September 24, 2012
Neanderthals have a reputation for being dumb brutes. While modern humans (Homo sapiens) were painting cave murals, sculpting tiny figurines and crafting beaded jewelry some 30,000 to 50,000 years ago, Neanderthals weren’t making any art. At least, that’s the way it appears in the archaeological record. Now, a new study of bird fossils suggests our cousins were indeed capable of expressing themselves symbolically—using feathers as personal adornments.
In the last few years, researchers have reported a few archaeological sites with evidence that Neanderthals removed feathers and claws from birds such as raptors, presumably for ornamental purposes. Clive Finlayson of the Gibraltar Museum and his colleagues wanted to see how widespread this behavior was among Neanderthals. They published their findings last week in PLOS One.
To address the question, the team looked at Neanderthals’ association with fossils of raptors (including vultures and eagles) and corvids (including ravens and magpies). They focused on these birds because modern people generally don’t consume them and therefore Neanderthals probably didn’t either. Thus, finding these types of birds at an archaeological site helps exclude the possibility that our cousins were eating them. In searching almost 1,700 sites across Europe and Asia that contain bird fossils, the team noted that species with dark plumage were more common at Neanderthal sites than would be expected by chance alone. So, it seems Neanderthals across their geographic range liked black birds.
Next, the researchers looked at three cave sites on Gibraltar to examine more closely what Neanderthals might have been doing with these birds. The caves date from 57,000 to 28,000 years ago, before modern humans entered the region. The team found 604 avian skeletal pieces, representing at least 124 individual birds. With less than 3 percent of the bones containing the tooth marks of rodents or carnivores, Neanderthals are the likely reason the birds were brought into the caves.
More than half of the bones were wing bones. There’s no reason to expect wing bones to be disproportionately preserved in the fossil record, so this is another sign that Neanderthals were mainly interested in feathers, the researchers say. Furthermore, most of the bones with stone-tool markings are the wing bones. If Neanderthals were butchering the animals for meat, you’d expect to find the most markings on bones connected to fleshy areas, such as the breast bone.
Because soil bacteria rapidly decompose feathers, the researchers conclude our cousins weren’t using feathers as bedding. The only use that makes sense, Finlayson and colleagues argue, is plucking feathers to make headdresses, cloaks or some other adornment.
“Neanderthals, though different in a number of ways from modern humans, had comparable cognitive capacities that included symbolic expression,” the researchers write. Furthermore, they say, any differences in the art or artifacts left behind by the two species was the result of cultural differences, not intellect.
But does the capacity for symbolic expression mean Neanderthals had mental abilities that were on par with modern humans? It depends on who you ask. For decades, symbolism was considered the key cognitive trait that separated modern humans from other hominids. Today, anthropologists think there may be a range of abilities that define the human mind, such as planning for the future and processing disparate chunks of information at the same time (working memory). Until researchers can agree on the core features that characterize human cognition, it will be impossible to determine whether Neanderthal brains were really just like ours.
May 16, 2012
In 1940, a group of teenagers discovered the paintings of bison, bulls and horses adorning the walls of France’s Lascaux Cave. Roughly 17,000 years old, the paintings are Europe’s most famous cave art, but hardly the oldest. This week archaeologists announced finding in another cave in France art dating to about 37,000 years ago, making it a candidate for Europe’s most ancient artwork. Here’s a look at the new discovery and the other top contenders for the title of Europe’s oldest work of art.
Nerja Caves (possibly about 43,000 years ago): In February, José Luis Sanchidrián of Spain’s University of Cordoba declared he had found paintings of seals on stalactites in southern Spain’s Nerja Caves. The paintings themselves have not yet been dated. But if they match the age of charcoal found nearby, then the art might be 43,500 to 42,3000 years old, New Scientist reported. That would make the Nerja Cave art the oldest known in Europe—and the most sophisticated art created by Neanderthals, the hominids that lived in this part of Spain some 40,000 years ago.
