How do archaeologists know if someone was buried intentionally tens of thousands of years ago?
- The oldest known burial ritual in Africa has been discovered on the coast of Kenya.
- A small child appears to have been buried intentionally in a cave 78,000 years ago.
- This new research offers insights into ancient funerary practices.
How did the emergence of Homo sapiens affect ideas around death? What legacies have been passed down from ancient times? And can these give us insights into the origins of our current rituals around dying?
Possible answers to these questions could be derived from a new study in Nature, led by María Martinón-Torres of the National Research Center on Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain. It focuses on a two- to three-year-old child found buried in a Kenyan cave roughly 78,000 years ago. While this isn't the oldest burial grounds for Homo sapiens — to date, that is in Israel — this new discovery of a seemingly intentional burial offers insights into the evolution of how humans treated death.
The dearth of excavation sites in Africa has made studying ancient funerary practices difficult. The remains of this young child were discovered in a pit in the Panga ya Saidi cave site located in a tropical region of coastal Kenya. Taphonomic evidence, which examines the process of fossilization, suggested that the child was intentionally placed in a flexed position (sort of curled up like a ball) in the burial pit.
The burial of Mtoto
The original excavation of this pit took place in 2013. By 2017, archaeologists dug into Middle Stone Age (MSA) layers, uncovering the partial skeleton of the child. The poorly preserved bone fragments were plastered and transported for laboratory analysis, first to the National Museums of Kenya and then onto Burgos, where Martinón-Torres and her team began their work.Besides the seemingly deliberate position of the body, the team noticed a few clues that suggested the child was swaddled in cloth, possibly with the intention of preserving the corpse. They also speculate the body was placed in a cave fissure — known as funerary caching — before being covered with sediment.
Plan view of the 2017 excavation next to a superimposed image of Mtoto to better depict the position of the child.Courtesy of Nature.
The child, who they named Mtoto, appears to have been intentionally buried. The authors reached this conclusion based on: the identification of a clearly dug pit; evidence that discriminates the burial fill from the surrounding layers; the completeness and integrity of the skeleton; the body's tightly flexed position; and the notable differences between the child's remains and the remains of animals in the same layer.
Other burial sites
Two earlier excavations in Taramsa, Egypt and Border Cave, South Africa were similar to the one in this Kenyan cave. However, the Panga ya Saidi remains appear to predate the Egyptian ones by 10,000 years and the South African ones by 4,000 years. Taken together, the team writes that these three digs reveal important insights in the funerary practices of our ancestors.
"The [Panga ya Saidi] child, in combination with the infant burial from Border Cave and the funerary caching of a juvenile at Taramsa, suggests that H. sapiens populations were intentionally preserving the corpses of young members of their groups between about 78 and 69 [thousand years]. Before 78 [thousand years], we know of no unambiguous burials of modern humans in Africa, despite the fact that earlier [Middle Stone Age] populations demonstrate sophisticated forms of symbolic expression."
The researchers are excited to have made headway on the cradle of civilization — a continent that rarely gives up its secrets. While researchers have discovered symbolic representations in Africa dating back at least 320,000 years, these new insights into death rituals are important for understanding the evolution of human consciousness, as well as how we view mortality.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
The mummy was first thought to be a male priest. But a recent radiological analysis revealed a surprising anomaly.
- The woman was likely from a noble background, buried around 100 BC in the royal tombs of Thebes, Upper Egypt.
- The researchers said it's curious that she was buried with the fetus inside her, considering organs were typically removed and embalmed before burial.
- The peculiar burial may suggest that ancient Egyptians believed unborn babies possessed spirits.
Since the 1920s, researchers in Poland were under the impression that an ancient Egyptian mummy they were housing was a male priest named Hor-Djehuty. But a recent radiological analysis revealed an anomaly near the pelvis of the entombed: a tiny foot.
The discovery, reported by researchers with the Warsaw Mummy Project, marks the first-known case of a pregnant mummy. The woman was likely buried around 100 BC in the royal tombs of Thebes, Upper Egypt, according to a study published in the Journal of Archaeological Sciences.
