History Girls

{May 30, 2010}   The Curse of the Ice Mummy

The death of a molecular biologist has fuelled speculation about a “curse” connected to an ancient corpse. Tom Loy, 63, had analysed DNA found on “Oetzi“, the Stone Age hunter whose remains were discovered in 1991.

Dr Loy died in unclear circumstances in Australia making him the seventh person connected with Oetzi to die. Colleagues and family of Dr Loy have rejected the notion that he was the victim of a “curse”.

It is not known how many people have worked on the Oetzi project – and whether the death rate is statistically high. The amateur climber who found Oetzi in 1991, Helmut Simon, was killed during an unexpected blizzard in the Alps in 2004, not far from the original find; His body was missing for eight days before it was located.

Within hours of Mr Simon’s funeral, the head of the mountain rescue team sent to find him died of a heart attack, aged 45 and apparently in good health.

Four other people associated with Oetzi have died, prompting rumours of a “mummy’s curse”:

  • Rainer Henn, 64, a forensic pathologist who handled the body. He was killed in a car crash the following year
  • Kurt Fritz, the mountaineer who led Dr Henn to the body. He was killed in an avalanche shortly after Dr Henn died
  • Rainer Holz, 47, a filmmaker who made a documentary about removing the body from its block of ice. He died of a brain tumour soon afterwards
  • Konrad Spindler, 66, an archaeologist who was a leading expert on the body. He died of complications related to multiple sclerosis. 

 Source: bbc.co.uk


The story of Piltdown Man came out at just the time when scientists were in a desperate race to find the missing link in the theory of evolution. Since Charles Darwin had published his theory on the origin of species in 1859, the hunt had been on for clues to the ancient ancestor that linked apes to humans.

Sensational finds of fossil ancestors, named Neanderthals, had already occurred in Germany and France. British Scientists, however, were desperate to prove that Britain had also played its part in the story of human evolution, and Piltdown Man was the answer to their prayers – because of him, Britain could claim to be the birthplace of mankind.

Charles Dawson had made a name for himself by finding fossils in Sussex, and passing them on to Sir Arthur Smith Woodward at what is now the Natural History Museum, London. Dawson now claimed that at some point before 1910, a workman had handed him a dark-stained and thick piece of human skull. He said that recognising that this might be part of an ancient human, he had continued to dig at the site and collected more pieces of skull.

On 14 February 1912, he wrote to Woodward with news of exciting discoveries, and that summer Woodward joined him to excavate at Piltdown. They found more fragments of skull, and the bones and teeth of extinct British animals such as elephants, rhinos and beavers. They also found primitive stone tools, and a remarkable ape-like jaw.

On the basis of these finds, Woodward constructed a skull that seemed to supply the missing link in the evolutionary path between humans and the apes. With a brain the same size as that of modern humans, and a very ape-like jaw, Piltdown Man was born….

It was not until new technology for the dating of fossils was developed, in the late 1940s, that Piltdown Man came to be seriously questioned once again. In 1949, Dr Kenneth Oakley, a member of the staff at the Natural History Museum, tested the Piltdown fossils and found that the skull and jaw were not that ancient.

He joined forces with Professor Joe Weiner and Sir Wilfrid Le Gros Clark from Oxford, to apply stringent tests to all the Piltdown remains. They realised that the human-like wear pattern on the teeth had been created by artificially filing down the teeth from an orang-utan jaw. The skull pieces were found to have come from an unusually thick-boned – but quite recent – human skull. It had simply been boiled and stained to match the colour and antiquity of the Piltdown gravels.

Although many of the mammal fossils were genuine, they had also been stained to match the skull and came from all over the world. It turned out that every single one of the 40 odd finds at Piltdown had been planted.

On 21 November 1953 the news broke, and headline writers revelled in the Natural History Museum‘s embarrassment: ‘Fossil Hoax Makes Monkeys Out Of Scientists!’ Weiner and Oakley quickly began an investigation to uncover the identity of the hoaxer. Who had had the access, the expertise and the motive to carry out such an outrageous forgery?

Read more at the bbc.co.uk

Poison-laced drinking water killed some of the world’s oldest mummies, which are found in the harsh northern deserts of Chile, a new study says.

Arsenic, which occurs in high levels in drinking water in Chile’s northern Camarones Valley, the deadly element likely poisoned the coastal Chinchorro people for centuries, starting at least 7,000 years ago, mummy-hair analyses show.

“I believe [these] ancient people were continuously exposed to arsenic by drinking contaminated water with high arsenic levels [that is] endemic to the Camarones region,” said study leader Bernardo Arriaza of Chile’s Universidad de Tarapacá de Arica.

