Some mystery stones – and a Mesolithic speculation

Dsc_4688-edI’ve recently made a couple of interesting ‘mystery’ finds in the South Downs. In a rich surface scatter of Mesolithic worked flint (including a tranchet adze, a pick etc.) I found a stone that was clearly out of place geologically (picture 1).  It was identified for me by the Natural History Museum as a lamprophyre containing the rare mineral barkevikite.  The nearest place that the stone could have come from is either Scotland or Norway, so it must have been imported.  As a surface find it could have been brought at any time, but I was intrigued by the idea that it could have been brought by the Mesolithic people who camped in the Downs making tools.  It appears to have been worn along one side by rubbing.

Perhaps because I had been alerted to the possibility, I found a second similar stone a week later, again among a surface scatter of Mesolithic worked flint, but in a second field some distance from the first (Picture 2).  This time it was a piece of sandstone that again must have been imported from outside the area. This, too, showed distinct wear from rubbing.  It also showed blackened areas that suggested it had been in fire.

Dsc_4689-edIs it possible that the Mesolithic nomads who visited this region each year brought along these stones to assist with the making of flint weapons and tools?  If so, what did they use them for? Perhaps for dressing the edges of their cores, especially the more delicate microblade cores?  And if this is the case, why leave them behind – possibly even tossing one in the fire?

Finding these stones started me thinking about the many camp sites along the seaward (south) side of the South Downs.  The sandy soil of the northern side has long yielded finds of microliths and scrapers.  On the southern side one can easily find microburins – snapped off butts of microblades that are the preliminary stage of microlith manufacture – but very rarely do you  find microliths themselves.

This suggests the possibility that some Mesolithic people set up temporary camps on the south side of the Downs (perhaps in spring) to take advantage of the abundant flint to make their season’s tools and weapons, and then departed for the Northern side where they set up their hunting camps and living quarters.

I wonder if, on the last day of toolmaking, a Mesolithic man or woman looked around, tidied up and tossed his or her sandstone rubber into the fire as a gesture of a job well done.

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Did Mesolithic humans settle in Britain?

Unearthing the Lunt Meadows find

An archaeological find at Lunt Meadows in Sefton, Merseyside, has unearthed evidence that Mesolithic people may have built settlements.

If proven, it could change the way historians think about how humans lived in the middle Stone Age period.

It was always thought that Mesolithic man was nomadic, yet this site presents the possibility that several families may have lived together in one place.

The discoveries have been dated back to the middle Stone Age (5,800BC) and reveal a floor, timber stakes which would have been part of a wall, as well as flints and other utensils.

Details in The Guardian here:

For a video report, see the BBC site here

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Museum of The Stone Age is expanded with exciting new galleries, exhibits and pictures

At the end of the last ice age, the human population may have been as few as 100,000.  In only around 8,000 years, our ancestors colonised the world and numbered as many as 5 million or more by the end of the Mesolithic period (one estimate is 20 million.)  This highly successful development was mainly due to their invention of a new lithic technology that made them masters of the earth – the microlith.

These tiny but precisely made chips of flint, some only a few millimetres long, were the key to arrows,  spears, knives, saws, scythes and other implements that made Mesolithic people the most successful hunters and gatherers the world had seen.

Microlith technology is just one of the many new subjects explained and illustrated in the pages of The Museum of The Stone Age at, which has been relaunched in extended form.  Entrance is free of charge, there is a free ebook to accompany your visit, and there is something for everyone to enjoy; teachers, students, and those interested in archaeology and human prehistory.

The Museum of The Stone Age is a website that is devoted to discovering how our ancestors endured against all odds because of their highly developed survival skills – and because they learned how to use one of the most remarkable natural substances – flint, also known as chert.

By exploring the pages of this Museum, visitors learn what flint is, how humans learned to use flint to make tools and weapons and how the development of lithic technology over a million years was instrumental in enabling humans to adapt, survive and colonise the entire planet.  There’s a page on Microliths and why they were important to our Mesolithic ancestors and a page on how to identify flint implements you find.

For teachers of history and archaeology there’s a page of useful background material for projects. And there’s a What on earth is this? page to help visitors  identify mystery objects.

Above all, there are the hundreds of detailed photographs in the Palaeolithic Gallery, the Mesolithic Gallery and the Neolithic Gallery showing the kind of flint implements from the Museum’s collection, that are commonly found the world over.  The galleries have been extended and their collections reorganised and made more comprehensive.

