Image by Tom Björklund
Image by Tom Björklund
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How can small clues further big discoveries?

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By Debra Adams Simmons, HISTORY Executive Editor

The smallest clues often lead to big discoveries. In Jerusalem, archaeologists found coins that helped them date an ancient road built by Pontius Pilate. Earlier this month, researchers made a host of findings by sequencing the DNA and microbiome of the 5,700-year-old saliva of a young hunter-gatherer (reconstructed image above).

The breakthrough with this young hunter-gatherer was a small wad of tree pitch that she chewed on and spat out. From analyzing that, scientists identified that the hunter-gatherer was lactose intolerant, had severe periodontal disease, and had recently eaten hazelnuts and part of a mallard duck. This tech-fueled discovery raises the promise that we can find out about our ancestors from clumps of ancient “chewing gum,” Nat Geo’s Kristin Romey reports.

Some clues discovered by historians thread information together, such as the coins above an excavated roadway in Jerusalem. The dates of the coins “means the street was built before their appearance,” says Donald Ariel, a coin expert with the Israel Antiquities Authority.

A third example also was in plain sight. Very small graffiti uncovered in Pompeii, which had been destroyed by a volcano, had been little noticed for decades. The graffiti included commentary about food and services in the Roman town, critiquing wines or bathrooms, for example, on walls outside taverns and latrines in pre-eruption Pompeii. The analysis gave a much better sense of life in Pompeii.

Here’s to more discoveries of our past, through technological wizardry or simple deduction.

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Today in a minute

Who were the Moors? Does the term describe the reign of Muslims in Spain, Europeans of African descent, or “others” for centuries? Yes, yes, and yes. In what begin with an 8th century conquest of Spain and Portugal, the term expanded to include Shakespeare’s Othello and now, a sovereign citizens movement in the United States.

Christianity in Africa: Recent findings, including the oldest Christian church in sub-Saharan Africa, puts the rise of Christianity in a key African kingdom more than 1,700 years ago. Smithsonian reported the discovery in northern Ethiopia, in Aksum, the capital of the Aksumite kingdom, which dominated much of eastern Africa and western Arabia.

Fighting socialism: At great cost, Finland fought off the Soviet Union in World War II—and was determined not to become a vassal state of the Communists next door. A history agreement by all sectors in Finland, promoting health, education, and the prosperity of its citizens under a progressive tax rate, paved the way for success today. That pact has led to a “capitalist paradise” with greater freedoms than the United States, writes Anu Partanen and Trevor Corson for the New York Times.

Beyond “they”: German, Arabic, Spanish, and Hebrew are joining English in adjusting to gender-neutral language, the Washington Post reports. French is too, with an asterisk to designate gender-free usage.

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Recording a lost world: The 36,000-year-old paintings in France's Chauvet Cave, remarkably preserved, tell stories of when lions, aurochs, bison, and rhinoceroses all lived in Europe. Sometimes the animals came even closer: The wall is covered by scratch marks from bears (Ursus spelaeus), which hibernated in the caves.

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Questions, answered

About those medieval churches: Why do they look the way they do? And why are they where they are? The blended architecture and location of the European churches have a lot to do with the paths of Christian pilgrims. "The popularity of pilgrimages was a key factor in the spread, and uniformity, of the Romanesque style," Nat Geo's History magazine reports. "To travel to Jerusalem was far too difficult for most pilgrims. A European destination was much more realistic."

Related: The pilgrimage path of Camino de Santiago

The big takeaway

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One last glimpse

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Remain at attention: An Irish Guard fainted. The remaining guards stayed upright, eyes forward. This June 1966 photo in London by James P. Blair has remained popular through the years, which Blair attributes to its surreal quality. "It’s almost as though he was a toy soldier that had been pushed over by some malevolent child," Blair recalled in 2014. "I was told afterwards that you’re literally trained to fall at attention."

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, and Eslah Attar selected the photographs. Have an idea, a link, a hope for the year to come? We'd love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com. Thanks for reading, and happy trails.