"She came from the elite of Theban community and was carefully mummified, wrapped in fabrics, and equipped with a rich set of amulets," the study states. "Closer examination has revealed that the woman died between 20 and 30 years of age together with the fetus in age between the 26th and 30th week of the pregnancy."
The Warsaw Mummy Project has named the entombed "the mysterious lady of the National Museum in Warsaw," where she is housed.
It's not the first time this mummy has puzzled researchers. When it was donated to the University of Warsaw in 1826, the staff thought it was female, possibly because of the elaborate decorations on its sarcophagus. But after translating an Egyptian text on the sarcophagus, it seemed the mummy was Hor-Djehuty:
"Scribe, priest of Horus-Thoth worshiped as a visiting deity in the Mount of Djeme, royal governor of the town of Petmiten, Hor-Djehuty, justified by voice, son of Padiamonemipet and lady of a house Tanetmin," the translation read.
But computer tomography conducted in 2016 suggested the mummy might be female, revealing a delicate bone structure, long hair, and mummified breasts.
How did a pregnant mummy end up in the sarcophagus meant for a male priest? The researchers weren't quite sure. It could have been a mistake. Or it's possible that grave robbers or antiquities dealers swapped the mummies to increase its resale value, a common practice in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In any case, the main mystery centers on the fetus.
"This whole discovery brought our attention to the question of why it was not removed," Wojtek Ejsmond, a co-founder of the Warsaw Mummy Project, told CNN. "We don't know why it was left there. Maybe there was a religious reason. Maybe they thought the unborn child didn't have a soul or that it would be safer in the next world. Or maybe it was because it was very difficult to remove a child at that stage from the womb without causing serious damage."
That the fetus wasn't extracted is especially curious considering that several of the woman's organs seem to have been removed, embalmed, and reinserted into the body, per the common mummification practices of Ancient Egypt. Could it be that the Egyptians believed the unborn baby had a soul?
It's unclear. The Egyptians had strong and complex beliefs about the afterlife. While these beliefs changed over the millennia, Egyptians generally believed that the physical body — called khet — needed to be preserved in order for the spirit (and its various parts) to journey into the underworld and, perhaps, beyond.
Given this belief system, it's understandable why the Egyptians developed such elaborate funeral and mummification rites, which often took 70 days. Of course, this process was time-consuming and expensive, usually reserved for those of royal or noble background. Common people were typically buried in the desert, wrapped in cloth and surrounded by a handful of everyday objects.
The researchers at the Warsaw Mummy Project hope their discovery will shed light on how the Egyptians conceptualized the souls of unborn children and that further interdisciplinary research can establish a cause of death for the mysterious lady of the National Museum in Warsaw.
Scientists discover what our human ancestors were making inside the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa 1.8 million years ago.
- Researchers find evidence of early tool-making and fire use inside the Wonderwerk Cave in Africa.
- The scientists date the human activity in the cave to 1.8 million years ago.
- The evidence is the earliest found yet and advances our understanding of human evolution.
One of the oldest activities carried out by humans has been identified in a cave in South Africa. A team of geologists and archaeologists found evidence that our ancestors were making fire and tools in the Wonderwerk Cave in the country's Kalahari Desert some 1.8 million years ago.
A new study published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews from researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the University of Toronto proposes that Wonderwerk — which means "miracle" in Afrikaans — contains the oldest evidence of human activity discovered.
"We can now say with confidence that our human ancestors were making simple Oldowan stone tools inside the Wonderwerk Cave 1.8 million years ago," shared the study's lead author Professor Ron Shaar from Hebrew University.
Oldowan stone tools are the earliest type of tools that date as far back as 2.6 million years ago. An Oldowan tool, which was useful for chopping, was made by chipping flakes off of one stone by hitting it with another stone.
An Oldowan stone toolCredit: Wikimedia / Public domain
Professor Shaar explained that Wonderwerk is different from other ancient sites where tool shards have been found because it is a cave and not in the open air, where sample origins are harder to pinpoint and contamination is possible.
