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Understanding the Palaeolithic emergence of human social complexity opens up a key perspective on later periods of cultural evolution. Palaeolithic mortuary practice is particularly revealing, as it echoes the social statuses of both the living and the dead. The famous Sunghir burials fall at the beginning of this sequence. Bioarchaeological analysis of the Sunghir individuals, viewed in the context of earlier Upper Palaeolithic mortuary behaviour more generally, reveals the concurrent practice of a range of funerary treatments, some of which are probably related to individual pathological abnormalities. Through this approach, the Sunghir burials become more than just an example of elaborate Palaeolithic burial, and highlight the diversity of early social and mortuary behaviours.
Detailed taphonomic and skeletal analyses document the diverse and often unusual burial practices employed by European Neolithic populations. In the Upper Chamber at Scaloria Cave in southern Italy, the remains of some two dozen individuals had been subjected to careful and systematic defleshing and disarticulation involving cutting and scraping with stone tools, which had left their marks on the bones. In some cases these were not complete bodies but parts of bodies that had been brought to the cave from the surrounding area. The fragmented and commingled burial layer that resulted from these activities indicates complex secondary burial rites effecting the transition from entirely living to entirely dead individuals.
The socio-cultural behaviour of Scandinavian Mesolithic hunter-gatherers has been difficult to understand due to the dearth of sites thus far investigated. Recent excavations at Kanaljorden in Sweden, however, have revealed disarticulated human crania intentionally placed at the bottom of a former lake. The adult crania exhibited antemortem blunt force trauma patterns differentiated by sex that were probably the result of interpersonal violence; the remains of wooden stakes were recovered inside two crania, indicating that they had been mounted. Taphonomic factors suggest that the human bodies were manipulated prior to deposition. This unique site challenges our understanding of the handling of the dead during the European Mesolithic.
Disposal of the dead in early societies frequently involved multiple stages of ritual and processing. At Khonkho Wankane in the Andes quicklime was used to reduce corpses to bones in a special circular structure at the centre of the site. The quicklime was obtained from solid white blocks of calcium oxide and was then mixed with water and applied to disarticulated body parts. A few plaster-covered bones were recovered from the structure but most had been removed from the site, possibly by itinerant llama caravans. Thus, Khonkho Wankane was a ritual centre to which the dead were brought for processing and then removed for final burial elsewhere.
Creating a facial appearance for individuals from the distant past is often highly problematic, even when verified methods are used. This is especially so in the case of non-European individuals, as the reference populations used to estimate the face tend to be heavily biased towards the average facial variation of recent people of European descent. To evaluate the problem, a facial approximation of a young woman from the Late Pleistocene rockshelter of Tham Lod in north-western Thailand was compared against the average facial variation of datasets from recent populations. The analysis indicated that the Tham Lod facial approximation was neither overtly recent in facial morphology, nor overtly European. The case is of particular interest as the Tham Lod individual probably belonged to a population ancestral to extant Australo-Melanesian peoples.
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.
The assemblage of Neolithic cremated human remains from Stonehenge is the largest in Britain, and demonstrates that the monument was closely associated with the dead. New radiocarbon dates and Bayesian analysis indicate that cremated remains were deposited over a period of around five centuries from c. 3000–2500 BC. Earlier cremations were placed within or beside the Aubrey Holes that had held small bluestone standing stones during the first phase of the monument; later cremations were placed in the peripheral ditch, perhaps signifying the transition from a link between specific dead individuals and particular stones, to a more diffuse collectivity of increasingly long-dead ancestors.
The appearance of the distinctive ‘Beaker package’ marks an important horizon in British prehistory, but was it associated with immigrants to Britain or with indigenous converts? Analysis of the skeletal remains of 264 individuals from the British Chalcolithic–Early Bronze Age is revealing new information about the diet, migration and mobility of those buried with Beaker pottery and related material. Results indicate a considerable degree of mobility between childhood and death, but mostly within Britain rather than from Europe. Both migration and emulation appear to have had an important role in the adoption and spread of the Beaker package.
