Your dog’s desire to communicate with you just might be in the genes

Gimme five! New University of Arizona study finds puppies are wired to communicate with people. "There's definitely a strong genetic component, and they're definitely doing it from the get-go."

Enlarge / Gimme five! New University of Arizona study finds puppies are wired to communicate with people. “There’s definitely a strong genetic component, and they’re definitely doing it from the get-go.” (credit: Anita Kot/Getty Images)

That special social bond between dogs and humans might be a genetic trait that evolved as dogs became domesticated and diverged from wolves, according to a new study published in the journal Current Biology, looking at the cognitive and behavioral social skills of hundreds of adorable puppies.

“People have been interested in dogs’ abilities to do these kinds of things for a long time, but there’s always been debate about to what extent is this really in the biology of dogs, versus something they learn by palling around with humans,” said co-author Evan MacLean, director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “We found that there’s definitely a strong genetic component, and they’re definitely doing it from the get-go.”

His co-author, Emily Bray, an anthropology postdoc at the university, has spent the last ten years studying how dogs think and solve problems, in conjunction with Canine Companions, a California-based service dog organization catering to people with disabilities. It’s known that human children can reason about the physical world, and have sufficient social cognitive skills for cooperative communication by the age of two-and-a-half years. But according to the authors, there is also a growing body of research showing evidence that domesticated dogs share similar social cognitive skills, although possible biological bases for those abilities had not been tested.

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#animal-behavior, #animals, #anthropology, #biology, #cognitive-science, #puppies, #science


Ancient cemetery tells a tale of constant, low level warfare

Ancient cemetery tells a tale of constant, low level warfare

Enlarge (credit: Crevecoeur and Antoine 2021)

When archaeologists in the 1960s unearthed a 13,400-year-old cemetery at Jebel Sahaba in Sudan, it looked like they’d stumbled across the aftermath of a large-scale battle fought during the Pleistocene. At least half the people buried at the site, which straddles the banks of the Upper Nile, bore the marks of violence: broken skulls, arrow and spear tracks gouged in bones, and stone projectiles still embedded in their bodies.

The site now lies at the bottom of the human-made Lake Nasser, created by the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s. But the remains now reside in the British Museum’s collection (for better or worse), and anthropologists Isabelle Crevecoeur of the University of Bordeaux and Daniel Antoine of the British Museum recently re-examined the skeletons. With more modern microscope technology, the anthropologists noticed some skeletal trauma that the original archaeologists had missed. It turned out that about two thirds of the population of the ancient cemetery had bones damaged by either blunt-force trauma or—most often—by projectiles like spears and arrows. That included three out of four adults and roughly half the children.

Since the 1960s, archaeologists have thought of Jebel Sahaba as the earliest example of large-scale warfare between groups of people. But despite all the evidence of violence, the bones of the 13,000-year-old dead don’t actually seem to tell the story of a pitched battle with massive casualties. Instead, it looks like people along the Upper Nile Valley at the end of the Pleistocene lived with the constant threat of smaller-scale fighting, which affected men, women, and children alike. If you’re a gamer, think of it as living in a PvP zone in the midst of an environmental crisis.

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#ancient-africa, #ancient-warfare, #ancient-weapons, #anthropology, #archaeology, #aswan-high-dam, #biological-anthropology, #climate-change, #forensic-anthropology, #nile, #pleistocene, #projectile-points, #science, #skeletons, #stone-tools, #sudan, #trauma


By eating them, hyenas gathered 9 Neanderthal skeletons in one cave

By eating them, hyenas gathered 9 Neanderthal skeletons in one cave

Enlarge (credit: Italian Culture Ministry)

Archaeologists in Italy recently unearthed the remains of at least nine Neanderthals in Guattari Cave, near the Tyrrhenian Sea about 100 km southeast of Rome. While excavating a previously unexplored section of the cave, archaeologists from the Archaeological Superintendency of Latina and the University of Tor Vergata recently unearthed broken skulls, jawbones, teeth, and pieces of several other bones, which they say represent at least nine Neanderthals. That brings the cave’s total to at least 10; anthropologist Alberto Carlo Blanc found a Neanderthal skull in another chamber in 1939.

Italy was a very different place 60,000 years ago. Hyenas, along with other Pleistocene carnivores, stalked rhinoceroses, wild horses (an extinct wild bovine called aurochs), and people.

“Neanderthals were prey for these animals. Hyenas hunted them, especially the most vulnerable, like sick or elderly individuals,” Tor Vergata University archaeologist Mario Rolfo told The Guardian. The archaeologists found the Neanderthal remains mingled with the bones of rhinos, giant deer, wild horses, and other hyenas. Predators and scavengers tend to leave behind different parts of the skeleton than, say, flowing water or simple burial—and tooth marks are usually a dead giveaway.

