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Archive for the 'Stacy Hackner' Category

Could you Bear to eat Pooh?

By Josephine Mills, on 10 September 2018

Well our ancestors did… Bear was most definitely on the menu in the Palaeolithic and if you think bears are big now you should take a trip back to the Stone Age!

Bears are an incredibly diverse species that have evolved from a single genus but now occupy dramatically different ecological niches across the planet. Because of their weight and size, they are classed as megafauna. Megafauna are large animals that usually live for a long time, have slow population growth, and low mortality because they don’t have many natural predators. There are lots of very cool prehistoric megafauna like the mammoth, sabre tooth cat, and several distinct species of bear.

Humans have a long history interacting with bears, mainly because of our shared preference for sheltered spaces like caves and eating the same types of food. In Europe, both Cave Bears (Ursus spelaus) and Brown Bears (Ursus arctos) were present during the Middle Palaeolithic, which was 250,000-40,000 years ago and most frequently associated with the Neanderthals.

This is a diagram of the skull of a brown bear found at Banwell Cave in the UK. Drawing by Tabitha Paterson.

This is a diagram of the top part of a cave bear skull. If you compare it to the brown bear skull above you can see the distinctive elongation and dome-shape of the cranium. This is one of the ways to tell apart brown and cave bear skeletons. Drawing by Tabitha Paterson.

 

New research published by Romandini et al. (2018) highlights the relationship between Neanderthals and bears in southern Europe by studying bear and animal bones from Rio Secco and Fumane caves (Italy). The study focuses on animal bones found at both caves, particularly bear remains. The bones were identified, and any cut marks present were studied using 3 types of microscope to separate those made by carnivores from marks made by humans using stone tools. The results were then compared with databases of known types of cut marks established via experimental work. Results suggest that Neanderthals were exploiting bears as a resource at both sites; however, the sites were slightly different.

The authors propose that Rio Secco cave was used by bears for hibernation, the period over the winter where they sleep to conserve energy. There are clues around the cave that indicate it served this special purpose like scratch marks and shiny areas on the cave walls polished by bears rubbing past them . This is a phenomenon called Bärenschliffe and is discussed in this great blog post by Ross Barnet on the website Twilight Beasts. The animal remains found at Rio Secco are reported from two archaeological layers, one layer contains 39.3% cave bear and 1.6% brown bear; and the other 27% cave bear and 0.2% brown bear. Many of these bones have cut marks indicating butchery by Neanderthals, suggesting that the cave was actively targeted to exploit the hibernating bears as a food resource. This is supported by the scarcity of other resources in the surrounding landscape—like flint used to make tools—meaning people probably wouldn’t have been in the region hunting and gathering more generally. Instead they were making specific organised trips to hunt the bears!

A selection of bear bones from Rio Secco Cave showing the locations of human made cut marks. Image Credit: Romandini et al. (2018)

 

The human signature at the Fumane site is noticeably different and the authors suggest archaeological evidence represents periods of intense and repeated Neanderthal occupation. The assemblage contains a wide variety of butchered fauna demonstrating that food resources were plentiful, and the site is situated in a raw material rich region. In this case it appears that unfortunate bears were an occasional item on the menu rather than the specific reason the humans were present! This is supported by the lack of bear remains, which only amount to 2.2% and 1.4% of the two archaeological layers reported. The authors state that it is harder to differentiate between the types of bear as some skeletal elements are missing but overall there are more brown bear present. This absence of some bones particularly the back bone and pelvis indicate that the bears were butchered elsewhere, and prime cuts of meat brought back to the cave. Overall these contrasting archaeological contexts suggest very different hunting behaviour at both caves with the former a targeted resource and the latter a more opportunistic way of hunting.

There are two exciting implications from this study; it adds to the body of evidence that Neanderthals specifically targeted megafauna using a sophisticated knowledge of animal behaviour. It also provides more indication for co-operative hunting in Neanderthal populations—I certainly wouldn’t want to try to take down a bear on my own, even a sleeping one!

A brown bear and a polar bear again drawn by the talented Tabitha Paterson (Twitter handle: @TabithaPaterson)

 

 References:

Romandini, M., Terlato, G., Nannini, N., Tagliacozzo, A., Benazzi, S. and Peresani, M., 2018. Bears and humans, a Neanderthal tale. Reconstructing uncommon behaviors from zooarchaeological evidence in southern Europe. Journal of Archaeological Science90, pp.71-91.

Also a big thank you to bear specialist Tabitha Paterson for advice!

 

 

 

 

What is the relationship between frogs and fertility?

By Hannah B Page, on 10 July 2018

During my first few weeks as a student engager I began to notice the presence of frogs… everywhere. I saw them in various forms and objects in the Petrie Museum, and found frog and other amphibious specimens in the Grant Museum. The Surinam toad quickly became one of my favourite objects to show visitors—the female stores her eggs in her back, and they then burst through the skin when fertilised (Fig 1.). As you can imagine, when you tell people this, you get a mixed response. I took this all as a sign and decided I should do a bit of splashing around in the amphibian research pool and dedicate my first blog post to them.

Fig 1 Surinam Toad with emergent young (Grant Museum W332)

What became immediately obvious when I started to do some digging is just how common frogs are in cultural and religious belief systems. Frogs are used as characters in folk law and in fairy tales—just think of the frog prince in the Grimm stories—but I discovered that their use in religion and culture goes back much, much further. Both the ancient Egyptians and the Mesopotamians saw the frog as a symbol of fertility and life giving. This connection is obvious when you understand the importance these past civilisations gave to the rivers that flowed through their lands. The Nile, Tigris and Euphrates rivers are hailed as the facilitators of the fertile lands that made the development of the first major cities and the centralised hierarchical societies that lived there possible. So the frog, as a watery symbol of the life-giving waters, was then depicted in reliefs, sculpture and objects. One such object is a beautifully crafted, smooth limestone frog in the Petrie Museum (Fig. 2). In fact, frogs are such a strong and consistent symbol in ancient Egyptian culture that they are found depicted in important and specialist objects from the predynastic Naqada periods to the Roman period—some 4,500 years.

