Did our early ancestors boil their food in hot springs?

Scientists have found evidence of hot springs near sites where ancient hominids settled, long before the control of fire.

Ryan Pierse/Getty Images
Some of the oldest remains of early human ancestors have been unearthed in Olduvai Gorge, a rift valley setting in northern Tanzania where anthropologists have discovered fossils of hominids that existed 1.8 million years ago.
Keep reading Show less

How kings created Angkor Wat—then lost it

The major temples seem much more interesting than what also appears on the landscape: apparently random mounds of earth.

Photo by James Wheeler on Unsplash
Over a thousand years ago, the ancient Khmer civilization emerged as a powerful cultural and political force in what is now Cambodia and came to dominate much of Southeast Asia.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists solve the origin of Stonehenge’s sarsen stones

Most of Stonehenge's megaliths, called sarens, came from West Woods, Wiltshire.

  • Researchers have known Stonehenge's smaller bluestones came from Preseli Hills, Wales, but the source of its sarsens has remained a mystery.
  • Using chemical analysis, scientists found a matching source at West Woods, approximately 16 miles north of the World Heritage Site.
  • But mysteries remain, such as why that site was chosen.
Keep reading Show less

Mexican cave contains signs of human visitors from 30,000 years ago

Archaeologists suggest this may have been the Americas' "oldest hotel."

Image source: Devlin A. Gandy/St. John's College, University of Cambridge
  • Scientists have found ancient tools as well as plant and animal remains in a high-altitude cave.
  • The site is dated to 30,000 years ago, pushing back estimates of the first humans to arrive in the Americas by 15,000 years.
  • There is no sign these mysterious people remain in the modern gene pool.

Keep reading Show less

An ancient tomcat skeleton is found along the Silk Road

The discovery pushes back humanity's history with domestication.

Image source: Angle Santos/Unsplash
  • Until now, it was thought that cats weren't domesticated in Central Asia until much later.
  • The completeness and details of the skeleton suggest it was someone's pet.
  • Isotopic examination reveals a high-protein diet most likely provided by caring humans.

Piecing together history through archaeology is inherently sketchy. Clues that tell a complete story could be anywhere — so much depends on the artifacts that just happened to have been found. It's a credit to archaeologists' knowledge and imagination that they've been able to piece together as much about the distant past as they have.

The recent discovery of a nearly complete skeleton from 775–940 CE belonging to a house cat living along Asia's Silk Road significantly pushes back humanity's history with domesticated animals. Prior to this find, the domestic Felis catus L. — as opposed to F. l. ornat, the wild steppe feline — according to DNA testing, wasn't seen in the archaeological record of Central Asia until around the colonial period of the 18th and 19th centuries. While the remains of domesticated dogs are commonly found, cats are not, and certainly not specimens that are sufficiently complete. This allows archaeologists to infer much about the individual animal's life story. This cat's story is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

The Silk Road

artist rendering of travelers on camels

Image source: Nithid/Shutterstock

The legendary Silk Road was not, its name notwithstanding, a single road. Rather, it was a network of trade routes running across Asia from China to the Mediterranean. It was at its height between 130 BCE (when it was officially established by China's Han Dynasty) and 1453, when the Ottoman Empire closed it down.

While the Silk Road's primary purpose was commercial — the transport of goods across the ancient world — the communities through which it passed were exposed to a rich assortment of distant cultures, and its influence was thus profound. When the Silk Road was shut down, explorers took to the world's oceans in search of new trade routes that might replace it.

One of the many communities along the trade route was the early medieval settlement of Dzhankent, located in Kazakhstan, east of the Caspian Sea. It was populated primarily by a pastoralist Turkic tribe called the Oghuz. The Oghuz were nomads who controlled Dzhankent and ruled the surrounding region until the 11th century.

Dzhankent cat bones and skeletal diagram

The Dzhankent cat

Image source: Haruda, et al

The tomcat skeleton was found in Dzhankent, and had apparently been deliberately buried, though there is no evidence of any sort of ritual involved, or even clear grave delineations. Still, the deliberate burial means its bones were well-preserved.

"A human skeleton is like a biography of that person," says lead investigator Ashleigh Haruda from the Central Natural Science Collections at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU). "The bones provide a great deal of information about how the person lived and what they experienced." In the case of the cat, there were enough remains — its entire skull including its lower jaw, along with parts of its upper body, legs and four vertebrae — to understand quite a bit about its life.

Haruda's team included both archaeologists and DNA specialists. The tabby did not have an easy life, says Haruda, who conservatively estimates the cat was at least one year old at the time of death.

X-ray and 3D imaging of the bones revealed that "the cat suffered several broken bones during its lifetime." Isotope analysis revealed a high-protein diet, and according to Haruda, "It must have been fed by humans since the animal had lost almost all its teeth towards the end of its life."

From an historical point of view, the cat's presence in the Oghuz community suggests a surprisingly early change in the way these people viewed animals. "The Oghuz were people who only kept animals when they were essential to their lives," says Haruda. "Dogs, for example, can watch over the herd. They had no obvious use for cats back then."

Quantcast