WTF Fun Fact 13363 – The Oldest Musical Instrument

Deep within the recesses of a German cave, researchers came across a remarkable artifact in 2008—the world’s oldest musical instrument. It was a flute made from a vulture’s wing bone. This extraordinary find dated back approximately 40,000 years.

Discovering the world’s oldest musical instrument

In 2008, archaeologists exploring the Hohle Fels cave in southwestern Germany unearthed a treasure that would rewrite the history of music. During their search, they stumbled upon the remnants of a bone flute. After the researchers carefully reconstructed it, they revealed the astonishing craftsmanship of our ancient ancestors.

They’ve also traced the flute’s origin back to the Upper Paleolithic period, during a time when early humans roamed the Earth. Radiocarbon dating placed the age of the flute at approximately 40,000 years old. This makes it the oldest known musical instrument ever found. It even predates the development of agriculture and the invention of writing! That really says something about the importance of music in our lives.

The flute’s construction

The flute, made from the hollow wing bone of a griffon vulture, exhibits remarkable craftsmanship. Moreover, the flute’s smooth surface bears the unmistakable signs of intricate carving and polishing, serving as a testament to the skill and dedication of its ancient artisan. The creator carefully fashioned the bone with several holes, allowing for the modulation of sound by covering and uncovering them.

Experts have analyzed the flute’s acoustics and confirmed that it possesses the ability to produce musical tones. And they say the presence of carefully placed finger holes indicates that our ancient ancestors possessed a fundamental understanding of sound. Not only that, but they were capable of manipulating it to create melodies. This information provides some fascinating insight into the human capacity for artistic expression.

Rewriting history with music

The discovery of the world’s oldest flute not only expands our knowledge of human history but also highlights the enduring impact of music on our lives. This serves as a reminder that music has always held a special place in the human experience, bringing joy, solace, and a means of creative expression across civilizations and ages.

 WTF fun facts

Source: “35,000-year-old flute is oldest known musical instrument” — LA Times

WTF Fun Fact 13261 – New Moai on Easter Island

Archaeologists on Easter Island have made a significant discovery. They recently unearthed a new Moai on Easter Island. The statue was buried in a dried-out lake bed. Now, there’s no telling how many more statues remain undiscovered on the island.

Easter Island’s new Moai statue

The new statue is around 1.6 meters tall and is estimated to be at least 500 years old. It appears to have been created to represent a group of ancestors as a deity or spirit.

The statue has some unique features which distinguish it from other Moai statues found on the island. These include raised eyebrows, almond-shaped eyes, and a pronounced mouth.

Archaeologists believe that this newly discovered statue will help them gain a better understanding of the religious and cultural practices of the people who lived on Easter Island in the past. (Easter Island (aka Rapa Nui) is located in the Pacific Ocean.)

Researchers believe the Moai statues played a central role in the island’s religious and cultural practices. The discovery of this new statue could provide valuable insights into the role the moai played in the lives of Easter Island’s inhabitants.

What lies beneath

The discovery of the previously unknown Moai statue buried in a dried-out lake bed on Easter Island has garnered international attention and excitement from archaeologists and researchers. These Moai statues, of which there are around 1,000 on Easter Island, have been a topic of fascination and speculation for centuries due to their unique features, imposing size, and mysterious history.

Beyond their historical and cultural significance, the Moai statues have also become a symbol of environmental stewardship. They also illustrate the need to protect the planet’s fragile ecosystems.

Deforestation, climate change, and overfishing are all a threat to Easter Island’s delicate ecosystem. The Moai statues serve as a reminder of the importance of preserving our planet’s natural resources for future generations.

 WTF fun facts

Source: “New Moai statue that ‘deified ancestors’ found on Easter Island” — Live Science

WTF Fun Fact 13075 – Gungywamp

Gungywamp is a bit of a mystery. But that’s true of nearly all archaeological sites. They don’t exactly come with a guide map explaining what everything is. But the most surprising thing about this over 4000-year-old set of stone circles is that they’re in Groton, Connecticut. Of course, there were Native peoples all over the continent, but the sites changes what anyone previously knew about them.

