The global lockdown of 2021 kept archaeologists from digging in the field, but they still managed to make some interesting finds.
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A 31,000-Year-Old Leg Amputation
Archaeology news have discovered a lot of fascinating stuff this year: a treasure trove of paintings from the ancient city of Nimrud, the oldest known burial site in Southeast Asia and even a lost temple in Cambodia. But a new discovery is getting particular attention because it shows humans were capable of surgery much earlier than thought. According to a study published in the journal Nature, the skeleton of a young person who died 31,000 years ago in what is now Borneo has telltale signs of surgical amputation. This pushes back the previous earliest evidence of such a complex medical procedure by more than 24,000 years.
The team of international researchers made the finding in the remote cave of Liang Tebo in East Kalimantan, Indonesia. They used a combination of radiocarbon dating techniques to confirm the skeleton’s age and then studied its bones, noticing that the lower left leg had been severed. Specifically, the ends of the tibia and fibula—the long bones that make up the upper and lower legs—showed signs of having been cut with something sharp. And the way the bones healed, with clean stumps without the ragged marks that could have been caused by an animal attack or other accident, suggests the amputation was deliberate and planned.
It is also the earliest evidence of surgical healing, as the bone tissue has been modified to accommodate the missing limb. The team says this proves that hunter-gatherers had the knowledge to amputate a leg, which would have been necessary for survival in their environment. The amputation was likely done to save the person from infection, as there is no sign of trauma in the rest of the body.
This find rewrites the history of human medicine, as it was previously believed that such advances only occurred with the shift to settled agricultural societies within the last 10,000 years. But the find demonstrates that hunter-gatherers were able to perform complicated medical procedures, reports NPR. Biological archaeologist Brenna Hasset, who wasn’t involved in the study, calls the results “remarkable.” The findings suggest that hunter-gatherers were more sophisticated than previously thought and that they had better understandings of anatomy and hygiene, which could have allowed them to perform such a delicate operation on their own.
While a pile of poop might not make for the same kind of immediate excitement as a shiny artifact, preserved fecal matter is actually a treasure trove for archaeologists. Indeed, coprolites (fossilized dung) can reveal much about the diet and lifestyle of ancient humans, including which plants they grew and which animals they killed for food. And now scientists have developed a new way to scan fossilized dung for clues to human evolution.
The key is recognizing which fecal markers are unique to human beings versus other species. A team led by University of Missouri anthropology professor George Frandsen has come up with an easy-to-use tool called coproID to help. It works by comparing the fecal bacteria of modern and ancient samples to identify different kinds of microbes.
This enables researchers to identify a person’s feces and to determine when the poop was produced. That’s important because feces aren’t preserved for long, especially in arid environments.
But a handful of poo can be preserved in the desert for tens of thousands of years, as was the case at the prehistoric settlement of Paisley Cave in Arizona, where coprolite revealed that hunter-gatherers ate seeds, plants and rodents but also beer and a fermented meat product called haggis.
Moreover, a study of coprolites from the UNESCO World Heritage site Hallstatt-Dachstein/Salzkammergut in Austria has identified two fungi that were used to make both blue cheese and beer in Iron Age Europe. The discovery is the first molecular evidence of such fermentation among ancient humans.
As a whole, the research suggests that early humans were healthier than we might have thought. In fact, hunters-gatherers were nearly free of a bacteria called Treponema that causes strep throat in industrialized populations. But the bacterium didn’t go extinct—it just moved from hunter-gatherers to industrial populations, which made it easier for the bug to spread.
Coprolites have also yielded clues about the health of humans as they transitioned from hunting and gathering to settlements. For instance, an international team analyzed a poop sample from the ancient town of Catalhoyuk in modern-day Turkey to find that it contained parasite eggs. Such a finding could point to the origins of tuberculosis, as well as other diseases.
Until recently, mummy portraits existed in scholarship limbo. They’re a rare glimpse into Egyptian art from the blending of new ideas during the Roman occupation, and they’re also a record of ancient funerary practices. The portraits, painted on wood panels, were affixed to mummies and shrouded over their faces. They dated from the Ptolemaic period through the Roman era. Then, in the transition to Christianity, mummies were buried and forgotten.
