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Homo sapiens and Their Cousins

Started by Recusant, October 31, 2015, 01:52:11 AM

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Fragments of a Homo naledi child's skull found deep in the Rising Star Cave may indicate some sort of burial practice.

"A child's partial skull adds to the mystery of how Homo naledi treated the dead" | Science News

QuoteA child's partial skull found in a remote section of a South African cave system has fueled suspicion that an ancient hominid known as Homo naledi deliberately disposed of its dead in caves.

An international team led by paleoanthropologist Lee Berger of University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg pieced together 28 skull fragments and six teeth from a child's skull discovered in a narrow opening located about 12 meters from an underground chamber where cave explorers first found H. naledi fossils. Features of the child's skull qualify it as H. naledi, a species with an orange-sized brain and skeletal characteristics of both present-day people and Homo species from around 2 million years ago.

"The case is building for deliberate, ritualized body disposal in caves by Homo naledi," Berger said at a November 4 news conference held in Johannesburg. While that argument is controversial, there is no evidence that the child's skull was washed into the tiny space or dragged there by predators or scavengers.

[Continues . . .]

The paper is open access (click on the red PDF button at the link).

"Immature Hominin Craniodental Remains From a New Locality in the Rising Star Cave System, South Africa" | PaleoAnthropology


Homo naledi is known from the Rising Star cave system, South Africa, where its remains have previously been reported from two localities: the Dinaledi Chamber (U.W. 101) and Lesedi Chamber (U.W. 102). Continued exploration of the cave system has expanded our knowledge of the Dinaledi Chamber and its surrounding passageways (the Dinaledi Subsystem), leading to the discovery of new fossil localities.

This paper discusses the fossil assemblage from the locality designated U.W. 110. This locality is within a narrow fissure of the Dinaledi Subsystem approximately 12 meters southwest of the 2013–2014 excavation. Fossil remains recovered from this locality include six hominin teeth and 28 cranial fragments, all consistent with a single immature hominin individual. The dental morphology of the new specimens supports attribution to H. naledi.

This is the first immature individual of H. naledi to preserve morphological details of the calvaria in association with dental evidence. This partial skull provides information about the maturation of H. naledi and will be important in reconstructing the developmental sequence of immature remains from other H. naledi occurrences. This is the third locality described with H. naledi material in the Rising Star cave system and represents a depositional situation that resembles the Lesedi Chamber in some respects.

[¶ added. - R]
"Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration — courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and above all, love of the truth."
— H. L. Mencken


A likely Denisovan fossil tooth has been found in Laos--it confirms they had a wider range than previously known. This is not all that surprising; it's been known for several years that there is a significant level of Denisovan DNA contribution in modern East Asian populations. 

"A fossil tooth places enigmatic ancient humans in Southeast Asia" | The Conversation

QuoteWhat do a finger bone and some teeth found in the frigid Denisova Cave in Siberia's Altai mountains have in common with fossils from the balmy hills of tropical northern Laos?

Not much, until now: in a Laotian cave, an international team of researchers including ourselves has discovered a tooth belonging to an ancient human previously only known from icy northern latitudes – a Denisovan.

The find shows these long-lost relatives of Homo sapiens inhabited a wider area and range of environments than we previously knew, confirming hints found in the DNA of modern human populations from Southeast Asia and Australasia.

[Continues . . .]

The paper is open access:

"A Middle Pleistocene Denisovan molar from the Annamite Chain of northern Laos" | Nature Communications


The Pleistocene presence of the genus Homo in continental Southeast Asia is primarily evidenced by a sparse stone tool record and rare human remains. Here we report a Middle Pleistocene hominin specimen from Laos, with the discovery of a molar from the Tam Ngu Hao 2 (Cobra Cave) limestone cave in the Annamite Mountains.

The age of the fossil-bearing breccia ranges between 164–131 kyr [thousand years], based on the Bayesian modelling of luminescence dating of the sedimentary matrix from which it was recovered, U-series dating of an overlying flowstone, and U-series–ESR dating of associated faunal teeth.