What is Gungywamp?

The site has artifacts dating from 2000-770 BCE. In and around the 100-acre site, you’ll find structures from both Native Americans and the colonists. In other words, people have lived here for a long time.

But perhaps one of the coolest remnants left behind is a stone “calendar” cellar which has a tiny window that naturally illuminates it from the outside during the equinoxes. It’s mixed in with lots of other stone cellars that some archaeologists think are simply root cellars (where vegetables are stored in the cold seasons).

All the chambers/cellars seem to contain petroglyphs (prehistoric rock carvings). North of those, you’ll also find double stone circles made of large quarried stone. There are 21 of them laid end to end.

But what does it all mean?

Who built the site?

The most likely explanation is that this is a prehistoric Native American site that was later used by colonists as well. But the nature of the stone circles is reminiscent of medieval Irish structures. And that’s controversial because it would suggest that Europeans (perhaps Irish monks known as Caldees) may have made their way to North America long before Columbus. This is considered a fringe theory since there is no other evidence, linguistic or archaeological that would support it.

If you’re into fringe theories, there are also those who believe some of it was built by aliens. They use the occasional spikes in electromagnetic energy in the area caused by the quartz, granite, and magnetite rocks to forward a theory that it’s some sort of alien energy vortex.

Arrowheads, pottery fragments, and other artifacts make it certain that the site was also used by Native Americans and colonists. But was there another group of people who built some of the stranger aspects of the site?

It’s fair to argue that Native Americans that were wiped out built the mysterious structures. People clearly lived there for thousands of years, making it hard to tell where one group’s artifacts begin and end in the timeline.

There was once a Gungywamp Society that investigated the site, but they have now disbanded.  WTF fun facts

Source: “Gungywamp – Groton, Connecticut” — Atlas Obscura

WTF Fun Fact 13009 – Cats Domesticated Themselves

If you’ve ever been owned by a cat (or have been given the honor of being allowed to live alongside one), you know they will do whatever they want to do. So it may come as no surprise that cats domesticated themselves. They just decided to move in with humans – and not much about them has changed since that day.

How do we know cats domesticated themselves?

If you’re skeptical about this and how we know it (or even what it all means), that’s fair.

Here’s the thing – when humans domesticate animals, we choose certain characteristics that we like about them, and the animals that end up allowing this kind of domestication often have certain kind of characteristics (whether it’s size, a tendency to be docile, etc.). Those characteristics are, to some extent, encoded in their genomes. So if we look at the genomes of those animals over thousands of years, we should see changes that indicate the selection of certain traits.

It’s not much different than modern dog breeding – purebred dogs are specifically bred to have specific genes that make them look or act a certain way. Their environment plays a role too, but we can see a lot of characteristics in their genomes.

Cat genomes? Let’s just say they haven’t changed much at all. And we know that because cats have been cherished and worshipped for thousands of years and therefore buried in ways that allow us to collect even their ancient DNA.

What do cat genomes tell us about domestication?

Of course, we can’t go back in time to check our work, but we can do pretty comprehensive studies on cats from all over the world and from different time periods. And that’s what a group of scientists did. They published their study in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution under the not-very-catchy title “The palaeogenetics of cat dispersal in the ancient world.” It doesn’t sound riveting, but it’s pretty cool (especially if someone summarizes it for you).

Our favorite line comes from National Geographic’s write-up on the work (cited below), noting that “[cats’] genes have changed little from those of wildcats, apart from picking up one recent tweak: the distinctive stripes and dots of the tabby cat.”

But here’s the gist of it: The researchers looked at the DNA of over 200 cats. These cats spanned a timeline of 9,000 years, the ancient cats coming from Rome and Egypt. They found that there were two major cat lineages that came together to make modern housecats. Normally, you’d expect to see A LOT more diversity than that.