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Palaeolithic cave artists ‘created moving pictures’

Writing in the June edition of Antiquity, Marc Azéma a Palaeolithic researcher and film maker has been exploring the representation of animal movement in cave art for more than 20 years. His latest examples are culled from the parietal art in the Chauvet Cave (Ardèche) and La Baume Latrone (Gard). Here he has shown that Palaeolithic artists have invented systems of breaking down movement and graphic narrative. His co-author, Florent Rivère, discovered that animal movement was also represented in more dynamic ways—with the use of animals drawn on a spinning disc. In these flickering images created by Palaeolithic people, the authors suggest, lie the origins of cinema.

See a video of Palaeolithic animations here

For further information see 

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Stone Age hunter-gatherers recycled stone tools says Spanish study


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A study of fire-damaged artifacts found at the Molí del Salt site in Spain has found that hunter-gatherer humans of the Upper Paleolithic Age recycled stone tools. The study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, indicates that recycling was an important part of the lithic technology of hunter-gatherers.

“In order to identify the recycling, it is necessary to differentiate the two stages of the manipulation sequence of an object: the moment before it is altered and the moment after,” Dr Manuel Vaquero, a researcher at the Universitat Rovira i Virgili and lead author of the study, explained. “The two are separated by an interval in which the artifact has undergone some form of alteration. This is the first time a systematic study of this type has been performed.”

Dr Vaquero’s team collected 1583 retouched artifacts including 199 multiple tools (those that combine two tools within the same item) from the Molí del Salt site, Tarragona, dating back to the end of the Upper Paleolithic Age some 13,000 years ago. “We chose these burned artifacts because they can tell us in a very simple way whether they have been modified after being exposed to fire,” Dr Vaquero said.

The study shows that tools used for hunting, like projectile points for instance, were almost never made from recycled artifacts. However, double artifacts were recycled more often.

“This indicates that a large part of these tools was not conceived from the outset as double art-facts but a single tool was made first and a second was added later when the art-fact was recycled,” Dr Vaquero said. “The history of the artifacts and the sequence of changes that they have undergone over time are fundamental in understanding their final morphology.”

See Manuel Vaquero et al. 2012. Temporal nature and recycling of Upper Paleolithic artifacts: the burned tools from the Molí del Salt site (Vimbodí i Poblet, northeastern Spain). Journal of Archaeological Science, 39: 2785 – 2796

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Denisovan genome sequenced

The genome of a recently discovered branch of extinct humans known as the Denisovans that once interbred with us has been sequenced, scientists announced today (August 30).

Genetic analysis of the fossil revealed it apparently belonged to a little girl with dark skin, brown hair and brown eyes, researchers said. All in all, the scientists discovered about 100,000 recent changes in our genome that occurred after the split from the Denisovans. A number of these changes influence genes linked with brain function and nervous system development, leading to speculation that we may think differently from the Denisovans. Other changes are linked with the skin, eyes and teeth.

“This research will help [in] determining how it was that modern human populations came to expand dramatically in size as well as cultural complexity, while archaic humans eventually dwindled in numbers and became physically extinct,” said researcher Svante Pääbo at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

Future research may turn up other groups of extinct humans in Asia “in addition to Neanderthals and Denisovans,” Pääbo told LiveScience.

Although our species comprises the only humans left alive, our planet was once home to a variety of other human species. The Neanderthals were apparently our closest relatives, and the last of the other human lineages to vanish.

However, scientists recently revealed another group of extinct humans once lived at the same time as ours. DNA from fossils unearthed in Denisova Cave in southern Siberia in 2008 revealed a lineage unlike us and closely related to Neanderthals. The precise age of the Denisovan material remains uncertain — anywhere from 30,000 to 80,000 years of age.

Full story here:

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Neolithic animal figures found near Jerusalem


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One of the Neolithic figurines found near Jerusalem

Archaeologists from Israel’s Antiquity Authority have found animal figurines around 9,500 years old during the expansion of Highway 1 from Tel Aviv.

Searchers discovered the figurines of a ram and a wild  bovine in Tel Moza, a rich archeological site in the Judean Hills outside of  Jerusalem. The ram, made from limestone, has intricately carved horns and is  about 15 centimeters long.

“The sculpting is extraordinary and precisely  depicts details of the animal’s image; the head and the horns protrude in front  of the body and their proportions are extremely accurate,” said  Dr. Hamoudi Khalaily, one of the co-directors of the dig from the  Antiquities Authority.

The second figurine is more abstract and depicts a  large animal with prominent horns that could be a wild bovine or  buffalo.

