The interior of a cenote
The cenotes of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo are peppered with mysterious skeletons. Over the millennia, these water-filled caves have served as burying grounds and sacrificial sites for native peoples, and in fact, several ancient sets of remains have been found so deep in the caves that they are inaccessible without diving equipment, suggesting that they must have been placed there when the caves were dry, before the ice caps melted around 8,ooo BCE, and putting them in the range of 10-14,000 years old.
Now, though, one of those ancient skeletons, called the Young Man of Chan Hol II since its discovery in 2010, has gone missing from its cenote. New Scientist reports that the National Institute of Anthropology and History has put up posters in bakeries, supermarkets, and divers’ shops throughout the town of Tulum in hopes of receiving tips as to the skeleton’s whereabouts and is considering legal action, though we’re not sure what actions are possible against thieves. Apparently there have been other archaeological thefts from cenotes as well; the cenotes are frequented by divers, and the authorities cannot guard them all.
Image courtesy of Darren Fry / flickr
Enormous stone statues, called moai, on Easter Island
What’s the News: Easter Island is often held up as an example of what can happen when human profligacy and population outpace ecology: Wanton deforestation led to soil erosion and famine, the story goes, and the islanders’ society declined into chaos and cannibalism. But through their research on Easter Island, paleoecologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo have unearthed evidence that contradicts this version of events. The Polynesian settlers of Easter Island prospered through careful use of the scant available resources, they argue in their new book The Statues That Walked; the island’s forests were done in not by greedy humans, but by hungry rats.
We know the Bering land bridge that appeared between Alaska and Russia at least 14,000 years ago would have allowed ancient people to cross over into America. But what were those people like? Scant evidence has turned up to reveal their lifestyle, but in the journal Science this week archaeologists report a new find—one that’s simultaneously insightful and a portrait of sadness. Ben Potter and colleagues found an 11,500-year-old house that was apparently the scene of the loss of a child, as the fire pit shows the skeletal remains of a person about three years of age.
The bones are the oldest human remains yet discovered in northern North America, and provide a remarkable glimpse into the lives of the earliest North American settlers…. Older human remains and temporary hunting camps and work sites have been found, but longer-term habitations are rare. Yet the child’s young age – it was about 3 years old – and the type of food remains found at the new site, suggest it was the summer home for a group that comprised at least women and young children. [New Scientist]
The place is called Upper Sun River, located in central Alaska. The child has been given the name Xaasaa Cheege Ts’eniin, or “Upward Sun River Mouth Child.”
Potter … and his colleagues discovered the outlines of the foundation of a circular house, including a scattering of stone tools and animal bones on the floor and traces of posts that may have held up the walls and roof. As the team reports in this week’s issue of Science, the center of the house was taken up with a large circular pit containing the fragmented, partially burnt bones of the child. [ScienceNOW]
Early humans trekking out of Africa moved faster than we thought they did: New archeological evidence suggests they reached the Persian Gulf 50,000 years before we previously thought.
Archeologists excavating a rock shelter in Jebel Faya, in the United Arab Emirates, found a cache of hand axes and other tools that date back 125,000 years ago. Their age was established by dating the silicon in the chert tools, and also via comparison to other artifacts:
Team member Anthony Marks of Southern Methodist University, an anthropologist, said the tools were made in ways consistent with the 125,000-years-ago time period and therefore raise the inevitable question of how they got to the area near the Persian Gulf…. “Either these people came out of East Africa or they came from nowhere,” he said. [The Washington Post]
The team’s research, published in Science, posits that the area’s climate had a role in spurring mankind’s expansion around the planet. Climate records suggest that the Red Sea was much shallower during an ice age that lasted from 200,000 to 130,000 years ago, because much of the world’s water was trapped in glaciers. This allowed early humans to cross the now-shallow Red Sea for new land in the southern Arabian peninsula, the researchers say. After the crossing, these early humans would have found themselves in a surprisingly fertile place: Towards the end of that ice age, the deserts of Arabia experienced a brief “wet” era with rivers, lakes, vegetation, and wildlife.
The “cradle of humanity” is thought to be located in Sub-Saharan Africa–meaning below the Sahara, the largest hot desert on earth. So how was humanity able to breach such an intimidating barrier to spread out across the rest of the world?
Until now, anthropologists typically argued that hominids could only have followed the lush Nile River valley north in order to reach the Middle East and beyond. But new research is suggesting that the Sahara might not have been an impassable barrier to those humans after all. Some animals (including several fish species) are found on both the north and south sides of the desert, and even in some safe-haven ponds in between. The researchers argue that if these ancestral fish could swim across the region that we now know as the Sahara, humans could have also made it across.
“Fish appeared to have swam across the Sahara during its last wet phase sometime between 10,000 and 6,000 years ago,” researcher Nick Drake, a geographer at King’s College London, told LiveScience. “The Sahara is not a barrier to the migrations of animals and people. Thus it is possible–likely?–that early modern humans did so, and this could explain how we got out of Africa.” [LiveScience]
Every time governments fail to take serious steps on climate change, it seems the parlor game of predicting what our warmer world will look like heats up. And the newest of those predictions, appearing this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, pokes at what is presently one of the country’s most sensitive spots: immigration.
Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton published a study that estimates that between 1.4 and 6.7 million people could become climate refugees emigrating from rural Mexico to the United States between now and 2080. That’s 2 to 10 percent of the present Mexican population, and it doesn’t include people who would make the move for other reasons.
Is it a major concern? Yes. How much stock should you put in those statistics? Not much.
It makes sense: stay where it’s warm, sunny, and there’s a lot of food. What, then, were prehistoric people doing on the British seashore? New research published today in Nature pushes human arrival in Britain back to about 800,000 years ago, roughly 100,000 years earlier than our previous estimations. The evidence? A trove of 70 flint tools found on the Happisburgh shore in Norfolk.
Dating artifacts that old isn’t easy (for example, carbon dating doesn’t work), so the researchers had to be thorough. Led by Simon A. Parfitt of The Natural History Museum in London and Nick Ashton of the British Museum, London as part of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project, the team used both biological and physical evidence to date the tools. Looking at insect and plant fossils found with the artifacts, researchers determined that the species dated back to the Early Pleistocence period, between 990,000 and 780,000 years ago. The researchers also tested sediment around the tools, and established that they were buried when the Earth’s magnetic field was flipped. The last time this happened was also about 780,000 years ago.
Three jaw-less heads and one really old shoe. These aren’t the clues in a Law and Order episode; they’re findings from a limestone cave in Armenia. As described in a paper published yesterday in PLoS ONE, archaeologists believe they have found the world’s oldest leather shoe: it’s 5,500 years old.
“It’s pretty weird,” said lead author Ron Pinhasi to CNN regarding the disembodied heads and the placement of the well-preserved shoe. The ancient sneaker was stuffed with grass, though archaeologists can’t say whether the grass was intended as insulation or whether it helped maintain the shoe’s shape.
“We thought originally it could be a discard, but at the same time, it’s very strange, because we have only one shoe, and it’s in very good shape,” Pinhasi said. “It looks like it was more than likely deliberately placed in this way.” [CNN]
The right-footed shoe–which looks a bit like a baked potato–has some features that might entice even modern buyers: for one, its maker fashioned it from a single piece of cow leather (like a pricey pair of today’s “whole cut” footwear), and it has leather laces. It’s about a women’s size seven, but, researchers say, it might have graced a small-footed man.
Just how connected are the Jews, genetically speaking? Despite the fact that pockets of Jewish people are spread around the globe, the new genetic analysis by Harry Ostrer and his team says that they share genetic markers that go back thousands of years.
In the study in the American Journal of Human Genetics, Ostrer investigated Jewish people from all over the world:
Historians divide the world’s 13 million living Jews into three groups: Middle Eastern, or Oriental, Jews; Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal; and Ashkenazi Jews from Europe [ScienceNOW].
Taking nuclear DNA samples from 237 Jews—some from each group—the team compared them to samples from more than 400 non-Jewish people who lived in the same regions.
Ever since anthropologists figured out that early humans and Neanderthals coexisted for a span of prehistory, they’ve wondered–did the two species, you know, make friends? Now a fascinating new genetics study reveals that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals did indeed interbreed, and the evidence is still to be found in the human genome.
Researchers from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology first sequenced the entire Neanderthal genome from powdered bone fragments found in Europe and dating from 40,000 years ago–a marvelous accomplishment in itself. Then, they compared the Neanderthal genome to that of five modern humans, including Africans, Europeans, and Asians. The researchers found that between 1 percent and 4 percent of the DNA in modern Europeans and Asians was inherited from Neanderthals, which suggests that the interbreeding took place after the first groups of humans left Africa.
Anthropologists have long speculated that early humans may have mated with Neanderthals, but the latest study provides the strongest evidence so far, suggesting that such encounters took place around 60,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent region of the Middle East [The Guardian].
The study, published in Science and made available to the public for free, opens up new areas for research. Geneticists will now probe the function of the Neanderthal genes that humans have hung on to, and can also look for human genes that may have given us a competitive edge over Neanderthals.
Erik Trinkaus, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, who has long argued that Neanderthals contributed to the human genome, welcomed the study, commenting that now researchers “can get on to other things than who was having sex with who in the Pleistocene” [AP].
The Loom: Skull Caps and Genomes
Gene Expression: Breaking: There’s a Little Bit of Neandertal in All of Us
80beats: We May Soon Be Able to Clone Neanderthals. But Should We?
80beats: Crafty & Clever Neanderthals Made Jewelry 50,000 Years Ago
80beats: Did Spear-Throwing Humans Kill Neanderthals?
80beats: Rough Draft of the Neanderthal Genome is Complete!
DISCOVER: Works in Progress asks whether we rubbed out Neanderthals, or rubbed off on them
Image: Max Planck Institute EVA. The researchers hang out with their Neanderthal relation.