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Archive for the 'Josephine Mills' Category

What are the Oldest Artefacts in Egypt?

By Josephine Mills, on 21 September 2018

The oldest artefacts in the Petrie Museum weren’t made by the Ancient Egyptians or at least the people we associate with pyramids, mummies and hieroglyphs. They may look unassuming, but these amber coloured stones are handaxes that were made by our human ancestors around half a million years ago. These are my favourite artefacts in the museum even though they aren’t shiny or gilded but because they shed light on hominin behaviour in Egypt before the Egyptians.

These stone tools were made by hominins who lived in Egypt around half a million years ago, making them around 495,000 years older than the earliest ‘Egyptians’! It’s likely that Egypt was occupied by hominins during cooler periods when river systems and vegetation provided a suitable habitat. Lots of these handaxes were found on river terraces suggesting these waterways were an important part of life. Petrie Museum accession numbers: UC 13572 UC75136 UC13579 UC13527 left to right. (Author’s own image)

 

Archaeologists call this type of artefact a lithic, which means ‘made of stone’, usually flint or other siliceous rock. Flint is a very hard rock that is part of the chert family and is particularly useful for making tools because it fractures like glass creating very sharp edges. Stone tools are a very important record left behind by hominins and they are often the only thing we find on stone age sites because they preserve well and don’t decay. Handaxes, also called bifaces, are a particularly recognisable tool because of their distinctive shape.

Handaxe is a term we use to describe a stone tool that has been shaped bifacially (on both sides) by the removal of flint flakes, a process called knapping. There are lots of different shapes of handaxe; for example, those that are more oval are called ovate handaxes whereas those with a wider butt (technical term!) and shaped to a point are called ficrons. They were used throughout the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic.

 

This is an example of a ficron handaxe. A lot of ficrons are made on pebbles, often from flint cobbles transported by rivers or glaciers. Here you can see that the natural shape of the pebble has been used as the base of the handaxe with the remaining portion knapped into a point. (Image credit: The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ © The Trustees of the British Museum)

 

It’s likely that handaxes had many different uses but were primarily employed to process carcasses, enabling hominins to get the most meat possible from the animals they hunted or scavenged. It’s thought that they were also used to dig for tubers and process organic materials. The shape of the tool meant that they could be easily re-sharpened by removing the blunted edge revealing sharp flint underneath. This ability to rejuvenate the tool means that handaxes were highly portable tools that could be shaped and adapted on the move.

 

This handaxe is from the Middle Palaeolithic site La Cotte a La Chèvre on Jersey. It is relatively small and has probably been re-sharpened multiple times. During the Middle Palaeolithic the landscape to the north of Jersey was used by highly mobile Neanderthals hunting and gathering. It’s likely that this handaxe was part of a Neanderthal tool-kit and may have been discarded at the cave because it had been re-sharpened so much it was too small to use! (Image Credit: Jersey Heritage)

 

The first published work that recognised handaxes as human made, albeit very long ago, was published by John Frere in 1800. Frere had discovered handaxes alongside animal bones in gravel at the site of Hoxne in Sussex. Although others before him had suggested that handaxes may be human tools—like John Conyers who was present at the excavation of the Gray’s Inn handaxe in 1679—this was the first time the theory had been taken seriously. Prior to the 19th century, their origin was often explained through folklore; they were referred to as thunderstones thought to have dropped from the sky in storms or elf-shot—the preserved remains of tiny weapons.

 

This is the handaxe found at the Gray’s Inn Road site by John Conyers in 1679. (Image credit: © The Trustees of the British Museum)

 

Although it’s generally accepted that handaxes are a practical tool, there are several instances of bifaces that are simply too big to function. This handaxe (below) discovered at Furze Platt in Maidenhead, UK, is around 30cm long and would have been very heavy! These oversized axes led to the theory that bifaces influenced sexual selection; the larger your handaxe, the more proficient you were at provisioning resources and important raw material. In this scenario your giant handaxe suggests that you are a great option for a partner or somebody to have children with! Equally it has been suggested that these larger handaxes were status symbols hinting at social hierarchy. However, these types of behaviours are hard to reconstruct in the past and these theories are definitely not set in stone.

 

The Furze Platt handaxe. (Image Credit: © Trustees of NHM)

 

Overall, it’s evident that handaxes were very useful in the prehistoric—but even back then it seems hominins also found the tools aesthetically pleasing… I’ll leave you with this beauty.

