World News: Saudia Arabia, South Africa, and Russia

The latest stories in archaeology from around the world, including the discovery of the oldest monumental landscape, new evidence of early human behaviour in South Africa, and the analysis of the prehistoric Shigir Idol.

The meaning of mustatils?

Mustatils are long, rectangular prehistoric stone structures found across north-western Saudi Arabia. Based on their unusual features, they have previously been interpreted as ritual monuments, but until recently they have never been studied in depth. Now a project carried out by researchers from the University of Western Australia and funded by the Royal Commission for AlUla has recorded more than 1,000 mustatils across 200,000km2 of land. This has nearly doubled the number previously known.

Photo: AAKSA and Royal Commission for AlUla.

The full results, which were published in Antiquity, suggest that mustatils are much more complex than originally thought, having entryways, chambers, orthostats, and elongated courtyards. Their exact purpose remains uncertain, but it does seem they provided a ritual function, with their appearance over a wide geographic area providing evidence of how prehistoric communities in this region probably shared a common culture or belief system.

Fire and stone at Wonderwerk Cave

The recent scientific analysis of material from Wonderwerk Cave in the Kalahari Desert, South Africa, has provided new evidence of early human behaviour (the results of which were recently published in Quaternary Science Reviews). Using palaeomagnetism to assess the age of some of the Oldowan stone tools from the cave, the team found that they probably date to 1.8 million years ago, representing the earliest-known hominin occupation of a cave associated with this industry.

The team also re-dated burnt deposits from the Acheulean layer of the cave. Previous analysis had suggested a date of c.1 million years ago, which was questioned by critics. This new dating, however, using cosmogenic isotope analysis, confirms a date of at least 900,000 years ago. This makes it the earliest known example of the deliberate use of fire by early humans.

Dating the Shigir Idol

The Shigir Idol is the oldest-known wooden monumental statue in the world. It is a humanoid statue, which was found in a peat bog at Shigir in the Ural Mountains of Russia in 1890. When it was first dated in 1997, it was found to be c.9,500 years old, while further tests in 2018 suggested a date of c.11,500 years old. To try to settle the mystery, new samples were taken from the interior of the statue, instead of the surface, in order to get a more accurate reading that was less likely to have been contaminated by any conservation treatments. The results, recently published in Quaternary International indicate that the statue was probably created c.12,100 years ago, around the end of the last Ice Age.