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Archaeologists Find 30,000-Year-Old Jewelry in Indonesia

Kinez Riza
Kinez Riza

We have thousands of examples of Ice Age works from Europe—curvy Venus figurines, beads carved from bone, and cave paintings of saber-toothed cats and mammoths dating back some 35,000 years. Those sites are also the best documented in the world, having been studied since the 19th century.

Evidence of the earliest art on other continents is much more scant, but it's increasingly being recorded across the world. In the latest study that attempts to offer a more complete picture of human creativity, researchers report that they’ve discovered jewelry and pigments inside of an Ice Age cave in Indonesia that are between 22,000 and 30,000 years old. They published their findings today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Archaeologist Adam Brumm and his colleagues have been seeking traces of the earliest inhabitants of Sulawesi. The island is shaped a bit like a withered starfish and it’s the biggest in Wallacea, the region between the Asian and Australian continental shelves.

The researchers made headlines in 2014 when they discovered [PDF] that cave artwork among the towering karst formations on Sulawesi’s southwestern peninsula could be among the oldest in the world. Using a precise dating method, they documented hand stencils that are nearly 40,000 years old. They also found a figurative painting of a pig-deer (or babirusa) that was more than 35,000 years old, rivaling the age of the animal paintings inside France’s famous Chauvet Cave.

As detailed in the current study, the archaeologists excavated the floor of another cave known as Leang Bulu Bettue.

“We started digging at this limestone cave because it was the only site I had seen in the region which seemed to have escaped the ravages of erosion and disturbance from local farmers digging up the guano-rich cave earth for use as fertilizer,” Brumm, who is an associate professor at Griffith University in Australia, tells mental_floss. The cave also had rock art preserved on its walls and ceilings—red and purple hand stencils that are identical to some of the nearby cave paintings described in 2014.

So, the researchers suspected they would find some undisturbed archaeological deposits—and indeed they did.

They dug up stone artifacts carved with geometric patterns like Xs and parallel lines, as well as chunks of ochre, a natural pigment that was used in cave painting. They unearthed a perforated finger bone from a local bear cuscus, a kind of marsupial, that was possibly used for a necklace, and they found unfinished disk-shaped beads made from a babirusa tooth. The artifacts date to between 22,000 and 30,000 years ago.

Prehistoric ornaments excavated from the cave site Leang Bulu Bettue, along with how the archaeologists think they might have been worn. Image Credits: Prepared by M. Langley and A. Brumm; bear cuscus bone image is courtesy of Griffith University/Luke Marsden; bear cuscus and babirusa photographs: Shutterstock

 
Brumm says that of Wallacea’s 2000 islands, only seven have so far yielded archaeological deposits from the Pleistocene, the epoch when the last Ice Age occurred. Therefore, the total number of artifacts from the region is “pitifully small,” he says, perhaps numbering only a dozen or so.

“This profound imbalance in research intensity makes it extremely difficult to draw meaningful comparisons between the ‘Ice Age’ cultures of Wallacea and Europe,” Brumm says.

The fact that the newly discovered artifacts were made from the bones of animals that are only found on Sulawesi suggests that early humans were “drawn to the symbolic potential of the exotic species they encountered” when they colonized this region, Brumm says.

“This speaks of a flexibility in early human culture in this little understood part of the ‘Ice Age’ world—an ability to adapt existing art forms and symbolic culture to entirely new environments and ecosystems,” Brumm adds. And he thinks it’s exactly this kind of flexibility that would have allowed people from this region to colonize an isolated continent like Australia around 50,000 years ago.

Archaeologist Iain Davidson, an emeritus professor at the University of New England in Australia, who wasn’t involved in the study, similarly thinks the same skills that allowed people to make watercraft and navigate across Wallacea “should have enabled them to represent their world symbolically.”

Davidson calls the discovery very important "primarily because it adds to the emerging picture of an early rock art world in the region where there has been thought to be none; now it is clear that there is,” Davidson tells mental_floss. “It was always likely, but maybe only a matter of looking and using the appropriate techniques, which is what this team has done really well.”

