Neanderthals and raven bones

CUTS ABOVE Notches carved into a raven’s wing bone by Neandertals include two that were added to create a consistent, possibly symbolic pattern, scientists say. Added notches are second from bottom and second from top in the side view of the bone. Photo: Francesco d’Errico

From Science News:

Neandertals had an eye for patterns

Notches on a raven bone suggests human relatives intentionally created even spacing

by Bruce Bower

2:00pm, March 29, 2017

Neandertals knew how to kick it up a couple of notches. Between 38,000 and 43,000 years ago, these close evolutionary relatives of humans added two notches to five previous incisions on a raven bone to produce an evenly spaced sequence, researchers say.

This visually consistent pattern suggests Neandertals either had an eye for pleasing-looking displays or saw some deeper symbolic meaning in the notch sequence, archaeologist Ana Majkić of the University of Bordeaux, France, and her colleagues report March 29 in PLOS ONE.

Notches added to the bone, unearthed in 2005 at a Crimean rock shelter that previously yielded Neandertal bones, were shallower and more quickly dashed off than the original five notches. But additions were carefully placed, resulting in relatively equal spacing of all notches.

Although bone notches may have had a practical use, such as fixing thread on an eyeless needle, the even spacing suggests Neandertals had a deeper meaning in mind — or at least knew what looked good.

Previous discoveries suggest Neandertals made eagle-claw necklaces and other personal ornaments, possibly for use in rituals (SN: 4/18/15, p. 7).

Ancient Stone Age aurochs depiction discovery

A 38,000-year-old engraved stone (left), depicting an aurochs, or wild cow, covered with dots, was unearthed at a French rock-shelter. Symbolic elements of Europe’s earliest human culture appear in the engraving, its discoverers say. Drawings of the find (center) and of the aurochs separated from the dots show the scene more clearly. P. Jugie/Musée National de Préhistoire (photo), R. Bourrillon et al/Quaternary International 2017

From Science News:

Cow carved in stone paints picture of Europe’s early human culture

Symbolic dots, style link 38,000-year-old engraving to other famous cave art finds

By Bruce Bower

7:00am, February 3, 2017

This stone engraving of an aurochs, or wild cow, found in a French rock-shelter in 2012, provides glimpses of an ancient human culture’s spread across Central and Western Europe, researchers say.

Rows of dots partly cover the aurochs. A circular depression cut into the center of the animal’s body may have caused the limestone to split in two, says Stone Age art specialist Raphaëlle Bourrillon of the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès in France. Radiocarbon dating of animal bones unearthed near the discovery at Abri Blanchard rock-shelter put the engraving’s age at roughly 38,000 years, Bourrillon and colleagues report online January 24 in Quaternary International.

The rock art is similar to some engravings and drawings found at other French and German sites, including the famous Chauvet Cave (SN: 6/30/12, p. 12), and attributed to the Aurignacian culture, which dates to between 43,000 and 33,000 years ago. Like the new find, that art includes rows of dots, depictions of aurochs and various animals shown in profile with a single horn and a long, thin muzzle.

Within a few thousand years of arriving in Europe from Africa, Aurignacian groups developed regional styles of artwork based on images that had deep meaning for all of them, proposes anthropologist and study coauthor Randall White of New York University, who directed the excavation.

European Ice Age hunter-gatherers destroyed forests

This video says about itself:

1 March 2011

Join a small group of ancient Europeans as they teeter on the brink of annihilation, struggling with the most extreme living conditions anyone has ever faced, from encroaching sheets of ice that swallowed every bit of fertile land to a climate that was, on average, 70 degrees colder than it is today.

For these humans, survival meant more than simply keeping warm; it meant abandoning their hunting and gathering lifestyle and finding a whole new way of living – a way of living that endures to this day. Go back in time 24,000 years to the last Ice Age and watch in awe as Ice World brings this amazing stuggle to life. Through computer graphics and reconstructions, you’ll see how the earth’s climate shifted over time, eventually covering much of North America and Europe with two-mile-thick ice sheets.

From Leiden University in the Netherlands:

Ice Age hunters destroyed forests throughout Europe

28 November 2016

Large-scale forest fires started by prehistoric hunter-gatherers are probably the reason why Europe is not more densely forested. This is the finding of an international team, including climate researcher Professor Jed Kaplan of the University of Lausanne and archaeologist Professor Jan Kolen of Leiden University. Publication on 30 November in PLOS ONE.