Analyses of the internal structure of the molar in tandem with palaeoproteomic analyses of the enamel indicate that the tooth derives from a young, likely female, Homo individual. The close morphological affinities with the Xiahe specimen from China indicate that they belong to the same taxon and that Tam Ngu Hao 2 most likely represents a Denisovan.
"Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration — courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and above all, love of the truth."
— H. L. Mencken


A paper on climate and hominin evolution.  8)

"Early human habitats linked to past climate shifts" | EurekAlert

QuoteA study published in Nature by an international team of scientists provides clear evidence for a link between astronomically-driven climate change and human evolution.

By combining the most extensive database of well-dated fossil remains and archeological artefacts with an unprecedented new supercomputer model simulating earth's climate history of the past 2 million years, the team of experts in climate modeling, anthropology and ecology was able to determine under which environmental conditions archaic humans likely lived.

The impact of climate change on human evolution has long been suspected, but has been difficult to demonstrate due to the paucity of climate records near human fossil-bearing sites. To bypass this problem, the team instead investigated what the climate in their computer simulation was like at the times and places humans lived, according to the archeological record. This revealed the preferred environmental conditions of different groups of hominins. From there, the team looked for all the places and times those conditions occurred in the model, creating time-evolving maps of potential hominin habitats.

"Even though different groups of archaic humans preferred different climatic environments, their habitats all responded to climate shifts caused by astronomical changes in earth's axis wobble, tilt, and orbital eccentricity with timescales ranging from 21 to 400 thousand years," said Axel Timmermann, lead author of the study and Director of the IBS Center for Climate Physics (ICCP) at Pusan National University in South Korea.

To test the robustness of the link between climate and human habitats, the scientists repeated their analysis, but with ages of the fossils shuffled like a deck of cards. If the past evolution of climatic variables did not impact where and when humans lived, then both methods would result in the same habitats. However, the researchers found significant differences in the habitat patterns for the three most recent hominin groups (Homo sapiens, Homo neanderthalensis and Homo heidelbergensis) when using the shuffled and the realistic fossil ages. "This result implies that at least during the past 500 thousand years the real sequence of past climate change, including glacial cycles, played a central role in determining where different hominin groups lived and where their remains have been found", said Prof. Timmermann.

"The next question we set out to address was whether the habitats of the different human species overlapped in space and time. Past contact zones provide crucial information on potential species successions and admixture," said Prof. Pasquale Raia from the Università di Napoli Federico II, Naples, Italy, who together with his research team compiled the dataset of human fossils and archeological artefacts used in this study. From the contact zone analysis, the researchers then derived a hominin family tree, according to which Neanderthals and likely Denisovans derived from the Eurasian clade of Homo heidelbergensis around 500-400 thousand years ago, whereas Homo sapiens' roots can be traced back to Southern African populations of late Homo heidelbergensis around 300 thousand years ago.

[Continues . . .]

The paper is open access:

"Climate effects on archaic human habitats and species successions" | Nature


It has long been believed that climate shifts during the last 2 million years had a pivotal role in the evolution of our genus Homo. However, given the limited number of representative palaeo-climate datasets from regions of anthropological interest, it has remained challenging to quantify this linkage.

Here, we use an unprecedented transient Pleistocene coupled general circulation model simulation in combination with an extensive compilation of fossil and archaeological records to study the spatiotemporal habitat suitability for five hominin species over the past 2 million years. We show that astronomically forced changes in temperature, rainfall and terrestrial net primary production had a major impact on the observed distributions of these species.

During the Early Pleistocene, hominins settled primarily in environments with weak orbital-scale climate variability. This behaviour changed substantially after the mid-Pleistocene transition, when archaic humans became global wanderers who adapted to a wide range of spatial climatic gradients.

Analysis of the simulated hominin habitat overlap from approximately 300–400 thousand years ago further suggests that antiphased climate disruptions in southern Africa and Eurasia contributed to the evolutionary transformation of Homo heidelbergensis populations into Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, respectively. Our robust numerical simulations of climate-induced habitat changes provide a framework to test hypotheses on our human origin.
"Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration — courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and above all, love of the truth."
— H. L. Mencken


Ancient DNA brings us closer to unlocking secrets of how modern humans evolved

Advances in studying ancient DNA from prehistoric remains provides us with new insight into the life of our African ancestors and the emergence of the modern human.

"Humans all share a common African ancestry, making African history everyone's history. Yet little is known about the genetic evolution of people living on the continent in the distant past.

