Neanderthals’ complex tools discovery

This 2013 video says about itself:

Neanderthal Superglue

Neanderthals devised what is thought to be the world’s first known industrial process. In this video, watch as NOVA attempts to recreate the Neanderthal technique of pitch extraction through a complex process known as dry distillation.

From Leiden University in the Netherlands:

Neanderthal glue from the North Sea

22 October 2019

A flint tool covered with a tar-like substance has turned out to be a top scientific find. Research by a Dutch team of scientists showed the find to be a piece of birch tar that was extracted 50,000 years ago by Neanderthals using complex techniques. The tar was used as an adhesive to make it easier to hold the piece of flint. Details of the find have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Knowledge of chemistry

Dating back 50,000 years means that the artefact is older than the period when modern man inhabited Europe and that it must have been used by a Neanderthal. Chemical analysis has shown that the substance is birch tar. There are different ways – some simple, some more complicated – of extracting tar from birch bark, all requiring a basic knowledge of ‘chemistry’ to be able to carry out the necessary steps in the right order. CT scans of the tar and chemical analysis show that a complex technique was used, including heating the material in a kind of oven.

Knowledge economy

Leiden archaeologists were involved in the research. Gerrit Dusseldorp explains the discovery: ‘This find shows that Neanderthals placed a lot of emphasis on “high-tech” methods, even on the periphery of their inhabited territory. When the North Sea dried up during the last Ice Age, they turned to the knowledge economy to survive the barren environment.’

Paul Kozowyk, whose PhD research is on prehistoric adhesives, is also enthusiastic. ‘What is so interesting about this find is the combination of a large amount of birch tar on a small and simple sliver of stone. It shows that Neanderthals were not only skilled in making tar, but that they also invested in materials that are all too easily to overlook in archaeological research.’

Importance to science

This artefact is of exceptional scientific importance. In the whole of Europe there are only two known sites where tools with birch tar have been found. Gerrit Dusseldorp is delighted with the find.

The other two sites are Königsaue in Germany and Campitello in Italy. The tar remnants from Campitello are 200,000 years old, making them the oldest known examples. The tar at all three sites seems to have been produced in a similar way, indicating that Neanderthals systematically invested a lot of time and energy in making composite tools.

The evolution of complex technologies is often associated with living in large groups at a fixed location. This is by no means typical of Neanderthal communities; Neanderthals generally lived in small, mobile groups. According to the researchers, during the Ice Age Neanderthals in Europe invested in technology to reduce the ecological risks, such as food shortages.

Annemieke Verbaas conducted microscopy research on the object: ‘Even using a microscope, the artefact was too far eroded to be able to identify traces of use, so the purpose of the tool remains a mystery.’

Sand Motor

The tool was found in 2016 on the Sand Motor, a stretch of artificial sandbank off the coast of The Hague, and originated from the North Sea. During the Ice Age this was an inhabited lowland area, where Neanderthals lived in what were often harsh conditions. By applying high-quality knowledge and complex techniques for making tools, they were able to cope better with hardships such as cold and food shortages.

National Museum of Antiquities

The flint tool with traces of birch tar can be seen in the central hall of the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden until Sunday 12 January 2020.


Neanderthal discovery on Naxos island, Greece

This 14 April 2018 video, in English with Greek subtitles, says about itself:

Carter’s Corner #6 – Neanderthals on Naxos!

From McMaster University in Canada:

Scientists find early humans moved through Mediterranean earlier than believed

October 16, 2019

An international research team led by scientists from McMaster University has unearthed new evidence in Greece proving that the island of Naxos was inhabited by Neanderthals and earlier humans at least 200,000 years ago, tens of thousands of years earlier than previously believed.

The findings, published today in the journal Science Advances, are based on years of excavations and challenge current thinking about human movement in the region — long thought to have been inaccessible and uninhabitable to anyone but modern humans. The new evidence is leading researchers to reconsider the routes our early ancestors took as they moved out of Africa into Europe and demonstrates their ability to adapt to new environmental challenges.

