Paleo News Page 23  -  last update 04/16/2015

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-- Oldest hominin DNA sequenced - 12/04/13
-- Beautiful Skull Spurs Debate on Human History - 10/17/13
-- Drought Led to Collapse of Civilizations, Study Says - 10/24/13
-- Modern humans emerged far earlier than previously thought, fossils from China suggest - 10/28/10
-- Human Ancestors as Hunters - 5/07/13
-- Direct Evidence: Projectiles are at Least 90,000 Years Old - 5/20/13
-- Giant prehistoric elephant slaughtered by early humans - 9/19/13
-- Controversial Ice Age Site to be Excavated - 12/18/13
-- Early Hominin Site Found in Israel - 12/31/13

 Oldest hominin DNA sequenced

Mitochondrial genome of a 400,000-year-old hominin from Spain decoded

Date:December 4, 2013


The Sima de los Huesos hominins lived approximately 400,000 years ago during the Middle Pleistocene.

Using novel techniques to extract and study ancient DNA researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, have determined an almost complete mitochondrial genome sequence of a 400,000-year-old representative of the genus Homo from Sima de los Huesos, a unique cave site in Northern Spain, and found that it is related to the mitochondrial genome of Denisovans, extinct relatives of Neandertals in Asia. DNA this old has until recently been retrieved only from the permafrost.

Sima de los Huesos, the "bone pit," is a cave site in Northern Spain that has yielded the world's largest assembly of Middle Pleistocene hominin fossils, consisting of at least 28 skeletons, which have been excavated and pieced together over the course of more than two decades by a Spanish team of paleontologists led by Juan-Luis Arsuaga. The fossils are classified as Homo heidelbergensis but also carry traits typical of Neandertals. Until now it had not been possible to study the DNA of these unique hominins.

Matthias Meyer and his team from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, have developed new techniques for retrieving and sequencing highly degraded ancient DNA. They then joined forces with Juan-Luis Arsuaga and applied the new techniques to a cave bear from the Sima de los Huesos site. After this success, the researchers sampled two grams of bone powder from a hominin thigh bone from the cave. They extracted its DNA and sequenced the genome of the mitochondria or mtDNA, a small part of the genome that is passed down along the maternal line and occurs in many copies per cell. The researchers then compared this ancient mitochondrial DNA with Neandertals, Denisovans, present-day humans, and apes.

From the missing mutations in the old DNA sequences the researchers calculated that the Sima hominin lived about 400,000 years ago. They also found that it shared a common ancestor with the Denisovans, an extinct archaic group from Asia related to the Neandertals, about 700,000 years ago. "The fact that the mtDNA of the Sima de los Huesos hominin shares a common ancestor with Denisovan rather than Neandertal mtDNAs is unexpected since its skeletal remains carry Neandertal-derived features," says Matthias Meyer. Considering their age and Neandertal-like features, the Sima hominins were likely related to the population ancestral to both Neandertals and Denisovans. Another possibility is that gene flow from yet another group of hominins brought the Denisova-like mtDNA into the Sima hominins or their ancestors.

"Our results show that we can now study DNA from human ancestors that are hundreds of thousands of years old. This opens prospects to study the genes of the ancestors of Neandertals and Denisovans. It is tremendously exciting" says Svante Pääbo, director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

"This unexpected result points to a complex pattern of evolution in the origin of Neandertals and modern humans. I hope that more research will help clarify the genetic relationships of the hominins from Sima de los Huesos to Neandertals and Denisovans" says Juan-Luis Arsuaga, director of the Center for Research on Human Evolution and Behaviour. The researchers are now pursuing this goal by focusing on retrieving DNA from more individuals from this site and on retrieving also nuclear DNA sequences.

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Max-Planck-Gesellschaft. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

1.Matthias Meyer, Qiaomei Fu, Ayinuer Aximu-Petri, Isabelle Glocke, Birgit Nickel, Juan-Luis Arsuaga, Ignacio Martínez, Ana Gracia, José María Bermúdez de Castro, Eudald Carbonell, Svante Pääbo. A mitochondrial genome sequence of a hominin from Sima de los Huesos. Nature, 2013; DOI: 10.1038/nature12788

 Beautiful Skull Spurs Debate on Human History

A 1.8-million-year-old skull blends features of a number of early human species.

This skull's features resemble those of both earlier and later humans.