Thanks to advances in genome sequencing technology, scientists are now able to compare the DNA of people alive today with DNA extracted from very old skeletons, giving us a unique snapshot of life in Africa from many thousands of years ago."

The more evidence we gather the more complex the picture becomes.
If religions were TV channels atheism is turning the TV off.
"Religion is a culture of faith; science is a culture of doubt." ― Richard P. Feynman
'It is said that your life flashes before your eyes just before you die. That is true, it's called Life.' - Terry Pratchett
Remember, your inability to grasp science is not a valid argument against it.



A recent specific example:

"A Strange Fossil in South China Reveals an Intriguing Link With The First Americans" | Science Alert

QuoteRemains recovered from a cave in the Chinese province of Yunnan more than 10 years ago have finally given up their secrets, with a DNA analysis revealing not just who left them, but ultimately where their ancestors would go.

Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences evaluated nuclear and mitochondrial sequences extracted from a 14,000-year-old skull, discovering the woman it once belonged to – dubbed Mengzi Ren – was closely related to populations who would eventually be the first to set foot in the Americas.

Since their discovery in 2008, the dozens of late Paleolithic human bones left behind in Malu Dong (Red Deer Cave) in China's south-west have left anthropologists scratching their heads over just who they might have belonged to.

Without sufficient collagen to base a carbon dating analysis on, their age can only be estimated from surrounding features of their grave site. It's not even clear if the mix of bones that includes a skull fragment and the top end of a femur all come from the same individual.

What is clear is whoever left them behind represented a unique mix of archaic and modern characteristics.

[. . .]

A close look at her nuclear DNA verified Megzi Ren's close ties with anatomically modern humans, all but ruling out her heritage among a more ancient stock.

"Ancient DNA technique is a really powerful tool," says Bing Su, an archaeologist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

"It tells us quite definitively that the Red Deer Cave people were modern humans instead of an archaic species, such as Neanderthals or Denisovans, despite their unusual morphological features."

Although Mengzi Ren is more closely related to today's southern Chinese populations than those in the north, she has less in common with people who now live across Asia's southeast, suggesting there were already well structured, diversified populations in the region thousands of years ago.

That's not to say Asia was populated from the bottom up. There's strong evidence that a relatively small population of humans also ventured down from the north to settle the east, a group that would split to venture across the ice-covered stretch of the Bering Strait to settle the vast wilderness of the Americas.

[Continues . . .]

The paper is behind a paywall.


Southern East Asia is the dispersal center regarding the prehistoric settlement and migrations of modern humans in Asia-Pacific regions. However, the settlement pattern and population structure of paleolithic humans in this region remain elusive, and ancient DNA can provide direct information. Here, we sequenced the genome of a Late Pleistocene hominin (MZR), dated ∼14.0 thousand years ago from Red Deer Cave located in Southwest China, which was previously reported possessing mosaic features of modern and archaic hominins. MZR is the first Late Pleistocene genome from southern East Asia. Our results indicate that MZR is a modern human who represents an early diversified lineage in East Asia. The mtDNA of MZR belongs to an extinct basal lineage of the M9 haplogroup, reflecting a rich matrilineal diversity in southern East Asia during the Late Pleistocene. Combined with the published data, we detected clear genetic stratification in ancient southern populations of East/Southeast Asia and some degree of south-versus-north divergency during the Late Pleistocene, and MZR was identified as a southern East Asian who exhibits genetic continuity to present day populations. Markedly, MZR is linked deeply to the East Asian ancestry that contributed to First Americans.
"Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration — courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and above all, love of the truth."
— H. L. Mencken


Taking another look at an ancient jawbone found in Spain, interesting findings were the result.

"This May Be The Oldest Fragment of Modern Humans in Europe, Or Something Even Rarer" | Science Alert

QuoteAn ancient jawbone previously thought to have belonged to a Neanderthal may force a rethink on the history of modern humans in Europe.

A new analysis of the broken mandible reveals that it has nothing in common with other Neanderthal remains. Rather, it could belong to a Homo sapiens – and, since it's dated to between 45,000 to 66,000 years ago, might be the oldest known piece of our species' anatomy on the European continent.

