How we discovered that Europeans used cattle 8,000 years ago

By Jane Gaastra, Haskel Greenfield & Marc Vander Linden

The use of animals for their renewable products greatly increased human capabilities in prehistory. Secondary products – or anything that can be gleaned from a domestic animal repeatedly over its lifetime – expanded the capabilities of ancient human societies. They helped to provide enough food and labour surplus to make possible the first ancient civilisations. Apart from their meat, bones and skin, animals gave ancient people vital goods such as their milk and wool. The ability to repeatedly harvest milk from an animal over its lifetime more than doubled the calories that it could contribute to the human diet. The ability to harvest wool from sheep allowed humans to grow a source of meat as well as warm and durable clothing. At some point in prehistory, humans learned that domesticated cattle could pull burdens far greater than humans alone could manage. 

Even after decades of archaeological research, the specific origins of these developments in the management of domesticated animals are not well understood. Studies of the patterns of slaughter of domestic animals according to their age and sex, combined with chemical analyses of the residues left inside ancient pottery vessels, suggest that the consumption of dairy products from sheep, goats and cattle likely dates back into the Neolithic period – at least 8,000 years ago in Europe (c6000 BCE) and earlier in the Near East. The origins of woolly sheep are less well-known. Wild sheep do not have woolly coats, which developed at some point following their domestication. Very few examples of preserved woollen textiles survive for millennia, so the exact date of their production from sheep remains difficult to establish. However, studies of the management of domesticated sheep in prehistory and of artefacts used in the spinning and weaving of textiles suggest that wool was developed in some regions (such as the Near East) by at least 5,000 or 6,000 years ago.

The precise origins of cattle as engines of labour – known as traction – is also murky. In the past, investigators traditionally looked for evidence of items pulled – primarily (but not only) wagons and ploughs. Wagons – known from preserved images such as figurines and rock art – have existed for more than 5,000 years. Early ploughs, such as the ard or scratch plough, were made of wood, and do not preserve well over thousands of years. The oldest known evidence of ploughs in Europe comes from fragments of ards preserved in water-logged ancient sites. They are just under 6,000 years old. Though not nearly as effective as modern machines, early ploughs would have been far faster and easier than having to break compacted earth in fields with hand tools in order to plant crops. They allowed people to plant more crops using less labour, increasing the amount of food that could be grown each year. 

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Could ‘ideophones’ unlock the secrets of humans’ first utterances?

David Robson writes:

If you don’t speak Japanese but would like, momentarily, to feel like a linguistic genius, take a look at the following words. Try to guess their meaning from the two available options:

1. nurunuru (a) dry or (b) slimy?
2. pikapika (a) bright or (b) dark?
3. wakuwaku (a) excited or (b) bored?
4. iraira (a) happy or (b) angry?
5. guzuguzu (a) moving quickly or (b) moving slowly?
6. kurukuru (a) spinning around or (b) moving up and down?
7. kosokoso (a) walking quietly or (b) walking loudly?
8. gochagocha (a) tidy or (b) messy?
9. garagara (a) crowded or (b) empty?
10. tsurutsuru (a) smooth or (b) rough?

The answers are: 1(b); 2(a); 3(a); 4(b); 5(b); 6(a); 7(a); 8(b); 9(b) 10(a).

If you think this exercise is futile, you’re in tune with traditional linguistic thinking. One of the founding axioms of linguistic theory, articulated by Ferdinand de Saussure in the early 19th century, is that any particular linguistic sign – a sound, a mark on the page, a gesture – is arbitrary, and dictated solely by social convention. Save those rare exceptions such as onomatopoeias, where a word mimics a noise – eg, ‘cuckoo’, ‘achoo’ or ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’ – there should be no inherent link between the way a word sounds and the concept it represents; unless we have been socialised to think so, nurunuru shouldn’t feel more ‘slimy’ any more than it feels ‘dry’.

Yet many world languages contain a separate set of words that defies this principle. Known as ideophones, they are considered to be especially vivid and evocative of sensual experiences. Crucially, you do not need to know the language to grasp a hint of their meaning. Studies show that participants lacking any prior knowledge of Japanese, for example, often guess the meanings of the above words better than chance alone would allow. For many people, nurunuru really does feel ‘slimy’; wakuwaku evokes excitement, and kurukuru conjures visions of circular rather than vertical motion. That should simply not be possible, if the sound-meaning relationship was indeed arbitrary. (The experiment is best performed using real audio clips of native speakers.)

