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-- Human Ancestors Ate Food on the Ground Earlier Than Thought - 9/16/15
-- Generations of Denisovans Visited Siberian Cave - 9/16/15
-- Bones of Homo naledi, new human relative, found in South African cave - 9/10/15
-- The Bronze Age Black Forest Girl of Denmark - 5/21/15
-- Palaeolithic Archers - May-Jun 1997
-- When age matters - 3/03/15

 Human Ancestors Ate Food on the Ground Earlier Than Thought

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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

BALTIGrass based diet
(Courtesy Yohannes Haile-Selassie)
MORE, MARYLAND—Early human ancestors started foraging for food on the ground some 400,000 years earlier than previously thought, according to a new study of the teeth of human ancestors and an array of animals from the Afar region of Ethiopia. The research team, led by Naomi E. Levin of Johns Hopkins University, analyzed the morphology of the teeth and their carbon isotopes in order to determine what kinds of foods the creatures were eating. The results for both human ancestors and a now-extinct species of baboon suggest that the switch from foods from trees and shrubs to grass-based foods, including the tissues of animals that ate grasses such as birds and insects, happened about 3.8 million years ago. “The results not only show an earlier start to grass-based food consumption among hominins and baboons but also indicate that form does not always precede function. In the earliest baboons, dietary shift toward grass occurred before its teeth were specialized for grazing,” Levin explained in a press release. The change in diet would have made human ancestors more resilient to habitat change, she added. For more on human ancestors, go to "Our Tangled Ancestry."

 Generations of Denisovans Visited Siberian Cave

September 16, 2015

LONDON, ENGLAND—Science reports from the meeting of the European Society for the Study of Human Evolution that new dates have been obtained for Siberia’s Denisova Cave, where a tiny finger bone representing a girl from a new human species was discovered. At the time, the dates obtained from animal bones and artifacts from the cave ranged between 30,000 and 50,000 years ago. Geochronologist Tom Higham of the University of Oxford has re-dated the sequence using 20 samples of cut-marked bones and ornaments from the cave. Oxford archaeologist Katerina Douka reported that the finger bone was likely older than 48,000 to 50,000 years, the limit of radiocarbon dating. Nuclear and mitchondrial DNA from several Denisovan molars have also been analyzed by Viviane Slon and her colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. The nuclear DNA showed that the inhabitants of the cave were not closely related. Mutations in the mitochondrial DNA were used to estimate when the individuals lived. The oldest Denisovan died in the cave at least 110,000 years ago, and the girl whose pinky finger bone was discovered lived some 65,000 years later. “You can seriously see it’s a valid species,” commented Fred Spoor of University College London. For more, go to "Denisovan DNA."

 Bones of Homo naledi, new human relative, found in South African cave

9/10/2015 by

New species had mix of human, ape traits and may have buried its dead

Scientists say they've discovered a new member of the human family tree, revealed by a huge trove of bones in a barely accessible, pitch-dark chamber of a cave in South Africa.

The creature shows a surprising mix of human-like and more primitive characteristics — some experts called it "bizarre" and "weird."

And the discovery presents some key mysteries: How old are the bones? And how did they get into that chamber, reachable only by a complicated pathway that includes squeezing through passages as narrow as about 17.8 centimetres?

The bones were found by a spelunker, about 48 kilometres northwest of Johannesburg. The site has yielded some 1,550 fossils since its discovery in 2013. Those, in turn represent at least 15 individuals, ranging in age from babies to elderly individuals.

Human Ancestor Homo naledi

This March 2015 photo provided by National Geographic from their October 2015 issue shows a reconstruction of Homo naledi's face by paleoartist John Gurche at his studio in Trumansburg, N.Y. (Mark Thiessen/National Geographic via AP)

Researchers named the creature Homo naledi (nah-LEH-dee). That reflects the "Homo" evolutionary group, which includes modern people and our closest extinct relatives, and the word for "star" in a local language. The find was made in the Rising Star cave system.

The creature, which evidently walked upright, represents a mix of traits. For example, the hands and feet look like Homo, but the shoulders and the small brain recall Homo's more ape-like ancestors, the researchers said.

Lee Berger, a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg who led the work, said naledi's anatomy suggests that it arose at or near the root of the Homo group, which would make the species some 2.5 million to 2.8 million years old. The discovered bones themselves may be younger, said Berger, an American.

