In 2013, a treasure trove of fossilized hominid skeletons was discovered in a South African cave, 30 miles from Johannesburg. About 1550 skeletal pieces from 15 individuals were unearthed. The fossils combined anatomical features from an early hominid species known as Australopithecus, such as a small braincase volume, with the skull shape of the more advanced early Homo. That combination of features led scientists to assume that the fossils came from an early hominid species about 2 million years old.
It was a reasonable ballpark initial guess, since hominids with those types of anatomical features were known to have existed around that time. However, by 2017, the fossils had been more accurately dated to between 335,000 to 236,000 years ago. They were thus not part of the lineage leading to modern humans, but an extinct and more primitive hominid that coexisted with more modern Homos. The new species was dubbed Homo naledi.
5. Discovering that early Hominids buried their dead hundreds of thousands of years ago
The excitement about the newly discovered Homo naledi was not limited to the sheer number of bones, however. The condition and placement of those bones also upended preexisting assumptions about the behavior of primitive hominids. The bones lacked gnaw marks indicating that they had been dragged into the cave by carnivores. Between that and their placement deep in a shaft that they were unlikely to have ended up in by accident, it became clear that the bones had been deliberately placed in the cave by other Homo naledi individuals. I.e.; they were buried.
It was not the earliest known burial, as 28 skeletons dating to about 430,000 had been discovered years earlier in a Spanish cave. However, the Spanish skeletons came from a big brained Homo species that looked and behaved much like modern humans. Homo naledi on the other hand had a brain half the size of ours, and could not have been mistaken for a modern human. However, its burial practices demonstrated that its individuals understood mortality and the concept of something after death. That squashed the hitherto prevailing notion that such understanding and behavior required big brains, and forced a reexamination of early hominids’ culture and intelligence.
The small island of Antikythera, between the Peloponnesus and Crete, lies roughly halfway along the sea lanes used by ships plying the waters between Asia Minor and Italy. In antiquity as well as now, Antikythera’s jagged coastline was a hazard to ships, that could easily be dashed to destruction on its unforgiving rocks. That was the fate of an unfortunate ship we now call the Antikythera Wreck, that sank off the island around 87 BC. The wreck lay forgotten at the sea bottom until 1900, when fishermen diving for sponges spotted a bronze hand sticking out of the sediment. They told the Greek authorities, who then directed a search around the shipwreck. The following year, divers recovered over 200 amphorae, some of them intact, finely worked vases, other high end goods, and some of the era’s most prized works of art.
Among the items recovered was an intriguing bronze object, about 20 cm high, that began disintegrating as soon as it was removed from the water. Scrupulously preserved in an Athenian museum, scientists figured out that it was an instrument for astronomical data. However, just how did the instrument, named the Antikythera Mechanism, work? Scientists could see its surface, but the object’s advanced corrosion prevented them from examining its interior and inner workings.
It was not until the twenty first century that modern scanning tools finally enabled scientists to penetrate the corrosion and take a look at the insides of the Antikythera Mechanism in 3D. Scanning revealed a set of interlocking gears, similar to those of a clock, as well inscriptions engraved on the inside of the machine, as a kind of instruction manual. Turns out the Antikythera Artifact was an analog machine, or computer, that predated Jesus.
The device enabled users to tell how the skies would look for decades to come, including the positions of the sun and moon, lunar phases, the paths of planets such as Venus, and even eclipses. Several writers from Antiquity, including Cicero, had mentioned the existence of such devices, but the Antikythera Mechanism is the only one ever recovered. Unfortunately, the technology was lost during the Roman era, and the only known sample we know of ended up at the bottom of the sea, its secrets forgotten for over two millennia.
In November of 1922, after more than a decade searching, Egyptologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of pharaoh Tutankhamen, in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. He sent a telegram to the chief financier of his archaeological expeditions, George Herbert, 5th Lord of Carnarvon, urging him to hurry to Egypt to witness the opening of the tomb in person. After his patron arrived later that month, Carter proceeded to carefully excavate the site, and on November 29th, 1922, the tomb was opened. After making his way through a tunnel, Carter reached the main burial chamber. There, he made a hole in a sealed door, then thrust a candle inside. After a pause, an eager Lord Carnarvon asked him “can you see anything?” He received the reply “Yes, wonderful things!”
As Carter described it later: “as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold“. The following day, the dramatic discovery was announced to the press, catapulting Carter and Tutankhamen to global fame. The burial chamber was dominated by four shrines, surrounding the pharaoh’s granite sarcophagus. Within were three coffins, nestled inside one another, with the outer two being made of gilded wood, while the innermost one was composed of about 250 pounds of solid gold. It contained the mummified body of Tutankhamen, adorned with a funerary gold mask that weighed about 25 pounds. That death mask, with features simultaneously so familiar and yet so exotic, became the best known symbol of Ancient Egypt.
1. King Tut triggered and Egyptomania that continues to this day
All in all, Howard Carter found about 5400 items in Tutankhamen’s tomb. They included a throne, wine jars, statues of various gods and of the king, and even two fetuses that subsequent DNA examination revealed to have been the stillborn offspring of Tutankhamen. It would take Carter nearly a decade before he could finish cataloguing them them all. Amazingly, the rich haul was what was left over after ancient robbers had twice tunneled their way into the tomb. Both times, the robbery was discovered, and the tunnels filled in.
The find triggered a wave of Egyptomania. Tutankhamen came to be known as “King Tut” – a name that was soon appropriated by businesses to brand various products. Ancient Egyptian references made their way into popular culture, and musical hits such as “Old King Tut” became all the rage. Even US president Herbert Hoover caught the Tutankhamen bug, and named his pet dog King Tut.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading