Warning signs: how early humans first began to paint animals

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Painting from El Castillo cave (Cantabria, Spain). Early Upper Palaeolithic or older.
Photo Becky Harrison and courtesy Gobierno de Cantabria., Author provided

By Derek Hodgson, University of York and Paul Pettitt, Durham University

Visual culture – and the associated forms of symbolic communication, are regarded by palaeo-anthropologists as perhaps the defining characteristic of the behaviour of Homo sapiens. One of the great mysteries of archaeology is why figurative art, in the form of the stunningly naturalistic animal depictions, appeared relatively suddenly around 37,000 years ago in the form of small sculpted objects and drawings and engravings on cave and rock shelter walls.

Since the discovery and authentication of such Palaeolithic art more than a century ago, theories have abounded as to what this meant to its Ice Age hunter-gatherer creators. But theories often say more about modern preconceptions regarding the function of art – how can we tell if we’re on the right track to understanding the remote and alien societies that created the first images?

In a radical new approach to the issue, we applied recent findings from visual neuroscience, perceptual psychology and the archaeology of cave art, that begin to make sense of the intriguing representations and forward what we hope can be tested scientifically.

[Read more…]

China-backed Sumatran dam threatens the rarest ape in the world

By Bill Laurance, James Cook University

The plan to build a massive hydropower dam in Sumatra as part of China’s immense Belt and Road Initiative threatens the habitat of the rarest ape in the world, which has only 800 remaining members.

This is merely the beginning of an avalanche of environmental crises and broader social and economic risks that will be provoked by the BRI scheme.




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How we discovered a new species of orangutan in northern Sumatra


The orangutan’s story began in November 2017, when scientists made a stunning announcement: they had discovered a seventh species of Great Ape, called the Tapanuli Orangutan, in a remote corner of Sumatra, Indonesia.

In an article published in Current Biology today, my colleagues and I show that this ape is perilously close to extinction – and that a Chinese-sponsored megaproject could be the final nail in its coffin.

Forest clearing for the Chinese-funded development has already begun.
Sumatran Orangutan Society

[Read more…]

Ancient humans settled the Philippines 700,000 years ago

Science reports:

In what some scientists are calling a “one-in-a-million find,” archaeologists have discovered a cache of butchered rhino bones and dozens of stone tools on the Philippines’s largest island, Luzon. The find pushes back the earliest evidence for human occupation of the Philippines by more than 600,000 years, and it has archaeologists wondering who exactly these ancient humans were—and how they crossed the deep seas that surrounded that island and others in Southeast Asia.

“The only thing missing is the hominin fossil to go along with it,” says archaeologist Adam Brumm, of Griffith University in Nathan, Australia. He’s the one who set the odds for what he calls a “very exciting discovery,” but he wasn’t involved with the work.

Researchers found 75% of a fossilized rhino skeleton—ribs and leg bones still scarred from the tools that removed their meat and marrow—lying in ancient mud that had long since buried an even older river channel. To determine the site’s age, researchers dated the enamel in one of the rhino’s teeth, as well as quartz grains embedded in the sediment layers above and below the bones, using electron spin resonance (ESR), which measures the buildup of electrons as a material is exposed to radiation over time. The team dated the bottom sediment layer to about 727,000 years old, the rhino tooth to about 709,000 years old, and the top sediment layer to about 701,000 years old. Several independent experts say they were impressed by the team’s careful use of the technique. “They’ve nailed it,” says Alistair Pike, an archaeological dating expert at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom.

So who were these ancient people? They couldn’t have been our own species, Homo sapiens, which evolved in Africa hundreds of thousands of years later. The most likely bet is H. erectus, an archaic human species that first evolved nearly 2 million years ago and may have been the first member of our genus to expand out of Africa, the team writes today in Nature. [Continue reading…]

Person of the forest

To communicate with apes, we must do it on their terms

Rachel Nuwer writes:

On August 24, 1661, Samuel Pepys, an administrator in England’s navy and famous diarist, took a break from work to go see a “strange creature” that had just arrived on a ship from West Africa. Most likely, it was a chimpanzee—the first Pepys had ever seen. As he wrote in his diary, the “great baboon” was so human-like that he wondered if it were not the offspring of a man and a “she-baboon.”

“I do believe that it already understands much English,” he continued, “and I am of the mind it might be taught to speak or make signs.”

Humans and apes share nearly 99% of the same DNA, but language is one thing that seems to irreconcilably differentiate our species. Is that by necessity of nature, though, or simply a question of nurture?