At a news conference Thursday in the Cradle of Humankind, a site near the town of Magaliesburg where the discovery was made, bones were arranged in the shape of skeleton in a glass-covered wooden case. Fragments of small skulls, an almost complete jawbone with teeth, and pieces of limbs, fingers and other bones were arrayed around the partial skeleton.

Berger handed a skull reconstruction to Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, who kissed it, as did other VIPs. Berger beamed throughout the unveiling.

Berger said almost every bone in the body was represented multiple times among the fossils found, making the new species "practically the best-known fossil member of our lineage."

The researchers also described the discovery in the journal eLife. They said they were unable to determine an age for the fossils because of unusual characteristics of the site, but that they are still trying.

'No way we can judge'

Berger said researchers are not claiming that neledi was a direct ancestor of modern-day people, and experts unconnected to the project said they believed it was not.

Rick Potts, director of the human origins program at the Smithsonian Institution's Natural History Museum, who was not involved in the discovery, said that without an age, "there's no way we can judge the evolutionary significance of this find."

If the bones are about as old as the Homo group, that would argue that naledi is "a snapshot of ... the evolutionary experimentation that was going on right around the origin" of Homo, he said. If they are significantly younger, it either shows the naledi retained the primitive body characteristics much longer than any other known creature, or that it re-evolved them, he said.

Eric Delson of Lehman College in New York, who also wasn't involved with the work, said his guess is that naledi fits within a known group of early Homo creatures from around two million year ago.
Slender scientists

Besides the age of the bones, another mystery is how they got into the difficult-to-reach area of the cave.

The chamber where the bones were found was 90 metres from the cave entrance, accessed via a passage as narrow as 18 centimetres wide. It was excavated by a team of six women who were both experienced as scientists and cavers and slender enough to squeeze though. They included Marina Elliott, a PhD student at Simon Fraser University, one of several Canadians involved in the study.

The researchers said they suspect the naledi may have repeatedly deposited their dead in the room. That would be a startling discovery, as humans are the only animals known to do that.

Alternatively, the cave may have been a death trap for individuals that found their own way in.

Researchers announced Thursday in the journal eLife and at a news conference in the Cradle of Humankind, a site near the village of Magaliesburg, that they have found a new member of the human family tree. (eLIFE)

"This stuff is like a Sherlock Holmes mystery," declared Bernard Wood of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., who was not involved in the study.

Visitors to the cave must have created artificial light, as with a torch, Wood said. The people who did cave drawings in Europe had such technology, but nobody has suspected that mental ability in creatures with such a small brain as naledi, he said.

Potts said a deliberate disposal of dead bodies is a feasible explanation, but he added it's not clear who did the disposing. Maybe it was some human relative other than naledi, he said.

Not everybody agreed that the discovery revealed a new species. Tim White of the University of California, Berkeley, called that claim questionable. "From what is presented here, (the fossils) belong to a primitive Homo erectus, a species named in the 1800s," he said in an email.

At the news conference in South Africa, Berger disputed that.

"Could this be the body of Homo erectus? Absolutely not. It could not be erectus," Berger said.

The research was supported by Wits University, the National Geographic Society and South African DST/NRF. Ongoing exploration and conservation of the Rising Star site is supported by the Lyda Hill Foundation.

 The Bronze Age Black Forest Girl of Denmark

May 21, 2015

Burial analysis shows she traveled between present-day Denmark and Southern Germany during the Bronze Age.

University of Copenhagen—The famous Bronze Age Egtved Girl did not originally come from Denmark, but from far away, as revealed by strontium isotope analyses of the girl's teeth. The analyses show that she was born and raised outside Denmark's current borders, and strontium isotope analyses of the girl's hair and a thumb nail also show that she travelled great distances the last two years of her life.

The wool from the Egtved Girl's clothing, the blanket she was covered with, and the oxhide she was laid to rest on in the oak coffin all originate from a location outside present-day Denmark. The combination of the different provenance analyses indicates that the Egtved Girl, her clothing, and the oxhide come from Schwarzwald ("the Black Forest") in South West Germany - as do the cremated remains of a six-year-old child who was buried with the Egtved Girl. The girl's coffin dates the burial to a summer day in the year 1370 BC.

Senior researcher Karin Margarita Frei, from the National Museum of Denmark and Centre for Textile Research at the University of Copenhagen, analysed the Egtved Girl's strontium isotope signatures, in collaboration with Kristian Kristiansen from the University of Gothenburg and the Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management and the Centre for GeoGenetics of the University of Copenhagen.

