Neanderthal hominins, new research


This 2017 video says about itself:

Neanderthals 101 | National Geographic

Who were the Neanderthals? Do humans really share some of their DNA? Learn facts about Neanderthal man, the traits and tools of Homo neanderthalensis, and how the species fits into our evolution story.

From the University of Colorado at Boulder in the USA:

Neanderthals used resin ‘glue’ to craft their stone tools

June 26, 2019

Archaeologists working in two Italian caves have discovered some of the earliest known examples of ancient humans using an adhesive on their stone tools — an important technological advance called “hafting”.

The new study, which included CU Boulder’s Paola Villa, shows that Neanderthals living in Europe from about 55 to 40 thousand years ago traveled away from their caves to collect resin from pine trees. They then used that sticky substance to glue stone tools to handles made out of wood or bone.

The findings add to a growing body of evidence that suggests that these cousins of Homo sapiens were more clever than some have made them out to be.

“We continue to find evidence that the Neanderthals were not inferior primitives but were quite capable of doing things that have traditionally only been attributed to modern humans”, said Villa, corresponding author of the new study and an adjoint curator at the CU Museum of Natural History.

That insight, she added, came from a chance discovery from Grotta del Fossellone and Grotta di Sant’Agostino, a pair of caves near the beaches of what is now Italy’s west coast.

Those caves were home to Neanderthals who lived in Europe during the Middle Paleolithic period, thousands of years before Homo sapiens set foot on the continent. Archaeologists have uncovered more than 1,000 stone tools from the two sites, including pieces of flint that measured not much more than an inch or two from end to end.

In a recent study of the tools, Villa and her colleagues noticed a strange residue on just a handful of the flints — bits of what appeared to be organic material.

“Sometimes that material is just inorganic sediment, and sometimes it’s the traces of the adhesive used to keep the tool in its socket”, Villa said.

To find out, study lead author Ilaria Degano at the University of Pisa conducted a chemical analysis of 10 flints using a technique called gas chromatography/mass spectrometry. The tests showed that the stone tools had been coated with resin from local pine trees. In one case, that resin had also been mixed with beeswax.

Villa explained that the Italian Neanderthals didn’t just resort to their bare hands to use stone tools. In at least some cases, they also attached those tools to handles to give them better purchase as they sharpened wooden spears or performed other tasks like butchering or scraping leather.

“You need stone tools to cut branches off of trees and make them into a point,” Villa said.

The find isn’t the oldest known example of hafting by Neanderthals in Europe — two flakes discovered in the Campitello Quarry in central Italy predate it. But it does suggest that this technique was more common than previously believed.

The existence of hafting also provides more evidence that Neanderthals, like their smaller human relatives, were able to build a fire whenever they wanted one, Villa said — something that scientists have long debated. She said that pine resin dries when exposed to air. As a result, Neanderthals needed to warm it over a small fire to make an effective glue.

“This is one of several proofs that strongly indicate that Neanderthals were capable of making fire whenever they needed it,” Villa said.

In other words, enjoying the glow of a warm campfire isn’t just for Homo sapiens.

Other coauthors on the study included researchers at Paris Nanterre University in France, University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, University of Wollongong in Australia, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, Istituto Italiano di Paleontologia Umana and the University of Pisa.

The research was funded by a National Science Foundation grant to Paola Villa and Sylvain Soriano.

DNA reveals a European Neandertal lineage that lasted 80,000 years. Fossils from caves in Belgium and Germany provided DNA from these extinct hominids. By Bruce Bower, 2:00pm, June 26, 2019.

The archaeological site of ‘Ein Qashish in northern Israel was a place of repeated Neanderthal occupation and use during the Middle Paleolithic, according to a study released June 26, 2019 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Ravid Ekshtain of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and colleagues: here.

Abnormal bony growths in the ear canal were surprisingly common in Neanderthals, according to a study published August 14, 2019 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Erik Trinkaus of Washington University and colleagues: here.

Egyptian pyramid age tomb discovery


This 13 April 2019 video says about itself:

Egypt unveiled a 4,400-year-old tomb on Saturday. The site was discovered in early April in the Saqqara burial site in the Giza Governorate.

The tomb belonged to a Fifth Dynasty nobleman named Khuwy and consisted of chambers and sub-chambers decorated in colourful reliefs and well-preserved inscriptions.

Secretary General of Supreme Council for Egyptian Antiquities Mostafa el-Waziry said archaeologists were able to identify fingerprints of the tomb’s painter.

A group of reportedly 52 foreign ambassadors and cultural attaches, among them Egyptian actress Yousra, accompanied Waziry at the unveiling ceremony.

