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Archive for the 'Josephine Mills' Category

The Last of the Neanderthal… Blog Posts!

Josie RMills26 June 2019

Since I started working for UCL Culture, the picture researchers have of human evolution has changed dramatically. There’s no surprises that I think the most exciting relate to Neanderthals; it’s now widely accepted that they possessed complex material culture, adapted to different climates and environments, and expressed themselves through art and symbolism. Researchers are giving the Neanderthals space to be both similar and different to Anatomically Modern Humans, and questioning whether the comparison between the two species is the most useful way to understand behaviour.

The evolutionary tree has also been updated multiple times as new genomic and anatomical data emerges. We know a whole species, the Denisovans, by evidence almost wholly gleaned from ancient DNA and proteins. The Denisovans were a species with a huge range from Siberia to SE Asia; they were distantly related to Neanderthals and possessed distinct adaptations relating to survival in cold climates. A huge breakthrough in the past few months identified a jawbone, found in 1980 by monks in a cave on the Tibetan Plateau, that actually belonged to an adolescent Denisovan. It’s the largest piece of anatomical evidence found of the species and also greatly expands their known geographical range. The fossil was identified by the presence of ancient proteins preserved in the teeth, via a type of analysis called palaeoproteomics  a revolutionary technique that provides an alternative to identification of ancient DNA, which doesn’t always preserve well.

A schematic of the relationship between Neanderthals, Denisovans, Chimpanzees and Anatomically Modern Humans that demonstrates the genetic link between Denisovans and Neanderthals (Image Credit: Frido Welker from this blog post, which discusses the mandible).

Discoveries like this both simplify and complicate our understanding of how humans evolved; it’s really interesting to see how the development of scientific techniques can draw information from finds both in museum archives and within local communities. One of the highlights of being a Student Engager is the chance to be involved with outreach activities like Curiosi-teas, a group that aims to bring local people together with the UCL Collections, fostering a sense of community and taking the museums out of a traditional academic setting. It’s often these sessions that produce the most interesting and also difficult to answer questions about Neanderthals (think cannibalism, brains, sex…). Or one of my personal favourites, did Neanderthals wear clothes? The origin of clothes is a tricky topic because organic material doesn’t preserve well in the archaeological record. We know that Neanderthals lived in cold climates, and although they had certain adaptations to cope with this, I think it’s incredibly unlikely they were wandering around in their birthday suits.  Although during this discussion it was suggested that they may have coped with the cold by being excessively hairy…

This will be my final blog post for UCL Researchers in Museums, as our funding has been withdrawn by UCL Culture – we’re facing an Engager-wide extinction event! I want to take a line to thank my colleagues (all 13 of them) and I hope this blog and our presence in UCL Museums has been interesting and engaging for readers and visitors – Although sad, we are leaving on a high as we have just been awarded The Dr Katharine Giles science blog award by the Association of British Science Writers! It’s been a wonderful place to talk about my PhD research and the amazing collections held at UCL and we’ve all learnt a lot from each other – did you know that – did you know that wombats poop cubes?!

I thought I’d finish by pointing you in the direction of a few human evolution and palaeolithic archaeology highlights in the UCL Museums. Firstly, the collection of handaxes and other stone tools in the  Petrie Museum. You’ll find them clustered under Flinders Petrie’s watchful gaze in the museum cases located at the earliest point of Egypt’s chronology. They represent some of the first finds from Egypt before it was really Egypt as we know it now, I’ve written about them here. A hot tip, the drawers under the display cases pull out and are chock full of more lovely lithics!

A late Acheulean (Lower Palaeolithic) handaxe found at what is now Thebes. From the collection of Montague Porch 1905, presented to the museum by the public museum of Weston-Super-Mare, January 1960. Dimensions 95mm. (Image Credit: Petrie Museum, UC13676).