Fig 2 Limestone frog from Meroe in the (UCL Petrie Museum, UC.43984)

The Egyptians even depicted a goddess, Haqet, in the image of a frog. Unsurprisingly Haqet is the goddess of fertility and is often depicted either as a frog or in human form with the head of a frog. Amulets were then fashioned in the shape of frogs/Haqet, and were worn, providing fertility to the wearer.

Frogs have also been the subjects of art in other areas of the world as well, for example for the Moche culture of Peru (Fig. 3). The frog species found in the Amazon basin are the most numerous and some of the most deadly, including the poison dart frog who has enough deadly toxin to kill between ten and twenty grown people. Interestingly enough, in Moche society they were also associated with fertility and growth, but with their toxicity (and sometimes hallucinogenic quality), it is thought that their symbolic meaning stretches far beyond this interpretation.

Fig 3 Moche Frog stirrup spout bottle (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992.60.8)

However in Europe, frogs and toads haven’t always been seen in such a positive light. The prince in the frog prince was cursed and turned into a frog as punishment, and in the epic biblical poem Paradise Lost, John Milton depicts Satan as a toad poisoning Eve.

So, their social and symbolic importance is well recorded, but what about their biological history? For this I interrogated the case in the Grant Museum dedicated to them. Frogs and toads it seems started life in the Triassic period, some 240 million years ago. The museum even has a cast of an early German species (Palaeobatrachus) that lived around 130-5 million years ago. What is also striking about the frog is its wide native distribution across the globe, from Europe, to the Americas, Africa to Australasia. So it is unsurprising that these springy species have such an important and consistent cultural presence worldwide.

Finally in my research I discovered that the study of the relationship between human culture and amphibians even has a name: ethnoherpetology. Clearly we have a long and intimate history with our croaky friends.

So next time you’re close by, why not hop into the Grant or the Petrie Museum to see how many frogs you can find?

What happens if a Neanderthal bites you?

By Josephine Mills, on 3 July 2018

Neanderthals have a pretty robust bone structure in comparison to anatomically modern humans and the differences in facial bone structure are particularly striking. In the image below, you can see several of these features, like the high domed cranium and distinctive occipital bun (the pinching at the rear of the skull). To the front of the skull you might notice the large nasal aperture (hole from nose into head) and heavy brow ridge. They also have an extremely strong looking jaw!

It’s likely that these skeletal features are linked to some sort of adaptive process and three main theories are that they give Neanderthals:

1.) A stronger biting force.

2.) The ability to process large amounts of air quickly.

3.) More efficient survival in cold climates with dry air.

When compared the skull and consequent brain size appears larger this probably didn’t make them smarter as intelligence is linked more to how the brain is folded ! Image credit: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/science-shows-why-youre-smarter-than-a-neanderthal-1885827/

 

Recent research by Wroe et al. (2018) aims to shed light on this debate. Researchers analysed the biomechanics of bite strength across different hominin species, focusing on Homo heidlbergensis, Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens. They used CT-scans of multiple crania to establish the bite efficiency in the different hominins.  The results suggested that Neanderthal bite strength was very similar to Homo sapiens and in fact anatomically modern humans could bite more efficiently using fewer muscles. The analysis also demonstrated that both species had nasal cavities that were adapted to condition air efficiently but Neanderthals could take significantly more air into their nasal pathway. Poor Heidlbergensis was the worst at everything… but that’s perhaps unsurprising as it is an older, less derived (evolved), member of the human lineage.

These results strongly support the theory that Neanderthals facial anatomy was adapted to high energy activity in cold, dry, climates. This makes sense in terms of the Neanderthal range and the fact that they evolved and lived outside of Africa. There is evidence of Neanderthal populations surviving during very cold periods of the Ice Age, for example at La Cotte de St. Brelade in Jersey. There are archaeological deposits from this site that date to Marine Isotope Stage 6 (between 191 – 130 thousand years ago), a time when cold conditions prevailed.

This new evidence also fits well with Neanderthal post-cranial adaptations like their large barrel shaped rib cage and short, stocky, stature. These features may have helped to improve survival in cooler climes by aiding air processing and retention of body heat.

This figure shows known Neanderthal range, which demonstrates that although some liked it hot evidence of their presence has been found as far north as England and Russia . Image credit: Nicholas Perrault https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Range_of_Homo_neanderthalensis.png

 

So, to answer the question: being bitten by a Neanderthal would probably hurt like hell but it would be marginally better than being bitten by an anatomically modern human…

 References

Wroe, S., Parr, W. C. H., Ledogar, J. A., Bourke, J., Evans, S. P., Fiorenza, L., Benazzi, S., Hublin, J., Stringer, C., Kullmer, O., Curry, M., Rae, T. C., Yokley, T. R. 2018. Computer simulations show that Neanderthal facial morphology represents adaptation to cold and high energy demands, but not heavy biting. Proc. R. Soc. B 285: 20180085. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2018.0085

 

What if Bob Dylan became Pharaoh of Egypt?

By Sarah M Gibbs, on 28 June 2018

“For the times they are a’ changin’ ”

-Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan in Don’t Look Back (http://nostalgiacentral.com); bust of Akhenaten (http://www.crystalinks.com/akhenaten.html)

If I were to invent a new board game, I’d call it “Who are you now?” Players would have to imagine who historical figures would be if they were alive today. Alexander the Great? A corporate raider leading hostile takeovers and selling dismantled companies to the highest bidder. Christopher Columbus? The captain of the first mission to Mars. Jean Jacques Rousseau? Head of a yoga ashram and wellness retreat in the Cotswolds. And Akhenaten, the iconoclastic pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, artefacts from whose reign are on display at UCL’s Petrie Museum, would definitely be Bob Dylan.

At first glance, the son of Amenhotep III and the folk singer from Hibbing, Minnesota may not seem like brothers from other mothers. Fair enough. The two men’s lives are separated by nearly three thousand years, and many more thousand miles. But the careers of king and artist, both of whom defined the cultures of their respective periods, evince intriguing similarities.

Let’s consider some points of convergence, shall we?

1. Artistic Revolution
Bob Dylan’s breakthrough album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, was released in 1963 (bobdylan.com) and launched a folk revival which defined popular music for the remainder of the decade. After the dominance of Frank Sinatra-style crooners in the 1950s, Dylan’s productions—featuring simple arrangements and complex, poetic lyrics sung by a vocalist of limited range—were a complete departure from the musical mainstream.