Deliberate or negligent

This research has generated new insights on the role of hunters in the formation of the landscape. It may be that during the coldest phase of the last Ice Age, some 20,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers deliberately lit forest fires in an attempt to create grasslands and park-like forests. They probably did this to attract wild animals and to make it easier to gather vegetable food and raw materials; it also facilitated movement. Another possibility is that the large-scale forests and steppe fires may have been the result of the hunters’ negligent use of fire in these semi-open landscapes.

Large-scale impact of humans on landscape

The researchers combined analyses of Ice Age accumulations of silt and computer simulations with new interpretations of archaeological data. They show that hunters throughout Europe, from Spain to Russia, were capable of altering the landscape. This first large-scale impact of humans on landscape and vegetation would have taken place more than 20,000 years before the industrial revolution. The Ice Age is often presented as an era of extreme cold and snow that was ruled by mammoths, bison and giant bears. But the researchers show that humans were also capable of having a significant impact on the landscape.

Layers of ash

Searching for evidence of this human impact explains why there are conflicting reconstructions for this period. Reconstructions of the vegetation based on pollen and plant remains from lakes and marshland suggest that Europe had an open steppe vegetation. But computer simulations based on eight possible climate scenarios show that under natural conditions the landscape in large areas of Europe would have been far more densely forested. The researchers conclude that humans must have been responsible for the difference. Further evidence has been found in the traces of the use of fire in hunting settlements from this period and in the layers of ash in the soil.

Previous Leiden research already suggested human intervention

The team from Lausanne was made up of climate researchers and ecologists Jed Kaplan, Mirjam Pfeiffer and Basil Davis. Archaeologists Jan Kolen and Alexander Verpoorte from Leiden University also worked on the research. An earlier publication by Leiden’s Human Origins research group, that was published in Current Anthropology, had already suggested that hunter-gatherers from the Stone Age may well have modified the natural environment considerably through their use of fire. The new publication in PLOS ONE confirms this hypothesis and may be one of the earliest examples of large-scale human impact on the landscape throughout the whole of Europe.

Australian Aboriginal prehistory, new research

This video says about itself:

Astounding archaeology discovery places inland human occupation of Australia at 49,000 years

2 November 2016

Archaeologists working with traditional Aboriginal owners in the northern Flinders Ranges have discovered astounding evidence of the earliest human habitation of inland, arid Australia.

The find has pushed back the date of such occupation by 10,000 years to about 49,000 years ago.

Warratyi cave’s astounding archaeological evidence

One of the traditional owners of the area, Clifford Coulthard, who is a co-author of the study, said the findings weren’t really a surprise to him.

“Our old people know we’ve been here a long time,” he said.

The site, the Warratyi rock shelter in the traditional lands of the Adnyamathanha people, also has evidence of extinct megafauna, including the diprotodon.

The authors of the study, published on Thursday in Nature, said it finally settles the question of whether humans and megafauna overlapped chronologically.

From Science News:

People settled Australia’s rugged interior surprisingly early

Roots of Aboriginal culture may stretch back at least 49,000 years

By Bruce Bower

3:01pm, November 2, 2016

Australia’s early settlers hit the ground running, or least walking with swift determination. After arriving on the continent’s northwest coast by around 50,000 years ago, humans reached Australia’s southeastern interior within a thousand years or so, researchers find.

This ancient trip covered more than 2,000 kilometers through terrain that, although stark and dry today, featured enough lakes and rivers at the time of Australia’s colonization to support long-distance treks, say archaeologist Giles Hamm of La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, and colleagues.

Excavations at Warratyi rock-shelter indicate that it took only a few millennia for Australia’s early colonists to forge a distinctive Aboriginal culture that continued to develop over the next 40,000 years, Hamm’s team reports online November 2 in Nature.

“Archaeological finds at Warratyi are surprisingly old and significant, especially coming from an excavation of only a meter of sediment,” Hamm says.

These new discoveries are “remarkable and atypical” for Australia, says archaeologist Peter Hiscock of the University of Sydney. But the finds’ ages and significance for understanding Aboriginal culture will be debated, he predicts.