“It could be that there’s something biologically different in our genome, something that’s changed since we split from apes, and that’s language,” says Catherine Hobaiter, a primatologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “But another possibility is that they might have the cognitive capacity for language, but they’re not able to physically express it like we do.” [Continue reading…]

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Neandertals, Stone Age people may have voyaged the Mediterranean

Science reports:

Odysseus, who voyaged across the wine-dark seas of the Mediterranean in Homer’s epic, may have had some astonishingly ancient forerunners. A decade ago, when excavators claimed to have found stone tools on the Greek island of Crete dating back at least 130,000 years, other archaeologists were stunned—and skeptical. But since then, at that site and others, researchers have quietly built up a convincing case for Stone Age seafarers—and for the even more remarkable possibility that they were Neandertals, the extinct cousins of modern humans.

The finds strongly suggest that the urge to go to sea, and the cognitive and technological means to do so, predates modern humans, says Alan Simmons, an archaeologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas who gave an overview of recent finds at a meeting here last week of the Society for American Archaeology. “The orthodoxy until pretty recently was that you don’t have seafarers until the early Bronze Age,” adds archaeologist John Cherry of Brown University, an initial skeptic. “Now we are talking about seafaring Neandertals. It’s a pretty stunning change.”

Scholars long thought that the capability to construct and victual a watercraft and then navigate it to a distant coast arrived only with advent of agriculture and animal domestication. The earliest known boat, found in the Netherlands, dates back only 10,000 years or so, and convincing evidence of sails only show up in Egypt’s Old Kingdom around 2500 B.C.E. Not until 2000 B.C.E. is there physical evidence that sailors crossed the open ocean, from India to Arabia.

But a growing inventory of stone tools and the occasional bone scattered across Eurasia tells a radically different story. (Wooden boats and paddles don’t typically survive the ages.) Early members of the human family such as Homo erectus are now known to have crossed several kilometers of deep water more than a million years ago in Indonesia, to islands such as Flores and Sulawesi. Modern humans braved treacherous waters to reach Australia by 65,000 years ago. But in both cases, some archaeologists say early seafarers might have embarked by accident, perhaps swept out to sea by tsunamis. [Continue reading…]

Earth’s mammals have shrunk dramatically, and meat-eating hominids are to blame

The Washington Post reports:

Life on Earth used to look a lot more impressive. Just a little more than 100,000 years ago, there were sloths as long as a giraffe is tall, monstrous bears whose shoulders were six feet off the ground, and Bunyanesque beavers that weighed as much as an NFL linebacker. But over time, all of these creatures disappeared in a manner so rapid and so mysterious that scientists still can’t fully explain what went down.

Did an asteroid discharge the mega-beasts, similar to the one thought to have snuffed out the dinosaurs? Or was it widespread climatic change or a plague of new diseases? Did our penchant for hunting play a role?

It’s likely that a combination of factors led to a planet-wide demise in sizable mammals as the Ice Age came to a close. But a study published Thursday in the journal Science provides evidence that the major drivers were humans and other hominids.

“We looked at the entire fossil record for 65 million years, in million-year increments, and we asked the question, ‘Is it ever bad to be big?’ ” said lead author Felisa Smith, a paleoecologist at the University of New Mexico. For most of evolutionary history, the answer was no — larger body mass did not make an animal more likely to go extinct, she said. “For 65 million years, it didn’t matter what size you were.”

That is, until a new kind of predator arrived on the scene: Homo erectus. Around 1.8 million years ago, hominids that had long been dependent on plants became hominids that were “heavily and increasingly dependent on meat as a food source,” Smith said.

As these tool-wielding team hunters spread out from Africa, large-mammal extinctions followed. If you’re going to spend time and energy on a hunt, these early humans and their ancestors probably believed, it’s go big or go home.

“You hunt a rabbit, you have food for a small family for a day,” Smith said. “You hunt a mammoth, you feed the village.” [Continue reading…]

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Who first buried the dead?


Paige Madison writes:

A mysterious cache of bones, recovered from a deep chamber in a South African cave, is challenging long-held beliefs about how a group of bipedal apes developed into the abstract-thinking creatures that we call “human.” The fossils were discovered in 2013 and were quickly recognized as the remains of a new species unlike anything seen before. Named Homo naledi, it has an unexpected mix of modern features and primitive ones, including a fairly small brain. Arguably the most shocking aspect of Homo naledi, though, concerned not the remains themselves but rather their resting place.

