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Archive for the 'Josephine Mills' Category

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 Josie 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…


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 Josie 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!


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 Josie 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!



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*…

Mammoths and Magdalenians: A Summer in the Ice Age

By Josie Mills, on 30 August 2017

This August I swapped the busy streets of London for the beaches and archaeology on the island of Jersey, which is located close to the Normandy coastline in the English Channel. Jersey is an incredibly archaeologically-rich location with many prehistoric and historic sites of interest. The project that I work with is called Ice Age Island (twitter hashtag: #iceageisland) and we are particularly focused on archaeological deposits from the Middle Palaeolithic, Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic sites on the island.

Jersey is currently an island but during cooler periods of the Pleistocene (Ice Age), when sea level fell, it regularly became part of the larger Channel landmass of the Continental Shelf. The Ice Age Island team are a group of researchers and students focused on unravelling this part of the island’s past by exploring terrestrial sites on the island but also investigating how humans used the wider, now submerged, landscape that surrounded it. Currently work is focused on reconstructing geological and topographical mapping of the Continental Shelf and also working out how artefacts from the sites we are excavating and studying can contribute to our understanding of behaviour in the offshore area.

3 maps

Fig 1. A map showing the location of Jersey and the other Channel Islands. Numbered locations refer to Middle Palaeolithic sites in the area: 1= Le Rozel, 2= La Cotte a la Chèvre, 3 = La Cotte de St. Brelade, 4 = Mont Dol

My PhD is focused during the Middle Palaeolithic of Jersey when Neanderthals visited the island, particularly the site of La Cotte de St. Brelade on the south-west coast. La Cotte is a sheltered cave-like area formed within a granite t-shaped ravine system and has recorded Neanderthal activity intermittently from around 240,000 to 40,000 years ago. The work that I do helps to contribute to the understanding of how Neanderthals interacted with the offshore landscape, particularly where they got the raw material needed to make stone artefacts from. The use of stone, particularly flint, to make tools was key to survival for Neanderthals. Tools made from stone were used for activities like hunting, food processing, and preparing hides—giving access to food, nutrition, defence, and warmth. Flint presence and absence fluctuates in the deposits at La Cotte and by understanding differences in the types of raw materials in the different archaeological layers we hope to reconstruct a model of the availability of different sources; this will in turn shed light on Neanderthal behaviour in the wider landscape. So this summer I’ve swapped three museums for one museum archive in Jersey where I have been analysing flint tools from La Cotte!

High def CSB

Fig 2: View into the t-shaped ravine system at La Cotte de St. Brelade (own image)

However Ice Age Island is made up of multiple strands of investigation and the most active is the archaeological training dig and field school, which UCL has been involved in for seven excavation seasons. The site is run by Dr Ed. Blinkhorn (Senior Archaeologist UCL and Archaeology South East), and supported by supervisors and students from different universities. Excavation is focused on the Magdalenian (a time period spanning 17,000 – 12,000 years ago) site of Les Varines, where the archaeological deposits are dated to approximately 14,000 years ago.


Fig 3. Students and staff working at the excavation during the site open day (own image)

The current interpretation is that the site represents a hunter-gatherer camp where Magdalenian people lived for some parts of the year. Located at the sheltered apex of a wide valley system the site would have been a prime position for tracking migrating animals, like deer and horse, in the landscape below. However the story of Les Varines has changed through the seven years the site has been excavated. Initially the artefacts that were found appeared disturbed by post-depositional processes and were not excavated in the original position they were left by the Magdalenian people. This limited the behavioural inference that could be taken from the artefacts. However as new trenches and test pits were put in, guided by geophysical survey, areas of intact Upper Palaeolithic archaeology were discovered!

This year has been a really exciting excavation season as the type of finds being made have diversified from flint tools to include a mammoth tooth and multiple constructed hearth areas. This allows a much more varied picture of life at the site, demonstrating different activities the Magdalenian people were carrying out!


Ed Blinkhorn and Letty Ingrey (UCL/ Archaeology South East) talking about the potential mammoth tooth find


UCL MSc Palaeolithic Archaeology and Palaeoanthropology students Leah and Fiona discussing uncovering the Magdalenian Hearth Features

So if you haven’t seen my in a museum for a while – that’s what I’ve been up to!

Lemurs: the Ghostly Primate?