 

This handaxe was made around 500 – 300, 000 years ago and was found at West Tofts in Norfolk, UK. It appears that the knapper has carefully preserved the outline of a shell in the cortex, the calcareous outer surface of flint. (Image Copyright: Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology Cambridge. Museum ID 1916.82/Record 2)

 

Follow this link for a 3D model of the artefact: https://sketchfab.com/models/343ae7d92a384327aebec8f0ec8e5e54

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 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

 

New Discoveries: the Earliest Neanderthal Art

By Josephine Mills, on 25 May 2018

Interpretations of our collective human history can change in what feels like a blink of an eye with a new fossil, archaeological find, or ancient DNA result. For a researcher in Palaeolithic archaeology and Palaeoanthropology this can be daunting at times as rapidly shifting narratives make research ‘out of date’ quickly. On the other hand, the high turnover of new discoveries is also one of the reasons that studying human evolution is so inspiring. In early 2018 alone finds of a prehistoric human jaw bone and a finger bone, dated to 180 and 60 thousand years old, respectively, have challenged the view that Anatomically Modern Humans migrated from Africa to Eurasia in a single event approximately 60,000 years ago.

But this year hasn’t only been exciting for Homo sapiens and just over a year on from my first ever post on the Research Engager Blog I thought I would write a series of updates on our favourite Hominin species – the Neanderthals!

One of the hand stencils from Maltravieso Cave, the colour has been changed to highlight the image Photograph: Reuters via The Guardian

 

The Earliest Neanderthal Art

Perhaps the most attention-grabbing Neanderthal news of the year was the publication of new dates for the parietal art found in three caves in Spain: La Pasiega, Maltravieso and Ardales (Hoffman et al. 2018). These dates were established by uranium-series analysis of the flowstone (composed of calcite and other minerals) overlying the images. By dating the age of the flowstone, archaeological scientists established the minimum age for the art, meaning that it must have been made before the flowstone was laid down (in archaeology we sometimes call this establishing the terminus ante quem).

In the case of the Maltravieso hand (which is part of a panel of over 50 other hand stencils), the earliest flowstone deposits were dated to 66,700 years ago, a time when Anatomically Modern Humans were not known to live in Spain. This means that the images were made by Neanderthals, making them amongst the earliest Neanderthal art ever recorded (see also La Pasiega and Ardales) and providing proof that Neanderthals painted on the walls of caves. The significance of these new dates is undoubtable but perhaps the discovery is even more exciting because the images of hands are effectively stencilled (see image below). This suggests that the individual/s who made them placed their hands on the cave wall and surrounded them with pigment, literally leaving their mark.

Hand print on walls (Credit: Extremadura Turismo)

 

Symbolic behaviour amongst Neanderthal populations remains relatively rare, I have previously written about the debated ‘hashtag’ at Gorham’s Cave, and the incredible underground structures at Bruniquel Cave. The Maltravieso hands are incredibly unique… they are far from the usual material we study, skeletons and discarded stone tools, these hand outlines capture a direct impression of Neanderthals when they were alive.

References

Hoffmann, D.L., Standish, C.D., García-Diez, M., Pettitt, P.B., Milton, J.A., Zilhão, J., Alcolea-González, J.J., Cantalejo-Duarte, P., Collado, H., De Balbín, R. and Lorblanchet, M., 2018. U-Th dating of carbonate crusts reveals Neandertal origin of Iberian cave art. Science, 359 (6378), pp.912-915.

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/feb/23/neanderthals-cave-art-spain-astounding-discovery-humbles-every-human

Additional reading:

This great blog post by Dr Becky Wragg-Sykes delves further into the new dates for the Neanderthal use of pigments published by Hoffmann et al. (2018)

http://www.therocksremain.org/2018/02/wherefore-art-thou-neanderthal.html

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

 

An Evening Dealing Out “Justice”

By Arendse I Lund, on 4 April 2018

Last week, we held our first event of 2018 in the UCL Art Museum where three of us PhD students — Josie Mills, Cerys Bradley, and myself — all approached the topic of “justice” from different perspectives and vastly different disciplines.

Josie speaking about the Neanderthals

Josie spoke about the idea of justice amongst the Neanderthals and what theories scholars have for any type of justice system in the Palaeolithic era. By talking about the factors we need for a crime to happen, she described from an archaeological view whether or not there was rock solid evidence for a Palaeolithic justice system. Turns out, there isn’t — at least not yet!