Moving to the Grant Museum, you can see some great examples of comparative anatomy of both primates and hominins. This image is a skull cast from a cranium and mandible discovered at La Chappelle-Aux-Saints in France. It’s estimated that this person lived 50,000 years ago, to the ripe old age of 40, which is pretty good for a Neanderthal! It’s one of the most complete Neanderthal skeletons found, and thought to be a deliberate burial. It’s also a fossil that has been discussed in terms of prehistoric altruism and social care, as the skeleton shows signs of bad health, for example arthritis and tooth loss; these pathologies have been used to suggest that the ‘old man’ was cared for by others, which has important implications for group dynamics and is something we associate with humanity. The whole display case provides a great range of different hominin and non-human primate fossil casts, where you can see the differences and similarities between our ancestors.

Model of H. neanderthalensis skull, modelled after La Chapelle-Aux-Saints (Grant Museum, Z2020).

So, that’s it from your resident Neanderthal enthusiast, if you are interested in human evolution, prehistoric archaeology, ot rocks – follow me on Twitter @josiemills!



Migration Event: When did the first humans arrive in Britain?

Josie RMills24 February 2019

You may have noticed that UCL Museum’s current theme is ‘migration’, a topic that hits the headlines daily. Unstable climates and widespread political and socioeconomic unrest are forcing people to move, seeking safety and security. Migration is not a new concept in our human story, Homo sapiens initially evolved in Africa, with the population we are closely related to leaving around 60,000 years ago. This migration event led H. sapiens to encounter established Neanderthal populations in the Middle East before becoming established further into Europe and Asia. However movement outside Africa occurred prior to this as early as 300,000 kya in Morocco and 180,000 kya in the Near East. Evidence of this movement within and beyond the African Continent indicates that prehistoric migration occurred frequently in different circumstances and likely related to changes and continuity in surrounding ecology, for example climate and environment. However, migration is not strictly reserved for anatomically modern humans, other hominin species lived and moved across different landscapes; for example, although Neanderthals evolved from a common ancestor outside of Africa, they were a predominantly European species.

As part of the ‘migration’ theme the Student Engager team recently put on an put on an evening event where we discussed how our research is linked to human movement. As a researcher who focuses on aspects of human evolution, migration and people moving through landscapes is a constant consideration of mine. The behaviour of prehistoric hunter gatherers was intrinsically linked to their environment, as they relied on resource availability and survival in changing climates. During the Pleistocene, climate fluctuated significantly, and people migrated to survive. Due to a dependence on unpredictable subsistence resources, geographical features like rivers and coastlines played an important part in how hominins moved – humans can survive without food for 3 weeks but only 3-4 days without water. Food resources were also important influencing hominins to move alongside flora and fauna, for example following megafauna in order to scavenge from their prey’s carcasses (Palmqvist and Arribas 1999).

A glacial river valley in North Yorkshire. Riparian corridors and conduits were (and still are) important migratory routes for humans. They cut through difficult terrain and provide predictable resources (authors own image).

Britain is an interesting case when looking at examples of human migration as it is located on the very edge of the European continent at a northerly latitude. During the Ice Age, Britain experienced extremes of climate and regularly became inhospitable or impossible to access. The earliest evidence of humans in Britain is found at Happisburgh in Norfolk, where lithic artefacts and fauna have eroded from coastal deposits (Parfitt et al. 2010). The site is dated to > 850,000 years old, with environmental data suggesting a relatively cold climate at the time of occupation. The Happisburgh site is particularly significant as it has pushed back the estimate of human presence in Northern Europe. It is also the location of the oldest hominin footprints located outside of Africa.  In neighbouring Suffolk lies another site, Pakefield, which is dated to 700,000 years old, with fauna and environmental data suggesting a Mediterranean climate. No hominin remains have been recovered from these sites; however, the dates, human-made tools, and the size of the hominin footprints may indicate a Homo antecessor or a similar hominin (Ashton et al. 2014).

A few hundred thousand years later, we see a new player enter the scene. Homo heidlbergensis arrives at Boxgrove, Sussex. Here, hominin remains have been recovered: a tibia (shin bone) and two teeth (Roberts et al. 1994; Stringer et al. 1998). The archaeological assemblage at Boxgrove is particularly striking because the debris left behind by humans was covered rapidly by slow-flowing water and silt. This process preserved hominin activity at a high resolution, even preserving the outline of a flint knapper’s knees (got to love that “Pompeii” effect). The site is dated to around 500,000 years ago (Roberts et al. 1994).