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (bobdylan.com)

Akhenaten likewise upset the artistic establishment. Have you ever tried to “walk like an Egyptian”? Traditional Egyptian reliefs employed multiple viewpoint perspective, a technique which presented the parts of the human body in the positions in which they appeared most attractive: head and legs in profile (feet staggered) while chest and torso faced the viewer . In contrast, the relief images produced during Akhenaten’s reign featured naturalistic representations of the body; positions and postures were relaxed, and round hips and bulging bellies were on full display.

Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and Meritaten Worshipping the Sun-God, Aten (Petrie Museum UC401; alabaster relief)

 

2. Religious Upheaval
The perception of Dylan in the 1960s as a truth-telling artist of the people led his most devoted followers to view him as a prophet (one more-than-slightly deranged fan picked through his garbage in New York City looking for said “truth”). Surreal, dystopian songs like “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” added to the effect.

Akhenaten actually did change Egypt’s religion. He was king. He could do that. Ushering in one of the first eras of monotheism in the ancient world, the Pharaoh replaced Egypt’s pantheon of gods with worship of the sun-god in his celestial “disk” form.

3. Name Changin’
A revolutionary needs an epic name. Robert Allen Zimmerman, son of a furniture store owner in small-town Minnesota, became Bob Dylan. And Amenhotep IV was reborn as Akhenaten; he incorporated the Egyptian word for “disk” (“Aten”) into his new moniker to honour his one-and-only god.

4. The City Founders
Following a near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1966, Dylan retreated from public life. He went to Woodstock in upstate New York, and other artists followed, most notably The Band, whose debut album, Music from Big Pink, was written in Woodstock and features the classic song “The Weight.” George Harrison of The Beatles also found his way to Dylan’s idyll.

Admittedly, Akhenaten went a little bit bigger. In the sixth year of his reign, the King founded a new city in middle Egypt between the government and spiritual hubs of Memphis and Thebes. He called the city Akhet-Aten (today it is known as Tell el Amarna) and dedicated it to his god. The Collection at UCL’s Petrie Museum includes a number of reliefs and pottery fragments from the city.

Inlay from Wall Decoration at Tell el Amarna (Petrie Museum UC907)

While Dylan continues to endure, and to frustrate groups like the Nobel Prize Committee (he failed to show up to collect his honour), Akhenaten ruled for only seventeen years. After his death, Tell el Amarna was abandoned, and Egypt reverted to polytheism. The commune broke up. The flower children had to get office jobs. Some revolutions just don’t last.

“It’s all over now, Baby Blue.”
-Bob Dylan

Promotional Poster for the film Don’t Look Back (www.gigsoupmusic.com)

Why did Ancient Egyptians Love Cats?

By Josephine Mills, on 17 April 2018

You really wouldn’t want to get into a cat versus dog argument with me (cats are superior obviously) and as it turns out the Ancient Egyptians agree! Ancient Egyptian iconography is packed with representations of cats — from tomb paintings to statues, their feline friends were everywhere. But did they always love cats? And why did they love them so much?

It’s thought that humans and cats began interacting in Ancient Egypt after 4000 BCE as this is when cats start to appear in visual representations like hieroglyphs and tomb paintings. It’s unlikely that these cats were fully domesticated and were probably one of the two species of wild cat that existed in Egypt at the time: the Jungle Cat and the African Wild Cat. Interestingly, although there was more than one type of cat, Egyptians only had a single word for feline, the onomatopoeic ‘miu’ or ‘miit’, meaning literally ‘he or she who mews’.

 

A fragment of the wall painting from the tomb of Nebamun, which is dated to 1350 BCE. The scene shows Nebamun fishing in the marshes with his wife and daughter. Just to the left of his right knee is a cat amongst the wildfowl. (Courtesy of the British Museum © The Trustees of the British Museum. Museum number EA37977)

 

Between 4000 – 2000 BC humans and cats gradually began to live in closer company. Archaeologists believe that the main driving force behind initial cat domestication was their usefulness as pest control. Ancient Egyptian economy was largely based on farming with grain and its distribution was important to many Egyptians livelihoods. Grain was held in buildings called granaries and people realised that granaries visited by roaming cats had fewer problems with vermin. These cats, who had initially just stopped off to snack on mice, were encouraged to stick around and treated with kindness — finally slinking their way into the domestic home around 2000 BC.

However, cats didn’t just chow down on small vermin like rodents; they were also known to kill poisonous snakes. Snakes were a real issue in Ancient Egypt and the presence of cats reduced the threat of poisoning. Through this behaviour, cats were perceived to have a protective nature which, combined with their ability to have lots of kittens, made them a symbol of the home, women, and fertility. Tomb paintings dated to the New Kingdom often feature cats as dedicated companions of women, usually seated under their chairs.

 

This image shows a wall painting from the tomb of Ipuy, at Deir el-Medina. Ipuy has a small kitten sitting on his lap whilst a cat sits under his wife’s chair (Image credit: https://www.nilemagazine.com.au/march-2015-archive/2015/3/22/ancient-egypts-best-dressed-cats)

 

Their representation in popular culture and usefulness around the home and workplace gave cats a prominent position in Egyptian society. Some people were even named after cats, Miut and Miit, Ta-mitt (female cat) and Pa-mitt (tom cat). Killing a cat was punishable by death, even if it was an accident, and when a family cat died it was common for its owners to shave their eyebrows as part of the mourning process. See I wasn’t kitten when I told you cats were important!

Cats also had a significant impact on religion in Ancient Egypt, despite being a relatively late addition to the Pantheon (c. 2000 – 1000 BC). The earliest representation of a cat or lion in Egyptian religion  was the fur-midable Mafdet, a cat-like deity associated with justice and execution. Interestingly Mafdet probably translates as ‘runner’, and it’s possible she embodied a cheetah or jaguar.

Mafdet was followed by Sekhmet, meaning strength and ferocity, a lion-headed goddess. She played a key part in the Egyptian creation myth when Hathor, daughter of Ra, was transformed into Sekhmet to remind humans of the God’s power (seriously gruesome events ensued). She has a reputation as a ferocious deity but also a stalwart protector of the innocent.

