6 Archaeological Finds Made by Badgers

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When archaeological sites and artifacts are found by accident, it's often by humans stumbling over a skull in the woods or unearthing an artifact while doing some gardening. But we can’t rule out the utility of badgers for finding artifacts and skeletons—or the annoyance of discovering that the little jerks have ruined our stratigraphy with their burrows. Although their penchant for digging holes can help researchers identify previously unknown sites, badgers mix up artifacts from different chronological layers.

Here are six recent and historic finds from around the world that involved the lowly badger. These are all from Europe and America, each of which boasts its own species of badger, but archaeologists around the world have had to deal with site disturbances by the critters. Asia has the Asian and Chinese badgers, as well as four different kinds of ferret-badgers, whereas Africa, India, and the Middle East are home to the honey badger. In the end, one thing is clear: Archaeology badger don’t care if it's mucking up our knowledge of the ancient past.

1. THE GRAVE OF A 19TH-CENTURY TEENAGE GIRL // ALBERTA, CANADA

Last year, a farmer in Viking, Alberta, found a human skull sticking out of a badger hole. The police were called, but it was quickly determined not to be CSI-worthy. The skull seemed to belong to a teenage girl who died and was buried in the early 19th century, complete with European-style clothing, rings, and thousands of beads. Since there was no major Native occupation of that area of Alberta then, archaeologists suspect she died while traveling between European trading posts and was buried in a shallow, hastily dug grave.

2. MULTIPLE MEDIEVAL WARRIORS // STOLPE, GERMANY

In 2013, a couple of German artists who were watching a badger build its den saw what they thought were human bones in the hole. Getting closer, they noticed ancient jewelry and called the archaeological authorities. Turns out, this clueless badger had made its home among eight people who died in the 12th century. Based on the artifacts and historical records of Slavic-Christian interaction during this period, archaeologists think two of the dead may have been warriors. Sculptor Hendrikje Ring, who spotted the badger den, was keen to give credit where credit was due, telling Der Spiegel, “This doesn’t make him [the badger] an archaeologist, but he’s the one who discovered it.”

3. STONEHENGE CREMATION BURIAL // WILTSHIRE, ENGLAND

Wiltshire Council, Conservation and Museums Advisory Service

In January, a British badger made a remarkable find of a Bronze Age cremation grave just miles from Stonehenge. The animal had uncovered the ceramic cremation urn and scattered bits of it around the hole. When real archaeologists delved into the discovery in Netheravon, Wilshire, with a proper excavation, they found a copper chisel with a bone handle (seen in the image above), an archer’s wrist guard, and shaft straighteners near the human cremains—evidence that the deceased may have made or used archery equipment. Archaeologist Richard Osgood told the BBC that “we would never have known these objects were in there, so there’s a small part of me that is quite pleased the badger did this.”

The badger made its mark on the site in more ways than one, as you can see from the faint claw marks on this pottery shard.

Wiltshire Council, Conservation and Museums Advisory Service

4. IRON AGE TO ANGLO-SAXON SETTLEMENT // FRISBY ON THE WREAKE, ENGLAND

In the early 1980s, a dog disappeared down a rabbit hole in Frisby. Rather than finding Wonderland, the dog led its owner to ancient pottery shards. Fast forward nearly 20 years to the late 1990s, when archaeologists working in the same area were presented with a treasure trove of flints, butchered animal bone, slag metal, and pottery shards; badgers had deposited them at the entrance to their many dens. Between the badgers and the eroding sand quarry, archaeologists had to work quickly to recover what they think is a settlement occupied continuously from the Iron Age through Roman times, and possibly during the Anglo-Saxon period. “The whole scenario,” archaeologist Brian Tompson wrote in a 1999 report, “demonstrates what badgers and dog walking can do for fieldwork!”

5. NATIVE AMERICAN BURIALS // NEBRASKA, UNITED STATES

Badgers are not a new phenomenon on archaeological sites, although it’s been only recently that they’ve worked their way into news items and research articles. In a recent reminiscence piece, archaeologist Ralph Solecki recalls excavating a Native American burial site in Nebraska with archaeologist Gus Kivett in the 1940s. (Such an excavation would be unlikely or even illegal today due to a web of legal protections governing Native American burials, archaeological sites, and artifacts, which were created in response to centuries of pillaging.) It stands out in his memory, he writes, because “the cemetery area had been infested with badgers … Recording the position of the burials was made difficult by the fact that the animals frequently dragged away the long bones into their holes.”

6. STONE TOOLS IN AN ANCIENT SHELTER // PENNSYLVANIA, UNITED STATES

The main excavation area in the Meadowcroft rockshelter. Image credit: James Foreman via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

One of the most famous—and debated—sites in the U.S. is the Meadowcroft Rockshelter, which has its share of badger activity. Meadowcroft was revealed as an archaeological site with significant history in the 1950s by farmer Albert Miller, but he didn't excavate until 1967. “In that year,” archaeologist James Adovasio and colleagues write, “his enlargement of a badger (?) burrow yielded lithic debitage [shards from stone tool production], shell and faunal remains confirming his suspicions of aboriginal occupation at the shelter.” (Considering the question mark, Adovasio seems unclear whether a badger was responsible or not.)