Khalaidy said the object most likely dates from the period when  early humans began the transition from nomadic hunting and gathering to  sedentary life based on farming and grazing with permanent settlements. “The  Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period [the eighth millennium BCE] is considered one of  the most fascinating chapters in the history of mankind; many changes took place  in it that shaped human society for thousands of years to come,” he said in a  statement released by the Antiquities Authority.

Anna Eirikh, the other  codirector of the dig, believes that the figurines are linked to the process of  animal domestication, as the inhabitants began to build complex societies and  agricultural villages.

But Khalaily believes the figurines were used as  talismans.  “Presumably, the figurines served as good luck statues for  ensuring the success of the hunt and might have been the focus of a traditional  ceremony the hunters performed before going out into the field to pursue their  prey,” he said.

Full story here:

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Building a late Stone Age house

Student from Leiden University will reconstruct a Stone Age house.

Arachaeologists and students from Leiden University are going to build a reconstruction of a late Stone Age house. From 20-31 August, Leiden Archaeology students will be working on a reconstruction of a Late Stone Age house (from the second half of the Vlaardingen culture, ca. 2,900-2,500 BC). The project will be supervised by prof. dr. Annelou van Gijn and architects Diederik Pomstra and Hans de Haas, in collaboration with Staatsbosbeheer (State Forest Management). The project is funded by the Prins Bernhard Cultuur Fonds.

The archaeologists want to know how a house was build about 4000 years ago, how efficiently the different tools were, what challenges the materials offered, and what the implementation of such a project meant for a local community.

For the construction of the house, only Stone Age tools such as stone axes, bone adzes and flint sickles will be used. As this is a scientific experiment, the amount of used resources, tools and working hours will be documented.

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Middle East Neolithic tools users “were the first lumberjacks”

During the Neolithic Period humans in the Near East made a drastic transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers settled in villages. A new study finds we can trace this shift in the development of Neolithic toolkits used to cut wood, suggesting the earliest farmers were also the earliest lumberjacks.

“Intensive woodworking and tree-felling was a phenomenon that only appeared with the onset of the major changes in human life, including the transition to agriculture and permanent villages,” researcher Ran Barkai said in a statement from Tel Aviv University.

“We can document step by step the transition from the absence of woodworking tools, to delicate woodworking tools, to heavier woodworking tools,” Barkai said, adding that this archeological record follows the “actual transition from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle tBarkai and his team documented these changes in tools found at the Motza archaeological site — located in Israel, just west of Jerusalem — which was inhabited by Neolithic groups for nearly five thousand years.

In the early stages of the Neolithic period, known as the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA), humans were still gathering their food but they started settling in more permanent homes for the first time, laying the groundwork for complex communities. Analysis of the wear-and-tear on the small axes from this period at Motza shows that these tools were likely used for clearing brush, light carpentry and chopping and splitting small logs and tree branches, the researchers said.

In the next phase, the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB), humans began farming and domesticating animals. At the same time, they added more heavy-duty axes to their toolkits, evidence from Motza shows. These heavier and larger tools could have been used to cut down trees and complete various building projects, like homes and animal pens, Barkai and his team explained in a paper in the journal PLoS ONE.

These changes also happened in step with the rise of rectangular structures in Neolithic settlements, which required more wood.

“Evidence tells that us that for each home, approximately 10 wooden beams were needed,” Barkai said. “Prior to this, there were no homes with wooden beams.”

Read the full story here:-

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Earliest evidence of Palaeolithic art


The history of ceramic art and pottery has had a new chapter added. It had been widely believed by historians, who had studied early ceramics, that the technologies needed had only started to be developed in approximately 8,000 BCE, as the communities of the Neolithic era had started to settle. However, intensive research by a combined team from the University of Cambridge (England) and colleagues in Croatia has pushed back the boundary by nearly 7,500 years.
The research, ongoing since 2010, has centred around an area in Croatia, on the Adriatic coast, known as Vela Spila. Several (36 in total) fragments of ceramic models have been found, of various four legged animals. The models are well made, by craftsmen, and have been attributed to the ‘Epigravettian’ culture, which had a life span of over 12,000 years, and the carbon dating of the fragments found places them squarely within this period.      Dr Preston Miracle, of the University of Cambridge, has a possible explanation for the anomaly, “It is extremely unusual to find ceramic art this early in prehistory. The finds at Vela Spila seem to represent the first evidence of Palaeolithic ceramic art at the end of the last Ice Age. They appear to have been developed independently of anything that had come before. We are starting to see that several distinct Palaeolithic societies made art from ceramic materials long before the Neolithic era, when ceramics became more common and were usually used for more functional purposes”.


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