Our ancestors didn't come and go from this planet without leaving evidence of their existence, and it's up to archaeologists to make sense of the random bones, clay tablets, tools, buildings and other items our forebears left behind. While these items from the past have generally fascinated contemporary humans (sometimes not -- the mother of one of the discoverers burned some of the Dead Sea scrolls as fuel), it is only in recent years that we have had the resources and technology to give these artifacts their rightful place in history.
Archaeologists have been busy during the first decade of the 21st century, making discoveries in expected spots, like Jerusalem, and in unexpected places such as Ground Zero in New York City. Some of these discoveries, such as the fact that chimpanzees may have created tools on their own, give us a new way of looking at ourselves. Other findings, such as ancient writing in Jerusalem and earthworks on the Irish Hill of Tara, show us that some places have been important for thousands of years.
In this article, we'll explore 10 of the most important finds of the 21st century. Keep reading to find out about these discoveries, including why hobbits may or may not have a life outside of "The Lord of the Rings" and why "Sex and the City's" Carrie Bradshaw might have felt at home in the Stone Age.
10. Shaman Burial in Northern Israel
In 2008, archaeologists working in northern Israel uncovered the 12,000-year-old grave site of a Natufian Shaman -- a spiritual leader and healer. While Shamans are common in most hunter-gatherer societies of the period, this was the first Shaman burial ever uncovered in this region. It is also one of the oldest Shaman graves found anywhere. The woman in the grave apparently had very high status among her people, according to the archaeologists [source: Science Daily]. She was about 45 years old when she died. Buried with her were animal parts, including the tail of a wild cow, the pelvis of a leopard and the wing tip of an eagle. Shamans were associated with animal spirits; these may have been the ones closest to her. Most unusually, the grave contained 50 tortoise shells, along with limb bones from the tortoises. Tortoises are solitary animals, so collecting this many would have been a task of some magnitude.
9. Wooden Henge Among Stones
Stonehenge is not the only "henge" on the block anymore; in 2009, archaeologists found another stone circle about a mile away. In 2010, they discovered another circle, made of wooden timbers, just half a mile away. This "wooden henge" was formed of 24 posts up to 10 feet (3 meters) high, about the size of Stonehenge [source: CNN]. Researchers using state-of-the-art imaging technology discovered the wooden henge while exploring Salisbury Plain, about 90 miles west of London. Scientists believe it was built about 4,500 years ago. Like Stonehenge, mystery surrounds who built the wooden henge and why, although many theories abound. Was it a temple, or an astronomical observatory? Some archaeologists say findings of additional structures in the area lend credence to the idea that this was a funerary complex.
8. Inscribed Slate from Jamestown
In 2009, archaeologists sifting through a 400-year-old well used by colonists in the English settlement of Jamestown, Va., discovered a piece of roofing slate inscribed with words and drawings. The markings seem to depict plants and animals found in the New World, as well as a man in a ruffled collar smoking a pipe and a reference to a "minion," which could mean a small cannon. The slate also bears scratches that represent the coat of arms of King James I, meaning the maker perhaps was affiliated with the government. Paper was expensive in the 17th century, and people of this period often drew on slate tiles; they could erase the markings and re-use the slate. Historians say the water in the well where the slate was found went foul around 1611, and the colonists used it as a trash pit [source: NG] Archaeologists have now brought to light a variety of objects that give them greater understanding of life in Jamestown's first years, including a baby toy that is a combination whistle and teething stick.
7. Family Burial
The earliest known burial of a nuclear family together in the same grave was discovered in Germany in 2005. DNA testing confirmed that a group of adults and children found buried in a huddle were indeed a mother, father and two sons. The family may have been killed in a massacre about 4,600 years ago [source: NG]. Other graves from the same time were found at the site, and all the bodies exhibited evidence of violence; one had an arrow lodged in a vertebra. Scientists say the communal burial shows that family was already playing an important role in human society in the late Stone Age. The positions of the bodies gave scientists a clue that something was different in this grave. Usually, Stone Age people buried men and women facing in different directions, but in this family's grave, the children were facing the adults, indicating a relationship.
6. Ancient Boats
The discovery of ancient watercraft may point to a Neolithic maritime trade between Korea and Japan. In the summer of 2010, archaeologists dug from the mud a nearly 6-foot (1.8 meters)-long pine oar in a riverbed in Changnyeong, South Korea, about 140 miles (240 kilometers) southeast of Seoul [source: Vancouver Sun]. In 2005, archaeologists found fragments of two ancient pine canoes, each about 13 feet (nearly 12 meters) long, dating back around 8,000 years. The oar is believed to date from the same period, and its preservation was probably due to being embedded in so many layers of mud that no oxygen could reach it. In Japan, archaeologists found a similar boat in 1999 on the coast of the Sea of Japan; it is believed to be about 6,000 years old.