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#ancient-dna, #anthropology, #archaeology, #extinct-hominins, #hominins, #neanderthals, #paleoanthropology, #science


Earliest known burial in Africa is that of a small, fragile child

Earliest known burial in Africa is that of a small, fragile child

Enlarge (credit: Mohammad Javad Shoaee)

A child died two to three years into their life in the coastal highlands of what is now Kenya 78,000 years ago. Archaeological evidence suggests that survivors wrapped the small body tightly before laying it, curled on one side with the tiny head resting on a pillow, in a carefully dug pit in Panga ya Saidi cave. The child’s grave is now the oldest known example of people in Middle Stone Age Africa burying their dead.

A child called Mtoto

A thesaurus is a handy thing, but sometimes seemingly tiny differences in meaning can actually have a huge impact. Consider the implications of “disposing of bodies” versus “laying the dead to rest.” One of the things archaeologists are most interested in about the lives of the earliest members of our species—and our close relatives, now extinct—is when and how we first began to make that distinction.

When did early humans stop viewing a dead human body as something smelly to be removed from the living area before it attracted scavengers and sickness? When did they decide it needed to be treated carefully to ensure safe passage to an afterlife—or perhaps give peace for the living?

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#ancient-africa, #ancient-people-did-stuff, #anthropology, #archaeology, #burials, #funeral-practices, #grave-goods, #human-culture, #human-evolution, #middle-stone-age, #paleoanthropology, #science


Sex with Neanderthals was common for early Eurasian Homo sapiens, DNA says

Sex with Neanderthals was common for early Eurasian Homo sapiens, DNA says

Enlarge (credit: Hajdinjak et al. 2020)

DNA from the earliest Homo sapiens in Europe adds more detail to the story of our species’ expansion into Eurasia—and our complicated 5,000-year relationship with Neanderthals.

The earliest traces of our species in Eurasia are a lower molar and a few fragments of bone from Bacho Kiro Cave in Bulgaria, dating to between 46,000 and 42,000 years old. A recent paper describes DNA from those fossils, as well as a 42,000- to 37,000-year-old jawbone from the Oase site in Romania. The results suggest that the early waves of Homo sapiens in Eurasia included several genetically distinct groups, only some of which eventually passed their genes on to modern people. Most of those early Eurasians mingled with Neanderthals fairly often.

Paleolithic and ready to mingle

Neanderthals had lived in Europe and Asia for at least 350,000 years (and had a complicated population history of their own) when the first groups of Homo sapiens expanded northward from eastern Africa and the Levant. Today, many populations of modern humans still carry tiny fragments of Neanderthal DNA in our genomes as souvenirs from the mingling of two hominin species 45,000 years ago. But we still don’t know much about how often Neanderthals and Homo sapiens got together during the few millennia when they shared a continent.

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#ancient-dna, #ancient-hominins, #anthropology, #archaeology, #hominins, #human-evolution, #human-migration, #neanderthals, #paleogenomics, #science


Egyptian royal mummy shows pharaoh wasn’t assassinated—he was executed

Egyptian royal mummy shows pharaoh wasn’t assassinated—he was executed

Enlarge (credit: Saleem and Hawass 2021)

CT scans of a mummified Egyptian pharaoh, once suspected to be the victim of a palace assassination, suggest that he was actually executed after being captured in battle in the mid-16th century BCE.

Pharaoh Seqenenre led his army from Upper Egypt in the 1550s BCE to face the Hyksos, a group of warriors from the Levant who occupied Lower Egypt and demanded tribute from Upper Egypt during what historians call the Second Intermediate Period. It’s known that Seqenenre died during this conflict, but it’s been unclear whether he was assassinated in his bed in the palace at Thebes or died on the battlefield.

A computed tomography (CT) scan offered a look at his wounds, along with the details of his mummification. Radiologist Sahar Saleem of Cairo University and former Egyptian Minister of Antiquities Zahi Hawass concluded that he most likely died near the front lines and was brought back to Thebes for mummification and burial.

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#ancient-egypt, #anthropology, #archaeology, #biological-anthropology, #egypt, #egyptology, #forensic-anthropology, #forensics, #hyksos, #mummies, #mummy, #science


Neanderthals used stone tool tech once considered exclusive to Homo sapiens

Neanderthals used stone tool tech once considered exclusive to Homo sapiens

Enlarge (credit: Blinkhorn et al. 2021)

The entangled history of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals in the Levant (the area around the eastern end of the Mediterranean) just got even more complicated. Paleoanthropologists recently identified a tooth from Shukbah Cave, 28km (17.5 miles) northwest of Jerusalem, as a Neanderthal molar. That makes Shukbah the southernmost trace of Neanderthals ever found, and it also links our extinct cousins to a stone tool technology previously considered an exclusive trademark of Homo sapiens.

