Oldest storytelling art discovery in Indonesia


This part of a newly described ancient hunting scene includes a miniature buffalo, or anoa (right), facing five faint human-animal figures wielding spears or ropes, a study finds. M. Aubert et al/Nature 2019, R. Sardi

By Bruce Bower, 11 December 2019:

A nearly 44,000-year-old hunting scene is the oldest known storytelling art

The panel was found in an island cave in Indonesia

An Indonesian cave painting that shows wild animals encountering otherworldly hunters represents the oldest known example of art depicting lifelike figures as well as of visual storytelling, researchers say.

Discovered in December 2017 on the island of Sulawesi, this roughly 4.5-meter-wide hunting scene was painted at least 43,900 years ago, says a team led by archaeologists Maxim Aubert and Adam Brumm, both of Griffith University in Gold Coast, Australia. Part-human, part-animal hunters depicted in the mural indicate that people at the time believed in supernatural beings, the scientists report December 11 in Nature.

“We assume these ancient artists were Homo sapiens and that spirituality and religious thinking were part of early human culture in Indonesia,” Brumm says.

Two pigs and four miniature buffalo called anoas, which still inhabit Sulawesi forests, range across the cave art scene. Eight small, humanlike figures with animal characteristics appear to be hunting the painted pigs and anoas with spears or ropes. One hybrid creature sports a tail. Another has a beaklike snout.

Mythical human-animal hybrids, also known as therianthropes, often appear in folklore and in fiction of modern societies. Many religions regard therianthropes as gods, spirits or ancestral beings. Figurines of a lion-headed person (SN: 5/19/09) and a woman with exaggerated features previously found in a German cave date to as early as 40,000 years ago, as do flutes made of bone and mammoth tusks found in the same cave (SN: 6/24/09). A drawing of a man with a bird’s head inside France’s Lascaux cave dates to between around 14,000 and 21,000 years ago.

Abstract cave art generally attributed to H. sapiens dates to at least 40,800 years ago in Europe (SN: 6/14/12). In other Sulawesi caves studied by Aubert and Brumm, wall stencils that Stone Age people made by blowing or spraying pigment around outstretched hands date to around 40,000 years ago (SN: 10/8/14). Researchers had reported evidence of European Neandertals creating abstract cave art at least 65,000 years ago, but those reports have come under fire (SN: 10/28/19).

Measures of radioactive uranium’s decay in mineral layers that formed over parts of the Sulawesi hunting depiction provided minimum age estimates ranging from 35,100 to 43,900 years. The oldest mineral layer comes closest to the painting’s actual age, the researchers say.

If confirmed in further research, that age estimate makes sense, says archaeologist Nicholas Conard of the University of Tübingen in Germany. Art, music, religion and language characterize modern human groups worldwide, and the same would have held for Stone Age groups, asserts Conard, who directed excavations of the ancient figurines and flutes in Germany. …

Figurative paintings in several other Sulawesi caves have been found but not yet dated, Brumm says. Nearly all these artworks, including the hunting scene, have deteriorated substantially. “We urgently need to determine why this art is disappearing and what to do about it.”

This 3 December 2019 video is about the new discovery.

Prehistoric giant Gigantopithecus apes were orangutan relatives


This 2017 video says about itself:

What Happened to the World’s Greatest Ape?

Probably twice the size of a modern gorilla, Gigantopithecus is the greatest great-ape that ever was. And for us fellow primates, there are some lessons to be learned in how it lived, and why it disappeared.

By Bruce Bower, 13 November 2019:

A tooth fossil shows Gigantopithecus’ close ties to modern orangutans

Proteins help clarify how the giant ancient ape evolved

An ancient ape that was larger than a full-grown male gorilla has now revealed molecular clues to its evolutionary roots.

Proteins extracted from a roughly 1.9-million-year-old tooth of the aptly named Gigantopithecus blacki peg it as a close relative of modern orangutans and their direct ancestors, say bioarchaeologist Frido Welker of the University of Copenhagen and his colleagues.

Protein comparisons among living and fossil apes suggest that Gigantopithecus and orangutan forerunners diverged from a common ancestor between around 10 million and 12 million years ago, Welker’s group reports November 13 in Nature.

Since it was first described in 1935, based on a molar purchased from a traditional Chinese drugstore in Hong Kong, G. blacki has stimulated debate over its evolutionary links to other ancient apes. Almost 2,000 isolated teeth and four partial jaws of G. blacki have since been found in southern China and nearby parts of Southeast Asia. G. blacki fossils date from around 2 million to almost 300,000 years ago. The sizes of individual teeth and jaws indicate that G. blacki weighed between 200 and 300 kilograms.

Proteins preserve better in teeth and bones than DNA does, but both molecular forms break down quickly in hot, humid settings. “We were surprised to find any proteins this old at all, especially in a fossil from a subtropical environment,” Welker says. Proteins consisting of chains of amino acids can be used to sort out living and fossil species of various animals, including hominids (SN: 5/1/19).

Researchers generally regard G. blacki as an orangutan relative that evolved to live in forests and eat fruits, leaves, stems and possibly tubers. But that assumption has rested on thin evidence, says biological anthropologist Terry Harrison of New York University.

“This new [protein] analysis provides the first compelling evidence that Gigantopithecus was more closely related to the orangutan than to any other ape,” Harrison says.

Welker’s team retrieved amino acid sequences from six proteins in a G. blacki molar previously found in southern China’s Chuifeng Cave. Five of those proteins are commonly found in living chimps, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans and humans, enabling comparisons of accumulated differences in the amino acid arrangements between G. blacki and those five present-day primates. Orangutans displayed the fewest protein disparities with G. blacki, signaling a particularly close evolutionary link between living red apes and the ancient Asian ape. Using those protein comparisons, the age of the G. blacki tooth and previous estimates of when various living apes diverged from common ancestors, Welker’s group calculated the timing of a common ancestor for orangutans and G. blacki.

