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Archive for the 'Archaeology' Category

Neanderthals: Not So Different?

Josie RMills4 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.

Sports in the Ancient World

StacyHackner24 January 2017


by Stacy Hackner


I’ve written previously here about the antiquity of running, which was one of the original sports at the ancient Greek Olympics, along with javelin, archery, and jumping. These games started around 776 BC in the town of Olympia. What came before, though? What other evidence do we have of ancient sports?

Running is probably the most ancient sport; it requires no gear (no matter how much shoe companies make you think you need it) and the distances are easily set: to that tree and back, to that mountain and back. Research into the origins of human locomotion focus on changes to the foot, which needed to change from arboreal gripping to bipedal running and bearing the full weight of the body. A fossil foot of Ardipithecus ramidus, a hominin which lived 4.4 million years ago, features a stiffened midfoot and flexible toes capable of being extended to help push off at the end of a stance, but has the short big toe typical of great apes. Australopithecus sediba, which lived only 2 million years ago, had an arched foot like modern humans (at least not the flat-footed ones) but an ankle that turned inwards like apes. Clearly our feet didn’t evolve all the features of bipedal running at once, but rather at various intervals over the past 4-5 millennia. Evidence of ancient humans’ distance running is equally ancient, as I wrote about previously. Researchers Bramble & Lieberman have posed the question “Why would early Homo run long distances when walking is easier, safer and less costly?” They posit that endurance running was key to obtaining the fatty tissue from meat, marrow, and brain necessary to fuel our absurdly large brains – thus linking long-distance running with improved cognition. In a similar vein, research into the neuroscience of running has found that it boosts mood, clarifies thinking, and decreases stress.

Feats of athleticism in ancient times were frequently dedicated to gods. Long before the Greek games, the Egyptians were running races at the sed-festival dedicated to the fertility god Min. A limestone wall block at the Petrie depicts King Senusret (1971 BCE) racing with an oar and hepet-tool. The Olympic Games, too, were originally dedicated to the gods of Olympus, but it appears that as time went on, they became corrupted by emphasizing the individual heroic athletes and even allowed commoners to compete. There were four races in the original Olympics: the stade (192m), 2 stades, 7-24 stades, and 2-4 stades in full hoplite armor. It should be mentioned that serious long-distance running, like the modern marathon, was not a part of the ancient games. The story of Pheidippides running from the battlefield at Marathon to announce the Greek victory in Athens is most likely fictional, although the first modern marathon in 1896 traced that 25-mile route. The modern distance of just over 26 miles was set at the 1908 London Olympics, when the route was lengthened to go past Buckingham Palace.

Limestone wall-block with sunk relief depiction, internally carefully modelled, showing King Senusret I with oar and hepet-tool, running the sed-festival race before the god Min. Now in five pieces rejoined, and some small fragments. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

Limestone wall-block showing King Senusret I running the sed-festival race before the god Min. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

Wrestling might be equally ancient. It’s basically a form of play-fighting with rules (or without rules, depending on the type – compare judo to Greco-Roman to WWF), and play-fighting can be seen not only in human children but in a variety of mammal species. In Olympic wrestling, the goal was to get one’s opponent to the ground without biting or grabbing genitals, but breaking their fingers and dislocating bones were valid. Some archaeologists have tried to attribute Nubian bone shape – the basis of my thesis – on wrestling, for which they were famed. Another limestone relief in the Petrie shows two men wrestling in loincloths. Boxing is a similar fighting contest; original Olympic boxing required two men to fight until one was unconscious. Pankration brutally combined wrestling and boxing, but helpfully forbid eye-gouging. It may be possible to identify ancient boxers bioarchaeologically by examining patterns of nonlethal injuries. Some of these are depressions in the cranial vault (particularly towards the front and the left, presuming mostly right-handed opponents), facial fractures, nasal fractures, traumatic tooth loss, and fractures of the bones of the hand.