From AFP news agency, 13 April 2019:

Egypt unveils colourful Fifth Dynasty tomb

In a major archaeological discovery, Egypt on Saturday unveiled the tomb of a Fifth Dynasty official adorned with colourful reliefs and well preserved inscriptions.

The tomb, south of Saqqara, a vast necropolis south of Cairo, belongs to a senior official named Khuwy who is believed to have been a nobleman during the Fifth Dynasty, which ruled over Egypt about 4300 years ago.

“The L-shaped Khuwy tomb starts with a small corridor heading downwards into an antechamber and from there a larger chamber with painted reliefs depicting the tomb owner sitting at an offerings table” said Mohamed Megahed, the excavation team’s head, in an antiquities ministry statement.

Flanked by dozens of ambassadors, antiquities minister Khaled al-Enani said that the tomb was found last month.

It is mostly made of white limestone bricks.

Ornate paintings boast a special green resin throughout and oils used in the burial process, the ministry said.

The tomb’s north wall indicates that its design was inspired by the architectural blueprint of the dynasty’s royal pyramids, the statement added.

The excavation team has unearthed several tombs related to the Fifth Dynasty.

Archaeologists recently found an inscription on a granite column dedicated to Queen Setibhor, who is believed to have been the wife of King Djedkare Isesis, the eighth and penultimate king of the dynasty.

Egyptian priest’s sarcophagus discovery


This 9 April 2019 video says about itself:

Egypt uncovers the remains of a powerful ancient priest

Archeologists on Sunday streamed live the discovery of the 2,500-year-old remains of a powerful ancient Egyptian high priest at Al-Ghorifa, a remote site about 165 miles south of the capital, Cairo.

Inside the priest’s stone sarcophagus covered in gold banding was a very well preserved mummy. Within the inner chambers of the burial site experts also discovered two other mummies. One seeming to be a female inside a “family tomb” and the other is believed to be a singer in the temple of Thoth, an ancient Egyptian god.

Archeologists recently uncovered a network of ancient tunnels and tombs containing 40 mummies “believed to be part of the noble elite.”

Scandinavian prehistoric barley farming, earlier than thought


This 1970 music video from Britain says about itself:

TrafficJohn Barleycorn (must die) + lyrics

The character of John Barleycorn in this old British folk song is a personification of the important cereal crop barley. In the song, John Barleycorn is represented as suffering indignities, attacks and death that correspond to the various stages of barley cultivation, such as reaping and malting.

From the University of Helsinki in Finland:

A 5,000-year-old barley grain discovered in Finland changes understanding of livelihoods

April 3, 2019

Summary: A 5,000-year-old barley grain discovered in Aland, southern Finland, turns researchers’ understanding of ancient Northern livelihoods upside down. New findings reveal that hunter-gatherers took to farming already 5,000 years ago in eastern Sweden, and on the Aland Islands, located on the southwest coast of Finland.

On the basis of prior research, representatives of the Pitted Ware Culture from the Stone Age have been known as hard-core sealers, or even Inuits of the Baltic Sea. Now, researchers have discovered barley and wheat grains in areas previously inhabited by this culture, leading to the conclusion that the Pitted Ware Culture adopted agriculture on a small scale.

A study carried out in cooperation with parties representing the discipline of archaeology and the Department of Chemistry at the University of Helsinki, as well as Swedish operators in the field of archaeology (The Archaeologists, a governmental consultant agency, and Arkeologikonsult, a business), found grains of barley and wheat in Pitted Ware settlements on Finland’s Aland Islands and in the region of modern Stockholm.

The age of the grains was ascertained using radiocarbon dating. Based on the results, the grains originated in the period of the Pitted Ware culture, thus being approximately 4,300-5,300 years old. In addition to the cereal grains, the plant remnants found in the sites included hazelnut shells, apple seeds, tuberous roots of lesser celandine and rose hips.

The study suggests that small-scale farming was adopted by the Pitted Ware Culture by learning the trade from farmers of the Funnel Beaker Culture, the latter having expanded from continental Europe to Scandinavia.

Other archaeological artefacts are also evidence of close contact between these two cultures.

“The grains found on Aland are proof that the Pitted Ware Culture introduced cultivation to places where it had not yet been practised,” says Santeri Vanhanen, a doctoral student of archaeology at the University of Helsinki.

Cereal perhaps used to brew beer?

The 5,000-year-old barley grain found on Aland is the oldest grain of cereal ever found in Finland. The researchers also found a handful of barley and wheat grains a few hundred years younger, representing either common wheat or club wheat.

“We also dated one barley grain found in Raseborg, southern Finland. This grain and the other earliest grains found in mainland Finland date back some 3,500 years, some 1,500 years behind Aland according to current knowledge,” Vanhanen explains.

