal Detectorists Stumble on 1,600-Year-Old Treasure — and Find Forgotten Roman Site — A pair of metal detectorists discovered a cache of copper Roman coins dating to the late 3rd century in Caerwent, Wales. Another hoard of coins had previously been found in the same field, so they surveyed the field and found evidence of what was likely an unknown settlement or religious site.
Israeli Archaeologists Find 2,000-Year-Old Financial Record in Jerusalem — A fragment of a limestone tablet was discovered in a trench in Jerusalem. The tablet, which contains an inscription dating to the Early Roman period, had been excavated 120 years ago but was apparently not noticed by the archaeologists. The inscription is in Hebrew and, though the text is fragmented, it likely includes a name, as well as letters and numbers that define monetary values. Thus, it is suggested that this was a financial record or a receipt. And this is backed up by the fact that it was found along the “stepped street”, on which the ruins of many shops have been found. Other such receipts have been discovered in the region before, but this is the first found in the heart of the city. Interestingly, the stone may have originally been part of the lid of an ossuary, where a person’s bones would have been kept. Perhaps the lid broke and was then repurposed.
Roman Incense Container Unearthed in Northern England — Traces of a Roman village and foundry have been discovered in Cockermouth, England. The traces include coins, pottery, a stone figurine of a nude male, a stone figurine of a seated Fortuna (Roman goddess of luck), and a copper alloy balsamarium (incense/oil container) in the form of a bust of Bacchus (Roman god of wine). According to Julie Shoemark, “This is an exceptionally rare find, being one of only a handful excavated in Britain to date. We previously had an exquisite steelyard weight depicting Silenus, the satyr companion of Bacchus, so we now have a nice group of finds carrying the running theme of agriculture and fertility, which would have been central to the lives of this community.”
Archaeologists Analyze Remains of Roman Purse Found in Merida — A purse was discovered in the private baths at the site of the high-status domus known as Casa del Mitreo in Merida, Spain. It’s the second example of a purse ever found in the Iberian Peninsula. It was made of Egyptian linen, so either the purse or the fabric used to make it was imported. The coins date the purse to the 3rd century, not long before the domus was abandoned.
Hero of Trojan War Aeneas's Peerless Mosaic Discovered in Turkey — A 3rd-century mosaic was uncovered during construction in Osmaniye, Turkey. It depicts the Trojan hero, Aeneas, who was the protagonist in Virgil’s “Aeneid” riding a horse and holding a spear while hunting lions. Dido, the founder of Carthage is depicted with him.
Iranian Farmers Grew Rice Some 3,000 Years Ago, Archaeologists Find — New research found ancient rice grains in the Mazandaran region of Iran, showing that rice cultivation began in the region at least 3,000 years ago. Also found during excavations were pottery, architectural remains, burials, stone tools, cow figurines, and bronze objects. I covered other rice discoveries (who knew rice could be so interesting?) in issues #13 and #52. Fun fact: The earliest evidence for rice cultivation is from eastern China and dates to 7,000-5,000 BCE.
Remains of Two Men Thought to Have Died in Pompeii Volcano Earthquake Discovered — The remains of two men were discovered in the Roman city of Pompeii. It appears as though the wall of the building they were in collapsed during an earthquake that accompanied the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
Unusual Bronze Dagger Discovered in Poland — A metal detectorist discovered a 3,500-year-old bronze dagger in Lublin, Poland. According to Pawel Wira, “It is not a local product, the item most likely came here from today’s Hungary, Czechia, Austria or Slovakia—from the Danube area.”
Titanic: First ever full-sized scans reveal wreck as never seen before — This is way too modern for this newsletter, but it’s too cool to bypass. New 3D imaging made up of 700,000 images allows you to take a tour of the most famous wreck of all time. At a minimum, have a look at this computer-generated image. It’s something else.
