French Farmer Discovered a Rare Mastodon Skull, But Kept It Secret for Years
By Kimberly Hickok, Staff Writer |
A French farmer received the surprise of a lifetime when he stumbled upon the enormous skull of a long-extinct Pyrenean mastodon, but he kept it to himself for years, the AFP reported on Thursday (July 12).
The small-town farmer, who lives in L’Isle-en-Dodon, France, knew the skull was remarkable and rare, but didn’t want people to know it was on his land. He valued his privacy and feared that his farm would be overrun by “hordes of amateur paleontologists,” the AFP reported.
Fortunately for scientists, the reluctant farmer changed his mind. Two years after finding the fossil, he contacted the Natural History Museum of Toulouse, in France, about his extraordinary find. “It was only when we went there, in 2017, that we realized the significance of the discovery,” the museum’s management told AFP. [Mastodon Bones: Images of an Early Hunt]
Experts identified the skull as Gomphotherium pyrenaicum, a large mastodon that roamed the Pyrenees mountain region between about 11 million and 13 million years ago, reported ScienceAlert. This large herbivore had a body shape similar to modern elephants but had four tusks instead of two: two coming from the bottom jaw and two from the top.
Until now, the only other evidence of this long-extinct species was a few fossil teeth found in the same region in 1857. The farmer’s discovery of this skull is a major scientific contribution, and museum paleontologists were glad he decided to come forward, ScienceAlert reported.
“We’re putting a face on a species which had become almost mythical,” the museum’s curator Pierre Dalous, told AFP.
Museum paleontologists removed the fossil from the farmer’s land and brought it to their lab, where they’re carefully removing the sediment encasing the skull. So far, no other mastodon bones have been found on the farmer’s property. And, there are no reports on whether or not the farmer’s property has been overrun by fossil hunters just yet.
Ancient Scratched Stones: World’s Earliest Maps or Magic Artifacts?
By Tom Metcalfe, Live Science Contributor |
A set of broken stones covered with etchings of lines and squares, discovered at a 5,000-year-old sacred site in Denmark, may be some of humankind’s earliest maps, according to archaeologists.
The researchers think the inscribed stones are symbolic maps of local landscapes, and were perhaps used in rituals by Stone Age farmers who hoped to magically influence the sun and the fertility of their farmlands.
Excavations of the enclosure since the 1990s have found hundreds of broken flat stones inscribed with patterns of radiating straight lines, called “sun stones” or “solar stones” (“solsten”in Danish). Archaeologists have said these artifacts are likely from the rituals of a Neolithic sun-worshipping religion that existed about 5,000 years ago.
But the map stones are inscribed with squares and lines that look like fields, fences and plants, said archaeologist Flemming Kaul, the curator and senior researcher in prehistory at the National Museum of Denmark.
“There was one particular stone that seems to be rather complicated, and we all agree that it looks like some sort of a map — not a map in our modern sense, but a stylized map,” Kaul told Live Science. “And I could see some similarities with rock carvings from the Alps in northern Italy, dated to the same period of time, which are interpreted as symbolic landscapes — and that is what I believe we have found now.”
The most detailed of the newly discovered map stones went on display in October at the Moesgaard Museum in Aarhus, Denmark. It measures about 2 inches (5 centimeters) across, and has been broken into three pieces. One triangular piece has not yet been found, the researchers said.
“That is one that seems to be very complex, with different sorts of fields, and something which looks like plants, which could be a symbol for a crop like barley, and other details that look like fences,” Kaul said. “And it’s fascinating that even though it’s so small, you can certainly see that these patterns have been very deliberately made.”
Kaul said the stone was probably crushed during an ancient ritual, like what the researchers saw with many sun stones also found at the site. The pieces were then deposited in the rings of ditches that surround the sacred enclosure sometime between 2900 B.C. and 2700 B.C., according to the archaeologists.
“Often when ritual objects have had a certain life cycle, then they are deposited at a sacred place, perhaps also to enhance the magic of the ritual which has just been performed with them,” Kaul said. “And of course, when they are broken, then they are not working more in the human world — but they are still working in another [spirit] world, by being placed in the ditches of these sacred sites.”
Kaul thinks the map stones and sun stones from Bornholm were used together in ceremonies to influence the effects of the sun on the fertility of a particular piece of land.
“[T]hey could have passed the sun images over the small field images in order to enhance some magic, which could give the sun more light, for example, such as in the spring, when the sun should give more light so that crops can grow,” he added.
Here comes the sun
Kaul sees a link between the evidence for solar rituals at Bornholm and evidence of similar beliefs elsewhere in Neolithic Europe, a time of transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer groups to settled farming communities.