Bastet is probably the most famous cat-headed goddess. Much more moderate than her predecessors, she was associated with fertility, womanhood, and the home. Bastet was a very popular goddess through to the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods in Egypt; she even had a cult centre of worship called Bubastis.

The Cult of the Cat was not restricted to Bubastis and spread across Ancient Egypt with large temples dedicated to the cat goddesses, which house and cared for hundreds of cats. Cats were even mummified in a similar way to humans and placed in temples after their death. The Petrie Museum has its very own mummified cat (sort of), which is part of the Langton Collection, a substantial bequest of artefacts that are all cat related. They were originally brought together by Mr and Mrs Langton, who excavated and worked in Egypt in the early twentieth century, who wanted to highlight the importance of the Cult of the Cat!

 

Mummified remains inside linen bandages shaped to look like a cat. An x-ray of this artefact revealed that it only contained two leg bones! Dated to the Late/Roman Period (Petrie Museum, 45976)

 

The popularity of cats in a religious context peaked during the Ptolemaic period (332 – 30 BC), when political unrest was rife across Egypt. One of the reasons that I know about this period (when I should really be concentrating on Neanderthals) is through playing the video game Assassin’s Creed Origins, which is set during the reign of the Ptolemies. The game is incredibly accurate and a recent update allows you to play in discovery mode, effectively turning Ancient Egypt into a virtual museum. One of my favourite features of the game are the little cats that weave around your feet as you explore towns and villages. These cats have sandy, light red brown or striped coats inspired by cats painted in tombs. Hilariously, and much to my initial frustration, cats can choose whether to interact with you or not! In my opinion greatly adding to the realistic nature of the game…

 

On the left a cat petting fail, on the right a cat petting success! Screenshots taken from Assassin’s Creed Origins made by Ubisoft

 

There’s ample evidence that Ancient Egyptians loved cats and the prominent role they played in day-to-day life and religious worship. Five thousand years later I’m not sure how much has changed. Incidentally if you’d like to read more about cats in a medieval context (of course you would!) check out my fellow engager Arendse’s blog post.

References

Challis, D. 2015. Miw: the Langton Cat Collection. In: Stevenson, A (ed.) Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology Characters and Collections. UCL Press: London 72-74

Malek, J. 1993. The Cat in Ancient Egypt. British Museum Press: London

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cats_in_ancient_Egypt

 

Did Neanderthals Eat Brains?

By Josephine Mills, on 11 March 2018

In short, we think so…

In the archaeological record, ‘cannibalism’, also known as ‘anthropophagy’, is usually identified through studying human bones and analysing any cut marks left on them that were made by stone tools. These cut marks would have occurred during the process of de-fleshing, or excarnating, the individual.

Cutmarks are used as evidence of cannibalism and have been reported at several different Neanderthal sites, like El Sidron and Goyet Cave; however, incontrovertible proof of intentional cannibalism is relatively rare. When analysing marks on bones, archaeologists observe the taphonomy of the find; this means trying to untangle what has happened to it since it was deposited from its systemic (or life-time) context. In some cases, reports of cutmarks made by Neanderthals have been re-analysed and interpreted as damage from carnivore activity or environmental processes.

Cutmarks are found in predictable patterns. For example, upper limbs are usually disarticulated (removed from the body) whereas lower limbs, which have a higher nutritional value, are de-fleshed. At Goyet Cave in Belgium, cutmarks found on Neanderthal rib bones have been used to suggest evisceration and removal of the chest muscles (Rougier et al. 2016). There is also evidence of percussion marks on thigh bones where they have been struck to extract the bone-marrow, which is highly calorific.

The main evidence for brain-eating derives from cut marks and percussion marks found on Neanderthal crania, suggesting skulls were exploited to get to the brain, which is also a very nutritious organ.

Figure 1: A summary of all the cutmarks and percussion marks/pits recorded on the Neanderthal remains from the Troisième Caverne of Goyet (Belgium). Note the prevalence of cutmarks on the calorific areas of the femur and tibia. (Image reference: Rougier, H., Crevecoeur, I., Beauval, C., Posth, C., Flas, D., Wißing, C., Furtwängler, A., Germonpré, M., Gómez-Olivencia, A., Semal, P. and van der Plicht, J., 2016. Neandertal cannibalism and Neandertal bones used as tools in Northern Europe. Scientific reports6, p.29005)

Human bones often occur alongside animal remains and one of the most important criterion for identifying cannibalism is whether both types of bones have been treated in the same way. If this is the case and human bones are butchered just like animal bones, then it’s likely that nutritional cannibalism took place.

It’s hard to say whether all Neanderthals practised nutritional cannibalism as we know that their behaviour varied across different regions and timescales. It may have been a behaviour that occurred out of necessity during periods of nutritional-deficit, when sufficient animal and plant resources were scarce.

What are the repercussions of anthropophagy?

Anthropophagy is taboo and it’s a bad idea to eat people; in a modern context it’s socially unacceptable but there are also potential health issues particularly related to eating certain parts of the body.

Eating brains can expose you to prions, a type of protein generally found in the central nervous system. Everybody has them, however some types of prion can act as infectious agents inducing abnormal folding of otherwise healthy prions. These abnormal prions can occur through genetic inheritance, sporadic mutation, or infection.

The brain is the most vulnerable organ if exposed to infectious prions. Abnormal folding causes the degeneration of white matter, making the important parts of the brain spongy. This explains why prion diseases are neurodegenerative, causing symptoms like loss of co-ordination (cerebellar ataxia) and muscle control. They are fatal and there is no current cure.

You might have heard of the prion diseases Creutzfeld-Jakob disease (CJD) or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE – ‘mad cow’ disease). One of the reasons that the BSE scare occurred in the ‘90s was that farmers were feeding cattle a form of slurry that was made by combining the carcasses of other livestock, greatly increasing the living animal’s likelihood of ingesting infected brains or parts of the nervous system. This became illegal and when the practice stopped so did the elevated cases of BSE.