Until now, the oldest human sites in Australia’s huge, arid interior dated to no more than 44,000 years ago in the continent’s northwest, not far from where the first settlers presumably arrived. Lake Mungo, now a dry lake bed in southeastern Australia, has yielded artifacts from about 50,000 years ago. Unlike artifacts at Wattaryi that represent human activity over a long time span, it’s not known if Lake Mungo finds come from a group that made an isolated foray into the region before dying out within a few generations.

Hamm’s group unearthed evidence of an intermittent human presence at Warratyi that lasted from around 49,000 to 10,000 years ago. People were largely absent between around 35,000 and 17,000 years ago, when the climate became substantially colder and drier, Hamm says.

Finds at Warratyi dating to between 49,000 and 46,000 years ago include stone tools, a piece of reddish pigment and bones from 16 mammal species and one reptile species. Of particular interest were a partial leg bone from an extinct, rhino-sized marsupial and eggshells from a large, flightless bird. These animals died out not long after humans reached Australia, but it hasn’t been clear whether humans contributed to the extinctions via hunting or other actions (SN: 1/20/07, p. 38).

Warratyi probably won’t resolve that issue. No butchery marks from stone tools appear on the marsupial fossil, although people may still have hunted the creature. Possibly burned areas appear on some eggshell fragments. Recent evidence from other Australian sites indicates that people were cooking this extinct bird’s eggs between 54,000 and 43,000 years ago.

Other discoveries at Warratyi indicate Aboriginal people there made a variety of tools up to 10,000 years before similar tool types were known to have occurred elsewhere in Australia or in Southeast Asia, the scientists say. For instance, a 4-centimeter-long bone point that dates to more than 38,000 years ago is Australia’s earliest known bone tool.

Comparably ancient discoveries include fragments of resin, which was probably used to glue stone tools to handles of some type. Tool handles probably came into use even earlier than that Down Under, argues archaeologist Sandra Bowdler of the University of Western Australia in Crawley. Researchers generally agree that, in Australia, stone cutting implements with ground, beveled edges were once attached to handles, Bowdler explains. A team led by Hiscock recently dated a ground-edge tool found in northwest Australia to between 49,000 and 45,000 years ago. That means handle use started there before it appeared at Warratyi, Bowdler holds.

Tools displaying sharpened edges along one side appear at Warratyi between 30,000 and 24,000 years ago. While Hamm’s team regards these as the oldest such implements in Australia, Bowdler awaits more thorough dating of Warratyi sediment layers before accepting that conclusion.

To date artifacts, Hamm’s group calculated the time since buried sediment was last exposed to sunlight and conducted radiocarbon analyses of charcoal from ancient hearths and of eggshell fragments.

Questions remain about the age of the oldest Warratyi discoveries, says geochronologist Richard Roberts of the University of Wollongong in Australia. A single sample of the deepest artifact-bearing sediment was dated to around 44,000 to 43,000 years ago, whereas three radiocarbon dates of charcoal and eggshells from the same sediment ranged in age from possibly more than 50,000 years to perhaps more than 45,000 years, in Roberts’ view. If the younger age is the correct one, then Warratyi finds are no older than those previously discovered at Riwi rock-shelter, another site in Australia’s arid interior. If older than 50,000 years, Roberts says, “the Warratyi artifacts would be among the oldest on the continent.”

Cave art explains European bison evolution

Various bisons in cave art, from various caves

The caption of this picture says:

(a) Reproduction from Lascaux cave (France), from the Solutrean or early Magdalenian period (∼20,000 kya—picture adapted from ref. 53). (b) Reproduction from the Pergouset cave (France), from the Magdalenian period (17,000 kya—picture adapted from ref. 54)

From Nature Communications, 18 October 2016:

Early cave art and ancient DNA record the origin of European bison

Julien Soubrier, Graham Gower, Alan Cooper


The two living species of bison (European and American) are among the few terrestrial megafauna to have survived the late Pleistocene extinctions. Despite the extensive bovid fossil record in Eurasia, the evolutionary history of the European bison (or wisent, Bison bonasus) before the Holocene (<11.7 thousand years ago (kya)) remains a mystery.