The Levant was one of the first areas hominins reached when they began to expand beyond Africa, and the archaeological record suggests that early expansion happened in a series of waves. At some sites, layers of artifacts show that members of our species lived there for a while before being replaced by Neanderthals, and vice versa. It was a geographical crossroads, and like all such places, its story is dynamic and complex—and it can be hard to piece together from the bits of bone and stone left behind.

Often, stone tools are archaeologists’ best clue about who lived at a site and when. There are many ways to shape a piece of flint into something useful like a scraper or a hand ax, and archaeologists recognize different cultures based on subtle differences in those methods and the shape of the resulting tools. One approach to toolmaking, which produces distinctive stone points, is called Nubian Levallois. It’s one of several variations on a general theme of chipping flakes off a prepared stone core to produce a tool. Another variation on that theme is Mousterian technology, which is usually found at Neanderthal sites in western Europe. Nubian Levallois tools tend to turn up at sites from southern Africa to northeastern Africa.

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#ancient-hominins, #anthropology, #archaeology, #early-humans, #hominins, #human-migration, #levallois, #neanderthals, #out-of-africa, #paleoanthropology, #science, #stone-tools


Listen to haunting notes from an 18,000-year-old conch shell trumpet

Color photo of a person with a conch shell raised to their mouth, silhouetted against a red-painted cave wall.

Enlarge / Archaeologists in 1931 found the conch shell near the entrance of Marsoulas Cave. This is a reconstruction of where and how the shell might have been played. (credit: G. Tosello)

After 18,000 years of silence, an ancient musical instrument played its first notes. The last time anyone heard a sound from the conch shell trumpet, thick sheets of ice still covered most of Europe.

University of Toulouse archaeologist Carole Fritz and her colleagues recently recognized the shell as a musical instrument. To understand more about how ancient people crafted a trumpet from a 31cm (1 foot) long conch shell, the archaeologists used high-resolution CT scans to examine the shell’s inner structure: delicate-looking whorls of shell and open chambers, coiled around a central axis, or columella. A series of overlapping photographs and careful measurements became a full-color, 3D digital model of the shell, and image enhancement software helped reveal how Magdalenian people had decorated the instrument with red ocher dots.

And in a lab at the University of Toulouse, a horn player and musicology researcher became the first person in 18,000 years to play the conch shell. The musician blew into the broken tip, or apex, of the shell and vibrated his lips as if he were playing a trumpet or trombone. Very carefully, he coaxed three loud, clear, resonant notes from the ancient instrument:

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#acoustics, #ancient-people-did-stuff, #anthropology, #archaeology, #cave-paintings, #conch-shells, #experimental-archaeology, #ice-age, #magdalenian, #music, #musical-instruments, #musicology, #paleolithic-europe, #science


Mexico City’s “tower of skulls” is architecture, history, and people

Mexico City’s “tower of skulls” is architecture, history, and people

Last month, archaeologists in Mexico City unearthed the eastern façade of a tower of skulls near the 700-year-old site of the Templo Mayor, the main temple in the former Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan. It’s a morbidly sensational find, but it’s also a potential treasure trove of information about the people who died at Tenochtitlan in the city’s final centuries. Here’s what the skulls in the tower could tell us if we ask them—and why we’d have to ask very carefully.

Archaeologists found 119 skulls built into the structure, a morbid addition to the 484 skulls found on the northeast side of the tower, which archaeologists rediscovered in 2015. Since 2015, excavations have reached 3.5 meters below modern street level, into the layers of ground once trod by Aztec priests, onlookers, and sacrificial victims. From those excavations, we now know that the 4.7 meter (15.4ft) tall tower was built in at least three phases, starting in the 15th century.

The nearby Templo Mayor once housed important shrines to the war god Huitzilopochtli and the rain and farming god Tlaloc. Many of the victims sacrificed to the two gods probably ended up as building blocks for the tower, properly known as the Huei Tzompantli, nearby. A tzompantli is a wooden scaffold for displaying skulls (exactly as the name suggests if you happen to speak Nahuatl; the word means something along the lines of “skull rack” or “wall of skulls”). The temple district of Tenochtitlan once boasted at least seven of them.

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#ancient-central-america, #anthropology, #archaeology, #aztec, #conquistadors, #human-sacrifice, #indigenous-communities, #mesoamerica, #pre-columbian-civilizations, #science, #skulls, #templo-mayor, #tenochtitlan


Did Columbus find early Caribs in 15th century Caribbean? Jury is still out

Earlier this year, researchers analyzed the skulls of early Caribbean inhabitants, using 3D facial "landmarks" as a genetic proxy for determining how closely people groups were related to one another. A follow-up study this month added ancient DNA analysis into the mix, with conflicting results.