“Until recently, this part of the world was seen as irrelevant to early human studies but the results force us to completely rethink the history of the Mediterranean islands,” says Tristan Carter, an associate professor of anthropology at McMaster University and lead author on the study. He conducted the work with Dimitris Athanasoulis, head of archaeology at the Cycladic Ephorate of Antiquities within the Greek Ministry of Culture.

While Stone Age hunters are known to have been living on mainland Europe for over 1 million years, the Mediterranean islands were previously believed to be settled only 9,000 years ago, by farmers, the idea being that only modern humans — Homo sapiens — were sophisticated enough to build seafaring vessels.

Scholars had believed the Aegean Sea, separating western Anatolia (modern Turkey) from continental Greece, was therefore impassable to the Neanderthals and earlier hominins, with the only obvious route in and out of Europe was across the land bridge of Thrace (southeast Balkans).

The authors of this paper suggest that the Aegean basin was in fact accessible much earlier than believed. At certain times of the Ice Age the sea was much lower exposing a land route between the continents that would have allowed early prehistoric populations to walk to Stelida, and an alternative migration route connecting Europe and Africa. Researchers believe the area would have been attractive to early humans because of its abundance of raw materials ideal for toolmaking and for its fresh water.

At the same time however, “in entering this region the pre-Neanderthal populations would have been faced with a new and challenging environment, with different animals, plants and diseases, all requiring new adaptive strategies,” says Carter.

In this paper, the team details evidence of human activity spanning almost 200,000 years at Stelida, a prehistoric quarry on the northwest coast of Naxos. Here early Homo sapiens, Neanderthals and earlier humans used the local stone (chert) to make their tools and hunting weapons, of which the team has unearthed hundreds of thousands.

Reams of scientific data collected at the site add to the ongoing debate about the importance of coastal and marine routes to human movement. While present data suggests that the Aegean could be crossed by foot over 200,000 years ago, the authors also raise the possibility that Neanderthals may also have fashioned crude seafaring boats capable of crossing short distances.

This research is part of the Stelida Naxos Archeological Project, a larger collaboration involving scholars from all over the world. They have been working at the site since 2013.

For more on the project, visit the Stelida Naxos Archeological Project’s website.

Planet Earth, 100,000 years ago

This 13 October 2019 video says about itself:

What was our planet like 100,000 years ago? What animals were there? What was the climate like? And which human species were around? Thank you all so much for 100,000 subscribers, it’s unbelievable!

Why big Ice Age mammals became extinct

This 2015 video is called 10 Amazing Extinct Animals from the Pleistocene.

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

Microscopic evidence sheds light on the disappearance of the world’s largest mammals

New, state-of-the-art methods provide detailed insights into the timing and causes of ‘megafauna’ extinctions in the past

October 2, 2019

Understanding the causes and consequences of Late Quaternary megafaunal extinctions is increasingly important in a world of growing human populations and climate change. A new review, led by scholars at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, highlights the role that cutting-edge scientific methods can play in broadening the discussions about megafaunal extinction and enabling more localized insights into ecosystems and species-specific responses to climate change and human activities.

The disappearance of many of the world’s largest mammal species occurred around the same time that two other major transformations in Earth’s history were unfolding: dramatic climatic change at the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary (c. 10,000 B.P.) and the dispersal of Homo sapiens to new continents. Untangling the role each of these played in Late Quaternary megafaunal extinctions has been the subject of intense scholarly debate for decades. However, recent advances in archaeological and paleontological science methods have helped demonstrate that megafaunal extinctions are more complex than any single humans-versus-climate answer can provide.

The new article, published in BioScience, emphasizes contributions from five different approaches: radiocarbon dating, stable isotope analysis, ancient DNA, ancient proteins, and microscopy. These techniques can offer robust, high-resolution insights into climate change and extinction chronologies, past habitat transformations, ecological relationships, and species diet and ranging. Especially when used in combination, these advanced methods offer unprecedented levels of detail that can help to better understand causes of extinctions in the past, which can then be applied to contemporary animal management aims, including risk assessments and rewilding efforts.

The review is an international and multidisciplinary collaboration between leading experts in megafaunal extinction research and emerging laboratory science methods. “When we started this collaboration, we were worried that we’d never get everyone to see eye-to-eye on megafaunal extinctions,” says Jillian Swift, lead author and archaeologist at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum. “But it was easy to agree on the urgency of understanding deep-time human impacts to Earth systems, so that we can continue to make informed conservation decisions for our future.”