Crude limestone group, depicting two men wrestling. Traces of red loin cloth on one, and black on the other. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

Crude limestone group depicting two men wrestling. Traces of red loin cloth on one, and black on the other. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

Spear or javelin throwing has also been attested in antiquity. Although we have evidence of predynastic flint points and dynastic iron spear tips, it’s unclear whether these were used for sport (how far one can throw) or for hunting. Actually, it’s unclear how the two became separate. Hunting was (and continues to be) a major sport – although not one with a clear winner as in racing or wrestling – and the only difference is that in javelin the target isn’t moving (or alive). In the past few years, research has been conducted into the antiquity of spear throwing. One study argues that Neanderthals had asymmetrical upper arm bones – the right was larger due to the muscular activity involved in repeatedly throwing a spear. Another study used electromyography of various activities to reject the spear-thrusting hypothesis, arguing that that the right arm was larger in the specific dimensions more associated with scraping hides. Spear throwing is attested bioarchaeologically in much later periods. A particular pathological pattern called “atlatl elbow”: use of a tool to increase spear velocity caused osteoarthritic degeneration of the elbow, but protected the shoulder.

Fragment of a copper alloy spear head from the Roman period. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

Fragment of a Roman-period copper alloy spear head. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

A final Olympic sport is chariot racing and riding. Horses were probably only domesticated around 5500 years ago in Eurasia, so horse sports are really quite new compared to running and throwing! It’s likely that horses were originally captured and domesticated for meat at least 1000 years before humans realized they could use them for transportation. The Olympic races were 4.5 miles around the track (without saddles or stirrups, as these developments had not yet reached Greece), and the chariot races were 9 miles with either 2 or 4 horses. Bioarchaeologists have noted signs of horseback riding around the ancient world – signs include degenerative changes to the vertebrae and pelvis from bouncing as well as enlargement of the hip socket (acetabulum) and increased contact area between the femur and pelvis from when they rub together. In all cases, more males than females had these changes, indicating that it was more common for men to ride horses.

Of course, there are many more sports that existed in the ancient world – other fighting games including gladiatorial combat, ritualized warfare, and games with balls and sticks (including the Mayan basketball-esque game purportedly played with human skulls). Often games were dedicated to gods, or resulted in the death of the loser(s). However, many of these, explored bioarchaeologically, would result in similar musculoskeletal changes and injury patterns discussed above. Many games have probably been lost to history. Considering the vast span of human activity, it’s likely sports of some kind have always existed, from the earliest foot races to the modern Olympic spectacle.

Stone ball, limestone; from a game. From Naqada Tomb 1503. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

Limestone ball from a game. From Naqada Tomb 1503. Courtesy Petrie Museum.


Bramble, D.M. and Lieberman, D.E. 2004. Endurance running and the evolution of Homo. Nature 432(7015), pp. 345–352.

Carroll, S.C. 1988. Wrestling in Ancient Nubia. Journal of sport history 15(2), pp. 121–137. Available at:

Larsen, C.S. 2015. Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behavior from the Human Skeleton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lieberman, D.E. 2012. Those feet in ancient times. Nature 483, pp. 550–551.

Martin, D.L. and Frayer, D.W. eds. 1997. Troubled Times: Violence and Warfare in the Past. illustrated. Psychology Press.

Perrottet, T. 2004. The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games. Random House Publishing Group.


Movement Taster – Movement in Premodern Societies

StacyHackner14 May 2014


The following is a taster for the Student Engagers’ Movement event taking place at UCL on Friday 23 May. Stacy, a researcher in Archaeology, will be discussing movement through the lens of biomechanics.

by Stacy Hackner

Imagine you’re in the grocery store. You start in the produce section, taking small steps between items. You hover by the bananas, decide you won’t take them, and walk a few steps further for apples, carrots, and cabbage. You then take a longer walk, carefully avoiding the ice cream on your way to the dairy fridge for some milk. You hover, picking out the semi-skimmed and some yogurt, before taking another long walk to the bakery. This pattern repeats until you’re at the checkout.

