Category: Prehistory

On the Island of South Ronaldsay in the Orkney Islands north of Scotland is a peculiar tomb. The site is a chambered tomb, built into the cliff’s edge around 3,500 BCE, and it wasn’t re-discovered until the 1950s. As you probably guessed from this post’s title, the tomb is the final resting place of 8 to 20 people – and 14 white sea eagles. Recent dating tells us the people were buried in it about 1,000 years before the eagles were.

It’s an amazing example of how a neolithic tomb was in use for many generations, and evolved in its meaning over time. Personally, I think its pretty cool that 1,000 years after their ancestors died, someone added eagles to accompany them.

Getting DNA from Indus River Valley Civilization burials is quite difficult, as the hot South Asian climate provides the perfect conditions for degrading biological material. After 5,000 years in the ground there is usually nothing left to sequence. But for the first time, a full genome has been sequenced! A team from Deccan College in India successfully recreated a genome from an individual buried in a cemetery at the site of Rakhigarhi, in Haryana, India. They were able to get enough undamaged DNA by patiently re-sampling the skeleton over 100 times and pooling the results.

It has been known that there are cultural connections between the Indus River Valley Civilization and Iranian civilization. It has even been theorized that the hunter-gatherers who lived in the ecologically rich valley learned farming from Iran. The recent study therefore compared the Rakhigarhi remains to genomes from 523 genetically sampled from Gonur in Turkmenistan and Shahr-i-Sokhta in Iran.

Their analysis showed that the genes associated with this individual’s Iranian ancestry came from before the time when farmers and hunter-gatherers in the area separated from each other. This individual’s Iranian ancestors left before farming spread through Iran, meaning that the Indus River Valley civilization did not learn farming from Iran but independently decided to give up hunting and gathering for farming. The genetic analyses also found that 11 individuals from the 523 belonged to the same genetic group as the Indus River Valley Civilization remains. That suggests that the 11 were migrants, or near descendants of migrants, from the Indus River Valley.

The known, Dynastic Egypt began around 3,100 BCE. But the magnificent, complex civilization we still learn about in elementary school did not suddenly emerge, fully-formed. What came before? Archaeologists know that roughly between 9,300 BCE and 4,000 BCE, an enigmatic Neolithic people built a proto civilization in Egypt. But there has been little research on them, so a new excavation of three burial sites has the possibility of adding greatly to the understanding of how ancient Egypt became, well, ancient Egypt.

During the Neolithic, Egypt was much greener, allowing ancient herders to populate what is now the middle of a barren desert. During the Final Neolithic (4,600 – 4,000 BCE) they began to bury the dead in formal cemeteries. We know this from excavations at three burial sites which were not lone graves but large cemeteries housing over 100 burials each.

One cemetery appears to be for the elite. It had a low childhood mortality rate, tall stature, and relatively long lifespans for the Neolithic. Men averaged about 170 cm tall (5’7"), and women about 160 cm (5’3"). Most had lived beyond 40, and some even into their 50s. That’s not old today, but for the Neolithic, that’s nothing to scoff at. And most tellingly, those in this cemetery were buried with many artifacts including ornamental pottery, jewellery from stones and ostrich eggshells, sea shells far from the sea, and animal remains. Two other cemeteries appear to be for lower-status individuals. They had few artifacts, high child mortality, were physically shorter, and had shorter lifespans. The larger of the two cemeteries had a separate burial area for children under 3 years old, although most of the remains were infants and late-term fetuses. It is the earliest known infant cemetery.

These three very different burial sites suggest that by 4,600 BCE, Neolithic society had developed stratified social hierarchies. It also suggests that age 3 is when children became “people” and were included in adult cemeteries. Finally, there was evidence of respect for those previously buried, because when coming across old skeletons in reused graves, they often carefully repositioned their ancestors’ bones, sometimes even replacing teeth that had fallen out! The archaeological evidence suggests a sophisticated herding society, one slowly evolving towards what would become Dynastic Egypt.

And some other animals’ names, too

Analysis of growth rings in Australopithecus africanus teeth may tell us about prehistoric hominin’s breastfeeding habits. A recent analysis looked at four teeth, recovered from South Africa’s Sterkfontein Cave, belonged to two individuals who lived between 2.6 and 2.1 million years ago. The results suggest that they exclusively breastfed for the first six to nine months of life.

Although other foods were added around the 1st birthday, milk intake also ramped up again each year, over a period of four or five years. Why this yearly return to breastmilk? Perhaps during times of food scarcity, mothers would return to breastfeeding, to ensure their children got enough to eat.

The analysis found an additional piece of evidence suggesting that breastmilk was a starvation-food used to keep young children nourished. Levels of lithium in the teeth rose right before the period of breastfeeding began each year. Such a distinctive biological time-stamp connected to the later-life breastfeeding suggests that the breastfeeding began again each year in the same season, likely corresponding to the time of year when food was scarcest. One can speculate that lithium was high in a specific food source which became available only during a certain season each year (like apples in autumn) – or which Australopithecus africanus only resorted to when other foods were scarce (like tree bark in winter).

The first blue-feathered prehistoric bird has been detected by science. It’s feathers are long gone, but remains of their pigment were analyzed, and fall on the spectrum of what human eyes call “blue.” The bird lived about
48 million years ago.

A bronze ring artifact from Japan has been identified as a weight for measuring commodities. The ring was found a while ago, in 1999, at the bottom of a dry riverbed which flowed during the late Yayoi Pottery Culture period (300 BCE – 300 CE). The artifact is estimated to date to the second half of the 100s CE. The ring measures 12.7 centimeters (5 inches) across, is 0.7 cm (0.27 in) thick and weighs 89.30 grams (3.14 oz).

What makes the find special is that weight rings have previously been found only in China and Korea, as burial accessories. It has been known that Japan during this period had connections with China, as other Chinese-made artifacts from the the Early Han Dynasty (202 BCE – 8 CE) have been found in Japanese tombs. This ring weight suggests that Chinese trading practices, such as a semi-standardized weight system, were also making their way to Japan.

The latest paleontology news about prehistoric animals

A recent study, which compared various computer simulations, determined that the founder population must have had at least

  1. 300 people
  2. 1300 people
  3. 2800 people
  4. 4500 people

Thanks to a small stick with two cactus needles on its end, we know that Native Americans in the southwest USA were tattooing each other as early as 2,000 years ago. Which is much, much earlier than previously believed. The artifact in question is made of a sumac twig handle, two small prickly pear cactus spines, and yucca-leaf trips to hold the spines on the handle.

If you look closely you can see that the tips of the needles are stained with a black pigment. Analyses show the pigment matches the proper depth to pierce and stain the epidermis. This was not a first, fumbling attempt but a workable tool, one that was used before it was eventually thrown away.

The artifact comes from a midden heap at the Turkey Pen site near Bear Ears National Monument, which was occupied by the Ancestral Puebloan civilization from roughly 50 BCE to 200 CE. It is the first evidence that the Ancestral Puebloan peoples practiced tattooing.

Elsewhere in the world, the rise of tattooing is associated with agriculture and increases in population. Ancestral Puebloans were undergoing just such a population increase when the tool was made. Archaeologists on the project speculated, therefore, that community members’ tattoos may have strengthened a sense of social identity, as the world quickly changed around them.