🧐 Ancient Beat #63: Neanderthal chemists, the oldest Homo sapiens footprint, and pushing back the dawn of Greek archaeology
Hi folks, welcome to issue #63 of Ancient Beat! I hope you’re all doing wonderfully. I had a nice week off with my family, and now I’m back at it. 😀 Lots of good stuff to cover this week, so let’s get right into it.
Here’s the latest ancient news. 👇
🗞 Ancient News: Top 5
Neanderthals Dabbled In Chemistry, Ancient Glue Reveals — As far back as 200,000 years ago, Neanderthals were making birch tar, a type of adhesive made from birch bark. Until now, the jury was out on how exactly they made it. Some said it probably happened by accident while burning birch bark, others said Neanderthals actually built subterranean structures just to make the stuff. Well, a new study compared tar recovered from the Neanderthal site of Königsaue in Germany with samples created by the researchers using Stone Age techniques, and they found that tar produced underground contained higher levels of a polymer called suberin. And wouldn’t ya know it, the Königsaue samples were rich in suberin too. They then looked closer and found that the chemical signatures were consistent as well. Because of this, the researchers believe that Neanderthals did indeed use underground chambers in order to restrict oxygen flow — something which obviously required a great deal of knowledge and ingenuity. According to the researchers, “If, however, the Königsaue pieces were made with a method including invisible underground processes and intentionally created low-oxygen environments, such a finding would imply that Neanderthals invented or developed a technical process for transforming their material world. This, in turn, would provide valuable insight into their cognitive and cultural capabilities.” Fun fact: Birch tar is the oldest synthetic substance ever discovered.
Newly Discovered Stone Tools Drag Dawn of Greek Archaeology Back by a Quarter-Million Years — A 700,000-year-old site has been discovered deep in an open coal mine in Greece, making it the oldest archaeological site in Greece by a quarter of a million years. It contains rough stone tools as well as remains of extinct giant deer, elephants, hippopotamus, rhinoceros, and macaques. The site may have been used by Homo antecessor, possibly for food processing. According to the researchers, “[It’s] one of the oldest sites in Europe that have tools characteristic of the so-called Middle Paleolithic tool industry, suggesting that Greece may have played a significant role in [stone] industry developments in Europe.” As if Greece wasn’t already rich enough in its archaeology! Fun fact: This region is known for its large fossils (like that giant deer I mentioned), and many of the bones dug up there in the past were thought to be those of giants who fought the gods of Mount Olympus.
Archaeologists Discover Cave Paintings Using Drones — Using small drones, a new project is examining inaccessible mountain rock shelters. Two of 18 shelters were found to display rock art in Castellet-Barranc del Salt ravine and Port de Penáguila, Spain. The art dates to roughly 7,000 years ago, and includes anthropomorphic archers, deer, and goats. Some of the animals appear to have been wounded with arrows. They also found a schematic design, the meaning of which is unknown. After being found by the drones, climbers went in to confirm the discovery. Crazy that modern-day climbers with all their gadgets and doodads had to be called in to get to where ancient people were just hanging out doing art. I wonder why they were up there instead of in a more accessible place — perhaps it was a special place for them. The researchers think this exciting new approach of viewing remote areas will bring many new discoveries in years to come.
2,700-Year-Old Saddle Found in China — One of the oldest saddles ever found has been discovered in Yanghai, China. It dates to between 700 and 400 BCE. The saddle was made out of two cowhide cushions filled with a mixture of deer/camel hair and straw. It was found in the grave of a woman who may have been from the pastoralist Subeixi culture. It was positioned so that it looked like she was sitting on it. Saddles are thought to have come into play in the middle of the first millennium BCE, making this one of the first. According to Patrick Wertmann, “Saddles helped people to ride longer distances, hence leading to more interaction between different peoples.” One of these peoples may have been the famous Scythians, as the Subeixi culture had many similarities with them. I covered the Scythians in issues #42 and #27. Fun fact: Folks started riding horses (probably bareback) at least 5,000 years ago, as discussed in issue #51.
World’s Oldest Homo Sapiens Footprint Identified On South Africa’s Cape South Coast — A study used optically stimulated luminescence to date the seven most recently discovered hominin ichnosites (sites with fossilized footprints or other fossil traces) in South Africa. Of the footprints that they found, the most recent dates to 71,000 years ago. The oldest? It dates to a whopping 153,000 years ago which, by the way, makes it the oldest Homo sapiens footprint ever discovered. The footprints were all formed in rocks called eolianites, which are basically ancient dunes that have been cemented. I wonder what that person was up to and where they were headed.
