A Neanderthal tooth discovered in Serbia reveals human migration history

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A 3D recreation of a recently discovered Neanderthal tooth.
Joshua Lindal, Author provided

By Mirjana Roksandic, University of Winnipeg and Joshua Allan Lindal, University of Winnipeg

In 2015, our Serbian-Canadian archaeological research team was working at a cave site named Pešturina, in Eastern Serbia, where we had found thousands of stone tools and animal bones. One day, an excited Serbian undergrad brought us a fossil they had uncovered: a small molar tooth, which we immediately recognized as human.

A single tooth may not seem like much, but a lot of information can be drawn from it. We knew it was about 100,000 years old, because the layer it was found in had previously been dated. We were able to build a high-resolution 3D model to study the shape of the crown, roots and internal structure. We made detailed measurements and performed statistical analyses which are published in the June 2019 issue of the Journal of Human Evolution.

3D modelling of the discovered Neanderthal tooth.

The results of our analysis are clear: our little tooth belonged to a Neanderthal. Neanderthal fossils have been found in Croatia and Greece, but they are still relatively rare in the Balkans, compared to Western Europe and the Middle East. This is the first Neanderthal ever found in Serbia.

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How culture works with evolution to produce human cognition

Cecilia Heyes writes:

The conventional view, inside and outside academia, is that children are ‘wired’ to imitate. We are ‘Homo imitans’, animals born with a burning desire to copy the actions of others. Imitation is ‘in our genes’. Birds build nests, cats miaow, pigs are greedy, while humans possess an instinct to imitate.

The idea that humans have cognitive instincts is a cornerstone of evolutionary psychology, pioneered by Leda Cosmides, John Tooby and Steven Pinker in the 1990s. ‘[O]ur modern skulls house a Stone Age mind,’ wrote Cosmides and Tooby in 1997. On this view, the cognitive processes or ‘organs of thought’ with which we tackle contemporary life have been shaped by genetic evolution to meet the needs of small, nomadic bands of people – people who devoted most of their energy to digging up plants and hunting animals. It’s unsurprising, then, that today our Stone Age instincts often deliver clumsy or distasteful solutions, but there’s not a whole lot we can do about it. We’re simply in thrall to our thinking genes.

This all seems plausible and intuitive, doesn’t it? The trouble is, the evidence behind it is dubious. In fact, if we look closely, it’s apparent that evolutionary psychology is due for an overhaul. Rather than hard-wired cognitive instincts, our heads are much more likely to be populated by cognitive gadgets, tinkered and toyed with over successive generations. Culture is responsible not just for the grist of the mind – what we do and make – but for fabricating its mills, the very way the mind works. [Continue reading…]

Non-modern humans were more complex — and artistic — than we thought

Marc Kissel writes:

Not surprisingly, claims of symbolic artifacts made by non-modern humans have been met with intense scrutiny. Part of this is due to the fragmentary nature of the early archaeological record, but there is also a deeply held assumption that only Homo sapiens could produce such artifacts.

Rather than fetishizing the ability to make symbols, we should instead concentrate on how our ancestors found novel and innovate ways to create and share meaning. My colleague, Agustín Fuentes, and I recently published an open access database of the current evidence of human symbolic expression, concentrating on examples of the creation of beads, engraved objects, and the use of ochre. Using these data, we argue that by at least 300,000 years ago, members of the genus Homo were engaging in complex, creative thought and producing artifacts laden with meanings. To be clear, the examples that date prior to 200,000 years ago are far from definitive examples of symbolic thought. Yet, they demonstrate that the human cultural niche was changing. Below are just some of the artifacts that suggest a more nuanced approach to the paleoanthropological record is necessary.

When humans began to actively use and control fire is hotly debated (see Chazan 2017). Discerning anthropogenic versus natural fires involves understanding the differences between quick-moving grass fires and those that were tended to. Research by Sarah Hlubik and colleagues (2017) suggests fire use at a 1.5-million-year-old site in Kenya. Evidence of the presence of burned seeds, wood, and flint fragments from Gesher Benot Ya’aqov in Israel indicates that non-modern humans were using fire by approximately 800,000 years ago (Goren-Inbar et al. 2004), although it may not be until 500,000 years later that widespread fire use appears in the archaeological record. While most scholars focus on the technical utilitarian reasons for fire use (for cooking, protection, and warmth), there may be a more nuanced and important aspect—conversation and storytelling. Polly Wiessner’s (2014) study of evening campfire conversations by the Ju/’hoansi of Namibia and Botswana implies that it was during talks over firelight that humans engaged in non-subsistence related conversations that aroused the imagination; spreading rumors and spinning tales. [Continue reading…]

New species of ancient human discovered in the Philippines

 

Science magazine reports:

A strange new species may have joined the human family. Human fossils found in a cave on Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines, include tiny molars suggesting their owners were small; curved finger and toe bones hint that they climbed trees. Homo luzonensis, as the species has been christened, lived some 50,000 to 80,000 years ago, when the world hosted multiple archaic humans, including Neanderthals and Denisovans, and when H. sapiens may have been making its first forays into Southeast Asia.