Early cats likely spread into Europe from southwest Asia around 4400 BCE and hung out with people in early farming communities. Apparently, cats just decided people were largely ok to be around, and people decided cats were ok because they killed rodents that interfered with crops. If anyone tried to do anything more to domesticate cats, they clearly failed.

It was a mutually beneficial relationship. And maybe cats didn’t even like people but just liked the rodent populations we attracted. We’ll never know. But in any case, we all just grew up alongside each other. Humans “let” cats domesticate themselves. (Frankly, our guess is that cats were in charge the whole time.)  WTF fun facts

Source: “Cats Domesticated Themselves, Ancient DNA Shows” — National Geographic

WTF Fun Fact 12936 – Evidence for the First Amputation

Archaeologists have found a skeleton bearing the signs of a Stone Age amputation procedure. This evidence for the first amputation (that we know of) is significant because it’s much earlier than previous evidence and the person it was performed on survived the surgery.

Is this the first amputation?

We’ll never really know of this skeleton belongs to the first person to survive an amputation since we can’t possibly know when we’ve collected every archaeological sample.

But what we do know is that the skeleton was found in a cave in Borneo (in Indonesia) and is roughly 31,000 years old! It belonged to a young adult (the gender is uncertain), possibly around the age of 19-20.

When the child was roughly 10 – 12, their left leg was amputated below the knee, and they went on to live for years as an amputee.

Prehistoric surgery

It appears the child died 6 – 9 years after the left leg amputation. That’s pretty impressive considering it was done without modern painkillers and the blood loss was probably severe.

It’s proof that there was some way of controlling the bleeding and helping the patient survive tens of thousands of years earlier than we first thought.

Proof of the amputation was discovered when researchers came across a grave and found a skeleton missing the lower part of its left leg. Because there were no bones found nearby, it was clear that the person was buried without a leg.

Upon closer inspection, researchers realized the bones had been carefully removed. Enough healing had taken place to indicate that it was an intentional surgery that took place years before the person’s death.

Because there were no signs of infection, bone crushing, or other fracturing, it’s clear that the leg wasn’t bitten off (by a crocodile, for example) or lost in an accident.

The skeletal proof

As the researchers put it in their article in Nature (cited below):

“There is no evidence of infection in the left limb, the most common complication of an open wound without antimicrobial treatment. The lack of infection further rules out the probability of animal attack, such as a crocodile bite, because an attack has a very high probability of complications from infection owing to microorganisms from the animal’s teeth entering the wound. The partial consolidation of the bone between the left tibia and fibula and complete closure of the distal end of the left fibula are consistent with late-stage amputation changes. The small size of the left tibia and fibula compared with the right suggests a childhood injury, as the bones did not continue growing. The severe bone thinning of the left tibia and fibula is also suggestive of the heavily restricted use of the left leg resulting in musculoskeletal disuse atrophy. Some thinning of the cortical margins of the right tibia suggests that TB1 was rarely ambulatory owing to the incapacitating nature of the injury to the lower left leg.”

TB1 is the name of the specimen.  WTF fun facts

Source: “Surgical amputation of a limb 31,000 years ago in Borneo” — Nature

WTF Fun Fact 12771 – The Saraha Desert Forest Mystery

Ok, trigger warning: There’s a high chance of getting Toto’s “Africa” stuck in your head by reading this post. But, the truth is, there used to be plenty of rains down in Africa. Enough to have made the Saraha Desert a rainforest.

It’s not a huge shock, since we know the Earth has gone through different climatic periods, but this was one far more recent and accounts for a more radical change than scientists ever could have imagined. In other words, it really takes a lot to turn a vibrant forest into a bone-dry desert, and this happened a mere 6000ish years ago! It’s pretty interesting.

How did the Sahara go from forest to desert?