How and why do ideophones do this? Despite their prevalence in many languages, ideophones were once considered linguistic oddities of marginal interest. As a consequence, linguists, psychologists and neuroscientists have only recently started to unlock their secrets.

Their results pose a profound challenge to the foundations of Saussurean linguistics. According to this research, language is embodied: a process that involves subtle feedback, for both listener and speaker, between the sound of a word, the vocal apparatus and our own experience of human physicality. Taken together, this dynamic helps to create a connection between certain sounds and their attendant meanings. These associations appear to be universal across all human societies.

This understanding of language as an embodied process can illuminate the marvel of language acquisition during infancy. It might even cast light on the evolutionary origins of language itself – potentially representing a kind of ‘proto-world’, a vestige of our ancestors’ first utterances. [Continue reading…]

A leading anthropologist suggests that protohumans became domesticated by killing off violent males

Melvin Konner writes:

When I was studying for my doctorate, in the late 1960s, we budding anthropologists read a book called Ideas on Human Evolution, a collection of then-recent papers in the field. With typical graduate-student arrogance, I pronounced it “too many ideas chasing too little data.” Half a century and thousands of fossil finds later, we have a far more complete—and also more puzzling—view of the human past. The ever-growing fossil record fills in one missing link in the quest for evidence of protohumans, only to expose another. Meanwhile, no single line emerges to connect these antecedents to Homo sapiens, whose origins date back about 300,000 years. Instead, parallel and divergent lines reveal a variety of now-extinct hominids that display traits once considered distinctive to our lineage. For example, traces of little “Hobbits” found in Indonesia in 2003 show that they walked upright and made tools; less than four feet tall, with brains about a third the size of ours, they may have persisted until modern humans arrived in the area some 50,000 years ago.

As data pile up, so do surprises. Microscopic methods indicate that certain marks on 2.5-million-year-old bones were probably made by sharp stone tools; scientists had previously assumed that such tools came later. The dental tartar caked on the teeth of Neanderthals suggests that the brawny, thick-boned people (almost-humans on one of the parallel lines) probably ate cooked barley along with their meat; these famously carnivorous folks were really omnivores, like us. DNA from tiny fragments of bone—for instance, the tip of a pinkie many thousands of years old—has brought to light a whole new humanlike species that once interbred with us, as Neanderthals did. Charles Darwin drew evolution as a bush, not a tree, for a reason.

The study of human evolution is by now about much more than bones and stones. In 1965 a remarkable book—Irven DeVore’s collection Primate Behavior (which led me to study with DeVore)—made what then seemed a radical claim: We will never understand our origins without intensive study of the wild world of our nonhuman relatives. A handful of scientists, including Jane Goodall, set up tents in distant jungles and savannas. Following monkeys, apes, and other creatures in their habitats, these scientists turned their notes and observations into voluminous, quantitative data. DeVore and others devoted themselves just as rigorously to the remaining human hunter-gatherers, found on every habitable continent except Europe—our biological twins, living under conditions resembling the ones we evolved in.

The multifaceted effort was new and ambitious, but the idea was old. DeVore had hanging in his office an 1838 quote from Darwin’s notebook: “Origin of man now proved … He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.” [Continue reading…]

Cave that housed multiple human species challenges view of cultural evolution

Scientific American reports:

Deep in the Altai mountains of southern Siberia sits a very choice piece of real estate. It’s nothing so newfangled as a ski lodge or one of the traditional wood houses that dot the local countryside. Rather it’s a primeval limestone cave, called Denisova, that overlooks a rushing river and the surrounding forest. Multiple human species, or hominins, have sought shelter in this cave over the past 300,000 years, such is its allure. Artifacts, bits of bone and ancient DNA found in its chambers testify to the presence of these peoples. The site thus offers a rare window on a particularly fascinating period of human evolution, one in which other human species coexisted with our own kind.

Researchers have long wondered how these groups interacted and influenced one another culturally when they met up, and Denisova could be a key to answering this question. But figuring out which hominin species was present when at the cave and which artifacts they made has proved challenging. Now new efforts to date the remains from Denisova are at last bringing that picture into sharper focus. Two studies published in the January 31 Nature provide a time line of human occupation of the cave. The results raise intriguing questions about the origins of symbolism and certain technologies traditionally considered to be inventions of Homo sapiens alone. [Continue reading…]

Dogs may have helped ancient Middle Easterners hunt small game

Science News reports:

Dogs that lived alongside Middle Eastern villagers roughly 11,500 years ago may have helped to transform how those humans hunted, researchers say.

