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Bronze-Age Brits May Have Mummified Their Dead

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We generally associate mummies with ancient Egypt. In fact, mummified bodies have been found all over the world. People in what are now the U.S., Japan, and Ireland regularly mummified their dead, as did people in Peru, Italy, Australia, Libya, and China, to name a few. Now, it seems, we'll be adding the United Kingdom to that list. A recent examination of Bronze Age skeletons from all over the UK found signs that the bodies had been intentionally preserved. 

The bodies in question no longer look like mummies to the naked eye; as a result, earlier studies had dismissed the possibility of mummification. But a new team, armed with a new method, took a closer look at the bones, and what they found was amazing.

Image Credit: Cambridge Archaeological Unit

Using microscopic bone analysis, the researchers looked at the amount of bacterial damage on the skeletons; bones that decompose naturally show severe bioerosion from bacteria, while preserved bodies show little. They compared the amount of damage to that seen on known mummies from Ireland and Yemen. The amount of bioerosion matched, indicating that the UK bodies had been deliberately preserved.

The research team, led by Sheffield University's Tom Booth, concluded that the practice likely began around 2400 BCE—which means that these early Britons were mummifying their dead around the same time as the Egyptians and the Chinchorro people of Chile were mummifying theirs.

Each culture had its own preservation technique. The Egyptians embalmed their dead over the course of several months, then wrapped the bodies in bandages before laying them to rest in sarcophagi. The Chinchorro people “rebuilt” their dead through a painstaking process involving straw, paste, skin, and hair. The Britons, it seems, had at least two methods. 

Image Credit: Martin Green

The 16 bodies, male and female, were collected from sites all over the country, and many of them seem to have been left intentionally in peat bogs. The cold, acidic bogs were a favorite corpse-dumping ground in ancient Britain, but Booth and his team are the first to suggest the preservation-by-peat was intentional. This theory was bolstered by signs of heat treatment on two of the other bodies, which looked as though they had been smoked over a fire.

These aren't the first mummies found in the British Isles. Four bizarre "jigsaw" mummies, assembled from parts of different people, were discovered on the Scottish island of South Uist in 2001. But the new research is the first evidence that mummification may have been common practice throughout Bronze Age Britain.

“It’s possible that our method may allow us to identify further ancient civilizations that mummified their dead,” Booth said this week in a press statement. He and his team plan to use their new method to look at another 30 skeletons from England, Scotland, and Wales. 

A report of the findings was published this week in the journal Antiquity.

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Dave Einsel, Stringer, Getty Images
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
9.7-Million-Year-Old Teeth Discovered in Germany Have Scientists Puzzled
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Dave Einsel, Stringer, Getty Images

Scientists in Germany say they've found ape teeth that are surprisingly similar to the teeth of an early human relative dating to millions of years later. As the Independent reports, the team of experts unearthed a pair of 9.7-million-year-old fossilized teeth that, they say, have some of the same features as the teeth of the hominid Australopithecus afarensis.

Scientists from the Natural History Museum in Mainz found the fossils a year ago in nearby Eppelsheim but have waited until now to publish their findings—partly because they weren't sure what to make of the puzzling discovery. Of the two teeth, a canine and a molar, the canine tooth bears a striking resemble to that from "Lucy," one of the first known ancient human relatives to walk upright, who lived in Africa some 3.2 million years ago.

"They are clearly ape teeth," researcher Herbert Lutz told local media in a press conference. "Their characteristics resemble African finds that are four to five million years younger than the fossils excavated in Eppelsheim. This is a tremendous stroke of luck, but also a great mystery."

They dated the fossils using the remains of an extinct horse which was found buried in the same spot. In their paper, the scientists describe the canine’s similarities to other remains found in the lower half of the globe, but they still don't have answers to many of the questions the report raises. They plan to continue examining the teeth for clues. The public will also have a chance to see the teeth for themselves, first at a state exhibition this month, and then at Mainz's Natural History Museum.

[h/t Independent]

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6 Pioneering Facts About Mary Leakey

Fossil bones and the earliest footprints of our human ancestors are just a few of Mary Leakey’s groundbreaking discoveries. Get to know the legendary paleoanthropologist, and learn how her serendipitous finds forever altered scientists’ understanding of human origins.

1. MARY LEAKEY WAS A BORN EXPLORER.

Mary Leakey (1913-1996), née Mary Nicol, was destined to be an explorer: Her father, Erskine Nicol, was a landscape painter, and the family traveled extensively through France, Italy, and Switzerland. While staying in a commune in southern France, 12-year-old Mary became interested in archaeology after meeting Elie Peyrony, a French prehistorian excavating a cave. Mary dug through his tiny finds—which included fine points, scrapers, and flint blades—and sorted them into an amateur classification system.

2. FOSSIL HUNTING WAS IN HER BLOOD ...

Leakey’s parents were artists, but hunting for fossils was part of her heritage: Her maternal great-great-grandfather was John Frere, an 18th-century English government official and antiquarian who’s credited with first recognizing Stone Age flint objects as early weapons and tools.

3. ... BUT SHE WASN'T A GREAT STUDENT.

Leakey was intelligent, but she also had a rebellious streak. As a teen, she was expelled from several Roman Catholic convent schools—once for intentionally creating an explosion in a chemistry lab. Figuring she wasn’t cut out for a classroom, Leakey never finished high school, and decided to pursue independent studies in art, geology, and archaeology at the University of London instead. (“I had never passed a single school exam, and clearly never would,” the scientist later wrote in her 1986 autobiography Disclosing the Past.)

4. LEAKEY WAS AN ARTIST WHEN SHE MET HER FUTURE HUSBAND AND RESEARCH PARTNER, LOUIS LEAKEY.

Mary Leakey—who inherited her father’s artistic skills— ended up working as an illustrator for archaeological digs. An archaeologist introduced her to Cambridge University paleontologist Louis Leakey, who needed an illustrator for his book Adam’s Ancestors (1934). The two became lovers, but their union resulted in scandal, as Leakey was still married at the time. The couple married in 1936, after Leakey divorced his first wife.

5. MARY LEAKEY'S FIRST BIG DISCOVERY WAS PROCONSUL AFRICANUS.

Mary Leakey's first major discovery came in 1948 when she found a fossil skull fragment of Proconsul africanus, an ancestor of apes and humans, which later diverged into two separate species. The fossil was thought to be more than 18 million years old.

6. ANOTHER ONE OF MARY LEAKEY'S FAMOUS FINDS CAME COURTESY OF ELEPHANT POOP.

In 1978, Leakey was on an expedition in Laetoli, in Tanzania, when members of her camp engaged in a spirited elephant dung fight. A scientist fell down, and he noticed strange indentations on the ground that had been recently exposed by erosion. They turned out to be tracks made around 3.7 million years prior, from animals that had walked over damp volcanic ash. Examining these prints took several years, but the team's efforts paid off when Leakey noted that one of the prints seemed to be made by a hominin. This discovery showed that early humans began walking upright long before scientists thought they had.

Additional source: Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind's Beginnings, Virginia Morell

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