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🗞 Ancient News: Deep Dive
Egypt Unearths Mummification Workshops, Tombs in Ancient Burial Ground — Two large embalming workshops for human and animal mummification were discovered in Saqqara, Egypt. They date to the 30th dynasty (380-343 BCE) and the Ptolemaic (305-30 BCE) era. Within the workshops, stone beds, clay pots, ritual vessels, natron salt, mummification instruments, and linens were found. Two tombs with engravings were also found nearby, dating to 4,400 and 3,400 years ago. I covered another embalming workshop where researchers found recipes for embalming in issue #46.
Elusive Non-Binary Gender in Prehistoric Europe — A new study analyzed sex and gender data from 1,000 burials from Neolithic and Bronze-Age Germany, Austria, and Italy. They found that 10% of the individuals did not fit into a binary norm of males having masculine grave goods and females having feminine grave goods. Furthermore, they found that the sexes and genders of the individuals studied could only actually be determined about 30% of the time. According to Eleonore Pape, “What these numbers tell us is that historically, we can no longer frame non-binary persons as 'exceptions' to a rule, but rather as 'minorities', who could have been formally acknowledged, protected, and even revered.” The researchers admit that their results could be interpreted in a number of ways and are by no means conclusive. That said, from my own research into “shamanic” type practices in ancient cultures, I’ve learned that gender fluidity actually seems to have been quite common, at least within this specific subset of people — a subset that did indeed seem to be revered.
Archaeologist Suggests Location of Legendary Viking Settlement of Jomsborg — The near-legendary lost stronghold of the Jomsvikings, Jomsborg, may have been located in Poland. Jomsvikings were Viking mercenaries who appeared in Icelandic sagas in the 12th and 13th centuries. Recent excavations of a place called Hangmen’s Hill have revealed charred traces of ramparts from the 10th century, and this, according to some, is the location of the Jomsborg stronghold. Investigation is ongoing. Jomsborg was apparently built by the famous Danish king, Harald Bluetooth during the 960s. It was destroyed in 1043 by the Dano-Norwegian king, Magnus the Good.
Despite the Dangers, Early Humans Risked Life-Threatening Flintknapping Injuries — Researchers surveyed modern flintknappers (folks who create flint points) to understand exactly how dangerous it is. They found that injuries are common, and would have been life-threatening before modern medicine. Some examples that were shared even required a tourniquet, and one case permanently disabled the artisan. According to Metin Eren, “They literally would have risked life and limb to make stone tools during a period without Band-Aids, antibiotics or hospitals. But despite those injury costs, past peoples made stone tools anyway – the benefits provided must have been immense.” Virtually no part of the body was safe — eyes, hands, legs, feet, lungs… even testicles. And I understand how the latter could happen in the times of loincloths (and no loincloths), but I’m having some trouble understanding how it’s happening to flintknappers today. So in case anyone needs to hear this: You should probably wear pants when dealing with sharp weapons. Anywho, the researchers also make the point that stone tools would have required social learning, and they are therefore some of the oldest evidence of social learning that we’ve found.
Discovered Shell Beads Shed New Light On Stone Age Seafaring — Ornamental beads made from shells that were found at Kaylu rock shelter on the shore of the Caspian Sea were analyzed in a recent study. Kaylu rock shelter was used from the late Mesolithic into the Neolithic — essentially right around the time of the transition from hunting and gathering to herding and farming 11,500 years ago. These particular beads were different from those found at other sites around the Caspian Sea, indicating a different route of cultural diffusion. The results suggest that cultural traditions spread around the northern coastline independently of the inland route. Interestingly, it could also indicate Stone Age seafaring. According to Solange Rigaud, “Seafaring contacts between these communities may have granted the rapid circulation of specific bead-types—along with people, information, knowledge and symbols—from either side of the Caspian Sea by long maritime voyages.”
Proof that Part of the Roman Empire Smelled of Patchouli — Back in 2019, a 2,000-year-old vessel carved out of quartz was discovered, and it was still perfectly sealed. It was found in a funerary urn in a mausoleum in Carmona, Spain. In the vessel, there was an ointment, and the chemical components have been identified: The base was a vegetable oil, and the essence was patchouli, which comes from an Indian plant and was not known to be used by Romans.
Archaeologists Uncover Giant Bronze Age Barrow Cemetery — Roughly 20 barrows were found near Salisbury, England during preparation for a housing development. Round barrows usually have a central burial chamber, a mound, and a ditch. They can date as far back as the Neolithic, but most were built during the Beaker and Early Bronze Age (2400-1500 BCE). At least one of the barrows dates back to the Neolithic, but it was later modified. It contained a mass grave as well as a cache of red deer antlers which would have been used to make tools. Another two graves had Beaker burials. Saxon features, including preserved timbers, iron knife blades, ceramics, and a cultivation terrace were also found.
