Groundbreaking Archaeological Finds That Have Been Discovered

As archaeologists uncover new settlements, dig up previously undiscovered burial sites, and unearth well-preserved ephemera from tens of thousands of years ago, one thing becomes increasingly true: the last two decades have unearthed literal treasure troves of information that reshape and redefine so much of what we think we know.

Massive, sprawling cities have been found in areas that were never thought to be populated, religious structures have changed the way we believe nomadic hunter-gatherers congregated, and new discoveries are constantly throwing off our perceived timeline of human development - forcing scientists to reevaluate what they thought they knew as fact.

  • Spear Tips In South Africa Suggest Human Ancestors Made Tools 250,000 Years Earlier Than Previously Thought

    Stone spear tips discovered in South Africa in the 1980s and analyzed in 2010 may have upended our previously accepted ideas about humans' tool-making ancestors. The spear tips date back over 500,000 years, which means the extinct proto-human species Homo heidelbergensis was using tools that scientists never knew they had the capacity to create.

    The spear tips are twice as old as the next-oldest examples of similar tools, which date back 250,000 years. As paleoanthropologist John Shea told National Geographic, the discovery was "like finding an iPod in a Roman Empire site."

    This implies proto-humans had a higher level of mental development than previously believed. Shea says that, in addition to the crafted stone tips, the spears would require a wood shaft, a chisel-like stone to cut the tips, plant-based twine, and some sort of resin glue to bind it all together. The glue would imply a mastery of fire to melt the glue, and all those steps would likely require language to explain it to others in a community.

    "It would probably not be something that could be taught by imitation," Shea explained. "This is a technology that is so complex that it absolutely, positively requires language."

  • Meso-American Sculptures Possibly Reveal Native Americans Had An Earlier Understanding Of Magnetism Than Europeans
    Photo: Soaring Bear / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Meso-American Sculptures Possibly Reveal Native Americans Had An Earlier Understanding Of Magnetism Than Europeans

    The early indigenous Monte Alto people, who lived on the Pacific coast of what is now Guatemala, possibly had an understanding of magnetic forces long before they were appreciated in Europe. This is based on the attributes of 11 large, basalt sculptures being studied by researchers.

    The Monte Alto sculptures, which depict potbellied people, were shaped from rocks that had been struck by lightning and rendered magnetic. When sculpting the figures, researchers believe the artisans crafted them in such a way that the magnetism would be strongest at protruding points on the figures, such as their navels. "[The people of Monte Alto] chose the boulders, and they shaped them in such a way that the magnetism would be measurable at certain points of the anatomy of the sculptures," archaeologist Oswaldo Chinchilla told Smithsonian.

    Merle Walker, professor emeritus of astronomy at the University of California’s Lick Observatory, explained that this discovery raises an important question: "The interesting thing is how they did this, and how they detected this magnetism." Being able to detect the magnetism suggests the Monte Alto people knew how it worked, to some degree, and how to locate the points of strongest pull.

  • Ancient Pipes May Prove Tobacco Was Partially Responsible For North America's Agricultural Revolution

    For decades, it was believed tobacco smoking in North America likely dated back to 300 BC. This was due to a rudimentary smoking tube discovered from around that period of time. However, much older smoking implements - with nicotine residue inside - have since been discovered at the Moundville complex in Alabama. These pipes and smoking paraphernalia date to 1685 BC, pushing the timeframe for tobacco use in North America back by a millennium.

    This new timeframe places tobacco consumption back to the period in which crop cultivation was first emerging in the area, leading archeaologists to question whether or not smoking played a significant role in the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural societies. Also up for debate: whether or not tobacco itself sparked the agricultural revolution in North America.

    "Once [Europeans] discovered tobacco and smoked it, the desire wasn’t just for its stimulant qualities, but also for its sociability," archaeologist Georgia Fox told Smithsonian. "It became a tool in the social world for people to converse and drink and smoke and create relationships." The crop would have a huge impact on European culture in the 16th century, and may have had a similar impact on North America.