After the relatively warm climate of H. heidlbergensis, Britain experienced a very cold glacial, known as the Anglian. As far as we know no humans were able to survive in this hostile environment. However, this glaciation was particularly important in Britain’s prehistory. Extensive ice sheets influenced the courses of several major European rivers, funnelling them into a large lake in an area now submerged by the North Sea. As the glaciation came to an end, the water level in the lake was supplemented by glacial melt water and this increased pressure caused the breach of the Weald-Artois anticline, a raised ridge of chalk stretching between England and France. For the first time Britain became an Island!

Newhaven Chalk with the Seven Sister’s Seaford Chalk formation in the distance. The Chalk of the South Coast once connected Britain to France by a land bridge that was destroyed by glacial meltwater around 450,000 years ago.

Although now an island during periods of high sea level, for much of the Pleistocene cooler climates meant Britain was linked to Europe by an area called Doggerland. Doggerland formed a terrestrial land bridge between East Anglia and the Dutch coastline and was an important routeway from the central European continent to its western fringes. People were also able to cross the Channel River, which was created by the flooding at the end of the Anglian. Around 400,000 years ago these terrestrial areas were crossed by another species of hominin, H. neanderthalensis. The first early Neanderthal fossil found in Britain was excavated at Swanscombe, Kent. It is composed of three fragments of crania, which were found separately in 1935, 1936 (Marston 1967) and 1955 (Wymer 1955). There are lots of other sites with stone tools made by Neanderthals, such as Baker’s Hole and Lynford Quarry (Ashton et al. 2016). This indicates a stable and consistent presence of these newcomers; the Neanderthals were here to stay!

Post 400,000 years Britain was visited on and off by hominins that had access via land bridges when the climate permitted. Never viewed as a destination, Britain simply represented an extent of territory that was intermittently hospitable; for example, between 160 – 80, 000 years ago the hostile environment recurred and there is no evidence for humans. Incidentally archaeologists have discovered a lot of giant bear remains from this time. It seems bears adapted well to a human-less Britain, expanding their ecological niche (bears and humans have very similar tastes) and becoming massive! H. sapiens (aka anatomically modern humans) didn’t make it to Britain until 40, 000 years ago (Higham et al. 2011) – about 800,000 years after the island saw its first human visitors. There is evidence of H. sapiens at several sites, including Kent’s Cavern and the later dated Gough’s Cave. These humans were highly mobile, adaptable, and carried a distinctive material culture (fun fact: some of them were also cannibals!).

But it isn’t until 10,000 years ago that a population of humans reach Britain and persist to survive in such a consistent way that they contribute to modern DNA. Cheddar Man, found in a cave at Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, is a very well-preserved skeleton of a person that lived in the area 10,000 years ago. Due to the high-quality nature of preservation, the skeleton of Cheddar Man retained DNA that could be used to reconstruct his genome (Brace et al. 2018). This work, published by the Natural History Museum, revealed the population he came from had a Middle Eastern origin. The phenotypic data indicates that he had dark skin and hair, and blue eyes. Comparison with the genomes of humans living today with British ancestry suggests Cheddar Man’s population contributed their DNA to ours and we retain around 10%.

A reconstruction of Cheddar Man made for the Natural History Museum by the Kennis Brothers (Image: The Natural History Museum via The Guardian)

However, a new population came to Britain in the form of the Beaker People who arrived around 4,500 years ago. The Beaker people are particularly easy to trace because they buried their dead with a specific type of pot or beaker. A large project studied the DNA of approximately 200 Beaker skeletons, concluding that these people originated in central Europe (Olalde et al. 2018). This data is supported archaeologically by the spread of the distinctive beaker burials. The DNA analysis also revealed that Beaker People had a range of skin and eye colours that wouldn’t be uncommon in Britain today. They thrived in western Europe, almost completely replacing the h. sapiens living there previously, and many modern British people are directly related to them.