When Did Plague Reach Britain? Archaeologists Find Earliest Victims — According to a new study, the plague bacteria, Yersinia pestis, reached Britain 4,000 years ago, 2,000 years after it first appeared in Eurasia. They detected it in 3 of 34 bodies from multiple sites in Britain, all dating to the same time period. The severity of the plague at that time is unclear.
Archaeologists Excavate Earliest Greek Iron Age House Ever Found in Thorikos — A large house from the 9th or 10th century BCE was discovered at an established Mycenaean site in Greece. It is the oldest still-standing structure found in the region. It consists of five or six rooms, including a large inner courtyard. The building was built during the Greek Dark Age, but the building practices show that Mycenaean knowledge had, to some degree, been preserved. Other discoveries were made at the site previously, including domed tombs, homes, factories, religious sanctuaries, a theater, and a cemetery.
2,500-Year-Old Poop from Jerusalem Toilets Contain Oldest Evidence of Dysentery Parasite — Fecal samples were taken from two fancy 2,500-year-old toilets found in Jerusalem. The researchers found traces of a parasite known as Giardia duodenalis, or “traveler’s diarrhea”, which spreads through contaminated food and water. Without going into too much detail, it doesn’t sound like a fun bug to catch. This is the oldest evidence of this particular protozoan in human feces, though there are medical texts from Mesopotamia that referred to the general problem of diarrhea 4,000 years ago. The toilets were found previously at elite residences dating to the 7th and 6th centuries BCE. They’re made out of carved stones with a couple of small holes, and they were located above a cesspit. Yuck. Moving on.
Fascinating Portable Art from Torre Cave, Gipuzkoa — A decorated bone from a northern gannet that was discovered in 1966 in Torre Cave at the site of Gipuzkoa in Spain has been reanalyzed. The researchers used new techniques to analyze the engravings with greater precision, and they even found some previously undetected ones. The engravings include deer and ibex, which were favorite game animals, but also animals like horses, chamois, and aurochs. The analysis showed that the engravings were first traced, then carved into the bone with a stone several times, then decorations like short lines and notches were added later. The function of the bone remains debated. It could be a needle container, whistle, airbrush, ritual object, etc. etc. According to the researchers, “…by analyzing the engravings, we have observed similarities in the process, especially of the engraved animals, with other Magdalenian sites on the Cantabrian Coast and in the Pyrenees, which corroborates exchanges of technical and iconographic behavior.”
Skeletons of Two Women and Child are Newest Victims Found at Pompeii — The remains of three individuals who had been taking shelter in a bakery during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius were found in Pompeii. A structure with two frescos was also found, one depicting Poseidon and Amymone, and the other showing Apollo and Daphne.
Construction Workers Spot ‘Toolmarks’ on Stones and Uncover Ancient Site in Malta — While digging a trench, construction workers in Malta found toolmarks and rock-cut surfaces, and it turns out they found an ancient quarry. Archaeologists later found several large stone blocks partially cut and awaiting extraction from the bedrock. The site dates to somewhere between the 3rd century BCE and the 5th century CE.
Unique and Priceless Large Roman Sculptures Found at Carlisle Cricket Club — Two sandstone heads of Roman origin have been located in Carlisle, England. They’re in near-perfect condition and they each stand about two feet high. The full statues would have been between 12 and 15 feet high. The heads were apparently abandoned on the side of a cobbled Roman road. They date as far back as 200 CE and may depict Emperor Septimus Severus and Empress Julia Domna. More than 1,000 other artifacts, including pottery, weapons, coins, and semi-precious stones, have been discovered at the site, and they anticipate more to come.
Archaeologists Find 3,200-Year-Old Settlement in Northwest China — Large, rammed-earth buildings, as well as tombs, ash pits, and pottery molds have been discovered at a site called Zhaigou in China. They also found lots of burial offerings, including bronze chariots and horses, jade ware, bone ware, lacquerware, and tortoise shells. The discoveries date to the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE). And the similarities to finds at the Shang Dynasty site of Yinxu confirm that the Shang Dynasty strongly influenced the surrounding areas and had a relationship with this particular region.
Paddle Recovered From Chancay Culture Tomb in Peru — A tomb dating to between 1,200 and 1,400 years ago was discovered at the site of Matacón cemetery in Peru. Five individuals were sacrificed and buried with the deceased individual, as were four llamas. They also found 25 vessels and a paddle.
