The Prehistoric Archaeology Blog is concerned with news reports featuring Prehistoric period archaeology. If you wish to see news reports for general European archaeology, please go to The Archaeology of Europe Weblog.
Almost 50 years ago, on a Sunday morning in late November 1974, a team of archaeologists in Ethiopia unearthed a 3 million-year-old skeleton of an ancient early human. The remains would turn out to be one of the most important fossils ever discovered. That night Donald Johanson, the paleoanthropologist who discovered the fossilized remains, played a cassette tape of the Beatles and as the group listened to the sound of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” reverberate through the campsite a colleague suggested that he name the female hominin Lucy. She represented a new species—Australopithecus afarensis—and a visit to almost any major natural history museum in the world will give you the opportunity to see an artist’s rendition of how she appeared in her own time.
Visit more than one natural history museum or flip through a handful of scientific textbooks, however, and you’ll quickly notice how much disagreement there is about Lucy’s physical appearance. No one can agree on what Lucy or “AL 288-1” looked like. Why is that? In a new article on “Visual Depictions of Our Evolutionary Past,” published this week in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, a team of scientists from the University of Adelaide, Arizona State, the University of Zurich, and Howard University set out to discover why this is and to compile their own, scientifically grounded, reconstruction.
During this time, Earth's inhabitants would have been subjected to some dazzling displays -- northern and southern lights, caused by solar winds hitting the Earth's atmosphere, would have been frequent.
The reversal of Earth's magnetic poles, along with a temporary breakdown of the world's magnetic field about 42,000 years ago, could have triggered a raft of environmental changes, solar storms and the extinction of the Neanderthals, according to a new study.
The Earth's magnetic field protects us, acting as a shield against the solar wind (a stream of charged particles and radiation) that flows out from the sun. But the geomagnetic field is not stable in strength and direction, and it has the ability to flip or reverse itself.
Some 42,000 years ago, in an event known as the Laschamp Excursion, the poles did just that for around 800 years, before swapping back -- but scientists were unsure exactly how or if it impacted the world.
Now, a team of researchers from Sydney's University of New South Wales and the South Australian Museum say the flip, along with changing solar winds, could have triggered an array of dramatic climate shifts leading to environmental change and mass extinctions.
Russia is seeking to unlock unknown prehistoric viruses up to 50,000-years-old by extracting biological material from carcasses of ancient animals frozen in permafrost. Source: Siberian Times/Australscope
Russia is seeking to unlock unknown prehistoric viruses up to 50,000-years-old by extracting biological material from carcasses of ancient animals frozen in permafrost.
Scientists from the Kremlin’s equivalent of Porton Down are this week taking samples from a collection of beasts preserved in ice which have been found in recent years.
They are working with the remains of extinct woolly mammoths and hairy rhinos, as well as prehistoric dogs, horses, elk, rodents and hares.
The oldest animal is believed to be a 50,000-year-old lemming.
(Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London/Blinkhorn, et al., 2021)
In 1928, the renowned British archaeologist, Dorothy Garrod, excavated the Shukbah Cave in the hills of Palestine, just north of Jerusalem.
This was some of her earliest work in a long and successful career, revealing a rich collection of ancient stone tools, animal bones, and a single fossilised tooth - what looked like a large human molar.
For fifty years the discovery was lost in the private collection of a collaborator, unrecognised and neglected. Then, at the turn of the century, the long-lost tooth landed in the laps of researchers at the British Museum of Natural History.
Looking closely at the large molar, researchers realised it was probably from a young Neanderthal, possibly between the ages of 7 and 12.
To date, the Shukbah tooth is the southernmost example of the Neanderthal range in Arabia.
Skara Brae on Orkney. People lived at the Neolithic settlement from around 3,250 BC.
Archaeologists may have discovered another Skara Brae around half a mile from the world-famous Neolithic village.
Skara Brae is considered the best preserved Neolithic settlement in Western Europe with people first making their home there around 3,100BC.
It was discovered in 1850 when a storm exposed part of the coastal site. Now, almost 170 years later, coastal erosion may have uncovered its neighbour.
A section of badly damaged wall has been exposed by the work of the pounding tides at the north end of the Bay of Skaill.
Deer antlers, a boar tooth, a cattle jawbone and a large decorated stone have also been discovered.