“Approaches to extinctions of ‘megafauna’ in the past are often based on sweeping narratives that assume that all species are equally vulnerable to external threats such as environmental change and human hunting,” says Patrick Roberts, of the Department of Archaeology, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and co-author on the study. “Archaeological science methods allow us to get past these generalizations and explore how the diets, demography, and mobility of individual species and populations changed through time, providing a far more complex, and accurate, picture of past ecosystems.”

“We believe that large, multidisciplinary collaborations such as this offer the best way to approach questions of such magnitude as ‘megafaunal extinctions‘”, says Nicole Boivin, Director of the Department of Archaeology, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and co-author. “It is only by coming together, from a variety of fields and backgrounds, that we can apply very different expertise and methodologies to build up more detailed understandings of the past that have major, pressing implications for present-day processes and threats.”

Denisovan hominins and Ice Age predators

This 12 December 2018 video is called 50,000 year old tiara made of woolly mammoth ivory found in world famous Denisova Cave.

From Flinders University in Australia:

Dishing the dirt on an early man cave

Microscopic study yields intriguing ancient Denisovan secrets

September 26, 2019

Summary: Fossil animal droppings, charcoal from ancient fires and bone fragments litter the ground of one of the world’s most important human evolution sites, new research reveals. A team of scientists have used modern geoarchaeological techniques to unearth new details of day-to-day life in the famous Denisova Cave complex in Siberia’s Altai Mountains.

Fossil animal droppings, charcoal from ancient fires and bone fragments litter the ground of one of the world’s most important human evolution sites, new research reveals.

The latest evidence from southern Siberia shows that large cave-dwelling carnivores once dominated the landscape, competing for more than 300,000 years with ancient tribes for prime space in cave shelters.

A team of Russian and Australian scientists have used modern geoarchaeological techniques to unearth new details of day-to-day life in the famous Denisova Cave complex in Siberia’s Altai Mountains.

Large carnivores such hyena, wolves and even bears and at least three early nomadic human groups (hominins) — Denisovans, Neanderthals, and early Homo sapiens — used this famous archaeological site, the researchers say in a new Scientific Reports study examining the dirt deposited in the cave complex over thousands of years.

“These hominin groups and large carnivores such as hyenas and wolves left a wealth of microscopic traces that illuminate the use of the cave over the last three glacial-interglacial cycles,” says lead author, Flinders University ARC Future Fellow Dr Mike Morley.

“Our results complement previous work by some of our colleagues at the site that has identified ancient DNA in the same dirt, belonging to Neanderthals and a previously unknown human group, the Denisovans, as well as a wide range of other animals.”

But it now seems that it was the animals that mostly ruled the cave space back then.

Microscopic studies of 3-4 metres of sediment left in the cave network includes fossil droppings left by predatory animals such as cave hyenas, wolves and possibly bears, many of their kind made immortal in ancient rock art before going extinct across much of Eurasia.

From their ‘micromorphology’ examination of the dirt found in Denisova Cave, the team discovered clues about the use of the cave, including fire-use by ancient humans and the presence of other animals.

The study of intact sediment blocks collected from the cave has yielded information not evident to the naked eye or gleaned from previous studies of ancient DNA, stone tools or animal and plant remains.

Co-author of the new research, University of Wollongong Distinguished Professor Richard (Bert) Roberts, says the study is very significant because it shows how much can be achieved by sifting through sedimentary material using advanced microscopy and other archaeological science methods to find critical new evidence about human and non-human life on Earth.

“Using microscopic analyses, our latest study shows sporadic hominin visits, illustrated by traces of the use of fire such as miniscule fragments, but with continuous use of the site by cave-dwelling carnivores such as hyenas and wolves,” says Professor Roberts.

“Fossil droppings (coprolites) indicate the persistent presence of non-human cave dwellers, which are very unlikely to have co-habited with humans using the cave for shelter.”

This implies that ancient groups probably came and went for short-lived episodes, and at all other times the cave was occupied by these large predators.