Abri Castanet (about 37,000 years ago): In 2007, among the rubble from a collapsed rock shelter at the Abri Castanet site in southwestern France just six miles from Lascaux, archaeologists found an engraved chunk of rock. The engravings on the 4-foot-by-3-foot slab, once part of the rock shelter’s ceiling, depict female genitalia and part of an animal. With the help of radiocarbon dating, Randall White of New York University and colleagues estimate the art was made sometime between 36,940 and 36,510 years ago by the Aurignacians, the modern humans who lived in Europe at this time. The researchers reported their findings this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Venus of Hohle Fels (35,000-40,000 years ago): In Nature in 2009, Nicholas Conrad of Germany’s University of Tübingen described the discovery of a 2-inch figurine carved from a mammoth tusk. The tiny sculpture was recovered from Hohle Fels cave in southern Germany’s Swabian Jura mountain range. The figure depicts a woman with large, exaggerated breasts, buttocks and genitalia. Radiocarbon dated to at least 35,000 years ago, it is the earliest known Venus figurine. Also in the Swabian Jura, archaeologists have found the Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel, an ivory sculpture dated to roughly 30,000 years ago.
Chauvet Cave (about 30,000 years ago): Discovered in 1994, Chauvet Cave’s paintings stand out among Europe’s cave art for their subject matter. In addition to depicting animals that Stone Age people hunted, such as horses and cattle, the wall art shows predators like cave bears, lions and rhinos. The cave’s paintings are exceptionally well preserved because tourists—and the damaging microbes they bring—aren’t allowed inside. But you can still enjoy the breathtaking art by taking a virtual tour of the cave or watching Werner Herzog’s 2011 documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams.
December 28, 2011
For this last Hominid Hunting post of 2011, I reviewed recent human evolution research highlights to come up with my picks for the top 10 hominid discoveries of the year. While genetic breakthroughs have hogged the spotlight the past couple of years, good old-fashioned fossil and archaeological finds were front and center in 2011.
10. Earliest Modern Humans in Europe: Paleoanthropologists believe modern humans (Homo sapiens) came to Europe about 43,000 years ago. This date is based on the age of sophisticated stone tools, not human fossils. This year two teams dated European fossils that are in line with the age of the tools: A human upper jaw discovered in southern England in 1927 was dated to 44,000 years ago, and two molars unearthed in Italy were dated to 45,000 years ago. These fossils are the oldest known human remains on the continent.
9. The Arches of Australopithecus afarensis: There’s no doubt that Lucy and her species, Australopithecus afarensis, walked upright. But the degree to which these hominids walked on the ground has been debated. The discovery of a 3.2-million-year-old foot bone confirmed that Lucy and her kind had arched feet and therefore probably walked much like modern people. The researchers who studied the fossil say it indicates Australopithecus afarensis no longer needed to spend much time in the treetops; however, other researchers disagree, saying hominids at this time were still good tree climbers.
8. World’s Earliest Mattress: In a rock shelter in South Africa, archaeologists uncovered a 77,000-year-old mattress composed of thin layers of sedges and grasses, predating all other known mattresses by 50,000 years. Early humans knew how to keep the bed bugs out; the bedding was stuffed with leaves from the Cape Laurel tree (Cryptocarya woodii), which release chemicals known to kill mosquitos and other bugs.
7. Neanderthal Mountaineers: Neanderthals evolved many traits to deal with the cold; for example, their short limbs helped them conserve heat. A mathematical analysis revealed that short limbs may have also helped Neanderthals walk more efficiently in mountainous terrains. Specifically, the fact that Neanderthals had shorter shins relative to their thighs meant they didn’t need to lift their legs as high while walking uphill, compared to modern people with longer legs. “For a given step length, they [needed] to put in less effort,” said lead research Ryan Higgins of Johns Hopkins University.