In prior studies, it has been extremely difficult to demonstrate that the hunter-gatherer population would have adopted farming during recorded history, let alone in the Stone Age. Research on ancient DNA has in recent years proven that the spread of agriculture in Europe was almost exclusively down to migrants.

“We find it possible that this population, which was primarily specialised in marine hunting, continued to grow plants as the practice provided the community with social significance.”

From time to time, an abundance of pig bones are found at Pitted Ware sites, even though pigs were not an important part of their daily nourishment. For instance, the bones of more than 30 pigs were found in a grave located on the island of Gotland.

“Members of the Pitted Ware culture may have held ritual feasts where pigs and cereal products were consumed. It’s not inconceivable that grains might even have been used to brew beer, but the evidence is yet to be found,” Vanhanen continues.

Grain age determined through radiocarbon dating

The research relies primarily on archaeobotanical methodology, which helps examine plant remains preserved in archaeological sites. In this study, soil samples were collected from the sites, from which plant remains were extracted using a flotation method. The plant remains are charred; in other words, the grains and seeds have turned into carbon after having come to contact with fire.

Plant remains can be identified by examining them through a microscope and comparing them to modern plant parts. The age of individual grains can be determined with radiocarbon dating, based on the fractionation of the radioactive carbon-14 isotope. This way, the age of a grain aged several millennia can be determined with a precision of a few centuries.

Prehistoric African Homo sapiens, new study


This is a map showing early African archaeological sites with evidence for symbolic material and microlithic stone tools. Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Image by Reto Stöckli

From the University of Huddersfield in England:

New light on origins of modern humans

March 20, 2019

Summary: The work confirms a dispersal of Homo sapiens from southern to eastern Africa immediately preceded the out-of-Africa migration.

Researchers from the University of Huddersfield, with colleagues from the University of Cambridge and the University of Minho in Braga, have been using a genetic approach to tackle one of the most intractable questions of all — how and when we became truly human.

Modern Homo sapiens first arose in Africa more than 300,000 years ago, but there is great controversy amongst scholars about whether the earliest such people would have been ‘just like us’ in their mental capacities — in the sense that, if they were brought up in a family from Yorkshire today, for example, would they be indistinguishable from the rest of the population? Nevertheless, archaeologists believe that people very like us were living in small communities in an Ice Age refuge on the South African coast by at least 100,000 years ago.

Between around 100,000 and 70,000 years ago, these people left plentiful evidence that they were thinking and behaving like modern humans — evidence for symbolism, such as the use of pigments (probably for body painting), drawings and engravings, shell beads, and tiny stone tools called microliths that might have been part of bows and arrows. Some of this evidence for what some archaeologists call “modern human behaviour” goes back even further, to more than 150,000 years.

But if these achievements somehow made these people special, suggesting a direct line to the people of today, the genetics of their modern “Khoi-San” descendants in southern Africa doesn’t seem to bear this out. Our genomes imply that almost all modern non-Africans from all over the world — and indeed most Africans too — are derived from a small group of people living not in South Africa but in East Africa, around 60,000-70,000 years ago. There’s been no sign so far that southern Africans contributed to the huge expansion of Homo sapiens out of Africa and across the world that took place around that time.

That is, until now. The Huddersfield-Minho team of geneticists, led by Professor Martin Richards at Huddersfield and Dr Pedro Soares in Braga, along with the eminent Cambridge archaeologist Professor Sir Paul Mellars, have studied the maternally-inherited mitochondrial DNA from Africans in unprecedented detail, and have identified a clear signal of a small-scale migration from South Africa to East Africa that took place at just that time, around 65,000 years ago. The signal is only evident today in the mitochondrial DNA. In the rest of the genome, it seems to have been eroded away to nothing by recombination — the reshuffling of chromosomal genes between parents every generation, which doesn’t affect the mitochondrial DNA — in the intervening millennia.

The migration signal makes good sense in terms of climate. For most of the last few hundred years, different parts of Africa have been out of step with each other in terms of the aridity of the climate. Only for a brief period at 60,000-70,000 years ago was there a window during which the continent as a whole experienced sufficient moisture to open up a corridor between the south and the east. And intriguingly, it was around 65,000 years ago that some of the signs of symbolism and technological complexity seen earlier in South Africa start to appear in the east.

The identification of this signal opens up the possibility that a migration of a small group of people from South Africa towards the east around 65,000 years ago transmitted aspects of their sophisticated modern human culture to people in East Africa. Those East African people were biologically little different from the South Africans — they were all modern Homo sapiens, their brains were just as advanced and they were undoubtedly cognitively ready to receive the benefits of the new ideas and upgrade. But the way it happened might not have been so very different from a modern isolated stone-age culture encountering and embracing western civilization today.