We use complete ancient mitochondrial genomes and genome-wide nuclear DNA surveys to reveal that the wisent is the product of hybridization between the extinct steppe bison (Bison priscus) and ancestors of modern cattle (aurochs, Bos primigenius) before 120 kya, and contains up to 10% aurochs genomic ancestry. Although undetected within the fossil record, ancestors of the wisent have alternated ecological dominance with steppe bison in association with major environmental shifts since at least 55 kya. Early cave artists recorded distinct morphological forms consistent with these replacement events, around the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM, ∼21–18 kya).

See also here.

‘Ancient humans left Africa once’

Human migration out of Africa, picture by P.D. deMenocal and C. Stringer/Nature 2016

From Science News:

Going global

Previous studies have used fossil, archaeological and genetic data to time humans’ colonization of the world (times shown above). New genetic studies may change that map; they suggest small numbers of people left Africa 120,000 years ago, but left little trace in the DNA of present-day people. Most non-Africans inherited their DNA from people who left Africa between about 70,000 and 50,000 years ago, new studies suggest. But a climate study indicates that was the worst possible time for an out-of-Africa migration and suggests people may have left earlier, between 80,000 and 100,000 years ago.

This video says about itself:

Predicted spread of humans around the world | Science News

21 September 2016

Earth wobbles on its axis, causing major climate shifts. Some of those shifts turned the Arabian Peninsula into lush grassland that ancient humans could have traversed as they migrated out of Africa. Researchers at the University of Hawaii at Manoa simulated climate conditions over the last 125,000 years and predicted how those changes would have allowed humans to spread around the globe (increasing intensity of red shows greater predicted migration).

Credit: Tobias Friedrich

The Science News article continues:

Single exodus from Africa gave rise to today’s non-Africans

Genetic data point to a date less than 72,000 years ago but climate scientists disagree

By Tina Hesman Saey

3:28pm, September 21, 2016

One wave of ancient human migrants out of Africa gave rise to all non-Africans alive today, three separate genetic studies conclude.

Those human explorers left Africa about 50,000 to 72,000 years ago, mixed with Neandertals and spread across the world, researchers report online September 21 in Nature. The studies present data from genetically diverse and previously unrepresented populations. Together they offer a detailed picture of deep human history and may settle some long-standing debates, but there is still room to quibble. All non-Africans stem from one major founding population, the studies agree, but earlier human migrations are also recorded in present-day people’s DNA, one study finds. And a fourth study in the same issue of Nature, this one focusing on ancient climate, also makes the case for an earlier exodus.

Scientists have long debated when anatomically modern humans first trekked out of Africa and how many waves of migration there were. Archaeological evidence indicates there were modern humans in Asia by at least 80,000 years ago. Human DNA in a Neandertal woman from Siberia indicates humans interbred with Neandertals outside Africa as long as 110,000 years ago (SN: 3/19/16, p. 6). But those people died out and didn’t contribute DNA to later generations, says Swapan Mallick, an evolutionary geneticist at Harvard Medical School and coauthor of a paper that traced the genetic history of 300 people from 142 populations around the world. The ancestors of today’s non-Africans probably left Africa about 50,000 years ago, Mallick and colleagues calculate.

Data in another study reveal remnants of a much earlier exodus from Africa that persist in the genomes of present-day Papuans, biological anthropologist Luca Pagani of the Estonian Biocentre in Tartu and colleagues report. About 2 percent of the genome of Papuans can be traced back to small bands of humans who left Africa 120,000 years ago. “This expansion was successful in leaving descendants today,” Pagani says. But a massive wave of migrants who left Africa after about 75,000 years ago probably overwhelmed that small trickle, swamping out their genetic signature.

A third study focusing on the genetic history of aboriginal Australians and Papuans from the New Guinea highlands didn’t find traces of a 120,000-year-old migration, but didn’t rule it out either, says study coauthor Eske Willerslev, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Copenhagen.

Some previous studies have suggested that ancestors of Australians and Papuans came from an earlier wave of migration than other non-Africans did. “Australians and Papuans are descendants of some of the earliest modern human explorers,” Willerslev says. His group’s evidence suggests a single wave of migrants left Africa about 72,000 years ago and settled initially in the Middle East. Ancestors of Europeans and Asians stayed put for thousands of years before splitting into different groups. But Australian and Papuan ancestors kept going. “These guys were heading off on this marvelous journey across Asia,” ending up in Australia and Papua New Guinea about 50,000 years ago, Willerslev says.

