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A Family Takes A Walk

Roughly 850,000 years ago, a small group of early humans walked along the mud flats beside an ancient river in what is now Norfolk, England. They were probably a family group, consisting of one or two adult men, two or three adult women or teenagers, and at least three young children. They were in no rush, meandering about as they collected shellfish, crabs, and seaweed from the riverbank.

The group lived in a period where ice age conditions had temporarily abated, and the river valley was lush with greenery. Mammoths and early rhinoceroses grazed nearby, and the group must have been careful to steer clear of the hippos basking in the shallows. There were also hyenas, lions, and great saber-toothed cats lurking around, but the group didn’t appear to have felt particularly threatened near the river. 

For safety, they probably made their home on one of the islands in the estuary, wading ashore at low tide. They didn’t know how to make fire but had primitive flint knives and scrapers. Since winters could get cold, they might have worn clothes, and the scrapers suggest that they had at least some ability to work hides.

The group’s walk beside the river was discovered in 2013, when coastal erosion revealed their footprints near the modern village of Happisburgh. 

Sadly, they were destroyed by the tides in only a few weeks, but archaeologists, working at breakneck speed, were able to collect casts and 3-D images before that happened. Analysis revealed that the footprints were the oldest found outside Africa. Since the two older African finds are far less extensive, the Happisburgh footprints might be the best insight into the daily lives of our most ancient ancestors.


The True Story Of The Iceman’s Death

Otzi the Iceman is perhaps the most famous prehistoric body ever found. Perfectly preserved in an Alpine glacier, the Iceman has provided us with an incredible glimpse into life in the region 5,300 years ago. We even know his health problems—Lyme disease, tooth decay, gallstones, and arsenic poisoning from working with copper.


As it turned out, Otzi didn’t have to worry about any of those, since he died in a violent confrontation involving an arrow to the shoulder and a blow to the head. Until recently, archaeologists suspected that his death had followed a daring chase through the mountains, with Otzi killing two of his pursuers before being hunted down, exhausted and starving, and brutally murdered.

As it turns out, things didn’t go down quite like that. A breakthrough came when scientists realized that what they thought was Otzi’s empty stomach was actually part of his colon. His real stomach had been pushed upward under his ribs while he was in the ice. It was packed full of ibex meat, indicating that Otzi had eaten a large meal not more than an hour before his death. Clearly, the Iceman wasn’t in the middle of a dramatic chase if he decided to sit down and stuff himself full of venison.

Further evidence came in 2015, when scientists used nanotechnology to detect a blood-clotting protein called fibrin on Otzi’s arrow wound. Since fibrin vanishes quickly in a working body, its presence proves that Otzi died very quickly after being shot, contrary to earlier theories that he survived the arrow wound for days. With the new evidence, we can now safely discard the chase theory of the Iceman’s death. 

Instead, it seems that Otzi felt safe in the mountains and sat down for a leisurely meal.

However, shortly afterward, he was ambushed and shot. He also suffered a head injury, possibly because he fell after being shot. It’s not quite as dramatic as a deadly race against unknown pursuers, but at least we can now be reasonably sure of how the Iceman died.


Burying A Shaman

In the 1960s, Soviet archaeologists were excavating a Siberian burial site known as Ekven on the edge of the Arctic Circle when they uncovered a magnificent wooden mask, complete with staring eyes carved from bone. 

Recognizing the face from their own mythology, the local Yupik working on the dig almost refused to go on, believing it would bring terrible misfortune to disturb the grave of a shaman.


Lead archaeologist D.A. Sergeev declared that he would take on the consequences himself and pressed on, excavating one of the most remarkable graves of the Old Bering culture, which thrived in the area some 2,000 years ago.

The shaman died during the summer, when the Arctic permafrost had somewhat thawed. She was old (around 40–50 years) and probably passed away from natural causes. Her people hacked a deep grave into the soil, lining the floor with planks. The shaman was placed in the center with her ceremonial mask at her knees and surrounded by curved whale bones planted upright in the ground. The whale bones were also used to support a roof, which was lowered into place and then carefully covered with dirt.

Boasting the power to communicate with the spirit world, the shaman must have been a particularly powerful woman, since the grave was packed full of objects precious to the Old Bering people. Many were tools typically used by men, and the sheer number suggests that the shaman couldn’t have owned them all in her lifetime. Instead, people probably came to offer their valuables for burial with the holy woman. 

Despite its remote location, Ekven was likely the center of a thriving trade in iron objects, so precious to the Bering people that the shaman was buried with walrus ivory carved into the shape of an iron chain. 

At some point, water seeped into her grave and then froze, helping to preserve the shaman and her priceless mask for the next two millennia.

The Dark Side Of The Sun God

Dubbed “the first individual in human history,” Akhenaton is well-known as the pharaoh who briefly abandoned Egypt’s traditional polytheism, elevating the Sun god Aten above all other gods and making him the focus of all state religion. Together with his powerful wife, Nefertiti, Akhenaton oversaw sweeping changes in Egyptian art and architecture, climaxing in the building of a new capital at Amarna, dedicated to the worship of Aten. 

To make sure it would be free of the old gods, Akhenaton ordered it built in the middle of the desert. But enough about the pharaoh; what about the ordinary people who actually built Amarna?

If you believe Akhenaton’s propaganda, their lives must have been great. 

The tombs of Amarna are covered with carvings of abundant food offerings to Aten. However, studies of human remains by archaeologist Gretchen Dabbs tell a different story. The ordinary people of Amarna were noticeably malnourished and had a high mortality rate for the time. Scurvy was shockingly common. A third of adults had spinal trauma (most commonly compression fractures), and almost half had degenerative joint disease, indicating the brutal toll of building a desert city from scratch in a short period.

Protesting the conditions probably wasn’t a great idea, given the brutal punishments that the government liked to dole out. At least five skeletons in Amarna’s cemetery for commoners exhibit multiple stab wounds to their shoulder blades. This gels with a wall inscription announcing a punishment of “100 lashes and five wounds” for stealing hides. A stab to the shoulder blades would be extremely painful but not debilitating, allowing punished workers to get back to their jobs in no time. Such was the unspoken reality of Akhenaton’s new religion.