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It is not often that Egyptology features in US presidential campaigns, but such was the case back in November when Republican candidate Ben Carson asserted that the pyramids of Egypt were built not for burials but as grain stores. He had held this view for some time, apparently ascertaining it from the biblical narrative that tells how Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt, rose to be the pharaoh's right-hand man and built grain stores in the seven years of plenty to prepare for the seven lean years to follow (Genesis 41). Whether or not there is some historical truth behind that story, a leap of faith of an entirely different order is required to believe that the pyramids were the grain stores in question. Carson's theory has been widely—and quite properly—dismissed, and one could well ask, does it matter? But surely it must. Ignorance of the past among politicians, and the public at large, is not encouraging, and if they take so little notice of evidence from archaeology, will they do any better elsewhere?
Few of those with any understanding of the scientific evidence have any doubt that the Earth's climate is warming at an accelerating pace. A recent study of European climate since Roman times has underlined how exceptional the last 30 years have been, with average summer temperatures significantly higher than at any time in the previous two millennia. The cause, too, seems now (at last) to be generally agreed: that human activity, and sheer human numbers, are so great that they are affecting the planet's climate system. For some, that is, of course, an inconvenient truth, obliging us to change behaviours in ways that might be costly and troublesome. For archaeologists, versed in the effects of previous climate shifts both large and small, it should provide a golden opportunity to demonstrate the relevance of our discipline, and to cast present problems in the perspective of past events. The Maya drought, the Moche floods, and the low Niles, which may have put an end to the Egyptian Old Kingdom, all offer examples of what can happen to human societies. And of course, at the larger scale, there are the successive ‘Ice Ages’ that characterised the Pleistocene. There is an argument that we are all, in a sense, a product of the Ice Ages, and it is certainly remarkable how successful our ancestors became at exploiting sub-Arctic habitats. A 45 000-year-old butchered mammoth in Siberia, 72°N, provides the most vivid recent testimony.
Recent research on the submerged central and southern North Sea basin has focused on the end of the story: the last few millennia before the final inundation. Much older deposits do survive, however, and are documented by collections of Pleistocene fauna recovered by fishing fleets operating from Dutch and British ports during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Analysis of the British collections allows them to be assigned to specific areas of seabed and to broad stages of the Pleistocene climatic sequence. The results provide evidence of more complex and fragmentary undersea landscapes than can be detected using geophysical approaches alone, and indicate targeted areas for future work.
Is the Middle Palaeolithic an appropriate concept in eastern Asia? The issue
has been debated for China in two recent papers in
Antiquity (Yee 2012; Li 2014), which
in turn responded to an earlier argument set out by Gao and Norton (2002). But does the Korean record
offer a different perspective? Here, the authors argue that Korean
archaeology, as with the Chinese record, provides no support for a distinct
Middle Palaeolithic. Rather than seeking to validate an inappropriate
chronological framework derived from European Palaeolithic research,
emphasis should instead be placed on developing a regionally specific model
of prehistory for eastern Asia. They conclude, akin to Gao and Norton (2002), that the East Asian
Palaeolithic should be divided into two major cultural periods: Early and
Analysis of dental calculus is increasingly important in archaeology, although the focus has hitherto been on dietary reconstruction. Non-edible material has, however, recently been extracted from the dental calculus of a Neanderthal population from the 49 000-year-old site of El Sidrón, Spain, in the form of fibre and chemical compounds that indicate conifer wood. Associated dental wear confirms that the teeth were being used for non-dietary activities. These results highlight the importance of dental calculus as a source of wider biographical information, and demonstrate the need to include associated data within research, in particular tooth wear, to maximise this valuable resource.
Excavations at the Middle Pleistocene site of La Cotte de St Brelade, on the
island of Jersey in the English Channel, have revealed a long sequence of
occupation. The continued use of the site by Neanderthals throughout an
extended period of changing climate and environment reveals how, despite
changes in the types of behaviour recorded at the site, La Cotte emerged as
a persistent place in the memory and landscape of its early hominin
inhabitants. The site's status as a persistent place for these people
suggests a level of social and cognitive development permitting reference to
and knowledge of places distant in time and space as long ago as at least
Flaked-tool technology can provide insights into social and cultural changes and interregional connections. This study of changing tool production covers the Upper Palaeolithic to the Late Neolithic in the Yakutia region of eastern Siberia. This region is home to the Palaeolithic Dyuktai complex, the Mesolithic Sumnagin complex and Neolithic traditions; it thus enables a better understanding of the material culture of these societies in Siberia and improves our knowledge of the complex migration processes towards the New World.
