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> Latest publications : North Africa, Sahara, West Africa - in french
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> Earliest Known Stone Tools Planted the Seeds of Communication and Language, 12 January 2015
> New research suggests pre-Homo human ancestral species used human-like hand postures much
    earlier than was previously thought
, 23 January 2015
> Skull clue to exodus from Africa, 28 January 2015
> Archaeologist begins dig in the Sudan, Nile River Valley area, 30 January 2015
> Research continues into 3000 year-old Nok culture of sub-Saharan Africa, 8 February, 2015
> Barley and wheat residues in Neolithic cemeteries of Central Sudan and Nubia, 9 February 2015
> Recording endangered archaeology of the Middle East and North Africa, 20 February 2015
> Humans may have migrated out of Africa in phases based on the weather, 21 February 2015
> Trail of Tools Reveals Modern Humans‘ Path Out of Africa, 24 February 2015

A 55,000-year-old partial
skull found in Manot Cave
in western Galilee in
January 2015 suggests
that modern humans
were in the Levant
around the same time
as Neanderthals.

Early Homo sapiens,
known from fossils found
at Omo and Herto in
Ethiopia, began making
stone tools in the Nile
Valley of Egypt some
150,000 years ago.
Previous studies have
traced their path out of
Africa through Sinai to
the Levant. New research
reveals a second, more
southerly route through
Arabia, where modern
human populations
lingered for some 50,000
years before migrating
north to the Levant.
There they interbred with Neanderthals − and
perhaps borrowed some
of their tool−making techniques.

