Archaeology tries to open a peephole into the past by finding artifacts that show exactly how humans’ ancestors used to exist. But sometimes, specialists have discovered archaeological finds that changed history. More recent historical artifacts that rewrote history have changed the way people think about early civilizations and humanity as a whole.
On April 1, 2020, researchers from the Natural History Museum in London and Griffith University in Australia officially dated a “hominin skull found buried in a Zambian cave back in 1921” that was previously thought to have been 500,000 years old. According to the study published in Nature, the skull is actually about 299,000 years old. Researchers assigned it to the Homo heidelbergensis species, which is estimated to be about 600,000 years old. Co-author for the study, Chris Stringer, told Gizmodo the new information is important because it means “like other human species, heidelbergensis lasted for at least several hundred thousand years.”
A “thin mineral coating” previously scraped off the skull and misplaced was recovered from the London Natural History Museum’s mineralogy collection, allowing scientists to more closely estimate the skull’s age. In addition to providing new information about the Homo heidelbergensis species, the new date also “coincides with the emergence of early modern humans.” Though the skull is not thought to be a direct ancestor to modern humans, it does “point to the presence of multiple human species living at roughly the same time.”
A 43,900-year-old cave painting was discovered on Sulawesi, an island in Indonesia, and is now believed to be the oldest story on record. The mural seems to depict a game drive, in which animals are flushed out of cover and toward armed hunters. Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist with Griffith University, suggests the mural may not represent a real-life scenario but rather a religious myth or story from folklore.
Aubert’s reasoning stems from the appearance of the hunters, who are not drawn as human beings but animal-human hybrids. This may indicate the hunters are wearing masks, or that the hunters are “therianthropes” – animal-human hybrids commonly found in ancient paintings around the world. If the latter is the case, the mural would not only be the oldest evidence of storytelling in recorded history, but also the first evidence of spiritual belief.
“We can’t know if it has anything to do with spirituality, but at least we can say that those artists were capable of the sorts of conceptualizations that we need in order to believe in religion, to believe in the existence of the supernatural,” Adam Brumm, part of the Griffith University team, told NPR.
The cave where the mural was discovered, Liang Bulu’Sipong 4, measures 14.8 feet across and is located 9.8 feet off the ground. The cave lacks any evidence of human habitation, which suggests it may have been a sacred site. “Accessing it requires climbing, and this is not an occupation site,” Aubert told Ars Technica. “So people were going in there for another reason.”
Researchers use paleofeces – of fossilized excrement – to establish what humans ate in different parts of the world throughout history. While they can often differentiate between human and animal feces, dog waste is remarkably similar to its human counterpart. In April 2020, Christina Warinner, a molecular archaeologist at Harvard University, and her colleagues published a study in the PeerJ academic journal about a new AI tool that allows scientists to “distinguish morphologically similar human and canine paleofeces” and “bring new insights into the composition and functions of human and animal gut microbiota from the past.”
Much of what archeologists have assumed was human feces in the past, does, in fact, belong to dogs. As a result, researchers developed a program that, according to Science magazine, “learns to make correlations among massive amounts of data – on modern samples of human and dog excrement.” Therefore, scientists can more accurately study how what humans ate throughout history is linked to our current understanding of food and even diseases such as diabetes.
While the general consensus for many years has been that the pyramids were built by slaves, that might not be true. A series of old burial plots that were found in 1990 by a tourist suggest that the people who built the mighty structures were not slaves, but rather paid laborers.
These tombs showed workers who were given beer and bread to take to the afterlife, something no slave would ever receive. What’s more, the workers were obviously held in high regard, as they were put in tombs very close to the sacred pyramids that were built for the pharaohs themselves.
Although the Ancient Greeks have long been known as the parents of many modern inventions, nothing prepared researchers for the Antikythera Mechanism. This complex mechanical structure is a sort of analog computer. It involves a series of gears and mechanisms that allowed the users to predict the orbits of the planets, when eclipses would take place, and mark the solar and zodiac calendars.
The machine, which was found in a shipwreck in 1900, hails from at least 100 BCE and predates similar technology by almost 1,000 years.