The Chinchorro, who wouldn’t have been aware they were ingesting the tasteless and invisible toxin, may have suffered from skin, lung, bladder, and kidney cancers, among other serious effects of long-term arsenic exposure.

After they died, the poison victims were sometimes mummified, their internal organs removed and replaced by soil and reeds. Some 7,000 years ago the Chinchorro became the first society known to practice mummification, which transcended social class and included adults, children, and even fetuses.

Arriaza hypothesizes that fetuses and newborns were especially susceptible to arsenic. Because the earliest mummies are fetuses and infants, he suggests that high miscarriage rates may have inspired the mummification process.

But the threat’s not just in the past: The valley’s drinking water still contains a hundred times more arsenic than is considered safe by the World Health Organization. The contamination has forced area residents to get their water elsewhere, Arriaza said.

Source: National Geographic

{April 18, 2010}   Pornography in Clay

New pornographic figurines from the Stone Age have been discovered in Germany. But researchers can’t agree on what the 7,000-year-old sculptures mean. Were our ancestors uninhibited sex fiends, or was reproduction strictly controlled to improve mobility? An increasing number of finds seem to indicate the Stone Age was an orgy of sexual imagination.

The project itself was far from extraordinary. Workers near the Eastern German city of Leipzig were digging a ditch for a new gas line. Hum drum. But what they discovered was far from routine. A backhoe unearthed a 7,200-year-old, Stone Age garbage pit — and it was filled with refuse from some of the first farmers on the European continent.

Moreover, upon rushing to the site, archeologists discovered an 8.2 centimeter (3.2 inches) clay torso buried underground. The legs, abdomen and head were missing, but, according to the lucky archeologists, the figure still had its most important features intact: a “well-shaped behind” and a “short, but impressive” penis…..

And the project is becoming ever more fascinating as archeologists continue uncovering additional fragments while sifting through the Stone Age garbage pit. One fragment, which extends from the left calf to the pelvis, appears to be part of a female statue; Adonis, apparently, had a girlfriend. In fact, in an article soon to be published in the journal Germania, Staeuble speculates on how the pieces could fit together. He writes that “there is strong evidence that this is a copulation scene.”

According to Staeuble, the fragments show that the man was standing with his pelvis at a slight angle. The woman in front of him was bent forward, almost at a 90-degree angle. Another indication that the two figures belong together is the fact that they are both made to the same scale — both figures were originally just under 30 centimeters (11.7 inches) tall.

The only depictions of sexual activity known until now were Greek paintings, but they were created more than 4,000 years later. Given this enormous difference in time, the Saxony find has created some confusion. Some believe it was a toy. Archäo, a professional journal, speculates that it may have been “chic” to display these types of sculptures in the “houses of the first farmers between the Saale and Elbe rivers.” Researchers speculate that the figure could also be evidence of a “fertility cult” — a theory that sounds as straightforward as it is vague.

Source:  Spiegel Online International

He may have come down from the trees, but prehistoric man did not stop swinging. New research into Stone Age humans has argued that, far from having intercourse simply to reproduce, they had sex for fun. Practices ranging from bondage to group sex, transvestism and the use of sex toys were widespread in primitive societies as a way of building up cultural ties.

According to the study, a 30,000-year-old statue of a naked woman – the Venus of Willendorf – and an equally ancient stone phallus found in a German cave, provide the earliest direct evidence that sex was about far more than babies. Timothy Taylor, reader in archeology at Bradford University, reviewed evidence from dozens of archeological finds and scientific studies for his research.

“The widespread lay belief that sex in the past was predominantly heterosexual and reproductive can be challenged,” said Taylor. He argues that monogamy only became established as hunter-gatherer societies took up agriculture and settled in houses, allowing the social roles of men and women to become more fixed. Experts believe research such as Taylor’s may help overturn false assumptions that sex for the purposes of reproduction is the form closest to nature.

Petra Boynton, a relationship counsellor and health lecturer at University College, London, found the study “refreshing”. “So much evolutionary theory promotes the idea that humans, particularly women, are preprogrammed for monogamy, but that is often simply overlaying science on a preexisting view of society,” she said.

Taylor, whose research is published by Haworth Press in the Handbook of the Evolution of Human Sexuality, says the human attitude to sex arose from the complex interaction of physical and mental development. By comparison with modern humans, who appeared about 300,000-100,000 years ago, apes have tiny male genitals, no female breasts and are hairy. But they are easily able to distinguish the sexes because males can weigh up to three times as much as females.

Humans, by contrast, are far less easy to distinguish by size. Taylor says that prominent male genitals and female breasts developed to aid recognition of the opposite sex in creatures of similar size and shape. The similarity in size, combined with the ease of face-to-face sex, allowed intercourse to become a vital part of social interaction, communication and inventiveness.