A Nubian stone core
(bottom right) and point (bottom left) are fit back together (top). Early
modern humans in Egypt around produced such triangular points by
chipping away the edges
of a core. Later modern humans in the Middle
East used a more
efficient technique to make multiple points from a single core. Photograph by Jeff I. Rose
Trail of Tools Reveals Modern Humans‘ Path Out of Africa
24 February 2015
Early Homo sapiens lingered in a lush Arabia before encountering Neanderthals in the Levant.
Where did our species come from, and how did we get from there to everywhere?
Genetic studies have supplied a convincing answer to the first question: Our modern human ancestors evolved in Africa, then swept across Eurasia beginning some 60,000 to 50,000 years ago. Now, a pair of American archaeologists claim to have uncovered the route those early Homo sapiens took on their way to populating the planet.
By following the broken trail of stone tools that modern humans left behind like bread crumbs marking their path, researchers propose that our ancestors took a circuitous path through Arabia, pausing there for some 50,000 years when it was a green oasis. Then they journeyed on to the Middle East, where they first encountered Neanderthals.
Stylistic and manufacturing similarities, the archaeologists say, connect the dots between tools made first in the Nile Valley of Egypt, then in the Arabian Peninsula, and, finally, in Israel. Those tools became progressively smaller and more sophisticated, similar to the evolution of mobile phones today.
"Archaeologists have always focused so much on 'out of Africa and into the Middle East' that we've missed an entire chapter of the human expansion in Arabia," says archaeologist Jeffrey Rose of the Ronin Institute, based in New Jersey, co-author of a new report published this month in Quartar.
Our species' birthplace was in Africa about 200,000 years ago, according to fossils from sites such as Omo and Herto Bouri in Ethiopia. While these fossils look modern, however, the populations they represent didn't begin to act fully modern until later.
A tool kit known as the Emiran, dated to almost 50,000 years ago, defines the transition between archaic and modern human behavior − at least as far as tool-making goes. But since the discovery of the first Emiran tools − points, blades, and scrapers found in a cave near the Sea of Galilee in Israel in 1951 − archaeologists have puzzled over where this more advanced way of making tools began.
"The Emiran is the bridge technology," says Rose, who is also a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. "But where did these guys come from?"
Out of ... Arabia?
Working with his former thesis adviser, archaeologist Anthony Marks of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Rose studied all of the stone tools he could get his hands on in Arabia, northeastern Africa, and the Middle East.
In their new report, the pair says the evolution of stone tools in the region began in the Nile Valley of Egypt 150,000 to 130,000 years ago. These Nilotic hunter-gatherers in Egypt made Nubian tools by chipping away edges of a stone core in a systematic way to produce a single triangular point, which could be attached to a spear, for example.
While other researchers have proposed that the Egyptian Nubian toolmakers moved rapidly to the Middle East, where they invented the Emiran, Rose and Marks argue that they went to Arabia first − and that it was their Arabian descendants who would later develop the Emiran.
In their report, the researchers describe two different types of tool kits that appear to be offshoots of the Egyptian Nubian in Arabia and were developed 110,000 to 50,000 years ago: the Dhofar Nubian and the Mudayyan industries of the Nejd Plateau of Oman.
From the Dhofar Nubian to the Mudayyan, stone points get smaller and more elongated over time, becoming more similar to the Emiran tools, perhaps because the modern humans were using them as projectile points to hunt smaller, quick-moving animals as the climate got drier and finding food became more challenging. The people who made the Mudayyan tools in Oman were most likely hunting small animals like lizards and rodents, says Rose.
In their scenario, Rose and Marks suggest that the Arabian toolmakers pushed north into the Middle East when the climate changed dramatically in Arabia about 75,000 years ago. At that time, Arabia was beset by drought, which parched lakes and underground streams and converted grasslands into sand dunes.
By contrast, the climate began to grow wetter and more humid in the Middle East 60,000 years ago, drawing animals − and hunters − northward, according to the scenario proposed by Rose and Marks. There, modern humans made a major breakthrough: Instead of producing just one tool from a single stone by striking the core in one direction, from top to bottom, as their Nubian ancestors did, they learned how to strike many elongated blades from the top and the bottom of a single core, in succession − a telltale feature of the Emiran and subsequent Upper Paleolithic industries.
Neanderthal Connection
But in a surprising twist, the researchers also propose that the modern humans who made the Emiran were influenced by archaic people, possibly Neanderthals, who left behind fossils in Israel some 70,000 to 50,000 years ago, as well as more primitive tools, called Mousterian. The scientists say the Emiran tools are made in the same systematic manner as Egyptian Nubian tools, but closely resemble the local Mousterian tools.
The timing fits with genetic studies that suggest that modern humans interbred with Neanderthals when they arrived in the Middle East. A 55,000-year-old modern human skull from Manot Cave in Israel, reported last month, has provided new evidence that the moderns were there at the same time as Neanderthals.
Not everyone agrees that the Emiran hunter-gatherers' tool-making was influenced by their Neanderthal neighbors. The Emiran "has nothing to do with Neanderthals," says Harvard University archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef, who proposed a decade ago that the Emiran was made by Egyptian Nubians when they moved directly to the Middle East.
Regardless of who influenced the Emiran toolmakers, the long and winding path that led to modern tools may have taken a lengthy detour through Arabia.
"The Arabian region was not just the route to somewhere else, which it has often been considered in various dispersal scenarios," says paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London. "It was at times a significant location in its own right for early modern humans and perhaps for Neanderthals too."

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Map showing location of
the study site and extent
of bajada system in
southeast Arabia,
including other identified sections of the Al Ain fan
(UAE − United Arab
Emirates). Image: Parton
et al
Humans may have migrated out of Africa in phases based on the weather
21 February 2015
Considerable debate surrounds the migration of human populations out of Africa. Two predominant hypotheses concerning the timing contrast in their emphasis on the role of the Arabian interior and its changing climate. In one scenario, human populations expanded rapidly from Africa to southern Asia via the coastlines of Arabia approx. 50,000 to 60,000 years ago. Another model suggests that dispersal into the Arabian interior began much earlier (approx. 75,000 to 130,000 years ago) during multiple phases, when increased rainfall provided sufficient freshwater to support expanding populations.
Ash Parton and colleagues fall into the second camp, “The dispersal of early human populations out of Africa is dynamically linked with the changing climate and environmental conditions of Arabia. Although now arid, at times the vast Arabian deserts were transformed into landscapes littered with freshwater lakes and active river systems. Such episodes of dramatically increased rainfall were the result of the intensification and northward displacement of the Indian Ocean Monsoon, which caused rainfall to reach across much of the Arabian Peninsula.“