Sigurd Towrie, spokesman for the Archaeology Institute at University of Highlands and Islands, said the finds “suggest there is another settlement at the Bay of Skaill – one that, from previous environmental sampling, is likely to be 4,000 to 5,000 years old”.
Prof Alice Roberts in front of Stonehenge for a BBC Two documentary: The Lost Circle Revealed to be screened on Friday. Photograph: Barney Rowe/BBC/PA
Find backs theory that bluestones first stood at Waun Mawn before being dragged 140 miles to Wiltshire
An ancient myth about Stonehenge, first recorded 900 years ago, tells of the wizard Merlin leading men to Ireland to capture a magical stone circle called the Giants’ Dance and rebuilding it in England as a memorial to the dead.
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account had been dismissed, partly because he was wrong on other historical facts, although the bluestones of the monument came from a region of Wales that was considered Irish territory in his day.
Now a vast stone circle created by our Neolithic ancestors has been discovered in Wales with features suggesting that the 12th-century legend may not be complete fantasy.
Its diameter of 110 metres is identical to the ditch that encloses Stonehenge and it is aligned on the midsummer solstice sunrise, just like the Wiltshire monument.
From left to right, the skulls of Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens. (NHM)
Homo sapiens today look very different from our evolutionary origins, the microbes wriggling about in the primordial mud. But our emergence as a distinct species cannot, based on the current evidence, be conclusively traced to a single location at any single point in time.
In fact, according to a team of scientists, who have conducted a thorough review of our current understanding of human ancestry, there may never even have been such a time. Instead, the earliest known appearances of Homo sapiens traits and behaviours are consistent with a range of evolutionary histories.
We simply don't have a large enough fossil record to definitively rule on a specific time and place in which modern humans emerged.
Waun Mawn during excavation in 2018, viewed from the north. The stone circle sits on the side of a hill, with distant views of Ireland to the west and the mountains of Snowdonia to the north (A. Stanford).
Professor Colin Richards, of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, is co-author of a new paper proposing that a stone circle in Wales was the source of the first megaliths erected at the site of Stonehenge.
Previously, the Stones of Stonehenge research project confirmed the Wiltshire monument’s bluestones came from quarry sites in the Preseli Hills in Wales. This prompted the reinvestigation the nearby Waun Mawn stone circle to see whether it also shared links with Stonehenge.
The results, published in the journal Antiquity today, suggest the Welsh stone circle was partially dismantled in prehistory and moved 280km (175 miles) to Salisbury Plain, where it was rebuilt to form the first of Stonehenge’s five distinct phases.
Glasgow-based Guard Archaeology carried out the archaeological excavations between 2017 and 2019.
The work was done ahead of a refurbishment of the MoD's base in Village Bay on Hirta.
Analysis of the finds made by the archaeologists have now been made public.
Radiocarbon dating of carbonised food remains stuck to sherds of pottery indicated "intensive inhabitation" of Village Bay between the early part of the 4th Century BC to almost the end of the 1st Century BC.
The majority of the pottery dated from the Iron Age.
The Bronze Age (2200 to 800 BC) marked a decisive step in the technological and economic development of ancient societies. People living at the time faced a series of challenges: changes in the climate, the opening up of trade and a degree of population growth. How did they respond to changes in their diet, especially in Western Switzerland? A team from the University of Geneva (UNIGE), Switzerland, and Pompeu Fabra University (UPF) in Spain has for the first time carried out isotopic analyses on human and animal skeletons together with plant remains.
The scientists discovered that manure use had become widespread over time to improve crop harvests in response to demographic growth. The researchers also found that there had been a radical change in dietary habits following the introduction of new cereals, such as millet. In fact, the spread of millet reflected the need to embrace new crops following the drought that ravaged Europe during this period. Finally, the team showed that the resources consumed were mainly terrestrial. The research results are published in the journal PLOS ONE.
One of the two Beaker-period burials found near the site of the proposed Stonehenge road tunnel. Photograph: Wessex Archaeology
Exclusive: experts also find neolithic pottery and mysterious C-shaped enclosure at A303 excavation site
Bronze age graves, neolithic pottery and the vestiges of a mysterious C-shaped enclosure that might have been a prehistoric industrial area are among the finds unearthed by archaeologists who have carried out preliminary work on the site of the proposed new road tunnel at Stonehenge.
One of the most intriguing discoveries is a unique shale object that could have been part of a staff or club found in a 4,000-year-old grave. Nearby is the resting spot of a baby buried with a small, plain beaker.