The sixth protein has been linked to a process by which minerals are produced to harden bones and teeth. That protein may have contributed to the formation of especially thick tooth enamel in G. blacki, the researchers speculate.

No attempt was made to remove DNA from the ancient ape tooth. Even in colder regions than southern China, only much younger fossils have yielded DNA (SN: 3/14/16).

Ancient proteins from other Asian fossil apes dating to between around 12 million and 6 million years ago are needed to further clarify the evolutionary position of G. blacki, says paleoanthropologist Russell Ciochon of the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Ciochon suspects that Indopithecus giganteus, a fossil ape that inhabited what’s now northern India and Pakistan during that period, was a potential ancestor of G. blacki.

Protein analyses of fossil orangutans that lived in Southeast Asia at the same time as G. blacki may also help untangle how and why red apes died out in China after approximately 126,000 years ago, but still live on two Indonesian islands, Ciochon says. Such research could provide insights into how best to save endangered orangutans today (SN: 2/15/18).

Prehistoric humans and climate change


This May 2018 video is called A short video describing the main debated theories around Homo sapiens dispersal across the globe.

From the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Australia:

The homeland of modern humans

October 28, 2019

Summary: A landmark study pinpoints the birthplace of modern humans in southern Africa and suggests how past climate shifts drove their first migration.

A study has concluded that the earliest ancestors of anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) emerged in a southern African ‘homeland’ and thrived there for 70 thousand years.

The breakthrough findings are published in the prestigious journal Nature today.

The authors propose that changes in Africa’s climate triggered the first human explorations, which initiated the development of humans’ genetic, ethnic and cultural diversity.

This study provides a window into the first 100 thousand years of modern humans’ history.

DNA as a time capsule

“It has been clear for some time that anatomically modern humans appeared in Africa roughly 200 thousand years ago. What has been long debated is the exact location of this emergence and subsequent dispersal of our earliest ancestors,” says study lead Professor Vanessa Hayes from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research and University of Sydney, and Extraordinary Professor at the University of Pretoria.

“Mitochondrial DNA acts like a time capsule of our ancestral mothers, accumulating changes slowly over generations. Comparing the complete DNA code, or mitogenome, from different individuals provides information on how closely they are related.”

In their study, Professor Hayes and her colleagues collected blood samples to establish a comprehensive catalogue of modern human’s earliest mitogenomes from the so-called ‘L0’ lineage. “Our work would not have been possible without the generous contributions of local communities and study participants in Namibia and South Africa, which allowed us to uncover rare and new L0 sub-branches,” says study author and public health Professor Riana Bornman from the University of Pretoria.

“We merged 198 new, rare mitogenomes to the current database of modern human’s earliest known population, the L0 lineage. This allowed us to refine the evolutionary tree of our earliest ancestral branches better than ever before,” says first author Dr Eva Chan from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, who led the phylogenetic analyses.

By combining the L0 lineage timeline with the linguistic, cultural and geographic distributions of different sub-lineages, the study authors revealed that 200 thousand years ago, the first Homo sapiens sapiens maternal lineage emerged in a ‘homeland’ south of the Greater Zambezi River Basin region, which includes the entire expanse of northern Botswana into Namibia to the west and Zimbabwe to the east.

A homeland perfect for life to thrive

Investigating existing geological, archeological and fossil evidence, geologist Dr Andy Moore, from Rhodes University, revealed that the homeland region once held Africa’s largest ever lake system, Lake Makgadikgadi.

“Prior to modern human emergence, the lake had begun to drain due to shifts in underlying tectonic plates. This would have created, a vast wetland, which is known to be one of the most productive ecosystems for sustaining life,” says Dr Moore.

Modern humans’ first migrations

The authors’ new evolutionary timelines suggest that the ancient wetland ecosystem provided a stable ecological environment for modern humans’ first ancestors to thrive for 70 thousand years.

“We observed significant genetic divergence in the modern humans’ earliest maternal sub-lineages, that indicates our ancestors migrated out of the homeland between 130 and 110 thousand years ago,” explains Professor Hayes. “The first migrants ventured northeast, followed by a second wave of migrants who travelled southwest. A third population remained in the homeland until today.”

“In contrast to the northeasterly migrants, the southwesterly explorers appear to flourish, experiencing steady population growth,” says Professor Hayes. The authors speculate that the success of this migration was most likely a result of adaptation to marine foraging, which is further supported by extensive archaeological evidence along the southern tip of Africa.

Climate effects

To investigate what may have driven these early human migrations, co-corresponding author Professor Axel Timmermann, Director of the IBS Center for Climate Physics at Pusan National University, analysed climate computer model simulations and geological data, which capture Southern Africa’s climate history of the past 250 thousand years.

“Our simulations suggest that the slow wobble of Earth’s axis changes summer solar radiation in the Southern Hemisphere, leading to periodic shifts in rainfall across southern Africa,” says Professor Timmermann. “These shifts in climate would have opened green, vegetated corridors, first 130 thousand years ago to the northeast, and then around 110 thousand years ago to the southwest, allowing our earliest ancestors to migrate away from the homeland for the first time.”

“These first migrants left behind a homeland population,” remarks Professor Hayes. “Eventually adapting to the drying lands, maternal descendants of the homeland population can be found in the greater Kalahari region today.”

This study uniquely combined the disciplines of genetics, geology and climatic physics to rewrite our earliest human history.

The research was supported by an Australian Research Council Discovery Project grant (DP170103071) and the Institute for Basic Science (IBS-R028-D1). Professor Vanessa Hayes holds the Sydney University Petre Chair of Prostate Cancer Research.

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.”