WTF Fun Fact 13532 – Neanderthal Flower Burial Evidence

A possible explanation for a Neanderthal flower burial is intriguing scientists.

Since the 1950s, archaeologists have shown interest in the Shanidar Cave in northern Iraq. That’s because it holds the remains of nine Neanderthals and features a “flower burial” site.

The flower burial was due to a large amount of pollen around one of the skeletons. This led to speculations about whether the pollen was part of a human burial ritual. If so, this would indicate that Neanderthals were far more complex than we previously imagined.

But recent research has introduced a new player into this ancient whodunit: bees.

What is the Neanderthal Flower Burial?

The initial interpretation of the pollen suggested a ceremonial “flower burial,” positing that the Neanderthal in question was of considerable importance, perhaps a shaman.

If true, this finding would assign attributes like empathy and ritualistic behavior to Neanderthals, traits previously thought exclusive to Middle Palaeolithic Homo sapiens.

However, some people contest the theory, arguing that other animals could have deposited the pollen by dragging flowers to their burrows, or that the pollen presence could be a mere coincidence.

Studying Pollen for Answers

Palynology, the scientific study of pollen, spores, and microscopic plankton, has provided new insights. Researchers studying the evidence from Shanidar Cave noticed that the mix of pollen species was unlikely to be in bloom at the same time.

This casts doubt on the “flower burial” theory, implying that the pollen didn’t all deposit at once.

Moreover, the mixed nature of the pollen suggests a different deposit vector, rather than placement of whole flowers in the grave.

This led to a unique hypothesis: could bees be the agents of this intriguing pollen placement?

Were Bees Responsible for the So-Called Neanderthal Flower Burial?

The idea is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Bees, especially solitary bees, gather pollen from multiple flower species. They create burrows lined with a mix of pollen for their larvae to feed upon. We’ve discovered such burrows in Shanidar Cave. Interestingly, the ancient pollen around the grave appears corroded and flattened, indicating great age and coinciding with the Neanderthals’ era.

Researchers incline toward the belief that nesting bees deposited the pollen, given their capability to forage multiple flower species simultaneously. The presence of bee burrows in the less-trafficked areas of the cave near the rear wall supports this theory. Moreover, ancient silty clay-lined insect burrows excavated from the cave further corroborate the idea that bees were active in that region during the Neanderthals’ time.

Were Other Animals Involved?

Identified immature pollen grains could have come through a different mechanism—perhaps humans, other animals, or even the wind carried them in.

It’s interesting to note that researchers have observed giving “floral funerals” to bees. However, these acts likely store food or waste rather than serve as ceremonies. This recursive loop in nature, where animals engage in practices mirroring human cultural behaviors, adds another layer to the study.

The recent study’s authors conclude that nesting bees probably deposited the mixed pollen, making the “Flower Burial” hypothesis seem unlikely.

This new perspective redirects the debate to a broader and arguably more significant question. Namely, “What does this cluster say about their sense of space, place, and perhaps, community?”

The bee hypothesis may not completely settle the mystery surrounding the Neanderthal “flower burial.” But it does open up new avenues for understanding the behaviors and interrelationships among ancient species—both human and insect—that shared the environment thousands of years ago.

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Source: “Famous Neanderthal “Flower Burial” May Have Actually Been Made By… Bees” — IFL Science

WTF Fun Fact 13481 – Shanidar 1

Shanidar 1, affectionately known as “Nandy” to some, lived approximately 45,000 to 35,000 years ago. His Neanderthal remains, found in Iraq’s Shanidar Cave, provide researchers with a wealth of information about Neanderthal life and society. These findings challenge our preconceptions and encourage a fresh understanding of our ancient relatives.

The Life of Shanidar 1

American archaeologist Ralph Solecki and his team discovered Shanidar 1 during excavations from 1957 to 1961. The cave, located in the Zagros Mountains, held a plethora of archaeological treasures. The team unearthed remains of eight adult and two infant Neanderthals, identifying Shanidar 1 first.

Shanidar 1’s remains reveal a life of hardship and resilience. He was an older adult, likely around 40-50 years old when he died, an advanced age for a Neanderthal. Remarkably, Shanidar 1 suffered several injuries and health issues. His right arm withered, likely due to nerve damage, and he probably lost the use of it several years before his death. He also had a damaged left eye that might have caused blindness. Signs of a significant blow to his face suggest that he lived with considerable pain.

Shanidar 1’s traumas and his survival into adulthood suggest that Neanderthal societies likely provided social care. His disabilities would have made self-care and hunting difficult, so it’s plausible that his group cared for him. This observation challenges previous notions of Neanderthals as primitive beings and suggests a society with empathy and cooperative care.

Understanding Neanderthal Health

Shanidar 1’s remains also offer insights into Neanderthal health. He displayed significant wear and tear, such as degenerative joint disease, likely common in Neanderthal populations due to a physically demanding lifestyle. His dental health, with several lost and worn teeth, hints at the Neanderthal diet, which was probably abrasive and tough.

Shanidar 1’s discovery in the cave sparked interest in Neanderthal burial practices. Pollen found around his body hinted at the possibility of a burial ritual with flowers, though this interpretation has sparked debate. Despite the controversy, the idea has become popular, creating an image of Neanderthals as “flower-buriers,” capable of symbolic thought and ritualistic behavior.

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Source: “Older Neanderthal survived with a little help from his friends” — ScienceDaily

WTF Fun Fact 13450 – The Hunter Gatherer Woman

Archaeologists have discovered the hunter-gatherer woman. So while our general assumption is that men took on the role of hunters in prehistoric times while women gathered resources and cared for offspring, recent discoveries are challenging this age-old belief. We now have a new picture of gender roles in prehistoric societies.

Archaeological insights into the hunter gatherer woman

The discovery of a 9,000-year-old female skeleton buried with her hunting toolkit in the Andean highlands suggests women might have hunted big game right alongside men. The burial site, located in what is now Peru, was rich in hunting artifacts, from spear points to butchering tools.

Upon examining the skeleton and associated tools, archaeologists concluded that this prehistoric woman was likely a hunter. This conclusion stemmed from the diversity of hunting tools buried alongside her, which would have been used to kill and butcher large game, not just small animals.

Broadening perspectives

The discovery sparked a wider investigation, prompting researchers to reanalyze burials from around the same period. Their analysis yielded more surprises: out of 429 burials from across the Americas, they found 27 individuals associated with big-game hunting tools, and 11 of these were women. This data suggests that in these communities, both men and women were likely to be hunters.

These findings upend the prevailing narrative of prehistoric gender roles. The assumption that men were the hunters while women were the gatherers has shaped our understanding of prehistoric societies for generations. However, these new findings suggest a more equitable distribution of roles than previously thought.

Implications for our understanding of prehistoric societies

These findings have crucial implications for our understanding of social organization and labor division in ancient hunter-gatherer societies. They not only shift our perspective on gender roles but also reshape the way we interpret archaeological data. For instance, when we unearth hunting tools in future excavations, we should consider the possibility that they may have belonged to women.

In the face of new archaeological evidence, we are rethinking long-held assumptions about prehistoric societies. The discovery of women hunters suggests a more egalitarian division of labor than previously assumed. As we continue to unearth clues from our past, we gain a richer, more nuanced understanding of human history.

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Source: “Men hunt and women gather? Large analysis says the long-held idea is flat-out wrong” — Live Science

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.

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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.

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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