Al Sibetah alluvial fan
Parton and colleagues writing in Geology, present a unique alluvial fan aggradation record from southeast Arabia spanning the past approx. 160,000 years. Situated along the proposed southern dispersal route, the Al Sibetah alluvial fan sequence provides a unique and sensitive record of landscape change in southeast Arabia. This record is to date the most comprehensive terrestrial archive from the Arabian Peninsula, and provides evidence for multiple humid episodes during both glacial and interglacial periods.
Evidence from the Al Sibetah alluvial fan sequence indicates that during insolation maxima, increased monsoon rainfall led to the widespread activation of drainage systems and grassland development throughout regions that were important for the dispersal of early human populations.

Incoming solar radiation
Previously, the timing of episodes of increased humidity was largely linked to global interglacials, with the climate of Arabia during the intervening glacial periods believed to be too arid to support human populations. Parton and colleagues suggest, however, that periods of increased rainfall were not driven by mid-high latitude deglaciations every ~100,000 years, but by periods of maximum incoming solar radiation every ~23,000 years.
They write, “The occurrence of humid periods previously identified in lacustrine or speleothem records highlights the complexity and heterogeneity of the Arabian paleoclimate, and suggests that interior migration pathways through the Arabian Peninsula may have been viable approximately every 23,000 years since at least marine isotope state (MIS) 6,“ about 191 thousand years ago.

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Prof. David kennedy
prepares to take aerial photographs of archaeological sites in Jordan. Image: David Connolly
Recording endangered archaeology of the Middle East and North Africa
20 February 2015
A project has been launched to record the archaeological heritage of the Middle East and North Africa, arguably the most significant region in the world for its archaeological remains. It is under increasing threat from massive and sustained population explosion, agricultural development, urban expansion, warfare, and looting.
The new project, entitled Endangered Archaeology, has been launched at Oxford and Leicester Universities, funded by the Arcadia Fund.

Record and monitor
The researchers are using satellite imagery and aerial photos, such as Google Earth, to record and monitor the most endangered, and often undocumented, archaeological sites across the Middle East and North Africa. Nearly all the archaeological remains are made of stone or earth and are visible from the air. They include tombs, settlements, forts, towns, cities, and field and irrigation systems of all periods − from prehistory to the 20th century. Many of the countries are currently inaccessible on the ground due to ongoing conflicts. Recent work in Jordan by Professor David Kennedy and Dr Robert Bewley has already shown the scale and intensity of development, and that the methodology works, which is why it is being applied on a larger scale across the region.
Project director Dr Bewley, from Oxford University‘s School of Archaeology, said: “This exciting project is very timely as the threats to the region‘s most important archaeological sites are increasing at an unprecedented pace and the situation is only going to become more critical if we don‘t act now.“

Open-access database
The research team estimates that across the Middle East and North Africa there could be as many as 3-5 million archaeological sites, many of which are under immediate threat, and even more are likely to become endangered in the future. Information about the historical context and condition of each of the sensitive sites will be made available in an open-access database. The information can then be used by everyone, but especially by local archaeologists and volunteers in each of the countries.
Where possible, the project will cooperate with local authorities responsible for the protection of sites, Departments of Antiquities or similar agencies. It is hoped that through the project, a network of local “wardens“ will be created to manage and preserve the landscape and sensitive sites.
Professor Andrew Wilson, the project‘s Principal Investigator, said: “The project will provide tools and strategies for the future conservation and management of threatened heritage, both individual sites and entire archaeological landscapes. This region contains the world‘s richest concentration of significant archaeological remains spanning prehistory, the Persian, Greek, Roman, and Islamic empires.“
The project‘s website will be available next month and the database with images and contextual information will follow later in the year.