The bone itself was found in 1887 in the town of Banyoles in Spain, for which it is nicknamed. Since then, scientists have studied it pretty extensively, dating it to a timeframe in the Late Pleistocene when the region that is now Europe was predominantly populated by Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis).

This, and the archaic shape of the bone, led scientists to the conclusion that Banyoles in fact belonged to a Neanderthal.

"The mandible has been studied throughout the past century and was long considered to be a Neandertal based on its age and location, and the fact that it lacks one of the diagnostic features of Homo sapiens: a chin," says palaeoanthropologist Brian Keeling of Binghamton University in the US.

Keeling and his colleagues undertook a thorough investigation of the bone using a process called three-dimensional geometric morphometric analysis. This is a non-invasive protocol that involves going over the shape of a bone in exhaustive detail, mapping its features and comparing them to other remains.

They took high-resolution 3D scans, and used these not just to study the bone, but to reconstruct the missing pieces. Then they compared Banyoles to the mandibles of Neanderthals and modern humans.

"Our results found something quite surprising," Keeling says. "Banyoles shared no distinct Neanderthal traits and did not overlap with Neanderthals in its overall shape."

It seemed more consistent with the jawbones of our own branch of the family tree, except for one detail: the absent chin.

Continues . . .

The paper is partly available:

"Reassessment of the human mandible from Banyoles (Girona, Spain)" | Journal of Human Evolution


Since the discovery of a human mandible in 1887 near the present-day city of Banyoles, northeastern Spain, researchers have generally emphasized its archaic features, including the lack of chin structures, and suggested affinities with the Neandertals or European Middle Pleistocene (Chibanian) specimens. Uranium-series and electron spin resonance dating suggest the mandible dates to the Late Pleistocene (Tarantian), approximately ca. 45–66 ka.

In this study, we reassessed the taxonomic affinities of the Banyoles mandible by comparing it to samples of Middle Pleistocene fossils from Africa and Europe, Neandertals, Early and Upper Paleolithic modern humans, and recent modern humans. We evaluated the frequencies and expressions of morphological features and performed a three-dimensional geometric morphometric analysis on a virtual reconstruction of Banyoles to capture overall mandibular shape.

Our results revealed no derived Neandertal morphological features in Banyoles. While a principal component analysis based on Euclidean distances from the first two principal components clearly grouped Banyoles with both fossil and recent Homo sapiens individuals, an analysis of the Procrustes residuals demonstrated that Banyoles did not fit into any of the comparative groups.

The lack of Neandertal features in Banyoles is surprising considering its Late Pleistocene age. A consideration of the Middle Pleistocene fossil record in Europe and southwest Asia suggests that Banyoles is unlikely to represent a late-surviving Middle Pleistocene population. The lack of chin structures also complicates an assignment to H. sapiens, although early fossil H. sapiens do show somewhat variable development of the chin structures.

Thus, Banyoles represents a non-Neandertal Late Pleistocene European individual and highlights the continuing signal of diversity in the hominin fossil record. The present situation makes Banyoles a prime candidate for ancient DNA or proteomic analyses, which may shed additional light on its taxonomic affinities.
"Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration — courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and above all, love of the truth."
— H. L. Mencken


There were seagoing hominins before H. sapiens, it seems. 

"Ancient Humans May Have Sailed The Mediterranean 450,000 Years Ago" | Science Alert

QuoteArchaic humans may have worked out how to sail across the sea to new lands as far back as nearly half a million years ago.

According to a new analysis of shorelines during the mid-Chibanian age, there's no other way these ancient hominins could have reached what we now call the Aegean Islands. Yet archaeologists have found ancient artifacts on the islands that pre-date the earliest known appearance of Homo sapiens.

This suggests that these ancient humans must have found a way to traverse large bodies of water. And if reliance on land bridges was not necessary for human migration, it may have implications for the way our ancestors and modern humans spread throughout the world.

[. . .]

The islands of the Aegean are, today, considered among the world's most beautiful places. They consist of hundreds of islands making up an archipelago scattered across the Aegean Sea between Turkey, Greece, and Crete. And they've been inhabited for a long time; artifacts have been dated to potentially as early as 476,000 years ago.