“This is a truly sensational finding,” says Adam Brumm, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Nathan, Australia. The paper, published this week in Nature, “sent shivers down my spine.”

The discovery echoes that of another unusual ancient hominin—the diminutive H. floresiensis, or “hobbit,” found on the island of Flores in Indonesia. “One is interesting. Two is a pattern,” says Jeremy DeSilva, an expert on Homo foot bones at Dartmouth College. He and others suspect the islands of Southeast Asia may have been a cradle of diversity for ancient humans, and that H. luzonensis, like H. floresiensis, may have evolved small body size in isolation on an island. [Continue reading…]

Pro-social religions didn’t kick-start complex social systems

Scientific American reports:

About 12,000 years ago human societies went big; tribes and villages grew into vast cities, kingdoms and empires within just a few millennia. For such large and complex societies to take root, people needed to maintain social cohesion and cooperation, even among complete strangers. What enabled this, many researchers have argued, was religion.

Such a religion, the idea goes, would work particularly well if it established standards of morality and behavior—and enforced them with the threat of supernatural punishment. This may involve so-called big gods who care about who is naughty or nice, like in the Abrahamic religions. Or, as in the Buddhist concept of karma, religions can enforce morality through what is dubbed “broad supernatural punishment”—spontaneous consequences that occur without the intercession of conventional big gods.

But a new study, published Wednesday in Nature, casts doubt on the role these kinds of “pro-social” religion play in enabling large-scale societies. “It’s not the main driver of social complexity as some theories had predicted,” says Harvey Whitehouse, an anthropologist at the University of Oxford and one of the lead authors of the study.

Instead the study suggests pro-social religions appeared after complex societies had already emerged. Although these religions may have helped sustain and grow large societies, the analysis makes the case that they were not necessary for societies to expand in the first place. [Continue reading…]

The rise of farming altered our bite and changed how people talk

Science News reports:

Humankind’s gift of gab is not set in stone, and farming could help to explain why.

Over the last 6,000 years or so, farming societies increasingly have substituted processed dairy and grain products for tougher-to-chew game meat and wild plants common in hunter-gatherer diets. Switching to those diets of softer, processed foods altered people’s jaw structure over time, rendering certain sounds like “f” and “v” easier to utter, and changing languages worldwide, scientists contend.

People who regularly chew tough foods such as game meat experience a jaw shift that removes a slight overbite from childhood. But individuals who grow up eating softer foods retain that overbite into adulthood, say comparative linguist Damián Blasi of the University of Zurich and his colleagues. Computer simulations suggest that adults with an overbite are better able to produce certain sounds that require touching the lower lip to the upper teeth, the researchers report in the March 15 Science.

Linguists classify those speech sounds, found in about half of the world’s languages, as labiodentals. And when Blasi and his team reconstructed language change over time among Indo-European tongues (SN: 11/25/17, p. 16), currently spoken from Iceland to India, the researchers found that the likelihood of using labiodentals in those languages rose substantially over the past 6,000 to 7,000 years. That was especially true when foods such as milled grains and dairy products started appearing. [Continue reading…]

Neanderthals were people no less evolved than us

Rebecca Wragg Sykes writes:

Who were the Neanderthals? Even for archaeologists working at the trowel’s edge of contemporary science, it can be hard to see Neanderthals as anything more than intriguing abstractions, mixed up with the likes of mammoths, woolly rhinos and sabre-toothed cats. But they were certainly here: squinting against sunrises, sucking lungfuls of air, leaving footprints behind in the mud, sand and snow. Crouching to dig in a cave or rock-shelter, I’ve often wondered what it would be like to watch history rewind, and see the empty spaces leap with shifting, living shadows: to collapse time, reach out, and allow my skin to graze the warmth of a Neanderthal body, squatting right there beside me.

The business of archaeology is about summoning wraiths from the graveyards of millennia, after the vagaries of decay and erosion have done their work. Everything begins as fragments. Yet in recent years, poring over these shards has produced a revolution in our understanding of Neanderthals. Contrary to what we once thought, they were far from brutish, ‘lesser’ beings, or mere evolutionary losers on a withered branch of our family tree. Rather, the invention of new dating techniques, analysis of thousands more fossils and artefacts, and advances in ancient DNA research have collectively revealed the extent to which the lives of Neanderthals are braided together with our own. [Continue reading…]

Frans de Waal embraces animal emotions in ‘Mama’s Last Hug’

Sy Montgomery writes:

The two old friends hadn’t seen each other lately. Now one of them was on her deathbed, crippled with arthritis, refusing food and drink, dying of old age. Her friend had come to say goodbye. At first she didn’t seem to notice him. But when she realized he was there, her reaction was unmistakable: Her face broke into an ecstatic grin. She cried out in delight. She reached for her visitor’s head and stroked his hair. As he caressed her face, she draped her arm around his neck and pulled him closer.

