Every year, archaeologists uncover fascinating discoveries. They may be a result of intentional excavations or accidental ones, like when workers repairing the world-famous Notre Dame cathedral turned up two lead tombs.
One of the year’s best archaeological finds involved a woman’s grave site in Spain. She was buried with jewelry and even a silver diadem, or crown.
The 31,000-Year-Old Leg Amputation
The latest find from the world of archaeology news is pretty gruesome: It’s believed to be the earliest case of a surgically amputated leg, reports Newsweek. The discovery came during an excavation in a cave on Borneo that is home to some of the earliest human rock art. As scientists were unearthing the skeleton of a young individual, they noticed that part of their lower left leg was missing. The ends of the leg bones (the tibia and fibula) were clearly cut and didn’t show signs of infection, suggesting that the limb was intentionally removed. The team dated the remains and found that they were 31,000 years old, which is a full 12,000 years earlier than the earliest evidence of such an operation.
The discovery shows that “at least some modern human foraging groups had advanced medical knowledge and skills long before the transition to farming,” says an expert from Australia’s Griffith University. “It’s also a reminder that the ancient past was not as insular as we have always imagined,” he adds in a press release.
Archaeologists were able to determine that the person who had their leg removed lived between six and nine years after it was amputated. They also had a healed neck bone fracture that they suspect happened around the same time. But linking these events with a leg surgery is tricky, because bone remodeling occurs at different rates in different parts of the body. “You can’t really tell what tool was used to amputate the leg because there is no bone preserved,” says a James Cook University palaeopathologist who wasn’t involved in the study. “But I would think a sharpened handheld piece of rock, maybe obsidian, was used.”
2021 has been a busy year for archaeologists, who have been using new methods in their search for clues to humankind’s unrecorded history. For example, in 2022, a team of researchers was able to reconstruct a shipwreck off the coast of Sicily from visual clues on the wrecked vessel’s wooden hull, which were recorded in paint. Click through for more of the most interesting archaeology discoveries from the past year.
The Discovery Of Ancient Poop
Archaeologists spend a lot of their time digging up bones and examining stone tools, but they also use ancient poop to learn about past civilizations. That’s because feces from the past are often surprisingly flush with details about people and their food, as two new finds show.
In one case, a team led by a molecular anthropologist at the University of Montana, Missoula, sifted through eight ancient coprolites (poop rocks) preserved in dryness and stable temperatures inside rock shelters across Mexico and the southwestern United States. They radiocarbon dated them to between 0 and 1000 C.E. Then, the scientists rehydrated tiny bits of poop and recovered longer DNA strands than previous paleofeces analyses had done.
The poo told them that the occupants of both latrines were hunter-gatherers who ate a mix of meat, seeds, plants and rodents. But the analysis also spotted chemical fingerprints of two dysentery-causing parasites, including Giardia lamblia. Past research had only detected the toxins of the parasites in animal dung, not human, making this discovery the first evidence that humans suffered from these intestinal infections.
Using a machine learning approach to scan the rehydrated poop for the presence of these molecules, the researchers were able to identify which compounds in the feces belonged to humans and which matched those from animals. Then, they used a second machine learning technique to analyze the DNA in the fecal particles.
The team compared these findings with samples from other caves, and they were able to confirm that the poop belonged to humans and was from the Paisley Caves site. It dated to 14,000 years ago, far older than the Clovis culture, which is traditionally considered to be America’s first people.
For a few centuries, fossil poop has been a rare source of information about the past. But thanks to the emergence of this method and other advances in DNA analysis, researchers will be able to use this kind of evidence more often in the future.
The Largest-Ever Stash Of Mummy-Embalming Tools
Archaeologists found a cache of tools that were used to mummify people and animals back in Ancient Egypt. The find was made at the necropolis of Saqqara outside of Cairo, Egypt. The site was a hub for animal mummification, according to the secretary general of the Supreme Council for Archeology. The team discovered two ancient workshops that were used to embalm both humans and sacred animals in the 30th pharaonic dynasty and the Ptolemaic period.
