News in brief: Neanderthals and Waterloo

A quick round-up of news stories from around the globe, including a study of how Neanderthals spoke, an analysis of a chesnut tree from the Battle of Waterloo, and the discovery of stone artefacts in South America dating to around 24,000 years ago.

Neanderthal speech

A study recently published in Nature Ecology and Evolution (, has used computerised tomography (CT) scans and a model from the field of auditory bioengineering to test the range of sounds that Neanderthals may have been able to hear and produce. In addition to discovering that Neanderthal hearing was particularly well geared towards consonant production – indicating that their speech probably included a greater use of consonants – researchers found that they were sensitive to a wider range of frequencies and sounds than the older hominins at Sima de los Huesos that resembled modern humans more closely. This suggests that Neanderthals would have been capable of a vocal communication system that was as efficient and complex as modern human speech.

Fallen veteran of Waterloo

One of the last witnesses to the Battle of Waterloo finally succumbed to a storm in the early hours of 12 March 2021. The chestnut tree, thought to have been planted between 1675 and 1775, stood outside the walls of the Hougoumont farm complex in the so-called ‘killing zone’: a scene of bloody fighting in 1815. A recent metal-detector scan of the tree by the charity Waterloo Uncovered, who have been excavating on the site since 2015, revealed the likely presence of embedded musket balls. Their Archaeology Director, Professor Tony Pollard of the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at the University of Glasgow, said, ‘I’m sad to see the loss of this tree, one of only three left from a forest standing at the time of the battle. But it’s also an opportunity for archaeologists. We can now carry out further investigation to extract these artefacts, and a dendrochronological examination can confirm the tree’s age.’

PHOTO: Mike Greenwood, Waterloo Uncovered.
TEXT: Mike Greenwood.

An unusual object

Excavations at Vale da Pedra Furada, an open-air site in north-eastern Brazil, have produced a wealth of stone artefacts dated to the late Pleistocene. Among the thousands of quartz and quartzite objects was an unusual sandstone plate, measuring 21×18.5×2.9cm, and dated to c.24,000 years ago. The plaque was shaped into a hexagonal structure and appears to have been used to produce two different objects in succession, although its function is still unknown. No object quite like it has been found at any other sites in the region, and it is believed to be one of the oldest – if not the oldest – artefact made using bifacial production found in South America. Furthermore, its existence represents a significant piece of evidence in the debate surrounding the presence of people with a rich material culture and complex toolkit in South America at the start of the Last Glacial Maximum or earlier.