The Siberian site came to prominence more than a decade ago with the discovery of the fossil remains of a previously unknown human group, dubbed the Denisovans after the local name for the cave.

In a surprising twist, the recent discovery of a bone fragment in the cave sediments showed that a teenage girl was born of a Neanderthal mother and Denisovan father more than 90,000 years ago.

Denisovans and Neanderthals inhabited parts of Eurasia until perhaps 50,000 to 40,000 years ago, when they were replaced by modern humans (Homo sapiens).

The study was funded by the Australian Research Council and the Russian Foundation for Basic Research.

Ice Age North American big mammals’ extinction

This August 2019 video says about itself:

Until the end of the last ice age, many giants called North America home. It has long puzzled scientists why these animals and other megafauna — creatures heavier than 100 lbs. (45 kilograms) — went extinct about 10,000 years ago.
Rapid warming periods called interstadials and, to a lesser degree, ice-age people who hunted animals are responsible for the disappearance of the continent’s megafauna, according to studies.

Both research and the debate surrounding the reasons for the extinction of these animals will undeniably continue. In the meantime, researchers continue to find fossils of these massive creatures.

Here’s a look at 14 such extinct giant animals from the last North American ice age, and what scientists know about their lives.

1. North American Horses
2. Glyptodon
3. American lion
4. Smilodon fatalis
6. Mastodons
7. Mammoths
8. Giant Short-faced bear
9. Dire wolf
10. American cheetah
11. Ground sloths
12. Giant beaver
13. North American Camels

From the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the USA:

Division by subtraction: Extinction of large mammal species likely drove survivors apart

Disappearance of mammoths, other giants likely reduced interactions of smaller mammals

September 19, 2019

Summary: A new study suggests that the extinctions of mammoths, dire wolves and other large mammal species in North America drove surviving species to distance themselves from their neighbors, reducing interactions as predators and prey, territorial competitors or scavengers. The discovery could preview the ecological effects of future extinctions, the researchers say.

When a series of large mammal species began going extinct roughly 12,000 years ago, many surviving species began going their separate ways, says new research led by Macquarie University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Published Sept. 20 in the journal Science, the study analyzed distributions of mammal fossils across North America following the last ice age, after the retreat of massive glaciers that had encroached south to the modern-day United States. The aftermath saw the disappearance of many famously large mammal species: mammoths, mastodons, saber-toothed cats, dire wolves and ground sloths, among others.

Surviving mammal species often responded by distancing themselves from their neighbors, the study found, potentially reducing how often they interacted as predators and prey, territorial competitors or scavengers.

The ecological repercussions of the extinctions are likely still echoing today and could preview the effects of future extinctions, said study co-author Kate Lyons.

“For 300 million years, the (cohabitation) pattern of plants and animals looked one way — and then it changed in the last 10,000 years,” said Lyons, assistant professor of biological sciences at Nebraska. “This paper addresses how that happened in mammal communities.

“If connectedness among species makes ecosystems more stable, what this suggests is that we’ve already lost a lot of those links. What this potentially tells us is that modern ecosystems are probably more vulnerable than we think they are.”

Led by Macquarie’s Anikó Tóth, the team analyzed records of 93 mammal species at hundreds of fossil sites during three timespans: 21,000 to 11,700 years ago, when the extinctions began; 11,700 to 2,000 years ago; and 2,000 years ago to the present. The researchers then assessed whether, and to what extent, a given species lived among each of the other 92 at those sites.

That data allowed the team to calculate how often a random pair of species would be expected to cohabit a site, providing a baseline for whether each pair overlapped more or less often than predicted by chance — aggregating vs. segregating, respectively. The proportion of aggregating pairs generally declined following the extinctions, and the strength of associations often dropped even among species that continued to aggregate, the researchers found.

“The loss of the giant carnivores and herbivores changed how small mammals such as deer, coyotes and raccoons interacted,” Tóth said. “Our work suggests that these changes were triggered by the ecological upheaval of the extinctions.”

Tóth, Lyons and their 17 co-authors effectively ruled out climate change and geography as drivers of the growing division. Surprisingly, the team also concluded that surviving species began cohabiting less frequently even as they expanded into larger swaths of their respective geographic ranges.