Professional excavation has continued on and off for decades because Meadowcroft is key to our understanding of the settlement of North America. Its very early dates—16,000 to 19,000 years ago, based on carbon-14 analysis of organic material—are still somewhat controversial among archaeologists, but have opened up a larger discussion about the geographic spread of America’s earliest settlers.

This story originally ran in 2016.

Homo Erectus Might Have Been Really Lazy

Shipton et. al,
Shipton et. al, PLOS ONE (2018)

Of all the human species that once roamed the world, only one remains—us. Why did our primitive cousins go extinct? For Homo erectus, something like laziness may have played a role, Cosmos reports.

A new study in the journal PLOS ONE explores the role that H. erectus's lack of drive may have contributed to its extinction. The international team of researchers based their analysis on an excavation of a paleolithic site in central Saudi Arabia, finding that the tools H. erectus made were of consistently lower quality than what tool makers in later periods used. Their tools were constructed with whatever material was easiest to get, rather than what would make the best tools.

And it wasn’t because better materials weren’t available. "At the site we looked at, there was a big rocky outcrop of quality stone just a short distance away up a small hill,” study co-author Ceri Shipton of the Australian National University said in a press release. “But rather than walk up the hill, they would just use whatever bits had rolled down and were lying at the bottom.” He added, “They knew it was there, but because they had enough adequate resources, they seem to have thought, ‘why bother?’”

A row of stone tools excavated from Saffaqah
Some of the stone tools
Shipton et. al, PLOS ONE, (2018)

Meanwhile, other hominin species, like our own Homo sapiens, were happily clambering up mountains to seek out better materials for their tools. Shipton suggests that H. erectus lacked the tendency toward exploration and curiosity that has helped our species thrive.

This “laziness,” combined with changes to their environment, was likely what did in H. erectus. As the humid environment around them became drier, H. erectus seemingly didn’t adapt: They didn't invent new kinds of tools to deal with the changing landscape, nor did they relocate or travel farther afield. The research team found the tools largely near dry river beds, suggesting that H. erectus neither progressed technologically nor modified their behavior for their altered habitat.

H. erectus did manage to walk upright as we do—a first in human evolution—and it was likely the first hominin to expand their habitat beyond Africa. But the combination of these two newly identified shortcomings may have contributed to H. erectus's demise.

[h/t Cosmos]

Intriguing New Theory Might Explain the Fate of Easter Island's Civilization

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Standing up to 33 feet high and weighing 81 tons, the huge moai statues of Easter Island (Rapa Nui) are the most recognizable artifacts of a thriving civilization that peaked at the middle of the last millennium. For hundreds of years, Polynesian peoples lived on the small island 2300 miles west of Chile and developed a complex culture. By the 1700s, when Europeans first arrived, much of the society was decimated.

For years, scientists thought they knew why—but fresh archaeological evidence has provided an alternative theory.

The Journal of Pacific Archaeology published a paper [PDF] this week contradicting the commonly held belief that, in the 1600s, Rapa Nui's inhabitants descended into a Lord of the Flies–like era of infighting and violence as a result of dwindling resources. According to new research, the island’s population may not have devolved into barbarism. Instead, they were collaborating on toolmaking.

University of Queensland archaeologist Dale Simpson, Jr. theorized that the raw materials used in the carving tools would reveal clues about the dynamics of the community. He and his colleagues collected 17 tools found near the moai, including axe-like toki. Using a mass spectrometer to analyze the chemical composition of the tools and samples from stone quarries on the island, Simpson and his colleagues found that most of the toki came from a single quarry.

Simpson believes this is evidence that Rapa Nui's people had not fallen into violent conflict, but were instead sharing resources—or at least allowing one another access to a favorite quarry for tool production. If the islanders were split into factions, it’s unlikely that whoever was controlling the quarry would permit rivals to make use of it.

If accurate, it would join other recent theories that are drawing a revised picture of Rapa Nui's civilization. Explorers once described a surplus of spear-like objects presumably used for combat, but modern researchers examining the tools (called mata’a) in 2015 found that their surfaces were too blunt to pierce skin and were probably used for tilling soil.

While Simpson's take on the newly discovered carving tools is an intriguing theory, researchers aren't ready to rewrite history just yet. Other scholars, including study co-author Jo Anne Van Tilburg, point out that raw materials for the tools could have been seized by force or some form of coercion.

More research will be needed to see if Simpson’s new theory holds up. If it does, it would present a new wrinkle in the storied history of Rapa Nui.

[h/t Gizmodo]

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