Stranger than fiction: Neanderthal vocalization

The poor Neanderthal.  Maligned for decades as a dumb, violent brute, this hominin is now understood to have been much more similar to modern humans than previously realized.  In fact, there’s abundant evidence that Neanderthal genes live on today (and I’m not talking about heavy brow ridges or big-boned Conan the Barbarian types, but about parts of our immune system and analytical skills).

Even more interesting is evidence that Neanderthals would not only have been physically and mentally capable of speech and language, but that they might have sounded like a cross between Kermit the Frog and a really angry Miss Piggy.

Here’s a video from the BBC that recreates Neanderthal vocalizations, showing us just how f*ing scary these Ice Age neighbors of modern humans would have been.

Stranger than fiction: Gobekli Tepe

One of the oldest surviving theories about the emergence of civilization is V. Gordon’s Childe’s Neolithic Revolution, in which the invention of agriculture (around 9,000 years ago) gave rise to all that we recognize as “civilized” – villages, writing, cities, and organized religion.  While Childe wasn’t wrong about the big picture (agriculture was a revolutionary thing for human societies), recent discoveries from the Middle East and elsewhere have shown that he didn’t have the details quite right.

In particular, towns seem to have come before the invention of agriculture in the Middle East…and organized religion may have predated them both.

Pillars at the temple of Göbekli Tepe

The site of Göbekli Tepe, Turkey, has revealed itself as a possible religious pilgrimage site – one without evidence of residential occupation and predating the rise of most villages in the region.  A spectacular arrangement of elaborately carved standing stones, the site is the oldest known example of monumental architecture.  The stones comprising the open-air temple were quarried some distance away and carved with a wild assortment of gazelles, snakes, foxes, scorpions, and ferocious wild boars.

The excavators speculate that construction, use, and worship at the site may have prompted scattered, semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers to begin to organize themselves and come together to built the region’s first permanent villages — all hundreds of years before they domesticated their first plant or animal.

Stranger than fiction: Science to the rescue

Archaeologists are notorious Luddites — forever crowing about how much we can discover with just a trowel, a bucket, and a strong constitution.

Technology, though, will not be denied, and every once in awhile it reminds us that we ignore it at our peril.

Case in point: archaeologists working at the site of Ashkelon, Israel uncovered a white, powdery surface they originally interpreted as a plaster floor inside a residential or ritual structure.  When they subjected a sample of the material to spectroscopic analysis, however, they discovered it was something quite different from what they’d imagined.  Rather than a fine floor, the white substance was decayed plant life and fecal matter.  That’s right, folks, it was poop.

They hadn’t found the interior of a house or temple, but an animal pen.

Archaeology, meet Science.  You two should hang out more often.

Here’s the article in the New York Times if you’d like to read more.

Stranger than fiction: shaman’s burial

Plenty of us write about magic and witches, but nothing can be cooler than this 12,000 year old shaman’s burial from the site of Hilazon Tachtit, Israel.

Walled away inside a cave high on a cliff face, this elderly, disabled woman was buried with an incredible array of grave goods, including 50 complete tortoise shells and select body-parts of a wild boar, an eagle, a cow, a leopard, and two martens, as well as a complete human foot (not her own).  Many of these animals were either extremely rare or locally unavailable at the time, suggesting a great deal of planning and effort went into this woman’s interment.  Plus, a human foot!

Thus far, this is one of the oldest known graves of a potential shaman.

Read more about it here.

Stranger than fiction: ancient shoes

Did you know that the world’s oldest evidence for shoe use comes not from preserved footwear but from human toe bones?

Well, it’s true.

Preserved sandals or other ancient footwear don’t appear in the archaeological record until around 9,000 years ago (from a site in California).  This is because biodegradable materials tend to preserve poorly.  Recently, though, physical anthropologists have speculated that we may be able to determine when humans began wearing shoes indirectly by examining their toe bones.

Shod? Look at the Toes

People who go barefoot develop stronger, more robust toes than those who wear supportive footwear.  Archaeologists have found a decrease in the size and strength of toe bones among Homo sapiens in Europe and the Middle East around 30,000 years ago, suggesting it was at this time that they began to innovate new footwear technologies.

Eat your heart out Christian Louboutin!

Here’s the article from National Geographic if you want to know more.