Enlarge / Earlier this year, researchers analyzed the skulls of early Caribbean inhabitants, using 3D facial “landmarks” as a genetic proxy for determining how closely people groups were related to one another. A follow-up study this month added ancient DNA analysis into the mix, with conflicting results. (credit: Ann Ross/North Carolina State University)

There’s rarely time to write about every cool science-y story that comes our way. So this year, we’re once again running a special Twelve Days of Christmas series of posts, highlighting one science story that fell through the cracks in 2020, each day from December 25 through January 5. Today: how facial characteristic analysis and DNA analysis, combined with archaeological work, are helping shed light on the history of the Caribbean’s original islanders.

In his accounts of encounters with the inhabitants of the Caribbean Islands in the 15th century, Christopher Columbus made several allusions to Carib raids upon peaceful Arawak villages, including sensational claims of the invaders eating the men and taking the women as wives. “I saw some who had marks of wounds on their bodies and I made signs to them asking what they were,” Columbus wrote in one account from his first voyage, upon arriving on the Bahamian island of Guanahani. “They showed me how people from other islands nearby came there and tried to take them, and how they defended themselves; and I believed and believe that they come Tierra Firme to take them captive.”

Most archaeologists have long dismissed these accounts as myths, but new scientific tools are helping shed light on the truth of the Caribbean’s original islanders. And the conflicting results of two separate studies, published 11 months apart, are raising fresh questions. The results of an analysis of facial characteristics from ancient human skulls from the region seemed to indicate Columbus’ account was accurate, according to a January paper published in Scientific Reports. But a follow-up paper published last week in Nature yields a different picture with its combination of genetic analysis with decades of archaeological research.

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#anthropology, #archaeology, #cannibalism, #christopher-columbus, #history-of-science, #science


How many turkey feathers does it take to make an ancient blanket? 11,500

A fluffy gray blanket next to a coil of cord.

Enlarge / A segment of fiber cord that has been wrapped with turkey feathers, along with a single downy feather. (credit: Washington State University)

Indigenous Pueblo populations in the American Southwest—ancestors of today’s Hopi, Zuni, and Rio Grande Pueblo tribes—typically wove blankets, cloaks, and funeral wrappings out of animal hides, furs, and turkey feathers. Anthropologists at Washington State University (WSU) have examined one such ancient turkey-feather blanket and determined it took thousands of those feathers, wrapped around nearly 200 yards to yucca fiber, to make, according to a new paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

“Blankets or robes made with turkey feathers as the insulating medium were widely used by Ancestral Pueblo people in what is now the Upland Southwest, but little is known about how they were made because so few such textiles have survived due to their perishable nature,” said co-author Bill Lipe, emeritus professor of anthropology at WSU. “The goal of this study was to shed new light on the production of turkey feather blankets and explore the economic and cultural aspects of raising turkeys to supply the feathers.”

For their study, Lipe and his WSU colleague and co-author, Shannon Tushingham, studied a blanket framework on display at the Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum in Blanding, Utah. Although insects had devoured the original feather vanes and barbs, the shafts were still visible, wrapped around yucca fiber cords. They were also able to look at a second, smaller blanket which still had most of its feathers intact. Both blankets roughly date to the early 1200s CE.

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#anthropology, #archaeology, #science, #turkey-feathers


Studying clay-pot residues could help scientists recreate ancient recipes

Two rows of simply black pots.

Enlarge / Seven La Chamba unglazed ceramic pots were used in a yearlong cooking experiment analyzing the chemical residues of the meals prepared. (credit: Melanie Miller)

Archaeologists are fascinated by many different aspects of cultures in the distant past, but determining what ancient people cooked and ate can be particularly challenging. A team of researchers spent an entire year analyzing the chemical residues of some 50 meals cooked in ceramic pots and found such cookware retained not just the remnants of the last meal cooked, but also clues as to earlier meals, spanning a pot’s lifetime of usage. This could give archaeologists a new tool in determining ancient diets. The researchers described their results in a recent paper published in the journal Scientific Reports.

According to co-author Christine Hastorf, an archaeologist at the University of California, Berkeley (UCB), the project has been several years in the making. Hastorf has long been interested in the relationships between people and plants throughout history, particularly as they pertain to what people ate in the past. Back in 1985, she co-authored a paper examining the isotopes of charred plant remains collected from the inside of pots. She has also long taught a food archaeology class at UCB. A few years ago, she expanded the course to two full semesters (nine months), covering both the ethnographic aspects as well as the archaeological methods one might use to glean insight into the dietary habits of the past.

