ancient history

5 ancient secrets revealed by modern technology

Decades or even centuries after their discovery, these arcane discoveries are finally being uncovered.

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Anthropologists and paleontologists study some of the world’s most ancient fossils and artifacts, whether it's mammoth tusks, mummies, or more.

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But despite having collected their relics decades prior, scientists often have to wait for technology to catch up in order to make their most groundbreaking discoveries.

Here are five amazing discoveries about the past made using modern technology.

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5. Humanity’s origins

In 1994, scientists uncovered a 3.67-million-year-old Australopithecus skeleton nicknamed “Little Foot.” Australopithecus is a lineage of hominins (human-like species) predating Homo erectus .

Diamond Light Source Ltd

Diamond Light Source Ltd

More than 25 years after discovering Little Foot, the team has now been able to use cutting-edge X-ray technology to analyze her skull in fine detail.

Diamond Light Source

This new technology, officially called synchrotron X-ray micro-computed tomography, works similarly to a medical CT scan, creating X-ray slices of the body — all without doing any damage to the delicate samples.

Diamond Light Source

The analysis of Little Foot is only just starting but researchers have already been able to see into her past, including looking at possible childhood illnesses. The research was published this month in the journal e-Life.

4. A duck-like dinosaur walk

Dinosaurs are widely viewed as some of the most fearsome and imposing creatures ever to walk the Earth. But new X-ray analysis of their modern ancestors suggests their walk would have ruined their street cred.

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Brian Mumaw / 500px/500px/Getty Images

Using a technique called XROMM (X-ray Reconstruction of Moving Morphology), a team of researchers from Brown University analyzed the steps of both guineafowl and alligators to create 3D joint models.

Mark Schellenberg

Crocodilians like alligators and crocodiles are closely related to birds. Both are archosaurs, a group of animals all related to dinosaurs.

Giphy

Using this analysis, the researchers were able to determine that ancient archosaurs would have likely walked a little bit duck-footed. Not so fearsome after all.

3. Revealing a letter’s ancient secrets

Simon and Marie de Brienne were at the top of their mail-delivering game in the 17th century — but they had a secret. Instead of destroying undelivered letters, they kept them for history to find.

First Post / Brienne Collection

Unlocking History Research Group

Centuries later, researchers discovered a new way to read the secret content of these letters without ever breaking the seal.

Unlocking History Research Group

To do that, scientists turned to X-ray microtomography to create a 3D map of the letters and pull out their written content based on the chemical difference between ink and paper.

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These particular letters didn’t appear to contain any state-toppling secrets, but you never know what the next might hold. Similar technologies have been considered to analyze the Dead Sea Scrolls.

2. Oldest-ever DNA found in a woolly mammoth relative

Using modern DNA and genome science, a team of scientists has found the oldest-ever DNA. It was found in the Russian permafrost and belongs to a new kind of mammoth

van der Valk et al.

van der Valk et al.

Comparing genomic data coming from a mammoth tusk, the team determined that the specimen represented a new species of mammoth previously unknown to Siberia.

van der Valk et al.

Beyond mammoths, this discovery can also help scientists explore the limits of analyzing ancient DNA.

1. Cracking open an ancient cold case

Pharoah Seqenenre-Taa-II the Brave was brutally murdered in ancient Egypt, but even though his mummy was originally uncovered in 1960, scientists have known little about the actual circumstances of his death.

Patrick Landmann/Cairo Museum/Getty Images

Patrick Landmann/Cairo Museum/Getty Images

Previous studies of the mummy in the 1960s had concluded based on his injuries that he was likely murdered while sleeping or in a chariot. But modern scientists weren’t so sure, so they decided to take a closer look.

Sahar Saleem

Using computed tomography or CT (a type of super-quick, 360-degree X-ray) scientists have now uncovered previously unknowable details of his final moments.

Patrick Landmann/Cairo Museum/Getty Images

The CT scan revealed previously hidden injuries and helped scientists theorize that Seqenenre was likely killed on the front lines of battle — defending his people — and brought back to Thebes for proper mummification.

Read more ancient stories here.

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