The girl's movements mapped month by month

Strontium is an element which exists in the earth's crust, but its prevalence is subject to geological variation. Humans, animals, and plants absorb strontium through water and food. By measuring the strontium isotopic signatures in archaeological remains, researchers can determine where humans and animals lived, and where plants grew because of their strontium isotope signatures. In that sense, strontium serves as a kind of GPS for scientists.

"I have analysed the strontium isotopic signatures of the enamel from one of the Egtved Girl's first molars, which was fully formed/crystallized when she was three or four years old, and the analysis tells us that she was born and lived her first years in a region that is geologically older than and different from the peninsula of Jutland in Denmark," Karin Margarita Frei says.

Karin Margarita Frei has also traced the last two years of the Egtved Girl's life by examining the strontium isotopic signatures in the girl's 23-centimetre-long hair. The analysis shows that she had been on a long journey shortly before she died, and this is the first time that researchers have been able to so accurately track a prehistoric person's movements.

"If we consider the last two years of the girl's life, we can see that, 13 to 15 months before her death, she stayed in a place with a strontium isotope signature very similar to the one that characterizes the area where she was born. Then she moved to an area that may well have been Jutland. After a period of c. 9 to 10 months there, she went back to the region she originally came from and stayed there for four to six months before she travelled to her final resting place, Egtved. Neither her hair nor her thumb nail contains a strontium isotopic signatures which indicates that she returned to Scandinavia until very shortly before she died. As an area's strontium isotopic signature is only detectable in human hair and nails after a month, she must have come to "Denmark" and "Egtved" about a month before she passed away," Karin Margarita Frei explains.

The Black Forest Girl

If the Egtved Girl was not born in Jutland, then where did she come from? Karin Margarita Frei suggests that she came from South West Germany, more specifically the Black Forest, which is located 500 miles south of Egtved.

Considered in isolation, the Egtved Girl's strontium isotope signature could indicate that she came from Sweden, Norway or Western or Southern Europe. She could also come from the island Bornholm in the Baltic Sea. But when Karin Margarita Frei combines the girl's strontium isotopic signatures with that of her clothing, she can pinpoint the girl's place of origin relatively accurately.

"The wool that her clothing was made from did not come from Denmark and the strontium isotope values vary greatly from wool thread to wool thread. This proves that the wool was made from sheep that either grazed in different geographical areas or that they grazed in one vast area with very complex geology, and Black Forest's bedrock is characterized by a similarly heterogeneous strontium isotopic range," Karin Margarita Frei says.

That the Egtved Girl in all probability came from the Black Forest region in Germany comes as no surprise to professor Kristian Kristiansen from the University of Gothenburg; the archaeological finds confirm that there were close relations between Denmark and Southern Germany in the Bronze Age.

"In Bronze Age Western Europe, Southern Germany and Denmark were the two dominant centres of power, very similar to kingdoms. We find many direct connections between the two in the archaeological evidence, and my guess is that the Egtved Girl was a Southern German girl who was given in marriage to a man in Jutland so as to forge an alliance between two powerful families," Kristian Kristiansen says.

According to him, Denmark was rich in amber and traded amber for bronze. In Mycenaean Greece and in the Middle East, Baltic amber was as coveted as gold, and, through middlemen in Southern Germany, large quantities of amber were transported to the Mediterranean, and large quantities of bronze came to Denmark as payment. In the Bronze Age, bronze was as valuable a raw material as oil is today so Denmark became one of the richest areas of Northern Europe.

"Amber was the engine of Bronze Age economy, and in order to keep the trade routes going, powerful families would forge alliances by giving their daughters in marriage to each other and letting their sons be raised by each other as a kind of security," Kristian Kristiansen says.

A great number of Danish Bronze Age graves contain human remains that are as well-preserved as those found the Egtved Girl's grave. Karin Margarita Frei and Kristian Kristiansen plan to examine these remains with a view to analysing their strontium isotope signatures.

The research was made possible through the support of The Danish National Research Foundation, European Research Council, the Carlsberg Foundation and the L'Oréal Denmark-UNESCO For Women in Science Award. The results are published in Scientific Reports.

 Palaeolithic Archers

May/June 1997     by Paul G. Bahn

Reexamination of human bones from a 13,000-year-old Upper Palaeolithic burial in San Teodoro Cave, Sicily, has led to the startling discovery of a small fragment of flint, probably part of an arrowhead, embedded in the pelvis of what is thought to have been an adult female. There is widespread evidence of arrows in Eurasia and North Africa in the following Mesolithic period, including preserved arrow shafts from Stellmoor, Germany, dating to about 8500 B.C., but Palaeolithic evidence has been ambiguous. Arrowlike images on animals and humanoid figures in cave paintings could be spears or something else entirely.