Almost a century and a half ago, Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man (1871: 141) highlighted the evolution of bipedalism as one of the key features of the human lineage, freeing the hands for carrying and for using and making tools. But how did it arise? The famous footprints from Laetoli in Tanzania show that hominin ancestors were walking upright by at least 3.65 million years ago. Recent work, however, suggests a much earlier origin for bipedalism, in a Miocene primate ancestor that was still predominantly tree-dwelling. Here Susannah Thorpe, Juliet McClymont and Robin Crompton set out the evidence for that hypothesis and reject the notion that the common ancestor of great apes and humans was a knuckle-walking terrestrial species, as are gorillas and chimpanzees today. The article is followed by a series of comments, rounded off by a reply from the authors.
Ship burials are a well-known feature of Scandinavian Viking Age archaeology, but the discovery of 41 individuals buried in two ships in Estonia belongs to the Pre-Viking period and is the first of its kind in Europe. The two crews met a violent end around AD 750, and were buried with a variety of richly decorated weapons, tools, gaming pieces and animal bones. The rich grave goods suggest that this was a diplomatic delegation protected by a cohort of elite warriors. They were armed with swords of Scandinavian design, possibly from the Stockholm-Mälaren region, and stable isotope analysis is consistent with that being the probable homeland of the crew.
Stable isotope analysis has provided crucial new insights into dietary change at the Neolithic transition in north-west Europe, indicating an unexpectedly sudden and radical shift from marine to terrestrial resources in coastal and island locations. Investigations of early Neolithic skeletal material from Sumburgh on Shetland, at the far-flung margins of the Neolithic world, suggest that this general pattern may mask significant subtle detail. Analysis of juvenile dentine reveals the consumption of marine foods on an occasional basis. This suggests that marine foods may have been consumed as a crucial supplementary resource in times of famine, when the newly introduced cereal crops failed to cope with the demanding climate of Shetland. This isotopic evidence is consistent with the presence of marine food debris in contemporary middens. The occasional and contingent nature of marine food consumption underlines how, even on Shetland, the shift from marine to terrestrial diet was a key element in the Neolithic transition.
Intentional mummification is a practice usually associated with early Egyptian or Peruvian societies, but new evidence suggests that it may also have been widespread in prehistoric Britain, and possibly in Europe more generally. Following the discovery of mummified Bronze Age skeletons at the site of Cladh Hallan in the Western Isles of Scotland, a method of analysis has been developed that can consistently identify previously mummified skeletons. The results demonstrate that Bronze Age populations throughout Britain practised mummification on a proportion of their dead, although the criteria for selection are not yet certain.
Between c. 4500 and 3500 BC, the deposition of human remains within circular pits was widespread throughout Central and Western Europe. Attempts at forming explanatory models for this practice have proven difficult due to the highly variable nature of these deposits. Recent excavations at Bergheim in Alsace have revealed a particularly unusual variant of this phenomenon featuring a number of amputated upper limbs. The evidence from this site challenges the simplicity of existing interpretations, and demands a more critical focus on the archaeological evidence for acts of systematic violence during this period.
In Central Europe, medieval and early modern burials sometimes contain iron sickles placed on the body or in direct contact with the deceased. Previous interpretations have considered them as markers of social status or occupation, or as magical and apotropaic. Detailed analysis of sickle burials from a cemetery at Drawsko in Poland leads to a discussion of demonology beliefs, dual faith and a resurgence in paganism following the Counter-Reformation. The results illustrate how the sickle might have served as an indicator of social identity, the nature of the individual's death and the way the deceased was perceived within their community.
Few human remains from the distant past have achieved the public visibility and notoriety of Kennewick Man (the Ancient One). Since his discovery in July 1996 in the state of Washington, he has appeared on one of America's best-known television news programmes, 60 Minutes. He has been on the cover of Time magazine and in the pages of People, Newsweek and The New York Times. He has been the subject of popular press books (Downey 2000; Thomas 2000; Chatters 2001), and for many years running there were almost annual updates on his whereabouts and status in Science (some 30 in the decade following his discovery). That is saying nothing of the scholarly notice and debate he has drawn (e.g. Swedlund & Anderson 1999; Owsley & Jantz 2001; Steele & Powell 2002; Watkins 2004; Burke et al. 2008), including a recently issued tome marking the culmination of almost a decade of study (Owsley & Jantz 2014a).