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Plant particles found
during the excavation of
this Neolithic cemetery in
Nubia (Sudan) turned
out to be traces of
domestic cereals when analysed in a lab.
Barley and wheat residues in Neolithic cemeteries of Central Sudan and Nubia
9 February, 2015
Dr. Welmoed Out from Kiel University said, “With our results we can verify that people along the Nile did not only exploit gathered wild plants and animals but had crops of barley and wheat.“
These types of crops were first cultivated in the Middle East about 10,500 years ago and spread out from there to Central and South Asia as well as to Europe and North Africa — the latter faster than expected.
“The diversity of the diet was much greater than previously assumed,“ states Out and adds: “Moreover, the fact that grains were placed in the graves of the deceased implies that they had a special, symbolic meaning.“
The research team, coordinated by Welmoed Out and the environmental archaeologist Marco Madella from Barcelona, implemented, among other things, a special high-quality light microscope as well as radiocarbon analyses for age determination. Hereby, they were supported by the fact that mineral plant particles, so-called phytoliths, survive very long, even when other plant remains are no longer discernible. In addition, the millennia-old teeth, in particular adherent calculus, provide evidence on the diet of these prehistoric humans due to the starch granules and phytoliths contained therein.

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A terracotta piece
unearthed from the Daji
Gwana site in 2010. It is
one of the most complete
figures found by the archaeologists of the
Goethe University, and
adorns the cover of the
catalogue for the
exhibition at the
Liebieghaus in Frankfurt. (Copyright: Peter Breunig)
Research continues into 3000 year-old Nok culture of sub-Saharan Africa
8 February, 2015
The scientific team of the Institute for Archaeological Sciences, which has been researching the Nok Culture in Nigeria since 2005, can continue its successful work: The German Research Foundation (DFG) will support the total 12-year duration of the planned long-term project for another three years with 1.6 million euros.
However, the study of the Nok Culture, which is the source of the oldest figurative art in sub-Saharan Africa at 2000 to 3000 years old, will not be able to proceed as planned, because of the political unrest in Nigeria, and in particular the attacks of the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram: “The security risk for the team is too great, so we need to postpone the field work in Nigeria and adjust to the situation, which will hopefully improve,“ said Prof. Dr. Peter Breunig. The Frankfurt archaeologist has been making regular visits to the West African country since 1989.
In the meantime, the ten researchers are planning to evaluate the recent excavation sites and the current inventory of finds from 79 archaeological sites, and to undertake the processing, publication and internet presentation of extensive, previously collated data.
Looting continues
The Frankfurt results could soon represent the only and definitive knowledge about this Culture. Looters, who have been active in Nigeria for decades, are scarcely affected by the political unrest, and are continuing their business as usual: “The sculptures are very highly sought after on the international art market. In their search for these treasures, the looters systematically destroy one site after another“, laments Breunig.
In addition to the up-to one metre tall, over 2000-year-old terracotta figures found in many excavation sites, the scientists also encountered other finds such as pottery, stone tools, iron objects and plant remains, the evaluation of which will provide a comprehensive picture of the Nok Culture. On this topic, the Frankfurt archaeologist says: “For example, the ceramic vessels, which differ in form and decoration, allow us to identify developmental stages, which form a basis for the chronology of the Nok Culture.“
One particular portion of the project, led by archaeobotanist, Prof. Dr. Katharina Neumann, is dedicated to the plant remains that are regularly found in the excavation areas. They provide information about the environment and the economy. It is already apparent that only a small number of crops were used during the Nok Culture. “From the beginning, millet and a type of bean featured, along with various wild fruits; only after the end of the Nok Culture did oil palm and a grain called “fonio“ also appear,“ explains Neumann.
The societal development in the Nok Culture from small groups of hunter-gatherers to large communities with increasingly complex forms of human communal life is considered by archaeologists to be an overarching theme. “The Nok Culture, with its enigmatic use of the innumerable terracotta figures, represents a promising example of this development,“ adds Breunig. From the context of the finds, the archaeologists conclude that at least some of the sculptures were probably associated with ancestor worship.
Iron smelting
The Frankfurt archaeological team wants to learn more about the settlement patterns and the economy, social organization, and the role played here by the advent of iron metallurgy as a major technological revolution. While the chronology and structure of the sites was the focus of the first two phases of the DFG funding, over the next three years the researchers will devote their efforts to the regional differences in the distribution area of the Nok Culture, which comprises an area nearly five times the size of the state of Hessen. The program will include, among other things, exemplary studies of a large settlement area, in which many Nok Culture sites are found and which promise an insight into the settlement habits of the people, as well as stations for iron smelting. The Nok Culture provides clues to the earliest iron in sub-Saharan Africa, which needs to be substantiated further.
The DFG also funded the successful major sculpture exhibition, which took place from October 2013 to March 2014 in cooperation with the Frankfurt Liebieghaus. Over 100 sculptures and fragments of the Nok Culture were on display, along with a summary of the research results to date. All objects from the exhibition in Frankfurt have now been returned to the relevant federal authority in Nigeria, where they are displayed in an exhibition in the state capital of Kaduna. They were only on loan for scientific analysis and the Frankfurt exhibition.