Control of fire was a hallmark of developing human cognition and an essential technology for the colonisation of cooler latitudes. In Europe, the earliest evidence comes from recent work at the site of Cueva Negra del Estrecho del Río Quípar in south-eastern Spain. Charred and calcined bone and thermally altered chert were recovered from a deep, 0.8-million-year-old sedimentary deposit. A combination of analyses indicated that these had been heated to 400–600°C, compatible with burning. Inspection of the sediment and hydroxyapatite also suggests combustion and degradation of the bone. The results provide new insight into Early Palaeolithic use of fire and its significance for human evolution.
Was the use of hunting dogs an adaptation to the post-glacial deciduous
forest environment in the northern temperate zone? Dog burials in Jōmon
Japan appear closely associated with a specific environment and with a
related subsistence economy involving the hunting of forest ungulates such
as sika deer and wild boar. Dogs were valued as important hunting
technology, able to track and retrieve wounded animals in difficult,
forested environments, or holding them until the hunter made the final kill.
Greater numbers of dog burials during the later Jōmon phases may reflect a
growing dependence on hunting dogs to extract ungulate prey from forests in
an increasingly resource-strained seasonal environment.
Early Archaic human skeletal remains found in a burial context in Lapa do
Santo in east-central Brazil provide a rare glimpse into the lives of
hunter-gatherer communities in South America, including their rituals for
dealing with the dead. These included the reduction of the body by means of
mutilation, defleshing, tooth removal, exposure to fire and possibly
cannibalism, followed by the secondary burial of the remains according to
strict rules. In a later period, pits were filled with disarticulated bones
of a single individual without signs of body manipulation, demonstrating
that the region was inhabited by dynamic groups in constant transformation
over a period of centuries.
Ireland has often been seen as marginal in the spread of the Neolithic and of early farming throughout Europe, in part due to the paucity of available data. By integrating and analysing a wealth of evidence from unpublished reports, a much more detailed picture of early arable agriculture has emerged. The improved chronological resolution reveals changing patterns in the exploitation of different plant species during the course of the Neolithic that belie simplistic notions of a steady intensification in farming, juxtaposed with a concomitant decline in foraging. It is possible that here, as in other areas of Europe, cereal cultivation became less important in the later Neolithic.
Where did pottery first appear in the Old World? Statistical modelling of radiocarbon dates suggests that ceramic vessel technology had independent origins in two different hunter-gatherer societies. Regression models were used to estimate average rates of spread and geographic dispersal of the new technology. The models confirm independent origins in East Asia (c. 16000 cal BP) and North Africa (c. 12000 cal BP). The North African tradition may have later influenced the emergence of Near Eastern pottery, which then flowed west into Mediterranean Europe as part of a Western Neolithic, closely associated with the uptake of farming.
The engravings discovered on a slate rock face near the village of Gondershausen in the Hunsrück Mountains in 2010 represent the northernmost example of open-air Palaeolithic rock art in Europe, and the first in Germany. Analysis of the style and technique of the Hunsrück images reveals significant parallels with Palaeolithic cave art from other parts of Europe, most notably France. The oldest of the images at Gondershausen—three horses in particular—may be attributed to the Aurignacian or Gravettian. The survival of these Palaeolithic engravings through the Last Glacial Maximum is testimony to the unusual circumstances of their preservation.
The Palaeolithic sequence of East Asia differs from that of western Eurasia in that it is characterised by core-and-flake tools. Blade industries only appear late in the sequence, long after the first appearance of modern humans; bone tools and personal ornaments may therefore function as a better marker of modern human presence. Longquan Cave provides vital new evidence to this effect, with dated hearths indicating an initial occupation around 40 kya cal BP, followed by a second period of activity around 35–31 kya cal BP. They are associated with a polished bone awl and a structured division of settlement space, features typically associated with modern humans.
Since the seminal research by Caton-Thompson and Gardner over 80 years ago,
the archaeology of the Desert Fayum has attracted significant interest as
the earliest known centre of agriculture in Egypt. Traditional
interpretations of subsistence behaviour and residential mobility have drawn
heavily on the studies of lithic assemblages and faunal remains. These
interpretations must now be reconsidered in light of lithic material, both
from the original excavations and from more recent fieldwork. It emerges
that Kom W, the type site for the Neolithic Fayum, was probably a permanent
settlement occupied by a community cultivating cereals, in addition to
having long-standing practices of hunting and fishing.
The discovery of the Iceman in 1991 led to considerable speculation about the reason for his presence at such a remote location in the high Alps. One theory suggested that he was engaged in transhumant pastoralism when he met his death. Recent archaeological and palynological studies, however, have found no evidence of pastoral activities in this region during the Chalcolithic period. Regular exploitation of this upland landscape appears to have begun no earlier than the Middle Bronze Age. The theory that the Iceman was a high-altitude herdsman therefore appears to be untenable.