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What are the Oldest Artefacts in Egypt?

By Josephine Mills, on 21 September 2018

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Could you Bear to eat Pooh?

By Josephine Mills, on 10 September 2018

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 References:

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

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

 

 

 

 

New Discoveries: the Earliest Neanderthal Art

By Josephine Mills, on 25 May 2018

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

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

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

 

The Earliest Neanderthal Art

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

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

Hand print on walls (Credit: Extremadura Turismo)

 

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

References

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

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

Additional reading:

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

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

Foreign Bodies: Attack of the Clones

By Gemma Angel, on 18 February 2013

Profile  by Felicity Winkley

 

 

 

 

 

One of the most controversial specimens amongst the Grant Museum’s encyclopaedic collection is a preserved domestic cat; in fact, on one occasion, I was standing quite close to this object at the exact moment when a small child laid eyes upon it and promptly burst into tears. The fact that the sight of preserved animals, particularly domesticated or fluffy ones, provokes such a response would be ample topic for a debate in its own right, however in this instance I am more interested in the way the Grant have developed the subject in their museum signage. Beside the exhibit, they point out that in 2004 the first domesticated cat was cloned for $50,000 – a kitten called ‘Little Nicky’, commissioned by a Texan woman called Julie after the original cat ‘Nicky’ had died [1] – and ask whether or not this was a good thing to do? nickyAt the time of the cloning in 2004, the response from the scientific community was negative: it was thought a fatuous use of the technology to reproduce a domestic pet, as well as inhumane given the animal’s short life-expectancy (roughly a third of cloned cats did not survive beyond 60 days).[2] Today, expanding the subject beyond the cloning of domestic animals, as part of the successful QRator scheme (in which visitors are invited to record their responses to topical questions relating to the collections), the Grant Museum asks the public to contribute to a wider debate: Should we clone extinct animals?

The argument is a complex one. For one thing, extinct animals may have died out because of their own comparative weaknesses, and therefore any attempts to reintroduce them may prove futile. The journalist Chris Packham, for example, has famously lambasted attempts to conserve the Giant Panda, criticising the huge amounts of money spent on attempting to breed an animal which is so reluctant to reproduce itself. He suggests that the Giant Panda is “a species that of its own accord has gone down an evolutionary cul-de-sac” and therefore should be allowed to die out, not least because any attempts to reintroduce it into the wild will be limited by the increasingly diminishing area of its potential habitat anyway.[3] Where cloning animals and reintroducing them is concerned, habitat is also an issue in terms of preempting any potential environmental changes that might have occurred since the species was last present in the wild. The repercussions of reintroducing clones despite drastic ecosystem change are fairly clearly (if not necessarily realistically!) laid out for us to see in Jurassic Park. Although the author accepts this is an extreme example, it is nevertheless an effective visualisation of what can occur when we tamper with complicated systems of which we have limited understanding.

Jurassic Park III

 

But what of those species made extinct by human influence, and through no fault of their own? The quagga, hunted to extinction in 1883, and the thylacine, in 1936, are both on display in exhibition cases at the Grant Museum. If we accept, then, the fault of human oversight, perhaps these two could justifiably be cloned and reintroduced into the wild – but given the cost of the procedure and the potentially limited life-span of the animal subjects, wouldn’t the enormous investment be better applied to conserving those species still alive today but in dire need of assistance? The Amur leopard population, for example, is currently at a critical low, with just 7-12 thought to remain in the wild in China and 20-25 in Russia.[4]

Taking into account all of these conflicting arguments where cloning is concerned, it was with some interest, therefore, that I read a few weeks ago about a Harvard professor’s hopes for recruiting a female volunteer willing to surrogate a baby created with Neanderthal DNA.[5] Geneticist Professor George Church has recently completed enough Neanderthal bone-sample analysis to accurately isolate the genetic code that would enable him to create artificial Neanderthal DNA, according to his publication Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves.[6] Having previously been involved in the Human Genome Project, which successfully mapped human DNA, Professor Church would insert artificial Neanderthal DNA into stem cells and inject these into a human embryo in the earliest stages, allowing this to develop in the laboratory before implanting it into the womb of a potential surrogate mother. He believes that Neanderthals, whose population flourished in Europe and extended throughout the Middle East and into China between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, were highly intelligent. This impression is certainly supported by archaeological evidence: the skulls of Neanderthals held large brains, “in the range of and exceeding the cranial capacity of modern humans” state Lewin and Foley.[7] As such, Professor Church proposes that a cloning and reintroduction of Neanderthals could be useful to increase diversity, and introduce an alternative way of thinking into society:

When the time comes to deal with an epidemic or getting off the planet or whatever, it’s conceivable that their way of thinking could be beneficial. They could maybe even create a new neo-Neanderthal culture and become a political force. The main goal is to increase diversity. The one thing that is bad for society is low diversity.[8]

Aside from the obvious concerns about the potential risks to the surrogate mother of a baby created via this method, critics have also challenged the ethics of the proposed experiment. Whilst the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union prohibits reproductive human cloning in member states of the EU, and it is likewise illegal in the UK under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 – because the project proposes the cloning of a Neanderthal rather than a Homo Sapiens, there are fears that current legislation may not apply. In any case, there is no uniform guideline agreed for the United States of America on human cloning, whether reproductive or therapeutic. But were Professor Church to have his way, how would a new Neanderthal cope in modern-day society? Physically, could their immune system withstand it? Emotionally, would they successfully integrate, or be outcast as a monster? Whatever the answer – and luckily at the moment our concerns are purely speculative – there is no denying that a neo-Neanderthal person would be the ultimate foreign body.