🧐 Ancient Beat #77: 1.4-million-year-old spheres, a newly discovered cursus, and a close call for humans
Hi folks! Welcome to issue #77 of Ancient Beat. Autumn is in the air and archaeologists are beginning to report on their seasons in the field. Let’s dig in.
Here’s the latest ancient news. 👇
🗞 Ancient News: Top 5
Early Human Ancestors Turned Stones Into Spheres on Purpose — Tennis ball-sized spherical stones dating to millions of years ago have been confusing archaeologists for a while now. Were they simply the product of using stones like a hammer? Or were they deliberately crafted by early hominins? And the latter, why? In a new study, researchers analyzed 150 of the 1.4-million-year-old limestone spheroids found at the site of ‘Ubeidiya in Israel. The results showed that they were “likely to have been produced intentionally”. The hominins therefore “mentally preconceived” what they were doing, which sheds further light on their mental capacity. The researchers believe that they may have been attempting to “achieve the Platonic ideal of a sphere”. Other theories include projectiles, art, grinders, etc., but the purpose is still unclear and will likely remain so. Fun fact: The oldest such spheroid that has been found is 2 million years old and was found in Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, which gives these spheroids at least a 600,000 years of being produced.
Archaeologists Uncover Complete Neolithic Cursus on the Isle of Arran — A cursus dating to between 4000 and 3000 BCE has been discovered on the Isle of Arran in Scotland, thanks to LiDAR — and it’s the only complete example in Britain, thanks to its upland location where it avoided intensive farming, peat bogs, etc. A cursus is a huge rectangular enclosure with ditches and banks sometimes up to 6 miles long. They’re thought to have been used for processions, ceremonies, and gatherings. This particular example is “only” 0.7 miles in length and it’s located near the stone circle of Machrie Moor. Interestingly, the ceremonial structure is right alongside what would have been agricultural land, which is rare. According to Nicki Whitehouse, “It’s also part of a continuum that likely linked to the ritual site at Machrie Moor, so the whole Drumadoon landscape probably forms part of something much more extensive.”
Human Ancestors Nearly Went Extinct 900,000 Years Ago — Genetic analysis suggests that our ancestors in Africa nearly went extinct about 900,000 years ago. For 117,000 years, there were only about 1,280 breeding individuals at any given time. This was during a period of climate change when glacial cycles became more intense and longer-lasting, which would have created extended periods of drought in Africa. The fossil record in Africa and Eurasia between 950,000 and 650,000 years ago is patchy, so this genetic bottleneck that we see 900,000 years ago may explain that. According to Nick Ashton, “This would imply that it occupied a very localized area with good social cohesion for it to survive. Of greater surprise is the estimated length of time that this small group survived. If this is correct, then one imagines that it would require a stable environment with sufficient resources and few stresses to the system.”
Four Exceptionally Preserved Roman Swords Discovered in a Dead Sea Cave in Israel — A couple of months ago, four well-preserved Roman-era swords and a javelin point were discovered in a Dead Sea Cave in Israel, and the find has just been published. Though they are 1,900 years old, the swords are complete with steel blades and wooden and leather hilts and scabbards. According to the researchers, the swords were likely stashed by Jewish rebels during an uprising against the Roman Empire in the 130s.
Ancient Humans in Israel Once Ate Elephants. When Tusks Went Bust, Weapons Improved — In a recent study, the disappearance of large prey was linked to advancements in hunting technology and, eventually, the transition to agriculture. The researchers found that when huge “straight tusked” elephants started to disappear from the Middle East 400,000 years ago, humans started hunting smaller prey like bison, deer, and gazelles. When those became scarce, they moved to even smaller prey like rabbits and birds. And finally, they transitioned to domesticated plants and animals. Throughout this process, hunting tools improved in tandem, as was necessary for hunting small, faster prey. So they went from wooden spears to stone-tipped spears, to bows and arrows and dogs. According to Ran Barkai, “Until now, there’s no explanation for the reason why people changed their stone technologies throughout the 1.5 million years of human evolution in the Levant. In this recent paper, we put together these two data sets of animal prey availability, and stone tool chronology suggested a nexus and linkage between the two.”
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