105,000 years ago in the Kalahari Desert, people invented complex culture

105,000 years ago in the Kalahari Desert, people invented complex culture

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Between 125,000 and 70,000 years ago, people began to do some very modern things: collecting small objects for no practical reason, decorating things with pigments, and storing water and possibly even food in containers. The oldest known sites with evidence of those behaviors are along the coastline of southern Africa. Today, most of those important sites are right on the coast, but even during the Pleistocene, when sea levels were lower, they would have been close enough for the people who lived there to make use of marine resources.

And according to one idea in paleoanthropology, something about that way of life enabled those early people—or maybe pushed them—to innovate. Their distant neighbors who lived far from the sea supposedly lagged behind the cultural times. But Griffith University archaeologist Jayne Wilkins and her colleagues recently unearthed evidence that landlocked people were just as hip and modern as their counterparts on the coast.

Score one for flyover country

At Ga-Mohana Hill North Rockshelter, there’s a layer of sediment dating back to 105,000 years ago and scattered with stone tools. In it, Wilkins and her colleagues found a large chunk of red ocher, worn flat and striated on two sides, as if it had been used as pigment. The rock shelter also held a cache of translucent white calcite crystals, which hadn’t been worked or used as tools; it looked as if someone had gathered up the crystals simply for the sake of having them, or maybe as a ritual offering. Several broken, burned pieces of ostrich eggshell, buried in the same layer, may once have held stores of water.

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#ancient-africa, #ancient-people, #archaeology, #human-behavior, #human-evolution, #ostrich-eggshells, #paleoarchaeology, #pleistocene, #science, #shiny-rocks, #south-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

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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

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Yukon gold miner unearths a mummified Ice Age wolf pup

Color photo of wolf mummy puppy laying on a pillow

Enlarge / The puppy’s remains are dried out but mostly intact thanks to being buried in permafrost. (credit: Government of Yukon)

This Ice Age wolf puppy doesn’t look much like a fearsome predator, what with her tiny puppy teeth and soft little ears. According to her DNA, however, the mummified puppy, named Zhùr, came from a population that’s among the ancestors of all modern wolves. Canada’s permafrost freeze-dried her remains shortly after her death around 57,000 years ago.

“She’s the most complete wolf mummy that’s ever been found. She’s basically 100 percent intact—all that’s missing are her eyes,” said Des Moines University paleontologist Julie Meachen.

Puppy surprise

In July 2016, miner Neil Loveless of Favron Enterprises was searching for gold in Alaska’s famed Klondike gold fields. He was water-blasting the frozen mud along the banks of Last Chance Creek. It’s a process called “hydraulic thawing,” meant to thaw and soften the frozen permafrost so miners can search for gold in the streambed deposits, an approach called placer mining. But Loveless found something far stranger and even more interesting than Klondike gold: a frozen, mummified wolf puppy.

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#ancient-dna, #gold-mining, #klondike, #mummies, #paleontology, #permafrost, #pleistocene, #science, #wolves, #yukon

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This ancient big-game hunter was a woman

This ancient big-game hunter was a woman

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At Wilamaya Patjxa, an archaeological site in southern Peru, archaeologists unearthed the skeleton of a young woman whose people buried her with a hunters’ toolkit, including projectile points. The find prompted University of California Davis archaeologist Randall Haas and his colleagues to take a closer look at other Pleistocene and early Holocene hunters from around the Americas.

Their results may suggest that female hunters weren’t as rare as we thought. And that, in turn, reminds us that gender roles haven’t always been the same in every culture.

The hunter of Wilamaya Patjxa

“The objects that accompany [people] in death tend to be those that accompanied them in life,” Haas and his colleagues wrote. And when one young woman died 9,000 years ago in what is now southern Peru, her people buried her with at least six stone spear tips of a type used in hunting large prey like deer and vicuña (a relative of the alpaca). The points seem to have been bundled along with a stone knife, sharp stone flakes, scraping tools, and ocher for tanning hides.

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#ancient-people-did-stuff, #ancient-south-america, #archaeology, #holocene, #hunter-gatherers, #pleistocene, #science, #women

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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

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People built bone circles at the edge of ice sheets, and we don’t know why

People built bone circles at the edge of ice sheets, and we don’t know why

Enlarge (credit: Alexander Pryor)

As the last Ice Age tightened its hold on Europe, a group of people living near the Don River piled dozens of mammoth bones into a 12.5m (30ft) wide circle. They may have lived in the shelter of the mammoth bones for a while, huddling around fragrant fires of conifer wood and mammoth bone and making stone tools. But the traces they left are so light that it seems they didn’t stay long—or maybe they only visited occasionally.

A truly mammoth structure

Archaeologists found the bone circle in 2015. It’s one of about 70 mammoth-bone circles scattered around eastern Europe and western Russia, and it’s one of three within a few hundred square meters of each other near the modern village of Kostenki, about 500km (310 miles) south of Moscow. Excavations unearthed the first bone circle at Kostenki during the 1960s. A second structure nearby now lies buried under construction on private land. The third bone circle at Kostenki, discovered in 2015, is the largest and the oldest structure of the sort ever found.

Fragments of charcoal from inside the circle, along with samples of mammoth bone and ivory, radiocarbon-dated to around 20,000 years ago, during the coldest stage of the Last Glacial Maximum. Ice sheets several kilometers thick stretched southward across most of northern and western Europe. But people somehow made a living on the cold, inhospitable steppes just southeast of the glaciers. They also built huge circles out of mammoth bones—archaeologists just aren’t sure why.

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#ancient-europe, #ancient-people-did-stuff, #archaeology, #ice-age, #last-glacial-maximum, #mammoths, #pleistocene, #russian-archaeology, #science

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