Ditches that flank the C-shaped enclosure contain burnt flint, suggesting a process such as metal or leatherworking was carried out there thousands of years ago.
Researchers uncovered the bone fragments while working at the open air site of Nesher Ramla, which also dates back to the Middle Paleolithic era [Credit Dr. Yossi Zaidner]
A recent discovery by archeologists from the Hebrew University and the University of Haifa alongside a team from the Le Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in France have uncovered evidence of what may be the earliest-known use of symbols. The symbols were found on a bone fragment in the Ramle region in central Israel and are believed to be approximately 120,000 years old.
Remarkably the fragment remained largely intact and the researchers were able to detect six similar etchings on one side of the bone, leading them to believe that they were in the possession of something which held symbolic or spiritual significance. The find, which was recently published in the scientific journal Quaternary International, was discovered in a trove of flint tools and animal bones exposed at a site during archaeological excavations.
The site at El Salt, Spain, where ancient poop keeps turning up. (Photo: University of Bologna)
Around 50,000 years ago, a bunch of Neanderthals made a home — and a bathroom — out of what is now a rocky escarpment south of Valencia, Spain. Over the last few years, some of those paleo-poops, the oldest known to come from a human species, have been excavated and analysed. Now, researchers have caught a glimpse of the ecosystems that existed in the guts of those early hominins, from a faecal deposit in the remnants of a fire pit on the site.
Over 200 bacterial microorganisms were extracted from the ancient poop by an interdisciplinary team of archaeologists, microbiologists, and anthropologists. The researchers found a striking amount of consistency between the microbial residents of the Neanderthal gut and the sort of microbes that populate the guts of modern humans. That consistency shows many minuscule denizens of our insides are actually longstanding residents, living in us for hundreds of thousands of years, and have coevolved with the hominins they inhabit. The research was published in the Nature journal Communications Biology.
After an almost complete collapse, the Ousdale Broch has been expertly restored. CREDIT: Caithness Broch Project
A recent conservation project has breathed new life into an Iron Age broch in northern Scotland.
The Ousdale Broch, just south of Berriedale in Caithness, used to be considered one of the best-preserved brochs in the region. At some point between 2013 and 2015, however, a calamitous combination of damage from ill-judged antiquarian repairs – made in 1891 following an excavation of the site by James Mackay – and a tree growing between the broch’s walls led to the complete collapse of one of the buttresses. This subsequently led to the destabilisation of the entire construction.
When Iain Maclean and Kenneth McElroy, both of the Caithness Broch Project (CBP; see CA 322), visited in 2015, they were shocked to see just how much damage had been done. As Kenneth described it: ‘We thought within a few years it might be lost forever.’
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND—According to a statement released by the University of Geneva, a team of scientists led by Alessandra Varalli of Spain’s Pompeu Fabra University has analyzed the biochemical composition of plant remains and the collagen in human and animal bones discovered at Bronze Age sites in western Switzerland and southeastern France. The study suggests that between 2200 and 800 B.C., the people of the region ate mostly plants and land animals, despite the presence of nearby lakes and rivers. The amount of nitrogen in the plant remains indicates that the use of manure as a crop fertilizer became widespread.
The debate about the world’s oldest tattoos is over—they belong to Ötzi, the European Tyrolean Iceman who died and was buried beneath an Alpine glacier along the Austrian–Italian border around 3250 B.C. Ötzi had 61 tattoos across his body, including his left wrist, lower legs, lower back and torso.
Previously, tattoo scholars were divided: Many believed that a mummy from the Chinchorro culture of South America had the oldest tattoo—a pencil-thin mustache. Recovered from El Morro, Chile, the mummy was believed to be about 35–40 years old at the time of his death around 4000 B.C.
In their paper published last month in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, four researchers, including Lars Krutak, research associate in the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, concluded that the Chinchorro mummy is not as old as previously thought.
La Cotte de St Brelade in Jersey, where the findings were made
UK-based scientists have discovered the strongest physical evidence ever found for Neanderthal humans interbreeding with our own species, anatomically modern humans (AMH).
For the past 10 years researchers have succeeded in finding genetic evidence for the two species interbreeding, but this is the first time that they have identified compelling physical evidence of prehistoric Neanderthal/AMH hybrids.
The evidence consists of 11 approximately 45,000-year-old teeth studied over recent years by scientists from the Natural History Museum, University College London and the University of Kent.