Archaeology Roundup: sentences, Cleopatra, and … milk?

While SciTech usually sticks with advancements that are very Here and Now, this article is here to remind everyone that some elements of science are very much about how much we discover about the past.

Enter archaeology, the study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and analysis of artifacts and other physical remains.

This year has been huge in terms of archaeological finds, both because of the dedication of archeologists across the globe, and strange weather conditions due to climate change revealing new dig sites. So, let’s jump in to some of the more interesting finds of 2022:

The first use of milk

Has anyone else sat around and wondered when and why humans decided to start drinking the milk of other animals? It’s a distinctly human thing, and even then a large portion of humans can’t. Regardless, it prompted the development of the entire dairy industry, but the question remains — when did that start?

While the BBC estimates that humans as a species were using milk around 10,000 years ago (which is fairly recent, given our species is around 300,000 years old), new research methods have mapped the first use of milk in Central Europe by ancient humans to around 7,400 years ago. Indeed, HeritageDaily explains that researchers were able to date fat traces from the sides of 4,300 pottery artifacts found throughout 70 locations in central Europe. Such information helps explain changes in human food practices, although data does show that this use wasn’t widely adopted, with only 65 percent of locations showing evidence of milk use.

Similar analysis has been done in the past in South Europe, with Micheal Marshall of BBC explaining that people were making cheese in Southern Europe around 7,200 years ago, indicating that cheese production came very soon after humans began using milk. This analysis looked at the fatty acid remains on pottery, similar to milk studies in Central Europe.

However, Marshall notes, the use of milk did not mean that early humans were able to digest it. Europeans (and their descendants) tend to be able to digest milk past infancy because they have developed the ability to produce lactase, the enzyme that breaks down the lactose in milk, well into adulthood. However, Marshall notes, studies that date the first findings of this allele in the human genome date back to around 5,000 years ago for Southern Europe, and 3,000 years ago for Central Europe — meaning the first humans suffered thousands of years consuming milk while lactose intolerant.

Deciphering the first sentence written with an alphabet

While the first written language in human history is considered to be Sumerian, from around 3100 B.C.E. in ancient Mesopotamia, this language was a pictorial language consisting of symbols (called pictograms) that represented different words. Many other early languages, like Egyptian with their hieroglyphs, were also pictorial languages with thousands of characters that represented “things,” rather than an alphabet representing sounds.

The first language with an alphabet is considered to be the Canaanite alphabet, which had a small number of letters that correspond to basic spoken sounds. Sarah Cascone of Artnet explains that this language was spoken by the Canaanites, who were a Near Eastern people, and that their developments of the alphabet were first seen around 1800 B.C.E. This is hundreds of years before Phoenicians had their standard alphabet, who are often credited with inventing alphabet-based languages.

In 2016, an ivory comb was found at the Tel Lachish archeological site, but analysis of the comb under a microscope in 2022 is what led to the discovery of inscribed letters on the comb’s base. These letters formed the oldest decipherable full sentence, dated at 1700 B.C.E.

The message? Its 17 letters are not something grand or quotable – instead, it’s a warning against lice. It reads, “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard.”

Good to know that ancient peoples faced such relatable issues.

A lead on Cleopatra’s tomb

Finally, in what could be the find of the century, archeologists have found a strong lead on Cleopatra’s tomb. Sarah Kuta of the Smithsonian Magazine explains a recent find of a 4,300 foot long tunnel located 43 feet underground at Taposiris Magna, a temple dedicated to Osiris, the god of death. But why is this significant? This tunnel is described by its finder, Kathleen Martinez, as "an exact replica of Eupalinos Tunnel in Greece, which is considered as one of the most important engineering achievements of antiquity."

Cleopatra is thought to have been buried with her Roman lover Mark Antony after they both died by suicide in 30 B.C.E. This makes this tunnel, along with other findings like coins featuring Cleopatra VII and Alexander the Great, statues of the goddess Isis, and a cemetery of Greco-Roman-style mummies, strong indicators that this could be Cleopatra’s final resting place.

Cleopatra strongly associated herself with Isis, and as a temple to Isis’ husband, the location would have significance to her. Combine this with the strong Greco-Roman and Egyptian influences throughout the tunnel, and the location becomes more promising. This is a mindset shared by archaeologists, as Martinez has believed for years that Cleopatra is buried at this site. A well-known archeologist, Martinez has made many notable finds beyond this tunnel, but finding Cleopatra’s resting site would truly elevate her to one of the greats.

As noted by one of my favorite TikTokers covering archeological finds, it’s commonly believed that Cleopatra stated, “No man will ever find my tomb.” Well watch out, because here’s a woman who could!