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Ecology

Ancient Celts Decapitated Their Enemies and Saved Their Heads, Archaeologists Say

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celtic helmet

(Credit: Stefano Venturi/Shutterstock)

(Inside Science) — In a finding that mirrors the fantasy of HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” French researchers working at the site of a third-century B.C. settlement have discovered evidence that Celtic communities decapitated and preserved human heads.

A team of archaeologists unearthed fragments of human skulls that they believe confirm a practice of deliberate decapitation. They concluded that the skulls were either war trophies or the result of a still little understood ritual practice. In the first scenario, the victors — Iron Age Celtic warriors — may have taken the heads of their enemies, embalmed them, and prominently displayed the grisly objects within their settlements’ fortified walls and gates.

I’ll Have Your Head

However, there was little tangible evidence for deliberate decapitation, despite mention of it in several classical texts — until now. The researchers found the skull bones, along with animal bones and metal weapons, inside the settlement along the base of the fortified wall and near what has been interpreted as a gate. The skull fragments, including vertebrae, had distinctive cut marks that suggest the victims were deliberately decapitated.

“This is an important and useful piece of work,” said Ian Armit, a professor of archaeology at the University of Leicester. Although he was not involved in the project, he has written a lot about the subject in his own research. “It corroborates the classical sources.”

This settlement is located in southern France along the Mediterranean coast, about 80 miles west from modern-day Marseille. During the Iron Age, it was the site of a large Celtic settlement from the sixth century B.C. to the first century A.D. Since its discovery in 2000, the hilltop site has been the scene of extensive excavations.

During the third century B.C., Celtic-speaking peoples inhabited large swathes of Western Europe, including southern France. They practiced agriculture, were skilled in metalwork and had a society organized along hierarchical lines. They were also renowned as warriors. In fact, many classical sources focus on their combative history, including headhunting.

The first-century B.C Greek authors Strabo and Diodorus of Sicily both mention this practice. In his most famous work, Bibliotheca Historica, Diodorus wrote, “When their enemies fall they cut off their heads and fasten them about the necks of their horses. … The heads of their most distinguished enemies they embalm in cedar-oil and carefully preserve in a chest.”

But with little physical evidence for the practice, researchers had always approached the subject with a healthy dose of caution.

Headed for Glory

This new study, however, indicates the validity of deliberate decapitation and embalming. “It’s the first time that decapitated crania of Celtic peoples have been chemically analyzed,” said Peter Gosnell, an archaeologist from the University of d’Avignon who helped perform the chemical analysis.

Gosnell and his colleagues analyzed 11 human skull fragments — mostly mandibles and fragments of skull — from a much larger assemblage. After an analysis of cut marks found on the bones, the researchers analyzed them chemically. Six of 11 fragments of bone exhibited chemical traces of resin from trees belonging to the Pinaceae family, which includes the conifers.

The researchers found no traces of resin on the animal bones located alongside the human remains, strengthening the likelihood that the skull fragments were deliberately coated with resin in order to preserve them.

Gosnell said that the resin found on the skulls means that the Celtic people attempted to preserve the decapitated heads for posterity.

The question of why Celtic warriors took heads, of course, continues to be debated. Was it solely a practice associated with warfare, as the classical texts largely assert? Was it a ritual or even religious practice? Were the heads actually revered ancestors?

The researchers intend to use techniques such as isotopic analysis or pollen analysis to further interpret archaeological materials found near the site. The potential of such techniques to verify archaeological and historic evidence, Gosnell emphasized, is “absolutely huge for the field.”

The scientists detailed their findings in the January 2019 issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

 

[This article first appeared on Inside Science]



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Japan’s Hayabusa2 Is Going to Shoot an Asteroid Tonight

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Did Huge Volcanic Eruptions Help Kill Off The Dinosaurs?

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A large series of volcanic eruptions created India’s Deccan Plateau right around the same time dinosaurs were going extinct. (Planet Labs, Inc/Wikimedia Commons)

Nearly 66 million years ago, most living things on Earth died. Most researchers agree that the prime culprit was an asteroid that struck Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, leading to the mass extinction that took out most of the dinosaurs. But in a new research published Thursday, two independent research groups are making the case that enormous volcanic eruptions in India likely contributed to the demise of life, too.

The findings shed light on not only one of the most famous events in Earth’s history, but also the potential consequences of current environmental change, the researchers say.

“Understanding past extinction events — their causes, and eventual climatic and biotic recoveries — is crucial … when trying to wrap our heads around the many possible outcomes of our current trajectory towards disastrous climate change, ecosystem destruction and potential mass extinction,” Blair Schoene, a geologist at Princeton University in New Jersey, who led one of two new studies, said in a statement.

Death Debate

Geologic evidence uncovered in the ’80s and ’90s led researchers to conclude that a giant asteroid’s collision with Earth caused the extinction event. That setoff a worldwide hunt for the impact site. Amd geologists announced they’d finally discovered the Chicxulub crater in 1991.

“Despite this evidence, the impactor hypothesis has met with some skepticism because many extinction events roughly coincide with the [explosion] of enormous volumes of volcanic rock onto and into Earth’s crust,” explains Seth Burgess, a volcanologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California, who was not involved in the research, in a related perspective piece.