Fragmentary canine bones unearthed at Shubayqa 6, an ancient site in northeastern Jordan, date to a time when remains of hares and other small prey at the outpost sharply increased, say zooarchaeologist Lisa Yeomans of the University of Copenhagen and her colleagues. Many animal bones from Shubayqa 6 also display damage caused by having been swallowed by dogs and then passed through their digestive tracts, the scientists report in the March Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.

“The use of dogs for hunting small, fast prey such as hares and foxes, perhaps by driving them into enclosures, could explain the evidence at Shubayqa 6,” Yeomans says.

The bone fragments challenge a long-standing idea that, in the early stages of domestication, dogs were first used to hunt large animals that yielded lots of meat per kill, she says. In that scenario, population growth and climate fluctuations led to food shortages for foraging groups. People seeking a wider array of plants and animals in their diet then incorporated dogs into small-game hunts too. That dietary shift heralded the rise of farming, researchers have suggested.

But no signs of food shortages have been found at Shubayqa 6. People who lived there starting around 11,500 years ago must have enjoyed a consistent supply of gazelles, hares, foxes and game birds, the researchers say. Dogs may have enabled humans at the site to devise new ways to hunt small game effectively enough to forgo large-animal hunts altogether, Yeomans’ team argues. [Continue reading…]

Global WEIRDing is a trend we can’t ignore

By Kensy Cooperrider

For centuries, Inuit hunters navigated the Arctic by consulting wind, snow and sky. Now they use GPS. Speakers of the aboriginal language Gurindji, in northern Australia, used to command 28 variants of each cardinal direction. Children there now use the four basic terms, and they don’t use them very well. In the arid heights of the Andes, the Aymara developed an unusual way of understanding time, imagining the past as in front of them, and the future at their backs. But for the youngest generation of Aymara speakers – increasingly influenced by Spanish – the future lies ahead

These are not just isolated changes. On all continents, even in the world’s remotest regions, indigenous people are swapping their distinctive ways of parsing the world for Western, globalised ones. As a result, human cognitive diversity is dwindling – and, sadly, those of us who study the mind had only just begun to appreciate it. 

In 2010, a paper titled ‘The Weirdest People in the World?’ gave the field of cognitive science a seismic shock. Its authors, led by the psychologist Joe Henrich at the University of British Columbia, made two fundamental points. The first was that researchers in the behavioural sciences had almost exclusively focused on a small sliver of humanity: people from Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic societies. The second was that this sliver is not representative of the larger whole, but that people in London, Buenos Aires and Seattle were, in an acronym, WEIRD.

But there is a third fundamental point, and it was the psychologist Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania who made it. In his commentary on the 2010 article, Rozin noted that this same WEIRD slice of humanity was ‘a harbinger of the future of the world’. He had seen this trend in his own research. Where he found cross-cultural differences, they were more pronounced in older generations. The world’s young people, in other words, are converging. The signs are unmistakable: the age of global WEIRDing is upon us.

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Humans: The least aggressive primate

Richard Wrangham writes:

A few years ago, I stayed in Kenya with the conservationists Karl and Kathy Ammann, who kept a rescued chimpanzee named Mzee in their home. Even as a young adult, Mzee was generally well-behaved and trustworthy. Yet he could be impulsive. At one point, over breakfast, Mzee and I reached for the jug of orange juice at the same time. He grabbed my hand as I held the jug, and he squeezed. Ouch. “You first!” I squeaked. I was still rubbing my fingers back to life once he had finished his drink.

The truth is that even when chimpanzees know the rules perfectly well, they don’t always restrain their aggression. In the wild, their lives are full of violence. A day spent with wild chimpanzees gives you a good chance of seeing chases and hitting; every month, you are likely to see bloody wounds. Compared with even an unusually violent group of humans, chimpanzees are aggressive several hundred to a thousand times more often over the course of a year.

The greater peaceability of human societies comes from our nature. We can look each other in the eye. We don’t lose our tempers easily. We normally control our aggressive urges. In primates, one of the most potent stimuli for aggression is the presence of a strange individual. By contrast, Jerome Kagan, a pioneer in developmental psychology, reports that in his hundreds of observations of two-year-olds meeting unfamiliar children, he has never seen one strike out at the other. That willingness to interact peacefully with others, even strangers, is inborn.