These ancient tools on Lesbos, Milos, and Naxos, moreover, have been linked to the Acheulean style developed some 1.76 million years ago, associated with Homo erectus across Africa and Asia. Several such tools have been found in Turkey, Greece, and Crete dating back to 1.2 million years ago, so their appearance in the nearby archipelago does make some sense.

Previous studies suggested that ancient humans crossed to the islands on foot during ice ages. When the world freezes, the sea level drops, and humans can make crossings that would be covered by water in more temperate times.

To determine whether this is a possibility, Ferentinos and his colleagues reconstructed the geography of the region, including a reconstruction of the shoreline around the Aegean Islands dating back to 450,000 years ago. For this, they used ancient river deltas, which can be used to infer sea level, and rates of subsidence driven by tectonic activity.

And they found that previous reconstructions were incorrect. At its lowest point over the last 450,000 years, the sea level was approximately 225 meters (738 feet) lower than it is today.

This means that, while some of the Aegean Islands were connected to each other when sea levels were lower, over the last 450,000 years, the islands have remained consistently insular from the surrounding land masses. At the sea level's lowest point, there still would have been several kilometers of open water to traverse to reach the nearest of the Aegean Islands.

Other evidence, the researchers point out, suggests that this was not the earliest sea crossing. Sometime between 700,000 and a million years ago, archaic humans were thought to have been traveling the sea around Indonesia and the Philippines.

These combined crossings suggest that sea travel was a skill developed not by Homo sapiens, but the human ancestors and relatives that came before.

[Continues . . .]

The paper is behind a paywall, with some snippet material avaiable.


When archaic hominins started sea-crossings and whether or not seas were barriers to their dispersal, is highly debated. This paper attempts to provide insights into these issues, focusing on the Aegean Sea.

The study shows that the Central Aegean Island Chain was insular from the surrounding landmasses over the last 450 ka and contests previously available Aegean Sea palaeo-geography. This, in association with the spatiotemporal patterning of Lower and Middle Paleolithic assemblages in the margin of the Mediterranean Sea, implies that pre-sapiens, as early as 450 ka BP: (a) were sea-crossing the Aegean Sea; (b) were encouraged by the favorable land/seascape configuration to attempt sea-crossings and (c) spread to the Circum-Mediterranean basin sourcing from the Levant, following two converging routes, the one via the Aegean Sea and/or the Bosporus land-bridge and the other via the Gibraltar straits. Furthermore, the above presented findings provide substantial evidence that the archaic hominins had developed sea-crossing behaviours as early as 450 ka BP.
"Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration — courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and above all, love of the truth."
— H. L. Mencken


If religions were TV channels atheism is turning the TV off.
"Religion is a culture of faith; science is a culture of doubt." ― Richard P. Feynman
'It is said that your life flashes before your eyes just before you die. That is true, it's called Life.' - Terry Pratchett
Remember, your inability to grasp science is not a valid argument against it.


Yeah, our ancestors got up to more than we suspect. It's entertaining to think of them paddling out onto the water. What an exhilarating adventure to be one of the earliest navigators on the planet.  Though maybe the very first were just hungry, and canny enough to imagine crossing the sea.   8)
"Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration — courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and above all, love of the truth."
— H. L. Mencken


Apologies for neglecting my science hound-dogging...

An article about a paper that focuses on the genetic bottleneck our ancestors passed through. There was previous evidence for this bottleneck, but the authors of the paper appear to have got a better handle on it now:

"Population collapse almost wiped out human ancestors, say scientists" | The Guardian

QuoteEarly human ancestors came close to eradication in a severe evolutionary bottleneck between 800,000 and 900,000 years ago, according to scientists.

A genomics analysis of more than 3,000 living people suggested that our ancestors' total population plummeted to about 1,280 breeding individuals for about 117,000 years. Scientists believe that an extreme climate event could have led to the bottleneck that came close to wiping out our ancestral line.

"The numbers that emerge from our study correspond to those of species that are currently at risk of extinction," said Prof Giorgio Manzi, an anthropologist at Sapienza University of Rome and a senior author of the research.

However, Manzi and his colleagues believe that the existential pressures of the bottleneck could have triggered the emergence of a new species, Homo heidelbergensis, which some believe is the shared ancestor of modern humans and our cousins, the Neanderthals and Denisovans. Homo sapiens are thought to have emerged about 300,000 years ago.

