These Archaeological Discoveries Made the Decade – and Changed How We Think About Ourselves

From the discovery of the earliest story art in Asia to the uncovering of the Pilgrimage Road in Jerusalem and burials with pets, the decade that was has shed new light on who we think we are | 2010-2019 roundup: Part 5

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Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

This was the decade that made us humbler, or should have. Classic archaeology augmented by advanced molecular archaeology shed new and unexpected insights into Homo sapiens: how and when and where we evolved (surprise!), our relationships with the neighbors (we never could stand the proto-Joneses) and with other human species (ooh la la), with dogs – and with God. The first surprise:

We, the alleged apex of evolution, are mutts

This decade we learned that far from being a super-species that advanced regally from monkey to ape to ape-man to man, Homo sapiens' evolution is less straight road and more like sexual spaghetti. Genetic analyses backed by the discovery of actual hybrid hominins has shown that we retain genes from long-dead species, including but not confined to Neanderthals and Denisovans.

Remains of hybrids have even been found in Israel. Some people may even retain whispers of genetic signals from a mating between Denisovans and Homo erectus, the hybrid offspring of which then mated with an archaic Homo sapiens. Yet other people have genetic anomalies hard to explain except through ancient matings with “ghost hominins,” hypothetical human species for which we still have no archaeological evidence.

Fun fact: The archaic Homo line featured multiple dwarf species.

Lonely planet, must visit it

This decade it also became clear that Homo sapiens didn't begin to evolve 200,000 years ago in one spot in Africa. We apparently began to evolve half a million years ago all over Africa. Modern human remains were discovered in Irhoud, Morocco from 300,000 years ago, and this decade the oldest modern human remains out of Africa were found in Israel, dating to 200,000 years ago. Tools exposing early human presence in the Greek islands 200,000 years ago show that we began to roam beyond Africa much earlier than thought. However, the people who left more than 70,000 years ago evidently went extinct.

Reconstructionn of the human jaw found at Misliya, Israel
Reconstructionn of the human jaw found at Misliya, IsraelCredit: Israel Hershkovitz

Fun fact: Homo erectus left Africa 2 million years ago and only went extinct in Indonesia about 110,000 years ago.

But is it art?

Haaretz declines to cite “Neanderthal art” as a huge discovery this decade mainly because it has not been proven either to be art nor to be done by Neanderthals. Ditto signs of symbolism, even if they did seem to have an otherwise inexplicable predilection for feathers and claws.

Eagle
Eagles ate Neanderthals too.Credit: Reuters

Fun fact: Neanderthals ate eagles.

It is art

This decade we discovered that figurative art apparently didn't originate in Europe after all. Anthropologists can argue until the aurochs comes home about whether a zigzag etched onto a half-million-year-old seashell is art. But the drawing of animals found on a cave wall in Borneo definitely constitute art and date to 53,000 years ago, almost twenty thousand years earlier than known European efforts. In Indonesia, a panel of pictures of half-human half-animal hybrids hunting bison and pigs has been dated to 44,000 years ago. So: By the evidence so far, art arose in southeast Asia.

Image painted around 44,000 years ago, Indonesia
Half-human half-animal image painted around 44,000 years ago, IndonesiaCredit: AFP

Fun speculation: If you accept the Venus of Berekhat Ram as art, then art goes back 250,000 years and began in Israel.

New respect for hunter-gatherers

This decade we realized that we had misunderstood the capabilities of hunter-gatherers. Far from being small groups of nomadic pelt-wearers, they capable of communal living and vast concentrated effort. This decade, new discoveries of prehistoric temples and villages in Turkey, along the lines of the so-called first temple in the world, Gobekli Tepe, and Neolithic cities in Israel proved that pre-agricultural folk were perfectly capable of settling down and working together. In Israel one large village dated to 23,000 years ago was found by the Sea of Galilee, and it seems the seeds of agriculture were planted then.

Gobekli Tepe
Gobekli TepeCredit: Halil Fidan / Anadolu Agency

Fun fact: When that village existed 23,000 years ago, the Sea of Galilee was joined with the Dead Sea in one big lake called Lisan that separated into the lakes we know today 12-15,000 years ago. 

Mask with eyeholes made of deer skull: Mesolithic Star Carr antler mask on display in Room 51 of the British Museum
Mask with eyeholes made of deer skullCredit: Ethan Doyle White

Deer me

Meanwhile in Yorkshire, as the glaciers receded and people repopulated the isles (yet again) by walking from Europe over the now-submerged land of Doggerland, hunter-gatherers built a substantial village around 11,000 years ago, archaeologists discovered this decade. The remains of a house and wooden platform (the earliest known carpentry) erected next to a lake were found at the Neolithic village of Star Carr. The villagers also made masks of deer skulls. Star Carr, discovered in 1949, is also home to the earliest known paddle.

Fun fact: The Star Carrites had dogs.

Drowned lost world of Doggerland

Glaciers in retreatCredit: Maxar Technologies/REUTERS

This decade a forest was discovered beneath the North Sea that drowned when Doggerland, the low-lying bank that had connected Britain and Europe during the Ice Age, sank below the rising sea level once and for all. Some suspect Doggerland, which had been occupied by both humans and Neanderthals, at different times, didn’t gradually sink beneath the rising seas as the ice melted but was devastated by a mega-tsunami caused by the collapse of the Norwegian continental shelf, an event known as the Storegga Slide, 6,000 to 8,000 years ago.

Sphynx cat
Sphynx catCredit: AP

Fun fact: Archaic hominins were thronging Britain a million years ago. There were at least ten waves of occupation, moving with the fluctuating descent and disappearance of the ice sheets. 