So, what’s the deal here? Well, since we don’t have a time machine, we can’t know for certain. It could have to do with the tilt of the Earth’s orbital axis changing, it could also be part of a longer, larger pattern of transition.

African Humid Periods in the distant past meant….you guessed it…more rains down in Africa. In particular, northern Africa (which is where the Sahara is, in case you don’t have a map handy). But at some point, those rains went away.

As Smithsonian Magazine (cited below) explains:

“With more rain, the region gets more greenery and rivers and lakes. All this has been known for decades. But between 8,000 and 4,500 years ago, something strange happened: The transition from humid to dry happened far more rapidly in some areas than could be explained by the orbital precession alone, resulting in the Sahara Desert as we know it today.”

Cool use of archaeological data

We can see from archaeological data (which is not perfect, but is overwhelmingly in favor of showing past water and trees in certain areas) that the area was once forest, and even rainforest. But what’s also interesting – and seals the deal for most people – is that in this period there is also evidence of pastoralists. That means people were raising and herding animals. And you definitely can’t do that in a desert.

Are humans to blame?

If it wasn’t solely an axial issue (regarding the Earth’s tilt), some scientists believe that humans could have played a big role in changing the climate due to overgrazing.

There have been suggestions that the end of the humid period in northern Africa could have been brought about by humans letting domesticated animals eat up all the moisture-loving plants. They would have probably had to use fire as a land management tool as well. And that may have been enough to trigger the big change that turned the forest into a desert.

It’s not that easy, of course, but that’s the general idea. There are also hypotheses that humans had nothing at all to do with it. And neither one of those would be related to whether or not humans are affecting the climate currently, so it’s not a political discussion (thankfully).  WTF fun facts

Source: “What Really Turned the Sahara Desert From a Green Oasis Into a Wasteland?” — Smithsonian Magazine

WTF Fun Fact 12681 – What Lies Beneath Stonehenge

Stonehenge has long been a mystery to us. The stones are too big for us to understand how they were moved to their location. They are clearly from a location far away (no, not outer space far ) from the site. We still don’t know if it was built as a burial site, a ceremonial site, a place for religious pilgrimages, or a memorial (or something entirely different).
(In case you’re in the dark entirely about Stonehenge, here’s a good primer.)

Humans began building it 5000 years ago and added the rest of the stones 2500 years ago. We know there are burial mounds surrounding the site (some of which seem to date back 8500 years). But, now, we have another mystery to add – thousands of pits dug nearby.

Oh, and the oldest of these appear to be around 10,000 years old. Others were constructed long after Stonehenge was completed.

Some seem pretty straightforward – they were used to trap animals that would fall into the pit and provide food for hunters and their families. But others don’t seem to have been dug for the same reason.

Using an algorithm, archaeologists have identified 415 locations likely to hold large pits (over 7.9 feet) and over 3000 smaller pits. They’ve excavated 9 of the large pits and found hunting tools and the like in a few while others seem to be dug in a way that would relate to some kind of ceremonial purpose.

All we can say is the mystery continues! –  WTF fun fact

Source: “Thousands of prehistoric pits discovered around Stonehenge” — Live Science

WTF Fun Fact 12680 – The Mummy In The Closet

Archaeologists often get permission to dig at a site that includes permission to take whatever they find under the assumption that they will treat it well and restore it and hopefully make a discovery that tells the world a bit more about the history of that site.

But archaeologists often take more than they could ever handle, and things get stored away. Or, in some cases, people donate items to universities, and how they got these items is…how shall we say…somewhat fishy. The problem is that the home countries of these items don’t often get a chance to repatriate the objects that archaeologists ignore (and in some cases, they don’t have anyone with the expertise or desire to do that).

However, no one at Cornell can actually figure out how the mummy got there. Did someone from Cornell bring it back from Egypt? Was it part of a donation? Whoever does know has been dead for years.