The class was especially intrigued by recent molecular analysis of pottery, yet frustrated by the brevity of the studies done to date on the topic. Hastorf proposed conducting a longer study, and her students responded enthusiastically. So they devised a methodology, assigned research topics to each student, and located places to purchase grain (maize and wheat from the same region of the Midwest), as well as receiving venison in the form of donated deer roadkill. She even bought her own mill so they could grind the grains themselves, setting it up in her home garage.

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#anthropology, #archaeology, #archaeology-of-food, #chemistry, #food-chemistry, #food-science, #science


Archaeologists with drones discover pre-Columbian earthworks in Kansas

On the left, the newly discovered earthwork and a few possible houses are marked on an aerial image of the site. On the left, you can see the outline of the circular earthwork in the thermal image.

Enlarge / On the left, the newly discovered earthwork and a few possible houses are marked on an aerial image of the site. On the left, you can see the outline of the circular earthwork in the thermal image.

It’s hard to imagine monumental archaeological sites still lying undiscovered beneath the fields of Kansas. But a drone survey just revealed the eroded remains of a wide ditch that once encircled a 2,000 square meter (21,000 square feet) area on a bluff overlooking the Walnut River. Filled in by 400 years of erosion and covered by topsoil and grass, the pre-Columbian earthwork shows up in thermal imaging but is otherwise nearly invisible from above.

“Our findings demonstrate that undiscovered monumental earthworks may still exist in the Great Plains,” said Dartmouth College archaeologist Jesse Casana. “You just need a different archaeological approach to recognize them.”

The newly rediscovered earthwork is part of a cluster of archaeological sites in the area, which was once home to the ancestors of the Wichita people. Those sites, abandoned for centuries and lost beneath cattle pastures and farms, may have been Etzanoa, the “Great Settlement” described by the conquistador Juan de Oñate, who marched a force through the area in 1601.

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#aerial-archaeology, #anthropology, #archaeology, #conquistadors, #drone, #indigenous-communities, #indigenous-north-america, #monument-building, #mound-builders, #pre-columbian-civilizations, #science


Peer inside a mummified cat from ancient Egypt, courtesy of high-res 3D X-rays

Scientists have digitally unwrapped three mummified animals from ancient Egypt using Micro CT scanning. Above: Digital unwrapping of a mummified cat's head, likely a strangled kitten.

Enlarge / Scientists have digitally unwrapped three mummified animals from ancient Egypt using Micro CT scanning. Above: Digital unwrapping of a mummified cat’s head, likely a strangled kitten. (credit: Swansea University)

The ancient Egyptians mummified animals as well as humans, most commonly as votive offerings to the gods available for purchase by visitors to temples. Many of those mummified remains have survived but are in such a fragile state that researchers are loath to disturb the remains to learn more about them. Now an inter-disciplinary team of scientists has managed to digitally “unwrap” three specimens—a mummified cat, bird, and snake—using a high-resolution 3D X-ray imaging technique, essentially enabling them to conduct a virtual postmortem, according to a new paper published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Studying fragile ancient artifacts with cutting-edge imaging technology confers a powerful advantage on archaeological analysis. For instance, in 2016, an international team of scientists developed a method for “virtually unrolling” a badly damaged ancient scroll found on the western shore of the Dead Sea, revealing the first few verses from the book of Leviticus. The so-called En Gedi scroll was recovered from the ark of an ancient synagogue destroyed by fire around 600 CE.

In 2019, we reported that German scientists used a combination of cutting-edge physics techniques to virtually “unfold” an ancient Egyptian papyrus, part of an extensive collection housed in the Berlin Egyptian Museum. Their analysis revealed that a seemingly blank patch on the papyrus actually contained characters written in what had become “invisible ink” after centuries of exposure to light. And earlier this year, we reported that scientists had used multispectral imaging on four supposedly blank Dead Sea Scrolls and found the scrolls contained hidden text, most likely a passage from the book of Ezekiel.  

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#anthropology, #archaeology, #micro-ct-scanning, #physics, #science, #x-ray-imaging


New data indicates that some Polynesians carry Native American DNA

The Tongariki site, built by Polynesians on Rapa Nui. New data suggests that by the time their ancestors arrived on the island, they had already had contact with South America.

Enlarge / The Tongariki site, built by Polynesians on Rapa Nui. New data suggests that by the time their ancestors arrived on the island, they had already had contact with South America. (credit: Andres Moreno-Estrada)

The Polynesians were the greatest explorers of the world. Starting from the vicinity of Taiwan, they sailed across vast stretches of the Pacific, settling—and in some cases, continuing to trade between—astonishingly remote islands from New Zealand to Hawaii. But it’s never been quite clear whether they made the final leap, sailing from Rapa Nui to reach the nearest major land mass: South America.

