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

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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.

[Read more…]

Is cyclical time the cure to technology’s ills?

Stephen E. Nash writes:

The world changed dramatically on June 29, 2007. That’s the day when the iPhone first became available to the public.

In the 11 years since, more than 8.5 billion smartphones of all makes and models have been sold worldwide. Smartphone technology has allowed billions of people to enter and participate in a new, cybernetic, and ever more complex and rapid relationship with the world.

Humans have been tumbling headlong into this new digital frontier for a quarter century—since the World Wide Web went public. Until recently, that digital frontier followed Moore’s law, which states that computing power doubles every two years on average. With artificial intelligence, virtual reality, social media, and other mind-blowing developments, our technological world gets ever more interesting, changes ever faster, and, at least from my archaeological perspective, becomes ever more daunting. The rapidity of technological change, and by extension our current relationship to time, is undeniably unusual when viewed against the long evolutionary history of our species.

To illustrate what I mean, we can examine the rate of technological change across the epic sweep of humanity, from the moment we first appeared as a species in Africa until today. In so doing, we can gain a better understanding of the relationship between time, technology, and humans. [Continue reading…]

The myth of the traumatized Neanderthal

Ed Yong writes:

The very first Neanderthal to be described in the scientific literature, back in 1856, had an old elbow injury—a fracture that had since healed, but had deformed the bone in the process. Such injuries turned out to be incredibly common. Almost every reasonably complete Neanderthal skeleton that was found during the subsequent century had at least one sign of physical trauma. Some researchers attributed these lesions to fights, others to attacks by predators. But whatever the precise reason, scientists collectively inferred that Neanderthals must have lived short, stressful, and harsh lives.

In 1995, the anthropologists Thomas Berger and Erik Trinkaus cemented that impression by showing that Neanderthal injuries were concentrated around the head and neck. Of 17 skeletons, around 30 percent had signs of cranial trauma—a far higher proportion than in either prehistoric hunter-gatherers or 20th century humans. Only one group showed a similar pattern of fractures—rodeo riders.

“This is not meant to imply that Neanderthals would have met the behavioral qualifications for membership in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association,” wrote Berger and Trinkaus. Rather, it suggests that they hunted large beasts like mammoths, using spears that were more suitable for thrusting than throwing. They engaged their prey at close range, and had to cling on to wounded, thrashing targets. “Given the tendency of ungulates to react strongly to being impaled, the frequency of head and neck injuries… in the Neanderthals should not be surprising,” the duo wrote.

Even then, the duo noted that their conclusions were based on small and possibly unrepresentative samples. And after 17 years, Trinkaus doubled back on his idea completely, noting that later studies had found similar injury patterns among the Pleistocene humans who lived alongside Neanderthals. The rodeo rider hypothesis, he said, should be “further qualified if not simply retracted.” (Trinkaus declined to be interviewed for this story.)

But the hypothesis, and the broader notion of highly traumatized Neanderthals, clung to the popular consciousness as tenaciously as an imagined Neanderthal to a mammoth’s back. [Continue reading…]

In cave in Borneo jungle, scientists find oldest figurative painting in the world

The New York Times reports:

On the wall of a cave deep in the jungles of Borneo, there is an image of a thick-bodied, spindly-legged animal, drawn in reddish ocher.

It may be a crude image. But it also is more than 40,000 years old, scientists reported on Wednesday, making this the oldest figurative art in the world.

Until now, the oldest known human-made figures were ivory sculptures found in Germany. Scientists have estimated that those figurines — of horses, birds and people — were at most 40,000 years old.

Researchers have found older man-made images, but these were abstract patterns, such as crisscrossing lines. The switch to figurative art represented an important shift in how people thought about the world around them — and possibly themselves.

The finding also demonstrates that ancient humans somehow made the creative transition at roughly the same time, in places thousands of miles apart. [Continue reading…]

When human relatives first visited a green Arabian peninsula

Nicholas St. Fleur reports:

Buried in the Arabian desert’s sand are clues to the peninsula’s wetter, greener past. Fossils from long-extinct elephants, antelope and jaguars paint a prehistoric scene not of a barren wasteland, but of a flourishing savanna sprinkled with watering holes.

Now, scientists have found what they think is evidence of the activities of early human relatives, who lived in this ancient landscape some 300,000 to 500,000 years ago. If the findings are confirmed, the stone flakes and butchered animal bones the researchers uncovered would be evidence that early hominins — extinct members of the genus Homo, but most likely not of our species — were present in the Arabian Peninsula at least 100,000 years earlier than previously known.

The findings, which were published Monday in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, also suggest early hominins did not need any special evolutionary adaptations before they ventured out from the grasslands of Africa and into the wilds of Arabia. [Continue reading…]

Frans de Waal: Primatology shows that the typical alpha male isn’t a bully

 

South Africa’s Blombos cave is home to the earliest drawing by a human

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The drawing found on silcrete stone in Blombos Cave.
Craig Foster

By Christopher Henshilwood, University of Bergen and Karen Loise van Niekerk, University of Bergen

Scientists working in Blombos Cave in South Africa’s southern Cape region have made a discovery that changes our understanding of when our human ancestors started expressing themselves through drawings. They’ve found a 73 000-year-old cross-hatched drawing on a silcrete (stone) flake. It was made with an ochre crayon. The Conversation Africa asked Professor Christopher Henshilwood, who leads the team that made the discovery, about its significance.