Lyons said the specific reasons for the seeming paradox and the overall trends are unclear, though the ecological consequences of losing species such as the mammoth could explain them. Mammoths toppled trees, compacted soil and, by eating and excreting masses of vegetation, transported nutrients around ecosystems, Lyons said. Those behaviors helped sustain the so-called mammoth steppe, an ecosystem type that once covered vast areas of the Northern Hemisphere. The loss of the mammoth effectively doomed the mammoth steppe, possibly compartmentalizing the expanses of land that hosted many species.

“If you’re an open-habitat species that used to occupy the mammoth steppe, and now the mammoth steppe has gone away, you might inhabit, say, open grassland areas that are surrounded by forests,” Lyons said. “But that meadow is much smaller. Instead of supporting 10 species, it now might support five. And if those patches of open habitat are spread farther apart, you might expand your geographic range and potentially your climate range, but you would co-occur with fewer species.”

Also uncertain: why common species became more common, and some rare species became even rarer, following the extinctions. Continuing to study the dynamics underlying such trends could help sharpen perspectives on current ecosystems and their possible fates, the researchers said.

“We had a complement of large mammals in North America that was probably more diverse than what we see in Africa today,” Lyons said. “Additional extinctions could have a cascading effect and huge implications for the mammal communities that we have left.”

Tóth, Lyons and their co-authors represent 18 institutions from Australia, the United States, Chile, Portugal, Finland, Canada and Denmark. All are members of the Evolution of Terrestrial Ecosystems Program at the Smithsonian Institution, which funded the team’s research.

This video is called The Short-Faced Bear: America’s Top Predator.

From the University of Arkansas in the USA:

Anthropologist contributes to major study of large animal extinction

September 20, 2019

As part of an international research group based at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, anthropology assistant professor Amelia Villaseñor contributed to a large, multi-institutional study explaining how the human-influenced mass extinction of giant carnivores and herbivores of North America fundamentally changed the biodiversity and landscape of the continent.

In their study published today in Science, researchers from Australia, the United States, Canada and Finland showed that humans shaped the processes underlying how species co-existed for the last several thousand years. Smaller, surviving animals such as deer changed their ecological interactions, the researchers found, causing ecological upheaval across the continent.

The researchers’ work has implications for conservation of today’s remaining large animals, now threatened by another human-led mass extinction.

The study’s primary author is Anikó Tóth at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. Tóth collaborated with Villaseñor and several other researchers at the Smithsonian’s Evolution of Terrestrial Ecosystems Program, as well as researchers at other institutions.

Tóth and the co-authors focused on how large mammals were distributed across the continent in the Pleistocene and Holocene geological epochs. (The Pleistocene Epoch occurred from about 2.5 million to 11,700 years ago. Starting at the end of the Pleistocene, the Holocene is the current geological epoch.) To do this, the researchers analyzed how often pairs of species were found living in the same community or in different communities.

To rule out community changes that were the result of reduced diversity or lost associations involving extinct species, the researchers analyzed only those pairs in which both species survived. Prior to the extinction, co-occurrence was more common. After extinction, segregations were more common.

Villaseñor’s research focuses on human fossil remains as a way to understand how human ancestors interacted with mammal communities for the last 3.5 million years. Her more recent research explores how modern humans have shaped today’s ecosystems.

“Rather than thinking of humans as separate from ‘natural’ environments, our research has illuminated the major impacts that humans have had on the ecosystem for many thousands of years,” Villaseñor said. “The results of this paper and others from our group illuminate the outsized impacts that human-mediated extinction has had in North America.”

By the end of the Late Pleistocene in North America, roughly 11,000 years ago, humans contributed to the extinction of large mammals, including mammoths and sabre-toothed cats. Recent work, driven by today’s crisis in biodiversity, has looked at understanding the ecological and evolutionary legacies of this event. There was ecological transformation across the continent — the mammoth steppe disappeared, vegetation and fire regimes changed and large carnivores were lost.

Prehistoric Australian giant kangaroos, new research

This video says about itself:

Procoptodon is a genus of giant short-faced kangaroo living in Australia during the Pleistocene epoch.

Procoptodon goliah, the largest-known kangaroo that ever existed, stood approximately 2.7 m tall and weighed about 240 kg.