Brian Switek    National Geographic     October 17, 2013

A newly discovered skull, some 1.8 million years old, has rekindled debate over the identity of humanity's ancient ancestors. Uncovered at the Dmanisi site in the Caucasus in Georgia, "Skull 5" represents the most complete jaw and cranium from a turning point in early human history.

Researchers, led by Georgian National Museum anthropologist David Lordkipanidze, first found the complete lower jaw of a fossil human in 2000. The cranium turned up five years later, at the fossil-rich Dmanisi site 96 miles southwest of Tbilisi, and is now being reported in the journal Science.
"It was discovered on August 5, 2005—in fact, on my birthday," Lordkipanidze says. He adds that the fossil's importance was clear as soon as the team saw it, but required eight years of preparatory analysis.
That is because Skull 5 is what paleoanthropologists often refer to as a "mosaic," or mixture of features seen in earlier and later humans. The skull's face, large teeth, and small brain size resemble those of earlier fossil humans, but the detailed anatomy of its braincase—which gives clues to the wiring of the brain—is similar to that of a more recent early human species called Homo erectus. This combination of features has fueled a long-running discussion over whether the Dmanisi humans were an early form of Homo erectus, a distinct species called Homo georgicus, or something else.
Dmanisi Fossil Trove
The newly described skull isn't the only one that has been found at Dmanisi. At least five relatively complete skulls have been found there in the last two decades. Those individuals may not have actually lived alongside each other, but apparently occupied this same place within a window of a few thousand years more than 1.75 million years ago.
Lordkipanidze and his coauthors suggest that, taken together, these skulls demonstrate how the Dmanisi humans varied in appearance from one individual to the next. "Together, our analyses suggest that Skull 5 and the other four early Homo [human] individuals from Dmanisi represent the full range of variation within a single species," study senior author Christoph Zollikofer of Switzerland's University of Zurich, said at a briefing on the new skull discovery.
Using morphometrics to gauge skull shape for each fossil skull, Lordkipanidze and colleagues found that the Dmanisi humans varied from each other in facial features and brain size, for example, about as much as modern humans do from each other. In other words, despite minor differences, they all belonged to the same species.

Family Tree Pruned
The single species finding raises wider implications for the history of humanity. Scholars have previously seen Dmanisi's inhabitants as a distinct variation of the human Homo erectus, or possibly as a new species. That would make them early emigrants out of Africa and part of a wildly branching early human family tree.
In the new study, however, Lordkipanidze and coauthors suggest that Dmanisi's inhabitants were actually part of a single human lineage that contains several earlier human species long thought of as distinct from Homo erectus.
So, who were the early humans living at Dmanisi? Lordkipanidze and colleagues place them in a single lineage of early humans that may stretch back as far as 2.4 million years ago in East Africa, when the first human species, Homo habilis, arose. This would lump the various human species that have been named during early Homo history into a single evolving species connecting Homo habilis to the Dmanisi humans, and forward in time to Homo erectus as it expanded across Eurasia. "We think that many African fossils can be lumped in this category and aligned with the single-lineage hypothesis," Lordkipanidze says.
Skull Skepticism
While other paleontologists recognize the fossilized beauty of Skull 5, not everyone agrees on the evolutionary assertions of the new paper.
"There's no doubt that this is an interesting cranium," says paleoanthropologist Bernard Wood of George Washington University in D.C. "It's a good playing card, added to some other playing cards that are equally good."
Anthropologist Fred Spoor of Germany's Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology agrees that Skull 5 is "an absolutely fabulous specimen." He says the skull will help researchers "figure out what's going on with the really early evolution of Homo erectus."
But both Wood and Spoor disagree with the "one big species" message of the new study.
The methodology used in the new study, Wood says, can obscure real differences between species, since the focus was on cranial shape rather than telltale anatomical features such as small openings on the skull for blood vessels or the delicate bony anatomy of the braincase.
Likewise, "species are identified by a clear diagnosis," Spoor says, based on distinct anatomical traits, and using such a shape analysis to determine species "is clearly not adequate," in his view.
Don't "Bring the Whole Bloody House Down"
Wood also points out that the study is entirely focused on skulls. "They are assuming that the only reason that people have come to the conclusion that there was more than one species of early Homo is that it's based entirely on cranial shape, and that's not true," Wood says.
The rest of the skeleton in other early human species carries distinguishing characteristics used to identify distinct species, such as relatively long arms still adapted for climbing in Homo habilis. "It doesn't make any sense to pretend that these pieces of evidence don't exist," Wood says. While he acknowledges that the Dmanisi humans are all likely the same species and can be difficult to categorize as Homo erectus or a separate species, he argues that it's unreasonable to "bring the whole bloody house down" by lumping all early human fossils into a single lineage.
Dmanisi Debate Only a Debut?
So where does that leave the one-time inhabitants of Dmanisi? According to Spoor, their grab bag of skull features places them near an ancient split in human evolution.
The Dmanisi humans have "an interesting combination of a primitive face, primitive teeth, primitive size of the brain," Spoor says, "but if I would take a saw and cut off the face and show the braincase to a colleague, I'm pretty sure that person would say, 'That's Homo erectus.'"
The combination of features seen in the Dmanisi skulls is a record of "evolution in action," Spoor adds. They might place the Dmanisi humans somewhere after the split between the earlier Homo habilis and Homo erectus, sometime prior to 1.8 million years ago.
Debate will undoubtedly continue about who the Dmanisi humans really were and how they fit into our broader family history. Those arguments will hinge on what is still being found. "Dmanisi is a snapshot in time, like a time capsule," Lordkipanidze said at the briefing. He suggests that his discovery team isn't done yet, and more early human fossil finds may lie ahead: "We can say for sure that Dmanisi has enormous potential to yield new discoveries."

