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


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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Dogs have been our best friends for at least 23,000 years

Color photo of a husky slightly less stuck under a bed

Enlarge (credit: Luna)

Dogs tagged along with the first humans to venture into the Americas, according to a recent study that analyzed existing collections of canine and human DNA. The results suggest that people domesticated dogs sometime before 23,000 years ago in Siberia, where isolated groups of wolves and people were struggling to survive the Last Glacial Maximum.

A tail of two species

Researchers generally agree on how dogs evolved (more on that below), but the when and where have remained more elusive. Durham University archaeologist Angela Perri and her colleagues used genetics to try to narrow it down.

Because genomes collect small, random mutations at a predictable rate, geneticists can compare genome sequences and tell how long ago two animals last shared a common ancestor. Perri and her colleagues used already-sequenced genomes from ancient and modern dogs to calculate when populations had split or interbred, and then they repeated the process with human genomes.

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#ancient-dna, #dog-domestication, #dogs, #domestication, #human-migration, #mitochondrial-dna, #paleogenomics, #peopling-of-the-americas, #pleistocene, #science


This painted pig is the world’s oldest figurative art

Color photo of stylized pig painted in red on a rock wall

Enlarge (credit: Brumm et al. 2021)

A pig painted on the wall of an Indonesian cave is the world’s oldest figurative art—that is, it’s the oldest known drawing of something,

rather than an abstract design or a stencil.

The 45,500-year-old ocher painting depicts a Sulawesi warty pig, which appears to be watching a standoff between two other pigs. If that interpretation is correct, the painting is also a contender for the world’s oldest narrative scene. And it hints at how much the earliest Indonesians observed and recorded about the animals and ecosystems around them. A growing pile of evidence tells us that the first people to reach the islands of Indonesia carried with them a culture of art and visual storytelling, as well as the means to cross the expanses of water between the islands, eventually reaching Australia.

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#ancient-asia, #ancient-people-did-stuff, #archaeology, #cave-art, #cave-paintings, #human-migration, #indonesia, #pleistocene, #rock-art, #science, #sulawesi, #uranium-series-dating


Humans reached Saudi Arabia at least 120,000 years ago

About 120,000 years ago, two or three people walked along the shore of a shallow lake in what is now northern Saudi Arabia. They left behind at least seven footprints in the mud, and today those tracks are the oldest known evidence of our species’ presence in Arabia.

A Pleistocene walk by the lake

Imagine that you’re a hunter-gatherer about 120,000 years ago, and you’re walking out of eastern Africa into Eurasia. Paleoanthropologists are still debating exactly why you’ve decided to do such a thing, and you almost certainly don’t have a destination in mind, but for now we’ll take it for granted that you just want to take a really, really long walk. Almost inevitably, you’ll come to the Levant, on the eastern end of the Mediterranean. From that important geographical crossroads, you’ve got some options: you could head north through Syria and Turkey then veer east into Asia or west into Europe. You could also strike out east, across the northern end of the Arabian Peninsula.

That was a better option then than it sounds now. Off and on during the Pleistocene, the Arabian Peninsula had a wetter climate than it does today. Evidence from ancient sediments, pollen, and animal fossils all suggest that today’s deserts were once grasslands and woods, crossed by rivers and dotted with lakes like the one at Alathar in the western Nefud Desert.

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#ancient-hominins, #archaeology, #footprints, #hominins, #human-migration, #out-of-africa, #pleistocene, #saudi-arabia, #science


People may have lived in North America by 30,000 years ago

Assistant professor Mikkel Winther Pedersen with team members wore PPE to avoid contaminating potential ancient DNA in the cave; no human DNA was found.

Enlarge / Assistant professor Mikkel Winther Pedersen with team members wore PPE to avoid contaminating potential ancient DNA in the cave; no human DNA was found. (credit: Mads Thomsen)

In Chiquihuite Cave, archaeologists found 240 stone tools buried in 30,000-year-old layers of muddy sediment. Archaeologist Ciprian Ardelean and his colleagues collected 46 radiocarbon dates from bone, charcoal, and sediment near the tools. According to a statistical model—which used those dates to predict the most likely starting date for the layer of sediment and artifacts—the oldest layers at the site date back 33,000 to 31,000 years ago.

If the archaeologists are right, that means people were making a living high in the mountains of north-central Mexico well before most people in the field thought North America was inhabited by humans.

At the moment, most archaeologists accept the idea that people started moving into North America sometime between 20,000 and 16,000 years ago. Those dates come from sites like Cooper’s Ferry in Idaho and a handful of others. Around that time, the ice sheets covering the northern half of the continent had started to recede after reaching their peak during the Last Glacial Maximum, the height of the last ice age. People could have skirted around the western edge of the ice, along the Pacific coast, or ventured through a corridor that later opened up between the ice sheets (archaeologists are still debating which route they took).

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13,300-year-old Chinese bird figurine found in a rubbish heap

13,300-year-old Chinese bird figurine found in a rubbish heap


The figurine is a small songbird, about 19.2mm (0.75 inches) long, standing on a pedestal. It’s carved from a burned, blackened fragment of animal bone. Whoever created it was probably a hunter-gatherer living at Lingjing, in northern China, near the end of the last Ice Age; their culture also made simple pottery and shaped black chert into small, sharp blades. To modern eyes, the carving looks pretty simple, but it’s the work of an artist who knew how to combine several techniques (and work with multiple tools) to shape a figure out of bone. And that means that by the time the ancient artist put tool to bone 13,300 years ago, people in northern China had already developed a long and unique tradition of carved bone art.

The songbird in the well

In 1958, a few years before archaeologists realized how much of the past lay buried at Lingjing, construction crews dug a well about 5 meters (16.4 feet) down, scooping out sediment that had accumulated during the end of the last Ice Age. The well-diggers piled all the dirt up nearby without paying much attention to the ancient potsherds, stone tools, and other artifacts mixed in with it.

When Shandong University archaeologist Zhanyang Li and colleagues found the pile in 2005, they realized that they’d been quite lucky; normally, the well-digging would have mixed together artifacts from different layers, making it impossible to tell when anything had come from. But the 1958 crew happened to dig their well in a part of the site where nothing had been buried since the Paleolithic. The only artifacts in their pile of discarded dirt were small black chert blades and coarsely made pottery—distinctive objects very similar to those found in a layer at Lingjing dating to between 14,000 and 13,000 years ago. Those were mixed with charcoal and burned animal bones that radiocarbon dated to around 13,300 years ago.

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#ancient-art, #ancient-china, #ancient-people-did-stuff, #archaeology, #human-migration, #paleolithic, #science, #symbolic-thought


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