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The way we were

Ancient humans created art, celebrated cultural traditions, and felt the adrenalin of fear and the solace of love —just like we do. But while a Clovis point may have been high-tech to people 13,000 years ago, even the most commonplace device of our age would blow their minds.

So, exactly how are scientists leveraging modern technology to learn more about our past?

Drones + drought = discovery

What drought reveals. Photographer Anthony Murphy discovered a 4500-year-old neolithic henge monument when flying his drone over in Ireland’s Boyne Valley during a severe drought. Courtesy Mythical Ireland.

Sometimes the best discoveries happen by accident. In fact, this is exactly how a drone pilot stumbled across a 4,500-year-old henge in Ireland.

Anthony Murphy is a photographer and journalist who runs the website Mythical Ireland. During a record-breaking drought, Murphy decided to take his drone out to survey the Boyne Valley. During his routine flyover, he noticed a giant circle in a farmer’s field.

The reason the drone was able to pick up evidence of the henge has to do with the monument’s initial construction. Ancient people created concentric circles by digging big posts into the earth. Eventually, the henge was abandoned or its builders burned it down.

The portion of the posts still in the ground rotted away, affecting the chemical makeup of the soil. When 2018’s historic drought hit the Emerald Isle, the dirt surrounding the long-gone posts retained more moisture and the plants growing there were able to survive better, leaving a distinctive mark on the land.

Out with the old?

Progress requires us to accept new developments. Sadly, this sometimes means that important parts of the past are forgotten. Finding a middle ground between the modern and the ancient world is a struggle for the people of Bengaluru, India. Once called Bangalore, this historic city is using technology to preserve inscription stones that date back to the 7th century.

<strong>Neglected no more.</strong> Activists in India are using modern tech to photograph, map, tag, and preserve ancient inscription stones that tell the history of Bengaluru. Courtesy PL Udaya Kumar. <a href='https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCW8JlhcWKY0y7GjApCIsMEg/videos'>(CC BY-SA 4.0)</a>These stones contain writings in Kannada, the local language. Many also have Tamil and Telugu notes on them. Each stone portrays an important story or historical event, with one proclaiming a certain king to be the “champion of mustaches.”

But the rapid pace of development has cast these stones aside. Many reside in parking lots or next to busy roads, neglected and left to disrepair. Local residents are now taking it upon themselves to save these historical objects. 

Two engineers are photographing, mapping, and tagging the granite stones with QR codes. They also endeavor to move them if they feel they aren’t safe in their current locations. The volunteer preservationists estimate that over 100 stones have already been lost. But by using high-resolution 3D optical scans to catalogue the inscription tablets, they believe they can perpetuate the unique history of their community.

Burning questions

Scientists have long known that ancient campfire sites can yield important discoveries that will help them better understand the historical world. But what about the fire itself? 

<strong>New studies of old campfires</strong> are revealing a wealth of information about cultural and environmental conditions in prehistoric societies. Courtesy Leiden University.Answering this question required the implementation of a computer model called fiReproxies. The scientists behind this project created the model to study the effect of ancient man-made fires on lithic artefacts such as stone tools. In essence, they were trying to study how aspects like campfire size, the amount of sediment between different occupations of the same campfire site, and different tool placements affected the distribution of fire proxies during a specific time period.

In the future, the scientists hope that this model can work with other tools to more fully comprehend the fire habits of ancient people.

Angkor water

Water woes. Angkor was once a thriving ancient Khmer empire in Cambodia, but a new computer simulation confirms that severe drought followed by intense flooding contributed to the city’s demise. Courtesy National Geographic.

Once home to up to one million people, the city of Angkor was among the largest cities in the world before the Industrial Revolution. While many factors likely contributed to Angkor’s downfall, one major cause could teach us all an important lesson: climate change.

Scientists have used a computer model to take a look at how rainfall may have played a role in Angkor’s demise. Despite having one of the most sophisticated water systems in the preindustrial world, Angkor simply was not prepared for strong monsoon rains alternating with severe drought.

The simulations showed that when water flow reached a specific level, earthen channels carrying the water began to erode. This caused an uneven flow, meaning that certain areas received too much water while others didn’t receive enough. Eventually, the entire system began to fail and the city was abandoned.

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