When a Neanderthal meets a Denisovan…

You may have heard that late this August paleogeneticist Viviane Slon made an earth-shattering discovery. What was it? Well, while investigating a 90,000+ year old flake of bone from a teenager she discovered her parentage was incredibly unique. She has a neanderthal mom...and a Denisovan dad.

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Before we dive into what this means...what exactly is a Denisovan? They are an extinct species of hominid and are a close relative of modern humans. However, they are a new kind of hominid. We didn’t even know about them until 2010 when remains were discovered in a cave in Siberia! It is believed they were spread from Siberia to Southeast Asia and existed around the last Ice Age.

Okay, now back to why it is important that we have found evidence of a Denisovan procreating with a Neanderthal! Well, first of all, this teenage girl is the first known offspring of parents from two different branches of the human family tree. Before this, it was only speculated that different branches may have procreated. 

Slon was so shocked when she received the results of the girl’s parentage she immediately thought she had made a mistake or that the sample may have become contaminated. So, she tested it again...and again...and again. In total, she tested the fragment six times and each time the results came out the same. 

The bone fragment in question is from that same cave where Denisovans were first discovered. We know that the girl was about 13-years old and that her father was a Denisovan and her mother was a Neanderthal and that the bone fragment likely comes from her arm or leg. According to National Geographic, “ the fragment is unrecognizable as a hominin bone at first glance. Because of this, it was initially cast aside for later analysis with thousands of other pieces of bone found in the cave, including fossils from lions, bears, hyenas, and more.” However, years later it was discovered to be hominid and found its way to Slon.

The study based on the bone published in Nature last month suggests that past interbreeding not only existed without a doubt, but that it might have been even more common than scientists initially thought. Further research shows that the father of this teenager shows traces of Neanderthal relatives as well, suggesting that his offspring was not the first product of inbreeding by a long shot. 

Emili Huerta-Sanchez, a population geneticist at Brown University, notes “This paper and other papers are showing the model of having isolated populations is not quite accurate… “These other groups that coexisted with us . . . are part of our story,” she said. It is interesting to note that Huerta-Sanchez is among the scientists who do not consider Neanderthals, Denisovans and modern humans separate species.

This discovery is new and while it is changing the way we will look at human evolution, analysis and research is still on-going. For example, we are not sure if the procreation between Neanderthals and Denisovans were peaceful or if they were violent. Did they wipe each other out? Or did they peacefully blend together until they eventually became part of the current human tapestry? 

Whatever happens, you can be certain I’ll be following this story and its updates closely! 



Replica of a Denisovan finger bone fragment, originally found in Denisova Cave in 2008, at the Museum of Natural Sciences in Brussels, Belgium. Please note this is NOT the bone shard of the young girl, just a similar find.

Why did these Vikings Lose their Heads?

Vikings are renowned for their strength, prowess, and continued ability to surprise us. Oh, and another thing? Some of them are headless. In 2009, while building for the 2012 olympics, a burial pit of fifty beheaded young vikings were discovered. All of the bodies had been decapitated and thrown into a shallow grave, with the heads piled up on one side of the pit.

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In Astonishing legends, we’ve covered a lot of heads. From the decapitated head of Máel Brigte killing Sigurd the Mighty when his decapitated head’s teeth knocked into Sigurd’s leg, leading to an infected bite. More recently, we’ve covered the skull cult that rose up around Gobekli Tepe where skulls appeared to venerated and decorated by the mysteriously people that built Gobekli Tepe. However, we haven’t covered many decapitated bodies.

Back to the fifty young, male skeletons that were discovered in an old quarry pit in Weymouth. Excavators and researchers believe that the bodies had been executed right before tumbling into the pit and were stripped of the clothes ahead of their execution.

Defensive wounds on their remains, particularly their arms, hands, and skulls show that many of the men attempted to fight back. However, the bodies’ coordinating wounds on their shoulders and back of their necks show that they were brutally attacked and murdered. The marks on the back of the necks also showed that the attacks weren’t brutal, they were messy. It appeared that several chops and blows were used to decapitate the men.

It was believed that the now-named Ridgeway Hill Viking burial pit happened at some point between 910 and 1030 AD. In total 54 skeletons were discovered but only 51 heads lay piled at the other side of the pit.

Although, clearly, no airtight answer for what happened and why exists, it is believed because of the time period that it was a conflict between the native Anglo-Saxons and their viking invaders. Further speculation suggests that these men had been captured during an attempted raid into Anglo-Saxon territory.

One interesting development is after a serious investigation that, as Louise Loe, a member of the Oxford Archaeology team and co-author of a book on the pit notes, “Several individuals had suspected brucellocis...a highly contagious infectious disease that is passed from animals to humans, either by the ingestion of unsterilised milk or meat or by coming into close contact with secretions from infected animals.” It is believed that this party and the diseases and status of the bodies made them likely peasant-class. Perhaps this was a group of inexperienced vikings attempting to make a name for themselves.

