A 40,000-year-old Chinese stone tool culture unlike any other

Extreme close-up photo of prehistoric stone tool.

Enlarge / This chert bladelet still has a remnant of its bone haft attached. (credit: Wang et al. 2022)

We know the oldest human cultures only from their most durable parts: mostly stone tools, sometimes bone. Show an experienced Pleistocene archaeologist a chert blade, and they can probably tell you which hominin species made it, how long ago, and where. But the 40,000-year-old stones and bones archaeologist Fa-Gang Wang and his colleagues recently unearthed at a 40,000-year-old Chinese site called Xiamabei look like nothing archaeologists have seen before.

Unique stone tool technology

The people who lived at Xiamabei, in northern China’s Niwehan Basin, used a toolkit that consisted mostly of tiny bladelets (small, sharp pieces of stone), often hafted onto bone handles. Based on microscopic traces of wear and tear on the tools, people at Xiamabei seemed to have used the same generic bladelets for everything from scraping hides and cutting meat to boring wood and whittling softer plant matter.

Nearly every one of the 382 stone tools unearthed at Xiamabei is less than four centimeters long; making and using these smaller blades would have allowed early humans to do more work with less material. Handles helped make the tools easier to grip and more versatile; Wang and his colleagues found one bladelet with part of a bone haft still attached to the stone. On several of the 17 other bladelets the researchers examined closely for microscopic signs of wear, they found tiny scratches left by bone handles, along with imprints from the plant fibers used to bind the bladelets in place.

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#archaeology, #human-expansion, #human-migration, #ocher, #out-of-africa, #paleolithic, #pleistocene, #science, #stone-tools

Members of our species were in Western Europe around 54,000 years ago

Members of our species were in Western Europe around 54,000 years ago

Enlarge (credit: Slimak et al. 2022)

According to a recent study, a child’s tooth unearthed from an old layer of a cave floor in Southern France belonged to a member of our species. If so, the tooth is now the oldest evidence of Homo sapiens living in Europe, and its presence means that our species shared Europe (or parts of it) with Neanderthals for at least 10,000 years. But other fossils from the site suggest that the Pleistocene tale of two species was more complex than we’ve realized.

Finding the first Homo sapiens in Europe

People lived at Grotte Mandrin, a rock shelter in Southern France’s Rhone Valley, for tens of thousands of years. Until roughly 54,000 years ago, those people were Neanderthals. In the oldest layers of cave floor sediment, archaeologists unearthed a child’s molar. Based on its shape and dimensions, the tooth once belonged to a Neanderthal child, which was exactly what paleoanthropologists would expect in a layer of sediment between 79,000 and 62,000 years old.

An adult Neanderthal molar from the next layer up, dated to between 69,000 and 56,000 years old, was also not startling to anthropologist Ludovic Slimak, of Université de Toulouse Jean Jaurès, and his colleagues. But a child’s molar unearthed from the next layer—somewhere between 56,800 and 51,700 years old—was a real surprise. The tooth’s size and shape was clearly not Neanderthal; when Slimak and his colleagues compared it to other upper second molars, they found that it fit best with very early members of our own species.

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#anthropology, #archaeology, #hominins, #human-expansion, #human-migration, #neanderthals, #out-of-africa, #paleoanthropology, #pleistocene, #science

Someone stabbed a cave bear in the head with a spear 35,000 years ago

Someone stabbed a cave bear in the head with a spear 35,000 years ago

Enlarge (credit: Gimranov et al. 2021)

During the last Ice Age, more than 100 cave bears died in Imanay Cave, a 100-meter-long corridor of stone in Russia’s southern Ural Mountains. The dead bears, along with a cave lion and a few other Pleistocene mammals, left behind nearly 10,000 bones, which have mostly worn down to small fragments over the millennia. Most of them were so-called small cave bears, Ursus spelaeus eremus, notable for being smaller than the so-called large cave bear, Ursus spelaeus—and for their apparent habit of dying en masse while hibernating through the harsh Pleistocene winters, leaving behind huge assemblages of bones for modern paleontologists to find.

Most of the cave bear bones found in Eurasia, including the ones at Imanay Cave, show no signs of violence, butchering, or gnawing. They seem to have died quietly, perhaps of cold, starvation, or illness. But while cleaning one cave bear skull from Imanay, Dmitry Gimranov of the Ural Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences and his colleagues noticed a rather suspicious hole in the parietal bone, near the back of the skull.

The lower edge of the hole is a gentle curve with a flattened base, while the upper edge is more uneven and widens sharply in the middle. Its shape is strikingly similar to the cross-section of stone projectile points unearthed in the same layer of cave sediment as most of the bear bones. Those points tend to have a flat ventral (or lower) side and a more curved dorsal (or upper) side with a sharp rib of stone sticking up along the center. And they’re about the same size as the hole in the bear skull.

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#ancient-people-did-stuff, #anthropology, #archaeology, #bears, #cave-bears, #hunter-gatherers, #ice-age, #pleistocene, #science, #zooarchaeology

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

Climate change is erasing humanity’s oldest art

color photo of archaeologists examining rock art in a dark cave

Enlarge / Detailed rock-art recording by ARKENAS archaeologist in Maros-Pangkep. (credit: Adhi Agus Oktaviana)

The limestone caves and rock shelters of Indonesia’s southern Sulawesi island hold the oldest traces of human art and storytelling, dating back more than 40,000 years. Paintings adorn the walls of at least 300 sites in the karst hills of Maros-Pangkep, with more almost certainly waiting to be rediscovered. But archaeologists say humanity’s oldest art is crumbling before their very eyes.

“We have recorded rapid loss of hand-sized spall flakes from these ancient art panels over a single season (less than five months),” said archaeologist Rustan Lebe of Makassar’s culture heritage department.

Erasing history

The culprit is salt. As water flows through a limestone cave system, it carries minerals from the local bedrock, which eventually end up in the limestone. At the limestone’s surface, those minerals oxidize into a case-hardened rocky crust. Nearly all of oldest rock art in Maros-Pangkep—like the oldest drawing in the world that actually depicts an actual object—is painted in red or mulberry-purple pigment on that hard outer layer. It’s resistant to most weathering, providing a durable canvas for humanity’s oldest artwork.

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#aquaculture, #archaeology, #cave-art, #cave-painting, #climate-change, #conservation, #cultural-heritage, #indonesia, #pleistocene, #rock-art, #science, #sulawesi

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

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

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

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

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 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