She drew comparisons to the modern Inuit justice system, and discussed whether they could tell us anything about tribal justice at large. Taking questions from the audience, Josie disabused us of the notion that Neanderthals are completely different from modern humans or that they ran around bashing each other on the head with rocks. This is a topic she’s well accustomed to discussing; she has also written extensively on Palaeolithic burial practices and cannibalism amongst the Neanderthals.

Arendse speaking about the Anglo-Saxon concept of justice

Skipping from the Neanderthals to the Anglo-Saxons, I followed Josie’s talk with a discussion of justice in the year 600 CE. This was the year that King Æthelbert of Kent issued his law code. With its long list of clauses, Æthelbert’s law code was a comprehensive list of how to calculate the appropriate amount to pay someone if you wrong them somehow. This would theoretically make it easier to police crimes as families are paid off for their relative’s injury and therefore don’t need to attack in retaliation and start a blood feud.

As everyone arrived for the talk, they had been handed a piece of paper with an attack on a victim, the social status of those involved, or the location of the attack. I now invited the audience to play a game with me. We would attack a hypothetical Edwin of Kent and see what happened. For example, laming Edwin’s shoulder would cost us 30 shillings in the year 600 (an enormous sum). If Edwin was a freeman and our attack killed him, we would have to pay his family 100 shillings, broken up into two installments: 20 shillings at Edwin’s open grave, where a blood feud might erupt, and the remaining 80 shillings within the next 40 days. The location where we murder Edwin is also important in calculating how much we have to pay because through our actions, we might accidentally have insulted someone else. If our attack was on the king’s estate, then we would have to pay an additional 50 shillings to the Æthelbert for disrupting the peace.

Cards to “attack” poor Edwin of Kent

The goal of this exercise was to show how expensive it was to injure or murder someone. But because of this exhaustive list of fines, for the first time in Anglo-Saxon law there are recognized crimes and standardized punishments, and there will theoretically be fewer blood feuds. The audience engaged with this talk and I received excellent feedback encouraging me to do another one in this style.

 

Cerys giving an overview of 21st-century justice

Jumping from the Anglo-Saxons to modern policing, Cerys spoke about attempting to enforce justice in the age of the Dark Net. As a doctoral student in the crime and security science department, Cerys studies people who buy drugs on the internet and how they react to different law enforcement interventions. In a fascinating discussion, Cerys showed how far we’ve come in policing crime but also how the modern justice system has not caught up with anonymous internet crime.

We moved from one-on-one crime with very little evidence of a justice system with the Neanderthals, to recognized crimes with standardized punishment for the Anglo-Saxons, to anonymized crime which doesn’t always have a standardized punishment in our modern world of the Dark Net. These types of interdisciplinary talks with different approaches to a common theme is something that excites me the most about working as part of the Student Engager team. It provides me greater insight into my own research by hearing about the resources and approaches of other disciplines.

At the end of the evening, we asked our audience members for feedback and to vote on which justice system they’d most like to live under. To my great surprise, the Anglo-Saxons won!

 

Event: What do you need to create a justice system?

By Arendse I Lund, on 14 March 2018

What do you need to create a justice system, an evening of short talks by UCL’s student engagers, will be taking place on Tuesday, 20 March 2018, UCL Art Museum 6:30-8pm

 

Our upcoming event “What do you need to create a justice system?” is next Tuesday — come join us for an evening of short talks focussed on the justice systems, or lack thereof, in early farming communities, amongst the Anglo-Saxons, and in the Dark Net. Think there’s no connection at all between these disparate time periods? You might be surprised!

 

 

The speakers are:

Josie Mills – a third-year PhD in Archaeology at UCL specialising in applying scientific techniques, like mass spectrometry, to understand more about stone tools made by Neanderthals. She’s particularly interested in how we, as modern humans, perceive prehistoric behaviour and the division we draw between us and other species.

Arendse Lund – a PhD student in the UCL English department. She traces the development of an Old English legal language and how rulers use this legal terminology to shape perceptions of their authority. She is funded by the London Arts and Humanities Partnership.

Cerys Bradley – a PhD student in the crime and security science department at UCL. They study the people who buy drugs on the internet and how they react to different law enforcement interventions.

The event is being hosted in the UCL Art Museum, an intimate space in what used to be the old print room. The three talks are 15 minutes each and are followed by questions. Then attendees are welcome to join the presenters for a wine reception. No booking is necessary but space is limited.