Mallick and colleagues also found evidence of a main wave of migration into the Middle East that split into two groups after breeding with Neandertals. Those groups took different routes. One ended up in Europe, the other populated Asia. Instead of Australians and Papuans sprinting ahead of everyone else as an independent group, the researchers say they moved with the ancestors of East Asians and continued to the islands only later.

Pagani and colleagues used a method for analyzing their data that helped them pick out older chunks of DNA, says Mattias Jakobsson, an evolutionary geneticist at Uppsala University in Sweden. That method enabled them to see evidence of the older migration where the other studies couldn’t. But genetic dating methods are far from perfect; they can differ because of inaccurate mutation rates, skewed sampling, biased analyses or other reasons. Future genetic studies of present-day people added to new work on ancient DNA and archaeological evidence may help resolve some of the remaining discrepancies.

Even though results from Pagani’s study seem to disagree with the other two, “it’s a superficial disagreement,” says evolutionary geneticist Joshua Akey of the University of Washington in Seattle who was not involved in any of the studies. “One group is saying 98 percent” of DNA came from the main wave of migration, “while the other groups say it’s 100 percent. … The main conclusion is that the vast majority of ancestry in non-Africans can be traced to a single out-of-Africa dispersal.”

A study of ancient climates may create another discrepancy. It suggests the departure window geneticists propose was the absolute worst time to leave Africa. “Every 20,000 years or so, Earth’s axis wobbles caused massive shifts in climate and vegetation,” says Axel Timmermann, a climate scientist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Those fluctuations opened green corridors across northern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, then turned those same areas to parched deserts.

Timmermann and University of Hawaii colleague Tobias Friedrich did computer simulations of climate and sea level changes over the last 125,000 years to predict when and where humans might have easily moved. By the scientists’ calculations, the timing of a mass human migration out of Africa 60,000 to 70,000 years ago “is the most unlikely scenario from a climate point of view, because … northeastern Africa was completely dry. It was one of the worst drought periods in the entire history, so the corridor was closed,” Timmermann says.

The researchers predict conditions were favorable for migration between 107,000 and 95,000 years ago and again 90,000 to 75,000 years ago. Another window didn’t open until 59,000 years ago, after humans were probably well on their way to Australia. “People could have chased antelope across and they wouldn’t even know they were on a different continent,” Timmermann says. That seamless landscape transition would have been mirrored in people’s mating habits, with populations moving in and out of Africa and mixing freely, he speculates.

Most genetic analyses don’t take that back-to-Africa movement into account, Timmermann says. Back-and-forth mating would make the Africans and non-Africans genetically indistinguishable from each other and obscure the real date at which people left Africa.  Allowing for cross-continent mingling puts people’s exodus from Africa at about 80,000 to 100,000 years ago. Climate shifts that turned Arabia to desert 70,000 years ago would have cut off the connection, making people already outside Africa genetically distinct from Africans. That would show up in the genetic studies as the point at which people left Africa instead of the point-of-no-return.

Some previous genetic research has found evidence of back-to-Africa migrations starting about 45,000 years ago (SN: 6/25/16, p.14).

The climate study reinforces the idea that people had spread out of Africa much sooner than the new genetic evidence indicates, says archaeologist Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. He is a coauthor of the Pagani study, but says genetics alone won’t solve all the mysteries of early human history.

Debate over when people left Africa, where they came from inside Africa and who they interbred with as they spread around the globe are far from over, says Petraglia. “I expect some fireworks in the next few years.”

Mammoth bone found on Texel island beach

The mammoth bone and its discoverers, with a woolly rhino model in the background, photo Ecomare museum

Translated from Dutch NOS TV:

Family finds mammoth bone during holiday on Texel

Today, 12:42

A family from Gouda found a mammoth bone tens of thousands of years old during a walk on the beach of Texel. Arieke Visscher and her daughters Francine and Ruth made the discovery at beach post 28, the regional broadcasting organisation NH writes.

Mother Arieke thought almost immediately that it was a mammoth bone. Her grandfather was a fisherman and fished these bones from the sea.


A curator of Ecomare museum established that it was indeed a mammoth bone. Presumably it is a piece of a fibula. The bone is from the last ice age, about 20,000 to 40,000 years ago.

The bones of mammoths are still found at the bottom of the sea. The bones end up on the beach and North Sea sand is used for widening the beach. The discovery on the island, according to Ecomare therefore is “not very special, but still very nice.”