That lingering debate has led other scientists to study India’s Deccan plateau, an enormous landmass extending east and south of Mumbai, to create a precise timeline of the volcanic eruptions. For the latest analysis, Schoene and a research team studied uranium and lead isotopes — commonly used to date rocks — that they found in zircon mineral crystals buried beneath the lava flows. It revealed four high-volume eruptions that happened between 66.4 and 65.6 million years ago. The data show that the second of these eruptions likely began tens of thousands of years before the mass extinction event, the researchers report in the journal Science.

Unending Eruption

In a second study also out Thursday in Science, another team used a different technique to corroborate the finding. Here, the researchers assessed argon isotopes to date the eruption of lavas in the area. Their analysis also showed the eruptions began thousands of years before the mass extinction. However, the investigation revealed a more or less continuous eruption that lasted for about a million years. Although the finding contrasts with the punctuated eruptions Schoene and team discovered, both studies agree the Deccan eruptions likely played a role in the mass extinction event.

Given the timing of the eruption events and the meteor impact, it’s possible the two triggers delivered a double-whammy deathblow.

“Both of our datasets suggest a coincidence between the onset of Deccan eruptions and Late Cretaceous climate change, which has been attributed to the weakening of Late Cretaceous ecosystems, possibly making them more susceptible to the effects from the meteor impact,” Courtney Sprain, a geoscientist who led the second study while at the University of California Berkeley, said in a statement.



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A New Species of Tiny Tyrannosaur Helps Explain the Rise of T. rex

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Moros intrepidus, a new species of tyrannosaur whose name means “harbinger of doom,” weighed just 200 pounds as a fully grown adult. (Credit: Jorge Gonzalez, Copyright: Lindsay Zanno)

Scientists have discovered a new species of tiny tyrannosaur that lived some 95 million years ago in what’s now Utah. The find helps fill a frustrating gap in the fossil record at a critical time when tyrannosaurs were evolving from small, speedy hunters, into the bone-crushing apex predators we know so well.

The new dinosaur has been dubbed Moros intrepidus, and its name means “harbinger of doom.” The creature, known only from a leg bone and some various teeth, weighed under 200 pounds as a fully-grown adult. It was a specialist predator and scientists say it was fast enough to easily run down prey while avoiding other meat-eaters.

Their discovery was published Thursday in the journal Nature Communications Biology.

The Tiniest Tyrant

Tyrannosaurus rex was one of the most terrifying creatures to ever live. Few larger predators have walked the Earth. But tyrannosaurs – a group including T. rex and dozens of relatives and ancestors – weren’t always so awe-inspiring.

Tyrannosaurs roamed the planet for more than 100 million years. And for much of that time, the two-legged predators were bit players in Earth’s ecosystems. The earliest of their kind stood shorter than a human. They were fleet-footed and relied on their brains and strong senses to hunt down prey.

Meanwhile, during that same time in the Jurassic period, another kind of dinosaur, the allosaurs, which look like T. rex to the untrained eye, grew as big as a school bus and hunted giant, long-necked sauropods. But a big change was coming. A period of intense volcanic eruptions rocked the end of the Jurassic 145 million years ago. The allosaurs and other large dinosaurs started dying out.

Then, over a relatively short period, tyrannosaurs in North America evolved into the beasts we now imagine. And by the time an asteroid killed off the non-avian dinosaurs 66 million years ago, a full-grown T. rex weighed in at some nine tons and spanned a whopping 40 feet from snout to tail. How that happened is one of the biggest unanswered questions for dinosaur experts like Lindsay Zanno, a paleontologist at North Carolina State University.

That’s why Zanno and her team have spent more than a decade systematically searching North America’s rocks for fossils from this era. As she puts it, she wants to know how tyrannosaurs went from “wall flowers to prom kings.”

In particular, they’ve been combing the deserts of Utah near a giant 1,000-foot-tall rock formation the team calls the Cliffs of Insanity. The name sprung from the realization that one day they’d have to climb them looking for fossils.

“We have this data desert in between these small-bodied tyrannosaurs that lived in North American during the Jurassic and the sudden appearance of these large bodied, bone crushing tyrannosaurs that lived here in the Late Cretaceous,” she says. “And there’s no record of how we made this transition.”

Scientists already have some ideas about what may have happened. But there’s scant fossil evidence to confirm or refute their theories. It may be that amid the mini-mass extinction, dinosaurs and other animals migrated across a land bridge from Asia into North America, like our own ancestors eventually would. The small, ancient tyrannosaurs might have simply been following their prey: relatives of triceratops, which were also much smaller at the time.

“We know that there’s this ecological transition happening in this time when a lot of dinosaurs living in North America disappear and go extinct, and a lot of other animals suddenly appear that have their closest relatives in Asia,” says Zanno. “They become established here in North America and then they go on to evolve into these iconic species that we know and love like Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops.”

Mind the Gap

One of the major hang-ups in deciphering what happened has been a 70-million-year gap in North American tyrannosaur fossils during the time when this evolution was taking place. The new tiny tyrannosaur, Moros, narrows that gap by 15 million years.

And the team’s analysis of the new animal and its relatives hints that tyrannosaurs evolved into giants in no more than 16 million years. Though it could have happened much faster.

Tyrannosaurs were opportunistic in their rise to power,” Zanno says. “Moros tells us that the T . rex lineage moved here from Asia and remained small until they were able to take over ecosystems.”

Still, this doesn’t answer the question of why exactly all this change took place. Zanno says finding that answer is part of a decade-long project still in the works.



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