Family Building a House in Northern Israel Destroys 1,800-Year-Old Burial Cave — While building a home, folks in northern Israel discovered a burial cave dating to 1,800 years ago. They failed to report it, then proceeded to destroy it. Another was also found on site, but thankfully, it was not destroyed. The caves had been carved out of rock, and three ossuaries (stone boxes that held bones), glass vessels, glass beads, and clay candle holders were also found
Teen Metal Detectorist Scouring Field with Mom Finds Viking-Era Artifact — A teenager found a Viking-era hollow ax while metal detecting on the island of Bolsøya, Norway. As a result, the site is now being excavated. So far, nails, rivets, a 150-year-old Swedish coin, and a musket ball have been found.
Over 1,000 Artifacts from Angkor Era Found at Angkor Archaeological Park — Archaeologists have discovered 1,055 artifacts through excavations at an ancient temple near Srah Srang, a reservoir in Angkor, Cambodia. The artifacts include Buddha statues and 103 contemporary works of art made from metal. They date to roughly the 12th century.
Study Finds Evidence of Legio X Fretensis in Georgia — Evidence of the Legio X Fretensis (AKA “tenth legion of the Strait”) has been discovered in Adjara, Georgia. The Legio X Fretensis was a Roman legion that was formed around 40 BCE and played a big role in the Great Jewish Revolt and the assault on the Herodium, among other conflicts. The discovery came in the form of hundreds of bronze coins at the Fort of Asparos. The coins are countermarked, meaning that additional marks were punched into the coins while they were already in circulation. Long story short, these countermarks belonged to this legion.
One Pilate Ring to Confuse Them All — A 2,000-year-old ring was found at the site of Herodium in the West Bank back in the 1960s, and researchers who deciphered the ring in 2018 said that it may have belonged to Pontius Pilate, the alleged crucifier of Jesus. The ring depicts a krater (clay pot) and the Greek letters ПI (pi) and ɅATO (lato) — so Pilato, or Pilate. But the researchers at the time did note that it could have simply belonged to someone in his administration, family, or maybe even a freed slave. Now, new research shows that it is very unlikely to have belonged to Pontius Pilate, as the ring is made of low-quality copper instead of gold, and a Jewish-style krater just doesn’t make sense. Furthermore, it isn’t in Latin, as would be expected from a Roman official, and Roman names are comprised of three components, not two. Instead, the researchers suggest that ɅATO refers to a quarry or the profession of stone-cutting, and ПI is either an abbreviation of a name, or it could stand for “pittakion”. So it may have referred to the Pittakiarch, the leader of the Pittakion, a collective of landowners. But at the end of the day, the researchers have no idea — they’re really just saying that the Pilate idea doesn’t hold any water.
Rare Ancient Drawings Offer Evidence Moluccan Boats Visited Australia From Indonesia? — Images of Moluccan vessels from Indonesia were discovered in Arnhem Land, Australia. This is evidence of undocumented contact from southeast Asia. The subject of the rock art was easy to identify thanks to the distinctive configuration of Moluccan boats and the level of detail in the illustrations, which indicates an intimate knowledge of the vessels. Apparently these “fighting craft” were likely there for trade, fishing, resource exploitation, headhunting, or slavery. According to the researchers, “The presence of Moluccan fighting vessels in Arnhem Land would support a significant departure from the accepted narrative of Macassan coastal fishing and trading and has important implications for understandings of cultural contact with southeast Asia.”
❤️ Recommended Content
Here’s a one-star review of Ahu Tongariki on Rapa Nui (AKA Easter Island): “I felt like the heads were TOO big.” 😂 I mean, they’re not wrong. Those are some big heads.
Here’s a video of the Prehistory Guys talking about Boncuklu Tarla, a site in Turkey that predates Göbekli Tepe, was longer-lived, and produced more material culture.
Here’s an article about how archaeology is helping marine conservation efforts in the South Atlantic Ocean. In short, archaeological data can tell us a lot about previous fish populations and biodiversity.
Here’s an article based on a recent release about the enigmatic “Stonehenge-like” rondels in Poland.
Here’s an article about indigenous involvement in archaeology and the positive impact it is having. “We should be telling them our history and not the other way around.”
Here’s an article discussing five important (and fascinating) artifacts from the Maya civilization.
Here’s an article discussing the complicated question of what civilization was the longest-lasting. In short: It depends.
There ya have it, folks! Good to be back this week — thanks for reading. 😀