What’s the News: Archeologists have discovered thousands of stone tools in Texas that are over 15,000 years old. The find is important because it is over 2,000 years older than the so-called Clovis culture, which had previously thought to be the first human culture in North America. As Texas A&M University anthropologist Michael Waters says, “This is almost like a baseball bat to the side of the head of the archaeological community to wake up and say, ‘hey, there are pre-Clovis people here, that we have to stop quibbling and we need to develop a new model for peopling of the Americas’.”
How the Heck:
What’s the Context:
Not So Fast:
The Future Holds: Now it’s time for archeologists to rethink the North American narrative of migration: How did humans first populate the continent? As James Adovasio, the executive director of the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute, told NPR, “Everything we’re learning now, from genetics, from linguistic data, from geological data, from archaeological data, suggests that the peopling process is infinitely more complicated than we might have imagined 50 years ago, or even 20 years ago.”
Reference: The Buttermilk Creek Complex and the Origins of Clovis at the Debra L. Friedkin Site, Texas. By Michael R. Waters et al. DOI: 10.1126/science.331.6024.1512
Image: Courtesy of Michael R. Waters
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.
To a human living in North America about 9,400 years ago, dogs may have been both trusted friends and loyal protectors. But they were something else too: dinner.
A DNA analysis of an ancient dog’s recovered bone fragment reveal that dogs were already domesticated at this stage in North American history, and the fact that the bone bore evidence of passing through the human digestive tract reveals that our ancestors were willing to chow down on their canine companions.
The bone was recovered in ancient human fecal matter found in a southwestern Texas cave in the 1970s–but it wasn’t until recently that Samuel Belknap III, a University of Maine anthropology graduate student, found a bone within the ancient poo. The discovery was all the more welcome given that he wasn’t looking for dog bones in the first place.
“I didn’t start out looking for the oldest dog in the New World,” Belknap said. “I started out trying to understand human diet in southwest Texas. It so happens that this person who lived 9,400 years ago was eating dog.” [UMaine News]
A particular set of rock paintings dating from more than 40,000 years ago don’t seem to be made of paint anymore. According to a new study published in the journal Antiquity, the vibrant artworks were long ago colonized by colorful microbes, which serve as “living pigments” in the paintings. Lead researcher Jack Pettigrew, of the University of Queensland in Australia, explains:
“‘Living pigments’ is a metaphorical device to refer to the fact that the pigments of the original paint have been replaced by pigmented micro-organisms…. These organisms are alive and could have replenished themselves over endless millennia to explain the freshness of the paintings’ appearance.” [BBC News]
When the researchers analyzed the so-called Bradshaw rock artworks found in Western Australia’s Kimberley region, they didn’t find paint. Instead they found a black fungus, probably belonging to a fungi group known as Chaetothyriales, as well as a reddish organism that is suspected to be a species of cyanobacteria.
Over the past few years, studies have chipped away at the old-fashioned stereotype of dense and dumb Neanderthals. Archaeological excavations suggested the hominids made tools and weapons, fashioned jewelry, or possessed other mental faculties some presumed only early humans to have.
The Neanderthal renaissance may be in danger. For a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week, radiocarbon dating expert Thomas Higham tested one of the most important Neanderthal sites in the world—Grotte du Renne in France—and found that all is not well in dating the artifacts that some archaeologists have connected to Neanderthals.
The key finding is that as you dig down through the layers of sediment in the Grotte du Renne, the age of the remains does not increase as you would expect. Instead, the ages of the different objects are all over the place, suggesting that remains from different eras have got mixed up together. [New Scientist]
Humans didn’t begin major agriculture until about 10,000 years ago. But 20,000 years before that they were grinding their own flour, a new study (in press) suggests, adding more proof that our forebears were eating the beginnings of a more balanced diet while still roving as hunter-gatherers.
Anna Revedin’s team says in today’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they found traces evidence of flour still stuck in 30,000-year-old stones the team found in Russia, Italy, and the Czech Republic.
The flour, likely suitable for making flatbread or cakes, didn’t just give stone age people some dinnertime variety. Because it could be stored in dried form, flour would have given them greater independence from environmental and seasonal circumstance. [Wired.com]
The stones themselves appear to have been shaped for grinding, like an archaic mortar and pestle.
People come together for ceremonial feasts. They do it now, they did it a hundred years ago, they did it a thousand years ago, and they may have done it even 12,000 years ago, archaeologists argue in a new study.
But the question is: If ancient humans devour tortoises in a cave and there are no scientists there to see it, is it a ceremonial occasion, or just a big meal?
The ancient eaters belonged to a culture called the Natufian, according to Natalie Munro and Leore Grosman, who authored the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In a burial cave in Israel, the researchers turned up a slew of tortoises shells and bones of cattle, and the remains suggest the Natufians butchered and cooked them.
According to Munro, a feast of so many animals could have fed 35 people.
During the Pleistocene epoch animals thought big: It was the age of the megafauna, when creatures like the mammoth, an 8-foot-long beaver, and a hippopotamus-sized wombat walked the Earth. But these giants vanished one by one, and scientists have long wondered why.
Debate over what caused the megafauna to die out has raged for 150 years, since Darwin first spotted the remains of giant ground sloths in Chile. Possible causes have ranged from human influence to climate change in the past, even to a cataclysmic meteor strike. [BBC]
Now, a discovery on the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu seems to have answered the question for at least one species. Researchers have turned up the bones of a giant land turtle in a dump used by the people who settled on the islands 3,000 years ago, and lead researcher Trevor Worthy says the evidence strongly suggests that the turtles were hunted into extinction.
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.