Probably the most famous outbreak of prion disease is the Kuru, which originated amongst the Fore tribe in Papua New Guinea. In Fore, Kuru literally means ‘the shakes’ referring to loss of muscle control. It’s believed that Kuru originated from one individual in the tribe who experienced a sporadic prion mutation but that it spread so effectively because the Fore practiced ritual anthropophagy until around 1950. Anthropophagy was a key part of their mortuary practice as it involved both honouring and passing on the strength of the deceased. Kuru was most prevalent in women and children as they consumed most of the nervous system and were responsible for the practical excarnation of the dead. At its height, the Kuru epidemic killed around 2% of the Fore women annually.

If you’ve played the video game Far Cry Primal, the tribe based on Neanderthals, ‘The Udam’, suffer from the fictional terminal disease ‘skull-fire’ that is probably inspired by Kuru. This disease is instrumental in their ensuing demise and the supremacy of modern humans (in the video game!).

Neanderthals likely lived in small family groups and were highly mobile. Therefore it seems unlikely that a prion disease could become ubiquitous and have had long-term impacts on their overall survival as a species. Although there are fringe theories that do suggest this, there are many Neanderthal remains found without signs of cannibalism. As more information about genetics and population dispersal becomes available, it seems very unlikely that the assimilation/extinction of Neanderthals was down to prion disease.

The reason that Kuru was so established within the Fore tribe is a combination of both the presence of infectious prions and a very established routine of ritual cannibalism. Basically, eating more brains does not cumulatively give you prion disease but if you do consume brains the probability that you will ingest a brain that has infected prions is much higher – making you much more likely to catch a prion disease.

Anatomically modern humans and ritual cannibalism.

Ritual cannibalism is harder to recognise in the archaeological record than nutritional cannibalism and, so far, hasn’t concretely been reported in Neanderthal populations. However, osteoarchaeological finds from a site in Southern England called Goughs Cave strongly imply that anatomically modern humans practiced ritual cannibalism. The evidence is quite gory with bones even showing signs of being chewed by other humans! Ritual cannibalism is suggested because three of the skulls were shaped to create cups or bowls and one bone has been engraved.

So yes, Neanderthals probably did eat brains, but so did our more modern ancestors, perhaps something to think about if you’ve been looking into trying out the palaeodiet…

Reference:

Rougier, H., Crevecoeur, I., Beauval, C., Posth, C., Flas, D., Wißing, C., Furtwängler, A., Germonpré, M., Gómez-Olivencia, A., Semal, P. and van der Plicht, J., 2016. Neandertal cannibalism and Neandertal bones used as tools in Northern Europe. Scientific reports6, p.29005.

Is Burial a Modern Human Behaviour?

By Josephine Mills, on 16 January 2018

Both the Grant and the Petrie Museums contain regular reminders of death, burial, and what comes after. The animals and skeletons preserved in the Grant continue to contribute to studies of comparative anatomy, education, and public outreach in the museum. In the Petrie, there are many examples of how Ancient Egyptians treated death and the afterlife, including the wooden coffin of Nairetisetnefer on display at the back of the main room (figure 1).

Figure 1: The wooden coffin of Egyptian woman Nairetisetnefer, which is covered in gesso and painted with religious scenes and inscriptions. It was found in the Besenmut family burial(s) at Thebes. Petrie accession number: UC14230

Burial and mourning have long been associated with human-ness. Historically, we’ve thought of the process of understanding death, and what may come after, as something that can only be conceptualised by Homo sapiens. However recent observations of mammals (like the elephant) suggest that mourning, or observation and reaction to death, are not unique to humans as a species.

From an archaeological perspective, burial is generally classed within the suite of ‘advanced’ behaviours (alongside personal adornment, symbolic behaviour etc.) that appear in the archaeological record around 40,000 years ago, coinciding with the widespread dispersal of anatomically modern humans (aka H. sapiens). The timing and proliferation of these burials means that they are generally associated with a period called the Upper Palaeolithic.

Some Upper Palaeolithic burials are easy to recognise in the archaeological record as the individual(s) is interred in a well-cut grave alongside grave goods, like the burials found at Sungir in Russia (figure 2). These well-known burials are probably not representative of widespread mortuary practice instead representing high-status individuals. Types of burial varied substantially across the Upper Palaeolithic world, for an overview of the diversity of burials in Eurasia check out Riel-Salvatore and Gravel-Miguel (2013).

Figure 2: These images show the burial of a male individual known as Sungir 1. The skeleton is incredibly well preserved and although the outfit the individual was buried in has not survived you can see the mammoth ivory beads that would have adorned it. Image credit: Trinkhaus, E., Buzhilova, A. P. 2012. “The Death and Burial of Sunghir 1.” International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. 22: 665-666

Did other hominins further back into the past practice burial? One of the most important things to consider is what the word ‘burial’ means. In a way, it can be a loaded term indicating direct intention to preserve or honour an individual, hinting at aspects of the deceased’s relationship with the living and perhaps thoughts for their journey into something like an afterlife. This process demonstrates a whole lot of complex thoughts and ideas. However, from a practical perspective the idea of burial also encompasses things like the removal of deceased from occupation sites, thereby minimising the risk of disease and attraction of dangerous carnivores, a behaviour Pettit (2013) calls ‘funerary caching’. This would make some burials in the past a slightly more practical option.


Figure 3: This reconstructed skull belongs to a Neanderthal child known as Dederiyeh 1, who was around two years old. I think one of the most striking features of this skull is the presence of so many teeth! Image credit: http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-fossils/fossils/dederiyeh-1

In an archaeological (particularly a Palaeolithic context) how do you tell when somebody has been deliberately buried?

  • Bones in the skeleton remaining in the correct anatomical location and still being attached to one another indicating a high degree of skeletal articulation, which suggests that the deceased was interred relatively rapidly after death and was not disturbed post-mortem. The preservation state of the bones can also hint at deliberate burial as they are less likely to be broken by disturbance if the individual has been protected by a grave-like structure or set aside in a specific place. This is seen in the articulated burial of a two-year-old child Neanderthal child (Dedriyeh 1) in Syria (Pettit 2013; figure 3).
  • Association of grave goods with burials, such as flint arrowheads or inclusion of animal remains, like the red deer maxilla associated with Amud 7 Neanderthal burial (Pettit 2012). These items are particularly important if they are unusual or uncommon in the surrounding excavated area, making it more likely that they were placed with the deceased on purpose.
  • Looking for some sort of grave-like depression, a hollow dug into the ground or an area to the side of a cave where a body is placed under a rock or in a natural shelf.