    Researchers are still exploring what role tobacco played in early societies, and even how early people smoked it. 

  • Göbekli Tepe Reveals Hunter-Gatherers Created Monumental Religious Structures 10,000 Years Ago

    For decades, archaeologists believed that humanity only had the time and inclination to develop complex social structures and religions after they transitioned from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to an agricultural society. However, an excavation site located in the Southeastern Anatolia Region of Turkey may have unearthed the oldest religious structure in the world - and radically changed our perspective of Neolithic culture.

    The site, Göbekli Tepe, contains floors made from polished limestone and dozens of rings of stone pillars weighing at least seven tons. It is believed to predate Stonehenge by 6,000 years. German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt has found no evidence of people permanently residing nearby, leading him to believe the location was the first "cathedral on a hill," where nomadic groups would come to worship in mass numbers.

    Considering the complexity of the build, archaeologist Ian Hodder believes the structure required a level of coordination that archaeologists didn't know existed at the time. "This shows sociocultural changes come first, agriculture comes later," Hodder told Smithsonian. "You can make a good case this area is the real origin of complex Neolithic societies."

  • Caral Shows Civilization In The Americas Started 1,000 Years Earlier Than Previously Believed
    Photo: KyleThayer / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Caral Shows Civilization In The Americas Started 1,000 Years Earlier Than Previously Believed

    Six dune-shaped mounds of rock and earth were discovered along the Peruvian coast, and while they look to be naturally-shaped formations, archaeologists now believe that each of them was an intentionally constructed pyramid from an ancient city known as Caral.

    The existence of the pyramids indicates the presence of a civilization around 5,000 years ago, which would make it the oldest-known civilization in the Americas. The sprawling 150-acre system of structures and plazas is believed to have been a thriving city at the same time the famed Egyptian pyramids of Giza were being constructed.

    The daunting task of excavating the ruins began in 1996, which resulted in the discovery of well-preserved bags known as shicras, which were woven out of reeds. The reeds proved to be the perfect material to use for radiocarbon dating, or getting a timeframe for when the city was populated. As it turns out, the reeds were 4,600 years old. According to Betty Meggers, a Smithsonian Institution archaeologist, the finding "was almost unbelievable... This data pushed back the oldest known dates for an urban center in the Americas by more than 1,000 years."

    Not only is the civilization older than anything known before it, but it was also far more advanced than they could have imagined. The city featured incredibly large structures and, given the trove of musical instruments unearthed by archaeologists, it is also believed the society appreciated and respected music.

  • Finds In China And Ethiopia Demonstrate Hunter-Gatherers Created High Altitude Settlements Earlier Than Previously Thought

    Given their harsh weather conditions and limited access to abundant resources, life in the mountains is tough and always has been. Because of this, it's long been believed that early hunter-gatherers would not have populated areas of higher elevation, such as the Andes and Tibet, until much later in the historical timeline. However, numerous recent discoveries - including a jawbone from an extinct hominin species known as the Denisovans that was found in the Tibetan Plateau - have thrown our understanding of that timeline for a loop.

    That large mandible indicates early people existed at higher elevations as far back as 160,000 years ago. However, the presence of life doesn't necessarily prove the existence of any sort of society. For evidence indicating the presence of prehistoric mountaineers, scientists are looking to the Bale Mountains in Ethiopia.

    "The most exciting finding is the fact that prehistoric people repeatedly, over millennia, spent considerable amounts of time in high altitudes at a residential site and actively, deliberately made use of the available Afro-alpine resources," said Götz Ossendorf, an archaeologist and co-author of a recent study on the elevated society that lived in the mountains. According to the study, early humans in the area may have taken to the mountains during the last ice age, which would allow them to capitalize on an ice-free yet wet environment with available water sources. They likely hunted and feasted on giant mole rats for sustenance.