Archaeologist P.-F. Fabbri of the Università degli Studi di Pisa made the discovery while studying the bones, which were excavated in 1942. The flint had passed through the soft tissue and penetrated the bone. The wound caused inflammation and an abscess, and finally thickening of the bone around the flint, all of which indicates the woman survived the injury. X-ray images showed that the flint was part of a small blade retouched along one side. Presumably the small flint, pointed or triangular in shape, was one of several set into the arrow shaft to form a point, known from Mesolithic examples. Judging by its size and shape, the flint is far more likely to have been an arrowhead than the tip of a spear. Another arrowhead is known from the vertebra of a child buried in the Grotte des Enfants, on the Italian coast, dating, like San Teodoro, to around 13,000 years ago. Dominique Gambier of Bordeaux University is studying that skeleton.

The two Italian arrowheads are the only known indications of interhuman violence in this period in Europe. A deep cut in a woman's skull from the French rock-shelter of Cro-Magnon is now known to have been caused by a workman's pick in 1868.
© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America

 When age matters:

precise dating of ancient charcoal found near skull is helping reveal unique period in prehistory

March 3, 2015 Weizmann Institute of Science

A partial human skull unearthed in 2008 in northern Israel may hold some clues as to when and where humans and Neanderthals might have interacted.

The key to addressing this, as well as other important issues, is precisely determining the age of the skull. A combination of dating methods, one of them performed by Dr. Elisabetta Boaretto, head of the Weizmann Institute's D-REAMS (DANGOOR Research Accelerator Mass Spectrometry) laboratory, has made it possible to define the period of time that the cave was occupied and thus the skull's age. The combined dating provides evidence that Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis could have lived side by side in the area.
Credit: Weizmann Institute of Science

A partial human skull unearthed in 2008 in northern Israel may hold some clues as to when and where humans and Neanderthals might have interacted.

The key to addressing this, as well as other important issues, is precisely determining the age of the skull. A combination of dating methods, one of them performed by Dr. Elisabetta Boaretto, head of the Weizmann Institute's D-REAMS (DANGOOR Research Accelerator Mass Spectrometry) laboratory, has made it possible to define the period of time that the cave was occupied and thus the skull's age. The combined dating provides evidence that Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis could have lived side by side in the area.

The Manot Cave, a natural limestone formation, had been sealed for some 15,000 years. It was discovered by a bulldozer clearing the land for development, and the first to find the partial skull, which was sitting on a ledge, were spelunkers exploring the newly-opened cave. Five excavation seasons uncovered a rich deposit, with stone tools and stratified occupation levels covering a period of time from at least 55,000 to 27,000 years ago.

Dating the skull presented a number of difficulties. "Because it was already removed from the layer where it was presumably deposited," says Dr. Elisabetta Boaretto, "we had to look for clues to tell us where and when it belonged in the setting of the archaeological record in the cave."

The age of the skull was first determined to be 54.7 thousand years old by a technique known as the uranium-thorium method, which was applied to the thin mineral deposit on the skull. But the estimated possible error in that type of method is plus or minus 5.5 thousand years. To obtain independent confirmation of the date, radiocarbon dating was required.

To narrow down the possible range of the skull's age and determine when the skull's owner had lived in the cave, the archaeological team led by Prof. Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University, Dr. Ofer Marder of Ben Gurion University and Dr. Omry Barzilai of the Israel Antiquities Authority turned to Dr. Boaretto. She and her team participated in the excavation of the cave and applied radiocarbon dating to carefully selected charcoal remains, so that the whole cave, and thus the timing of human occupation, was mapped. The agreement between the two methods -- carbon and uranium-thorium -- provided the necessary support which then helped fix the true age of the skull at around 55,000 years.

The date and shape of the Manot Cave skull provides some intriguing evidence that humans and Neanderthals might have interacted sometime during the human trek out of Africa, most likely as the former passed through the Middle East before spreading out north and east. The 55,000-year-old partial skull is the first evidence of a human residing in the region at the same time as Neanderthals, whose remains have been found at several nearby sites. Archaeologists are now searching for more evidence of ancient human habitation in the cave. If, indeed, the mixing between humans and Neanderthals took place in this area, it would suggest that the owner of the skull and his kin may have been the ancestors of all modern non-Africans.

Story Source:

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





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