We look forward to seeing you there!

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.

 

 

Make a Museum about Pokémon!

By Josephine Mills, on 21 November 2017

Post-it Note found on the visitor feedback board in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (if this was left by you - do get in touch!)

Post-it Note found on the visitor feedback board in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (if this was left by you – get in touch!)

 

While working in the Petrie Museum last week I glanced at the board reserved for visitor feedback, noticed this post-it and couldn’t resist taking a photo… As a child of the nineties I have a soft spot for Pokémon and have wholeheartedly embraced revival of the plucky little critters. I’ve particularly enjoyed the nostalgia of sharing the new games with my younger brother, Daniel; if only there were a degree in poké-studies!

Last year the app Pokémon Go made headlines world-wide and the presence of the virtual creatures in museums and archives was widely discussed within the heritage industry. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’m team positive for Pokémon Go in museums, and the staff at UCL Museums have written some great blog posts on the subject. See this post by Grant Museum Manager Jack Ashby and Research Engager Arendse’s blog.

 

A wild Pigeotto appears as I am doing my PXRF analysis (Image: J Mills 2016)

A wild Pigeotto appears as I am doing my PXRF analysis (Image: Author’s own photo)

 

In fact, museums, archaeological ruins, and science labs also feature in the Pokémon games, serving as venues to transform fossils found in the wild into rare Pokémon. These Pokémon, like those mentioned in Arendse’s post, were inspired by real fossils, for example Omanyte from ammonites, and Aerodactyl from pterodactyl. My personal favourite is Relicanth, a fish bearing a close resemblance to the Lazarus species the coeleocanth!

 

Ammonite

Left: Omanyte (Image: Bulbapedia; Right: Ammonite (Image: British Geological Survey)

 

Omanyte and Ammonite

Here you can see the similarities between the shell of the Pokémon and the preserved ammonite Mantelliceras, which lived during the Late Cretaceous/Cenomanian period around 100 million years ago. This was a time when much of the Chalk in England formed and Cretaceous ammonite fossils are common in chalky areas of the South Coast. Interestingly fossil ammonites are often displayed ‘upside down’ (effectively with their head in the air!) whereas the Pokémon are orientated to move with their tentacles at the base, more like the original creatures.

 

Top: Aerodactyl (Image: https://bulbapedia.bulbagarden.net/wiki/Aerodactyl_(Pok%C3%A9mon ); Bottom: Pterodactyl (Image: http://dinosaurpictures.org/Pterodactyl-pictures)

Top: Aerodactyl (Image: Bulbapedia); Bottom: Pterodactyl (Image: Dinosaur Pictures)

 

 

Aerodactyl and Pterodactyl

Perhaps the most literal translation of the three are the obvious similarities between the Aerodactyl Pokémon and the extinct Pterodactyl, which lived during the Jurassic period 200-150 million years ago. The fossils on the game are rare and can only be found in certain areas; similarly pterodactyl fossils are also localised in real life, with most excavated from the Solnhofen limestone in Germany.

Top: Relicanth (Image: https://vignette3.wikia.nocookie.net/pokemon/images/a/ad/369Relicanth_AG_anime.png/revision/latest?cb=20141006041759); Bottom: Coelacanth (Image: http://vertebrates.si.edu/fishes/coelacanth/coelacanth_wider.html)

Top: Relicanth (Image: Bulbapedia); Bottom: Coelacanth (Image: Smithsonian)

 

Relicanth and Coelacanth

Even Relicanth’s name nods to the antiquity and mysterious-ness of the real-life fish the Coelacanth. The Coelacanth is a ‘Lazarus’ species, a term that refers to a taxon that was thought to be extinct but reappears again in the wild. The cryptic nature of the Coelacanth is reflected by the camouflage cartoon pattern of the Pokémon, a graphic allegory of the fish’s complex history!

Although the Pokémon hype has gradually dwindled, perhaps this message from our younger audience (or any nineties kids out there), highlights what we can take from Pokémon: the appeal of learning about animals and artefacts, the surprise of finding new things where you didn’t expect them, and the lure of encountering the rare and interesting.

More practically, specimens that have inspired both fossils and non-fossil Pokémon are on display across the Grant Museum. However, if anybody is interested in funding a museum solely about Pokémon, please get in touch: I know someone who might be suitable for curator *cough*…