Dogs may have been our best friend 40,000 years ago

This was the decade in which we realize that our relationship with man's best friend may go back as much as 40,000 years. Fido did arise from the wolf tens of thousands of years ago, and may have wormed its way into our huts and lives by losing that cold-eyed you-look-delicious mien, thanks to the adaptation of its eyebrow muscles that gave it facial expressions we fondly think we can interpret. Signs of care for dogs go back over 14,000 years, and dog burials have been found in Europe and even the Americas going back over 8,000 years. Ancient Ashkelon had a graveyard for dogs.

Fun fact: The earliest-known pet cat was buried with its servant 9,500 years ago in Cyprus.

Vive la difference

We also discovered this decade that humans may have always been a surly bunch. A prehistoric battleground in Sudan dated to 13,000 years old could be the earliest-known race war, its excavators speculated this decade, based on the fact that the combatants had stark morphological differences. Meanwhile, analysis of the pitiful state of human remains in a 9,000-year-old village at Catalhoyuk, Turkey led researchers to the reluctant conclusion that the people there couldn't stand each other.

Credit: AP

Fun fact: The advent of agriculture changed our parasite burden.

King Tut was a deformed teenager

Moving from prehistoric puzzles to historic horrors, this was the decade in which we learned that not unlike Medieval Europe, ancient Egypt was plagued with inbred, malformed leaders born of incest. Never mind the Habsburg jaw or Victoria's hemophilia genes: scans of ten mummies revealed an accumulation of malformations in the famed King Tutankhamun’s family that likely resulted from inbreeding. "Tut" himself, who died aged just 19, had a club foot, a crippled hip, bone necrosis and an overbite that researchers believe resulted from being born of a brother and sister. He also seems to have suffered from malaria. The story that Tut died in a chariot accident is given scant credence because the young monarch could barely stand on a floor unaided and certainly couldn’t stand on a careening chariot. Tut's grave goods includes canes that could have been walking aids. Or, alternative scepters, some have pointed out.

Fun fact: No evidence was found of gynecomastia in Tut, despite ancient art depicting the boy king as rather feminized. That may have been an artistic stylization.

Et tu, brutes?

Roman bathhouse
Roman bathhouseCredit: ISCR Press Office / ISCR-MiBACT

This was the decade that we came to realize the ancient Romans were filthy. They were crawling with worms, lice and fleas despite their baths, sewage systems and toilets. The ancient Romans turn out to have been even more parasite-infested than their unwashed peers, though maybe they smelled better at close quarters. One problem may have been their penchant for using human waste as fertilizer: Their droppings contained parasite eggs that could wind up in the plant and then on the plate. Another is that baths that are seldom if ever cleaned are paradise for nematodes. Don’t believe it? Invite the neighborhood to bathe and don’t clean your bathroom or change the water. Ever. Inspect the water under a microscope after a year, or just dip somebody you hate into it and wait.

Fun fact I: Romans invented the lice comb.

Fish mosaic at the Burnt Church of HipposCredit: מיכאל איזנברג / Mich

Fun fact II: Romans didn’t invent garum, but the sauce, made of raw fermented fish guts, disseminated fish tapeworm eggs throughout the empire, including to areas where nary a piscine had been seen.

Discovery by burst pipeline

The Pilgrimage Road-
The Pilgrimage Road to the Temple, JerusalemCredit: Koby Harati / City of David Arch

A breakdown in a sewage system in the south Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan led to the discovery of the ancient Pilgrims’ Road, stretching between the purification pool of Shiloah at the bottom and ascending to Temple Mount. While city engineers attended to the sewage problem, archaeologists also found the drainage system of ancient Jerusalem. During holidays, observant Jews would cleanse themselves, then trek up the Pilgrims’ Road practically up the Western Wall, the only remnant of the Temple courtyard following the Roman destruction and looting in 70 C.E. Archaeologists have also discovered what are apparently the remains of stores that did business along the Pilgrims’ Road – but the Jews were believed to bring their own sacrificial animals.

One true God, two homes?

Almost 10 years ago Israeli archaeologists discovered what seems to be an ancient temple complex in Motza, in the Jerusalem foothills, that operated in quarter with Solomon’s Temple in the capital itself. The strange complex was dated to the 9th century B.C.E. and opens to the east, in keeping with the tradition of temple construction in these parts: the sunrise in the east would have first illuminated the temple inside, symbolizing the divine presence within. Figurines of humans and animals were found, as were bones of kosher animals with cut marks that could indicate sacrifice. The Bible talks much about centralized worship, but the reality may have been slow to conform.

Hezekiah’s seal found in Jerusalem

Does the discovery of a seal with the name Hezekiah mean the biblical story of King Hezekiah is true? Maybe. Or maybe the seal belonged to Hezekiah the Scribe. Ditto the Seal of Isaiah, which some think also has part of the Hebrew word for “prophet” on it. Others think it unlikely that the Prophet Isaiah would need the word “prophet” on his seal and that the cut-off word says something else. Both seals (and many more) were found in the Ophel, just below the Temple Mount, and date to about 2,700 years of age, which is roughly the right time frame for the biblical figures.

Dr. Eilat Mazar, displaying the seal of King Hezekiah
Dr. Eilat Mazar, displaying the seal of King HezekiahCredit: Emil salman

Fun speculation: The Assyrians attacked Jerusalem after their vassal king Hezekiah rebelled, yet oddly, given their penchant for furiously leveling rebel cities and torturing their kings, Jerusalem and its leader were spared. We do not ' know why, but maybe it was because : a) Hezekiah bribed them b) mice gave the attacking army the plague c) other. Stay tuned.

Veni, vidi, vici, vicious

Humans came, saw, conquered and destroyed the environment everywhere they went since the dawn of urbanization. Take the 5,000-year-old city of Acre: within a few hundred years, the indigenous forest was history, and would never rebound.

Now: The environment is getting its own back.

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