In any case, it looks as if something happened when the groups from the South encountered the East, with the upshot being the greatest diaspora of Homo sapiens ever known — both throughout Africa and out of Africa to settle much of Eurasia and as far as Australia within the space of only a few thousand years.

Professor Mellars commented: “This work shows that the combination of genetics and archaeology working together can lead to significant advances in our understanding of the origins of Homo sapiens.”

Californian sea otters and archaeology


This September 2018 says about itself:

Cute Sea Otter Behaviour Decoded

From holding paws to rubbing their faces, sea otters are otter-ly adorable. But why do they do it? Discover the science behind the cute.

From the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany:

Sea otters’ tool use leaves behind distinctive archaeological evidence

Researchers used an interdisciplinary approach combining ecology and archaeological methods to study sea otters’ past behavior

March 14, 2019

An international team of researchers has analyzed the use by sea otters of large, shoreline rocks as “anvils” to break open shells, as well as the resulting shell middens. The researchers used ecological and archaeological approaches to identify patterns that are characteristic of sea otter use of such locations. By looking at evidence of past anvil stone use, scientists could better understand sea otter habitat use.

Sea otters are an especially captivating marine mammal, well known for their use of rocks to break open shells. Sea otters are estimated to have once numbered between 150,000-300,000 individuals and their range stretched from Baja California, Mexico, around the northern Pacific Rim to Japan. Their numbers were dramatically reduced by the fur trade. In California, the southern sea otter population was reduced to around 50 individuals, but a massive conservation effort has resulted in increasing their numbers to around 3000 today. However, the southern sea otter is still considered threatened.

Sea otters are unique for being the only marine mammal to use stone tools. They often use rocks to crack open shells while floating on their back, and also sometimes use stationary rocks along the shoreline as “anvils” to crack open mollusks, particularly mussels. A joint project including the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the University of California, Santa Cruz, among others, has resulted in a first-of-its-kind interdisciplinary study published in Scientific Reports, combining ten years of observations of sea otters with archaeological methods to analyze sea otter use of such anvil stones, also known as emergent anvils.

Sea otter use of anvil stones leaves distinctive wear and shell middens that are characteristic of sea otters

Researchers spent ten years between 2007-2017 observing sea otters consuming mussels at the Bennett Slough Culverts site in California. Their analysis identified that mussels were the most common prey eaten at the site and were the only prey for which the sea otters used stationary anvil stones. The sea otters used such stones for about 20% of the mussels they consumed.

Interestingly, careful analysis of the stationary anvil stones using archaeological methods showed that their use resulted in a recognizable damage pattern that was distinguishable from what would be caused by human use. For example, the sea otters preferentially struck the mussels against points and ridges on the rocks, and struck the rocks from a position in the water, rather than from the land or from on top of the rock.

Consistent damage pattern on broken mussel shells indicates probable “pawedness” in sea otters

In addition to the stones themselves, the researchers also carefully analyzed the mussel shells left around the stationary anvils. The researchers took a random sample of the shell fragments from these shell middens, which likely contained as many as 132,000 individual mussel shells. They found an extremely consistent damage pattern, with the two sides of the mussel shell still attached, but a diagonal fracture running through the right side of the shell.

“The shell breakage patterns provide a novel way to distinguish mussels broken by sea otter pounding on emergent anvils from those broken by humans or other animals,” explains Natalie Uomini of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. “For archaeologists who excavate past human behavior, it is crucial to be able to distinguish the evidence of sea otter food consumption from that of humans.”

In combination with analysis of videos they took of the otters using the anvils, researchers could see that the otters held the shells evenly in both paws, but when striking the shell against the anvil tended to have their right paw slightly on top. Though the total number of otters observed was small, these results suggest that otters may exhibit handedness, or “pawedness,” as do humans and many other mammals.

Potential for archaeological investigations of past sea otter behavior

The researchers hope that the study will be useful for archaeologists working with coastal populations, as a way to distinguish between human and sea otter use of rocks and consumption of marine resources. Additionally, the research could be helpful in future studies of the geographic spread of stationary anvil use throughout the former sea otter range, and how far into the past this behavior extends.

“Our study suggests that stationary anvil use can be detected in locations previously inhabited by sea otters. This information could help to document past sea otter presence and diet in locations where they are currently extirpated,” explains Jessica Fujii of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

“More broadly,” she adds, “the recovery of past animal behavioral traces helps us to understand the evolution of behaviors like stone anvil use, which is rare in the animal kingdom and is extremely rare in marine animals. We hope that this study establishes a new path for the growing field of animal archaeology.”

Sea otters have very low genetic diversity, scientists report. Their findings have implications for the conservation of rare and endangered species, in which a lack of genetic diversity can increase the risk of extinction: here.