 Drought Led to Collapse of Civilizations, Study Says

Study of fossilized pollen helps solve an intriguing historical mystery..

October 24, 2013 for National Geographic

What happened about 3,200 years ago to bring about the collapse of not just one but a number of flourishing civilizations on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean?

A study of fossilized pollen particles taken from sediments at the bottom of the Sea of Galilee may have solved an intriguing historical mystery that has been troubling archaeologists for decades.

"In a short period of time, the entire world of the Bronze Age crumbled," says Israel Finkelstein, an archaeologist at the Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, who was one of the lead scientists in the study.

"The Hittite Empire, Egypt of the pharaohs, the Mycenaean culture in Greece, the copper-producing kingdom located on the island of Cyprus, the great trade emporium of Ugarit on the Syrian coast, and the Canaanite city—states under Egyptian hegemony—all disappeared and only after a while were replaced by the territorial kingdoms of the Iron Age, including Israel and Judah."

Wars, pestilence, and sudden natural disasters have all been postulated as possible causes, but now, thanks to sophisticated pollen-sampling techniques and advances in radiocarbon dating, Finkelstein and his colleagues believe they know the primary culprit: drought, or rather a succession of severe droughts over a 150-year period from 1250 BCE to about 1100 BCE.

These fairly precise dates come from core samples drilled into the sediments at the bottom of the Sea of Galilee. The drill cores extended 18 meters into the seabed and cut across a range of sediments deposited over the past 9,000 years.

Pollen: "Fingerprints" of Plants

"We focused our study on the time interval between 3200 BCE and 500 BCE," says Dafna Langgut, a University of Tel Aviv palynologist (one who studies ancient pollens). She, along with Finkelstein and University of Bonn geology professor Thomas Litt, authored the study, which appeared this week in Tel Aviv: Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University.

By studying pollen samples taken at 40-year intervals, the scientists were able to monitor changes in the vegetation. "Pollen grains are the 'fingerprints' of plants," says Langgut. "They are extremely helpful in the reconstruction of ancient natural vegetation and past climate conditions."

The scientists noticed a sharp decline around 1250 BCE in oaks, pines, and carob trees—the traditional flora of the Mediterranean in the Late Bronze Age—and an increase in the types of plants usually found in semiarid desert regions. There was also a big drop in the number of olive trees, an indication that horticulture was on the wane. All are signs, say the researchers, that the region was in the grip of regular and sustained droughts.

Shortages and Unrest

The most crucial years of the collapse were probably between 1185 and 1130 BCE, says Finkelstein, but the entire process extended over a longer period of time.

"I think that climate change can be seen as a sort of a 'prime mover' that initiated other processes," says Finkelstein. "For example, groups of people in the northern regions were uprooted from their homes because of destruction of the agricultural output, and [they] started moving in search of food. They could have pushed other groups to move by land and sea. And this in turn caused destructions and disruption of the delicate trade system of the eastern Mediterranean."

The dates the researchers came up with via pollen analysis correspond nicely to the few remaining historical records of the period, which mention shortages of grain, disruption of trade routes, civil unrest, and pillaging of cities as people began to fight over diminishing resources. The Late Bronze Age was also a period when marauding bands known as the Sea Peoples raided coastal areas in the eastern Mediterranean.