 

Figure 4: This image shows the burial of a Neanderthal child known as Amud 7, excavated from Amud Cave in Israel. Although it is relatively difficult to see from the photo the skeleton was found alongside several items that have been interpreted as grave goods, for example flint tools and a red deer bone. Image credit: Hovers, E., Ullman, M., & Rak, Y. (2017). Palaeolithic Occupations in Nahal Amud. In Y. Enzel & O. Bar-Yosef (Eds.), Quaternary of the Levant: Environments, Climate Change, and Humans (pp. 255-266). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781316106754.029

I study Neanderthals and have written in the past about how they are often given a tough time in popular media for being brutish, unintelligent and lacking in the advanced behaviours of modern humans. The burials mentioned above were made by Neanderthals, however all post-date 70,000 years ago meaning they occurred relatively late in the Middle Palaeolithic (the time when Neanderthals were around); they are also not found consistently across the Neanderthal world (Pettit 2013). From the available evidence, it seems that burial was not a ubiquitous behaviour; however, a preservation bias probably exists because the further you get into the past the more likely archaeological remains are disturbed. Equally Neanderthals were highly mobile hunter gatherers so the chance of finding and excavating their occupation and burial sites is rare and finds are generally seen in cave systems. This is both due to the shelter from environmental processes provided by caves and their recognised potential as archaeological sites, meaning they are excavated more often than open-air sites.

Neanderthal burial is a controversial topic and some of burials are contested, particularly if the term is defined by modern human standards, e.g. the deceased is found interred in a dug grave alongside grave goods. It’s likely that the origin of burial, as suggest by Pettit (2013) who has written in detail about the subject, is in the Palaeolithic but it is improbable that somebody somewhere in the past woke up and invented the concept of burial as we understand it today. It is more plausible that mortuary practice evolved in various places at separate times and has some roots in the practicalities of death for living populations.

For a final thought, although excavated burials generally post-date around 70,000 years ago (late in Neanderthal evolution), new discoveries like the structures in Bruniquel Cave (Jaubert et al. 2016), which have been reliably dated to 170,000 years ago, reveal a deepening complexity in observed Neanderthal behaviour; alongside finds like this, it doesn’t seem out of this world to think that some form of mortuary behaviour was seen earlier in the human record.

Incidentally there’s also rather a lot of evidence for excarnation by Neanderthals and Anatomically Modern Humans, but that’s for another blogpost!

References:

Jaubert, J., Verheyden, D., Genty, D., Michel, Soulier., Cheng, H., Blamart, D., Burlet, C., Camus, H., Delaby, S., Deldicque, D., Edwards, R. E., Ferrier, C., Lacrampe-Cuyaubère, F., Lévêque, F., Maksud, F., Mora, P., Muth, X., Régnier., E., Rouzaud, J., Santos, F. 2016. Early Neanderthal constructions deep in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France. Nature 534:111–114

Pettitt, P. (2013). The Palaeolithic origins of human burial. Routledge.

 

 

Five years of research: a summary

By Stacy Hackner, on 3 July 2017

DSC_0745

by Stacy Hackner

A PhD often feels like an unrewarding process. There are setbacks, data failures, non-significant results, and a general lack of the small successes that (I hear) make general worklife pleasant: “I got that promotion!” “Everyone applauded my presentation!” “I moved to the desk near the window!” PhD life is one giant slog until the end, a nerve-wracking hours-long session where you’re grilled by the only people who know more about your field than you.

I survived.

Hopefully some of you have been following my research here, starting from astronauts and moving on to runners and foraging patterns. It all ties together, I promise. I recently gave a talk at the Engagers’ event “Materials & Objects” summarizing my research, which I can now tell you about in its full glory! I’m pleased to announce: I had significant findings.

The lowdown is that (as expected) there are differences in the shape of the tibia (shin bone) between nomads and farmers in Sudan. Why would this be? Well, if you’ve been following along, bones change shape in response to activity, particularly activities performed during adolescence. The major categories of tibial shape were those that indicated long-distance walking, doing activity in one place, and doing very little activity. Looking at the distribution, the majority of the nomadic males had the leg shape indicating long-distance walking, and some of the agricultural males had the long-distance shape and others had the staying-in-place shape. This makes sense considering the varying types of activity performed in an agricultural society, particularly one that also had herds to take care of: some individuals would be taking the herds up and down along the Nile to find grazing land while others stayed local, tending farms. While it’s unclear how often a nomadic group needs to move camp to be considered truly nomadic, in this case it seems like they were walking a lot – enough to compare their tibial shape to that of modern long-distance runners. These differences in food acquisition are culturally-adapted responses to differing environments: the nomads live in semi-arid grassland and can travel slowly over a large area to graze sheep and cattle, while the farmers are constrained to a narrow strip of fertile land along the Nile banks, limiting how many people can move around, and how often.

Perhaps the most important finding is the difference between males and females. In addition to looking at shape, I also conducted tests to show how strong each bone is regardless of shape, a result called polar second moment of inertia (and shortened to, unexpectedly, J). The males at each site had higher values for J – thus, stronger bones – than the females. However, the nomadic females had higher J values than some of the males at the agricultural sites! This is in spite of most females from both sites having the tibial shape indicating “not very much activity”. This shape may be the juvenile shape of the tibia, which females have retained into adulthood despite performing enough activity to give them higher strength values than male farmers. Similar results have actually been noted in studies examining different time periods – for instance, the Paleolithic to Neolithic – and found much more similarity between females than between males. Researchers often interpret this as evidence of changing male roles but female roles remaining the same, which strikes me as unlikely considering the time spans covered. I instead conclude that females build bone differently in adolescence, and perhaps there are subtleties in bone development that don’t reveal themselves as differences in shape. As females have lower rates of testosterone, which builds bone as well as muscle, they may have to work harder or longer than males to attain the same bone shape and strength. I’m using this to argue that the roles of women in archaeological societies – particularly nomadic ones – have been unexamined in light of biological evidence.