[Continues . . .]

The paper is behind a paywall, but I found a PDF version:

"Genomic inference of a severe human bottleneck during the Early to Middle Pleistocene transition"


Population size history is essential for studying human evolution. However, ancient population size history during the Pleistocene is notoriously difficult to unravel. In this study, we developed a fast infinitesimal time coalescent process (FitCoal) to circumvent this difficulty and calculated the composite likelihood for present-day human genomic sequences of 3154 individuals.

Results showed that human ancestors went through a severe population bottleneck with about 1280 breeding individuals between around 930,000 and 813,000 years ago. The bottleneck lasted for about 117,000 years and brought human ancestors close to extinction. This bottleneck is congruent with a substantial chronological gap in the available African and Eurasian fossil record. Our results provide new insights into our ancestry and suggest a coincident speciation event.
"Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration — courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and above all, love of the truth."
— H. L. Mencken


Promptly critiqued. The title of the article below is of course inaccurate. It seems to be a contractual obligation of headline editors.

There is little question that hominins (including our species) probably have gone through more than one genetic bottleneck. The scientists who are questioning the paper described in the post above have more specific (and more interesting) issues with the ideas it presents.

"Skepticism about claim human ancestors nearly went extinct" |  Agence France-Press

Quote[S]cientists not involved in the research have criticized the claim, one telling AFP there was "pretty much unanimous" agreement among population geneticists that it was not convincing.

None denied that the ancestors of humans could have neared extinction at some point, in what is known as a population bottleneck.

But experts expressed doubts that the study could be so precise, given the extraordinarily complicated task of estimating population changes so long ago, and emphasized that similar methods had not spotted this massive population crash.

[. . .]

The researchers [whose study is described in the paper] suggested that inbreeding during the bottleneck could explain why humans have a significantly lower level of genetic diversity compared to many other species.
The population squeeze could have even contributed to the separate evolution of Neanderthals, Denisovans and modern humans, all of which are thought to have potentially split from a common ancestor roughly around that time, the study suggested.

It could also explain why so few fossils of human ancestors have been found from the period.
However, archaeologists have pointed out that some fossils dating from the time have been discovered in Kenya, Ethiopia, Europe and China, which may suggest that our ancestors were more widespread than such a bottleneck would allow.

"The hypothesis of a global crash does not fit in with the archaeological and human fossil evidence," the British Museum's Nicholas Ashton told Science.

In response, the study's authors said that hominins then living in Eurasia and East Asia may not have contributed to the ancestry of modern humans.

"The ancient small population is the ancestor of all modern humans. Otherwise we would not carry the traces in our DNA," Li [one of the authors of the paper] said.

Stephan Schiffels, group leader for population genetics at Germany's Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, told AFP he was "extremely skeptical" that the researchers had accounted for the statistical uncertainty involved in this kind of analysis.

[Continues . . .]
"Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration — courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and above all, love of the truth."
— H. L. Mencken


So an ax is no question a formidable item. Even a handheld stone ax head will get you something, if used with some skill and interest. Depending on the society it likely was a thing of distinction to possess and use one. So if you have some spare time on your hands (and apparently our ancestors actually had a respectable amount of leisure time) I suppose making a big ax just for the thing of it makes sense.

"Giant stone artefacts found on rare Ice Age site in Kent" | UCL (University College London) News


Image Credit: Archaeology South-East/ UCL

Researchers at the UCL Institute of Archaeology have discovered some of the largest early prehistoric stone tools in Britain.

The excavations, which took place in Kent and were commissioned in advance of development of the Maritime Academy School in Frindsbury, revealed prehistoric artefacts in deep Ice Age sediments preserved on a hillside above the Medway Valley.

The researchers, from UCL Archaeology South-East, discovered 800 stone artefacts thought to be over 300,000 years old, buried in sediments which filled a sinkhole and ancient river channel, outlined in their research, published in Internet Archaeology.

Amongst the unearthed artefacts were two extremely large flint knives described as "giant handaxes". Handaxes are stone artefacts which have been chipped, or "knapped," on both sides to produce a symmetrical shape with a long cutting edge. Researchers believe this type of tool was usually held in the hand and may have been used for butchering animals and cutting meat. The two largest handaxes found at the Maritime site have a distinctive shape with a long and finely worked pointed tip, and a much thicker base.