So, if we total it up, that’s four different types of hominin – antecessor, heidlbergensis, neanderthalensis, sapiens – across around 850,000 years, travelling over land bridges, chalk ridges, and rivers. Following warming climates and resources or retreating from cooling climates. Human presence and absence controlled by geography, geology, sea level, and a climate that was ultimately influenced by the turning of the earth’s axis. The people most related to modern Britons arrived as migrants from Central Europe 4,500 years ago, a drop in the ocean if you consider the first hominin made stone tool dates to approximately 3 million years ago (Semaw et al. 1997). Our British society today encompasses people from all over the world demonstrating an important diversity that is reflected in its complicated human past. For most of its long (pre)history Britain was not an Island and the only hostile environments were driven by climate, not politics..


Arribas, Alfonso & Palmqvist, Paul. (1999). On the Ecological Connection Between Sabre-tooths and Hominids: Faunal Dispersal Events in the Lower Pleistocene and a Review of the Evidence for the First Human Arrival in Europe. Journal of Archaeological Science – J ARCHAEOL SCI. 26. 571-585. 10.1006/jasc.1998.0346.

Ashton, N., Lewis, S.G., De Groote, I., Duffy, S.M., Bates, M., Bates, R., Hoare, P., Lewis, M., Parfitt, S.A., Peglar, S. and Williams, C., 2014. Hominin footprints from early Pleistocene deposits at Happisburgh, UK. PLoS One, 9(2), p.e88329.

Brace, S., Diekmann, Y., Booth, T.J., Faltyskova, Z., Rohland, N., Mallick, S., Ferry, M., Michel, M., Oppenheimer, J., Broomandkhoshbacht, N. and Stewardson, K., 2018. Population replacement in early Neolithic Britain. BioRxiv, p.267443.

Hershkovitz, I., Weber, G.W., Quam, R., Duval, M., Grün, R., Kinsley, L., Ayalon, A., Bar-Matthews, M., Valladas, H., Mercier, N. and Arsuaga, J.L., 2018. The earliest modern humans outside Africa. Science, 359(6374), pp.456-459.

Higham, T., Compton, T., Stringer, C., Jacobi, R., Shapiro, B., Trinkaus, E., Chandler, B., Gröning, F., Collins, C., Hillson, S. and O’higgins, P., 2011. The earliest evidence for anatomically modern humans in northwestern Europe. Nature479(7374), p.521.

Hublin, J.J., Ben-Ncer, A., Bailey, S.E., Freidline, S.E., Neubauer, S., Skinner, M.M., Bergmann, I., Le Cabec, A., Benazzi, S., Harvati, K. and Gunz, P., 2018. New fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco and the pan-African origin of Homo sapiens (vol 546, pg 289, 2017). Nature, 558(7711), pp.E6-E6.

Marston, A.T., 1937. The Swanscombe skull. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 67, pp.339-406.

Olalde, I., Brace, S., Allentoft, M.E., Armit, I., Kristiansen, K., Booth, T., Rohland, N., Mallick, S., Szécsényi-Nagy, A., Mittnik, A. and Altena, E., 2018. The Beaker phenomenon and the genomic transformation of northwest Europe. Nature, 555(7695), p.190.

Parfitt, S.A., Ashton, N.M., Lewis, S.G., Abel, R.L., Coope, G.R., Field, M.H., Gale, R., Hoare, P.G., Larkin, N.R., Lewis, M.D. and Karloukovski, V., 2010. Early Pleistocene human occupation at the edge of the boreal zone in northwest Europe. Nature, 466(7303), p.229.

Roberts, M.B., Stringer, C.B. and Parfitt, S.A., 1994. A hominid tibia from Middle Pleistocene sediments at Boxgrove, UK. Nature, 369(6478), p.311.

