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10 Curious Things That Are Older Than You Think
Certain items and practices appear modern, but they’re anything but. While it’s interesting to learn the true age of something, pinning down the oldest of a kind can righten the wrongs that historians have made in the past. From proof that amputation is an Ice Age invention to who really invented the flush toilet, here are the best finds with new and revised origins.
10 The Folding Chair—1,400 Years Old
Say the words “folding chair,” and one might be forgiven for thinking it has no place on this list. After all, these seats are prolific around camping sites and barbeques today. Not a single history book shows a pioneer or bygone president lounging on a folding chair, either. But in 2022, archaeologists in Bavaria opened the grave of a medieval woman and found such a seat at her feet.
The chair was dated to around AD 600, and in its folded state, the piece measured about 18 by 28 inches (45 by 70 centimeters). The discovery was hailed as an “absolute rarity,” but it’s not unique. Across Europe, 29 sites with early medieval graves have also yielded the same furniture.
Today, anyone can get a folding chair. But researchers speculate that, back in the day, folding chairs were a status symbol among the elite and powerful. This theory was supported by the Bavarian woman’s other grave goods, which included intricate jewelry and a large pearl.
9 Oldest Stone Runestone—2,000 Years Old
In 2021, archaeologists pulled a runestone from a grave in Norway. Runes in this part of the world are nothing new. Thousands have been found in Scandinavia alone. However, this one was different. Measuring 12 by 12 inches (30 by 30 centimeters), the sandstone slab held runes carved as far back as 2,000 years ago. While older runes exist on other materials, this was the earliest runestone made of stone.
The sensational discovery, which falls among the first attempts to “write” with runes in Scandinavia, pushed back the runic tradition in the region by a few centuries. Researchers also hope that one day it could shed new light on the early evolution of runes (which remains largely unknown).
The mysterious scribbles haven’t been deciphered. But interestingly, when converted into Roman letters, eight of the runes appear to spell “idiberug.” This could be read as “For Idibera.” Although the word’s meaning is unclear, it might be the name of a person or a family.
8 Flush Toilet—2,400 Years Old
It’s rare for archaeologists to burst out laughing the moment that they find an artifact. But this happened in 2022 during a dig in China’s Shaanxi province. Researchers were excavating the ruins of an ancient palace located in the city of Yueyang when they stumbled upon an ancient toilet.
What made the discovery so funny was the fact that they recognized it as a flush toilet—something that was completely unexpected.
According to history books, the flush toilet was invented in Victorian England. But the Chinese loo was much older, dating between 2,200 and 2,400 years old. This makes it potentially the oldest flush toilet ever discovered. The design was also very advanced for its time and consisted of a bowl, some broken parts, and a pipe that fed into an outdoor pit.
7 River Groynes—3,300 Years Old
River groynes are agricultural hydraulic systems that are still in use today. These rocky structures are laid along the bank of a river to manipulate the flow of silt and water. For a long time, experts thought they were invented a couple of centuries ago, but in 2023, all that changed. In Sudan, along the River Nile, groynes were unearthed that were 3,300 years old. This is roughly 2,500 years older than the previous record-holders from the Yellow River in China.
The study also revealed that hundreds of groynes remain standing in Sudan, some of which are buried under sand or submerged in the Nile. Based on their size, shape, and orientation, researchers believe they were multi-purpose. Nubian farmers used these systems to trap fertile silt, prevent bank erosion, irrigate crops, catch fish, and hold off seasonal flooding.
Incredibly, it was also discovered that the construction of river groynes in the area remained long-lived, continuing as recently as the 1970s. The systems were also hugely successful in the long run, as proven by the locals who still cultivate the land that was developed by some of these ancient walls.
6 Tavern—5,000 Years Old
The word “tavern” usually conjures up images of a medieval English bar where patrons clink their mead cups together and sing about the king. But a recent discovery proved that these establishments are a lot older than most people give them credit for.
American and Italian archaeologists were investigating the lives of ordinary people in ancient Sumeria when they happened upon what was clearly the equivalent of what we would call a pub today or a tavern during medieval times.
Roughly 5,000 years old, the Sumerian tavern was located in Iraq in what used to be the ancient city-state of Lagash. Remarkably, the ruins contained a primitive refrigeration system, most likely to store food that would later be served to patrons.
There were also about 150 serving bowls, a big oven, and benches where diners could sit down. The archaeologists who found the site decided to call it a tavern because they were convinced that beer was also served. This is not a far-fetched notion. The Sumerians were known to have consumed more beer than they did water.