Public perception of Neanderthals imagines them as dim cavemen who were effectively wiped out by the more advanced homo sapiens. Modern research has begun to contradict this point, with recent findings indicating that Neanderthals were more similar to modern humans than many have previously thought. O
The significant example is the finding of painted shells in Italy that have been dated to a period before homo sapiens arrived in Europe. These ornamental pieces may have been decorated by Neanderthals, suggesting that these early people may have created and collected artwork.
Bygone writers described the human sacrifices of the ancient Incan Empire. But the exact method of sacrifice was never fully understood – until three mummies were found in Argentina in 1999. The perfectly preserved bodies of three children, aged 4, 5, and 13, gave researchers the chance to study them in detail.
Forensic tests showed that the children were given large amounts of maize beer and coca leaf before their death. Archaeologists assume the children were drugged until they passed out, then left to die on the mountaintop.
Known as Skull 5, this fossil is a 1.8 million-year-old hominid skull that was found in Dmanisi, Georgia. What makes it especially important is the fact that it was completely preserved as one complete piece. This enabled researchers to carry out a detailed analysis of the shape and features.
The results suggest that common thoughts on human evolution may be wrong, as the skull contains details that would normally be associated with different species of early humans. The team after the study believes this indicates that early homo species may have had far fewer separate species than previously believed.
The Royal Library of Alexandria was one of the greatest scholarly institutions ever built, containing thousands of scrolls and texts from the greatest thinkers of ancient times. However, its immediate exit from history has led many to believe that it was destroyed in a fire, possibly at the orders of Julius Caesar when he attacked Egypt.
Recent evidence uncovered by Luciano Canfora, in the form of scrolls written by people working in the library, reveals that it was actually brought down due to budget cuts from the government rather than a dramatic event. Texts slowly fell apart or were given to other institutions, and what was left of the Library’s collection was likely destroyed in 642.
Earlier research indicated that burial rituals were begun by more modern humans with more developed brains. But the finding of the cave that contained more than 1,500 separate fossils of an extinct early hominid in South Africa claims this thinking. The vast number of bones indicates their deliberate placement, while the fossilized skulls show that the brain size of this particular homo genus would have been only half the size of a modern human’s.
The discovery has forced researchers to reconsider the culture and knowledge of these early types of humans.
The mystery of how various animals, including cats, became domesticated has long puzzled researchers. Previously, the earliest evidence of domestic cats came from ancient Egyptian art reaching back approximately 4,000 years. A new archaeological discovery in China changed this view, though, with wildcat remains showing that the animals lived in close tandem with farmers in the area. The researchers believe that the cats came to the area due to an infestation of rodents that were eating farmers’ grain.
Over time, the cats and humans became closer due to the mutually beneficial relationship they developed.
The common train of thought amongst paleontologists is that humans began settling into permanent locations and building cities around 10,000 years ago. However, a structure known as the Gobekli Tepe was built more than 1,000 years earlier and is believed to be the world’s oldest temple. These ruins suggest that humans were building permanent settlements earlier than previously thought.
Historians generally agree that Australia was discovered by James Cook in 1770. However, a series of archeological finds over the past decade has shed some doubt on this assumption. Chief amongst them is a collection of five African coins that are more than 900 years old.
Found in the Northern Territory of Australia, these coins may indicate that Australia had visitors long before Cook arrived. Combined with other evidence, such as cave art and other coins, this may mean that traders from Africa, India, China, and Europe all reached Australia long before he did.
Research continues to demonstrate that Neanderthals were more advanced than the typical notion of a grunting caveman. For evidence, look no further than the discovery of a specialized tool, called a lissoir, at a Neanderthal site that dates back to before homo sapiens entered Europe.
Even more remarkable is the fact that this tool, a flexible device for crafting leather, is still in use today – suggesting that modern humans stole the idea directly from Neanderthals.
A gigantic stone carving uncovered in Guatemala in 2013 gave archaeologists a new perspective on the Mayan culture. This massive facade featured carvings of entirely new gods that archaeologists had never seen before. In addition, it also contained new information about how power transferred from particular groups of Mayans to others as new kings took over control.
But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the carving was its condition: the wall even contained some traces of its original colorful paint.