The mutual emotion so evident in this deathbed reunion was especially moving and remarkable because the visitor, Dr. Jan Van Hooff, was a Dutch biologist, and his friend, Mama, was a chimpanzee. The event — recorded on a cellphone, shown on TV and widely shared on the internet — provides the opening story and title for the ethologist Frans de Waal’s game-changing new book, “Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves.”

 

Other authors have explored animal emotion, including Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy in “When Elephants Weep” (1995) and Marc Bekoff in “The Emotional Lives of Animals” (2007). Still others have concentrated on a specific emotion, such as Jonathan Balcombe in “Pleasurable Kingdom” (2006) and Barbara J. King in “How Animals Grieve” (2013).

“Mama’s Last Hug” takes these seminal works a step further, making this book even bolder and more important than its companion volume, “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?,” de Waal’s 2016 best seller.

For too long, emotion has been cognitive researchers’ third rail. In research on humans, emotions were deemed irrelevant, impossible to study or beneath scientific notice. Animal emotions were simply ignored. But nothing could be more essential to understanding how people and animals behave. By examining emotions in both, this book puts these most vivid of mental experiences in evolutionary context, revealing how their richness, power and utility stretch across species and back into deep time. [Continue reading…]

Is a more generous society possible?

By Leah Shaffer

In January 2016, Cathryn Townsend set out to live among “the loveless people.” So named by anthropologist Colin Turnbull, the Ik are a tribe of some 11,600 hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers living in an arid and harsh mountainous region of Uganda.

Turnbull studied the Ik in the 1960s and famously characterized them as “inhospitable and generally mean” in his book The Mountain People. He documented how young children were abandoned to starve and how people would snatch food from the elderly. Townsend, a Rutgers University anthropologist, visited the Ik decades later to see how a culture that supposedly lacked basic kindness operated.

Her interest stemmed from an ongoing, multidisciplinary investigation called The Human Generosity Project, which examines why and how human cooperation, in the form of generosity, threads its way through different cultures. The project began in 2014, through a partnership between Lee Cronk, a Rutgers University anthropologist, and Athena Aktipis, a psychologist at Arizona State University. Together, the pair wanted to investigate the cultural and biological factors behind generous behavior. Today, through this project, more than 20 participating researchers use an array of tools, including economic simulations and computer modeling, to study altruism and cooperation at nine field sites.

In certain communities, giving to those in need, with no expectation of return, is normalized and expected. The project researchers have found such behavior around the world, including among herders and hunter-gatherers in East Africa. And findings thus far suggest that such generous societies are more likely to survive during difficult times.

If that pattern holds up, lessons from The Human Generosity Project could be vital as the world faces a multitude of unpredictable challenges from the onslaught of climate change and increasing economic inequality. “Ultimately, it would be nice if we could encourage higher levels of cooperation and higher levels of generosity,” Cronk says.

Townsend, a member of the project, went to study the Ik to find a counterexample to generous cultures. She and her colleagues wanted to see how an allegedly “selfish” society operated. But when she arrived, she found something different: Even among “the loveless people,” there was a thriving tradition of generosity.

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Our large brains evolved thanks to an ancient ‘arms race’ for resources and mates

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JuliusKielaitis / shutterstock

By Mark Maslin, UCL

Human society rewards individuals who can handle complex social interactions and control large groups of people. Extreme examples of this power are comedians who can fill stadiums entertaining 70,000 people, or politicians who, through their rhetoric and charm, convince millions of us to vote for them so they can run our lives. Intelligence, humour, and charisma are used to co-opt a greater share of resources for themselves and their family. In fact, many scientists now think this is exactly why we evolved a very large brain.

Originally, large brains were thought to be essential for the making of stone tools, and this is why Homo habilis (skillful man) was thought to be the start of our Homo genus some 2.5m years ago. But we now know that many other animals make and use tools. We also know hominins living 3.3m years ago were already using stone tools half a million years before Homo evolved.

So why did we evolve a large brain if it wasn’t essential for tool making? One reason is that existing in a large social group is very mentally taxing. Those who are better at playing the social game will have more access to mates and resources and will be more likely to reproduce. As the groups get larger, so the computational power needed to keep up with the interconnections grows exponentially, as does the stress.

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