What you may not realize is that this pattern of stops and starts with long strides in between may be intrinsic to human movement, if not common to many foraging animals. A recent study of the Hadza, a hunting and gathering group in Tanzania, shows that they practice this type of movement known as the Lévy walk (or Lévy flight in birds and bumblebees). It makes sense on a gathering level: you’ve exhausted all your resources in one area, so you move to another locale further afield, then another, before returning to your base. When the Hadza have finished all the resources in an area, they’ll move camp, allowing them to regrow (for us, this is the shelves being restocked). This study links us with the Hadza, and the Hadza with what we can loosely term “ancient humans and their ancestors”.

Diagram of a Levy walk.

Diagram of a Levy walk. Credit Leif Svalgaard.

It’s unsurprising that the Hadza were used to examine the Lévy walk and probabilistic foraging strategies. As they are one of the few remaining hunter-gatherer groups on the planet, they are often used in scientific studies aiming to find out how humans lived, ate, and moved thousands of years ago, before the invention of agriculture. The Hadza have been remarkably amenable to being studied by researchers investigating concepts including female waist-to-hip ratios, the gut microbiome, botanical surveys, and body fat percentage. Tracking their movement around the landscape using GPS units is one of the most ingenious!

Much of the theoretical background to my work is based on human movement around the landscape. The more an individual moves, the more his or her leg bones will adapt to that type of movement. Thus it is important to examine how much movement cultures practicing different subsistence strategies perform. The oft-cited hypothesis is that hunter-gatherers perform the most walking or running activity, and the transition to agriculture decreased movement. An implicit assumption in this is that males, no matter the society, always performed more work requiring mobility than females. This has been upheld in a number of archaeological studies: between the Italian Late Upper Paleolithic and the Italian Neolithic, individuals’ overall femoral strength decreased, but the males decreased more; over the course of the Classical Maya period (350-900 AD), the difference in leg strength between males and females decreased, solely due a reduction in strength of the males. The authors posit that this is due to an economic shift allowing the males to be free from hard physical labour.

However, I take issue with the hypothesis that females always performed less work. The prevailing idea of a hunting man settling down to farm work while the gathering woman retains her adherence to household chores and finding local vegetables is not borne out by the Hadza. First, both Hadza men and women gather. Their resources and methods differ – men gather alone and hunt small game while women and children gather in groups – but another GPS study found that Hadza women walk up to 15 km per day on a gathering excursion (men get up to 18 km). 15 km is not exactly sitting around the camp peeling tubers. Another discrepancy from bone research is the effect of testosterone: given similar levels of activity, a man is likely to build more bone than a woman, leading archaeologists to believe he did more work. Finally, hunting for big game – at least for the Hadza – occurs rarely (about once every 30 hunter-days, according to one researcher) and may be of more social significance than biomechanical, and berries gathered account for as many calories as meat; perhaps we should rethink our nomenclature and call pre-agricultural groups gatherer-gatherers or just foragers.

For a video of Hadza foraging techniques, click here.

For a National Geographic photo article, click here.



Marchi, D. 2008. Relationships between lower limb cross-sectional geometry and mobility: the case of a Neolithic sample from Italy. AJPA 137, 188-200.

Marlowe, FW. 2010. The Hadza: Hunter-Gatherers of Tanzania. Berkeley: Univ. California Press.

O’Connell, J and Hawkes, K. 1998. Grandmothers, gathering, and the evolution of human diets. 14th International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences.

Raichlen, DA, Gordon, AD, AZP Mabulla, FW Marlowe, and H Pontzer. 2014. Evidence of Lévy walk foraging patterns in human hunter–gatherers. PNAS 111:2, 728-733.

Wanner, IS, T Sierra Sosa, KW Alt, and VT Blos. 2007. Lifestyle, occupation, and whole bone morphology of the pre-Hispanic Maya coastal population from Xcambó, Yucatan, Mexico. IJO 17, 253-268.