World news in brief: From an Ice Age mystery to early cattle in the Americas

An Ice Age mystery

In 1999, archaeologists working in Hohle Fels cave in southern Germany discovered the head of a 35,000-year-old ivory figurine, believed to depict a horse. Recent excavations have now produced part of the figurine’s missing body, which has thrown this interpretation into question. The newly discovered fragment, which measures c.4cm long and 2.5cm tall and makes up part of the animal’s neck and shoulder, perfectly matches the head found more than 20 years ago. However, the resulting animal is clearly not equine in nature: archaeologists are currently divided between cave bear and cave lion as the most likely contenders. The excavator, Nicholas Conard from the University of Tübingen, argues that the figurine is most likely a depiction of a bear. A search of other ivory recovered from the site identified several more small fragments belonging to the figurine, but it remains incomplete. Perhaps the discovery of further missing parts in the future will shed clearer light on what it represents. In the meantime, the newly expanded figurine has been placed back on display in the Prehistoric Museum in Blaubeuren.

Australia’s underwater archaeology

Marine archaeology off the coast of north-west Australia has confirmed the existence of the deepest ancient Aboriginal site currently known in the country. Research in 2019 as part of the Deep History of Sea Country Project identified two underwater sites on the Murujuga coastline: Cape Bruguieres Channel and Flying Foam Passage (CWA 103). Divers discovered more than 200 artefacts at Cape Bruguieres, but just a single stone tool at Flying Foam. In 2022, the project returned to the site to find out more. They recovered four more stone tools, confirming Flying Foam Passage’s status as an ancient site occupied at least 9,000 years ago and possibly significantly earlier. Study of the site’s geology also confirmed that it was once the location of a freshwater spring. The results have been published in Quaternary Science Reviews ( To find out more about the project visit

Early cattle in the Americas

Historical records suggest that the earliest cattle in the Americas originated from a few hundred animals brought from Europe to the Caribbean by Spanish colonists in the early 16th century. However, the authors of a new paper published in Scientific Reports ( suspected that this was not the full story. They compared DNA from cattle bones from several archaeological sites in the Caribbean and Mexico with modern breeds around the world. As expected, many shared similarities with European cattle, but the analysis also revealed an example of one genetic sequence that is virtually unknown except in Africa. This came from a sample dating to the 17th century, more than 100 years before official documents record the arrival of African cattle, suggesting that the the early cattle of the Americas were more diverse than written records indicate; further research is clearly required.

Text: Amy Brunskill / Image: University of Tübingen, R Litzenberg