5. First Shoes
Maybe "Sex and the City" shoe addict Carrie Bradshaw and her friends have a common ancestor. Tianyuan 1 was discovered in China in the 1920s, but it took until 2009 for scientists to conclude that this person -- East Asia's oldest modern human -- was one of the first to wear shoes. Scientists believe Tianyuan 1 wore some sort of foot protection about 40,000 years ago because of the shape of his toe bones, which are slimmer that those of earlier humans [source: Archaeology. When a person walks barefoot, the middle toes curl into the ground to push off when stepping, but a person wearing shoes steps off with his big toe, resulting in more development on that digit, as exhibited by Tianyuan 1. Since toe bone development occurs during childhood, this means Tianyuan 1 wore baby shoes.
4. The Hill of Tara Henge
Thousands of years before St. Patrick preached to the Irish and Brian Boru set his throne upon Tara Hill, the site held spiritual importance to the ancient Irish. Archaeologists working the site in advance of highway construction in 2007 discovered a huge henge -- or ceremonial circle -- dating from the Iron Age, about 2000 BCE. The site is just over a mile (1.61 meters) from the Hill of Tara, legendary hill where St. Patrick converted the native peoples to Christianity and where the kings of the fifth century established their seat of power. Searchers have found artifacts on the Hill of Tara dating as far back as 3,000 BCE [source: Archaeology]. Supporters of Irish heritage tried in vain to stop construction on the M3 highway through the area, but it was built anyway after much furor.
3. Egypt's Lost City
In an area of Egypt once thought too barren and treacherous to have ever been settled, archaeologists have discovered traces of an ancient city that lay along a heavily traveled trade route. During a chaotic period in Egyptian history from about 1650 to 1550 BCE, the city of Umm Mawagir thrived as headquarters for the bureaucrats who controlled a lucrative trade route between Thebes (present day Luxor) and points west. The trade route was called the Girga Road, and it was in use long before the city of Umm Mawagir was built. Along the road, archaeologists have discovered the earliest known examples of writing in a phonetic alphabet -- two inscribed pieces of ceramics about 3,800 years old [source: Yale]. The name Umm Mawagir -- it's just a nickname. No one has yet discovered what the city's real name was, so the archaeologists christened it for one of their first findings on the site, a huge commercial bakery. Umm Mawagir means "mother of bread molds" in Arabic.
2. Oldest Written Document from Jerusalem
It's no small achievement to be the oldest anything found in Jerusalem, a city that has been a center of activity for millennia. But in 2010, archaeologists announced that they had found the oldest written document in the city -- a clay fragment dating back to the 14th century B.C. [source: Jerusalem Post]. The tiny fragment, which appears to have been part of a larger tablet, bears Akkadian words written in cuneiform. Scientists say the content appears insignificant, but the high quality of the writing indicates it was probably done for a royal household. This points to Jerusalem's importance as far back as the late Bronze Age, long before King David made it his capital about 600 B.C.
1. The Hobbit
A diminutive skeleton found in 2003 on the Indonesian island of Flores set off a debate of huge proportions among scientists -- is she Homo sapien, or a modern human, or is she a separate species of human? More bones were found from additional individuals, the most recent dating from about 12,000 years ago [source: Smithsonian]. At first, everyone was convinced that the tiny female, about half the size of humans today, was a separate species. They named the new species Homo floresiensis and nicknamed their find the "Hobbit" after the small beings in J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings." But not all scientists are convinced the Hobbit is a separate species. They say it is just a small Homo sapien, perhaps with microcephaly, a condition in which the brain does not develop in a normal manner. The skeptics say creatures with brains as small as the Hobbit's could never have crafted the tools found nearby. As of 2010, the debate continues.
Lots More Information
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- Barry, Carolyn. "Earliest Known Nuclear Family Found; Died in Massacre?" National Geographic News. Nov. 17, 2008. (Aug. 30, 2010). http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/11/081117-stone-age-family.html
- Banyasz, Malin Grunberg. "Earliest Shoes/ Tianyuan Cave, China." Archaelogy. January/February, 2009. (08/30/2010). http://www.archaeology.org/0901/topten/earliest_shoes.html
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- Neely, Paula. "Mysterious Inscribed Slate Discovered at Jamestown." National Geographic News. June 8, 2009. (Aug. 30, 2010). http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/06/090608-jamestown-slate.html
- Pringle, Heather. "The Lost City. A discovery in the desert could rewrite the history of ancient Egypt." Yale Alumni Magazine. September/October, 2010. (Aug. 30, 2010). http://yalealumnimagazine.com/issues/2010_09/egypt3841.html
- ScienceDaily. "Researchers Unearth 4,300-Year-Old Chimpanzee Technology; 'Stone Hammers' Fuel Evolutionary Debate." Feb. 13, 2007. (Aug. 30, 2010). http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/02/070212184608.htm
- ScienceDaily. " Skeleton Of 12,000-Year-Old Shaman Discovered Buried With Leopard, 50 Tortoises And Human Foot." Nov. 5, 2008. (Aug. 30, 2010). http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/11/081105083721.htm
- Spodak, Cassie. "Pieces of ship made in 1700s found at ground zero building site." CNN. July 15, 2010. (Aug. 30, 2010). http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/07/15/new.york.ground.zero.ship/index.html
- The Vancouver Sun. "South Korea archaeologists uncover 7,000-year-old oar." Aug. 17, 2010. (Aug. 30, 2020). http://www.vancouversun.com/technology/science/South+Korea+archaeologists+uncover+year/3409058/story.html
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