5 Party Straws—5,000 Years Old
Drinking straws are nothing new. But gazing back into history, don’t expect bendy straws made of plastic or paper. When researchers happened upon the world’s oldest straws in a grave in Russia, they found eight tubes made of precious metals. The purpose of the gold and silver tools wasn’t to sip on goat milk, either. Instead, about 5,000 years ago, ancient Russians got hammered by using straws to drink beer.
First discovered in 1897, the straws were so enormous, measuring over 3 feet (a meter) in length, that experts misidentified them as being either scepters or canopy poles. But in 2022, an eagle-eyed researcher noticed that the artifacts were very similar to known drinking straws used by the ancient Sumerians to consume beer from communal pots.
The Sumerian straws had filters at the end to catch impurities that were common in beer at the time. The Russian tubes had the same filters, and when traces of barley were found on them, it confirmed that the “scepters” were indeed the world’s oldest party straws.
4 Bog Bodies—7,000 Years Old
When a few well-preserved bodies turned up in the bogs of Denmark, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, they became quite famous. Not only because they were so life-like but also because they were clearly murdered. When researchers recently looked at more bog bodies, they realized that the famous few had given us the wrong picture.
Most people believe that bog bodies are pristine mummies, that their number sits in the lower hundreds, and that the phenomenon is a couple of centuries old. In reality, the tradition of peat burials started in roughly 5,000 BC in southern Scandinavia before it spread across Europe. Incredibly, it remained a thing until early modern times. Also, thousands of people met their demise in the bogs, not hundreds, and some turned into skeletons and not mummies.
There’s no single explanation for why Europe engaged in what appears to be a diverse, social, and religious mystery. It wasn’t just about accidental deaths and purposeful killings. Some people perished in the bogs at their own hands, and excavations have also uncovered animal bones, ornaments, mass burials of warriors who had died on the battlefield, as well as caches of weapons.
3 Oldest Tree-Ring Dated Structure—7,275 Years Old
In 2018, a road crew in the Czech Republic unearthed a crate-like structure. Soon identified as the top of an old well, it was square-shaped and consisted of four corner poles and sides made of flat planks. The wood came from oak trees, and this got researchers thinking. Why not date the tree rings on the wood and thus get a date for when the trunks were felled? This would provide an accurate date for when the well was constructed.
A year later, this technique showed that the trees for the planks were cut around 7,275 years ago, somewhere between 5255 and 5256 BC. The poles were older by a decade or two, suggesting that they had been taken from another building or well and reused. While the Czech well might not be the oldest wooden structure in the world, it’s currently the oldest identified via tree-ring dating.
The excellent preservation of the wood also revealed that whoever built the well were elite carpenters. They only had tools made of bone, horns, and stone, but the precision of the workmanship was astonishing.
2 Successful Surgical Amputation—31,000 Years Ago
In 2022, archaeologists released a remarkable story. They were excavating a cave in Borneo to better understand who, roughly 40,000 years ago, had painted the cave for generations. They didn’t find the identity of the artists, but they did happen upon a grave.
The burial held the 31,000-year-old remains of a teenager. Researchers were shocked to find the left foot had been amputated, with tremendous skill, halfway down the calf. The individual not only survived the operation but also continued to live for six to nine more years before passing away, aged around 19.
Many archaeologists believe that hunter-gatherer societies could never have developed advanced technology and medical knowledge. Yet, these unknown Ice Age hunters and foragers had the knowledge to perform an operation that involved bone removal, blood loss management, and infection prevention—millennia before modern surgeons did. Indeed, for most Western cultures, successful amputations didn’t become the norm until decent antiseptics were invented in the late 1800s.
1 The Oldest Burial Site—200,000 Years Old
A long time ago, there was Homo naledi. This distant human relative climbed trees in southern Africa and stood about 5 feet (1.5 meters) tall. In 2023, archaeologists announced that they had discovered several of these hominids in a cave system near Johannesburg, South Africa. The remains weren’t a messy collection of bones. These individuals had been buried in a graveyard.
This challenged a lot of assumptions. Homo naledi was thought to be incapable of complex behavior, such as mortuary practices, because it was a primitive species with a brain the size of an orange.
However, researchers noted that the graves appeared deliberately dug and filled in after a body was placed inside. There were at least five burials, suggesting that the burial site was no accident and that Homo naledi’s tiny brain didn’t prevent them from showing complex cognitive and emotional behavior.
It also squashed the idea that Homo sapiens were the first hominids to have funerals. Not only was this a non-human cemetery, but it also predates any burials made by our species by at least 100,000 years.