Investigations are still on going and they will be on show at the British Museum. If anything, this find shows that we still have a lot to learn about Vikings!



This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.    
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The Ring of Senicianus

There are many pieces of jewelry that live in museums, private collections, and more around the world. Many of these pieces are rings and several of these are Roman rings. Roman jewelry is a popular museum piece, as so many tell stories and let us learn more about the cultures that produced them. One of these rings, however, stands alone: The Ring of Senicianus. This ring is also known as the Vyne Ring and the Ring of Silvianus. It was stolen over 1,500 years ago and, according to legend, whoever steals this ring will be cursed by the gods.

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As the story goes, Silviaus was a Roman stationed in Gloucestershire in England. One day, he decided to visit the infamous baths of Nodens, a Celtic God of healing, the sea, and hunting. During his time at Nodens’ temple and the baths his precious golden ring was stolen from him.

The ring was quite large, which hints that it was meant to be worn outside of a gloved finger or on the thumb. It is about 1-inch in diameter and weighs 12 grams. It has ten faces and a square bezel engraved with a picture of venus. The ten gold sides were bare when Silvianus had the ring.

So, in anger and retaliation to the thief he went to the temple and created a lead defixio, also known as a curse tablet. Defixios ask the gods to perform a curse on a person or action. According to legend, he engraved (in Latin, but here’s the translation): “For the god Nodens. Silvianus has lost a gold ring and is donating one-half of its worth to Nodens. Of the man called Senicianus, permit no good health upon him until the ring is returned back to the temple of Nodens.”

The ring was found in the year 1785. It was discovered in a plowed field in Silchester, England. When it was found, “SENICIANE VIVAS IIN DE” proving that, perhaps, Silviaus was right and Senicianus did in fact steal his ring. It went into private holding and the official finding was not published until 1888, when its existence was published in Chaloner Chute. Then, in 1929, a link between the Silvianus curse tablet and what was then known as the Vyne Ring. We can thank Sir Mortimer Wheeler for that link!

Despite its theft centuries ago, it is currently the property of the National Trust and is on view at the Vyne Manner. It is said that this ring is the inspiration behind J.R.R. Tolkien’s ring in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings Series. This link is highlighted in Gollum’s actions toward Bilbo when…”he cried out in rage, “Thief, thief, thief! Baggins! We hates it; we hates it, we hates it forever!” Both Silvianus and Gollum knew who stole their rings and cursed them accordingly. Not to mention, Tolkien had a relationship with Wheeler. He had gotten in touch with Wheeler to learn more about the god, Noden. However, he got more than he bargained for when he learned of the ring. The Hobbit was written in 1937...less than 10 years after the link was made!


The Vyne © National Trust / Helen Sanderson

The Cladh Hallan Bog Bodies

Scotland has two prehistoric mummies that were found in Cladh Hallan. These two bodies are not totally typical and are actually classified as bog bodies. But, what are bog bodies? They are bodies that have either been thrown into or fell into bogs while still living. Peat bogs in particular are helpful in preservation, thanks to their rich mats of sphagnum moss. As the sphagnum moss dies and is replaced by new growth, the old moss begins to turn to peat, which is great for heat. The bog water then interacts with the acids in the moss, produces tannin, and other chemicals that work to preserve the bodies. So, these two prehistoric mummies are important for two reasons, 1) They are the only prehistoric mummies to be found in Scotland, and 2) They are bog bodies...but now a third reason is arising: these two bodies aren’t two bodies.

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The third unique element of the Cladh Hallan bodies? Each of these bodies are not singular bodies, which are in fact made from composite remains of several people.

Research has shown that these bodies were buried about 300-600 years after their deaths were discovered in 2001. They were buried so long after their deaths because the bodies were place specifically in a peat bog just long enough to keep them preserved. After that, they were reburied hundreds of years later.

They were found below the houses of Cladh Hallan, an 11th century village on the island of South Uist. Since their 2001 find, archaeological researchers have noted several strange details, especially in the female skeleton. These abnormalities include a jaw that did not fit the rest of the skull and face. And, over 10 years later, the DNA of both specimens was finally tested. This DNA testing revealed something entirely surprising: these skeletons were made up of completely different people, and, furthermore, people who did not even share the same mother. However, all the female body is made up of female bones that died around the same time. The male body, is slightly different, as it contains men that died a few HUNDRED years apart!

This is especially weird, as the bodies are still articulated, meaning they were attached to each other as they would be in life. The reasons as to why the villagers carried out this strange process or why they constructed these composite mummies. There are some theories, such as the were replacing the bones lost of an important person. Another theory is that they were built for symbolic reasons. This archaeological find also hints that there might be more bodies like this one to be found nearby and from afar. 

This piece of astonishing archaeology raises many questions - why did they do this? how did they keep track of the bodies? and why go to the trouble of making this happen?


This image, entitled "Bog. Typical Mounth scenery - peat bog with dark pools. Lochnagar in the distance" by Richard Webb does not depict where the bog bodies were found. It is liscensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. 