Of course, the best conclusion for a PhD is a call for more research, and mine is that we need to examine male and female adolescent athletes together to see when exactly shape change occurs. If we can pin down the amount of activity necessary for women to have bones as strong as those of their male peers, we can more accurately interpret the types of activities ancient people were performing without devaluing the work of women.

My examiners found all this enthralling, and I’m pleased to say I passed! The work of this woman is valued in the eyes of the academe.

A History of Legs in 5 Objects

By Stacy Hackner, on 11 April 2017

DSC_0745by Stacy Hackner

My research focuses on the tibia, the largest bone in the lower leg. You probably know it as the shin bone, or the one that makes frequent contact with your coffee table resulting in lots of yelling and hopping around; that’s why footballers often wear shinguards. The intense pain is because the front of the tibia is a sharp crest that sits directly beneath the skin. There are a lot of leg-related objects in UCL Museums, so here’s a whirlwind tour of a few of them!

One of the few places you can see a human tibia is the Petrie’s pot burial. This skeleton from the site of Badari in Egypt has rather long tibiae, indicating that the individual was quite tall. The last estimation of his height was made in 1985, probably using regression equations based on the lengths of the tibia and femur (thigh bone): these indicated that he was almost 2 meters tall. However, the equations used in the 80s were based on a paper from 1958, which used bone lengths from Americans who died in the Korean War. There are two problems that we now know of with this calculation: height is related to genetics and diet, and different populations have differing limb length ratios.

Pot burial from Hemamieh, near the village of Badari UC14856-8

Pot burial from Hemamieh, near the village of Badari UC14856-8

The Americans born in the 1930s-40s had a vastly different diet from predynastic Egyptians, and the formulae were developed for (and thus work best when testing) white Americans. This is where limb length ratios come into play. Some people have short torsos and long legs, while others have long torsos and short legs. East Africans tend to have long legs and short torsos, and an equation developed for the inverse would result in a height much taller than he actually was! Another thing to notice is the cartilage around the knee joint. At this point in time, the Egyptians didn’t practice artificial mummification – but the dry conditions of the desert preserved some soft tissue in a process called natural mummification. Thus you can see the ligaments and muscles connecting the tibia to the patella (knee cap) and femur.

The Petrie also has a collection of ancient shoes and sandals. I think the sandals are fascinating because they show a design that has obviously been perfected: the flip flop. One of my favorites is an Amarna-period child’s woven reed sandal featuring two straps which meet at a toe thong. The flip flop is a utilitarian design, ideal for keeping the foot cool in the heat and protecting the sole of the foot from sharp objects and hot ground surfaces. These are actually some of the earliest attested flip flops in the world, making their appearance in the 18th Dynasty (around 1300 BCE).

An Egyptian flip-flop. UC769.

An Egyptian flip-flop. UC769.

Another shoe, this time from the site of Hawara, is a closed-toe right leather shoe. Dating to the Roman period, this shows that flip flops were not the only kind of shoe worn in Egypt. This shoe has evidence of wear and even has some mud on the sole from the last time it was worn.  This shoe could have been worn with knit wool socks, one of which has been preserved. However, the Petrie Collection’s sock has a separate big toe, potentially indicating that ancient Egyptians did not have a problem wearing socks and sandals together, a trend abhorrent to modern followers of fashion (except to fans of Birkenstocks).

Ancient Egyptian shoe (UC28271) and sock (UC16767.

Ancient Egyptian shoe (UC28271).

sock UC16767

Ancient Egyptian sock (UC16767).

The Grant Museum contains a huge number of legs, but only one set belonging to a human. For instructive purposes, I prefer to show visitors the tibiae of the tiger (Panthera tigris) on display in the southwest corner of the museum. These tibiae show a pronounced muscle attachment on the rear side where the soleus muscle connects to the bone. In bioarchaeology, we score this attachment on a scale of 1-5, where 5 indicates a really robust attachment. The more robust  – attachment, the bigger the muscle; this means that either the individual had more testosterone, which increases muscle size, or they performed a large amount of activity using that muscle. (We wouldn’t score this one because it doesn’t belong to a human.) In humans, this could be walking, running, jumping, or squatting. Practice doing some of these to increase your soleal line attachment site!

The posterior tibia of a tiger.

The posterior tibia of a tiger.

Moving to the Art Museum, we can see legs from an aesthetic rather than practical perspective. A statue featuring an interesting leg posture the legs is “Spinario or Boy With Thorn”, a bronze statue produced by Sabatino de Angelis & Fils of Naples in the 19th century. It is a copy of a famous Greco-Roman bronze, one of very few that has not been lost (bronze was frequently melted down and reused). The position of the boy is rather interesting: he is seated with one foot on the ground and the opposite foot on his knee as he examines his sole to remove a thorn. This is a very human position, and shows the versatility of the joints of the hip, knee, and ankle. The hip is adducted and outwardly rotated, the knee is flexed, and the ankle is everted. It’s rare for the leg to be shown in such a bent position in art, as statues usually depict humans standing or walking.

Spinario, or Boy With Thorn.

Spinario, or Boy With Thorn.

Bipedalism, or walking on two legs, is one of the traits we associate with being human. It’s rare in the animal world. Hopefully next time you look at a statue, slip on your flip flops, or go for a jog, you’ll think of all the work your tibiae are doing for you – and keep them out of the way of the coffee table.

(OK, I know that was six objects… but imagine the sock inside the shoe!)

Neanderthals: Not So Different?

By Josephine Mills, on 4 April 2017

Although opinions of Neanderthals are rapidly changing within academic research groups, their image as primitive, brutish, and violent, can still be pervasive in wider spread media. This division between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals has deep roots in Europe, exacerbated by the historic tendency to see Anatomically Modern Humans (H. sapiens) as the only behaviourally complex hominin species. The first recognised Neanderthal fossil was discovered in 1856 in the Neander Valley in Germany and rapidly prompted widespread chaos in the scientific community as to where it fitted within the hominin lineage.

Much of this dialogue focused on perceived ‘primitive’ features of Neanderthal anatomy highlighting skeletal differences such as large protruding brow ridges, shorter stature, and barrel-like rib cages (if you visit the Grant Museum a selection of hominin crania are displayed showing some of these differences!). Discussion also focused on disparities in cognitive capacity and behaviour, quickly restricting Neanderthals to a species who favoured hunting over culture, and were more likely to display violence than altruism.