6. The First Art Studio: Archaeologists working in South Africa’s Blombos Cave discovered early humans had a knack for chemistry. In a 100,000-year-old workshop, they found all of the raw materials needed to make paint, as well as abalone shells used as storage containers—evidence that our ancestors were capable of long-term planning at this time.
5. Australopithecine Females Strayed, Males Stayed Close to Home: In many monkey species, when males reach adolescence, they leave their home to search for a new group, probably as a way to avoid breeding with their female relatives. In chimpanzees and some humans, the opposite occurs: Females move away. Now it appears that australopithecines followed the chimp/human pattern. Researchers studied the composition of strontium isotopes found in the teeth of members of Australopithecus africanus and Paranthropus robustus. An individual consumes strontium through food and it is taken up by the teeth during childhood. Because the isotopes (different forms of the element) in plants and animals vary by geology and location, strontium can be used as a proxy for an individual’s location before adulthood. In the study, the researchers discovered that large individuals, presumably males, tended to have strontium isotope ratios typical of the area where the fossils were found; smaller individuals, or females, had non-local strontium isotope ratios, indicating they had moved into the area as adults.
4. Confirmation of Pre-Clovis People in North America: Since the 1930s, archaeologists have thought the Clovis people, known for their fluted projectile points, were the first people to arrive in the New World, about 13,000 years ago. But in recent years there have been hints that someone else got to North America first. The discovery of more than 15,000 stone artifacts in central Texas, dating to between 13,200 and 15,500 years ago, confirmed those suspicions. Corroborating evidence came from Washington State, where a mastodon rib containing a projectile point was dated this year to 13,800 years ago.
3. Denisovans Left A Mark in Modern DNA: The Denisovans lived in Eurasia sometime between 30,000 and 50,000 years ago. Scientists don’t know what they looked like; the only evidence of this extinct hominid group is DNA extracted from a bone fragment retrieved from a cave in Siberia. But this year, several studies revealed the mysterious population bred with several lineages of modern humans; people native to Southeast Asia, Australia, Melanesia, Polynesia and elsewhere in Oceania carry Denisovan DNA.
2. Out of Africa and Into Arabia: Traditionally, paleoanthropologists have thought modern humans left Africa through the Sinai Peninsula and into the Levant. But some researchers suggest our ancestors took a more southerly route, across the Red Sea and into southern Arabia. This year, several studies provided evidence pointing to this exit strategy. First, a team reported the discovery of 125,000-year-old stone tools in the United Arab Emirates. The researchers suggested humans ventured into Arabia when sea level was lower, making a trip across the Red Sea easier. (Geologists later verified the climate would have been just right at this time.) No fossils were found with the tools, but the scientists concluded they belonged to modern humans rather than Neanderthals or some other contemporaneous hominid. Another study this year complemented the finding: Paleoanthropologists also found stone tools, dating to 106,000 years ago, in Oman. The researchers say the artifacts match tools of the Nubian Complex, which are found only in the Horn of Africa. This connection implies the makers of those African tools, most likely modern humans, made the migration into Oman.
1. Australopithecus sediba, Candidate for Homo Ancestor: Last year, scientists announced the discovery of a new hominid species from South Africa’s Cradle of Humankind—Australopithecus sediba. This year, the researchers announced the results of an in-depth analysis of the 1.97-million-year-old species. They say a mix of australopithecine and Homo-like traits make Australopithecus sediba, or a species very similar to it, a possible direct ancestor of our own genus, Homo.
December 21, 2011
This week Smithsonian introduced the concept of “evotourism,” with 12 sites around the world where visitors can appreciate and learn about evolution. One stop on the tour relates to human evolution: South Africa’s Cradle of Humankind, where the first Australopithecus fossils were discovered.
But there are many other locations where evotourists can marvel at the science and history of human evolution. Here are five additional hominid evotourism destinations.
1. Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania
Its place in hominid history: Some 2,000 miles northeast of the Cradle of Humankind is Africa’s other self-proclaimed Cradle of Mankind, Olduvai Gorge, made famous by Louis and Mary Leakey. In 1959, the husband-and-wife team uncovered a 1.75-million-year-old skull belonging to a species of hominid they dubbed Zinjanthropus boisei, now called Paranthropus boisei. The finding shifted hominid hunters’ interest from South Africa to East Africa, where paleoanthropologists have since found some of the earliest hominids. In the early 1960s, the Leakeys discovered another hominid that once lived at the site, Homo habilis. Dating to about 2.5 million years ago, this species is the earliest known member of the genus Homo. Although it still retained some primitive features, it was the first hominid to have a brain larger than an ape’s. The species’ name means “Handy Man,” referring to the Leakeys’ belief that this hominid made the numerous stone tools found at Olduvai Gorge. These tools are significant in their own right. They are some of the oldest stone tools ever found, and today, archaeologists refer to these types of tools as Oldowan.
What to do there: After touring the Olduvai Gorge Museum, visitors can take guided walks of the hominid site. But the area offers more than just fossils and impressive vistas. The gorge is located within the protected Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The Ngorongoro Crater, the area’s namesake, is a collapsed volcanic crater carpeted with the grasslands of the Serengeti. Tourists can join walking or vehicle safaris, with the chance to glimpse some of the Serengeti’s most famous residents, including lions, baboons, zebras, wildebeest and flamingos.
2. Sangiran, Indonesia
Its place in hominid history: In the 1890s, Dutch anatomist Eugene Dubois discovered the first fossils of Homo erectus (at the time, the species was known as Pithecanthropus erectus), on the island of Java. In fact, it was among the earliest discoveries in the fledgling field of paleoanthropology. Based on the features of the fossils—a modern-looking thigh bone indicating upright walking and a primitive skull cap with thick brow ridges and a sloping forehead—Dubois believed this so-called Java Man was an intermediate form between apes and humans. Starting in the 1930s, German anthropologist Gustav Heinrich Ralph von Koenigswald excavated at Sangiran, not far from where Dubois conducted his work. Von Koenigswald found additional fossils as well as stone tools. These sites in Java, dating to more than a million years ago, are some of the oldest hominid fossil locales outside of Africa.
What to do there: Located in Central Java, about 15 miles south of the city of Solo, Sangiran is a Unesco World Heritage site. The Sangiran Museum offers displays of Java Man fossil replicas as well as real fossils of animals that lived in the area 1.2 million to 500,000 years ago. Tourists can also visit the Sangiran archaeological site, where fossils are still being unearthed, and climb a three-story observation tower to get a more expansive view of the region.
For more information, visit Indonesia’s Official Tourism Website.
3. Zhoukoudian, China
Its place in hominid history: The first and oldest hominid fossils discovered in East Asia were found in the 1920s by paleontologists working at the caves of Zhoukoudian, or Dragon Bone Hill, about 30 miles southwest of Beijing. The fossils were assigned to the species Sinanthropus pekinensis, colloquially called Peking Man. Eventually, anthropologists realized the Sinanthropus fossils in China and the Pithecanthropus fossils in Java belonged to the same species, Homo erectus. The original fossils found in the 1920s through 1930s went missing during World War II, but researchers have since found dozens of other fossils and stone tools. The site is also home to early evidence of the use of fire.
What to do there: With its close proximity to Beijing, Zhoukoudian is easier to get to than many of the other sites on this list, accessible by car or bus. Once there, visitors can see hominid fossils on display at the Zhoukoudian Anthropological Museum, along with the fossils of other animals that coexisted with Peking Man. Tourists can also visit the caves where excavations took place.
4. Lake Mungo, Australia
Its place in hominid history: Located more than 300 miles north of Melbourne, the now-dry Lake Mungo is home to Australia’s oldest human remains. In 1968, geologist Jim Bowler and a group of archaeologists discovered the burnt bones of a woman; six years later, Bowler found the skeleton of an adult man. Known as Mungo Lady and Mungo Man, the fossils have been the center of much debate, with dates for the pair ranging from 28,000 to 62,000 years ago. Today, researchers in Australia think the Mungo people lived about 40,000 years ago—evidence that modern humans arrived in Australia at a very early date. More recently, in 2003, scientists unearthed 500 footprints left behind by humans, other mammals and birds 20,000 years ago.
