Archaeology aims to open a window into the past by unearthing artifacts that show exactly how humans' ancestors used to live. But sometimes, experts have discovered archaeological finds that rewrote history. Rather than confirm a commonly held belief (cavemen weren't intelligent!), these finds would upend it (cavemen made art and crafted advanced tools!). More recent historical artifacts that rewrote history have changed the way people think about ancient civilizations and humanity as a whole.
Some of these discoveries might seem minor at first glance. A new burial ground might seem like another collection of bones, until you consider what its placement means about early humans' intelligence. A strange metal mass could be a piece of trash, until historians discover it can calculate the planets' orbits. These eye-opening, and downright weird, discoveries continue to expand people's view of their world. From ancient fossils to strange structures, every object can help modern humans understand the past a little more. Read on to discover a few of these important artifacts in history, and be prepared to be amazed.
Dating back to the era between 905 and 1170 AD, a bundle of plant-based psychoactive substances has been discovered in the Cueva del Chileno in southwestern Bolivia. Likely belonging to a shaman of the age, the well-preserved bag contains the earliest evidence of the use of ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic tea. “This is the first evidence of ancient South Americans potentially combining different medicinal plants to produce a powerful substance like ayahuasca,” said Melanie Miller, an archaeologist with the University of California, Berkeley, whose team discovered the bundle buried in a cave 13,000 feet above sea level.
Ayahuasca is a psychedelic brew created by the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin. However, the plants used to create this powerful tea are not native to the area where the bundle was found, because the altitude is too high to support their growth. This suggests the owner of the bundle either knew where to gather the plants or had access to a significant trading network. According to Miller, the plants contained in the pouch could be poisonous if consumed in the wrong proportions, requiring the user to be familiar with their use. “Our findings support the idea that people have been using these powerful plants for at least 1,000 years, combining them to go on a psychedelic journey, and that ayahuasca use may have roots in antiquity," Miller explained.
Among the other items discovered inside the leather bundle were wooden tablets to grind down the various plants, an ornate wooden tube for snorting the hallucinogenic mixture, spatulas made from llama bone, and a pouch stitched together from the snouts of three foxes.
Discovered outside of Jerusalem in the 1940s and '50s, the Dead Sea Scrolls comprise some of the earliest texts of the Hebrew Bible in existence. In an attempt to date some of these scrolls, researchers discovered letters on fragments that were thought to be blank. Multispectral imaging later revealed lines of text that were invisible to the naked eye.
“There are only a few [lines] on each fragment, but they are like missing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle you find under a sofa,” King's College professor Joan Taylor said in a statement.
In the past, supposedly "new" fragments of the scrolls have been made public, only for them to be outed as fakes. The fragments currently being studied were part of the initial trove of scrolls found in Qumran, and are verifiably authentic. Dennis Mizzi, a senior lecturer in Hebrew and ancient Judaism at the University of Malta, said the newly discovered lines may be linked to the book of Ezekiel, but it's too early to say with certainty.
“Unlike the repeated scandals being reported at the Museum of the Bible, this discovery within the collection of the John Rylands Library is a reassuring success story about the use of new technological approaches in archaeology, and a reminder of the importance of provenanced objects that may not appear sensational at first glance," said Robert Cargill, an associate professor of classics and religious studies at the University of Iowa who was not part of the study.
On April 1, 2020, researchers from the Natural History Museum in London and Griffith University in Australia officially dated a "hominin skull found buried in a Zambian cave back in 1921" that was previously thought to have been 500,000 years old. According to the study published in Nature, the skull is actually about 299,000 years old. Researchers assigned it to the Homo heidelbergensis species, which is estimated to be about 600,000 years old. Co-author for the study, Chris Stringer, told Gizmodo the new information is important because it means "like other human species, heidelbergensis lasted for at least several hundred thousand years."
A "thin mineral coating" previously scraped off the skull and misplaced was recovered from the London Natural History Museum's mineralogy collection, allowing scientists to more closely estimate the skull's age. In addition to providing new information about the Homo heidelbergensis species, the new date also "coincides with the emergence of early modern humans." Though the skull is not thought to be a direct ancestor to modern humans, it does "point to the presence of multiple human species living at roughly the same time."
A 43,900-year-old cave painting was discovered on Sulawesi, an island in Indonesia, and is now believed to be the oldest story on record. The mural seems to depict a game drive, in which animals are flushed out of cover and toward armed hunters. Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist with Griffith University, suggests the mural may not represent a real-life scenario but rather a religious myth or story from folklore.
Aubert's reasoning stems from the appearance of the hunters, who are not drawn as human beings but animal-human hybrids. This may indicate the hunters are wearing masks, or that the hunters are "therianthropes" - animal-human hybrids commonly found in ancient paintings around the world. If the latter is the case, the mural would not only be the oldest evidence of storytelling in recorded history, but also the first evidence of spiritual belief.
"We can't know if it has anything to do with spirituality, but at least we can say that those artists were capable of the sorts of conceptualizations that we need in order to believe in religion, to believe in the existence of the supernatural," Adam Brumm, part of the Griffith University team, told NPR.
The cave where the mural was discovered, Liang Bulu'Sipong 4, measures 14.8 feet across and is located 9.8 feet off the ground. The cave lacks any evidence of human habitation, which suggests it may have been a sacred site. "Accessing it requires climbing, and this is not an occupation site," Aubert told Ars Technica. "So people were going in there for another reason."