The workshop was filled with pottery jars that contained mixtures of resins, tars, and oils, which were used in the mummification process. The jars also had notes on when each substance should be added to the mix. The discovery may help scientists figure out how a person was mummified. “It is a unique find, as it contains a whole range of ingredients that are needed for the embalming of a human body,” Miroslav Barta, an archaeologist on the project from Charles University in Prague told Insider. This is a valuable finding because Ancient Egyptian texts do not detail how to make mummies.
Aside from the jars, archaeologists also found a series of limestone containers that were used to store viscera removed from a dead person during embalming. They were dated to the 30th pharaonic dynasty. The team hopes to analyze the contents of the jars and determine how the viscera was mixed with chemicals.
One of the biggest challenges for archaeologists is that prehistoric civilizations did not develop writing, which means that their artifacts are often their only clues about their lives. Archaeologists studying the Clovis culture in New Mexico, for example, only have arrowheads (called projectile points) as their evidence of life there about 13,000 years ago.
Archaeologists use many tools and techniques to record and dig for artifacts, but one of the most important ones is a simple string with a bubble level. This is a way for archaeologists to mark a vertical spatial position on finds and can be used in conjunction with a measuring tool like a ruler to determine whether an object is above or below what is called datum, which is the level horizontal surface on which all other measurements are made. The discoveries from these tools and other methods can help push back the dates of our human ancestors by millions of years.
The Discovery Of A Shipwreck
In a year where global lockdowns and political strife have kept archaeologists from spending as much time on the ground, they’ve still made some incredible discoveries. These discoveries reveal the complex cultural, spiritual, and technological makeup of ancient human societies.
Many of these archaeological wonders are found on the bottom of our seas and lakes. Studying sunken objects is a whole discipline of archaeology known as maritime archeology. Studying shipwrecks in particular preserves cultural objects that would have been looted or destroyed if left on land. One of the most famous examples is the Antikythera mechanism, which is considered to be the first mechanical computer. Other treasures discovered on shipwrecks include coins, ceramic items, and sarcophagi.
For example, a mysterious wooden shipwreck floated to shore near Corolla, North Carolina, about three years ago. It’s believed to be the oldest such discovery on the East Coast. Daniel Brown, who has studied the wreck, says it could provide clues about a variety of topics, including seafaring and warfare in the 1600s. He is particularly interested in figuring out how the ship was built. Brown says the construction is different from the Spanish or Portuguese vessels found nearby. The hull is fastened with wood “treenails,” rather than iron nails. The ship also uses more oakum—oak-based preservatives pounded into cracks to seal water leaks.
While studying the wreck, he also noticed a number of brass pins stuck to its timbers. These pins are unique to ships from the Dutch Republic, which is likely where the ship originated. He is also analyzing the debris from the wreck to determine its age.
Maritime archeology is becoming increasingly important as scholars use research on ships and their cargo to examine trade routes, risks, and practices across half the world. The tight-dated, carefully recorded wreck cargoes of colonial trade ships like the Sydney Cove and the William Salthouse, wrecked in 1841 on their way to Melbourne, are yielding a wealth of new information about consumer demands and inter-colonial trade.
Not all archaeology involves digging in the dirt, however. National Geographic Emerging Explorer Dr. Albert Yu-Min Lin is conducting an innovative archaeological project centered on Mongolia that uses technology to explore the earth without disturbing the soil. His Valley of the Khans project is investigating a possible burial site for Genghis Khan and his family.
In summary, the latest archaeological discoveries have offered fascinating insights into our ancient past, unveiling hidden civilizations and shedding light on their remarkable achievements. These breakthroughs underscore the significance of preserving our cultural heritage and continue to inspire further exploration of our shared history.
- Why is archaeology important? Archaeology is crucial because it helps us understand the origins and development of human societies. By studying artifacts, structures, and other remains of the past, archaeologists piece together the puzzle of our history, revealing how people lived, interacted, and adapted to their environments over time.
- How are archaeological sites protected? Archaeological sites are protected through various measures, including legal designations, international agreements, and community involvement. Governments may declare certain areas as protected monuments or heritage sites, enforcing laws to prevent unauthorized excavation or damage. Collaboration with local communities fosters a sense of ownership and responsibility, ensuring the preservation of these invaluable cultural treasures for future generations.