Meet Homo naledi, the distant ancestor you never knew


In South Africa, scientists have unearthed a humanoid species from what appears to be a burial chamber hidden deep inside a system of caves. They discovered 15 partial skeletons, with evidence leading researchers to believe the hominids had enough intelligence to conduct rituals. This is the single largest discovery of its kind ever in Africa, and scientists claim it will change our ideas about our human ancestors. More on the findings in the journal Elife.

BBC News:

The species, which has been named naledi, has been classified in the grouping, or genus, Homo, to which modern humans belong. The researchers who made the find have not been able to find out how long ago these creatures lived - but the scientist who led the team, Prof Lee Berger, told BBC News that he believed they could be among the first of our kind (genus Homo) and could have lived in Africa up to three million years ago.

The team of scientists who discovered the Homo naledi remains pose for a picture

Here's the abstract:

Homo naledi is a previously-unknown species of extinct hominin discovered within the Dinaledi Chamber of the Rising Star cave system, Cradle of Humankind, South Africa. This species is characterized by body mass and stature similar to small-bodied human populations but a small endocranial volume similar to australopiths. Cranial morphology of H. naledi is unique, but most similar to early Homo species including Homo erectus, Homo habilis or Homo rudolfensis. While primitive, the dentition is generally small and simple in occlusal morphology.

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WATCH: Feathered fossil links proto-birds to velociraptors


Artist Zhao Chuang rendered this cool illustration of a newly-discovered Zhenyuanlong. It was over six feet long and had copious feathers, as shown in a beautifully preserved Chinese fossil below. Read the rest

"Vampire grave" from the 13th century unearthed

An archaeologist found a "vampire grave" in Bulgaria where a Medieval skeleton lies with an iron spike through its chest. Read the rest

Very old erotic graffiti found in Greece

Photograph: Helena Smith

Now we know that Nikasitimos banged Timion (in the past continuous tense, implying a long stamina) on what is now a remote stone outcrop on the Agean island of Astypalaia, approximately 2,500 years ago. Read the rest

How to: Read books buried 2000 years ago

When the first excavations of the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum began in 1738, the diggers found what appeared to be charcoal and half-burnt logs. In reality, those blackened lumps were papyrus scrolls. Buried beneath the detritus of Mt. Vesuvius, a Herculanean villa contained a whole library of the things. And now, thanks to micro-CT imaging and other digitization techniques, researchers are finding ways to read those scrolls. Read the rest

A real graveyard curse: Archaeologists susceptible to fungal disease

Valley fever is a respiratory disease that can cause flu-like symptoms, rashes, and (sometimes) chronic lung problems. It's caused by a fungus that lives in dry soil, essentially hibernating for years until it's reinvigorated by moisture. Valley fever is best known for infecting prisoners in the American southwest, but it's also an occupational hazard of archaeologists ... who spend most of their lives sifting through the soils where the fungus lives. Read the rest

An ancient recipe for seafood stew

Archaeologists used scanning electron microscopes to look for phytoliths — the remnants of silica left over after plant cell walls decay — on ancient cookware. Their research led to the discovery of 6000-year-old garlic-mustard seed, the oldest evidence of spices being used in Northern European cooking. (Insert your own joke here.) Read the rest

Art at the intersection of archaeology and space geekery

Ancient Egyptians made some really nice jewelry out of meteorites. Read the rest

4000-year-old sacrificial victim in good shape, all things considered

Two years ago, an Irish peat harvesting machine unearthed a new bog body — the ancient, mummified remains of a person buried in a peat bog. (The machine also took off the body's head in the process of discovering it. But don't worry. The face and parts of the jaw and teeth were later recovered.)

This week, researchers announced that the body, called Cashel Man, is actually 2000 years older than anybody had previously guessed, making him the oldest European bog body to ever be found with the skin still intact. Older bodies exist, but they've all basically been reduced to skeletons.

Judging by his injuries — the ones not caused by the peat harvester — Cashel Man was probably ritually sacrificed.

Detail of Cashel Man's feet: From a photo by Eamonn Kelly, Keeper of Antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland.