There are some hints that they have, primarily the presence of South American crops throughout the Pacific. But there has been no clear genetic signature in human populations, and the whole analysis is confused by the redistribution of people and crops after the arrival of European sailors.

Now, a new study finds clear genetic indications that Polynesians and South Americans met—we’ve just been looking at the wrong island—and wrong part of South America—for clear evidence. The researchers also raise a tantalizing prospect: that South Americans were already living on a Polynesian island when the Polynesians got there.

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#anthropology, #genetics, #genomics, #human-evolution, #native-americans, #polynesians, #science


South Asia now has the oldest evidence of bows and arrows outside Africa

South Asia now has the oldest evidence of bows and arrows outside Africa

Enlarge (credit: Langley et al. 2020)

For more than 100,000 years, the earliest humans hunted Pleistocene megafauna with wooden throwing spears. But by at least 64,000 years ago, people in Africa had invented a deadly new way to hunt: the bow and arrow. Bows and arrows eventually became a staple of hunting and warfare for cultures on five continents, but we’re not sure exactly when or how that Paleolithic weapons proliferation took place.

Archaeologist Michelle Langley and her colleagues recently found an important clue in a Sri Lankan cave called Fa-Thien Lena: 130 bone arrowheads, dating to around 48,000 years ago. The discovery is the oldest evidence of bows and arrows ever found outside Africa. And it hints at how people adapted to survival in challenging new environments like the Arctic of Siberia, the high altitudes of Tibet, and tropical forests in Africa, Asia, and Melanesia. The invention of new technologies like this helped give Homo sapiens the edge we needed to conquer the world.

“There are a number of ways that bow-and-arrow technology could have got to Sri Lanka,” Griffith University Langley told Ars. “It could have been brought from Africa with a traveling population. It could have been independently innovated in Sri Lanka. Or it could have been innovated in Africa (or elsewhere) and then brought along trade routes or social networks by word of mouth or an example being brought along. At the moment, we have no idea which!”

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#ancient-asia, #anthropology, #archaeology, #paleoanthropology, #paleoarchaeology, #paleolithic, #projectile-points, #science, #stone-tools


Rare miniature rock art found in Australia

Rare miniature rock art found in Australia

(credit: Brady et al. 2020)

Ancient artists used several techniques to paint images on rock. Sometimes they drew by hand, but other times they would place an object like a hand, a leaf, or a boomerang against the wall and spatter it with paint, leaving behind a spray of color surrounding a silhouette of the object. This may sound like a simple way to produce art, but there’s new evidence that it could be a fairly complex process. People in northern Australia seem to have used beeswax to shape miniature stencils to paint on the walls of Yilbilinji Rock Shelter in Limmen National Park.

Welcome to Marra Country

The miniature images are part of a veritable gallery of rock art on the roof and rear walls of Yilbilinji. Over thousands of years, people came here to paint people, animals, objects, tracks, dots, and geometric motifs in striking red, yellow, black, and white. There’s even a European smoking pipe in the mix, which shows that at least some of the paintings must have been created after the colonists arrived.

Out of 355 images painted on the walls, only 59 are stencils—outlines of full-sized hands and forearms surrounded by sprays of white pigment (probably made with local kaolin clay). But 17 of those stencils are too small to have been done the usual way, by spattering an actual object with paint to leave a life-sized outline on the wall. They depict people—sometimes holding boomerangs and shields or wearing headdresses—crabs, echidna, at least two species of turtle, kangaroo pawprints, and geometric shapes.

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#aboriginal-australians, #ancient-people-did-stuff, #anthropology, #archaeology, #australia, #cave-art, #dreamtime, #experimental-archaeology, #indigenous-communities, #rock-art, #science


New study challenges popular “collapse” hypothesis for Easter Island

Moai statues in a row, Ahu Tongariki, Easter Island, Chile.

Enlarge / Moai statues in a row, Ahu Tongariki, Easter Island, Chile. (credit: De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images)

In his bestselling 2005 book Collapse, Jared Diamond offered the societal collapse of Easter Island (aka Rapa Nui), around 1600, as a cautionary tale. Diamond essentially argued that the destruction of the island’s ecological environment triggered a downward spiral of internal warfare, population decline, and cannibalism, resulting in an eventual breakdown of social and political structures. It’s a narrative that is now being challenged by a team of researchers who have been studying the island’s archaeology and cultural history for many years now.

In a new paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the researchers offer intriguing evidence that suggests the people of Rapa Nui continued to thrive well after 1600. The authors suggest this warrants a rethinking of the popular narrative that the island was destitute when Europeans arrived in 1722.

“The degree to which their cultural heritage was passed on—and is still present today through language, arts, and cultural practices—is quite notable and impressive,” co-author Robert DiNapoli, a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of Oregon, told Sapiens. “This degree of resilience has been overlooked due to the collapse narrative and deserves recognition.”