“Sun images must have something to do with a solar cult — and we have many other European indications of that, such as Stonehenge in Englandfrom about the same time, and passage graves in Ireland that are oriented towards the midwinter sunrise. And now we have these early pictures of the sun in Denmark,” he said.
He also noted the similarities between the map stones from Denmark and rock carvings in the Val Camonica and other Alpine regions of northern Italy and France, which have been interpreted by archaeologists as symbolic farm landscapes used in Neolithic rituals.
“The Italian archaeologists give these square features that they interpret as fields the name of ‘topographical elements’ — so it is not a map in our modern sense, but it is somehow a rendering of fields and field systems,” Kaul said. “And so it is very interesting to find these topographical elements here in Scandinavia, and in this minute form.”
The similarities are not evidence of direct contact throughout Europe 5,000 years ago, but they could reflect common ideas among Neolithic farming peoples about the sun and the fertility of their lands, he said.
“When you also look at the Italian material, then it gives you a feeling that these map stones are not just isolated phenomenon — but that we are looking at a trend of a general European development here, and also in a religious or spiritual sense,” Kaul added.
An article about the map stones from the Vasagaard enclosure on Bornholm, written by archaeologists Jens Andresen of Aarhus University and Michael Thorsen of the Bornholm Museum, was published in October in the Danish archaeological magazine Skalk.
Kaul accepts that the interpretation of the map stones could be controversial: “About 20 years ago, after the first solar stones were found, I wrote about it for Skalk – and even the editor of the magazine didn’t believe it,” he said. “And now, after 20 years, we have found more than 200 solar stones, and they are one the most important things from Bornholm … so let’s wait a couple of years to see if there are more map stones to come.”
Enigmatic Stone Balls from 5,000 Years Ago Continue to Baffle Archaeologists
By Tom Metcalfe, Live Science Contributor |
Some of the most enigmatic human-made objects from Europe’s late Stone Age — intricately carved balls of stone, each about the size of a baseball — continue to baffle archaeologists more than 200 years after they were first discovered.
More than 500 of the enigmatic objects have now been found, most of them in northeast Scotland, but also in the Orkney Islands, England, Ireland and one in Norway.
Archaeologists still don’t know the original purpose or meaning of the Neolithic stone balls, which are recognized as some of the finest examples of Neolithic art found anywhere in the world. But now, they’ve created virtual 3D models of the gorgeous balls, primarily to share with the public. In addition, the models have revealed some new details, including once-hidden patterns in the carvings on the balls. [See More Photos of the Intricately Carved Stone Balls]
Hugo Anderson-Whymark, a curator at National Museums Scotland who created the online models, explained that many functions have been proposed for the stone balls over the years.
Such proposals have included the possibility that they were made as the stone heads for crushing weapons, or standardized weights for Neolithic traders, or rollers for the transport of the giant stones used in megalithic monuments.
One theory is that the knobs on many of the carved stone balls were wound with twine or sinew, which allowed them to be thrown like slings or South American bolas. Other theories describe the balls as objects of religious devotion or symbols of social status.
“Many of the ideas you have to take with a pinch of salt, while there are others that may be plausible,” Anderson-Whymark told Live Science. “What’s interesting is that people really get their imaginations captured by them — they still hold a lot of secrets.”
The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh has the world’s largest collection of carved stone balls, including around 140 originals from Neolithic (New Stone Age) sites in Scotland and the Orkney Islands, and 60 casts of similar objects from other places.
Although only a few are now on display in Edinburgh, a total of 60 3D models of Neolithic carved stone ballsfrom the museum collection have now been posted online — so that anyone interested in ancient wonders, anywhere in the world, can examine them in detail and from any angle.
The online collection includes the most famous of these objects, the Towie ball, which was found near the village of Towie in northeast Scotland around 1860. The ball is carved with intertwined spiral patterns on three of its four lobes, and is recognized as one of the finest examples of Neolithic art ever found. [In Photos: The World’s Oldest Cave Art]
Some early archaeologists found it hard to believe that such intricate objects could have been carved with only stone tools, Anderson-Whymark said, and so they wrongly attributed them to the Picts, who lived in Scotland during the late Iron Age and early Medieval period, between 1800 and 1100 years ago.
But later archaeologists were able to date the carved stone balls to the much earlier Neolithic period of prehistory, about 5,000 years ago, when only stone tools were used, he said.
Many of the ornamental motifs used on the carved stone balls, including the detailed circles and spirals carved into the Towie ball, were also found in carvings at Neolithic passage tombs, which feature underground burial chambers at the end of long stone-lined passageways, such as the Newgrange tomb in Ireland.
The similarity of the designs could show that people in different regions during the Neolithic period in Europe shared common ideas, which indicated some forms of interaction between their communities, Anderson-Whymark said.