What does the drawing your team found look like?

It consists of a set of six straight sub-parallel lines crossed obliquely by three slightly curved lines. One line partially overlaps the edge of a flake scar. This suggests it was made after that flake became detached. The abrupt termination of all lines on the fragment edges indicates that the pattern originally extended over a larger surface.

So the pattern was probably more complex and structured in its entirety than in this truncated form.

This has shifted our thinking about when human ancestors started drawing. What was the earliest known drawing found before this?

The earliest known engraving, a zig-zag pattern incised on a fresh water shell from Trinil, Java, was found in layers dated to 540 000 years ago. In terms of drawings, a recent article proposed that painted representations in three caves of the Iberian Peninsula were 64,000 years old – this would mean they were produced by Neanderthals. So the drawing on the Blombos silcrete flake is the oldest drawing by Homo sapiens ever found.

[Read more…]

Seeking human generosity’s origins in an ape’s gift to another ape

Carl Zimmer writes:

How generous is an ape? It’s a hard question for scientists to tackle, but the answer could tell us a lot about ourselves.

People in every culture can be generous, whether they’re loaning a cellphone to an office mate or sharing an antelope haunch with a hungry family.

While it’s easy to dwell on our capacity for war and violence, scientists see our generosity as a remarkable feature of our species. “One of the things that stands out about humans is how helpful we are,” said Christopher Krupenye, a primate behavior researcher at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

This generosity may have been crucial to the survival of our early ancestors who lived in small bands of hunter-gatherers.

“When our own attempts to find food are unsuccessful, we rely on others to share food with us — otherwise we starve,” said Jan Engelmann, a researcher at Göttingen University.

To understand the origin of this impulse — known as prosociality — a number of researchers have turned to our closest living relatives. [Continue reading…]

Conflict reigns over the history and origins of money

Bruce Bower writes:

Wherever you go, money talks. And it has for a long time.

Sadly, though, money has been mum about its origins. For such a central element of our lives, money’s ancient roots and the reasons for its invention are unclear.

As cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin multiply into a flock of digital apparitions, researchers are still battling over how and where money came to be. And some draw fascinating parallels between the latest, buzzworthy cryptocurrencies, which require only a virtual wallet, and a type of money developed by one Micronesian island community that wouldn’t fit in anyone’s wallet, pocket or purse.

When it comes to money’s origins, though, conflict reigns. Economists have held one view of money’s origins for hundreds of years. But a growing number of anthropologists and archaeologists, holding a revisionist view, say that economists’
standard story is bankrupt.

Economists and revisionists alike agree that an object defined as money works in four ways: First, it serves as a means for exchanging goods and services. Currency enables payment of debts. It represents a general measure of value, making it possible to calculate prices of all sorts of items. And, finally, money can be stored as a wealth reserve.

From there, the two groups split. Mainstream economists assume that bartering of goods and services inspired money’s invention. Anthropologists and archaeologists contend that early states invented currency as a means of debt payment.

“Much academic work assumes that [monetary systems] arose in nation-states within the last 200 to 400 years,” says sociocultural anthropologist Daniel Souleles of Copenhagen Business School in Frederiksberg. But financialized transactions and debt show up in lots of places much further back in time.

Recent research from the Americas adds new questions to the debate. These investigations suggest that money independently appeared for different reasons and assumed different tangible forms in many parts of the world, starting thousands of years ago. [Continue reading…]

The new story of humanity’s origins in Africa

Ed Yong writes:

There is a decades-old origin story for our species, in which we descended from a group of hominids who lived somewhere in Africa around 200,000 years ago. Some scientists have placed that origin in East Africa; others championed a southern birthplace. In either case, the narrative always begins in one spot. Those ancestral hominids, probably Homo heidelbergensis, slowly accumulated the characteristic features of our species—the rounded skull, small face, prominent chin, advanced tools, and sophisticated culture. From that early cradle, we then spread throughout Africa, and eventually the world.

But some scientists are now arguing that this textbook narrative is wrong in its simplicity, linearity, and geography. Yes, we evolved from ancestral hominids in Africa, but we did it in a complicated fashion—one that involves the entire continent.

Consider the ancient human fossils from a Moroccan cave called Jebel Irhoud, which were described just last year. These 315,000-year-old bones are the oldest known fossils of Homo sapiens. They not only pushed back the proposed dawn of our species, but they added northwest Africa to the list of possible origin sites. They also had an odd combination of features, combining the flat faces of modern humans with the elongated skulls of ancient species like Homo erectus. From the front, they could have passed for us; from the side, they would have stood out.

Fossils from all over Africa have modern and ancient traits in varied combinations, including the 260,000-year-old Florisbad skull from South Africa; the 195,000-year-old remains from Omo Kibish in Ethiopia; and the 160,000-year-old Herto skull, also from Ethiopia. Some scientists have argued that these remains represent different subspecies of Homo sapiens, or different species altogether.

But perhaps they really were all Homo sapiens, and our species simply used to be far more diverse than we currently are. “If you look at skulls, you’ll see different features of modern humans arising in different locations at different times,” says Eleanor Scerri, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford. And the reason for that, she says, is that “we’re a species with multiple African origins.” [Continue reading…]