Archaeology Students Unveil 16th-Century Fortress at Arenberg Castle — Students discovered a 16th-century fortress while excavating Arenberg Castle in Heverlee, Belgium. From the foundations, they were able to ascertain that it consisted of a residential tower with rampart walls 6 feet thick. Cannon niches were found within the walls.
Neolithic Finds at Cambridgeshire Quarry — Several clusters of Neolithic pits containing flint and pottery were discovered in Cambridgeshire, England. Some contained Peterborough Ware, which is a decorated pottery style from 3500-3000 BCE. And perhaps the most important discovery was a complete Grooved Ware pot that would have been from between 2900 and 2400 BCE.
Bronze-Age Burnt Mound Complex Uncovered at Suffolk Site — A Bronze-Age burnt mound complex, three Iron-Age roundhouses, and some medieval activity were discovered in Suffolk, England. “Burnt mounds” are flattened mounds formed by burnt stones that once functioned as potboilers to heat water. No one is quite sure what they were, but the stones may have been used for saunas and bathing, or dyeing, leather treatment, cooking, etc.
Surprising Diversity of Ethnic Groups in the US Virgin Islands Before Columbus — It has been unclear how and when the US Virgin Islands of St. Croix, St. John, and St. Thomas were originally populated, with the leading theory being that immigrants from modern-day Venezuela went to the islands in three waves. But thermoluminescence dating on pottery sherds from the islands contradicts this. According to Lund Rasmussen, “Our data suggests that multiple cultures were present in the same location simultaneously or at least in close proximity to each other, enabling them to engage in trade. This contradicts to some extent the theory of three major waves of immigration from south to north. It appears to be more of a multitude of different styles that prevailed simultaneously at almost all locations.”
Genome Data Sheds Light on How Homo Sapiens Arose in Africa — A new genomic study is shedding light on how Homo sapiens emerged and dispersed across Africa before leaving the continent. The research showed that multiple ancestral groups from all over Africa migrated from one region to another and mixed with each other for hundreds of thousands of years, and this contributed to the emergence of Homo sapiens. In other words, according to the study, sapiens did not come from a single region in Africa, as was previously thought. According to Aaron Ragsdale, “…There was ongoing or at least recurrent migration between groups, and this maintained genetic similarity across ancestral populations.”
❤️ Recommended Content
The Onion with another great headline: Signs Of Trauma On Neolithic Skeleton Indicate Early Humans’ Lifestyle Far More Slapstick Than Previously Thought 😂
Here’s an interesting article about mustatils, which I covered issue #52, and how they should not be considered a subset of desert kites. They are a different form of monument designed for religious purposes.
I thought this thread about the things archaeologists are tired of hearing was pretty entertaining. My favorite: “Is this anything? I think it’s an arrowhead [hands me a literal rock]. When I politely inform them that it isn’t: Well, you can’t prove that it wasn’t used for an arrow.” Runner up: “Haven't they found everything already?”
Here’s an article about how the industrial-scale production of tar enabled the Vikings’ long-distance raiding missions around Europe — it enabled them to waterproof their ships. In short, a researcher found that, “Output from tar pits in Scandinavia increased dramatically just as Vikings began raiding other parts of Europe.”
If you want to learn where a bunch of commonplace items originally came from, here’s a cute little listicle about ancient inventions that we still use today and their origins.
Here’s an article about Scotland’s place in the Roman world. It refutes the idea that Romans weren’t overly interested in Scotland and, instead, shows that they were persistently trying to defeat the Caledonian tribes.
Here’s a video about the causeway to the Khafre Pyramid. In it, Matt breaks down the arguments and demonstrates that it may not be part of Khafre’s pyramid plan, as Egyptologists believe. According to one argument, it may have actually been the first feature of the Giza plateau — before the pyramids. Interesting, regardless of which side of the fence you’re on.
Well, that’ll do it for this week. Thank you, paid members, I really appreciate you! As always, let me know your thoughts!