what cutting-edge science can tell us about the ancient past
the material objects of ancient cultures, remnants of constructions and buildings, and the remains of our own ancestors
There’s an often forensic process that goes on when you’re trying to reconstruct what life was like in the prehistoric era,
little microcosms of the culture of the time.
As well as the objects we find in graves, we’re able to extract ever more information from the bones themselves. For me, as a biological anthropologist, it’s been astonishing how the science around this has developed over the past 20 to 30 years.
You can’t ask it about symptoms
but most prehistoric people actually had much better teeth than ours because they didn’t have such a starchy, sugary diet.
By analysing his genome, geneticists have revealed that he probably had an unusual combination of dark skin and bright blue eyes. Being able to work that out from just a skeleton is utterly extraordinary.
But it does provide important strands of new evidence with the potential to answer some big questions, especially about mobility and migration. We should view it more as a tool for archaeologists to use – one that will hopefully help us see the picture more clearly.
You’ve been arguing about this for ages. Well, now we’ve got the answer.” Not surprisingly, archaeologists have responded: “Hang on a minute – first you need to learn a bit about archaeology and the kinds of questions we’re asking.”
itt-Rivers was very influenced by 19th-century evolutionary theory and biology,
For instance, Bronze Age people in Britain obviously had a different culture from the Neolithic people who preceded them. But where did they pick up this culture from? Pitt-Rivers suggested that there had effectively been a population replacement – that Bronze Age culture was actually brought in by a whole load of new people
As a 19th-century antiquarian, he couldn’t stomach the idea that a man might be buried with jewellery.
In the book, I talk about the need to avoid seeing discoveries through our own current cultural lens – to accept that there may have been many more diverse identities in the past than perhaps we understand today, for example