Farming may have helped introduce ‘f’ and ‘v’ sounds to language 12,000 years ago

The Atlantic reports:

Thousands of years ago, small groups of humans across the globe began to transition from hunting and gathering their food to raising and planting it instead. They milked cattle, milled grains to make soft bread, and used new inventions like pottery to preserve meat and vegetables. And once they did that, they could start spicing up their speech by throwing some f and v sounds into the mix.

At least, that’s according to a new study published in the journal Science. The authors argue that sounds like f and v weren’t part of human language until farming appeared during the Neolithic age. Agriculture, they say, allowed humans to eat soft foods, which changed the way their jaws developed throughout life, which shaped the kinds of sounds their mouths were capable of making.

This shift would be an exception to a core rule of linguistics, called the uniformitarian principle, which posits that humans’ ability to use language has not significantly changed since language itself first appeared. “Basically, the uniformitarian principle is necessary to do historical linguistics,” Anthony Yates, a linguist at UCLA, told me. It’s hard to say when exactly humans started speaking, but most estimates place the date at least 50,000 years ago. Agriculture, meanwhile, sprung up during the Neolithic, some 12,000 years ago. The idea that humans weren’t using f’s and v’s for the first 38,000 years of our linguistic history is a striking rebuke to uniformitarianism. [Continue reading…]

Prehistoric humans invented stone tools multiple times, study finds

The Independent reports:

Prehistoric humans invented tools on multiple occasions, according to researchers who have found a collection of 327 stone weapons carved more than 2.58 million years ago.

This is the first evidence of ancient hominids sharpening stones to create specific tools, according to new research led by Arizona State University and George Washington University.

The collection of “Oldowan” tools – which are created by chipping off bits of stone – were found in the Afar region of north-eastern Ethiopia. They were probably made so our ancestors could carve up meat.

Before this discovery, the oldest example of an Oldowan tool was found in Gona in Ethiopia and was believed to be 2.56 million years old. It was widely believed this technology was invented once and then spread across the continent.

However, this latest study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, proves that theory wrong. Oldowan tools are now believed to have been invented many times by several hominid groups before becoming an essential human survival tool. [Continue reading…]

The dancing species: How moving together in time helped make us human

By Kimerer LaMothe

Dancing is a human universal, but why? It is present in human cultures old and new; central to those with the longest continuous histories; evident in the earliest visual art on rock walls from France to South Africa to the Americas, and enfolded in the DNA of every infant who invents movements in joyful response to rhythm and song, long before she can walk, talk or think of herself as an ‘I’. Dancing remains a vital, generative practice around the globe into the present in urban neighbourhoods, on concert stages, as part of healing rituals and in political revolutions. Despite efforts waged by Christian European and American colonists across six continents over 500 years to eradicate indigenous dance traditions and to marginalise dancing within their own societies, dancing continues wherever humans reside. Any answer to the question of why humans dance must explain its ubiquity and tenacity. In so doing, any answer will challenge Western notions of human being that privilege mind over body as the seat of agency and identity. 

Current explanations for why humans dance tend to follow one of two approaches. The first, seen in psychological and some philosophical circles, begins with a human as an individual person who chooses to dance (or not) for entertainment, exercise, artistic expression or some other personal reason. Such approaches assume that dance is one activity among others offering benefits to an individual that may be desirable, but not necessary, for human well being. Alternatively, a raft of sociological and anthropological explanations focus on community, asserting that dancing is one of the first means by which the earliest humans solidified strong social bonds irrespective of blood lines. In these accounts, dancing is eventually replaced by more rational and effective means of social bonding that the dancing itself makes possible, such as language, morality and religion. While the first type of reasoning struggles to explain why so many humans choose to dance, the second struggles to explain why humans continue to dance. What is missing from these accounts?

What if humans are the primates whose capacity to dance (shared by some birds and mammals) was the signature strategy enabling the evolution of a distinctively large and interconnected brain, empathic heart and ecological adaptability? And what if dancing plays this role for humans not just in prehistoric times, but continuing into the present? What if humans are creatures who evolved to dance as the enabling condition of their own bodily becoming?

[Read more…]

Misreading the story of climate change and the Maya

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Stucco frieze from Placeres, Campeche, Mexico, Early Classic period, c. 250-600 AD.
Wolfgang Sauber/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

By Kenneth Seligson, California State University, Dominguez Hills

Carbon dioxide concentrations in Earth’s atmosphere have reached 415 parts per million – a level that last occurred more than three million years ago, long before the evolution of humans. This news adds to growing concern that climate change will likely wreak serious damage on our planet in the coming decades.