The chamber where the bones were found is far from the cave entrance, accessible only through a narrow, difficult passage that is completely shrouded in darkness. Scientists believe the chamber has long been difficult to access, requiring a journey of vertical climbing, crawling, and tight squeezing through spaces only 20 centimeters across. It would be an impossible place to live, and a highly unlikely location for many individuals to have ended up by accident. Those details pushed the research team toward a shocking hypothesis: despite its puny brain, Homo naledi purposefully interred its dead. The cave chamber was a graveyard, they concluded.

For anthropologists, mortuary rituals carry an outsize importance in tracing the emergence of human uniqueness—especially the capacity to think symbolically. Symbolic thought gives us the ability to transcend the present, remember the past, and visualize the future. It allows us to imagine, to create, and to alter our environment in ways that have significant consequences for the planet. Use of language is the quintessential embodiment of such mental abstractions, but studying its history is difficult because language doesn’t fossilize. Burials do.

Burials provide a hard, material record of a behavior that is deeply spiritual and meaningful. It allows scientists to trace the emergence of beliefs, values, and other complex ideas that appear to be uniquely human. Homo sapiens is unquestionably unlike any other species alive today. Pinpointing what separates us from the rest of nature is surprisingly difficult, however. [Continue reading…]

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There’s no scientific basis for race — it’s a made-up label

 

Elizabeth Kolbert writes:

In the first half of the 19th century, one of America’s most prominent scientists was a doctor named Samuel Morton. Morton lived in Philadelphia, and he collected skulls.

He wasn’t choosy about his suppliers. He accepted skulls scavenged from battlefields and snatched from catacombs. One of his most famous craniums belonged to an Irishman who’d been sent as a convict to Tasmania (and ultimately hanged for killing and eating other convicts). With each skull Morton performed the same procedure: He stuffed it with pepper seeds—later he switched to lead shot—which he then decanted to ascertain the volume of the braincase.

Morton believed that people could be divided into five races and that these represented separate acts of creation. The races had distinct characters, which corresponded to their place in a divinely determined hierarchy. Morton’s “craniometry” showed, he claimed, that whites, or “Caucasians,” were the most intelligent of the races. East Asians—Morton used the term “Mongolian”—though “ingenious” and “susceptible of cultivation,” were one step down. Next came Southeast Asians, followed by Native Americans. Blacks, or “Ethiopians,” were at the bottom. In the decades before the Civil War, Morton’s ideas were quickly taken up by the defenders of slavery.

“He had a lot of influence, particularly in the South,” says Paul Wolff Mitchell, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania who is showing me the skull collection, now housed at the Penn Museum. We’re standing over the braincase of a particularly large-headed Dutchman who helped inflate Morton’s estimate of Caucasian capacities. When Morton died, in 1851, the Charleston Medical Journal in South Carolina praised him for “giving to the negro his true position as an inferior race.”

Today Morton is known as the father of scientific racism. So many of the horrors of the past few centuries can be traced to the idea that one race is inferior to another that a tour of his collection is a haunting experience. To an uncomfortable degree we still live with Morton’s legacy: Racial distinctions continue to shape our politics, our neighborhoods, and our sense of self.

This is the case even though what science actually has to tell us about race is just the opposite of what Morton contended. [Continue reading…]

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Rights of the dead and the living clash when scientists extract DNA from human remains

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Who gets to decide for the dead, such as this Egyptian mummy?
AP Photo/Ric Feld

By Chip Colwell, University of Colorado Denver

The remains of a 6-inch long mummy from Chile are not those of a space alien, according to recently reported research. The tiny body with its strange features – a pointed head, elongated bones – had been the subject of fierce debate over whether a UFO might have left it behind. The scientists gained access to the body, which is now in a private collection, and their DNA testing proved the remains are those of a human fetus. The undeveloped girl suffered from a bone disease and was the child of an unknown local Atacama woman.

This study was supposed to end the mummy’s controversy. Instead, it ignited another one.

The mummified fetus from the Atacama region of Chile.
Bhattacharya S et al. 2018, CC BY

Authorities in Chile have denounced the research. They believe a looter plundered the girl from her grave and illegally took her from the country. The Chilean Society of Biological Anthropology issued a damning statement. It asked, “Could you imagine the same study carried out using the corpse of someone’s miscarried baby in Europe or America?”

As an archaeologist, I share in the excitement around how technology and techniques to study DNA are leaping ahead. As never before, the mysteries of our bodies and histories are finding exciting answers – from the revelation that humans interbred with Neanderthals, to how Britain was populated, to the enigma of a decapitated Egyptian mummy.

But, I have also closely studied the history of collecting human remains for science. I am gravely concerned that the current “bone rush” to make new genetic discoveries has set off an ethical crisis.

[Read more…]