Navigating the Past

Kevin Lewis

April 20, 2024

Did Homo erectus Have Language? The Seafaring Inference
Rudolf Botha
Cambridge Archaeological Journal, forthcoming

Various authors have claimed over the years that Homo erectus had language. Since there is no direct evidence about the matter, this claim represents the conclusion of a multi-step composite inference drawn from putative non-linguistic attributes of the species. Three maritime behaviours are central among these attributes: crossing open seas to get to insular islands such as Flores in the Indian ocean and Crete in the Mediterranean; building complex watercraft for the crossings; and undertaking navigation in making the crossings. Dubbing it the ‘Seafaring Inference’, the present article reconstructs and appraises the way in which Barham and Everett use the Seafaring Inference to build a case for the claim that Homo erectus had language. This composite inference starts from certain lithic objects found on Flores and ends, via six simple inferences, with the conclusion that Homo erectus had a form of language. The main finding of the article is that this composite inference is flawed in including a simple inference which is unsound and, accordingly, cannot be used to make a strong case for the claim that Homo erectus had language. There is a less well-developed variant of the Seafaring Inference which proceeds from the recovery of lithic objects on Crete. This variant is found to be multiply flawed, there being several simple unsound simple inferences among its components.

First evidence for human occupation of a lava tube in Arabia: The archaeology of Umm Jirsan Cave and its surroundings, northern Saudi Arabia
Mathew Stewart et al.
PLoS ONE, April 2024

Recent advances in interdisciplinary archaeological research in Arabia have focused on the evolution and historical development of regional human populations as well as the diverse patterns of cultural change, migration, and adaptations to environmental fluctuations. Obtaining a comprehensive understanding of cultural developments such as the emergence and lifeways of Neolithic groups has been hindered by the limited preservation of stratified archaeological assemblages and organic remains, a common challenge in arid environments. Underground settings like caves and lava tubes, which are prevalent in Arabia but which have seen limited scientific exploration, offer promising opportunities for addressing these issues. Here, we report on an archaeological excavation and a related survey at and around Umm Jirsan lava tube in the Harrat Khaybar, north-western Saudi Arabia. Our results reveal repeated phases of human occupation of the site ranging from at least the Neolithic through to the Chalcolithic/Bronze Age. Pastoralist use of the lava tube and surrounding landscape is attested in rock art and faunal records, suggesting that Umm Jirsan was situated along a pastoral route linking key oases. Isotopic data indicates that herbivores primarily grazed on wild grasses and shrubs rather than being provided with fodder, while humans had a diet consistently high in protein but with increasing consumption of C3 plants through-time, perhaps related to the emergence of oasis agriculture. While underground and naturally sheltered localities are globally prominent in archaeology and Quaternary science, our work represents the first such combined records for Saudi Arabia and highlight the potential for interdisciplinary studies in caves and lava tubes.

Byzantine plate and Frankish mines: The provenance of silver in north-west European coinage during the Long Eighth Century (c. 660–820)
Jane Kershaw et al.
Antiquity, April 2024, Pages 502-517

The late seventh-century introduction of silver coinage marked a transformation in the economy of north-west Europe, yet the source(s) of the silver bullion behind this change remains uncertain. Here, the authors use combined lead isotope and trace element analysis of 49 coins from England, Frisia and Francia to provide new insights into north-European silver sources during the ‘long eighth century’ (c. AD 660–820). The results indicate an early reliance on recycled Byzantine silver plate, followed by a shift c. AD 750 to newly mined metal from Francia. This change indicates the strong role of the Carolingian state in the control of metal sources and economic structures across the North Sea zone.

Early Beringian Traditions: Functioning and Economy of the Stone Toolkit from Swan Point CZ4b, Alaska
Eugénie Gauvrit Roux et al.
American Antiquity, forthcoming

The pressure knapping technique develops circa 25,000 cal BP in Northeast Asia and excels at producing highly standardized microblades. Microblade pressure knapping spreads throughout most of Northeast Asia up to the Russian Arctic, and Alaska, in areas where the human presence was unknown. Swan Point CZ4b is the earliest uncontested evidence of human occupation of Alaska, at around 14,000 cal BP. It yields a pressure microblade component produced with the Yubetsu method, which is widespread in Northeast Asia during the Late Glacial period. Through the techno-functional analysis of 634 lithic pieces from this site, this study seeks to identify the techno-economical purposes for which the Yubetsu method was implemented. Data show that the microblade production system is related to an economy based on the planning of future needs, which is visible through blanks standardization, their overproduction, their functional versatility, and the segmentation of part of the chaîne opératoire. This expresses the efficiency and economic value of the microblade production system. The flexible use of pressure microblades identified at Swan Point CZ4b is also found in Japan, Korea, Kamchatka, and the North Baikal region, suggesting that their modes of use accompany the spread of early microblade pressure knapping over an immense territory across Beringia.

Shepherding the past: High-resolution data on Neolithic Southern Iberian livestock management at Cueva de El Toro (Antequera, Málaga)
Alejandro Sierra et al.
PLoS ONE, April 2024

The feeding strategies of the first domesticated herds had to manage the risks arising from the novelty of livestock practices in territories often distant from the animals’ primary habitats. The Iberian Peninsula is characterised by a great diversity of environments, which undoubtedly influenced these dynamics. At the beginning of the Neolithic period these led the possibility to combine diverse livestock farming practices based on different animal feeding habits. This variability is also consistent with the rythms of adoption of domesticated animals, being later on the northern area. In order to address this issue, this work focuses on the dietary regimes of early sheep herds from southern Iberia, an area for which information is currently scarce. This study utilises high-resolution radiocarbon dating and stable isotope data on teeth to investigate sheep husbandry management strategies in Cueva de El Toro (Antequera, Málaga). The radiocarbon dates on the analysed remains evidenced they were deposited at the site over a short period, supporting the recurrent use of the cave. The sequential analysis of oxygen and carbon isotopes in tooth enamel reveals distinct livestock management strategies, reproduction patterns, feeding habits, and mobility during this short period. This variability demonstrates that livestock management practices in the western Mediterranean are more diverse than previously considered. Furthermore, these findings support the hypothesis that early Neolithic communities in the southern Iberian Peninsula were able to adopt different feeding strategies within the same herd, depending on their ecological and productive needs.


from the


A weekly newsletter with free essays from past issues of National Affairs and The Public Interest that shed light on the week's pressing issues.


to your National Affairs subscriber account.

Already a subscriber? Activate your account.


Unlimited access to intelligent essays on the nation’s affairs.

Subscribe to National Affairs.