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A proper Victorian poop table

This table is not for pooping. It's for tea. But it is made of poop — specifically fossilized hunks of fish poop, encased in a crunchy shell of clay and rock. The fossilized poops — called coprolites, which is basically just fancy Latin for "fossilized poop" — are the spiny-looking bits in the center of each circular inlay on the table top. (Technically, the name translates as "dung stone".)

The table belonged, appropriately, to the Rev. William Buckland, the man who gave coprolites their fancy name and proved that they were, in fact, fossilized poops.

The table resides at England's Lyme Regis Museum. You can read more about Buckland's work and the details of the craftsmanship and restoration behind the table at their website. Earth Magazine also has a lovely article on coprolites, including important information that will help you distinguish between fossilized poop and stuff that just looks like fossilized poop.

Via The Earth Story. Thanks to my Dad for forwarding this to me! Read the rest

Game-tokens found in 5,000-year-old burial mound

Ege University's Haluk Sağlamtimur presented a remarkable find of 5,000-year-old gaming tokens found in a Bronze Age burial mound at Başur Höyük in Turkey. They take a variety of forms ("Some depict pigs, dogs and pyramids, others feature round and bullet shapes. We also found dice as well as three circular tokens made of white shell and topped with a black round stone") and suggest a game based in some way on the number four. Read the rest

Ancient Grumpy Cat LOLs

Yesterday, guest blogger Madeleine Johnson had a story here about a piece of ancient Peruvian pottery — in the shape of a very grumpy little cat. If you haven't read her story, you really should. It's all about the great cat memes of ancient history and how archaeologists can use clues from an artwork to track down who made it, where, and when.

My friend Andrew was kind enough to adapt Ancient Grumpy Cat into the form of a modern cat meme. That's his picture above. Madeleine and I also put together another one, based on Ancient Grumpy Cat's probable history as a ceremonial mug for drinking a corn beer called chicha: Read the rest

Meet Ancient Peru's own Grumpy Cat

Grumpy Cat, Shocked Cat, Lil Bub – their images are the currency of the web, passed between friends, family, and co-workers. When they go viral, funny cat pictures heal daily drudgery with a dose of furry, cuddly cheer. But, in terms of the reverence they receive, these cats are hardly the first of their kind. Ancient cultures had cat memes too, and archaeologists have their own term for them: feline motifs. Read the rest

Archaeologists unearth possible vampire graveyard in Poland

Polish tradition dictates that, in order to prevent a corpse from rising as a vampire, you must bury it with the head lopped off the body and positioned between the legs. Archaeologists recently found a burial site with four such bodies in southern Poland. Read the rest

Help transcribe ancient Egyptian texts

You don't need to know an ancient language to help scientists read ancient literature. Researchers are looking for volunteers for a crowdsource project aimed at transcribing (and, later, translating) the words written on a series of crumbling papyrus scrolls, found in a trash heap at the site of what was once Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. Read the rest

Colonial cannibalism

While starving during the winter of 1609, residents of Jamestown, Virginia likely ate at least one person, a teenage girl. Archaeologists found her skeleton last summer and it's riddled with cut marks characteristic of a body that has been butchered after death. Read the rest

Photos from on top of the Great Pyramid

The Pyramids of Giza close to tourists at 4:00 pm. Recently, a group of Russians managed to hide out at the site after closing time and scramble up the Great Pyramid of Cheops in the fading light. Naturally, they took photos. (Because if there is one thing the Internet has taught me about Russians, it's that they like to climb to dangerous heights and then take photos.)

These shots are kind of fabulous, not just for the thrill of "yeah, somebody broke the rules!", but because of the perspective you get from on high that isn't visible in the many ground-level shots I've seen. From on top of the Pyramid, you can see how the stone is pockmarked and carved — it really looks like something humans cut out of the Earth. You can also see the graffiti left by generations of tourists in multiple languages; English, Arabic, French, and more. And you can see the edge of the modern city, shimmering just at the horizon. I don't think I'd previously had such a profound sense of how closely modern Egyptians lived and worked to the Great Pyramid, before. What a fascinating view!

Thanks to Steve Silberman for the link!

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