News in brief: Italy, Persia, North America

Late Neanderthal tooth

Investigation into a canine tooth found at Riparo Broion, a rock shelter in Vicenza, north-eastern Italy, has revealed that it may represent an important piece of direct evidence for late Neanderthal occupation in the area. The tooth was discovered in 2018 in a late Mousterian level, with archaeology from the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition. This was an important period when modern humans were arriving in Europe and, until the demise of Neanderthals around 40,000 years ago, potentially interacting with them. Analysis of the canine determined that it belonged to a Neanderthal child who lived c.48,000 years ago, possibly making them one of the last Neanderthals surviving in northern Italy. The results of the study have been published in the Journal of Human Evolution (

Smoking sumac

Image: © 2020 Brownstein, Tushingham, Damitio, Nguyen, and Gang
Image: © 2020 Brownstein, Tushingham, Damitio, Nguyen, and Gang

Indigenous North American communities are known to have smoked more than 100 different plant species, but the arrival of European colonists and the introduction of domesticated trade tobacco changed their smoking practices. Korey Brownstein at the University of Chicago and his colleagues at Washington State University have used metabolomics (the study of small molecules called metabolites) to examine two pipes, one that pre-dated contact with Europeans and one from the late 18th century. Evidence of nicotine was found in both, but the pre-contact pipe contained evidence of the tobacco species Nicotiana quadrivalvis, a species that is now very rare in Washington state, as well as Rhus glabra, a species of sumac that was often added to tobacco for medicinal reasons and to improve the taste. This discovery reportedly represents the first scientific evidence of a non-tobacco plant in an archaeological pipe.

Chahak’s chromium steel

A new discovery, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science (, has revealed that chromium steel was first made in Persia, almost a thousand years earlier than was previously believed. Chromium steel, sometimes known as ‘tool steel’ because of its suitability for use in the creation of tools, was thought to be an invention of the early 20th century, but the investigation carried out by researchers from University College London indicate that this was not the case. Through the study of medieval Persian manuscripts, researchers identified the archaeological site of Chahak in southern Iran, which is described in multiple sources as having been a famous steel-production centre. Chemical analysis of metalworking material from the site found evidence of the deliberate addition of a chromium mineral in steel production as far back as the 11th century AD, making this the first intentionally produced chromium steel.