Source: The Sunday Times

For four decades, fashion gurus have argued over the origins of the mini-skirt.

Some say Mary Quant came up with the design in the Swinging Sixties, while some point to Frenchmen Andre Courreges. Some experts even claim it made its first appearance in Hollywood 10 years earlier.

But now archaeologists say the true origins of the mini go back to the very dawn of civilisation.

They have unearthed evidence that Stone Age women were warning mini-skirts – along with short tops and bracelets – more than 7,500 years ago.

It is generally accepted that pyrotechnology or the manipulation of fire began in Europe around 25,000 years ago, however new evidence has come to light that may suggest it began in South Africa 50,000 years earlier.

A cache of weapons made from a stone called silcrete have been found with a glossy red colouring. This suggesting that the people discovered that heating the rock would transform it from a poor material for tool making, into an outstanding one as it would make it easier to flake allowing for more advanced blades and other tools to be made.

The findings were published in August 2009 and suggest that some of the 72,000 year old tools were mounted on handles and used to hunt, amongst other things, Cape buffalo and the tiny mole rat, made in to knives or into valuable items for exchange purposes.

According to archaeologist Kyle Brown of the University of Cape Town, the control of fire is of the utmost significance as it marks the point in our evolution when we became ‘uniquely human’.

Brown claims that far from fitting the stereotypical image of the brutish, unintelligent caveman, these people demonstrated high levels of intelligence and may even have been responsible for colonizing the rest of the world.

Read more

The most famous early image of a human, a woman, is the so-called “Venus” of Willendorf, found in 1908 by the archaeologist Josef Szombathy in an Aurignacian loess deposit in a terrace about 30 meters above the Danube river near the town of Willendorf in Austria.

The earliest notice of its discovery appeared in a report by the Yale anthropologist George Grant MacCurdy (1863-1947) who happened to be in Vienna in the summer of 1908. Although the greater part of the collection of finds from the site had not yet been unpacked, MacCurdy reported excitedly that before he left Vienna Szombathy had very kindly shown him a single remarkable specimen – a human figurine, full length, carved out of stone.

The statuette, which measures about 11.1 centimeters in length, is now in Vienna’s Naturhistorisches Museum. It was carved from a fine porous oolitic limestone not found in the region and so must have been brought to the area from another location. It may well be the case that the carving, which was presumably done with flint tools, was not done locally.

When first discovered the Venus of Willendorf was thought to date to approximately 15,000 to 10,000 BCE, or more or less to the same period as the cave paintings at Lascaux in France.  In the 1970s the date was revised back to 25,000-20,000 BCE, and then in the 1980s it was revised again to c. 30,000-25,000 BCE. A study published in 1990 of the stratigraphic sequence of the nine superimposed archaeological layers comprising the Willendorf deposit, however, now indicates a date for the Venus of Willendorf of around 24,000-22,000 BCE.

Her great age and pronounced female forms quickly established the Venus of Willendorf as an icon of prehistoric art. She was soon included in introductory art history textbooks where she quickly displaced other previously used examples of Paleolithic art. Being both female and nude, she fitted perfectly into the patriarchal construction of the history of art. As the earliest known representation, she became the “first woman,” acquiring a sort of Ur-Eve identity that focused suitably, from a patriarchal point of view, on the fascinating reality of the female body.

Source: witcombe.sbc.edu/willendorf/

{August 17, 2009}   Britain’s first nude?

“But according to some of the UK’s leading experts on ice-age art, this highly stylised image, carefully engraved in a Derbyshire limestone cave 13,000 years ago, may be the earliest nude in the history of British art”

The drawing is part of a stunning haul of animals discovered last year in the Creswell Crags. Until the engravings came to light, Britain had no ice-age cave art.

Almost all of Europe’s late stone-age cave art comes from France, Iberia and Italy. Some archaeologists have claimed that the early northern Europeans were either prehistoric philistines or Britain’s climate eroded any traces of their art.

The Creswell Crags has changed that and become, along with the discovery of a 500,000-year-old Boxgrove Man in the mid 1990s, one of the most important finds in UK archaeology.

The story of the find began at an Oxford University dinner in late 2002 where two experts were debating the mystery of Britain’s missing Palaeolithic cave art.

At the table were Dr Paul Pettitt, a former Oxford research fellow in human evolution now based at Sheffield University, and Dr Paul Bahn, the independent archaeologist regarded as Britain’s top cave art expert.

Bahn had long puzzled over the missing art. During the ice age, Britain was connected to the rest of Europe and was periodically occupied by hunter gatherers. But while they left bones, tools and some portable art, they left no cave engravings or paintings”….

Source: www.telegraph.co.uk

et cetera