When conservator Marie Svoboda joined the staff at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, her first project was to study mummy portraits and unravel their mysteries. As she looked at them, one detail stood out: Despite being ripped from their mummies long ago, the resemblance between the paintings was uncanny. They were, in fact, a group of 16 identical portraits, all of which had been affixed to the mummies of people from Hawara in Egypt’s Fayum oasis.
The mummies themselves were fashioned out of cartonnage, the same material used for Pharaonic mummies. They had been wrapped in gold and linen, and the heads were covered with painted sculptural head-, breast-, and arm pieces of the same material. These, along with the painted mummy portraits, were part of a lavish presentation that would have helped ensure that the deceased was welcomed into the afterlife.
While most of the portraits depicted adults, the mummies themselves were probably not very old at the time of their deaths. CT scans show that the mummies were in their twenties, thirties, and forties, which is consistent with what the paintings show.
Mummy painters used either encaustic paint—a mix of hot wax and pigment—or tempera to create their lifelike portraits. The artists emphasized details like shading, variations in color, and visible brushstrokes to make their subjects appear alive.
Tests on the mummy portraits at APPEAR have yielded intriguing insights into how they were made. For example, Caroline Cartwright, a wood anatomist on the team, has discovered that 75 percent of the panels came from linden trees, which were not native to Egypt. Moreover, the use of the dye indigo—identical to the dyes that were once mass-produced for the textile industry—is another clue that mummy painters sought out manufactured pigments.
A shipwreck, or the remains of a ship that has washed up on land or sunken to the bottom of a body of water, is a fascinating window into the past. Unlike carefully contrived sites like temples and burial grounds, wrecks show the past as it really was. Moreover, they preserve a single moment in time, allowing researchers to study how people used ships, how they traveled to far-flung places, and how these events affected them.
Marine archaeologists study all kinds of wrecks, but they tend to favor those that have historical value. Historic military wrecks, for example, often reveal details about seafaring and the fight that took place. Treasure ships, such as the Mary Rose or the San Jose, are particularly attractive to treasure hunters and salvagers.
Despite their interest in these sites, maritime archaeologists face many challenges. For one, the site of a shipwreck is often contaminated by marine creatures and sediments. Some wrecks are also vulnerable to corrosion. In some cases, this can occur because of a chemical reaction between the metal and the surrounding ocean water. In other cases, it can result from a natural process, such as the growth of algae. And, of course, wrecks are at risk from human encroachment.
Wrecks can be damaged by a variety of factors, including storm frequency, currents, and water temperature. Researchers are attempting to determine the best ways to preserve them. For example, they can try to prevent corrosion by using sacrificial anodes that deteriorate instead of nearby metals, or they can use techniques such as scuba diving to limit the amount of corrosive materials that enter the air.
Other new areas of maritime research include the archaeological study of whaling industry technology and economics, which is now being done on the basis of the physical remains of shore-based sites in Australia and New Zealand (e.g., Sydney Cove). The investigation of wreck survivor camps is another promising area for future research, offering the potential to illuminate social behavior under extreme conditions.
In addition to the work being carried out at the excavation sites, there’s a great deal of archaeological research that takes place in laboratories. That’s why we wanted to highlight the recent article in Nature that reexamined footprints from Tanzania. The new analysis suggests that the tracks belonged to a hominin species, not to an animal such as a bear, as originally thought.
In summary, recent archaeology news has brought forth exciting discoveries and revelations about our ancient past. From unearthing long-lost civilizations to deciphering cryptic artifacts, archaeologists continue to enrich our understanding of human history. As technology advances and new sites are explored, the world eagerly anticipates more profound insights into the mysteries of our ancestors.
- What is archaeology?
Archaeology is a branch of science that studies human history through the excavation and analysis of artifacts, structures, and other physical remains left behind by past civilizations. By examining these material remnants, archaeologists aim to reconstruct and understand the lifestyles, cultures, and societal dynamics of ancient peoples.
- What are some recent notable discoveries in archaeology?
Recent notable discoveries in archaeology include the unearthing of a well-preserved ancient city buried beneath layers of volcanic ash in Italy, shedding light on the lives of its inhabitants during a major eruption. Additionally, the deciphering of ancient scripts has unveiled previously unknown stories and religious practices of vanished cultures, broadening our knowledge of human cultural diversity.