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#anthropology, #archaeology, #bayesian, #easter-island, #gaming-culture, #jared-diamond, #rapa-nui, #science


Footprints capture a lakeside stroll by a group of ancient hunter-gatherers

Footprints capture a lakeside stroll by a group of ancient hunter-gatherers

Enlarge (credit: Hatala et al. 2020)

Near the end of the last glaciation, a group of people walked barefoot along the shores of Lake Natron. They walked side by side, their paths never crossing each other as they headed southwest. It’s tempting to wonder what they might have thought if they’d known that the soft volcanic ash beneath their feet would preserve their tracks for thousands of years.

Bones can tell you things about how a person lived their life, but footprints are a snapshot of action in progress. It’s one thing to know that an ancient person spent a lot of time throwing things or carrying things, and it’s something much more immediate and personal to see exactly where that person walked, climbed a slope, or crawled into a muddy cave. Footprints, in some ways, are more startlingly intimate links to the past than bones. And at Engare Sero, just south of Tanzania’s Lake Natron, 408 footprints reveal how an ancient group of hunter-gatherers foraged.

The other half of the hunter-gatherer economy

Today, the footprints offer a look at something that’s often missing from the archaeological record: the work done by women and the gathering half of the hunter-gatherer economy. Based on the size, depth, and proportions of the prints, it looks likely that 14 of the people walking by the ancient lakeshore were women. Two of the others were probably adult men, and the last was probably a young man.

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#ancient-africa, #anthropology, #archaeology, #footprints, #hunter-gatherers, #ichnology, #science


These are the oldest Homo sapiens fossils ever found in Europe

These are the oldest Homo sapiens fossils ever found in Europe


A 46,000-year-old tooth and a handful of bone fragments are the oldest direct evidence of our species’ presence in Europe, a recent study reports. They lived and died during an important period of transition, when our species and Neanderthals were meeting and interacting—a period we don’t currently know much about. The dates shed a little light on at least a piece of that eventful time.

Us and them

The last trace of Neanderthals in Europe dates to around 40,000 years ago. Anything very much older than that is almost certainly a piece of Neanderthal culture and made by Neanderthal hands. Anything very much younger than that must have been the work of our own species, long after the last Neanderthals had died out. But for a few thousand years, Homo sapiens and Neanderthals shared a continent.

We’re not sure exactly how long our two species coexisted, and that’s why Bacho Kiro Cave matters so much. At sites without any hominin fossils, archaeologists have to rely on the age of the artifacts if they want to draw conclusions about which species made them. But at Bacho Kiro, archaeologists found fragments of radiocarbon-dateable human bone mixed with stone tools and other artifacts. It’s the Paleolithic version of a smoking gun.

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#anthropology, #archaeology, #human-migration, #neanderthals, #paleoanthropology, #paleoarchaeology, #paleolithic, #paleolithic-europe, #radiocarbon-dating, #science, #stone-age, #stone-tools, #upper-paleolithic


The 500-year-old bones of African slaves tell a traumatic story

A human skull next to an array of delicate lab equipment.

Enlarge (credit: San José de los Naturales, Osteology Laboratory, (ENAH) / R. Barquera)

Archaeologists found the bones of three young African men in a 500-year-old mass grave in what is now Mexico City. The chemical makeup of their bones sheds light on their earlier lives in Africa, and forensic analysis reveals hard, painful lives and young deaths.

How the dead speak

Archaeologists unearthed the mass grave in 1992 while digging a new subway line in Mexico City. Five hundred years earlier, the site had been the grounds of the Hospital Real de San José de los Naturales. The Spanish colonizers had built the hospital to treat indigenous people—that’s what “los Naturales” means in Spanish—but these three men were African, not North or Central American. Their bones radiocarbon-dated to the 1500s CE, which makes them part of an important but often anonymous group of people: the first African people abducted in their homelands and brought across the Atlantic Ocean to European colonies in the Americas.

Of the 10 to 20 million people transported to the Atlantic over the next 300 years, nearly 150,000 of them ended up, like these three men, in the colony of New Spain. Like countless other oppressed and otherwise overlooked people throughout human history, they left behind no written accounts, no artifacts to hint at their lives, and no names. Only their bones tell their stories.

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#african-diaspora, #ancient-dna, #anthropology, #archaeology, #biological-archaeology, #colonial-americas, #colonization, #forensic-archaeology, #hepatitis-b, #science, #skeletons, #slave-labor, #slavery, #slaves, #spanish-conquest


Ancient Mongol warrior women may have inspired legend of Mulan

Skeletal remains from a husband/wife burial (wife is on the left). Airagiin Gozgor site, Orkhon Province, Mongolia.