Senior Archaeologist Letty Ingrey (UCL Institute of Archaeology), said: "We describe these tools as 'giants' when they are over 22cm long and we have two in this size range. The biggest, a colossal 29.5cm in length, is one of the longest ever found in Britain. 'Giant handaxes' like this are usually found in the Thames and Medway regions and date from over 300,000 years ago.

"These handaxes are so big it's difficult to imagine how they could have been easily held and used. Perhaps they fulfilled a less practical or more symbolic function than other tools, a clear demonstration of strength and skill. While right now, we aren't sure why such large tools were being made, or which species of early human were making them, this site offers a chance to answer these exciting questions."

[Continues . . .]

The paper appears to be open access. Let me know if the link doesn't work.

"On the Discovery of a Late Acheulean 'Giant' Handaxe from the Maritime Academy, Frindsbury, Kent" | Internet Archaeology

"Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration — courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and above all, love of the truth."
— H. L. Mencken


The Original Affluent Society apparently 'Hunter Gatherer' societies had a lot of 'downtime' from hunting and gathering.
If religions were TV channels atheism is turning the TV off.
"Religion is a culture of faith; science is a culture of doubt." ― Richard P. Feynman
'It is said that your life flashes before your eyes just before you die. That is true, it's called Life.' - Terry Pratchett
Remember, your inability to grasp science is not a valid argument against it.


Indeed (a month late).  ;)

Could be that our predecessor species also enjoyed plentiful leisure time. Perhaps enough to develop a willingness to do something special for the recently deceased. Related to the story about Homo naledi above: This appears to be a belated reference to an item that was circulating several months ago. The hypothesis of intentional burial practices is disputed, of course. Since I didn't include it here then...

"The Oldest Known Burial Site in The World Wasn't Made by Our Species" | Science Alert


Skull of Homo naledi.
Image credit: Luca Sola/AFP

Paleontologists in South Africa said they have found the oldest known burial site in the world, containing remains of a small-brained distant relative of humans previously thought incapable of complex behavior.

Led by renowned paleoanthropologist Lee Berger, researchers said in June they had discovered several specimens of Homo naledi – a tree-climbing, Stone Age hominid – buried about 30 meters (100 feet) underground in a cave system within the Cradle of Humankind, a UNESCO world heritage site near Johannesburg.

"These are the most ancient interments yet recorded in the hominin record, earlier than evidence of Homo sapiens interments by at least 100,000 years," the scientists wrote in a series of preprint papers published in eLife.

The findings challenge the current understanding of human evolution, as it is normally held that the development of bigger brains allowed for the performing of complex, "meaning-making" activities such as burying the dead.

The oldest burials previously unearthed, found in the Middle East and Africa, contained the remains of Homo sapiens – and were around 100,000 years old.

Those found in South Africa by Berger, whose previous announcements have been controversial, and his fellow researchers, date back to at least 200,000 BC.

Critically, they also belong to Homo naledi, a primitive species at the crossroads between apes and modern humans, which had brains about the size of oranges and stood about 1.5 meters (five feet) tall.

[. . .]

While requiring further analysis, the discoveries "alter our understandings of human evolution", the researchers wrote.

"Burial, meaning-making, even 'art' could have a much more complicated, dynamic, non-human history than we previously thought," said Agustín Fuentes, a professor of anthropology at Princeton University, who co-authored the studies.

Carol Ward, an anthropologist at the University of Missouri not involved in the research, said that "these findings, if confirmed, would be of considerable potential importance".

"I look forward to learning how the disposition of remains precludes other possible explanations than intentional burial, and to seeing the results once they have been vetted by peer review," she told AFP.

Ward also pointed out that the paper acknowledged that it could not rule out that markings on the walls could have been made by later hominins.

[Link to full article.]

There is a preprint of one of the papers linked in the third paragraph above. Below, a PDF of that and two other papers on this topic.

"Evidence for deliberate burial of the dead by Homo naledi" | bioRxiv


Recent excavations in the Rising Star Cave System of South Africa have revealed burials of the extinct hominin species Homo naledi. A combination of geological and anatomical evidence shows that hominins dug holes that disrupted the subsurface stratigraphy and interred the remains of H. naledi individuals, resulting in at least two discrete features within the Dinaledi Chamber and the Hill Antechamber.