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Michele Buzon, a Purdue
University associate
professor of anthropology,
is excavating Nubian
burial sites in Tombos, Sudan
Archaeologist begins dig in the Sudan, Nile River Valley area
30 January 2015
A Purdue University archaeologist is excavating in Tombos, Sudan, to answer questions about the Egyptian and Nubian cultures from thousands of years ago.
Michele Buzon, an associate professor of anthropology, is excavating Nubian burial sites dated 1500-1050 BCE in the Nile River Valley to better understand the relationship between the Nubians and Egypt's New Kingdom Empire. She is focusing on a time, starting about 1500 BCE, when Egyptians colonized the area to gain access to trade routes on the Nile River.
"What is known about this time often comes from Egyptian history, and we think they integrated more than Egyptian texts convey," said Buzon, a bioarchaeologist. "By excavating the burial tombs we'll investigate if there was intermarriage and how they interacted in general as well as if Egyptians absorbed Nubian culture. Artifacts, burial structure and even burial positions will provide some clues."
Buzon is excavating at Tombos, in the Nubian Desert in the far north of Sudan, through late February, and she will be excavating Tombos pyramids, which have remnants of the superstructure with shafts underneath. She is collaborating with Stuart Tyson Smith, professor of anthropology at the University of California-Santa Barbara. This is her fifth excavation in the region.
This research is funded by the National Science Foundation. A member of the Sudan Department of Antiquities also will be on the research site during the dig. The project, starting with excavation and including data analysis, will last three years. After Buzon returns, her graduate assistants will analyze excavated materials and visit the site for additional fieldwork.