Enlarge / Skeletal remains from a husband/wife burial (wife is on the left). Airagiin Gozgor site, Orkhon Province, Mongolia. (credit: Christine Lee)

The story of Mulan, a young woman who disguises herself as a man to fight for China’s emperor, has become one of best known and most beloved narratives worldwide, thanks in no small part to Disney. The Mouse House’s 1998 animated film, Mulan, grossed $304 million worldwide and earned Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. The forthcoming live action version—delayed due to the pandemic—looks to exceed that performance when it is finally released. (It is currently slated for July 24, 2020.)

It’s long been thought that Mulan was based on actual female warriors of the Xianbei, an ancient nomadic people from modern-day Mongolia and northeastern China. Now, anthropologists believe they may have found physical evidence of such warrior women in skeletal remains found in that region.

The Chinese legend of Mulan first appears in several ancient texts, eventually becoming a folk song, “The Ballad of Hua Mulan,” transcribed sometime in the sixth century. It tells the story of a young woman in the Northern Wei era, spanning 386-536 CE, although some details were added later, around 620 CE, during the Tang dynasty. She takes her father’s place when each family is required to provide one male to serve in the emperor’s army. Hua Mulan serves for 12 years with none of her fellow soldiers ever suspecting her true gender. Later versions of the legend appeared in the late Ming dynasty, followed by a 1593 play by Xu Wei, and the Sui Tang Romance, a 17th century tragic novel by Chu Renhuo. In that, Mulan has a younger sister and bonds with a fellow female warrior named Xianniang.

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#anthropology, #archaeology, #legends, #mulan, #science


Archaeologists now have a handy new tool for analyzing paleo poop

Ancient poo samples: H35 (Ash pit number 35) coprolites from Xiaosungang archaeological site, Anhui Province, China.

Enlarge / Ancient poo samples: H35 (Ash pit number 35) coprolites from Xiaosungang archaeological site, Anhui Province, China. (credit: Jada Ko, courtesy of the Anhui Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology)

Combing through samples of ancient feces probably isn’t going to be many people’s idea of a roaring good time. However, for archaeologists keen on learning more about the health and diet of past populations—as well as how certain parasites evolved, the evolutionary history of the microbiome—such samples can be a veritable goldmine of information.

Yet it can be difficult to determine whether fecal samples are human or were produced by other animals, particularly dogs. Now an international team of scientists has devised a new method of doing so that combines host DNA and gut microbiome analysis with open source machine-learning software, according to a new paper in the journal PeerJ.

The challenge of determining whether paleofeces and coprolites are of human or animal origin dates back to the 1970s. Usually, only those samples found with human skeletons or mummies could be designated as being of human origin with any certainty. Exceptions could be made for samples found in ancient latrines, since they are highly likely to be human; samples found in trash deposits, however, are more ambiguous. 

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#anthropology, #archaeology, #bioinformatics, #feces, #machine-learning, #science, #ye-olde-poop


Anthropologists describe the first skeleton of a Homo naledi child

The excavation was a mixture of spelunking expedition and paleontology field trip yet provided enough power to run lights and computers.

The excavation was a mixture of spelunking expedition and paleontology field trip yet provided enough power to run lights and computers. (credit: National Geographic)

A Homo naledi child’s skeleton could shed some light on the evolutionary origins of our own species’ lengthy childhoods. Humans take much longer to grow up than other great apes, which may be related to our larger brains and more complex cognitive skills. Anthropologists are still trying to understand exactly when and how that reality came about. To do so, they’ve been working with juvenile skeletons from just a handful of species besides our own: Neanderthals, Homo erectus, Australopithecus afarensis, A. sediba. But now they can also look at Homo naledi.

In 2013 and 2014, paleoanthropologists unearthed the partial skeleton of a Homo naledi child dating from 335,000 to 226,000 years ago. Now called DH7, the skeleton has most of a left leg with the bones still articulated—even several of the tarsals, the small bones that make up the ankle. The bones also included a right thighbone (femur) and hipbone (ischium), a right arm, and part of a lower right jaw and a few teeth. The shafts of the long bones hadn’t completely fused with their ends, or epiphyses, which is a sign that the young hominin was still growing when they died.

It’s hard to say exactly how old DH7 was, though, since we don’t know how quickly Homo naledi children matured. If child development was fairly quick, like in earlier hominin species, then DH7 was probably between eight and 11 years old. But if Homo naledi children developed more slowly, like Neanderthals and modern humans, the bones could look the same at 11 to 15 years old.

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#ancient-hominins, #anthropology, #dinaledi-chamber, #hominin-evolution, #hominins, #homo-naledi, #human-ancestors, #human-evolution, #paleoanthropology, #science