These are the most ancient interments yet recorded in the hominin record, earlier than evidence of Homo sapiens interments by at least 100,000 years. These interments along with other evidence suggest that diverse mortuary practices may have been conducted by H. naledi within the cave system. These discoveries show that mortuary practices were not limited to H. sapiens or other hominins with large brain sizes.

"241,000 to 335,000 Years Old Rock Engravings Made by Homo naledi in the Rising Star Cave system, South Africa" | bioRxiv


The production of painted, etched or engraved designs on cave walls or other surfaces is recognized as a major cognitive step in human evolution. Such intentional designs, which are widely interpreted as signifying, recording, and transmitting information in a durable manner were once considered exclusive to Late Pleistocene Homo sapiens. Recent work has demonstrated that other hominin groups also made such marks, including Neanderthals (Rodríguez-Vidal et al., 2014; Hoffmann et al., 2018), and possibly Middle-Pleistocene Homo erectus (Joordens et al., 2015).

Such durable signs indicate an intentionality characteristic of meaning-making (Kissel and Fuentes 2018) which has been argued to require significant levels of cognitive abilities not found in species with smaller brain sizes (Parkington, 2010). In fact, the evolution of such meaning-making symbols is thought to be a core aspect of what it means to be "human" (Henshilwood, 2009).

Here we present the first known example of abstract patterns and shapes engraved within the Dinaledi subsystem of the Rising Star Cave in South Africa. We identified markings incised into the dolomitic limestone walls of the cave. The engravings described here are deeply impressed cross-hatchings and other geometric shapes. The surfaces bearing these engravings appear to have been prepared and smoothed. In some areas there is residue that creates a sheen on the surface possibly indicating repeated handling or rubbing of the rock, and there is evidence of the application of dirt or sand to the surface by non-natural processes.

Homo naledi entered this part of the cave system and buried bodies within the both the Dinaledi Chamber and adjacent Hill Antechamber between 241 and 335 ka (Dirks et al., 2017; Robbins et al., 2021, Berger et al, 2023a). The engravings described here are found on a pillar in the Hill Antechamber that extends into the natural fissure corridor that links the two chambers and we associate them with H. naledi.

"Burials and engravings in a small-brained hominin, Homo naledi, from the late Pleistocene: contexts and evolutionary implications" | bioRxiv


Data from recent explorations in the Dinaledi subsystem illustrates one of the earliest examples of a mortuary practice in hominins and offers the earliest evidence of multiple interments and funerary actions, as well as evidence of the early creation of meaning making by a hominin.

The hominin undertaking these behaviors was the small-brained Homo naledi. These data call into question several key assumptions about behavioral and cognitive evolution in Pleistocene hominins. The evidence from Dinaledi push back the temporal origins of mortuary and funerary behaviors and associate the creation of meaning making with a small-brained species and thus challenge key assumptions about the role and importance of encephalization in human evolution.

This suggests that the hominin socio-cognitive niche and its relation to meaning-making activities is more diverse than previously thought. The association of these activities in subterranean spaces accessed and modified by the small brained species Homo naledi impacts assertations that technological and cognitive advances in human evolution are associated solely with the evolution of larger brains.

"Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration — courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and above all, love of the truth."
— H. L. Mencken


Quote from: Recusant on January 06, 2023, 12:14:52 AMThough maybe the very first were just hungry, and canny enough to imagine crossing the sea.   8)
Yes, I suspect something like this.

It's easy to romanticize the first sailors singing the first shanties while paddling the first log across some body of water, but I suspect that unless they were children playing (who more than likely subsequently drowned), there probably was a good reason for them to do so.

Personally, I suspect that many such voyages, whatever form they may have taken, were set out on while in "full tunnel vision" with some sort of a single-minded goal in mind... Survival, likely as not.

Still, the thought of an early man setting sail to his float, with naught but a fishing spear and a dream... It has its appeal. :smilenod:
Quote from: Ecurb Noselrub on July 25, 2013, 08:18:52 PM
In Asmo's grey lump,
wrath and dark clouds gather force.
Luxembourg trembles.