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Skull clue to exodus from Africa
28 January, 2015
An ancient skull discovered in Israel could shed light on the migration of modern humans out of Africa some 60,000 years ago.
This migration led to the colonisation of the entire planet by our species, as well as the extinction of other human groups such as the Neanderthals.
The skull from Manot Cave dates to 55,000 years ago and may be the closest we've got to finding one of the earliest migrants from Africa.
Details appear in Nature journal.
"The skull is very gracile - there is nothing that makes it any different from a modern skull," Prof Israel Hershkovitz, from Tel Aviv University, told the Nature podcast.
"But it also has traits that are found in older specimens."
He added: "This is the first evidence that shows indeed there was a large wave of migrants out of East Africa, crossing the Sahara and the Nubian desert and inhabiting the eastern Mediterranean region 55,000 years ago. So it is really a key skull in understanding modern human evolution."
Physical features of the skull, such as a distinctive "bun-shaped" region at the back, resemble those found in the earliest modern humans from Europe.
This "implies that the Manot people were probably the forefathers of many of the early, Upper Palaeolithic populations of Europe", Prof Hershkovitz said.
Chris Stringer, research Leader in human origins at London's Natural History Museum, commented: "Manot might represent some of the elusive first migrants in the hypothesised out-of-Africa event about 60,000 years ago, a population whose descendants ultimately spread right across Asia, and also into Europe."
Prof Stringer, who was not involved with the study, added: "Its discovery raises hopes of more complete specimens from this critical region and time period."
The find is also of interest because this individual lived at around the time when modern humans are thought to have interbred with Neanderthals.
All non-Africans possess a small amount of Neanderthal ancestry, pointing to an interbreeding event just after modern humans left their homeland but before they diversified into different populations.
The Middle East is a good candidate region for this event, because it was the first waypoint on the migration and previous discoveries show Neanderthals were there at the same time as moderns.
Details of another ancient human find were unveiled this week in the journal Nature Communications.
A human jawbone dredged up by fishermen 25km off the coast of Taiwan revealed a primitive-looking fossil which appears to date to within the last 200,000 years (though possibly as much as the last 450,000 years).
"The jawbone is short and wide, with a very thick body and large teeth, raising interesting questions about its classification," said Chris Stringer.
He said the Penghu jawbone could represent a late example of Homo erectus, an archaic human ancestor which may still have been present in mainland north-east Asia 400,000 years ago.
It shows some similarities with other human remains from Africa, Java and Europe, but with distinctive characteristics that preclude its easy inclusion in existing categories.
Another possibility is that it represents one of the Denisovans, an ancient Asian relative of the Neanderthals, known only from DNA extracted from teeth and a finger bone found at a cave in central Siberia.
"If Penghu is indeed a long-awaited Denisovan jawbone, it looks more primitive than I would have expected - unfortunately no ancient DNA has been reported from it," said Prof Stringer.
"As the authors note, this enigmatic fossil is difficult to classify, but it highlights the growing and not unexpected evidence of human diversity in the Far East, with the apparent co-existence of different lineages in the region prior to, and perhaps even contemporary with, the arrival of modern humans some 55,000 years ago."

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Hand precision grip
Example of a human
forceful precision grip,
grasping a Australopithecus africanus first metacarpal
of the thumb (3-2 million years old)
New research suggests pre-Homo human ancestral species used human-like hand postures much earlier than was previously thought
23 January 2015
University anthropologists, working with colleagues from University College London , the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig (Germany) and the Vienna University of Technology (Austria), have produced the first research findings to support archaeological evidence for stone tool use among fossil australopiths 3-2 million years ago.
The distinctly human ability for forceful precision (e.g. when turning a key) and power “squeeze” gripping (e.g. when using a hammer) is linked to two key evolutionary transitions in hand use: a reduction in arboreal climbing and the manufacture and use of stone tools. However, it is unclear when these locomotory and manipulative transitions occurred.
Dr Matthew Skinner, Senior Lecturer in Biological Anthropology and Dr Tracy Kivell, Reader in Biological Anthropology, both of Kent’s School of Anthropology and Conservation, used new techniques to reveal how fossil species were using their hands by examining the internal spongey structure of bone called trabeculae. Trabecular bone remodels quickly during life and can reflect the actual behaviour of individuals in their lifetime.
The researchers first examined the trabeculae of hand bones of humans and chimpanzees. They found clear differences between humans, who have a unique ability for forceful precision gripping between thumb and fingers, and chimpanzees, who cannot adopt human-like postures. This unique human pattern is present in known non-arboreal and stone tool-making fossil human species, such as Neanderthals.
The research, titled Human-like hand use in Australopithecus africanus, shows that Australopithecus africanus, a 3-2 million-year-old species from South Africa traditionally considered not to have engaged in habitual tool manufacture, has a human-like trabecular bone pattern in the bones of the thumb and palm (the metacarpals) consistent with forceful opposition of the thumb and fingers typically adopted during tool use.
These results support previously published archaeological evidence for stone tool use in australopiths and provide skeletal evidence that our early ancestors used human-like hand postures much earlier and more frequently than previously considered.
Human-like hand use in Australopithecus africanus, (Matthew M. Skinner, Nicholas B. Stephens, Zewdi J. Tsegai, Alexandra C. Foote, N. Huynh Nguyen,Thomas Gross, Dieter H. Pahr, Jean-Jacques Hublin,Tracy L. Kivell) is published on 23 January in Science magazine.