By Josie Mills, on 9 June 2017

Did you know lemurs are primates? In fact they are one of the oldest primates, known as prosimians, which evolved long before monkeys and apes. They belong to the suborder Strepsirrhini alongside other mostly insectivorous and nocturnal primates like bushbabies, lorises and pottos. Lemur-like primates appeared in Africa around 60 million years ago and crossed the sea to Madagascar shortly after – possibly via rafting on clumps of vegetation or trees. Madagascar, which had separated from the super continent Gondwanaland 100 million years earlier, continued to drift further from the African Coastline; this meant that no other primates were able to cross to its shores. Consequently Lemuriformes continued to evolve on Madagascar with no pressure from other primates and it is the only place where they survive today!


Lemurs have a distinctive elongated nose seen here on a red ruffed lemur

Without this competition and predation lemurs evolved across the island’s distinct ecological niches, which range from dense forests, to lakes and open areas. There are over fifty different species of Malagasy lemur who all evolved from the same common ancestor, which makes variation in their behaviour particularly interesting. Lemurs have started to adopt behaviours previously associated solely with Haplorrhine primates (monkeys and apes!), including activity in the day, frugivory, and the formation of complex social groups. Lemur groups operate a matrilineal structure where power rests with adult females and their female children. This is due to the practice of female philopatry where females always remain in the group they were born in whereas males leave. This behaviour is relatively unusual within the primate world!

However Madagascar did not remain an untouched paradise for ever, with the arrival of arguably the most destructive and dangerous primate (guess who?) by boat around 2,000 years ago. As humans settled on the island they began to cause damage to lemur habitats and started to hunt them for food. This resulted in the extinction of several species of lemur including the giant lemurs Megaladapis and Archaeoindris. These megafaunal lemurs could reach the size of a gorilla but were slow moving and well adapted to their niche habitats making them easy prey. Some skeletal remains have been found with cut marks indicating butchery by humans.

Lemur’s unique evolution, far from the pressures of living alongside other competing primates, has allowed them to expand their evolutionary niches. One great example of this is new sightings of them being active both during the day and night. This newly observed behaviour has been called ‘cathemeral’, literally meaning around the clock, indicating the ability to distribute activity throughout the 24-hour period. This is very unusual in primates but has now been documented in four species of lemur on Madagascar; it is observed elsewhere in some populations of South American owl monkeys Aotus azarii (Fernandez-Duque et al. 2001; Tattersall 2008). Interestingly being most active during the day (Diurnality) is seen as a fundamental transition in primate evolution; the move into the light associated with larger group size and gregarious social behaviour (Donati et al. 2013).

However lemurs are traditionally nocturnal; the name ‘lemur’ derives from the Latin ‘lemures’ meaning ghost or spirit, perhaps linked to their spooky call and haunting stare seen reflecting from the dense Malagasy forests at night. The lemur’s gaze looks distinctive in the dark due to a biological feature unique to nocturnal animals, the tapetum lucidum, a reflective layer present behind the eye that maximises any available light. This provides a key advantage to nocturnal species, both predator and prey. Look closely and you can even see it on your family cat! The presence of this adaptation in many lemur species suggests that it was a characteristic shared by their common ancestor.


I know these are cats, but you get the idea! (Photo credit: Awwwcats)


So if lemurs have this specialised nocturnal adaptation why are we seeing them active during the day? This unusual change in several different species of lemur presents quite a conundrum and several adaptive factors have been suggested that may have been influential (see Curtis and Rasmussen 2006 for more info):

  • Temperate control: Being able to spread their activity throughout the day and night allows lemurs to avoid extremes of temperature; on cooler days they can feed and forage in the day and vice-versa on hot days. In this way they would save energy otherwise used to regulate their body temperature.
  • Maximising digestion time: Extremely folivorous (leaf eating) lemurs may improve their digestion by being active at different times.
  • Predator avoidance: Lemurs may have adopted cathemerality to avoid their main predator the Fossa (you may remember these scary critters from the movie Madagascar); a highly specialised and dangerous nocturnal predator.

Contrasting non-adaptive hypothesis

  • An evolutionary disequilibrium: This theory proposes that cathemerality is only seen when a distinct ecological pressure is lifted putting a primate population into an evolutionary disequilibrium. Proposed by Van Schaik and Kappeler (1996) who suggest that lemurs can be active during the day due to removal of their diurnal predators by the recent mass megafaunal extinction events in Madagascar.