While Earth has not been this warm in human history, we can learn about coping with climate change by looking to the Classic Maya civilization that thrived between A.D. 250-950 in Eastern Mesoamerica, the region that is now Guatemala, Belize, Eastern Mexico, and parts of El Salvador and Honduras.

Many people believe that the ancient Maya civilization ended when it mysteriously “collapsed.” And it is true that the Maya faced many climate change challenges, including extreme droughts that ultimately contributed to the breakdown of their large Classic Period city-states.

However, the Maya did not disappear: Over 6 million Maya people live mainly in Eastern Mesoamerica today. What’s more, based on my own research in the Northern Yucatan Peninsula and work by my colleagues throughout the broader Maya region, I believe Maya communities’ ability to adapt their resource conservation practices played a crucial role in allowing them to survive for as long as they did. Instead of focusing on the final stages of Classic Maya civilization, society can learn from the practices that enabled it to survive for nearly 700 years as we consider the effects of climate change today.

[Read more…]

Humans are not off the hook for extinctions of large herbivores — then or now

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Hippos at Gorongosa National Park.
Brett Kuxhausen, Author provided, Author provided

By René Bobe, University of Oxford and Susana Carvalho, University of Oxford

What triggered the decline and eventual extinction of many megaherbivores, the giant plant-eating mammals that roamed the Earth millions of years ago, has long been a mystery. These animals, which weighed 1,000kg or more and included the ancient relatives of modern elephants, rhinos, hippos and giraffes, reached a peak of diversity in Africa some 4.5m years ago during the Pliocene epoch (between 5.3m and 2.6m years ago). After this, their numbers slowly declined, in a trend that continued into the Pleistocene (2.6m years ago to roughly 11,000 years ago).

Both the Earth’s climate and hominins – our early human ancestors – have in the past been blamed for this change. However, a recent paper argued that the gradual extinction of megaherbivores occurred because of long-term environmental changes and that developments in hominin behaviour – such as wielding tools and using fire – did not impact megaherbivore decline.

While this seems to be true of the early decline in megaherbivore population, we argue that our ancient human ancestors may well still have contributed to more recent megaherbivore extinctions. What’s more, we’re repeating the pattern today.

[Read more…]

Why speech is a human innovation

By Tom Siegfried

Except for various cartoon characters, the Geico Gecko and Mr. Ed, animals can’t speak. Yet they have a lot to say to scientists trying to figure out the origins of human language.

Speaking isn’t the only avenue for language. After all, linguistic messaging can be transmitted by hand signals. Or handwriting. Or texting. But speech is the original and most basic mode of human communication. So understanding its origins ought to generate deeper comprehension of language more generally. And a first step toward that understanding, cognitive scientist W. Tecumseh Fitch believes, is realizing that key aspects of vocal language are not, as traditionally contended, limited to humans.

He’s not talking about a TV-show horse, of course, or animated narrators of insurance advertisements. Fitch’s point is that many creatures from the real-world animal kingdom offer clues about how the capacity for speech came to be.

It’s true that humans, and humans alone, evolved the complex set of voice, hearing and brain-processing skills enabling full-scale sophisticated vocal communication. Yet animals can make complicated sounds; parrots can mimic human speech and cats can clearly convey that it’s time for a treat. Many animals possess an acute sense of hearing and are able to distinguish random noises from intentional communication. So even though only humans possess the complete linguistic package, the components of language ability “have very deep evolutionary roots,” says Fitch, of the University of Vienna. In fact, he suggests, just a handful of changes in the communication repertoire of humankind’s ancestors endowed people with the full faculty of language.

[Read more…]

A jawbone shows Denisovans lived on the Tibetan Plateau long before humans

Science News reports:

Denisovans reached what’s now called “the roof of the world” at least 160,000 years ago.

Found in a Tibetan Plateau cave, a partial lower jawbone represents a Denisovan who is the oldest known hominid to reach the region’s cloud-scraping heights, researchers report online May 1 in Nature.

The fossil suggests that these perplexing, extinct members of the human lineage weathered the plateau’s frigid, thin air long before humans did. Many researchers have assumed that, as far as hominids go, only Homo sapiens settled in that high-altitude, low-oxygen environment, probably no earlier than 40,000 years ago.

“It blows my mind that Denisovans lived on the Tibetan Plateau,” paleoanthropologist and study coauthor Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, said at an April 29 news conference.

Until now, Denisovans were known only from a handful of fossils unearthed in Siberia’s Denisova Cave, and from ancient DNA extracted from one of those bones. Researchers regard Denisovans, who inhabited Denisova Cave from around 300,000 to 50,000 years ago, as close relatives of Neandertals and possibly a distinct Homo species. [Continue reading…]

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.

[Read more…]

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…]