The tumultuous period ended only when rains returned and uprooted groups began to settle down again.

 Modern humans emerged far earlier than previously thought, fossils from China suggest

Date:October 28, 2010 Source:Washington University in St. Louis

Scientists have discovered early modern human fossil remains in the Zhirendong (Zhiren Cave) in south China that are at least 100,000 years old.

Scientists have discovered early modern human fossil remains in the Zhirendong (Zhiren Cave) in south China that are at least 100,000 years old.

An international team of researchers, including a physical anthropology professor at Washington University in St. Louis, has discovered well-dated human fossils in southern China that markedly change anthropologists perceptions of the emergence of modern humans in the eastern Old World.

The research, based at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, was published Oct. 25 in the online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The discovery of early modern human fossil remains in the Zhirendong (Zhiren Cave) in south China that are at least 100,000 years old provides the earliest evidence for the emergence of modern humans in eastern Asia, at least 60,000 years older than the previously known modern humans in the region.

"These fossils are helping to redefine our perceptions of modern human emergence in eastern Eurasia, and across the Old World more generally," says Eric Trinkaus, PhD, the Mary Tileston Hemenway Professor in Arts & Sciences and professor of physical anthropology.

The Zhirendong fossils have a mixture of modern and archaic features that contrasts with earlier modern humans in east Africa and southwest Asia, indicating some degree of human population continuity in Asia with the emergence of modern humans.

The Zhirendong humans indicate that the spread of modern human biology long preceded the cultural and technological innovations of the Upper Paleolithic and that early modern humans co-existed for many tens of millennia with late archaic humans further north and west across Eurasia.

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Washington University in St. Louis. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

1.Wu Liu, Chang-Zhu Jin, Ying-Qi Zhang, Yan-Jun Cai, Song Xing, Xiu-Jie Wu, Hai Cheng, R. Lawrence Edwards, Wen-Shi Pan, Da-Gong Qin, Zhi-Sheng An, Erik Trinkaus, Xin-Zhi Wu. Human remains from Zhirendong, South China, and modern human emergence in East Asia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2010; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1014386107

 Human Ancestors as Hunters

07 May 2013

WACO, TEXAS—Thousands of butchered animal bones bearing two-million-year-old tool marks have been uncovered at the Kanjera South site in Kenya by anthropologist Joseph Ferraro of Baylor University. The bones represent entire gazelles and other relatively small animals that may have been killed by Homo erectus hunters and taken back to Kanjera South, where they were butchered. Few animal tooth marks on the bones support the idea that the animals were killed by hominids. Additional skulls and jaws from larger animals such as antelope and wildebeests suggest that human ancestors also scavenged the heads left behind by large predators in order to eat the nutritious brain tissue. There are no signs of cooking at Kanjera South, however.

 Direct Evidence: Projectiles are at Least 90,000 Years Old


QUEENSLAND, AUSTRALIA—Archaeologist Corey O’Driscoll has developed a method of determining if wounds on bones were made by spears thrown from a distance. Indirect evidence from examining stone point, suggests that humans living in Africa began hurling weapons as early as 500,000 years ago, but this evidence is often disputed. To solve this problem, O’Driscoll and a colleague knapped flint spear and arrow points modeled after Middle Stone Age technology from Africa. They then threw the replica spears and fired the replica arrows at lamb and cow carcasses, defleshed the bones, and compared the marks on the bones with a reference collection of butchered animal bones. O’Driscoll found that the butchering marks and the projectile impact marks have clear differences when viewed with a microscope, including traces of stone left in the projectile point wounds. He and Jessica Thompson of the University of Queensland then examined three animal bones from Pinnacle Point Cave in South Africa. Using the new diagnostic criteria, they identified projectile impact marks on all three bones, two of which are between 91,000 and 98,000 years old—the oldest direct evidence for the use of projectile weapons.

 Giant prehistoric elephant slaughtered by early humans

September 19, 2013
University of Southampton

Research by a University of Southampton archaeologist suggests that early humans, who lived thousands of years before Neanderthals, were able to work together in groups to hunt and slaughter animals as large as the prehistoric elephant.

Dr Francis Wenban-Smith discovered a site containing remains of an extinct straight-tusked elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus) in 2003, in an area of land at Ebbsfleet in Kent, during the construction of the High Speed 1 rail link from the Channel Tunnel to London.

Investigation of the area was carried out with independent heritage organisation Oxford Archaeology, with the support of HS1 Ltd.