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Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Humans Might Have Practiced Brain Surgery on Cows 5000 Years Ago
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi

In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered a site in France containing hundreds of cow skeletons dating back 5000 to 5400 years. The sheer number wasn't surprising—human agriculture in that part of the world was booming by 3000 BCE. What perplexed scientists was something uncovered there a few decades later: a cow skull bearing a thoughtfully drilled hole. Now, a team of researchers has released evidence that suggests the hole is an early example of animal brain surgery.

Fernando Ramírez Rozzi, a paleontologist with the French National Center for Scientific Research, and Alain Froment, an anthropologist at the Museum of Mankind in Paris, published their findings in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. After comparing the opening to the holes chiseled into the skulls of humans from the same era, they found the bones bore some striking similarities. They didn't show any signs of fracturing from blunt force trauma; rather, the hole in the cow skull, like those in the human skulls, seemed to have been carved out carefully using a tool made for exactly that purpose. That suggests that the hole is evidence of the earliest known veterinary surgery performed by humans.

Trepanation, or the practice of boring holes into human skulls, is one of the oldest forms of surgery. Experts are still unsure why ancient humans did this, but the level of care that went into the procedures suggests that the surgery was likely used to treat sick patients while they were still alive. Why a person would perform this same surgery on a cow, however, is harder to explain.

The authors present a few theories, the first being that these ancient brain surgeons were treating a sick cow the same way they might treat a sick human. If a cow was suffering from a neural disease like epilepsy, perhaps they though that cutting a hole in its head would relieve whatever was agitating the brain. The cow would have needed to be pretty special to warrant such an effort when there were hundreds of healthy cows living on the same plot of land, as evidenced by the skeletons it was found with.

Another possible explanation was that whoever operated on the cow did so as practice to prepare them for drilling into the heads of live humans one day. "Cranial surgery requires great manual dexterity and a complete knowledge of the anatomy of the brain and vessel distribution," the authors write in the study. "It is possible that the mastery of techniques in cranial surgery shown in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods was acquired through experimentation on animals."

Either way, the bovine patient didn't live to see the results of the procedure: The bone around the hole hadn't healed at all, which suggests the cow either died during surgery or wasn't alive to begin with.

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Stefan Sauer, AFP/Getty Images
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
13-Year-Old Amateur Archaeologist Discovers the Buried Treasure of a Danish King
Stefan Sauer, AFP/Getty Images
Stefan Sauer, AFP/Getty Images

In January, amateur archaeologist René Schön and his 13-year-old student Luca Malaschnitschenko were scouring a field on an island in the Baltic Sea when something small and silver triggered their metal detector. What they initially thought was aluminum trash turned out to be a coin from a 10th-century treasure hoard that once belonged to a Danish king, AP reports.

Schön and Malaschnitschenko discovered the site on the eastern German island of Ruegen, but it wasn't until mid-April that state archaeologists uncovered the hoard in its entirety. Both of the amateur archaeologists were invited back to take part in the final dig, which spanned 4300 square feet.

The treasure trove includes pearls, jewelry, a Thor's hammer, and about 100 silver coins, with the oldest dating back to 714 CE and the most recent to 983 CE. Experts believe the collection once belonged to the Viking-born Danish king Harald "Harry" Bluetooth, who abandoned his Norse faith and brought Christianity to Denmark.

Pile of silver coins.
Stefan Sauer, AFP/Getty Images

Threatened by a rebellion led by his son, the king fled Denmark in the late 980s—around the same time the silver hoard was buried—and took refuge in Pomerania, on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea. He died there in 987.

Harry Bluetooth derived his nickname from his bluish dead tooth. Today his legacy lives on in the Swedish Bluetooth technology that bears his name. The symbol for the tech also uses the runic characters for his initials: HB.

According to the archaeologists who worked there, the dig site represents the largest trove of Bluetooth coins ever discovered in the southern Baltic region.

[h/t AP]

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