Studying the cave, the researchers were able to pinpoint the time over one million years ago when a shift from Oldowan tools to the earliest handaxes could be observed. Investigating deeper in the cave, the scientists also established that a purposeful use of fire could be dated to one million years back.
This is significant because examples of early fire use usually come from sites in the open air, where there is the possibility that they resulted from wildfires. The remnants of ancient fires in a cave — including burned bones, ash, and tools — contain clear clues as to their purpose.
To precisely date their discovery, the researchers relied on paleomagnetism and burial dating to measure magnetic signals from the remains hidden within a sedimentary rock layer that was 2.5 meters thick. Prehistoric clay particles that settled on the cave floor exhibit magnetization and can show the direction of the ancient earth's magnetic field. Knowing the dates of magnetic field reversals allowed the scientists to narrow down the date range of the cave layers.
The Kalahari desert Wonderwerk CaveCredit: Michael Chazan / Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Professor Ari Matmon of Hebrew University used another dating method to solidify their conclusions, focusing on isotopes within quartz particles in the sand that "have a built-in geological clock that starts ticking when they enter a cave." He elaborated that in their lab, the scientists were "able to measure the concentrations of specific isotopes in those particles and deduce how much time had passed since those grains of sand entered the cave."
Finding the exact dates of human activity in the Wonderwerk Cave could lead to a better understanding of human evolution in Africa as well as the way of life of our early ancestors.
A Harvard professor's study discovers the worst year to be alive.
- Harvard professor Michael McCormick argues the worst year to be alive was 536 AD.
- The year was terrible due to cataclysmic eruptions that blocked out the sun and the spread of the plague.
- 536 ushered in the coldest decade in thousands of years and started a century of economic devastation.
The past year has been nothing but the worst in the lives of many people around the globe. A rampaging pandemic, dangerous political instability, weather catastrophes, and a profound change in lifestyle that most have never experienced or imagined.
But was it the worst year ever?
Nope. Not even close. In the eyes of the historian and archaeologist Michael McCormick, the absolute "worst year to be alive" was 536.
Why was 536 so bad? You could certainly argue that 1918, the last year of World War I when the Spanish Flu killed up to 100 million people around the world, was a terrible year by all accounts. 1349 could also be considered on this morbid list as the year when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe, with up to 20 million dead from the plague. Most of the years of World War II could probably lay claim to the "worst year" title as well. But 536 was in a category of its own, argues the historian.
It all began with an eruption...
According to McCormick, Professor of Medieval History at Harvard University, 536 was the precursor year to one of the worst periods of human history. It featured a volcanic eruption early in the year that took place in Iceland, as established by a study of a Swiss glacier carried out by McCormick and the glaciologist Paul Mayewski from the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono.
The ash spewed out by the volcano likely led to a fog that brought an 18-month-long stretch of daytime darkness across Europe, the Middle East, and portions of Asia. As wrote the Byzantine historian Procopius, "For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year." He also recounted that it looked like the sun was always in eclipse.
Cassiodorus, a Roman politician of that time, wrote that the sun had a "bluish" color, the moon had no luster, and "seasons seem to be all jumbled up together." What's even creepier, he described, "We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon."
...that led to famine...
The dark days also brought a period of coldness, with summer temperatures falling by 1.5° C. to 2.5° C. This started the coldest decade in the past 2300 years, reports Science, leading to the devastation of crops and worldwide hunger.
...and the fall of an empire
In 541, the bubonic plague added considerably to the world's misery. Spreading from the Roman port of Pelusium in Egypt, the so-called Plague of Justinian caused the deaths of up to one half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire. This, in turn, sped up its eventual collapse, writes McCormick.
Between the environmental cataclysms, with massive volcanic eruptions also in 540 and 547, and the devastation brought on by the plague, Europe was in for an economic downturn for nearly all of the next century, until 640 when silver mining gave it a boost.
Was that the worst time in history?
Of course, the absolute worst time in history depends on who you were and where you lived.
Native Americans can easily point to 1520, when smallpox, brought over by the Spanish, killed millions of indigenous people. By 1600, up to 90 percent of the population of the Americas (about 55 million people) was wiped out by various European pathogens.
