From a 13,000-year-old brewery to a long-lost ancient city supposedly built by Trojan War captives, it was an eventful year for historical discoveries. As the year comes to a close, take a look back at some of the ways history made news this year.
1. A human jawbone becomes the earliest evidence for humans outside Africa.
Before this year, the oldest Homo sapiens fossil found outside Africa were estimated to be between 90,000 and 120,000 years old. But in January, a team of researchers revealed their discovery of an upper jawbone fossil at least 50,000 years older than that in a mountain cave in Israel, suggesting modern humans may have migrated out of Africa far earlier than once thought.
2. “Graffiti stone” found to be part of a Crusader-era altar.
Researchers at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem’s Old City got a big surprise in February when they examined the reverse side of a previously unremarkable large stone propped against a wall in the corner, where it had been scribbled on by tourists. In fact, the two-ton block was inscribed with intricate circles, and appeared to be part of a high altar created by medieval Crusaders in the early 12th century.
3. A truck drove through Peru’s ancient Nazca Lines—and researchers found 50 more of them.
The Nazca Lines, a set of mysterious ancient symbols carved into the desert in southern Peru by pre-Incan peoples starting some 2,000 years ago, sustained damage early in the year when a truck driver mistakenly plowed his rig into the UNESCO World Heritage site. In April, archaeologists using drones to map the ancient site announced they had discovered 50 previously unknown lines traced in the desert, but too fine to be seen with the naked eye.
4. A lost interview with a survivor of the last U.S. slave ship surfaced.
In the early 1930s, the writer Zora Neale Hurston tracked down and interviewed Cudjo Lewis, a former slave transported from his native Africa aboard the Clotilda, the last slave ship to reach the United States in 1860. Though publishers at the time turned down Hurston’s book Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” it was finally published in May, bringing Lewis’ story to a larger audience nearly a century after he spoke to Hurston.
5. Archaeologists found the oldest known examples of some of our favorite foods.
In Sicily, archaeologists found traces of olive oil on shards of pottery dating back to around 2000 B.C., while researchers in Egypt discovered a lumpy, bacteria-ridden substance inside some broken jars that turned out to be 3,300-year-old cheese. In case you needed something to wash that all down with, evidence of the world’s earliest known beer-making operation turned up inside a cave in Israel, suggesting humans may have invented agriculture just so they could brew beer.
6. An eight-year-old girl pulled a 1,000-year-old sword out of a lake in Sweden.
What did you do on your summer vacation? Young Saga Vanecek had the mother of all answers to that question this year, after she stepped on a rusty old piece of metal while playing in Vidöstern Lake. Museum experts estimated the sword she found is at least 1,000 years old, and may even date to the 5th or 6th century A.D., predating the Viking era by hundreds of years.
7. A deadly earthquake in Mexico led to the discovery of an ancient Aztec temple.
In the wake of the devastating quake of September 2017, archaeologists used radar to scan the 13th-century Teopanzolco pyramid south of Mexico City, dedicated to the Aztec rain god Tláloc, for potential damage. Instead, they found traces of an even older temple inside, thought to date back to 1150 A.D. Later in the year, another team of researchers confirmed the existence of a hidden tunnel underneath the Pyramid of the Moon in the ancient city of Teotihuacán, which they think its builders might have intended as a symbolic passage to the underworld.
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8. We got a lot more information about our ancient ancestors’ sex lives.
While we’ve known for a while that our modern human ancestors interbred with Neanderthals, we learned this year that they also slept around with the mysterious ancient human relatives known as the Denisovans. Adding to the growing impression that ancient hominins mixed and mingled with abandon, DNA evidence also revealed that early modern humans and Neanderthals had many more encounters than previously believed, and that Neanderthals and Denisovans also slept with each other.
9. Lasers revealed 60,000 previously undetected ancient Maya structures in Guatemala.
Using a technology called lidar (light detection and ranging), researchers scanned more than 800 miles of the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Petén, Guatemala and found tens of thousands of farms, houses and defensive structures, along with miles of roads and canals. The staggering find contradicted the assumption that Maya city-states in the area between 1000 B.C. and 1500 A.D. were isolated and sparsely populated, suggesting they housed more people and were far more interconnected than anyone suspected. “This is HOLY [expletive] territory,” tweeted one archaeologist about the discoveries.
10. Archaeologists found a horse and a gorgeous shrine frozen in the ashes of Pompeii.
Nearly 2,000 years after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius devastated the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, archaeologists made two amazing discoveries, starting with the intact body of an ancient horse. They also stumbled on an elaborate, perfectly preserved shrine and vibrantly colored wall paintings depicting an enchanted garden, hidden for centuries in the ash-covered ruins of a home that likely belonged to a wealthy Pompeiian family.
11. The world’s oldest intact shipwreck was located at the bottom of the Black Sea.
By the time an Anglo-Bulgarian research team located the wreck of an ancient Greek merchant ship off the Bulgarian coast, a lack of oxygen had preserved the vessel virtually intact—mast still standing and rudders in place—for more than 2,400 years. It’s one of some 60 wrecks, including Roman-era trading ships and a 17th-century Cossack fleet, that the team has discovered during its three-year mission to plumb the depths of the Black Sea using sonar and deep-diving robots.
12. Newly unearthed 4,500-year-old ramp system may shed light on how the pyramids were built.
A team of archaeologists in Egypt announced they had discovered the remains of a unique system, dating back at least as far as the reign of Pharaoh Khufu, that was used to haul stones out of an alabaster quarry at Hatnub, in Egypt’s Eastern Desert. Though the pyramids themselves were constructed mostly of limestone, not alabaster, the discovery supported longstanding theories that their builders might have used ramps and ropes to pull heavy stones over long distances.
13. An extremely rare early picture of Jesus Christ surfaced on the wall of an ancient Israeli church.
Found on the wall of a church amid the ruins of a Byzantine-era farming village in southern Israel, the previously unknown 1,500-year-old painting is a rare example of early Christian art found in the Holy Land. Once located above a Baptist font, it is believed to depict Christ at his baptism. But rather than the typical Western image with long, flowing hair that was established by the 6th century A.D., Jesus appears in this depiction with short, curly hair and no beard.
14. The lost Trojan city of Tenea was found in Greece.
In November, researchers in Greece announced they had uncovered the first archaeological evidence of the ancient city of Tenea, which according to historical Greek texts and myths was founded by a group of Trojan prisoners in the aftermath of their defeat in the Trojan War, and may have been the childhood home of Oedipus. In addition to several tombs filled with human remains and valuable grave goods, archaeologists found the remains of Tenea’s buildings, which contained the tombs of two fetuses and a coin collection spanning centuries.
15. Illuminating new facts revealed about mummies from Ancient Egypt to the Americas
By the time Egyptian officials cracked open the sarcophagus of a 3,000-year-old female mummy for the first time in front of international media in late November, it had already been a big year for mummy-related discoveries. In August, chemical analysis of what scientists thought was a naturally mummified corpse dating to 3700-3500 B.C. revealed traces of an embalming fluid strikingly similar to that used by the Egyptians in King Tut’s time, more than 1,500 years later. Also in November, news emerged that advanced DNA sequencing had revealed that the world’s oldest natural mummy, discovered in a cave in Nevada back in 1940, was definitely related to a modern Native American tribe. After a long legal battle, the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe finally reburied the Spirit Cave Mummy, which dates back 10,600 years, in a private ceremony.