But we do know that the little 2-pound mummy had been sitting around for about 100 years ago. They assumed it contained a mere hawk, which is presumably nothing special. And like so many things, it got stored away – in this case, in a closet (but perhaps it was a nice closet – we’re not judging the organizational strategy).

Recently, an archaeology graduate student at the university, Carol Anne Barsody was researching a project on how we can use technology to study objects without destroying them and how we can integrate these objects – which may look like nothing much on the outside – into museum exhibits that people can learn from. It sounds very cool (and would allow many more people to see objects that have been hidden away).

Frederic Gleach, the curator of Cornell’s Anthropology Collection, offered Barsody two little mummies that had been stored away. One contained twigs and the other the “hawk.”

Barsody and Gleach reached out to Cornell’s renowned College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) to get a CT scan of the mummy so they could learn more about the bird inside. And it was only then that they discovered it was not a hawk at all, but an ibis, a long-legged bird that thrives in marshlands.

This is important because the ibis was worshipped in Egypt in relation to their god Thoth, who was often depicted with the head of an ibis. That means the mummy was likely worshipped as a sacrificial object. It wasn’t just some bird. Thoth was the god of reckoning, learning, writing, and the moon.

The ibis mummy is between 1000 and 3000 years old (with some of its tissue still intact).

Not only was this once a living creature that people of the day may have enjoyed watching stroll through the water,” Barsody said to the Cornell newspaper. “It also was, and is, something sacred, something religious.”

She also told the Cornell Chronicle: “The goal is to gauge the public’s readiness for exhibitions without the artifacts. That gets into bigger questions about repatriation, institutional collecting practices, access, and education in this post-COVID world, where you might not be able to actually get to a museum. I’m really interested in the multisensory aspects. Using not just your sight, but also feel, smell, hearing.” –  WTF fun fact

Source: “Cross-college researchers unravel mummy bird mystery” — Cornell Chronicle

WTF Fun Fact 12666 – Unearthing An Ancient Underground City

In the Midyat district of Mardin, Turkey, there is an archaeological site tunneling beneath the residents. The older residents have long been told of the city underneath, but archaeologists still had no idea what they were in for when they discovered a hidden entrance to a cave a few years ago.

The cave led to a series of corridors and rooms. But further excavation found that there was an entire subterranean city down there. And it wasn’t a city lost to time as sand and dirt piled on top of it – this city had ALWAYS been underground!

In fact, the site is so big that they will never be able to uncover all of it (partly so as not to disturb the residents living above). (You can see more of this in the video at the bottom of the page.)

Historians have found evidence in archival material that the modern city of Midyat got its name from the word Matiate, meaning “City of Caves.” Matiate’s name is mentioned in Assyrian inscriptions from the 9th century BCE.

But this underground city isn’t just some dusty old tunnels. There are places of worship, water wells, and other community necessities within them, indicating that people lived in this underground city much like that would have above land.

While other underground cities have been found throughout the Anatolian region, Midyat’s is different. There is evidence that it was used to house people for nearly 1,900 years straight.

Gani Tarkan, the head of excavation for the site, explained:

“Matiate has been used uninterruptedly for 1,900 years. It was first built as a hiding place or escape area. As it is known, Christianity was not an official religion in the second century. Families and groups who accepted Christianity generally took shelter in underground cities to escape the persecution of Rome or formed an underground city. Possibly, the underground city of Midyat was one of the living spaces built for this purpose. It is an area where we estimate that at least 60-70,000 people lived underground.”

He continued:

“There was no a life above the underground cities in Nevşehir and Kayseri. But he stated that all the structures above the Midyat underground city were registered.”

“Underneath is a different history, a different period, and above it is a different date. While the houses on the top are dated to the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, there is a completely different city underneath. That city is 1900 years old.” –  WTF fun fact

Source: “The excavation, which started in a cave in Turkey’s Mardin, turned into a huge underground city” — Arkeonews