The online 3D models were created with photogrammetry, which involves uniting detailed photographs of the surface textures and colors of the objects with precise data about their size and shape.
The photogrammetry process has revealed new information about some of the balls, by revealing underlying patterns of carved and chipped markings on some of them that otherwise could not be clearly seen, he said.
He thinks that the key to understanding the carved stone balls lies in their “regular” size, which was perfect for being held in the hand while they were chipped or pecked by harder stone tools.
Creating one of the carved stone balls must have been a lengthy process — several of them show signs that their design evolved as they were worked on, perhaps over many years or even across generations, he said.
While discussion and speculation about their purpose and meaning to the Neolithic people will continue, the stone balls are likely to retain much of their enduring mystery, Anderson-Whymark said.
“We might be able to get a little bit more of that story out in the future by more detailed analysis of these things,” he said, “but they’re always going to be slightly enigmatic.”
Sleeping Beauty’ Mummy Buried with Riches and Snacks for the Afterlife
By Laura Geggel, Senior Writer |
About 2,000 years ago, during the time Jesus supposedly walked the Earth, people buried a young woman wearing a silk skirt in a stone grave. They surrounded her body with meals for the afterlife, even placing a bag of pine nuts on her chest.
Now, archaeologists have found the mummified body of that woman, whom they nicknamed Sleeping Beauty given the length of time she’s been buried and the riches found with her. These include a beaded belt with a buckle made of jet (a precursor to coal), a Hun-style vase and a round birch container holding a Chinese mirror, according to The Siberian Times. The grave also contained ceramic utensils, which were typically placed in Hun burials, the archaeologists added.
“The mummy was in quite a good condition, with soft tissues, skin, clothing and belongings intact,” an archaeologist who helped discover the Sleeping Beauty told The Siberian Times. [Photos: The Amazing Mummies of Peru and Egypt]
Archaeologists, from St Petersburg’s Institute for the History of Material Culture, found the mummy on the shore of the Yenisei River, just upstream of the giant Sayano-Shushenskaya dam in south-central Russia’s Republic of Khakassia. A drop in water level in May exposed the Sleeping Beauty’s rectangular grave, which had previously sat underwater, the archaeologists said.
“The lower part of the body was especially well-preserved,” Marina Kilunovskaya, an archaeologist at the Institute for the History of Material Culture, told The Siberian Times. “This is not a classic mummy — in this case, the burial was tightly closed with a stone lid, enabling a process of natural mummification.”
It’s remarkable that the grave lay undisturbed, especially since the nearby dam began operating between 1978 and 1985, the archaeologists said. An excavation of the grave goods revealed that the mummified person was likely a noblewoman during her lifetime. For instance, the grave goods were ornate, the round makeup container was covered with birch bark and the Chinese mirror within it was housed in a felt case, the archaeologists said.
Going forward, the archaeologists are working to preserve the Sleeping Beauty’s remains and study the artifacts within her grave, the researchers said.
Credit: Lena Holmquist, Sven Kalmring and Mikael Lundin/Archaeological Research Laboratory, Dept. of Archaeology and Classical Studies, Stockholm University; Antiquity 2018
A 3D scan of the newfound dragonhead, which weighs just 0.4 ounces (13.5 grams). Notice the dragon’s sharp teeth, the tongue and curly mane.
Credit: Antiquity 2018
An aerial view of the Viking town Birka, which sits on the island of Björkö. Notice the defensive works (green) and excavated (dark blue) areas. The unexcavated graves (light blue) and the recorded excavation trenches (yellow) are also marked.
The dragonhead pin was found in the sediments of the harbor during an excavation called “Birka’s Black Earth Harbor.”
Credit: The Swedish History Museum; Arbman 1939: 123; Antiquity 2018
This is the dragonhead mold found by the farmer in 1887. It’s now housed at The Swedish History Museum.
Ladby ship grave
Credit: Sørensen 2001: fig. 10.1; Antiquity 2018
The Vikings often made dragonhead pins modeled after dragon figureheads on ships. The dragonhead pin found in Birka is similar to the Ladby ship, which was excavated from 1934 to 1937. Note the iron curls on the decayed wooden figurehead of the boat.
Credit: Antiquity 2018
This map shows where archaeologists have found dragonhead dress pins, molds and iron curls from ships’ figureheads. Notice how dragonheads from different regions have different styles.
Did These Children Have Their Hearts Ripped Out as a Sacrifice to an Ancient Rain God?
By Laura Geggel, Senior Writer |
Construction workers in northern Peru recently uncovered a grisly discovery: The skeletal remains of 47 ancient people, including those of at least 12 children who were likely sacrificed by the ancient Chimú culture about 1,500 years ago.