Like all things, the grisly title of "worst year ever" comes down to historical perspective.
A new study says the reason cave paintings are in such remote caverns was the artists' search for transcendence.
- Hundreds of prehistoric paintings have been found in subterranean chambers with barely enough oxygen to breathe.
- Low oxygen causes hypoxia that can induce exalted mental states.
- A new study says the artists chose these hard-to-each caverns in search of an oxygen-starved high.
Artists of all types have been known to ingest a — shall we say — creative lubricant or two. One of the paradoxical things about art, even for people who love making it — maybe especially for those people — is that it's sometimes hard to get started, despite the fact that it's even harder to stop.
A new paper suggests this problem and solution go way back.
As archaeologist Yafit Kedar from Tel-Aviv University in Israel was in France enjoying some cave art deep within the ground, she started to wonder why their creators would choose to create images so far away from natural light sources. These places are also airless, where what little oxygen there could have been would have been consumed by the burning torches the painters needed in order to see what they were painting.
Maybe, she thought, the reason these long-ago artists chose to create in such remote chambers was because of their lack of fresh oxygen. Perhaps the painters would have been down there creating in a hypoxic, trancelike state. In that pre-agricultural, pre-chemistry time, cave painting might have been a way to get inspirationally baked.
There are some 400 known prehistoric cave paintings found in Western Europe dating back to the Upper Paleolithic period from 40,000 to 11,00 years ago.
The Greek oracles were probably high, too
Credit: matiasdelcarmine/Adobe Stock
This might not be the only historical example of people inducing an oxygen-starved state to achieve transcendence or something like it. A 2006 study from scientists at the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Rome hypothesized that hypoxia might have been the source of the trances out of which Delphic oracles extracted their visions.
Plutarch had written that trances began when the oracle—really generations of female oracles, all of them ceremonially named "Pythia" — inhaled sweet noxious fumes from cracks in the ground beneath the temple. Lead author of the 2006 study Giuseppe Etiope suggested that these gasses may well have been nothing more miraculous than carbon dioxide and methane filling a poorly ventilated space, thus casting Pythia off into a netherworld of semi-consciousness.
The air down there
Credit: Aleksandr Volunkov/Adobe Stock
On the surface, the air we breathe is 21 percent oxygen. Kedar and her colleagues created computer models that revealed the likely levels of oxygen in the painted caves. They found that in some such caverns, oxygen levels can drop to 18 percent in just 15 minutes. Some models fell to 11 percent. Hypoxia is likely at oxygen levels below 14.5% percent.
Fire torches exacerbate the problem. Up near the surface in a cave open to outside air, a burning fire's exhaust flows up and out while fresh air comes in beneath it. In a narrow passageway, however, the carbon dioxide and oxygen mix, and the lighter oxygen floats upward and on out of the cavern toward the surface.
The deeper a painter went with their torch, the more extreme was the loss of oxygen. Some of Kedar's models of deep caverns found just 9 percent oxygen, the lower limit of survivability.
Kedar hopes to validate the modeled outcomes by measuring oxygen levels in existing painted caves. For now though, the models point to the "transformative nature of an underground, oxygen-depleted space."
What is a hypoxic high like?
Hypoxia releases dopamine and can produce euphoria, visions, and out-of-body sensations. Modern visitors have reported experiencing some of these same sorts of mental phenomena when viewing the artwork.
The paper suggests that, "The cave environment was conceived as both a liminal space and an ontological arena, allowing early humans to maintain their connectedness with the cosmos." The hypoxic mind may well have found it easy to imagine that they were seeing beyond the rock, and indeed, beyond their world.
"The images envisioned in such a hallucinatory state appear to float on the cave surfaces (walls, floors, and ceilings) as if these constituted a membrane connecting the upper and lower worlds," write the authors.
Considering the likelihood of hypoxic conditions inside caves, it may be that it was the promise of a transcendent experience that drove the painters deep into the ground rather than any inherent meaning attached to the caves. As the paper concludes:
"It was not the decoration that rendered the caves significant; rather, the significance of the chosen caves was the reason for their decoration."