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: So much of what you learned in school is totally, wildly wrong now.
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.
From stone spear tips crafted by extinct proto-humans half a million years ago to an embalmed mummy discovered in Egypt that pre-dates our predictions about mummification - and even the written word - by a thousand years, the last two decades have unearthed literal treasure troves of information that reshape and redefine so much of what we think we know. Here's a look at some of the most mindblowing and groundbreaking recent archaeological finds.
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."
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.
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.
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."