Severed Hands in Ancient Egypt

In the news in the last few months we’ve been seeing tons of stories popping up regarding the severed feet washing up in the PNW and Canada. But, this is not the first time in human history that a strange amount of severed body parts have all been found in one place. In fact, archaeologists working on excavating a palace in what was once Avaris in Egypt made quite an eerie discovery.

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The ancient city of Avaris (now known as Tell el-Daba) is northeast of Cairo, along the Nile. The palace owner, at that time, was Seusernre Khyan. The bones are believed to be about 3,600 years old and are from the Hyksos people.

The hands were first discovered when archaeologists unearthed four pits that were, believed to be, in front of what would have been the throne room. Two of the pits contained one hand per pit. It is believed, according to ehyptologis Manfred Bietak and his team, that each hand in the pit represent a particular ceremony. Fourteen additions hands, believed to be buried at a later date, were found in two pits located in the outer grounds of the palace.

All of the hands are right hands. And, Bietak notes, “Most of the hands are quite large and some of them are very large.”

This archaeological discovery is actually the first physical proof that is common in ancient Egyptian writing and art. Remember when Bietak pointed out the size of the hands? Well, it is likely because they are the hands of soldiers. The ritual consists of a soldier presenting the severed right hand of an enemy to a noble in exchange for gold.

According to LiveScience, “One account is written on the tomb wall of Ahmose, son of Ibana, an Egyptian fighting in a campaign against the Hyksos. Written about 80 years later than the time the 16 hands were buried, the inscription reads in part:

"Then I fought hand to hand. I brought away a hand. It was reported to the royal herald." For his efforts, the writer was given "the gold of valor" (translation by James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Volume II, 1905).”

But, why only right hands?

Well, there are a few reasons. One of them is quite mundane - it is easier to keep track of how many victims the soldier claimed. Additionally, Bietak explains that the removal of the right hand is symbolic, "You deprive him of his power eternally.”


The above image is unrelated to the story and is in the public domain. This painting is by Hermann Vogel (1854 - 1921) and is entitled Einfall der Hyksos. The Hyksos invaders are depicted just after a victorious battle against the Egyptians.

The Strange Tale of the Buried Porpoise

Excavating the ruins of a medieval monastic retreat, several archaeologists found something quite...unique. They were on a small island called Chapelle Dom Hue, off the coast of the Channel island of Guernsey, they were digging around the medieval monastic retreat. Unsurprisingly, they came across a graveyard and began exploring the graves. One of the tombs held the remains of a creature decidedly not human.

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The dig was being carried out by archaeologist Philip de Jersey, of Oxford University, and his team. You can actually see a video of the strange burial plot and porpoise bones here. Chapelle Dom Hue is a very small island, only 49 feet long. Researchers who have inspected the island believe that there was once a stone building that may have been used as a religious retreat or a shrine by Christian monks around the 14th century.

The grave itself was first believed to be a grave for a human, as it was deliberately made. It was cut into the hard bedrock of the island which would have taken considerable effort. However, when the excavation began and the bones were discovered they were found to be the skull and bones of a seal mammal - which has been called both a porpoise and a dolphin (we're not quite sure yet, it was originally a porpoise but is leaning towards a small species of dolphin now). 

There appear to be various hints that the creature was not simply disposed of in a simple underground hole and it clearly wasn't an accidental place for it to end up. As mentioned above, the grave was purposefully dug into bedrock. Furthermore, the bones were aligned east-to-west as Christian tradition dictates.  All of this lends credibility to the fact that this grave was purposefully intended as a solemn resting place. de Jersey also makes a compelling point, "That is what puzzles me. If they had eaten it or killed it for the blubber, why take the trouble to bury it?" They were just a few feet from the ocean, so why not throw it back in?

There are a few different theories about why exactly the creature was buried in a human tradition. One idea is that they were saving the meat and salt and packed it into the grave and simply either forgot or decided against using the meat. According to an article by LiveScience, there is some suggestion "that the animal may have been butchered before it was placed in the pit."

Another idea is the place dolphins hold in Christianity, particularly Christian art. Dolphins were once held in high regard in pagan and Greek myth, known as a positive omen for those at sea. Like many pre-Christian beliefs, dolphins also found their way into Christian symbolism. According to Aleteia, "For those who made a living by the sea dolphins became a symbol of Jesus Christ, a friend and deliverer to the “safer shores” of heaven." So, perhaps they were honoring it after it washed up on their shores, was used for meat, or interacted postively with someone on a ship.

But, the mystery remains. The dig is now over and the bones were brought back to radiocarbon date, test the soil, and verify what kind of animal it really is.

de Jersey' leaves the mystery on a positive, open note "We will get expert advice when we've got the bones cleaned up, and I hope someone will be able to say exactly what it is."


The above image is not of the islet, but of the nearby Guernsey landscape, taken by Magnus Manske. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 1.0 Generic license.