Semaw, Sileshi & Renne, Paul & W. K. Harris, J & S Feibel, C & Bernor, Raymond & Fesseha, N & Mowbray, K. (1997). 2.5-Million-Year-Old Stone Tools from Gona, Ethiopia. Nature. 385. 333-6. 10.1038/385333a0.

Stringer, C.B., Trinkaus, E., Roberts, M.B., Parfitt, S.A. and Macphail, R.I., 1998. The middle Pleistocene human tibia from Boxgrove. Journal of human evolution, 34(5), pp.509-547.

Wymer, J., 1955. A further fragment of the Swanscombe skull. Nature, 176(4479), p.426.

Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals: Encounters of the Close and Personal Kind

Josie RMills29 January 2019

The two most common questions I get asked about Neanderthals are ‘Why did they go extinct?’ and ‘Did we have sex with them?’ (although never phrased that directly). Neanderthals first appeared in the fossil record around 430 thousand years ago (kya) and persisted through the Mid to Late Ice Age until disappearing approximately 40 kya. They evolved outside of Africa, from existing hominin (human like) populations that had migrated there before 400 kya, and lived in Europe, the Middle East and Western Eurasia. H. neanderthalensis is very closely related to H. sapiens, who are our direct ancestors, with genetic evidence suggesting that we shared a last common ancestor until around 750–550 kya. Although this sounds like a long time ago, the earliest stone tools made by a human ancestor are around 3 million years old.

The publication of the first complete Neanderthal genome in 2010 revealed that all non-African modern humans retain approximately 2% Neanderthal DNA, indicating interbreeding between the two species. So, yes, humans did have sex with Neanderthals, probably about 60–80 kya when they left Africa and encountered established Neanderthal populations in the Middle East. But before this grosses you out, remember that most reconstructions of Neanderthals pre-2010 and particularly during the 19th century were heavily loaded with an ‘us and them’ mentality. Basically, the more ape-like the portrayal of Neanderthals, the more elite and unique humans appear. We know that this is not the case now, with a myriad of new discoveries linking Neanderthals to cultural and symbolic practices, and advanced anatomical adaptations. There is no evidence to suggest the two species would not have recognised each other as what we would call ‘humans’.

A H. neaderthalensis (right) and H. sapien (left) skulls, facing each other. Image credit: hairymuseummatt (original photo), DrMikeBaxter (derivative work) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


As more Neanderthal genomes are studied scientists are analysing why we have retained these pieces of DNA. The initial contribution of Neanderthal DNA was likely higher at around 6% but as humans have evolved some genes were selected out. Studies  suggest that the genes we retain are related mainly to phenotypic qualities, meaning those that affect our outward appearance, for example hair and skin colour. Researchers at the Max Planck institute proposed that these genes are all linked to climate adaptation and sunlight exposure, demonstrating characteristics linked to the Neanderthal’s c. 400 kya stay in cooler climates (Dannemann and Kelso 2017).

But Anatomically Modern Humans may have inherited something much more practical from Neanderthals in the form of a genetic resistance to some viruses. Researchers have proposed that when H. sapiens left Africa they encountered viruses that their bodies were not adapted to fight. Historically we know that these kind of encounters can be fatal, think the smallpox epidemics brought by the Spanish to Mexico leading to the downfall of the Aztec civilisation. Enard and Petrov (2018) propose that by breeding with Neanderthals, who had been exposed to these pathogens for around half a million years, H. sapiens became immune and were able to survive in Europe and beyond.

In archaeology and palaeoanthropology, the traditional model of linear evolution and direct replacement of species is becoming more and more difficult to uphold, with discoveries like the Denisovans and others living during similar time spans. At this point you might could say at times the Ice Age was a bit more like Middle Earth! There is a growing openness, supported by scientific evidence, to accept more nuanced views of interaction between different human species.


Dannemann, M., & Kelso, J. (2017). The contribution of Neanderthals to phenotypic variation in modern humans. The American Journal of Human Genetics, 101(4), 578-589.

Enard, D. and Petrov, D.A., 2018. Evidence that RNA viruses drove adaptive introgression between Neanderthals and modern humans. Cell, 175(2), pp.360-371.