What accounts for this human difference? The answer lies in the evolutionary pressures that selected against aggression, particularly in men. The cultural anthropologist Christopher Boehm has found that, in hunter-gatherer societies, a man who threatens others by having too violent a temper is treated in a consistent way. If the bully can’t be contained by the cajoling effects of ridicule or ostracism, the other men reach a consensus, make a plan and execute him. Over the eons, the long-term practice of killing unrepentant aggressors must have favored genes for more peaceful behavior. [Continue reading…]

Genetic data on half a million Brits reveal ongoing evolution and Neanderthal legacy

Ann Gibbons writes:

Neanderthals are still among us, Janet Kelso realized 8 years ago. She had helped make the momentous discovery that Neanderthals repeatedly mated with the ancestors of modern humans—a finding that implies people outside of Africa still carry Neanderthal DNA today. Ever since then, Kelso has wondered exactly what modern humans got from those prehistoric liaisons—beyond babies. How do traces of the Neanderthal within shape the appearance, health, or personalities of living people?

For years, evolutionary biologists couldn’t get their rubber-gloved hands on enough people’s genomes to detect the relatively rare bits of Neanderthal DNA, much less to see whether or how our extinct cousins’ genetic legacy might influence disease or physical traits.

But a few years ago, Kelso and her colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, turned to a new tool—the UK Biobank (UKB), a large database that holds genetic and health records for half a million British volunteers. The researchers analyzed data from 112,338 of those Britons—enough that “we could actually look and say: ‘We see a Neanderthal version of the gene and we can measure its effect on phenotype in many people—how often they get sunburned, what color their hair is, and what color their eyes are,’” Kelso says. They found Neanderthal variants that boost the odds that a person smokes, is an evening person rather than a morning person, and is prone to sunburn and depression. [Continue reading…]

Our world and our brains have been profoundly shaped by bees

Tim Flannery writes:

According to Thor Hanson’s Buzz, the relationship between bees and the human lineage goes back three million years, to a time when our ancestors shared the African savannah with a small, brownish, robin-sized bird—the first honeyguide. Honeyguides are very good at locating beehives, but they are unable to break into them to feed on the bee larvae and beeswax they eat. So they recruit humans to help, attracting them with a call and leading them to the hive. In return for the service, Africans leave a small gift of honey and wax: not enough that the bird is uninterested in locating another hive, but sufficient to make it feel that its efforts have been worthwhile. Honeyguides may have been critical to our evolution: today, honey contributes about 15 percent of the calories consumed by the Hadza people—Africa’s last hunter-gatherers—and because brains run on glucose, honey located by honeyguides may have helped increase our brain size, and thus intelligence.

Bees evolved from wasp ancestors around 100 million years ago. Most wasps are sleek carnivores, but bees are flower-loving, long-haired, and often social vegetarians (the branched hairs that cover their bodies trap pollen, which, along with nectar, is their principal source of food). Their shift to a vegetarian diet had a profound effect on the evolution of flowering plants. If we want to know what a world without bees looks like, Hanson writes, we should visit the bee-less island of Juan Fernández off the coast of Chile, where, despite varied vegetation, almost all flowers are small, white, and inconspicuous. But it is not just gloriously colored flowers that we owe to bees, for many of our crops rely on them for pollination. Both our world and our brains, it seems, have been profoundly shaped by bees.

There are around 20,000 bee species, classified into seven families. The most familiar are the apids, including bumblebees, carpenter bees, and honeybees. The most primitive bees, largely restricted to Australia, are classified into two families that only experts would recognize. Mining bees, which dig nest tunnels nearly ten feet deep and inhabit arid regions, represent another family; oil-collecting bees and a family including leafcutter bees and mason bees make up two more. Sweat bees comprise the final group. In addition to collecting pollen and nectar from flowers, they drink mammals’ sweat for its moisture and salts: as thousands of tiny bee tongues lick deep inside a person’s ears, nose, and other sensitive parts, they can inflict maddening torture; if brushed away they deliver a sting like an electric shock. [Continue reading…]

What teeth can tell about the lives and environments of ancient humans and Neanderthals

File 20181030 76393 1ndzj2m.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Fossilised tooth crowns hold lots of information about past climates and life events.
Tanya M Smith, Author provided

By Tanya M. Smith, Griffith University

Increasing variation in the climate has been implicated as a possible factor in the evolution of our species (Homo sapiens) 300,000 years ago, as well as the more recent demise of our enigmatic evolutionary cousins, the Neanderthals.

But knowing the impact of that change on a year-by-year basis has always been a challenge.

Most prehistoric climate models are derived from large-scale records such as deep-sea cores or terrestrial sediment layers. These methods yield information on the scale of thousands of years, making it impossible to understand how seasonal climate patterns directly impacted ancient humans and their evolutionary kin.

My colleagues and I have found a solution using clues from our own mouths, as we detail today in an article in Science Advances. We used teeth to reveal climate records formed during the development of ancient hominins.

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