Other members of the genus are smaller, however, and Procoptodon gilli is the smallest of all of the sthenurine kangaroos, standing ~1m tall.

Procoptodon goliah was mainly known for living in semiarid areas of South Australia and New South Wales. These environments were harsh, characterized by vast areas of treeless, wind-blown sand dunes.
However, the area around Lake Menindee, in western New South Wales, had a cooler, wetter climate at the time Procoptodon existed. Fossilized footprints have been found on Kangaroo Island.

Procoptodon physiology was likely similar to that of the contemporary kangaroo; however, Procoptodon goliah were characterized by their large size and were more than three times the size of the largest kangaroos today.

These animals lived alongside modern species of kangaroo, but specialized on a diet of leaves from trees and shrubs.

P. goliah were distinguishable by their flat faces and forward-pointing eyes. On each foot they had a single large toe or claw somewhat similar in appearance to a horse’s hoof.

On these unusual feet they moved quickly through the open forests and plains, where they sought grass and leaves to eat. Their front paws were equally strange: each front paw had two extra-long fingers with large claws. It is possible that they were used to grab branches, bringing leaves within eating distance.

Procoptodon goliah were unable to hop as a mode of transportation, and would have been unable to accelerate sufficiently due to their mass.

From the University of Arkansas in the USA:

Crushing bite of giant kangaroos of ice age Australia

September 11, 2019

An in-depth analysis of the skull biomechanics of a giant extinct kangaroo indicates that the animal had a capacity for high-performance crushing of foods, suggesting feeding behaviors more similar to a giant panda than modern-day kangaroo.

The new findings, published in PLOS ONE, support the hypothesis that some short-faced kangaroos were capable of persisting on tough, poor-quality vegetation, when more desirable foods were scarce because of droughts or glacial periods.

“The skull of the extinct kangaroo studied here differs from those of today’s kangaroos in many of the ways a giant panda‘s skull differs from other bears,” said Rex Mitchell, post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Arkansas. “So, it seems that the strange skull of this kangaroo was, in a functional sense, less like a modern-day kangaroo‘s and more like a giant panda’s.”

Mitchell used computed tomography scans to create three-dimensional models of the skull of Simosthenurus occidentalis, a well-represented species of short-faced kangaroo that persisted until about 42,000 years ago. Working with the models, Mitchell performed bite simulations to examine biomechanical performance. The resulting forces at the jaw joints and biting teeth were measured, as well as stress experienced across the skull during biting.

Mitchell compared the findings from the short-faced kangaroo to those obtained from models of the koala, a species alive today with the most similar skull shape. These comparisons demonstrated the importance of the extinct kangaroo’s bony, heavily reinforced skull features in producing and withstanding strong forces during biting, which likely helped the animal crush thick, resistant vegetation such as the older leaves, woody twigs and branches of trees and shrubs. This would be quite different than the feeding habits of modern Australian kangaroos, which tend to feed mostly on grasses, and would instead be more similar to how giant pandas crush bamboo.

“Compared to the kangaroos of today, the extinct, short-faced kangaroos of ice age Australia would be a strange sight to behold,” Mitchell said.

They included the largest kangaroo species ever discovered, with some species estimated to weigh more than 400 pounds. The bodies of these kangaroos were much more robust than those of today — which top out at about 150 pounds — with long muscular arms and large heads shaped like a koala’s. Their short face offered increased mechanical efficiency during biting, a feature usually found in species that can bite harder into more resistant foods. Some species of these extinct kangaroos had massive skulls, with enormous cheek bones and wide foreheads.

“All this bone would have taken a lot of energy to produce and maintain, so it makes sense that such robust skulls wouldn’t have evolved unless they really needed to bite hard into at least some more resistant foods that were important in their diets,” Mitchell said.

The short face, large teeth, and broad attachment sites for biting muscles found in the skulls of the short-faced kangaroo and the giant panda are an example of convergent evolution, Mitchell said, meaning these features probably evolved in both animals for the purpose of performing similar feeding tasks.

Mitchell is also affiliated with the University of New England in Armidale, Australia, where he performed the analyses during his doctoral studies.