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), pp.710-722.

Slon, V., Mafessoni, F., Vernot, B., de Filippo, C., Grote, S., Viola, B., Hajdinjak, M., Peyrégne, S., Nagel, S., Brown, S. and Douka, K., 2018. The genome of the offspring of a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father. Nature, 561(7721), p.113.

Wolf, A.B. and Akey, J.M., 2018. Outstanding questions in the study of archaic hominin admixture. PLoS genetics, 14(5), p.e1007349.








Event: Migration through (Pre)History

Josie RMills28 January 2019

Migration through (Pre)History, an evening of short talks by UCL’s Student Engagers, will be taking place on Thursday, 7 February 2019, from 6:30-9pm in UCL Art Museum

Coming up in UCL Art Museum, we’re hosting a series of talks around the theme of migration, and with Brexit coming up, there’s no wonder that’s what’s on our mind!

We’d like to welcome you to join UCL’s Student Engagers Josie Mills, Hannah Page, and Jen Datiles, current PhD researchers, to explore the migration of people and the movement of objects through time and space. Inspired by the Octagon Gallery’s 2019 exhibit Moving Objects, Student Engagers will use UCL Art Museum as a space to investigate the movement of people across disciplines. Highlights include migration in prehistory and the spread of botanicals in the nineteenth century. Stick around for some wine and snacks afterward!

The event is free and will be held at UCL Art Museum on Thursday 7th of February from 6.30 – 9.00 pm.

The speakers are:

Josie Mills is a PhD candidate in the Institute of Archaeology specialising in prehistoric archaeology, applying scientific techniques to stone tools made by Neanderthals. In her PhD she is studying where flint used to make lithic artefacts comes from in order to look at movement and landscape use during the Middle Palaeolithic. She is also interested in how we, as modern humans, perceive prehistoric behaviour and the division often drawn between us and other species.

Hannah Page is a fourth year part-time PhD student in the Archaeology department. Her thesis focuses on sociocultural and political organisation and change in the early 2nd millennium AD in Uganda. Her research aims to reconstruct key aspects of life at the site of Ntuusi through the detailed archaeometric (scientific) analysis of pottery. This type of ceramic analysis can be used to understand scale and organisation of production practices, identify cultural groups and understand networks of local and long-distance trade and exchange. She is also active in running excavations and coordinating field schools and outreach events in the UK and sub-saharan Africa.

Jen Datiles is a PhD student at the UCL School of Pharmacy studying food and medicinal plants that were exchanged between Asia and the Americas via the Spanish Galleon Trade (1565-1815). Using selected plant species as case studies, her research aims to link historical documentation with modern use-knowledge of traditional food-medicines through fieldwork and work in various archives and herbaria.

As usual our events in the museum aim to be inclusive and interactive, with lighthearted discussion about the topic of the event and how this might relate to our own research areas. You can book the event by clicking here. Booking is encouraged but not essential.

We look forward to welcoming you on the night!

For more information please email josephine.mills.10@ucl.ac.uk or follow us on Twitter @ResearchEngager

What are the Oldest Artefacts in Egypt?

Josie RMills21 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 idea that handaxes were made by humans rather than environmental or supernatural processes was popularised by John Frere in 1800. Frere discovered an assemblage of handaxes and animal bones in a gravel deposit at the site of Hoxne in Sussex. Although Frere was the first to publish this idea others before him, for example John Conyers who was present at the discover of the Gray’s Inn Handaxe in 1679, had suggested it but not been taken seriously. Prior to the 19th Century the origin of handaxes was often explained through folklore, they were often called ‘thunder stones’, the lithified remnants of lightning bolts, 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?

Josie RMills10 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)



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?

Josie RMills3 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: hairymuseummatt (original photo), DrMikeBaxter (derivative work) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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…


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

Josie RMills25 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 Guardia


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.


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.


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)


Why did Ancient Egyptians Love Cats?

Josie RMills17 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.


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



An Evening Dealing Out “Justice”

Arendse ILund4 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!