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A typical Oldowan simple stone chopper tool.
Earliest Known Stone Tools Planted the Seeds of Communication and Language
12 January 2015
Two and a half million years ago, our hominin ancestors in the African savanna crafted rocks into shards that could slice apart a dead gazelle, zebra or other game animal. Over the next 700,000 years, this butchering technology spread throughout the continent and, it turns out, came to be a major evolutionary force, according to new research from the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Liverpool and the University of St. Andrews, both in the UK. Combining the tools of psychology, evolutionary biology and archaeology, scientists have found compelling evidence for the co-evolution of early Stone Age slaughtering tools and our ability to communicate and teach, shedding new light on the power of human culture to shape evolution.
To be reported Jan. 13 in the journal Nature Communications, the study is the largest to date to look at gene-culture co-evolution in the context of prehistoric Oldowan tools, the oldest-known cutting devices. It suggests communication among our earliest ancestors may be more complex than previously thought, with teaching and perhaps even a primitive proto-language occurring some 1.8 million years ago.
"Our findings suggest that stone tools weren't just a product of human evolution, but actually drove it as well, creating the evolutionary advantage necessary for the development of modern human communication and teaching," said Thomas Morgan, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at UC Berkeley.
"Our data show this process was ongoing two and a half million years ago, which allows us to consider a very drawn-out and gradual evolution of the modern human capacity for language and suggests simple 'proto-languages' might be older than we previously thought," Morgan added.
Morgan and University of Liverpool archaeologist Natalie Uomini arrived at their conclusions by conducting a series of experiments in teaching contemporary humans the art of "Oldowan stone-knapping," in which butchering "flakes" are created by hammering a hard rock against certain volcanic or glassy rocks, like basalt or flint.
Oldowan stone-knapping dates back to the Lower Paleolithic period in eastern Africa, and remained largely unchanged for 700,000 years until more sophisticated Acheulean hand-axes and cleavers, which marked the next generation of stone tool technology, came on the scene. It was practiced by some of our earliest ancestors, such as Homo habilis and the even older Australopithecus garhi, who walked on two legs, but whose facial features and brain size were closer to those of apes.
In testing five different ways to convey Oldowan stone-knapping skills to more than 180 college students, the researchers found that the demonstration that used spoken communication - versus imitation, non-verbal presentations or gestures - yielded the highest volume and quality of flakes in the least amount of time and with the least waste.
To measure the rate of transmission of the ancient butchery technology, and establish whether more complex communication such as language would get the best results, study volunteers were divided into five- or 10-member "learning chains." The head of the chain received a knapping demonstration, the raw materials and five minutes to try their hand at it. That person then showed it to the next person in the chain, who in turn showed the next person, and so on. Their competence picked up significantly with verbal instruction.
"If someone is trying to learn a skill that has lots of subtlety to it, it helps to engage with a teacher and have them correct you," Morgan said. "You learn so much faster when someone is telling you what to do."
As for what the results mean for the Oldowan hominins: "They were probably not talking," Morgan said. "These tools are the only tools they made for 700,000 years. So if people had language, they would have learned faster and developed newer technologies more rapidly."
Without language, one can assume that a hominin version of, say, Steve Jobs would have been hard-pressed to pass on visionary ideas. Still, the seeds of language, teaching and learning were planted due to the demand for Oldowan tools, the study suggests, and at some point hominins got better at communicating, hence the advent of Acheulean hand-axes and cleavers some 1.7 million years ago.
"To sustain Acheulean technology, there must have been some kind of teaching, and maybe even a kind of language, going on, even just a simple proto-language using sounds or gestures for 'yes' or 'no,' or 'here' or 'there,'" Morgan said.
Indeed, the data suggest that when the Oldowan stone-tool industry started, it was most likely not being taught, but communication methods to teach it were developed later.
"At some point they reached a threshold level of communication that allowed Acheulean hand axes to start being taught and spread around successfully and that almost certainly involved some sort of teaching and proto-type language," Morgan said.

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legende image
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