Overall the idea of an evolutionary disequilibrium is not well supported as there are distinct adaptive benefits to cathemerality; equally lemurs have a stable relationship with their main predator: the fossa. It appears that cathemerality is closely linked to predation and may provide other physiological benefits, but it is particularly interesting when re-evaluating the evolution of diurnal behaviour. In this way it emphasises the complex and diverse process that influence primate evolution and how there is not a pan-explanation for how certain behaviours appear. It also reminds us that when interpreting primate evolution new previously unseen things are happening all the time. Here’s where if I was going to bore you I’d link it back to Neanderthals but I won’t… Instead a picture of me hanging out with red ruffed lemur… and do check out the lemur specimens in the Grant Museum!


Red ruffed lemur at Artis Zoo in Amsterdam



Curtis, D., Rasmussen, M. A. (2006). The evolution of cathemerality in primates and other mammals: a comparative and chronoecological approach. Folia Primatologica 77: 178-193

Donati, G., Santini, L., Razafindramanana, J., Boitani L., Borgognini-Tarli, S. (2013). (Un-)expected nocturnal activity in ‘diurnal’ Lemur Catta supports cathermarlity as one of the key adaptations of the lemurid radiation. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 150: 99-106

Fernadez-Duque, E., Rotundo, M., Sloan, C. (2001). Density and population structure of owl monkeys (Aotus azarai) in the Argentinean Chaco. American Journal of Primatology 53: 99-108

Tattersall, I. (2008). Avoiding commitment: cathemerality among primates. Biological Rhythm Research 39: 213-228

Van Schaik, C. P., Kappeler, P. M. (1996). The social systems of gregarious lemurs: lack of evolutionary convergence with anthropoids due to evolutionary disequilibrium? Ethology 102: 915-941

Materials and Objects: The Secrets behind our Research

By Josie Mills, on 16 May 2017


Materials and Objects, an afternoon of short talks by UCL’s student engagers, will be taking place on Thursday 18th May 2017, UCL Art Museum 2-4pm

Our next event ‘Materials and Objects’ is just a few days away and I thought this would be a good opportunity to chat a little bit about the event and our work as research engagers in general! This Thursday an afternoon of short talks will be given by UCL PhD researchers on a wide variety of topics, with a focus on the materials and objects that underlie each of our research areas. How this is interpreted varies from discipline to discipline but we all directly deal with materials and objects—or the systems used to understand, archive, and process them—whether it’s studying how objects like diaries and brains can be created, or interpreting new layers of meaning from materials like medieval manuscripts. As a team we employ a huge variety of different techniques, although we often surprise ourselves by the degree of overlap even with our disparate time frames and subject materials!

Materials and objects










The event itself is being hosted by UCL Art Museum—one of the museums we actively engage in—as our work reflects themes and pieces from the space itself. In fact, as research engagers, you can usually find one of us in the three museums on campus: the Art Museum, the Grant Museum or the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. Depending on which museum we’re engaging in, different aspects of our research intersects with the displays.

As an archaeologist who focuses on prehistoric stone tools when I’m in the Petrie Museum I usually talk to people about the flint artefacts that you may not necessarily associate with the Ancient Egyptians. In the Art Museum I mainly focus on discussing landscape as my research also deals with reconstructing ancient landscape use.

Funnily enough last Tuesday in the Grant Museum someone asked me ‘So how do you relate rocks to this?’ as they gestured widely indicating the menagerie of fauna, both skeletal and preserved, surrounding us. I hastily indicated the Neanderthal skull cast around the corner and we chatted about Ice Age megafauna and hunting. We also talked about research in general and how, although he had studied medieval history, many of the processes that we use to get to the end goal are similar across all disciplines be it archaeological or neuroscience.

flint snake

The head of a flint snake (UC. 15171), which I often point out to people in the Petrie Museum, it is part of a display of flint animals including cows, dogs and birds! This demonstrates flint’s use as non-practical material and highlights its importance in Ancient Egypt! (photo by author)


That pretty much sums up the core of being a research engager, attempting to make what we do – which may at first glance sound niche – relevant and interesting to visitors of UCL Museums and UCL in general. In turn we benefit from having other opinions about our research as well, which can sometimes seem like a solo journey!

So come and see for yourself this Thursday—expect science, art, cake, and the odd Neanderthal!

Grab a free ticket here:



Neanderthals: Not So Different?

By Josie Mills, on 4 April 2017

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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