What to do there: Mungo National Park offers visitors a variety of ways to explore the area’s dry lake beds, sand dunes and grasslands: short hikes, longer driving and bike paths, and tours led by aboriginal park rangers. The park’s visitor’s center has exhibits on the region’s natural history and cultural heritage, and the outdoor Meeting Place has a recreation of the park’s ancient footprints (the real footprints have been covered for their protection and preservation). Several other national parks are within a few hours’ drive of Mungo.
For more information, visit the Mungo National Park website.
5. Lascaux Caves, France
Its place in hominid history: The Vézère Valley in southwestern France is home to 147 archaeological sites and 25 caves adorned with ancient paintings. The most famous cave paintings are those of Lascaux, discovered by a group of teenagers in 1940. The cave paintings depict 100 animal figures, including bison and horses, as well as some human figures.
What to do there: Sadly, tourism has damaged the Lascaux caves paintings. The site opened to the public in 1948, but the arrival of people also brought bacteria, fungi and other microbes that have led to the deterioration of the cave art, and the caves are now closed to the public. However, visitors can tour a replica of the cave and its paintings nearby at Lascaux II. Perhaps an even less intrusive way to see the paintings is through an online virtual tour.
For more information, visit the Lascaux Cave website.
These are just a few accessible locations important to the study of hominid history. What stops would you add to the human evolution world tour? And which would you most like to visit?
October 19, 2011
Call it an early artist’s studio or a primitive chemist’s lab: Last week scientists announced the discovery of a 100,000-year-old paint-processing workshop in a cave in South Africa, where early humans stored paint mixtures in shell containers. The finding demonstrates that our ancestors had some basic understanding of chemistry and a capacity for long-term planning at this early point in our species’ history, the researchers reported in Science.
Evidence of the workshop comes from bones, charcoal, grindstones, hammerstones and, most importantly, ochre, an iron-rich red rock. The materials were found in Blombos Cave, about 185 miles east of Cape Town, by Christopher Henshilwood of the University of Bergen in Norway and the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa and his colleagues. The researchers say these tools and raw materials were used to make a compound akin to paint: In an abalone shell, ground-up ochre was mixed and stirred with charcoal, a liquid (possibly urine) and crushed mammal bones that had been heated. In addition to being used as mixing bowls, the abalone shells served as storage containers.
It’s not clear how the mixture was used, but the researchers speculate our ancestors may have applied it to cave walls, clothing, artifacts or the human body as a decoration or to protect surfaces.
This study is interesting because it adds to the mounting evidence that modern human behavior emerged early in our species’ history. This was not the view a couple decades ago. At that time, there appeared to be a big gap between when Homo sapiens evolved, sometime between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago, and when they started to act modern. Based on the archaeological record, it seemed there was a dramatic change 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, when evidence of sophisticated cognitive behavior appears—such as tools made out of materials other than stone, the use of marine resources (indicating a move into new habitats and requiring new technology) and symbolic thought as expressed through art. Why there would be such a delay between looking modern and acting modern wasn’t known, although Richard Klein of Stanford University suggested some sort of genetic mutation affecting the brain created a behavioral revolution in our species.
But then evidence of much earlier complex behavior started popping up. Largely in South African caves, scientists found engraved pieces of red ochre and beads dating to as many as 77,000 years ago. In 2007, researchers found even older traces—red ochre, very small blades and the use of shellfish—at a site from 164,000 years ago. So it seems at least some modern behaviors arose much earlier than previously thought. I’m curious to see how far back scientists will trace our behavioral modernity—will the timing ultimately match up with when we became physically modern?