The children’s chest bones had cut marks on them, likely a sign of an attempt to break their ribs so that their hearts could be removed, archaeologist Víctor Campaña León, director of the Las Lomas Archaeological Rescue Project, told La República, a Peruvian newspaper.
After finding the bones, the workers — who were laying down drinking-water pipes in the beach town of Huanchaco — notified archaeologists. In the following excavation, the researchers unearthed 77 tombs and burials, as well as camelid bones (likely from vicuña or alpaca) and 115 vessels from the Chimú, Salinar and Virú cultures, La República reported. [25 Cultures That Practiced Human Sacrifice]
In addition to the 12 children, “We have also found a neonate, a newborn, who has also been sacrificed,” Campaña León said in Spanish. The excavations began on Oct. 23, 2017, and are projected to end on June 23, 2018, according to Andina, a Peruvian news outlet.
This is hardly the first evidence of human sacrifice in pre-Columbian societies. Archaeologists have also uncovered the remains of sacrifice victims associated with the Inca, Maya and Aztec cultures. Meanwhile, human sacrifice was also practiced in ancient Rome, China and Japan, as well as at Cahokia, an early Native American city located by modern-day St. Louis, Live Science previously reported.
In the case of the Chimú discovery, it’s possible these children were sacrificed with the hope of encouraging the gods to bring rain to the arid region, Campaña León said, according to Newsweek.
The Incas Mastered the Grisly Practice of Drilling Holes in People’s Skulls
By Laura Geggel, Senior Writer |
If you had a hole drilled through your skull in historical times, the odds of surviving the ordeal were far better in the ancient Inca Empire of South America than they were in North America during the American Civil War, a new study finds.
Researchers made the finding by studying more than 800 Inca skulls found in Peru that had undergone trepanation — a practice in which a surgeon cuts, scrapes or drills a hole in a person’s head. Between 17 and 25 percent of these Inca patients died before their skulls healed, the researchers found.
In comparison, during the American Civil War (1861 to 1865), more than twice that percentage — between 46 and 56 percent of soldiers — died so soon after trepanation that their skulls had no time to heal, the researchers discovered. [25 Grisly Archaeological Discoveries]
“That’s a big difference,” study researcher Dr. David Kushner, a clinical professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, said in a statement. “The question is: How did the ancient Peruvian surgeons have outcomes that far surpassed those of surgeons during the American Civil War?”
Trepanation is thousands of years old and, historically, was done to suppress headaches, seizures and mental illness, as well as to oust perceived demons. Given that the Inca Empire existed a good 300 years before the American Civil War, it’s impressive that Inca trepanation patients had twice the survival rate of Civil War patients, Kushner said.
That difference likely comes down to hygiene, as sanitation was notoriously horrible on Civil War battlefields, the researchers said. For instance, Civil War surgeons regularly used unsterilized medical tools, and even their bare fingers, to dig inside head wounds or break up blood clots, said study co-researcher John Verano, a world authority on Peruvian trepanation at Tulane University in New Orleans.
Nearly every Civil War soldier wounded by gunfire later suffered from an infection, but the Inca appear to have experienced a much lower infection rate, the researchers said.
“We do not know how the ancient Peruvians prevented infection, but it seems that they did a good job of it,” Kushner said. “Neither do we know what they used as anesthesia, but since there were so many [cranial surgeries], they must have used something — possibly coca leaves. Maybe there was something else, maybe a fermented beverage. There are no written records, so we just don’t know.”
The Inca skulls the researchers studied — some with as many as seven holes in them — date back to 400 B.C. These skulls indicate that the Inca refined their trepanation skills over the centuries. For example, the Inca learned not to perforate the dura, or the protective membrane covering the brain — a guideline that Hippocrates codified in ancient Greece at about the same time, in the fifth century B.C.
However, early Inca trepanation patients — who lived from about 400 B.C. to 200 B.C. — fared slightly worse than Civil War patients, as about half of these ancient Inca patients died. It was much better to be a trepanation patient from A.D. 1000 to A.D. 1400, when up to 91 percent of patients survived.
“Over time, from the earliest to the latest, they learned which techniques were better and less likely to perforate the dura,” Kushner said. “They seemed to understand head anatomy and purposefully avoided the areas where there would be more bleeding. They also realized that larger-sized trepanations were less likely to be as successful as smaller ones. Physical evidence definitely shows that these ancient surgeons refined the procedure over time. Their success is truly remarkable.”
Doctors still practice trepanation today, although now when they remove a piece of someone’s skull, it’s usually called a craniotomy. This operation and other types of modern brain surgery have “very, very low” mortality rates compared to historical times, Kushner said.
“And, just like in ancient Peru, we continue to advance our neurosurgical techniques, our skills, our tools and our knowledge,” he said.