My PhD is based on unravelling aspects of Neanderthal landscape use and migration in the Western English Channel region during the Middle Palaeolithic, a period stretching from around 400 – 40,000 years ago. I am exploring behavioural complexities and reactions to environmental change through Neanderthal material culture, mainly via studying the movement of stone tools. Therefore it isn’t surprising that when I am engaging in the Grant Museum I gravitate towards the Neanderthal cast, which is a replica of the famous skull excavated from the site of La Chapelle-Aux-Saints in France.

Chappelle

Figure 1: La Chapelle-Aux-Saints Neanderthal cast held at the Grant Museum—note the pronounced brow ridge over the eye sockets. Although the mandible and teeth look very different from Anatomically Modern Humans this is a cast taken from the skull of a particularly old individual who had advanced dental problems including gum disease! (Grant Museum, z2020)

Interestingly the most common theme in conversations I have with visitors to the Grant Museum is the shared similarities, rather than differences, between Anatomically Modern Humans and Neanderthals. It seems that what captures our imaginations now are the significance of concepts previously thought of as unique to Homo sapiens that are being gradually recognised in association with Neanderthals. Important advances in dating and DNA analysis have shown that Neanderthals and Anatomically Modern Humans co-existed in Europe for at least 40,000 years, with population groups meeting and interacting at different times. This is seen both in the archaeological record but also in the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome, which indicates that most modern people living outside of Africa inherited around 1-4% of their DNA from Neanderthals. As I mentioned, after the discovery of the first Neanderthal fossils people weren’t too keen on any evidence that threatened to topple the shiny pedestal reserved for Homo sapiens, however these advances in modern science have prompted a greater openness when exploring Neanderthal archaeology.

In order to investigate these aspects of complex behaviour, such as symbolism and art, we consider behaviours preserved in the archaeological record that appear to surpass the functional everyday need for survival. Recent discoveries have suggested that Neanderthals were making jewellery from eagle talons in Croatia and may have had more involvement than previously thought in the complex archaeological assemblages found at sites like Grotte du Renne. However evidence of these behaviours in Neanderthal populations remains rare and although this may relate to the historic viewpoint (it simply hasn’t been looked for…), empirically we just do not see it on the same scale.

Two examples I often refer to when discussing this at the museum are the recent discoveries of potential abstract art at Gorham’s Cave Gibraltar and the Neanderthal structures found underground at Bruniquel Cave. The abstract art (disclaimer: I understand that ‘art’ depends on the definition of the concept itself but that’s for another blog post!) was found at Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar, a well-known Neanderthal occupation site. Often nicknamed ‘the hashtag’ it is a series of overlapping lines that appear to have been made deliberately by repeated cutting motions using a stone tool. The archaeologists who discovered the hashtag suggest that it was created around 40,000 years ago and that, as it was found underlying Neanderthal stone tools, it can definitely be attributed to them. They hail it as an example of Neanderthal abstract art that may even have represented a map, suggesting an elevated level of conceptual understanding. Whatever the marks represent, if they are associated with the Neanderthal occupation of the cave this is a behaviour that has not been observed elsewhere!

hashtag

Figure 2: An image of the Neanderthal ‘hashtag’ made deliberately with repeatedly with strokes of a stone tool on a raised podium in Gorham’s Cave Gibraltar (Photo: Rodríguez-Vidal et al. 2014)

The other example that I mentioned is the site of Bruniquel Cave in southwest France, where unusual underground structures deliberately made from stalagmites have been dated via uranium series to 176,000 years old. This date firmly places the creation of the structures in a time where Neanderthals were the sole occupants of the region. The structures themselves are circular in diameter and are composed of fragmented stalagmites (all of a similar length c.34cm) with evidence of deliberately made fire. The function of these structures is not immediately obvious but as there is a distinct lack of other archaeological material in the cave it is unlikely they were used for domestic purposes. Equally their potential for functioning as shelters is unclear as they are located a whopping 336 metres from the cave entrance in an area that would not have faced the elements.

For me this location deep within the cave presents one of the key implications for Neanderthal behaviour in that no natural light whatsoever would have reached the chamber! This indicates a degree of familiarity with the subterranean world and potentially hints at the symbolic or ritual significance of the cave. Whatever the purpose of the structures, the authors of the study conclude that they represent unique evidence of the use of space, which may reflect the complex social structures of the Neanderthals who built there.

Bruniquel

Figure 3: A schematic of the circular structures made with stalagmites deep underground in Bruniquel Cave, the orange colouration shows the areas of deliberate burning (Photo: Jaubert et al. 2016)

The inferences that are made from these Neanderthal finds are carefully considered by both the researchers concerned and the general archaeological community, disseminating the evidence and evaluating what archaeological information can be drawn from it. Overall there is something undeniably privileged to be working in a time where the complexity of Neanderthals is recognised and the potential for art, symbolism and other human characteristics is discussed!

References:

Green, R.E., Krause, J., Briggs, A.W., Maricic, T., Stenzel, U., Kircher, M., Patterson, N., Li, H., Zhai, W., Fritz, M.H.Y. and Hansen, N.F. 2010. A draft sequence of the Neandertal genome. Science 328 (5979), 710-722

Jaubert, J., Verheyden, S., Genty, D., Soulier, M., Cheng, H., Blamart, D., Burlet, C., Camus, H., Delaby, S., Deldicque, D. and Edwards, R.L. 2016. Early Neanderthal constructions deep in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France. Nature534 (7605), 111-114

Radovčić, D., Sršen, A.O., Radovčić, J. and Frayer, D.W. 2015. Evidence for Neandertal jewelry: modified white-tailed eagle claws at Krapina. PloS one 10 (3), p.e 0119802.

Rodríguez-Vidal, J., d’Errico, F., Pacheco, F.G., Blasco, R., Rosell, J., Jennings, R.P., Queffelec, A., Finlayson, G., Fa, D.A., López, J.M.G. and Carrión, J.S., 2014. A rock engraving made by Neanderthals in Gibraltar. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111 (37), 13301-13306.