Excavation revealed a deep sequence of deposits containing the elephant remains, along with numerous flint tools and a range of other species such as; wild aurochs, extinct forms of rhinoceros and lion, Barbary macaque, beaver, rabbit, various forms of vole and shrew, and a diverse assemblage of snails. These remains confirm that the deposits date to a warm period of climate around 420,000 years ago, the so-called Hoxnian interglacial, when the climate was probably slightly warmer than the present day.

Since the excavation, which took place in 2004, Francis has been carrying out a detailed analysis of evidence recovered from the site, including 80 undisturbed flint artefacts found scattered around the elephant carcass and used to butcher it. The pre-historic elephant was twice the size of today's African variety and up to four times the weight of family car.

Dr Wenban-Smith comments: "Although there is no direct evidence of how this particular animal met its end, the discovery of flint tools close to the carcass confirm butchery for its meat, probably by a group of at least four individuals.

"Early hominins of this period would have depended on nutrition from large herbivores. The key evidence for elephant hunting is that, of the few prehistoric butchered elephant carcasses that have been found across Europe, they are almost all large males in their prime, a pattern that does not suggest natural death and scavenging. Although it seems incredible that they could have killed such an animal, it must have been possible with wooden spears.. We know hominins of this period had these, and an elephant skeleton with a wooden spear through its ribs was found at the site of Lehringen in Germany in 1948."

These early humans suffered local extinction in Northern Europe during the great ice age known as the Anglian glaciation 450,000 years ago, but re-established themselves as the climate grew warmer again in the following Hoxnian interglacial.

An ability to hunt large mammals, and in particular elephants, as suggested by the Ebbsfleet find, would go some way to explaining how these people then managed to push northwards again into what is now Britain. The flint artefacts of these pioneer settlers are of a characteristic type known as Clactonian, mostly comprising simple razor-sharp flakes that would have been ideal for cutting meat, sometimes with notches on them that would have helped cut through the tougher animal hide.

The discovery of this previously undisturbed Elephant grave site is unique in Britain -- where only a handful of other elephant skeletons have been found and none of which have produced similar evidence of human exploitation.

Dr Wenban-Smith explains the Ebbsfleet area would have been very different from today: "Rich fossilised remains surrounding the elephant skeleton, including pollen, snails and a wide variety of vertebrates, provide a remarkable record of the climate and environment the early humans inhabited.

"Analysis of these deposits show they lived at a time of peak interglacial warmth, when the Ebbsfleet Valley was a lush, densely wooded tributary of the Thames, containing a quiet, almost stagnant swamp."

The layer of earth containing the elephant remains and flints is overlain by a higher level of sediment, rich in so-called Acheulian tool types -- handaxes of various forms from later in the same interglacial. Controversy surrounds whether or not these represent a later wave of colonisation of Britain, or whether the Clactonians themselves evolved a more sophisticated tool-kit as they developed a more sustained occupation.

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Southampton. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Cite This Page:

University of Southampton. "Giant prehistoric elephant slaughtered by early humans." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 19 September 2013. <>.

 Controversial Ice Age Site to be Excavated

18 December 2013

ERIE, PENNSYLVANIA—A team led by Mercyhurst University archaeologist James Adavasio will excavate a site in Vero Beach, Florida, that is one of North America's most controversial. In 1915, workers dredging a canal in Vero Beach unearthed a trove of bones belonging to extinct Ice Age animals such as saber tooth cats, ground sloths, and mammoths. Among those remains were a human skull, and dozens of other human bones that could have belonged to a man who lived 13,000 years ago. Dubbed "Vero Man," the remains became a flashpoint in the debate over the antiquity of humans in the New World. “From the beginning, Vero was one of the more infamous archaeological sites in North America because it was seen as such a threat to the then perceived wisdom that no humans had lived here during the last Ice Age,” said Adovasio. He and his team will apply modern, scientific techniques to the Vero Beach site, which has excellent preservation of Ice Age plant and animal remains.

 Early Hominin Site Found in Israel

31 December 2013

HAIFA, ISRAEL—Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of a site that might have been occupied by Paleolithic hominins nearly 200,000 years ago not far from the town of Nesher Ramla in northern Israel. Found in a depression, where water flow has caused the bedrock sags into the voids below, the team recovered lithic tools that resemble the Mousterian tradition, hearths, animal bones, and residue of the pigment ochre. The age of the site was dated using optically stimulated luminescence and could be as young as 74,000 years or as old as 190,000 years.


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